When you’re a kid, snack time can be the best part of the day. As a parent, snacks can make sure your child doesn’t have a hunger-induced meltdown before dinnertime rolls around. And while some snack options are healthy and delicious — for both you and your child — there are plenty of go-to munchies that can derail a healthy diet, pumping your children full of unnecessary sugar and processed ingredients.
Many children today eat about three snacks per day, writes Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietician and mom of two children. When done correctly, snacking can actually be a healthy part of your child’s diet. “They’re important because kids have a smaller stomach and high energy needs,” Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood feeding specialist in St. Paul, told Kuzemchak. However, reaching for a boxed snack in the grocery store or grabbing something from the pantry that could qualify as dessert isn’t the best way to supplement your child’s nutrition. But with marketing and the need for convenience, it can be all too easy to feed your kids junk without even realizing it.
Keep in mind that between school parties, after-practice snacks for peewee sports, and a number of other well-meaning events, your children are offered snacks on an almost-constant basis. According to Kuzemchak’s calculations, the average snacking in a single day for a preschooler can add up to 1,000 calories — about two-thirds of what children need daily between the ages of 4 to 8, and 100% of the calories needed for children ages 2 to 3. You can’t always control what’s served to your child when you’re not around, but you can try to make healthier choices for them when they’re under your supervision.
Take a look at some of the worst snacks you can give your children, along with suggestions for healthier, less processed options.
1. Fruit snacks
I’m sure I’m not the only adult who still enjoys tearing open a pack of gummy fruit snacks every now and then. But as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise — for our sakes and for children — fruit snacks are basically lemon- and berry-flavored candy. Fruit Gushers, for example, have 10 grams of sugar and 90 calories. Preschoolers should consume no more than 16 grams of added sugar per day, and children ages 4 to 8 shouldn’t have more than 12 grams per day. In both cases, the Gushers alone account for almost all of that, without counting regular meals, beverages, or other snacks.
Even fruit snacks with boxes that say they’re made with fruit and vegetable juice aren’t great. Mott’s fruit snacks, for example, still contain the same 10 grams of sugar per pouch. And in both cases, corn syrup is the No. 1 (Gushers) or No. 2 (Mott’s) ingredient.
Of course, any seasonal fruit is a better snack alternative. You’ll still be giving your children natural sugars, but it’ll come with carbohydrates and other natural goodness that will satisfy for longer. If your children need some time to wean off the fruit snacks, the Weed ’em and Reap blog suggests Stretch Island Fruit Leather, fruit strips that are made with real fruit and contain only 45 calories. If you’re really adventurous, you can even try making your own fruit snacks.
2. Pre-packaged lunch trays
Despite my begging at the grocery store, I was only allowed to pick out a Lunchable for school on field trip days. My mother claimed they didn’t have enough food in them to qualify as a meal. In hindsight she was probably right, but in addition I was also spared the over-processed lunch meat, cheese, and crackers that was basically a glorified, overindulgent snack.
The ham and American cheese lunch Oscar Meyer offers comes with crackers, the lunch meat and cheese, along with a Capri Sun drink and Chips Ahoy cookies. The lunch or snack is a good source of protein, offering 20 grams of protein in each meal. However, it’s also incredibly high in fat. It has 18 grams of fat and 9 grams of saturated fat — which accounts for 28% of the recommended fat intake and a whopping 45% of recommended saturated fat intake for the entire day. And here’s the kicker: Those values are based on a 2,000 calories per day structure. No children 9 and younger should really be eating 2,000 calories per day, which means the percentages are even higher for them.
If you’re set on giving your children Lunchables, try creating your own version. In most cases, you’ll be able to switch out heavily processed, preserved ingredients with ones that are at least a little more health-friendly. Lisa Leake, blogger at 100 Days of Real Food, suggests buying divided plastic containers and offers suggestions for making the most popular Lunchables a little more healthy. Send these with your children for lunch, or pull them out at snack time. Either way, you’ll likely be cutting down on the sketchy ingredient list while also providing some healthier options.
3. Cheese crackers
Whether you prefer fish, whales, or simple round crackers, baked cheddar crackers are often a staple in kid-friendly pantries. They’re minimally messy, perfect for on-the-go days, and seem to appease every child. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re a healthy choice.
Sure, many crackers are now made with real cheese and whole grains, and that’s a step in the right direction. But snacks like this can quickly rack up the salt your child is eating. According to the American Heart Association, all people should stick to 1,500 milligrams or less of sodium eat day. However, most children ages 2 to 19 consume 3,100 mg or more per day — more than double the recommended amount. Much of this can come from pizza and processed cold cuts during meal times, but savory snacks can also be a culprit.
Goldfish, for example, contain 230 mg of sodium per serving, which equals about 6.5% of the recommended daily intake alone. Surprisingly, that’s even worse than the 170 mg per serving in Lay’s potato chips (though the fat content in the chips is slightly higher).
Again, you could try making your own cheddar cracker alternative, or you could opt for a healthier cracker bought from the store that’s lower in sodium.
4. Toaster pastries
Breakfast and morning snacks can be difficult when you’re rushed to begin your day. Reaching for toaster pastries might seem like a good solution — and it’s one your kids probably love — but you might as well be feeding them a brownie or other dessert. One Kellogg’s brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tart has 219 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 13 grams of sugar. (Keep in mind, Pop-Tarts come in packs of two.)
Even toaster pastries with the words “natural” and “organic” aren’t that great. In one comparison, a more natural version of a Pop-Tart was actually slightly more unhealthy than the original. In other words: once a toaster pastry, always a toaster pastry. Most pastries contain high fructose corn syrup, which is inescapable in small doses if you’re eating a typical diet, but should be avoided when possible.
If you’re looking for a sweet mid-morning snack, try graham crackers instead. One whole cracker has about 60 calories and only 4 grams of sugar, making it a much better alternative.
5. Juice, sports drinks, and energy drinks
The American Academy of Pediatrics is very clear about what it thinks of children having beverages other than water. “… For the average child engaged in routine physical activity, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or in the school lunchroom is generally unnecessary. Stimulant-containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children or adolescents. Excessive regular consumption of carbohydrate-containing beverages increases overall daily caloric intake without significant additional nutritional value,” the academy states in a 2011 paper.
If your child engages in vigorous exercise for 60 minutes or more in one session, having a sports drink could be appropriate, a spokesperson for the academy told Today’s Dietician. However, sticking to water as a general rule is your best bet.
Unfortunately, even 100% fruit juice can lead to early obesity and other health struggles, because of the naturally high sugar content found in fruit. (Regular fruit is always the better alternative, since the carbohydrates present fill you up faster, thus equaling less sugar intake to reach the same satisfaction.) Young children should not have more than six ounces of 100% juice per day — and this doesn’t even address the limits on sugary juices that aren’t completely natural.
Boring as it may sound to you, water is your best bet for beverages at any time, especially for snacks.