Healthy Snacks for Kids on the Go

Not only is it OK to eat between meals, snacking can actually be good for your child.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

"Don't eat between meals." "Don't touch that cookie -- you'll spoil your dinner!" "Snacking will make you gain weight."

Chances are, you've said something similar to your children - or maybe heard it from your own mom.

But experts say that snacking on the right foods is not harmful. In fact, it can have health benefits for kids of all ages.

"Snacking is not a bad thing -- in fact, it's a good thing -- and it can actually help keep kids from overeating at mealtime," says Netty Levine, RD, CDE, a dietitian and diabetes educator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Studies show that snacking during the school day improves both mood and motivation, and may impact concentration. Snacks may help children maintain performance during times of high mental demand, like when taking an exam or making a class presentation.

But even while we're bombarded with choices by the snack food industry, it's not always easy to find healthy snacks -- much less get your kids to eat them. To help parents make snack time both healthy and happy for children, experts who spoke to WebMD offered six simple guidelines.

1. Relax the Food Ties That Bind

While you may have strict nutritional guidelines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, experts say snacks are the place to give children some wiggle room.

"I'm a firm believer that you can't be ultra strict when choosing snack foods, or your child will just go out and eat the really bad stuff on their own -- and probably a lot more of it," says Levine.

Give them a little of what they like (be it potato chips or candy bars) a couple of days a week, and you'll have better luck getting them to eat healthy snacks the rest of the time, she says.

2. Choose the Lesser of the Evils

When it comes to ingredients like sugar and saturated fat, you might think most commercial snack foods are pretty similar, give or take a gram. But look a little harder at the label and you may find important differences.

"If, for example, you have two items that are equal in sugar, fat, and calories, sometimes you'll find that one contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber while the other doesn't," says Marjorie Livingston, a professor of nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Opting for the more nutrient-dense snack will help ensure it has some redeeming value, even if some of the other ingredients are not top nutritional choices.

In addition, Livingston says, keep an eye on the sugar content. Some snacks, even seemingly healthy ones like flavored yogurt, are way over the top when it comes to added sweeteners.

"The American Medical Association says that when our sugar intake exceeds 25% of our total caloric intake, it impacts us nutritionally," says Livingston. "But the World Health Organization sets the threshold at 10% -- so sugar is an issue to consider."

A quick way to tell if a snack has gone over the line: It's over 250 calories a serving, it's probably got too many empty calories, Livingston says.

3. Portion, Portion, Portion

While it's OK to give kids some leeway on choosing what snacks to have, experts say it's still vital to pay attention to portion size.

"Parents should not ignore portion control boundaries just because it's a snack," says New York nutritionist Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, director of JoyBauerNutrition.com. "Yes, you can relax a little in terms of allowing certain foods, but you should pay attention to how much of these foods your child is eating,"

It's also important to look for snacks with low levels of fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Even if the package says a snack has no trans fats, read the ingredient list to be sure.

"If you see the word 'hydrogenated,' it means it has some trans fat, so avoid that snack," Bauer tells WebMD.

If your child is battling a weight problem, paying attention to portion size and total calories is vital, Bauer says. But, she says, don't deny the child the opportunity to snack.

"You don't want to exclude an overweight child from having snacks, but you must remember to include their snack calories as part of their daily caloric intake -- and teach your child how to do that as well," says Bauer.