With students heading back to school, now is the time to prepare for hungry kids by keeping a stash of healthy foods around for smart snacking. With homework, activities, lessons and sports, school-agers are busier - and probably more independent - than ever. Three meals a day are essential but won't curb the hunger pains in between, when energy levels start to slip.
To keep them from grabbing a soda, french fries or a doughnut, you should come up with a different fueling plan. Reaching for sugary, fatty and salty foods can become a habit for between-meal fixes, and those foods only slow you down in the long run. Save them for occasional special treats. It's time to get savvy with snacks for kids. Watch out for what they eating and in what proportions.
"Overconsumption of food after school is often linked to watching television or playing computer games," said Patricia Kulbeth, clinical dietitian for Memorial Hospital Outpatient Nutrition Services. "Remember that it takes 20 minutes for the signals from the stomach to reach the brain to trigger the feeling that you are full. Most snacks take about five minutes to eat."
She once timed her son consuming snacks.
"It took him about eight minutes to eat a medium-size apple, which has about 80 calories," she said. "When he had a cookie it took him only a minute. In eight minutes, he could have eaten eight cookies, if given the chance. Caloric intake for eight cookies would be about 472; a calorie difference of 392 calories with the apple."
Mindless snacking leads to overconsumption, which contributes to childhood and youth obesity.
"Sadly, childhood obesity leads to adult obesity, and all the health problems associated with weight issues, like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes early in life," she said.
The key is to have healthy food choices at the ready when snack attacks hit.
With the right foods in the fridge and pantry, children who come straight home after school can start fixing their own small nibbles (with parent approval). Load up the fridge with easy grab-and-eat foods like veggie sticks and low-fat dips, yogurt and berries.
Kulbeth suggested taking your children shopping with you. She recommended looking at new textures and colors, and planning out some new fruits and vegetables to make snacks fun.
"For example, if your child has only had a certain vegetable cooked, such as summer squash, try them cut into small strips and use with a dip," she said. "Plan out after-school snacks for the week. Buy some small snack and sandwich Ziploc bags, and pre-portion servings out when you get home from the grocery store."
When it comes to beverages to wash down a snack, stick with water. It quenches thirst without the sugar and calories of fruit juices.
Meridith Norwood, a physical therapist and nutrition and wellness consultant who is also the mother of three boys - two teenagers and a 12-year-old - knows the challenges of healthy snacking. Especially when parents bring snacks for after-school sports practices or games.
"I have always been dismayed about the snack choices of other parents," she said. "When my boys were little, I would control their ability to partake of them by just telling them they could not have whatever snack was offered."
When it was her turn to bring the snacks, she would buy something healthy.
"I spent more money than anyone. I think the extra money it takes to buy healthy snacks is the driving factor for most parents not to buy, say fruit, instead of cupcakes," she said. "I would make trail mix and offer water bottles. Controlling food choices at home and teaching there has the biggest effect on kiddos as they turn into teens."