Snack Smart by Dr. Miranda Lin

Dr. Miranda Lin is and Associate Professor of Early Childhood at Illinois State University

As many of you are aware of my diet (after taking the nutrition class, I became a vegetarian when I was a senior), eating healthy has been a part of my life for a long time.


If snacks are planned, coordinated with meals, and served consistently at regularly scheduled times, kids are more likely to develop healthy eating habits instead of being picky eaters. That is why it is important for parents and teachers (directors) to offer planned meals and snacks consistently throughout the day. Sample meal plans, like those in the American Academy of Pediatrics Handbook, recommend 3 main meals and 2 in between meal snacks for the average toddlers/preschoolers. Children can move to 3 meals and one afternoon snack routine when they are 6 and older. However, timing of breakfast and lunch matters. For example, a child that starts school early (7:30), meaning breakfast is at 7 or earlier, who does not have lunch until 12:30, will need something in between. There are always some exceptions. If you have a hungry child that cannot focus on his/her task, it is smart to provide that child with something small in between meal and snack.

 Estimated amounts of calories needed to maintain energy balance for young children are roughly between 1000-1400 calories for toddlers and 1200-1750 for preschoolers and primary grade children (again, it all depends on the physical activity of the individual child. In other words, the more active the child, the more calories the child will need per day). Therefore, a young child’s snack should aim for 100-150 calories. This means 1/2 cup of 2% milk and half of a banana will be an ideal snack for a 3 years old child.

 Typical healthy snacks for young children are milk (low-fat milk for children older than 2) or almond milk/soy milk/coconut milk, low-fat yogurt, cheese, crackers, whole wheat muffins, fresh fruits, vegetables, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, 100% juice, and etc. The rule of thumb is that snacks should always be low in sugar, sodium, and fat. To help kids consume more fruits and vegetables, serving children with fruits at snack time is wise. For example, a 3-year-old boy should eat 1.5 cups of vegetables and 1.5 cups of fruits each day. If you consider that 1/2 of a large apple or 1 large banana is equal to a cup of fruit, then it would not be difficult to get kids eat enough fruits each day. Try and offer many different varieties in a lot of different colors as most schools offer mainly bananas and apples. Nuts and trail mix are also considered a healthy snack. Dept. of Agriculture has a fun website for parents/teachers /children to plan a daily eating plan. This website has all the information you may want to know about healthy eating. It also contains information preparing meals and snacks for vegetarian kids and kids with allergies.

To help kids develop healthy eating habits, there are a few things you can pay attention to:

  1. Stick to a schedule. Serve meals and snacks about two-three hours apart. This will help keep children at a healthy weight by normalizing hunger. Plus, if a child skimps at one meal, you can be sure that there is another opportunity to eat in a few hours.
  1.  Avoid food bribes. I do not remember how many times I have seen parents bribe their kids to eat…. You might see the short-term gain of a few bites of broccoli or chicken, but you are telling your child to eat more than she wants — which can set her up for a pattern of overeating. Additionally, you are sending the wrong message about food. If kids think that veggies are the yucky stuff and they have to eat the veggies to get to the good stuff, they will never learn to really like them. 
  1. Allow time for meals and snacks. Most kids at this age are slow eaters, and end up throwing out a lot of their food. Also, if the child is not eating at lunch time, give him/her more snacks.  
  1. Watch out for emotional eating. If a child is constantly asking for snacks, he/she may be eating out of boredom or even anxiety. You may use a “hunger scale” with your kids: 0 is totally empty, 10 is totally full, and 5 is neither hungry nor full.  If a child is above a 5 and asking for food, he/she is probably eating for emotional reasons. Preschoolers are old enough to understand emotions and you may help give words to the child’s feelings by asking, “Are you angry? Are you worried?” Then help the child problem-solve or distract him/her from the situation without using food.
  1. Serve family style. Allow your kids to serve themselves. Most kids know how much they can eat and they usually take a portion that is just the right size. 

Eating a balanced diet at a young age builds a foundation for healthy eating skills for life. Having a balanced diet reduces risk for developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, weak bones, obesity, and other illness. Nevertheless, the best thing you can do is to eat with your kids (as I have stressed more than millions times in class). When your kids see you eat with them, they will learn that eating is a joy. Even better, you are modeling how critical it is to eat healthy!!!  I have planned meals and snacks for young children when I was a director of a program. If you want recipes, please let me know.


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