Making sure a child is eating healthy at breakfast and lunch time is an important part of the back-to-school routine, but experts at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital say that thinking about healthy after-school snacks is also important to consider.
“Having one-to-two healthy snacks in addition to three meals a day is what is typically recommended for school-aged kids,” said Dr. Teresia O’Connor, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor and pediatrician at Texas Children’s.
“If you’re eating three healthy meals a day, then the snacks should be small, and parents should think of it as an opportunity to get good, healthy nutrition into their child.”
O’Connor recommends picking foods that will help children get the energy they need for the rest of the afternoon while also offering snacks that will help them meet daily nutritional goals.
For example, it is recommended that children get at least five fruits and vegetables per day, so a way to achieve this is to offer fruit and vegetable snacks.
“Many kids come home after school having had an early lunch and are pretty hungry, so picking snack foods that will help them feel full, but not over full or stuffed is important. That way they are not ravenous by the time dinner comes around, but hungry enough to eat a healthy meal” said O’Connor.
She suggests incorporating proteins and whole grains for satiety and also combining fruits and vegetables with proteins and whole grains.
She notes that snacks that should be kept to a minimum are those with added or excess sugar, such as candy and cookies; as well as fried foods, such as chips. These snacks should be the exception, not the rule, O’Connor said.
“Everything can be eaten in moderation, but those kinds of foods are the ‘every now and then’ types of food and not the ‘go-to every day’ as an afternoon snack,” she said.
O’Connor emphasizes the importance of giving children a healthy snack, which will help give them the focus to do their homework and have the energy to engage in playtime or sports.
What time children have a snack varies on what your family schedule is like, said O’Connor. She said snacks should not be eaten less than an hour before dinner, because children may then not be as hungry for dinner. A healthy snack allows them to avoid being extremely hungry for dinner and eating too fast or more than they need.
“Snacks provide that balance so that you go into dinner feeling a little bit hungry but not ravenous,” said O’Connor.
If kids are in an after-school program, O’Connor said parents should check to see if the program offers snacks and talk to program leaders to see if they are healthy.
“If the snacks are not healthy, talk to the program coordinator to see if you can pack something small and healthy for your child,” she said.
If children are involved in after-school sports, it can be important for them to have a snack before they spend an hour or two in physical activity after the school day.
“Proteins and whole grains are going to stay with them a lot longer than a candy bar.
“The kind of nutrients you get from proteins and whole grains give you energy for a much longer sustained time than processed simple sugars,” said O’Connor.
She said it is also important to think about what your kids are drinking - be sure they are not taking in empty calories and excess sugars from their drinks. Try to avoid sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks, she explained.
“Instead, try to incorporate a glass of water or a glass of skim milk,” said O’Connor.
“I find that a lot of kids don’t get adequate hydration during the day,” said O’Connor. “Try getting your kids used to drinking a glass of water when they get home to make sure they’re keeping their bodies hydrated.”
O’Connor added there are a few things parents can do to help their kids make healthier choices.
The first, she said, is getting youngsters involved in helping parents pick healthy snacks at the grocery store, as they will be more likely to eat the foods if they are able to choose themselves.
“Also, parents should act as role models for healthy eating. If parents come home and have a glass of water and fruits and vegetables, their children are more likely to follow this,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor also notes that in some cultures, the after-school meal is the main dinner and says that this still fits into a healthy diet as long as there are still only three meals and one-to-two snacks a day.