Health & Fitness

Choose snacks for kids wisely, now and year-round

A holiday treat here, a plate of goodies there — snacks seem to be everywhere during the holiday season.

But throughout the year, snacks play a major role in children's diets. Kids get hungry between meals, and healthy snacks provide energy and help provide the nutrients kids need.

Think of snacks as mini-meals rather than as opportunities for junk food fests. Most children do not get the recommended five to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, so, as a start, most snacks should include these nutrient powerhouses.

You might find yourself wondering whether kids really need that many fruits and veggies. Yes! Even boys 14 to 18 years old who get less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day need the equivalent of two cups of fruit and three cups of vegetables each day, and boys who are physically active need even more. And think beyond potatoes, which are the most-consumed vegetable; the focus should be on the rainbow of color provided by nonstarchy vegetables.

Fresh fruits and vegetables can be conveniently prepared. They will lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure while providing nutrients like vitamins A and C and fiber. Put fresh fruit in a snack pack for kids headed to soccer practice or an all-day youth basketball tournament.

Washed, cut-up veggies such as crunchy baby carrots, cucumber wheels, brightly colored pepper strips, cherry tomatoes and broccoli/cauliflower "trees" can be served with low-fat salad dressing, bean dips, hummus, salsa or peanut butter. Prepare them in advance so you always have a healthy snack ready to go.

The hummus and peanut butter add protein to a mini-meal. Low-fat string cheese, a hard-cooked egg or sliced turkey (choose a reduced-sodium product) served with veggies or healthy grains are good choices, too. Trail mixes with peanuts and seeds are easy to make ahead and take along; whole-grain cereals and dried fruit provide additional nutrients.

Low-fat yogurt that is moderate in sugar (no more than about 30 grams in a 6-ounce serving) can be a source of calcium. Yogurt in tubes can be frozen, making it easy to transport and fun to eat. Research shows that low-fat chocolate milk can actually be a great sports beverage, providing the nutrients needed for athletic performance.

Read labels; granola bars may sound healthy, but choose ones in which sugar is less than 35 percent by weight (for example, no more than 19 grams of sugar in a 2-ounce serving), have no trans fat, and contain saturated fat that is less than 10 percent of the calories. Low-fat popcorn, baked chips and whole-grain crackers, pita chips and tortillas can be served instead of cookies, regular chips and snack cakes that are high in sugar and fat.

What about beverages? Water should be the main drink served to kids at snack time. Water satisfies thirst and does not have sugar or calories. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 1 to 6 drink no more than 6 ounces of juice a day, and children ages 7 to 18 drink no more than 12 ounces of juice a day; whenever juice is served, make sure it is 100 percent fruit juice.

Sugary drinks such as sodas, sweetened tea, lemonade and juice drinks provide many calories, displace more healthful foods, and can contribute to tooth decay. Studies show that children who drink more sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight than those who drink limited amounts.

Choose wisely, and make snacks count throughout the year.