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Snacking Done Right
By Dr. Rallie McAllister

Snacking has gotten a bad rap. Mention the word "snack," and visions of cookies, chips, and sodas begin to dance through most parents' heads. But in spite of its negative connotations, snacking the right way is actually a good thing. Snacks can make a big contribution to the daily nutrition of kids of all ages.

Snacking is a perfectly natural behavior that begins at birth, when babies nurse frequently throughout the day. As kids get older, they still need to eat often. The high energy needs and growing bodies of toddlers and preschoolers make between-meal snacking more of a necessity than a luxury. Because of their limited stomach capacity, it's nearly impossible for them to get all the nutrients and calories they need from just three meals a day.

As kids enter school, they continue to have high energy needs relative to their small sizes. Eating as often as six times a day is not only normal, it's ideal. Serving your children three regular meals and two or three between-meal snacks is an excellent way to make sure they're getting the nutrition they need for optimum growth and development.

There's a catch, of course. Snacks should contribute to the total nutrient intake of the day, rather than detract from it. Most kids get approximately 25 percent of their daily calories from snacks, so it's important to make sure that the foods they eat are wholesome and nutritious. Snacks should fill in nutritional gaps and make up for foods and nutrients that were missed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

If your child manages to finish most of his meat and vegetables at lunch, but loses interest before he gets around to eating his fruit or drinking his milk, it's not a big deal. You can always make up for the missed nutrients at the next snack by offering foods like fresh strawberries and yogurt, or sliced apples and cheese. Snack time also provides an excellent opportunity to offer new foods to kids in a fun, low-pressure environment.

Even if your child is overweight, snacking shouldn't be eliminated. When approached properly, snacking can contribute to weight loss, rather than weight gain. Eating small amounts of nutritious foods between meals is an excellent way to stave off hunger and prevent overeating at mealtime.

While the practice of snacking is a good one, many of the foods that our children eat are not. Left to their own devices, many kids make poor choices, choosing high-fat sweets and fried, salty foods over more nutritious fare like fresh fruit and veggies, or even sandwiches.

As you might suspect, junk foods, which many of us have come to equate with snack foods, do not belong to any of the five basic food groups. In spite of their deceptive names, foods like Cheese Doodles don't fall into the dairy group, any more than potato crisps or corn chips fall into the vegetable group. There are plenty of wholesome, kid-friendly snacks in each of the five food groups, and children should be encouraged to stick with the basics whenever possible.

Snack Strategies:

Plan snacks, don't ban them. Keep your fridge, freezer, and cupboards stocked with nutritious foods that you won't mind your kids eating, and loosely schedule snacks about two hours before the next meal.

Shake it up. If you offer your kids the same snacks over and over, they're likely to get bored. They may start making requests for foods like cookies and chips rather than the same old thing.

Vary the presentation. Dress up fruits and vegetables for maximum kid appeal. Cut food into fun shapes and bite-size pieces.

Encourage creativity. Give kids a few colored toothpicks so they can use fruit and vegetable chunks as building blocks. Fill a squirt bottle with low-fat yogurt or salad dressing and let them decorate their food. Give them a saltshaker filled with sprinkles, and allow them to add fun colors to their snacks.

Set a good example. Kids learn eating habits in the same way they learn just about everything else: by watching their parents. Choose nutritious snacks for yourself, and encourage your kids to join you.

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Take a "hands on" approach. Kids like to eat what they make. Have them search for snack recipes in a cookbook or on the Internet. Help them make a grocery list and shop for the necessary ingredients. They'll have fun preparing new recipes, and they'll have even more fun eating their own creations.

Rallie McAllister, MD, the author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (LifeLine Press, September 2003), runs a family practice specializing in nutrition, wellness, and weight loss called Healthy Solutions, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Dr. McAllister is the creator and popular host of Rallie On Health, a health magazine TV show with over 1 million viewers in the five-state area of eastern Tennessee. Millions across the country also know her for her weekly nationally syndicated column called "Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister." Dr. McAllister lives with her husband and three children in Kingsport, Tennessee. Visit Rallie at www.rallieonhealth.com.

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