FUEL KIDS FOR SUCCESS
Our bodies are machines. And like any machine, we need fuel to power our actions. Simply put, food is our fuel, and the quality and consistency of that fuel is what determines our level of performance. The fuel you plan for your children, especially pre-teens and teens, can provide them with the nutrients they need for learning and growing – or can give them temporary boosts and crashes and contribute to their weight gain and poor habits.
By offering kids the right foods at the right times, you can keep younger children from getting cranky and help older kids curb ravenous appetites that often lead to overeating at mealtimes. Like full meals, snacks should be planned and follow good nutritional guidelines to be low in sugar, fat and salt, and filled with whole grains, fruit, vegetables and protein. Portion size is important, so be sure to weigh or measure each element of the snack to avoid high calories and overeating. Timing is important too. By sticking to a schedule, especially for younger kids, you can be sure the snacks won’t keep them from eating their next scheduled meal.
SNACK IDEAS BY AGE
For toddlers, a scheduled snack time offers an opportunity to slow down, sit down, control themselves and refuel. By having a set time for snacks, young kids learn that snacks are available only at certain times and that they play an important part in nutrition. Portion out small amounts of cut-up fruit, cheese slices cut into geometric shapes, applesauce swirled with yogurt, or whole-grain cereal with little to no sugar added and low-fat milk.
By the time they’re preschoolers, children are flexing their control muscles, so giving them a few choices provides them with a sense of independence. It’s important to avoid offering cookies, candy and cakes at this point, or snack time will become a nutritional trap that could stay with them for life. Instead, provide cut-up fresh fruit or vegetables, whole-grain crackers topped with cheese, yogurt (without excessive added sugar), and plenty of water. Always encourage kids to sit at a table and eat, not to play or watch TV while eating. Again, this will set them on a clearer direction toward healthier eating habits.
Talk with your school-age kids about what time they eat lunch. A late lunch could make a mid-morning snack an essential break; an earlier lunch could make an afternoon snack a necessity. No matter what, kids this age are generally busy, becoming more independent, and growing into an understanding of the relationship between food and health. They should be able to fix their own snacks at home, and will often look for the fastest, easiest things to grab. That’s where your planning comes into play. Leave food in the fridge or countertop that can be seen first and easily prepared. Buy individually wrapped low-fat string cheese and 100-calorie packs of nuts or fruit/nut mixes, cut up whole wheat pita and put it in a container with hummus and veggie sticks, buy individual cups of low-sugar yogurt and pair it with fruit slices, or leave out pre-portioned servings of low-sugar, whole-grain cereal they can top with low-fat milk.
Teens often drift in and out of your control, and so do their snacking habits. If you’ve set their path from an early age, you may find they already make wiser choices. With a schedule filled with school, sports, work and friends, snacking at this age is often a factor of social events, convenience and speed. To avoid critical weight gain, encourage teens to take a healthy snack with them for later in the day, packing it in a mini cooler if necessary. Allow them to take enough to share with friends, turning nutrition into a conversation. A few ideas include veggie sticks or pita with hummus, peanut butter or low-fat dressing; fresh fruit and nuts or trail mix; hard-boiled eggs or low-fat cheese and whole-grain crackers; and air-popped corn or baked chips.
YOU ARE WHAT – AND WHERE – YOU EAT
It’s OK to give into temptation or special treats in moderation. That holds true for your kids and for you. Avoid labeling foods “good” or “bad” and realize that balance is the key to better health. Everyone deserves to indulge now and then, but on a whole, try to think about quantity and quality of the food when you plan snacks for your kids or yourself. Keep your pantry and refrigerator filled with these items.
Focusing on eating the snack is important too. Mindless eating – in front of the TV, while doing homework or while hanging out with friends – leads to a disconnect with the calories being consumed. And that can lead to a disconnection with why we eat in the first place: To provide fuel for our bodies to keep it in peak performance condition.
CONQUER THE SNACK ATTACK
That belly rumble screaming feed me!, that watery mouth as you walk by a pizza place, that impulse to grab a handful of fries and just stuff them in your face. Ah, hunger, what a little demon it is.
Regular, smart snacks are good for you. Even if you eat three solid meals a day, it’s normal to feel hungry at times, especially if you expend a lot of energy on studying, sports and working. Nutritionally sound snacks can keep your body fueled and your mind sharp, and don’t have to be a big time-waster to prepare.
Sadly, those fries aren’t the answer. They are high in fat, carbs and empty calories that give you a temporary boost followed by a big crash that will bog you down. Instead, satisfy your hunger by planning for it and choosing fuel that will keep you running efficiently – and help you avoid gaining weight. Focus on foods with fiber (whole-grain breads, cereals, fruit and veggies) and combine them with proteins like nut butter, low-fat yogurt, cheese or low-fat meats like chicken or turkey (but not processed meats).
HERE’S THE PLAN, STAN
1. Keep healthy snacks with you to avoid impulsive bad eating. Always stash something in your backpack or sports bag. Try bringing along an apple and cheese, some whole-grain crackers or veggie sticks with hummus. If it means taking it in a little cooler bag, just do it.
2. Prep, store, grab, go. Cut up a whole melon and put it in small containers topped with some yogurt so it’s ready when you are. Same goes with individual serving bags of veggies, crackers or cheese. Make your own mix of nuts and dried fruit, and scoop out individual portions to grab on the go. Portion out 1-2 ounces of leftover chicken from dinner and pair it with crackers. Boil a few eggs and take one or two with you as a snack.
3. Moderate your cravings. If you “need” ice cream, substitute sorbet or non-fat frozen yogurt instead. Love salt and crunch? Reach for baked chips with salsa, pretzels with hot mustard, or air-popped corn instead of greasy fried chips and processed cheese.
4. Get creative. You’re likely to get bored with veggie sticks and hummus day after day. Mix in a variety of snacks like a tablespoon of peanut butter spread into the hollows of celery sticks, a cup of low-fat yogurt with a tablespoon of nuts stirred in, or homemade fruit smoothies made with frozen bananas and berries.
5. Always include protein in your snack. The carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables are a source of instant energy. By pairing them with proteins, they can do their job longer and give you staying power.
6. Avoid snack multitasking. Always focus on the food you’re eating as you’re eating it and you’ll eat less and appreciate it more. If you snack while doing homework, watching TV, driving or walking, you’re not able to give full attention to any one of the things you’re doing – and everything suffers, including your health.
7. Share with a friend. There’s no need to sit in a corner and pout while you eat your healthy snack. Celebrate your good fortune of having the ability to make smart choices the wherewithal to bring it with you. Then share your good taste and encourage your friends to enjoy healthy eating too.