We may dream of being the Pinterest moms who only serve fresh fruit and veggies cut into fancy shapes, but our kids have other ideas about what they're willing to eat. Not to mention, sometimes we're busy or need to satisfy a hangry toddler fast, and that's when we break out the packaged snacks.
But packaged doesn't have to mean unhealthy. We asked Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist LeeAnn Weintraub to share what we should be looking for when staring down that overwhelming snack aisle at the grocery store. And, in general, it comes down to this: "The fewer, simple ingredients, the better." In other words, products that are packaged but are still minimally processed.
So flip over the container to check the label. If there are three or fewer ingredients, including a little salt or seasoning, that's likely a good choice.
Best Snacks to Pack
For savory snacks, Weintraub recommends nut butter or sunflower seed butter (both are great with apples or celery), dried soybeans, wholegrain crackers and individual packs of dried seaweed. Cheese (like string cheese and Babybel) is another good choice, because toddlers need the fat and benefit from the protein and calcium.
With sweet treats, she suggests snacks with no added sugar, if possible, or low sugar. So when it comes to kid-friendly foods like applesauce pouches, choose one without the extra sweet stuff. And look for yogurts and cereal marked low sugar. Naturally sweetened foods, like raisins and freeze-dried fruit, can also satisfy a sweet craving without all the added sugar.
Pro tip: Just because a snack is marketed toward kids doesn't mean it's healthier or lower in sugar. Compare labels of the kid-focused brands with other brands and choose the lowest sugar option. Try to steer clear of artificial dyes, too, if you can.
Packaged foods for kids often tout levels of fiber, sugar and protein, but what should we really be looking for? Let's break down the numbers.
If a snack has 3 or more grams of fiber, it's considered a good source, according to Weintraub. So if you're looking to add fiber to your child's diet, try plant foods like whole grains, bean chips and lentil chips. Less-processed foods will be more likely to have more fiber.
When it comes to sugary snacks, like cereal, we're looking for fewer than 6 grams of sugar per serving. Cheerios are a smart pick.
With protein, the guideline is 5 or more grams per serving, but Weintraub cautions that we don't worry about protein with this age group unless kids are super-picky eaters or on a plant-based diet. Generally, kids who eat a little chicken, fish, eggs or beans are meeting their daily needs. But if you're concerned about your child's protein intake at meals, work it into snacks with edamame, cheese and whole grains.
Food for Thought
If you're frustrated that your child gobbles up snacks but picks at meals, or are worried that snacks are ruining your child's appetite, here's a helpful perspective: "Think of snacks as an extension of a meal," Weintraub says. "Snacks are a way to get more nutrition between meals."
In other words, don't think of snacks as working against meals; they can work with them. One way to do this is by offering small portions of typical meal foods as snacks, and by considering what your child usually eats at meals when you plan their snack breaks. So, if your child is eating plenty of fruit at meals, Weintraub suggests something more savory at snack time, like whole-grain crackers with cheese. And if your day's meals will be filled with veggies and protein, whip out the applesauce pouch mid-day.
The bottom line is that at this age, kids need their snacks. The gap between meals is too long for them, so it's common for kids to request a snack between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner. That makes snacks an opportunity to balance out the whole day's nutrition and make sure your child gets enough of the foods that will benefit them. So it's worth your time to read labels and arm yourself (and your diaper bag) with healthy choices when those cravings hit.