Baby and You

All kids love a treat now and then, but for most of the time the snacks we choose should fit within an overall healthy diet. Johanna Hignett examines sensible snacking and providing healthy snacks from a young age to encourage healthy habits

Although children are smaller than adults, their energy requirements are surprisingly high. Given that their tummies are small, smaller meals often suit best, so 3 meals and 2 snacks a day are often recommended for children. As well as addressing hunger pangs, snacks can help to keep energy levels up during the day and also contribute to nutrient intake. Here, we review snack choices for children and link up with the ‘Let’s Get Cooking’ programme to provide links to some simple snack recipes you can make at home with your children.

Snacks – some facts

A snack is something eaten between meals maybe as an energy boost, to ward off hunger pangs or perhaps simply as a habit. Snack choices are very personal, for some the first choice might be fruit or vegetables, and for others a pre-packed item such as a cereal bar or packet of crisps or something more substantial such as a sandwich.

Research in a group of Scottish children showed that the most common type of snack foods were biscuits, cakes and pastries (eaten by 77%) followed by crisps and savoury snacks (72%), confectionery (70%) and fruit (69%).

Nutritionally, snacks in this group of children provided around a fifth of energy and total fat intake, a quarter of saturated fat and almost 40% of sugars. Those who ate more snacks had a higher intake of sugars than those who did not.

Energy – and more

Children’s energy requirements are surprisingly high when compared to the average adult recommended intake of around 2000 Calories per day.

Snacks can be a helpful way to meet not only energy intakes, but also intakes of key nutrients, and the type of snack is important. The key is to snack sensibly and choose snacks that not only provide energy but fibre, vitamins and minerals too.

A focus on sugars

‘Look for 100 Calorie snacks, two a day max!’ is the memorable advice from Change4Life when considering snacks for children. Their aim is to help parents choose suitable snacks that provide a small amount of energy and particularly limit intakes of ‘free sugars’.

Data from national surveys suggests that typically half the sugar in a child’s diet comes from snacks and sugary drinks. The official report on ‘Carbohydrates and Health’ from the UK Government’s expert group concluded that high intakes of sugars and sugary foods are associated with a higher risk of tooth decay, and that sugary drinks are associated with weight gain in children.

Sugars are found in all sorts of foods but the official report distinguishes sugars added to food or present in juices, syrups etc from those naturally present in food. ‘Free sugars’ are those that are added to foods plus those found naturally in honey, sugars, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. Sugars found in whole fruit and vegetables and in milk are not considered to be free sugars.

From the age of 2 upwards, we are all advised to limit our intakes of free sugars to 5% of dietary energy, in simple terms that’s about 20 – 25 grams of sugars or 4-5 teaspoons per day.

Making snacking a healthy habit

The healthiness of snacks is directly related to the choice of snack – choosing fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals or unsweetened dairy products provides a range of nutrients with limited amounts of fat and added sugars, whilst pastries, chocolate, cakes, biscuits and crisps are contrasting choices providing more fat, saturates, salt or sugar.

What about pre-packed snacks?

Sometimes the convenience of pre-packed snacks is valuable, but how can you judge the nutritional contribution of these types of foods? All pre-packed foods have to provide nutrition information per 100g and if possible per serving too, so it should be easy to find the information. Take cereal bars for example, some contain wholegrain cereals, dried fruits, and nuts which together provide a range of nutrients including fibre. Other cereal bars might be chocolate coated, with additions like marshmallows and sweetened dried fruit, so these are likely to be higher in free sugars. Comparing labels is a great way of helping you make a sensible choice – try to choose ones with lower levels of sugars, saturates or salt, and higher levels of fibre.

Is dried fruit full of sugar?

Dried fruit does contain sugar – the same sugar is naturally present in the fresh fruit. It’s more concentrated because the fruit is dried, but it remains within the fruit cell walls. Dried fruit is a useful snack providing energy and fibre, just make sure the portion size is roughly a child’s handful. Enjoy with a glass of water or milk, as one of the two snacks a day.

Is fruit juice a good choice?

Fruit juice is pressed, squeezed and juiced fruit. The sugars which are found within the fruit cells in a whole piece of fruit are released and are considered to be free sugars. A 150ml glass of fruit juice can count as one of your five a day, but only one glass a day counts. If your children have a glass of fruit juice a day, it’s best to have it at mealtimes.

“Nearly a third of children look to other family members as their role models for healthy eating„

Simple snack ideas

Be prepared! Planning ahead, and even making some home-made snacks will make sure that you have sensible choices available for your children when they are hungry.  Here are some ideas of recipes you can try at home:

  • Fresh fruit kebabs
  • Mini pancakes with berry compote
  • Basic scones
  • Cheesy muffins
  • Frozen fruit yogurt

To help plan ahead, here are some snack ideas to add to your shopping that each provide around 100 calories:

  • Slice of malt loaf
  • Lower-fat, lower-sugar fromage frais
  • Fresh or tinned fruit salad
  • Chopped vegetables and lower-fat hummus
  • Plain rice cakes or crackers with lower-fat cheese
  • Sugar-free jelly
  • One crumpet
  • One scotch pancake

Setting off on the right track

Habits form early in life and are likely to persist into adulthood, so providing healthy snacks from a young age encourages healthy habits. Research conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation has also suggested that nearly a third of children look to other family members as their role models for healthy eating. Setting a good example by making healthy choices for snacks as parents and adults can help children to make healthy choices too.

Tips for helping children make healthy snack choices

  • Plan ahead. Making sure you have a range of healthy snacks in your cupboard is a great place to start – if less healthy snacks are there, it’s all too easy to choose them more often.
  • Choose pre-packed snacks that come in smaller portions. Multipacks often have smaller portions than similar brands you purchase individually.
  • Teach children to learn about hunger cues, rather than simply reaching for a snack every day when they come home from school.
  • Encourage children to eat three meals a day including breakfast and remember the advice ‘look for 100 calorie snacks – two a day max’.

We all love a treat now and then, but for most of the time the snacks we choose should fit within an overall healthy diet, particularly for children who are growing and developing healthy habits. Try to keep treats for one or two days a week and enjoy healthy snacks at other times.

Johanna Hignett, Nutrition Consultant (RNutr), is a highly experienced nutritionist with over 20 years’ experience working primarily as a nutritionist in the food industry, as Head of Nutrition Science and Communication for Nestle UK before setting up Nourish Consulting over ten years ago.

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