Snacks for Kids: Unhealthy vs. Healthy
By: Julie Mancuso, B.A., R.H.N., JM Nutrition
In this post:
List of unhealthy snacks for kids
Reasons why these kids’ snacks are unhealthy
Simple, healthy alternatives ideal for school snacks
Who doesn’t like snacks?
Snacking is big, both for adults and kids alike. But it’s important to snack in a healthy, nutritious way, especially for our growing children.
Children eat snacks at school, when they get home from school, after physical activity, while watching movies, on long family road trips and on weekends. As such, healthy snack choices are important.
Problem with kids’ snacks
A problem, however, does arise when the snacks we buy for our kids (and ourselves) are often unhealthy.
There is little wrong with a few unhealthy indulgences here and there. We all do it. It’s understandable. We can all give in to temptation. And as a nutritionist I don’t expect people to be perfect because we all have a different nutritional compass.
As adults, however, we should strive to consciously make healthier snack choices, if not for our sake, then for the sake of our children. After all, we want them to grow up to be strong, resilient and healthy adults.
Parents as models
We all know that kids do not buy their own snacks, the parents do.
For this reason it is the parents’ responsibility to encourage the selection of healthy snacks and model healthy eating habits. Sometimes this means resisting your insistent children when they request you buy them a snack that you know well isn’t good for their health.
It’s difficult, but it has to be done. Children learn their eating habits (including snacking), especially in their first few years, from their parents.
Of course, there are parents who routinely send healthy snacks with their kids to school, and good on them. But doing so needs to be commonplace in all households. It has to become the norm rather than the exception.
Now let’s get into the specifics.
What are these commonly purchased unhealthy snacks, you ask?
Let’s take a look:
Unhealthy snacks for kids
Lunchables is no doubt a convenient snack because it can be easily packed into your child’s lunch bag.
It comes pre-made, so it saves time prepping your child’s school snack.
Additionally, on the surface it appears that you’re covering the different food groups, so what could be better?
Meat (protein)? Check.
Cheese (dairy)? Check.
That was easy.
Unfortunately, this wonderful convenience comes at the expense of nutrition.
Despite the fact that the contents of your average Lunchables contain protein, a little bit of Vitamin C, calcium and iron, they are highly processed, non-nutrient-dense and low-quality.
In addition, they are brimming with sodium, artificial flavours and preservatives. Even cornstarch, sugar and hydrogenated oil find their way into this excessively processed concoction.
For these reasons don’t give them to your kids as a snack.
This one is obvious. Soda is loaded with sugar and often caffeine, and has no nutritional value.
Aspartame—the artificial sweetener linked to a great deal of controversy—in diet soda should make you think twice about giving it to your children as a snack.
I would always encourage eliminating any substance from the diet that receives so much negative attention, no matter how inconclusive the data. It’s best to err on the side of caution, especially when we’re dealing with the health of our children. So no diet soda, ever!
No matter how much the kids beg you to bring soda to school, don’t give in.
Allow your kids to drink soda once in a while, as a treat. Or better yet, teach them to choose healthier alternatives that are found just about everywhere nowadays.
Related: The Complicated Truth About Aspartame, Globe and Mail.
3. Juice boxes
Many parents who refrain from sending soda to school with their kids, freely pack juice boxes in the lunch bags, convinced that juice is always healthy. That’s largely due to the fact that many juice boxes contain Vitamin C, and in some cases, Vitamin A.
But if you take a moment and look at the nutrition label on the back, there is not much else in the way of nutrition.
Once you scroll down the label, you will quickly discover that sugar lurks in staggering amounts, sometimes on par with soda.
As a parent, it’s important to inspect the food labels before buying food in order to make sound decisions.
It’s equally important to be able to distinguish between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars. Look at the ingredients list to see if sugar appears. If it doesn’t, then chances are sugar has not been added.
What’s more, you will notice that fibre is lacking in most juice boxes, but it is frequently found in fruit itself. Fibre is needed for proper digestion and should be consumed regularly. For this reason fruit in its natural form is always the healthier snack option.
One last caveat:
It’s worth mentioning that there is a difference between juice boxes and drink boxes. The former tend to contain juice (usually the healthier option), while the latter is a drink (the less healthy alternative).
Make sure to check the mentioned information before making the purchase.
4. Pop Tarts
Kids consume Pop Tarts more at home and less so at school, but avoid them nonetheless.
They are naturally high in sugar, and contain corn syrup, artificial flavours, hydrogenated oil and preservatives—ingredients that should never find their way into a healthy diet and this includes a kid’s snack.
To compound the problem, there is very little in way of nutrition in Pop Tarts–just empty calories.
5. Chocolate milk
This one’s definitely not all bad.
There is some nutritional value in chocolate milk. Potassium, calcium, Vitamin D and protein—essential components of a healthy diet—are all found in considerable amounts.
But these benefits are marred by the high sugar content, the cumulative effect of which contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic plaguing this generation of children.
Another downside to the consumption of dairy products such as chocolate milk is that some kids find them difficult to digest. In these cases, the digestive distress varies greatly from barely perceptible to more pronounced. Keep an eye out.
Consume in moderation, or better yet, rarely. Today, many more healthier alternatives exist.
6. Yogurt tubes
As soon as the word ‘yogurt’ is thrown in, many people feel that it must be good and healthy for them. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case.
Again, look at the nutrition label of your average yogurt tube: low in vitamins, very low in protein and moderate to high sugar. Instead, buy real yogurt, one that is low in sugar.
For years kids and many adults in North America have been sold the idea that cereal is an integral part of a healthy, nutritious diet and forms a complete breakfast.
Well, it isn’t and it doesn’t. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better.
It’s an old familiar tale. While offering some nutritional value (and this varies greatly), many of today’s cereals contain too much sugar, whose dangers far outweigh the benefits of the limited vitamins and minerals (if any at all).
Today, many children regularly consume nutritionally-devoid, sugar-laden cereal, and in substantial amounts–a fact that certainly contributes to weight gain.
You’ll have to do some investigating here and find cereals which are lower in sugar.
In addition, many cereals do not contain enough fibre to assist digestion, and some contain artificial flavours, food colouring and preservatives, and as such, should be avoided.
What’s worse, some cereals tend to be high in carbs as well, leading our children to an early habit of the overconsumption of carbohydrates throughout the day.
With that said, healthier cereal options exist. Unfortunately, they are not designed to appeal to kids.
Generally speaking, you won’t find cartoon-like characters or superheroes glaring at your kids from the healthy cereal box on the grocery store shelf.
As a parent, you’ll have to turn to the bland packaging to find the healthier alternatives. Even here I strongly encourage you to analyze the labels with due diligence to determine how healthy the cereal is. It’s good idea to teach your children to do the same.
8. Twinkies, Joe Louis, donuts, and similar
All of these sweets are highly-caloric, teeming with sugar and possess no nutritional value.
Avoid sending these snacks with your kids to school or anywhere else at all costs. Foods like these may be given on the rare occasion as a treat, and the operative word here being rare.
It’s always best to avoid teaching your kids to turn to such foods as snacks though. Children must learn healthy eating habits early on, so they can take them into adulthood, growing up to be well-nourished and healthy adults.
The abundance of such unhealthy foods in grocery stores, restaurants, malls, convenience stores and homes contribute greatly to weight gain sweeping much of the world in recent years.
Parents have an incredibly difficult job in teaching their children to resist these temptations in favour of healthier options. But teach they must.
9. Fast food
Whether it is a couple of slices of cheese-laden pizza or a combo from McDonald’s, some of us tend to eat these foods ourselves and therefore have no qualms about sending them to school with our kids.
I know that we all cave in and indulge in a little fast food here and there, especially when it seems like there is not enough time to prepare a meal in our busy day.
But sending this sort of food with your kids to school has to be a rare occurrence and not a habit. Feed these snacks to your kids sparingly, period. Your concern for your child’s health just has to override the convenience factor.
Snacks and lunches such as these are nutritionally incomplete as they lack essential nutrients your children need for their focus, mental sharpness and general health.
Worse still, these snacks are highly caloric, processed, high in sodium and saturated fats. Most comprise carbohydrates with some protein and a negligent amount of greens and vegetables, if any.
These proportions are out of whack! In a nutritionally-balanced diet, the vegetables must make up at least half of the meal, while significantly reducing the carbohydrates portion.
This is precisely the reason why you need to be making your children’s meals much of the time: to ensure the proportions of the consumed foods are correct and do not leave your children with too many empty calories and devoid of important nutrients.
So what now?
Now you’re probably thinking, “Great, now I really don’t know what to send to school with my kids!”
Not to worry. I’ve prepared a short list of some simple, healthy snacks for your children to enjoy, while you rest assured that they are taking in the right nutrients.
Many variations of these exist and I regularly revamp these to suit the needs of my clients and/or their children.
Carrots, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, etc.
Simple to make and easy to pack in a lunch. Perfect for picking at, too. Add hummus to improve flavour, or sprinkle with olive oil or some healthy seasoning, to add some bite.
Teach your kids to eat snacks like this from the get-go and they will be conditioned to love these.
Raspberries, blueberries, bananas, apples, watermelon and many others.
Slice, dice and toss in a small container.
Nice. Simple. Delicious. Nutritious.
You can always add cinnamon for flavour, if fruit alone doesn’t cut it. Add coconut yogurt as well.
Lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, add carrots, cucumber and tomatoes, a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You can also add goat cheese which adds another layer and more creamy flavour–something that usually appeals to the taste buds of kids.
These salads can be bought prepackaged and even pre-washed. It couldn’t be simpler.
Nowadays healthier salad dressings exist. You can purchase these to change things up from time to time. Again, refer to the label when you do.
What’s more, it’s easy to pack salads in your children’s school lunches.
Try lean, nitrate-free meats (roasted turkey, chicken), add goat cheese or avocado, a slice of tomato, dijon mustard and voila.
When purchasing bread, avoid white, refined, nutrient-stripped breads, opting for darker, whole grain, sprouted, nutrient-rich breads instead.
You can also wrap the contents of the sandwich in a large lettuce leaf for a lett-wich, as an alternative to bread.
5. Almond butter on a date or apple slice
Since taking nuts and nut products to school is largely prohibited nowadays, try snacking on dates with a little almond butter at home, if you’re craving something sweet.
Almond butter makes a delicious spread on apple slices, too. Don’t overlook it.
6. Trail mix
As long as the ingredients in it are healthy, this is a convenient and nutritious snack for kids.
Check the nutrition label to ensure that the trial mix does not contain a high amount of sodium or ingredients you have trouble pronouncing. If the package in question does, give it a pass.
Alternately, you can buy these ingredients in bulk and make your own trail mix only from the ingredients that your child likes.
Crunch into crackers with a spread of goat cheese, hummus, mashed avocado or healthy dip as an easy and much more nutritious alternative to greasy potato chips.
You can also substitute the crackers with cucumber slices for an ultra-healthy snack.
Teach your kids to drink water instead of juice or drink boxes. Add a lemon to give it some flavour, if your child needs a little variety. You can even buy sparkling water for the carbonation sensation to mix things up a bit.
This is just a short list of healthy snack options for your children. Many more alternatives exist.
It takes a little time to become accustomed to the routine of making these snacks, but make it a routine and your children will reap the benefits.
Whether it’s after school, in the evening, or in the morning, prep time only takes minutes. Get the kids involved in helping you as well.
Always remember that children learn their eating habits primarily from their parents, so you need to lead by example as hard as that can be on a busy week day loaded with homework and hockey games, not to mention your own job and the never-ending errands.
But I strongly encourage you to try implementing some of these ideas, even gradually or one-by-one.
If you do manage to make these significant changes, your kids will thank you one day when they are all grown up.
Julie Mancuso is a registered nutritionist and owner of JM Nutrition, who has been counselling clients for over 15 years. Julie’s personalized approach has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals.
Julie regularly lends her expertise to a variety of health publications such as Livestrong, Business Insider, Food Network, MyFitnessPal, Toronto Star, Elle Magazine and many more. For more information, see In The Press.
Julie’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2020 by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe to both her newsletter and blog.