A Comprehensive Guide to Healthy Snacking for Kids

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Healthy snacking guide for kids

As parents, we carry the monumental responsibility of shaping our children’s lives in countless ways and one of the most pivotal aspects of their development lies in their nutrition. Among the numerous questions that arise in this journey, understanding healthy snacking for children aged 1 to 5 emerges as a crucial consideration. This comprehensive guide aims to demystify the world of healthy snacking and give nutritional insights and diverse snack options, including the occasional foods like sweets or packaged snacks, when to give them, and how to incorporate them into your meal routine.

The Wholesome Foundation: Understanding Healthy Snacking and Why It’s Natural

Healthy snacking goes beyond merely filling tiny tummies between meals; it’s about nourishing growing bodies, nurturing cognitive development, and fostering a positive relationship with food. In the formative years after babies start solids until they are 5 years old, children experience rapid growth and development, both physically and cognitively. A well-balanced diet, including nutritious snacks for toddlers, is crucial to fueling their active lives and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy choices.

Scientific literature consistently emphasizes the significance of healthy snacking in early childhood development. Researchers assert that thoughtfully planned snacks serve as a consistent energy source, supporting the maintenance of optimal growth, cognitive function, and emotional well-being among young children. A study by Smith et al. (2017) revealed that dietary patterns during childhood significantly influence changes in body composition, highlighting the long-term implications of early nutrition choices. 1 Moreover, studies led by Reilly et al. (2005) indicate that addressing nutritional needs during these formative years can mitigate the risk of childhood weight-related health concerns, setting the stage for a healthier adulthood.2

The Benefits of Healthy Snacking

Healthy snacking offers a plethora of benefits that extend well beyond satisfying hunger pangs. Nutrient-dense snacks, carefully curated to meet the unique nutritional requirements of young children, play an integral role in:

  • Growth and Development: Adequate and balanced nutrition is the cornerstone of physical and cognitive development. Nutrient-rich snacks provide the building blocks necessary for bone development, brain function, and the development of vital organs. Overall, kids ages 1-5 around: 45-65% of their energy needs to come from carbohydrates, 10-30% of their needs to come from protein, 25-35% of their needs to come from fat.4
  • Energy Levels: Young children are bundles of energy, and their activity levels require consistent fuel. Smart snacking maintains energy levels throughout the day, preventing energy crashes and supporting active exploration.
  • Cognitive Function: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like walnuts and chia seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, are essential for brain development and cognitive function. Incorporating these into snacks can aid in enhancing cognitive abilities.
  • Immune Support: Certain nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, zinc, and probiotics, support the immune system. Snacks containing fruits, vegetables, and yoghurt can be potent sources of these immune-supporting components.

Kids need a lot of carbohydrates (quick energy fix) so it makes sense that you may see your child love foods like breads, biscuits or fruit. Babies and young kids also have small stomachs, so offering multiple eating opportunities and snacks per day is helpful to help them achieve their nutrient needs for growth. Essentially, it’s developmentally common and normal for kids to want and need snacks.

Nutritional Guidelines for Kids’ Snacks:

Since snacks can be a great way to help kids meet their nutrient needs for growth, try to think of them as mini meals! If you plan them accordingly then even if they are going through a selective phase, they will likely still get enough diversity in their diet. One way to help utilise snacks to meet nutrient needs is to follow the below guide for building a snack plate:

  • Protein and / or energy-rich food: This could be things such as eggs, meats (chicken, beef, fish, etc.), legumes (chickpeas, peas, beans, etc.), nut and seed butter, as well as dairy products (yogurt, cheeses, cottage cheese) and carbohydrates such as bread or wholegrain crackers. Many protein-rich foods will help kids meet nutrient needs for things like iron and zinc and provide energy for muscle growth. Energy-rich foods may be considered foods that are good sources of carbohydrates (quick energy) or fat (lasting energy) which are essential for brain function and growth.
  • Fruit and vegetables: We like fruit and veggies that we can just wash, chop and serve such as apples, bananas, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, etc. Try to aim for seasonal, natural, GMO-free and organic, if possible. Read our article Organic Baby Food vs Conventional: What’s the Difference? for a closer look at the benefits of organic food.

Around the 10–11-month mark, you may see your child drop some milk feeds and they may eat some small snacks between meals.

By 12 months you may have 3 meals per day and about 2 snacks as milk feeds become secondary and solid foods become the main priority for nutrition.

Children in general ages 1-5 benefit from 3 meals per day and 2 snacks. Some children may benefit from a third bedtime snack.

Navigating Snack Choices and What About Sweets and Packaged Salty Snacks?

It’s really easy to get stuck in the mindset that “snack” foods are only something that comes in a package or a bag. But really anything can be a snack! Don’t just limit yourself to offering only something that comes out of a bag. An everyday snack choice can be something that contains leftovers from last night’s dinner paired with a fruit or veggie.

We know that unlimited access to packaged snacks that are high in sugar and salt is not good for kids’ nutrition, but we also have evidence that restricting kids too much may affect their relationship with those foods and lead to excess consumption in the future.5-8 So where does that leave us with moderation and mindfulness?

Young babies and toddlers under the age of 2 don’t need added salt or sugar in their diet. They also are often young enough to not be as aware of or “miss” these foods.

In terms of sweets and very salty packaged snacks, we recommend holding off on serving them until after 2 years if possible. Or make it a rare occurrence.4

For children over 2 years, when serving them, it’s best to pair those foods with other foods such as fruit and veggies. The AAP also recommends keeping added sugar consumption to about 25 grams per day or less.

The focus in general should be to offer whole, minimally processed foods that provide essential nutrients. But in order to not put packaged snacks or sweet foods on a pedestal and to help kids create a healthy relationship with all foods, for kids over the age of 2 we recommend serving very small portions with meals and snacks. Sweets can be a part of a balanced diet when you offer kids a variety of other, healthy foods and play it cool. The more energy we give to sweets and salty snacks, the more likely they will form part of their happy, fun memories, and thus become desired the most, leading to mealtime battles and bad eating habits in the future.

Smart Snack Planning and Shopping

For babies 6-12 months, look for snacks that don’t have any sugar or salt added and have zero trans fats and sodium. Make sure they have an appropriate texture and shape to reduce the risk of choking. It is best for the product to have a “meltable” texture. Where the food may initially feel hard or crunchy to the touch, when it comes in contact with water or liquid (saliva) it melts or dissolves quickly into a safe soft texture. You can always test to see if it is meltable by dribbling a bit of water on the food or by trying it yourself. Try Little Bellies puff snacks in the TASTY TEXTURES range for 7+ months babies. We love sweet potato pick-me sticks and apple cinnamon puffs!

For toddlers over 12 months:

  • Look for simple and plain ingredients like whole grains, vegetables
  • 0 grams of trans fats
  • Low sodium – less than 100 mg per serving.
  • Less than 5-7 gm of added sugar per serving

If the snack has fibre, iron and protein, that’s a great bonus!

We recommend serving water with toddler snacks over fruit juice or milk to ensure they do not fill up on drinks versus eating their food. Fruit juices are usually loaded with sugar and don’t have any of the precious fibre.

Incorporating Nutritional Snacks into Different Situations

Every parent knows that the life of a young child is filled with diverse situations, from playdates and outings to mealtime struggles. Navigating these scenarios while maintaining healthy snacking habits requires creativity and preparation.

  • Playdates and Parties: When your child is surrounded by a spread of foods that you don’t normally eat, this is an opportunity to help them learn to self-regulate around food. Before these special occasions make sure you are sticking to your typical meal routines and try to pair any favorite sweets or packaged snack foods with fruit, veggies and protein/energy-rich foods as mentioned above.
  • On-the-Go Snacking: Whether you’re on a family outing or running errands, having portable snacks on hand is essential. Cut-up fruit, whole-grain crackers, and trail mix are convenient options that provide sustained energy. If you’re choosing packaged snack options that fit the recommendations from a Pediatric Dietitian, try Little Bellies snacks like puffs and crackers.
  • Mealtime Battles: Keeping a consistent meal routine and “eating window” with 1-2 snacks can help alleviate mealtime challenges. Consider their preferences and have one favorite food at each meal and offer small portions and if they finish, they can have more if there is enough. If they keep asking for more and there isn’t any to give or you are wanting to space out when you offer that particular food, remind them of their other food choices and hold that loving boundary about what options are available. Don’t stress about each individual meal if you are offering three meals a day and multiple snacks as kids meet their nutrient needs over multiple days.

Introducing Healthy Snacking into Daily Routines:

There’s a framework in the pediatric feeding space that is considered the gold standard in helping kids learn to eat a variety and develop a healthy relationship with all food, while also reducing the potential for selective eating. It’s called the Division of Responsibility. Essentially this framework breaks down the role of feeding for you, and your child, and when we stay in these roles it can make meals and snack time less stressful. The roles are: You as the parent provide the food options when meals take place and where they take place. Your child decides: If they eat the food offered, and how much they need to eat.

Even though young kids may ask for snacks all day, it is really up to you as the parent to decide when they’re served and what food is being served at snack time. We recommend you try to hold loving boundaries around when meals occur and try not to give in to “grazing” on food all day. Grazing on snack foods can actually lead some kids to have increased pickiness or weight problems. Plus, we find they may not come to meals hungry if there isn’t enough space between when they last ate.

Some tips to help snacks seamlessly integrate into your meal routine:

  • Lead by Example: Children often imitate their parents’ behaviors. By showcasing your own preference for nutritious snacks, you instil the importance of healthy choices.
  • Educational Exploration: Engage your child in learning about different types of foods. Visit farmers’ markets, explore the produce section of grocery stores, and involve them in simple cooking tasks.
  • Variety and Color: Encourage a colorful and diverse array of snacks. Vibrant fruits and vegetables not only look appealing but also offer a spectrum of essential nutrients.
  • Snack Time Rituals: Create a routine around snack times. This helps establish expectations and prevents mindless eating.
  • Incorporate Playfulness: Make snack time enjoyable by arranging snacks in creative shapes or allowing your child to assemble their own mini-snack platters. Read our Play with Food Guide from Simone Emery with some hacks and tips on how to be more playful with food.
  • If packaged snacks become a problem: Take them out of the package! This can help remove some of the novelty of the food.

Ultimately, it’s important to find an approach that works for your family when it comes to snacks. Every child is so different! Predictable meal routines and eating a variety of healthy foods with your little one will lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and overall well-being.

Author: Leah Hackney, RD, LD, CSP @kids.nutritionist

Photo by Hannah Tasker on Unsplash


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