Does your pantry resemble a wasteland of Cheetos and granola bars coated in plastic-looking chocolate? Do you attempt to purchase healthy snacks, only to have your middle-schooler arrive home from school with a bottomless bag of Takis that he somehow picked up on his walk home? Has the same lonesome orange rolled around in your elementary-schooler’s backpack since 2021? Here’s some help. I talked to two nutrition experts for realistic snack hacks.
Kristen Reed is a registered nurse, a certified health and wellness coach, and the founder of Lynnfield’s Nursing Your Way to Wellness, helping busy families eat better. She’s also a mom.
“My philosophy on health is small, consistent steps every day that lead to big goals in health and wellness, not only for women, but for families too. I’m passionate about helping others lead a really healthy life that’s sustainable: not trendy TikTok hacks that aren’t reliable or aren’t sustainable,” she says. “Being a mom myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to feed our children, to focus on nutrition, and to not over-obsess and feel overwhelmed about feeding them and getting all the goodness in.”
Emily Sylvester is a registered dietician and a board-certified lactation consultant, working mainly in outpatient clinics with kids who are diagnosed with failure to thrive and eating difficulties. She also runs Mother of Fact, a digital health platform that offers on-demand nutrition support. Oh, and she also has three kids under 9. In other words, these people know what they’re talking about.
Rethink the word “snack.” “When we say ‘snacks,’ kids tend to think of commercial snack foods: the chips, the fun character bars. I like to tell my clients: ‘Let’s not call them snacks. Let’s not call any occasion ‘snack time.’ Let’s call it an ‘eating time,’” says Sylvester. “That way, if you’re packing a ‘snack’ for school, their brain doesn’t automatically go to, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a gummy!’ or ‘It’s going to be a food that maybe isn’t always the best choice,’” she says. This isn’t to say kids can’t have foods they enjoy — but they don’t need to associate snacking with hoovering unhealthy foods, either.
Strategically place healthy food around the house. Kind of like Elf on the Shelf, but for veggies! If you subtly expose your kids to new things, they’re more apt to try them. “Repeated exposure is very beneficial for encouraging them. Something simple that my clients try — and they’re always amazed by when I talk about exposure — is putting greens out: having a crown of broccoli out on the counter or even the table as a centerpiece. The more kids are simply exposed to healthy food, they become more comfortable, and then on their own terms, they’ll try it. It’s really powerful,” Reed says.
Get crafty ... within reason. No need to turn your child’s cheese sticks into origami. Reed stocks up on two-pronged toothpicks with characters on them (this Get Fresh bento deco set for $6.99 is cute). “When we make it fun for the kids, it ends up being fun for us and doesn’t feel like such a chore and so overwhelming,” Reed says.
Experiment with shapes. Reed is a fan of banana (or any other fruit) sushi, which isn’t as labor-intensive as it sounds: Take a whole wheat wrap, throw a banana in there, slather on some nut butter, and slice it into ovals. Voila: a gourmet snack that looks more appealing than a plain old rotten banana that will undoubtedly come home soggy at the bottom of your child’s backpack.
Go for a template of veggies, proteins, healthy fats, and something fun. This combo will keep your kids’ blood sugar in balance: think a rolled-up slice of turkey; a favorite veggie; hummus, salsa, or peanut butter; and then a favorite treat for balance. Reed is a big fan of dips — within reason.
“Store-bought dips and condiments can be not-so-nutritious because a lot of them are made with industrialized seed oils like canola oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil. And condiments often have sugars and fillers,” she says. Her secret: “Don’t even look at the front of the bottle. Look at the label. Turn it around and make sure the first three ingredients are things you recognize and can pronounce.” She’s a big fan of the Primal Kitchen brand, which produces condiments and sauces with avocado oil.
Don’t stress about the Takis. Much as I’d love my older son to come home to a nutritious snack of whole-wheat tortillas and nut butter, chances are he’s in the playroom plowing through a bag of neon-blue Takis that he bought on the way home from school. What to do?
“I hear this all the time,” Reed says. “Focus on the healthy options that you can add versus taking other things away, especially in the tween years when they’re not going to listen to you. How can you add things in? Can you always have some healthy options available? Again, some veggies, some dips, even a little bit of sugar on some roasted carrots to make it taste a little bit more palatable,” she says.
If you can, urge your child to think about how different snacks make them feel. Does their stomach feel great after eating a gigantic bag of Doritos? What about after munching some carrots? Ideally, they’ll come to the right conclusion on their own, without a fight.
Think about beverages, too. Ever wonder why your kids claim to be full? They might be guzzling Gatorade, soda, or Prime (my middle-schooler’s vice) right before eating.
“Sometimes, we’ll offer a snack, and kids are like, ‘I’m not really hungry.” If they’re chugging sports drinks, it’s important to guide them: ‘Hey, why don’t we save that for when we’re having our eating time?’” Sylvester says, instead of allowing them to swill filling, sugary drinks ahead of time. Not always easy with tweens and teens, but we can try.
Savor your cereal. Fast, easy, efficient. Not all cereals are created equal, but “whole-grain cereals, even if they have chocolate or peanut butter, is much better than even a bagel with refined flour. I always go to the cereals, because honestly, that’s a really easy thing for parents. Plus, with milk, there’s protein, calcium, and vitamin D,’” says Sylvester. (She sprinkles in the completely mild-tasting, easy-to-find flaxseed for extra omega-3s, fiber, and protein.)
Chill out about frozen veggies. Last but not least: There’s no shame in unearthing frozen veggies if you didn’t have time to make it to Market Basket this week. The nutrient density is comparable to their fresh counterparts. “Anybody who says otherwise is just making parents’ lives difficult,” Sylvester says.