Healthy Children - March 2012


Snack Smarter to Keep Your Kids Leaner

As a child, you may have had one or two overweight kids in your class. Yet today, about one in three of your child’s classmates is likely to be overweight as childhood obesity rates in America have tripled in the past 30 years.

This is a dangerous trend that can lead to multiple health problems later, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. In addition, an overweight child is at risk of low self-esteem from being teased.

At the root of the childhood obesity problem are the amounts and types of foods kids eat that add up to an excessive amount of calories, says Tara Todd, a registered dietitian at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Kids today take in a lot of empty calories such as crackers, chips, soda and large amounts of juices. It’s a big problem,” she says.

Empty calories aren’t a new way of saying zero calories. Rather, they come from foods that provide lots of calories with very few nutrients. They essentially just take up space in your child’s stomach.

“Empty-calorie foods tend to replace fruits and vegetables,” Todd says. “Yet we know if kids eat enough fruits and vegetables in a day, their calorie intake is just about right. If they don’t, they usually gain weight.”

Compounding the problem is that one in five school-age kids has up to six snacks a day, which piles on the pounds.

“For kids under age 5 who eat appropriate quantities at meals, a small, healthy snack is OK,” she says. “But after age 5, kids often don’t need a snack between breakfast and lunch. Many kids now eat so many calories at meals that it’s hard to build in room for snack calories.”

When Hunger Strikes

What if your child comes home from school saying he’s hungry? Find healthier, lower-calorie snack options, Todd advises.

“The idea behind eating snacks isn’t to feel stuffed,” she says. “You just want to give your child enough to get his or her mind off food. If children watch TV instead of going out to play, they’ll likely end up back in the kitchen eating again.”

Todd says snacks such as granola bars and 100-calorie snacks aren’t usually a good snack option.

“If you’re using the controlled calorie packs as primary snack foods or if they take the place of fruits or vegetables, they’re still empty calories with little nutritional value,” she says. “However, if you’re trying to help your child make changes by using the 100-calorie packs to satisfy a sweet tooth, these can be useful.”

Smart Snacking Tips

If your child takes a snack to school, Todd recommends sending fruit such as an apple. It packs nutrients into a low-calorie, crunchy, filling snack. You may also try fiber-filled popcorn.

After school, combine a carbohydrate and protein to keep your child satisfied until dinner.

“When eating carbs, it’s important to add protein to help your child feel satisfied longer,” Todd says. “Eating sweets creates a vicious cycle of wanting more sweets because you get hungry faster.”

Try these satisfying snack options for your kids:

  • a cup of cereal with milk
  • Greek yogurt and fruit
  • half a sandwich with turkey and cheese
  • bananas, apples or celery with peanut butter
  • cheese cubes and an apple
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter
  • hummus and pita bread
  • popcorn


Make Changes One Step at a Time

Todd recommends that the first change in every family’s eating plan should be substituting the empty-calorie foods in your pantry for fruits and vegetables. Then eliminate sugary drinks and decrease portion sizes. Subtle changes, such as switching to whole-wheat pasta, are easy to make, too.

“Take it one step at a time,” she says. “If you suddenly turn your family’s life upside down, the healthy changes won’t last. It takes time to create habits.”

Todd suggests making dietary changes for the whole family behind the scenes.”

“Helping your family eat more healthfully is squarely on the parents’ shoulders, but don’t say anyone is going on a diet,” she advises. “Instead, talk about positive additions you’re all making, such as eating more fruits and vegetables. Never direct the changes at the child or say the child needs to lose weight.”

For more information, download our Nutrition and Healthy Habits brochure at