What Makes Up a Healthy Snack for Active Kids?
By Jenna Braddock, MSH, RDN, LD/N, ACSM-CPT, a mom and consultant dietitian who works with Clif Bar & Company.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
You know those magical moments that happen with kids? The ones where you suddenly realize your house is quiet and you haven’t been asked for something in a while. After a run through of all the danger zones, you stumble upon your children simply playing, by themselves, in the most elaborate of imaginative games. After breathing a deep sigh of relief, you slowly back out of the scene and quietly settle into your favorite spot on the couch to take advantage of the peace and quiet. But, just as you pull out your book and start reading, you hear, “We’re hungry! Can we have a snack?”
In my home, this situation usually means playtime is over, and rarely does the playtime magic pick back up in the way my kids left it. But, sometimes, if I have a quick, nutritious snack ready to go, they eat and return to their magical land of imagination and activity.
Benefits of Free Play
To parents, playtime may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of everything they want their children to experience, but it’s actually quite valuable. Unstructured, imaginative play holds a crucial role in children’s development. In addition to the health benefits that come along with being physically active, creative play promotes learning and important social lessons like cooperation, flexibility and patience.1
While fostering kids’ imaginations and creative playtime is important, interruptions can get in the way. According to a recent survey supported by CLIF Kid,2 parents say that their children’s playtime is disrupted because they need a snack and are low on energy. In fact, 78 percent of parents agree it’s important to have nutritious snacks on hand to help fuel their kids’ imaginations during active play.2
Fueling Imaginative Play
I am a mom of two boys, ages 7 and 5, and this summer I wanted to find them an activity that encouraged their creativity, promoted physical development and quite frankly, wore them out. So, I provided my boys with lots of different equipment to make an obstacle course in our backyard (read more about it here). Many mornings I’ll send them outside with the instructions to use their imagination and create something fun for us to do together. On the days when they’ve already had something to eat, I can tell because their imagination tends to go wild, creating an elaborate course that usually includes imaginary gorillas or the like. What they don’t realize, though, is that they also are building coordination, balance and teamwork. However, on days when they haven’t eaten yet, they lack spunk and creativity. It can feel more like a chore to them. Everyone loses in this situation.
There’s a clear line connecting food and nutrition to sports performance. Parents can easily identify when their child is not ready to play at their best when on the track or field. Since free play does hold such value in development, we should begin focusing on fueling our kids for this physical activity too! If children don’t have the energy to play, there’s a chance you won’t see their minds and bodies bloom as a result.
Nutrition 101 for Kids
A healthy diet looks similar for both adults and children but obviously there are some specific differences. Unfortunately, the diet culture is affecting kid’s nutrition too, making it more difficult for parents to know what is best to feed their family.
For a multitude of reasons, many parents are suspicious of the role carbohydrates (including sugar) play in their kids’ diets. I assure you, however, carbohydrates are a necessary macronutrient for their growing minds and bodies, and vital fuel for kids’ muscles when in motion during active playtime. When it comes to carbohydrates, choosing nutrient-rich sources as often as possible is the key. Focus on those that provide needed energy to keep your kiddos going, as well as important nutrients and food groups they need for their long-term wellbeing (i.e. fruit, whole grains, dairy and dairy alternatives).
How Much Fiber Does My Child Need?
Fiber, an important type of carbohydrate, is often lacking in kids’ diets. Many foods promoted as just for kids are low in fiber. While toddlers need about 14 grams a day, children 4 and up should get a minimum of 16 grams a day, with pre-teens needing between 22-25 grams.3 I personally believe exposing kids to foods that have fiber (i.e. CLIF Kid Zbar®) helps set them up for a healthier future as adults.
Body Building Protein
Protein is important for children too, as it provides the building blocks their growing bodies need. It is also extremely helpful for ensuring kid’s energy level lasts throughout the day. But, let’s be honest, protein foods can be a challenge for kids! I’ve talked with many parents who are concerned about their child’s protein intake. The good news is that protein needs aren’t that extravagant for kids and more easily met than you might think. If the foods your child is eating contain 2-5 grams per serving, they are likely meeting their basic needs. Did you know that CLIF Kid Zbar® Protein delivers 5g of protein per bar?
How Much Protein Should Children Get Per Day?
Here you’ll find more on the amounts of protein children should aim for in a day:3
- Ages 1-3: 13 grams/day
- Ages 4-8: 19 grams/day
- Ages 9-13: 34 grams/day
The last of the macronutrients, fat, has come full circle from being completely feared to now being the crux of some popular eating styles. Beneficial, unsaturated fat is important for kids, playing a significant role in development and overall growth, but it should be enjoyed in the context of all other foods. Fried foods, certain snack foods and desserts are historically the biggest sources of saturated fat in children’s diets and therefore should be enjoyed occasionally, as opposed to every day.
Research suggests that many kids are not getting adequate amounts of polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids.4 This is concerning because it is an essential fatty acid for health, specifically in cognitive development. Exposing kids to food sources of omega-3 fatty acids like fish, nuts and seeds is an excellent idea for supporting growth and development.
Key Vitamins & Minerals
Beyond the macronutrients, which provide energy, there are several nutrients that research shows are lacking in kids’ diets. These include vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium.5 Vitamin D and calcium are often found together in dairy or dairy alternatives and are recommended daily. Iron is most readily available from animal meats and kids who eat even a little meat are getting it. If focusing their diets on plants, you can get iron from plant-powered foods like green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, dried fruit and iron fortified cereals. Serve these with vitamin C-rich fruit to better promote absorption of this essential nutrient. Not only will fruit give your kiddos the vitamin C they need, it will help boost their potassium intake too!
How Often Should Kids Snack?
Life as a parent can one day feel like you are running a concession stand and the next day feel like getting your child to eat is life’s greatest battle. If there is anything I’ve learned in my eight years of being a parent, it’s that no two days are ever alike. When it comes to figuring out how often your individual child can or should eat, there are many different approaches. Personally, I think you have to try different methods and just see what happens. Your approach to snacking will likely change over time, as kids are constantly changing in every way.
For some reason, as parents, we can put A LOT of pressure on our kids to eat or not eat, as if their behavior is breaking some ancient parental code. I like to take the pressure off everyone involved and take it day by day, blending both parental wisdom and children’s intuition.
Young children physically have smaller stomachs and gastrointestinal (GI) tracks meaning they can’t hold as much food as adults. As a result, they will likely digest their food more quickly and be hungry more frequently than adults. If you add in a lot of active play in their day, it’s not surprising that they might ask for food more often than an adult.
Experimenting with New Foods
Try to keep an attitude of experimentation when it comes to snacking. Have a variety of options on hand and simply trying things out to see what works well in fueling your child to be their best. Indicators of winning snack and meal routines could be: your child has the right energy level, is excited to play and regulates his/her emotions, voices feelings of hunger or fullness, and eating occasions are pleasant experiences.
Finding Your Rhythm
- Experiment with regular snack time in the morning and afternoon. A good starting place is about 1-2 hours after a meal and 1-2 hours before the next meal.
- Discuss what being hungry feels like and encourage your child to tell you when they have that feeling.
- Discuss what low energy (physical, mental or emotional) feels like and teach your child how stopping for a snack could help them feel better.
- When you observe your child having great energy and enjoying active playtime, point it out and talk about it together. Connect it back to their last meal or snack as a reason why they might have had so much fun.
- Create a schedule for kids after school or before activities that includes a wholesome snack. Allow kids the freedom to accept the snack option or decline without being chastised.
- Know your children’s personality and differences between them. Honor them as best as you can, but also talk with them about how they may need to make choices that are not natural to their personality to feel their best.
Nutritious Snack Ideas for Kids
Now getting kids to stop playtime long enough to eat, that can be a real challenge. It’s sweet to see my boys playing so hard that they don’t even think about it being our normal snack time. But I know, if we wait too long, two hangry bears will come walking in and chaos will ensue. This also means that their wonderful playtime is probably over, for good.
Picking The Right Snack For The Right Time
Choosing the best snacks for your kids also comes through practice, but there are some keys to finding what will fuel and sustain their activities. Look for snacks with whole food ingredients, provide whole grains and fiber, include a small amount of protein and/or fat, and perhaps include the nutrients that kids are missing mentioned above (vitamin D, calcium, fiber, potassium or iron). There are a lot of great examples of packaged snacks, single foods or homemade recipes that fit these recommendations.
When we are on the move, CLIF Kid Zbar® is one of my favorite snacks to fuel my kids during active play. This bar delivers energizing carbohydrates to nourish bodies in motion, comes in age appropriate sizes and is made with wholesome, organic ingredients, like rolled oats. I also like that it provides 10-12 grams of whole grains and 2-3 grams of fiber.
When my kids are off the field and simply looking for a snack to help bridge to their next meal, my go to bars are CLIF Kid Zbar® Protein and CLIF Kid Zbar® Filled. This filled bar is their favorite! It delivers a balanced mix of carbohydrates, fat and protein to satisfy my kids’ appetites when on the go. It also contains ½ tablespoon of filling nut butter, which is a welcome addition for one of my boys who seems to always be hungry! And, most importantly, at least to my boys, these bars all taste great!
Whenever possible, I try to provide a fruit or vegetable alongside a snack like CLIF Kid Zbar®. Easy examples are the squeezable fruit pouches, grapes, sliced strawberries, blueberries, carrot chips, mini sweet peppers or cherry tomatoes. Any of these pair well with energy bars, as well as yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus or whole grain crackers.
Recipes to Try
When time is on my side, I like to throw a few homemade snacks into the rotation. Here are some of my favorite recipes:
- Crunchy Frozen Yogurt Bites
- Peanut Butter Frosting Dip with Apples
- Blueberry Coconut Energy Balls
- Pumpkin Apple Mini Muffins
- Children may be playing, but their brains are working. Psychology Today. Available at: www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/moral-landscapes/201403/children-may-be-playing-their-brains-are-working. Accessed on July 11, 2019.
- Survey was conducted online from June 21-25, 2019 by Dynata (formerly Research Now and SSI) among a national sample of 1,003 parents with children ages 5-10. Results have a margin of error +/-2.53%.
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-7/. Accessed on 7/8/19.
- Harika RK, Cosgrove MC, Osendarp SJ, Verhoef P, Zock PL. Fatty acid intakes of children and adolescents are not in line with the dietary intake recommendations for future cardiovascular health: a systematic review of dietary intake data from thirty countries. Br J Nutr. 2011;106(3):307-316.
- Anding R. Child and Adolescent Athletes. In Karpinski, C. & Rosenbloom, C.A. (Eds.), Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th Edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017:238-265.