A childhood ritual - snacking - is getting a bad rap.
Sure, bags of chips and microwaveable globs of processed cheese share the blame for the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. A 2010 National Survey on Children's Health reported that nearly 32 percent of America's kids are overweight or obese.
But not all snacks are bad, and active children require extra calories to fuel their brains, energy and growth. The key is eating the right snacks in the right amount. Give kids smart choices, not carte blanche.
As children go back to school, parents can help them focus on healthy snacking for a healthy body and alert mind.
"There is a difference between mindless and purposeful snacking," said Angela Lemond, a Dallas dietitian and childhood-nutrition spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "What a child eats and how much they eat for snacks has a huge impact on their overall nutrition."
Nutritionists recommend snacking on fresh and dried fruits; whole-grain cereals and crackers; nuts; homemade trail mix; peanut and other nut butters; yogurt; vegetable sticks, and pizzas topped with veggies. Avoid processed snacks high in fat and sugar.
Healthy snacking fits into a larger game plan - teaching kids to be adventuresome eaters who enjoy healthy foods.
"Parents can teach their children that good health and nutrition start with a simple appreciation for quality foods, whether snacks or dinner," said Kimberly Brown, founder of Raise a Foodie, a year-old venture in Phoenix that holds "foodie adventures" for kids ages 6-10 at restaurants, schools and camps.
Partnering with such chefs as Aaron Chamberlin, owner of Phoenix restaurants St. Francis and Phoenix Public Market Cafe, Brown works to convince kids that there's more to good eating than chicken nuggets.
"I am passionate about teaching kids to eat right, because I didn't as a child," said Chamberlin, who has adopted a plant-based diet. "It's easier to learn how to eat right as a child than change bad habits as an adult."
5 tips for parents
1. Studies show that kids are more likely to eat foods they select, so let them help choose and make snacks.
2. If there are no adults supervising snack time, do the more difficult cooking or cutting yourself, leaving easier tasks for children to complete. Younger kids should stick to snacks that do not require use of knives, and those younger than 10 should not cook without adult supervision.
3. Educate your kids about healthy snacking. A recent study confirms that simple, kid-friendly training in good nutrition got 8- to 10-year-olds to eat more healthfully for three years. In the biggest study ever to track the impact of childhood nutrition education, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute concluded it's possible to teach kids good nutrition.
4. Avoid meals or snacks two to four hours before bedtime. Eating late causes sleep difficulties, and most kids need at least nine to 11 or more hours of restful sleep every night, depending on their age.
5. Children learn by example. If they see their parents eating a lot of unhealthy snack foods, that's what they are likely to do as well.
Healthy snacks for kids
Fruit is nature's fast food. To make fruit more appealing, pair it with low-fat Greek yogurt for dipping. Or freeze freshly washed grapes for a cool snack on a hot summer day. Freeze baggies of fruit to mix with yogurt and almond milk for quick smoothies.
Cheese and crackers. Use real cheese and whole-grain crackers. Avoid store-bought cheese-and-cracker packages; the cheese is made with what's called cheese food and the crackers with refined white flours.
Add extra flavor to low-fat popcorn by sprinkling with cinnamon, chili powder or Parmesan cheese.
Kids particularly like small fruits and veggies such as grapes, strawberries, baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. They also love to dip, so include a small container of salad dressing, hummus, honey or fruit-flavored yogurt.
Dried fruits, from blueberries to mangoes, are great for snacking on the go. Although nutritious, they are high in sugars, so keep portions small.
Looks can be enticing. Skewer chunks of fruits, olives, cheese or veggies on cocktail toothpicks.
Drizzle a little honey over cottage cheese, then sprinkle with cinnamon.
Pack a sealable bag of high-fiber, low-fat cereal. Consumer Reports rated several kid-oriented cereals as both low in sugar and nutritious. These include regular and Honey Nut varieties of Cheerios, Kix and Life.
Layer fruit, yogurt and granola in a plastic container for a fruit parfait.
Instead of buying pre-assembled bags of trail mix, try making your own at home. Not only is it a fun activity for the kids, it allows for control over the salt and sugar content.
Spread peanut and other nut butters on whole-grain crackers or in celery sticks. Opt for natural peanut butter to avoid trans fats and added sugar.
Offer breads that are 100 percent whole grain. Bread should have at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.
If eating chips, opt for those baked, not fried.