Healthy Foods and Snacking

Encouraging children to eat healthy meals that are also easy to make is a challenge. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center offers suggestions regarding:

The most important thing about breakfast is when kids start skipping breakfast. This remains the biggest nutritional mistake. Breakfast still is the most important meal of the day. Without it, children miss a lot of vitamins and minerals, have a hard time staying awake in school and become famished later in the day, leading to overeating in the evening or at night.

Numerous studies have shown that children who don't eat breakfast don't do as well in school. They don't function as well as other students, and their results are not as good as far as school performance is concerned. Children will need extra energy if they stay after school for sports training. If they skip breakfast, they'll probably be too tired to play well. It's breakfast energy that really kicks in late in the day.

Eating donuts high in fat and sugary cereals tend to make children less alert during the day. High-sugar foods actually make people sleepier, not more hyperactive.

Children should eat 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables. It's important to offer fruits or vegetables at every meal, especially breakfast.

Children also need protein in the morning, which many get from the milk in their cereal. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich or yogurt is also fine in the morning. They'll provide a little bit of extra protein.

School lunches tend to be fat-laden meals. If your children have a weight problem, one of the first recommendations to follow is to pack their lunches. That way, you control what they eat and the portion size. When packing lunches, avoid tucking in pre-packaged snack cakes or juice boxes -- it's really just extra sugar. Even low-fat chocolate milk is more nutritious than juices with extra sugar.

For variety in lunches, use different types of whole-grain breads. Pita, bagels and taco shells all count as servings from the grain group. Freeze fruits to keep them fresh and the rest of the lunch cool. Canned pineapple freezes well, as do grapes, washed and packed in plastic bags.

Instead of including bagged chips, make your own snack mix using cereals, tiny pretzels, raisins, graham crackers or animal crackers. Store the mix in a container in the cupboard or pantry, and portion it in plastic bags. These kid-pleasing snacks don't have the excess butter and salt found in prepared snacks. 

When children arrive home from school, they are usually hungry. After-school snacks are good, as long as they don't become binges. It's important to avoid non-stop eating from the time they walk in the door until the time they go to bed. If children eat a snack, their appetites won't be so voracious, and they'll be more apt to have a normal serving size at mealtime.

Yogurt, raw vegetables and fruit make fine snacks. If you let kids eat chips, snack crackers or pretzels, always pre-portion them. Read labels for serving sizes. The child gets one bag after school, and that's it.

For easier meal preparation during the week, invest an hour on meal planning during the weekend. Pick a day when you plan what you're going to have for dinner each day during the week. Then go to the grocery store. That is the best time saver.

It's helpful to have staples on hand for quick meal preparation. Rice, pasta, chicken -- even prepared pizza crusts -- can be staples in the household. Pizza can be very healthy, and it's an easy meal for leftovers. Grilled chicken from one night can be used the next day as a pizza topping, along with mushrooms, green peppers and cheese. Served with salad, pizza can be a nutritious meal.

While children's aversion to vegetables is notorious, parents should not become overly concerned. It's fine to substitute a fruit instead. If parents offer children vegetables and eat them as well, eventually the children will try them. But as soon as vegetables are forced on kids, that's when they say, "I'm never going to touch those peas." If children eat only the lettuce in salad, let them. Eventually, they'll ask for carrots.

A snack before bed can be a fine thing, if the child is eating because he or she is hungry, and not out of habit. But keep the snack small. A light carbohydrate, such as low-sugar cereal, graham crackers or a piece of fruit, makes an ideal bedtime snack.

Last Updated 10/2012