There’s much discussion on the issue of children’s snacking, but with good reason. Dental health and obesity are just two of the reasons why snacking habits amongst children need to be considered.
Good oral health in children is very important. Not just because teeth are needed to masticate food, but also for speaking and of course for smiling! If a child’s diet contains a lot a sugar, dental plaque is inevitable. Tooth decay is caused by the bacteria in dental plaque breaking down sugar in the food and drinks consumed.
Over the past two decades our food intake has changed from three meals a day, to about six or seven snack type intakes a day and this has not only led to the ever increasing obesity problem, but also to poor dental health.
According to recent studies by the Department of Health, more than half of young children in Britain suffer from tooth decay, and this is almost certainly linked to an over-indulgence of sweets and fizzy drinks and some heavily sugar-laden fruit juices. Children need snacks because they are growing and are very active, and depending on their height, weight, gender, and level of physical activity, children need more calories per pound body weight than adults do.
No one is suggesting that snacking is a bad thing, it’s the type of snack food that children are eating that is ‘bad’. Bad snacks are those with high sugar and salt content and those with high fat content.
For example, fizzy drinks, biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate bars, sweeties. Fast food is sometimes given to children as a snack after school, and that too is a bad idea. There are fruit flavoured drinks which on the face of it look fine, but read the labels and you will see how much sugar they contain.
So what is a healthy snack? Without doubt, fruit and raw vegetables are by far the healthiest and natural kind of snack a child should be eating. Here are some good examples for you to follow:
• Cut up fruit: apples, pineapple, pear, tangerine, kiwi fruit, and strawberries.
• Cut up vegetables: carrot, celery, cucumber, small corn on the cob, red and yellow peppers are sweet, cherry tomatoes that are small enough for children to eat in one mouthful.
• Peanut butter (unless allergic) spread onto a stick of celery
• Cheddar cheese with a slice of apple
• Dried apricots and other types of dried fruit.
• Bananas - easy to carry and eat when out of the home.
• Brown Pita bread or a bagel with peanut butter is a substantial snack for after a game of football or swimming.
Make your own ‘trail mix’ or even better, ask your children to help you make it. Keep it in a big glass jar for future use. It should contain: raisins, sultanas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and dried cranberries. A great mix of essential micronutrients there.
• Nuts are a great source of protein, but because of nut allergies, mums are nervous about buying them. If your child is definitely NOT allergic, then mix some nuts into the ‘trail mix’.
• Fruit Smoothies, either made fresh at home, or bought for after school. There are many new brands on the market now and all are sold in the main supermarket chains. Beware that some do contain a lot of sugar, and even though organic is probably best, it may also contain sugar. Read labels!
• Drinks: Water is the most important and nutritious drink your child could have. Encourage him/her to drink water before anything else. After water, freshly squeezed apple or orange juices are available in small cartons or containers. Small cartons of milk are also a good choice. Again, read labels and make sure that nothing is added. Unfortunately, there are very few choices of healthy nutritious drinks for children as most drinks sold commercially contain masses of sugar.
Some tips on snacking:
• Watch out for foods which say ‘fat free’ ‘sugar free’ ‘low sugar’ ‘low fat’. Check labels as these claims are made to encourage you to purchase the food, but they still may be full of calories.
• Don’t give children too many choices. Offer them the healthy food and say ‘here you are’, don’t say ‘would you like’. It gives them the option to say ‘no’. If they are hungry and there is nothing else on offer, they will eat what you give them. Only offer healthy snacks though!
• Change the snacks each day – they will get bored with the same old chunk of pineapple!
• Be creative with the fruit and vegetables – cut them up into fun pieces.
• Be patient with your children. If you are trying to change their snacking habits, it won’t happen over night.
• Offering your children healthy snacks throughout the day, especially fruit and vegetables, will ensure that at main meal times you don’t have to be so pushy in getting them to ‘eat everything on the plate’ they can leave a little. Snacking on fruit and vegetable during the day is a good opportunity to supplement children’s diets as well as calm hunger pangs.
• If you combine at least two food groups in your snack, a protein and a carbohydrate, i.e. peanut butter and pita bread, you will not only give good nutrients, but it will be filling enough to tide them over until the next main meal. The whole point of snacking anyway!
• Small containers and small plastic bags are also important to put the snacks in. Children like to have their own little containers.