Are Snacks Really Helping Your Kids Grow?

Kids with fruit snack
Jamie Grill/Blend Images

Feeding our children can feel overwhelming, frustrating, and like a big responsibility sometimes. And with conflicting information from the media, sometimes it can seem especially confusing. But our biggest worry as parents often comes from wondering if our children are getting enough of the rights foods to help them grow and develop as they should. Let’s go over a few guidelines to help you understand if your kid’s snacks are really helping them grow.

How Often Kids Need to Eat

First off, all children should be eating 3 meals a day. But as they grow, the number of snacks they need and how often they should be eating changes.

  • Infants and toddlers generally need 3 snacks a day in addition to their 3 regular meals. They will also need to eat about every 2-3 hours.
  • Preschoolers should be eating 3 meals a day plus 2 snacks. As they grow, your preschooler can go about 3 to 4 hours between eating.
  • School age children need 3 meals and 1 to 2 snacks, eating every 3 to 4 hours.
  • Teens need 3 regular meals plus 1 or more snacks depending on physical activity levels and can eat every 3-5 hours.

Now don’t get bogged down in the numbers, just understand that as children grow, they can meet more of their nutritional needs through their meals and eat less often. Smaller children need to eat more often and will meet their nutritional needs through their meals and snacks.

Since snacks are important to help younger children meet their nutritional needs, parents need to make sure they are offering foods that will help their youngsters grow. “Nutrient dense” is a term often used by nutrition professionals to describe foods that provide a high amount of nutrients (vitamins and minerals) for the amount of calories they provide. Simply put, foods that are nutritious and filled with things to help your children grow. Avoid snacks with lots of calories and not many nutrients.

Nutrients Kids Need to Grow

Some of the specific nutrients that are important to help your kids grow are:

  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin C
  • Iron 

However some of the best snacks don’t always come in packages with nutrition claims on the labels. Here are some snacks that are high in these beneficial nutrients:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: apple slices, bananas, berries, grapes, unsweetened canned or frozen fruits, carrot or celery sticks, sweet pepper strips, cucumber slices, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Low-Fat Dairy: Milk, cheese, plain yogurt, cottage cheese
  • Protein: Hard boiled eggs, peanut butter, lunch meats, nuts and seeds
  • Whole-Grains: whole grain breads and crackers, bagels, English muffins, pita bread, popcorn

(Be smart as you feed infants and toddlers and avoid foods that are hard, round, and do not dissolve easily as these can be choking hazards.)

Follow a Snack Schedule

A common snacking trap that some parents tend to fall into is offering snacks too close to mealtime. In this case, children often fill up on snacks and aren’t hungry enough to eat well at meals. Following a schedule of snacks times and meal times is the best way to avoid this. A sample schedule for a preschooler might look something like this:

Breakfast                    7:00 am

Morning Snack           10:00 am

Lunch                          12:30 pm

Afternoon Snack         3:30 pm

Dinner                           6:30 pm

Often children will refuse some foods at snacks or meals. But don’t worry, if they won’t eat at one meal or snack, the next opportunity isn’t too far away. Your job as the parent is to offer the healthy foods at regular times and your child has control of how much they choose to eat.

Really it boils down to providing the right amount of snacks for their age and offering healthy, tasty foods. Let your children decide how much to eat and they will grow healthy and strong!

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