Most days, my toddler’s snack rotation includes string cheese, pretzels, sliced cheese, cucumbers, granola bars, goldfish crackers — oh, and did I mention cheese? In a perfect world, I’d aim for much more balance, but as a full-time, working parent with with an 8-month-old often on my hip at mealtimes, I usually end up prioritizing what’s *relatively* healthy — and most of all, convenient. But I want to do better, as all parents do, so I talked to a couple of experts about why nutritious snacking matters, what red flags to watch out for on labels, and their best (and worst!) lists for kiddos. Here’s what I learned:
View snacks as fuel
Admittedly, I sometimes forget that the purpose of healthy snacks is to tide one over until the next meantime in terms of nourishment and energy. It’s not, um, to soothe a hangry toddler — at least on the regular. (I see you, mama who whips out a surprise fruit strip to quiet your child at the store; you are smart and effective.)
“Healthy snacks are important for kids in the same way that they are important for adults: any time you eat, it’s an opportunity to provide your body with the basic building blocks it needs to thrive,” explained Sharyn Saftler, dietitian and owner of a family nutrition health coaching practice. “It’s especially important for kids because their stomachs are so small, yet their needs are so great as they are continually going through growth and developmental changes. In order for them to have the opportunity to get enough nutrients in on a given day, they usually need multiple, smaller meals to fuel their needs.”
Focus on real, whole foods versus what’s “organic” or “natural”
As a busy mom, I am particularly susceptible to marketing – give me organic applesauce or all-natural baked Cheetos, and my little lizard brain immediately thinks: “Healthy! Yes! All signs point to go!” But according to Dr. Reshma Shah, a California-based pediatrician, that’s exactly when you should think twice — because foods that have to advertise supposed healthfulness are usually the ones that aren’t actually good for you or your little ones.
“Sadly, ‘all natural’ and ‘good for you’ basically mean nothing,” said Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious and One Potato. “You want to look for orange certification labels and non-GMO foods and labels wherever possible.”
“Words to watch out for in buying snacks include ‘all natural,’ ‘made from real fruit’ or ‘fruit drink,’ added Cathy Posey, mom of six and a registered dietician with 32 years of experience. “These are marketing terms which do nothing to assure you of nutritional value. Look at the ingredient list for names of foods you recognize and realize that no food can be better than the ingredients. If the list is full of chemicals, then the snack is chemicals, no matter what it claims to offer.”
Instead, Posey suggests looking for foods that are real, whole, and unprocessed — if packaged, look for a short ingredient list of things you can actually recognize.
Make it balanced and interesting with a variety of textures, colors, and shapes
If I give my son raw baby carrots in a bowl, he wants nothing to do with them. However, if I give him a whole carrot, peeled and ready to be chomped, he’ll eat the entire thing. Why? Because the latter option is fun. If I say, “What do you want?” He’ll ask for the usual granola bar. But if I put a whole bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables on a plate – bright berries, cooked broccoli, sliced mushrooms, crunchy apples – then he’s immediately curious about his choices.
“You want foods that hydrate (think liquids, fruits, and vegetables) as well as having a variety of textures like crunchy, smooth, and creamy to sate different senses,” said McCord. “I’m a big advocate when it comes to variety. If you offer a variety of good-for-you foods to fill up your body, you’re not as likely to overdo it. If I offer a granola bar, crackers, or a muffin, I will also offer a cucumber or a handful of berries at the same time.”
Saftler also said you can use any opportunity to offer a color as a great way to boost familiarity with nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis. Additionally, aim for a good mix of protein and fiber; toddlers usually need around 13-20g of protein per day, Saftler advised, and for fiber, their age plus five more grams. If that’s too complicated, she recommends using a 2 to 1 ratio — for every gram of protein, match one gram of fiber in their snack.
Another benefit? If you focus on a balance of protein, fat, and fiber at each meal and snack, you don’t have to worry later on if they don’t eat a veggie-packed dinner, said dietitian Caitlin Self, who specializes in toddler and early childhood nutrition. You know they’ve already had a nutritious day of eating.
Be consistent and prioritize convenience for your kids
I used to think that on the snack front, convenience meant more work for me as the adult and parent. This is somewhat true, but as my toddler has gotten older and more independent, I’ve learned the value of making snacking convenient for him — aka, putting healthy snacks at eye-level in our pantry door that he can open, prepping low-fat mozzarella balls in a bowl, or putting together little baggies of fruit. It’s like grab-and-go, but kid-style, so I actually end up doing less work because he knows what to expect with snacks.
I also had to learn how to be more consistent in terms of not getting worried or offended when my precious child all of a sudden “hated blackberries” or “didn’t like cheese.” (#lies) I just had to wait it out, which Saftler said is completely normal toddler behavior around food.
“A wise pediatrician once told me it’s common for kids to pick at or play with one meal, totally ignore one meal a day, and actually eat one meal a day,” she continued. “That’s why consistency with snack offerings is key. There should be a definitive time when the kitchen is ‘open’ and the kitchen is ‘closed’ so that kids learn boundaries. Kids do best with rhythm and routine — so offering snacks at certain times during the day ensures that even if they didn’t eat much at the previous meal, they can be assured that while they don’t just get to have whatever they want after refusing the previous meal, they will not go hungry.”
Remember snacks are not treats (gulp)
Okay: this one is hard for me. Because for me, as an adult, snacks are treats, you know?? I mean, yeah, I want them to be semi-healthy and stuff, but I also want them to be delicious, which typically translates into too much sugar or an entire bag of popcorn. Of course, I’m capable of checking myself as needed — I know when I need to pull my hand out of the pretzel bin and cool it on the vanilla-flavored yogurt — whereas my kids aren’t. Meaning as parents, we have to watch sugar content and portion control for them. And again, as much as I (really really really) want to assume that the lovely, all-natural, organic fruit snacks from the health store are on point, they’re not a healthy snack. They’re a treat.
Or as nutritionist Jordan Means put it, “Organic cane sugar is better than conventional, granulated sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but at the end of the day, it’s still sugar.” Boom.
For kids under age two, Saftler recommends zero grams of added sugars (including fruit concentrates) per day, and for kids over age two, anything over 25g per day is excessive. It’s not about being boring and healthy, either — since kids are still developing their taste preferences and senses, added sugar throws off their ability to determine and learn the taste of foods, noted Saftler.
“A final concern with snacks is portion size,” mentioned Posey. “Snacks should be limited in size to what the child will need for fuel until the next meal; snacks should never be offered in unlimited portions. They are simply a small meal meant to keep the child’s energy level stable through the day. A large bag of snack food in a child’s hand starts habits of mindless eating from an early age.”
Here’s what to avoid:
Our experts each provided a short list of the worst snacks for kids from a nutritional sense, as well as a quick-hit reason for why you should avoid them. Or at least aim for moderation and lots of label-reading! These include:
- Drinkable yogurts (full of sugar and little fiber)
- Granola bars (too much sugar)
- Gummy snacks (added sugar)
- Chips and crackers (watch for sodium, artificial and added ingredients)
- Juices (added sugars)
- Cereals and puffs (heavily processed, sweetened, and loaded with artificial ingredients)
- Dried fruits (concentrated and added sugar)
- Literally anything with high-fructose corn syrup
And here’s what to reach for instead:
- Hummus and vegetables (full of fiber and phytonutrients)
- Homemade, whole-grain muffins with fruit, nuts, and natural sweeteners
- Granola bars or bites with a low sugar and a serving of veggies included
- Cut fruit (the best kind of sugar, plus loaded with nutrients and vitamins)
- Fruit and veggie pouches with no added sugar
- Vegetables, both raw and cooked
- Cheese and whole-grain crackers
“For homemade, I love savory muffins that are barely sweet, meatballs made with 1-2 cups riced or shredded vegetables mixed in, and colorful plates or bento boxes with real foods, like shredded chicken, avocado, sliced peppers, and blueberries,” shared Self. “For kids struggling to reach weight goals, peanut butter banana smoothies and coconut milk chia pudding are two great options. For store-bought, I like some of the pumpkin seed bars and meat sticks that are on the market right now, but I’d gravitate towards fresh berries, snap peas, apple slices, nuts and seeds, guacamole and carrots, and even cooked chickpeas as better options for snacking.”
Finally, if your child has an allergy or intolerance to certain snacks or foods, it’s important to find alternatives — even if the food or snack in question is technically “healthy.” For instance, my toddler is allergic to almonds, which means all the great snack suggestions around almond butter or nut mixes are usually out of the question.
“Often, parents feel pressured to give healthy foods to their child even when there are indications that the child shouldn’t eat that specific food,” said Posey. “For example, parents feel pressured to provide their child plenty of calcium, but the if the child is allergic or intolerant of milk, parents will offer the child cheese or yogurt instead. Those alternatives contain the same offending agent, though in a different form. As a result, the symptoms may not be as obvious, but offering foods that stress your child’s body is not a healthy nutrition practice.”
What are your go-to healthy snacks for toddlers?