Help Kids Manage the Munchies

Chuck Nelson
Snacks can be healthy and also fun, if you tap your creative side.

To snack or not to snack, that has always been the question.

Is it nobler to suffer through a grumbly tummy until dinner or grab a little something to keep the “hangries” at bay?

In the depths of the pandemic, with many students spending long days in front of computer screens, snacks can help fight off the doldrums, keeping kids alert and tuned in by providing an energy bridge to their next meal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says children may get more than a quarter of their daily calories from snacks. It also says that kids with healthy eating habits generally perform better academically.

A snack every two to three hours for youngsters and three to four hours for older kids is a great way to keep their energy up, says Erica Domrose, a clinical dietitian with the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “There’s definitely room during the day to fit in a snack or two,” she says.

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In his job as an assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, Drew Hanks studies the economics of school lunch programs. But with six children of his own (ages 1 to 14) spending more time at home, the Northeast Columbus dad could also hold daily clinics in snacking. “Someone always wants something to eat,” he says.

“We try to keep it focused more on fueling our bodies the right way,” Hanks says. “Your body needs fuel, like a car—better fuel makes the car run better.”

His older children are capable of preparing almost anything. They eat more because their bodies need more, he says. The younger ones require a little extra guidance choosing snacks. Hanks says they are frequently offered options such as plums, apples and string cheese. “We basically let them choose any fruit, vegetable or dairy snack in the fridge, and we keep them at a level where they can reach them,” he says.

Hanks says they also keep a bag of frozen peas handy for the younger kids. “They just like to crunch on them, I guess,” he says. “Our focus is teaching them more about proper portion sizes.”

Portioning snacks ahead of time in baggies or other containers is a strategy the USDA recommends. This ensures that healthy snacks are handy while also controlling what and how much kids eat.

Keeping snacks around 200 calories is a good rule of thumb, says Domrose, “so it’s a snack, not a meal.”

That’s about the serving size the USDA suggests for schoolchildren in its Smart Snacks guidelines. With some exceptions, it puts a snack at 200 calories or less and an entrée or main course at 350 calories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says the right snacks can enhance your child’s overall healthy eating plan. And—bonus—they might even help kids eat more fruits and vegetables. “Consider pairing them up with dairy products or dairy substitutes (such as grapes and cheese) lean proteins (such as celery and peanut butter), or whole-grain cereals and bread (such as [a] banana sandwich on whole-grain bread),” the AAP advises on its website.

Domrose agrees, suggesting an apple with a cheese stick, “ants on a log” or a yogurt parfait to create these combinations. “Pairing the two together is very satisfying and gets them the protein they need,” she says. “It stays with you longer, so you don’t get to dinner with that starving feeling.”

She says hard-boiled eggs can make a nice snack as well as an easy breakfast.

Have a budding chef in the house—and the time to indulge their interests? Get them involved. “Studies show that having kids be part of the planning or preparation of meals and snacks makes them more apt to eat them,” Domrose says.

Not sure where to start? Check out dozens of recipes, including one for energy bars, on AAP’s website.

While prepping fresh foods for snacks is ideal, it’s not always practical. “We’re definitely living in a world where packaged things are easier,” says Domrose. In those cases, she recommends keeping an eye on added sugar and looking for snacks that offer protein and natural fiber.

Limiting what’s available in the house can also help, she says. If chips aren’t waiting on the counter, it’s easier to pass on eating them. (That works for parents, too.)

For those seeking guidance, the USDA maintains multiple sources to address food-related questions and issues. “The Smart Snacks guide and USDA’s MyPlate snack tips guide offer helpful ideas for parents and students as they plan nutritious snack choices,” says Brigette Hires, child nutrition program manager in the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Integrated Student Supports.

While Smart Snacks was designed for schools, it offers guidelines and shows alternatives to store-bought snacks that might be useful to parents. The MyPlate website ( has lots of nutrition information, and its Kitchen section includes recipes for healthy, fun snacks like Anytime Pizza, Fiesta Mix and Fruit Yogurt Pops.

The USDA’s My Plate, My State program advises that locally grown and raised foods can encourage healthy eating while supporting local farmers and communities. It lists a wide range of fruits (including apples, blueberries and strawberries) and vegetables (carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and all kinds of beans) that are commonly produced in Ohio.

Speaking of Ohio foods, here’s a fun fact to toss out at snack time: The official state beverage is tomato juice. According to the Ohio History Connection, the General Assembly picked the drink in 1965 to help promote Reynoldsburg’s annual tomato festival.

How’s that for a refreshing fact?

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.


A Guide to Smart Snacks in School:

MyPlate Snack Tips for Parents: