Making a homemade snack isn’t always an option for a busy parent. You can’t always lovingly layer fruit over yogurt, or slather almond butter on perfect apple slices. Now that school is back in session, and morning and afternoon schedules turn to the more chaotic, parents will often reach for a packaged snack to tide the kids over. But snacks don’t have to mean junk food; in fact, they’re an opportunity to sneak in some extra nutrition.
To be sure, mid-morning and mid-day snacking are important for kids. For one, they stave off hunger and can help them avoid overeating a meal times. Second, they help keep metabolisms humming throughout the day. And third, says Allison Enke, a registered dietician who works with Whole Foods Markets, is that snacking can help “sustain energy levels throughout the day, which is important to help sustain the learning process throughout the school day. It’s even important for when they go to sleep at night.”
The key, Enke says, is to pick snacks that are nutrient dense and “that are satisfying and that provide a feeling of fullness,” she says.
Below we found seven great alternatives, several of them with a bit of a Latin twist.
Beanitos black bean chips: If beans are power food—and thanks to their high fiber and protein content, they are!—then you can consider these power chips. Made from either black, pinto or white beans, instead of corn or potato, Beanitos chips provide 6 grams of protein in just 12 chips. They contain no trans fats or preservatives and are gluten-free, making them a great alternative to the typical high-fat, low-nutrition chip. (Beanitos.com for store availability.)
Peter Rabbit Organics Pumpkin, Carrot & Apple Puree: The veggie-in-a-pouch trend is hot in part because it makes parents feel like little Anita is eating her greens. But the problem is that these pouches often contain extremely high levels of sugar, which has been linked to obesity in children, plus a lot of ingredients that aren’t even close to being a vegetable. Look for options that have no sugar added, are minimally processed and don’t contain ingredients you can’t pronounce. The Peter Rabbit Organics line is a good choice, and the Pumpkin, Carrot & Apple puree is high in fiber, which can help ward of diabetes, and reminded us of the calabaza we grew up eating. Just keep this in mind: nothing will ever substitute giving your child an actual crunchy fruit or veggie to chew on. Consider this puree a great alternative to junk food snacks but make sure to supplement it with the real thing at meals. (Peterrabbitorganics.com for store availability.)
Everyday 365 Organic Diced Pears: Ah, the fruit cup, that ubiquitous lunch box staple. It may make you think kids are eating fruit, but in reality many of them are serving up a frightening amount of high fructose corn syrup and something called “fruit flavor.” (News to us that the fruit flavor didn’t come from the actual fruit!) This is where the importance of reading a nutrition label comes in. Stay away from cups that pack the fruit in “light” syrup (it’s a code word for a not-light high fructose corn syrup) and look for ones that are packed in either water or, like the one by the Whole Foods Market house brand, 365 Organic, in organic fruit juice. (Wholefoodsmarket.com)
Marketside Fresh Garden Salsa: For the days when you just can’t do the chopping yourself, this salsa, by none other than Walmart’s house brand, is a great alternative that’s not filled with artificial flavors or preservatives. The ingredient list reads like, well, an actual salsa recipe: tomatoes, onion, cilantro, green pepper and so on. Added benefit: it’s a great way to sneak in some extra nutrient dense, raw veggies to a kid diet. (Walmart.com)
Horizon Organic DHA Omega-3 Milk: Did you know most kids today drink more sugary soda than calcium-rich milk? And that most kids don’t get the recommended 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day? Calcium is a critical building block for strong, healthy bones and milk is, hands down, one of the best sources for it. Now, national dairy brand Horizon Organic is upping the game by introducing a milk fortified with 32 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids, which has been found to support healthy brain development, packaged in single servings without the need for refrigeration. Perfect for the lunch box set. (Available at most major supermarkets.)
Bear Naked Double Chocolate Cookie: Yes, you can make la merienda sweet and still keep things healthy. Made with whole grain oats and whole wheat flour—instead of the less nutritious enriched stuff—a double dose of chocolate chips and cocoa, plus walnuts and almonds, these cookies are good enough to satisfy any sweet tooth. (Bearnaked.com for store availability.)
Route 11 Sweet Potato Chips: Instead of letting them reach for that cheese puff, which contains who-knows-what, or a deliciously-salty but trans-fat loaded standard potato chip, try introducing them to this award-winning, tasty, vitamin-A-packed alternative. Made with, yes, actual sweet potatoes, one of the healthiest veggies on the planet, these from Route 11, a small Virginia company dedicated to making quality chips, are minimally processed and are also a good source of vitamin C. (Available at rt11.com.)