By Patricia Samour
For The Associated Press
Weight-conscious adults may be leery of snacking, but for active children a nibble here and a treat there can be vital parts of an overall healthy diet - as long as the snacks themselves are healthy, of course.
'With my kids, snacks are a regular part of their day,' says Julie Robarts, a registered dietitian and mother of three from North Reading, Mass.
'They grow so fast and they need the energy, but with their small tummies, they can't possibly get all the calories and nutrients they need in just three meals,' she says. 'We make frequent use of low-fat granola bars, nuts, pretzels, cheese and crackers, fruits and veggies.'
Most school-age children should consume at least one healthy snack a day, which should account for about 20 percent of their calories. Younger children may need two snacks, depending on what else is eaten during the day.
Here are some guidelines and tips to consider as you try.
Make your home a nutritional safe zone, says Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children's Hospital Boston and author of the recent 'Ending the Food Fight,' a book about helping children eat healthy diets.
He says that snacks such as ice cream are fine occasional treats, but keep them out of the house. This limits their availability. Otherwise, healthy snacks have trouble competing with sugary and fatty treats for children's attention.
Read food labels and look for whole-grain foods, such as whole-wheat breads, crackers, pasta or corn tortillas with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Whole-grain foods aren't just more nutritious than refined grains, they also are more filling.
Model good behavior. Don't expect your child to nosh celery if you're chomping on cookies and chips. Teach your children moderation, and to balance treats with physical activity. Children need at least an hour of physical activity a day.
'All foods can fit into a healthful eating style if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with regular physical activity' says Judith Gilbride, registered dietitian and president of the American Dietetic Association.
Aim for more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, or at least 21⁄2 cups of vegetables and 11⁄2 cups of fruit. For young children, make a game out of counting the servings, perhaps with a wall chart and stickers. Older children can help select and prepare the food.
'Kids love to be part of the process, decision making, preparation, taste-testing, and, of course, enjoying eating' says Dr. Christina Economos at Tuft's Friedman School of Nutrition.
Variety is the best way to ensure children get the nutrients they need. Work in as many colors as possible. Again, younger children can use stickers and a rainbow poster to make a game out of keeping track of all the colors they eat in a day.
And snacks are an easy time to add colors that are missing. At snack time, ask your children what colors they've eaten that day and what colors they would like to add to their rainbow.
'Teaching school-age children about healthy snacking is imperative, as this is the parents' last chance to influence their child's eating habits' says Aida Miles, a registered dietitian and head of the American Dietetic Association's pediatric nutrition practice group.
Teach yourself and your children proper portion control. Many Americans have adopted restaurant-style portions, which are too big. For easy portion control, use the guidelines on nutrition labels.
Beverages count. A lot. Juice drinks and sweetened beverages amount to empty sugar calories. Limit 100 percent real juice to 1⁄2 cup a day. For the rest of the day, offer water (seltzer water can make it more interesting) or milk.
Sports beverages can be as bad as soda. Only highly active children need these.
Timing matters, too. Snacks should be served at least 11⁄2 to 2 hours before meals, otherwise children won't be hungry for dinner.
Get creative. Children love interesting finger foods, many of which can be purchased already prepared. Sushi, salsa and chips, precut slices of cheese with crackers, or single-serving bags of baked chips, pretzels or baby carrots make excellent, easy snacks.
Store these snacks in fun containers (such as those with built-in dip reservoirs) that children help pick out. And don't be afraid to be funny. A little food coloring mixed into fat-free cottage cheese can turn a dull snack into a whole new experience.