August 5, 1998 | By: Ellen Brightwell

Children often can't eat enough at mealtime to supply the energy they need each day. An after-school snack is one way to provide a steady energy supply and help children make healthful snacks a lifetime habit.

"Because children have small appetites and stomachs, it doesn't take much to fill them up. However, growing, active children need a lot of energy. In fact, their total energy needs are comparable to an adult's," said Sandra Bastin, Extension food and nutrition specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

Research indicates that snacking is a good way to give children the variety of nutrients necessary for growth and development, according to Bastin.

"Snacks don't have to be high-calorie, low-nutrient foods," she said. "Wise snack food choices can provide the essential nutrients children need. For example, fruits and vegetables make fast, easy snacks that are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber."

Lifelong eating habits are formed during childhood so this is a good time to instill a balanced approach to snacking. And the Food Guide Pyramid is a good place to begin.

The Food Guide Pyramid emphasizes five major food groups that give children the essential nutrients. Each food group provides some, but not all of these nutrients.

Youngsters ages two years and older need at least six child-size servings from the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group; a combined minimum of five child-size servings of fruits

and vegetables; at least three servings from the milk, yogurt and cheese group; and at least two child-size servings from the group containing meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts.

Other factors affecting the number of servings daily from each food group include the number of calories a child needs and the youngster's size and activity level.

The small tip of the Food Guide Pyramid represents fats, oils and sweets. Eat these infrequently because they generally contain a lot of calories but have very little nutritional value.

"Foods like cookies, ice cream and potato chips can be part of a varied diet -- in moderation. But remember 'moderation' is the key here. Give your children small and infrequent servings of high-fat and high-sugar foods," Bastin said.

The following tips on after-school snacks are provided by Bastin and Janet Kurzynske, interim assistant director of Home Economics Extension.

If children aren't getting the recommended daily servings of a food group or groups, concentrate on providing them in afternoon snacks.

It's a good idea to use items from at least two different food groups for snacks.

Be sure to give children age-appropriate servings. A snack is a supplement, not a replacement, to a meal. Adult-sized servings can overwhelm children, causing them to eat less.

Don't be surprised if children don't eat as much as you think they should. Studies show that children who are given healthy food choices will eat what they need when they're hungry.

Serve snacks with various colors, textures, shapes and tastes (sweet, sour, etc.).

Don't use food as a "reward" for children.

Let children help plan and choose foods for after-school snacks. When children are old enough, encourage them to prepare snacks, too. Many children enjoy helping select and prepare snacks and often show more interest in eating these foods.

Snacking too close to a meal can dull children's appetites. Encourage them to snack at least one and preferably two hours before supper.

If a child under age five years old is hungry, the child needs to eat. Children this age have an internal mechanism that says, "I need energy," and they need to eat something.

If children are hungry close to mealtime, incorporate a snack as part of the meal. Let them help prepare (and munch on) raw carrots, broccoli or other fresh vegetables. As a meal appetizer, serve the vegetables with a low-fat dip.

Using fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables as part snacks is a good way to ensure that children meet the recommended "five-a-day" servings.

Unconscious over-eating patterns often originate from eating while engaged in other activities in the house. To help make snacking a safe, structured and purposeful experience, limit snacking to certain locations, such as the breakfast nook, kitchen or dining room.

Designate a "snack spot" to make it easy for children to find after-school snacks. It can be on the kitchen counter, refrigerator, cupboard or pantry.

Since some children will eat vegetables raw, but not cooked, keep a finger-sized supply in the refrigerator within easy reach.

Contact your county Extension office for more information on good family nutrition.

Contact: 

Writer: Ellen Brightwell
(606) 257-1376

Sources: Sandra Bastin
(606) 257-1812

Janet Kurzynske
(606) 257-3887