If you’re a parent, you know there’s a big difference between a child that’s hungry and a child that’s after school hungry.
The hunger that accompanies your child home after a long day at school is ferocious. It’s insatiable. And it can transform even the sweetest kid into a hangry little human full of unreasonable demands.
So, what’s a desperate parent to do?
Serve up nutrient-dense snacks that will keep your child satisfied and energized—without spoiling dinner. If that seems easier said than done, don’t panic: We’ve got everything you need to know about after school snacks.
Snacks are good for kids because they help them stay focused at school and on homework, give them needed nutrients and keep hunger at bay. To lots of kids and teens, a snack is a bag of chips, some cookies, or some other low-nutrient food. Instead, think of snacks as mini meals.
Unplanned, random snacking can lead to problems. Nonstop snacking interferes with kids' appetites and can disrupt their natural instinct to experience hunger and fullness.
When Should I Serve an After School Snack?
Most children and teens need to eat every three to four hours throughout the day to fuel their growing bodies and meet their nutritional needs. That’s why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following:
- Younger kids: Three meals and at least two snacks per day.
- Older kids: Three meals and at least one snack per day; two snacks if in a growth spurt or very active.
But just as important as the number of snacks a child eats is when he or she eats them—the goal is to satisfy hunger without spoiling their appetite for dinner. A good rule of thumb is to offer snacks a few hours after one meal ends and one to two hours before the next one. For example, if your child walks off the bus at 3 p.m., and hasn’t eaten since lunch, it’s a good idea to serve a healthy snack right away. This will satisfy hunger without interfering with dinner at 5 p.m. or later.
What Nutrients Are Most Important in After School Snacks?
Snacks are an important part of your child’s diet. If chosen well, they can provide energy between meals and fill nutritional gaps in his or her diet. Unfortunately, many of the snacks that are marketed toward children are loaded with empty calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. They do very little for your child nutritionally and the high sugar content in so many of them can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar (cue the hyperactivity) followed quickly by a total energy crash.
Opting for a healthy snack that trades these ingredients for nutrients your child needs is the best snack-time strategy. So, what constitutes a healthy snack? The ideal choice will contain a good amount of both protein and fiber. These two nutrients are key to keeping your little one satiated and fueled until dinner. Plus, they support many critical functions in the body and deliver a number of health benefits for growing bodies—fiber helps lower cholesterol, reduces risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and keeps the digestive system working as it should; protein is critical for muscle, tissue and cell growth, strengthens the immune system and helps maintain metabolism.
What Are Some Good After School Snacks?
You may find that your child is more amenable to eating healthy foods during snack-times, since hunger is at its peak and palates are less discerning. Take advantage of this rare moment by serving up new, healthy foods or nutritionally-sound staples.
These after school snacks are filling and nutritionally balanced. Plus, they’re tasty so you probably won’t have to resort to bribery to get your famished child to dig in:
- Trail mix: Combine unsalted or lightly salted nuts with unsweetened dried fruit for a DIY trail mix full of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. You can also purchase pre-packaged trail mix—just opt for unsweetened and unsalted, when possible, and go light on the sugary add-ins like chocolate chips and M&Ms. Two tablespoons to a quarter cup should be just enough to quell hunger without spoiling dinner.
- Low-fat cheese stick with fresh fruit slices: You’ll get the protein (plus calcium and vitamin D) from the cheese, and the fiber (plus vitamin C and other important micronutrients) from the fruit. If you want to get creative, try making “Caprese Melon Kebabs.” Simply use a spoon or small ice cream scooper to carve out round pieces of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon, then add them to a long skewer, alternating them with low-fat mozzarella cheese balls. If you have little ones, enlist their help with creating these—it’s a great way to occupy little hands and get them to practice their fine motor skills.
- Low-fat Greek yogurt topped with berries and slivered almonds: Sweet and satisfying, this snack-time combo includes protein, fiber, and a whole host of other important nutrients and antioxidants. If you can, opt for plain yogurt and blend it with a banana or other sweet fruit to minimize the sugar content. You can also create “yogurt bark” by spreading yogurt over a parchment-lined sheet pan and sprinkling in berries, nuts and oats then freezing.
- Fruit Smoothie: Blend a banana, some frozen berries, a handful of spinach, plain Greek yogurt and/or low-fat milk for a nutrient-packed drink your starving student will love. Consider including a small amount of their favorite nut butter, a tablespoon of chia seeds or a quarter of an avocado for a nutrient boost they won’t even taste. Leave out the liquid and toss the ingredients in your food processor to create a smoothie bowl they can eat with a spoon. If you’re left with extra, pour it into popsicle molds and freeze.
- Zing mini protein bars: High in protein and fiber, and low in sugar and empty calories, these kid-sized protein bars are made with real, plant-based ingredients like nuts and oats. They’re available in a variety of tasty flavors kids are drawn to, making them a surefire star at snack-time. Plus, they’re portable, which means they’re a great option for kids rushing from school to after school activities.
- Banana rounds or celery sticks with nut butter: Fruit plus nuts is almost always a winning combo. Little ones might enjoy adding raisins or other toppings to this healthy snack-time staple.
- Whole grain rice cake with low fat cream cheese: Try topping this tasty treat with thinly cucumber or strawberry slices for an added flavor and nutrition boost.
- Carrot sticks or whole wheat pita wedges with hummus: Hummus is packed with a wide range of important nutrients, including fiber, folate, iron, vitamin K, magnesium and vitamin C. Pairing it with veggies, whole wheat pita wedges or crackers only add to its nutritional appeal.
- Yogurt-covered frozen grapes: Roll fresh grapes (blueberries, strawberries and cherries work well, too) in yogurt then place them on a pan lined with parchment paper and freeze. The result: A super sweet, refreshing treat that packs a nutritious punch but tastes like dessert. Have little ones? Involve them in creating these—it’s a perfect task for little hands.
- Energy balls: Use a food processor to grind up and blend cashews and dates with coconut, raisins, dark chocolate chips or dried fruit, then roll the batter into golf ball-sized snacks. They’re delicious, portable, and packed with nutrients your child needs.