First, let’s take a crash course in what qualifies as “healthy.” The latest nutrition information tells us what our grandparents have known all along: we should limit our intake of processed foods and unhealthy fats and instead eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains are much healthier than so called “enriched” processed grains (which means we should choose whole wheat bread over white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, etc.); organic food is much healthier for growing children than food that has been treated with pesticides and herbicides; and we need to eat some foods that are high in protein, like fish and chicken, but shouldn’t overdo it on red meat.
These basics apply to any food your child eats, even if you call it a “snack” or a “treat.” Remember, children have tiny stomachs (about as big as their fists) and they need to eat small amounts frequently. Even if they are eating between meals, the snack you’re feeding your child is food, and it should be nutritious.
The simplest, easiest, and healthiest snacks are things like cut-up fruit — chunks of watermelon, sliced apples, papaya wedges, mango pieces, and banana or pear slices. And what kid won’t be tempted to eat an entire basket of fresh strawberries? Raw and cooked vegetables like celery, kale leaves, carrot sticks, steamed broccoli, and cooked and sliced sweet potato are also fun and healthy snacks, as are hard-boiled eggs or a glass of milk. Whenever possible, skip the packaged, processed snacks and serve whole foods.
Kids get a kick out of things with fun names, so be creative with what you call your vegetables. One mom calls broccoli “little trees” and doesn’t tell her four children it’s good for them — they eat it up. Another tells her toddler a kale leaf is a kale “popsicle,” and her kid munches it down like a rabbit. Serve your fussy eater food that sounds yummy to eat, like “ants on a log” (celery with either no-sugar-added organic peanut butter or organic cream cheese and raisins; the raisins are the ants).
Never underestimate the power of toothpicks. Everything — from steamed chicken to cooked beans — is more exciting when eaten with toothpicks (or chopsticks for older kids). Steam vegetables, put out a small bowl of soy sauce or healthy veggie dip, and let your child spear away with a toothpick. They’ll be chowing beet and broccoli treats in no time. (You will too. It all tastes better with toothpicks, doesn’t it?)
Skip the processed sugar. Even flavored yogurt has so much added sugar that it’s really a dessert food and not a healthy snack. Plus the sugar in the yogurt inhibits the healthy qualities of probiotic organisms (moral of the story: get your kids in the habit of eating unsweetened yogurt from an early age). Read labels and don’t buy granola bars or other “natural” foods that have sugar listed in the first three ingredients. Give your child 100-percent fruit juice popsicles or fruit-sweetened cookies, brown rice or other whole grain crackers, organic string cheese, dried fruit, or plain yogurt (add some cut up fruit) instead.