Back to School: Creating Kid-Friendly Snacks
By Joanna Foley, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 25 No. 7 P. 16

Strategies for Parents and Caregivers

Feeding young children is an ongoing task for parents. In addition to eating three meals per day, most kids need at least a couple of snacks in between to help keep them energized and focused. This is especially true for elementary school children, whose bodies and brains are rapidly developing. In fact, it’s estimated that children get about 27% of their daily calories from snack foods, with snacking habits only increasing over the past few decades.1

There’s no shortage of snack options, whether made at home or bought in stores. Yet not all of them are healthful choices. Unfortunately, most American children consume snacks high in calories but low in nutrients. This is concerning since data from the 2009–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed that children don’t get enough vitamin D, calcium, and potassium but tend to consume excess calories, carbohydrates, and sodium.2

Feeding children healthful snacks is an important part of supporting their current and future health, which is why it’s important for RDs to encourage parents to provide nutritious food options and snack ideas to achieve this goal.

Benefits of Snacking
Children’s bodies are rapidly growing, yet their stomach size is still small. So, eating more frequently throughout the day typically works best for them. “Snacks play an important role in kids’ diets by supporting their energy needs while providing essential nutrients necessary for growth and development,” says Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, a children’s nutrition education expert based in Franklin, Tennessee, and founder of, a website focused on children’s nutrition.

Similarly, Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, founder of and host of the podcast EAT, DRINK, LIVE LONGER, based in Boston, says, “Snacks can be the secret sauce to better nutrition for kids. They help fill in the nutrient gaps in a child’s day and also offer an opportunity to try new foods and explore new flavors.”

When done right, snacking can support children’s health by offering the following benefits:

• providing energy to fuel daily activities;
• helping improve the ability to think clearly and focus3;
• controlling hunger;
• helping control cravings for sweets or other less nutritious foods;
• supporting balanced blood sugar levels; and
• contributing essential daily nutrients to support normal growth and development.

Finding Healthful Snacks
Since healthful snacks are beneficial to children, it’s important to note that some snack options are better than others. Many snack foods are low in substantial nutrients such as protein and fiber while high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars.4 These snacks still will provide kids with energy and calories, but they don’t offer the right nutrients a growing child needs. They’re also likely to cause a crash in blood sugar not long after consumption. This can trigger more hunger and cravings and potentially lead to eating more calories than the child needs.

When creating healthful homemade snacks, here’s what parents and caregivers should keep in mind:

1. Protein: Protein supports a child’s bodily processes, including the immune system, hormones, bone development, and more.5,6 Protein also leads to better satiety than carbohydrates or fat, which may help control hunger for longer.7

2. Fiber: Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that comes from plants such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Foods high in fiber tend to be more nutrient dense than foods low in fiber. Fiber has many health benefits for children, such as promoting a healthy digestive system, supporting heart health, and managing inflammation.8

3. Healthful fats: Fat is essential for normal brain development in children.9 It also helps their bodies absorb vitamins. 10 Healthful fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil don’t need to be restricted for children.

4. Produce: School-aged children need 1 to 11/2 cups of fruit and 11/2 to 2 cups of vegetables each day.11 Yet, most don’t eat enough of these foods. Offering fruits and vegetables at snack times can help children meet this daily goal. Different types of produce have different nutrition profiles, so the more colors and variety, the better.

Taking this into account, nutrition still is one of several important components of a snack. “The ideal snack also should be portable (if parents and kids are on the go), delicious, appealing to the individual child, affordable, in sync with the family’s culture and food preferences, and nourishing to body and soul,” Weiss says.

Tips for Healthful Snacks
Parents who forgo store bought snacks in favor of homemade snacks can get creative. Making homemade snacks doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or require many ingredients. “Keep things simple, fun, and enjoyable for parents, caregivers, and kids, and be mindful of the child’s age and stage of development,” Weiss says.

Lebovitz recommends parents and caregivers consider how much time the child will have between snacking and the next meal and where the child will be eating the snack to determine what to offer. Lebovitz also suggests keeping “a shelf-stable snack readily accessible in backpacks, purses, and cars in case of hangry emergencies.”

In addition, “try coaching kids to pick and pack their own snack based on their needs—it just requires a little kid-friendly kitchen prep and skill building. Creating pantry baskets and/or fridge space designed for easy grab-and-go options will make healthful snack prep a breeze!” Lebovitz says.

Here are eight simple homemade snack ideas for children to share with clients:

1. Low-sugar trail mix. This snack can include endless variety, provide a great mix of nutrients, and help keep a child satiated for hours. Simply combine the desired ratio of a low-sugar cereal, popcorn, or crackers; unsweetened dried or freeze-dried fruit; and nuts, then mix together. Example recipe: Cheerios mixed with freeze-dried strawberries and peanuts.

2. Piece of fruit paired with nut butter. This is a nutritious way to give a child a serving of produce, plus the healthful fats from nuts. Caregivers can make “banana sushi” by spreading nut butter in between two thin banana slices or make “apple nachos” by drizzling sliced apples with nut butter and a sprinkle of nuts for a fun and simple snack.

3. Yogurt parfait. Yogurt doesn’t have to be served only in the morning. Greekor Icelandic-style yogurts provide a great source of protein, plus the benefits of natural probiotics. Parents can make a colorful parfait using plain yogurt, berries, or other colorful fruit slices, in addition to other desired add-ins such as low-sugar granola, chia seeds, and nut butter.

4. Piece of whole grain toast with a hardboiled egg. This classic combo provides fiber, protein, and fat. Parents can serve the toast with a pat of butter, nut butter, or even mashed avocado. They also can serve the egg whole or in slices with a pinch of salt and pepper. If toast isn’t available, whole grain crackers also make a good option.

5. Veggie sticks dipped in hummus. Kids who are resistant to vegetables may be more inclined to try them if they’re paired with a tasty dip. Parents can encourage their children to choose what vegetables they want, such as bell peppers, celery, or carrot sticks. Then, pour the hummus into a container and place the veggie sticks in or around it for a colorful display. If hummus isn’t available or desired, choose guacamole, tahini, or pesto sauce. Another option is to serve hummus with pita bread, pita chips, or whole grain crackers.

6. Avocado or hummus “quesadilla.” Spread mashed avocado and/or hummus onto a tortilla, fold it in half, and cut it appropriately for your child’s age for a quick, nutritious snack.

7. Tuna and whole grain crackers. Canned tuna provides a great source of healthful omega-3 fats and is an affordable fish. Pair it with whole grain crackers for a delicious and satisfying snack that’s easy to make. Caregivers can prepare the tuna however their kids like it best.

8. Smoothie bowl (see recipe). Smoothies aren’t just for mornings or to be sipped from a cup. Making a smoothie bowl is a nutritious way to get extra produce and other nutrient-dense foods into a child’s diet.

Too Much Snacking?
Despite all of the healthful benefits of snacking, doing too much of it can lead to problems. Allowing kids to eat snacks regularly or in excess can interfere with their appetite for mealtimes as well as their natural ability to gauge their normal hunger levels. “Think of snacks as mini meals to hold kids over until lunch or dinner,” Weiss says.

Instead of allowing children to graze throughout the day, it’s best to have designated snack times. “By offering consistent and predictable snack opportunities, kids can learn how to tune in to their intrinsic hunger and fullness cues and eat what they need to satisfy themselves until the next meal or snack,” Lebovitz explains.

Ideally, snacks should occur about one to three hours after the previous meal ended. Postponing snacking can help prevent kids from refusing whatever is served at mealtime. In addition, snack time should end at least one hour before the next meal. This can help prevent them from being overly full and potentially missing out on quality nutrients at mealtime.

If children ask for food when it’s not a designated snack time, caregivers can remind them that they will have to wait until it’s snack time. On the other hand, if children don’t want a snack that’s offered, there’s no need for parents to force it since doing so can interfere with a child’s ability to self-regulate their own appetite.

Recommendations for RDs
Snacking isn’t only advantageous for children but also can offer many health benefits. RDs should encourage parents and caregivers to create and choose healthful snacks for their kids by considering their nutrition profile, desirability, and level of appropriateness for their stage of development. Because it’s easy for snacking to get out of hand, it’s a good idea for parents to set guidelines so it doesn’t interfere with mealtimes and encourage their children’s natural ability to self-regulate their appetites.

— Joanna Foley, RD, is a freelance health writer and author of two cookbooks based in San Diego, California. Learn more about her writing services at


Peanut Butter and Banana Smoothie Bowl
Serves 3

Remember that when making smoothie bowls, anything goes, so this recipe can easily be tweaked. Consider using cow’s milk or almond milk instead of soymilk, add some Greek yogurt to boost protein, or swap the peanut butter for another nut butter. Cater to what’s available and what the child likes most. This recipe is best served fresh, so if fewer servings are required, simply cut the recipe in half.

1 cup unsweetened vanilla soymilk
2 frozen bananas
3 T natural peanut butter
2 T unsweetened cocoa or cacao powder
1 T chia seeds
Optional toppers: O-shaped whole grain cereal, crushed graham crackers, chopped peanuts, coconut chips, additional chia seeds, or sliced banana

1. Place the milk, bananas, peanut butter, cocoa powder, and chia seeds into a blender and blend until smooth.

2. Pour into individual bowls and garnish with your choice of optional toppers. Serve immediately.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 216; Total fat: 11 g; Sat fat: 2 g; Total carbohydrate: 26 g; Sugars: 11 g; Added sugars: 0 g; Dietary fiber: 7 g; Sodium: 26 mg; Protein: 8 g;

— Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, founder of


1. The science of snacking. Harvard T.H. Chan website. Updated February 2021.

2. Hess J, Slavin J. Snacking for a cause: nutritional insufficiencies and excesses of US children, a critical review of food consumption patterns and macronutrient and micronutrient intake of US children. Nutrients. 2014;6(11):4750-4759.

3. Shield JE. When should my kids snack. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Published March 4, 2019.

4. Njike VY, Smith TM, Shuval O, et al. Snack food, satiety, and weight. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):866-878.

5. Tourkochristou E, Triantos C, Mouzaki A. The influence of nutritional factors on immunological outcomes. Frontiers Immunol. 2021;12:665968.

6. Protein and other nutrients. International Osteoporosis Foundation website.,and%20muscle%20mass%20with%20ageing.&text=In%20childhood%20and%20adolescence%2C%20protein,role%20in%20bone%20mass%20acquisition

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8. Barber TM, Kabisch S, Pfeiffer AFH, Weickert MO. The health benefits of dietary fibre. Nutrients. 2020;12(10):3209.

9. Gavin ML. Fats. Kids Health website.

10. Fat-soluble vitamins. National Research Council (US) Committee on Diet and Health website. Published 2016.

11. Progress on children eating more fruit, not vegetables. CDC website.