Despite what your mother used to tell you when you were a kid, snacks don’t have to spoil your appetite. In fact, when it comes to toddlers, healthy snacks should be a staple of their diet.
Why? It’s practically impossible for toddlers, with their tiny tummies, to eat as much as they need at mealtimes. And even if it were possible, you’d be hard-pressed to get a toddler to sit long enough at the table to eat a large meal (after all, toddlers are a lot more interested in playing than eating).
That means nourishing snacks are needed to fill in the nutritional gaps — and to keep those little tummies filled up. And if that’s not reason enough to keep the healthy snacks coming, consider this bonus: Snacks at regular intervals mean fewer hunger-fueled meltdowns.
How often should toddlers snack?
What’s the best meal plan for your tot? This solution will help your child learn to recognize when he’s hungry and full — and will lay a good foundation for maintaining a healthy weight throughout his life:
- Think mini-meals. Instead of three squares a day, aim for a meal or filling snack every two to three hours. This will keep your toddler’s tummy satisfied and his blood sugar and energy levels stable for his on-the-go lifestyle.
- Keep a schedule. Here’s the mini-meal breakdown: breakfast, a healthy snack mid-morning, lunch, another healthy snack in the afternoon, dinner and possibly a healthy snack in the evening before bed.
- Avoid grazing. Try not to let your toddler munch constantly throughout the day. Such all-eating all-the-time habits can lead to overeating — and an overweight tot.
What are the best healthy snacks for kids?
Now that you know when to serve those healthy snacks, your next hurdle is to figure out what those healthy snacks should be. Ideally, kids’ snacks should consist of a blend of carbohydrates, protein and fruits or vegetables.
But in a pinch, you can simply offer your toddler a serving of whatever food groups he may have missed at mealtime. For instance, if your child had a whole grain waffle for breakfast, he’s gotten a high-fiber carb serving — so at snacktime you could offer a slice of cheese (to cover the dairy and protein) along with some cut-up fruit (for extra fiber and nutrients). Or if your toddler ate a turkey burger on whole wheat bread (protein and fiber) for dinner, you could serve him mixed berries with yogurt (more nutrients and fiber along with dairy) for dessert later in the evening.
Tips for successful toddler snacking
- Serve up snacks for the right reasons. Instead of offering snacks to your child when he’s bored or hurt, try other distractions, like fun toys or extra mom-time. And even though a cookie may seem like the perfect reward for a job well done, it’s better to offer a high-five or fist bump instead.
- Keep snacktime safe. Letting your little one nibble while he’s lying down, crawling around or walking can be a choking hazard. Instead, only offer up snacks when your toddler is sitting up, either in a high chair or a booster seat. And always double check that the ingredients in the snacks are safe for your toddler to eat.
- Treat snacktime the same way you treat mealtime. Serve snacks the same way you serve meals — at the table. Not only is it safer, it will also teach your tot table manners and make for fewer crumbs in your sofa cushions. If you’re out and about during normal snacktime, it’s perfectly fine to give your tot a snack in the stroller or car seat. Just make sure you aren’t offering snacks every time you buckle your toddler in to compensate for the confining quarters.
- Consider giving him a snack before bed. A toddler’s blood sugar can dip during a (hopefully) long night’s sleep, which can lead to your little one waking up before he should. A snack before bedtime (or even a nap) can help him settle sooner and sleep better. For bedtime snacks, try a protein-carb combo, like a glass of milk and a graham cracker or crackers and cheese. Avoid chocolate, which has caffeine and may keep your toddler awake for longer.
- Nip nonstop snacking in the bud. Schedule your snacks for specific times of day and don’t let your tot nibble in between. Constant grazing can cause tooth decay, limit a toddler’s play and keep him from learning proper appetite regulation.
- Keep it colorful. When foods come by a vibrant color naturally (think red raspberries, not berry-flavored fruit snacks), it’s a sure sign they’re packed with nutrients your toddler needs. Try and fit as many colors of the rainbow into your toddler’s meals as possible: red tomatoes and strawberries; orange carrots, yams and melon; blue blueberries; yellow corn and mangoes; green kiwis and broccoli. (Just remember to cut up raw fruits and vegetables into very small slivers to avoid a choking hazard.) When it comes to grains, color is better, too. Pick deeper colors of rice, bread and cereal over the lighter colored varieties.
- Keep sugar and salt to a minimum. Eating foods with high sugar and salt content can lead to health problems later in life, including high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and more. Unfortunately, once your toddler develops a taste for sugar and salt, it can be hard to turn back. Keep those sweet and salty snacks to a minimum now and you’ll have an easier time getting them to eat right as they get older.
Healthy snack ideas for toddlers
Need some healthy snack ideas for toddlers? Here are 24 snacks to choose from — just make sure all the food is cut into small pieces to avoid choking hazards (and modify or skip any options that seem like too much for your tot to handle).
- Canned chunk-light tuna mixed with mayo and spread on baked whole grain crackers
- Apple slices with string cheese or peanut butter (The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend waiting to serve peanuts until later in life — but now, experts say that starting allergenic foods around the same time as your child starts other solids can actually help prevent a peanut allergy. Talk with your pediatrician if you’re concerned — especially if food allergies run in your family.)
- Crinkle-cut carrot “chips” with hummus
- Whole wheat pita bread triangles or baked wheat crackers with melted cheese for dipping
- Whole grain tortilla chips topped with veggies, salsa and shredded cheese, alongside guacamole for dipping
- Whole grain pretzels, soy crisps, baked pita chips or rice cakes with a slice of cheese
- Baked whole grain crackers with almond butter, and 4 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice (You could also dilute the fruit juice in carbonated soda water to give your toddler a fizzy, fruity drink.)
- Whole wheat tortilla chips with bean dip
- Whole grain, fiber-rich cereal with (or without) milk
- Cucumbers or red peppers with dressing for dipping
- Frozen natural fruit bars with a glass of milk
- Yogurt smoothie made with yogurt, milk, ice and any fruit (toddler favorites include bananas, strawberries, blueberries and cantaloupe)
- Berries topped with a smidge of frozen yogurt
- Banana slices dipped in yogurt, rolled in crushed cereal and frozen
- Yogurt topped with granola and fresh fruit
- Microwave-cooked apple, peach or pear slices sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with yogurt
- A turkey-and-cheese roll up
- Mini pizzas (tomato sauce and cheese melted on crackers)
- Bite-sized, freeze-dried fruit
- Egg salad, scooped up with crackers or cooked vegetables
- Cottage cheese with cut-up peaches, nectarines, pineapple or bananas
- A graham cracker sandwich filled with a scoop of frozen yogurt and sliced bananas
- All-fruit fruit leather with a glass of milk
- Graham crackers with cream cheese or applesauce (for dipping)