Choosing Snacks for Children: A Guide to Selection and Consumption

Childhood overweight and obesity rates are steadily increasing. With an expanding snack market and growing emphasis on scientific parenting, many parents are perplexed about what snacks to allow and what to restrict.

It’s often said that a childhood without snacks is incomplete, but some parents are wary due to a lack of understanding about snacks. Today, we’ll untangle the complexity of these snack choices that trouble parents.

What are snacks?

Snacks refer to all foods and beverages consumed outside the three main meals of the day, excluding fruits. Snacks are supplemental nutrition outside of regular meals and are essential for children in their growth and development phase. However, it’s crucial to make informed choices.

Guidelines for Selecting and Consuming Snacks for Children

Infants and Toddlers (0-24 months)

Mothers of infants and toddlers do not need to concern themselves with snacks because babies do not require them. Babies under six months of age should be exclusively breastfed, with no need for additional foods. The introduction of complementary foods typically begins at six months, and breast milk remains a crucial energy source for babies aged 7-24 months. Breast milk can provide 1/2 to 1/3 of the total energy required for babies aged 7-12 months and 1/3 for babies aged 13-24 months. Complementary foods make up the rest [1].

WHO recommends that appropriate complementary foods for infants and toddlers should:

  1. Be rich in essential nutrients like protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
  2. Avoid the addition of salt, sugar, and other stimulating seasonings.
  3. Have textures suitable for different age groups.
  4. Be liked by infants and toddlers.
  5. Be locally produced and reasonably priced, such as locally produced meats, fish, poultry, eggs, fresh vegetables, and fruits.
  6. Ensure safety, quality, freshness, without the need to pursue high-priced or rare options.

Preschool Children (2-5 years)

A preschooler’s diet should be diverse, with a daily variety of at least 12 different types of food and more than 25 types weekly. Meals should consist of three regular meals and two snacks. These snacks are what we call “snacks” and serve as supplementary sources of energy and nutrients outside of regular meals. Snack quantities should be moderate, so they do not affect the child’s appetite for regular meals, with the total daily energy intake from snacks typically not exceeding 10% of the child’s daily energy intake [1].

When choosing snacks for preschool children, consider the following:

  1. Opt for dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
  2. Limit the consumption of high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat, and potentially trans-fat-containing foods, such as snacks, fried foods, candies, and ice cream.
  3. Ensure snack freshness, hygiene, and digestibility.
  4. Avoid or reduce the intake of sugary drinks.
  5. Pay special attention to food safety, avoiding whole nuts and beans to prevent choking. It’s advisable to grind nuts and bean foods into powders or purees.
  6. Wash hands before eating snacks, rinse your mouth after snacking, and avoid snacks within 30 minutes of bedtime.

School-Age Children (6-17 years)

Parents should educate and help school-age children learn about nutrition and the characteristics of snacks. Teach them to read food labels, choose healthy snacks, and cultivate good dietary habits.

  1. Emphasize regular meals and consume minimal snacks. Breakfast should be a priority.

Encourage the right dietary mindset, emphasizing three balanced meals, especially a nutritious breakfast. A varied breakfast should include grains and starchy foods (such as bread, rolls, and sweet potatoes), vegetables and fruits (such as spinach, tomatoes, apples, and bananas), animal products (such as milk, eggs, fish, shrimp, chicken, pork, and beef), and soy and nut products (tofu, walnuts, peanuts, etc.), with at least three categories.

Snacks should not replace regular meals, and their intake should not exceed 10% of the child’s daily energy intake.

  1. Moderate snacks during breaks, focusing on fruits, dairy, and nuts.

Snack consumption should not occur too close to regular meals, with at least a one-hour gap being ideal. Consider eating snacks between meals or during breaks. Note that fruit juice is not a substitute for whole fruits, and drinks containing milk are not equivalent to liquid milk. If there are issues with lactose intolerance, choose yogurt or low-lactose dairy products as the first choice.

  1. Limit the consumption of high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat snacks.

School-age children should develop a preference for a mild taste, which is crucial for their future health. Teach children to read food labels and select snacks that are low in salt, sugar, and fat.

How to Read Food Labels:

Food labels on the packaging contain essential information, including ingredients, net weight, applicable populations, usage instructions, nutrition facts, and related nutrition information.

  • Check the ingredients list to understand the primary ingredients and the order of ingredient usage based on the amount present.
  • Examine the nutrition facts table, which displays energy content and the amount of protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, sodium, and other nutrients per 100g (or 100ml) of the product. It also indicates the percentage of these nutrients relative to recommended daily intake values.
  • Utilize nutrition claims when selecting snacks, such as high calcium, low fat, sugar-free, or those with increased dietary fiber compared to similar products.
  1. Avoid or limit the consumption of sugary beverages, alcoholic drinks, and caffeine-containing beverages (for children under 12).

Consuming alcoholic beverages can harm the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, and other organs of school-age children to some extent, causing neurological damage and leading to behavioral problems or even criminal behavior.

Caffeine has negative effects on children’s brain development and function [2], so children under 12 should avoid caffeine, including strong tea, coffee, and other caffeine-containing beverages.

  1. Choose fresh, nutritious, and hygienic snacks.

After food processing, some of the original nutrients are lost, so it’s best to select fresh foods for snacking. Before purchasing snacks, check the shelf life, sensory characteristics, and hygiene conditions. Avoid snacks without proper labeling and street food to prevent foodborne illnesses and gastrointestinal disorders due to consuming unhygienic food.

  1. Maintain oral hygiene, and avoid snacking within half an hour before bedtime.

Snacks may not be a dire threat, but they should be chosen with care. Remember, healthy snack choices can significantly contribute to your child’s overall well-being.

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