My eleven-year-old has always been heavy. At his latest annual school checkup, the doctor warned us that if he doesn’t get healthier, he’s headed for diabetes. I didn’t even know kids could get that! With school about to start, I’m getting anxious. He does okay with school lunch, but I don’t know what kind of snacks to send because now everything seems like junk food to me. Help!
Take a deep breath. You’re a good parent. You want to feed your child healthy snacks that will boost his energy at school and help him get to a healthy weight. But you also want to send snacks he will actually eat. “The key to sending healthy snacks is their staying power,” says dietitian Rivka Breuer, RDN, CDN, who has a private practice in Hewlett, New York. “The yeshivah dual curriculum lends itself to an extremely long day, and skipping snacks can lead a child down the path of extreme hunger where he won’t necessarily make the right choices when food is finally available. A wholesome snack will help a child stay nourished between lunch and dinnertime.”
What you’re looking for are foods that are nutrient-dense (that is, they contain a fair amount of nutrients for their calorie content) and contain minimal added sugar. “Opt for snacks that contain protein, fiber and healthy fats for energy, especially if your child participates in after-school activities,” Rivka adds. “And always remember to send a large bottle of water as well.”
Here are some ideas for healthy school-friendly snacks:
Cut-up fruits and vegetables: This may be the last thing your son says he wants to eat, but in my experience, a hungry kid will eat. It is also the rare child who doesn’t like at least one type of fruit or vegetable. While it’s true that variety is important and, ideally, different types of fruits and vegetables each day would provide a range of nutritional benefits, eating a bunch of the same fruit or veggie is better than eating none! If you can cut them into a cute or funny shape, even better.
String cheese: Low-cal and high protein, string cheese is very kid-friendly. If you can find reduced-fat versions, even better. Invest in an insulated lunch bag and a few thin icepacks so you can keep the cheese at a safe temperature. Just think ahead if your child is having fleishig for lunch—remind him to eat his cheese for his morning snack!
Nuts and seeds: With the proliferation of nut-free schools, sending nuts and seeds can prove difficult, so check your school’s policy. It may be just peanut-free so other nuts would be fine, or you may only be able to send seeds, or none at all. Sunflower seeds and pine nuts (which are actually seeds) go over well with kids, as do soy nuts if no nuts or seeds are allowed at all. Just one disclaimer—nuts and seeds are a choking hazard, so ask your pediatrician before sending them with young children.
Fruit “chips”: Thin, dehydrated rings of apples and other fruits are making the rounds nowadays in little snack bags that look like potato chip bags, which may appeal more to children. (FYI: I’m not talking about fried fruit chips!) Look for ones without added sugar. A similar option: dried fruit. Raisins, for example, are easy and inexpensive, and kids love them; just skip the yogurt-covered ones.
Fruit leather: There are many delicious natural brands available that are made without added sugar—and they’re still plenty sweet. They also come in cool shapes like braids and twists. Look for bulk packs at warehouse clubs to cut down on price.
Guacamole or hummus: If you want to send chips, pair them with some type of healthy dip. You can find both guacamole (which offers healthy fat) and hummus (protein) in single-serving containers. (If you’re making your own avocado spread, keep it from turning brown by adding a little lemon juice.) Keep it cool with an icepack too.
Cereal: Measure a serving of whole grain cereal into a bag or container. Look for brands that have six grams of sugar or less per serving.
Bars: Look for whole grain options and make sure to check calories and sugar content—just because it looks healthy doesn’t mean that it is. You will have a hard time finding a bar without sugar, but weigh the amount in terms of some of the other benefits like healthy fat and fiber.
Edamame: Steam or microwave these little pops of protein (they’re actually soybeans) at home, throw on a dash of salt, and then pack them in a small container for your son to eat at school. You may be able to find pre-steamed versions too.
Popcorn: It may be a carb, but it’s very light and low-cal, and kids love it. One cup of air-popped popcorn has only about thirty calories! The oil-popped version jumps up to fifty or so calories per cup—still pretty decent, for a quick snack. Since most of us use microwave popcorn, look for lighter versions and single-serve bags that come in around 100 calories. Also, beware of choking—skip popcorn as a snack for young kids.
There, snack list done! Now there are three more things you must do to get your son on a better health trajectory. First, schedule a follow-up with his doctor right now. Don’t wait until next year’s school appointment to check his progress. Second, encourage your child to be more active. Physical activity is a major piece of the puzzle when it comes to healthy weight and preventing diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises an hour of physical activity for children and teens every day. Getting him involved in an organized sport or other form of activity that he enjoys—maybe swimming, biking, running—can be a great way to ensure his regular physical activity.
Finally, open up the conversation with him about nutrition and why it’s important for him to make smart food choices. Make sure to stress eating for optimal health, not weight. These days, with the increased emphasis on childhood obesity and nutrition, many frum schools are covering nutrition and health in science, gym or other classes. Find out what your child knows already, pick his brain for questions and work together to find the answers—whether seeking out books at the library, resources online or asking nutrition experts.
You are on the right path. Many children can grow into their weights in time by making smarter food choices and being more active, and end up reducing their diabetes risk. Good luck!
Not happy with the cookies served to your preschool daughter at the traditional Shabbos party held on Fridays at school? Don’t want your teenage son to be able to buy soda from the vending machine at yeshivah? Push your child’s school to develop a policy for snack foods and foods sold in school. If there isn’t already a health or nutrition committee in your school, suggest it to your child’s day school’s board and offer to chair it. Invite health leaders from your community to be involved and invested.
Here are some of the topics you’ll want to cover:
Reward policies: Are limits placed on using food as a reward (including pizza or ice cream parties)? Allow classes to earn extra recess or other active parties instead of a food party. Erasers, pencils and other fun, colorful school supplies make for healthier prizes than candy.
Snacks at recess: Are there rules about what kids can bring from home for snack? Consider instituting one “healthy snack recess,” during which children can only eat a healthy snack. Help parents out by providing suggestions and parameters as to what is considered a healthy snack. With time, consider increasing
to other recesses and ultimately the whole school day.
Vending machines: Does the school have them? If so, does the school need to? If yes, review the options. Many of the snacks from this list will do fine in a vending machine. Also remove sugared sodas and replace with water and juices.
Enforcement of policies: Many schools have policies against snack-sharing or using food as a reward, but they are not enforced. If you know these policies exist at your school but are just not being followed, bring the issue up to the administration.
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer in Memphis, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.