The new school year not only means a new routine for kids, it's also an organizational shift for adults - an opportunity to rethink ingrained habits and foster more healthful ones.
And snacks are a great place to start. School-age children get about a third of their daily calories from snacks, making between-meal eating as important for nourishment as breakfast, lunch or dinner. With these strategies and snack recipes, you'll have ample tools to put yourself and the kids in your life on the best possible track.
Take a wide-angle view
An all-or-nothing approach to eating is a trap at any age, but it can really backfire when it comes to getting kids to eat well. Highly restrictive approaches and pressure typically glorify the forbidden. The helpful reality is that a healthful diet has a lot of flexibility: If you are mostly eating minimally processed foods, including plenty of vegetables and fruits, a bag of chips or gummy worms now and then, or a cookie isn't going to wreck the day. Rather than stress over one snack or ingredient, present an array of healthful options.
Get kids involved
One way to foster a genuine enjoyment of nourishing foods is to give kids a say in planning the week's snacks. At the market, have them select the fruits and vegetables; let them choose between cheese or yogurt. Give kids a preapproved list of recipes, such as the Apple Ring Treats and Big Dippers, which let kids put their stamp on snacks. Decisions about a bag of chips vs. a sweet can be part of it, too, without letting those foods dominate.
One way to get kids jazzed about food is to approach it with the wonder of an explorer. Lead them to notice the color, shape, aroma, texture and temperature. They don't care for broccoli when it is soft and warm, maybe they enjoy it when it is crunchy and chilled? How does eating a fresh banana with peanut butter differ from blending a frozen banana with peanut butter in a smoothie? When they choose a snack, encourage them to consider a variety of colors and textures - something creamy, something crunchy, something juicy - and see what they come up with. This familiarizes children with a variety of foods and makes it more likely for them to enjoy a wider selection of healthful options in the long run.
Make healthy the easy option
When we are hungry and busy, we impulsively reach for the easiest option. Prepping snacks ahead makes grabbing something fresh and healthful ultraconvenient, so that becomes the default. The nourishing recipes here can mostly be made in advance, so they are ready for you and/or a child.
Consider the timing
Try to avoid the trap of the whole afternoon becoming one extended snack-fest or eating too close to dinnertime. Establish a routine where your child eats their snack soon after coming home from school and then waits until dinner is ready. If my daughter nagged, she was "starving" right before dinner, I'd offer her some of the vegetables I was cutting for that meal, which usually helped tide her over just enough.
Be a role model
Encouraging children to snack on fruits and vegetables when you are on your third energy bar of the day is a disconnect they internalize, so model the eating habits you'd like to see them have. The recipes here may be especially kid-friendly, but they are for people of all ages, so let yourself be nourished by them too, and if the timing works, all the better if you can take a moment to snack together.
Three-Ingredient Peanut Butter and Banana Smoothie
Note: This milkshake-like smoothie is filling, nourishing and perfectly sweet thanks to the very ripe frozen banana blended into it — no added sugar needed. It's so simple to make that children can whip it up on their own, giving them early kitchen autonomy, and their parents a welcome break. From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
• 1 medium very ripe banana, broken into chunks and frozen
• 3/4 c. milk of choice, plus more as needed
• 1 tbsp. peanut butter
In the pitcher of a blender, combine the banana, milk and peanut butter and blend until smooth. Add a little more milk if the mixture is too thick to blend, or if you prefer a thinner smoothie. Pour into a glass and serve.
Nutrition per serving | 285 calories, 12 g protein, 41 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 185 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar
Apple Ring Treats
Makes 6 apple ring treats, serving 2 to 3.
Note: Apples cut into rings, then topped with peanut butter (or any nut or seed butter) make a canvas for an array of toppings, such as coconut, granola, dried fruit, dry cereal or mini chocolate chips. Kids can mix-and-match toppings to decorate their own slices, so they will not only be fueling themselves healthfully, but having creative fun, too. From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
• 1 large, sweet apple (8 oz.), such as Honeycrisp or Gala
• 1/4 c. creamy or chunky peanut butter or other nut/seed butter, divided
• 1/3 c. total any mix of toppings, such as shredded coconut, mini chocolate chips, granola, raisins, chopped dried fruit and/or crushed ready-to-eat cereal
Slice the apple crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices and, using a melon baller or small spoon, scoop out the core at the center of each slice to create apple rings. You should wind up with at least 6 rings.
Spread 2 teaspoons of the peanut butter on top of each ring, then top each with a mix of toppings as desired, about 1 tablespoon of toppings on each ring. Eat immediately or keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Nutrition per serving (using creamy peanut butter, coconut, raisins), based on 3 | 218 calories, 6 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 79 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar
Big Dipper Snack Trays
Note: I often call the yogurt ranch dip in this recipe "magic dip" because it makes everything magically delicious, and it's healthful, too. The hands-on act of dipping is especially alluring to kids. I like to put a big dollop of the dip into a jumbo ice cube tray (or you could just use a plate) and let the kids choose from whatever is in the cupboard or refrigerator to fill the rest of the wells, encouraging (but not pressuring) a variety of colors and textures, and a mix of different food groups (vegetables, proteins, grains). From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
For the yogurt ranch dip:
• 1/2 c. Greek yogurt, low-fat or whole
• 2 tbsp. mayonnaise
• 1 tbsp. dried parsley, optional
• 1/2 tsp. onion powder
• 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
• 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt or table salt
• 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, optional
For serving (any combo of these):
• Vegetables, such as sliced bell peppers, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot sticks, celery sticks, cucumber slices, leaves of Little Gem lettuce
• Proteins, such as chickpeas, shelled edamame or other beans, pecan halves or other nuts, turkey, ham or roast beef slices, rolled up, diced cooked chicken
• Grains/crunchy elements, such as whole-wheat crackers, pita chips, vegetable crisps, pretzel sticks, cooked penne or other tubular pasta
To prepare the yogurt ranch dip: In a medium bowl, stir together the yogurt, mayonnaise, parsley, onion and garlic powders, salt and pepper until well combined. You should get a generous 1/2 cup.
To serve: Place about 3 tablespoons of the dip into one well of an over-size-cube ice cube tray. Place an array of vegetables, proteins and grain items into the remaining wells to use for dipping. If you do not have the ice cube trays, place the dip in a small bowl and arrange the vegetables and other dippers around it.
Nutrition per serving (scant 3 tablespoons of the dip) | 77 calories, 1 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 228 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Maple Peanuts and Popcorn
Makes about 4 1/2 cups, serving 2 to 3.
Note: Crunchy, salty, sweet and satisfying, this snack delivers a Cracker Jack vibe in a less sugary, more healthful way. Whole-grain popcorn plus protein-rich peanuts add up to a fun snack that gives you some real sustenance. From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
• 4 c. lightly salted popcorn, either home-popped or packaged, such a SkinnyPop brand
• 1/2 c. (21/2 oz.) unsalted peanuts
• 2 tbsp. maple syrup
• 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt or table salt
Place the popcorn in a large bowl.
In a medium, nonstick skillet, stir together the peanuts and maple syrup until combined. Add the salt and set the skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the syrup has formed a thick, deeply caramelized coating for the peanuts, 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the maple-glazed peanuts on top of the popcorn in the bowl. Using a large spoon, toss well to combine, then let cool completely. The popcorn will be flecked with the maple glaze and some clumps of peanuts and popcorn will form. The nuts will become crunchier as they cool.
Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Nutrition per serving (1 1/2 cups), based on 3 | 208 calories, 6 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 225 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar
Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie
This cookie, chock-full of chewy oats and melty chocolate, satisfies a sweet tooth in a better-for-you way. It's made with whole grains and less sugar for longer-lasting energy, and a blend of healthful oil and butter. Baking it in a skillet gives it a big-cookie wow factor and eliminates the need to scoop individual mounds of batter, so it's extra easy to make, too. From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the dish
• 2 tbsp. neutral oil, such as grapeseed
• 1/3 c. packed dark brown sugar
• 1 egg, at room temperature
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2/3 c. whole-wheat pastry flour or white whole-wheat flour or 1/3 c. each all-purpose and regular whole-wheat flour
• 1/4 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/8 tsp. fine sea salt or table salt
• 1 c. rolled oats
• 1/3 c. semisweet chocolate chips
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly grease the bottom of a 10-inch cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet with butter.
In a large bowl, combine the 3 tablespoons of butter, the oil, sugar, egg and vanilla and, using a whisk, beat until the mixture is creamy and well combined, about 3 minutes. (You can also use a stand mixer to do this.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt until combined. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir just to combine. Stir in the oats and chocolate chips. Transfer the batter to the skillet, distributing it evenly across the bottom.
Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cookie is browned lightly around the edges and just set in the center. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes before slicing into 10 wedges and serving.
Nutrition per serving | 200 calories, 5 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 44 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Serves 3 to 4.
Note: Blending milk with whole strawberries, a touch of vanilla and a little honey makes for a blushing pink, berry-licious treat that's packed with nutrients. It's a game-changer from the standard store-bought kind that's super-sweet and contains no actual fruit. This recipe must be made in advance; the strawberry milk should be refrigerated for at least 2 hours before serving. From Ellie Krieger, Washington Post.
• 2 c. reduced-fat milk, or your favorite milk
• 2 c. (8 oz.) strawberries, hulled and quartered
• 1 tbsp. honey
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
In the pitcher of a blender, combine the milk, strawberries, honey and vanilla and blend on the highest setting until the mixture turns pink and only tiny bits of strawberry remain.
Pour the mixture into a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl, and use a silicone spatula to press on the solids to extract the liquid. Discard any solids in the strainer.
Transfer the strawberry milk to a lidded container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
Leftover milk can be refrigerated in a lidded container for up to 4 days. It may separate, so shake it or give it a vigorous stir before serving.
Nutrition per serving (3/4 cup), based on 4 | 100 calories, 5 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar