Health & Fitness

How to steer your child away from chips, cookies and all that junk food

Thi Squire, manager for Homestead Hospital’s community garden, teaches third graders at Miami Children’s Museum Charter School about healthy eating.
Thi Squire, manager for Homestead Hospital’s community garden, teaches third graders at Miami Children’s Museum Charter School about healthy eating.

It’s mid-afternoon and my teenage son is home from school. He’s ferociously hungry, and he sets out to prepare himself a huge meal for a snack. Today, it’s leftover lasagna and he’s ready to put enough servings for five people on his plate. I remind him that this is just a snack and we are eating dinner in a few hours. He shrugs.

Finding a healthy, filling snack for teens — especially teen boys — is a challenge for most parents, particularly when they are always hungry. There’s a tendency to pile stuff on their plates or devour a bag of chips in minutes. Unfortunately, many teens and younger children, too, are choosing snacks that aren’t healthy and aren’t really keeping them full.

Experts say healthy snacking requires some pre-planning, nutrition education and some guidance for making good choices.

“Kids, whether they are active or not, they are still burning energy because they are kids,” said Tim Patton, a professor of nutrition at Miami Dade College. “Sometimes the previous meal didn’t meet their needs until the next meal — hence the snack.” Patton said the advantage of snacks is they can keep the problem of over-consuming at one meal at bay — as long as the snacks are nutritious.

Patton said food companies are flooding the market with prepackaged snacks aimed at young people who want an easy mid-afternoon treat between meals. Many of them have lots of sugar, salt and artificial ingredients — even when they are advertised as low-fat or low-calorie.

The best snack is real food, something that doesn’t come from a package, Patton said. Fruit or even frozen fruit is a great option. Cut a peach or mango or watermelon up in slices or freeze a handful of grapes and have them ready to go in Ziploc bags. Or opt for fruit cups packed in 100 percent fruit juice.

Whole wheat pasta, bread and rice can be a filling snack, too, as long as you use moderation, he said. For boys with huge appetites like my son, Patton says having a bowl of non-sugary cereal with fruit is a good option, as is a make-it-yourself French bread pizza or a bowl of penne with tomato sauce.

For protein, nuts are a great snack. Patton recommends buying them with the shell on, making it more work to eat and easier to limit.

There is a lot of misinformation and I want them to have an understanding of the hidden ingredients in junk food and why something is not good for you

Thi Squire, garden project manager, Homestead Hospital, Baptist Health South Florida

Because young people spend a great deal of time outside their homes, snacks in vending machines, fast-food drive-thrus or packages they keep in their backpacks are particularly appealing. But with so much concern about obesity and childhood diseases, some nutrition education is important.

“There is healthier fast food, such as a turkey sub with veggies, or frozen yogurt with fruit and nuts, or Chipotle as long as you’re not loading up on sour cream,” said Robin Silverman, clinical nutrition manager at Plantation General Hospital. Silverman said kids often get into trouble with beverages in vending machines, which have high levels of sugar. “It’s better to carry a bottle of water with them.”

When it comes to vegetables, both males and females of all ages eat significantly less than what is recommended. In Homestead, Thi Squire is trying to teach children to eat more vegetables and substitute healthier, less processed foods for the junk. Homestead Hospital has dedicated 10 acres of vacant land adjacent to the hospital to develop an organic garden where Squire, as the garden’s project manager, oversees K-12 kids who visit and take part in activities. They also learn to how to make fresh, non-processed meals with homegrown ingredients.

“There is a lot of misinformation and I want them to have an understanding of the hidden ingredients in junk food and why something is not good for you,” she said.

During summer, Squire encourages the children to snack on tropical fruit, and even puree and freeze the fruits along with a stick to make healthy Popsicles. She also encourages kids to snack on hummus and vegetables, plain yogurt with honey, or rice paper wrappers stuffed with vegetables and chicken to make spring rolls to eat on the go.

Squire realizes that inevitably children will want cookies and chips. That’s okay on occasion, she tells them, while encouraging them to keep it simple by eating non-flavored chips “to avoid extra hidden salts and sugars in artificial flavorings.”

“The hardest part for parents is they want to try all the snack options out there,” Squire said. “But out of 100, there are only 1 or 2 that are the best for you. It’s easy to get sucked into marketing and labeling of packaged foods. Steer away from labels that say ‘natural, low fat, low sugar, flavored or styled.’ Those are the red flag words that mean those ingredients are produced in a laboratory.”

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread can be a great snack, as long as both ingredients are not mostly sugar, she said. “You don’t need to see sugar or salt on the ingredient list three times.”

There is a misperception that healthy snacks are more expensive, Squire admitted. Yet, she pointed out that putting money into healthy snacking has value. “Americans are spending less on food and more on healthcare. They are too easily buying into what food companies are telling us about how processed food is easier, cheaper and as nutritious as the real thing. If something has artificial flavors and colors, it’s not good for you and it’s not giving your child the full benefit of the actual food.”

Donna Richardson, a national fitness and wellness educator and author, has found that parents who are prepared are more likely to be successful at providing their children healthy snacks. “They have to have the healthy snacks readily available in the car, their lunchbox or backpack where they can easily grab them.”

Make a granola nut mix and put it in baggies, or make broccoli and cheese or sweet potato balls that kids can pop in their mouths, Richardson said. She also recommended making whole wheat pizza, slicing it up and putting it in bags or encouraging children to make individual pizzas on whole wheat English muffins.

Richardson said children also need to learn portion control, particularly with snacks. They need to understand how many servings they are consuming and how to portion out what a snack should be.

“They will be making choices every day, so they need to learn about balance and moderation,” Richardson said. “They can have a fast-food snack once in a while. They just can’t have it all the time.”

Six healthy snacks your child will love

▪ Hummus and cut-up veggies or pita chips

▪ Frozen grapes

▪ Whole wheat, French bread or English muffin pizzas with tomato sauce and low-fat mozzarella

▪ Unsalted nuts mixed with raisins

▪ Air-popped popcorn

▪ Pure fruit Popsicles