Healthy Snacking for Everyday Families

By Christen Cooper, MS, RD

For many families, a trip to the grocery store with kids is about as relaxing as riding a roller coaster with no seatbelt. Getting kids to eat healthful foods at home or at restaurants is not simple – even for the most well-intentioned, informed and vigilant parents. After all, today, we must stay the course towards healthfulness against a forceful tide of unhealthful choices. Since the 1970s, Americans’ eating habits have changed significantly. Portion sizes of nearly all foods have increased, and the number of snacks eaten per day also has shot upwards.

Making Better Choices When You Go
Food Shopping With the Family

All this extra munching has added up to about 300 extra calories a day per American, with an annual grand total of over 100,000 calories a year. If we do nothing to cut back on food or to move our bodies more, we can end up storing around 30 extra pounds of fat per year.

The amount of sugar, salt and fat added to processed foods has also risen in order to lengthen shelf life and enrich flavor. As parents know too well, packaging of kids’ foods has become more alluring, with popular movie characters practically blazing their own trail into our shopping carts. Repeatedly saying “no” to kids’ every request becomes tiring for parents and frustrating for kids. And serving up exactly what kids didn’t want at the supermarket replaces mealtime joy with whining and complaining, erasing all sense of the peace and enjoyment that should form the foundation of the family meal.

A number of nutrition experts, such as Dr. Kelly Brownell, nutrition professor and researcher at Yale University, believe that Americans should stop blaming their genes or their lack of willpower. Brownell thinks that we should instead blame the companies that barrage us day and night with food and food advertisements. They create an atmosphere, says Brownell, in which it is very hard – if not impossible – for most people to avoid overeating.

Pound-promoting portions
Dr. Brian Wansink, Cornell food expert and author of “Mindless Eating” (, points out that portion sizes have steadily grown since the 1970’s. Years ago, a cup of soda or a slice of cake were considered rare treats, served in small portions. Today, not only have portions grown but such foods often constitute a snack, dessert or even lunch. Parents must teach kids that treats should be eaten in small portions because they offer empty calories and few nutrients. The “LiFE Program” (Linking Food with the Environment) at Teachers College, Columbia University, offers a succinct message for kids: “Supersize nutritious foods, and small-size treats.”

When shopping with kids at the grocery store, make choices from foods positioned along the periphery, where things like produce, nuts, milk, cheese and yogurt are located. Even better, visit a farmers market and explore the wide variety of local, fresh foods. Have kids pick out a fruit or vegetable that interests them, and prepare and eat it at home.

Surely, you will encounter the convenient-looking 100-calorie snack packs of things like cookies, nuts and chips at the grocery store. As convenient as they may seem, these pre-portioned snacks are not the perfect answer for portion control. First, these packs are more expensive than the regular-size containers you portion out yourself. Second, if your little snackers really want more than 100 calories worth of chocolate-covered raisins, they will just rip open another pack. And, as far as companies’ claims go that these packs “show consumers proper serving sizes,” how many people (especially kids) can actually reproduce that exact portion of food when serving themselves? Not many, I would guess.

If your kids favor snacking on fruity yogurt, try buying plain yogurt and add fresh fruit to it. Instead of getting sugary granola bars, why not toss some raisins, nuts, seeds and pretzels in a bag for a yummy, lower-sodium, lower-calorie trail mix?

Portioning the old-fashion way: Listening to your body
Dr. Wansink and other food experts also discuss that in the midst of our nation’s food overload many of us decide when to stop eating not based on internal cues of hunger and fullness but based on how much is left on our plates! In one experiment, Wansink placed a bowl of tasty tomato soup before a number of hungry adults and told them to eat as much as they wished for free. Unbeknownst to the group, Wansink was slowly refilling their bowls with a hidden hose. The vast majority of the subjects kept eating, unaware that they’d had several refills. Wansink repeatedly asked the subjects if they were “full” or “finished” with their lunches. Almost no one left the table, explaining that they were still hungry, although many had consumed several times what a common portion would be! This phenomenon happens at American restaurants that serve giant portions or “All You Can Eat” buffets. People keep eating to get their money’s worth and because, well, there’s still more food to finish!

It’s key to help our kids preserve their inner senses of hunger and satiety. Don’t force plate-cleaning or second helpings. Let kids self-serve and choose which foods to eat from the selections on the table. Perhaps most importantly, parents need to be role models for healthy eating in reasonable portions to show their kids what’s a reasonable amount of food to eat at meals and snacks. Also, if your child refuses to eat the food offered at the table, avoid providing alternatives, but try instead to always have a dish available that “everyone likes.”

Before you arrive at the grocery store
Each time we go to the grocery store, a restaurant, or even just to the corner store, we’re up against powerful messages, tempting smells and images, and a nationwide push to eat. Even before leaving home, openly discuss the health reasons behind making sound food choices and the importance of being skeptical about advertisements and super colorful, cartoon character-laden packaging. Prevent temptation by serving a meal or snack to kids so that they are satisfied until the next appropriate eating time. Try to have some sort of healthy snack on hand – raisins, trail mix, whole wheat crackers – in case of unexpected hunger.

When your kids head up the candy aisle anyway, lead them to healthier options and put them in charge of choosing a healthful snack for the whole family. They will feel empowered and their “buy in” will give them extra reason to get excited about “their” snack.

Arming your kids with the information and confidence they need to make good food choices on their own can help them stay healthy, trim and happy for life.

Christen Cooper, MS, RD ( is the founder of Cooper Nutrition Education & Communications, which provides culturally-competent nutrition education to clients nationwide. She serves on the advisory board of Super Kids Nutrition (, a website devoted to providing fun, timely and accurate nutrition information to children and parents. As a specialist in pediatric and school nutrition, she teaches online courses on these topics available at (

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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2 thoughts on “Healthy Snacking for Everyday Families

  1. Oh I like reading your post. It’s so informative specially for mothers like me as to what meals to prepare for the kiddos. Thank you for sharing.

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