When I was a kid, one of our family food rules was I could eat fruit and vegetables anytime I wanted. If it was something else however, I had to ask first.
My childhood best friend (who is still like a sister today) used to think this was so weird. Her house had anything from Dunka Roo's to String Things and every other childhood favorite from of the '90s.
As a kid, I thought this was AWESOME. I loved going over there and knowing all the "fun foods" I would get to eat in total freedom. No asking. No limits. I could eat as much crinkle-packaged, "kid food" as made me content. Even more fun was the novelty of every item being individually-wrapped. My family never bought the single-serve packs of anything, so mini bags of chips, cereal, and cookies seemed to make snack time all the more irresistible.
Now as a dietitian-mom however, I have to admit this kind of permissive food environment makes me cringe. I am not saying this in scrutiny over my dear second mom's decisions, nor to judge any mom out there who currently stocks up on more potato chips than produce. I am saying this because I think there is a reason kids struggle to eat at meal times and yet will snack indefinitely.
There is a lot of power and opportunity in the snack foods we serve our kids. Not only does it/does it not fill their nutritional gaps, but it also sets the stage for how they view snacking and what foods they are more likely to reach more when between meal hunger hits. Allowing too many "fun foods" at snack time while trying to get our kids to eat mainly "everyday foods" at meal times is a mistake.
This post addresses the different types of snack foods, and how pre-packaged, sometimes foods can have a healthy place in your child's diet.
Types of Snack Foods
Remembering the above examples, I think to what balance I want to recreate in my home now as I raise my own kids. I want my daughters to delight in the foods we are fortunate enough to have fill our pantry, fridge, and freezer. More so, I want our daughters to grow up in a food environment that establishes healthy habits. That's something I am forever grateful was instilled in me starting at such an early age. It is something I too seek to repeat for our girls, as they grow and develop their own relationships with food.
Although my parents didn't restrict all pre-packaged foods and allowed us plenty of "fun foods," I feel as though I understood what in fact a "fun food" versus an "every day food" was at an early age because of how they raised me to relate to all foods.
Fun foods are those that tend to be energy-dense while offering little to no nutritive value. These foods can displace more nutritious foods in the diet when over-consumed; however, it can also backfire when parents are overly restrictive towards these foods. Consider allowing your child to choose one fun food per day, or limiting fun foods to less frequent, special occasions in younger children who may eat less food overall. This may mean such fun foods are included as part of a Love it, Like it, Learning it meal or offered as the occasional special treat. Just remember that when given as a snack, the empty calories of these fun foods may displace other more nutrient-dense options at your child's next meal.
Examples of fun foods are: cakes, cookies, french fries, potato chips, ice cream, soda, candy, and donuts.
Sometimes foods are the foods that offer minimal nutritive value - more so than fun foods but less so than everyday foods. Such foods may include: crackers, These foods may have more healthful alternatives that make them more appropriate everyday options (like making them whole grain or no sugar added), but in general sometimes foods are foods that should not be eaten everyday.
Such sometimes snack foods may include: muffins, sugar-sweetened canned or dried fruit, sugar-sweetened cereal, cheese, processed deli meats, cereal bars, or crackers to name a few.
Everyday foods are the ideal in any diet. While no one has a perfect diet, everyday foods are what everyone should aim to eat more of. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins, lean proteins, healthy fats, and dairy are all the pillars to meeting our daily nutritional needs. These should be offered with structure according to Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding, but otherwise there should be minimal limits enforced over how much your child consumes of these items.
Examples of everyday snack foods include: fresh fruit, low-sugar added yogurt, veggies, hummus, nuts and seeds, nut butters, and whole grains like some granola, breakfast bars, and crackers.
A Time and a Place for Sometimes Snack Foods
Based on the above descriptions, we know that the ideal is to serve fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins as many chances as we get. These are first and foremost the snacks I recommend to help parents fill in the nutritional gaps in their children's diets.
As a mom with two kids three and under though who are often on the go, I also understand the application for "sometimes" foods. Whether it's the 25 minute drive we face between our country house and the closest grocery store or keeping a small stash in the swim bag for the post-swim lesson snack attack, I feel no shame in sharing - my kids eat out of crinkle packages sometimes too. All the better when they are single-serve also.
I imagine most of you can relate. There are times and places when you need to spring for the single package of snack foods. It can be hard though to stand in the aisles of the grocery store and find something healthy, especially with the stigma of "processed foods."
That's why I have created this list of My 20 Favorite Pre-Packaged Snack Foods from Target. Get it here!
For this List
I have personally walked through the aisles of Target for hours observing all the snack options specifically so you don't have to. I have absorbed all that overwhelm for you about, "What are the best pre-packaged snack options to buy?" In doing so, I was blown away by the number of "healthy" snack options we have to choose from as moms. As a dietitian, I am concerned over how confusing it is though to make an informed snack choice amidst all the seemingly "healthy" options. There were too MANY snack items I myself may have grabbed in a hurry (i.e. while shopping with my girls) and assumed were healthy options to offer my kids. Because I did this field research without my littles in tow however, I was able to look past the marketing claims on the front of packages and onto the nutritional facts and more importantly, the ingredients list. That's how I narrowed down my list of favorite options to the top 20 I would actually purchase for my own family.
Of note, I was looking specifically to single-serve, pre-packaged snack items. Although I saw other healthy options for "pre-packaged" snack foods out there in larger containers that are intended for sharing or serving into snack-size portions at home, these are not included on this list.
This list isn't intended to override or negate the importance of wholesome, "everyday foods" in our familys' diets. This list is intended to be a practical application for the busy family who's doing the best they can to make sensible snack options on the go. The goal of this list is to take advantage of snack times using "sometimes foods," instead of having to stop last minute and splurge unnecessarily on a "fun food."
Save "fun foods" for fun times with family or friends.
Use snack time as the ideal time to fill in nutritional gaps, first with everyday foods (when available). Then, round out on the go eating with some more healthful, pre-packaged snack options like those sometimes foods shared on this list. With the exception of those that may pose a choking hazard to my young children, I otherwise would offer any of these to my own children when in a snack-time pinch and a pre-packaged food is our most realistic option.
Submit using the button below to receive a free printable of my favorite "Sometimes Foods" found at Target! Then, let me know your greatest snack time struggles in the comments below. The more I understand about you and your snack time struggles, the more I am able to tailor content that serves you better.
Thanks for reading, and here's to happy snacking ahead!