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Snappy snacking: Smart between-meal foods for your toddler

Healthy snacks can be fun and help toddlers meet their nutritional needs at the same time.

They might be among the words you'll hear most often as your child is growing up: "I'm hungry."

They're simple words, really. But even so, you may not always know how to respond to them. At dinnertime, "We'll be eating soon" may suffice. But what about when a meal is hours away? Is it OK to give your son or daughter a snack? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the answer is yes—as long as you help them snack wisely.

Toddlers have tiny stomachs, so they can't always eat enough at mealtime to ensure that they'll have the energy they need. Snacking can help deliver that energy and important nutrients.

Choose wisely

It's best if kids learn to get and feel hungry rather than always feeling full, so the AAP says that you should offer snacks no closer than two hours before meals. The closer to mealtime, the smaller the snack should be.

Now and then, a sweet treat, such as a cookie, may be OK. But it's best to offer foods that help your child meet the recommendations of the government's ChooseMyPlate food guidance system. These are foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. But there's no reason they can't be served up with a little fun.

Here are some healthy and fun snack options, courtesy of the AAP, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and other experts:

Fresh, frozen or canned fruit. One fun option might be to skewer fruit chunks on pretzel sticks to make fruit kebabs. Dipping apples, pears and bananas in orange juice first will help prevent the fruits from discoloring.

You might also make a fruit smiley face on a small plate. Sliced bananas could form eyes, raisins could be the nose and an orange slice the mouth.

Vegetables. Consider serving vegetable soup. Or cut celery, zucchini, cucumbers or carrots into sticks or coins and serve them with low-fat salad dressing or salsa for dipping. Broccoli and cauliflower may be good choices too.

Whole grains. Make sandwich cutouts using cookie cutters with fun shapes, such as dinosaurs, stars or hearts, and cut out meats, cheeses and whole-grain breads.

For a treat that will incorporate whole grains with healthy fruit and dairy products, make a banana pop. Dip a peeled banana in yogurt. Then roll it in crushed whole-grain breakfast cereal and freeze it.  

Snack safety

While raw vegetables, such as baby carrots, cucumber slices and broccoli, can make nutritious snacks, small pieces of hard, uncooked fruits and vegetables can pose a choking hazard, according to the AAP. So it's best to avoid them in children younger than 4 years. This is also the case with foods that are round or difficult to chew, such as peanuts or meat sticks.

If you have questions about your child's nutrition, talk to his or her healthcare provider.

Reviewed 2/1/2024

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