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Healthy Snacking by Gina Ford

One of the easiest bad habits to develop - and one of the most difficult to break - is that of unhealthy snacking. Children between the ages of two and five are extremely active and continually on the go. They are either busy as bees or asleep. For some, sitting still long enough to eat a meal is near impossible. With such short attention spans and so much energy, finishing a plate of food is a rare occurrence. Others will sit and eat, but at this age can manage only small portions. Snacks, therefore, play an important role in bridging the gaps between meals.
However, it is very easy to get into bad habits when it comes to snacks, either with the timing or the type of foods and drinks given. Many parents struggle to find healthy snacks when not at home, particularly when surrounded by numerous fast food outlets. The temptation to pop into a newsagent or petrol station to buy a sugary drink, packet of crisps or sweets is very strong because it is usually the easiest option. Unfortunately, it is also the most inappropriate, especially if done on a regular basis.
A problem seen quite often is when a child is looked after by different carers, such as divorced or separated parents, grand-parents, childminders, au pairs or babysitters. Sometimes one person gives all the 'naughty' snacks, while another goes to a lot of effort to prepare healthy, nutritious snacks, only to have the child throw them on the floor and have a temper tantrum. When food is used to bribe, reward and spoil children it creates a very tricky situation. It is very important that everyone who looks after your child is 'playing by the same rules' in order to maintain consistency and avoid confusing the child.
Giving snacks at the same time every day will help to get your child into a routine, such as having three meals and two or three snacks, depending on his age. If a meal is not eaten and a filling snack is offered within a couple of hours of the next meal, children are unlikely to have an appetite for the meal , and this can lead to a vicious circle of refusing meals and filling up on snacks. For some families, this can be fine if nutritious snacks, such as sandwiches, yoghurts and fruit, are eaten, but if meals are replaced with high-fat, sugary and/or salty snacks, your child will be losing out on essential nutrients.
Many parents feel that if their child is eating nutritious family meals, it is not important if junk foods are eaten in between. This is incorrect. Children get hungry between meals because they are growing and need nutritious snacks to build healthy bones and muscles, and to provide the vitamins and minerals needed for all bodily processes, including brain development. Foods such as sweets, crisps and chocolate should not be a regular part of a child's diet, but things that are offered occasionally, and not used as rewards or punishment for certain behaviours. Occasional foods high in fat, sugar and salt will do no harm, but regular use will lay the foundations for health problems later in life.

Healthy snack ideas

Fruit is nature's own snack box, tasty and packed full of goodness. Most children aged 2-5 cannot manage a whole apple, but if it's cut into slices, they will often be tempted to munch away quite happily. An orange or satsuma peeled and broken into segments makes a delicious snack. Grapes are sweet and juicy and often loved by children (but beware of choking). Try offering exotic fruits when they are in season and at affordable prices in the supermarkets. The look on a child's face the first time he tries a piece of mango or pineapple is unforgettable. Let him help in choosing the fruit when you are shopping, feeling it for ripeness. Let him help to prepare it and then sit down to enjoy it. A good idea is to have a bowl of cut up fruit in the fridge so that all members of the family are tempted to snack on it when they go in search of a tasty treat.
Frozen fruit can be a simple way to encourage fruit as a snack. Simply wrap the fruit in clingfilm and place in the freezer until frozen solid. Try using grapes, orange segments, slices of pineapple, mango or watermelon, a peeled banana, or any other fruit that your child likes. Another good idea is to blend up any leftover fruit, possibly with some yoghurt or ice cream, then place it in the freezer for a tasty frozen treat, or leave it in the fridge for a delicious smoothie.
Bread, preferably wholemeal or wholegrain, can be used in many ways to make nutritious snacks. Wholemeal pitta breads are great for stuffing and, if sliced and placed under the grill for a few minutes, make delicious, crunchy snacks, great with a dip, such as hummus. Try toasting bread, spreading it lightly with butter, margarine or peanut butter and slicing it into 'fingers'. However, watch giving bread too close to main mealtimes as it can affect a child's appetite.
Some children like bland food, so try using cream cheese spread on either fresh or toasted bread. Avocado, mashed with a little lemon juice, also makes a nutritious spread. For a sweet alternative, use some jam, preferably a variety without added sugar (read the list of ingredients). Wholemeal or fruit muffins make a tasty treat.
Most children love yoghurt, but try to avoid giving them the low-fat, high-sugar varieties. Ideally, buy natural yoghurt and then add your own flavourings, such as no-added-sugar jam or chopped-up pieces of fruit. This makes a wholesome snack, packed with vitamins and calcium for strong bones.
Cheese is a nutritious food and comes in many varieties, all with different flavours. Some children like mild cheeses, while others will eat even the strongest of Cheddars. Try serving thin strips of cheese on fingers of toast, or offer cubes to nibble. Cheese, like bread, can be filling so watch how much you give to your child before key meal times.
Children often refuse cooked vegetables as they move from baby foods to more grown-up ones. Perhaps the taste of the cooked vegetables reminds them of the bland baby foods they ate in the early days. In this case, try serving raw vegetables: they're packed full of goodness and make great snack foods. Serve them with dips such as salsa, cream cheese, hummus and guacamole. Carrot sticks have great appeal because of their sweet taste. Celery sticks are less appealing, but try filling the groove with cream cheese or peanut butter for a tasty and healthy treat.
From 'The Contented Child's Food Bible' by Gina Ford and Paul Sacher, specialist dietician at Great Ormond Street Hospital

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