Stopping at a convenience store on the way home or hanging out with friends, a child, the after-school eating machine, probably isn’t making the most healthful choices.
A typical snack, such as a 150-calorie bag of chips washed down by a 135-calorie cola, doesn’t contribute nutrients to a child’s food intake. Add those empty calories to a child’s daily food intake and he likely could be consuming too much.
This concerns health experts.
Childhood obesity more than tripled between 1980 and 2008, when close to 20 percent of children age 8 to 11 met the definition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Being obese puts a child at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and high blood pressure, according to the CDC.
Although parents can’t always be around to monitor what a child is eating, one can teach a child better habits by having appropriate snacks available and by being a good role model.
Explain that snacking should take the edge off a child’s hunger, but not ruin his appetite for dinner, says Malena Perdomo, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, Chicago.
In fact, a snack is probably more modest than either you or your child assume.
Aim for healthful food with fewer than 100 calories, less than 3 grams total fat and no more than 8 grams of sugar, says Teresa Quattrin, M.D. chair, department of pediatrics, University of New York at Buffalo.
(Girls, ages 9 to 13, who aren’t physically active, can have 130 calories of discretionary foods, such as snacks, in their daily intake of 1600 calories; boys in the same condition can have 195 calories of their 1800 daily calories, according to MyPyramid.gov from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
Go shopping as a family to find options kids will enjoy.
"Give children a choice. Suggest a new color vegetable or fruit," says Quattrin, who is leading a major study to test a program for preventing and treating obesity in children aged 2 to 5.
"Fruits and vegetables will help a child feel full. The chips won’t do that," Quattrin says.
Perdomo recommends stocking up on low-fat string cheese, mini bagels, reduced-fat hummus and fat-free yogurt.
A child can also pick ingredients, including low-sugar breakfast cereal, dried fruit and nuts for homemade trail mix, she says.
"The more you give children independence, the better they like it," says Perdomo, affiliate professor of nutrition, Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Parents can help children stick to sensible portions by repacking snacks.
For instance, mix a small amount of cereal, a tablespoon of dried fruit and a tablespoon of nuts into a small container. Thinly spread peanut butter on mini bagels, wrap and freeze. A child can thaw the bagel snack in the microwave oven.
Measure out a new food so a child can see what a healthful amount is. Even though strawberries are nutritious, a serving isn’t the entire pint.
Most importantly, parents need to set a good example.
"Don’t keep a stash of chocolate in the cupboard and think your child won’t know," Quattrin says.
For tips and games to encourage good eating habits, visit MyPyramid at www.mypyramid.gov/kids
Bev Bennett, a veteran food writer and editor, is the author of "Dinner for Two: A Cookbook for Couples" and "30-Minute Meals for Dummies"