You may have heard that eating habits are formed early in life, but did you know research shows that our eating patterns are fairly established as early as at age two? We know that good nutrition is important from the start, yet there’s much room for improvement in the diets of today’s youngsters.
My best advice for parents who are trying to improve their child’s eating habits? Start small. Or maybe… start with snacks.
Gone are the days when people ate just three meals a day. Snacking in between meals is now a staple eating occasion for adults and children alike. Recently published research from our Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) and our Kids Nutrition and Health Study (KNHS) found that kids ages 1–13 get approximately 25% of their calories from snacks throughout the day — nearly as many calories as they’re consuming at lunch or dinner!
So what about the foods that kids choose to snack on? Well, it’s important to recognize that parents truly hold the power when it comes to kids’ snacking habits. Here are some snacking strategies that can help parents keep the fun in snack time while also boosting nutrition.
1. Start early — then get creative with combos
The introduction of solids (around six months of age) is a crucial period for developing lifelong eating habits. According to recent FITS research, by one year of age, nearly 95% of children are consuming one or more snacks per day. Therefore, priming infant snacking habits with nutritious options from six to 12 months is particularly important. Iron-fortified infant cereals are ideal first foods, followed by single fruit and vegetable baby foods. Once cereal, fruits and vegetables have been introduced individually, get creative with combinations to peak your child’s interest.
2. Remember that small steps = big wins
For toddlers and older children, encourage small changes over time with healthier swaps. For example, swap potato chips and dip for whole wheat pita and hummus. Instead of cookies, try fresh fruit and yogurt. For more smart swap ideas at meal and snack time, check out choosemyplate.org.
3. Have fruits, veggies and other nutritious snacks ready
Access to healthy snacks in the household is key. Remember that all forms of fruits and veggies fit. That means fresh, frozen, canned or dried are all fair game. Keep your freezer stocked with frozen fruit for smoothies. Have portioned dried fruit and nuts ready to go for the ride to practice. You can also stock fresh veggies in snack-ready form like carrot sticks, celery sticks and cucumber slices, and keep portable whole fruits that your kids enjoy like bananas, apples, oranges or grapes.
4. Get creative with better-for-you snacks
Make snack time fun! Cut sandwiches, toast, fruits and veggies into fun shapes using cookie cutters to get kids interested, and add color wherever possible.
When it comes to fruits and veggies, get creative with format:
- Pair them up with tasty dips like hummus, avocado dip or yogurt dip
- Blend them into smoothies and add a fun straw for a sip-able snack
- Set up a ‘build your own’ bar so kids can create their own pita pizza, sandwich or yogurt parfait with nutritious foods and toppings of their choice
Importantly, snack healthfully by your child’s side! Work on making changes together and use the tips above to make snack time an enjoyable and delicious part of the day for everyone.
Learn more about the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS):
More tips from nutrition experts: