School snacks 101: Instead of that, pick this

Brooke Kelleher
FoodCorps service member

And we’re back! It’s been two weeks since Lake County’s 99th Round-Up and Fair. Summer has come to a close, and we’re finally getting back in the saddle (pun intended) of our everyday routines. Students and teachers are back in school, and parents are back to the almost impossible feat of dragging kids out of bed. You might be one of the many parents around Lake County breathing sighs of relief, finally able to wave morning goodbyes to your kids.

You go through the mental checklist: Does little Sally have her signed forms? Check! Both shoes tied? Check! Slip for school pictures? Check!

What are you missing? Oh, snacks! You reach into the pantry, grab a couple of wrapped items, and plop them into Sally’s lunch box. Crisis averted! At this point, you’re feeling like parent of the year. You give yourself a pat on the back as little Sally makes her way outside.

Getting your kid and yourself out the door is more than enough to deserve super parent status. However, you might be surprised that some of the smallest parts of your morning routine have the biggest effects on your and your kids’ day, month, year, and far beyond. Want to be parent of infinity? Let’s see what we can do about that.

That’s where I come in, with the friendly reminder that the story of those snacks doesn’t end when they leave your kitchen. They follow little Sally into her classroom, perk up when they hear her stomach grumble, and meet their doom somewhere in between addition problems and friendship forming. Even then their story is not over. The foods we eat, regardless of our age, break down and affect our bodies for the rest of the day and beyond. Whatever winds up in little Sally’s lunch box affects everything from her ability to learn, her mood, and her long-term health and brain development. This is why I urge you to choose snacks wisely, for your kids and for yourself.

Here are a few common snacks and healthier alternatives.

Instead of this:

Pixabay.com photos

Pixabay.com photos

‘Fruit’ snacks

Sure, some companies do add vitamins C and A to their gummies somewhere in between the mix of the sugar. Wait, what was that about sugar? Sugar is the biggest culprit in kid-targeted snacks. This has led to more and more health problems in children starting at younger ages than ever before. Recently, public health groups have been combating marketing strategies that claim “low fat,” “vitamin C,” “naturally flavored,” and “made with real fruit.” Such statements give consumers false trust in these sugary products. There are tastier, more cost-effective options that will keep your brain and body happy longer into the day. Opt instead for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Choose this:

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Fruits and veggies

Apples, bananas, clementines, carrots, grapes, snap peas, and bell pepper slices are some of the many kid favorites that are easy grab-and-go items. Some require a little extra preparation, but all pack their own punch of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fruits are still high in sugar, but unlike fruit snacks and fruit juices, their high fiber helps our bodies handle the sugars. Think about prepping portions a week ahead to make these easier to grab on your way out the door.


Instead of this:

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‘Granola bars’ (aka candy bars in disguise)

Granola bars are a staple in the snack world. Companies know that you’ll feel better about buying something called a granola bar than a candy bar, but don’t judge a book by its cover. The food industry is always using false marketing strategies. Beat their games by checking the ingredients. Whole grains, oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit? Thumbs up! Covered in chocolate and filled with sugar? Maybe save it for dessert.

Choose this:

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Granola bars (the real ones!)

Variety is the spice of life. Granola bars, like trail mix, are a tried and true snack because they are packed with many of the things we need to through the day to keep feeling good. Protein, healthy fats, whole grains, fiber: the list goes on and  on. Feeling ambitious? Mix some oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit with peanut butter and honey, roll into balls, and keep in the freezer as another grab-and-go snack.


Instead of this:

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Soda, sports drinks, and juice

Not only added sugars, but his cousin caffeine too? That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for young brains. Caffeine, like sugar, can seriously affect developing brains. Beware of drinks marketed as healthy, and check the ingredients. Many items marketed as “made with real juice” are just artificial flavors and added sugars in disguise. All these liquid sugars and caffeine dehydrate our bodies, which is the opposite effect we’re looking for in a drink.

Choose this:

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Water

Growing bodies are more susceptible to chronic dehydration than adults for a few reasons. With their strange urges to chase squirrels and jump on couches, kids are naturally more active than adults. That, combined with an underdeveloped thirst mechanism, can keep kiddos from getting the liquids they need to keep them functioning at their best. Send them with water bottles that they can fill throughout the day.


Instead of this:

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Chips and pretzels

Sodium, sodium, sodium! Lots of salt in our diet raises blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure as a kid can lead to heart complications down the line. Another thing to be aware of is that lots of chip-like snacks are coated in thick flavorful powders. These intense blasts of artificial flavors are overwhelming to developing taste buds and can negatively impact how they react to naturally flavored, nutrient-dense foods. Look for whole grain options that have more manageable flavors.

Choose this:

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Popcorn

Popcorn is a whole grain and very high in fiber. When bought plain, popcorn can be a fun snack to season yourself. Opt for less salt and try the random assortment of herbs and spices lying around your kitchen. Let kids explore. They’re more apt to try something new and actually commit to eating it if it’s their own creation. You never know: The combination of cinnamon and garlic powder might just turn into a huge hit. Kids are weird.


Instead of this:

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‘Cheese’ snacks

We keep cheese in the refrigerator to stay fresh, but cheese flavored items, not so much. Why is that? Preservatives such as tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, is one of the many additives that keep these foods from rotting. They basically turn our foods into zombies. Once living, but never, ever, ever, EVER able to die. Just like they can’t break down in your pantry after months, they won’t do so in your body either. As more research comes out about the preservatives companies use, and how they stick around in our bodies long after we digest the food, we’re learning how important it is to opt for fresher alternatives.

Choose this:

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Cheese

There may be differing ideas on dairy consumption, but no nutritionists out there question that growing bodies need calcium. Watch out for high sodium and saturated fat contents when choosing cheese snacks. Another word to this wise: American cheese is highly processed, losing a lot of nutrition and adding sugars along the way. Choose low-fat cheddar cheese instead, which has twice the protein.


Instead of this:

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Sugary cereal

Oh, refined cereals. How you break my heart! Cereal grains are the seed of a tall grass. That seed has an outer protective bran, full of fiber, an inner energy-dense endosperm of sugars to feed the plant, and a small nutritious germ of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals to nourish. But in the cereals of today, these grains are stripped of that bran and germ, leaving us with the high-calorie, low-nutrient endosperm. Don’t forget the added sugars and artificial colors and flavors. Poor cereal.

Choose this:

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Nuts and seeds

Cereal comes from a seed. Be true to it and choose whole grain cereals, fibrous bran and nutrient-dense germ included. Other nuts and seeds are also great options. Deliciously nutritious, nuts and seeds power our brains and bodies through the day. Their high protein content keeps us full longer and forms muscles as kids grow. Their healthy fats lead to good heart function and brain development. They are full of vitamin E — yes, the same vitamin E that works miracles on scraped knees. Imagine what it does inside bodies. Beware, we are what we eat, and some of you might think your kids are already nuts enough as is. You’ve been warned.


The biggest barriers to healthier snack routines are price and convenience. Don’t forget to check the unit price on the shelf directly below the product. Use it to compare the variety of brands and sizes that items are offered in. Also, get in the habit of preparing portions for the week ahead. Like any routine, it becomes easier and quicker with practice.


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Wondering what FoodCorps is doing to help Lakeview schools be healthier food environments? Interested how you can be a part of that goal? Reach out to brooke.kelleher@foodcorps.org for more information.