Laura Kellough has three boys, so every day she packs three lunches — complete with three sets of snacks — to see her kids through their busy school days. To complicate matters, Ben, 13, has a peanut allergy, William, 11, is her picky “meat and potatoes” kid and Jackson, 9, has decided to become a vegetarian. “By Friday, I’m pretty much out of steam,” says the Winnipeg mom.
And school snacks are especially tricky because, unlike lunch, there’s usually no time set aside for kids to sit down and eat, she says. School snacks need to be something kids can eat fast and on the move. So what do the pros pack?
Daina Kalnins and Joanne Saab are registered dietitians, co-authors of Better Food for Kids (Robert Rose) and expert snack- packers. When it comes to what to pack, Kalnins often lets her 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son call the shots. “I challenge them to come up with a new snack food every week to keep it fresh and interesting,” she says. Her kids’ favourites include healthy, homemade baked goods they can eat on the go, like chocolate chip cookies or banana muffins.
It helps to think of snacks as “mini meals” that contain at least two of the four food groups, adds Saab. Her seven-year-old twin girls like dips, especially hummus with veggies, or fruit and yogurt. Kalnins also recommends packing portable protein options, such as cheese, preservative-free meat slices, tofu or a boiled egg. “Snacks are important because kids are still growing and need a constant supply of energy,” she says.
Kids only get about half the fibre they need, says Kalnins, which is too bad because the foods that are good sources of fibre are also nutrient rich and good sources of energy. To up the fibre ante, she recommends packing whole-grain breads, cereals and crackers, which contain folic acid and other B vitamins. Flaxseed is also high in fibre but, even better, it’s packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which studies show improve memory and brain performance. You can fit flax into snack time by sprinkling a tablespoon of ground flaxseed over a yogurt-and-fruit parfait.
how much snack to pack?
Sometimes snacks will come home uneaten, other days your kids may come home hungry and looking to raid the fridge and cupboards. Kids’ appetites can fluctuate regularly depending on how active they are, or whether they’re mid-growth spurt, explains Kalnins. If you notice food coming home each day, pack a little less, while if you suspect your child needs something extra to nibble on, toss in an emergency bag of nut-free trail mix or a granola bar. “As long as your child is growing and gaining well, you’re on the right track,” Kalnins says.
variety is key
Most schools have a “no-trading” policy, but it can be tough to enforce. “A friend of mine who’s a teacher in a middle school says kids trade their snacks all the time,” says Saab. So how to pack snacks your kids will hang on to? You have to make it fun enough that it won’t be traded, she says, while still being nutritious. “For instance, if you make your own cookies, you can control the sugar and add extra fibre, such as oatmeal or raisins,” she says. Then, there’s presentation — it’s all about the sell. Try cutting carrots and radishes into flowers, assembling fruit kabobs, writing a little note on the skin of a banana or making ants on a log (celery, cream cheese and raisins). Prepackaged items such as flavoured rice cakes, canned fruit in its own juice, packages of dried fruit or high-fibre granola bars are also healthy snacks your kids will be happy to find in their lunchbag.
Overall, the best way to become an expert snack-packer is to plan ahead, says Kalnins. “It requires a little organization, but then you won’t wake up mid-week and panic because you have nothing to pack,” she says. For instance, Kellough does most of her snack packing on Sundays. She pre-cuts veggies into containers and has baggies of healthy, whole-grain cereal sealed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. “With three kids who tend to be picky, packing snacks is always a challenge,” she says. “So it’s worth it to spend an hour or two on the weekend prepping for the week ahead.”
Sydney Loney is a Toronto-based writer whose son just started school — so she’s madly stocking up on healthy snack ideas.