It’s 8 p.m. on a school night.
My second- and fourth-grade sons have reached the point in the evening when they need to go upstairs, shower and get ready for bed. It’s also that point in the evening when they are tired and chaos seems to ensue.
As I reach out to flip off the kitchen light switch, I spy two small containers on the counter – empty.
I forgot to pack snacks for my boys to eat at school tomorrow.
I know I should pack something healthy, something that will give their little, growing bodies energy and nutrition.
But I also need to pack something – quickly – that they will actually eat, which is definitely not celery, carrots and, unfortunately, most fruits.
More often than not, their snacks have been something that I’m sure has made their teachers grimace: cookies or gummy “fruit” snacks.
While I don’t appear to be alone in sometimes losing the healthy snack battle, I am striving to make some changes.
While federal guidelines have improved the nutritional value of foods offered by schools participating in federal meals programs, “regular access to foods of high energy and low quality remains a school issue, much of it attributable to students, parents and staff,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Barbara Ripps, a 33-year veteran elementary level teacher with the South Colonie Central School District in Albany County, said when children have a sugary breakfast followed several hours later by a sugary snack, their ability to pay attention and learn in the classroom is negatively impacted.
“As teachers, we notice right away,” said Mrs. Ripps, who teaches third grade at Veeder Elementary School. “We can tell something is wrong.”
Shortly after students arrive in the morning, she can spot which students ate a sugary breakfast.
“I can tell right away what kind of breakfast is in their belly,” Mrs. Ripps said, noting that students who consumed high-sugar content breakfasts often have a hard time sitting still in their seats. “It’s just a fidgety type of uncontrollable behavior.”
Children whose snacks from home contain high-sugar, low-nutrient foods will continue to have a difficult time focusing and learning into the afternoon hours, especially if their lunches are not well-balanced.
“The amount of alertness during the day is a direct effect of what goes into their bodies during the day,” Mrs. Ripps said.
Sending healthy snacks in your child’s backpack is important. Consider this: For the more than 55 million children and teens who attend public schools in the United States, they eat about 35-40 percent of their daily calories there, according to an abstract published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on School Health, Committee on Nutrition.
“A substantial portion of low-quality foods make their way into schools from parents, students, teachers and staff. Packed lunches and snacks, bake sales and booster sales, fundraisers, and class birthdays and holiday parties traditionally feature candy, sweet or fried desserts, chips and other snack-type foods and sweetened beverages,” according to the report.
Planning for the week ahead on Sundays was always a big help in preparing a healthy snack for Connie Safford, a school nurse with the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, which encompasses southern Saratoga County and northern Schenectady County. She would prepare a large bag of granola mixed with raisins, banana chips and other dried fruits. That alone, or mixed with yogurt, was a favorite school snack for her children. And it was easy to make ahead of time and portion out for snack throughout the week.
Cutting up vegetables on Sundays was also something she worked into her routine so they were ready to pack on school nights for the next day’s snack.
“I’m a mom, and I completely understand the hustle and bustle. It’s hard. I get it,” said Ms. Safford, who works at Pashley Elementary School.
Maintaining a child’s blood sugar throughout the day is instrumental to setting them up to do their best, she said.
When kids have sugary snacks, their blood sugar rises, making it difficult for them to concentrate and pay attention in class. Then their blood sugar level plummets, and they become tired and irritable.
“If you’re not fueling their brains, you’re not giving them the ability to fulfill their potential,” she said.
Providing nutritious snacks is just one piece of the puzzle in raising a healthy child, but it is an important one. Healthy students are better on all levels of academic achievement: academic performance, education behavior and cognitive skills and attitudes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
In addition to having an immediate impact on student success, what a child eats for snack could have long-term implications, as well.
“You’re establishing their eating patterns even at an early age,” Ms. Safford said.
What children eat as they grow and develop will influence how they eat when they enter adulthood.
“If we train our children to eat healthier, they will make good choices as they grow up,” Mrs. Ripps said.
I’ve started making different choices at the grocery store when I buy snacks for my kids: more rice cakes and cheese sticks rather than cookies. Next, I plan to explore protein shakes and healthy foods I can prepare in bulk on Sundays, like a granola mix, to make snack preparation easier throughout the week.
I have a feeling my children’s teachers are silently thanking me.
Quick, easy and healthy snacks
Crunched for time? Give these suggested snacks a try.
Vegetables with hummus or ranch dressing
Berries and yogurt
Apple slices and peanut butter
Apple slices coated in cinnamon
Fruit and cheese
Protein shake (without dairy, soy or whey)
Popcorn with no butter or salt
Milk in a thermos
Rice cakes topped with peanut butter or cream cheese and sliced strawberries
Safe Snack Guide
Packing healthy snacks becomes a bit more complicated when considering food allergies, either your child’s or those of a classmate.
Check out the Safe Snack Guide published by SnackSafely.com. It is a list of commonly available snacks that are free of peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. The free guide is updated throughout the year by contacting the manufacturers directly, so each downloaded copy does have an expiration date. The guide includes many categories, including granola/trail mixes, cereal bars and peanut butter alternatives.
Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons, both of whom have been finding healthier snacks in their backpacks since she began researching this article.