Tips for choosing healthy snacks for your kids
Anyone who has been around small children knows you never leave the house without snacks. While home-made is ideal, some days just call for convenience! Jenny Douglas of Jumpstart Nutrition shares how to make the healthiest choice.
Making home-cooked meals and snacks is hugely important for encouraging healthy eating for the whole family and for getting your baby and children used to the flavours of your favourite foods – but we all know life with little ones can be super busy and home-made isn't always possible!
Although they don't provide the same quality in terms of freshness and nutrients, there are times that quick commercially-prepared meals and snacks are needed. So how do you choose convenience foods that are good for your baby or toddler?
There has been a huge increase in pouched foods on the market. When it comes to food in pouches or squeezies, these can be great for travel as they do not need refrigeration and they pack easily. A lot of parents let their children feed from these pouches/squeezies directly, but this is not recommended for a number of reasons.
Firstly, this prevents your baby from becoming a ‘food explorer’. Starting on solids is an adventure for your baby and initially food is about exploration rather than a sole source of nutrition. When your baby eats from a pouch, they do not see or smell the food, nor have the opportunity to touch it. Food exploration is essential for your baby so that they can become confident eaters. Eating food involves a process which starts with seeing the food, then touching the food and then smelling the food before eating it. Pouch food takes away these steps as the food is contained in coloured plastic which baby cannot see through.
Baby food pouches also pose a potential choking risk if your baby feeds themselves with the pouch and squeezes too hard. The caps on some of the commercial food pouches are sometimes quite small too and need to be kept away from baby, as often stated on the packaging.
Because of the nature of food pouches, babies can ingest a large volume of food in a short period of time, which may lead to overeating. Eating foods fast does not allow time for natural satiety (feeling full) to be felt by your baby. It is important to maintain your baby’s natural ability to regulate food intake by allowing slow and controlled feeding.
So, as the packet usually states, it's a good idea to squeeze the pouch contents into a bowl and feed from a spoon (or let your little one get their hands into the puree for a full eating experience that allows sight, touch and smell of the food before eating!). Feed your baby at a slow and steady pace and listen to their cues on when they are finished. Respect and trust that your baby will know how much food they need to grow.
SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING COMMERCIALLY-PREPARED FOODS FOR YOUR CHILD
Most commercially-prepared baby foods are smooth purees with no lumps and do not require chewing, therefore baby is not developing oral skills through chewing that are useful for future speech development and being able to eat all types of food. To avoid delaying oro-motor function, use pouch foods as a dip for whole foods, such as cooked vegetable sticks or toast strips. You could also spread the contents of the pouch on toast fingers. As your baby gets older, mix whole foods, such as rice and cooked pasta, with the pouched foods to help baby develop their oral skills.
In the first year of life a baby is often keen to try new foods and flavours. This is a great opportunity to get your baby used to as many different foods as possible and this includes all your favourite family foods. Babies are less likely to become fussy eaters if they are exposed to a variety of different foods and flavours in the first year of life. It is not uncommon to see toddlers and older children in dietitians' clinics who are stuck on pouched foods and will not accept any family foods. Food pouches do not taste as good as home-cooked meals and are often sweet, which doesn’t help your baby develop a palate that is used to savoury/bitter flavours, such as green leafy vegetables. Therefore, keep pouched foods as occasional food and if possible, mix them with your family meal or serve alongside your family meal so that baby can explore all foods.
Sugar in foods
Commercially-prepared foods can be high in sugar. Fruit is often used in commercially prepared foods to make the taste sweeter and although fruit by itself is not sugar per se, the concern is that your baby is getting used to predominately sweet flavours in foods. Fruit pouches can contain around 3-4 teaspoons of sugar per serve, so make sure you are brushing your little one's teeth! Most commercial foods for babies do not have added sugar, apart from custard or yoghurt varieties, but check the label. Some products for older children do have sugars added and these should be kept as an occasional food.
Commercially-prepared foods rarely contain food allergens, such as nuts, wheat, dairy, soy, fish and egg. We now know that delaying the introduction of allergen foods can actually increase the risk of allergy. Allergen foods should be introduced between six and 12 months. To reduce the risk of allergy, only use pouch foods occasionally, and mix them with foods such as peanut butter, yoghurt, Weet-Bix, bread, cooked egg or fish. If your child has a diagnosed food allergy, it is important to know how to read labels and avoid foods that contain the food allergen your child needs to avoid.
Iron is an important nutrient for your baby and child as it plays a vital role in growth and development. At eight months old, your baby needs as much iron as their dad, so it’s important to offer iron foods at most mealtimes. In a recent study published in 2021 by the University of Otago, commercial baby food was analysed for its nutritional adequacy. The study found that iron was low in many of these products, and that your baby would need to have 14 pouches of food to meet their iron requirements – that’s a lot of pouches!
Commercially-prepared foods often come in plastic pouches or packaging that's difficult to recycle. Choose packaging that can be recycled in your local area, for example the ones in glass containers, or even better, cook from home and put the food in reusable pouches/containers/kai carriers that you can wash and use multiple times. Packaged foods can often come in quantities that are too large for your child, which can lead to a lot of food wastage as they don't last long once opened, so choose a suitable size for your little one's age and stage. Or make sure you only portion the amount you think they'll eat and leave the rest for later on that day, or you could freeze it.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON A FOOD LABEL
Packaging on the front can be misleading as often words such as ‘organic’, ‘low sugar’ or ‘natural’, along with colours such as green (which makes you think foods are healthy). But food in plain packaging is not necessarily less healthy. It’s what’s written on the back that gives you the full picture.
Packages can have a star rating on the front, giving you an indicator of whether the product is suitable for your child. A 5-star means that the product is likely to be low in sugar, salt and fat, and higher in fibre and protein.
Along with the star rating, it is useful to check the back of the package and have a look at the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so check the first three on the list. If some of the first three ingredients are salt and sugar, you may want to steer clear. It's also good to look down the list and make sure you can see ‘real’ food on there. If you can see lots of words you've never seen before or excess additives or numbers, you may want to choose another option.
Look at the nutrition information panel too. This gives you a list of energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, sugar, sodium (salt) and sometimes fibre in the product. There will be a ‘per serving’ column and a ‘per 100g’ column. It is usually easier to compare products using the ‘per 100g’ column.
SOME THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN PACKAGED FOOD
▪️ If the food is less than 10g sugar per 100g, then it is likely to be a low sugar product. However, you can allow a slightly higher sugar content if the food is made with fruit or dried fruit.
▪️ If the food contains less than 250-300mg sodium (salt) per 100g, then it is a lower salt product. For babies though, we still aim for minimal to no additional salt in their diet.
▪️ For an older child and for adults, looking for products with over 6g fibre per 100g can be great for bowel health and to keep us feeling fuller for longer. Lower fibre intakes are needed for babies and toddlers with sensitive tummies.
▪️ If the food is more than 4g protein per 100g, then it may help keep your child feeling fuller for longer and also aid growth.
▪️ For children under the age of two, we aim for full fat products and there is no need to worry about fat content on a label.
▪️ Choosing packaged foods as an occasional food alongside plenty of fresh, unprocessed family foods can still be healthy for your child, but spend the time looking over labels and ingredients to choose a quality product for your child.
EASY & HEALTHY 'ON THE GO' SNACK IDEAS
✔️ Chopped fruit
✔️ Vege sticks
✔️ Cheese sticks
✔️ Leftover dinner – blitz and place in a reusable container
✔️ Leftover patties or meatballs
✔️ Home-made popcorn
✔️ Nuts and seeds (for older children or adults)
✔️ Home baking
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 55 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW