In the olden days—you know, way back when our young ones reliably went off to school and camp—kids complained that there was nothing to eat after a long day of classes or playing with friends, but at least you had a few hours when no one was asking you for a snack. Now, however, with everyone buzzing around the house 24/7, those youngsters are rummaging through the pantry or fridge every time you turn around.
Sure, sometimes they’re eating out of boredom—we all do it. But if your kids are the perpetual chips-and-cracker-munching sort, it’s likely they’re grazing constantly because they’re never truly satisfied. Perhaps they would benefit from more protein in their lives. Snacks that contain a balanced amount of protein, produce, and carbs can sate a child’s hunger throughout the day, research shows. Put differently, protein-packed snacks can beautifully bridge the gap between snack time and mealtime.
Protein is important for everyone but especially for active kids, notes Becca McConville, a sports dietitian and eating disorder specialist in Kansas City, KS. It fuels muscle and bone development and helps produce immune cells to fight off viruses and infections while silencing hunger pangs.
But what are the best and tastiest ways for kids to get their protein? We tapped McConville and Leslie Bonci, a nutritionist and registered dietician in Pittsburgh, PA, for strategies to help your insatiable (and yet, so picky!) little beasts get their fill.
Spread it out
Experts agree that kids should consume roughly 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight daily, but because their bodies can only use a certain amount of protein at a time, it’s important to spread that out over the course of the day. In other words, protein-packed snacks that integrate dairy, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbs are the way to go—think oatmeal with peanut butter and a side of sausage for breakfast, followed by a snack platter of fruit, hummus, and pita, a similarly balanced lunch, and so on. They’ll stay full (and happy) without going overboard.
Make it fun
To pass the picky-eating test, make protein the kind of food kids want to eat, according to Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice by Leslie and nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. “Kids love animal-based protein items like turkey or mini sausages,” she says. “They love sharable stuff like nuts, hummus, even edamame. Peanut butter can work, too—especially if you serve it with apple slices or pretzels.” Johnsonville’s two-bite Snackers fit the bill perfectly—they’re mini smoked sausages in three delicious flavors (Smoky Cheddar, Sweet & Smoky Maple, and Pizza) that are ready in 20 seconds flat and deliver 8 grams of protein per serving.
Avoid excess sugar
It’s where you’re least expecting it. Steer little ones away from protein bars and energy bars, which often have excessive amounts of the stuff, says Bonci. And since eating sugar makes you crave more sugar, keeping the sugary snacks to a minimum will help have a positive impact on their diets. A surefire win: Rather than handing kids a bar or graham crackers, swap in a high-protein bite and another food they like (cheese, please!).
Keep it easy
Snacks should be simple—to make and to eat. McConville’s rule: Parents shouldn’t spend more time preparing a snack than it takes kids to enjoy it. “Portability and convenience are important, especially on days when keeping kids’ energy levels up and staying focused can be the difference between winning or losing,” McConville says. (Yep, one day there will be sports games again!) Among her favorite options to keep on hand, at home, and on the go: dried fruit, cheese, and sausages, such as Johnsonville Snackers, yogurt, and smoothies with protein-packed oat milk.
The bottom line: Protein-packed snacks can power kids all day long. Try incorporating more of them this summer to give yourself (and your every last nerve) a break.
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