By Sally Squires
Monday, August 20, 2007
Snack time. Those two simple words can strike terror into the hearts of parents who often provide food for classrooms and after-school practices and games.
The homemade cupcakes that once were as standard as stay-at-home moms are no longer an option in many school districts. Concerns about food safety have banned most home-cooked food, since family kitchens rarely meet the Food and Drug Administration's standards for food preparation.
Food allergies add more complications. An estimated 2.2 million U.S. schoolchildren are allergic to foods including peanuts, milk and soy, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. For this reason, a growing number of schools require that the ingredients of all food served in classrooms and after-school programs be labeled.
And in this era of childhood obesity, there is the added challenge of serving snacks that are healthful but still tempting enough that kids will eat them.
Daunting? You bet. To see whether it's possible to find healthful store-bought snacks that kids will eat, I recruited 29 third- and fourth-graders from H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Northwest Washington for a taste test. We met at the private Maret School, where the Cooke students participated in a summer enrichment program.
There was no shortage of snacks for them to try. In 2006, Americans spent $25.6 billion on potato chips, pretzels, peanuts, beef jerky and other snacks, according to the Snack Food Association. Trouble is, many of the most popular snacks can be high in fat, added sugar and sodium, and low in nutritional value.
The taste test included 16 snacks that contained about 100 calories per serving -- an amount that nutrition experts say is appropriate for a child. Each snack was also low in added sugar. All had little or no unhealthy trans fat or saturated fat, and contained at least one nutritional attribute: fruit, vegetable, fiber, whole grain, calcium or protein.
Convenience also factored in: Few teachers or coaches have the time or inclination to serve messy snacks or worry about portion sizes. So only single-serving snacks or products that could be easily divided were included.
Cost counted, too: Our items ranged from a few cents to more than $1 per serving.
All the children were eager to taste the snacks. That didn't surprise Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in the District.
"Adults underestimate kids and their willingness to eat healthy foods," says Wootan, who recalls how her daughter's kindergarten teacher asked her to refrain from bringing fruit or vegetables as snacks. "Some kids just won't eat them," the teacher told her.
Wootan ignored the teacher's request. The kids not only liked the pineapple and other healthful treats, but some parents thanked her for introducing their children to foods they had been reluctant to try.
"If you take an extra step to make it seem special or fun, kids are very receptive to new foods," says Marlene Schwartz, director of research and school programs at Yale University's Rudd Center and co-author of several food studies in Connecticut middle schools.
Just don't force kids to choose between cookies and carrots. But if the option is between fruit and whole-grain crackers with cheese, either choice is a winner.
Here are some key results of the Lean Plate Club snack taste test, in which children rated snacks from 1 (great) to 5 (yuck) and indicated whether they would like their parents to buy them for home. (See the full results in the illustration at right, and view brief video comments from some of the participants at www.leanplateclub.com.)
Winners: Snyder's 100 Calorie Pretzel Snaps and Nature Valley Oat and Honey Crunch Granola Bars tied for first place as the best of 16 snacks tested. The granola bars clock in at 90 calories each but come two to a packet, so be sure to split them.
Third place: Quaker Mini Delights 90 Calorie Pack. These multigrain snacks had a chocolate drizzle that proved popular with testers but also packed 3.5 grams of saturated fat per serving, so it would be best to alternate them with healthier options.
Del Monte Mandarin Oranges came in fourth on taste, proving that fruit can be a popular snack. Trader Joe's Low Sodium Gourmet White Popcorn snagged fifth place.
Other favorites included Chips Ahoy 100 Calorie Chewy Granola Bars, SunChips 100 Calorie Mini Bites Cinnamon Flavor, Jell-O Fat-Free Chocolate Vanilla Pudding, Yoplait Kids Banana and Strawberry Yogurt Drink, Wheat Thins 100 Calorie Toasted Mini Chips, Mott's Organics Original Apple Sauce, Del Monte Tropical Fruit Cups and Earthbound Farm Organic Carrots With Ranch Dip.
Least favorite: Sargento Chipotle Cheddar Cheese Sticks. Eleven testers found them too spicy. Trader Joe's Granny Smith Dried Apple Rings got yucks from seven kids for their unfamiliar texture. Seven children also rated Tribe Hummus and Crackers With Sweet Roasted Peppers as "yuck," although two testers gave them the highest rating and three said they'd like to eat them at home.
Join Sally Squires to chat about snacks and other nutrition topics from 1 to 2 p.m. today at www.leanplateclub.com.
Ask her a question on the air on Monday at 2:40 p.m. and Tuesday at 6:20 a.m. on WTWP radio, 1500 AM, 107.7 FM and on the Web at www.washingtonpost.com/radio. Or call 877-POST-107.