Smile, kids, it's Children's Dental Health Month. Time to shape up, clean up and clamp shut. No more sugar, no more sticky caramels and no more raisins. No more raisins? According to local dentist Jeffrey Balter, we must change our children's diets if we are to save our children's teeth. Sticky, sugary snacks should be the first to go, as sugar reacts with the bacteria in our mouths to form toxins,which in turn cause cavities.

"Of course we are dealing with alternatives here, not absolutes," says Dr. Balter. Your children are not doomed to be sourpusses. "Instead of dried fruit," he advises, "you can give your children fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream, offer ice milk or frozen juices. Instead of caramel popcorn, give regular popcorn, and instead of candy or cookies, give them pretzels and potato chips."

Cereals are another good choice. "Kids tend to like cereals, and a cereal like Cheerios is lower in sugar than you'd expect and makes a good snack," says Dr. Balter. "These substitutions seem to satisfy the kids. Popcorn or pretzels have the same crunchy feel as candy. And M&M's are so much more disastrous for their teeth. Above all, stay away from caramel, it is the worst; not only does it contain sugar but it's sticky. It keeps the sugar against the teeth."

It is important to note that sugar itself is not the culprit here, but the amount of time the sugar remains in contact with the teeth. "It's not bad in a clinical sense if they eat sugar, as long as they get the sugar off their teeth after they are finished," says Dr. Balter. "They had better brush their teeth right after or at least wash out with water; a rinse with water will help dissolve the sugar." It is also better to eat sweets as part of a complete meal rather than as a solitary snack because the other portions of the meal will help dislodge the sugar from the teeth.

And what about nature's own all-American health food?

"Raisins are so sticky," says Dr. Balter. The concentrated sugar of dried fruit adheres to the surfaces between the teeth. "Granola with raisins is not as bad as raisins all by themselves because the crunchy oats and raisins will wipe the raisins off." In any case, Dr. Balter concedes, "Raisins are better than candy."

For rewarding treats when the kids have been good, Dr. Balter suggests giving popcorn, cheese or potato chips. Not candy treats. "They are not a good alternative. The trick is to fill them up with the least deadly food." Dr. Balter believes fruit roll-ups are very bad for children's teeth. "They are sticky with added sugar, they coat the teeth, and the sugar remains on the teeth."

Cheddar cheese is a fine choice. In fact, there are studies exploring the possibility that cheddar cheese can actually work to inhibit decay.

Dr. Balter says, "Pizza is an excellent food; it has cheese, tomatoes and grains. As a snack for kids there is hardly anything that can beat it."

He is confident that sugar intake will eventually decrease because treats without sugar, including diet sodas and foods sweetened with aspartame and sorbitol, are becoming more readily available. "There are usually enough alternatives on the market to heavily sugared foods so the kids will easily switch."

"And it shows up on the checkups."

But the change must begin immediately. "When a child is 3 years old, the die can already be cast. There's a good chance he might already be hooked on sugar," says Dr. Balter. It is good to encourage good eating habits before a child is 2.

"My kids don't crave sugar, simply because we brought them up that way," says Dr. Balter.

"But do not keep them totally away from candy because then candy becomes a forbidden treat that they will go out of their way to get." If children are frequently given low-sugar alternatives, he says, they tend to develop a taste for them.

Below is a recipe for a low-sugar snack devised by Dr. Balter to treat children's cravings. Easy to make, it requires just a quick trip to the express lane to complete.

EXPRESS LANE: onion salt, garlic salt, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, popcorn, pretzel sticks and peanuts recipe. CRUNCHY PARTY MIX (Makes 2 quarts)

1/4 cup butter

1/2 teaspoon onion salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/4 teaspoon celery salt

1 1/4 tablespoons worcestershire sauce

Dash hot pepper sauce

2 quarts popped popcorn

1 1/4 cups pretzel sticks

1 1/4 cups peanuts

Melt butter over low heat. Stir in onion salt, garlic salt, celery salt, Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce, and mix thoroughly. Combine popcorn, pretzels and peanuts in a shallow baking pan, and drizzle with the butter mixture. Toss to coat pieces well. Bake in a 275-degree oven for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Cool.