Expert advice on what to give the kids between meals

Foods like raisins and smoothies aren’t always as healthy as you might think.

QUICK FIX: The sugar content of yoghurt and cereals vary between brands, so make sure to check the labels before popping in your shopping basket.

RICE cakes, raisins, yoghurts and smoothies — these are just some of the snacks I’ve given my children, only to later question their nutritional value.

That crisps and chocolate should be occasional treats is clear, but what about the “healthy” snacks that may not be as nutritious as they seem? 

For parents, it’s yet another minefield to navigate. Why is nutrition for kids so confusing?

“In a nutshell, there’s too much conflicting information from too many sources,” says consultant dietitian Niamh O’Connor. 

“The only legally protected title for nutrition professionals in Ireland is dietitian (RD) — so all others purporting to claim the title of nutritionist should be thoroughly checked, and this is especially important when the advice received is potentially going to affect the health of a child.”

And of course, when it comes to the health of our children, we all want to do the right thing, which is why a recent Safefood survey, which showed that 73% of parents don’t see crisps and biscuits as a treat, raised some eyebrows.

“What we found is that the underlying ‘norm’ is to have a daily dose of those foods that are non-nutritious, high in fat, sugar and salt, and with little or no nourishment,” says Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of Human Health Nutrition with Safefood. 

“Parents surveyed considered this part of the daily diet but were definitely not comfortable with it.”

But while most parents know crisps and chocolate should be given as treats, what about the in-between foods — smoothies, juices, yoghurts, cereals and granola bars — the ones that seem healthy, but may not be?

“All of these foods fall in the middle — they’re not empty calories, they are nutritious,” says Dr Foley-Nolan. 

“We’re not saying don’t have yoghurts, smoothies, or cereals that aren’t porridge but don’t have them daily. And look at the products on the shelf — check the ingredients. Find three items that are palatable to your child and choose the healthiest. 

"Nobody is staying you should have totally bland, unpalatable food — you have to live in the real world. But with anything that comes in a package — you do need to read the ingredients.”

O’Connor agrees: “The relative sugar content of fruit juices, sugar-sweetened yoghurt drinks, probiotic drinks, cereal bars, and granola-type bars varies hugely between brands, and therefore such products shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush.

“Using the front of pack traffic-light labelling per portion as a guide, consumers should quickly be able to ascertain how healthy the item is, or not, as the case my be.”

So what’s the lowdown on these “in-between” foods we often give to our hungry children?

Smoothies: There’s a wide range out there, with everything from smoothies you make yourself with crushed fruit and unsweetened yoghurt, to packaged varieties in the shop.

“There’s quite a difference between them,” says Dr Foley-Nolan. 

“Packaged smoothies tend to be higher in caloric content and tend to have sugar. 

"And there’s a myth that because you’re just crushing fruit it’s OK but even if you put a punnet of strawberries and a banana in, from a fibre perspective it’s still only one of your five a day.”

She explains that when you liberate sugars from a natural product through crushing, they’re partially digested, meaning the body has to do less work, and there’s less fibre. 

“Known as ‘free’ sugars, these have a different health profile to the intrinsic sugars found in fruit, vegetables and dairy products.”

These different types of sugars can cause confusion, says O’Connor. 

“It’s hugely important that any such sugar debate clearly distinguishes between total sugar intake, free sugars, fructose, lactose and so on.”

Fructose is found in fruit and lactose in dairy products and these “form part of a healthy diet for everyone, including children,” adds O’Connor.

Juices: Like smoothies, juices cause confusion. 

“Once the word fruit is mentioned, we console ourselves that it’s healthy, but with juices, you’ve freed the sugars. And some processed juices have sugar added,” explains Dr Foley-Nolan. “In small amounts, they have a place, but a piece of fruit is healthier — have a glass of water and a satsuma.”

Yoghurts: Yoghurt itself is nutritious, says Dr Foley-Nolan, it’s what’s added that causes problems. 

“With low- fat yoghurts, when they decreased the fat, they added sugar. Ideally plain yoghurt is best — add your own grapes, raisins, or nuts,” she advises.

Breakfast cereals: According to Dr Foley-Nolan, porridge, unsweetened muesli, and Weetabix are the healthiest options. 

“A good plan would be to have these as routine breakfasts, and then if you tend to do something different at the weekend, you could give other cereals.”

Granola bars: These are generally caloric, says Dr Foley-Nolan. 

“There’s a place for them if someone is going on a hike, or doing physical activity, but they are sugar heavy. So think of them in the same way as chocolate — if a child is having a treat and would prefer chocolate, they are equal.”

Healthy snack ideas to help keep treats as treats

  • Low-fat natural yogurt with a handful of grapes
  • Homemade popcorn
  • Beans on wholemeal toast
  • Pitta bread with tomatoes and melted cheese
  • A bowl of muesli (with no added sugar)
  • Hummus with carrot and celery sticks
  • Blueberries with Greek yogurt
  • A handful of peanuts or walnuts
  • Scrambled egg on toast
  • Wholemeal wrap ‘pizza’ with tomato purée and grated cheddar
  • A chunk of cheddar, Edam or Gouda
  • Wholemeal toast with peanut butter
  • Crackers and cheddar cheese
  • A handful of almonds
  • Slices of apple with peanut butter
  • Breadsticks with hummus
  • Wholemeal bagel with cream cheese
  • Pitta pocket ‘pizzas’ with melted buffalo mozzarella
  • Natural yoghurt with raspberries or slices of apple
  • Tuna with melted cheese on toast or pitta bread
  • Homemade frozen yogurt cubes with pieces of chopped fruit
  • Sliced banana on wholemeal toast
  • Chopped strawberries with Greek yogurt
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter
  • Cherry tomatoes and hummus

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