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Food & Fitness

How to Handle After-School Hunger

School projects and permission slips aren’t the only things your little ones bring home from school. If they’re like most kids, they have pretty large appetites too. Since their hunger level can range from light grazer to ravenous meltdown-monster, it helps to be armed with snack staples and strategies. After-school snack time is the perfect opportunity to teach your kids important life lessons without saying a word. By structuring the day to prevent ravenous hunger, keeping them hydrated, offering fun, healthy food, and honoring their hunger and developmental stage, you can:

  • teach your child to have a healthy relationship with food;
  • provide nourishment; and
  • promote independence and creativity.

Prevent “Ravenous” Hunger
Many kids come home starving because they haven’t eaten enough to fuel their day, says Angie Hasemann, Clinical Dietitian at the University of Virginia Children’s Fitness Clinic. Making sure breakfast is a staple of your child’s morning routine sets them up for success. It can be as simple as granola and yogurt or as nontraditional as leftover veggie pizza on a whole-wheat crust. Aim for a mix of protein (like dairy, eggs, nuts), fiber (think fruits, veggies, and whole grains), and a little fat to keep them full.

If you pack lunch, check if they’re getting too little food—or too much. Have them bring home leftovers and ask how they feel after lunch—are they still hungry? Is there something you always pack that they never eat? Sometimes small children can be so overwhelmed by large portions that they don’t touch any of their lunch. As with breakfast, if you balance their meal with protein, fiber, and some fat, you can rest assured they’re getting the right mix of nutrients to meet their needs.

Rule Out Thirst
Since thirst can masquerade as hunger, ensure they’re not confusing the two, advises Hasemann. Tuck a water bottle into their backpack and offer a cup when they get home. To encourage hydration, Hasemann suggests adding a bit of fun: kids give a toast before the family drinks their water or use silly-shaped straws. Jane Dickinson’s kids, Polly, age six, and Teddy, age four, eat better if they have a “fancy” drink—one with ice cubes. They pick a fun-colored cup and choose how many ice cubes go inside. If your kids aren’t excited about plain ice cubes, try novelty molds (think Darth Vader and shark fins) or freeze cubes with berries inside.

Quick Prep. Slow Snacking.
When we eat slowly, we’re less likely to overeat. Some foods and presentations prompt kids to slow down, while encouraging independence and creativity. Fruits like clementines and pomegranates make them work for their reward. If your child isn’t old enough to peel an orange, you can start the peel or help divide the fuit in sections.

Many kids will eat otherwise reviled vegetables if they come with a dip. Whether carrot sticks and hummus or peppers in ranch dressing, dips are fun and help make vegetables palatable to bitter-sensitive children. Dickinson’s kids always ask for “dippers”—their favorite type of snack.

Hasemann also recommends combination snacks with two or three components. Offering a variety seems like more food and gives kids the freedom to eat creatively. A handful of crackers, some grapes, and a few cheese slices are full of opportunities—smooshed grape sandwiches and cheese towers look like playtime to them, and a balanced snack to you.

Kathleen Loftus, the mother of two young boys, says her biggest challenge is getting food on the table quickly. Dickinson, who feels the same pressure, suggests always having baby carrots or an apple corer for quick slices on hand. Minimally processed foods like whole-wheat pita, hummus, cheese sticks, granola, yogurt, and whole-grain crackers are all ready-to-go healthy snacks.

Forget Perfection
Every day isn’t perfect—some days, snack time will be more balanced and peaceful than others. Food jags, fear of new foods, and fluctuating hunger levels are all normal. The best thing to do is pull back, not react, and keep offering healthy, balanced choices. Kids are born with innate senses of fullness and hunger; if you give them scheduled meals and snacks as well as healthy food options, they will take care of what and how much they eat from what’s offered. Snacks are a stepping-stone between lunch and dinner—they don’t need to be “full” from their snack, advises Hasemann, just not hungry anymore.

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