Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Toddler Tuesday: Healthy Snackin' Ideas

   We're back!  I was hoping to post a few times while we were away last week, but was only able to squeeze in blogging on one day.  Of course it was Toddler Tuesday. :-)  We got back home yesterday afternoon and life has been hectic since then, but I'm anxious to get back into the swing of things.
    On my mind today is healthy toddler snacks.  It is oh so easy to fall into the trap of the never-ending variety of convenient processed food for your toddler's snacks. I'll admit that even me, as health-conscience as I am, have at times fallen for the ploy.  It's just so darn easy to buy those little snackers, or whatever they are called, and pop open the top and  wow! snack time is so easy.  What mom doesn't want a little bit of easy in her life?  
    Here's the thing.  Those large companies (you know the ones) have massive marketing budgets that allow smart bad guys to create ads that suck parents in.  They make you actually believe that what you are feeding your little one is "healthy".  The vast majority of the snacks you can buy in the center aisles of your grocery store are not healthy, though, my friends, not healthy at all.  
    For starters, I'm hard pressed to find one that doesn't have sugar as a top ingredient.  I have a real problem with serving my toddler (or even infant--many of these foods are targeted at the under-1 crowd) foods that has refined white sugar as a star ingredient.  Do I need to get into the problems with feeding our little ones sugar?  Maybe that's another post. 
    In addition to the sugar, processed snack foods are full of weird chemicals that need to be added to keep the food "fresh", the right texture, an appealing color, etc.  Many of these chemicals are dangerous.  Why are they allowed in food, you ask?  Isn't that what the FDA is for?  Again, the topic of another post.

   It has been shown that when we eat a lot of processed foods, our taste buds are changed and become accustomed to the strong flavors, making whole foods seem bland.  People who eat a lot of processed foods tend to need to add more salt and sugar to whole, real foods.  This is not something I want to happen to my daughter.  I want her to grow up with a taste for real, whole foods, and be able to appreciate their flavors.
   So even though I'm far from perfect in this area, my goal has been to avoid processed foods as much as possible.  Snacking is the most difficult area for me.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a breeze as I'm usually home and can whip something up that is not processed.  We often need to eat our snacks on the go, however, and this is why I've often fallen into the processed food trap.  It's just so easy and convenient to throw some Cheerios in a snack trap and head out the door.  It's just a matter of having healthy, homemade snacks on hand as much as possible.  When it's a priority, it gets done.  It isn't always easy, but I strive to make time for it.

  Here are my ideas for healthy snack alternatives  to the standard processed snack food:

1.  Organic cheese
Meghan loves cheese, and it's a good source of important nutrients like calcium, protein, and fat.  Be careful, though, as not all cheeses are created equal.  You can buy something that you may think is cheese, but is really something else.  If the cheese you are buying says "processed cheese product" or something similar, it's time to switch.  I think organic is important because I don't want my little one eating cheese that is made from a cow whose milk is tainted with antibiotics, steroids, hormones, and the pesticides that laced the food she ate.  An added bonus is that organic cheese tastes much better than non-organic.

2.  Fresh fruit
This one seems pretty obvious, but maybe it's not judging by the massive amounts of processed snacks available to parents today.  The industry is doing quite well.  I often add nut butter to apples or bananas for Meghan's snack to add a protein.  Or she'll have a bit of cheese and a few strawberries.  I try to allows add some fat and/or protein to whatever fruit I am serving so it is a more balanced snack.

3.  Fresh Vegetables with a favorite dipping sauce 
If your little one can't eat raw veggies yet, they can be lightly steamed.  Meghan likes just about any and every dipping sauce I've given her.  She has a thing with dips and sauces--my big problem right now is getting her to eat the dipper and not just suck off the dip!  Most toddlers will enjoy fresh veggies if they are accompanied with a delicious dip.  These can be so simple and easy to make--most that I make take 5 minutes.  One of Meghan's favorite dips is equal parts peanut butter, tahini, and milk.  It's great with just about any vegetable.  My Yogurt-Thyme dipping sauce is another good one.

4.  Dried fruit 
Meghan loves raisins, cranberries, apricots, and even prunes.  Dried fruits are nice because they can be travel easily.  Just be careful as dried fruits are so concentrated that the sugar content is higher than regular fruit.  You definitely want to add something to this snack to balance that sugar.

5.  Homemade bars
Rather than store-bought granola bars, that usually have unwanted ingredients (like the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup!), make some at home.  Try these fruity snack bars, or my Cinnamon Granola Balls (recipe below).  These are another great on-the-go snack.  It just takes a little planning ahead, but it's totally worth the extra time and effort (and they are actually quite easy to make!).

Cinnamon Granola Balls

1/2 cup natural peanut butter
1/4 honey
1 cup 5-grain cereal (or substitute old fashioned oats)
1/4 cup slivered almonds, crushed
1/4 cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut (not pictured)
1/4 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons melted butter (not pictured)
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  In a small saucepan, combine the peanut butter and honey.  Slowly heat over low until the peanut butter and honey are somewhat melty.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the cereal, almonds, coconut, and cranberries.

Use a rubber spatula to spoon all of the peanut butter mixture on top of the dry mixture.  Use your hands to combine the dry and wet ingredients.  Warning:  this is very sticky!!  Continue to mix until it is well combined and the mixture is sticking together.

In a small bowl, combine the melted butter and cinnamon.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (for easy clean up).  Roll your mixture into small balls, dip them into the butter and cinnamon mixture, and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes in the preheated oven.  Makes 20 balls.  Warning:  these are highly addictive!

6. Plain beans
Why not?  One day I was in desperate need of a trip to the grocery store, but it was snack time.  All I could find to give her was beans.  She loves beans (most of the time), but it'd never occurred to me to give it to her for a snack.  What a great, nutritious snack!  Beans are full of protein, fiber, and a multitude of other nutrients.  Sure, you could jazz it up and make some cool bean salad, but Meghan prefers plain beans.

7.  Smoothies
Smoothies are the go-to snack of choice around here these days.  Meghan asks for them daily, quipping "Meghan's smoothie!  Meghan's smoothie!".  I devoted a whole post to smoothies, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I will give you a new recipe that I tried today and we both loved.  (sorry, no pics)

Raspberry-Avocado Smoothie
1/4 cup plain organic yogurt
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup organic raspberries (we used fresh, but frozen would work)
1/4 of a whole avocado
1 Tablespoon ground flaxseed meal
1 Tablespoon raw honey
4-5 ice cubes

Place all ingredients in blender and mix until smooth.

8.  Carefully-selected convenience food

I know it isn't realistic to think I can have 100% of Meghan's foods be from unprocessed, whole foods.  I try to be selective when I am choosing convenience foods for her for those times when it can't be avoided.  The guidelines I use when scanning the ingredients and checking out the package:
*Look for whole grains-- For example, if you are going to buy crackers and such look for the types that are made with whole wheat flour, not just wheat flour, which is NOT a whole grain.
*Look for items with the fewest ingredients possible.  5 or fewer is ideal.
*Look for ingredients you KNOW.  If you can't pronounce it, it's probably not good.
*Low or no sugar (including "evaporated cane juice", which is unprocessed sugar, but still sugar)
*Organic doesn't always = healthy.  Some products try to trick parents with this label.  Just because the sugar that went into that cookie is organic, it's still not a great snack!

My favorite convenience foods lately are these guys:
They only have ONE ingredient!  Love it! They are just dehydrated veggies (they sell fruit too, but I only get the veggies--too many easy ways to get plenty of fruits).  Mmmmm--crunchy goodness.  Meghan LOVES these.  So do Tim and I.  The problem?  These buggers are expensive ($4.50 a pop!) and it's sooooo easy to eat them up quickly.  I think I need to invest in a dehydrator.  Let's add that to the list of kitchen gadgets on my wish list! (Vitamix, all-purpose cooker, etc, etc....)

So as you can see, healthy snacking without processed foods doesn't have to be intimidating.  And knowing exactly what your toddler is putting into his body can help you sleep easier.

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