A Unique Child

Why Sensible Snacking is Essential for Children in the Early Years

Nutritious snacks are an essential part of young children’s diet, says Nigel Denby – but be sure to leave crisps and cakes for special occasions…

Snacking for children has always been a contentious issue, especially when it comes to healthy eating. Is snacking good or bad? Does it encourage poor mealtime habits? And, of course, if you are going to snack, what do you choose?

The consensus of opinion from nutrition professionals is that three meals a day plus two planned snacks is a perfectly healthy model for a good, balanced diet. Furthermore, the weight of the scientific research suggests that planned snacking improves the overall quality of the diet. The theory is that regular snacking on ‘healthy’ foods reduces the likelihood of unconscious grazing on less healthy foods like confectionery, biscuits and salty savoury snacks. It’s why snacks are featured in most diet and healthy eating plans that you see in magazines and newspapers.

For young children, planned snacks are not just a good idea, they’re essential. Snacks are opportunities to include more nutrients in the daily diet like iron, calcium and vitamins. They also offer the chance to top up children’s energy levels.

Still not convinced?

Consider the average three-year-old, who needs around 1,480 calories per day (that’s just 500 calories less than an adult woman). Then think about all the times that toddler may not eat all of his or her meal, or will refuse to eat his or her meal at all. What about the times when they feel under the weather and go off their food? Children have small stomachs, about the size of their clenched fist, so they may not achieve all the nutrients they require for health and development from three main meals alone. As such they need nutrient-dense snacks to top up, and the best choices are those that are low in sugar (to prevent tooth decay) and low in added salt.

You can prepare and serve a wide range of healthy snacks in the nursery without adding to an already busy cook’s workload. Home-made scones, muffins and dips are great snack options, but there are masses of fantastic off-the-shelf options too. When you plan your menu it is a good idea to include snacks in your planning – that way you can use convenient snacks on days when the main meals are a little more time consuming and keep home-made snacks for lighter workload days.

Remember, too, that most home-made snacks can be made in bulk and frozen until they’re needed. Planning snacks into your menu is also the best way to prevent the same snacks being served day after day!

Quick and easy snacks

Fruit – bite-size chunks, cubes or slices of apple, banana, kiwi, melon, strawberries, peaches or any seasonal fruit. Involving children in preparing fruit snacks can be a really helpful way to encourage them to eat more fruit, too.

Crudités – carrots, peppers, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and courgette. Using veggies at snack times can be an effective way to encourage some children to try vegetables they would usually avoid at mealtimes. Again, try to get them involved in preparing veggies for snack-time.

A note on fresh fruit and crudités snacks

Despite being very healthy choices, fruit and crudités are quite low in energy or calories. It’s not advisable to only serve these options for snacks. Instead, include a combination of fruit, crudités and other more energy-dense snacks throughout the week.

Other snacks to try:

● Toast, rolls, French bread – with a small amount of unsaturated spread. Use a mixture of white, wholemeal and granary breads so you don’t overload children with fibre.

● Mini sandwiches – with egg mayonnaise, banana, cheese, tuna or thin ham, chicken or beef.

● Try mashed sardines; you’ll be surprised how many children will eat them!

● Pita bread slices – with spread, cream cheese or hummus.

● Bread sticks – with soft cheese, guacamole.

● Oat cakes/rice cakes/crisp breads/melba toast – plain or with spread or cream cheese.

● Full fat natural yoghurt – with stewed fruit.

● English muffins, plain or potato scones, cheese scones, crumpets, pancakes, plain buns and plain pop-corn are all good choices.

Try to make sure that some of your snacks include more than one food group – plain bread sticks, for instance, will only include carbohydrate. Serve bread sticks with hummus or cream cheese, on the other hand, and you introduce protein. Add some grapes of cherry tomatoes and another food group is included. Mixing food groups is one of the best ways to ensure that you are including more nutrients.

Here are some more examples:

● Canned peaches in juice with natural yoghurt (fruit and protein)

● Wholemeal pancakes with apple slices (carbohydrate and fruit)

● Bread fingers with tuna pate (carbohydrate and protein)

● Cheese chunks with crackers and grapes (protein, carbohydrate and fruit).

What about less healthy snacks?

Ideally, foods such as confectionery, crisps, biscuits and cakes should not be served regularly as snacks. If they are ever served in the nursery they should be kept for special occasions such as Christmas or birthday parties, etc.

Home-made cookies, sweet muffins and cakes may be served as snacks, providing they are made from sugar-reduced recipes. The recipes here have been adapted for your nursery.

Pitas, dips & crudités


Humous: 600g chick peas, canned in water, drained and rinsed; 4 cloves garlic, peeled; 4 tbsp sunflower or olive oil; juice of 1 lemon (20ml); 1 tsp ground cumin; 20g chopped fresh parsley.

Guacamole: 1 large ripe avocado, peeled and stoned; 100g chopped tomatoes; 1 finely chopped spring onion; 1 tsp lemon juice; 1 tsp paprika.

Cream cheese & chives: 300g full fat cream cheese; 20g finely-chopped chives.

Mackerel paté: 2 skinned smoked mackerel fillets; pepper; 200g cream cheese (full fat); 1 tbsp lemon juice.


20 cherry tomatoes (300g); 2 carrots (200g), peeled and cut into sticks; 2 peppers (320g), deseeded and cut into strips.

What you do:
To make the dips of your choice, simply blend the ingredients together in a food processor. Serve the children 1 dessert spoon of the dips with a mixture of the crudités and a toasted pita bread cut into strips (the ingredients above will serve 10 children).

Nigel Denby is a chef, a registered dietician and the founder of Grub4Life.