I often get asked about snacks and practical ways that busy families can ensure that their pantry is healthy and nutritious. Children come home from school absolutely ravenous and because we’re often busy, we don’t always have something prepared and have to resort to convenience foods.
In many cases, these packaged convenience snacks can contain little nutritional value, low fibre, high sugar and can often can come loaded with artificial colours and preservatives.
Trying to juggle the nutrition element with the convenience factor can feel like an ongoing challenge for many families – especially for those with picky or fussy eaters. With a few simple swaps and some strategies in place, there are most definitely ways to overcome this issue and create a healthy pantry.
One of the first things I mention to families in my clinic and at workshops, is the importance of being able to understand and read product ingredient labels. This is a great way to arm ourselves with purchasing power and nutritional knowledge when at the shops or even browsing online. It’s also something that I feature in depth in my book: Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook.
It's the food that's in the home that we have the most control and influence over - so ensuring that the pantry options on offer are as nutritious as possible goes a long way towards healthy food choices. Here are some practical tips for a healthy pantry:
1. Simple swaps.
Focus on your staples and try to swap anything white for a wholemeal version. For example, if your child likes to have a sandwich or a handful of crackers when they come home from school, simply swapping out white bread or wheat crackers for a high quality whole grain option will immediately boost their nutritional intake.
Replacing processed, high sugar chocolate or jam spreads with nutritious nut butters and homemade options like my Healthy Chocolate Spread or the Wholesome Child Raspberry and Chia jam, which is free from processed sugars. Also consider substituting commercial sauces for easy and simple homemade options that are lower in sugar and sodium. See my Homemade Tomato Sauce recipe.
Swapping out milk chocolate for dark chocolate (which has more nutritional benefit and is less likely to be demolished as quickly) or substituting standard lollies with options that are free from preservatives and nasties are other gradual changes that can make a difference.
2. Think like your child.
Assess what’s at eye level for your child and what they would see first. In many cases, what the eye sees the tummy wants (which is true for most adults, too!). A simple and helpful strategy could be to move less nutritious options to higher shelves, or packed into plastic containers and to keep healthier snack options at lower, more accessible levels.
LISTEN: If your kids are taking a popper and a cupcake to school, watch out. You might get a note home from the sugar police. Post continues after audio.
3. Resist the temptation to stock “single serve” convenience snacks.
Try and avoid the temptation to stock up on the single serve portions of flavoured crackers, biscuits, popcorn and chocolate. These types of snacks, which are aimed at kids, are often loaded with sugar, salt, flavourings, preservatives and other hidden nasties and mostly arrive in bright and sparkly packaging - leaving natural whole foods appearing and tasting bland in comparison. They are also harmful for the environment and expensive in comparison. Opt for fresh, home-made options whenever possible or buy in bulk and decant into single serves– you get to control the portion size.
4. Opt for fresh wherever possible.
As much as possible, direct your child to the fridge to find an accompaniment for a pantry snack. If your child enjoys their after-school crackers, encourage them to eat them with a nutritious dip such as avocado guacamole or some homemade hummus, tzatziki or some leftover shredded chicken. Having herbs and spices on offer (rather than just salt) could help to add some variety and flavour to their dips.
Including veggie sticks such as carrots, cherry tomatoes and baby cucumbers can also make a quick and easy snack. Many parents are often pleasantly surprised by what their children will choose to eat, when they’re hungry and exposed to healthy options.
5. Get kids involved.
Both in the shopping and food preparation, involving your children can be very helpful in arming them with ideas around fresh, healthy ingredients that go well together and that they enjoy. Getting them involved with food preparation helps to create a positive association with nutritious food and teaches them fundamental principles that will make them more independent. This will give them confidence and the ability to create their own healthy snack options, without demanding the simplicity of convenience snacks.
6. Easy does it.
As with everything children and nutrition related, I always encourage a gradual and slow approach. It’s not necessary to bin all your children’s favourite snacks in one go. I’d suggest following the above tips at a pace that best suits you and your family. Many children adapt to change slowly, so it’s important to celebrate any positive change - however small. Consistency and perseverance is key.
Here are some healthy food ideas for your pantry:
This is nutritious, easily made at home and stores well in an airtight container. Homemade popcorn means that you have more control over the amount of salt used.
Whole grain bread or crackers.
A simple and versatile option that can easily be paired with nutritious high quality nut butters, healthy spreads or contents from the fridge. The Flaxseed Crackers recipe in my book on page 185 is a gluten-free, nut-free and vegan friendly option that’s packed with healthy fats and fibre and can last in an airtight container for up to 14 days.
These are an ideal nutritious option that are easily and inexpensively made at home. Great for lunch boxes too, these can be stored in an airtight container for after school snacks. See my recipe for Apricot and Coconut Muesli Bars.
Homemade trail mix.
This is a good one to get the kids involved with. I recommend using a selection of unsalted nuts and seeds (like almonds, cashew nuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds) including a handful of raisins or goji berries, some puffed quinoa and even some lightly salted popcorn. My children love to make this and snack on it in the afternoons. It keeps for weeks in an airtight container. For the school lunchbox, I simply leave out the nuts.
Canned fish in spring water.
My favourite options include skipjack tuna, sardines and wild salmon – they can be included in a sandwich, enjoyed with crackers or mixed with pasta for a quick and healthy pasta salad.
Legumes and beans are a brilliant way to boost protein and they count as a veggie serve too. Offer them as is, or drizzle with olive oil and bake for a roasted crunchy treat.
My kids love munching on plain seaweed or using them to create their own nori wraps. They can be purchased in single serve packs, however it’s just as easy to buy the full sized sheets and cut them into small squares – a far more economical option!
Homemade cereals and granola.
Many children like to have cereal as an after school snack. In my book I have a Quick Homemade Granola recipe (wheat and nut free) as well as a healthy recipe for Chocolate Rice Puffs (gluten and nut-free) - an ideal nutritious swap for children who love their chocolate cereal.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can easily slow cook fruit in the oven to achieve a similar effect. Thinly sliced apple slices take two hours or less in the oven to transform into crisp, sweet chips, free from additives you often find in store-bought options.
Healthy biscuits and cookies.
I’m definitely an advocate of balance. So long as they are portion controlled, having a stash of nutritious sweet snacks is often very well received! Some of my most popular recipes include: Healthy Gingerbread Men, High Protein Peanut Butter Biscuits and Almond and Buckwheat Vanilla Biscuits.
If you’d like more practical advice on nutritional lunchbox ideas visit the Wholesome Child's website. Mandy’s book, Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook, is available for purchase online and from iTunes, or connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.
Simply visit the Wholesome Child website and enter the discount code "back2school" at checkout to receive 15% off. This offer is exclusive to books purchased through the Wholesome Child website only, is limited to one use per person and expires 12 February 2018.
LISTEN: On this episode of This Glorious Mess - our podcast for imperfect parents, we talk about bribing your way to a better morning routine, Jody Allen shares her brilliant tips.