When it comes to choosing snacks for your kids, it’s a minefield out there.  Not only are the conventional choices nutritional wastelands (see Think Snack TIME not Snack FOOD), but many items are too big and/or have too many calories.

Consider this:

One small box of Goldfish Crackers – the kind that looks like a small milk carton — contains 2 ounces of crackers.

If your 2-3-year old child eats the whole box, not hard to do considering how small it is, he’ll have consumed 1/2 his daily allowance of grains.  Not only that, but he’ll have eaten 280 calories too. That’s roughly 1/4 of his total calories for the day.  (By comparison, one can of Coke has only 140 calories.)

Add one Horizon low fat chocolate milk or one YoBaby drinkable banana yogurt (both 180 calories) to the menu and your child will have consumed 460 calories in snacks — roughly 40% of his daily calories.  (Click to see USDA estimated daily calorie needs by age.)

And what about those bagels our kids clamor for?  They’re a disaster.

A typical plain bagel, like the one you would get at Panera …

is 3.75 oz – equivalent to the 100% of the recommended portion of grains for 2-3 year olds.

has 290 calories without cream cheese.  Add 200 calories if you spread on the contents of the 2-ounce container of cream cheese that Panera sells with their bagels.  That’s a whopping 490 calories — almost 1/2 a toddler’s recommended daily intake.

And bagels that are more interesting than the plain ones? Most of these weigh in at over 4 ounces.

Panera’s Blueberry bagel + cream cheese = 530 calories.

Their Whole Grain bagel + cream cheese = 570 calories.

A Cinnamon Crunch bagel + cream cheese = 630 calories.

Who would have thought that a bagel and cream cheese could have more calories than pizza?  Check this out:

A typical slice of cheese pizza, like the one you would get at Pizza Hut

has between 190 and 230 calories if the slice comes from a medium pizza. (Calories depend upon the type of crust)

has between 260 and 320 calories if the slice comes from a large pizza.

So how big should your child’s snack actually be?

Unfortunately, there are no specific guidelines for snacking because there are so many ways to divvy up your kid’s daily allotment of calories, and it’s the bottom line that matters.

Having said that, the USDA recommends basically the same snack pattern for all preschool kids (or those consuming 1600 or less) and the snacks never have more than 200 calories, and they usually have fewer. (See sample meal and snack patterns.)

So what should you do?  Before you go crazy reading nutrition labels, and adding up all the calories in your kid’s diet, simply think about what you want your child to learn about snacks.  What kinds of foods?  How much?  How filling?  How do you want your child to eat when older? Decide and then choose items accordingly. Remember, you’re shaping habits for a lifetime and what your kid gets used to now will determine patterns for a longtime to come.

I recommend the following strategies because these are the lessons you want your kids to learn:

  • Keep snacks light.  Think of them as little islands that tide your child over until the next meal.
  • Use processed “snack” foods as treats and when you serve them limit other extras like cookies.
  • Serve substantial foods such as bagels at meal time, rather than at snack time.

Remember, it’s not so much what you feed, as what you teach, that matters.