Karen M. Chapman
Nutrition Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Illinois Cooperative Extension

Copyright/Access Information

Snacking has a bad reputation in today's society. The importance of eating regular meals has been stressed so much that frequent snacking may be seen as a bad thing. However, meals and snacks for preschoolers should be viewed differently.

Preschoolers, of course, are smaller than adults. Their stomachs just cannot hold as much food at one time as an adult's can. For this reason, they need to eat more often than we do. Also, when children are active, they require more calories. Preschoolers aren't growing as rapidly as when they were infants, but they still need about 1,300 calories per day. If their activity level is moderate to high, they should probably take in even more calories. Snacks provide an estimated 20 to 25 percent of a preschooler's total energy intake.

Consider, too, that a preschooler's typical day is very different from an adult's. The preschooler's day has many more social “events” than an adult's day. Activities that revolve around food are a very important way to learn social skills. Providing frequent opportunities for preschoolers to eat with other children and adults meets their nutritional needs, and it provides opportunity for socialization.

So, snacking is fine – even good – for preschoolers, but all snacks are not equal! Because snacks provide almost one-fourth of a child's food intake, they should be nutritious. Nutritious snacks will help children to get all the vitamins and minerals they need each day. To make wise choices, use the food pyramid when you are planning snacks and meals. This useful tool will help you provide the children with the correct number of servings from the dairy, fruit, vegetable, and grain groups.

Snacking has also been attacked for increasing cavities. The two main factors that increase the risk of cavities are the length of time that food is in a child's mouth and the amount of sugar that is in the food. If a food is sticky or is sucked on, it stays in the mouth longer. Foods like caramel-covered popcorn and suckers are more likely to cause cavities. Some foods that are a problem when they are eaten alone are not such a problem when they are eaten as part of a meal. During a meal, teeth have a better chance of being “cleaned” of sugary substances by other foods and liquids. The best plan is to keep sticky foods like dried fruits as part of the meal and give fresh fruits or plain popcorn as a snack. And don't forget to teach children to brush their teeth every time they eat.

Although nutritious foods are best for a child's snacks and meals, don't eliminate certain other foods completely. Denying a child birthday cake, Halloween candy, or Christmas cookies may make the child want those foods more often. This is also true of foods like french fries, chips, or cookies. These foods do provide calories, which the preschoolers may need! As long as other nutrient requirements are met, extra calories usually won't hurt an active child. Including these foods occasionally may also teach the child about moderation, and that's something they'll need to practice later in life!

Remember that children model their parents, teachers, and other older children and adults. If you choose healthy snacks for yourself, a child who is watching will learn about good eating habits.

What about preschoolers who skip meals and want only snacks? If the snacks are nutritious, you are helping make sure that nutritional needs are being met. Preschoolers have widely fluctuating food intakes. Don't force a child to eat. They need to learn to eat when their bodies tell them they're hungry. And don't let children use food to manipulate you. Parents and teachers can provide food, but it is up to the child to eat it. This attitude provides a balance between the structure of mealtime and freedom of choice.


(some recipes taken from Food Tips and Recipes, Better Kid Care Project, University Park, PA: Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences)

WARNING: Young children can easily choke on nuts, seeds, popcorn, raw vegetables, grapes, peanut butter, meat sticks, and hot dogs. Do not give these foods to infants. Cut foods into small, easily chewed finger food for toddlers and preschoolers who are still learning to bite and chew. Watch children of all ages closely whenever they are eating.


  • dried fruit (unsulfured)
  • chunks of fresh fruit covered with yogurt (messy but delicious!)
  • apples dipped in peanut butter
  • carrots dipped in peanut butter or cottage cheese
  • cooked veggies, plain or covered with yogurt.

Try cooked beans (green, kidney, or pinto beans) as finger foods. Pinto or kidney beans can also be cooked, blended, or mashed into a dip for crackers, bread pieces, and carrot or celery sticks.


Bugs on a Log

Make “logs” from any of these foods:

    • celery stalks (cut to about 3 inches long)
    • apples (cut in halves or quarters with cores removed)
    • carrot sticks (cut to about 3 inches long)

Top the logs with a spread:

    • cream cheese and pineapple
    • cheese and pimento
    • peanut butter
    • egg salad

Sprinkle “bugs” on the spread:

    • raisins
    • unsweetened cereal
    • sunflower seeds
    • golden raisins
    • chopped peanuts

Honey Milk Balls

1/2 cup honey or corn syrup
1 cup dry milk solids (powdered milk)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup raisins

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix well; then knead by hand until blended. Shape into small balls. Makes two dozen balls.

WARNING: Do not use honey in beverages and uncooked foods for infants under the age of one year. Honey may contain botulism toxins.

Orange Frosty

1/2 cup frozen orange-juice concentrate
1 cup milk or plain yogurt
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
4 to 5 ice cubes

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend. Makes four 1/2-cup servings. For variation, add a ripe banana, a ripe peach, or a cup of fresh strawberries.

Apple Pudding

1 cup leftover cooked rice
1 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt
1 cup applesauce
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix rice and applesauce together in a large bowl. Add cinnamon and yogurt. Stir well. Spoon into dishes and serve. Makes six 1/2-cup servings.


Juicy Finger Blocks

3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
3/4 cup boiling water
1 12-oz. can frozen apple, orange, grape, or other juice concentrate

Dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Add juice and stir until mixed. Pour into a lightly greased 9 x 13 inch cake pan. Chill in the refrigerator about 2 hours until firm. Cut into squares or use cookie cutters to make shapes. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Homemade Popsicles

Freeze any fresh fruit juice (except pineapple juice which does not freeze well) and pour it into small paper cups or ice cube trays. Insert popsicle sticks. Freeze until solid. Remove popsicle from cup by running under hot water for about 10 seconds. Blending yogurt with fruit juice is another option.

Cookies and Milk

Don't eliminate cookies from your list of snack foods! Take your favorite cookie recipes and make them more nutritious by:

  • reducing sugar. Use half the amount of sugar in the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, reduce that amount to 1/2 cup.
  • reducing fat. Use one-third the amount of fat in the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup of shortening, oil, or margarine, reduce that amount to 2/3 cup.
  • adding fiber. Replace all or part of the white flour called for in a recipe with whole-wheat flour or rolled oats put through a blender.

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