They say, “Be wary of the middle aisles of the grocery store.” Who is the mysterious “they?” And what happens in the middle?
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“They” are dietitians and health professionals who know processed foods dwell in the middle aisles (usually at eye-level). “Processed foods often have few health benefits and are often full of additives and sugar,” says pediatric dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD.
“Parents may reach for them because they’re convenient to serve — but there are plenty of healthy finger foods out there. You just have to know where to look.”
How to spot processed foods
Processed foods are, not surprisingly, packaged in a way that entices kids — lots of colors and cute characters. Hyland says some boxed foods are perfectly appropriate, but not if the ingredient list is extremely lengthy and you can’t make out what many of the words mean.
Instead, choose packaged items with the fewest ingredients, such as tortilla chips made from corn, olive oil and salt. These are typically less processed.
Perishable foods requiring minimal effort are your best choice. If necessary, you can pair them with lightly processed foods for a healthier-than-the-drive-thru snack.
Try these combos:
- Mandarin orange, strawberries or banana with vanilla yogurt for dipping.
- Pod-type veggies like snap peas or edamame.
- Carrots or cherry tomatoes with yogurt-based ranch dip.
- Zucchini or bell pepper strips with a side of hummus.
- Lightly salted cooked sweet potato chunks or carrot fries with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Salsa served with tortilla chips.
- Apples and pears with nut butter for dipping.
Take advantage of these dairy or healthy fat options:
- Avocado chunks or guacamole served with minimally processed tortilla chips.
- Cottage cheese (with or without fruit).
- Greek yogurt tubes.
Whip up some healthy, freezable treats
“You can have a lot of fun cooking with the kids to make your own grain-based snacks,” says Hyland. “It takes a little more effort, but if you make a batch and throw them in the freezer, they’ll be easy to grab and will thaw on the go.”
- Whole grain mini muffins — zucchini, chocolate, banana or blueberry.
- Cooked and refrigerated portions of pasta made from whole grains or beans — it’s totally fine to serve them cold with a side of marinara sauce for dipping.
- Whole grain waffles or pancakes with natural peanut butter.
- Homemade granola bars (or the less-processed granola bars that use natural sweeteners, like dates, typically found in the natural food aisles).
Healthy proteins are other easy options when you make them ahead of time. Try:
- Quinoa bites made with broccoli and cheese.
- Hard-boiled eggs.
- Mini meatballs made from chicken, turkey or lean beef.
- Tuna or chicken salad served with a side of crackers.
- Hummus (you can also buy this at the store) and thin pretzels.
- Tofu strips with a saucy side.
With fresh foods, size matters
Keep choking hazards in mind when selecting finger foods. “A child’s windpipe is about the size of their pinky finger. Cut food length wise so it’s thin enough to pass easily,” says Hyland. “For the youngest kids, peel and cook fruits and veggies so you can mash them with a fork or your child can easily gum them.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends avoiding these foods for younger children:
• Raw vegetables like carrot sticks.
• Whole nuts.
• Whole grapes or cherry tomatoes.
• Popcorn or chips.
• Meats that are tough to chew.