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Healthier Snack Bars for Kids

Nutrition components to consider when kids need a quick refuel.

Parents know that the right gear is important for winter days outdoors. When kids are warm and comfortable, they’ll stay out longer and get more exercise, and the same is true when their bellies are full.

Snack bars are easy to zip into a coat pocket and pull out when hunger hits. When it comes to finding healthier options, though, “Not all bars are created equal,” according to Torie Silverstone, clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital Colorado, and Jaime Moore, a pediatrician that focuses on nutrition at Children’s Hospital Colorado. To help sustain kids’ energy and satisfy them while providing nutrition for outdoor play, follow these expert guidelines when picking snack bars for kids.

What To Look For in a Snack Bar

Silverstone and Moore suggest bars with at least four grams of protein. “Protein is an important component because it helps achieve a sensation of fullness, provides important fuel for sustained energy and activity, and helps to build muscle tissue.” Louisville-based Judy Converse, a licensed registered dietitian/nutritionist who operates, suggests looking for bars with at least six grams of protein per bar. “Twelve is even better,” she says.
Evenly distributed nutrients.
“Protein by itself is a lousy and inefficient fuel, especially for kids,” Converse says. “They need healthy clean carbs to grow and gain well—this spares protein for growth and tissue repair. And they need fats and oils, too, for energy and many other demands while growing.” Look for an even distribution of macronutrients on the bar’s label—meaning, some carbs, some protein, and some fat—with smaller gaps between the numbers. (For example, 14 grams protein, 12 grams carbs, and 13 grams fat in a bar would be an even distribution.)
Organic and Non-GMO.
“Yes, pesticides matter,” says Converse, noting that kids with ADHD have more pesticides in their urine than kids without ADHD, according to data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Fiber…can promote feeling full longer and support healthy digestion,” say Silverstone and Moore. Look for bars with two grams of fiber or more. Be aware, though, one type of fiber called inulin can cause stomach upset in some people, according to Silverstone and Moore.
Simple Ingredients.
Seek out brands that use whole food ingredients instead of refined sugars and supplemental protein powders, says Dana Angelo White, registered dietitian and certified athletic trainer, in an article for

What To Avoid

Added sugar.
Silverstone and Moore suggest looking for bars with less than 10 grams of total sugar. “Added sugar is not the best type of fuel to support the body during longer outside play,” say Silverstone and Moore. “The body is very good at storing unused sugar, which can lead to problems including unhealthy weight gain.” Look for a separate line on nutrition labels for added sugars.

Converse suggests passing on bars where the first ingredient is cane sugar, in addition to those that are mostly sweeteners, like rice syrup, corn syrup, honey, sugar, maple syrup, and little else. “Even if they’re organic and beautiful, that’s great, but if they are still mostly sugar, that isn’t doing much good,” she says.

Mostly carbohydrates.
“Skip bars with big carb counts and little else,” says Converse. If a bar contains, for example 24 grams of carbs, but only 2 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat, it’s not the best choice for kids’ nutrition.
Caffeine should be avoided for kids under 12, and can cause numerous problems including increased anxiety, sleep problems, and issues with concentration, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Remember It’s a Snack

Silverstone and Moore caution that some bars have a calorie content that is more appropriate for a meal instead of a snack. “If your child will be eating a meal within the next two hours, keep the calorie content in bars around 150 (sometimes half of a bar is all you need),” they suggest. “If the outdoor activity will last a while longer or is high intensity, it may be appropriate for calories to be as high as 200.”

Converse advises that you shouldn’t rely on snack bars as meal replacements. “Give bars intermittently [when] on the go,” she says. “Make bars less of your kids’ intake, and let the real food be more of it.”

5 Bars To Try

In her work with kids who have health and developmental challenges and food allergies, Converse says that “there is no one best bar out there—it’s what is best for that child.” Plus, a balanced, nutrient-rich bar doesn’t matter much if your child doesn’t love it or eat it reliably. These bars meet some of the same standards valued by our experts, and can be found at local stores.

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