Snacktime is for new foods, not just grahams and milk

"What did you have for snack this morning?" I asked my five-year-old daughter when I met her at kindergarten. "Grahams," Liza said.

"Again?" I said.

It's so easy to reach for a box of graham crackers when it's your child's turn to supply the snack for nursery school or kindergarten. Mothers who work in and outside the home don't always have time to bake three dozen cookies from scratch for a class party. Many do it anyway because they feel they should.

But more and more teachers are discouraging sweets in the classroom except for special occasions. On the other hand, a steady diet of milk and saltines or graham crackers can get pretty ho-hum.

What's the solution? It's not a good idea to eliminate snacks. Very young children need food between meals. Their energy needs are high but their stomachs are small and they often cannot consume enough food at one meal to hold them to the next. Without between-meal snacks, boys and girls may become overtired and irritable.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. For mothers of preschoolers, the trick is to make eating the adventure it can be, as well as an opportunity for learning and conversation. All you need is planning and a little imagination; you don't have to spend an hour in front of the stove or mixing bowl.

Keep in mind, for example, that young children respond well to new tastes, new colors, new odors, and new textures. Every two weeks when I do the family's grocery shopping, I bring my daughter along with me. Liza knows that she can explore the produce section of the supermarket and choose a fruit, nut, or vegetable to take to kindergarten.

In the past, she has bought a coconut in its coarse, brown wrapper; a pineapple, leaves, spines, and all; a mango; green and red peppers; a papaya; and a pomegranate, which is also known as a Chinese apple. With the exception of the mango, she tells me, each item was a hit among her classmates.

In the future, depending upon availability and the family pocketbook, we plan to buy dried fruits and nuts, kiwi, ugli fruit, yes, that's what it's called, and red bananas for her kindergarten's mid-morning snack.

Most of these foods cost less than a package of store-bought cookies. Because they are unusual and may be new to many five-year-olds, it's not necessary to provide enough to feed an army. The teacher encourages them to sample a small piece and go back for more if they like. Wrinkled noses and exclamations of "No way" are OK.

On the other hand, young children are often more accepting of new foods than you might think, particularly if they are combined with old favorites.A bunch of celery makes a good starting point. It's familiar and serves as a good stuffer. You might also send in a package of cream cheese and a container of peanut butter, along with a couple of clean ice cream sticks, and let the kids do their own spreading.

Children love finger foods and frequently prefer raw vegetables to the cooked variety. Carrot sticks, cucumber slices, chunks of raw turnip or eggplant, green pepper rings, radishes, mushrooms, and pickles are delicious plain. You can also dress them up, taking advantage of their scoop-ability. Dips made of plain yogurt mixed with dill or sweet basil, cottage cheese and chives, or sour cream and dried soup are easy to prepare, and inexpensive.

Last but not least, eating should be fun, says Libbie H. Hobart, a Cooperative Extension agent of the Farm, Home and 4-H Center in Binghamton, N.Y. Children enjoy helping. They like to add their own personal touch, whether that means slicing, mixing, drawing faces, or leaving their initials on food.

One way to carry out this idea would be to send a couple of round cookie cutters to class along with a small loaf of rye, whole wheat, or pumpernickel bread, a container of peanut butter, and a package of raisins. The children could cut out their own circles, spread them with peanut butter, and make faces on the bread, using the raisins. Coconut would work equally well.

Cereal party cups make good birthday favors for the class. The youngsters could fill their own from bowls or bags of whole-grain cereal, raisins, peanuts, and pretzels, place them in colorful baking cups, and count out the ingredients as they go along. The experience tastes good, it's healthy, and it gives the child a chance to practice working with numbers.

Here are some recipes I have worked out for my daughter's "graham cracker alternative" which are snacks kids can make with a little help from Mom. Frosty cubes

Pour any fruit juice, milk punch, or gelatin into an ice cube tray with cube inserts. Freeze for several hours. Yummy afternoon snacks for a number of children. Fruit Kabobs

Set out a variety of chunky fresh or frozen fruits: orange sections, pineapple, banana slices, apples, cherries. sprinkle with lemon or lime juice to prevent fruit from turning brown. Let children string bits of fruit on wooden ice cream sticks or toothpicks. Dip in coconut. Honey Milk Balls 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup peanut butter 1 cup nonfat dry milk 1 cup uncooked quick oats (not instant or regular)

Measure honey and peanut butter into a bowl and mix. Add and stir in milk and oatmeal. Use spoon to divide mixture into 24 balls on sheet of waxed paper. Shape each spoonful into rounded balls. No cooking or baking is necessary.

The following two recipes were chosen from the "Delicious Nutritious Snack Book," compiled by third graders at the Hyde Park Elementary School in Hyde Park , N.Y., under a nutrition education training grant from the state and federal governments. Dolores Volk, a school nurse teacher in charge of the program, said "Delicious Nutritious" is being made into a coloring book. Banana Bits 6 bananas 1/2 cup honey 1-2 tablespoons wheat germ 3-4 tablespoons chopped nuts

Slice bananas into 1-inch chunks. Roll bananas first in honey, then wheat-germ-and-nuts mixture. Place on aluminum foil on cookie sheet. Freeze for one hour. Eat frozen. Stone Soup

Put in one clean stone in pot with water. Throw in some beef bones. Now add tomatoes, potatoes, rice, celery, carrots, split peas, corn, barley, peppers, yellow and green squash, beans, onions, and cabbage. Add a little salt. Cook until done. Eat it. Don't eat the stone!

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