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Healthy Snack Swaps for Kids’ Sports

It seems inevitable that if your kids are in sports, they’re going to be served snacks by other kids’ parents. It also feels inevitable that the majority will be unhealthy snacks. It’s something that drives me crazy, and I know I’m not alone–because, as I’ve mentioned before, every time I bring this up on social media, the conversation goes crazy.

There are so many reasons to simply cancel team sports snacks, and I’ve recounted those in the last post. However, I know that for many of us, our kids are receiving snacks after sports on a regular basis. In the meantime, what’s a real-food family to do?

In our family, we have some systems in place that make it so that kids avoid bingeing, omit a few select ingredients, and hopefully don’t learn to connect every celebration with food.

Two Ingredients We Don’t Let Our Kids Eat

In spite of our family’s attempts to eat whole foods, as in foods that are grown in the ground or eat things that are grown in the ground, we certainly don’t eat perfectly.

I let my kids eat candy.

I let my kids have birthday cake.

We have ice cream regularly around.


We definitely eat sugar and industrial oils and just attempt to keep it in moderation. We also have a rule that each person can choose one dessert a day.

If one of my kids gets a dessert as a sports snack, they can choose to eat it right then, save it for later, or give it away. Whenever they eat it, it counts as their dessert for the day. That system helps a ton with managing unhealthy sports snacks.

RELATED: My real-food kids tried soda pop for the first time … what did they think?

With all the junk food that we allow into our diets here and there, we do have exactly two ingredients that we won’t let our kids eat:

  1. artificial sweeteners
  2. MSG

Why No Artificial Sweeteners?

I’ve written a number of posts on artificial sweeteners. But in a nutshell, I don’t allow my kids to have them for these major reasons.

  • We have no idea what will happen to humans who eat artificial sweeteners for 60 or 80 years. They haven’t even been around that long.
  • We’re not sure what artificial sweeteners do to blood sugar.
  • Any sweetener trains our kids’ brains that drinks should be sweet. I don’t want that habit.

So if my kids are going to drink sugar, let them just drink sugar. Artificial sweeteners are found in drinks such as G2, Gatorade Zero, Propel water, Prime energy drink, any light or reduced-calorie juice, and a surprising number of other drinks marketed to kids.

artificially sweetened energy drinks

Ten years ago, this was not nearly as much of a problem. I was so excited when parents started to figure out that we shouldn’t serve sugary drinks to kids. Then I was so dejected when parents started serving artificially sweetened drinks to kids. Oops, wrong direction, pendulum!

Why No MSG?

I’ve also written about MSG in the past, and I’ve learned that most highly seasoned crunchy things include MSG. Think barbecue chips, pepperjack Cheez-Its, and Extreme Goldfish.

I’m learning more and more, and it seems to be controversial whether things like “yeast extract” actually behave as MSG does in the brain. As my education is in flux, sometimes I roll my eyes and let my kids eat those crunchy things and sometimes I say no to them.

Unfortunately, the world has changed so much that processed foods are packed with these two ingredients nowadays. I would say that 50 to 75% of the sports snacks and drinks my kids receive or snacks after sporting games, they are not allowed to eat.

This makes me feel like a really mean parent, so I had to come up with a system so that they weren’t just dejected and disappointed after every game. I try to be a fair parent, even though I have strict boundaries.

MSG snacks

So how do I remain fair while saying no?

Our Trade-Out System for Unhealthy Snacks

So here’s our system. If my kids get a snack or a drink that either I say they can’t have or they just don’t want, they can trade it out for something else.

Usually, I tried to make the options a little bit fun and things that we don’t regularly eat on a daily basis. This might include: organic 100% juice boxes, Gatorade with regular sugar and no food coloring (it pains me to buy it–but we’ll talk about full restriction in a second), single-serve cans of carbonated water with flavor but no sweetener. If I’m in a splurge mood and going grocery shopping, I might grab a kombucha.

juice and carbonated water

When it comes to food, this will be a lot more individual per family. But here are some items we’ve tried:

  • Single-serving Boulder Canyon avocado oil chips (expensive, but that’s what makes them more rare)
  • That’s It fruit bars
  • ALDI has quite a few options in their gluten-free section and under their Simply Nature brand with much better ingredients, things like little cookies and crackers

Honestly, when it comes to the food, I don’t always have great trades. But sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be food!

Maybe I’ll offer to go on a special bike ride with a child, or read a story with them, or even take them out for ice cream. Yes, I know ice cream is food, but it’s also connection with a parent.

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If You Say No to Unhealthy Sports Snacks, Won’t They Want More?

It’s tricky to be a real-food parent in a processed foods world. We know that when a food is fully restricted from a person, it often creates desire.

Kids who are never allowed to try soda pop or never allowed to eat candy generally experience the “rubberband effect” when they become teenagers with their own transportation and funds. That means that the tightness with which they are pulled away from the food equals the the speed at which they fly toward it.

Parents have to walk a fine balance and try to avoid full restriction of foods so that kids understand how they can encounter the food properly instead of being hidden from it. That’s why my kids have had plenty of munchy crunchy junk food, just not stuffed with MSG. They’ve had plenty of sweet beverages, just not artificially sweetened. (Luckily for me, most of my kids really dislike the taste of artificial sweeteners when they’ve accidentally had some. I feel the same way.)

chips and raisins

We need to be cautious on full restriction, which is another reason why I like the trade-out system–so that they are still having some fun foods, but the habits they are building are those of evaluating carefully and making decisions.

Can We Teach Kids about Unhealthy Sports Snacks?

I’m a big fan of educating our kids and a gradual release of responsibility. This means that I try to explain bits and pieces about food nutrition, always keeping in mind my kids’ developmental levels. I do try to avoid calling foods healthy and unhealthy, although that’s been nearly impossible.

I try harder to avoid calling foods good or bad. I like to tell kids how certain foods might make them feel or why we eat or don’t eat certain foods specifically.

salmon and veggies

For example, salmon helps you build big muscles and makes your brain work better.

Eating lots of different colors of fruits and vegetables gives your body all the different building blocks it needs to keep you healthy.

And water keeps us hydrated and makes everything move smoothly inside.

As my kids get older, they’re going to get a bit more scientific information. For example, my little one who is 9 has been curious about sugar lately. We’ve started reading ingredients and seeing how many grams of sugar are in different items.

Then I show him how much a teaspoon of sugar is (which is four grams, by the way, if you want to do this activity). We have discovered that the muffins kids are served at school at lunch have 14 to 16 grams of added sugars, which is equal to a single-serve cake treat that one of my kids received as a sports snack.

That means I call those “muffin cupcakes,” and most of the time they would count as a dessert. We are able to use this information to determine whether a sports snack should count as a dessert or can just be a snack, which he can eat whenever the next eating opportunity occurs.

Of course I’m not purely inflexible, and Gabe is not a picky eater. So I’m able to occasionally say, “Hey kiddo, you can just eat that snack right now!” as we’re walking to the van.

If I did have a child who was having trouble eating good meals, I would be much more strict on specific snack times. And any after-game sports snack, healthy or unhealthy, would have to wait for a designated snack or mealtime.

In this way, I keep my kids safe within boundaries, gradually release responsibility, and attempt to teach them how to evaluate foods as they grow older and will eventually have to make all of their own food choices. It is my fervent hope that by the time my kids are the sports parents, we have changed the culture so much that we don’t even need to feed each other’s kids anymore!

kid sports

Bottom Line on Unhealthy Sports Snacks

Here’s the thing. Sometimes you just have to draw the line when it comes to poisons made of chemicals that are simply not food.

I know some people will think I’m being way too strict for my kids. I hope you can see that I’m trying to create a balance with our trade-out system and by having only two ingredients we don’t eat.

It does seem unfair that those ingredients are popping up everywhere in kids’ food culture. Darn you food marketers!! shakes fist at the air!

I think of it this way: we don’t allow our kids to eat all sorts of things that aren’t food. Paint chips and wood chips come to mind for starters. We don’t worry that they’ll binge on wood chips just because we say, “No honey, don’t eat the wood chips.”

That’s full restriction. But we probably also distract them with other things and make sure they get fed good foods when they have a chance.

I don’t believe that my systems will cause binge eaters. I do have one who is 18, and although he eats enough to feed a small army, I believe that’s more his age and gender.

He’ll eat a huge salad just as soon as he’ll eat a huge bowl of ice cream. And I’m not seeing him spending his own money on junk food or running out to buy all the packages of snacks with MSG and artificial sweeteners in them.

I would love to hear what you do when your kids get unhealthy snacks that don’t fit your family’s food values. Let’s collect as many ideas as we can so that we can keep our autonomy as parents.

And someday–yes, someday–perhaps we can fully cancel after-game snacks for kids.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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