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Quality (read: healthy) snacks for after school program?

Hi Chowhounds!
I am currently working on the preliminary stages of planning an after school music program for kids at an inner city school here in Philadelphia where I live and work. I know that I will need to feed these kids between dismissal and the start of our program, but I really don't want to feed them garbage. My school doesn't have an oven, but does have microwaves. Refrigerator space is at a minimum, so non-perishable foods would be best (things we can pick up at the beginning of the week and have them last to the end of the week.) I'd love items with low sugar, low processing, and low sodium that kids (grades 4-6) will still like.

So what are, in your opinion, the best choices that are also a low cost per student/serving? Remember it has to be nonperishable (I bet we could do fresh fruit one day per week, but that is also a rather high cost.) Is there a solution, or am I stuck with prepackaged fruit bars?

Also, cooking things myself is really not an option.

What say you, Chowhounds?

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  1. Prepackaged fruit bars are still concentrated sugars, as compared to fruit with all its water content... if you have a styrofoam cooler and can bring ice in regularly, you could get cheese sticks for them (Costco has giant bags of them cheap) and nuts from Costo, too. Maybe supplement with servings of fresh, in season fruits or fruit chunks. I wouldn't worry about low sodium, it's rarely a cause of health problems unless it comes attached to a lot of starch and sugar and in a diet without much in the way of fresh veggies... few people are salt sensitive.
    I wonder if a grocery chain in your area would donate some fresh cut up fruit platters weekly, as a possibility to round things out?

    I think it's wonderful of you to want to provide for the kids in such a thoughtful way.

    5 Replies
    1. re: mcf

      How about a low fat granola? There are many recipes online. And as to fruit, if you had bananas first, oranges second, apples third I think you could get through Wednesday at least. PB & J could fit in there somewhere on whole wheat crackers.

      1. re: escondido123

        You can't serve nuts, especially peanuts to kids these days as someone will have a peanut allergy and you will be in trouble, as will they. this limits the options considerably.

        1. re: magiesmom

          I worked in an after school program from 2003-2006, and we absolutely could serve nuts. Parents are responsible for letting the program know if their child has allergies, and from there the program handles it as they see fit. We had a couple of kids with allergies, and made sure there was always a safe alternative, but we still gave the rest of the kids peanut butter at least once a week with no problems.

          1. re: mpjmph

            it depends on the school and the program. i know it's only been 5 years since you worked in your program, but these days nut and/or peanut products are off-limits at many...even the child care program at my gym prohibits them.

            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              I think restrictions against peanuts, in particular, are the norm in pre schools and schools, etc. here, too. So many kids are allergic now, and even being near the stuff can provoke anaphylaxis in them.

    2. Just be careful with nuts. I know they are full of great things--like protein (which kids lack.. especially the ones in urban locations that often throw back knock-off Hot Cheetos for lunch)--but tons of kids have allergies. Even granola is often made in places that contain and/or process items that contain nuts. I've had this problem with 'Chex Mix' type items.

      Given your limitations with refrigeration and storage you are really in a tough spot. Also I work with older students, and I really do not see them loving the 'cheese sticks and nuts' (SORRY mcf.. I would love it and wish they loved it.. but they never do).

      Also, I can never get any grocery stores to donate anything. I have gotten Einsteins to donate bagels but that was it.

      The suggestions of wheat crackers is a good one. Also animal crackers are processed but low in sugar and not too bad. Stacy's pita chips are not too bad, and I have seen students like them. You might also try making your own snack mix with Cheerios--maybe blend some different flavors of Cheerios.

      If by 'fruit bars' you mean things like 'Fruit bu' then yes, I think those might be a good idea.

      Of course, you may also have some that cannot eat Gluten.. so if you go with the Cheerio-cereal mix, you might want to use Cinnamon Chex.

      Good luck! It is hard; I work with kids too--kids that do not get a lot to eat and when they do it's cheap and not healthy, and being a sponsor, I want to give them food they 'want' but also food that will 'sustain' a high energy level of mind and body.

      9 Replies
      1. re: GraceW

        Thanks to all for the suggestions!

        Yeah, nuts and granola are sort of out. If any of you have any suggestions of prepackaged foods that ARE healthy, I'd love to check out brands, etc. My school is just around the corner from Trader Joes, and I know some of their stuff isn't the WORST. There's just so much sugar and empty calories, I just don't think that those foods contribute to successful learning. (The reason I mentioned sodium was because a few years ago in a different program the kids were given those Cup O' Noodles things as snacks... and that is absolutely the opposite of what I want to feed them!)

        Will kids eat hummus? Will they eat oatmeal at 3:30 in the afternoon? I'm not a total killjoy, I don't mind feeding them a cheerios snack mix with the occasional M+M in them, I just don't want that to be the main content.

        Thanks for your replies, all! I feel like there are a lot of challenges with running an after school program, and I don't want "my kids have low blood sugar and I just fed them candy" to be one of them!

        1. re: PhillyHorn

          kids will often surprise you - they may not all have had hummus before, but it could be fun for them to try something new. if you can pop into Trader Joe's just before class so you don't need to keep it refrigerated, you can get large containers of hummus and other dips there, and they sell 1-lb bags of baby carrots for under $2. no muss, no fuss :) they also have bags of individually wrapped light string cheese, and i think they *may* carry the mini babybel cheese (or Laughing Cow?)...which the kids can eat with crackers (i'd stick with a rice-based variety in case anyone has gluten issues). they also have a nice variety of baked chips.

          TJ's is a great resource for dried fruit - you can buy a few different items and mix them with gluten-free cereal like Chex. i was hesitant to suggest it the first time around because that's a lot of sugar, but i know your options are really limited here.

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

            I agree with GHG; they might like the hummus.

            TJs has the Cat Crackers or cookies, I cannot remember which but those Cats in a tub are fairly healthy and could be offered some weeks as something sweet and some weeks not offered.

            If they have graham crackers, maybe you could also offer those some weeks with some chocolate chips--LIGHTLY--drizzled across.. which would be healthier than S'mores (which is a microwave option).

            Another microwave option that my students enjoy--but I have slightly better access to a fridge--is pizza bagels. Maybe you could zip into TJ right before and get some cheese right before and some of their pizza sauce in the jar and the first intro activity is for students to make Pizza bagels or Pizza English Muffins.

            TJ does have a Fiberful version of Fruit Bu.. which is great and probably 0.49 cents for each, but that would not be enough to keep them jolly.

            With respect to fruit, Clementines might be a good option--depending upon how many are in your program.

            (I'll keep thinking on it!)

            1. re: GraceW

              Sorry: I was thinking some more and I have another idea:

              - Applesauce in individual containers (No sugar added) with graham crackers, pretzels, or wheat thins, if you have the budget, I would add a side of carrots to that

              (Maybe sometimes, apple and honey ?--although I believe that is too messy)

              Also, I am not sure if there is a 'unprocessed' version of this because I have never had it--and you would probably need the fridge--but I have seen kids go CRAZY for those (really disgusting) "yogurt in the tubes" things.

              Yeah, I think at this point, individual no-sugar applesauce with a side of pretzels/wheat-thins, and carrots might be pretty balanced.

              1. re: GraceW

                those applesauce cups are a great idea! i guess for a treat he could also do low-fat pudding every once in a while.

                i'd definitely skip the yogurt tubes. i'm not sure about other brands, but Yoplait Go-gurt is loaded with sugar, HFCS, corn starch & gelatin...and they're expensive.

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  Yes, riffing off of the low-fat pudding idea.. you might be able involve them in making their own modified 'dirt-cups' (contains crushed Joe-Joes or Oreos and other layers of things) with them but instead call it a 'landfill'--and do a mini-lesson on sustainability.

        2. re: GraceW

          Tons of kids have allergies!!!! Only about 4% actually have any allergy. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/... Maybe if people stopped being so phobic about food we could start eating normally. When I see postings for a dessert that is vegan, Kosher, nut free and without olive oil I just want to wonder how we are supposed to eat anything. If you believe there are true allergies, get tested for them by an allergist not a "nutritionist" and then you might know what is actually going on.

          1. re: escondido123

            Being kosher is not being phobic about food, it is a religious practice some people choose to follow.
            And when you run a program for kids you can't "get them tested"

            1. re: magiesmom

              I agree. I should not have mentioned the Kosher in this but there was just another posting about a dessert that had to be both Kosher and vegan and that just sent me over the top. It just seems to have gotten to the point that you can't just cook something and people either eat it or don't eat. It make it difficult to invite people for dinner for fear there is going to be a problem and I just find that sad..

        3. you're doing such a great thing for these kids, it sucks that its so difficult to execute!

          the allergy situation is tricky - i'd definitely stay away from nuts, peanuts & wheat. the refrigeration issue is a bummer, because hummus or other dips, served with carrot, celery, cukes, pepper strips, etc. would be great.

          popcorn? baked corn tortilla chips with jarred salsa & mild black bean dip?

          1. I would go with various dips ( bean, cheese, sour cream style) and "dippers" (carrots, celery sticks, cuc's, pita chips, tortilla chips). Buy the dipping veggies in a bag or clam shell and it will hold all day without needing the fridge. Mix it up and see which ones are a hit.
            Fruits are pricey- but grapes are cheap at certain times of the year. Popcorn (and interesting flavored popcorn) is healthy. Bagels and different jams or cream cheese spreads can be healthy.

            1. Hi PhillyHorn,

              Ummm... What's your budget per student per day? And how many students do you have?


              4 Replies
              1. re: I used to know how to cook...

                Hi !

                I don't have a set budget yet, I'm still in the planning process and trying to make a feasible budget. I'd say less than $1/student, 30 students, 5 days/week. If I assume 30 weeks, that's still $4500/year which seems very high, relative to the budget for the rest of the program.

                I'd like for everyone to keep in mind that I won't have a ton of time to do prep work-- I teach during the day and will have very limited time to prepare anything. Even something that can be perceived as "simple," like pizza bagels, for 30 kids can be incredibly time consuming and messy. I'm interested in providing them with quality musical instruction. Food is important to me, and I believe that this could be a good opportunity to get them something that's not just processed sugar. I want to teach by example, but I also want to spend the majority of my time teaching MUSIC.

                Thank you all for your thoughtful suggestions! Keep them coming!


                1. re: PhillyHorn

                  Can you contact the food service that supplies your school? You might get a better deal at that level than having to do the shopping yourself (and save some time).

                  No question you need pre-packaged stuff the kids can quickly grab and gobble. You should be able to get 30 apples, bananas, tangerines, box raisins for less than $1 a piece-perhaps not organic though.

                  Worse comes to worse, you could ask the students to bring a snack and you could provide juice or water. That is how it works in my district.

                  1. re: PhillyHorn

                    Hi there Lauren,

                    Hopefully you can have some fridge space set aside for your program. Shouldn't take much - a Rubbermaid bin should suffice.

                    Also, hope you can find out if any of your students have allergies or other food restrictions. If they do you just need to work around it. If not, your task is much simpler.

                    (Decades ago I was a Cub Scout Den Mother. 16 boys in the den. One little guy was Jewish, his family kept Kosher. When we made our own pizza, he had his very own. His Mom checked out and approved his toppings before the meeting...)

                    I would say crackers are your friend. Ritz, Triscuit, graham, etc. If not with PB, quartered slices of bologna and/or cheese might work. Perhaps cream cheese - strawberry or pineapple. Depends on if the kids are mature enough to assemble their own snack.

                    Celery or apple wedges with (shhhh...) peanut butter or cheese spread is generally a hit with kids. Also, baby carrots with ranch dip. You'd probably want to make the dip yourself though, the commercial stuff is beyond salty!

                    Small boxes of fruit juice is another possibility. 100% juice, not the sugar-water that most juice 'drinks' are made of.

                    I think all of the above could be done for well under $1.00 per kid per day, including the cost of paper napkins or little paper plates. Yogurt cups, even Yoplait, are generally well under a dollar.

                    Good luck with your adventure! You're quite a lady!


                    1. re: PhillyHorn

                      Well then, how about apple chips? They can be had for a decent price if you buy in bulk - check out http://www.brothersallnatural.com/tag.... Our Costco carries them too, I think it's ~14 bucks for a 20-pack assortment of apple, Asian pear, and strawberry/banana. My boys LOVE them. Whole apples are cheaper, of course, but the freeze-dried slices have the crunch of potato chips. (My son's occupational therapist told me that crunchy and chewy snacks have a calming effect - might be useful in an afterschool program, hahaha).

                      TJ's also sells applesauce in single-serving bags (you take off the top and slurp it out). They are more expensive ($2.99 for 4 at our TJs) but not too bad for a processed food. They're called Apple Crushers - I get the ones with a bit of carrot added to them. No added sugars.

                      And I forgot to mention low-fat Triscuits, or the TJ's equivalent. Just whole wheat, salt (not too much) and oil. 3g of protein, 3g of fiber and ~250 mg sodium in 8 crackers - not too bad for a processed food.

                  2. Fresh whole fruit will not perish within a week even without refrigeration. Apples, oranges, (green) bananas etc. will keep up to or more than a week easily at room temp.

                    What about carrot and celery sticks with Peanut Butter?

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      PB's not an option due to allergy concerns...but he could give them mustard ;)

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Definitely well-balanced... but GET THE EPI pens ready!

                        Soooo many allergies; I had a student once that was allergic to grass. He had to bring a beach towel if we were going to be sitting outside or sitting on benches that were touching grass. Also I had a student allergic to water. (!) She could only wash her hands after using the washroom with a particular bottled water and antibacterial wipes. We were very curious how she showered....

                      2. Well, if refrigeration's a problem, do you have a crockpot? you could bring in inexpensive vegetable soups, chilis, and chili mac and serve in cups with spoons. String cheese and pretzels are frequently popular; hardboiled eggs and pickle slices too. Sliced apples with yogurt dip are something my kids really enjoyed; also celery stuffed with neufchatel cheese. If you have a small cooler and an icepack, you could keep a container of tuna salad cool with a bag of small rolls for sandwiches; and you could spread refried beans on a wheat tortilla, sprinkle with shredded cheese and lettuce, roll, slice and heat in microwave. Raw broccoli and cauliflowerets, sliced cucumber rounds, cherry tomatoes, celery and baby carrots served with a yogurt/spinach dip is really a nice option too. Good luck in your venture: what a nice thing you're doing.

                        1. Trader Joe's has an oats & honey crunchy granola bar, $1.99 for 6 packs that have 2 bars each. It's one of the few products at TJs that says the manufacturer uses good practices to avoid contamination, etc.

                          If you don't need to have individual servings, you could buy big bags of popcorn. TJ's has an organic one with olive oil that is pretty tasty. Chips and salsa might be OK too, unless you're worried about a mess :-)

                          1. Smartfood popcorn
                            Real fruit roll ups (but kind of expensive)
                            Pirate's Booty!
                            Juicy Juice (smaller boxes)
                            As others have said stay away from nuts and Id be careful about dairy as well. You should be able to get a list of allergies from the school

                            1. Imo beef jerky is the most healthy snack though it is not cheap.

                              1. I used to work at an after school program with about 30 kids, age 5 to 13. Our go-to snacks were frosted mini wheat cereal (store brand), graham crackers, ritz-style crackers, peanut butter, string cheese, carrot sticks, apples, and oranges. We had a few kids with allergies, but their parents never expected us to restrict everyone's food for just one kid. We made sure there was always a "safe" snack available for the kids that needed it, and fixed their snacks first to reduce cross contamination. Don't rule out nuts and peanuts until you know who you're working with. Depending on how many kids are in the program, there's a good chance you won't have any food allergies.

                                1. I buy a lot of food at Trader Joe's as they are a quick walk away from me. There's plenty you can get for under $1/child. 1 lb of sunflower seeds is $2, I will guess one bag is enough for 12-15 kids? bananas are $0.19 each, organic apples come in 2 lb bags for $2.49 (you get 6-8 apples, depending on how big they are in a given week), baby carrots come in 1 lb bags for less than $2 (even for organic), cherry tomatoes can be rinsed in their plastic clamshells easily ($2.49/lb). You can buy ready to dip hummus, guacamole, greek yogourt, hard boiled eggs, string or presliced cheese (they even have one especially cut to cracker size!), etc. I personally try to avoid giving my kids processed carb snacks (crackers, cookies, etc.), but I realize they are convenient and fulfill many of the constraints you have. If you have to buy them, then TJs is a good place to get decent quality and price. You could also buy frozen fruit if you can pick it up just before class. My kids love the frozen mango and strawberries, even in winter (I don't get it! I usually thaw mine overnight so they aren't frozen in the morning).

                                  ETA - also check out their chip and bread aisles...I think they have a flaxseed tortilla chip, mini pitas, lots of snacky ready to go items at good prices (my TJs is across the street from a Whole Paycheque, so it's really pronounced!)

                                  1. WOW! Thanks everyone. There are some really great ideas here, and I appreciate your candid answers! The more I think about it the more that I realize that this is definitely possible. I'm not a total killjoy, either, so the occasional snacky-snack food (once a week or less) isn't completely out of the question.

                                    I don't foresee food allergies being a huge issue. I'm not talking about more than 30 kids, and even if a few of them have allergies or food restrictions, I think that can be worked around (or they just have to bring their own snack.)

                                    We actually don't have a food distributor at my school-- no kitchen. But the Trader Joes around the corner is convenient and so many of you have mentioned it as a great resource for what I am looking for. (I kinda figured it would all spiral back to TJs, but I wanted to see if others had ideas as well!)

                                    Maybe I can even charm them into donating some of it (bats eyelashes). :-D

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: PhillyHorn

                                      Speaking of Trader Joe's, I've seen boxes of Clementines there.

                                      Not knowing what type of music program you're planning, how about a note under each piece of fruit saying (I'm sure you know where I'm going here...)

                                      In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, dwelt a miner, forty-niner and his daughter Clementine. etc., etc.

                                      Sorry, I simply could not stop myself... Hahahahaha...


                                      P.S. Come to think of it, it's a way you could tie the snack to the music???

                                    2. Definitely popcorn. No need to buy the packaged stuff -- just pop the kernels in paper bags and season them yourself.

                                      I second the fresh fruit. I'd also get whole-wheat crackers and some apple butter (no sugar added).

                                      Maybe peanut-free trail mix?

                                      1. Monday - seedless grapes and cheese cubes
                                        Tuesday - pretzels and orange wedges
                                        Wednesday - 1/2 banana and wheat thins spread with cream cheese
                                        Thursday - Graham crackers and small apples
                                        Friday -- Rice Krispie Treats and raisins

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: laliz

                                          Wouldn't the cheeses need to go in the fridge?

                                          1. re: piccola

                                            Not necessary, particularly if it's for an afternoon or one day. And they taste so much better when not chilled. I mean real cheese, with real fat, not cheese foods. :-)

                                            1. re: mcf

                                              Yeah, I was just under the impression that the OP wanted shelf-stable items to last the whole week. I must've misunderstood!

                                        2. I worked a short stint at a preschool once and to this day still enjoy apples and peanut butter myself. (much to some weird looks from the occasional coworker) Would likely never happen today though.

                                          One of the things that surprised me taste-wise, were arrowroot crackers topped with a little cheese whiz and a half a boiled egg. Sounds gross but it was actually good. Wouldn't fit in with non-perishables though.

                                          How about cream cheese and tortilla roll ups or sandwiches?

                                          I think the crock pot idea someone suggested is great, we use those for potlucks at work some times, where we have no stove, and only a micro. Especially this time of year, depending on where you are, a hot bowl of something would be really good.

                                          Would kids eat cold pizza type offerings? The bakery at my grocery store does "pizza buns" which really are nothing more than dough baked with cheese, sometimes a little sauce, and they are kept right in with the other rolls and stuff in their containers. You don't have to do anything else besides pick them up.

                                          Whole grain muffins with lots of fruits baked in might be nice as well?

                                          I think asking the group for suggestions would also be great. Know your audience and all that. Just don't go all Heather Mills on them ;)

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: im_nomad

                                            I know it's a bit late to be joining this discussion, but what about a modified Rice Krispie treat? I make some that are basically one part Rice Krispies, one part Corn Flakes and one part trail mix (you can make your own mix or choose a nut-free variety). My trail mix often contains pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, a few types of raisins, dried apricots, goji berries and cashew and almonds, but no peanuts. They're a healthier alternative, but still taste like sweet treats. The nuts and goji berries can be swapped for a more interesting variety of seeds or dates. They are kid and adult friendly and won't break the bank to make in quantity, as long as you stick to less expensive seeds and raisins, rather than pricy and potentially problematic nuts.

                                          2. My mom does a summer camp every year, and for snack, this is what she does. She has big containers of cereal like cheerios, dried fruit, pretzels, peanuts, mms, and other trail mix-y stuff. She puts scoops of appropriate serving size in each container, and the kids go through the line and make their own snack. This is good because it is very adaptable for allergies. Nut allergy? skip the nuts. Gluten intolerant? Use rice or corn chex.