Though the school environment and schedule may look different this year, back-to-school still means back to routine for many families. The return of school also may bring the return of sports, extracurricular activities, and homework. Having a nutritious, filling afternoon snack is a critical part of giving kids (and parents) the fuel to get through whatever the afternoon may have in store.

What are the components of a balanced afternoon snack? If possible, incorporating two different food groups can help ensure long-lasting energy and balanced nutrition. Snacks can be thought of as a condensed version of a regular meal, incorporating fiber, lean protein, and/or healthy fat. Incorporating all of these nutrients helps satisfy hunger and helps us power through the afternoon.

Fiber provides a myriad of health benefits, including heart health and cancer prevention. Fiber also helps control blood sugar and stabilize mood, both of which are crucial while engaging in extracurricular activities or finishing up homework. Fiber achieves all of these benefits through its main function of slowing down digestion, which also contributes to a long-lasting feeling of fullness.

Fiber is not the only nutrient to provide these benefits: Protein and fat are also important for slowing down digestion and prolonging feelings of fullness. For those involved in sports or other physical activities, getting adequate protein is crucial for muscle repair, growth and maintenance. Incorporating a healthy (unsaturated) fat will help further prolong those feelings of fullness and energy. Including heart-healthy unsaturated fats into the diet as much as possible will provide additional health benefits of reduced inflammation and improved cholesterol levels.

A wide variety of foods can be used to combine fiber, protein and healthy fat to make a balanced snack. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber, and snacks are a great opportunity to include produce to help reach the goal of 5 servings a day. Other sources of fiber include whole grains, such as whole-wheat breads and crackers. To pair with fiber, sources of lean protein include reduced-fat cheeses, lean deli meats, such as chicken or turkey, and nut butters.

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Good sources of heart-healthy fats include avocado, edamame (fresh or roasted options are readily available) and nut butters. Plain nuts and seeds also make a great all-in-one snack option, providing fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats. Examples of combinations include trail mix (nuts with dried fruit), fruit with reduced-fat cheese, fruit with nut butters, whole-wheat crackers with cheese or nut butters, avocado on whole-wheat toast, or Greek yogurt topped with chopped toasted nuts.

Having nutritious, balanced snacks requires some planning. Snack planning should be part of weekly meal planning and grocery shopping. Plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats should be staples on the weekly grocery list. With some basic combinations and a little planning, healthy snacks can provide good nutrition and energy for the day.

Ready to prepare your own balanced afternoon snack to have on hand? Try this nutritious and delicious Chewy Almond Energy Bars recipe. Dried blueberries, mangoes or even papayas are also fantastic in this recipe. Try other types of nuts, too. Chopped hazelnuts, peanuts and cashews are a few favorites.

Chewy Almond Energy Bars

¾ cup old-fashioned rolled oats

¾ cup sliced almonds

½ cup chopped dried apricots

1/3 cup dried cherries

¼ cup raisins

¼ cup honey

¼ cup nonfat dry milk powder

2 tablespoons almond butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix and spread oats and almonds evenly in a shallow baking pan. Toast for 8-10 minutes or until almonds are light brown, stirring once.

In a food processor, combine apricots, cherries, raisins, honey, nonfat dry milk powder and almond butter. Cover and pulse 3 times, just to combine. Add toasted oats and almonds; cover and pulse until blended and mixture sticks together.

Spray an 8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Press mixture firmly and evenly into pan. Cut into 8 (2x4-inch) bars. For convenience and portability, wrap bars individually with plastic wrap. Store in refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Nutrition Information (per serving): 210 calories, 8g fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 25mg sodium, 32g total carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 21g total sugars, 6g protein.

Recipe source:

Emily McMillan is a registered dietitian for Hy-Vee stores in Rochester. This information is not intended as medical advice. Please consult a medical professional for individual advice.