Back to school: 9 lower-sugar snacks and treats for kids you can feel good about

Kids are eating too much sugar. A nutritionist shares nine lower-sugar treats to stash in their lunchboxes and backpacks instead.
Image: cropped shot of mother packing school lunch for son
According to government surveys, everyone — from age two on up — is exceeding sugar limits, with an average intake above 17 teaspoons per day.LightFieldStudios / Getty Images
By Samantha Cassetty, RD

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The American Heart Association says kids ages two to eighteen should cap added sugar at 6 teaspoons, yet a recent study found that 99% of toddlers between 19 and 23 months exceeded the limits, consuming an average of more than seven teaspoons per day. According to government surveys, everyone — from age two on up — is exceeding sugar limits, with an average intake above 17 teaspoons per day. That’s more than double the upper limit. This much sugar can up your child’s risk for long-term health conditions, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver problems, and it makes it more difficult to stay within a healthy weight range.

Where do added sugars come from?

A lot of the excess added sugar in children’s diets comes from sweetened drinks so for starters, cut back there. The list of sugary sips includes lemonade, sports drinks, sweetened teas, juice drinks, and for older kids, coffee drinks that are reminiscent of milk shakes. For the most part, water and plain milk or an unsweetened, fortified plant-based alternative are the best drinks for kids. It’s worth mentioning that while 100% fruit juice doesn’t contain added sugars, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting it to between four and eight ounces per day, depending on the age of your child. Kids between one and three are on the lower end of the range; between three and seven are in the middle; and children over seven are at the upper end. Note that juice isn’t a requirement for kids; whole fruit (whether fresh, dried, or unsweetened, frozen) is a better choice.

Some of the added sugars in your family’s diet come from other sources that seem pretty healthy, like whole grain cereals, flavored yogurts, and granola bars. Added sugars also sneak in through condiments, like salad dressings and ketchup, jerky and other processed deli meats, soups, breads, and sometimes, dried fruits. And we haven’t even gotten to treats yet!

Try these 9 lower-sugar snacks and treats

As a dietitian and a parent myself, I don’t believe in saying no to treats or in unnecessarily restricting them. Raising healthy eaters means enjoying a piece of birthday cake, an ice cream cone, or a chocolate chip cookie sometimes. But for everyday eats, treats with less sugar and more nutrition are healthier options that can benefit growing bodies and minds. And having healthier snacks can also help kids establish better lifelong eating habits. To help you out, I’ve scoured the grocery aisles to find treats with at most, six grams of added sugar — about a 1 ½ teaspoons per serving. These all-natural finds provide some extra nourishment so you can feel good about stashing them in a lunchbox or backpack.

1. Quinn Dark Chocolte’y Peanut Filled Pretzels

A hearty 12 nugget portion has just three grams of added sugar, which is on the low side for a treat like this. Another bonus: The gluten free pretzels are made with whole grains, like sorghum and brown rice flour. Since these goodies provide some fat from the nutty filling along with the carbs from the whole grain pretzel coating, they’ll provide a steady stream of energy for active days. However, since they contain peanuts, make sure your child’s school or after school activity approves.

Where to find them: Whole Foods, local supermarkets, in bulk at Amazon, or use Quinn's store locator to find them in your area

2. Bare Cinnamon Banana Chips

This snack bag has just two ingredients: bananas and cinnamon. The cinnamon boosts sweetness without added sugars, and these fruity chips are extra crispy and munchable. They’re available in other flavors and varieties, and each one is as good as the next. A serving provides a quick hit of energy without the sugar highs and lows, along with 3 grams of fiber—a nutrient most kids are under-consuming.

Where to find them: Sold in packs of 6 at Amazon, and individually at Target, CVS, Whole Foods, or use Bare Snacks' store locator to find them in your area

3. Made Good Chocolate Banana Granola Minis

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These bite-sized nuggets are allergy-friendly with no nuts, gluten, or dairy. The granola base is made from whole grain, gluten-free oats, and they get extra nutrition from veggie extracts. Though whole veggies are always preferred, it doesn’t hurt to get them in this form. The chocolate banana variety has five grams of added sugar per serving; other varieties go up to six grams. Since these nibbles are bite-sized, you could always serve less than recommended; just a couple bites might be a nice finishing touch in a bento box.

Where to find them: 4-packs available atAmazon

4. Super Seedz Maple Sugar & Sea Salt

This is an all-star in my home and I bet it will be in yours, too. Made with real maple syrup and organic cane sugar, these seeds are just the right amount of sweet with only three grams of added sugar. Plus, pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses, with about 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving, along with meaningful amounts of nutrients, like zinc, magnesium, and iron. If your child has a nut allergy or goes to school or activities in a nut-free zone, you need this snack in your life.

Where to find them: Amazon, Walmart, Whole Foods, or use Super Seedz store locator to find them in your area

5. Skinny Dipped Dark Chocolate Cocoa Almonds

You might want to stock up on a case of these mini snack packs, which are the perfect size for tucking into lunchboxes and backpacks. The small serving has just two grams of added sugar, but it’s rich, chocolatey, and crunchy, making it a good swap for ordinary fun-size candies. Almonds happen to be a good plant-based source of calcium and while the serving is small, every bit counts for growing bodies. To pack even more nutrition, make a trail mix with plain roasted almonds, and add dried, unsweetened fruit, like raisins or plums.

Editor's note: These are currently out of stock. To be notified when they're available, click the Amazon link below.

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6. Barbara’s Honey Rice Puffins

You can also find lower sugar treats for kids outside of the snack aisle, and whole grain cereal, which supplies fiber along with vitamins and minerals to nourish growing bodies, makes a good out-of-the-box option. These Puffins provide the perfect crunch in an easy-to-grab nibble. There’s no need to send milk with them; just pack your Puffins in a re-usable, re-sealable bag (like these Stasher bags) on their own or along with other healthful bites, like unsweetened dried fruits, plain popcorn, or nuts or seeds.

Where to find them: In bulk atWalmart, and individually at Whole Foods, many local supermarkets, or use Barbara's store locator to find them in your area

7. That’s It Apple and Blueberry Fruit Bars

If your child likes fruit-like, gummy snacks, stock up on these bars, which are actually made from real fruit. The label is as simple as it gets with just apples and blueberries. What you won’t find is any fillers, colors, flavors, gums, or added sugar. It’s another allergy-friendly find that supplies 3 grams of fiber from real fruit. If your little one isn’t fond of blueberries, try another variety. They’re also available in minis and, for chocolate-loving kids and grownups, an insanely good Dark Chocolate Truffle with just four grams of added sugar and a real fruit filling.

Where to find them: Amazon, CVS, Whole Foods, or use That's It's store locator to find them in your area

8. Undercover Quinoa Dark Chocolate + Sea Salt

You probably guessed the secret ingredient here: quinoa. Crispy quinoa gets the dark chocolate treatment, but still supplies a little protein, fiber, and iron so you can feel good about giving your kid a chocolate fix. Plus, sugar is capped at six grams, which is reasonable for chocolate treats. Since a serving contains multiple crisps, you can treat your child to less than the full amount if you want. Full disclosure: My teenager wolfs these down just as soon as I bring them home.

Where to find them: Whole Foods, Amazon, or use the Undercover's store locator to find them in your area

9. Skinny Pop Cinnamon & Sugar Popcorn Mini Cakes

This nut-, gluten-, and dairy-free snack packs four grams of fiber into a sizeable 20-cake serving. That amount has just three grams of added sugars. The main ingredient is popcorn, which is an antioxidant- and fiber-rich whole grain. If your child is snacking at home, you could easily serve these spread with some nut or seed butter to boost the nutrition further, or you could dunk them into a lower-sugar dessert hummus, like the Edible Brownie Batter or Snickerdoodle from Delighted by Hummus. While you have the hummus out, grab some grapes, strawberries, sliced bananas, and other healthy dunkers.

Where to find them: Amazon, Target, or use Skinny Pop's store locator to find them in your area

How to shop for lower sugar treats for your kids

If you want to shop for other lower sugar treats, keep these pointers in mind.

  • Scan labels for whole food ingredients. As you see in the above examples, real foods, like fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains are the star ingredients.
  • Limit treats made with artificial sweeteners. This is just common sense. These ingredients (like sucralose) are considered safe by the FDA, but they tend to lurk in heavily processed foods that lack real nutritional benefits. Plus, they don’t bring any health perks to growing children.
  • Do some sugar math. A food label lists sugar in grams instead of more common household measurements. Four grams is about equal to one teaspoon. All of the treats here were capped at six grams, or 1 ½ teaspoons of added sugar. That’s a reasonable amount for something sweet.

NEXT: Get more low-sugar dessert recipe ideas and products

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