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Proper snacking essential for children's nutrition

(ran SP edition)

Snacks are real meal deals; they're not something extra, something sinful or something to avoid.

Nutritionists advise that we pay attention to what foods we're using for snacks and that we factor them into a day's tally of calories, fat, calcium and vitamins (whatever you pay attention to for your individual health needs). In other words, snacks serve more as mini-meals than as food frills.

Children's diets, for example, are better off with snacks included to fuel fast-growing bodies. Snacking is practically a required activity because youngsters' small stomachs can't take in large quantities of food at mealtimes, so snacks at least twice a day help supply all the nutrients necessary for growth and development.

A variety of snack foods is crucial for this reason. Encourage youngsters to try new foods at snack time to lessen their tendency to binge on favorites.

Adults who need to control calories while maximizing nutrient intake _ and isn't this just about everybody? _ are another group of the population that needs to eat healthful snacks. The elderly, too, are better served with five small meals a day (a series of big snacks) or two main meals plus two smaller snacks.

Good food choices for snacking have been well-publicized. They're not cola and chips or cupcakes and doughnuts.

Anyone keeping up with the latest nutrition reports knows to snack on fruits and raw vegetables, baked chips and whole-grain crackers, soups, yogurt, even leftover pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. Peanut butter and nuts in general are getting much more respect in light of heart-health studies.

Soft pretzels with mustard are better than deep-fried chips and dip. Turkey sandwiches on whole wheat are better than hot dogs on white buns. Salsas are more nutritious and less caloric dips than flavored sour cream. Graham crackers or animal crackers are better than high-fat cookies. Rice cakes are better than cake.

Pay attention to the go-along beverages, too. V-8 and tomato juice have gained snack status since studies indicate that canned tomato products can help ward off certain cancers, including prostate problems.

Low-fat dairy products, including fat-free chocolate milk, have gained new respect with their implication in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. They're important as snacks to address this country's calcium deficit, too.

Fructose-sweetened "waters" and soft drinks are wet but don't contribute valuable nutrients to the daily diet.

This selection of recipes was compiled to help satisfy a sweet tooth without contributing too many calories or fat grams, except for the savory bean dip. It was included just because it's so quick to make and good for chip-dipping or nacho-making.

These s'mores do not require a campfire, and the chocolate is replaced by a combo of marshmallow creme, peanut butter and halved grapes. Kids like to assemble these just to smash the fruit. Banana slices would be a natural filler, too, and remember this snack during strawberry season, when you should top the layer of marshmallow creme with grated chocolate.

Lemon sauce is like liquid lemon meringue pie without the fat. Serve it warm over a wedge of bakery angel food cake for a completely decadent-tasting no-fat dessert snack.

The Totally Free-Form Muffins are an old family-favorite recipe that I like to make with Total Cereal these days, for the extra vitamin content. Wheaties work as well. The real advantage is that the thick cereal batter is simply dropped on a greased baking sheet instead of being spooned into a muffin tin.

It's a lot less work, and the baked muffins keep well for a couple of days. Half the batch can be frozen, then microwave-defrosted. They're excellent with milk as after-school snacks.

The chewy oatmeal bars are good take-alongs for picnics and hikes.

Gimme More S'Mores

12 graham cracker squares

12 teaspoons marshmallow cream

6 tablespoons halved seedless grapes

6 teaspoons peanut butter

For each s'more, spread 1 cracker with 2 teaspoons marshmallow creme and top with 1 tablespoon grape halves. Spread 1 cracker with 1 teaspoon peanut butter; place on grapes, peanut-butter side down and smoosh down. Repeat to make sandwiches with remaining ingredients.

Makes 6 servings. Preparation time: 10 minutes.

Chewy Fruit and Oatmeal Bars

} cup firmly packed brown sugar

{ cup granulated sugar

1 8-ounce carton plain yogurt

2 egg whites, lightly beaten with fork

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons fat-free milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

1{ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

{ teaspoon salt

3 cups uncooked oats, quick or old-fashioned

1 cup diced dried mixed fruit, raisins or dried cranberries

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine sugars, yogurt, egg whites, oil, milk and vanilla. Mix well. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add to yogurt mixture; mix well. Stir in oats and dried fruit.

Spread dough onto bottom of an ungreased 13- by 9-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 28-32 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely on wire rack. Cut into bars. Store tightly covered.

Makes 2 dozen snack bars. Preparation time: 20 minutes. Baking time: 30 minutes.

Chili Bean Dip

About 16 ounces of canned white kidney beans (cannellini) or Great Northern beans

1{ tablespoons fresh lime juice

1{ teaspoons chili powder

{ teaspoon ground cumin

Garlic salt to taste

Blend beans and all other ingredients until smooth or mash well with a fork. Serve as a dip with tortilla chips or spread on toasted quarters of split pita bread, whole wheat preferred. Makes 4 servings.