Snacking can and should be a part of any nutritious meal plan. Here's how to make it healthy.

The word "snack" usually conjures up images of cookies, chips and even candy. But snack food doesn't have to mean "junk food." What's more, nutritious, well-planned snacks can be a vital part of your meal plan.

Why not think about snacks as nutritious, planned "mini-meals" and not just junk food? Most growing children need more quality nutrients than they normally eat during a day's worth of meals. And unless you are eating three very well balanced meals, snacks can give an extra daily nutrition boost to adults, too.

Simple snack suggestions
Start by talking to the whole family about the snack suggestions below. Pick your favorite ideas, type up your own list and pin it onto the fridge. Then stock up on your choices so they will be ready-made and at your fingertips.

Mixed food ideas
A good after-school or in-between meal snack should include fruits and/or vegetables, but also a little protein and whole grain to help stave off hunger until dinner:

Whole-grain, low-sugar cereal and low-fat milkLow-fat string cheese and whole-grain crackersWhole-wheat English muffin with melted low-fat cheeseWhole-grain waffle topped with fruited yogurt and fresh fruitYogurt or cottage cheese topped with sliced fruit and cereal or nutsLarge rice cake spread with natural peanut butterWhole-wheat toast topped with natural peanut butter and sliced bananaWhole-grain crackers, hummus and raw veggiesLow-fat cottage cheese with diced tomatoes, cucumbers and a dash of fresh pepperFruit smoothie (blend together low-fat yogurt, frozen fruit, skim milk, 100 percent juice)Baked potato topped with chili beans or broccoli and low-fat cheeseA bowl of bean or vegetable soup

Fruits and veggies
Many kids will surprise you and eat raw fruits and veggies, especially when they are hungry. After school or right before dinner is the best time to "sneak" them in.

The key is to make healthy snacks visible and appealing. Without saying a word, place a veggie tray near your kids when they are busy doing homework or playing before dinner. Then watch the food disappear. Don't forget to munch on them yourself while you are cooking!

Use colorful veggies, such as cherry tomatoes, yellow and red peppers, sliced cucumber, carrot and celery sticks and sugar snap peas.Make a creamy vegetable dip. Mix your favorite dry salad dressing mix into plain Greek yogurt to make a great tasting low-fat dip.Leave apples, plums, nectarines or peaches in a bowl in the kitchen.Cut up cantaloupe or watermelon and leave in a clear container in the fridge.Put firm grapes and orange wedges out on a plate after dinner or at snack time.

Pure crunch
If you're really in the mood for something crunchy and salty, stick with foods that don't have hydrogenated fats and are free of food dyes.

Trail mix. Combine nuts and seeds (such as almonds, walnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds) with raisins, craisins and/or dried apricots, pretzel bits and/or oat cereal bits. Be creative!Pretzels.Baked or trans-fat-free tortilla chips.Low-fat microwave popcorn.Low-sugar granola bars.

Sweet treats
If your sweet tooth strikes, go for natural sugar from fruit. Otherwise, stick to foods that come in one-serving packages to prevent overindulgence. Try:

Frozen fruit bars (no high-fructose corn syrup)Fudge bars (one bar has 60 to 90 calories and only one gram of fat)Low-fat pudding cupAll-natural applesauceGinger snapsMini flavored rice cakes

Keep in mind that foods like chips and cookies are fine to snack on once in a while. But if you get into the habit of serving and eating nutritious snacks most of the time, you'll be helping yourself at HealthLineRX , and your kids, establish healthy patterns for a lifetime.