America loves to snack. We have proof, too -- aisle after aisle in every grocery store is filled with all types of snacks: sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, fatty, savory. Some of these snacks are low-cal, low-fat, or even natural (fruit, raw nuts), but for most of us, the "naughtier" the snack, the better.

Do we live in an oversnacked society? Could this fixation on eating between meals be adding to the dangerous level of childhood obesity? And be playing a role in the growing number of poorly-nourished kids in our country?

Nutrient gaps

“Despite the increase in weight of our children, there are still critical nutrient gaps,” said Gina Bucciferro, registered dietician and pediatric nutrition expert at Loyola University Medical Center. “Snacks can either make or break the nutritional quality of a kid’s daily intake.”

Research has shown that 88 percent of U.S. children do not meet the recommended daily intake for fruit and 92 percent do not meet the same for vegetables.

Though obesity is a major concern for kids with poor nutrition, there are other health risks as well. These include heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, tooth decay, anemia, osteoporosis and diabetes.

According to Bucciferro, snacks are a great way to bridge the nutritional gap. Parents need to be aware of what is being served and when it takes place to help keep snack time a good time.

Snack time

There are times of the day when it’s beneficial for children to have healthy snacks.

When kids participate in any sort of physical activity, a nutritious snack afterward is important. In addition to needing high-quality energy for growth and development, children involved in sports and other physical activities need to replace the extra energy they are burning.

Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy can provide the carbohydrates needed to replenish little athletes without added sugar and fat. Fluids also are important in making sure active kids stay hydrated.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), school-age children need to drink six 8-ounce cups of water per day and another eight ounces for every half-hour of strenuous activity.

And stick to water -- a sports drink is necessary only for activities lasting longer than 60 minutes.

Another time when snacking is okay is when it’s scheduled between meal times.

Increased needs

Children do have increased nutrition needs, so providing snacks between meals can help them stay focused and healthy. The goal should be to offer as much nutrition as possible without providing excessive sugar, fat and calories.

Fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy are an easy way to meet this goal. These types of foods, eaten two to three hours before a meal will not spoil an appetite, whereas high-fat foods might.

However, the times when kids shouldn’t be encouraged to snack are sometimes when it’s most tempting. Snacking as a reward is one of those times.

Food fixation

Our relationship with food is formed at a very young age. When food is provided as a reward, an unhealthy relationship with food can be formed.

Rewarding children with playtime or fun, educational activities can form much better habits than indulging in high-fat, high-sugar fare. Also, providing these types of foods after an accomplishment can lead the child to place a higher value on low-nutrition food items.

At the same time, don’t treat high-fat, high-sugar, or high-salt snack foods as forbidden. Encourage everything in moderation.

Snacking to cure boredom is another no-no.

Starting a habit of eating when bored can become a slippery slope. If you notice your child requesting snacks at off-times, make sure to assess the situation. If your child’s normal meal times have been thrown off due to a hectic schedule or if they’ve had increased activity, provide them with a small, low-calorie snack such as fruit and low-fat yogurt or veggies and light ranch dip.

However, if it’s been a typical day and you notice your child is just antsy, provide a fun activity instead. Depending on your child’s age, coloring and other activity books can be a good option for minimal supervision while not encouraging increased television time.

“Snack time can be beneficial for kids. Just make sure kids are snacking at the right time and that snack items are closing the nutrient gaps, not worsening a child’s nutrient deficit which be detrimental to a child’s health,” said Bucciferro.