Americans have a love affair with snacks — and the expanding waistlines to prove it.

There are the morning doughnuts and bagels at the office, the birthday celebrations at school, candy jars on desks, snacks squirreled away in drawers, and kitchen pantries full of chips, cookies, and other treats always at the ready.

But with a little planning and some proper choices, snacks don’t have to send the scales skyward, putting you and your family among the more than 70 percent of American adults and 35 percent of children who are overweight or obese.

Kids and snacks

For kids — especially those who may not want much food during mealtimes — snacks can be necessary to keep up their energy levels. But there are some best practices to follow to avoid weight gain, said Stefanie Weiner, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

First, the timing. Snacking should not mean nonstop grazing.

“I see a lot of parents out and about who have an arsenal of snacks on them at all times,” Weiner said.

Using food as a reward or incentive for good behavior is not the best reason to feed a child, Weiner said.

“Food should be at the appropriate times and not something to do to be quiet,” she said. Parents should determine the what, when, and where of feeding. Kids should not get total say about what they eat and when, she said.

“Separate activity from snacks,” Weiner said. Kids don’t need to be eating when they are out playing. They can wait until they get home, where they can sit down. But if you are going to be out for a long period, it is OK to bring along a snack, she said.

It is also fine for a child to feel hunger so they learn the signal from their body — a key to maintaining a healthy weight later in life.

And, of course, what they snack on matters.

Think of a good snack as a nutrient-dense, mini-meal with at least two of these five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. The less prep required, the better.

Recommended snacks for kids:

  • Low-sugar yogurts
  • Cheese
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole-grain crackers or rice cakes
  • Popcorn
  • Beef jerky
  • Dried roasted beans
  • Trail mix that you make yourself; it can include chocolate

Beth Wegerbauer, 49, a freelance writer in West Chester, said clear jars and plastic containers help organize her family’s snacks — and save the family of six a bit of cash.

“Now it is paying off for me because I can see what I have and what I need,” she said.

Because she works from home, Wegerbauer is able to have a healthy after-school snack ready when the kids — who are in middle and high school — roll through the door so they don’t race for the sweet stuff. Cut-up fruit, cheese, and crackers are a family favorite, she said.

“Like a kid version of charcuterie,” she said. “I want them to be aware of how to balance stuff for themselves."

Melissa Shaw, of Haverford Township, is glad the snacking habits that she taught her three children when they were younger have stuck; her eldest is now 22.

They never wander around the house with food. They sit at the table to snack and generally eat appropriate portions. Family dinner time is early, which also cuts down on eating in between meals, she said.

“I think when they were young, I always had Goldfish and things that were easy for them to grab and go,” said Shaw. “I don’t keep much of that here anymore.”

Now, there are bowls of fruit on the kitchen counter, cut up vegetables in the refrigerator, and peanut butter, crackers, raisins, and nuts in the pantry. Juice boxes are out. It’s water, milk, or orange juice, mostly, soda on special occasions, she said.

Now, for the grownups

Adults also should follow some basic principles when snacking, said Nyree Dardarian, a licensed dietitian and director of the Center for Nutrition and Performance at Drexel University.

The office can be a challenging environment. If there are communal snacks, use a small bowl — rather than grabbing something whenever you pass the display — for portion control and to help you be more mindful of what you are eating, she said.

For a healthy approach to snacking at the office:

  • Use single-serving packaging — either store bought, or organized at home.
  • Eat when you are hungry and not just because the food is there.
  • Limit snacks to once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Dardarian suggests bringing healthy foods you enjoy to the office. Don’t use the office as an excuse to get rid of old candy; just throw that out.

“You have to treat that room like a training table,” she said.