5 Inexpensive Real Food Snacks for Sports and School

This post is by blog team member, Kiran. To learn more about Kiran, check out our team page!

Last year I wrote a post on snacks that kids receive in recreational sports. Specifically, I was referring to my 7 year-old’s soccer team where she “played” for 45 minutes and then was given junk food to “recover.”

I honestly had no idea what a positive (thank goodness!) reaction would come of it. I was overjoyed to hear how many people were on board with the notion that kids who are playing rec sports needn’t be given a cookie and a Capri-Sun after each game.


On that same topic, I did have a couple of comments from parents who felt that it came down to cost – specifically that it’s cheaper to purchase the bags of Cheetos or Doritos than to do my suggested “real food” snacks. So I want to debunk that theory.

But before I do – I want to mention that this not only relates to recreational sports … one other area that has always been an object of irritation to me is at preschool. Similarly, they are feeding the masses, and I’m guessing that the administration assumes that it’s more cost-effective to buy the huge container of cheese balls to serve to the kiddos.

So I went to Wal-Mart. While I personally don’t shop for food there on a regular basis, I feel that this is a very reasonable store (cost-wise) that is fairly accessible to many people and therefore a good choice for this exercise. Since I had a tough time finding organic, I went with the best options that I could find. I needn’t say more; I believe that my numbers below support my message.

I also want to mention another great tie-in that can definitely up the “cuteness” factor of these snacks, but more so, offer inspirational messages for teams and sports. You often see these Lunchbox Love cards used in Lisa’s school lunch photos (and are actually one of our favorite lunchbox items for my kids, as well!).

Lunchbox Love cards

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These would be really cute to staple on to the bags of popcorn or to simply hand out to the team players. And since Lunchbox Love is one of our partners they are offering our readers (you!) 20% off of all purchases with the “100days” code.

And now without further adieu, I present the snack list!

Option 1: Popcorn (Large Container vs. Mini-Bags)

sports snack comparison on 100 Days of #RealFood

You may be thinking that the mini bags of popcorn are a good option to go with, but did you know that it’s just as easy to pop your own kernels using the popcorn trick? I compared a box of 10 bags with a large jar of kernels plus the plain brown bags. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also avoid Refined Oil, Artificial Flavor, Added Color, and TBHQ.

Option 2: Trail Mix vs. Raisins

sports snack comparison on 100 Days of #RealFood

There are so many issues to address here … so let me first start with the notion that you may assume that trail mix, including a mixture of nuts (good for protein, right?), raisins and the oh-so-colorfully attractive bits of candy look good. Was it the sweet or salty that sold you? But get over that initial impression, because oh-my-goodness look at this ingredient list! Save yourself (and your kiddos) from the soy (that’s likely GMO), the refined oil and the food dyes, which you know we are not fans of.

A simple box of raisins is just as easy to hand out. Oh, and I know we have some parents of kids with nut allergies who are giving me a huge (virtual) high-five right now, too!

Option 3: Cheese Sticks vs. Chips

sports snack comparison on 100 Days of #RealFood

Alrighty … next up is a huge pet peeve of mine. What gives with the bags of chips? I mean, didn’t your kid just hit the baseball field to get a healthy dose of some outdoor fun and exercise? And now we’re handing him and his teammates bags of chips? Grrr.

Instead of a cheesy bag of chips, how about a cheesestick to go along with a cup of fresh water? I’m not even gonna go there with all of the ingredients (ahem, MaltodextrinCorn Syrup Solids, Sugar, MSG, Food Dyes, and so many more) that you can avoid. And just check out which one is cheaper…

Option 4: Mini-Donuts vs. Mini-Apples

sports snack comparison on 100 Days of #RealFood

I know you’re thinking – how do donuts compare to apples? And you’re right. Aside from both being cute and little and round, they don’t  have much in common. Which is the point.

This is one where the cost is slightly higher for the real food option. But for the 8 cents per apple, you are saving your kiddos from highly processed ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, dextrose, and numerous preservatives. Need I say more?

Option 5: Gatorade vs. Water

This last one is such a small yet impactful change you can make. Please … whether your child is playing sports, or she’s trying to concentrate in school – just simple water is best. Ideally it’s in a reusable bottle, but I understand that these minis are convenient. These pictured G2’s contain Sucrose, Dextrose, Monopotassium Phosphate, Glycerol Ester of Rosin and Blue 1. Save your child from these highly processed ingredients – and save some money, too!!

sports snack comparison on 100 Days of #RealFood

My Thoughts on Snacks Overall

If you read my earlier post on snacks, know I still stand my ground. I don’t believe that in recreational sports there needs to be a snack given at all. But on the occasion that they are, there are so many other great (and affordable!) ideas for real food snacks that can feed the teams and classes!

I’d love for you to share your ideas with us in the comments below.

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217 thoughts on “5 Inexpensive Real Food Snacks for Sports and School”

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  1. Hi,
    My 2 year old just started attending a play group at a local church twice a week. She’s only been there twice and the snacks she received were munchkins and oreo cookies! She gets very little sugary snacks at home (I won’t pretend that she gets NONE, but we do pretty well). It’s very frustrating that even if I provide snacks that are healthy, which I intend on doing, most of the time she’ll be given junk food. It’s very frustrating when I work so hard to avoid junk in our home.

  2. Melisa,
    Popcorn is NON-GMO. Field corn, used for all the processed foods, is usually GMO. They are NOT the same kind of corn. Sweet corn is another kind of corn, and it is usually NON-GMO. Of course, if you want to make brooms, there is also broom corn. All corn is NOT the same.

  3. I wish my kids would end up on sports teams where parents were against snacks! My oldest is eight, and last year his baseball games were routinely at 7:00 or 7:30 PM. Snacks, of course, came up at one of the first practices. I said flat out, “Do we really need snacks? Aren’t they all going to go home and go to bed?” The argument from most parents was that the kids would expect a snack. So??? It drives me more nuts for my five year old…how does 45 minutes of t-ball (and you parents who have kids that play t-ball know how little physical activity is actually involved in the “game”) necessitate 16 ounces of Gatorade, cookies, chips, and fruit snacks? And, yes, all those items were actually a snack that was handed out by a parent for each kid after a game. Sport snacks are one of the banes of my parenting existence!

  4. Do you have any information on why candy/food should not be used as rewards for kids? I was first taught that by our school nurse in the district I taught in, before my girls were born. I would love to have some well written information to pass on to our school guidance counselor as she is in charge of the school wellness policy.

    One of my daughters is getting far too many candy rewards this year. Hard to keep her under the recommended 3 teaspoon limit, when she is getting nearly a teaspoon from a piece of candy. My far greater concern is my child is being taught to reward herself with food. Very frustrating since the school has a healthy snack policy in place. Thanks!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Kristin.One of the first things we learned in my child development classes in college (way back) :) was to not use food as reward or punishment. It’s one of the surest ways to create emotional eaters. Here are a few articles to reference: http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/InfoFlyers-FoodAsReward.pdf, http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=160&ContentID=32, and http://health.mashangel.com/health-guides-and-tips/food-as-reward-and-punishment/#axzz3E4jdcgez. ~Amy

    2. I think of snacks after sports not as a reward, but as a refuel. I absolutely agree it should be a healthy type of fuel and that is what I provide when my snack time comes around, but to say it’s strictly a reward isn’t exactly fair to the kids who have run all over the fields and sweat up a storm. They need to replenish their energy stores just like adults do.

  5. I buy a seedless watermelon ($5 each) every weekend for each of my kid’s (2-a boy and a girl) cross-country meets. I quarter the slices and put them in a cake saver used up-side down. Each week the cake savers are empty and the $$$$ granola bars/bagels/muffins are left behind. Kids will pick the natural over the processed if they are given the choice.

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      Love the clementines/cuties/mini oranges! They are simple and come in their own “package” (for those who are required to bring something packaged/not made at home).

      1. FYI: I just noticed the other day when reading the label on the bag of clementines (that I bought from Trader Joes) that it says to wash them before peeling! Apparently, there are preservatives and wax on the outside and I suppose you are supposed to wash them–even though you aren’t eating the skin–because your fingers will touch the food after peeling it. I just never thought to read the label on a bag of clementines before, but am glad I did because now I’m sure to wash them first!!

  6. Hmmmm…..you mentioned avoiding GMO’s in several of your tips, but why is popcorn (CORN being the worst GMO) listed as one of your “real food” snacks?

    Not good.

  7. Ok, I’m probably going to get bashed for saying this, but a bag of Lay’s potato chips has potatoes, oil and salt. It is higher in calories, at 150 calories vs. 80 calories for the cheese stick, but it has less fat and less sodium. It has no protein or calcium of course, but it does have decent amounts of potassium and Vitamin C, and no sugar. A small box of raisins has 129 calories, 25 grams of sugar and surprisingly little nutritional value.

    No, I’m not suggesting we all pig out on potato chips but they aren’t really the worst thing a kid could eat either. Granted, Cheetos, Doritos etc are highly processed and full of dyes, fillers etc.

    The point is not all cheap snack foods are equally bad for you, and not all “natural” or “healthy” foods are really all that good for you. So read the labels, carefully.

    1. Okay so we talk about potato chips compared to cheese sticks. I believe the point in the article is the preservatives in the food..calorie counting doesn’t count when it comes to feeding our children..no potatoes and salt are not the only ingredients. .how can anyone compare the two…

      1. Here is what is in some of those chips. Not healthy…not that the cheese is much better with its milk from cows fed growth hormones and antibiotics. Eat real food.

        Nacho Cheese Doritos ingredients (U.S.), in order of percent of product: whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids[8]

    2. I still can’t figure out how we are comparing ANY kind of potato chip to cheese? There is no nutritional value (no matter how you try and rationalize it) in chips. Cheese is a quick snack that contains protein and calcium and SO much better. I still am shaking my head about the comparison!!

  8. I taught for around 28 years. I usually had snacks for my students the first few days of school. I would buy bags of apples and oranges. Sometimes I would get a big bunch of bananas and some plastic knives to cut them in half. At first the kids would complain. I told them if they were really hungry they would eat the fruit. Guess what, they ate the fruit and would ask me to keep bringing it. Due to our schedule we allowed snacks, I got yelled at more than once for not allowing cookies or potato chips. I walked my talk and brought in celery, apples etc. for my own snacks. They will eat healthy if we teach them and give them a chance. I would buy the boxes of raisins and give those for Halloween treats,some years I would buy pencils when they put out school supplies and save them to give out at Halloween. I found snack size popcorn bags at local stores and the neighborhood kids would love it when they got some popcorn to microwave when they got home on Halloween.

  9. Good article–but no offense, you are writing about how to save money on food, and yet throw in a plug for a company that charges up to $50 for a pack of “lunchbox notes”? I get that they are a sponsor of this blog, but come on. I am no fan of junk food but would rather waste money on chips than something I can write myself for free.

  10. Good post! I love that our school celebrates birthdays now with non food traditions. Also, for basketball once I brought crunch packs of apples (I overheard that one boy had Celiac) and many parents commented on what a good idea it was. Another family brought bananas, so perfect for fueling kids during sports. I also brought cheese sticks for baseball once-I did pair it with a rice krispy treat, only because other parents were literally bringing cookies and chocolate dipped granola bars, so I didn’t want to buck the system too badly ;) Love the idea of the cuties too, perfect!

  11. I love the healthy alternatives!

    But I wanted to comment on the theme I have seen in the comments of “when I was little…and the ‘junk at the concession stand.'”

    When I played softball at the local rec center 35-40 years ago…yes, after our game the coach bought us a coke. But it was a *small* coke and I don’t mean like today’s small, it was probably 6 oz of soda – make with real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. And that was it, our only treat at the ball park (well, maybe a gum ball). And we were active kids. After our games, we ran all over the park, from the lower to the upper fields, to see our friends play.

    So, yes….I am all about the healthy alternatives and that is what I feed my kids. But if it was 6 oz of real sugar soda once a week, I wouldn’t say a thing. The problem, as Lisa has pointed out time and time again on this blog, is that *now* it is sugar, sugar, artificial dyes, high fructose corn syrup, more sugar, more dyes all. the. time.

    1. Right…it’s really the constant barrage of junk that is the problem. What we see as occasional treats seem to have become the regular diet for some, and I know my son gives me grief all the time because he’s sure that “normal kids” don’t have any dietary restrictions at all, and eat chips and candy and fast food all the time.

      I can’t realistically expect that my child will never have a soda or colored candy, because there’s SO much of it out there and we aren’t always standing right there with a hand over his mouth. However, when an event is being planned we CAN make an effort to suggest or bring the healthy options, and work to not stack several unhealthy items together. Gotta think this was so much easier for my mom, when I was a kid!

  12. We are just starting a new soccer season so this was a great reminder. The coach’s wife mentioned snacks last week and so I’m hoping to talk with her about this at practice this week. Last year (another team) when I brought clementines and grapes, the kids just about mobbed me. Even the coach asked if he could have some. So I KNOW what they like! And around here the grapes are less than a dollar a pound lately…what a deal. Bring them frozen and they’re even better…

  13. Only had time to peruse some comments, but feeling so grateful that we are free to offer any snack we wish with no restrictions!

    As the team parent for our boys’ soccer teams I always start off the season with an email to the parents noting that depleted bodies need decent nourishment and offer suggestions. My goal is to set the bar high – water, bagged pretzels, oranges, bananas, apples, triscuits, etc are great ways to refuel little people after a game. Every season, the only healthy snack offered is ours.

    I am over the moon to report that the past two seasons, every family offers a nutritional grain, a fruit and WATER!!! Not only is it cost effective but I really think that parents are catching on. This is a great step from our earlier seasons (this is our 8th) when – I kid you not – parents would hand out bags of candy, sodas, and cookies.

    I adore your post and just love being able to shout out that (at least in our neck of the woods) things are starting to change on the fields!

  14. I agree with the above comment about how nothing can be homemade anymore. In my county, for all school and rec sports, all snacks must be store bought. So for U4 soccer today, I brought organic juice boxes and organic fruit snacks. (I hate the double sugar, but not all 3yo’s can drink from a water bottle.) I’d love to be able to bring orange slices or peanut butter apples or something, but we’re not allowed. (And what’s REALLY sad is that you get to a lot of these events, and many kids won’t eat it if it’s not something processed.) My oldest son has Asperger’s, and I first tried going organic when someone suggested that the artificial dyes could be causing his hyperactivity. I always thought all that kind of food talk was nonsense to get people to spend more, but my husband and I agreed to give organic a try for a month. The difference was night and day. It’s taken a while to get my extended family on board, but they’ve come around. (My mother-in-law felt badly that he wasn’t getting candy anymore, so every time she came to visit, she’d bring him a ton of Twizzlers and Skittles that we’d throw away after she left. It wasn’t until she had him stay with her for a weekend that she noticed the significant change.)

    I’m rambling. Anyway, great post. I just wanted to chime in that schools are working against us here, unfortunately. I’m not entirely sure why, either.

    1. What if brought oranges then sliced them on-scene?
      I can’t believe how much schools are working against parents, urgh. I’m dreading dealing with the public school system.
      Hang in there! You’re doing a great job with your son, I’m sure. :)

  15. This is a brilliant post! Thank you for sharing. And yes, I value that you addressed the nut allergic children like mine! Thank you for considering them with these fantastic and healthy suggestions.

  16. These days you have no home baked/ home made option. For organized sports/school/etc everything has to be store bought. Our schools would not even allow the paper bags/popcorn because it would have to be opened and distributed/popped at home. I would wonder if it was done at the facility. I know a box of something would be allowed but individual packages are always preferred.

    My children’s school is doing away with celebrating birthdays with food but every other celebration they still request parents to send in food items.

  17. Allergy parent here giving you a virtual high five.✋ Everything on that list is safe for my daughter. I hate the comment that “it’s just fruit snacks” they should be safe right!?” Just snack that may cause a hospital visit for my child. But thank you. Fruit is almost alway safe and healthy too. I don’t need more sugar, HFCS, coloring, or preservatives. Thank you! Sharing.

  18. Thank you for this. Just this week I have been struggling with this topic. My daughter is running in a cross country race with her team today (she is in high school) and the parents all thought it would be a great idea to feed the kids lunch afterward. It’s a tough course (college level) that really challenges our kids physically and mentally.

    I love the generosity of the parents but was saddened when reading the choice of lunch options. Sandwiches with processed breads and meat, chips, cookies, Popsicles and gatorade. What saddens me the most is that these generous parents believe they are providing a healthy and fun lunch for the kids.

    Sometimes it’s tough being the one person who insists on healthy but I stick to my convictions and often find the kids excited about the fresh fruit options and good old water I bring. And now as I type this we are heading to watch her race with a cooler of fresh fruit to offer the team and a little added comfort by reading your article.

    Thank you for all you share ~ Teresa

  19. Thank you for posting this! Our kids do T-ball where snacks after each game are standard, but luckily all parents seem to be on board with the healthier approach. The popcorn idea is great! They also do dance and hockey and I have yet to see a snack after either of those (whew).

    I remember when I was little, though, after baseball each player got to have $0.50 at the concession stands, which bought a lot of cigar gum and fun dips and tootsie rolls!!!

    I’m glad that isn’t the standard anymore.

  20. I coached soccer for 8 years. We mostly had fruit as our snacks. The real issue was the soccer association giving each player a snow cone after the game. YEP! run run run and then come over to the concession for your free cup of sugar!

  21. It’s great that you spoke out! Thanks for doing the research and making such a reasonable list of alternatives. It can be tricky going against the masses but there are a lot of us out there who agree!

  22. The dreaded snack. Every year when the parents ask hey are we doing snack? I want to say NO! I just tell my kids to say thank you and then bring my own snack for the kids. I usually only have 1 week so I figure the cost into the cost of the sport. I bring individually sealed bags of sliced apples from Costco, if I forget I will grab a box of kind granola bars. They aren’t one hundred percent healthy but much better than Gatorade, donuts, chips etc.

    When we were kids the parents were only allowed to bring fruit. I believe it is actually part of the soccer program. But I remember a few years ago I saw the website that they recommend oranges and other fruits. I just wish we would stop doing at this point. It is apparent that the other parents don’t want to do it. It is just an afterthought when they buy it.

  23. The dreaded snack. Every year when the parents ask hey are we doing snack? I want to say NO! I just tell my kids to say thank you and then bring my own snack for the kids. I usually only have 1 week so I figure the cost into the cost of the sport. I bring individually sealed bags of sliced apples from Costco, if I forget I will grab a box of kind granola bars. They aren’t one hundred percent healthy but much better than Gatorade, donuts, chips etc.

    When we were kids the parents were only allowed to bring fruit. I believe it is actually

  24. Please adjust the text in Option 4 to reflect the actual math. The apples are 8 cents (or $0.08) more expensive than the donuts.

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      Yes, you are correct. If you read the text above the photos, that is addressed. I chose apples as the winner based on the text that was included:

      This is one where the cost is slightly higher for the real food option. But for the .08 cents per apple, you are saving your kiddos from highly processed ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, dextrose, and numerous preservatives. Need I say more?

      1. No, you misunderstand. You cannot pay .08 cents more for something, that is far less than a penny. It should instead say either 8 cents or $0.08, you can use the decimal and the word cents at the same time.

      2. Thanks, Elizabeth, for pointing this out. (One of my personal pet peeves…) But typos are running rampant – I’m sure you mean “you CAN’T use the decimal and the word cents at the same time”. :)

        Great article! My son just started preschool last week, so I don’t have much experience in this area yet. But I wonder – if this topic is becoming a point of contention for so many people, why doesn’t everyone just bring their own snacks, if needed? Aren’t we making snacks for our young kids at home anyway? (Not trying to be snarky, I’m actually wondering this.) It seems the entire argument could be avoided if everyone just brought their own. It also deflates all the “you’re a food snob” vs. “I can’t believe you feed your kids that crap” tensions that may arise.

        I feel fortunate that my (admittedly small, only 40 students) preschool serves pretty good snacks, but also allows me to bring my own in place of theirs, if I want to.

  25. I should share this info with my fellow parents at my daughter’s preschool. Every kid’s family has a turn to take the snack, which must include a “nutritious snack and drink for 18 4 year olds, no nut products.” It’s beyond me who would think cheetos, oreo cookies and capri sun are even near nutritious, and all of this in the same day. I’m seriously planning a visit to the program director to do something to better educate other parents about the meaning of a nutritious snack.

  26. About 12 years ago, I introduced the “radical” policy that we would serve water during VBS instead of juice or kool-aid. I got some push back, but I stood my ground. We reinforced with the group leaders that they really needed to push their kids to drink their water because they really needed the hydration. After the week was over, we debriefed. They noticed several things: Behavior improved because the kids didn’t have the corn syrup and artificial colors coursing through their systems. It also improved when the kids were actually hydrated. The ladies in the snack area loved that spills were easy to clean up. There was no sticky residue. It was just water! If the kids spilled on their clothes, it didn’t matter.

    As for the bottles, I live in a city with horrible water and would never serve the kids tap water. If we’re at home or at the church, we have the large water cooler that we serve from, but if we’re away, bottled is our only choice. It’s not ideal, but sometimes, that’s all you can do. It’s still better than Capri Sun or Gatorade!

    1. Cheese sticks aren’t any more processed than other cheese. They’re just packaged in the shape of a stick rather than a ball as other mozzarella is. The ingredients are the same.

  27. Love the cost comparison, thanks!! We do snacks after every game…our girls play softball which is 90 minutes of activity with zero breaks (aside from being in the dugout) and typically the game days can be very hot, so a snack after 90 minutes in 80-90 degree weather is necessary. Typically, I bring tangerines, water and cheese sticks to “reboot” their bodies.

  28. Agreed! It drives me nuts when our kids play soccer for 30 minutes and then break for snack, having just eaten breakfast before hitting the soccer field. Our culture is obsessed with feeding our kids snacks!

  29. Agree with the notion that the kids do not require snacks for soccer practice or whatever it may be, drives me nuts too! But, when I am out-voted by the other parents (which is 90% of the time), I always choose cut up orange slices or watermelon slices.

  30. In reference to the gatorade vs water debate, no one should be buying water in bottles, it is a huge waste of plastic. Tap water is often better than bottled water since the bottlers are not required to monitor their water to the same standards as the municipalities are.
    I drives me nuts seeing people buying cases of plastic bottled water.