Snacking is a way of life for Americans. Studies show that 50 percent of American children nosh about 600 calories between meals every day, and adults take in from 400 to 900 daily calories as snacks — enough to qualify as a fourth meal.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with snacking. It’s natural to feel hungry between breakfast, lunch and dinner, especially for children and teens, who need energy to grow, and for adults who skimp on meals or skip them altogether. But snacks are often regarded as nutrition free-for-alls, and therein lies the problem.

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What’s missing from your snack?

Snacking is often synonymous with highly processed foods rich in calories, refined carbohydrates, fat and sodium – foods I consider treats, not everyday indulgences. Low-nutrient foods, including cookies, chips and candy, temporarily take the edge off hunger, but they aren’t particularly satisfying in the long run. Recent research suggests a lack of protein is probably why.

One study, published in the Journal of Nutrition study, found that teens ages 13 to 19 who ate a high-protein afternoon snack reported feeling more satisfied and less hungry for dinner than when they had a low-protein snack. In addition, they consumed more nutrients on the days when they ate the high-protein choice.

To be fair, soy was the sole source of protein studied, and the teens took in a whopping 26 grams of protein in a sitting, the amount in nearly four ounces of meat, chicken or fish. Yet this research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that many different types of protein-packed foods keep you fuller for longer.

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Protein promotes satiety — eating satisfaction — better than carbohydrates or fat. Plus, protein-rich fare is generally nutritious. Protein is found in foods that also provide an array of vitamins and minerals, such as low-fat dairy, lean meat, poultry and seafood. Protein-rich plant foods such as soy, legumes and nuts also serve up fiber.

Make snacks work for you

Healthy snacks are useful for filling in nutrition gaps, including protein gaps. We snack so often that between-meal foods should be as nutrient-rich as possible so that nobody misses out on what they need for good health.

Start by treating snacks as healthy mini-meals, not meal wreckers. For example, when you offer your child or teen half of a sandwich and a small glass of milk at 3 PM, you needn’t worry if he doesn’t finish his dinner because his snack helped satisfy some of his nutrient needs. You can’t say the same when snacks consist of orange fish-shaped crackers and a sugary drink, packaged granola bars or candy.

There’s no rule about how many calories a snack should provide to quash hunger pangs, but about 200 calories or so is fine for older kids and adults, depending on their size and activity level. Younger children may need less food, so let their hunger guide them. You can snack as often as you like, but snacks should be balanced and snack calories must be counted toward your daily energy needs.

As long as daily calories are kept in check, including protein between meals can not only improve your child’s nutrition but also help to manage body weight — and do the same for you.

When kids snack at home, have them eat at the kitchen or dinner table, and avoid letting children “graze” all day long, which can interfere with hunger cues.

Related: Packaged Infant and Toddler Foods: What Parents Need to Know

Healthy snacks for kids and adults

Nutritious, satisfying snacks combine foods rich in protein with complex carbohydrate, including fiber, which is found in whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts.

You don’t need to eat as much protein as the teens in the study — 26 grams — to feel satisfied and boost nutrition. Aim for about 15 grams of protein per snack, found in the following snack suggestions:

  • Very Berry Smoothie: 1 cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt, 1 cup fresh or frozen berries, 2 tablespoons milk, sweetener of your choice. Combine in food processor or blender. Drink immediately.
  • ¾ cup dry roasted edamame
  • ½ tuna fish or turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and cherry tomatoes
  • 2 reduced-fat mozzarella cheese sticks and 6 woven wheat whole grain crackers
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs and a 1-ounce whole grain roll
  • 1 serving plain one-minute oatmeal prepared in the microwave with 8 ounces 1% milk and topped with 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • Carton of fat-free fruit Greek yogurt and piece of fruit
  • 4 cups low-fat microwave popcorn tossed with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese and 8 ounces 1% milk
  • 1 cup canned lentil soup topped with ¼ cup shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese and 6 whole grain crackers

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D. is an award-winning writer, nutrition consultant, spokesperson, and the mother of three. Her most recent book is "MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better: Decoding the Dietary Guidelines for Your Real Life." Ward blogs at betteristhenewperfect.com.

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