When Can Kids Eat Popcorn?

Snacking Safety for Kids Under 5

Popcorn is a choking hazard, so it's not a safe snack option for babies and toddlers. Offer your kids a popcorn alternative until they're at least 4.

There's nothing like having kids to make you realize that everything in your house is dangerous. The popcorn that makes a pretty harmless and relatively healthy movie-night snack for you is potentially fatal to your baby or toddler, who's not yet able to chew foods thoroughly before swallowing them. Luckily, a kid who hasn't yet tried popcorn doesn't know what he's missing.

Popping Up to Say Hello

Traditional popcorn is never safe for babies, toddlers or even young preschoolers. The hard kernels inside popcorn make it a serious choking risk. If a little guy tries to swallow a piece of popcorn whole, and it gets lodged in his trachea (the breathing "pipe"), it will completely block off his air supply. A young child's trachea is only the diameter of a drinking straw. If a piece of hard popcorn gets stuck in that tiny space, he may not be able to cough it out.

Hold off on letting your child try it until he's around 4 years old, assuming he's demonstrated that he can thoroughly chew and safely swallow foods by that point. If your child has any medical conditions or disorders that affect his ability to chew and swallow, talk to his doctor before giving him any popcorn. Make sure that all caretakers know that popcorn is off-limits; some babysitters and relatives may not realize that this common snack poses a risk.

Safe Popcorn Alternatives

If your under-4 child asks for popcorn like the "big kids" eat, look for alternative snacks made with puffed corn. These treats often look and taste like popcorn but lack dangerous hard kernels. Find safe puffed corn snacks in the baby-food section of your grocery store, or check the chips aisle. If you pick a type that's not labeled as safe for young kids, test it yourself before giving it your kids. Safe corn snacks should practically melt in your mouth.

Making Kid-Friendly Popcorn

Once kids reach 4 years old, popcorn makes a good snack option because it's a great source of fiber, and most varieties are low in fat, sugar and chemicals. It's less likely that a child will choke on popcorn once they pass 4, but it's still possible, so supervise kids while they eat this snack. And if your first aid and CPR skills have gotten rusty, this might be the perfect time to schedule a refresher course at the American Red Cross.

If the traditional butter and kettle corn flavors aren't up to your picky child's standards, pop plain corn and dress it up yourselves. Make cheesy corn by lightly spritzing a batch of popcorn with spray olive oil and sprinkling grated Parmesan cheese over the top. Kids who like spice might enjoy popcorn tossed in a mixture of salt, cumin, garlic powder and a little chili powder. Or, make dessert popcorn by sprinkling shaved milk chocolate over a bowl of hot, freshly-popped corn. Mix it quickly to melt the chocolate and add coconut, cinnamon or crushed pretzel pieces. Refrigerate the batch for a few minutes, just until the chocolate hardens.

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