Nutritious snacks can be a critical component of a well-rounded diet—and keep everyone in the family happy. Here's how to participate in healthy snacking.
Maybe you had an early lunch, hit the gym and now it’s hours from dinner and you’re famished. Or perhaps your children just returned home from school starving. You need a snack that’s tasty, nutritious and easy to make. Of course, “Healthy Snacking 101” isn’t a real course and it’s a pity, not just because it would be a tasty way to earn three credit hours, but also because there’s much to learn. Snacking’s negative reputation is a recent historical development. For most of our time on this planet, humans have snacked on things like foraged nuts and berries, or leftovers from a previous meal. Snacking was a vital way to get energy and nutrients throughout the day. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint a place and date when that began to change, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1853 is a reasonable candidate: That’s where and when the modern-day potato chip is believed to have been invented.
Fast forward to the present: We live in a busy time in which many families opt to outsource their sustenance to food companies. The days when mothers welcomed children home from school with a plate of fresh-baked cookies and a glass of cold milk aren’t completely over, but they have become rare, with more people juggling parenting and professional responsibilities. As a work-from-home dad, I understand this challenge in a personal way.
To hit the snacking trifecta, we need ideas that not only work for our tastes and health, but also in terms of the time and money we can afford. If offering a good snack were just a question of choosing something your children would enjoy eating, life would be pretty simple. Throw a bag of Doritos and a bottle of Mountain Dew on the table and you’re done. Similarly, if it were merely a question of choosing something quick and healthy, then a $5 premade organic fruit smoothie would always do the trick. But neither is the case.
Few of us have the time to offer the perfect homemade option or the budget to provide the healthy organic store-bought option for each snack, which means we need to compensate with our own creativity. The first snacking lesson I can offer is “keep your eye on the prize,” which means our end goal is to make sure a snack offers nutritional value and isn’t just made up of empty sugar calories.
Ideally, a snack should offer a combination of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. You don’t have to stress about offering all these in a single afternoon, but you should cover the nutritional bases over the course of a few snacks: Carrots sticks and dip one day, healthy oatmeal cookies the next, a green salad with olive oil and vinegar another, a homemade trail mix of nuts, raisins and seeds for a fourth.
Healthy Snacking Lesson #2: If You Chop It, They Will Eat It
One lesson my three teenage sons have taught me is “if you chop it, they will eat it.” You and your family are much more likely to grab carrots to snack on if they are already chopped in the fridge. If you’re often snacking on the run, prepackage single servings of snack foods such as cheese cubes, grapes, celery sticks, peanut butter, almonds or crackers and put them in a basket in the cupboard or fridge. Prepping food not only makes choosing healthy snacks easier, but also more fun to eat—especially when it comes to kids (and kids at heart). It’s hard to believe there’s a big difference between an apple and a sliced apple, but there is. Not only are chopped foods quicker and easier to get into small mouths, but they are also easier to dip into things that can make them more appealing such as peanut butter, hummus or onion dip.
Another snacking lesson I learned from my own teenage days working at a hotel is that everyone loves room service. My wife and I have found that if we deliver a healthy snack when our sons are doing their afternoon homework, the plate will magically clean itself. Popcorn tastes great when watching a movie, but it also tastes pretty good when doing algebra.
This leads to a related piece of snacking advice I can offer, which goes against something you probably heard as a child: “What do you think this is, a restaurant or something?” It’s true—we’re not likely to prepare restaurant-quality snacks for ourselves and our families each day.
But I think we can occasionally take a cue from restaurant chefs in the snacks we make. Chefs know the importance of aesthetics. Rather than eating some ho-hum yogurt and a piece of fruit, for example, try layering them in a fancy glass with some granola—your snack will take on a whole new sense of luxury. Or rather than cutting off a hunk of cheese and munching straight from the cracker box, place a few slices of cheese, a handful of almonds, a small mound of pickled beets and a couple of crackers on a platter. Voil`a—gourmet cheese plate.
We go to restaurants because we want to discover new tastes and have some fun. We also do it to take a break from cooking. Eating carefully chosen store-bought snack foods can be part of the solution to eating a wide variety of foods while giving ourselves a much-needed breather. So how do we choose carefully? Look at the ingredients list on packaged foods. You should be able to recognize that the ingredients are real food and come primarily from whole foods. Avoid foods that list sugar or one of its synonyms (corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup, for example) in the first four ingredients and those that contain partially hydrogenated oils. See “Anatomy of a Healthy Snack” below for guidelines on assessing nutrients and calories.
For a snack to complement a healthy diet, it needs to provide a range of vitamins and nutrients within a limited number of calories. Use these guidelines to build healthy snacks for yourself
and your family.
Calories: The number of calories you allot to each snack should depend on the overall number of calories you need each day (find a calculator at mayoclinic.com/health/calorie-calculator/nu00598), as well as how many calories you eat per meal. For most adults, a healthy snack will range from 150 to 200 calories.
Nutrients: The nutrition of your snack should mirror the nutrition mix you aim for throughout the rest of the day. The Mayo Clinic recommends sourcing 45 to 65 percent of our calories from complex carbohydrates such as grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits; 10 to 35 percent from protein such as beans, lentils, dairy, soy, seafood, poultry and lean meat; and 20 to 35 percent from fats such as healthy oils, lean poultry and fish. These options all fall within the range of nutrients to build a healthy snack. Mix and match to make your own!
4 small carrots
2½ tablespoons hummus
1 tablespoon honey
¾ cup oatmeal
¾ cup plain yogurt
Chopped fresh herbs
½ cup quinoa
1 ounce cheddar cheese
1 ounce almonds
3 ounces baked sweet potato chips
3 tablespoons black bean dip
Large zucchini, sliced
½ cup cottage cheese