A luscious fruit tray beats a candy tray for a snack that quenches your thirst and satisfies the munchies (image: Trang Doan / Pexels).
In kindergarten, snack time was like a miniature Hunger Games.
Imagine 90 decibels of Dinklage-sized kids sitting on opposite sides of a long table. They watch their teachers with rapt attention, like a pack of puppies jonesing for Beggin’ Strips.
Then the games start.
The teachers bring cafeteria trays laden with little sections of graham crackers. They probably have a signal for when to start, but the children don’t see it, enhancing the anticipation.
In unison, the teachers slam the trays onto the head of the table and push them down the middle with one hand, as if auditioning for a reality show, NASCAR: The Snack-Tray Edition. We kindergarteners had to grab whatever we could as the trays raced past.
Maybe we were meant to learn a lesson about being unafraid to grab what we need in life, or how to survive in violent environments like first grade. We just wanted the crackers.
Since then, I’ve overcome my unfortunate, Pavlovian response to graham crackers. No longer do I drool, unless they are on a cafeteria tray.
Luckily, the tray melees didn’t dampen my love of snacks. And, it should be said that graham crackers are not bad as a shelf-stable snack, suitable for bug-out bags.
But other snackables exist that are healthy and even crave-worthy.
Snacks as Alternative to Heavy Meals
Do you find it odd that so many suggestions for snacks are aimed at children? Every adult I know loves to snack.
If it’s true, as I’ve heard, that six smaller meals spaced throughout through the day are healthier than three normal-sized meals, maybe we should make healthy snacks a way of life.
Planning snacks away from home is not difficult, and it saves you from being at the mercy of the vending machines (image: Victoriano Izquierdo / Unsplash).
One reason to pay attention to between-meal eating is that people are getting more and more of their calories from snacks, making that type of food critical.
Think of snacking as an opportunity to get more of the foods you need. When you look at snacks from that perspective, it is evident that they should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Most kids do not get the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables each day,” say the nutrition experts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The rule of thumb is to get a combined 4-½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day.
Only one in 10 people gets that minimum, according to the American Heart Association.
‘Snacking isn’t bad for you if you do it in moderation and make healthy choices.’ -American Heart Association
How many times have you craved something sweet or wished for something salty at work and had no choice but to grab a less-than-ideal alternative from the vending machine?
Good Snacks Give Good Mileage
The good news is, planning for snacks away from home is not tough at all. And you may be surprised how tasty they can be. Many can be kept for weeks in a drawer, and some are small enough to tuck into a laptop bag or gym bag.
“Snacking isn’t bad for you if you do it in moderation and make healthy choices,” say the pros at the American Heart Asssociation.
One of the main benefits of healthy snacking is that it keeps you fueled longer. Think of how long your healthy pick-me-up will keep you going, compared with a sugary, fatty processed foods sure to cause a sugar crash that leaves you with less energy than you started with.
When you picture yourself grabbing fruits or vegetables for a snack, what comes to mind? Carrot and celery sticks in a container of cloudy water? A bowl of apples of indeterminate age? Either could work if you’re desperate. But the other possibilities are so much more appealing.
Combine good planning with a willingness to try the growing number of shelf-stable fruit and vegetable products. You’ll have a recipe for making snack time both healthy and adventurous.
Be Daring, New Kinds of Produce
Another benefit of fruits and vegetables is they’re cheaper than junk food. Don’t believe me? Take it from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which calculates that the average cost of a serving of fruit or vegetable — including fresh, frozen, and canned — is 25 cents.
Now compare that to the cost of an average processed snack. A small bag of potato chips or a candy bar costs an average of 69 cents, nearly triple the cost of the healthy stuff.
A juicy slice of watermelon makes your sweet tooth happy, while providing filling fiber and important nutrients (image: Juja Han / Stocksnap.io).
Set a goal of tasting different fruits and vegetables regularly. Prepare them in different ways to learn what you like best.
Throw a tasting party featuring an assortment of fruit- and vegetable-based snacks. Vote on which ones are best. Give razzie-type awards to ones that turn out to be better in theory than practice.
Below are some ideas for healthy snacks and drinks. Some travel better than others, and some work well for a crowd.
Because fruit is naturally sweet, it tends to be an easy sell to kids and adults alike. It may be served whole, sliced, cut in half, cubed, or in wedges. Canned, frozen and dried fruits often need little preparation.
Apples (consider using an apple corer)
Grapes (seedless red, green, or purple)
Kiwis (cut in half and serve with a spoon)
Watermelon (seedless or beware the fallout)
Applesauce (Unsweetened), Fruit Cups, and Canned Fruit
These have a long shelf life and are low-cost, easy, and healthy if packaged in 100 percent juice or a light syrup that can be drained. A favorite standby of mine are tiny dishes of mandarin orange sections or diced peaches packed in juice.
I also like to keep a stack of unsweetened applesauce cups in the refrigerator to serve as a light snack. You’ll find creatively packaged, shelf-stable fruit in the supermarket, next to the canned fruit.
There are lots of options here, especially if you shop at a store with bulk bins. Consider dried grapes (a.k.a. raisins), apricots, apples, cranberries, pineapple, papaya, and others that have little or no added sugars. But read the labels; some are more sugar than fruit.
During warm weather in particular, freeze grapes or buy frozen blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and mangos. Reading labels is a must in the frozen treat section.
Look for frozen fruit bars that have either no added sugar or are low in sugar. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot that fit that description, but I like to keep a box of 100 percent fruit-juice bars in my freezer whenever I can find them. On days when the mercury climbs high, it’s my kind of popsicle.
Caution: Some snacks with “fruit” in the name are more like fruit-flavored sugar. Get in the habit of reading labels carefully. Examples of imposters include many of the so-called fruit rollups and chews with some form of sugar as the first ingredient
It’s worth the effort to hunt down the natural fruit leathers. They come in a variety of flavors and are plenty sweet without sugar.
These healthy fruit snacks are especially good to have on hand if you do any kind of distance exercise, like running, walking or cycling. I’ve found them to be a good alternative to the high-priced nutrition packets sold in specialty sports stores.
Fruit Salad or Platter
If kids or helpful guests are around, recruit them to help make a fruit salad or platter. Provide a variety of colorful fruits to up the appeal.
My favorite look: strawberries sprinkled with blueberries. They’re not quite vibrating colors, but they’re close. On Fourth of July, add bananas for a red, white, and blue burst of patriotism.
Blend frozen fruit with very cold juice, yogurt or milk and ice. Many store-made smoothies have so much added sugar, the fruit is like an afterthought.
Home delivery of fresh fruit or platters of cut-up fruit are a convenient option offered by supermarkets that provide personal shopping.
In Houston, home town of burstology.com, small businesses have sprung up to provide subscriptions for regular, automatic deliveries of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
A friend of mine started a business distributing boxes of produce that customers picked up weekly at the school attended by her son.
Some vegetables are delicious served raw with hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, low-fat dip or salad dressing:
Carrot sticks or baby carrots
Peppers (green, red, and yellow)
Grape or cherry tomatoes
Yellow summer squash slices
I believe some vegetables crudités are better served blanched, especially ones that tend to be bitter or weirdly textured when raw. For me, that includes cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini.
Try low-fat salad dressings, like fat-free Ranch or Thousand Island; store-bought light dips; hummus (which comes in dozens of flavors); bean dips; guacamole, and salsa. Most have the benefit of freezing well.
Create your own salad bar. The only thing missing will be the sneeze shields. Let everyone build their own salads. If you have an herb garden, think about offering chopped basil, chives, dill and cilantro.
Another good ingredient is edamame, immature soy beans that are fun to eat and easy to serve. (Heat frozen edamame in the microwave for about 2-3 minutes, and serve salted).
For snacking, I prefer the ones still in the shell. Getting them out is half the fun, kind of like shucking peanuts.
Celery as Flavorful Log
Cut small whole-wheat pitas in half and stuff with veggies and with hummus, bean dip, or dressing. I like this type of sandwich served with homemade tzatziki from fat-free Greek yogurt.
Celery lends itself to all kinds of snacks, including smoothies, with dips or stuffed with peanut butter. Disguising it to swim with your pet fish, while creative, is not recommended (image: Pixakame / Pixabay).
Instead of pita pockets, These may also be made as rollups, with a whole-grain tortilla holding it all together. Cut them in half and secure with a toothpick or slice them as pinwheels. .
For ants on a log, let kids spread peanut butter in the trough of celery sticks and dot with raisins. For me, the peanut butter is enough to make the celery call out my name. I can live without raisins on top. But then the catchy name wouldn’t apply.
Though most of us eat plenty of grain products, too many of them are in the form of either cookies or other other processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat.
At snack time, aim to serve mostly whole grains, for the benefits of added fiber, vitamins and minerals. Other tips for grain products include limiting added sugars to less than 35 percent by weight, avoiding any trans fats, and keeping all fats low.
There’s nothing inherently bad about eating cookies, snack cakes, processed snacks and chips. The message is to think of them as occasional treats, not regular snacks.
Breakfast Cereals. Either dry or with skim milk. Wholegrain cereals like Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, Raisin Bran, Mini Wheats, and Wheaties make good snacks. Look for cereals with no more than 6g of sugars per serving. One of my favorite lunches is a healthy cereal with skim milk and maybe banana slices.
Crackers. Wholegrain crackers like Triscuits, which come in different flavors. Thin Crisps, Kalvi Rye crackers, or whole wheat matzos can be served alone or with toppings like low-fat cheese or peanut butter.
Rice Cakes. Lean toward the ones made from brown (whole grain) rice. Rice cakes come in many flavors, and can be served with or without toppings. Consider trying a different flavor whenever you go grocery shopping, till you find your fave.
Popcorn. Your friends here are the low-fat varies, either in a bag sold alongside the chips, or the DIY kind: microwave popcorn. Or you can air pop the popcorn and season it. One method is to spray a bowl of hot popcorn with vegetable oil spray, parmesan cheese, garlic powder or other non-salt spices.
Granola and Cereal Bars. There is such a broad selection in supermarkets, it might take you awhile to settle on your favorites. Look for whole grain granola bars that are low in sugars and moderate in calories. Think about whether you have a preference for a crunchy or chewy texture. I always vote for crunchy, but that’s me.
Low-Fat Dairy Foods. These are a good source of calcium, required for building strong bones. Choose carefully, however, because dairy products also can be major sources of artery-clogging saturated fat. To protect bones and hearts, reach for dairy foods that are low-fat or fat-free.
Yogurt. In addition to selecting no-fat or low-fat varieties, look for brands that are moderate in sugars (upper limit of 30 grams of sugars in a 6-oz. cup), and high in calcium (at least 25 percent of daily value of calcium in 6 oz. a 6-oz.).
Consider drinkable yogurt along with the spoonable kind. Yogurt can make a delicious breakfast sundae, with fruit on the bottom, covered with yogurt and sprinkled with granola
Low-Fat Cheese. Cheese provides calcium, but usually the price in saturated fat is too high. Regular cheese is a major source of heart-damaging saturated fat. Look for low-fat and reduced-fat cheese, but check the labels. Even low-fat cheese is best served as as accompaniment to other foods like fruit, vegetables, or whole-grain crackers.
OTHER SNACK IDEAS
Nuts. Even though they are dense with calories, nuts are a healthy choice. Since they are calorie dense, it is best to serve them alongside another snack, such as fruit. A small handful of nuts is a reasonable serving size.
Examples include peanuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, or soy nuts. One way to make nuts last is to choose the unshelled variety, which forces you to pause between each one.
A note of caution: Some people are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or milk. Before serving those foods in a group setting, check to make sure none of the guests has an allergy. You might save a life.
Trail Mix. This can be fun to make yourself and customize to your likes and dislikes. It stores well in a sealed container. Trail mix already made can work well, if you are squeezed for time.
Ingredients to mix include: low-fat granola, whole grain cereals, peanuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruits like raisins, apricots, apples, pineapple, or cranberries. You may find a greater selection in a store with bulk bins.
THINKING BEFORE DRINKING
Water. Strive to make water the main drink served at snack time. Water satisfies thirst and does not have sugar or calories. Plus, the price is right. Folks who are accustomed to having sweetened drinks with their snacks might take a little time to get used to drinking water.
Sparkling Water. Carbonated drinks like seltzer and club soda are healthy options. They let you avoid the sugars, calories, and caffeine of sodas. For an occasional treat, mix them with an equal amount of 100 percent fruit juice.
Low-Fat and Fat-Free Milk. You get important nutrients like calcium and vitamin D from milk. Choose fat-free milk, also called skim, or get low-fat milk (also called 1 percent). Avoid the saturated fat found in whole and 2% (a.k.a. reduced-fat) milk. Healthy-eating research recommends only unflavored milk.
Flavored milk should have no more than 130 calories per 8-ounce serving to help limit calories and added sugars. Single-serve containers of chocolate or other flavored whole or 2% milk drinks can be too high in calories (400-550 calories) and saturated fat (1/3 of a day’s worth) to be a healthy beverage.
The reason I say “flavored milk,” not chocolate milk, is that there is the slightly bizarre option of strawberry milk. I’m very aware of the strawberry option because my four siblings and I used to use the pink-powder mix to make cotton candy, using the world’s most inefficient machine, probably a gift from a family with better dental habits.
Twirling a cone-shaped piece of paper inside the machine’s drum, we would spin the strawberry-milk powder n. Fortunately, it took so long to make even one cone of the fluffy stuff, we didn’t eat very much of the pure-sugar food.
Non-Dairy Milk Substitutes. For those who prefer not to drink cow’s milk, fortified substitutes proliferate, . including “milks” made from: soy, almonds, coconuts, oats, rice, cashews and macadamia nuts.
Fruit Juice. The added sugars of juice drinks, punches, fruit cocktail drinks, or lemonade are high enough that you avoid them. Although the packaging and names of these drinks may give the impression that they are loaded with fruit, please be cautious.
If you read the labels carefully, including the list of ingredients. These drinks are generally more like soda than juice, consisting of sugar water with a few tablespoons of juice added.
Take it easy even with 100 percent fruit juices. The supermarket I go to squeezes its own oranges and sells the juice in jugs at yikes-inducing prices.
I buy it anyway, as a healthy indulgence. The way I deal with the natural-but-concentrated sugars of 100 percent fruit juice is to dilute it in a glass with ice and about twice as much filtered water as juice. I actually find the dilution lighter and more refreshing than straight fresh-squeezed.
For a treat, or even a non-alcoholic mimosa, I dilute with sparkling water.
Soft Drinks. Soda sweetened tea, and lemonade are best consumed as an indulgence, not a regular part of your eating plan. For one thing, they can add significantly to a day’s total calories. For another, they can cause tooth decay.
Such drinks are also discouraged because they displace healthful foods in your diet. Alternatives include milk, which can help prevent osteoporosis, and 100 percent juice, preventer of heart disease and cancer.
As bad eating habits come an international phenomenon, efforts to promote healthy snacking are happening internationally, too.
In the United Kingdom, families are being challenged to reduce the amount of sugar they eat and purchase healthier snacks when shopping.
“Children are, on average, eating nearly three times the recommended amount of sugar. Too much sugar can cause a whole range of serious health problems,” Cynthia Lyons, a public health official in East Sussex, south of London, told the City Council’s online publication, The Newsroom.
Ratings of various healthy snacks appear in Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit member organization that promotes the interests of consumers.
An article in Gulf News, a daily published in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, reinforces the idea that healthy snacking need not break the food budget. Among the affordable snacks suggested are lentils, eggs, sweet potatoes and water-packed tuna.
All I know is, people should beware of snacks speeding past them on a tray. Better to consider carefully which snacks are best for you.