If you grew up thinking that nibbling between meals was taboo, chew on this idea: “Snacking helps keep your metabolism fueled, your energy up, and your blood sugar stable,” says Keri Glassman, RD, author of The Snack Factor Diet (Crown, 2007). “Snacks also help you control cravings throughout the day and can improve your mood.”
According to Glassman, snacks should contain between 100 and 200 calories per serving and include at least 3 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, or 5 grams of healthy fat—or all three—to keep you feeling full. Unrefined mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, are best, says Shaya Mercer, a nutrition counselor and store marketing specialist for Whole Foods Market. Avoid trans fats and artificial additives, including synthetic colors, sweeteners, and flavors. While fresh, whole foods like fruit, vegetables, seeds, and nuts are ideal, Glassman adds, “This is real life, and sometimes we have to eat out of a package.”
The next time you find yourself in need of a snack from a bag, box, or wrapper, remember that nutrient density is key to healthy noshing. “The more nutrients you get per calorie, the fewer calories you need to feel satisfied,” says Mercer. Here are simple ways to solve six types of packaged-snack needs.
Worth their salt
Go ahead, get your salt fix—just be sure to keep your overall sodium intake below 2,400 mg a day, Glassman says. Mercer takes a slightly harder line, recommending that snacks have no added salt or be listed as “low sodium,” meaning they must contain 140 mg or less of sodium per serving. If possible, seek alternatives to processed wheat-based snacks like pretzels and crackers. “In our culture, we tend to eat wheat three meals a day, so we are more vulnerable to developing sensitivities to wheat and gluten,” says Mercer. For hand-to-mouth munching that won’t up your daily gluten quota, try nuts, which are loaded with healthy fats and heart-boosting nutrients like L-arginine and vitamin E; fiber-rich popcorn; dehydrated veggies; and chips made from soy or vegetables, which are often higher in fiber, vitamins, and protein than potato-based chips.
Terra Exotic Vegetable Chips, Original ($4.60, 6.5 oz; terrachips.com) are made from taro, yucca, and other root veggies and contain 3 grams of fiber and 8 percent of your daily vitamins A and C per serving.
Oogie’s Popcorn ($3.50, 5 oz; oogiesnacks .com) is popped from nongenetically modified corn and comes in tasty flavors like Movie Lovers Butter and Chili Con Queso.
Snapea Crisps ($1.50, 3.3 oz; snacksalad.com) are addictively crunchy snacks made from pea flour and seasonings and offer the same amount of fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamin C found in fresh peas.
Mercer prefers snacking on foods sweetened without refined sugar because they are less likely to spike blood sugar, which can fuel cravings and lead to weight gain. Her top picks for satisfying a sweet tooth without too much of the refined stuff include freeze-dried fruit, agave- or fruit juice-sweetened cookies, and high-fiber energy bars made from nuts and fruit. Mercer also recommends dark chocolate–covered superfruits like goji berries or mulberries—“an antioxidant-rich snack if I’ve ever seen one,” she says. Just be careful not to overdo it on dried fruits, which are high in natural sugar.
Kopali Organic Dark Chocolate Covered Mulberries ($4, 2 oz; kopaliorganics.com) are sweet fruit treats rich in antioxidants.
Nana’s “O” Mega Fiber Cookie Bars ($6, 6.2 oz; healthycrowd.com) pack 5 grams of fiber per bar.
Funky Monkey ($2.20, 1 oz; funkymonkeysnacks.com) freeze-dried fruit snacks boast 3 grams of fiber and a whopping 70 percent of your daily vitamin A and 30 percent of your daily vitamin C per serving, in the MangOJ flavor—without added sugar or fat.
Sweet and salty
When just one taste sensation won’t do, go for both sweet and salty by snacking on trail mix, nut-laden granola, or naturally sweetened peanut-butter packets. The protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats in most trail mixes mean you need only about a handful to kick hunger to the curb, says Mercer. The nuts and seeds in trail mix and granola are also great sources of magnesium, a trace mineral important for healthy bones, adds Mercer. Glassman likes portable pouches of peanut, almond, and hazelnut butters, which come in sweet flavors like maple and chocolate and provide 6 to 7 grams of protein per serving.
Navitas Naturals Trail Power ($5.50, 4 oz; navitasnaturals.com) blends three types of berries and cacao nibs with raw cashews, delivering 30 percent of your daily vitamin A per serving.
Two Moms in the Raw Gluten-Free Goji Berry Granola ($10, 8 oz; 2momsintheraw.com) packs a salty-sweet punch into breakfast with sprouted seeds, raw nuts, dried fruits, sea salt, and agave.
Justin’s Nut Butters ($0.60–$1 for 1.2 oz; justinsnutbutter.com) sells individual squeeze packs in flavors that combine a hint of sweet with just the right amount of salt.
Saving up for savory
For a rich, full flavor, turn to foods that blend strong seasonings with protein-rich ingredients. Healthy choices include spiced whole-grain crackers, string cheese, meatless jerky, and individually sized packages of garlicky guacamole. If you’re adventurous, try roasted seaweed, nori crackers, or wild-caught kipper—a smoked herring, available in pull-top tins, which contain 15 grams of protein per serving.
Kitchen Table Bakers Aged Parmesan Crisps ($6, 3 oz; kitchentablebakers.com) make crunchy cheese discs with 7 grams of protein and 20 percent of your daily calcium per three chips.
Primal Strips ($1.40, 1 oz; primalspiritfoods.com) are low-fat, high-protein meatless jerky strips made from soy, wheat protein, or mushrooms, with flavors like Texas BBQ, Mesquite Lime, and Teriyaki.
Wholly Guacamole ($2–$3, 6 oz; whollyguac.com) pairs nicely with a bag of bite-size carrots.
Watching your waistline
When you’re trying to trim down, it’s more important to nosh on protein- and fiber-rich snacks that keep your metabolism charged and appetite at bay than it is to count calories. “Empty calories can lead to overeating,” says Mercer. “But it’s difficult to overeat when you’re snacking on nutrient-dense foods.” She adds that it’s typically the overconsumption of sugar, not fat, that makes people gain weight: “When we overeat simple carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour, our blood sugar rises above normal, and the excess glucose is ultimately stored as fat. The healthy fats found in whole foods are satisfying to our taste buds and keep us from overeating.” To help keep portions small and calories in check, try a high-fiber or high-protein nutrition bar.
Luna Protein ($1.40, 1.6 oz; lunabar.com) energy bars offer 12 grams of protein and fewer than 200 calories per bar, along with high amounts of calcium, folate, and fiber.
Clif Bar Mini ($13, 18-oz box; clifbar.com) clocks in at only 80 to 100 calories per bar—the Crunchy Peanut Butter flavor also packs 2 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein and is lower in sugar than most energy bars.
ThinkThin ($1.70, 2.1 oz; thinkproducts.com) bars have tons of protein (20 grams) and 17 vitamins and minerals, all for only 230 satisfying calories in flavors like Brownie Crunch and White Chocolate Chip.
Just because your kids’ palates may be less sophisticated than your own doesn’t mean you have to resort to sugary candy or cookies. Instead, ply children’s taste buds and little fingers with energy bars, fruit snacks, gluten-free cheese puffs, and wheat-free animal crackers that have more nutrients—and less junk—than most traditional children’s snacks.
Florida’s Natural Au’some Organic Pocket Fruit Nuggets ($1.30, 1.8 oz; ausome.com) are fun-size, naturally sweetened orange, strawberry, and blueberry fruit treats made with organic ingredients.
Organic Food Bar Kid’s Oohmega! ($1.20, 1.34 oz; organicfoodbarkids.com) tastes like cherry pie but delivers 1,000 mg of omega-3s and 3 grams each of protein and fiber per serving.
Barbara’s Bakery Wheat-Free Oatmeal Snackimals Animal Cookies ($1, 2.1 oz; barbarasbakery.com) are made from heart-healthy organic oats and barley flour and come in fun animal shapes, with iron and calcium to fuel growing bodies.
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colorado-based freelance writer who specializes in natural food and health.