Wanna step up your snack game? Read on for my selection criteria, healthy snacking ideas, and favorite plant-based products.
I have strong feelings about snacks. Namely, I love them. These little non-meals have a special way of punctuating boring workdays with tiny spurts of fun. They’re also essential to road trips, can ward off hanger, and have you seen fellow passengers’ faces when the snack cart rolls by in an airplane? Pretty powerful stuff.
Snacks happen to be a ginormous industry and in a surprise to no one, most manufactured snack foods are not “healthy”. [I usually avoid this word because it’s subjective; i.e. what’s healthy for one person may not be for another. So for the purpose of this article, let’s define “not healthy” as lacking in nutrients; or not, what we at NGI used to call, health-supportive.]
Most prepackaged snacks (chips, cookies, crackers, energy bars, and even yogurt) are not nutritious food. Even those expressly marketed as “healthy” are usually highly processed, and full of poor-quality oils, sugar, and salt – all to make them shelf-stable and addictive. I don’t even consider most of them real food – but rather “edible food-like substances,” as Michael Pollan calls them.
Yet when people try to avoid these, they often swing too far in the other direction, and try to replace the chemically-engineered euphoria of Doritos with celery sticks. And that just breaks my heart. Celery sticks are, frankly, bad, and it is possible to snack healthfully and deliciously at the same time. So, I was inspired to share some tips for how to choose delicious and good-for-you snacks, plus my go-to healthy snacking ideas. Let’s jump in!
Choose Whole Foods
I believe most of our food should be in its closest-to-nature state. Whole foods are defined as those that are not processed and have all their edible parts still attached. When possible, choose minimally processed things like fruit or nuts, or snacks made from whole foods.
Beware of Greenwashing
If you’re not familiar, “greenwashing” is when branding is designed to make you believe that something is healthier – or “greener” – than it actually is. Nearly every snack package has something on it to signal to your brain that it’s healthy. “Less fat”, “100 calorie”, “made with real fruit/vegetables/nuts”, “non-GMO”, “grain-free”, and “sugar-free” are everywhere, but actually tell you nothing.
Instead of falling for these signals, read the ingredient list. It’s no coincidence that labels like “low calorie” are typically huge and colorful, while ingredient lists are tiny and barely legible (brands don’t want you to read them). If you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce the ingredients, or can’t visualize them (e.g. brown rice vs. something like methylcellulose), I suggest leaving the package on the shelf. (Things like Veggie Straws and Welch’s Fruit Snacks are great examples of greenwashing).
Beware of Added Sugar
Sugar is added to 60% of packaged foods – it’s in everything from pasta sauce, to soups, to salad dressings. It also has dozens of names, like fructose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, and barley malt, to name a few. For visual reference, 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon; so for example, this Greek yogurt has over 2 teaspoons of sugar.
As a society, we’re obsessed with calorie restriction. We have been led to believe that “low calorie” equals healthy, which is just not true. Not all calories are created equal. A handful of Raisin Bran may have less calories than a handful of almonds, for example, but almonds are packed with nutrients and will actually satisfy you – versus Raisin Bran, which will just leave you craving more sugar. To piggyback on my last point, read the ingredient list, not the calorie label.
Strive for a Balance of Macronutrients
The best snacks have some protein, carbs, and healthy fats – all of which together will satiate you. In other words, choose snacks with nutritional value. Nuts + fruit, whole wheat toast with peanut butter, and hummus + seed crackers, are all good examples of balanced snacks.
Don’t Eat Stuff You Hate
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, you’ll never find me snacking on celery sticks. Or hard-boiled eggs. Or apples. I just don’t like them and know that even if I take them to the office with good intentions, I’ll never eat them because I won’t enjoy them. Find stuff you actually like and enjoy your snacks!
Mind Your Waste
How much waste ends up in the trash is another criteria I use for selecting snacks. If you’ve been reading TNB for long enough, you know I’m very mindful of how much plastic I contribute to landfills. For example, it’s better to buy nuts from a bulk bin versus individual snack packs; a big tub of hummus decanted into a reusable container is better than mini hummus cups. And the thing I have the least tolerance for: single-serving pre-cut fruit in plastic containers. Chop and pack your own fruit whenever possible!
Save Room for Fun
OK, so before you think I’m the most rigid person on earth, I hope you know I’m not telling you to never eat chips or cookies again. What I am suggesting is we should view them as special treats, not as everyday sustenance. If you are opting for a treat, choose one that’s high quality, with the shortest ingredient list possible. For example, a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie from a local bakery is inherently better than one that can live on a store shelf for months.
My Go-To Snacks: Sweet
Energy Balls: I love making a big batch on the weekend and keeping these in the fridge for weekday snacking. They’re packed with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Sweetened with whole dates, they have zero refined sugar, and are surprisingly filling.
Peanut Butter Granola: This 5-ingredient vegan granola is nutty, crunchy, and not overly sweet. Great with oat milk and on coconut yogurt or chia pudding, and works for breakfast, too. Way healthier, fresher, and tastier than whatever you can get at the store.
Nuts + Dried Fruit: Nuts are one of the healthiest foods on earth – but not when they’re coated in sugar, salt, and oil. Ideally, buy raw nuts and roast them yourself, or buy dry-roasted unsalted nuts. My favorite dried fruits for snacking are medjool dates (especially dipped in peanut butter!), apricots, and mangoes. (I stay away from pre-made trail mix because I hate raisins.)
Peanut Butter Toast with Banana and Chia Seeds: Nutty and naturally sweet, this is perfect to tide you over between meals. I love the subtle crunch of chia seeds on top! Spouted and whole wheat sourdough breads are my fave.
Larabars: The only energy bars I buy, these are made with just nuts, dried fruit, and salt. Zero sugar, oils, chemicals, or preservatives. Perfect for plane rides, road trips, etc.
My Go-To Snacks: Savory
“Cheesy” Homemade Crackers: Crackers are way easier to make than most people assume. These vegan crackers are made with seeds and whole grains. They get their cheesy flavor from nutritional yeast and yellow hue from turmeric.
Mary’s Gone Crackers: The only packaged crackers I buy regularly. Made with whole grains and seeds, these have zero sugar and preservatives, and are seasoned with tamari. Super crunchy and sturdy, they’re perfect for hearty dips like hummus and guacamole. (Brown rice cakes and Simple Mills are great, too.)
Hummus: Packed with protein and fiber, hummus is a delicious way to munch down on fresh vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, radishes, etc. (Tribe is the tastiest brand, in my opinion.)