The first step to becoming a healthy snacker is understanding why snacking is important in the first place. It helps hold you over till your next meal, so you don't feel like you're starving. And the less hungry you are at lunch or dinner time, the easier it is to control what and how much you eat. If you had lunch at 1 p.m. and are planning on dinner at 8, aim for a snack at 4. It's smart to grab one every three to five hours.
Snacks are also an opportunity to squeeze in nutrients from foods that your body might otherwise be missing out on. Maybe your standard three meals were too full to add a piece of fruit, or you just forgot to do so. Include some with your snack: It'll increase your vitamin C and antioxidant intake. And if you missed your veggies at lunch? No problem; munch on some before dinner.
Snacking is also important because food is fuel for our bodies. Without it, we become tired, cranky, and even flat-out miserable. Just like you won't get very far without fuel in your gas tank, you'll come up short if your stomach is running on empty.
The hard part: Knowing what to snack on. Think of it as a mini meal—no more than 200 calories—that consists of a high-fiber carbohydrate for energy, lean protein, and/or a healthy fat. If you just snack on a carb, such as a piece of fruit, you'll still be hungry. Protein and fat keep you satiated, so you don't want another snack 30 minutes later.
Try some of these healthy options:
• One cup of plain non-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt with a cup of fresh berries.
• String cheese or single-serve cheese, such as Cabot or Mini Babybel, with a piece of fruit.
• Snack-size cottage cheese (2 percent) with 1 cup of fresh, cut-up melon or pineapple.
• One Thomas' Light Multi-Grain English Muffin with a tablespoon of natural nut butter (peanut, almond, or cashew).
• One ounce of soy nuts, walnuts, almonds, or cashews.
• One-fourth cup of roasted edamame with 2 cups of air-popped popcorn.
• One-half cup of steamed edamame.
• Eight ounces of low-fat chocolate milk.
• Whole-grain crisp bread and three thin slices of turkey with tomato and mustard.
• An individual can of water-packed tuna, smeared with low-fat mayo on two whole-grain crackers.
• One cup of vegetarian split pea, lentil, or black bean soup.
• Raw veggies with hummus (no more than ¼ cup).
• One hardboiled egg and a banana.
• A granola bar, such as Kashi, Luna, or Kind bars.
Snacking after dinner, however, is a different story. There's a good chance that you aren't really hungry and don't need anything to "hold you over." Maybe you're eating out of habit, boredom, or stress. One trick to combat this: Go to bed earlier, because if you're sleeping, you can't be eating. Otherwise, stick with snacks that are 100 calories or below. Cutting one of the suggested snacks in half will suffice.
To really become a healthy snacker, be prepared. You can only eat healthfully if you take the time to go food shopping and stock your home with smart choices. Get into the habit of packing snacks for work and other times when you're on the go. Clean out your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer, tossing the less healthful options. From this day forward, be proud to say you're a healthy snacker.
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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self, and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.