You know what I am talking about. It’s been a long long day, you forgot to finish your bottle of water at work, you forgot to bring your lunch so had to buy something from the Caf, you had a long afternoon meeting about something completely non-important and it ran right up until the end of the work day so you didn’t get to clear out your inbox before leaving, you get home, and you - sigh - still have to cook dinner.
Or. Your kids normally buy school lunch but you like to send them with a piece of fruit or whole wheat crackers, both of which you forgot to buy at the store over the weekend. The kiddos have an after school activity sport, so you know by the time they get there, they are running on fumes, and most likely have not bothered to rehydrated. They walk in the door and are demanding something - anything!- to eat.
Turns out, your hungry monsters are right: eating small amounts of healthy foods throughout the day is the best way to curb cravings, limit hunger, and avoid overeating come meal time. Snacks help maintain our will power, and keep us from consuming too many calories when we finally get food in front of us. There’s no perfect formula, but many studies show that in addition to three healthy meals, each of us should enjoy fiber- and protein-rich healthy snacks, one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon. Legitimately there are times during the day when our energy level dips, and having a (smart) bite or two to eat is definitely the best choice, especially before your blood sugar dips too low and ‘hangry’ hits. You’ve heard of hangry, no doubt, or are familiar if you’re a parent and you’ve been around your child when they go too long between food intake, hit bottom, and that unpleasant combination of mean-hungry hits (floor-pounding-feet-stomping-full-blown tantrum, anyone?).
Should you just schedule a regular snack (for yourself or for your kids)? Is it possible to just have one on-hand, just in case, and then you eat it when you need it? If that’s your plan, great, but you have to tune in: Are you really hungry? Or is the clock telling you it is time to eat? Are you bored? Or thirsty? Smart snacking is not at all the same thing as mindless noshing.
Have a glass of water. I know you THINK you are hungry. Are you 100% sure, though? Might it be that your brain is frantically confusing the ‘thirst’ signal for hunger? This is very often the case, actually. If nothing else, having a big glass of water will help with your hydration, and it will buy you some time to really think about what it is you feel like eating. If you can tune in, really focus on that feeling, you’ll be able to figure out what kind of snack your body is craving, and be able to better satisfy it, rather than mindlessly bushing in anything you can put in your mouth.
As a general rule of thumb, do NOT go for a fat- or sugar- free option. These options sound like they would be a good choice, but A) have you ever looked at the ingredient list on those foods? Fat-free is just weird, and sugar-free has as much if not more calories than do 'normal' foods. What you want for a snack is something that will keep your tummy happy until your next 'real' meal, something that you have readily available, and something that suits your mood. Think about what you REALLY want. Salty? Sweet? Crunchy? Smooshy? If you tune in, you can figure out what your body is really in the mood for, and chances are, if you hit it right, then you won't keep snacking.
The best snacks don't need to be prepackaged. Many pre-packaged snacks are not necessarily the best choices. In fact, many of the best options are most often produce + protein. The best snacks are those that suit your mood, and keep you feeling sated until time to eat a real meal. Remember this formula: a bit of protein, a bit of fiber, a bit of fat, and, if you're in the mood, a bit of sweet. Try to keep the snack between 125 to 200 calories (depending on your activity level); no need to count, but remember, it is a snack, not a meal. Keep it small, otherwise, you'll end up overeating instead of just keeping the hunger at bay.
Refined sugar is not necessarily your friend when it comes to snacking. Why? Because while it might give you a quick spike in blood sugar, it then abandons you and results in an even-quicker drop. This will leave you feeling even more lethargic and grumpy than before. Rather, you want to have something that takes a while to digest (hence the fiber): things like apples or pears, berries, mangoes, or watermelon. Lots of fiber to slow the absorption, but still a bit of sweet on your tongue. Add a bit of fat like yogurt, nut butter, yogurt, a boiled egg or hummus, and this will slow the absorption of your food, allowing for feeling full longer, keeping your energized and ready to go go go until mealtime. Keep in mind that your snack is a perfect opportunity to up your nutrient intake, and not an excuse to eat junk. Junk is tasty, I know, and every once in a while, it isn’t a horrible addition to your intake, but in a perfect world, your everyday snacks should have some good nutrients. Reality is, I know, far from ‘perfect world’ so be as realistic as you can, and don’t beat yourself up for any slip-ups, especially when you are busy, over-scheduled and stressed.
Think of snacking as your gift to your day, your opportunity to better your mood and energy level. Think of your snack as a chance to try a new fruit or nut butter. Think of your snack as your moment to truly enjoy those bites of cheese. Be good to yourself (and your kids!) and have a healthy snack that will tide you through until your next meal time. Have fun with it; there are some great snack suggestions out there, most of which can be frozen or stored in single-serving sizes, making them easy to grab.