When you hear the word "snacks," do you think of tasty treats like crisps, chocolate bars, and biscuits? I used to, too, which is why I avoided "snacking," thinking it'd be better for my body to just eat three meals a day, rather than adding in a few unhealthy pick-me-ups along the way. But I realised that eating less isn't the secret, it's about eating right. I needed to learn how to stop undereating and have a more regular intake of nutritious food to help me concentrate, keep healthy, and have the energy to get through the day. I'd also curb my hunger and avoid those afternoon sugar cravings along the way. It was time to get serious about prepping healthy snacks.
I hadn't discovered a radical new approach to eating. There are well-known theories that five or six small meals a day can be preferable to three big ones and lots of information about the importance of keeping blood sugar levels constant through the day with low-GI foods. But it was new to me, and I needed to find a way to make snacking work for my body. I take a lazy girl approach to most things in life, so I found a way to make a really simple switch that I could stick to. This is how I did it.
I found seeds were a good alternative to crisps, in terms of savoury flavour and crunch. When I started looking into the benefits of seeds, I was amazed at how often they crop up on lists of foods to eat if you're suffering from all kinds of different ailments. These superfoods are packed full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. My favourite combination is sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
- Sunflower seeds contain high levels of vitamin E (for anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits), magnesium (for calming the nervous system, blood vessels, and muscles), and selenium (for improved detoxification).
- Pumpkin seeds contain a diverse range of antioxidants and are a good source of zinc and iron.
Seeds do contain quite a bit of (healthy) fat, so it's important to regulate portion size. It's also important to chew them thoroughly, as the more you break them down in your mouth, the easier it is for your body to absorb the goodness. It's that old adage: "digestion starts in the mouth." That's why when I add linseeds and sesame seeds into the mix, I grind them to a powder first, as they're so tiny it's almost impossible to actually break them down enough just by chewing them.
Like seeds, unsalted nuts give that savoury, crunchy hit of crisps, but with more beneficial nutrients. I used to love a handful (or three) of roasted, salted cashews, so it took a little while to get used to eating unsalted nuts. But it's like when you give up sugar in your tea or coffee — you eventually get used to it, then when you try the previous version, you can't believe how strong it tastes. As with seeds, nuts are pretty high in fat, so moderation is key.
If you're counting your calories, you might be interested to know that the following amounts of each variety equates to 100 calories (all are unsalted, shelled versions):
- 10 cashews
- 15 whole almonds
- 7 pecans
- 15g hazelnuts
- 4 walnut halves
- 4 Brazil nuts
- 8 macadamia nuts
- 16g pistachios
It takes 16g sunflower seeds and 16g pumpkin seeds to make 100 calories, too (thanks to Jamie Oliver's Everyday Superfood recipe book — which I swear by — for these figures).
The kind of sweet or salty popcorn I loved to eat by the bucketful at the cinema wasn't going to cut it as a healthy snack. But making my own version with freshly popped corn and healthy yet tasty flavourings does definitely cut it. This kind of homemade popcorn is high in fibre to help keep us regular, plus vitamin E, which helps protects cells from damage.
After burning more than one pan trying to make popcorn myself, I bought an actual popcorn maker. It's definitely been worth £15, and it's a popular party trick when people come round. However, to keep costs down, you can just place corn kernels (which are cheap and easy to buy from the supermarket) in a nonstick pan, pop the lid on, and warm on a medium heat. As soon as it's ready, add the flavouring of your choice, shake it up, and serve. Tasty savoury options include:
- Marmite (yes really)
- Chilli sauce
- Balsamic vinegar
- Worcestershire sauce
Fresh fruit is obviously good for us, although again in moderation, this time because of the sugar levels (even though this kind of naturally occurring fructose is far preferable to refined white sugar). I used to have a mid-afternoon slump and reach for some chocolate. I switched to fruit instead and was still able to get that sweet hit, just with much more goodness. A banana, apple, pear, or orange is easy to take to work, or if there's a fridge you can put a few grapes or berries in a pot.
As I work from home I can mix things up a bit and make a spinach, banana, and apple smoothie in my Nutribullet in the morning, then Jamie Oliver's berry-packed Smoothie Pancakes in the afternoon. But this isn't an easy afternoon snack for most people, so dried fruit is a good alternative.
Here's how they match up on the 100 calories scale:
- 35g dried blueberries
- 34g raisins
- 33g sultanas
- 30g dried cranberries
- 7 dried apricots
- 3 or 4 dried figs
If your snack of choice is a cereal/granola/energy bar (as mine used to be, until I realised how much sugar was in my blueberry favourite), then you can switch it out for homemade energy balls. This does involve a bit of time and effort, although not a lot — as evidenced by the fact that I can make them (and I am someone with neither time nor effort). And once you've made a batch, you can easily pop two in a pot to take to work with you, and they last for two weeks in an airtight container.
Jamie Oliver's Everyday Superfood inspired me yet again, with the recipe for Date, Cocoa & Pumpkin Seed Energy Balls. They don't involve any cooking, just a bit of blitzing of pumpkin seeds, almonds, Medjool dates, and puffed brown rice or quinoa. They have turmeric, cinnamon, Manuka honey, and cocoa powder too, all of which have health benefits, and juice from a squeezed orange.
These simple switches are one way to kick-start your New Year's resolutions with a healthy approach to eating that you'll actually be able to stick to long-term. After all, if I've been able to do it (and I've never kept a resolution before), then surely anyone can.