There are some people in this world who stick with three square meals a day. For the rest of us, snacks are a very important part of life.
I probably don’t need to tell any fellow snack experts out there that snacks can come in many different forms and serve many different purposes. A fork-full of last night’s leftovers straight out of the fridge can be a pretty fantastic late-night snack. Those office cupcakes that appeared out of the abyss can be a delicious and spontaneous snack. I could go on…
And while basically anything can be a snack if you try hard enough, it’s also true that snacks can serve the really important function of satiating hunger and sustaining energy levels from one meal to the next. And if that’s your goal, then you’re probably looking for healthy snack ideas that will fit that bill while still being delicious and not boring.
Substantial, nutrient-packed snacks can be an integral part of how we fuel our bodies throughout the day. Plus, snacks are a great opportunity to pack in extra nutrients or food groups you’re not getting at your meals, Kansas City-based dietitian Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., tells SELF.
But what does a healthy snack actually look like? Well, that depends on how you define healthy; trying to come up with one universally healthy snack is like trying to come up with one universally healthy meal or diet: It’s not that simple, because what’s healthy for one person in one situation may look completely different from what’s healthy for another person in another situation. What makes for a filling snack is also subjective and will depend on factors like your metabolism, your activity levels, and your overall diet.
“A lot of times, especially coming from diet culture, we have in our minds that a snack has to be a certain number of calories,” Harbstreet says. “I encourage people to broaden their definition of what a snack can be…anything from a few bites of something you’re craving to a mini-meal.” In other words, it’s about what fills you up and makes you feel good.
When choosing healthy snacks, think about the kinds of foods and nutrients that will help satisfy you. To that end, San Francisco-based dietitian and SELF columnist Jessica Jones, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., generally recommends people include at least two different food groups in their snack. “You’re going to want something that’s a little more comprehensive, and those combination snacks are going to give you more bang for your buck in terms of energy,” Jones tells SELF.
Toronto-based dietitian Abbey Sharp, R.D., advises clients to prioritize protein, healthy fats, and fiber in their snacks, as they tend to be broken down in the body more gradually. “Those are really those hunger-crushing compounds that will help sustain you when you have that energy dip or need to make it to the next meal,” Sharp tells SELF.
And of course, an ideal healthy snack also depends on the setting or situation—the time of day; your levels of energy, hunger, and activity; your kitchen access, etc. Do you have a few minutes to make something, or do you need to grab it and go? Are you trying to power up for a workout, or just keep the 3 o’clock hunger beast at bay between meetings?
So we asked the R.D.s for examples of healthy snacks that apply those general healthy-snacking principles to real world contexts. Here are their recommendations.
In the morning
It’s 10 a.m., you’ve got two-and-a-half hours until your lunch break, and your stomach is grumbling. It’s time for some complex carbs and protein, according to the R.D.s. Fruit, whole grains, and eggs are generally bomb options for an A.M. snack, in terms of both nutrition and palatability. “A lot of people don’t want to eat a super savory or heavy meal in the morning,” Sharp says, so these mini-brunch options are great. “They give you that boost of energy to hold you over until lunch.” Here are three different options:
- 1 or 2 hardboiled eggs with fruit
- Whole grain toast with eggs
- Oatmeal with frozen, dried, or fresh fruit
Before a workout
“Mainly what you need before exercise is straight-up, fast-acting energy,” Sharp says, and “simple carbs are ideal for that.” You’ll also want to avoid anything that can cause GI discomfort while you’re working out. “While that varies from person to person, as a general rule of thumb anything that is high fat, protein, or fiber can cause that,” Harbstreet says. Foods high in those nutrients can also take a little longer to digest—awesome in other situations, but not really when you’re looking for a burst of easily accessible energy. Here are a few good pre-workout options:
- A piece of toast or a rice cake with jelly or jam on top
- Fruit smoothie
After a workout
Post-exercise, choose a snack rich in both carbs and protein to replenish your glycogen stores and muscles, Jones says. (Of course, take the intensity and length of your workout into account. An hourlong kickboxing class typically calls for more refueling than a half-hour light yoga class.) For those people who can’t stomach food right after a tough workout, refueling in liquid form with a glass of chocolate milk is a great choice, Harbstreet says. Here are some options:
- Greek yogurt with nuts and/or berries
- Chocolate milk
- Tuna pouch with pita bread or crackers
To grab and go
Sometimes, convenience really is king. “We don’t all have time to make energy bites from scratch every single night,” as Sharp puts it. (Amen!) She recommends stashing shelf-stable packaged snacks in various places, like at the office or in your bag. For instance, there are tons of great bar options out there. Harbstreet says to find one with a taste and texture you enjoy that doesn’t pack a ton of added sugar or added fiber (which can cause GI upset in high doses).
For a fast and cost-effective homemade option, you can’t beat a big batch of DIY trail mix. Sharp suggests hitting the bulk bins to combine your favorite nuts, dried fruits, seeds, and whole grain cereals. Dole the mix out into snack-size baggies to grab throughout the week. Here are a few ideas:
- A piece of fruit with a single serve pack of nut butter
- Baggies of trail mix
- A protein bar or granola bar
When your afternoon slump hits
If you’ve got an office job, your afternoon snack may be as much about needing a mental break or distraction from work as it is about physical hunger. “At this point, you’ve been doing the same task or staring at the computer and you’re just tired,” Harbstreet says. “You’re craving stimulation and you’re in that munchy mood.” That’s why she especially likes in-shell nuts or seeds, which require a little bit more mindfulness for eating. They’re also great nutrition-wise, offering a combo of protein, fat, and fiber—not to mention, that satisfying saltiness and crunch. Here are some ideas for your next afternoon craving:
- Hummus with sliced veggies and/or pita
- In-shell pistachios or sunflower seeds and an apple
- Deli turkey or chicken on a slice of whole wheat bread
“Often by the end of the day, you’ve met your nutritional needs, so a bedtime snack is an opportunity to just get a little more playful,” Harbstreet says. “It can also be a part of that end-of-day ritual where you can just relax and kick back.” The main goal is to eat enough so that you’re not lying awake in bed with hunger pains, but not so much that you’re uncomfortably full when you get into bed, Jones says. Here are some great options:
- Cottage cheese and pineapple
- Whole grain crackers with sliced cheese