When it comes to snacking, it’s easy to overdo it—especially at the office. Busy days with no time for lunch might mean a potato-chip binge. A midafternoon energy drop can lead to coffee and cookies. Mindless pretzel-popping can add hundreds of unnecessary calories to your day.
The good news is that snacking isn’t necessarily a bad habit. Studies show that it can be healthier than a three-meal-a-day plan. The key is to do it right.
“My snacks have three main components,” says chef and dietician Michele Powers-Farber, founder of NutrientChef, a Fairfax-based company that offers everything from nutrition counseling to personal-chef services. “Have a high-quality carbohydrate, like whole grains, some kind of protein, and a small amount of natural fat.”
Powers-Farber calls this combination the “trifecta” of snacking because the carbohydrate gives you an immediate boost, which is then elongated by the protein that slows down the carb’s absorption. Fat also takes a while to digest, making you feel fuller for longer.
Some of the suggestions below require a small amount of advance planning, but nothing more than a run to the supermarket. We’ve divided up the food to help guide your snacking, but Powers-Farber says her snacks are relatively interchangeable. If you find something you like, stick with it. And whatever you do, stay away from the vending machine.
You’re too busy to stop for lunch.
Snack on: A quick fix that lasts long.
When the day is so packed that you can’t even schedule a grab-and-go sandwich, Powers-Farber recommends a six-ounce portion of low or nonfat Greek yogurt topped with a half cup of seasonal berries. “You’ll get between 15 and 19 grams of protein, which is equivalent to eating a piece of meat,” she says. If yogurt isn’t your thing, substitute ¾ cup of low-fat cottage cheese. You can also use frozen berries or canned fruit (as long as it’s not swimming in syrup). Another suggestion is to spread a whole-wheat tortilla with natural peanut butter and wrap it around a banana.
You’re running slow.
Snack on: A well-balanced snack that won’t cause an energy spike and crash.
Instead of heading to the coffee machine, try a cup of low-sugar whole-grain cereal (Powers-Farber recommends Kashi Go Lean) with low-fat regular, rice, soy, or almond milk. It’s easy to eat at your desk in a mug, and a cup of Kashi cereal is packed with protein (10 grams) and fiber (14 grams). Another fast-energy fix is four dried apricots and ten almonds.
“The dried fruit is a concentrated source of natural sugar, which goes into the system quickly,” Powers-Farber says.
In terms of caffeine, Powers-Farber says to limit yourself to just a morning pick-me-up. Then throughout the day, try balanced snacks with water instead of stimulants. She’s a fan of seltzer water (with or without a touch of naturally sweetened juice) in place of diet soda. The natural sugar and bubbles can wake you up without the additives.
You’re going directly from work to the gym.
Snack on: A carbohydrate-and-protein power combo that’s easy to digest.
An apple with two tablespoons of almond or peanut butter can lead to a better workout if you’re dragging at the end of the day. While energy bars are another quick and easy option, Powers-Farber warns that some are packed with so much sugar, carbs, and protein that they should be considered meals by themselves. She says to eat only half a bar at a time and stick to natural brands such as Cliff, Kind, or Odwalla. Whichever snack you choose, be sure to leave plenty of time for digestion (most people need an hour before working out), and chase it with a bottle of water so you hit the treadmill hydrated.
You’re headed to happy hour.
Snack on: A protein-packed, savory snack.
Have you ever gone to happy hour on an empty stomach and wound up consuming more cocktails and bar food than you planned? “You need a strong protein that sticks with you and something that’s not too sweet,” Powers-Farber says. “That way, you can go in with your blood sugar even. It leads to better decisions and not overdoing it.”
Before bellying up to the bar, fill up with a half cup of tuna salad made with plain yogurt or low-fat mayo and ten whole-grain crackers (Powers-Farber likes Kashi's TLC crackers). The snack is hearty enough to get you past the two happy-hour danger zones: eating too much bar food and arriving home starved for a late-dinner binge. Another good option is an ounce of nitrate-free deli meat, such as Applegate Farms brand, wrapped around organic string cheese.
You’re planning to stay late.
Snack on: A mini-meal.
When 9-to-5 is more like 9-to-9, have a substantial snack on hand that you can eat at your desk. It’ll give you the energy to plow through, and you won’t be as tempted by a late-night heavy dinner. Try a cup of grapes with an ounce of low-fat cheese and ten whole-grain crackers. Powers-Farber recommends buying the cheese prewrapped so you know exactly how much you’re consuming. Brands such as Laughing Cow, Baby Bell, and Cracker Barrel all make individual, one-ounce portions.
If you’re working late with only pizza-delivery menus on hand, there are healthy options to be found at chains. Power-Farber recommends grabbing a cup of broth-based soup such as lentil, minestrone, or vegetable. Many places now also carry oatmeal and fruit-and-yogurt parfaits well into the evening, but read the package before you purchase: These snacks can be packed with sugar.
You’re having an indulgent dinner.
Snack on: A light-carb nibble that’ll curb—but not kill—your appetite.
One exception to the protein-fat-carb trifecta is if you’re planning to eat a big dinner. Dining out often involves a bread basket and other carb-filled indulgences, so stick to a snack such as 1⁄3 cup hummus and fresh-cut veggies. There’s still a small amount of carbohydrates, but it’s from chickpeas instead of grains. Powers-Farber also recommends wrapping cantaloupe slices with an ounce of low-sodium ham. Whichever snack you choose, eat it two hours before your reservation so you’ll have time to digest and to enjoy the feast without feeling starved.
You’re feeling peckish.
Snack on: A long-lasting treat.
When it’s the kind of slow day where you could pop chips for hours, try a healthy snack you can pick at. Berries or grapes are safe options, but if you’re craving crunch, Powers-Farber recommends ½ cup of trail mix. Look for ones with high-fiber cereal and non-sugared fruit, nuts, and seeds, and avoid any brand containing coconut flakes, M&Ms, fried banana chips, or nuts roasted in oil. Even better, make a big batch of Powers-Farber’s trail-mix recipe below to have on hand for busy weekdays.
Tried-and-True Trail Mix
5 cups Barbara’s Bakery Cinnamon Puffins cereal
2 cups pecan halves
¾ cup dried, unsalted pumpkin seeds
¾ cup cocoa nibs or dark-chocolate pieces
1 cup golden raisins
½ cup dried pomegranate seeds
Combine all ingredients in a large storage container with a tight-fitting lid. Mix well. Portion ½ cup trail mix into snack-size zip bags and store at room temperature.
Nutrition facts (per serving): 163 calories, 10 grams of fat, 18 grams of carbohydrates, 3.8 grams of protein, 2.3 grams of fiber.