Why Do We Need Snacks? (And How To Make Them Healthy!)
By Kristi Kalinsky, RD, LD
December 7, 2021
When you think of the word “snack” does it make you think it is some type of junk food or unhealthy kind of treat? I have had clients tell me “I don’t snack” or “I stay away from snacks because they are bad for me.” Snacks have earned a bad rap over the years and with good reason. There are whole aisles in the grocery store reserved for chips, crackers, pretzels, cookies, snack bars, and fun-sized candy. But in all reality, we actually do need snacks in-between our meals in order to accomplish a few health goals.
Why do we need snacks?
We need snacks for a variety of reasons. Snacks help us:
- balance our blood sugar
- ward off cravings
- prevent low energy or that sluggish feeling
- prevent us from getting “hangry” (hungry and angry), which can cause us to overeat and/or make bad choices at our next meal
- keeps our blood sugars stable for a restful night of sleep
- provides us with nutrients that we may not get enough of through meals alone, such as iron to assist with mental concentration, zinc for optimal immune function, and magnesium for heart and kidney health
What should a snack look like?
If you are familiar with the Nutritional Weight & Wellness way of eating, we encourage a protein, healthy fat and carbohydrate to create a balanced plate. Think of a snack as a “mini meal” where you are still incorporating those three components (a protein, healthy fat and carbohydrate) but in smaller quantities.
To clarify, the carbohydrates we are referring to aren’t considered the typical “snacky” type of carbohydrates we think of such as chips, crackers or cookies. Those types of “processed” carbohydrates can cause our blood sugar to spike quickly and then dump just as fast causing us to feel sluggish, tired and irritable, and can fuel the fire for cravings. The carbohydrates you want to choose consist primarily of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables provide our bodies with the energy we need but also provide fiber for regularity and phytochemicals to ward off free radicals that can cause cancer. And when fruits and vegetables are eaten in the right amounts, they provide our brain with good energy and prevent us from riding that dangerous blood sugar roller coaster all day long.
When you strive to eat every 3 to 4 hours, like we encourage through the Nutritional Weight & Wellness way, snacks will become an essential part of your day.
How do we go about planning and making snacks in addition to meals?
It is important to not only plan, prep and grocery shop for meals but for snacks as well. Think about where you will be for the upcoming week and when the need for a snack will arise: will you be at work, sitting in rush hour, running a kid to practice or working from home? Knowing where you’ll be and what you’re doing when you might need a snack, helps you think ahead to what you can do realistically.
You may need easy grab and go snack options to have in the car instead of going through the drive thru. You might need to have snack options to have in your desk drawer or in the company refrigerator, so you aren’t tempted by the vending machine or the treats sitting in the break room. At home, you need to have a plan so you aren’t reaching mindlessly for whatever is available in the kitchen, such as a holiday treat or the item that keeps calling your name from the pantry after it’s been opened.
Some great snack ideas during the day when on the go, at work or at home:
- Pre-packaged grass-fed beef sticks, 1 small apple, 2 Tbsp. nut butter
- A banana protein muffin (1 muffin contains protein, healthy fat and carbohydrate all packaged together)
- 2 oz. nitrate free beef jerky, trail mix (1/4 cup dried organic fruit and 2 Tbsp. nuts or pumpkin seeds)
- Pickles with cream cheese wrapped in nitrate-free deli meat
- Leftover chicken leg, ½ cup baby carrots, small cup of guacamole
- 2 boiled eggs, raw cauliflower and ½ cup peapods, lil’ dipper veggie dip
- ½ cup cottage cheese, ½ cup pineapple, 2 Tbsp. sliced almonds
- Overnight strawberry chia pudding (contains protein, healthy fat and a carbohydrate) – this recipe makes 2 servings, so divide in half for a snack size
- 1 chocolate fruit bar (again, this recipe has everything nicely packed together for the perfect well-rounded snack)
What about snacks for kids?
In terms of snacks for kids, most people think of kid-friendly go-to snacks as goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, granola bars or teddy grahams. Kids need these “mini-meal” snack ideas as well as adults, balanced with protein, healthy fat and a carbohydrate. Their snacks can be made fun and taste delicious but can also be nutritious at the same time. My two kids aren’t afraid to tell me what they do and don’t like! So it might take a little trial and error to find what works for your kiddos. Tried and true healthy snack options for my kids are:
- 1-2 energy bites, like the chocolate chip cookie dough protein bites (each bite is balanced with protein, healthy fat and carbohydrate)
- Shake N’ Go easy smoothie – check out the last recipe card shake that you can make in a jar!
- 1 oz. pepperoni, 1 oz. organic cheddar cheese, ½ cup grapes, 6 black olives
- Yogurt parfait – ½ cup plain full fat Greek yogurt mixed with 1 scoop Key Greens and Fruit (my kids prefer the chocolate flavor), topped with ½ cup berries and 2 Tbsp. slivered almonds
My kids enjoy the energy bites because of their sweet taste. The Shake N’ Go smoothie is a great option when they are running to a game or a practice; it is so easy to make and they can drink it quickly. The pepperoni, cheese, grapes and olives are a hit because it looks like a mini charcuterie board, which they think is fancy. And the yogurt parfait feels like a dessert to them!
What about a bedtime snack?
There are many misconceptions about eating before bed. Have you heard yourself saying, “I shouldn’t eat after 7 pm” or “Eating at night will make me fat”, or “I’ll get heartburn if I eat before bed”? Just like snacks during the day, bedtime snacks are also essential for us. Eating a little real food before bed helps stabilize our blood sugar while we sleep and prevents us from waking up in the night. A bedtime snack is perfectly timed at approximately 1 hour before bed and there is one major difference in a bedtime snack compared to our daytime snacks. We only want to eat a carbohydrate and healthy fat before bed, not protein. Protein will keep us up at night and we want to catch zzz’s easefully. Some healthy bedtime snack options include:
- ½ cup of berries with 2 Tbsp. heavy whipping cream
- ½ banana with 2 Tbsp. peanut butter
- Celery sticks with 2 Tbsp. cream cheese
- 1 chocolate fat bomb
- Stewed apples with coconut butter
Healthy snacks are a key part to our everyday eating. We need these “mini-meals” between breakfast, lunch, dinner and before bed to sustain us throughout the day and night. Don’t overlook what snacks can provide our bodies: we will have more energy, have stable moods, ward off cravings, and help us get a good night’s sleep. In addition, snacks can assist in filling the nutrient gaps that we may not be getting enough of through meals alone, like enough iron, magnesium or zinc. Give some of these snack ideas a try and let us know what you think. Have a favorite healthy snack we didn’t mention? Leave it in the comments!
For more information on snacks and healthy eating, check out these resources: