When it comes to healthy eating, you know full well what you’re supposed to do: Cut back on sugar, salt and fat. Increase the fiber. Add fruits and veggies instead of relying on processed foods.
That’s all much easier said than done when it comes to snack foods, though. When you’re hungry in a hurry, it’s all too easy to reach out and grab the fastest thing – like a bag of your favorite potato chips – instead of the healthiest thing.
The other thing working against you when you’re searching for a snack? Your cravings. Odds are that you’re snacking when you’re low on energy or when you’ve skipped a meal, so your willpower is at its lowest point. Combine that with hunger and a yen for something salty (or crunchy, or sweet — pick your poison!), and you’re not likely to make the best choices.
Have no fear. Trade that recipe for disaster in for one of these smart snacking solutions. Below are six creative ways to swap out an unhealthy snack for a better choice, without boring your taste buds. By identifying your specific flavor craving, you can get smart about getting what you want without going overboard. Here’s how:
When You Want Something Sweet…
A craving for something sweet can be easily satisfied with fruit. Not all fruits travel well, though, so stock up on easy-to-peel clementines, bananas and sturdy apples if you need to take a sweet snack on the go. The unrefined sugar in fruit is metabolized more slowly, leaving you less cranky from a sugar crash and less likely to spike your insulin levels. Fruit is nature’s candy, and the more you eat, the more fiber you get, which will help your digestive tract stay healthy as well.
Still, sometimes your craving for something sweet might also mean that you want something chocolaty. To get a taste of chocolate, add it to your fruit. Chocolate-covered strawberries are the classic choice, but chocolate-dipped apricots last longer and can travel with you anywhere. To make them, all you need to do is melt some bittersweet chocolate chips over low heat and dip dried apricots into the chocolate to the halfway point. Place them on a cookie sheet until cool; then store in an airtight container. You get a taste of chocolate without tons of extra sugar, and apricots are packed with iron and fiber.
When You Want Something Salty…
If you are a major fan of salt, cutting back can help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk for osteoporosis. Salt is often used as a flavor enhancer, so you can usually hit the spot with something spicy or richly seasoned instead. Rather than munching on salty potato chips or pretzel rods, choose an unsalted variety (or healthy veggies, if you’re feeling particularly virtuous) and dip them into something flavorful: hummus, pesto, honey mustard, guacamole and olive tapenade are all creative choices.
Your other option is to grab a snack that doesn’t have any added salt in it, but still tastes salty. Hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan are salty, as are cottage cheese and peanut butter. You may even be able to fool yourself with some unsalted mixed nuts, which your brain might register as salty even when they’re plain.
When You Want Something Crunchy…
Just as fruit should be your go-to when you want something sweet, raw veggies are the perfect snack when you want something crunchy. Baby carrots, celery sticks, spears of broccoli and snow peas are all great choices. For an extra shot of flavor, try the dips suggested above. You can’t beat veggies for the fiber and important antioxidants.
If you’re looking for something healthy that crunches like a more traditional chip, try making kale chips. Just tear kale leaves into bite-sized pieces, toss in olive oil, add a dash of salt and bake at 350 degrees F for about 10-15 minutes, or until crisp. Once you get the hang of it, you can add all sorts of other herbs and spices to your recipe for different flavor sensations.
When You Want Popcorn…
The hot, buttery richness of popcorn satisfies a hankering for something both crunchy and salty, so it’s not easy to replicate. The good news is that you don’t have to deny yourself popcorn at all — you just have to get smarter about what you flavor it with. Instead of topping your popcorn with butter, which is full of saturated fat, make some Mexican palomitas instead.
In Mexico, it’s popular to eat popcorn with a spritz of fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of salt instead of butter. It’s so easy it’s barely a recipe. Just air pop your popcorn, squeeze lime juice over it, add salt (or a little ground chili pepper to make it spicy instead) and toss to mix it. It’s a traditional snack that’s surprisingly full of flavor, and it’s totally fat free.
When You Want Something Creamy…
Custards, sour cream and ice cream are rich and delicious, but they contain loads of fat (and sometimes sugar). Ditto on ranch dressing. If you’re a fan of creamy dips, try replacing them with hummus or guacamole instead. Hummus contains protein, and the vitamins and healthy fats in avocados are a much better choice.
For creamy desserts, embrace Greek yogurt. Even non-fat varieties are rich and delicious, because their creaminess comes from the active culturing and draining process and not from milk fat. You can dress a cup of yogurt up with all sorts of healthy mix-ins: berries, honey, Grape-Nuts, rolled oats and even homemade jams are all great choices. If you’re watching your sugar intake, choose plain yogurt; if not, feel free to stir in some chocolate chips for a sweet bonus!
When You Want Something Cold…
To beat the heat in the summer, ice cream, frozen yogurt and popsicles are hard to resist. They’re all full of sugar, and some have fat and artificial colors to boot. For a healthier frozen treat, try freezing grapes on a tray before popping them into a freezer bag. When you’re looking for a cold treat, just grab a handful. They’re sweet, crunchy, cold and delicious — and a great substitute for freeze pops for kids.
If you absolutely must have a “real” dessert, try making a healthy granita. It’s like a rustic sorbet, but you don’t need an ice cream maker to make it. Just puree the fruit of your choice along with some apple juice and freeze it in a large container, stirring every 30 minutes to fluff it up. Once you master the simple technique, you can try these variations or make up your own. Granitas are fat free, and you can use more fruit puree and less refined sugar to adjust them to your dietary needs.
At the end of the day, making the healthy choice doesn’t have to be boring. Give one – or all – of these recipes a try and enjoy!