Look. I’m tired today, so we’re going to talk about something that I had actually planned in advance, but is appropriate for a day when you are tired and don’t feel like cooking or maybe don’t even feel like eating a meal:
How to make a meal out of snacks.
The fancy version of this is charcuterie. Or a smorgasbord. Although I recently looked up what a real Swedish smörgåsbord is, and apparently it includes 7 courses and must include herring and I don’t know if I’ve ever even had herring.
Anyway, you can have snacky meals that look like this:
But they can also look like this:
They can be fancy, but they don’t have to be. Most of the time when I eat a snacky meal, it’s because I’m already tired or too hungry to cook, so putting in the work to make it fancy would defeat the purpose.
The snacky “meal” I’m writing about today is assembling a meal out of things you already have on hand, or can prepare quickly and easily (like washing grapes, cutting up cheese, or baking some frozen sausage cheese puffs)
What are the ingredients?
Ideally, a snacky meal contains at least 1 fruit and/or vegetable, at least one protein food, and at least one starch.
This can definitely be modified, but the dietitian here recommends you get all your food groups (or at least 3 out of the 4).
What do you have in the fridge/freezer/cabinets that can fit in each of those categories? See some examples below
All of my examples here are finger food, but they don’t necessarily have to be – this is a great time to bring in leftovers.
As you can see, we often eat cheese for our protein – but you can use whatever you prefer and generally have on hand: hard boiled eggs, jerky, tuna salad, leftover chicken, salami, sliced lunch meat, nuts or seeds or trail mix, yogurt, leftover meatballs, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, hummus, leftover lentil or bean salad
Best if you can include both a fruit and a vegetable – or even a variety of both, but again, the idea is to pull from what you already have, not make more work for yourself. This is a great time to pull out leftover vegetables, the bag of baby carrots, the end of the salad greens that need to be eaten, those random olives or pickles that you always forget about and the bag of grapes that nobody is eating because they’re in the fridge and not on the counter. Don’t forget about dried fruits! No prep needed for those and I know mine often get neglected as they are hidden in a cabinet.
Starches are often prevalent in pantries and readily available for snacky dinners: crackers, bread, chips, pretzels, tortillas, etc. Don’t forget about leftovers – leftover pasta, potatoes, waffles – you might come up with some odd combinations, but the bottom line is – you’re being nourished!
This is a perfectly fine way to have a meal. Kids (especially young kids) often love eating this way because there are a lot of finger foods involved, they feel like they have more choice, and there are often a lot of familiar foods offered.
It may also be helpful for adults who are struggling with poor appetite, low energy, or low motivation to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need.
What do you think? Have you ever had a snacky meal before? What type of foods do you like to include?
Blueberries and salt and vinegar almonds – two of my favorite snacks
Snacks are tools. Make them work for you!
One of the most useful and effective tools that I used while providing outpatient nutrition counseling is called motivational interviewing. It’s based on asking questions to find out what motivates the client/patient and working from that motivation to decide what changes to make alongside the client. Not just telling the client what changes to make.
This is also what nutrition for real humans is all about. You are a real human with a real unique life. You are the expert in what’s going on in your life. You know what’s important to you. Your snacks should reflect that. So…
What do you want your snacks to do for you? What are you looking for from your snack?
This can change from day to day or from snack to snack. There’s no one right answer, and it might be more than one answer. Knowing what you want can make sure you choose the snack that will fulfill that purpose. The right tool for the job.
Here are some things you might want a snack to help you accomplish:
Have more energy
Get more protein
Eat more fruits
Not be bored
Satisfy a craving
Have more stable blood sugar
Avoid being so hungry that you buy the entire snack aisle at the grocery store
Avoid being so hungry that you can’t make a decision about dinner so you end up putting it off until you have a headache so you just eat a bowl of ice cream and go to bed
Eat more whole grains
Eat more fiber
Eat more vegetables
Drink more water
Try new foods
Waste less food
Feel better about a bad experience
Have enough energy and brain power for world domination
When you know what you want your snack to do for you, you can choose a snack that will be a good tool for the job
Having more than one thing that you want your snack to do can help you narrow down your options even more!
Let’s take an example: you are craving something salty and also want to increase your fiber intake. How about some salted nuts? Or some whole grain crackers? Veggies and ranch to dip? Or maybe you actually really want chips. So you have a little chips to satisfy the craving and you also eat an orange to get the fiber.
Another example: You want to be more hydrated and eat more vegetables. These go really easily together because vegetables have a high water content. Sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks, snap peas, sliced bell peppers, salad, any of these would satisfy both goals.
You want to eat more fruit and have more energy at work, so you plan ahead by buying some portable and tasty dried mango to take with you
dried mango slices in a blue bowl
Sometimes you may need to prioritize one goal.
For example, you are really craving a donut, but you also have the goal of eating more fruits and you haven’t eaten any fruits yet today, so you prioritize the fruit goal and eat some grapes. Or you decide to prioritize the donut craving and eat some fruit later.
This is me eating a delicious sour cream donut. To be honest, I don’t remember if there was any fruit prioritizing, I’m just including this picture to break up the text
Or you need to eat something so that you don’t have a panic attack at work, but none of the vending machine snacks meet your avoiding sugar goal. But you REALLY don’t need to be having a panic attack at work, so you make the lowest sugar choice from the vending machine. (And maybe you buy a stash of snacks that DO meet your goal to keep in your locker for next time)
Or you’d love to eat an organic snack that doesn’t leave packaging waste but what you can afford is not either of those things, and you need to eat at regular intervals to manage your blood sugar and stay alive. Staying alive takes priority here.
Sometimes what’s available doesn’t meet all our snack needs, so we need to prioritize. But knowing what those goals are can help us choose the best snack from what’s there.
Sometimes the right snack is not a snack.
Sometimes when you determine why you want a snack you can decide that a snack isn’t actually what you were looking for. You needed a break from work or some comfort after a stressful phone call. Sometimes a snack can provide those things, but you may, once you know that’s what you’re looking for, decide you have a better solution.
This is for you if you don’t like snacks:
Maybe you don’t want snacks to do anything for you. Maybe you don’t like snacks or don’t like to eat between meals. That’s totally fine. Snacks are not required. You do you.
Principle 3 of snacking for real humans:
Know what you want a snack to do for you, then choose the right tool for the job.
If that’s world domination, then you’re going to need some nourishing snacks.
What do you want your snacks to do for you?
As are all of the posts in this blog, none of this is intended as medical or nutrition advice and is for educational purposes only. Speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist or your primary care provider if you have questions about your specific nutrition needs.
Also this post contains brief discussion of calories so if reading about that will be a struggle, maybe skip this post 🙂
Snacking is totally valid and anyone who says otherwise can go eat a snack*.
Have you ever felt that snacking between meals was a weakness? Something you give into because you aren’t strong enough to wait until the next meal? Or something you eat because you didn’t have time to make lunch or were super busy and didn’t feel like eating earlier and now you are starving? Something that messes up your healthy meal plan?
Do you feel guilty about eating snacks?
And even if you don’t, I have good news:
Snacks can make you healthier
This study, done in 19,427 adults, found that more frequent eating (higher number of meals/snacks per day) was associated with a higher score on the Healthy Eating Index 2010. The Healthy Eating Index is a tool that measures how close to the USDA healthy eating guidelines someone’s eating is – things like servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, etc.
The TLDR: people who eat snacks generally meet more of their nutrient goals!
That study was done in adults, but there was also one done in children that showed similar results. And actually, dietitians recommend feeding small children multiple snacks a day because they need so many nutrients to fuel their growth and activity that they can’t fit it into 3 meals!
Count your snacks
A different study of data from 14,263 adults, and found that on average, 18-24% of calories eaten in a day came from snacks. (That’s about 1 in 5 in case you prefer ratios to percentages). That is a pretty big portion of daily energy intake! If you eat snacks every day, they are a big part of your nutrition – so you should count them, and make them count!
Now listen before I go any further, this is not to say that we should be eating fewer calories from snacks. (Or that everyone should be counting calories.) I only bring up the 18-24% to show that snacks can be a big portion of what we eat!
TLDR: On average, about 1/5 of our dietary intake comes from snacks
Now, you can take this one way and be like, oh no, I must only eat carrots and hummus for my snacks because I have to count those calories. NO. I mean, if you’re counting calories then, yes, you have to count those calories. But thinking you should only eat low-calorie snacks is making snacks seem like a bad thing that you are trying to minimize.
You need calories. Calories are just a measurement of energy we get from the food we eat – something that we all need to be living, functioning humans.
Snacks are one of the ways we can get energy (calories) from food. You should count them as part of your daily energy intake. And you should think of them as ways to get the nutrients you need.
Make snacks count: Are there nutrition goals you are overwhelmed by?
5-9 fruits and vegetables a day
3 servings calcium-rich food
8 glasses of water/day
25-35 grams fiber a day
x grams of protein per day
more antioxidants, more iron, etc.
Take into account your snacks when thinking about those goals. You might find you are closer to meeting them than you thought.
Sometimes because a snack is not a meal, it doesn’t fit into the “what I ate today” box. It gets forgotten or just doesn’t get taken into account. If you count the trail mix that you snack on when you’re hungry in the car, you might find you are eating more fiber than you thought. If you count your night cheese, you might find you are closer to your calcium goals than you thought.
Liz Lemon from 30 Rock – working on her night cheese
This can go both ways of course, a few of those studies did note that most sweets and sweetened beverages were eaten as snacks, so maybe you’ll find that you are eating more sodium or sugar than you thought and need to adjust a little so you can meet your goals
If there’s a goal you aren’t quite meeting, think of how you can leverage a snack to get there. Can you add a glass of milk or a cheese stick to get more calcium? Can you choose a whole grain granola bar or a handful of nuts to get to your fiber goal?
Anyway, remember this 2nd part of snacking for real humans:
Snacks are not a weakness. They are just a part of your nourishment and can make you healthier! Own those snacks!
*If you don’t like to eat snacks and are happy with just eating meals, and you’re meeting your nutrition goals, no worries. It’s not required to eat snacks. Unless your dietitian or doctor tells you otherwise. This whole blog post is not medical or nutrition advice for you and is for informational purposes only. If you have questions, speak with a registered dietitian or doctor.
In other words, a snack is any food you eat that you don’t consider a meal.
Cubed watermelon on a hot afternoon? A refreshing snack
Those chocolate-chip granola bars you keep in your car? Snack
Your post-workout protein shake? Snack
An evening bag of popcorn? A delicious snack
A little bit of salad leftover from lunch? Also a snack
An apple with peanut butter? Snack
Bag of chips from the vending machine at work? That is a snack
Leftover rotisserie chicken you eat cold right out of the refrigerator because you needed a little something? Definitely a snack
Cup of milky tea and a muffin in the afternoon? One of my favorite snacks
What should you eat for a snack? That depends on what you have available, why you’re eating a snack, what sounds good, so many different factors. We can talk about that more later. But don’t worry about if foods fall into the “snack” category.
Snacking for real humans part 1:
Any food can be a snack
Don’t overthink it 🙂 What do you like to snack on?