I want to ask you something a bit personal: are you a snacker? The reason I’m asking is that I am, and I want to know if I am talking to likeminded people. I want reassurance that you are not part of a super breed of disciplined, shiny-haired, perfect, and frankly annoying people who are never hungry between meals. Or worse still (for me), get hungry but ignore and override the tummy rumbles that have lesser folk (that’ll be me) either grabbing whatever’s handy and not actually toxic, or fantasising about inhaling a family-sized packet of crisps/chocolate/yogurt-covered nuts/apples (okay, that last one is not realistic). If you are one of these perfect folk, I envy you. Now go and read my tofu recipes and come back later when I post a main meal. The rest of you Norma(n) Normals, I want to have a brief chat about snacking. Just brief, mind you. I get hungry after a few paragraphs and need to go for a forage in the cupboards.
Perversely we, in our Western, all-you-can-eat society, see snacking as a bad thing, a sign of weakness, a one-way ticket to Obesity Central. We are surrounded by and saturated with messages to eat this snack bar, those chips, that preservative-pumped whatnot, but also told to be slim, have control and take such-and-such drugs to achieve a celebrity body. How bizarre is that?
But snacking is not inherently bad. Sure it has its down sides – as we are all too aware – but really there are more benefits to snacking than detractions. It’s all in the detail. It always is. And rarely does benefit come in a plastic wrapper with a 2014 use-by date attached.
In the interests of balance, there are a few reasons why snacking can be mad, bad and dangerous to do. Snacking can mean extra, unaccounted for calories. This even goes for hummous dip, organic dark chocolate and home-dried apple crisps, things we think of as having haloes. These are good foods to have in a healthy diet but we need to factor them into our daily calorie/energy needs. It is all too easy to see snacks as not really counting: it’s only one biscuit, it’s just a piece of toast.
Closely linked to the above, eating unhealthy snacks on a regular basis– things from wrappers mainly – inevitably causes weight gain. If we aren’t careful, that innocuous daily packet of ‘lite’ crisps can lead to a waist-spreading 15 lbs in weight-gain over a year, and new wardrobe. Ouch. Here’s an eye-opening look at 10 ‘healthy’ snacks that aren’t all what they seem. Did you know that banana chips have as much fat as potato chips?
Snacking when you are so hungry that others think they hear thunder in the distance is not good. Your body is programmed in this situation to grab and eat anything that is high in energy (calories) to get it back on track. Okay in the short term – just – but as a long-term coping strategy, no way. Think and plan ahead: don’t let yourself get that hungry (how miserable for you and your friends/colleagues), but also keep healthy snacks to hand for when you start to get peckish. We cannot make reasoned, healthy choices when super hungry. Fact.
Distracted eating makes for weight gain. Watching television is the big culprit here. We all know it is easy to miss the cues of over-eating when distracted by who’s doing what to whom on our soap. If you want to snack in front of the gogglebox keep things like cherry tomatoes, apples, air-popped popcorn in your graze-line, and stuff like Quality Street safely tucked out of sight. But really it’s better to be a ‘conscious eater’, aware of every bite that goes in to your mouth, how it feels and tastes. This is a much more satisfying way to eat, and because it automatically slows us down, we are less likely to overeat, whether its chocolate or carrots. In a future post I will talk a bit more about mindful eating. Right now I need to practise more of what I preach…
So, to the benefits of eating healthy, blood sugar-balancing snacks.
It can help get you closer to your five-a-day. Apples, bananas, plums, grapes, baby carrots, pepper strips – all are great snacks and very portable with little if any prep, as good snacks should be. Have a handful of nuts – like unsalted almonds – for satisfying protein. Look at my page on healthy snacks, and also at this great piece from fitsugar (they tout kale chips, so here’s my recipe – the second one).
kale chips - a super healthy snack
Being hungry is a real mood downer, but having something in your tum, especially something long-lasting with fibre, a little protein and fat, positively boosts mood. This is because it helps keep the all-important blood sugar levels on an even keel. Low blood sugar equals bad mood and poor food choices.
Healthy snacks, again long-lasting, sugar-balancing ones, really can help with appetite and weight control in the long run. Most sensible diet plans actively encourage modest snacking to keep blood sugar levels balanced and lessen the risk of ‘cheating’.
Healthy snacks can also help us keep more mentally alert, especially during the near-universal afternoon slump. Although we often reach for a coffee and a biscuit for a quick lift, something like a glass of skimmed milk and a pot of grapes and an oatcake or whole-wheat cracker might be better in the long run – caffeine and sugar vs a bit of protein and complex carbohydrates. It’s really no contest. The biscuit and coffee option is okay occasionally but I bet you’ll find (or already know) that having protein and starchy carbohydrates is a winning combination for energy and weight management.
What are your favourite healthy snacks? What are your best ways of beating the afternoon slump? We all have little strategies to get us from one meal to the next without demolishing the cookie jar, and I would love it if you shared them. Please feel free to comment, and maybe share your own ideas and stories. Healthy snacks for kids and teens especially welcome!
Butternut Squash and Almond Pate with Homemade Pitta Chips
I usually make this when I am baking butternut squash for another dish – a bit of a tasty by-product recipe. If I am using a recipe calling for a medium butternut squash or maybe only 400-500 grams of it, I like to buy a larger squash and use the extra to make up this really quite nice pate. Believe it or not it makes a yummy after-school snack if you don’t tell the kids that it’s good for them. Serve with wholegrain crackers, oat cakes, baked tortilla chips, cut up vegetables, homemade pitta chips (pictured), or rice cakes. It also makes a nice filling for rolls, or in little croustade cases for appetizers. The recipe below gives instruction on roasting the squash but use leftover roasted squash or even steamed cubes (although the roasting intensifies the gorgeous flavour) if you like.
½ medium butternut squash
4 sprigs of fresh thyme OR ½ tsp dried thyme
1 long sprig of fresh rosemary OR 5g dried rosemary leaves
4 cloves unpeeled garlic OR 1/8 tsp garlic powder (the garlic mellows dramatically with baking)
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp smoked paprika – optional
squeeze of fresh lemon
50g fresh almonds or ready-ground
Wash and halve the butternut squash, scoop out the seeds and put the garlic, 3 sprigs of thyme and half of the rosemary in the seed cavity (don’t bother doing this with the dried herbs). Drizzle over the oil, place the squash cut-side down on a baking tray and bake at 180C/350F, until softened – about 40-45 minutes. The skin will wrinkle and darken in patches, and will feel soft and yield when squeezed. Leave to cool a bit before carefully turning over and removing the garlic and herbs.
Now scoop out the tender, saffron-coloured flesh and pop this into a bowl. Slip the garlic out of the skins and add to the bowl. At this point I like to strip the leaves from the remaining thyme and chop the tender rosemary leaves.
Because I like the pate a bit chunky I don’t blend everything all in a one go, but you of course can make it smooth as butter (and what a great sub it is for butter on bread!), especially if it might increase the likelihood that children might try it. What I like to do is to put the almonds into the food processor and grind them down until they are sand-textured, followed by the herbs and paprika, and only then do I add the butternut squash and lemon. Pulse this until it is the texture you desire. If you can, let the pate sit for at least half an hour to allow the flavours to blend and the mixture to firm up.
This handy little pate can be flavoured how you like – whatever spices and herbs that you fancy or have to hand. The only thing to remember is that the butternut squash is quite sweet so some type of balancing acidity from lemon or vinegar is probably necessary.
Serve with pitta chips made by splitting a few wholemeal pittas at their seams, tearing into bite-sized pieces and baking on a tray at 180C/350F for about 10 minutes, or until they are no longer bendy. The chips will keep hardening as they cool. If you like, slick some olive oil over the pitta pieces and sprinkle with spices or seeds before baking. So much nicer and healthier than the pitta chips you get at the supermarket. And as an extra snack – a Vitamin E packed beezer of a snack – rinse and dry the squash seeds , rub on a teeny amount of oil and sprinkle over some seasoning. Bake in a moderate oven until you hear one seed pop. Allow to cool for a fraction of a second before huddling around the tray with some fellow hungry folk and scooping the little hot and tasty seeds into your mouth. ‘Free’ and fantastic.
bonus snack - but mind the sneaky calories