Snacks: Purposeful Partner or Unnecessary Nuisance?

I’m always nervous I’m about to get a side-eye from friends and family when I pull out a snack. It’s as if, because I’m a registered dietitian, I should only eat three meals each day and never need anything in between. The truth is, most of us eat snacks daily, and that’s OK! If you’re curious about snacks and how you could incorporate them into your eating plan, keep reading.

Start with the Dietary Guidelines.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide recommendations for what nutrients to consume on a daily or weekly basis. Key recommendations include the following: vegetables (including dark green, red and orange and legumes), fruits, grains (at least half of which should be whole grains), fat-free or low-fat dairy, a variety of protein foods (including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products) and oils. The Dietary Guidelines also explain healthy eating patterns that one could adopt, which include sample portion sizes for each food group to be consumed daily. That’s where snacks can come into play.

Make the most of snack time.

We can make a snack out of any type of food. Similar to MyPlate recommendations, they are most beneficial for and satisfying to us when they are a good mix of food groups. A few good examples are an apple with a slice of cheese or some peanut butter, a few crackers and a palm full of nuts or a hard-boiled egg with a smear of hummus.

If you’re on the go, grabbing a pre-packaged snack can be a great option. Skimming the labels for a combination of carbs, protein and fat will be helpful in making your choice. At the same time, not every snack needs to be nutrient-dense — we all need some chocolate or an ice cream cone once in a while! A good rule of thumb is to choose nutrient-dense snacks most of the time while allowing yourself to indulge (without guilt) every so often in some of your favorite snack foods.

Intuitive and mindful eating can help you choose your snacks.

It can be confusing to hear mixed messages about snacks. On one hand, we’re saying, “You should choose healthy snacks!” while also allowing for some indulgences. So how do you know when to do each? These choices are different for everyone, but mindful and intuitive eating strategies can help.

Mindful eating is all about awareness while eating. When snacking, use your senses. Notice the textures. Name the flavors. Additionally, removing distractions like your cell phone and TV or walking out of earshot of your chatty roommates or coworkers can help ensure you’re present for your eating occasion.

Mindful eating also emphasizes slowing down your pace to savor each bite — something we don’t always get a chance to do in our fast-paced culture. If you’re new to mindful eating, try making a goal to eat mindfully for one snack or meal a few times each week until it becomes easier to practice.

Intuitive eating is based on 10 main principles that aim to better your relationship with food and alleviate stress or confusion you might feel when it comes to eating. One of the principles is “Honor Your Hunger,” which encourages us to check in with hunger while eating to acknowledge fullness. Try it out! While snacking, observe the feelings of fullness and make a decision on whether or not to continue eating based on that.

Another principle is “Make Peace with Food,” which essentially encourages us not to set rigid rules about what foods (including snack foods) are acceptable to eat. For example, if you think it’s acceptable to eat only fruit for a snack, consider trying to add a grain or fat with it next time.

Mindful eating strategies pair nicely with intuitive eating when it comes to snacking, but it also depends where you are starting from. If you typically snack mindlessly (think sitting down with a bag of chips and polishing them off before the next commercial break or eating while walking to and from events, not even realizing you’ve finished) and don’t often incorporate nutrient-dense foods, you may want to practice mindfulness and choose more nutritious snack combos.

On the other hand, if you have rigid eating habits that rarely allow you to indulge without guilt, you may actually want to practice eating a few indulgent snacks. Incorporating foods you feel are off-limits (like crackers or chocolate, for example) can help remove the idea that some foods are good and others are bad. The end goal is to have a healthy relationship with food—one free of anxiety, confusion or stress when it comes to eating.

The takeaway: Snacks can have a place in your eating plan and can be nutrient-dense. Spending just a little time considering if they’re providing the physical and emotional benefits that you seek from food can be a great way to form some guideposts of healthful eating.

This blog includes contributions by Allison Webster, PhD, RD.