If you were taught that an afternoon snack would “ruin your dinner” or that you should stick to “three square meals” a day, I’m happy to report that it’s perfectly okay—even healthy—to break those rules.
People with the healthiest diets snack twice as often as those with the least healthy diets, a new NPD survey reports. And they’re reaching for better choices: While nighttime noshing on ice cream and chips is declining, there's been an uptick in the number of people having a midmorning bite on foods such as fruit, yogurt, nuts, and seeds.
Most snacking is also no longer mindless or impulsive. Nearly 80 percent of food choices were planned or composed of pre-purchased items.
I love reading reports like these because they parallel what I see in my private practice. More than ever my clients see snacking as a way to fit in whole grains and produce, and boost their intakes of key nutrients including antioxidants and fiber. Rather than seeing between-meal eating as a diet derailer, more people think of it as a smart way to enhance energy, feel nourished, and stabilize blood sugar and mood.
RELATED: These 40 crunchy and creamy snacks for less than 200 calories will satisfy any craving.
The best strategy to snack smartly is to eat every three to five hours. So if your breakfast is at 6 but you don’t get to eat lunch until close to 1 p.m., a mini-meal between 9 and 10 in the morning is ideal. And for those who have a lunch break at noon but don’t get to eat dinner until close to 7, a well-balanced snack around 4 p.m. can prevent a late-night binge-fest.
As for what to munch, aim for what I call the “five-piece puzzle”—a combo of produce, a whole grain, lean protein, plant-based fat, and natural seasoning such as herbs and spices. This grouping provides a broad spectrum of nutrients, slow-burning carbs, metabolism-boosting protein, satiating fat, flavor, and aroma, and there are unlimited ways to mix and match the “puzzle pieces.” Check out these Pinterest pics of some of my favs, including my clients' Cherry Almond Green Tea Smoothie and Cranberry Parmesan Herbed Popcorn.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.