Megan O. Steintrager
Ditch the junk food for easy, healthy snack recipes and tips from the chef and nutritionist at Miraval Resort & Spa
You probably know from experience that a well-timed snack like a banana or a handful of nuts can help get you through a workout or a long day on the job. But snacking can also have a downside: Over the past 30 years, an uptick in snacking frequency-along with increased portion size-has contributed to America's obesity epidemic, according to a large study by Kiyah J. Duffey, Ph.D, and Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who published their findings in the June 2011 issue of PLOS Medicine.
What's more, many packaged snacks are loaded with so much salt, sugar, and fat that they're addictive, claim some experts, as reported in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss' new book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In other words, the more of these unhealthy, empty-calorie-laden foods we eat, the more we may crave them. Even if you're skeptical about the addiction argument, it's common sense to limit munchies like cookies and chips in order to maintain health and control weight. But if you're looking for something to eat with a little more frequency (and a lot less concern), wholesome snacks can provide much-needed energy and help bridge the gap between mealtimes. "Snacks help you be a good decision-maker," says Junelle Lupiani, a registered dietitian and staff nutritionist at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona. To put it simply, one of the most important decisions we have to make several times each day is what to eat, and having a midmorning or midafternoon snack wards off the ravenousness that can lead to poor lunch or dinner decisions.
In contrast to some spas that strictly control calories, Miraval makes snacks such as healthy smoothies, nut mixes, baked goods, and dips available throughout the day. While we can't supply you with a culinary staff to make you a variety of nutritious minimeals every day, we can give you some of Miraval's recipes for healthy snacks, along with tips from Lupiani and Miraval's executive chef, Justin Cline Macy, on how to optimize your snacks without spending a lot of extra time and money.
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Eat Whole Foods, Mostly Plants: Lupiani says people should shift their focus away from processed foods (and the ingredients that lurk within) and instead, pay more attention to eating whole, real foods, especially plants. "We have never done a scientific study that says plants are awful," she jokes. Intact grains (such as oats), nuts, seeds, and legumes (such as chickpeas) are a great source of protein and fiber, two things that are commonly pumped into store-bought snacks in the form of soy protein isolate and other highly processed ingredients. "Ask yourself, How close to the earth is this snack I'm eating?" A good place to start your snack makeover is at the store: Ignore what Lupiani calls "nutritional ploys"-for example, labels that claim foods are low-fat, nonfat, low-cal, low-carb, or high in protein or fiber-and steer clear of unpronounceable ingredients.
Keep Grab-and-Go Options Handy: As a chef, Macy says he's "always on the run." He's also an active outdoorsman, so he keeps plenty of granola, dried fruit, nuts, and snack mixes on hand that he can toss into his bag and munch on whenever he needs an energy boost. Lupiani's go-to snack combo is dried fruits, nuts, or seeds. "It's jam-packed with nutrition, and you can have it in your briefcase for a month," she points out. She's a fan of shopping in the bulk-foods section of the grocery or health food store. Not only is the pricing more affordable, but bulk-food sections allow you to purchase as much-or as little- of any item as you like.
Make Big Batches: "The reality is that it is very hard to find time to make snacks, so most people buy them," observes Macy. His solution: "Focus on things you can make in bulk." His favorites include granola, which takes about 30 minutes to make and can last for as long as a month, and healthy breads, such as Miraval's protein-rich Teff Banana Bread. "On your day off, you can make three or four loaves and freeze them. Pull one out when you want to use it." Lupiani suggests making a batch of smoothies and freezing individual portions. Take one along to work and it'll be thawed by the time you're ready for an afternoon snack. (She also notes that smoothies make a great snack because you don't need a recipe: Just grab whatever fruits and vegetables you have in your fridge and give them a whirl in the blender.) Or make several servings of your own flavored yogurt and portion out a cup for each day's snack. Here's a flavor combo Miraval likes to add when serving yogurt: honey or agave nectar, lime juice, and lime zest.
Tune In to Textures: When thinking about what makes a great snack, Macy tends to go for things that have a crunchy texture, like apples, celery, carrots, homemade toasted pita or tortilla chips, and Miraval's popular Spicy Soy Nut-Pretzel Mix. "I almost feel like it's a chemical thing in your brain: The crunch is very satisfying and fills you up." Try this: If you're craving an unhealthy snack, think about its texture-creamy, chewy, crispy, or crunchy-and then look for a healthier option that delivers a similar mouthfeel.
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Focus on Flavor: Of course, there's more to a snack than just texture; it has to taste good, too. "Most snacks need a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of spice," says Macy, pointing to Miraval's Strawberry Crunch Bar, which is sweetened with applesauce and strawberry preserves and gets a kick from cinnamon. Herbs, spices, and citrus juice and zest all add very few calories to sweet and savory snacks. In addition, Macy suggests using oils judiciously since they can not only mask other flavors but also lead you to increase the amount of salt in a dish. To cut back on oil without compromising flavor, follow Miraval's lead and experiment by using vegetable stock or roasted vegetables instead of oil to enhance the flavors in your favorite hummus, pesto, spread, and dressing recipes. Another Macy trick, common in spa kitchens, is using a spray bottle when cooking with oil, rather than pouring oil directly into the pan. A spray bottle comes in handy when making homemade pita chips, as well: Simply spritz triangles of pita bread lightly with olive oil, canola oil, or a combination of the two (Miraval's blend is 3:1 canola to extra-virgin olive oil) and bake at 400°F until crisp.
Go for Eye Appeal: There's truth to the adage that we eat with our eyes, so Lupiani suggests enhancing your snacking satisfaction by tuning in to the visual appeal of your food. You don't have to be a food stylist to make food look-and therefore, taste-more appealing: It can be as simple as adding fresh fruit or frozen berries into yogurt. Or take the Miraval Multigrain Nutrition Bar: Not only is it healthy, Lupiani declares, it also looks much tastier than the typical store-bought snack bar, thanks especially to the variety of colorful dried fruits the recipe calls for.
Control Calories and Portions: Lupiani and Macy don't advocate slavishly counting calories, but they know that too much of anything-even a healthy snack-can be bad. That's why portion control is key. Macy jokes that treats like the spa's Strawberry Crunch Bar are healthy…unless you eat seven of them. So serve a single portion and put the rest away. "If something is sitting in front of you, you are going to keep eating it," he reminds us. In the spa's kitchen, there are many clever tricks for cutting calories, including bulking up recipes with low-calorie vegetables. In Miraval's Edamame Guacamole, some of the avocado is replaced with soybeans and broccoli. According to Macy, this not only cuts calories but also adds protein and additional vitamins, and helps give the dip "a nice thick body." Serve the dip with crudités or homemade oven-toasted pita chips made without oil to further minimize calories; dipping with chips or vegetables will also "bring in the crunch factor so you'll eat less," he notes. When it comes to preparing sweet treats like cookies and yogurt parfaits, the chefs at Miraval often use agave nectar, which has more sweetness per calorie and a lower glycemic index than white sugar.
Listen to Your Body and Be Mindful: In the end, one of the most important rules for snacking-and for all meals-is to listen to your body. "We have gotten really out of touch with our physical selves," Lupiani asserts, and we tend to worry too much about exactly when to eat and exactly how many calories and grams of fiber and protein and the like a snack or meal contains. "If you are not physically hungry, don't eat, and if your body is telling you it's hungry, eat," advises Lupiani. And while we might associate mindful eating with a leisurely dinner more so than a snack on the run, Lupiani says snacks can be mindful, too. Even if you're at the office, find a few minutes to leave your desk, stretch, make a cup of tea, and really observe and enjoy the flavors, textures, and appearance of your food. A little mindfulness can go a long way toward a snack makeover that's not just doable but delicious.
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Megan O. Steintrager