Ultimate Guide To Healthy Snacking When You're Busy

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You're rushing out the door and need a quick snack to throw in your bag.
     
  • You're running errands after lunch and feel starving so you stop to get a snack somewhere.
     
  • You just want to be lazy in front of the TV after a busy day with some good crunchy snacks and chocolate.
     
  • You need a little something sweet after a meal.
     
  • You sometimes feel ravenous and sluggish and need a quick pick-me-up (in the afternoon or while cooking dinner) and you often over-eat.

I experienced all of the above before I got serious about healthier eating habits. One day I realized they weren't helping me live the healthier life I wanted.

I used to snack all the time. In college I’d have dinner before a late class, then a 'healthy' snack when I got home; a big bowl of cereal with a sliced banana in it at 10pm.

I’d be starving while cooking dinner and mindlessly eat snacks until dinner was ready, then eat a full dinner.

I’d sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a bag of chips while I watched a Rom-Com after a stressful day. I always had high simple carb, processed, often empty calorie options on hand, like pretzels, chips, chocolate and flavored (sweetened) yogurt, and go figure, I was always hungry and wanting more.

When I tried to eat healthy, I went extreme and felt deprived, so gave it up. Or I'd reward myself after a day of 'healthy' (low calorie) eating with indulgent snacks. It was difficult for me to find balance between enjoying what I ate, feeling satisfied and also eating healthy.

My problem was that there was no structure or thought put into my snacking. I snacked and overate when I was bored, or felt the smallest amount of hunger while still having three full meals a day. I ate a lot of processed snacks, and even though sometimes my snacks were sort of healthy, like hummus or yogurt, I was eating way too many calories. Aside from that, I was busy and overwhelmed and didn’t know a better approach or where to start.

As I made small changes towards a healthier lifestyle, I mastered healthy snacking and it’s been a big part of my success in maintaining weight loss, and more importantly for me, feeling healthier each day and having a healthier relationship with food.

Below I’m sharing my methods for healthy snacking success in a busy life. The goal is for you to have the tools to be able to put these into action today and make healthier choices when you're struggling with it!

Here’s what I’ll cover in this post:

Why Healthy Snacking Is So Difficult

Common Snack Mistakes You’re Probably Making (and how to fix them)

Snack Foods You Should Avoid

Benefits Of Snacking

How To Tell If You Really Need A Snack

Tips To Avoid Snacking When You Just Want To Eat

Snack Timing, Portion Sizes And Calories

What Makes A Snack Healthy?

How To Have Healthy Snacks Ready When You Have No Time

Mouth Watering, Healthy and Quick Snack Recipes (for when you need excitement in your healthy eating routine)

  • Dips + Veggies

  • Crunchy Snacks

  • Healthy Sweets

Bonus Download (A Quick Guide To Healthy Snacking When You're Busy):

  • Simplified healthy snacking checklist

  • Healthy snack ideas, ready in a minute or less when you’re really short on time

  • Healthy snack options when you’re out  


Why Healthy Snacking Is So Difficult

Bad habits are hard to break. I don't know about you but I, along with my classmates through the 90's (which, I have a hard time admitting ended 17 years ago, what?!), grew up often snacking on Dunkaroos, Lay's chip snack packs, yellow faux-cheese and cracker packs, packaged peanut butter crackers and cookies. Although these are delicious memories, they didn't exactly help me learn what a healthy snack was. I got in the habit of craving foods like this and considered pretzels a healthy snack comparatively. Going from comforting and satisfying snacks like that to veggies dipped in hummus was a difficult change.  

We're often afraid of feeling deprived. We have deep emotional ties to our food. The foods we are used to eating make us feel safe, and the thought of changing that, understandably, brings some negative emotions. Fear of feeling deprived is really fearing the unknown and wanting to avoid discomfort, so we tend to stick with what we're used to. As long as you make changes slowly (like replace an unhealthy snack with a healthy one every other day), you'll be able to adapt and form healthier habits you can stick with. It's also helpful to associate positive emotions with healthy food, like knowing you’ll feel healthier, clear minded and energetic afterwards.

Healthy eating habits are considered difficult and time consuming and are often pushed down in priority. Our days are filled with obligations, meetings, activities and maintaining a social life which leaves little time for health. You're busy and short on time so making healthy snacks in the moment isn't always an option, which means you either skip a snack and overeat at the next meal or grab a quick and easy option (usually processed and not-so-healthy). Consider the snacks you grab in a pinch, or even those you might get out; they probably lack many nutrients per calorie and are high in simple carbohydrates. It doesn't have to be hard or time consuming and below I'll help make it simpler and approachable.


Common Snack Mistakes You’re Probably Making (and how to fix them)

  1. You could be choosing unhealthy foods that are marketed as healthy. This is really common, especially if you buy pre-made or processed snacks. We often see labels like high fiber, high protein, low fat, no added sugar, gluten free, and consider them healthy but they’re misleading. Processed foods, even those that seem healthy, are often empty calories. There are much better options to choose to eat.

    Fix: Seek out whole/real food options with very short ingredient lists.
     
  2. Your snacks could be too high in calories even though they're healthy. On social media, I see posts of really high calorie meals and snacks. For example, a big smoothie bowl or overnight oats topped with granola, chia seeds, nuts, sliced bananas and berries, contains all healthy ingredients, but as a whole, provides too many calories and carbohydrates at one time for most people. I’m not saying to avoid these foods, but rather to make the portion smaller when your snack includes many higher calorie components.

    Fix: Have smaller portions of high calorie healthy foods (you’ll feel full quicker and longer from these types of foods anyways).
     
  3. There may be too many simple carbohydrates in your snacks. I sometimes crave carbs in the afternoon, especially if I’m stressed, but I avoid giving into them. High carbohydrate snacks cause your blood sugar to spike (then a crash not long after), increase inflammation, decrease concentration, make you feel sluggish and needing a nap. Also, you won't likely feel satisfied after just a serving and will feel hungry again shortly after.

    Fix: In moments like this, avoiding the carbs and sugar you crave will be beneficial; choose something with a lot of protein or fat in it instead.
     
  4. You might be making ‘healthy’ homemade snacks with unhealthy ingredients, like processed basics and added sugars. Many recipes, marketed as healthy are far from it. From dips to granola to homemade protein bars; these recipes often have low quality ingredients like sweetened and flavored protein powder, sugar or too much of a healthy sweetener, sauces and spice packets with preservatives and added chemicals, along with various other processed ingredients.

    Fix: Instead, cook at home, limiting sweet ingredients and using all whole foods, or minimally processed ingredients, like nut butters, where there’s only 1-3 ingredients.

Snack Foods You Should Avoid

Here’s a simple list of common snack foods that should be limited/avoided.

From the food store:

  • Protein/energy bars (read those labels)
  • Protein drinks (unless it contains minimal ingredients and no sweetener, better to shake up your own!)
  • Pretzels
  • Chips (even baked - empty calories)
  • Rice cakes
  • Most types of crackers
  • Cookies or baked goods
  • Most chocolates (even dark chocolate has sugar and additives)
  • Most nut butters (chocolate hazelnut, almond, peanut) (they usually contain added oils and sugar so read labels, good choices are the natural types with no added oils/sugar/flavorings)
  • Flavored yogurt (a lot of sugar)

Snacks you'd get out:

  • Smoothies (they often have A LOT of sugar, pay close attention to ingredients: fruit juice + fruits + flavored protein powder = way too much sugar/sweetener!)
  • Yogurt parfaits (again, a lot of sugar and usually low quality ingredients)
  • Trail Mix and spiced/flavored nuts (often large portions and artificially flavored)
  • Literally anything from a vending machine!

Benefits Of Healthy Snacking

Snacking can help prevent hanger; like when you feel like crying and/or yelling at someone for simply breathing near you but feel better as soon as you eat. This shift to a darker side of yourself can be caused by low blood sugar, which happens after a blood sugar spike or not eating for a long period. A meal too high in simple carbohydrates or eating small portioned meals with long gaps in between can cause this. A healthy snack can help you keep your blood sugar levels stable and prevent hanger.

Snacking will help you eat less at your next meal. You know when you're starving before dinner and start going through the pantry for small bites of food as you cook (my go-to is cheese in these moments), eat components of what you're making for dinner or scarf down a second helping at the dinner table? This habit isn't too healthy and adds mindless calories to your day. When I find myself this hungry at a meal, I feel like I have little control and completely lose track of what and how much I'm eating. If you have a healthy snack between meals to hold you over, it will be easier to stay in control and only eat what you portion for yourself.

All in all, healthy snacks can help you stabilize your blood sugar, which helps to prevent chronic diseases and improves your mood, boosts your productivity, reduces inflammation and helps you lose and maintain weight.


How To Tell If You Really Need A Snack

This is a tricky one. Healthy snacks can be really great but there are situations when you should avoid them. I’ve thought of some questions you can ask yourself before snacking to help you decide if you simply want or need to eat.

  1. Am I hungry enough to eat an apple? If the answer is no, then you most likely aren’t truly hungry or in need of a snack.

  2. Am I feeling stressed, sad or bored and want food to fill a void? Emotional and bored eating is real. Typically in these scenarios you’re sitting in front the TV or computer craving a certain, typically not-so-healthy food. It’s normal to have these urges once in awhile but using some tools to redirect your focus is helpful (tips below).

  3. Am I having a sugar crash and feeling ravenous? If you just ate and feel starving or it’s been hours since your last meal, there’s a good chance you’re blood sugar is low. In this case, as much as you want a big bowl of carbohydrates, choose a small snack, with protein and fat, to stabilize your blood sugar. You’ll feel less ravenous once your sugar levels normalize.


Tips To Avoid Snacking When You Just Want To Eat


If you’re trying to avoid snacking there are some easy things you can do to redirect your focus and take your mind off of food. You could:

  • Call a friend to catch up

  • Go for a walk

  • Read an interesting article, magazine or book

  • Meditate

  • Do some yoga

  • Take a warm, relaxing bath

  • Start working on a favorite craft

  • If you’re at work, play some of your favorite music, do a 3-5 minute meditation, do some stretches or go chat with a coworker

  • If you really can't avoid snacking, try to choose lower calorie, nutritious foods to crunch on like veggies and a good dip (ideas below)


Snack Timing, Portion Sizes And Calories

These depend on a few things:

  • Your goals (fitness, weight loss/maintenance)

  • The size of your meals

  • The time between your meals

  • How quickly you digest food

If you’re trying to gain muscle weight or are training heavily (which most of us aren’t), you’d need to be snacking more frequently to ensure you get enough nutrients to fuel your workout and recover afterwards. For the rest of us, who are active and workout but don’t train like an athlete, snacks can be evenly spaced between meals that are around 4+ hours apart.

Meal size definitely influences if a snack is necessary and the size of it. If you are eating large meals, you’re less likely to actually need a snack and vise versa. It helps to be mindful of portions and calories to decide if that snack is needed. For example, if you have a whole burrito from Chipotle for lunch, you should probably pass on an afternoon snack. But if you have an apple with peanut butter for lunch, as I often do, you’ll probably need to eat something before dinner.

Another factor is the time between your meals. If you wake up early and have breakfast first thing but lunch isn’t for another 5-6 hours, then it’s a good idea to plan something to hold you over, and the same thing for an early lunch and later dinner. If your meals are spread far apart each day (early breakfast-late dinner) it’s helpful to eat smaller portions and more frequently.

Another factor is how quickly you digest the food you eat and your metabolism. This is a personal factor and something only you can determine. If you eat and haven’t fully digested it by the time you’d snack, it’s a good idea to wait for the next meal. Oftentimes, larger meals with a lot of fat in them take longer to digest and may sufficiently hold you over to the next meal with no snack needed between.

Sometimes the only snack you’d need is a spoonful of peanut or almond butter, other times you may need something more substantial. The best approach is to consider the above factors and base your decision on that. Balance is key, if you have large meals, then snacks get smaller and vice versa.

Personally, I have a later breakfast (10am), a small lunch, then a small snack if I’m hungry, and dinner around 7pm. The portions of each typically depend on how rigorous my exercise was and how hungry I am that day. On the weekends we tend to eat bigger meals at flexible times, so we don’t snack much.


What Makes A Snack Healthy?

The type of snack you should choose, like fruits/vegetables, nuts or something else, varies on what you're eating the rest of the day. For example, if you eat a lot of vegetables at your meals that day, you could choose a spoonful of nut butter or some popcorn. If your meals aren't packed with veggies, you'd want to choose a snack that contains them. Think balance through the day. Other than that, there are some basic guidelines to follow to ensure you're making healthy snack choices.

Basic criteria:

  • Full of whole/real foods
  • Nutrient dense (typically plant based foods: nuts, beans, fruits/veggies, grains)
  • Little to no simple carbohydrates/sugars
  • High in fiber, fat and/or protein

How To Have Healthy Snacks Ready When You Have No Time

There are three approaches to having healthy snacks ready to go when you have no time. The first is having options on hand that are ready in less than a minute, the next is planning and preparing snacks for the week ahead of time, so they are ready to grab and go; and the last is knowing the healthiest options when you're out.

Having staples on hand for quick and healthy options is crucial when you’re busy. Things like nuts, homemade trail mix and nut butters are important staples because they contain fat, protein and fiber and help stabilize your blood sugar so you feel satisfied and full for hours.

Having a rotation of 6-8 more exciting snacks is helpful to prevent boredom with your routine healthy diet. A handful of nuts or spoonful of almond butter is great, but sometimes you just need something more to really feel satisfied. As long as the basic criteria of a healthy snack is met, you can get as creative as you want; include spices, varied sources of protein, fiber and fat as well as the flavors/textures. I have included some great ideas below to help get you started!


Mouth Watering, Healthy and Quick Recipes (for when you need excitement in your healthy eating routine)

One thing that helps me stay on track is to eat foods that I can look forward to and really enjoy! If you enjoy the healthy foods you eat, you're more likely to stick with it. The ideas below are for when you can make time (1-3 hours each week) to prepare a big batch of your snack to portion out for the week ahead. Most of the ideas below will take you less then 15 minutes. These recipes come in handy when you’re seriously bored of your healthy routine and need some excitement.

Dips + Veggies

Cupcakes And Kale Chips

Cupcakes And Kale Chips

Greek Yogurt Ranch Dip

Who doesn’t love dip, especially ranch dip? This will take you minutes to prepare and something delicious to enjoy your veggies with all week long. You can serve it with celery, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, a couple whole grain crackers, baked plantain or veggie chips if needed. 

This snack will make eating veggies exciting while giving you a little protein boost from the greek yogurt!

 

Cookies And Kate

Cookies And Kate

Green goddess Hummus

 

Hummus is a great dip to have in your rotation because the base of chickpeas, garlic and tahini are healthy and filling, but it's also so versatile. 

This recipe uses herbs to brighten the flavor, which not only add flavor to recipes but also a lot of health promoting nutrients. A drizzle of olive oil is the perfect way to get more healthy fats in your day too.

 

 

 

 

 

Crunchy Snacks:

Hello To Fit

Hello To Fit

Sweet And Salty Spiced Nuts

Making your own flavored nut mix is SO much healthier than buying it. You can customize the mixture and ratio of nuts, the quality of ingredients (organic) and control the oil content by not adding any (this recipes uses egg whites giving it even more protein!).

These are calorie dense so a little goes a long way. If you need a little more food than a serving (~1/4 - 1/3 cup) to feel full, you could have a handful of berries with them!

 

 

 

 

Barre3

Barre3

 

Roasted Chickpeas With Salt And Cumin

This recipe is from a pretty awesome studio barre company that also provides online classes if you can't get to their studios. Their website is also packed with simple, quick and healthy recipes, like this one. 

Simple roasted and spiced chickpeas. They're crunchy, high in fiber, protein and nutrients.

 

What's Gaby Cooking

What's Gaby Cooking

 

Parmesan Herb Popcorn

Popcorn is one of our go-to snacks when we're feelin' munchy. We use our air popper pretty frequently because you don't need any oil to get the kernels to pop!

I love this recipe for it's simplicity and ease. Using spices to flavor popcorn helps you need less butter and salt on every kernel.

If you're prepping this snack for the week ahead, you can store servings in quart sized zip lock baggies to toss in your bag on your way out.

 

 

 

Running To The Kitchen

Running To The Kitchen

 

Baked Veggie Chips: Crispy Baked Carrot Chips

Baked veggie chips take a little time to prepare so save this recipe for a lazy Sunday (a mandoline slicer really speeds up the process); they're great for when you need a little crunch and also some veggies. You can use most root vegetables, including sweet potatoes and beets as well as well unripe (green) plantains in the same method as this recipe. These would be a great side with dips for a healthy snack during the week.

Make sure they fully cool before storing them in a container or bag so they retain their crisp!

 

 

 

Sweets (made with nutritious whole foods!)

Healthy sweet treats are typically best enjoyed sparingly, as in a couple times a week (rather than everyday) and portioned out, even though they're healthy. Healthy snack habits mean to be less dependent on sweet cravings and to feel satisfied with less sugar. Reducing the servings of sugar and sweetened foods in your diet each day will help you crave them less and you'll soon notice foods taste sweeter to you, so you'll need less sugar to satisfy the craving.

Bakerita

Bakerita

 

Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites

This is a great base recipe for no-bake energy bites. They're a little indulgent and pack a lot of energy, so definitely use portion control. These are really forgiving, customizable and ready to eat in under 15 minutes! 

To get all the health benefits of chocolate use raw cacao powder (my favorite brand is Navitas). To customize, you can toss in some raw cashews to give them more fat, fiber and protein. If you're a fan of coconut, toss that in too. If the mixture is a little dry, add 1 tbsp of water as you blend in the food processor. Have fun with it!

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Axe

Dr. Axe

Chocolate Pudding

This nutrient dense version of chocolate pudding will help you get more healthy fats and fiber while indulging your sweet craving. 

The base is avocados and the chocolate element is from raw cacao powder. If your tastes are still adjusting and this isn't sweet enough for you, try adding a little maple syrup, but only if really needed!

 

Eating By Elaine

Eating By Elaine

Fudgesicles

There's nothing like a frozen, creamy treat when the weather is warm and these are just that, plus they're made with nutritious foods (avocado and raw cacao). It's a similar recipe to the above pudding but frozen into popsicles!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fork Knife Swoon

Fork Knife Swoon

Fruit Popsicles - Creamy Coconut And Mixed Berry Popsicle 

There are SO many variations for 'smoothie' popsicles you can do. I chose to share this one because the ingredient list is short, it's really quick to mix up and pretty nutrient dense with the berries and coconut milk. Plus they'll be filling with the fat from coconut milk.

Make sure to get full fat coconut milk in the can (ideally BPA free). My favorite brand in from Whole Foods where the only ingredients are coconut, water and guar gum. Go light with the sweetener, and only add the amount needed to enjoy the taste!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healthy snacking doesn't have to be a miserable experience of feeling deprived, hungry and taking all your free time. Once you know the basics and have the right mindset and a bunch of great go-to recipes, you'll not only find success but experience results and actually enjoy the process! To help you even further, for those days or weeks you're really short on time, I'm offering a bonus download below.

I'm sharing extras in this 3-page guide; click here to view or download for free! Inside you'll find:

  • A simplified checklist to healthier snacking
  • Snack ideas that are ready in less than a minute for when you're really short on time
  • Healthy snack options when you're out