Chips, cookies, munchies: There is so much snacking going on.
It’s no shock that many of us reach for cookies, candy, chips and other indulgences during stressful times, whether it’s due to the pandemic, the resulting economic downtown or a divisive US election.
Snack food consumption, including both sweet and savory snacks, increased by 8% during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to consumer research company NPD Group’s Snack Food Behaviors in Challenging Times study.
That’s much more than during the Great Recession, between 2008 and 2010, where snack foods increased by 1%, or 4.8 billion eatings. (An “eating” is defined as one occasion that involves eating a meal or a snack.)
“I think the increase in snacking was so pronounced now versus the last recession because this downturn came upon us so suddenly,” said Darren Seifer, food industry analyst at The NPD Group, via email.
“At the beginning of the lockdowns, consumers had to make decisions on how to feed their families in a matter of weeks, while the last recession took months to fully take its grip,” Seifer said. “Consumers quickly stocked up on snacks and indulgent foods for their shelf lives while others were stress eating.”
“I see the rise in snack consumption as the result of lockdown boredom and pandemic and election anxiety,” said Marion Nestle, New York University’s Paulette Goddard professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health.
But excess snacking translates to excess calories. “The more snacks, the more calories they provide,” Nestle said. “More calories means more pounds unless snackers compensate by eating less at meals.”
Reaching for comfort foods is soothing and can be a way to cope with life’s uncertainties and challenges. But if you feel your snacking has become an unhealthy habit, here are seven strategies to snack better.
1. Take a pause. Before you reach for a snack, it’s a good idea to stop and think about what will satisfy you. Is it really a handful of chips? Or is it a nap or a bath that you are craving? If you are desiring food, you can use a tool like the hunger meter to help you determine what it is you want to eat.
By assigning levels to your hunger (for example, “1” being ravenous and “9” being Thanksgiving day stuffed), the meter can help guide you as to what to eat, and can be especially helpful if impulsive or stress-related eating has become problematic. For example, if you are a “4,” on the hunger meter (that is, not that hungry, but “snacky”), you might need a piece of fruit with a small handful of nuts. But if you are a “1,” you probably need a full meal.
2. Don’t multitask while snacking. When we are less distracted and more mindful when eating, we are not only better able to appreciate the taste and texture of foods; we are also better able to determine when we have had enough to eat.
That includes taking a break from screens, social media and texting. Disconnecting from all things digital can make you calmer too, which bodes well for eating, according to Lisa R. Young, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at a Time.”
The next time you snack, try chewing slowly and savor every bite. This will help make snacking a lot more pleasurable. It will also help you avoid mindless nibbling and the excess calories that come with it.
3. Be an opportunistic snacker. That means looking at snacks as opportunities to help fill nutrient gaps in your diet. Healthy snacks like carrot sticks and hummus, fruit and small portions of nuts provide important nutrients, and are all great snack choices, according to Nestle.
4. Plan and prep snacks ahead of time. Shopping and prepping snacks in advance will help to set you up for success in choosing healthier snacks. Keep fruits and veggies washed, cut and at eye level in the fridge, so you can just grab and eat them, advised registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.”
Also, plan the timing of snacks so you don’t find yourself ravenous during the day. For example, eating something every three to four hours can be helpful, especially if you have difficulty concentrating or feel sluggish when your blood sugar level drops.
5. Design a snack-friendly kitchen. Visual cues go a long way in determining what we actually choose to eat. In our home, I place a bowl filled with our favorite fruits on the kitchen table, so we are more likely to grab them when we are craving a snack. It’s also a good idea to clear your counters of less healthy but tempting visual cues like cookies, sweets and soft drinks, according to Taub-Dix.
If you need to purchase foods that may serve as triggers (like those yummy semisweet chocolate morsels you use for baking), place them on higher shelves or hidden behind other foods.
Keeping your kitchen organized, free of clutter and with fewer options of sweets or salty snacks can also help. Consumers who have five or more packages of crackers or salty snacks consume those foods at higher rates than consumers with fewer packages in their home, according to the NPD study.
6. Make simple swaps. If you have a sweet tooth, swap candy for dried fruit; premium ice cream for frozen banana “nice” cream and a cinnamon roll for cinnamon raisin toast spread with whipped cream cheese.
It can be fun to try snacking on healthier versions of your favorite indulgences. My girls enjoy my chocolate peanut butter dessert hummus, which can satisfy a craving for chocolate peanut butter cups.
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7. Remember, size matters. Downsizing your portions can help you enjoy your favorite foods without overdoing it. Placing snacks on smaller plates can help you control the amount of food you eat.
Here’s a list of tasty snacks under 200 calories, including popcorn with almonds and chocolate chips. And since more than a quarter of a child’s daily calories come from snacks, here are some healthy, kid-friendly snacks, like fruit fondue and homemade granola bars – yum!
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.