Cleaning up our diet is a common goal whether it’s for general health, weight loss, or finances. Often we do well, planning meals that are both good for us and enjoyable, generally staying with the plan except at holidays or on vacations, which is one of the things I think holidays and vacations are for so I never worry about what I eat at those times.

What is a snack?

There is no set rule for how many times a day we should eat. Some people are better with more than three meals that are each smaller than usual, some like one or two main meals and then some grazing in between, some just need a little extra something between the three squares. Sometimes when breakfast burns off and it’s nowhere near lunch yet, late in the afternoon or on the way home from work because we know dinner is an hour or two away, before bed because we fall asleep faster when digesting a little snack, it’s easy to grab a candy bar, energy bar, a few cookies, even some French fries depending on the time of day and where we are. It’s as if they don’t count into your daily balance because they aren’t really a meal.

If you’ve worked hard to manage your diet, then it’s worth your time and effort to manage your snacking in the same way. And in the same way you plan your meals and purchase the ingredients, you should plan and purchase your snacks with just as much care.

Healthy snacks

Sounds like an oxymoron, right? How can a snack be healthy? Aren’t snacks little indulgences? Well, yes, they can be—all food should be fun, especially a little something you enjoy like a reward when you take a five-minute break, or something quick but satisfying when you have to wait for mealtime with family or friends. That doesn’t mean those indulgences have to be unhealthy.

So let’s not even buy the candy, cookies, potato chips and corn curls or other sweet and bagged snacks and look at some alternatives.

Satisfying snacks

Snacks generally aren’t filling, but they are satisfying. Think of chips and dip, my favorite snack. You’ve got salt, crunch, creamy dip, strong flavors. Or a sweet snack, like ice cream. It’s cold, it’s creamy, it’s sweet. What’s wrong with a little bit? Nothing, really, if it’s just a few bites. But if that snack is replacing a meal, it’s really not a good idea. To make your healthy snack as satisfying as the one you want to replace, decide what you like best about it and find what replaces it, and it should also be just as easy to prepare and eat as grabbing a handful of potato chips.

Fresh foods, crunchy, creamy, salty, sweet

A healthy snack should be easy to put together—as easy as chips and dip or ice cream—and generally fresh, not prepared or prepackaged. Fresh fruits or vegetables are an obvious choice in that, but who wants to chomp on raw carrots and celery? How about if you add a dab of ranch dressing? Just about any fresh vegetable can be dipped in any salad dressing, and as long as you don’t overdo it with the dressing your snack stays pretty healthy, and you’ve got crunch, you’ve got a little salt, and you’ve got a little creamy dip.  Add a punch of protein by dipping veggies in hummus and add a small handful of olives to up the indulgence factor.  If you wash and cut several days’ worth of vegetables at one time, you’ll likely eat them more often.

Fruits often need to be prepared, peeled or sliced, and they are juicy and can be a little messy. But you can choose a fruit that you can eat whole, like grapes, strawberries or other berries like blueberries, raspberries or blackberries. You can also prepare a quantity of fruit, like peeling and sectioning oranges or clementines to keep them in a container. And like the raw vegetables, if the fruit itself isn’t quite satisfying enough, dip it into a little plain or flavored yogurt. Or, slice an apple into sections and dip into peanut butter.

If you really want some crunchy chips you can have your raw vegetables and your crunchy chips too, with fresh salsa and tortilla chips. Many grocery stores carry fresh salsa which gives you the benefits of all those fresh crunchy vegetables, and in place of the usual fried and salty tortilla chips you can also find multi-grain tortilla chips that are satisfyingly crunchy. As a plus for both the salsa and the multi-grain chips, each of them usually go easy on the salt so your sodium load is reduced.

Need more fiber? Air-popped popcorn is affordable, and if you skip the butter, it is still delicious. For another crunchy option, nuts are full of heart-healthy good fats and the protein will keep you satiated. Even roasted nuts with no salt added are full of flavor. Stock up when they are on sale and bag them into individual portions and keep them handy.

Variety is the spice

You don’t eat the same meals every day, so approach your snacks the same way. Have a few different things on hand so you don’t get tired of just one alternative, something that’s sure to send you right back to the potato chip bag.