June 2008 Issue

Sensible Snacking for 9-to-5ers
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 6 P. 24

They may gossip around the water cooler, but they probably spend even more time staking out the vending machine, deciding which treat is the lesser of many evils. But workday snacking doesn’t have to be unhealthy! In fact, it can be smart and deliciously nutritious.

The clock ticks to 3 pm on a Monday (or 11 am on a Wednesday), and your office’s vending machine calls out for you to sabotage your healthy habits with an oh-so-tempting Twinkie—what do you do? Even if you have no problem turning down fatty foods throughout the day, many clients who work desk jobs may have trouble winning the healthy food fight when surrounded by unhealthy options all week. We’ve tracked down a host of knowledgeable RDs to find the best sensible snacking tips for 9-to-5 clients.

Plan Ahead!
Preparation is key to healthy workplace snacking and integral to clients making successful food choices. “You know that you are going to be hungry, so plan for it,” says Lanah J. Brennan, RD, who is in private practice in Los Angeles. “Instead of running to the fast-food outlet across the street or relying on the junk foods brought in by coworkers, make a plan to have healthy foods available for your meals and snacks. Most offices have a refrigerator and a toaster oven or microwave, so use them.”

While Brennan includes whole wheat crackers and hummus, an apple and a piece of low-fat string cheese, and a nonfat yogurt with ground flaxseeds on her healthy snack short-list, she offers the following planning tip: “While we are doing all of this planning, we might as well plan for the day that you don’t have time to prepare a lunch. So keep some menus from restaurants in the area that offer healthier choices.”

“Go prepared” is the mantra Pam T. Davis, RD, LD, of Texas’ Baylor Medical Center at Garland, lives by. “Pack a snack even if you aren’t already packing your lunch. We get into trouble when we wait to look for something to eat when we are already hungry,” she says. However, if caught by surprise and the vending machine is calling, she says clients need to know that they still have choices. “The challenge is to make the best choice possible at the time and not to give in to temptation to eat something unhealthy,” she explains.

The trick to beating the vending machine blues is all in the planning, adds Joanne “Dr. Jo” Lichten, PhD, RD, author of Dr. Jo’s No Big Deal Diet. “Planned snacking before you get overly hungry helps you avoid the vending machines. I say that when you’re overly hungry, the vending machines call you like a mythical siren. But when you eat a planned snack before you get to that stage, the vending machines are still there, but they’re not calling your name.”

For ideas of what items are best to pack, Jeannie Houchins, MA, RD, a nutrition consultant for food and nutrition companies, offers homemade baked goods as a great snacking option. “I usually am motivated to bake (items made with whole wheat flour and applesauce) on the weekends, then freeze the items and take out a portion when I’m ready. Excellent items that go from freezer to desk are quick breads and muffins,” she says. Fruit also makes a great snack, she says, and tell clients to keep it within eye range. “Keep fruit on your desk. This is a great reminder and provides no excuse to head downstairs for a candy bar,” she says.

Cathy Leman, RD, LD, founder and owner of NutriFit, Inc. in Glen Ellyn, Ill., tells clients who think they are too busy to pack snacks daily, “Pack once, eat for five days. In other words, pack up a bag of snacks for the week and take it to work with you on Monday,” she says. “That prevents the need to pack something each and every day, which is just one more daily chore that inevitably goes by the wayside by Wednesday.”
“Yes, pack snacks a few days at a time,” agrees Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Planning ahead to get some of the prep done for packing while your energy level is high is key. I use the snack-sized bags because they control how much you can put in them. I think the weekends, especially Sunday, is when I do most of my prep for meals and snacks for the week. I also boil a few hard-boiled eggs for a quick protein source.”

Keeping in mind the resources at work for safe food storage, Jane Neill, RD, LD, coauthor of Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy: The Simple Truth About Achieving and Maintaining a Healthy Body, says that when shopping for healthy snack foods, seek out the “jewels” that will brighten your snack time—items you really like and will look forward to eating. “For fruits, it could be something as simple as naturally wrapped apples, tangerines, pears, or peaches,” she says. “If it’s not too much trouble, bag blueberries, strawberries, cherries, mango slices, or fresh pineapple or melon chunks for snack time.”

Brake for Breakfast
Even though mornings can leave many clients sprinting for the door, taking time to eat a balanced breakfast can enable easier healthy snacking choices. “If you have time, eat a balanced breakfast at home before coming to the office,” Brennan recommends to clients. “If you typically sleep in and skip breakfast, why not keep some healthy items in the office instead of stopping for a doughnut? Foods like instant oatmeal and walnuts, peanut butter and whole wheat toast, or low-fat cottage cheese and fruit are easy to store and prepare.”

Ken Fujioka, MD, director of the Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management in California, knows well the importance of this morning meal. “They can’t go into work hungry; that’s very important,” he says. “This is tough because a lot of people don’t eat breakfast. It’s been well known now and shown in a couple of studies that if you eat breakfast, you do better. So these people that are going to work and are going to be surrounded by unhealthy options need to make sure they’ve eaten something before they go in because if they go in hungry, [there’s a much greater chance that they’re] going to eat those [unhealthy options].”

Uncle Wally’s Smart Portion Muffins may be a good way to get clients to buckle down and eat breakfast. They are made with whole grains, are 99% fat free, and are an excellent source of fiber. Also, each proportioned package of muffins has only 80 calories and is perfect for clients looking for a healthier breakfast to go.

Packing Tips
If clients are unsure which packaging materials are best to use when gathering take-to-work snacks, Brennan says that sandwich baggies, plastic wrap, and foil work best for her. “Reusable glass containers save money and waste and can be safely used to reheat foods. There is some concern about chemicals leaking from plastics into foods,” she explains.

“How messy a container is, of course, depends on what’s packed in it, but I like to encourage everyone to use plastic reusable containers,” recommends Leman. She notes that they’re better for the environment by cutting down on waste, “and you don’t end up with broken, smashed food like when you pack lunch and snacks in plastic bags. However, if you’re heating up a snack, transfer the food to a glass container.”

Although Fujioka recommends standard sandwich bags for portioning out nuts or cut-up fruit, he offers an even easier option to avoid packing at all: “protein bars—very unmessy—and they come in handy if [you happen to be] driving somewhere [on the job].”

Brennan’s favorite time-saving tip is to pack snacks at home for the next day while preparing dinner. “You’re already in the kitchen, so why not get things together beforehand?” she asks. “If you leave things for the morning, you will most likely forget or be so rushed that you don’t have time to gather balanced items.”

And while pre-cut fruits and veggies are readily available at grocery stores, Houchins says cutting up produce the night before or a few days beforehand is another time-saver. “Also, if you buy dried fruits, nuts, or granola in bulk, portion out those items when you bring them home. This way they’ll be ready to go in your bag as you head out the door,” she says.

For clients who claim they have no time to prepack snacks, all-natural Honest Foods Country Squares may be an option. In four flavors, these individually packaged squares contain organic whole oats, dried fruits, savory nuts, and whole seeds.

Portion Sizes
Moderation is the key to healthy living, but this is especially true for workday snacking as smart portions should be emphasized to any client looking for snacking guidance. “For chips and crackers, check labels. Don’t sit down with the whole bag,” Brennan tells clients. “Instead, portion out foods beforehand into individual containers. This way you don’t overeat. Nuts are usually a small handful—1/4 cup is typically a 1-ounce portion size.”

“Household objects are good rules of thumb [for portioning], since most people don’t weigh their foods before eating or serving,” notes Houchins.

“Your palm is 1/4 cup, your thumb is about 1 tablespoon, and your palm can also be about 3 ounces of lean protein. You always carry your hand with you, so you might as well use it,” adds Jamieson-Petonic.

Davis recommends that clients start out by looking for preportioned products, such as the 100-calorie packs, and then move on to portioning their own food choices once they’ve gotten used to the amounts. “Other single-serving items can be easy as well, such as mozzarella cheese sticks, yogurt, cottage cheese, or light fruit in a cup. Many whole fruits are easy to wash and bring to be eaten without peeling or cutting up,” she says.

And while most RDs agree that both fresh and dried fruits are healthy options for weekday snacking, “portioning is very important here because it’s very easy to eat very high portions of dried fruit,” Fujioka says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that fresh fruit is still one of the healthiest options anyone can eat, but dried fruit is not that bad if someone can portion it out OK.”

Leman agrees: “Both dried and fresh fruit are healthy options, but because the calories are higher in dried fruit, keep an eye on the portion size (1/4 cup, or 4 tablespoons).”
“No limit on veggies and two fruits per day typically is a good rule of thumb for most people,” she adds about snack portion sizing in general. “For things like chips and crackers, stick with an ounce (what this translates to is normally listed on the package), 8-ounce cartons of yogurt, or one low-fat cheese stick to munch with the crackers.”

Out-of-the-Ordinary Options
When giving clients ideas for how to eat healthfully through the daily grind, unusual options such as sundried tomatoes or pomegranate seeds may be the trick to making healthy eating stick. Some sliced eggplant and squash dipped in 1/4 cup of hummus is one of Brennan’s favorite snacks.

Houchins offers up mini veggie/fruit/cheese kabobs: skewer sticks with clients’ favorite combos, packed ahead of time, which can be fun to eat and provide sweet, savory, and salty all on one stick. “We’re seeing more people incorporate dried vegetables into their snacking—for example, wasabi dried peas,” she adds. “Dried foods provide concentrated flavors, and the wasabi peas add a spicy kick.

“Pomegranate seeds are excellent for salads and entrées and could be snacked on if they’re extracted from the fruit ahead of time. They’re loaded with antioxidants but will also stain fingers,” so use a fork, adds Houchins.

Jicama is Fujioka’s go-to snack food when the afternoon doldrums hit. “It’s a funny vegetable that is grown in central Mexico; it’s almost a cross between an apple and something like a carrot, but it’s very unique and very tasty,” he says.

Junk Food Fixins
While high-fat chips and candy bars can sink any client’s efforts to eat healthy, there are ways to help clients get their junk food fix while staying away from too much fat. Brennan recommends advising clients to “look for chips that are baked, not fried, to limit fat. Also, try to find whole grain chips for increased fiber. Aim for a product with at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 30% of calories from fat.”

“Go for baked over fried, plain vs. nacho cheese, BBQ, sour cream and onion flavoring (lots of artificial ingredients used there), and the shorter the ingredient list for any snack food, the better,” says Leman.

While Houchins says junk food is junk food—no matter if it’s in calorie-control packs or is baked—she warns clients, “It is important to read the Nutrition Facts label for the serving size and understand that if someone is eating an entire package of junk food X, there’s a good chance they could be doubling or tripling their calories and fat.”
Jamieson-Petonic believes all foods can fit into a healthy diet if eaten in moderation and suggests baked or low-fat chips, baked tortilla chips, or low-fat pretzels to clients who are yearning for a salty snack. “I would look for snacks that are less than or equal to 150 calories per serving, and it goes without saying, but make sure you only eat one serving,” she says.

And if you’re deciding between two types of snack chips, “look for the ones with nutritional advantages. For example, chips made with heart-healthier oils such as sunflower and corn oil are high in the good mono[unsaturated] and polyunsaturated fats,” says Jaime Schwartz, MS, RD.

A tasty proportioned snack for the client who craves crunch may be the individually sized Stacy’s Pita Chips, which are baked, all-natural snack chips that have 0 grams of trans fat and 0 grams of cholesterol.

Or for the cracker-craving client who desires a gluten-free crunch, Mary’s Gone Crackers offers wheat-free and gluten-free snacks in five flavors.

Brewin’ Beverages
Although double caramel lattes may not be the best fix for a caffeine craving, Fujioka says coffee isn’t necessarily bad news for clients looking for lighter snacks. But clients may want to pay as close attention to when they drink as what they drink. “There is clearly a point for many of us who are very caffeine sensitive that if they have it any time after 11 am or 12 pm, they’re not going to sleep well,” explains Fujioka. “So [those] who don’t sleep well really need to be careful of their caffeine intake. But caffeine actually has some interesting properties for weight that are probably good, so if somebody’s trying to lose weight, it at least won’t hurt their weight loss and—if anything—it might help a bit.”

For those clients steering clear of the coffee bar, Brennan says, “Brew some herbal tea, bring some unsweetened iced tea, or add some lemon to sparkling water for flavor. Or put some raspberries or cucumber in a refrigerated water pitcher for a flavored ‘spa water.’”

For some bubbly at the desk, Houchins recommends clients choose lemon sparkling water instead of reaching for a sugary soda. “I find what I really crave is the carbonation vs. the sweetness of soda,” she says. “Teas are great alternatives to traditional coffee or soda, providing antioxidants and caffeine at the same time.”

“The nice thing about tea is that if it’s a hot day, make it and let it sit while you’re running around doing your job. [When] it gets cold, it still tastes good,” says Fujioka, noting research that touts green tea’s possible benefits for long-term health.

Tasty Tidbits
Much of healthy workplace snacking may rely on matching the perfect snack to the individual. Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, lists her favorite workday snacks as “yogurt, nuts and dried fruit, and Sabra’s Hummus To Go,” which she says is excellent as it is individually packed with pretzel crisps.

Be creative, says Neill, and healthy snacking can be a breeze. “Add evaporated skim milk to your coffee,” she says of any easy way to cut calories. “It has twice the nutrients in half the volume. And who wouldn’t enjoy a cold glass of skim milk with a squirt of chocolate syrup? Since milk has a low glycemic index, it may be just what you need to get you to the next meal.”

And although Pamela Gould, coauthor of Feeding the Kids: The Flexible, No-Battles, Healthy Eating System for the Whole Family, normally advises clients to shy away from the monthly staff birthday cake, she says clients should make a rule for themselves: “You will only eat staff-room treats that you actually love—the ones that score a 9 or a 10 on a scale of 0 to 10. If you don’t truly love that birthday cake, the remains from someone’s cookie exchange, or your coworkers’ leftover Halloween candy ... just say no.”

After all, Davis believes that aimless eating leads nowhere good. “Snacking should be purposeful,” she says. “We should snack to avoid overeating at our meals and/or to keep our metabolism working along with us during the day. If we are snacking out of boredom, loneliness, or stress, there is no food that will solve those problems. The answer lies somewhere else.”

“Think of snacks as being a part of your healthy nutritional intake for the day as opposed to apart from your healthy nutritional food intake for the day,” is how Skolnik explains the snacking conundrum to clients. “If snacks are good, wholesome foods, no worries about spoiling your appetite. In fact, appropriate and strategic snacking can help bridge the hunger gap between meals, keep you better focused and more productive, and help with health and weight goals.”

— Juliann Schaeffer is an editorial assistant at Today’s Dietitian.