How to Snack Smarter

A peach, low-fat cheese, and a piece of dark chocolate

Three squares a day? That’s old thinking. The new way to stay lean, conquer cravings, and get all your daily nutrients is to master the mini meal.

Like the buddy system and afternoon naps, snack time fell out of your life in the first grade. From then on, you were taught not to "ruin" your supper―or waistline―with between-meal snacks, only to resort to energy bars (well, candy bars) in your weakest moments (say, 4 p.m.). But holding out for dinner isn’t going to earn you a gold star. Snacking is, in fact, an ingenious move if you nosh knowledgeably. Here, experts explain the benefits of nibbling and share their favorite delicious and, yes, healthy snacks.
 
 

Why It Makes Sense to Snack

1. It keeps your metabolism humming.
"Research suggests that, like a charge for a battery, eating about three meals a day with two or three snacks in between can make your metabolism more efficient," says Stephen Gullo, a psychologist and a weight-control specialist in New York City. This, in turn, aids in weight maintenance and even weight loss. "Snacking can help your body burn a few calories," he says. Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian in New York City and the author of The Snack Factor Diet ($13, amazon.com), suggests thinking of your metabolism as a fire in your belly that you turn on every morning. "A little food is the fuel you throw into the fire to keep it burning strong," she says. "For some people, that means stoking it every 2½ hours; for others, it’s every 3½ hours." The point is never to let your energy wane or to go without a bite for so long that you get very hungry.
 
 2. It helps you eat less at mealtimes.
"You’re much better off having two snacks between the hours of two and seven, then having a light dinner," says Sara Ryba, a registered dietitian in Scarsdale, New York. "If you wait until you’re so ravenous that you would eat the kitchen table, you’ll wind up eating way more calories when you do finally sit down for supper." Experts suggest choosing a snack that has roughly 100 to 200 calories (a meal should start at about 300). Make sure it fills you up (to stop you from decimating the bread basket when dinnertime arrives) with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. "Together they stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you feeling satisfied," Ryba says. "If a snack is high in refined carbs or sugar, your blood sugar will jump, then crash, leaving you feeling tired and even more hungry."
 
Another way to ensure that a snack tides you over: Make it feel like a small meal, with multiple components. Experts suggest that if a dieter is given a 100-calorie snack that mimics a meal, such as shrimp cocktail or soup and a bran cracker, versus an apple, she is more likely to feel much more satisfied and less hungry. (Find more low-calorie snacks here.) One good choice that covers all these bases is low-fat cottage cheese and berries. The cheese contains fat and protein, and the berries have carbohydrates. Or you could opt for a single food that contains all three elements, such as low-fat yogurt. (It’s best to buy your yogurt plain and sweeten it yourself, using a little honey, some fruit, fruit preserves, or a dab of apple butter.)