Snacks may be the opening act for main meals, but oftentimes they steal the show – and not always in a good way. Any parent knows that a badly timed afternoon snack can derail dinner. And, glued to my laptop screen, I’ve certainly mindlessly snacked myself into a food coma before realising…
Having said that, snacks are an important, and healthy, part of a balanced diet. As long as we’re snacking on the right things – and no, that doesn’t mean a chocolate bar labelled ‘snack size’, sadly.
Healthy snacking is author Flip Shelton’s area of expertise. The mum of one has just released her third recipe book, Smart Snacks, brimming with over 100 quick, easy and nutritious snacks to boost mood, energy and brain power. We spoke to Flip about the best easy snack choices, what to reach for when you’re snack shopping, and how to sneak those all-important veggies into innocent-looking recipes.
Smart Snacks is out now, and available here
Your latest book is all about snacks. What are some of the pitfalls families get caught out by when choosing or preparing snacks?
I think the first pitfall is that we have out-sourced our snacks, and in doing so handed over our health to the big multi-national food businesses with large advertising and marketing budgets, who are more interested in their bottom line than ours. Anything that comes in a lovely bright, crinkly packet is going to have added salts, fats and sugar and probably a few number ingredients. These businesses have redefined what a snack means, and we have been seduced into believing them. Research tells us we are eating larger snacks, more snacks, more often…and that I believe is contributing to our state of health.
The second pitfall is that many of us don’t give snacks due consideration. We think of snacks as an incidental food item when they are actually as critical as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chose unwisely and you can unleash mental and physical mayhem! Research now shows that food – and drinks – no matter how small, have a huge impact on us mentally and physically.
The third pitfall is the busy-ness of family life. We are all busy juggling parenting, work, family, friends, home, school, sporting and community commitments and so when we are stretched, tired or hungry (and thirsty!) we don’t always make the best decisions. What can be really helpful is batch cooking our snacks so we are good to go for the week, for those trips in the car, and when people unexpectedly arrive on our doorstep. I always make a double batch of snacks on a Sunday, pop them in the fridge and freezer, and so I am organised and have maximised the use of my time.
What makes a great snack?
Something that contains only a few ingredients, is simple to whip up, and is nourishing. Oh, and of course it has to be delicious.
What are your go-to, kid-friendly snacks when they're asking for something sweet?
My 10-year old son’s favourite sweet treat is ‘his’ cacao balls. They are his signature snack and he has been making them with me and now by himself for years. It combines nature’s sweet ingredients – medjool dates, coconut and cacao. It also has the naturally warming cinnamon spice, and combined together (along with walnuts and chia seeds) this tastes so delicious and decadent. My Choco-nana Smoothie satisfies and nourishes. Frozen banana is the key ingredient here because it gives the smoothie a lovely thick creamy texture. Then load it up with cacao, and a milk of your choice. Blend all the ingredients together for an irresistible sweet treat.
If we're caught out and about without snacks on hand, what's your pick that we can usually purchase easily?
More often than not, there is always a grocer or supermarket nearby given they buy up the best real estate in town and are always in the main street and usually have car parking. So whip into a supermarket – send the kids around to the free fruit section and then grab some air popped popcorn or some crunchy rice cakes. They are not full of nutrition, but then they are not bad enough to cause carnage. Sushi is also a great substantial snack, and good value too.
What's your never-fail weeknight meal?
Well that depends on the time of year and my energy levels! For something really quick and easy, my three tin TINphony (get it – symphony in a tin!) is a winner. In a large saucepan, I gently sauté some onions and garlic in olive oil until translucent, then add a tin of drained and rinsed black beans (loaded with plant based protein and fibre), a tin of drained and rinsed corn kernels, one large tin of tomatoes, and stir until gently burbling on the stove top. Add some mild chili powder (for little tastebuds), salt and pepper. I love to add some smoked paprika or a whole dried chipotle for a lovely smoky depth of flavour. Then stir through plenty of fresh, well washed (as it can be a little gritty), chopped coriander – roots and all – and serve on a bed of brown rice with some smashed avo dolloped on top. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice makes this dish sing, but is optional for the kids as some don’t love this flavour.
What's your favourite way to sneak veggies into a meal?
Smoothies are a great way to sneak veggies into a meal or snack. I put in small amounts of baby spinach leaves, zucchini, even left over steamed broccoli into a smoothie as none of these have overpowering tastes that will effect the smoothie. Always start small when conducting a sneak attack, to avoid any detection, then slowly increase the volume to where you want to be. Banana Bread is a great way to hide (grated) zucchini, home made tomato sauce can hide (grated) carrot and red pepper, while Carrot Cake hides finely chopped yellow capsicum, which often goes undetected because it adds a lovely sweetness to the cake. My Chocolate Brownie recipe hides sweet potato. One other tip is to slowly roast the veggies to bring out their natural sweetness, which might make the veggie more appealing. Sweet potato, carrots, parsnips and tomatoes are fabulous to do this way.
Do you have a simple 'food philosophy' or a general rule about what makes a good family diet?
I have a number of food philosophies I subscribe to but for a ‘good family diet’ I would say ‘eat the rainbow’ because everyone can understand that, as it’s such a visual phrase. It simply means to choose a wide variety of colours and then create your salad, minestrone, pasta sauce or hot pot, sandwich, pizza or fruit stick with that in mind – and it’s something the kids can do too.
What are some easy recipes you can make with your children?
The thing about food preparation and cooking is that there is something for everyone to do and enjoy, whatever their age. Little ones can sit in a safe spot with a good vantage point and crack eggs or knead dough, or assemble some utensils if they are in a safe drawer. Older kids can measure out or weigh wet and dry ingredients, teenagers can cut ingredients, use hand held beaters and food processors – and everyone can do a little to tidy up and wash.
Cooking is such a tactile activity and a great way to spend time together, so I always say yes when Harvey wants to make something. I feel that if he wants to cook, then I will always make sure it happens to encourage his love of cooking and eating!
Smoothies are a fabulous thing to make together. Pop a selection of fruits and veggies out on the bench and let the kids choose what they want. My general rule of thumb is 1 part veg, 2 parts fruit, 3 parts water. Research tells us that children who are involved in the cooking process are more likely to eat the food they have made. And they will have a greater appreciation of the food itself.
How do you approach special occasions like Easter or birthdays when it comes to food - do you let the kids run wild or try to find healthy alternatives to the traditional chocolate or cake?
That has changed over time. When Harvey was really young, I didn’t allow him to have any chocolate or sweets and he wasn’t really aware of what he was supposedly missing out on. Grandparents and cousins were the ones to give him chocolate, and when they did I limited the amount he would eat and I made that ‘normal.’ I never made it an emotional conversation, rather an explanation as to how foods impact the body and brain. I explained that chocolate and confectionary is something to be consumed on occasions, not daily.
Now that he is older, he can make decisions what to eat when he goes to parties and for the most part he is very balanced with his choices but I will never get cross with him if he doesn’t eat as I would want (even though inside I might be appalled!). When we host a birthday party, I always have his choice of cake, then healthy treats like popcorn, small portions of jelly, fruit on a stick, home made icy poles, and I set the table with loads of colourful plates and serviettes etc. The reality is, kids just want to have fun when they get together for a party – so amp them up with activities and watch them run wild – naturally!