It feels like we’ve all hit peak snacking culture. Some of the hottest food brands out there exclusively specialize in healthy snacks (can we talk about RX’s nut butter squeeze packs for a hot sec?). Starbucks’ checkout line offerings essentially forecast what the next “it” snack will be (ahem, Perfect Bar).
With the plethora of choice available in the grocery store aisles comes a bit of confusion about what really constitutes a “healthy” snack. After all, health-washing is rampant in the food industry. Instead of pacing around center aisles trying to suss out a legit good-for-you option, or staring at the random things in your fridge and feeling unsure about how you want to put them together, we talked to a few RDs to get their five essential rules to follow when buying or making a snack. You’ll never feel stumped (or hangry) again.
1. Protein first
“Because I want my snack to work harder for me and hold me over to the next meal I want it to have 10-15 grams of protein and around 250 calories,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD, and blogger at Once Upon a Pumpkin.
If shopping for a packaged snack, that’s pretty easy to look for on the label. When DIY-ing it, Michalczyk says an easy way to go about it is to always pair produce with protein to ensure you’re getting enough—think an apple with two tablespoons almond butter, unsweetened yogurt, or a serving of nuts or seeds. Michalczyk personally likes to go for crackers and hummus.
2. Fill up on fiber
“I always like to see a snack with an impressive amount of protein and fiber because those are the two nutrients that help to curb hunger. Plus, foods that are rich in protein and fiber tend to also be proportionately lower in refined carbs and added sugars,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
Look for however much you can get—Harris-Pincus and Michalczyk recommend at least three to give grams per serving. “Since the recommended daily intake of fiber for women is 25 grams, one snack would cover about 20 percent of your goal for the day,” says Harris-Pincus.
Look for choices like roasted broad beans, chickpeas, or soy nuts for simple sources of protein and fiber, and if choosing an energy bar, look at that label before taking one home, Harris-Pincus says.
Looking for more RD-approved snacks? These are the best protein bars on the market, ranked:
3. Limit added sugars
Packaged snacks are a notorious source of added sugars, which aren’t good for you. “The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 24 grams—six teaspoons—per day for women and 36 grams—9 teaspoons—per day for men,” says Harris-Pincus. (This does not refer to naturally occurring sugar in fruit, dairy, and other whole foods.)
“I try to keep my snacks to less than five grams of added sugar,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD. “I think it’s really important to distribute your added sugar intake evenly throughout the day so you don’t spike your blood sugar all at once. Plus, if a snack has a ton of added sugar, it’s more likely a dessert than a healthy snack,” she adds.
“Watch out for ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, which usually indicates a super highly processed product with a significant amount of sugar,” Harris-Pincus adds. Added sugar likes to hide under a variety of names, so scan that ingredient list carefully. “Other less obvious names for sugar include dextrin, honey, hydrogenated starch, invert sugar, rice malt, nectars, molasses, polyols, and sorghum,” says Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN.
4. Look for simple, whole-foods ingredients
When checking the snack label, our experts all agree that you want ingredients that are simple and easily identifiable. “I like to try to eat whole foods as much as possible, and I think there are a lot of healthy snack options out there that utilize whole ingredients now,” says Rizzo. “That means, I look for snacks that have a shot list of ingredients that I can understand,” she says. For instance, Rizzo likes KIND bars because the first few ingredients are different types of nuts, rather than strange oils, sugars, and other terms that you cannot pronounce.
You should also keep your eyes out for hidden forms of bad additives. “I avoid snacks with any form of hydrogenated oil on the label. I also look out for artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and aspartame,” says Schapiro.
5. Be mindful of snack size
“Not everyone looks at calories anymore, but I like to because it’s how I distinguish between a snack and a meal,” says Rizzo. “For snacks, I try to stay below 250 to 300 calories because I think that’s enough calories to fill me up for an hour or two until my next meal,” she says. So make sure that your snack is less than what you’d eat at lunch or dinner—that way, you’ll be full but not too full, you know?
Ready to put the rule of five in practice? Check out these delicious, minimally-processed packaged snacks. And consider these expert-approved snacks the next time you feel hangry.