When your kids feel ravenous before dinner, they raid the kitchen without a second thought. You, however, muster every ounce of willpower to avoid hand-to-mouth contact for fear of a serious case of nosher's remorse. But it's time to give in. Done right, snacking can help you avoid energy slumps, fill nutritional gaps in your diet and improve your weight-control efforts. "Thinner people are often nibblers," explains Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore and a Family Circle Health Advisory Board member. "The heavier you are, the more likely you are to have only one or two meals a day and not snack." In fact, if you eat smaller amounts throughout the day, you'll get a metabolic boost from digesting, processing and storing energy. That could add up to burning 90 extra calories daily on an 1,800-calorie diet. Get started with our expert advice on what (and when) to snack.
The Dos and Don'ts of Snacking
Do eat every three or so hours during the day. "This will help keep your blood sugar steady," Dr. Cheskin notes, which puts your energy, mood and concentration on an even keel. Another frequent-eater bonus: "Psychologically you won't feel deprived even if your meals are smaller," he adds.
Don't overdo it in the a.m. People who munched midmorning lost less weight than those who skipped a prelunch nibble, according to a recent study. Experts think this may have more to do with the snack being too close to lunchtime or simply adding too many calories. If you eat breakfast at 9 a.m. and lunch at noon, for example, a snack's not necessary.
Do include the right mix of nutrients. Ideally, a daytime snack should contain a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates—in a 200- to 300-calorie portion—for sustained energy and satiety.
Don't wing it with portions. Put your munchies in a bowl or on a plate. "If you eat out of a large bag or box, you won't see how much you're consuming, which can lead to excess calorie intake," says Jackie Newgent, R.D., a culinary nutritionist in Brooklyn and author of Big Green Cookbook (Wiley).
Do sit down, chew slowly and enjoy. Taking time to focus on a snack's tastes and textures helps your brain register that you've eaten and helps you stop after an appropriate amount, suggests Keri Gans, R.D., a nutritionist in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet (Pocket Books).
Don't think of it as an indulgence. "We need to get over the notion that snacks should be cookies and treat kinds of foods," says Lona Sandon, R.D., an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A between-meals nibble should be peanut butter-dabbed apple slices, not a piece of chocolate cake.
Do eat when you're not famished. If you've got five hours in between meals, think of these pick-me-ups as a preemptive strike against a growling stomach later in the day, advises Gans. "It will help you avoid overeating at your next meal," she says.
Don't snack spontaneously. Plan ahead instead. "When you go out searching for food when you're hungry, what you often get is calorie-dense and nutrient-poor," warns Katherine Tallmadge, R.D., owner of Personalized Nutrition in Washington, D.C., and author of Diet Simple (LifeLine Press).