Friday, March 11, 2011

Healthful snacks can be good for you and your budget

At our house, it’s not uncommon for our children to be eating one meal and already asking about what I’m serving for the next one. And my family’s food-centric ways aren’t limited to meals. Snacks are supremely important, too—even for the baby who doesn’t yet talk but who pounds on her highchair when she’s hungry between meals.

With four children, who each eat at least two snacks a day, I’m serving up a minimum of 56 snacks a week. Providing this many snacks stretches my creativity—and my budget. An extra challenge is providing healthy snacks that don’t require a lot to time to prepare. (Serving 56 snacks over the course of a week already takes a significant amount of time.)

Though the kids moon over blue yogurt in tubes and little boxed lunches with cheese and crackers, we try to avoid prepackaged (and expensive) snacks like these. Instead, we try to focus on giving them whole foods—although to be honest, they aren’t exactly gobbling up celery and carrot sticks when I serve them.

To help us keep our budget in check and to encourage the kids to eat more healthy foods, popcorn has become our go-to snack. I simply heat a tablespoon or two of canola oil in my 8-quart stock pot and drop in a half-cup of popcorn kernels. I put the lid on and stick close to the stove, shaking the pan on the burner when the popping begins to slow.

In less than five minutes, I have a bowl of warm popcorn that costs about 25 cents to make. Even drizzled with butter and a little salt, homemade popcorn is far cheaper than any microwave popcorn—and much better for us.

Popcorn also lends itself to many easy additions. These include dried cranberries, a tablespoon of apple or pumpkin pie spice, a few tablespoons of powdered sugar mixed with a little cocoa, freshly grated parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning, cinnamon and sugar, mini chocolate chips and—our current favorite—a few handfuls of mini marshmallows. Dropping the marshmallows on warm popcorn makes it taste like a popcorn ball, without any of the work.

Fruit and yogurt smoothies are another household favorite that meet the criteria of inexpensive and healthy fare. I scoop up past-their-prime bananas when my local grocery store discounts them to 25 cents a pound and store them in the freezer in their skins until I’m ready to use them.

When I need to prepare a quick snack, I defrost a banana long enough so that I can remove its skin. I drop it, along with a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt, into the blender. Sometimes I add other frozen fruit or fruit that needs to be used up, with a little honey or raw sugar. Smoothies are flexible enough that I’m generally able to use what I have on hand. Last time I made them, in fact, I even dropped in some spinach, which was stealthily camouflaged by the blueberries I added.

When my own ideas for snacks run low, I can turn to sites online for a wealth of healthful snack ideas. The Mayo Clinic site, for example, suggests stringing chunks of fruit on wooden skewers to make fruit kebabs. Parents magazine’s site touts cheese as an excellent snack, and suggests serving chunks of it to children on “skewers” of pretzel sticks. Or, if your children are reluctant to eat fruits and vegetables, Parents’ site recommends preparing zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

With a little imagination, snack time can be fun, delicious and budget-friendly for you and your children.

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