banana-quesadillaEating three balanced meals a day without snacks is no longer the norm—and definitely not the way most of us prefer to eat. So what about those snacks? Can indulging actually be healthier than forgoing them?

“Absolutely,” says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of a number of books on healthy living, including Eat Your Way to Happiness. “In fact, studies show that people who spread their intake into little meals and snacks throughout the day have an easier time managing their weight and even controlling risks for heart disease and diabetes. Of course, this doesn’t mean you add additional foods to your normal diet but rather that you spread your intake more evenly. For example, have the salmon-topped spinach salad for lunch but save the piece of French bread and apple for a midafternoon snack.”

Lisa Cain, PhD, an author and creator of a popular blog on healthy snacks (Snack-Girl.com), agrees:

“Snacking happens! It would be great if we could all stick to three meals a day, but people find themselves in situations where they can’t sit down and eat.” Make your snacks mini meals, she adds, “instead of chips or another high-calorie, lownutrient density snack.”roasted-cauliflower

Cain says it’s key to realize how often you snack as opposed to eating mindlessly, so she encourages her blog followers to make mindful choices that provide good, heart-healthy nutrition.

Of course, we all love the convenience of packaged snacks, but that comes at a price. “Packaged snacks are very tricky because what’s on the front of the packages may not reflect the nutritional facts on the back of the packages,” says Cain. Her top five favorite buy-and-go snacks are boxes of SunMaid raisins and SunSweet dried plums (individually wrapped prunes), Dr. Kracker crackers, Van’s frozen waffles, KIND bars, and Peeled Snacks (delicious dried fruit in single-serving packs)

Somer’s advice for snacking? Plan your mini meals so they supply at least one colorful fruit or vegetable plus one of the following: a whole grain, a low-fat milk product, legumes, nuts, or lean meat. Aim for fewer than 3 grams of fat and fewer than 30 grams of carbohydrates per serving.

“Snacks should not supply more than about 200 to 250 calories, depending on how active you are. The more you exercise, the more calories can your snack can contain,” Somer says.

Pumping up the heart-health value in snacks is easy. “Get omega-3 DHA into your diet,” Somer says. “Try a slice of smoked salmon on crackers or foods fortified with a vegetarian-based DHA, such as a Mission Life Balance tortilla with black beans or a glass of Silk soy milk with DHA and an orange.”

Other easy options include the following:angeled-eggs
  • peanut butter on a slice of whole grain bread and a bunch of red grapes;
  • plain nonfat yogurt with blueberries and a sprinkling of granola;
  • a mango topped with lime juice with a glass of soy milk with DHA;
  • white beans marinated in lemon juice, garlic, fresh sage, and a dash of olive oil served on a slice of French bread;
  • one small slice of vegetarian pizza piled with fresh tomatoes with a glass of sparkling water;
  • one slice of lean ham, a few 100% whole grain crackers such as Triscuits, and a 6-ounce glass of orange juice;
  • half a cantaloupe filled with lemon yogurt and sprinkled with lemon zest;
  • a tortilla with DHA, filled with fat-free cream cheese, dried tart cherries, and cranberry chutney;
  • half a whole wheat pita filled with low-fat feta cheese, olive tapenade, diced tomatoes, and cucumbers; andraisins
  • baby carrots and sliced red bell peppers dipped in hummus.
Or you can try these heart-healthy recipes from Snack-Girl.com.