We do it in the car, on the train, in front of the TV, on the phone, and even in bed. For too many of us, snacking has become so automatic that our brains barely register the hand-to-mouth motion. And it’s not as if we’re all reaching for diet-friendly apples: A study from the University of North Carolina found that most of us eat nearly 600 calories a day—roughly a third of our food—in snacks rather than meals. Here’s how to get control of six common snacking situations.
1. Don’t snack at night.
Start with a breakfast that’s really satisfying—like steel-cut oats, eggs, or Greek yogurt. Then at lunch, combine healthy carbs, protein, and fat. And truly savor your treats. Dean Ornish, MD, the author of The Spectrum, recommends a “chocolate meditation.” Take a single piece of the best chocolate you can find and let it dissolve slowly in your mouth, paying attention to the complex flavors. You’ll get more pleasure with fewer calories.
2. Don’t nosh while you cook.
“Planning is key,” says Patricia Bannan, RD, the author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight. Before you get home, eat something light and nourishing to tide you over. If you’re starving while you cook, munch on raw veggies such as sugar snap peas—not that bag of chips in the cupboard. Set yourself up for success by knowing meals you can cook quickly, such as frozen veggies with a rotisserie chicken and microwaveable brown rice.
3. Keep healthy snacks in the car.
Preempt unrestrained noshing by packing portable snacks that are calorie-controlled, such as small bags of cashews, an apple, or one of these high protein portable snacks. Even half of a PB&J on whole wheat will do the trick. And if those fries from the drive-thru are still calling out to you, change your route. “Drive home via another route so you won’t pass your favorite fast-food restaurants,” says Janna L. Fikkan, PhD, a health psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC. “It doesn’t have to be the shortest way home, as long as you avoid the drive-thru.”
4. Keep a food (and snack) diary.
Keep a log of your daily activities, including every time you get up to eat. Chances are, once you see how often you’re indulging, you’ll be shamed into cutting back. If you still feel the need to snack, eat at the kitchen table—and don’t do anything else. Without the distraction of the computer, TV, or newspaper, you’ll be much more aware of how often you eat out of habit rather than hunger. A diary is also an excellent way to keep track of your workouts.
5. Steer clear of office snacks and vending machines.
Launch a counteroffensive by bringing in healthy snacks—say, tamari-roasted almonds or dark chocolate—that you actually prefer to the junk in the vending machine. Knowing that these treats are tucked away will give you the strength to resist the disastrous potato chips or empty-calorie candy bars. If you know ahead of time that you won’t be able to leave your desk at noon, brown-bag it for lunch. With healthy fare within arm’s reach, you won’t need to raid your colleague’s candy jar.
6. Avoid snacking on kids’ foods.
Ditch the kiddie foods, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, the author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. These highly processed foods are digested in no time, leaving you wanting more. “Family-friendly snacks should include low-calorie foods that are high in water or fiber and aren’t loaded with fat,” she says. Try no-fuss fruits like grapes or berries—or fix some air-popped popcorn sprinkled with a bit of Parmesan.