Healthy, cost-conscious snacks

By Mir
June 9, 2006

Hey! I have my first question, submitted by none other than the lovely Karen Rani of Troll Baby Graphics. Do you see how she gives and gives? Not only coming up with this rockin’ site design (if I do say so, myself), but then jumping right in with a question like that? I had no idea that was included in the site design fee. Whatta woman!

Anyway, Karen wrote me:

Here’s one for you: Grocery budgets – dude…..snacks for lunches cost SO much….I could go on forever. Healthy food costs way more than crap food and organic is outta control!

Karen does not mess around, people. Karen goes straight for my Achilles heel. *deep breath* This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and it’s taking most of my energy at this moment to refrain from shaking my fist in the air while I answer it.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, my Achilles heel of organic foods not yet being affordable enough for the average family. That’s a complex issue in and of itself, and something that I get all hot and bothered about, and I could go on and on and on and at the end you’d still be all, Um, ooookay then, but, uh, I was kind of hoping you would just say “granola bars.”

So, circumventing the organics debate for the time being, let’s talk produce. Fruits and veggies are obvious choices for healthy snacks. Organic is good, yes; local is even better (again, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion). But you want to talk budget? Buy in season.

It sounds simple because it is. But my kids will only eat grapes! someone shouts from the back. And grapes are $2.89/pound sometimes! Well, yeah. Not only are some fruits going to be prohibitively expensive at certain times of the year, chances are they’re not going to taste all that good, either. Fresh, local produce almost always tastes better than stuff flown in from halfway around the world, if only by the very nature of the stress on the product from being handled and shipped. This is particularly true of delicate fruits, like berries.

My daughter would happily down her weight in strawberries three times a day, if I let her. Not only can we not afford to buy strawberries in the winter, they taste awful then. AWFUL. Why bother?

Here’s how we do it, when it comes to produce: There are certain “snacky” produce items I buy all year round. Baby carrots, celery, and bananas? We always have those on hand. (Bananas break the local and in-season rules, because they are cheap and can be shipped green without resulting in fruit that tastes like styrofoam.) My kids are pretty good about enjoying a bag of raw veggies, particularly if I include a small container of ranch dressing for dipping. Other veggies I’ll pack for that—depending on price/availability—include green beans, peapods, red and green peppers, jicama, and grape tomatoes.

In the fall and winter we eat a lot of apples and pears. In the summer we support the watermelon and berry industries. Any time seedless grapes are $.99/pound, I buy them. Fruit is something where I’m cost-conscious but I consider it a necessity. There’s always something available that I’m willing to buy. And for backup, yes, you’ll always find raisins, craisins, applesauce, and fruit cups in my pantry (purchased on special, natch).

[And don’t bother telling me your kid “doesn’t like” fruits and veggies. I’m the proud parent of the Formerly World’s Pickiest Eater, and that whole child psychology thing about having to present a food 30 times before it’s accepted is completely true. I could probably pay off my mortgage with the money I would’ve saved if I hadn’t spent years packing my son snacks and lunches that went directly into the trash. I never force my kids to eat anything, but I do offer foods over and over (and over and over and over)… and often, they eventually buckle. Isn’t that our job, as parents? To bend and break their little wills? Ahem.]

So that’s fruits and veggies.

There are plenty of other healthy options which probably go on special at your local store with some sort of regularity.

  • When the 82-pound bag of individually wrapped string cheeses goes on sale, I buy it.
  • I always have whole grain crackers on hand (again, stock up during a sale), and those are good with a slice of cheese, or a smear of cream cheese, or peanut butter (peanut butter is the cheapest of that family of spreads, but if you have a nut-allergic child, try sunflower butter for a palatable substitute).
  • Graham crackers come in about forty different shapes and flavors, nowadays, and as long as you recognize and are okay with the fact that really, they’re cookies (in other words, don’t go thinking this is a fabulous healthy option), that’s not a bad choice.
  • I giant pink puffy heart Robert’s American Gourmet snacks, and often buy them by the case (on sale, with free shipping). This product line is an awesome example of a healthy approximation of popular junk food (the tings, for example, taste just like cheetos) at an affordable price. Love love LOVE this company.
  • I’ll confess to buying processed “bar” snacks, even though I know they’re not the greatest choice, health-wise. In my defense, I do try to make a special pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s every so often, as they carry the versions lowest in fat, sugar, and chemicals likely to pickle the kids’ spleens. We like fruit cereal bars and granola bars. If I can’t get to TJ’s? I wait for a sale at the regular grocery store.
  • Remember how I mentioned that you can freeze baked goods? I haven’t baked a regular-sized muffin in eons. I bake dozens upon dozens of mini-muffins and freeze them, and they can be plucked from the freezer two or three at a time and popped into lunchbags (where they’ll be defrosted and ready to eat by snacktime). Overripe bananas (and I dunno about your house, but no matter how many I buy, there are always a few left in the basket, weeping quietly and turning black) render even the healthiest batter base kid-friendly. I use a conventional recipe and substitute quick oats for half the flour, or I use oat bran flour, or I fling off my metaphorical Birkenstocks and let down my imaginary hair and add chocolate chips once in a blue moon. The kids also adore my pumpkin recipe, and have even been known to enjoy the zucchini-carrot version. Listen: You acclimate them to the mini-muffin, and chances are they’ll eat anything baked into that shape. It’s all marketing, baby!
  • It’s actually pretty easy to make your own granola, but even if that doesn’t appeal to you, make your own trail mix! Mix a couple of favorite whole-grain cereals (which you bought on sale) with mini-pretzels, your dried fruit(s) of choice, and healthy crackers. This has the additional benefit of sparking family conversation—which as we all know promotes togetherness—via the “But so-and-so’s mom puts M&Ms in hers! No fair!” gambit.
  • Eggs. Eggs?? Yes, eggs. Hard-boiled eggs! They’re cheap, they’re nutritionally dense, and I have it on good authority that cracking one on your head makes you very popular amongst the under-10 set.
  • Think outside the box. If you (or your kids) like it, pack it! It doesn’t have to be something inherently snackish. My son will eat a sliver of cold pizza… my daughter will down a container of whole wheat couscous (healthy and about $.20/serving). Leftovers make great snacks even if it’s not something you would normally think about for a snack.

A quick word on beverages: Never, ever, ever, EVER buy juice boxes unless they’re on sale. Or if you do, don’t tell me about it. That’s a crime against nature. The best option, of course, is to get your kids excited about water (having a cool sports bottle helps), and the second-best option is to pour juice from a large container into a portable single-serving container. I do hype the water, but I shall now duck the (organic) tomatoes of the environmentalists and say that I never use a thermos or other vessel for packing juice. I’ve just never found one that doesn’t leak, and the only thing worse than sticky juice residue all over a lunchbox is if the kid drinks the juice and then pukes.

Juice boxes/pouches which are nothing more than colored sugar-water are always much cheaper than actual juice. Look… you have to do what works for your family. Personally, I feel that if I’m going to allow my kids the sugar of fruit juice (and there’s a lot of sugar in even all-natural juice), I want it to have a smidge of redeeming nutritional value. I only buy juice boxes that contain actual juice and nothing else. They are more expensive. But they have a pretty good shelf life, so I stock up when they’re on super-special.

I hope that gives you a few ideas, Karen. If not? Well, the whole “there are children in other countries who are STARVING and would be GRATEFUL for that snack!” thing is always a winner.


  1. Damn you’re good. When can I pimp you out on my blog? Other Moms need you. Stat.

  2. You rawk. If it weren’t a bazillion degrees here RIGHT NOW, I would be in the kitchen, whipping up mini-muffins. MINI-MUFFINS! Why didn’t I think of that?

  3. You do rock!

    My kids only drink water. Yea water!

  4. That was a great article! I so agree, and you have such a way with words 😉 I have never seen couscous before… wonder in which aisle I could locate that in my wallyworld?

  5. GREAT snack ideas…nutritionally sound, inexpensive, and you aren’t paying good money for chemicals and PACKAGING! As a Navy wife stationed in Japan, I hear a lot of complaints from other spouses about the lack of this or that in the commissary, or the incredible expense of something else. I shop for most things, especially produce, in the local Japanese stores. If it’s in season (and not one of those $30 “gift melons”!!) it’s cheap and delicious. Kumquats and loquats anyone?

    I have to pack snacks as well as lunch (and sometimes breakfast) for my husband–otherwise, he does the “Mountain Dew and a Snickers” thing at work–bad for the budget, bad for the waistline, bad all around. I’ve got a bunch of little reusable containers, and two inexpensive bento boxes (eBay!) Leftovers are great, grapes and string cheese, beef jerky (lasts forever, only bought on serious sale, watch the sodium content),turkey pepperoni (ditto), apples or celery with peanut butter, oatmeal (quick oats and boiling water, poured into a thermal coffee mug the night before = perfectly cooked, high-fiber oatmeal…not that slimy, fiber-free, high-sugar instant mess). He likes oatmeal with brown sugar. I prefer it with turkey pepperoni mixed in, as a savory dish. It’s high protein, high-fiber, and low-fat. Think of it like any other savory grain dish (wild rice, barley, quinoa etc.)

    Another money-saver–produce that’s getting old is often half-price. I don’t like old apples, but old bananas are great for baking (as you’ve mentioned) and slightly wrinkled bell peppers roast beautifully–once they’re roasted and skinned, store ’em in the fridge with some olive oil. They last a good long time and are delicious in sandwiches, slivered on salads, chopped in pasta dishes, etc.

    I’ll hush now. Consider yourself bookmarked!

  6. Here’s a tip for cutting up whole watermelons or cantalope: Use an electric knife to cut the rind off before slicing into the fruit. The electric knife is SO much easier to use and makes the job fast and less messy. Cut one end so that it’s flat, set the fruit with the flat side on the counter so it doesn’t roll around, and cut the rest of the rind off. Then simply cut the rind-less yumminess into whatever size slices or cubes you want!

    Mir, your new site ROCKS MY FRIDGE!

  7. Great ideas!

    Frozen grapes are a good snack alternative to popsicles (for kids a bit older that you trust not to choke). I buy lots of grapes when they are on sale, and freeze some.

    Could you share your cost-conscious and healthy mini muffin recipies?

  8. Delurking to mention that shopping at a Farmer’s Market (if you have one in your area) can really stretch your food dollars also. Produce is a given but many have meats, herbs, pastry, breads, pasta, cheap flip flop shoes, sunglasses, etc., etc.

  9. A handy trick is to use the leftover juice from the cut up pineapple, mandarin oranges and other canned fruit for homemade popsicles. Also, getting old strawberries are great mashed and in a bowl with a sprinkling of sugar – delicious!

  10. We make our own chewy granola bars. They are insanely cheap, and can be tailored to the tastes and preferences of your family. We usually add almonds, dried cranberries and a very small amount of chocolate chips. I also add ground flax seeds, wheat germ and oats – a ton of healthy stuff, and the kids have no clue.
    Next year I’m going to try to make my very own pizza lunchables. My daughter asked for the store-bought kind, but that is not happening. I’m going to make pizza dough, shape it into two-inch rounds, bake it and freeze. I’ll then pop a couple of ’em into the lunchbox with a small container of tomato sauce and a small container of grated mozzarella.

  11. Dude, I SO miss Trader Joe’s. Frozen food that actually is edible. Sniff….

    Anyway, I’m struggling bigtime with the lunch issue, not just the snacky bit but the lunch itself. Peanutbutter used to be our standby, but nothing that has remotely occupied airspace within ten kilometers of a nut is allowed in my daughter’s school, because you never know who will share what. This makes my lunchbox life sheer hell, as my kid hates sandwiches out of anything but peanutbutter…so we’re doing the leftover shuffle and trying to make up for it with decent snacks. Thanks for the good ideas…I totally forgot I had a minimuffin pan….

    The mini pizza lunchables. You so rock. I’m off to find bulk yeast.

  12. Blog-surfing here. Pizza luncheables, I do these! I make bread dough in my bread machine, adding chopped turkey pepperoni and shredded cheese. Bake in breadstick shapes, or roll out flat and score with pizza cutter, then break apart after baking. Pack in lunch with a tiny container of pizza or spaghetti sauce and some extra shredded cheese. My kids LOVE these!

  13. When you say whole grain crackers, what brands do you buy? I am diabetic, i am trying to buy whole grain crackers, ones with a good fiber content, not only for me but the kids too, since i buy bread with fiber already,and you can look at the whole goshdarned cracker section and come up with “stone grain crackers” “stoneground crackers”, “wholegrain crackers”, etc and all of the buggers have >1 gm of fiber for a serving, which always makes me mad. So what brands do you end up with?

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