Guilt-free pleasures: healthy snacks for stress eating

By Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Is COVID-19 stressing you out?

Me, too.

I know that to be a fact, and not just because I’m having trouble sleeping and feel sick to my stomach when I watch the news. I’m also eating. And eating more, even though I’m no longer training for any of my spring races.

It’s so easy to do, even if it’s not particularly enjoyable. A handful of chips on your way from the kitchen to the living room. A mindless slice of cheese while you’re aimlessly perusing the contents of your refrigerator like a hungry middle-schooler. And a glass of wine, or beer, before it’s 5 p.m., even on weekdays.

No one can blame you. In fact, it’s understandable. While some lose their appetite in times of anxiety — and what are we during this pandemic if not anxious — many others soothe the negative feelings with food, even when they’re not particularly hungry.

Hummus, a creamy Middle Eastern dip made with chickpeas and tahini paste, is perfect for mindless dipping.

“People grab the foods that comforted them during childhood and the pleasure chemical in the brain is released, which is self-soothing,” says Kelsey Hutter, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Allegheny Health Network.

.According to the data tracker Nielsen, we’re not just stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Americans also are buying a heck of a lot of chocolate, ice cream, popcorn and potato chips. Sales of pastry also has soared.

Mindless eating doesn’t just wreck havoc on the waistline; it’s also bad for your health. Poor nutrition can compromise your immune function, and with the coronavirus spreading across communities, do you really want to increase your risk of getting infected?

When it comes to meals and everything else in between, staying healthy means watching not only how much you eat but also what you eat, along with where and when.

To that end, Hutter says one should try to be cognizant of what he or she is consuming — a practice that’s known as mindful eating.

“It’s about being present and savoring the flavors with your senses,” she says. How does it taste? What’s the aroma and texture?

It’s also about determining your hunger level. For instance, is your stomach grumbling or are you simply munching in front of the computer or TV because you saw that bag of chips on the counter?

“It encourages you to slow down and pay attention to food,” she says.

This can be difficult now that so many people are working from home and within steps of their kitchens and pantries. What can help, if you have a tendency to graze or binge eat, is to come up with a plan Hutter calls “the role of fives.”

Make a list of five things that relax you, such as reading a magazine or playing with your kids; five things that distract you; five people you can call and connect with; five things that soothe your senses, such as turning down the lights or trading jeans for sweat pants; and five places you can go for comfort, such as a garden or your favorite chair.

Learn, too, the difference between emotional and physical hunger. The former comes on suddenly and craves a specific comfort food; the latter grows more gradually and stops when your stomach is full.

“Just because you’re home all day doesn’t give you permission to graze all day or overeat,” she says. “You have to catch yourself.”

Bringing healthier foods into the home is a positive first step — think popcorn instead of cookies or flavored yogurt or low-cal ice cream bars instead of full-fat ice cream, for instance.

Also, think about retooling recipes for your favorite snacks so they contain more of the good stuff, like protein, healthy fats and less sugar.

Are you a chocaholic? Avocado blended with yogurt, cocoa powder, maple syrup and vanilla makes a satisfying chocolate pudding. It’s also good for you, as avocados boast more than 20 nutrients and good-for-you monounsaturated fats. Serve it in a pretty cocktail glass, and it will feel extra special.

Maybe you’re more of a cruncher. Roasted chickpeas are lower in calories than nuts, packed with fiber and can be customized with a variety of warm spices, including cumin, cayenne and curry powder.

Sate a sweet tooth not with a sugary cookie but a nutritious energy bar flavored with ginger and molasses. It’s a runner’s favorite, thanks to the carbs, and is equally good with a cup of coffee as a glass of milk.

And finally, while carrot sticks, whole-grain crackers and sliced veggies make for healthful snacking, they can also feel like you’re on a diet. So how about you pair them with a tasty, nutritious dip. Chickpeas, a main ingredient in hummus, are chock-full of key nutrients, such as B vitamins, calcium and iron, and they also provide fiber.

We’ve got recipes for the above, as well as one for a guilt-free mocktail to enjoy after a hard day in your (home) office. Crafted with cucumber, citrus, mint and seltzer, it’s so refreshing and because there’s no alcohol, you don’t even have to wait until it’s five o’clock somewhere to enjoy it.

And if you fall off the healthy snack wagon? Be kind to yourself.

“It’s going to take time to adapt to this new normal,” Hutter says.

Nobody can complain about too many mocktails. This one is made with cucumber, lemon, mint and seltzer water.


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This refreshing alcohol-free spritzer, perfect for sipping on the porch or deck after a work-from-home day, has just 12 calories.

2 mini cucumbers or 1/2 large cucumber

8 leaves fresh mint, plus sprigs for garnish

2 lemons or limes

12 ounces lemon or regular seltzer

Ice cubes

Slice cucumber(s) into thin ribbons using a mandoline or vegetable peeler. Place in a large mason jar or small pitcher, reserving some for glasses.

Add mint leaves and gently muddle. Squeeze juice from 1 1/2 lemons (or limes) into the pitcher, reserving the other half for garnish. Stir in seltzer.

Fill 2 cocktail glasses with ice. Pour drink over ice and garnish with mint sprigs, cucumber ribbons and lemon (or lime) slices, if desired.

Makes 2 drinks.

— Gretchen McKay


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This nutritious and creamy Middle Eastern dip is low in sodium and high in protein. I like it with a lot of lemon and cumin, but you also could add more garlic, roasted red pepper, paprika, cayenne, cilantro, jalapeno or anything else you like.

If it’s too thick, add a little more oil, lemon juice or water to taste. Serve with fresh veggies, whole-grain crackers, toasted pita chips or tortilla chips. Hummus also makes a nice substitute for mayo on sandwiches and in wraps.

1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Juice of 1 to 2 large lemons

1 or 2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup tahini, well mixed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Paprika and/or chopped parsley, for garnish

Combine chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, salt and cumin in a food processor.

Puree the hummus for several minutes until it is smooth and well mixed. Season with pepper, then drizzle in 3 tablespoons olive oil. Continue pureeing until the hummus is super creamy. You may have to add a little water if it’s too thick.

To serve, spoon hummus into a shallow bowl, dust with paprika and/or parsley and drizzle with a little more olive oil.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Serve with baby carrots, sliced vegetables, crackers, toasted pita or rice crackers.

— Gretchen McKay

Avocado gives this blender chocolate pudding a silky texture. It's also gluten-free.


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Avocados provide healthy fat and make this pudding super satiating. You can play with the recipe by adding a little ginger, cinnamon or cayenne pepper. If you’ve got cocoa nibs, they make a lovely and crunchy garnish. Substitute almond or coconut milk for the yogurt and skim milk for a vegan treat.

2 small ripe avocados, pitted and scooped from skin

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup skim milk

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Ground ginger, cinnamon or cayenne pepper, optional

Whipped cream, berries and/or cocoa nibs, for garnish

In a food processor, combine avocados, yogurt, milk, cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla, salt and spice(s), if using. Process until very smooth. Refrigerate until chilled.

Serve in individual bowls, either alone or parfait style, layered with whipped cream and berries.

— Adapted from “Chia, Quinoa, Kale, Oh My!” by Cassie Johnston (Countryman Press; January 2015)

A snack that combines protein carbs and fat -- such as these ginger and molasses energy bars -- help you feel satiated when you're stress eating.


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The key to a good snack is to combine protein, carbs and fat to help you feel satiated, writes registered dietitian Charlie Watson in “Cook, Eat, Run,” a cookbook for runners. These energy bars taste like an Archway cookie.

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup vegetable or avocado oil

21/2 tablespoons molasses

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1 large egg, beaten

2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

In large bowl, mix together oats, flour, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and baking soda. In separate bowl, whisk together oil, molasses, brown sugar and egg.

Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir to combine; the mixture will be thick. Spoon mixture into prepared pan and spread into corners. Sprinkle candied ginger on top, if using.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until top is golden and crisp and middle is just set.

Leave to cool in pan then cut into 24 squares. Will keep for up to five days in an airtight container.

Makes 24 squares.

— “Cook, Eat, Run” by Charlie Watson (Quadrille Publishing; February 2020)

Crispy, roasted chickpeas tossed in warm spices such as cumin or curry are a heart-healthy snack.


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If you love snacks with crunch, these toasted chickpeas will make you happy. They’re loaded with fiber, zinc, folate and protein and also are gluten-free and vegan. Feel free to experiment with a variety of spices.

1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour chickpeas onto a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and thoroughly pat dry.

Place chickpeas in bowl, and toss with oil and spices. Transfer to baking sheet and spread out in single layer.

Bake for 20 minutes, stir and return to oven for 10 more minutes or until extra crispy. Allow chickpeas to cool completely before serving.

Makes 1 cup.

— “Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow” by Shalene Flanagan and Elise Kopecky (Rodale; August 2018)