When I was a kid, the primary packaging in my lunch was the brown paper bag that held it all together. Occasionally my mom would buy the two-compartment Kraft Handi-Snacks cheese-and-cracker sets with the red plastic stick for spreading the cheese. Who remembers those? In the late ’70s and ’80s, they were one of the only snacks in town.
These days, the packaged snack food industry has exploded into an $80 billion-a-year affair. According to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, snack bars alone represent almost $7 billion in annual sales. People are quite literally living off of packaged snacks.
Many of these snacks claim to be “healthy,” but I am skeptical of packaging claims. Besides, to me the concept of health is related not only to ingredients and daily allowance of sugar, fat and carbs, but also to the health of the planet. What about packaging? What about the process of making processed ingredients?
So I set out to make some popular packaged snack foods at home.
Interestingly, in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration squelched the joy of hordes of snackers by announcing that four Kind Bars were misbranded as healthy. It turns out that to the FDA, to earn the right to use the word “healthy” on packaging, a product could not have more than 3 grams of fat (or 1 gram of saturated fat). In the case of the Kind Bar, this fat comes from the nuts in the bars, plain and simple. I’m not one to argue about the healthfulness of a handful of nuts, so it doesn’t worry me. However, for a snack that too often replaces a meal for people on the go, I’d love to see the sugar go down and, of course, the packaging eliminated.
The most popular Kind Bar flavor is Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, and, incidentally, this bar never carried the “healthy” label. A single bar has 200 calories, 15 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), 5 grams of sugar and 6 grams of protein. With my homemade recipe, I was able to get the calories, fat and sugar all down a bit.
An added bonus for parents: When you create something like a snack bar at home, you’re helping foster curiosity about food and cooking. Once you understand the formula of this recipe, kids can make their own custom bars; options are endless after you put together the puffed rice cereal, nuts and brown rice syrup base. Mix in dried fruit, seeds and spices. One of my favorites is swapping out a half-cup of the nuts and replacing it with a quarter-cup of finely chopped dried apricots (try to find unsulfured apricots; there is evidence that sulphur dioxide can cause asthma attacks) and a teaspoon of dried ginger.
I will admit to not being able to turn a cold shoulder to a bowl of these neon orange salty tiles. There’s something about their shape — the hole in the middle, the ridged edges. But I don’t love eating soybean and palm oils if I can have real butter instead; these oils tend to be highly refined and processed. I was excited to pull out my pastry wheel and roll out some squares.
I decided to play with both the flours and the cheeses, and I encourage you to do the same. I replaced a third of the flour with whole wheat, and I also used a combination of cheddar and Parmesan cheese instead of just straight cheddar. There’s no reason you couldn’t branch out to jack cheese and beyond. Avoid cheeses with a lot of moisture, such as fresh mozzarella. If it grates easily on a fine grater, give it a shot.
What’s different about a homemade Cheez-It vs. the store-bought kind? The option to choose fresh ingredients. My recipe contains butter instead of vegetable oil, and fresh full-fat cheese, so even though you get more protein and fat per serving, the total calories remain the same (150 calories, the same as packaged Cheez-Its). Like the ingredients that go into them, these crackers won’t last for months in a dark corner of your pantry. However, I’m guessing this won’t be a problem; they are addictive.
When I started this DIY snack project, our house was most excited about the fruit gummies, particularly in choosing which forms we should use. You can buy a silicone candy form that will make exact replicas of the classic gummy bear, but silicone ice cube trays work just fine, or even a glass baking dish treated as a blank canvas to slice, dice or stamp out shapes.
You’re basically making Jell-O with a lot more heft and a natural juice base. The big difference is the gummies are glossier and less chewy than gummy bears or Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Commercial gummy snacks stay stiff and rubbery thanks to carnauba wax, also used in shoe polish, car wax and mascara. The wax is derived from a natural source (the carnauba palm tree, native to Brazil), but it is highly processed, and as a mom I just find that repulsive. My homemade versions weren’t as shelf-stable as a bag of Welch’s, but they get vacuumed up by little mouths anyway, so no need for stabilizers and wax.
I experimented with four juices: unsweetened grape juice, old-fashioned Martinelli’s apple juice, strawberry kombucha and coconut water. The apple and grape gummies were the big winners in this science experiment; even with a little added honey, the total sugar content was about half that of Welch’s Fruit Snacks (total calories were a third of the commercial version).
The kombucha idea was well intentioned, but everyone who taste-tested the gummies agreed that kombucha is better left to sipping, not eating. The coconut was universally voted down as least interesting and definitely in need of sweetening.
A rainbow of gummies will come together, start to finish, in a few hours. Sure, you worked harder than if you had opened packages of Welch’s, but you’ll feel better about what your kids are putting in their mouths and what’s going into the landfill, which is truly the gift of taking the time to make anything homemade.
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