Experts say you must eat a nutritious snack at the first sign of hunger to avoid overeating the wrong foods once you’re ravenous—but you knew that. Most nutritionists say that small meals every 4 hours are better for constant energy supply, minus troughs of fatigue, than three hefty, drowse-inducing meals—but you’ve heard that before too. What you really want to ask is where to get that “healthy snack” or concentration-boosting, stress-busting superfood in the middle of a busy day, with no time to leave the desk for a bite.
Well, the answer is as far as your filing cabinet. Treat nutrition as one of your very important projects—and why not, when it’s your personal fuel at stake?—and file that smart food right in your top drawer or, at the most, in the office pantry.
Here are some easy keepers to power you through your day.
Keep a bag of ready-to-eat cereal (ideally wholegrain, without added flavouring or sugar) or instant/quick-cook oats in your drawer. Mix with skimmed milk (keep a few small Tetrapaks in the office fridge) on those rushed mornings when you overslept or just arrived straight from the airport.
Power play: This combination of complex carbohydrates, protein and a small amount of good fat (a few nuts help with extra protein too) is perfect to kick-start the day. B-complex vitamins (from wholegrains) maintain healthy brain function. Neurotransmitters manufactured from vitamin C (fruit in your muesli) improve attention and memory while reducing fatigue and stress. If you opt for milk, you get calcium, which boosts the brain and strengthens the bones; meanwhile, the magnesium in soya milk relieves stress—so you begin your day right either way.
Calorie count: Approximately 200 calories a serving (as described on packaging)
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Crackers and cheese (slice, spread or cube) can solve the no-time-for-lunch dilemma. The combination of complex carbs and protein stabilizes blood sugar and prevents fatigue or loss of alertness. Peanut butter is good too. Or, if you are watching your weight, try apple salsa instead. If you take care to use a clean, dry spoon, the peanut butter and the cheese spread should stay fine in an air-conditioned office for a few days.
Power play: Crackers give you complex carbs for energy and satiety. The lactose-intolerant can take advantage of the brain-boosting calcium in cheese. Plus, cheese is a good source of vitamin B12, which aids memory and concentration, improves energy levels, keeps moods stable and helps you think clearly. Peanut butter also has the B-vitamin choline, which helps produce neurotransmitters for memory.
Calorie count: Approximately 250 calories for four crackers plus 15g peanut butter or 30g cheese
Fruits for your labour
Unless you gorge, dried fruits are an excellent snack when fresh ones are not at hand or aren’t hygienically packaged. Don’t stop at raisins, dates and figs. You can now get dried apples, strawberries, apricots, tropical mix (such as papaya, pineapple and banana) and prunes. They are better than chips any day.
Power play: Dried fruits provide instant energy and satiety for a longer period, especially when coupled with nuts and seeds. The antioxidants, flavanoids, vitamins and minerals in a fruit are essential for energy and electrolyte balance, in summer especially.
Calorie count: 150-200 calories for 50g
Seeds for fibre
Dry fruits make for a great combination with nuts and seeds. So add some nuts or seeds (dry-roasted, unsalted) as well, for fibre and good fats. Keep combinations such as almonds and dates or apricots, walnuts and raisins in airtight containers or zipper bags. You could try sunflower or flax seeds too. Just don’t get carried away (they are all calorific) and keep to 2 tbsp a day.
Power play: Nuts are a filling food with protein and healthy fats, a tasty substitute for the calorie-rich samosa. Seeds contain heart-healthy fats, brain-and nerve-protecting vitamin E, electrolyte-balancing magnesium and potassium, and fibre. So they prevent fatigue and aid concentration.
Calorie count: Approximately 130 calories for 2 tbsp
When all you want is a mindless munch during stressful number-crunching or reading reams, it’s easy to reach for the bhujia (salted savouries).
Instead pick low-impact traditional treats that energize and spice up your life without the high cost (to health and wallet). There are many low-fat mixtures of roasted grain flakes (rice, oats, wheat, or soy) and dals available. If you find them a bit bland, add a drizzle of salsa, spicy tomato sauce, mint chutney, saunth, etc., to make a bhelpuri-like mix.
Or opt for a bag of low-fat microwave popcorn. Great when you’re in a celebratory mood, since it is associated with fun times.
Power play: These savoury snacks will count as one of your three daily servings of wholegrains, loaded with vitamins B and E, boosting energy and mood (they trigger release of serotonin, which gives you feelings of optimism, self-esteem, relaxation and security). Wholegrains (such as popcorn) are also a good source of fibre, which keep you satiated for hours.
Calorie count: 130 calories for 30g popcorn; approximately 100 calories in 50g low-fat mixes
Soup up the comfort
This may seem a bit unusual for either a workday beverage or snack, but the benefits are fantastic. Keep a few small packets of miso soup mix (or a jar of miso paste in the fridge) and just top up with hot water for a light, savoury sip with that elusive fifth taste of umami.
Miso not your cup of soup? Try gravy granules or stock cubes in a mug of hot water. They’re pretty salty, so use half a cube for one mug. Keep a few low-sodium microwaveable soup cups handy for a superfast mini-meal.
Power play: Soup is a quick, filling food, with not too many calories or fat, yet easily incorporating a couple of vegetables into a busy day. Vitamins and fibre are a happy extra, the warmth is often welcome in a too-cold AC office and it is great for nursing a cold, a fever, or simply a sore mood. Miso, a fermented food, has probiotic benefits too and can reverse the toll stress takes on your tummy.
Calorie count: 10-20 calories for clear soup (from stock cube); 100-150 for packet mixes, clear or broth-based; 200-220 calories for packaged creamy soup (cream of mushroom, chicken or tomato); and 50-70 calories for miso soup (all per cup)
Drinks that make a difference
Why patronize the tea and coffee machine to overdose on sugar and caffeine, with zero nutrients? Get some proper nutrition in a swig or two to make up for missed meals.
Keep unsweetened cocoa or low-cal hot chocolate in hand—it’s better than the excessively sweetened tea (which kills all its benefits) or coffee from the machine any day. Just add hot water or milk.
That’s a nice big splash of calcium and vitamin D (if it contains milk), almost no fat, a huge happiness boost, and at least a few disease-fighting flavanoids—and instant popularity if you can bear to share!
Calorie count: Approx. 120 calories for a 250ml cup of hot chocolate
Buttermilk is a good option for those who don’t like milk, those watching their weight, or those who are out and about a lot. It’s low in fat so it won’t make you sluggish (sweet tea/coffee will cause a sugar crash later), plus it is easily digestible and contains essential electrolyte potassium and, if lightly salted, sodium. An easy source of calcium too.
Calorie count:4 0-60 calories for 200ml
Experts: Jyothi Prasad, chief dietician, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore; Jyoti Arora, team leader, nutrition and dietetics, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon; Shachi Sohal, chief dietician, Dr BL Kapur Memorial Hospital, New Delhi.
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