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 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.
Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt Bars
From TheKitchn.com founder Sara Kate Gillingham. Make your own combinations with seeds such as sesame or chia, other nuts like cashews and pecans, dried fruit and even spices like ginger and cardamom. Replacing half the brown rice syrup with a beaten egg white reduces the sugar content and gives a little protein boost.
3/4 cup whole roasted, unsalted almonds
2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup crisped brown rice cereal (may substitute puffed grain cereals such as millet or amaranth)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for finishing
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1 large egg white, beaten
1/3 cup (2 ounces) bittersweet chocolate pieces/chips
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a quarter baking sheet (9 by 12 inches) with parchment paper, leaving some paper overhang.
Combine all the nuts, the cereal and the salt in a mixing bowl.
Gently heat the brown rice syrup until liquid, either in a microwave on medium-low for 20 seconds or on the stove in small saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour the syrup over the nut mixture and stir until evenly coated, then stir in the egg white until evenly distributed. Transfer the mixture to the baking sheet, using the back of a spatula to compact into a slab, which may not fill quite to the edges.
Bake (middle rack) for about 15 minutes, or until starting to brown along the edges. Transfer to a wire rack to cool on the sheet for 20 minutes.
Use the parchment paper to lift from the pan, transferring to a cutting board. Cut into 16 bars. Cool completely.
Combine the chocolate and oil in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium in 30-second increments, stirring in between, until the chocolate is melted.
Drizzle over the bars in a crisscross pattern, then sprinkle lightly with a litle salt. Allow the chocolate to set at least 15 minutes before serving or storing.
Make Ahead: Wrap bars individually in parchment paper and keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 1 month.
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 ounces grated sharp or extra-sharp cheddar, Jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or a combination), at room temperature
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 or 3 tablespoons ice water
Kosher salt, for sprinkling
Whisk together the flours, baking powder, table or fine sea salt and the paprika in mixing bowl.
Combine the cheese and butter in the bowl of stand mixer on medium speed, until well blended. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
On low speed, add the flour mixture and beat to form a crumbly mix. Gradually add the water, as needed, until a ball of dough forms.
Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and divide in half, patting each half into a disk. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead into a tight mass then divide in half and pat each half into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
Re-flour the work surface as needed. Unwrap one disk of dough and roll out to a rectangle with a thickness of 1/8-inch. Use a sharp knife or fluted pastry wheel to cut 1-inch squares, then use a skewer to poke a hole at the center of each one. Transfer to the baking sheets, spacing the squares at least 1/4 inch apart. Refrigerate for 15 minutes; repeat with the second portion of dough. Scraps can be re-rolled.
Sprinkle the unbaked crackers lightly with kosher salt. Bake each sheet one at a time (middle rack) for 16 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp. Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing.
Make Ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes, and up to 1 day. The rolled-and-cut cracker dough needs to be refrigerated for 15 minutes. The baked crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Yield: 5 servings, or 80 to 90 small crackers
Pineapple, mango, papaya, guava, ginger and figs all contain an enzyme that can prevent the gelatin from setting. If you use juices containing those, boil the juice first, then whisk in the gelatin. You can use a silicone candy mold or an 8-inch square glass baking dish and some small cookie/candy cutters.
Vegetable or liquefied coconut oil
2 cups pure apple juice or grape juice (see headnote)
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (optional)
4 tablespoons unflavored powdered gelatin (from more than one 1-ounce box)
Use a little oil – not too much – to grease the molds or baking dish.
Combine the juice and honey or maple syrup, if using, in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Once a few bubbles begin to appear at the edges, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface and then whisk it in quickly until smooth, making sure no clumps form.
Pour the gummy mixture into the silicone candy mold or the baking dish. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until the mixture sets. Then the gummies will be ready to be popped out of the silicone mold, or gently coaxed out of the glass baking dish onto a cutting board to be cut into small squares or other shapes.
Make Ahead: The gummies can be refrigerated in airtight container for up to 3 days.
Yield: 8-12 servings, or about 400 3/4-inch gummies