Taking stock of snacks

Customers like fare that’s healthy, fast and, sometimes, served up in way that seems special.

berry parfait

As between-meal eating grows increasingly popular, the humble snack has become nearly as important as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today, snacks make up about a quarter of our total caloric intake, and a full 90% of adults report snacking on any given day, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s “Snacking Patterns of U.S. Adults.” And thanks to busy schedules, snack time has expanded beyond the usual afternoon or late night. Now, “Almost any time of day is time for someone’s ‘midday snack,’” says Brian Brooks, executive chef at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Care Center. Here’s how operators are meeting customer snack demands.  

First, it's got to be healthy

As snacks have taken up additional room in our diets, more customers are asking for nutritious options. “Healthy and tasty. Ultimately, that’s what [customers] are looking for, something they can munch on that’s somewhat healthy,” says Sal Cantalupo, corporate chef at Corporate Image Dining Services, in Connecticut. So when kale chips became trendy, Cantalupo began making his own, along with beet and sweet potato chips. Since his customers prefer simply flavored snacks, he seasons the vegetables with just olive oil, salt and pepper. After crisping up in a low-heat oven, the chips are packaged in clear, 8- and 12-ounce containers and displayed on cafeteria shelves.       

But healthy can also mean hearty. In campus convenience stores at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, students can purchase several varieties of housemade trail mix, like Longevity Trail Mix made with pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, banana chips, dried apple rings and sunflower seeds. Grab-and-go hummus plates in flavors like eggplant and lemon feta are big sellers, too. “It’s packaged in compostable paper products with carrots or celery, and crackers are sold on the side,” says Executive Chef Carrie Anderson. 

Grab and go? Yes, please

For those in a hurry, Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Care Center offers grab-and-go snack bags filled with healthy, easy-to-eat fare like fruit, cheese, nuts, crackers and milk. And at around 500 calories each, the snack bags pack enough energy for customers who might not have time to sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Another meal replacement option: Fresh fruit and granola parfaits, made with high-protein Greek yogurt and cashew-studded granola, plus strawberries and blueberries. “Both are quick and convenient ways for our customers to get something to nourish themselves at any time of day,” Brooks says.       

Grab and go is even bigger on college campuses, where time-strapped students with unconventional schedules—a 3 p.m. lunch or midnight study session isn’t uncommon—are always on the hunt for snacks that offer the sustenance of a meal when one might not be available, says Melissa Hendricks, R.D., ancillary healthcare specialist at Pennsylvania State University, in State College. There, c-stores serve up a variety of snack wraps until 1 a.m., well after all of the dining halls have closed. Turkey club, buffalo chicken, BLT and chicken salad wraps are all big sellers, as are the vegetarian and vegan options. Students looking for a meat-free nosh can get black bean burger wraps, peanut butter and jelly wraps with banana and granola or Nutella and banana wraps, an option introduced this year.    

Presentation matters

Happy hour starts at 3:30 p.m. at the The Chelsea of Warren, in New Jersey, where china-plated finger foods are always rolled out on the serving cart along with the alcohol selection. “It’s nice. Not formal, but the presentation makes it something to look forward to,” says Food Service Director Mike Nodine. And since part of Nodine’s quarterly plan is to update the menu cycle with resident-provided recipes, many are often served during happy hour. Two resident favorites, potato latkes and deviled eggs, were shared by Laura Levinson, who has lived at The Chelsea of Warren since 2011.        

Presentation also is important at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where customers snack on housemade cupcakes in unique flavors like lemon rosemary, peanut butter and jelly and chocolate cayenne. The confections are displayed on dessert towers at the end of the deli serving line—making it easy and appealing for students to grab a sweet treat on their way to class.  

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