How to work “unhealthy” snacks and desserts into a healthy eating plan

Desserts and snacks (even unhealthy ones) can be part of a healthy eating plan so long as they’re only eaten occasionally and you adjust the rest of what you eat to compensate. Just as long as you’re really eating those treats only occasionally and you know your serving sizes and calorie counts, you don’t have to deny your favorites permanently. Remember, however, that even if you’re walking 10,000 steps per day, it’s not hard to eat back the calories you burn from walking.

We’ll cover how you can work even high-calorie snacks and desserts into your life by working within your calorie “budget,” getting the facts on what you eat, spacing out your treats and saving some for later!

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Fit snacks and desserts into your healthy eating plan

Woman choosing between cupcake and apple
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Have your cake, but don’t eat the fries too

You can still have your cake, and eat it too, but you’ll need to think about how you can eat a little lighter earlier in the meal to compensate. Think of your calories like a budget. It’s ok to splurge occasionally, but if you’re eating high-calorie treats on a regular basis you’ll need to make up those calories somewhere else.

You can do this in a number of ways:

  • Work within your calorie “budget”
  • Know the calories of your favorite treats
  • Make occasional treats actually occasional
  • Save some for later

Think of eating “treats or” rather than eating “treats and” other high calorie foods. If you’re out at a restaurant, there’s no rule that says you have to eat starters AND a main course AND several sides AND a drink AND a dessert. Deep fried appetizers are often huge calorie

Work your treats in your calorie “budget”

Man drinking coffee and eating sandwich
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You can think of what you eat a little like your budget – you can get away with spending more on things that are important to you if you can skip some unnecessary expenses.

Cut out the “easy” calories

Chances are there are a few elements of your diet that you just know are unhealthy. They probably don’t give you a lot of satisfaction either. If you can cut those out of your diet, you can save those calories for foods that you really enjoy.

Soda and sugary drinks are a perfect example. They’re high in calories, don’t make you feel full, and usually don’t make you feel great after drinking them either. 2 cans of soda is more calories than a glazed donut, so you can eat better and still save calories by swapping out soda. Potato chips and cookies are other examples of foods that we often mindlessly eat without feeling great about it.

Don’t skip meals, but eat strategic meals

It might seem tempting to skip meals entirely, but there are reasons that doesn’t work for many people. Skipping meals can make you feel hungry or tired, and you can end up overeating when you do eat again. Instead, if you know you’re going to treat yourself to a high-calorie option then cut calories in other areas of that same meal.

If your favorite food is an appetizer, consider ordering it as your main course. Another great option is to swap out starchy carb side dishes for a salad or grilled vegetables. If your treat is a dessert, look into low-cal items like clear soups or veggie dishes. Making strategic swaps helps offset the calories in your guilty pleasures, while tailoring your meal to focus on your favorite foods.

Know what you’re eating

Hand holding calories + nutrition label
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The first step towards budgeting for snacks and desserts is to make sure you understand the calorie counts (and serving sizes) of your favorite treats. Armed with this knowledge, you can decide whether and how often to include treats into your daily life.

Know your calories

Compare 3 treats – a glazed donut, a box of french fries, and a large milkshake. Most people instinctively know that all 3 are not really “healthy,” but can you guess the calorie counts? Here are some examples:

It’s easy to miss the calories in a milkshake, for instance, because it feels like a “drink” rather than a dessert. That’s true even though it’s essentially ice cream, milk, and other sugary flavors. Of course, your calorie count depends on the specific brand you’re eating, the size of the treat and other factors. It also doesn’t mean that you should go out and binge on glazed donuts.

Know your serving sizes

For certain foods, like a donut in the above example, you can easily get the calorie count for each donut. Other snacks, like cookies, crackers, or chips are usually not available in single-serving bags. A quick glance at the calorie count on the bag is usually very misleading, as each bag can contain multiple servings.

Take nuts for example. Nuts are packed with healthy fats which also makes them nutritionally dense. They pack a lot of calories in a small serving size. This means that you can do the right thing in trying to eat healthy, but accidentally eat more calories than you intended. Make sure to note the serving sizes on your favorite treats.

Occasional treats should actually be occasional

High-calorie blended coffee beverage
Theerawan / Shutterstock

The occasional treat is fine, but for many people the “occasional” treat is a daily occurrence. You’ll often get better results by focusing on what you eat on a regular basis, as long as the big meals and desserts are truly rare.

Update your everyday habits

Many people focus on avoiding eating tons of calories on special occasions like holidays, birthdays or vacations but miss the added calories they’re eating on a daily basis. A large bag of chips or a blended coffee drink are fine to enjoy occasionally, but making them part of your daily routine will add calories faster than you might think.

You might pay more attention to a 3,000 calorie Christmas feast than to a donut or two for breakfast in the morning, but an extra 240 calorie donut a day adds up to around 7,200 calories a month. This is why in general it’s more important to focus on what you eat on a frequent basis rather than special occasions.

Space out your treats

Make sure occasional actually means infrequent, rather than every other day or several times a week. It can sometimes help to keep a food diary, or at least log desserts or snacks that you know you eat too much of. You might not even realize how much you’re eating, especially if you tend to rotate snacks and desserts throughout the week. Sure, you may not have eaten the cheesecake in a few days but you may have had ice cream and cookies instead.

Save some for later

Half a red velvet cupcake - split dessert concept
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The easiest way to save calories on snacks or desserts is to save half (or more) for later! If you’re out at a restaurant, you can always ask your server for a takeout box as your food arrives. By taking half off your plate, you’re less tempted to eat more than you should.

You can’t always take home frozen or cold desserts because they’ll melt. In that case, try ordering a dessert to share or simply just don’t finish the dish. Usually the first bite of any food is the best, an each additional bite is a little less rewarding than the first. By the end, you’re often forcing yourself to finish. Take a couple of slow bites to really savor your food, and then call it a day.

The same principle works when eating at home, only you can make smaller portions and it’s easier to save leftovers. Try to avoid big desserts, or making a large number of cookies or other treats that you may feel guilty going to waste. If it’s easier to make treats in bulk, consider giving some away so that you’re not tempted to eat them all. Freezing things like cookies and muffins is another way to stretch them out. While you can thaw them whenever you want, it takes time and effort. Often, the simple effort required in defrosting and reheating a treat will discourage you from eating it. You may also find that by the time you actually get around to thawing your snack, you’re already not hungry ay more.

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