Thursday, September 29, 2011

car snack 4 (or, the banana oat bar)

Last week, I visited the middle school classroom at the Montessori school where Joey teaches and the girls learn. The middle school is in its second year, and the small group of brave (isn't it just brave to wake up and move through the world at that age?) tweens and teens have been busy planning out the year ahead. One of the projects they started last year was a snack program where they purchase snacks and sell them to the rest of the students several times a week. The money they raise through the snack program helps to fund trips and other exciting activities, and the kids get to have the experience of running what is essentially a small business.

Julie Haagenson runs the middle school program, and in the end of the summer, she asked me if I would be willing to come in and do some cooking with the kids. She thought they might be interested in making some snacks instead of buying them, and she was hoping to give them some tools as they moved into the discussion.

 The whole program is small- maybe 8 kids if that, and when I walked in last week, they were sitting around a U-shaped table. They had invited me to come for four sessions over the course of the Fall, and this was to be our brainstorming session about what we might like to make together. I started with the snacks that they already offer, and we talked about some alternatives. Popcorn from a bag? Why don't we use an air popper? The result will be far less expensive and taste a whole lot better. Everyone loves the days when the kids offer goldfish as a snack--I asked if they were interested in learning how to make their own cheese crackers.

As savvy business people, those kids wanted to provide a product that all the other kids in the school would be interested in buying. And as they considered whether they should start making food from scratch, the question arose as to whether kids would want snacks that were "more healthy".  Right now, there are healthy snack days (cucumber slices, oranges) and there are the other days (goldfish, bagel and cream cheese).  If goldfish were replaced by homemade cheese crackers, would that be a healthier choice? Or would it be perceived as one?

"Whoa, hold on a minute there!" I couldn't help but jump in. "Who said anything about making healthy food?"

I was raised on health food. I have always been able to list the seven ancient grains, and I know the difference between white and red miso. I've turned many people on to sprinkling their popcorn with nutritional yeast. But I don't think the health label is helping anyone. Honestly, I think it's just confusing. Because whether something is healthy really depends on who you ask and what their definition of the term is. Are they concerned about their weight? Then they think whole milk is unhealthy. Sugar? Then maybe diet coke is healthy. Really, I have no idea what the term means.

So what if we choose a word that is in full acceptance of that it means different things to different people? How about if the goal is good food?

I continue to cling stubbornly to the idea that taste will lead us to the right place. All summer, I worked with kids in the kitchen at food camp, and they supported this idea with every meal. There were all sorts of ideas about what was healthy and what their parents wanted them to eat, but in the end, what inspired them and made them sparkle was the first bite. So many kids went home and cooked for their parents--they left the camp kitchen saying, "I can't wait for my dad to try this. He's not going to believe how good it is!"

I'm no nutritionist. I can't even begin to sort through the constantly changing information about food and health. I start to wade through some of the mess that we're in around food safety, and I feel like the system is broken, and I'm not sure how to navigate through it. But I keep coming back to this idea of good food, and of always going towards food that tastes good to us. It seems simple, I know, but it's the best I've got. And if there's a possibility of raising a new generation of people who actually pay attention to what they put in their mouths, and who even can have a sense of whether it feels good or bad in their bodies? This could be nothing short of a revolution.

And with that, we move to the car snack. Oh yes, old friend, we've returned.
The short story is that the car snack is the granola bar, the energy bar, the bag of goldfish, the fruit leather, or whatever else you pack for your kids to ease the panicked hunger of 3:00. Of course, it's for grownups too, and you can eat it in whatever vehicle you choose. I wrote about car snacks 1 and 2 a ways back, and car snack 3 joins them in the book. But all three involve a fair amount of butter and varying amounts of refined sugar, and I've gotten a bunch of requests for a healthier car snack.

And so I bring you...the banana oat bar. No white flour, no refined sugar (except the wee bit of chocolate), and no butter or oil either. It comes together quickly, holds together well for the car, and (need I say it?) tastes really really good.

Car Snack 4 (the banana oat bar)

Makes 20 bars (about 2 1/2 x 3 inches)

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups puffed rice cereal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup peanut or almond butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13 baking pan with parchment, leaving enough hanging over on the edges so you can pull out the finished product.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, rice cereal, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon, stirring well to combine. In a second large bowl, combine the banana, honey, yogurt, nut butter, and vanilla. Stir until the mixture is fairly uniform.
3. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ones and stir until they come together into one uniform mixture. Gently stir in the chocolate chips. Transfer to the prepared pan and flatten down with a spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until just starting to brown on top. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 1 hour before removing from the pan and cutting into squares.


  1. Hi Alana,
    Really enjoy reading your blog and these bars look super tasty. Just one thing, what is a goldfish? I have images of all these children running around with little fish flipping out of their mouths!!
    Kate in Australia

  2. Yum - can't wait to try! But I think I'm gonna see how sunflower butter will work for the no-nut crew. I totally agree on the "healthy" thing. Felicia was chastised at school, by classmates no less, for bringing in a brightly colored yogurt, which actually has 1/2 the sugar of other yogurts on the market. The craze is just that.

  3. These bars sound so delicious. I'm always carting snacks around in the car (and my purse) for my toddler and my (pregnant) self. Thanks for the yummy recipe. Your blog reminds me of Smitten Kitchen: fabulous recipes accompanied by delightful prose.

  4. This looks terrific! I have a junior in HS with no lunch period, so I'm always looking for something small she can nibble on in class for energy. Thanks!

  5. Ha, Kate! I love the image, but really goldfish are little goldfish-shaped crackers. I'd say they're a snack staple in the States, and most kids are into them at one point or another. More crunch, less flipper.

  6. I'm always in need of more snack ideas for my kids--thanks!

  7. I made these this weekend & they are terrific! Thanks for the recipe. One comment on it: you don't say when to add the chocolate chips. It's not a big deal, but you might want to put them in one of the steps for clarity's sake - especially for the newbie. Thanks again!

  8. I don't even have a child, but I'm totally into car snacks. For myself.

    You never know when you're going to be stuck at a red light and NEED TO EAT. I always try to have a box of granola bars hanging around under a seat (when nothing homemade is on hand).

    I am intrigued by your use of the banana in this recipe . . . looking forward to trying it!

  9. Thank you Sara! I realized that this weekend- sorry that it was before you got to it! All fixed now, though- and so glad you liked the recipe.