[The definitive guide to building the best-ever, best-for-you trail mix]
I was shocked recently to discover that there isn't one go-to 'build your own' healthy trail mix guide on the internet. There are tons of suggestions for party mixes, and tons that feature highly processed, sugary, or otherwise non-food things
(Yogurt-covered pretzels aren't really food, in case anyone was wondering... their ingredients include sugar [first on the list means it's in the highest quantity of all the ingredients], partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil [a certified trans fat], whey powder, nonfat milk powder, yogurt powder, titanium dioxide [the same substance that makes sunscreen white in color], lactic acid, lecithin [a gasoline-like derivative of soy], vanillin [artificial vanilla], flour, vegetable shortening [more trans fat], salt, corn syrup [eep!], malt, yeast & baking soda.)
As I was compiling some suggestions for a client on how to build their own mix at home, it occurred to me that this might make a fun post -- so here we are!
the low-sugar, vegan, gluten-free, whole foods trail mix menu!
The best part is you can toss in whichever ingredients you dig and leave out whichever you don't. You can make it sweet or savory, fruit- heavy or seed-heavy, depending on your preference, and all of these combinations keep well in airtight containers. They're also nicely portable; after all, isn't this the point of a good trail mix? Being able to hit the trail (or the gym or the office or the park or wherever?)
By incorporating nuts, seeds, fruit, beans, and grains, we can create a balanced 'meal-like' snack in a few easy steps. Anytime we eat a food or a meal containing fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, we're more likely to feel satisfied, because the body receives a little of everything it needs in one go. Handy, yes? Delicious, too.
Let's jump in:
There are a lot of trail mixes and granolas on the market that feature clusters of grains: these tend to be bound together with oils and sugars, and generally defeat the purpose of an otherwise wholesome snack. (Often, their portion sizes are confusing... one handful can be the equivalent of three servings, and you can suddenly find yourself crashing from an intense sugar high. Hmm. Not ideal when the idea is to be out hiking the Appalachians, right?)
Instead, try a whole grain. Working these into a trail mix can be tough: cooked grains don't store well outside the fridge, and their moisture content can do weird things to nuts and seeds. If you're inclined to toss in some grains, try out gluten-free raw oats. While they don't have a ton of flavor, they will provide the body with some slow-burning complex carbohydrate.
They go well with berries or other dried foods with more concentrated flavor: consider these something of a 'pie crust' to your otherwise deliciously-filled pie.
Not feeling them? Leave them out. You can cover a lot of protein and complex carb bases with the other ingredients below.
The complex carbohydrates, fiber, and nutrients provided in dried fruit can really round out a trail mix.
Because the sugar in dried fruit is concentrated, it can have a more marked effect on the body than whole, raw fruit. For this reason, it can be a good idea to avoid high-sugar tropical fruits (bananas, mango, papaya, etc.) and instead aim for low-glycemic fruits [that is, ones that don't cause blood sugar to spike and crash as quickly].
Berries in general - blueberries, gojis, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, cranberries - can be great options. They're brightly colored, which is a good indicator they have lots of good-for-you nutrients and vitamins.
Apples are also lower on the glycemic index and relatively easy to find. Apricots are high in beta carotene and vitamin C, and definitely toothsome -- they take a long time to get through and can contribute to more easily feeling full for that reason.
Coconut is also a fruit and contains a ton of healthy, satiating fats to keep us going.
With all of these options, aim for organic, unsweetened, unpreserved varieties when possible. Many brands of dried fruit include sulphur dioxide (and may be labeled 'sulphured') as a preservative.
If you have a dehydrator - or feel inclined to invest in one - these are all food items that can be made at home. (We have this L'Equip Dehydrator and love it. It stores easily and dehydrates rather speedily.)
If you're looking to combine a few of these, go for it! Apricot-coconut (sweet or savory) or cranberry-blueberry (sweet) are some fun options.
Let's be serious: one of the whole points of eating trail mix is the nuts, right? They're filling, feel luxurious, and speak to that little caveman or cavelady in all of us that wants delectable whole fats. It's just how we're wired - which makes these a great fueling food! (Of course, it is possible to overdo it on nuts - as my lesson in eight months of raw food taught me - so try to keep these little goodies to about 1/3 the total volume of your trail mix.)
A tremendous source of protein, healthy fats, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, B vitamins, and phosphorus. Walnuts in particular are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain, eye, and nerve health (plus, they're delicious).
Combine a few of these in your mix; as with every meal compilation, it can be helpful to try to mix up colors (ie. pistachios with cashews, walnuts with macadamias, just for variety of nutrients).
A pistachio-almond combo would make a great savory mix, while macadamias and hazelnuts would make a lovely sweet combination. Get creative with these, and feel free to toss in any other nuts that speak to you. Again, aim for unsalted, organic, and non-trans-fatty hydrogenated oils if using roasted ones.
Seeds pack a powerful punch to any dish, and in terms of protein and mineral content for trail mix, these are a great way to go!
While a little tougher to eat than nuts, they're worth the finickiness: these little nuggets contain calcium, magnesium, manganese, and healthy fats, along with a kick of protein and serious hearty flavor.
Be on the lookout for unsalted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. These are often available raw, but if you prefer the roasted varieties, they're good, too! Just check the oil content on the package before you purchase. No oil or olive oil varieties will be your best bet.
I know - beans in trail mix? What kind of madness is this?
In fact, baked (and in this case, curried) chickpeas can be a super-fueling addition to a trail mix. They're high in protein, fiber, manganese, and folate, and provide tons of filling yumminess to just about anything you add them into. (The sheer volume with which they show up in my recipes is testament to that.)
Especially in a savory blend, chickpeas would make a yummy, meal-like complement to the other ingredients. Try this baked chickpea recipe and toss some into your mix!
Spicing things up...
Once you have your ingredients tossed together - which you do in just about any container you please - consider adding some natural flavors for a little spicy adventure!
For a sweet blend:
cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger
For a savory blend:
curry powder, garlic, oregano, rosemary, sea salt
Toss these into your mix - but plan to have a napkin handy for later. The powders won't necessarily stick to everything and you may end up with a little dusty mess.
You can also lightly bake your trail mix. Toss it with a touch of coconut oil and your spices of choices, then spread on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at about 325F for 15-20 minutes until the spices set: this way, they'll coat your nuts and fruit more 'permanently'. (That is, until snack time, right?)
What are your favorite combinations? Where do you most often have your trail mix?