I was at the supermarket on Sunday being trailed by all three of my kids playing that age-old game of mothers and children: they slip food into the shopping cart; you notice said food and return it to the shelf. Included was a box of granola bars proffered by my daughter, Rosie, that were coated in enough chocolate to please Willy Wonka, with an ingredient list that must have topped 40 in number. It looked to me more cookie, or even candy, than anything resembling granola.
I have a conflicted relationship to packaged granola bars. I buy them (sometimes), and appreciate their “grab and go” convenience. But I’m often not so fond of what’s in there, or the excessive packaging. Even the healthier ones often have a laundry list of ingredients, some of which I’m not even familiar with. The fact that manufacturers are cramming a whole line-up of “vitamins and minerals” into a one ounce bar doesn’t offset the fact that they are also adding hefty doses of sugar, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. If I’m going to give my kids a sweet, I’ll give them a sweet. I’d rather it not masquerade as health food.
Often, my dissatisfaction with the supermarket options lands me in my kitchen making my own. My latest pick is this recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars, which I found in the recently published cookbook Eating for Pregnancy, by local author Erika Lenkert. If it’s healthy enough for pregnant ladies, it’s healthy enough for my kids. Oh, and “no, I’m not pregnant.” I just appreciate a good book when I see one.
What I like about the recipe is that it’s so easy: all done in the food processor, pressed into a pan and baked. I also like the fact that the bar’s sweetness comes mostly from Medjool dates that are whipped into smithereens along with the rest of the ingredients. A half cup of chocolate chips adds just enough decadence to keep the kids interested.
Each bar is about 135 calories with a couple of grams of fiber and four and half grams of protein, thanks to the peanuts, peanut butter and sunflower seeds. Make a big batch and then store some in the freezer to bring out as needed.
You’ll find the recipe for these bars below. As far as the store-bought ones go, here are a few guidelines for when you are perusing the labels and trying to find the healthiest one. I’ve also included a handful of “Better Bites” — suggestions for some of the more nourishing choices in the marketplace.
A better bar has…
Less sugar — Aim for about 8 grams of sugar or less per bar. Keep in mind that bars loaded with dried fruits get a little more wiggle room since that’s an added source of natural sugars.
More fiber — At least a couple of grams of fiber per serving is a good goal. The more, the better. Also, look for whole grains listed among the ingredients.
Fewer calories — Some bars top 200 calories, which is a lot, especially for littler appetites, and particularly if you are pairing the snack with a glass of milk or a bit of fruit. I prefer bars that are south of 150 calories.
No trans fats — Watch out for trans fats, which will likely show up in the form of partially hydrogenated fat on the label.
Wholesome ingredients — A giant list of ingredients, many that you can’t pronounce, along with preservatives and artificial additives are red flags indicating a product best left on the supermarket shelf.
Kashi TLC Chewy Granola Bars Cherry Dark Chocolate — These bars feature plenty of whole grains, 4 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein and stay within the 8 grams of sugar, even with dried cherries. Plus, they pass the taste test with my kids. Other flavors are also good on the nutrition spectrum, including Peanut Peanut Butter and Dark Mocha Almond (a good one for mom).
Bunny Bars by 18 Rabbits — A petite version of the 18 Rabbits bars, this is a solid choice. Besides the cute name, they have relatively few ingredients, range from 110 to 120 calories, with 2 grams of fiber and 8 grams a sugar. The only downside is they are a little harder to find than other brands.
Cascadian Farm Oatmeal Raisin Chewy Granola Bars — These petite bars, at just 70 calories, leave room for a glass of milk to wash them down. Even at that small size, they still have 3 grams of fiber. The brand’s Dark Chocolate Almond is also a good one, though heartier at 130 calories and 5 grams of fiber. While the ingredients includes several sugar sources, the bar still manages to measure in at 8 grams.
Nature Valley Oats and Honey Granola Bar — These come two to a package. If you count just one bar as a serving, this crunchy option meets all of my criteria: Six grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, 85 calories, with the fewest and most familiar ingredients I’ve seen on a nutrition facts label (that includes the organic ones).
Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Granola Bars — Not bad at 90 calories and 7 grams of sugar, but only 1 gram of fiber.
Clif Kid ZBars — I know these are popular for many, so I thought I would include them. They rank a little high on the sugar scale, though hit the numbers on fiber and calories. The new Clif Crispy Z bars have 7 to 9 grams of sugar but not as much fiber. Trade offs.
If you have a bar you are crazy about and want to share, please do so in the comments section of this post!
PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP BARS
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1 cup roasted, salted peanuts
1/2 cup peanut butter (unsweetened)
1/2 cup roasted, salted sunflower seeds
20 Medjool dates, pitted
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9×9-inch baking pan with vegetable oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Put the oats, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, and dates in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together with the salt and vanilla, then add to the oats in the food processor, and pulse until the mixture becomes a coarse, chunky paste. Fold in the chocolate chips with a spoon. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking pan and spread evenly, gently pressing down to flatten. Bake for 35 minutes or until firm and golden.
Cool and cut into 24 bars. Store in an airtight container. They will keep for a week in the refrigerator and a month in the freezer.
Makes 24 bars.
Note: If you don’t own a 9×9-inch pan, use a more common 9×13-inch pan and simply pat the dough to the appropriate size. It won’t budge once it’s patted into place.
Recipe adapted with permission by Erika Lenkert from Healthy Eating During Pregnancy, Kyle Books, 2011