I spent the better part of my twenties eating out of my backpack.
My twenties meant graduate school, and graduate school meant working a ridiculous number of jobs, including, but not limited to, fitness instructor, sociology instructor, food columnist, and personal trainer. (Oh, and then there was the business of being a graduate student and completing my degrees.)
To borrow a word from our commander-in-chief, this took considerable strategery in the planning and packing of meals and snacks to sustain me through the day. All told, I did my best to stuff assorted Tupperware and baggies full of healthy vegetables, gorp, trail mix, dried fruit, granola, salads, sandwiches, and leftovers.
But one can only carry so many pounds of food on one’s back without feeling the rush down the slippery slope to hobo-hood. I needed a lightweight solution, and I found it in an all-too-convenient wrapper: energy bars.
In retrospect, it was a deal with the devil: lighten the load, but lose the flavor (and eventually, after as many bars as I consumed, the will to live). Energy bars have come a long way in recent years, but my dependence occurred in the late nineties, a time when manufacturers were still determining how to make energy bars taste like food.
A few winners emerged early (e.g., Balance bars), but I stomached hundreds (thousands?) of losers, many of which had the flavor and texture of a peanut butter-infused sponge, with a soupçon of band-aids and a coating of chocolate ex-lax.
At some point I came to my senses and headed to the kitchen to make my own.
An energy bar, it turns out, requires little time, effort, or expertise to prepare. It’s not rocket science, and only minimal kitchen science: combine some high energy ingredients (e.g., nuts, dried fruits, seeds, cereal), hold it all together with some edible “glue” (e.g., nut or seed butter, honey, maple syrup), pop into the oven for a few minutes (or, as you’ll see in some posts to come, no-baking at all), and then cut into bars.
And the results? Delicious, almost endlessly versatile, and far less expensive to boot.
I’ll be sharing some of the recipes I’ve developed over the past years in the days to come. They’ve helped me return, in full flavor, from the living dead of bad-bar addiction. I’ve got several favorites, and I’m working on my own rendition of LARA bars (these only came to the scene a year or two ago).
For now, take number one: my 10-minute, whole grain bar, loaded with fruits, nuts, seeds, and (praise be), excellent flavor and texture.
These bars are crisp-chewy and keep for days (or weeks, if frozen) when tightly wrapped. I make them over and over because the steps and proportions are so easy to remember (simple to memorize) and I can vary the combinations of nuts, seeds, fruits, syrups, and nut butters almost endlessly (see my post about Non-Perishable Healthy Snacks for a list of dreid fruit, nuts, seeds and nut/seed butter, as well as some recommendations for GOOD ready-made energy bars, like LARA and GNU).
An added bonus: children (or I should say “child”—my 19 month old) love them; they are slightly reminiscent of rice crispy bars, but with far more substance.
Easy Whole Grain, Fruit and Nut Energy Bars
Natural nut butter (any variety) works just as well as traditional prepared peanut butter in this recipe. But if you use the former, add a pinch of salt to the recipe.
3 cups puffed whole grain cereal (e.g., puffed wheat or Kashi)
1/2 cup chopped nuts or seeds (or a combination)
1/2 (or up to 3/4) cup chopped dried fruit (one fruit, or a combination)
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1/3 cup creamy nut or seed butter (e.g. peanut, cashew, almond, soy; natural style is fine)
1/2 cup honey (or brown rice syrup, light molasses, sorghum, or maple syrup)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9x9-inch square metal baking pan foil; spray with nonstick cooking spray.
In a large bowl mix the cereal, nuts, dried fruit and (optional) flaxseed; set aside.
Place the nut butter and honey in small heavy saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly for about 1 minute until bubbly and smooth. Pour hot mixture over cereal mixture in bowl, stirring to blend (mix well to coat all of the cereal). Transfer mixture to prepared pan. Using a large square of wax paper or foil, firmly press mixture down into pan to firmly compact.
Bake until just golden around edges, about 10 minutes. Cool completely. Remove bars using foil lines and cut into 16 bars or squares. Makes 16 servings.
Nutrition per Serving (1 bar):Calories 121; Fat 6.0g (sat 0.8g, mono 1.8 g, poly 3.1g); Protein 3.2g; Cholesterol 0mg; Carbohydrate 16.3g; Sodium 28.2mg.
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1)
A Few Flavor Variations to Get You Started:
Cherry-Pepita (My favorite!): Use tart dried cherries as the fruit, and lightly salted roasted pepitas (green pumpkin seeds) in place of the nuts.
Cashew-Ginger (My second favorite!): Use roasted cashews for the nuts, dates (or dates & apricots) for the fruit; Add 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger, and (optional) 1 teaspoon of toasted sesame oil to the nut-butter mixture.
Cranberry-Pecan: Use dried cranberries as the fruit, and toasted pecans as the nuts; add a pinch of ground cinnamon to the nut butter mixture.
Apple Pie: Combine 1/2 cup chopped dried apples and 1/4 cup chopped raisins for the fruit, and use toasted walnuts for the nuts; add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon to the nut butter mixture.
Apricot Almond: Use toasted almonds for the nuts and chopped dried apricots for the fruit; add 1/2 teaspoon almond extract to the nut butter mixture.
Chocolate or Carob Chip: Replace the fruit with 1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips, chopped bittersweet chocolate, or carob chips. I like to add a teaspoon of vanilla to the nut butter mixture when I make these.
Spice it Up: A touch of cinnamon, ginger or five-spice power? It’s all good, so be as creative as you like.