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Wow people with snacks

I periodically offer a class called "Healthy Snacks." I haven't done it for a while, and there's a gig coming up, so I'm updating my materials.

My self-interest is high. I could use new approaches at home, too. We seem to be getting a lot of unexpected guests lately (which, of course, we always welcome — as long as they call at least 20 minutes in advance). I consider it a successful visit if I can prepare food for them involving almost no work on my part — and minimal cost.

And I like it when our guests go "wow" or "my goodness, what is in this healthy-tasting and delicious dip?"

I enjoy affirmation; don't we all. But most importantly, I don't want visitors who waddle out our front door full of trans fats and too-much sodium.

This is notably more difficult because I have vowed never to purchase store-packaged snacks again — other than melba toast and those no-fat, no-taste water crackers "¦ and well, maybe pita bread, too. I'm finding it a hard promise to keep, so if you see me making a purchase that's off-limits, a gentle reminder is greatly appreciated.

Consumer Reports (February 2008) provided a rating of store-purchased snacks and concluded "snack makers still haven't found a way to cut lots of fat and maintain great taste." Think of it like this: Snacks such as tortilla and potato chips typically cost 30 to 40 cents per serving — which can be as much as 2 cents a chip. (By the way, did you know there are 10 grams of fat in a handful of Cheetos? See the importance of educating on this topic?)

Take dips as an example. We may not need them in our lives, but they do make carrot and celery strips more memorable. Salsa is best (little or no fat), and it certainly lends a needed kick to those water crackers. Guacamole is fine ("good" fat, but it's easy to overdo if you're an avocado lover). Hummus (bean dip) may be your best option.

Hummus is the hands-down favorite in our household. Make a rather uniquely healthy version by combining one 15-ounce can of (drained) garbanzo beans, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 cloves of crushed garlic, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, 1/2; cup of plain yogurt, and a pinch of salt. Blend well in a food processor. Enjoy.

If you add a few finely chopped vegetables to your hummus you really bump up the fiber content. Or, how about this variation — combine salsa and beans (rinse and drain a 15-ounce can of white beans, coarsely mash, add one cup of chunky salsa) and 1/4 cup fresh, chopped cilantro. It's good with whole-grain pita — you could even call it lunch, in case your guests linger longer.

Here's a fresh idea, perfect for the aging palate, and my personal favorite. Wash and peel a thin English cucumber, leaving a little green for color. Cut lengthwise, then cross-wise into chunks, trimming the ends. Core out the center of each chunk and fill with fat-free cream cheese mixed with chopped, dried fruit (cranberry, apricot or fig). Even if I have to say it myself — it's a "wow" treat — and I don't even like cucumbers.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.