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Sensibly slim

Forget fad diets and boring food. Slimming down and improving overall health is about making smart food choices every day. Choosing meals and snacks rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and dairy products, and lean protein is the most effective way to achieve long-term health and weight goals.

While it may be tempting to skip meals, studies show that eating smaller, nutritious portions throughout the day can help boost metabolism and aid weight loss efforts. So, if you're hungry mid-morning or mid-afternoon, grab a sensible snack that can help keep you going while satisfying those hunger pangs.

Popcorn is a whole grain food that can meet those needs. It's not only low in calories, but a good source of fiber. Fiber slows digestion, making you feel full longer. Consuming at least 3 or more ounce equivalents of whole grains per day can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases and may help with weight maintenance.

Compared to many snack foods, popcorn is low in calories. Air-popped popcorn provides only 30 calories per cup. When oil-popped, it contains only 55 calories. Even drizzled lightly with butter, it's only 90 to 120 calories per cup. And with so many ways to dress up popcorn, snacking will never be boring again.

Today's health guidelines recommend at least half your daily intake of grains should come from whole grains. That means at least three servings of whole-grain products each day. If hunger strikes and mealtime is hours away, grab a whole grain snack such as popcorn to feed the need for delicious nutrition.

For more nutritional information about popcorn, and for more popcorn recipes, visit popcorn.org.

Cheesy Pepperoni Popcorn

1/4 cup nonfat Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1/8 teaspoon dried sage
Black pepper, to taste
12 cups air-popped popcorn
3/4 cup turkey pepperoni, cut into bite-size bits
Olive-oil cooking spray

Combine Parmesan cheese, garlic powder, oregano, marjoram, basil, sage and pepper in a small bowl; mix well. Place cooked popcorn and turkey pepperoni in a large bowl; spray lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle popcorn and pepperoni with cheese mixture and toss to coat evenly. Yield: 12 cups.

Spicy Rosemary and Thyme Snack Mix

5 cups popped popcorn
1 teaspoon roasted red pepper oil
1 teaspoon fresh or dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon minced rosemary
1/4 teaspoon kosher or table salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 325 F. Spread popcorn on a baking sheet and sprinkle with roasted red pepper oil. Sprinkle with thyme, rosemary salt and pepper. Bake 7 minutes and serve warm. Yield: 1 quart, about 5 cups.

Tamari and Spice Popcorn Mix

Warning: This recipe contains peanuts.

7 cups popped popcorn
4 cups crispy corn and rice cereal
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light or dark corn syrup
1/3 cup butter
2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cayenne, optional

Preheat oven to 300 F. In a large, foil-lined baking pan, spread popcorn and cereal. Sprinkle peanuts on top; set aside. In small saucepan, stir together brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, tamari sauce, cinnamon, ginger and cayenne, if desired, over medium heat. Cook and stir until butter is melted and mixture is blended. Pour over popcorn mixture and stir to coat. Bake 30 minutes, stirring twice. Remove from oven and stir: allow to cool. Break into pieces. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container. Yield: 7 cups.

Mediterranean Popcorn

1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried mixed Italian herbs (or use fresh herbs, rosemary, basil, oregano)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 cups air-popped popcorn
1/2 cup pine nuts

In a food processor or blender, combine first four ingredients. Process to form a paste. In a small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Stir in tomato paste. Mix well. Drizzle over popcorn and toss to coat evenly. Toss in pine nuts. Serve immediately. Yield: 12 cups.

Cinnamon-Spice Berry Popcorn

3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons light margarine
1/2 cup Craisins
6 cups air-popped popcorn

Combine brown sugar, corn syrup, spices and margarine in microwave-safe bowl; cook on high heat for 2 1/2 minutes or until bubbly hot. Add Craisins to popcorn; toss with hot sugar mixture until well coated. Cool mixture before serving or store in airtight container. Yield: 6 cups.

The first step to popcorn snacking is popping perfection. And here's how to pop it right:

--Warm a heavy pan or heavy skillet. Be sure the lid is loose enough to allow steam to escape.

--Add 1/4 cup of cooking oil to the pan. Allow the oil to heat. The best popping temperature is between 400 to 460 F. Note: Oil burns at 500 F, so if your oil starts to smoke, it's too hot.

--Test the heat of the oil by dropping in one or two kernels. When the kernel spins in the oil,

you're ready to add the remaining popcorn. Pour just enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan.

--Cover and shake the pan to be certain the oil coats each kernel. When you hear the last few pops, remove the pan from heat and empty the popped popcorn into a large bowl.

--For added flavor, sprinkle warm popcorn with herbs (such as marjoram, thyme, summer savory, basil, rosemary or sage) or spices (such as garlic, dry mustard, curry or chili powder).

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