A snack is a portion of food, smaller than a regular meal, generally eaten between meals. Snacks come in a variety of forms including packaged snack foods and other processed foods, as well as items made from fresh ingredients at home.
Traditionally, snacks are prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. Often cold cuts, fruits, leftovers, nuts, biscuits, sandwiches, chocolate, popcorn and sweets are used as snacks. The Dagwood sandwich was originally the humorous result of a cartoon character's desire for large snacks. With the spread of convenience stores, packaged snack foods became a significant business. Snack foods are typically designed to be portable, quick, and satisfying. Processed snack foods, as one form of convenience food, are designed to be less perishable, more durable, and more portable than prepared foods. They often contain substantial amounts of sweeteners, preservatives, and appealing ingredients such as chocolate, peanuts, and specially-designed flavors (such as flavored potato chips).
A snack eaten shortly before going to bed or during the night may be called a (mid)night snack.
In the United States, a popular snack food is the peanut. Peanuts first arrived from South America via slave ships, and became incorporated into African-inspired cooking on southern plantations. After the Civil War, the taste for peanuts spread north, where they were incorporated into the culture of baseball games and vaudeville theaters.
Along with popcorn (also of South American origin), snacks bore the stigma of being sold by unhygienic street vendors. The middle-class etiquette of the Victorian era (1837–1901) categorized any food that did not require proper usage of utensils as lower-class.
Pretzels were introduced to North America by the Dutch via New Amsterdam in the 17th century. In the 1860s, the snack was still associated with immigrants, unhygienic street vendors, and saloons. Due to loss of business during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), pretzels underwent rebranding to make them more appealing to the public. Packaging revolutionized snack foods, allowing sellers to reduce contamination risk, while making it easy to advertise brands with a logo. Pretzels boomed in popularity, bringing many other types of snack foods with it. By the 1950s, snacking had become an all-American pastime, becoming an internationally recognized emblem of middle American life.
Government bodies such as Health Canada recommend that people make a conscious effort to eat more healthy, natural snacks - such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, and cereal grains – while avoiding high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food.
A 2010 study showed that children in the United States snacked on average six times per day, approximately twice as often as American children in the 1970s. This represents consumption of roughly 570 calories more per day than U.S. children consumed in the 1970s.
A Tufts University Department of Psychology empirical study titled "Effect of an afternoon confectionery snack on cognitive processes critical to learning" found that a consumption of a confectionery snack in the afternoon improved spatial memory in the study's sample group, but in the area of attention performance it had a mixed effect.