Filipino merienda refers to light snacks eaten outside the day’s three main meals. When enjoyed in the late afternoon, merienda is a lifesaver — enough to uplift spirits, save you from brain fog, and help you power through until supper.
The catch? Local merienda options aren’t always the healthiest. From street food like kwek kwek and cheese sticks to sweet kakanin, the tastiest offerings are often swimming in oil and packed with sugar. These are the secrets to their comforting qualities – the more indulgent they are, the better. But if you’re a health-conscious Pinoy who loves classic merienda fare, don't fret. You can tweak them to be a little more wholesome.
Read on to find Filipino merienda ideas reimagined to be less greasy, less sweet, and less heavy on carbs — but no less delicious.
How to Make Classic Filipino Merienda Healthier
Use oats in champorado
Champorado is a beloved chocolate porridge made with sticky rice, sugar, and tablea or chunky discs of ground cacao beans with a deep, dark cocoa flavor. It’s best served hot and topped with evaporated milk for extra creaminess. While its cacao base is rich in antioxidants, its rice component is high in simple carbs. Most people also like to sweeten their champorado with lots of white sugar.
To make this rainy-day staple more nutritious, swap the sticky rice for rolled or steel-cut oats. These filling whole grains keep you full and energized longer. And instead of white sugar, you can use lower-glycemic sweeteners like coconut sugar or honey. Love creamy champorado? Add a splash of coconut milk to your bowl for some healthy fats.
Air-fry turon and other fried goodies
Pinoys love deep-fried snacks, and turon is up there with the greats. Also known as lumpiang saging, turon is a crispy, sweet spring roll filled with sliced saba bananas and fried in oil and melted sugar. The caramel hardens as you fry to give the turon an extra layer of crunch.
Next time you make turon, try air-frying it instead. This method will still give you that satisfying crunchiness with much less oil. For best results, freeze your turon before it hits the air-fryer. And if you can’t do without that caramel sauce, consider making it separately and using it as a dip. This way, you can enjoy the added sugar in a more controlled portion.
Cook squid and fish balls without oil
Most street vendors in the Philippines sell squid and fish balls cooked in a large amount of oil. While fried is the simplest way to enjoy them, boiling is also an accepted cooking method across Asian nations. Think of Hong Kong’s curry fish balls, Malaysian spicy laksa, Chinese hotpot, and Vietnamese pho.
Make your version at home by preparing a boiling liquid. Combine water with your preferred flavorings – spices, vegetables, or Knorr Shrimp Cubes. Bring the mixture to a boil, add frozen fish or squid balls, and cook until tender. Thread the balls into bamboo skewers or serve in bowls doused in your favorite Asian sauce.
Go for whole-wheat pandesal
Filipino pandesal is famous for its soft, fluffy texture and sweetish taste. Its simplicity and versatility make it one of the most popular merienda options – plus you can also find it in every neighborhood panaderia. Dip your pandesal in coffee, have it with various sandwich spreads, or eat it on its own, a treat, especially when warm and freshly baked.
Regular pandesal is not that unhealthy, but its whole-wheat variation offers more nutritional value. Whole wheat is higher in fiber and more filling, so you’ll find yourself eating less while feeling just as satiated.
Get your Choc Nut fix with nutty energy balls
If kids had their way, they’d be gobbling up Choc Nut for merienda every chance they got. Like all good things, this treat is fine in moderation and can fit right into any healthy, balanced diet. But if you or your family get daily chocolate cravings, it may be time to try alternatives that will satisfy your sweet tooth without the sugar rush.
That’s where no-bake energy balls come in. A favorite among avid gym-goers, these protein-packed snacks are made with oats, peanut butter, and natural sweeteners like honey or dates. From there, you can add whatever mix-ins you like. For a Choc Nut-inspired energy ball, toss in some chocolate chips and chopped roasted peanuts. Combine the ingredients, roll into balls, refrigerate for a few minutes, and get ready for an energy boost.
Make ice candy with fresh fruits
Nothing is quite like enjoying ice candy in the summer heat. This refreshing treat comes in many forms. Homemade versions typically feature fresh fruit like buko (coconut), mango, and avocado blended with condensed milk and other ingredients before being funneled into cylindrical “ice candy” plastic bags. Grocery stores carry the mass-produced version of ice candy in all their neon-tinted, artificially flavored glory.
Make homemade ice candy healthier by skipping condensed milk and letting the fruit shine on its own. Remember to choose naturally sweet fruits like mango, pineapple, and watermelon. In a blender, combine them with creamy Greek yogurt and other nutrient-rich add-ons like chia seeds and cacao nibs. And if you want to minimize waste, skip the plastic bags and use silicone popsicle molds instead. Kids will find them easier to handle, too.
Try esquites, a Mexican corn salad
Sweet corn with cheese powder and butter is the ultimate grade-school snack. Cafeteria food stalls or street vendors sell it just outside campus. It’s cheap, full of cheesy goodness, and comes in tiny plastic cups that make the experience more fun. Somehow, it tastes even better during dismissal time.
If you loved this as a school kid, you might want to try the Mexican street food esquites. An upgraded version of your childhood favorite, it’s made with shucked corn, creamy mayonnaise, garlic, Cotija cheese, lime juice, chili powder, and a handful of cilantro. Esquites is fresh and vibrant and makes for a delightful mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
While most Filipino merienda favorites taste fantastic as they are, there's always room to innovate. So, if you feel inspired to make your Filipino merienda with a twist, use these ideas as a starting point. Whether you’re adjusting recipes to make them healthier or simply suit your tastes better, it's always fun to discover new ways of cooking and enjoying the food you love.