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Published on January 18, 2018

popcorn in a brown paper bag

Enjoy Popcorn Guilt-Free

Snacks with huge serving sizes that don’t destroy your diet are hard to find. There’s one snack that lets you get wild with the portion size – popcorn.

It’s also a whole-grain, and when prepared with some common sense, it can truly be a lifesaver – or at least help you eat better in the New Year.

“You can crunch and munch a lot of healthy popcorn and sometimes that’s what we crave,” said Avera Heart Hospital Registered Dietitian Lauren Cornay, RD, LN. “The cool thing about it is it’s a whole-grain food as well. So if you can enjoy it plain, it’s better.”

Preparation of this food is important.

“The biggest hang-up with popcorn is the microwave bags as there are still a few of them out there that include trans-fats in the ingredients. If you see hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list, put that one back on the shelf,” she said. “There’s a simple approach to microwaving popcorn that can save you money and avoid all those preservatives and false flavors.”

You can make your own microwave popcorn with a brown paper sack. Just add two tablespoons of uncooked kernels to the sack and then close the top of the bag securely and microwave on high. You’ll avoid all the bad stuff that goes into the highly processed varieties that are out there.

“Cooking times will vary but you can start with 60-90 seconds. When there are about three seconds between pops, it’s done,” said Cornay. “Those two tablespoons will give you three cups of popcorn, which is the recommended serving size.”

Popping corn on the stove is another good choice. Hold the butter and instead use an olive-oil based cooking spray. Canola oil is also a better choice than popping in butter.

“If you’re in love with cheese flavors, you’re better off using a real cheese, but not a lot, and adding that to the hot popped corn. A little bit of finely shredded white cheddar or some Parmesan cheese is a better choice than a powdered cheese-flavored seasoning.”

Another nice thing about popcorn is its fiber content; that same three cups you whipped up with your brown bag is adding about 4 grams of fiber. If you’re not much of a cook, there are some good options, Cornay said.

“We’ve looked at a number of the prepared popcorn brands and they’re not too bad, as snacks go. I always encourage people to look at the ingredients and if possible, get choices that have lower sodium and fewer overall additives,” she said. “The more natural, the better, and even some with cheese are not deal-breakers. But developing a taste for plain popcorn is a habit we can all get behind.”

Richly sweetened popcorn choices with loads of caramel are OK as a once-in-a-while treat, and going to the movies and having a sensible-sized portion is better than a box of sugar and chocolate.

“Plain popcorn, especially at the movies, has a great taste on its own, so try it out and don’t put a ton of salt on it and you may find you have a new favorite taste,” she said. “Share a small bag with someone. There’s some good stuff in popcorn, but it takes a little practice to maximize its food value without making it an indulgent food.”

Three-Cheese Popcorn


  • 8 cups hot popcorn
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup white cheddar cheese
  • Salt to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Toss hot popcorn with shredded cheese.
  3. Spread mixture into a layer on a baking sheet (you may need more than one).
  4. Bake until the cheddar melts, about three minutes.
  5. Season with salt. 

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