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Cooking Up Your Own Energy Bars

Athletes end up paying a ton for pre-packaged bars and gels. Here are a few recipes for homemade alternatives.

In our household, we go through a ton of energy bars, granola bars, and sugary energy gels and chews.

We both run, row and spend much of life on the go. Often, we’re looking for something quick and effective to snack on during the minutes between the boathouse and the office, or while out on the trail.

Unfortunately, the convenience of pre-packaged sports fuel comes with a price. Last weekend, I wanted to stock up on Zing bars, an all-natural, high-protein snack that’s become one of our current favorites. One local store told me that they’d give a discount for buying in bulk. Total cost for a box of 12, with the discount? $27, or more than $2 per bar. Yikes.

While the price of energy bars won’t stop me from buying them (like espresso and wine and regatta fees, they are a luxury I’ll keep paying for), I also wondered if I could supplement the store-bought fare with my own homemade creations. Sure, I’m unlikely to spend every Sunday whipping up granola snacks for the week, but some time in the kitchen every now and then seems feasible. 

For help, I turned to my athletic friends. Many of them have experimented with energy concoctions, and some cook these recipes regularly. All use ingredients you can find in grocery stores.

Jess’ Energy Bars

Jess Mullen, a Seattle nutritionist through Death Valley, creates and cooks her own healthy snacks. She follows the paleo diet, which emphasizes meats, vegetables and nuts, and excludes processed and refined grains and sugars.

Below are two of Jess’ recipes, both of which are considered paleo. Jess notes that she likes her homemade energy bars because they aren’t overly sweet and are made from real food ingredients. She also adds, however, that both recipes are calorically dense, so while they make great athletic fuel, someone might not want to eat them mindlessly while sitting in front of the television.

I’ve munched on the first (chocolate coconut energy bars) while running/hiking Mailbox Peak in the Cascade Mountains and found them a tasty, effective option. Not only were the bars easy to carry along in a small backpack, but they digested quickly and gave us all an instant energy burst.

More of Jess’ recipes can be found on her website.  

Jess’ Chocolate Coconut Energy Bars

12 edjool dates, seeded and chopped (makes about 1 cup)

3 tablespoons cacao powder (or unsweetened cocoa powder)

½ cup dry roasted, salted almonds (Jess uses salted almonds because she is always looking for ways to incorporate more salt into the foods she eats during a long run.)

¾ cup shredded coconut (could use oats, seeds or another dry food alternative if not a fan of coconut)

Place all ingredients into a food processor and pulse until thoroughly mixed. Contents will appear loose (like they won’t stay together) but don’t worry!  Place mixture onto cutting board and press together, removing as much air as possible.  Form a tight square/rectangle of whatever desired shape (I like mine to be about ½ inch tall and square). Cut into individual pieces. 

Single Servings: 12

Prep Time: ~10 minutes

Jess’ Lemon Coconut Bars

The tartness of the lemon zest and the nuttiness of the walnuts and sesame seeds cut the sweetness of dates in this light, refreshing bar.

1 cup chopped, pitted medjool dates (about 12)
1 cup raw walnuts
½ cup sesame seeds
1-2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 cup unsweetened dried coconut flakes

Place all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse and blend until thoroughly mixed. The mixture should have minimal stickiness. Place mixture on cutting board and fold repeatedly, adding more coconut or chopped walnuts if too sticky.  Form tight square or rectangle of desired size and cut into individual pieces.

Single servings: ~12

Prep time: ~10 minutes

Another Energy Bar Recipe

For an alternative energy bar recipe, I turned to another athlete. Friend Joel Ballezza works as a social media consultant for Brooks Running, competes in ultramarathons and operates the endurance athletics website Ultralete. Joel and his girlfriend, pilates instructor and runner Sophia Walker, discovered a simple no-bake recipe on the Enlightened Cooking website for homemade Clif-like energy bars. The bars use rice cereal, oats, flaxseed, nuts, dried fruit, and other ingredients, and have been a staple in Joel and Sophia's pantry.

Joel notes that the brown rice syrup is the most expensive ingredient in the following recipe, but one bottle will last many batches. Joel paid less than $20 for the ingredients and had enough to make 100+ bars. He said he typically heads to the bulk foods section of his local grocery store to keep ingredient costs low. You can access the entire recipe here.

Sesame Bars

For a final snack bar recipe, I turned to my boyfriend, Charlie. He’s a perpetually hungry rower with an office job, so he’s always looking for snacks to fuel his high metabolism. He’s a fan of these super simple bars, which he discovered on this Cookie Recipe website.

Easy Sesame Bars

2 cups of sesame seeds
1 cup of crushed peanuts
3 Tbs of honey
2 Tbs of sugar

Turn the saucepan on medium heat. Melt the honey and sugar together until sugar has dissolved. Add the sesame seeds and crushed peanuts until the mixture is moist and well combined. Keep stirring the mixture over medium heat for 5 minutes until the sesame nuts are golden. Pour the mixture into a 20" x 15" baking tray and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. While still warm cut with a sharp knife into any size bars you desire. Let the mixture cool and then refrigerate for 1 hour until the bars are firm. Remove the bars from the tray and serve.

These sesame bars can be kept for up to 1 month in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Energy Gels

Endurance athletes often spend just as much money on sugary gels such as Gu and Clif Shots as energy bars. The gels provide sugar, electrolytes and carbohydrates in an easily digestible semi-liquid format. While energy gels aren’t exactly an enticing afternoon snack, they do provide a quick boost mid-exercise.

Since each gel typically retails for more than $1–and endurance athletes can easily plow through a number of these during workouts–maintaining a Gu supply isn’t cheap. However, the convenience factor of purchasing gels is huge. The single-use packets may produce waste, but they also mean you don’t end up with a sticky gel mess all over your hands and body.

Still, some intrepid athlete chefs cook up their own gels and then figure out ways to store them. Some use plastic baggies. Others buy reusable small containers, such as Hammer flasks or Gu flasks.

I’m still unsure about whether the mess of cooking and storing sticky gels makes up for the cost savings, but I’ll give it a whirl one of these days. For now, runner Ben Luedke passes on this energy gel recipe from cyclist Derek Nolek on Active.com, which uses honey, blackstrap molasses, soy protein isolate, salt, and water.

Ben whips up this energy gel every few months. He notes that this recipe contains ‎25 grams of carbs, 45 milligrams of sodium, 35 milligrams of potassium, and the vitamins C and E. He also adds that you could buy maltodextrin to add to the mix also, which provides long-lasting carbohydrates and is cheap when bought in bulk.

Ben has found the mixture to be a bit sweet for his taste, and feels he could play with the flavors a bit more. However, the gels have proved more than adequate in giving him an energy boost while running.

To store the gel, Ben fills 2- and 3-ounce plastic squeeze tubes from REI. He prefers the 3-ounce size, as he doesn’t have to use as many tubes that way.

Editor's note: Heidi Dietrich is editor of Edmonds Patch.

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