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Sunflower Seeds Are the Best Snack for the Anxious Mind

Few foods occupy your mind without requiring your full focus quite like sunflower seeds

Red, white, and blue bags of David-brand sunflower seeds stock a supermarket shelf alongside orange, white, and blue bags of pumpkin seeds. Photo by David Tonelson/Shutterstock; logo by Goldsuit

I don’t remember my first string cheese or Kudos bar or Fig Newton, but for some reason, sunflower seeds and I have an origin story.

I was 10 or 11, rushing to the car after an interfamily camping trip in central Pennsylvania, when I found a bag of them abandoned on a picnic table. They were the last item left at the campsite, and I (perhaps inaccurately) recall them bathed in a ray of glorious light. It’s like they were waiting for me.

In the backseat, as our car made its way along the turnpike, I tried them, throwing the shells out the window. Somehow they lasted all the way home, for two hours or so over a series of hills steep enough to require runaway truck ramps.

What I discovered about sunflower seeds then, and continue to love about them now, is that, as with many worthwhile things, they are about the process, as much an activity as a food. You need a setup to eat them: a vessel to hold the unshelled seeds and a cup for the hulls. To undo one from its shell, you put it between your front teeth and bite down so that it opens up at the seam. Then, with your fingers or tongue or teeth, you extract the tiny, firm seed, which barely tastes like anything. My preferred brand, David, comes coated in dill pickle, ranch, and barbecue powder, but in my opinion, sunflower seeds shouldn’t be any particular flavor. Instead, they should hit you with a raw burst of salt, enough to burn your mouth like sour candy.

I tend to prolong my meals until they take on the mood of a snack, and to draw out my snacks, too. Apples, to me, can be diced like onions, and popcorn eaten one kernel at a time. I want an endless snack, a snack that lasts forever. What I eat is less important than being able to keep eating, because what I’m after is food that lets me fidget — food that asks for a little effort, but not enough to require all my focus. I zone out in the process of taking the sunflower seeds apart, bringing me to a plane of consciousness shared by dedicated fly fishers, knitters, and meditators.

It’s hard not to self-diagnose when thinking about the seeds. Yes, they’re healthy — and when I got a little older, determined to be skinny as some other 14-year-old girls, I used to wonder if, like celery, eating them burned more calories than they contained (obviously, it does not). They’re nutritious, and in my hippie-adjacent family home, they were allowed a place on the shelf beside the muesli and nutritional yeast. They’re good for people who need to do three or four things at a time to feel content, and they come up occasionally as a topic of conversation on the “ADHD for Smart Ass Women” Facebook group I joined six months ago, after googling a little too hard one night.

Really, though, my love for them is pure. To the haters, sunflower seeds are bird food or a sorry replacement for chewing tobacco. But we all desire different things from our comforts: Some people find peace in an hour-long steak dinner, and others prefer to fidget our way through 100 small bites. To me, they are perfect, my neverending snack.