Old Vegetables, New Ways!

Its resolution time again.  For so many of us, January is fraught with avoidance- avoiding sugar, chips, laziness, certain people, certain trains of thought, too much TV…the list could go on and on.  While avoiding things that are bad for us can be good for us, I think that sometimes we focus too much on what NOT to do instead of what we CAN do.
 If you add things to your life rather than take them away you may end up feeling happier and more positive.  Eventually, it becomes easier to naturally avoid the things we know are bad for us because we have replaced them with so many good things.  With that in mind, why not add some exciting ways to eat what’s best for you- versatile and healthful veggies. Here are 5 suggestions for new ways to use the same old vegetables in the New Year.
Steam 1 head of cauliflower.  Meanwhile, saute 4 minced garlic cloves and 1 sprig minced rosemary in 1 tablespoon olive oil.  When the cauliflower is done, mash well and mix in oil, 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 cup 1% milk.  Season with salt and pepper.
Thinly slice a large zucchini.  Top with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and 2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs of your choice.
Spray 3 bell peppers with cooking spray and roast in a 450 degree oven, turning occasionally until charred on all sides.  Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix together 1 tablespoon capers, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese and 1 teaspoon dried oregano.  Remove the skins from the peppers, slice and toss with the caper mixture.  Eat as a side dish or on top of a slice of toasted whole grain Italian bread
Cut a head of broccoli into florets and toss with 1 tablespoon canola oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.  Roast in a 425 degree oven for 15-20 minutes or until broccoli is browned and caramelized.  Toss with 1 tablespoon green curry paste and serve.
Peel and shred 1 lb. carrots, preferably in a food processor.  Toss with 1/4 cup feta cheese, 1/2 cup plain fat free Greek yogurt, 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 2 tablespoons freshly chopped oregano, 1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives, 1 tablespoon honey and salt and pepper to taste.

Pantry Basics

My friends and family often laugh when they look at my pantry.  “There’s nothing to eat!” they inevitably exclaim.  Other than pretzels, cereal and some nuts, they’re right- I don’t generally keep a lot of ready-to-eat food around.  Even my fridge and freezer are packed with raw ingredients rather than bags and packages of snacks and meals.  This isn’t just because I love to cook.  Having a pantry stocked with raw ingredients and not pre-made foods can not only save money, but can also help you eat healthier by cutting out on preservatives and calories.  There are certain staples that most of us know to have by now:  brown rice, whole wheat pasta, olive oil, vinegars, natural peanut butter, and milk to name a few, but I’d like to give you a list of 7 key things every healthy pantry should have (even though there are many, many more).  All of these items are versatile and pack a huge amount of flavor and nutrition for a relatively small amount of calories.  I’ve included a quick recipe idea after each one and encourage you to stock up and get cooking!

1.  Canned beans are perfect for spreads, thickening soups, quick bean salads, topping to a green salad, or…

A delicious side dishSaute onions, garlic and white beans for 15 minutes and top with fresh chopped basil.  Just make sure to rinse your beans thoroughly to get rid of the excess sodium.

2.  Canned tomatoes can be used in soups, quick pasta sauces, a base for a sauce for meat or chicken, or…

Salsa…Puree 1 can diced tomatoes with diced red onion, fresh garlic, lime juice, hot pepper and cilantro.

3.  Dried fruits are a great addition to savory chicken and meat dishes, rice, fresh green salads, trail mixes, or featured in…

An easy yogurt topping…Cook 1 cup chopped dried fruit in 1 tablespoon white wine, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of honey.

4.  Low fat/fat free yogurt can be used as a substitute for sour cream, heavy cream or buttermilk for dips, dressings, marinades for chicken and meat, or can be used as…

A sandwich spread…Mix 1/2 cup yogurt with 2 tablespoons mixed herbs, 1 clove chopped garlic, salt and pepper

5.  Frozen spinach is a healthy addition to soups, sauteed vegetables, spreads, dips, and sandwiches or…

With some delicious pasta…Defrost and squeeze out spinach and saute with 1 bunch chopped scallions, 1 pint cherry tomatoes, and 3 cloves of sliced garlic.  When done add 1/4 cup cooking water from pasta, toss with pasta and add a light sprinkling of fresh parmesan cheese.

6.  Low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock is ideal for sauce, soup, rice, beans or…

Cooking down hearty spring greens…Saute 1 bunch greens with 1 tsp olive oil and 1 sliced sweet onion just until the greens begin to wilt, add the stock until it just covers the greens and cook partially covered until the greens are very soft and very delicious.

7. Vinegars add lots of flavor to food without any calories and are great in sauces, dressings and marinades.  Or try…

Balsamic caramelized onions…Thinly slice 2 sweet onions and saute with 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat.  Stir occasionally and when nicely browned turn the temperature to high.  Add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar and let bubble until most of the moisture cooks off.  Use to top your favorite chicken or meat!

Organic…and healthy?

Just when you think you’re doing something virtuous and working towards living a healthier lifestyle, a new article comes out and makes you second guess yourself, AGAIN!  This time, we seem to be hearing a lot of bad press about organic food.  The New York Times recently published a review of an article from Stanford University stating that organic foods just aren’t that healthy.  What has followed has been utter confusion on what is and is not healthy and how to best understand how foods are labeled.  So, are you ready for some answers?

The organic label has never meant that the food which bears its label is more likely to help you lose weight or is more likely to contain good-for you nutrients.  Organic foods are simply grown without the use of chemical pesticides, which makes them better for the environment and for encouraging agricultural diversity.  The potential heath risks of pesticides in foods have not been adequately studied, which means that scientists can’t fully rule out any long-term risks of pesticides, hormones or genetic modification.  So, although organic foods may not be more nutrient-rich, there are certainly many other compelling reasons to buy organic.

On the other hand, organic foods often travel many miles and pass through many hands before they arrive in your local grocery store’s produce department.  The more time between when a food is plucked from the ground and when it reaches your hungry tummy, the more nutrient loss occurs.  For this reason, local food has been shown to be more nutritious than organic foods in many cases.  Additionally, frozen fruits and vegetables are often much higher in nutrients since they are freshly picked and then preserved by the quick freezing process.

In the end, whether or not you eat organic is not going to make or break your healthy lifestyle.  Its much better to eat all conventional produce and to fill your meals and snacks with fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy than to fill your shopping cart with organic frozen dinners, cereals, chips, bars and snacks.  Kids tend to store the residues from pesticides more readily than adults, so that may be a good reason to feed your children primarily organic foods.  If you feel like money is just too tight to buy organic but want to do something, try a mix of local foods and avoid the Dirty Dozen (also check out the clean 15).

School lunch suggestions

I won’t waste your time with my witty banter, I’ll just get straight to the goods that you really want- school lunch ideas for your picky, hungry kids!  Here’s ideas for the 5 days of the week, plus a bonus cause I like you.

1.  Turkey and cheese with spinach rolled up in a whole wheat wrap and cut in rounds (like sushi!)

2.  Make your own lunchables- pack whole wheat crackers, pieces of ham or turkey, all-natural cheese, and veggie sticks

3.  Rice balls!  Make brown rice and season with whatever spices your child likes.  Take pieces of leftover grilled chicken, meat or fish and form the rice in a ball around the meat.  Serve with a dipping sauce like soy sauce with sesame oil

4.  Make a black bean dip with black beans, onions, tomato, lime juice and spices and serve with all natural corn chips and veggies for dipping

5.  Sesame noodles with chicken and grilled veggies- kids surprisingly LOVE this. Toss 1 lb cooked whole wheat spaghetti with 1/4 cup tahini, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1 tablespoon canola oil.

6.  BBQ chicken salad on whole wheat roll.  Just shred some precooked chicken and combine with plenty of chopped veggies, a bit of mayo and your child’s favorite bbq sauce.



Organized and healthy school lunches

The quandary of what to pack your child for school lunch rivals the, “What should I make for dinner?” challenge.  Kids tend to be picky about their lunch, they want to follow lunchroom trends, and they will often mysteriously bring home their lunchbag untouched, giving only a shoulder shrug when asked why they didn’t eat their meal.  This is the first in a 2-part series that will help you figure out organizing and executing delicious school lunches that promise to be eaten.  Before we get to lunch ideas, lets first discuss how you can make easy and delicious lunches that your child will actually eat!

Make a plan with your child

Don’t unilaterally decide what your 3rd grader wants for lunch, and don’t ask at 7pm as they are getting ready for bed after a long day.  Instead, make a “lunch planning session” where you can talk about ideas and options.  Make the meeting fun for them- have snacks, pick out pictures from food magazines, or “play” business meeting with them.

Have your child participate in making lunch

How much your child is able to participate will obviously depend on their age, but if you can involve them in the process they will be sure to be more interested.  Have them cut veggies with a plastic knife, spread peanut butter on a bread, portion crackers and cheese into ziplocs, or count out almonds and cranberries.

Pre-prepare all of the lunch components at the beginning of the week

On a Sunday afternoon spend 30-45 minutes chopping veggies, slicing cheese, portioning pasta, making tuna salad, etc.  Put all of the components for your child’s lunch in set areas in the fridge so that everything is ready to go when your 1st grader is running to catch the school bus.  You can even encourage you child to assemble their own lunch with the pre-packaged goodies from the fridge and pantry.

Widen the horizons of what you consider to be “appropriate” for lunch

Its okay to give your child leftovers from last nights dinner for lunch, especially if they loved it.  It also okay to give breakfasty food, an assortment of different healthy snacks from all of the food groups, or a few different dips and dippers.  The more you keep things interesting and laid back, the more they will eat and the less stressed you will be!

Next week check out 15 creative and fun school lunch ideas, but in the meantime, look at all the great stuff that The Container Store has for school lunches!

Easy tips for stocking a healthy freezer

You may have noticed that your grocery store has cleared out the “Seasonal Aisle” of barbecue condiments and grilling tools to make room for lunch boxes and thermoses.  Yes, the summer is ending, which can only mean for parents and students alike that the school year is beginning.  This means more activities, more running around, and less time to cook and eat delicious and healthy food.  While you could wait until mid-September to realize that you just don’t have time to make anything for weeknight dinners other than frozen meals, you could also get organized and take action now.  If you spend just a few days doing some serious cooking now, you could have your weeknight meals set for the next month or even more.  Read of for some seriously helpful tips on what to do and how to do it.

1.  Make 1 dish meals that only need one accompaniment, such as a salad or brown rice.  Think tomato sauce with ground turkey and roasted veggies- all you need to do is defrost and add some pasta!

2.  If they’re not in sauces, grains, potatoes, pasta and vegetables don’t freeze well.  So don’t try it, or make them in a sauce!

3.  Never freeze twice.  Foods can only be frozen once in their raw state and once in their cooked state.

4.  For casseroles that get baked in the oven (like baked ziti or enchiladas), save the baking step ’till after you defrost- the food will taste fresher AND you will be able to freeze any leftovers (see tip 3).

5.  To save room in your freezer, freeze anything you can in large ziploc freezer bags.  Label the bags with the date and dish and stack them flat.

6.  Make a plan!  Figure out which recipes you want to make, what your shopping list is, which things take the longest, (do those first!) and which cooking vessels and tools you will need.

7.  Check out this incredibly helpful FDA website on food safety in the freezer and fridge.



Juicing: Healthy food buzzwords 3

Juicing, is the trend of squeezing and mixing fruit and vegetable juices into elixirs that are touted to prevent cancer, help you lose weight, and cure many chronic illnesses, is not new.  Juicing was popular among the Woodstock-going, authority-be-damning , slightly crusty young hippies of the 1970’s and continued to enjoy popularity as those hippies reintroduced themselves into capitalism, made some money, and bought juicers.  But just because juicing has been all the rage twice in recent history, does that automatically mean that it truly is a healthy-living-seeker’s dream?  Bellbottoms have been brought back a few times since they were introduced…are they really so great?

The claims that juicing fanatics profess for this practice don’t really hold any water (pun intended).  There is no evidence-based research that proves that drinking a mix of kale, apple and carrot juice will prevent cancer or be better in any way than if you just eat some kale, apples and carrots (in a stir-fry with some nutmeg and garlic perhaps?  Yum!)  And which do you think will be more filling- the juice or the whole fruits and veggies?  Juicing may help you lose weight in the beginning, but thats just because you will be eating very few calories.  You will probably end up extremely hungry and after just a few days will wash down your juice with 2 cheeseburgers and fries.

Many proponents of juicing recommend the practice for those who have a hard time getting down their fruits and veggies, but I’m quite sure that if you don’t like swiss chard sauteed with garlic and red peppers and topped with a sprinkle of parmesan, you’re probably not going to like its raw juice mixed with beets and oranges.

Yes, a glass of orange juice does have more vitamin C than an orange, but a single orange already has over 100% of the vitamin C you need in a day.  Because vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, any extra you take in will go right back out in your urine.  A similar principle applies to all of the vitamins and minerals found in other fruits and vegetables.  Plus, lets not forget that juice has next to no fiber, which is essential for your digestive health.

So whats the takeaway from this?  If you like that $8 blend of spinach, beets, lemon and grapefruit at the fancy gym on your way home from work, sure, go ahead and suck it down.  Fruit and vegetable juices as an occasional snack are perfectly fine and healthy.  However, juices should never be viewed as a meal replacement or a diet.  Enjoy chewing your food rather than slurping it and you will be much better off!

Interesting summer vegetables: grilled to perfection

The USDA recommendation to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables is excellent advice, but how much steamed broccoli can you eat?  For those of us who take our veggie eating seriously, are we seriously going to continue to simply roast, saute, steam and grill our veggies and toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper for the rest of our lives?  Do summer barbecues always have to feature grilled peppers, zucchini and eggplant?  Simply prepared vegetables taste delicious and are easy to prepare, but sometimes, don’t you just want more?  I’m not going to try and tackle all possible vegetable cooking techniques, but since its still grilling season, read on for 10 interesting things to do with 10 interesting vegetables.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can transform that half of your plate!  (Keep your eye out for a post this winter on roasting)

1.  Grill large kohlrabi slices with cumin, cinnamon, salt, pepper and olive oil.  When done toss with pieces of dried apricots and pistachios. 

2.  Cut head of romaine lettuce in half.  Brush with olive oil and grill until wilted and use as the base for your favorite salad.

3.  Halve and pit an avocado.  Grill cut half about 2 minutes and fill space where pit was with a fresh tomato salsa.  Serve as a dip. 

4.  Cut medium radishes in half and toss with ground mustard, salt and pepper.  Grill on both sides and toss with lemon juice and fresh thyme

5. Toss green beans with Chinese 5 spice powder and peanut oil.  Lay across grill and cook 2 minutes.  Remove and toss with a bit of soy sauce

6.  Slice cauliflower vertically into large steaks and season with curry powder, garam masala and cayenne pepper.  Grill on each side and top with a dollop of fat free plain yogurt.

7.  Toss broccolini with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Grill on each side and immediately combine with parmesan, sundried tomato pieces and chopped olives.

8.  Thinly slice beets and red onion and toss with olive oil, dried oregano, salt and pepper.  Grill on each side and top with feta.

9.  Toss okra and cherry tomatoes with smoked paprika, olive oil, salt and white pepper and place on skewers.  Grill on each side and top with fresh thyme.

10.  Whisk together olive oil, salt, pepper, coriander and fresh cilantro together and brush onto large slices of fennel.  Grill a few minutes per side.   When done, toss with a bit of balsamic vinegar.

Nutritionally dense vs. light foods: enjoying the extras!

By now, I think you know that 200 calories of ice cream does not pack the same nutritional value as 200 calories of peanut butter.  But why is that?  We Registered Dietitians answer the question with calorie density.  Simply put, calorie density is the calories of a food in relation to the weight of a food.  However, calorie density means so much more and demands your attention if you are aiming to live and eat healthier.

Think of it this way: most people need 1500-2000 calories per day to maintain their weight, which when it comes down to it, really isn’t that many calories.  So, whats a better way of hitting the 2000 calorie mark- potato chips, egg McMuffins and fried chicken, or whole grain pretzels, egg and low fat cheese on wheat bread and a grilled chicken cutlet?  I think you know the answer.

Most of your foods should be nutritionally dense, but….mmmmm…..unhealthy junkfood with ingredients I can’t pronounce, salty fatty chips, sweet, alluring desserts…these foods all seem like no-no’s in healthy living, right?  Well…not really.

If you try and deprive yourself of some of your most enticing food weaknesses, chances are you’ll end up on a bender and could wake up grease covered, surrounded by empty wrappers, and slightly nauseous.  Ok, maybe that’s taking things a step too far, but you get the picture.  Personally, I’m sick of health-foodies telling everyone to throw away their oreos and make brownies with splenda and evaporated skim milk.  Enter discretionary calories and the difference between a snack (nutritionally dense) and what we’ll call an “extra” (nutritionally light)

Snacks are vital to your nutrition.  They keep you full between meals, provide you with the opportunity to consume additional protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and other essentials to a healthy diet.  Snacks can and should taste great, but they should always be healthy and nutritionally dense.

Extra foods are just that- extra.  As long as you’re eating an otherwise healthy, well-balanced diet, there is absolutely no problem with having 150-200 calories of “extra” foods throughout the day.  Have 1/2 cup of ice cream, a small brownie, a serving of sweet and salty chex mix, or a strawberry daiquiri and ENJOY IT!


Cooking healthy

Cooking healthy isn’t just about steaming spinach and grilling chicken. There are plenty of easy adjustments you can make every day in the kitchen to make your cooking and eating healthier! Here are 10 simple things you can do.

1. Measure your oil. It only take 3 extra seconds and washing one extra spoon, but you’ll end up using a lot less! Generally, you shouldn’t need much more than 1 tablespoon of oil in a dish that serves 4
2. Replace half of the butter in baked goods with applesauce and half of the flour with whole wheat flour. This doesn’t mean that you should now feel licensed to eat double portions, but it does mean that what you are eating is packing with more vitamins and fiber and less fat!
3. Trim the fat and skin off of all meats before cooking
4. Refrigerate soups and sauces and skim the excess fat off of the top
5. Add at least 2 different colored vegetables to your rice, pasta or potato- you’ll end up eating less starch and more veggies!
6. Leave the skin on fruits and vegetables whenever possible for added fiber
7. Remember the dirty dozen of conventional foods and try to always buy those items organic
8. Try not to blacken foods when grilling or pan searing- that black stuff is pretty carcinogenic, especially if you eat it 2 or more times a week
9. Use lots of spices and herbs so that you can use a little less salt
10. Use beans to thicken soups instead of potatoes