Stocking the kitchen for quick meals

Is this a common dinner scenario? The kids just got home from their afters chool event, mom and dad arrived late from work, and the dog is barking at the door. Everyone is hungry. Will dinner be take-out fried chicken, burgers, or boxed macaroni and cheese? None of the above if the pantry holds a selection of nutritious foods to make meal preparation easy and satisfying.

Start with pantry items.

  • Whole grains including brown rice, barley, quinoa, and couscous come in handy. Choose quick-cooking varieties for convenience. Whole grain breads, pitas, and pastas are other grain ideas.
  • Canned versions of dried beans and lentils are good for salad additions and in roll-ups or casseroles.  Rinse first to clear out extra sodium.
  • Other canned items include low sodium soups and broths, fruit, tomato products, and veggies.
  • Canned meats, sardines, tuna, and salmon can be added to casseroles, grilled sandwiches, and salads.
  • Nuts and nut butters add protein and good fats to meals and snacks. Seeds and their oils along with olive and canola oils also contribute health fats.
  • Both sweet and white potatoes are quick to prepare in the microwave.
  • Seasonings are important for adding flavor. Garlic and onion powders (not salt), Italian herbs, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, wine vinegars, and low-sodium soy sauce are just a few ideas.
  • Fresh onions and garlic have their place, also, in the well-stocked kitchen.

Next consider the fridge.

  • Low or no-fat dairy items such as yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, and hard cheeses add protein and are great as toppings or casseroles additions.
  • Fresh greens including romaine, radicchio, endive, turnip tops and spinach make great salads and sides.
  • Baby carrots, celery, cucumbers, and sweet peppers can satisfy hungry kids as a snack or pre-meal treat.
  • Eggs can be made into an omelet with potatoes and other vegetables, or used as a base for a casserole, or just scrambled with chopped meat for a quick, nutritious and inexpensive meal. (And, eating one egg a day is fine for most folks.)

Don’t forget the freezer. Besides meats, other items are helpful to have on hand.

  • Frozen fruit and vegetables of all types, even diced onion and green peppers, are available.
  • Fish in individual servings are quick to prepare. Some need to be thawed during the day in the fridge. Choose those without breading to reduce calories and fat. No fish sticks, please.
  • Veggie burgers are a quick fix, too, and available in many flavors.  I like the Dr. Praegers brand.  (Disclosure: I have no connection to this company.)

In general, look for no-salt or low-salt varieties of canned goods and pick fruits canned in water or their own juice. Go for grains that list a whole grain as the first ingredient. Be aware of expiration dates on all food items, and place recently purchased items behind those already in the pantry. For more tips, visit Cooking Light and Today’s Dietitian.


Healthy Super Bowl Eats

Is everyone ready for Super Bowl 50 when the Broncos battle the Panthers? No? Fortunately, there still is time to get menus in order. After all, what is a football gathering without food?

And the good news is that folks can still enjoy some of their favorites while adding nutritious options to their plates.

If appetizers are the fare, remember that many small bites can add up to big calories. Choose wisely, maybe concentrating on those foods that you don’t usually eat. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Avocados are popular now due to their healthy monounsaturated fat content.  These make a great dip or spread. Cooking Light  has some tasty suggestions for making any kind of guacamole that you desire.
  • Homemade party dips made with sour cream or salad dressings are often served at football parties.  For extra flavor and crunch add minced green onions, finely diced water chestnuts, or sweet peppers.
  • An easy cracker spread can be made with a square of cream cheese topped with a favorite jam or jelly.
  • Low fat bean spreads are another option and are great whether combined with several ingredients or with mashed beans simply topped with layers of low fat shredded cheese and salsa.
  • Don’t forget about hummus!  Either with raw veggies or pita bread and chips, this is a yummy offering.
  • Of course, the reliable fruit and vegetable trays are easy to prepare and offer healthy variety.
  • Want something hot? How about Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas? Or, Sloppy Joes.
  • Speaking of hot, chili is a favorite for many and can be made healthier with ground round, ground lean turkey, or chicken, or by making a vegetarian variety with additional beans in place of meat. Try this crockpot version.
  • To top it all off with something sweet, brownies are always a crowd pleaser. For a different taste sensation, try a recipe with cherry preserves.

Enjoy the game and may the best team win!



Healthy holiday treats

We are smack in the middle of the holiday season.  And special holiday treats are part of the season’s charm. Everyone looks forward to special goodies. But these foods often come with a high calorie punch. Here are a few tips for creating healthier versions.

  • Use low-fat dairy. Whole milk products are sources of saturated fat. Yes, fat is not the villain is once was.  But one can overdo it. Using low-fat, skim milk, fat-free evaporated milk, and fat-free sweetened condensed milk can yield as mouth-watering a product as full-fat dairy. This is also true for the low-fat versions of sour cream. Plain Greek yogurt is a tasty substitute for sour cream in twice-baked potatoes and casseroles. I have used fat-free yogurt to replace half of the fat in coffee cake recipes with pleasing results.
  • Substitute egg whites for yolks. I have nothing against whole eggs. There is research that indicates healthy people can enjoy eggs several times a week with no ill effects. But at this time of year, we can go way over our allotment with all the egg-containing goodies around. With that in mind, two egg whites can be used in place of a whole egg, or use the egg substitutes in the dairy case.
  • Replace chocolate chips with dried fruit. Raisins, chopped dates, and cranberries offer flavors of their own and add a chewy texture. If you must add the chips, reduce the amount or add mini chips to spread the flavor throughout the product.
  • Create healthy dips to replace the sour cream types. Hummus, salsa, corn relish, and bean dips are more healthful choices than sour cream versions.
  • Watch those portions. Eat half of the special treat and share the other half or save for later. This is a helpful tactic during the holidays or at any special event.
  • Choose nuts for a healthy snack. Although high in fat, nuts contain fiber and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. An appropriate serving size for nuts is one-quarter cup.

Most importantly, enjoy time with family and friends during this holiday season.


Healthy eats for Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is fast approaching. Can one prepare a delicious dinner and be health conscious at the same time? Absolutely! Here are some ideas.

A well-dressed salad is an eye-catcher and a satisfying beginning to any meal. A mixture of greens, such as spinach, arugula, and romaine create a fine bed for dried cherries or cranberries, chopped walnuts, mandarin oranges, and sliced red onions. Toss with flavored vinegrettes or wine vinegar and olive oil. This dressing will compliment the greens and not overpower their flavor.

As a side or salad, one of my favorites is broccoli slaw with a mix of fat-free plain yogurt and a favorite slaw dressing, adding just enough to lightly coat the slaw. This can be made more festive with dried fruit and chopped nuts, also. A tart, diced apple will add even more flavor and texture.

Twice-baked potatoes are a tradition in some households at holiday time. These can be prepared with low-fat versions of sour cream and cream cheese and the low-sodium version of chicken or vegetable broth without sacrificing flavor. A sprinkle of paprika before baking will add color, too.

If the family prefers sweet potatoes, try baking these vitamin-packed veggies in the skins instead of the usual high-calorie, high-sugar recipes with marshmallows. Whether mashed or served individually, a little brown sugar and chopped pecans added to the potatoes can make them just as yummy as the higher calorie versions.

Instead of the usual green bean casserole, how about oven roasting Brussels sprouts, squash, or green beans? Both white and sweet potatoes would take well to roasting, too.

On to the turkey. How about basting the turkey with broth or juice? Orange, apple, cranberry—these all add great flavor. Or, make several slits in the skin and tuck in favorite seasonings. Garlic, thyme, and rosemary are just a few that work well with fowl. For the stuffing fans, lighten it up a bit by omitting the butter in the recipe and moistening the bread with low-sodium broth instead. Try using half whole wheat bread cubes and again, add some herbs for flavor. If the recipe calls for sausage, give the lower fat turkey sausage a go. Brown and drain sausage first before adding to the bread mixture.

And dessert! Yes, this part of the meal can be a tad more nutritious, too! For example, the traditional pumpkin pie turns out perfectly yummy using fat free sweetened condensed milk instead of the full fat version. The typical recipe with 2 eggs can be altered to 1 egg and two egg whites. To reduce the fat further, make the pie with a graham cracker or gingersnap cookie crust. Or try Frozen Pumpkin Mousse for a twist on the traditional.

There are many ways to make nutritious and tasty additions to the holiday meal that the family will enjoy.

Can avatars make us healthier?

I just read an interesting note in the June issue of Success magazine.  Editor Josh Ellis reported on work that was done by Felix Chang at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab concerning the influence of personal avatars–those images some of us create to “be” us online, in games, when messaging, etc.

It appears that people change to be more like their avatars.  For example, people with tall avatars act more confidently than those with shorter figures.  In one study, participants who had their avatars eat carrots actually ate healthier themselves.

Furthermore, study participants exercised more after watching their avatar characters lose weight when exercising on a treadmill.

Thought-provoking?  According to psychologist Albert Bandura, it is the similarity to the image that influences one to change behavior.  The more similar we are, the more likely we are to adopt the behavior of the avatar.

On the other hand, I would think that creating an avatar that eats junk food and plays video games all day would have an unhealthy influence on the individual.  This adoption of  negative behaviors was see by researchers studying college students playing video games.  Good avatars brought out positive behaviors and bad avatars resulted in negative behaviors.

Maybe by creating avatars in our image, in our best image, we might change to be just like them.

What do you think?

Starting the New Year with a healthy breakfast

What, another post on breakfast?  Yes.  My opinion is that breakfast is a great way to start your day, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or detailed in prep.

As a registered dietitian, I have heard many reasons for not partaking in the traditional first meal of the day. Non-breakfast eaters claim that they are not hungry, too rushed, on a diet, out of the habit, sticking to coffee or colas, opting for a doughnut at work, or eating an early lunch.

These reasons do not necessarily mean that people think breakfast is not important. Busy lifestyles and numerous responsibilities just get in the way of a sit-down morning meal.

So what is so great about starting the day breakfast anyway?

  • First of all, for most people, it has been several hours since the previous day’s dinner or evening snack. Because of this fast, blood sugars will be low in the morning, especially in children whose smaller bodies store less blood sugar. Without a morning meal to replenish the body, one may feel sluggish or have trouble concentrating. Breakfast helps to prime to body and mind to meet the challenges of the day.
  • In addition to low blood sugars, skipping breakfast reduces the amount of other important nutrients in the diet such as calcium from dairy products, vitamin C from fruit or juice, and fiber from whole grains.
  • The wake-up jolt from caffeinated and/or sugared coffee and colas is soon gone. When hunger strikes, you may be tempted to eat the first thing you can find, which could be the donuts in the office cafeteria or the candy bar in the vending machine. Clearly, not the best use of calories.
  • Then when lunch time does roll around some may overeat due to extreme hunger or from overestimating the calories supposedly saved by not eating breakfast. Eating a healthy breakfast, though, can help reduce hunger and the tendency to overeat.

To make breakfast a healthy habit, have a plan. Set the morning alarms so that you and the family have enough time to eat without rushing. Organize breakfast when cleaning up after dinner so things go smoothly in the morning. Put out glasses for juice, and bowls and spoons for cereal.

If a hot cereal is a family favorite, try making oatmeal overnight in the Crockpot. This is an inexpensive, low-maintenance, and heart-healthy start to the morning.

Have easy-to-grab foods including individual yogurt containers, bananas, Clementines, and whole wheat bagels available for busy mornings. For variety, try non-traditional foods such as cold pizza, mac and cheese, or apple slices with peanut butter.

Depending on the age, children can help with meal suggestions, preparation, and evening set-up. Make breakfast a fun, family affair, and a way to develop health eating habits.

Breakfast is an important meal in your day. Eating a healthy breakfast can increase energy, provide needed nutrients, and help keep those extra pounds off.

For more suggestions, click on the links provided or visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Food Deserts in the land of plenty

One of Michelle Obama’s goals is to eliminate food deserts as a way to reduce the prevalence of obesity in the United States.

Food desert is a relatively new term used to describe low-income areas with limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Families in these areas might have access to convenience stores or fast food restaurants but not to grocery stores or fresh food markets. Fried chicken and hamburgers are often plentiful, but fresh fruit and vegetables are not.

Not having easy access to healthy food can impact community health by increasing cases of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Fast food diets are high in sodium, fat, and calories and low in fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Clearly, living in a food desert can compound existing health issues and most likely cause more.

Birmingham, Alabama is just one of many cities in the United States where families face the issue of food deserts. According to a survey sponsored by Main Street Birmingham in cooperation with the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, the lack of access to healthy food is widespread in the city, with 88,000 Birmingham residents living in food deserts in 2010. This number includes 23,000 children.

What can be done to reverse this? Plenty! Here are just a few suggestions from the survey:

  • Support local, independent grocers and encourage them to sell fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • Encourage local organizations to provide healthy options such as serving healthy snacks during meetings;
  • Help mainstream grocers by improving access to stores with safe walkways, shuttles or vans;
  • Improve food selections in vending machines by offering apples, carrots, low-fat yogurt, and 100% fruit juice;
  • Look into healthier fast food options;
  • Support urban gardens and farmer’s markets.

In fact, these are worthwhile suggestions for improving nutrition in any neighborhood.

More information and ideas can be found by visiting The Urban Food Project website.