Saturday, November 27, 2010

Surviving the Holidays Happy, not Heavy

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. It's the kick-off to a whole season of celebrations, and a time to gather with loved ones to give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. Yet, I feel Thanksgiving's message has become distorted in our current day and age. Instead of a holiday filled with gratitude, it has become a holiday of excess. Excessive eating. Excessive shopping. Excessive complaining about Cousin Bert's tacky questions or Aunt Edna's lumpy gravy.

No surprise, it's the excessive eating that bothers me most. All too often at the end of the holiday meal, I hear "Why did I eat that?" instead of "That was wonderful." What is it about Thanksgiving that obligates us to overeat, feel bad about it, and do it all over again? Why do we drive ourselves into a frenzy of discomfort and guilt? When did the ideal holiday picture shift from Norman Rockwell's grateful bounty to the Alka-seltzer commercial?

If you woke up Friday with a turkey hangover, then now's the time to re-evaluate what the holidays mean to you. Perhaps it's time to get back to the true ideals of Thanksgiving-- being grateful for the food we have, not wasteful and excessive with it. Below are some tips to help guide you through the holidays. Not only will they help your waistline, but they may help your state of mind too.

Plan a portioned menu in advance.
If you are the cook, first consider how many people are dining with you, and be realistic about portion sizes. Can you half some recipes? If you want leftovers, plan in advance to wrap and/or freeze them before serving, not after. Studies show people tend to take larger portions from larger platters, so be mindful of how you serve.

Edit down. Next, look at your menu and see if you can eliminate one or two items. Do you really need 3 types of pie for 6 guests? If you serve stuffing, do you required mashed potatoes too? Studies also show people are more apt to overeat when given more choices. So whittle down your groaning board; no one will notice what's not there.

Refocus on friends and family, not food. Put the emphasis on spending time together and reconnecting. Before eating,go around the table and ask each guest to say a few words about thankfulness. Slow the meal down and keep everyone together by serving family style courses rather than a buffet. Hosting a cocktail hour prior to the meal? Then make it a true cocktail hour. Serve only light drinks and a few nibbles instead of heavy appetizers.

Make your goals known. When you vocalize your wishes, not only do they materialize into something more realistic and attainable, but they realign everyone's expectations and create a stronger support network. So speak up prior to the holiday. Inform guests that this year will be a little different. And while you may not convince the whole family to give up certain traditions, this technique still works well individually. For example, at the start of the meal, state out loud,"I'm only planning to eat one slice of pie instead of two this year." It will hold you accountable when dessert times rolls around.

Happy holidays. May they be filled with good stuff and not just stuffing!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pom Blunder-full

Every fall I vow to myself I will not buy a pomegranate. They are expensive, it's hard to find a good one, and peeling those little seeds out? What a pain! Bible buffs now say the original forbidden fruit may have been a pomegranate, not an apple as was once thought. But I do not believe this. Because if Eve had taken the time and energy to cut and peel the dang thing, she would NOT have shared it with Adam. She would have eaten all those seeds herself!

I had been doing so well through pomegranate season. I ignored the supermarket sales and the POM juice commercials. I walked right past those ruby red globes at the Berkeley Bowl and the Safeway. But then last week at the Farmers Market a man beckoned to me like the serpent in the Garden of Eden. "Try my pomegranates! Fresh picked!" No, no, I resisted. I don't want the hassle. I don't want the stains. I don't want-- oh, what the heck. I did want! He picked out a beautiful, ripe fruit and $1 later, I was on my way home. I knew trouble awaited, but at that price, I didn't care. Sin now, repent later.

The next day I cut into it. And deeply regretted it. Withing 5 minutes me and everything in my kitchen was covered in dark, purple, sticky splotches. Membranes and pith flew every which way. To make matters worse, I had cut my finger earlier in the morning, and now it burned, burned, burned. Like a Ring of Fire. Or a Disco Inferno. Or Dante's Inferno, depending on your musical and religious preferences. I cursed with each seed I plopped into the bowl.

Now dear readers, I know at this point in the post many of you will want to ask the following:

Q: Why didn't she just buy the pre-shelled pomegranate seeds from Trader Joes?


A: While it's true some specialty stores and grocers do sell seeds with all the work already done for you, I don't think they are quite as tasty as the real thing. I find them kind of membrane-y and bland. I also don't want to think too much about how long they've been lying around. When it comes to fruit, fresh is better.

Q: Why didn't she peel it underwater?

A: I've tried this technique. It didn't work. It made more of a mess than the traditional dry massacre. And I lost all of the delicious (albeit burning and staining) juices that make a pomegranate so yummy.

Q: She's complained enough about the prep work. What did she finally do with her pomegranate seeds?


A: Glad you asked! These are three of my favorite ways to eat pomegranate seeds, and if you buy a fruit that is large enough, you'll have enough for each recipe, providing you do not share. Unlike Eve.

Pomegranate Salad

These sweet juicy seeds go best with dark leafy greens such as baby spinach or mache. Toss in a strong cheese such as feta or blue, add mild vegetables like celery, cucumber and lightly steamed asparagus. Then top with a simple balsamic vinaigrette.

Pomegranate Yogurt

Mix seeds with a 1/2 cup of nonfat greek yogurt. Add a bit of honey for a sweet and tart treat.

Pomegranate Bruschetta

Lightly coat small slices of whole wheat baguette with olive oil; toast until crispy. Top with low fat ricotta cheese, then press in pomegranate seeds. Top with a sprinkling of crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Sinfully good. I can't wait until next year!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Moving in! From the West Coast...

Greetings friends, family, and blog readers!

I am officially writing from California.It was a long journey, but we seem to have made it intact. Husband is happily at work; cat is happily napping in a sunny spot among the boxes. And as for me? I am desperately trying to get the kitchen in order. Not being able to cook for the last few weeks has been frustrating. The lack of groceries, pots, pans and dishes is a real pain, not to mention stressful!

Moving in general is super stressful, even if everything goes according to plan. And thankfully for us, all the logistical pieces fell into place. But all this stress caused me to contemplate how to best cope with diet and exercise while under pressure. I've compiled the following helpful tips for managing life when it starts coming at you a bit too fast-- be it a move, a house renovation, or any other disruptive but progressive occasion. Take a deep breath and read on.

1. Get a little exercise each day.
My gym membership ran out back east. And I've yet to get one out west. But taking a break-- even for 20 minutes-- to take a walk or stretch out can help relieve tension. Do you have to run a marathon? No. But when it comes to exercise, consistency is key. Something is always better than nothing, and keeps you in the habit.

2. You don't have to eat it all.
Most movers won't take perishable or open food items. This led me to try and eat every single thing in my fridge before vacating. Dinners got very creative (grilled pear, cheese and mustard sandwich, anyone?) After standing over the sink eating stale graham crackers at 11:00 at night, I realized I didn't need to transport all my foodstuffs to California in the form of my own body fat. I am not a bear hibernating for the long winter ahead. There are indeed grocery stores in California. Many. So, lose the guilt and toss it, donate it, or give it away.

3. Rely on your network.
God love those who fed me along my journey. If a neighbor invites you over for chicken and rice, say yes! A home cooked meal is inevitably better for the body and the soul than take-out. And don't be afraid to speak up and ask for help from others.

4. Be prepared. You will get hungry while driving that 8 hour trip, packing up your china, or cleaning the hairball out of your new drain that the previous tenant so graciously left behind. It's easy to reach for the Oreos instead of the apples when you're overtired or over-hungry. So, make sure to still stop and eat at regular intervals, and keep your larder stocked as best you can with easy, single serve, healthy snacks that don't require utensils, refrigeration, or preparation. Good items include apples, single serving baby carrot packs, 100-calorie-pack animal crackers or pretzels, a jar of nuts or a resealable bag of dried fruit.

5. Stay hydrated. Don't pack your water bottle! Keep it close by on both ends of your journey and in between. And keep a small stack of disposable cups by the sink. It took me four days to unwrap all our glasses.

And of course, keep breathing! This too shall pass. Wishing you all a stress-free October!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Kid Friendly Snack Attack!

Last night, my best friend asked me for some kid-friendly nutrition suggestions. She's a busy mom (what mom isn't a busy mom?) with a toddler, and she's looking for easy, nonperishable snacks to grab and go.

Researching this request was more difficult than I had originally imagined, for a few reasons. One, I don't have a toddler of my own. Two, so much has changed since I was a kid. I was born before the era of snack packs, slurpable yogurt, and cereal bars with the milk built in. When I was younger, I don't remember eating snacks on-the-go. We didn't have to, since things moved at a slower pace.

But today's world is different. We're busy. Both parents work. Kids go to school and camp and daycare and dance class and soccer. The food industry has really capitalized on this lifestyle shift, and created hundreds (if not thousands) of food products meant to be consumed in transit. The problem is, not many of these foods are healthy. So, what really is a good pick for a healthy snack that doesn't require a ton of prep work or refrigeration? Here's what I came up with, based on that old game we used to play as kids, "Green Light-- Red Light --Go!"

Green Light Snacks-- Good Choices
- Dried fruit, like small boxes of raisins, 1-2 dried pineapple or apple rings, a few slices of dried mango or 3-4 dried apricots.
- Does your kid like salty stuff? Toss a few giant pitted olives or canned baby corns in a baggie.
- Frozen edamame will defrost by snack time. Older kids will love peeling them out of their pods.
- Some cheeses don't require refrigeration. Try a Laughing Cow wedge and a whole wheat mini pita to smear it on. Finger friendly!
- Individually packaged hummus cups. Some even have pretzels for dipping built right in.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are always a great choice, but many parents complain that they doesn't travel well, and take prep work. Instead, try pre-sliced apple packs, packages of baby carrots, or fruits with thick skins, like bananas or oranges.
- Individual applesauce cups (Serve with a graham cracker broken into 4 bars for dipping, and you can forgo the spoon).
- Whole wheat crackers or pretzels. Older kids can dip into prepackaged peanut butter cups, all ages will enjoy low-fat cream cheese cups.
- Frozen low fat muffins or muffin tops (such as Vitamuffin brand) come in lots of kid-friendly flavors and will defrost by snack time.

Yellow Light Snacks -- Reasonable Choices, to be enjoyed in moderation
- Individually wrapped graham crackers, un-iced animal crackers, or nilla wafers. Keep the cookie simple to keep sugar in check.
- Small bags of baked tortilla chips, baked potato chips, or cheese crackers. Go with more fiber friendly options first.
- Granola bars. Look for brands that stick to whole grain oats as the first ingredient, and are about 100 calories a bar.
- Nuts are a great snack, if your child is the right age. Try roasted chick peas or soy nuts too. Nuts are high in fat, so keep the portion in check.

Red Light Snacks -- Stop! These are best avoided, or eaten as special treats.
- Fried banana chips
- Trail mixes with candy tossed in
- Yogurt covered fruits. That yogurt coating is mostly sugar and oil.
- Veggie chips, crisps or stix. Most of these are fried and/or don't contain much vegetable at all, despite their name.
- Prepackaged cheese or peanut butter sandwich crackers. These often contain trans fats, so make your own instead.
- Fruit rolls, bites, gummies or snacks. These candy-like treats rely on sugar for flavor, not real fruit, regardless of what the package claims.

I'd love to hear from parents out there. What are your top snack picks for toddlers and kids?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Volunteering

Lots of friends and family have asked me recently how things are going at the local hospital. I've been volunteering there for about two months in the Nutrition department.

Things are going well. I've been busy. Even though it's a small hospital, sometimes there are not enough hands to help out. Volunteers fill in the gaps by offering comfort or cheer to patients, by assisting staff with research projects, or by helping with the daily office activities that make a hospital run.

This week, my supervisor asked me to leave her a note on how one of my assignments, patient feeding, is going. "Patient feeding" is the term the hospital uses to describe anyone who needs a little extra assistance at mealtime. Maybe someone has trouble swallowing; I help them to take it slow. Maybe someone broke an arm; I can offer an extra hand. Sometimes, all I do is give encouragement. Patients on medications may lose their appetites, so I try my best to get them to eat and keep up their strength.

I'm sure my supervisor expects a quick post-it on her desk, summing things up efficiently. Such as, "Going well. Training helped. Needed most on 4th and 6th floors." I plan to leave a post-it saying just that, but her comment really got me thinking... if we all had more time in the day, here's what I'd tell her:

Patient feeding is one of the most rewarding and toughest experiences I have yet to face on my road to becoming an RD. It is both satisfying and heartbreaking at the same time. It has put a human face on my studies.

To share a meal with another person is such a deep human desire. It's what brings us together, and I am overwhelmed with the impulse to help patients feel this little bit of normalcy in their day. In return, I can't describe the gratitude I receive by helping with this one simple act-- eating. Gratitude, even from patients who cannot speak. Or gratitude from those who can, who want to share a little about their lives before they got sick.

I thought I would be scared to have such close interaction with the elderly, sick, and injured. But I am not. I have surprised myself. In fact, I find myself reaching out to hold a hand or wipe a chin often. I don't mind the occasional spill or dribble. I sit with them and linger a bit, always trying to coax them to eat a few more bites, take a few more sips. I pop my head into their rooms later to see how they are. I think about them in the evenings while I make my own meals. What are they doing now? Is family visiting, I hope? When will they get to go home?

I am always thanked at the end of a patient feeding. Sometimes by the patient, or a family member, and repeatedly by the staff. Truthfully, I feel silly being thanked when I am the grateful one, learning so much more than I ever though possible, just by sharing a meal.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Dandy Dish from Local Farmers

The other day at the store, I noticed a display of "Jersey Fresh" produce, and decided to browse around. For those who aren't native, New Jersey--yes, New Jersey-- is nicknamed the Garden State, as we aren't just home to oil refineries and turnpikes, but to real working farms. Farms that produce some pretty good stuff!

But, I'll admit it... I'm a bit of a "Farmers' Market Hater." I've had unpleasant experiences at several. This does NOT mean I don't support local farmers, though. I just don't support sellers unloading produce from Argentina off the back of the truck and passing it off to consumers as local. I don't support towns who look at Market Day as a way to give parking tickets. And I don't support sellers of baked goodies, sweets, cakes and pies. Now, I know many of my readers will disagree with me on this. But for me, the Farmers' Market should be about the vegetables, not the donuts.

Luckily, I've found getting good local produce in the summer doesn't always require a trip to the Farmers' Market. Many area grocery chains feature local produce, seven days a week, at decent prices. Parking included. Donuts optional.

That day, like a typical sucker in a grocery store, I made an impulse buy. Unlike a typical sucker, however, it wasn't in the candy aisle. It was for dandelion greens. I'd never eaten dandelion greens before. But I know they flourish around here, and I was fairly certain I could find a recipe. Into my cart they went! Last night I cooked them up with a bit of olive oil, red onion and garlic, and they were delicious.

This morning, I did some research and was pleased to learn that in addition to being delicious, dandelion greens are good source of potassium and calcium. They also are a great source of fiber. They're chocked full of Vitamin A, folate, iron and Vitamin C. And one cup is a mere 25 calories.

Local produce-- however and wherever we choose to buy it-- can serve as an opportunity to discover something healthy and new. It can please our palate and our waistlines. Local foods can range from the common (Hello there, tomatoes!) to the unique (Ever tried Purple Basil?) I hope before the growing season ends, you will take the time to try a new fruit or vegetable. And perhaps support a local farmer or two in the process. Happy eating!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer 2010

Well, it's now official. School's out for summer! I have earned my masters degree in science, and I'm 1/3 done with the program. And while I'm taking the summer off, the journey's still not over, folks! I'll resume classes in San Francisco after the move. For now, I'm still happy to answer questions on the blog. I'm also volunteering at the local hospital in the Dietetics department, so stay tuned for updates.

As the burden of classes, reading and homework has lifted, I've had more time to spend on some leisure activities, such as gardening! I am most pleased to report the husband and I have successfully cultivated both tomatoes AND broccoli on our little urban balcony. For all you naysayers who accused me of not having a green thumb, I say... HA! My plants are still alive! We have three tomatoes ripening, and I expect to be eating at least one on a salad before the weekend.

I've also been spending time in the kitchen, of course. The weather here has been HOT, HOT, HOT, so when I eyed an old-school Popsicle mold at the store the other day, I just had to have it. Our first batch was a tart strawberry creme, but I've already been thinking of what the next batch will be. They key to making popsicles is simple-- take your favorite fruits or juices, add a little sweetness, puree it all together, and freeze. Below is a list of flavors I intent to try this summer. I hope it inspires you to enter the FRO-ZONE as well! Happy summer all.

Pleasing Popsicles for Pretty Hot Days

Watermelon Lime
Rhubarb
Cranberry Pear
Vanilla Banana
Lemon Basil Creme

Adjust your recipe for the number of molds you have. For creamy pops, use plain or vanilla yogurt. Add a sweetener of your choice to taste. Liquify in the blender, pour into molds and freeze for two hours or longer. To loosen pops, run mold under very hot water for a few seconds. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cereal Killers

Question of the day. Dear RD to Be: What kind of cereal do you recommend that is high fiber, low sugar, and tastes good? I cannot believe how much sugar is in my Kashi Go Lean Crunch! Sincerely, Bowled Over

Dear Bowled Over:

Beware the so-called "health halo" that surround cereals. If you're not careful about reading labels, you could be in for a shock. Turns out Trix AREN'T just for kids. Many brands targeted for adults (Fiber One, Special K, and yes, even Kashi)have too much added sugar and not enough fiber. So what's a good morning pick? Taste will be a personal preference, but here's a few that stock my cabinet:

Kashi Go Lean
Post Spoon Size Shredded Wheat-n-Bran
Barbara's Cinnamon Puffins
Plain instant Quaker Oatmeal (yep, the old school version in the canister.)

Most of these are pretty bland. I admit. Most good-for-you cereals will tend to be so. But, before you run away from the cereal bowl, remember the following:

- You are ALWAYS better off controlling what YOU put into your food. So buy bland, then add your own sweetness. Great combos include fresh or dried fruit, sugar (try brown sugar for something different), honey, cinnamon, yogurt or Splenda.

- It's ok to mix and match. Try to add a 1/4 portion of your favorite indulgent cereal to 3/4 of a type that's more sensible.

- When shopping,check the label-- not the packaging claims! A good guideline is 6 g of sugar or less per serving, and 5-10 g or more of fiber per serving. And watch the portion size listed.

- And remember, choose low-fat diary products to go with your cereal, like skim milk. Or grab breakfast to go by mixing your cereal with fat free yogurt instead.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Short and Sweet

In keeping with the Valentine's spirit, and because I got asked this question last week, today's post is all about sweet stuff... sugar, honey, molasses, and yes, the dreaded high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Despite its recent bad press, high fructose corn syrup is not the devil. Yes, there are no love songs about it. No, we do not call our loved ones "HFCS-pie" or "Corn Syrup Bunny."

But nutritionally speaking, sugar is sugar is sugar. Sweet stuff should be eaten in moderation no matter what form it takes. For example, there's been a lot of buzz lately about soft drinks replacing HFCS with cane sugar. Guess what? Soft drinks are still high-calorie, nutritionally empty food choices. So skip the hype. (And the soft drinks.)

High fructose corn syrup got a bad rap because it has been unnecessarily added to many foods we do not consider sweet treats, such as ketchup, salad dressings, bread, or yogurts. The added sugars make these foods less nutritious, but tastier. But don't be fooled! It's the ADDED SUGARS that make these foods less nutritious-- not the TYPE of sugar in them. Below is a list of common sweeteners and calories:

White sugar, 1 tsp = 16 calories
Brown sugar, 1 tsp = 17 calories
Honey, 1 tsp = 21 calories
Blackstrap molasses, 1 tsp = 16 calories
High Fructose Corn Syrup, 1 tsp = 17 calories

Seeing a trend? There's not much difference.

So what to do amid a sugar-crazy world? It seems like everything we eat today contains added sugars!

First, use common sense. Keep your obvious sugar intake in moderation. That means less soft drinks, sweet coffee-latte-chinos, candies, gimmicky breakfast cereals, pastries, and other treats. If it tastes like a dessert, it probably is one.

Second, watch out for less obvious sugars in your diet, too. Look at food labels and search ingredient lists for added sweeteners, and choose foods with less. Good swaps to start with include plain yogurt instead of flavored, natural nut butters over jarred ones, and oil and vinegar based salad dressings you can mix at home instead of buying bottled ones.

Still craving some sugar? Try a little from a loved one instead! Happy Valentine's Day, all!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What's a % DV?

Yesterday, I got a question from someone following a low sodium diet. As anyone who has tried to reduce their sodium intake knows, this is not easy! Sodium is sneaky, and can be found in lots of packaged foods we don't assume are "salty" -- like breakfast cereal, breads, frozen dinners, and dairy foods.

Further, reading labels to determine just how much salt we are eating can be tricky. Food labels list both the grams (or milligrams) and the "% DV" of certain nutrients. "% DV" stands for the "percentage daily value", a number the government has determined is the proper amount an average person on a 2,000 calorie diet should eat on a daily basis.

But here's the rub... "average" translates to about 40 years old, male, healthy, moderate to very active, and with no health issues. How many people do you know who fall into that exact category? I certainly don't. Nor do most of my friends. Or family. Or classmates. Therefore, assuming we should all reach 100%, using the percentages on food labels to tally our daily intakes paints a deceiving nutritional picture. A 70 year old female would be way over her limits. A 30 year old marathon runner would be under.

Instead, I recommend looking at the actual number of grams or milligrams, then tallying those to ensure you are meeting(or not exceeding) your proper nutrition ranges. For example, if you are on a low sodium diet, try not to exceed 1200 mg/day. (If you are on a normal diet, the recommendation is about 2400/mg day.)

The percentage daily value isn't worthless, however. For those of us lacking math skills, it gives a good estimate, and is certainly better than ignoring the label completely! The % DV is also helpful when comparing two or more food items. For example, the cereal with 3% DV of sodium is a better choice than the other cereal listing 8%. When comparing foods, a good rule of thumb is to choose lower percentages of fats, cholesterol and sodium, and higher percentages of fiber, vitamins, calcium and iron.

Got more questions? How much fiber should you eat in a day? How much calcium? Drop me a line and I'll be happy to tell you the right amount for YOU-- not some "average" dude.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The BPA Beat

I've gotten a few questions lately on the safety of BPAs, especially since the FDA decided this week that these chemicals found in certain plastics may not be as safe as once thought. There's no need to panic-- our food supply still remains safe. However, I put together the following cooking and shopping suggestions, based on the FDA's new information.

1. Infant are more at risk than the rest of us for BPA contamination. Discard scratched or worn baby bottles and cups and do not microwave baby bottles or cups. Parents, rest assured that 90% of bottle manufactures in the US are BPA free.

2. Turn your plastic containers upside down, where you will see a recyling code. Plastics marked 1,2,4,5 and 6 are very unlikely to contain BPA, but plastics coded as 3 or 7 may contain BPA.

3. Don't put hot or boiling liquid in plastic containers. Don't microwave your food in them either. Discard any scratched or worn containers. (Yes, that means parting with the avocado green Tupperware from 1972 that has tomato stains all over it anyways...)

4. Limit your intake of canned foods, as some packaged products are lined with plastic. Choose fresh or frozen products instead. If your child is on formula, consider using powdered versions instead of canned.

For more info, visit http://www.hhs.gov/safety/bpa/