Last week, a friend asked me for some kosher, meat-free, low-dairy lunchbox ideas for her preschooler. (For an excellent overview of the kosher dietary laws, check out this informative article by the dietitian Brooke Schantz.) In accordance with the kosher policy, the school recommends dairy-based foods and allows pareve, or neutral, foods; however, the school doesn’t allow meat. Plus, the school is nut-free to protect kids with nut allergies.
This granola is made with fiber-rich whole oats, heart-healthy unsaturated fats, and is free of additives and preservatives! Enjoy this crunchy, tasty treat as a sweet, wholesome topping for oatmeal, yogurt, a smoothie bowl, or ice cream.
Bonus if you are allergy-conscious: if you make your own granola, you don’t have to worry about it being contaminated with trace amounts of allergens like nuts and milk during processing. When you make your own, you control what you eat.
- 2 ½ cups oats (use certified gluten-free oats if preparing for gluten-sensitive individuals)
- 3 Tb grapeseed oil (or your oil of choice)
- 3 Tb coconut nectar (or honey, maple syrup, date syrup, agave syrup)
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 2/3 cups brown sugar
- ¼ cup raisins (or any dried fruit of your choice)
- ¼ cup mini chocolate chips (optional)
- ¼ cup nuts or seeds (optional)
- Toast oats on a baking sheet for 10 minutes at 350 degrees; stir halfway through.
- Warm up the oil, coconut nectar, vanilla extract, and brown sugar in a pot over low heat on the stove. Stir and heat until all ingredients form a syrup.
- Put the oats into a large bowl. Stir in the oil mixture. Mix well.
- Spoon onto the baking sheet. Use a spatula to pat the oats into an even layer.
- Sprinkle the raisins and chocolate chips on top.
- Put the pan back into the oven for 15-20 minutes.
- Take it out and let it cool completely.
- Slice into bars for a high-energy snack, or enjoy crumbles as a sweet topping for plain yogurt, oatmeal, or another cereal or dessert.
Experiment with different combinations of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, spices, and other flavorings. Try different oils and sweeteners.
People sometimes ask me, “what’s the one thing I should do to eat healthier?” Often, they mean, “what’s the one thing that I should NOT be eating?” They usually want to know what they should cut out. There are the usual villains: sugar, gluten, dairy, caffeine, wheat, GMOs, meat, anything with a face, anything our ancestors didn’t eat, anything we can’t pronounce, or anything that has a label. Sometimes people expect me to suggest eating more protein, fasting regularly, or adding dietary supplements.
But for most healthy people, the number one change I recommend for eating healthier is simply to eat more plants.
Don’t worry about cutting anything out. Just add more foods that grew from the earth. Plant foods are rich in fiber and phytonutrients. Most Americans get only 15 grams of fiber a day – about half the recommended amount. Fiber, which provides the structure for plant walls, is naturally present in vegetables, fruits, herbs, whole grains, and legumes.There are many different types of fiber; think about the variations in texture among the vegetables you ate last week. Leafy greens are quite different structurally from carrots and tomatoes..
The well-known benefits of fiber include digestive regularity, keeping us feeling satiated (full), slowing down the absorption of glucose, and promoting a healthier cholesterol profile. And research has revealed that there are many more benefits of eating fiber-rich foods.
Each subtype of fiber has beneficial compounds that influence our health in a positive way. Researchers have found anti-tumor components in beta-glucan fibers in mushrooms, and anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds in basil.
Prebiotics in plant foods feed our “good” gut flora, which results in a healthier microbiome. Improving the profile of our gut bacteria is associated with a stronger immune system, healthier glucose metabolism, and leaner body composition.
While some of these components can be isolated and packaged into a pill or powder, we can’t (here’s the crucial piece) observe their bioactivity and their resulting health benefits in the human body. It’s difficult to retain nutrients after they’ve been separated from their natural packaging, dehydrated, processed, and left to sit on a shelf for weeks. We really need these phytonutrients from food, not supplements.
So it’s essential to get a variety of plant foods, not just to get enough vitamins and minerals to meet the recommended amounts, but to get enough of the different kinds of phytonutrients that we need for optimal wellness. Currently, there are no official USDA recommendations for phytonutrients. For adults, our best bet is to get at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits per day to get enough fiber and phytonutrients.
Here are some quick tips for adding plant foods…
- Pile on the greens….and reds, oranges, yellow, whites, blues, and purples…eat a rainbow of vegetables and fruits
- Add a piece of whole fruit at snacktime
- Ask for all the veggies on a sandwich
- Go for a vegetarian meal on Meatless Monday
- Toss in veggies when you make an omelette
- Make fresh herbs an essential ingredient in salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, grain salads, and stir-fries
- Chop up a cup of fruit and add a small scoop of ice cream for dessert
- Substitute beans for meat in a burrito
- Replace part or all of your white rice or refined pasta with the whole grain version
- Snack on a handful of nuts and a fistful of veggies
Follow me on Instagram for more fiber-rich meal and snack inspiration!
Last week, I was invited to the Fox 10 News studio to chat with hosts Andrea Robinson and Rick D’Amico about “Foods that Blast Belly Fat.” It’s a popular topic, especially during the summer “beach body” season. (I’m of the ilk who think that any body is a beach body, by the way.) Nevertheless, belly fat is an important issue for all of us, no matter what size swimsuit we wear; remember, it’s about wellness, not weight.
So, there are actually two types of belly fat. Subcutaneous fat is the layer right under our skin that seems to bother us the most, mainly for cosmetic reasons. But it’s the second type, called visceral fat, that is the real metabolic troublemaker. We can’t “pinch an inch” of visceral fat because it’s located deep under our skin around our abdominal organs, like our stomach, intestines, and liver. Visceral fat is only visible by using DEXA or a similar type of scan.
While subcutaneous fat is relatively harmless to our metabolic profile, visceral fat is linked to higher risks of type 2 diabetes and premature death from cardiovascular disease. We do want to reduce visceral fat as much as possible. It’s possible to have low amounts of subcutaneous fat and still have a lot of visceral fat, by the way. So even though someone may appear to be lean, they can be overly fat in the visceral sense. Therefore, it’s important for everyone to eat a diet that’s healthy AND exercise enough to keep visceral fat amounts low. When visceral fat is low, subcutaneous fat will be low.
Making changes in what we eat can help reduce both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. The other key ingredient is physical activity. Getting active is necessary in order to preserve muscle tissue and promote fat loss.
To reduce belly fat, focus on resistance training. Do some cardio most days of the week, but not too much; too much cardio can send appetite hormones into overdrive. You’ll know how much is “too much” by paying attention to your eating patterns. If you’ve been sedentary, then thirty minutes of cardio at a time is enough to reap the benefits of increased muscle mass, accelerated calorie burn 24/7, better-quality sleep, more energy, and endorphins. Use your extra time doing healthy meal prep, menu planning and making sure your grocery list includes a variety of belly fat-busting foods.
Foods that help to keep visceral fat low include:
1) monounsaturated fats: try replacing the solid fat (butter and animal fats) in your meals with 1/4 avocado, 1 tablespoon of a nut butter, a handful of nuts or olives, or 1 teaspoon of a plant oil like olive oil, safflower oil, or canola oil. Three to four servings of a healthy fat helps to mobilize fat in the belly area.
2) high-fiber foods: keep your belly healthy and happy with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes. Fiber keeps you feeling full; it’s an essential component in any weight-loss and fat-loss program. Plus, fiber encourages digestive regularity, which in turn prevents bloating from intestinal gas.
3) high-protein foods: choose legumes and lean turkey, chicken, beef, pork, and remember that seafood (like salmon) has healthy omega-3 fats plus high-quality protein. Protein is satiating (promotes a feeling of fullness), so it’s essential to eat protein with every meal and snack. Protein also has a higher “thermogenic” effect than either carbohydrates or fats, so you’re increasing your calorie burn when you eat foods with protein.
4) fermented foods: probiotics are one of the key ingredients of a healthy metabolism: a healthy gut flora profile is linked with digestive wellness, immune health, and leanness.
To get the benefits of probiotics, try fermented foods like buttermilk, kefir, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, and my new favorite condiment…the Korean sauce gochujang, a fermented chile-sesame sauce that is out-of-this-world delicious and a great source of probiotics. Gochujang is my new go-to! I enjoy drizzling a teaspoon of it avocado toast, eggs, meats, veggies, whole grain dishes…look for it at an Asian supermarket or order it online.
5) dairy foods: research shows that diets high in dairy foods are linked with lower amounts of belly fat. Try adding plain Greek yogurt with a whole piece of fruit and nuts for a belly fat-blasting snack that contains all the elements – healthy fats, fiber, protein, probiotics, and dairy!
So there you have it, folks. Keep your bellies happy and lean…eat and get active and you’ll be blasting that visceral fat in no time.
A chef told me recently that his secret to plating food well is to stack the food, “the higher, the better!” I thought about this last night when I used some baked delicata squash as the base for a slow-cooked veggie-beef ragu (Italian meat sauce).
Other possibilities were slicing the delicata squash (did you know that the peel is perfectly edible?) crosswise or lengthwise and fanning out the slices like a flower on the plate and placing some ragu near the fanned-out squash, or scooping out the insides and mashing them and creating a mound of squash, and then serving the ragu on top. But I thought the “boat” idea was pretty steezy and that, my friend, is the sweet spot (especially at 5 pm on a weekday workday): stylish and easy.
Tips to boost the steez…
- Make the squash and the ragu the night before and just reheat and assemble.
- Make extra and freeze for a future meal.
Delicata Squash “Boats”
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Slice delicata squash in half, lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds (I use a grapefruit spoon) and set aside to roast, if desired.
Pour homemade stock into a baking dish and place the squash halves, cut side down on the dish.
Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Optional: grated Asiago cheese with Rosemary and Olive Oil (I got mine from Trader Joe’s)
Bell Pepper and Beef Ragu:
– 1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef, frozen – substitute lean ground turkey or another protein
– 1 1/2 cups chicken stock – homemade, storebought, or vegetarian stock
– 12 garlic cloves, minced (my kids were playing with a garlic press and helped out with this part)
– 1 Tbsp Santa Maria spice blend – www.scottsfoodproducts.com – I get mine at our local A.J.’s Fine Foods
– 1 bag frozen bell pepper strips – I used the Melange a Trois from Trader Joe’s
– 1 cup chopped, frozen spinach (you could use more if you want)
Add the first four ingredients to the slow cooker. Set to low for 4 hours or high for 2 hours. (If the ground beef is already thawed and not frozen, then reduce the cooking time.)
Use a meat thermometer to check that the beef mixture reached 160 degrees.
Add the veggies and let it cook for another hour.
Serve. Or, chill quickly and refrigerate overnight and serve the next day.
This meal scores points for being high in protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and beta-carotene.
My husband refuses to eat leftovers. I refuse to cook a new dinner every night.
I’ve decided to refer to leftovers as “pre-prepped” food. It just sounds more culinarian and cool. (Plus, reframing things is an important skill in parenting and in education; do a quick search on “constructivist theory” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Sometimes, meals that weren’t the best the first time around can even be improved a day or two later. I definitely have my “off” nights in the kitchen. And I don’t like to throw out food that just needs a little TLC…and some creativity.
Last Saturday night, we had driven up to Flagstaff for the weekend, and I had raided our pantry and refrigerator from our house in Phoenix for supplies. I ended up bringing some broccoli that had turned bitter.
I couldn’t remember exactly how long it had been sitting in the refrigerator in our house – a couple of weeks, maybe? I admit that I can go a little too far with my “use what you have” philosophy sometimes. Maybe the broccoli would have been better grated into broccoli-cheddar muffins or some other incarnation.
So I crossed my fingers and roasted the old broccoli, along with some decent carrots and some Aidell’s chicken sausage that I get at Costco. While the pasta boiled merrily away, I thought about what kind of herbs to add, and then completely forgot that I had been storing small containers of chopped fresh parsley in the freezer. My head wasn’t really in the game, as they say.
Dinner ended up being a blah one-dish meal: pasta with the past-its-prime broccoli, and some roasted carrots and chicken sausage.
Well, we all sat around the dinner table trying to eat this blooper of a meal and be pleasant with each other. (Brinner probably would have been a better option, but I was trying to use up the groceries that I had.) Our oldest came up with the idea of drizzling hoisin sauce over his pasta to mask the bitter taste of the broccoli. We all followed his lead.
Of course, there was a ton left over. Today, I insisted on bringing it back home in the portable ice cooler and trying to serve it again tonight, in some re-mixed fashion. Realizing how stubborn I was being, my husband got creative; he suggested that we pick out the broccoli and mix some Barilla tomato-basil marinara sauce out of the jar, shredded mozzarella cheese, and grated Parmesan cheese into the pasta-carrot-sausage mixture and bake it in the oven. I was willing to try it.
Abracadabra! Thirty minutes at 350 degrees – and dinner was saved – I mean, served! The savory, umami flavors from the tomato sauce and the Parmesan infused the rest of the pasta. Dinner was a hit, thanks to my husband.
In fact, the baked pasta was so good that I’m looking forward to taking it for lunch tomorrow. I love going to bed at night knowing I already have a pre-prepped lunch – and a husband with a secret talent for transforming something that was “meh” to “marvelous”!
The more of something you have, the more you want. This holds true of so many things in life; the good, the bad…and the juicy. Recently, I was interviewed on the national television show “The List” by Teresa Strasser about the benefits of drinking juices made from veggies, fruits, and herbs and how to approach starting a “juice cleanse” (restricting the diet to juice only). Click here to watch the segment.
I’m a huge fan of eating lots of plant foods, but drinking juices made from plant foods can deliver a load of vitamins and minerals, too. Juices based mainly on vegetables and herbs – and to lesser extent, fruit (which in the form of juice can contain more sugar than we need) – are wonderfully tasty, refreshing, and nutritious beverages.
I am a fan of including juices based mainly on veggies into a regular diet of solid foods. The flavors of a beet-ginger juice, or a carrot juice, or a juice made from fresh, leafy greens, can be unexpectedly, assertively delicious! People who don’t think they like vegetables frequently develop an affinity for them after becoming accustomed to them in the form of juice.
There is no biological need to go on a juice cleanse, but many people enjoy the temporary break from their regular eating habits, which are often excessive and unstructured. And it’s no wonder – just look at how our food environment is constantly promoting high-calorie, high-saturated fat, high-added sugar, high-sodium foods and our food culture that encourages overeating and eating in the absence of hunger!
That break, or re-set, can be just what some people need to re-program their eating habits to eat more plant foods, to pay attention to internal hunger cues, to become aware of internal fullness or satiety signals, to drink more liquids, and to enjoy the naturally intense and multi-dimensional flavors of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
There are many groups of people who should not go on a juice cleanse, however. Anyone with a chronic health condition (e.g. diabetes, thyroid, renal), on a prescription medication (e.g. blood-thinner, statin), with a history of restrictive dieting, disordered eating, or eating disorders, or who is under stress, should not start a juice cleanse.
Generally, I do not recommend a diet that consists of exclusively juice for longer than a day or two because it will not meet people’s needs for protein, healthy unsaturated fats, and fiber without also going overboard on calories. Juices that incorporate protein in the form of yogurt, cow’s milk, and plant-based milks (maybe these are more accurately called smoothies) may meet nutritional needs, but it’s still best to think of juicing as a short-term regimen.
Stay focused on adding whole veggies, fruits, and herbs into your balanced diet, and enjoy juices as supplements to your healthy lifestyle!
When I was a kid in the 1980s, I looked forward to opening my lunchbox every weekday. My mom worked full-time, but she always took time to pack me a delicious lunch: a hearty sandwich on whole grain bread with roast beef, muenster cheese, Dijon mustard, and lettuce, a whole orange with the ends sliced off and the peel scored lightly with a knife (so that my little fingers could peel it easily), and some Sun Chips and a Kudos bar…the last two were probably not the healthiest things, but I sure did enjoy them!
These days, I’m packing a lot of lunchboxes because I have three kids who go to school and preschool, I also like to pack myself a lunch when I go to work.
Last week, I was on FOX10 News in Phoenix, on the “Arizona Morning” show with Andrea Robinson and Rick D’Amico, sharing some ideas for packing a lunchbox for kids. You can click here to watch!
Here are a few tips from the show:
First, make sure to include foods with protein, foods with complex carbohydrates for energy, and a few types of plant foods. It’s important to keep meals balanced to help your child feel full and to provide enough energy to learn, play, grow, stay healthy, and feel good.
- Protein suggestions: low-sodium turkey, beef, ham, low-fat cheeses, beans, hummus, tofu, nuts, seeds, edamame, quinoa, low-fat yogurt (remember the ice packs to keep food safe to eat). Include plant sources of protein for those healthy fats that your child needs.
- Energy suggestions: whole grain bread, pita, crackers, pasta, rice, cereal. It’s ok to choose refined grain products occasionally, but aim for whole grains. Dairy foods and plant foods also contain complex carbohydrates – what a nutrition bargain!
- Plant food suggestions: several different types of fresh veggies and fruits, dried fruits (raisins, apricots, cranberries!), pre-packaged fruit packed in 100% juice, nuts (if allowed due to allergies), and seeds. Choosing plant foods in their whole form and with minimal processing insures that your child will get plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
We “eat with our eyes”, so consider how the food looks to a kid. Think about the colors, shapes, and textures of the food and try to include a variety. For example, a beige sandwich with pale yellow banana slices , white jicama sticks, and light brown pistachio nuts might be a little too monochromatic. Adding some blueberries, cherry tomatoes, edamame, orange carrot sticks, and dark brown almonds would turn the beige-fest into a party platter that any kid would want to dig into.
Dips and sauces can make all the difference, too. Including a small container of ranch dressing, dip made with Greek yogurt and herbs, hummus, salsa, or marinara sauce can often entice kids to eat veggies.
A bento box-style container certainly takes the guesswork out of portion sizes and encourages us to include a variety of different foods. But if you don’t have a bento box, that’s perfectly fine. I like to save take-out containers and re-use them as lunchboxes. Just arrange the food in the container attractively and use foods like carrot and celery sticks as barriers to separate other foods. Silicone cupcake liners and small plastic containers that you buy or that you save from restaurant take-out meals can be used to contain and separate items too. I like to use refillable silicone tubes to hold yogurt, and they can be re-used, which cuts down on waste.
Just because packing a lunchbox is a labor of love doesn’t mean that it has to take a lot of labor. Prep several lunches’ worth of food on Sundays and then once mid-week, and you’re good to go. While you’re at it, prep some lunch foods for yourself and then enjoy the feeling of opening a lunchbox and enjoying a delicious, healthy lunch packed by someone who loves you.
Happy Labor Day!
I swear I haven’t been blog-fasting or social media-fasting on purpose, but I’m finally back in the game now. Sometimes a woman just needs to catch her breath and remember her priorities. Mine happen to be three boys – four if you count my husband. The spring semester ended, but the summer semester is still in high gear. I’m teaching an online course for ASU in Nutrition and Health Communications that wraps up this week.
One of my favorite San Franciscans, Sarah Koszyk, interviewed me about my work in the spring for NutritionJobs.com. This a great website for current and aspiring nutrition professionals! In the Career Resources section, click on the “Dietetic Career Spotlights” to read inspiring stories about dietitians on a variety of paths.
Back to grading papers! See you soon!
According to family lore, I never slept through the night until I was three. So this photo, which was taken of me at 6 AM the other day, doesn’t really surprise me. Payback is a…dirty diaper.
The benefit of having a pair of chubby toddler legs wrapped around one’s neck is that getting kicked in the face is not really an option. Suffocating, on the other hand, might be.
I woke up to the sound of my husband’s chuckling and the flash of his iPhone in my face. I was instantly annoyed that a decent stretch of sleep had been interrupted because I had gone to bed at 1 AM, after working late and being up with our toddler, who had a cough and a fever. I decided to post the photo on Facebook and got 150 likes almost instantly. So, hey, this is just real life. No Photoshop here.
So what’s been going on around here since last fall? Well, things got really eventful for a while. Our preschooler Felix (sleeping perpendicular to me, above) developed a severe case of pneumonia in early November. He had a weak, persistent cough and an on-again, off-again fever that spiked to 106 degrees twice. We visited the emergency room at Phoenix Children’s Hospital three times within one week. Antibiotics – IV, IM, and oral – didn’t work on him. Finally he was admitted to PCH with an excess buildup of fluid on his lung. Felix ended up staying there for a week, with a surgically inserted chest tube draining the fluid from his lung into a tank under his bed. Life came to a standstill while we shuffled work, caring for our other two kids, and any other obligations around. His immune system was fragile for weeks after we brought him home. After he picked up a case of croup, we decided to keep him quarantined until he was completely well again.
Felix had been on powerful antibiotics for several weeks, which stripped the beneficial gut flora from his colon. (Also, the poor kid’s teeth turned yellow as a result of the antibiotics. They’re finally back to normal now, three months later) Taking the probiotic Florastor definitely helped to restore his gut health and support his immune system. I’m all for yogurt and fermented foods, but in an acute case like this, the Florastor did the trick.
Our friends, family, and neighbors were immensely supportive during those two months when we were immersed in the pneumonia/recovery situation.
I also began working full-time. Last fall, after teaching college-level nutrition courses part-time for a few years, I decided it was time to “lean in” (thanks, Sheryl Sandberg). I’m now a faculty member in the Nutrition Program at the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona Stage University. I’m teaching five nutrition courses this semester. I teach three courses in-person, and two online.
Juggling the five courses, with over 300 students, and our three kids has been challenging, But I really enjoy it. So far, things have been working out well. We have an amazing nanny and my husband’s parents help out with the kids. And I do miss the kids quite a bit when I teach one evening a week. But our reunions are happy and that’s what I like to focus on. I’m looking forward to spending time with them next week when we all have spring break together.
And nope, I still haven’t managed to get the kids out of the bed…