Cool as a Cucumber

Summer in northeast U.S.A. is the go-to season for healthful, colorful, and delicious fruits and vegetables and a time when families and friends tend to gather regularly for graduations, weddings, picnics, and backyard barbecues. What better way to celebrate being in the company of people you love and feeding yourself well than planning a party of your own?

Living Room Picnic

Creating a menu doesn’t have to be stressful or sinful when you dish out whole, fresh ingredients—served buffet-style—with homemade dressings and dips on the side. Not only will your plates be visually appealing and packed with high-quality nutrients, but you won’t have to break a sweat putting everything together.

Much like designing any healthful meal, the same rules apply: more variety and colors mean more vitamins and nutrients. Include a mix of animal- and/or plant-based proteins (skinless chicken breast, tenderloin, lentils, black beans, and tofu are great options), carbohydrates (brown rice, corn, and quinoa are versatile grains; Swiss chard, beet greens, and eggplant are nutrient-rich vegetables), and healthy fats (think walnuts, ground flaxseed, and olive oil).

Avoid heavy sauces and let the natural goodness of your bounty speak for itself. To start, make a light, but flavorful, marinade or rub for your protein dishes from a complementary blend of dried and fresh herbs and spices like cumin-chili-cilantro or dill-mustard-yogurt. Next, toss up a simple salad of different colored veggies like thinly sliced summer squash and heirloom tomato over leafy greens. Whisk together a light dressing of lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. For dessert, consider macerated fruit like peaches and blueberries drizzled with honey and white balsamic vinegar. (Check out Foodily or Yummly for other great recipe ideas.) This entire combination of foods alone offers a beneficial dose of many vitamins and minerals—like manganese, vitamins C, K, and A, dietary fiber, iron, and antioxidants—to support your body systems.

Consider the following:

  • Plan and prepare accordingly by asking your guests or estimating of the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians attending your party.
  • Serve ingredients separately to accommodate those who may have special diet requirements so they can build their own meals. Label each dish so guests don’t have to guess or ask, “What’s in this?”
  • Provide take-home items. Leftover containers will encourage your guests to continue eating healthfully after they’ve left your party. Stack printouts of your recipes on the buffet table so they can try their hands at creating their own versions at home or include recipe links in a thank-you e-mail a few days after the event.

When the party’s over, revel in the fact that, quite possibly for the first time for many of your guests, nothing was off-limits. Not only will you have enjoyed great company, but you will have served healthful fare to your grateful guests who may want to know when they can come back for more!

[Versions of this article were written for and published on YoffieLife.com on September 1, 2014 and DishWithDina.com on August 13, 2015.]

Beating the Barbecue Blues

Ah, summer! Along with sunny days, warmer temperatures, and the urge to want to leave work early come invitations to graduation parties, barbecues, and picnics in the park. Tempting as these may be, you may end up feeling sluggish, bloated, and upset with yourself after indulging in some of the more unfavorable foods served at these events. The best summer party accessory is a healthful-eating action plan.

BBQ.jpg

(image credit: https://static.pexels.com)

On the days before and after, make a conscious effort to eat nutritiously so that, if you do splurge a bit, you don’t suffer guilt (or stomachaches) later. Have a hearty breakfast the morning of your gathering, or a small snack—like whole grain pretzel sticks and peanut butter—a couple of hours before the event. As you’re heading to the venue, visualize your plate piled high with colorful and varied foods. At the very least, most functions will usually have salad fixings, so fill up on the items that will give you the most nutrients, vitamins, and fiber, then reward yourself with a small portion of something decadent. After all, you are celebrating!

Aromas may entice, but barbecued and fried foods like steaks, burgers, pork ribs, and chicken wings can be high in fat, calories, and sodium––especially if accompanied by seasonings, sauces, and buns. (Not to mention the potential food safety issues at these gatherings, when foods that contain meat and dairy have been sitting outdoors for too long.) A basic cheeseburger will run you about 350 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 600 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly 25 percent of your daily recommended value. Even a handful of nuts come in at 10 grams of fat, and that refreshing cup of sangria will cost you 20 grams of sugar. You don’t have to cut out everything completely, but keep these numbers in mind before you approach the food tables, especially if you’re concerned about weight management and caloric intake, or have a pre-existing condition like high cholesterol or hypertension.

Consider the following:

  • Plan ahead. Call and ask the hosts what they’ll be serving the day of their event and ask if you can bring a plant-based side dish with you (a three-bean salad, baked kale chips, or carrot sticks and hummus) if there’s going to be nothing but fried foods and salty snacks.
  • Choose wisely. If the venue doesn’t allow for outside food, then make smart adjustments. Forgo the bread; select a leaner meat and omit the toppings; replace anything fried with salad. And always—always—eat off a plate.
  • Keep moving. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Take a lap around the buffet before every course. Engage in a game of volleyball or two in between servings. Each little burst of movement will keep your nibbling to a minimum, and your calories in check.

While you are out of your element, you can still be in control when it comes to your nutrition as long as you plan on being mindful before you even walk out the door. With a healthful eating strategy, you can successfully face that smorgasbord of potentially harsh foods on the other side.

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on June 29, 2014.]

For the Love of Food

ICYMI, this past Monday, October 24, was Food Day, an annual national celebration headed up by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It was created a handful of years ago to encourage Americans to be more mindful about their eating habits and take ownership of their well-being, and to bring attention to policies—or lack thereof—regarding accessibility to healthy, affordable, and sustainable food.

To “observe” Food Day, one needs only to commit to making some sort of food-related change to his or her normal habits—anything from giving up soda to supporting farmers at the local farmers’ market to reading up on how Members of Congress voted on certain food policy issues. Some towns and college campuses put together big events to encourage their communities to join in on making these changes or identifying local food- and nutrition-related issues that need their attention. In doing so, they hope that these personal commitments and community-wide achievements last well beyond the one day once the momentum kicks in and everyone sees the positive results of what their efforts can make.

For me, food has played an enormous role in my life, starting from the time I was a child. Every Sunday, my Nonna Rosa would pick fresh herbs and vegetables from her backyard garden and, when I was old enough to stand on a chair and lean over the kitchen table, call me downstairs (we used to live above her in a two-family house) to help her prepare fresh, homemade pasta, hand-cranked through the heavy, metal pasta machine that had traveled with her on her journey from Italy to America. In that small kitchen, we cooked pounds of pasta al dente, served in an enormous bowl with the sauce—studded with heavy, hand-rolled polpette (meatballs)—that had been simmering in the big pot on the stove all day. Alongside the large bowl of pasta would sit a platter of sautéed spinach with fresh cloves of garlic or a dish of plump, stewed tomatoes with ceci (garbanzo beans), anchovies, fresh parsley, and basil. The aromas were enticing, even to the olfactory of five-year-old me!

Spending time learning and cooking with my Nonna Rosa remains one of my fondest memories of all time. Not only was there a sense of accomplishment associated with making our own food and feeding it to our family, but I became enamored and inspired by Nonna as she shared with me—in her broken English—stories about how she came to America, how she worked in a coat factory and saved up her own money, and how she was determined to be an independent woman in this new land, something unheard of for her generation.

Not too long ago, my dear friend and fellow Registered Dietitian (and foodie and blogger and New Yorker), Marsha, from SalutNutrition, interviewed me about the tastes and traditions of Italian cuisine. It was so fun, sitting with Marsha on a breezy, beautiful day in Central Park telling stories* about my family and my love of food. If you have about 15 minutes to spare, I invite you to watch and learn a little more about the food and culture of my family’s hometown in Italy:

Marsha launches a new YouTube episode each week on different foods and habits from across the globe. Click here to subscribe to her channel.

What are some of your favorite food memories? Are there any habits you have made, want to change, or looking to learn about? Please feel free to add your comments below and share this post with anyone you think who might love food as much as we do.

*VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: My mother had a chance to watch this video when it launched earlier in the week and yelled at me for forgetting to talk about the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” (an Italian Christmas Eve tradition). I clearly did not prepare well enough for this interview; otherwise, I would never have let this happen. Marsha denied my request to re-shoot the entire interview so that I could correct my error. Thankfully, I wrote a post about it a few years ago and you can read all about it here.

Ho-Ho-Hold off on That Holiday Weight Gain

Not too long ago, some fellow dietetic interns and I created a presentation for one of our classes where we reported on research findings about how college students tend to gain weight over the 6- to 8-week span of the winter holiday season (Thanksgiving through the New Year).

Shocking, right?

Interestingly, the study participants weren’t “traditional” college students, i.e., 18- to 22-year-olds. In fact, the age span included grad students, some well into their 30s.

The study showed that, as seasons change and colder weather approaches, students are more likely to change their food, mood, and physical activity for the worse. Indulgences over the holiday season can cause a significant increase in the percentage of body fat and fat mass, leaving students vulnerable to obesity development from those unhealthful holiday habits that may carry on further into their adulthood and passed onto their children or other family members.

Increases in body fat are a major factor in morbidity and mortality which is why it is important to strategize ways to maintain healthful eating and other lifestyle habits, especially during the holiday season.

I’ve shamelessly plugged this blog post for over a year, but it’s got a really good game plan about how to handle the urge to overindulge during the holidays. The important thing to keep in mind is that you are in control over what and how much you eat, and how much you get up off your couch and go play outside. It’s always easy to say that your splurge is temporary and you’ll go back to better habits “tomorrow,” but, there’s a real potential to turn that temporary splurge into a 6-week binge and, before you know it, you’re feeling groggy, gross, and regretful for the long haul. So, check yourself before you wreck yourself this holiday season and any time temptation rears its ugly head.

Summertime…and the Eating Is Easy

There’s always a great reason to be in the company of friends, but summer is the go-to season for healthful, colorful, and delicious fruits and vegetables, so why not plan a party to celebrate both?

Living Room Picnic

Creating a menu doesn’t have to be stressful or sinful when you dish out whole, fresh ingredients—served buffet-style—with homemade dressings and dips on the side. Not only will your plates be visually appealing and packed with high-quality nutrients, but you won’t even have to break a sweat putting everything together.

Much like designing any healthful meal, the same rules apply here. Be sure your party menu includes a good mix of proteins (skinless chicken breast, tenderloin, lentils, black beans, and tofu are great options), carbohydrates (brown rice, corn, and quinoa are versatile grains; Swiss chard, beet greens, and eggplant are nutrient-rich vegetables), and healthy fats (think walnuts, ground flaxseed, and olive oil). More colors mean more vitamins and nutrients.

To start, make a marinade or rub for your protein dishes from a complementary blend of dried and fresh herbs and spices like cumin-chili-cilantro or dill-mustard-yogurt. No heavy sauces here. Next, toss up a simple salad of different colored veggies like thinly sliced summer squash and heirloom tomato over leafy greens. Whisk together a light dressing of freshly squeezed lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. For dessert, consider macerated fruit like peaches and blueberries drizzled with honey and white balsamic vinegar. This entire combination of foods alone offers a beneficial dose of so many vitamins and minerals—like manganese, vitamins C, K, and A, dietary fiber, iron, and antioxidants—to support many of your body systems. (Check out Foodily for some other great recipe ideas.)

Consider the following:

  • Plan and prepare accordingly by asking your guests or estimating of the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians attending your party.
  • Serve ingredients separately to accommodate those who may have special diet requirements so they can build their own meals. Label each dish so guests don’t have to guess or ask, “What’s in this?”
  • Provide take-home items. Leftover containers will encourage your guests to continue eating healthfully after they’ve left your party. Stack printouts of your recipes on the buffet table so they can try their hands at creating their own versions at home or include recipe links in a thank-you e-mail a few days after the event.

When the party’s over, revel in the fact that, quite possibly for the first time for many of your guests, nothing was off-limits. Not only will you have enjoyed great company, but you will have served healthful fare to your grateful guests who may want to know when they can come back for more!

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on September 1, 2014.]

A Spring Cleaning for Healthful Eating

Life is busy, and before you know it, priorities—like eating healthfully—go out the window. The key to success is to have a plan and do your best to stick to it. Keeping on track is easy when you already have a weekly menu lined up and good foods in your home; otherwise, you risk impulse eating something not-so-great and regretting it.

You might think advance planning requires adding time to your already busy schedule. According to wellness pioneer Dr. Frank Lipman, though, research shows that the average American watches more than five hours of television each day, yet spends barely half an hour on food preparation. Take a good look at your less-than-productive hours and put them to better use by developing a smart and manageable food strategy.

Plan and make meals to get you through the week by mixing and matching what you have on hand—whole, healthful foods in a variety of colors—with supplements from the grocery store. Be creative, but don’t overburden yourself trying to whip up something too fancy or intricate. Instead, spotlight one ingredient in multiple ways throughout the week. For example, grill up some chicken to use one night for dinner and on another day for lunch, shredded in a whole grain wrap. Hard-boil enough eggs to have for breakfast one day and to toss into a mixed greens salad a couple of days later. Cut up a bunch of carrots into sticks; put half into snack bags and cook up the other half into a simple glazed carrot side dish.

Consider the following:

  • Check your calendar every week and mark off the days where you will realistically be able to grocery shop, cook, eat dinner at home, or bring leftovers with you for lunch at the office.
  • Inventory your kitchen by writing down everything in your fridge, cabinets, and pantry, and grouping like items together on your list (meats, veggies, nuts, etc.). Toss any item that’s expired. Based on your calendar and kitchen inventory, design meals to last you the entire week. There are plenty of websites and smartphone apps like Supercook and BigOven that can generate recipes based on what you already have on hand. Shop for any items you need to add/replace. Click here for *FREE* downloadable templates to help you with inventorying, shopping, and meal planning.
  • Cook for the week. Prepare what you can in bulk—a pot of chili, steamed string beans, mashed sweet potatoes. Divide everything up into small containers or snack bags and freeze/refrigerate them. All you have to do from this point forward is refer to your weekly meal plan each day or the night before, then defrost, reheat, or assemble your meals accordingly.

Planning ahead and preparing meals for yourself or with your family not only puts your mind at ease, but guarantees nourishment for your body as well. Regularly inventorying your kitchen, planning a weekly menu, and having a shopping strategy will save you frustration later on, so honor and appreciate the time and effort that went into creating your healthful and delicious meals.

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on May 25, 2014.]

Fishing for compliments

For the second year in a row, I shared kitchen duties with my mom for our family’s Christmas Eve dinner. My mom handled all the fish dishes (I’ve written about our Italian fish tradition previously here) and I was in charge of the rest, which included a variety of nutrient-dense, fancifully flavored, plant-based recipes. This year’s menu, like last year’s, combined old-world tradition with some new fusion fare:

  • Shrimp Cocktail (à la Costco)
  • Chard & White Bean Soup (I substituted sweet potatoes for new potatoes)
  • Wilted Greens Salad (I used plain, ol’ mesclun instead of mustard greens, but added Dijon to the dressing as a nod; I also threw in some chopped walnuts to add texture and offset the sweetness of the dressing)
  • Shrimp Scampi; Calamari en Brodo; Broiled Cod; and Linguine with King Crab legs (all recipes in Mom’s head)
  • Braised Kale and Carrot Stew (loosely inspired by this recipe)
  • Citrus Pound Cake w/Warm Citrus Salad (from the Dec ’14 issue of The Oprah Magazine)
  • Winter Warmer Cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol, but got everyone else nice and drunk on this)

I fare best when I eat vegetarian, but I don’t feel the need to make a show of it; I just like providing solidly healthful foods for people I love, especially when I know some of the day will include indulgences and sweets. Plus, it ensures that I’ll be getting my own fill of fruits and veggies…a true win-win.

What kind of foods do you eat and traditions do you follow for the holidays? Do you like to cook or share the cooking responsibilities with anyone in your family during special occasions? Feel free to post your comments below. I look forward to reading them!

Turkeys and dressings and pies…oh, my!

With the end of the year comes invitations to holiday parties and the potential to indulge on some not-so-great foods. Tempting as these are, overeating–especially the wrong foods–can not only leave you feeling sluggish, bloated, and upset with yourself, it can bring you steps closer to heart disease and other chronic illnesses. The next best party accessory to your sparkly bangles or your festive tie is a healthful-eating action plan.

Thanksgiving Table

Aromas may entice, but dark meat turkey with skin, fried onion casseroles, pecan pie, and egg nog are high in fat, calories, and sodium–even canned cranberry sauce carries four times the amount of sugar you should normally have in a day–especially if accompanied by seasonings, sauces, and biscuits. (Not to mention the possible food safety issues at these occasions, when meats and dairy items sit out for hours.) A simple serving of mashed potatoes will run you about 240 calories with 9 grams of fat and over 600 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly 25 percent of your daily recommended value. A handful of nuts comes in at 10 grams of fat, and that cozy cup of gingerbread latte will cost you 40 grams of sugar. You don’t have to cut out everything, but keep these numbers in mind before you approach the dining table.

On the days before and after a special event, make a conscious effort to eat nutritiously so that, if you do splurge a bit, you don’t suffer guilt (or stomachaches) later. Have a hearty breakfast the morning of your gathering, or a small snack—like whole grain pretzel sticks and peanut butter—a couple of hours before you head out. On your way to the venue, visualize your plate piled high with colorful and varied foods. At the very least, most functions will have salad fixings, so fill up first on the items that will give you the most nutrients, vitamins, and fiber, then reward yourself with a small portion of something decadent. After all, you are celebrating!

Consider the following:

  • Plan ahead. Call and ask the hosts what they’ll be serving the day of their event and ask if you can bring a side dish with you (a three-bean salad, baked kale chips, or carrot sticks and hummus) if there’s going to be nothing but fried foods and salty snacks.
  • Choose wisely. If the venue doesn’t allow for outside food, then make smart adjustments. Forgo the bread; select a leaner meat and omit the toppings; replace anything fried with salad. And always—always—eat off a plate.
  • Keep moving. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Take a lap around the buffet before every course. Engage in a dance or two. Each little burst of movement will keep your nibbling to a minimum, and your calories in check.

While you are out of your element, you can still be in control when it comes to your nutrition as long as you plan on being mindful before you even walk out the door. With a healthful eating strategy, you can successfully face that smorgasbord of harsh foods on the other side.

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on June 29, 2014.]

Image credit: iStock

Take the cannoli

Even though we only live across the river, it’s rare the bf and I get many visits from our friends and family in New Jersey, so you can imagine how excited we got when my cousins came into the city a couple of weekends ago to spend the whole day with us.

What I love most when we have visitors (aside from eating with them) is getting to view our neighborhoods through their eyes. Rushing through the streets of Manhattan, as a resident is wont to do, I often miss out on the little details like sidewalk vendors and graffiti art on buildings. It’s only when I’m walking with an “outsider” that I manage to stop and take in these nuances.

Our tour was very haphazard; we zigged and zagged according to the traffic lights’ changing patterns. We started at our place in the East Village, then meandered over to SoHo, then pitched a hard left and shot our way toward the East River Promenade and South Street Seaport, which, while the effects of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy were visible, still thrives with everything from an outdoor trapeze school at Pier 16 to a food market where vendors’ wares are housed in individual shipping containers.

I’m outside!

After our leisurely stroll through the south end of Manhattan, we realized how hungry we were getting, so we high-tailed it back up the busy streets of Chinatown toward Little Italy and decided to be super tourists by plopping down to dinner at the ever-famous, ever-infamous Umberto’s Clam House, now relocated down Mulberry Street a bit from its original Broome Street location.

While I took in the sights, sounds, and smells of our venture outdoors, I noticed something else: I was moving slowly and loving it. I sat on a bench for nearly ten minutes and stared at the Brooklyn Bridge. I watched people dressed in colorful leotards hurl themselves in mid-air on trapeze bars and then land softly on the net below them. I took pictures of things and nothings. I often joke that I don’t go outside (unless I’m on a beach) because I’m very busy and important, allowing pressing tasks or other priorities keep me indoors, but being out and about was a true gift that I would very much like to continue giving myself.

 

For starters: 7 steps to meal & menu planning

One of the keys to healthful eating and the best way to stave off boredom and hunger pangs is to be prepared. Spending a few hours at the beginning of your week doing the following things will save you tons of time and frustration later on:

  1. Get busy! A couple of days before—or the morning of—your food shopping day(s), inventory your kitchen to avoid duplicate or impulse buys when you’re in the store or at the market. Write down everything in your fridge, cabinets, and pantry, including oils and spices, and keep like things grouped together on your list (meats, veggies, nuts, etc.). Toss any item that’s expired or compost rotting foods.
  2. Get creative! Based on your inventory list, start thinking of meals you can make to get you through the week. Mix and match what you have on hand to be most efficient. There are plenty of websites like Supercook.com and smartphone apps like Whole Foods Market Recipes that can help you generate recipes based on what’s already in your kitchen…or be inspired by other people’s recipes…or try a simple Leftovers Salad.
  3. Get crackin’! Write down your weekly meal plan. Now that you have an idea of what to make, start plugging in your meals. Be creative, but don’t overburden yourself with anything that’s going to require too much prep or cooking time or will force you to track down ingredients from more than one or two stores. Save that for special occasions. Instead, spotlight one ingredient in multiple ways throughout the week. For example, can that chicken in the freezer be used in one night’s dinner and another day’s lunch? Will the eggs in your fridge be just as good for breakfast one day and in a lunch sandwich wrap the next?
  4. Get ready! Highlight ingredients/supplies you are missing from your inventory—or running low on—and create a shopping list.
  5. Get moving! Go shopping or place a delivery order from your local online grocer, like FreshDirect. Do not overbuy if you don’t have a plan on how to use the extra goods. Stuff is on sale all the time, so be a savvy shopper and use your coupons if you got ’em, but forego any in-store specials if it means you’ll be taking home things you don’t need.
  6. Get cooking! Once you’re home, or your grocery delivery has arrived, immediately unpack everything and refer to your meal plan to start prepping what you can. Now is the time to start divvying things up into smaller packages or snack bags and freezing/refrigerating them. Start that pot of chili, begin steaming the string beans, mash up those sweet potatoes. And if there are folks in your house you can recruit to help you out, DO IT. It’ll make things go quicker and everyone will appreciate the time and effort that went into feeding them such healthful and yummy food.
  7. Get some rest! Now that you’re done and everything is cooked, labeled, packed up, and put away, take some time for yourself or with your family and congratulate yourself on a job well done. All you have to do from this point forward is refer to your weekly meal plan every day or the night before, then defrost, reheat, or assemble your meals accordingly.

Keep motivated by what you’ve just read and download one of my *FREE* templates below. Feel free to add a comment with your successes, challenges, or other helpful strategies.