Don’t Worry, Eat Happy!

With the summer heat coming to a close and the cool autumn breeze fast approaching, it is important for us not to become stagnant in our healthful habits. It might seem desirable to cuddle up on the couch with some comfort food once the temperatures drop, but don’t forget to get in your servings of fruits and vegetables as well. In the U.S., farmers’ markets are still chock full of colorful produce, so be sure to take advantage of the bounty while it’s still there. Besides, September just happens to be “Fruits & Veggies––More Matters” month.

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(image credit: WPR.org)

On average, New Yorkers eat less fresh produce in the fall and even less in the winter, than they do during the summer months, regardless of the fact that NYC has over 139 greenmarket locations within its five boroughs, most of which operate year-round.1 Many of us may feel too overwhelmed by work, bills, and family life, that making sufficient time in our busy schedules to browse through farmers’ markets for fresh produce with limited shelf life feels akin to an unnecessary chore than anything particularly beneficial.

What may limit Americans in creating habits concerning weekly farmers’ markets, and/or grocery shopping in general, is not only a lack of information about how to shop, but also a lack of information regarding what to shop for.2 The abundance of food options may cause a great hindrance to shoppers’ abilities to make significant changes to their food shopping habits. Though the great increase of selections concerning produce is appealing mentally, in practice, however, it may often debilitate shoppers.

In addition, market patrons, who may live with tight financial constraints and are unsure about proper food storage and efficient meal planning may make dietary and food purchasing decisions that are more unhealthy than not. For those that struggle with cooking time/skills or eating similar meals frequently, the added fact that farmers’ market fruits and vegetables have a very limited lifespan may also increase stress around the immediacy of consumption.

In order for food shoppers to develop weekly habits for farmers’ market shopping, and prevent market attendance from waning during the fall and winter months, taking the necessary steps will prevent stress overload and make fresh produce shopping less complicated and more exciting!

Eat Happy pic2

(image credit: Cynthia Moon)

Step 1: Budgeting: How much are you willing to spend?
Buying fresh produce seems very expensive when, in actuality, it is cheaper in the long run. First, determine how much money you’re willing to spend, then calculate how much you normally spend both weekly and monthly, making sure to include how often you dine out or purchase lunch outside instead of taking leftovers to work. Make sure the market you attend receives currency in the form of Health Bucks and/or food stamps if your budget is very tight. Your shopping list must be based on your budget, along with recipe adjustments that will most likely incorporate rotating certain veggies into different dishes.

Step 2: Recipes: Find recipes that you can rotate and use your staples as a base!
What do you cook often? What are your staple foods? Do you like brown rice? Does your breakfast always include bananas because you think they’re the cheapest fruit you can find? Farmers’ market vendors can often suggest simple recipes relating to the types of produce they provide. Allow yourself the possibility of varying your fruits and vegetables. For example, if you are left with a large amount of spinach at the end of the week, you can quickly use it up as a base for a salad instead of your old standby romaine lettuce. Leftover onions and broccoli would be a great addition to your morning omelet or scrambled eggs. If blueberries happen to be the right price and are in-season, buy extra and freeze them to use in desserts or breakfast smoothies at a later date.

Step 3: Meal plan: Start weekly, then make necessary adjustments.
It is important to first calculate your daily energy needs in order to be certain of how much food you need to eat weekly and how much to buy in the first place. Your weekly meals can easily be rotations or variations of your go-to recipes and your produce shopping should be nutritious additions to your staple foods. For example, if you made split pea soup for dinner Monday evening you can use the leftover celery, carrots, and onions from that meal in a tuna sandwich for lunch the next day. Meal plans should incorporate an adequate balance of your essential nutrients according to your specific energy needs and physical lifestyle––such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats––through a varied diet of whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, lean meats, and/or fish.

[Editor’s note: Click here to learn more about meal- and menu-planning and here for some smoothie mix-and-match suggestions (over 3,000 combinations to make sure you get your fruits and veggies on).]

Step 4: Shop!
Find farmers’ markets that you know will provide the necessary foods you need for your meal plans, are budget-friendly (like the Fresh Food Box offerings in most NYC neighborhoods), and are closest to you. Take hold of the wonderful abundance of food options we have in our city during the cold season to come. As a result, not only will your health benefit from a nutritious and varied diet, but you will be contributing to a greater, environmentally sustainable cause, and without breaking the bank.3

[Editor’s note: Click here to find a farmers’ market in or near your zip code and here for more tips on shopping at your local farmers’ market.]

References:

  1. NYC.gov. (2017). Farmers Markets in New York State.
  2. Graffagna, S. (2014). “10 Healthy Habits for Fall.” Superhero You website.
  3. Tufts University. Health & Nutrition Letter. (2016). “Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables to Help Fight Frailty.” Tufts.edu website.
Abigail Ortiz Author Pic

Guest post by Abigail Ortiz, nutrition student

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.]

Summer 2017 promotions

How the heck are we already more than halfway through the year? Yikes! If you’re like me, you may be slightly anxious about not having accomplished certain things on that ever-growing to-do list by now. If one of those things was to engage in healthier habits, then you’re in luck! We have TWO summer promotions you might be interested in:

  1. Receive one (1) 30-minute nutrition counseling session for $25 (valued at $40). Click here to book an appointment. Select the “PROMO! Healthful Lifestyle Coaching (30 min)” option. Offer applies to new clients only and ends 7/31/17. Session must be booked before September 30, 2017.
  2. Starting August 6, keep an eye out for our new “4-Week Fast Track” series. Learn new healthful lifestyle habits, get back on track with ones you’ve lost, and maybe shed some unwanted pounds in the process. Total cost is $28 for 28 days. You must have access to a Facebook account as we will be creating a closed group for all participants and you’ll receive links to videos and materials to help keep you motivated!

And if those don’t strike your fancy, you can always book a *FREE* 15-minute phone consultation to see if there’s a program that works for you.

I look forward to helping you meet your healthful lifestyle goals. Please feel free to share this with anyone you think might benefit from our services.

Eat well and be well!

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.

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(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.]

A Salad a Day

Eating healthfully does not have to be a difficult feat of strength and will. In fact, I encourage you to create a simple salad every day based solely on ingredients you have in your house or can easily grab at your local grocer and dump into a bowl.

I have been having so much fun with Mason jar salads lately. (Yes, food nerds like me think salads are fun.) Originally, my meal planning and prep work used to take up half a day every Sunday. I would divide all my ingredients into their own containers so I could mix and match and assemble a variety of veggie-friendly meals for myself during the week. But, lo and behold! I became a Mason jar salad convert.

Mason Jar Salad

My Mason jars are extra large (32 oz) and light green, but you could go for the clear, smaller version if you’re slowly working your way into the meal prep and veggie lifestyle. Assembly is easy, but requires some thought as you don’t want your fragile, leafy greens sitting in a puddle of dressing for three days. HurryTheFoodUp shows you how to properly structure your salad and TheMuse gives you lots of ideas about the kinds of foods you can integrate into your salads, so play around and experiment with different flavors each week. Try to always have a protein (chicken or chickpeas), a carb (sweet potatoes or carrots), and a fat (avocado or walnuts) in your combo. When you’re ready, you can simply shake up your salad and eat directly out of the jar or shake, dump everything into a bowl, and toss in a handful of croutons. Ta da!

Mason Jar Avocado

For more information and ideas about how to get lots of veggies and other yummy, good foods into your daily meals, check out my previous blog post “It’s Easy Being Green…” And please leave a comment below and share with us what’s been working for you or what you’re struggling with. We’re here to help make healthful eating as easy as possible!

How Convenient

I often tell people that I’m very busy and important––busier than Oprah, if that’s even a relevant reference these days. Starting a private practice while finishing grad school and landing a lovely little part-time weekly gig as an in-house prenatal nutritionist at an ob/gyn office in midtown east (NYC/Manhattan) has definitely put a lot on my plate. It’s been three months since my last blog post in which I wrote about a 10-day hiatus I was taking from social media. In that time, half a dozen holidays and other celebrations have come and gone as has an entire season. But, as busy as I get, there has always remained one non-negotiable in my schedule: meal-planning.

Regardless of how much work I have to do, how quickly school assignment deadlines are approaching, or how little sleep I’ve gotten, I always carve out about half a day on Sundays to grocery shop, prep, and cook my meals––or, at least, the ingredients for my meals––for the week. It’s what keeps me in line for healthful eating…and sane during the week when I’m exhausted and don’t want to so much as lift a finger to point at food I want to eat. In fact, a recent study1 showed that at-home meal planning improved diet quality, nutrition and food variety, and weight status in over 40,000 people who participated in it.

Even with planning ahead, though, there are times when I forget to schlep my pre-made meals with me or want to treat myself to something different. The ob/gyn office is located where convenience foods abound, but meals in that area can be a little costly or might not be as healthful as I’d like them to be. Enter Eatsa, a “futuristic power bowl automat” (according to Gothamist) that serves up a wide variety of delicious, nutritious, customized, plant-based lunches, all for the pocket-friendly price of $6.95.

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The day I checked out Eatsa, I ordered the Burrito Bowl which packs in 25g of protein, 25g of fat (mostly the good kind), 89g of carbs (primarily complex), 17g of fiber (nearly 70% of a woman’s daily needs!), and only 9g of sugar (I’m assuming from the salsa and corn); however, the sodium was a little high at 1112mg (an issue for anyone with high blood pressure), and, at 653 calories, you’d really get your money’s worth as there’s enough food here to cover a meal and a snack for most people.

Burrito Bowl open

While I realize spending half a day cooking and cleaning in order to plan a week’s worth of meals might not be realistic for some folks, options like Eatsa are a wonderful––and affordable––alternative. Currently, this chain is only located in a few neighborhoods in NYC, DC, and California; but, hopefully, we’ll see an expansion soon to other places across the country.

And in keeping with the theme of another celebration that’s almost over, National Nutrition Month‘s “Put Your Best Fork Forward,” please check out the resources below to help you make the best decisions for times when convenience is of the essence:

References:

  1. Ducrot, P., et al. (2017). Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(12), 1-12.

Stick a Fork in Me

The end of a year is often time for reflection. For me, this has been both one of the best and worst years I’ve ever experienced. While I’m glad 2016 is over, I am grateful for so many of the opportunities that came my way and am looking forward to my future endeavors, both personally and professionally.

As a small business entrepreneur, it’s often difficult to separate out the work stuff from the life stuff. While I’m not big on resolutions, I will be taking into account the things that caused me the most stress over the past 12 months and diminishing those items that are within my control going forward.

gone-fishin

To start, effective tomorrow, 12/23, I have promised myself a reprieve from social media until after the New Year. I am desperate for a brain break, but have also been feeling a lot of eye fatigue and recently became afflicted with “texting elbow” (it’s a thing), so it’s time for a physical and mental detachment to allow me to do some soul-searching and reprioritize what matters most to me.

Another reason why I’ll be offline starting tomorrow is to help my mom prepare our annual Christmas Eve dinner menu. I won’t be uploading pics of the spread until January, so, until then, I invite you to peruse through some of the holiday posts from my archives:

Come January, keep an eye on this site for so many fun things I have in the works for 2017, like one-week challenges, a four-week fast-track program, free book giveaways and promotions, the launch of my YouTube channel, and much, much more.

I wish all of you a very safe and happy holiday season. Eat well and be well. See you again in 2017!

Get Your Macros Here!

Macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fat—are vital to health and well-being. Regardless if you are a meat-eater or follow a plant-based lifestyle, it is important that you get the full range of what your body requires to function properly.

Macronutrients

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create dietary guidelines for Americans, listed on the Nutrition Food Labels on packaged foods and also found online at Health.gov. These amounts are fairly arbitrary—not to mention often confusing—and do not take into account a person’s life stage, level of physical activity, or existing chronic conditions, so understanding your own habits will help you make the eating choices that are best for you.

Proteins, which break down into amino acids when eaten and serve to function in metabolism and immunity, are critical components of all tissues in the human body. Protein is in everything from lean, ground beef (22g/serving), skinless chicken breast (29g), and plain yogurt (13g) to tempeh (18g), kidney beans (8g), and oatmeal (6g). Diets with too little protein can lead to low energy and illness; too much protein may worsen chronic diseases like osteoporosis and kidney failure. Protein functions best with adequate amounts of carbohydrates and fats.

Carbohydrates are mainly found in plant foods and break down into sugar molecules (most abundantly, the monosaccharide glucose) during digestion. Carbs are the primary source of energy for the body’s red blood cells, brain, and other nervous tissues. They also deliver fiber, which may reduce the risk of some cancers, prevent digestive problems in the colon, and provide satiety. Fiber can be found in foods like navy beans (10g/serving), blackberries (8g), broccoli (6g), and whole-wheat bread (2g). Too few carbs in the diet can lead to ketosis, an unhealthy metabolic state; too many carbs—especially if the food is considered “high-glycemic” as in white starches, candy, and dried fruit—may cause spikes in blood sugar levels, especially detrimental for anyone with diabetes.

Fats (and oils) turn into fatty acids when digested, provide the body with energy, transport the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K to cells, and are found in everything from butter to walnuts. The main issue with a low-fat diet is that the fat, which contributes to the flavor and texture of food, is usually replaced with sugar or salt to make the food more palpable. High-fat diets, especially in saturated or trans fats, can lead to obesity and heart disease.

Consider the following:

  • What are the primary foods you’ve been eating? Were there plenty of proteins, but not enough nutrient-dense carbs? Did your lunches consist only of what was in your office mate’s candy bowl.
  • Check your plate and be sure each macronutrient group above is represented in some way. Add what’s missing or include it as a snack in between meals.
  • Every season, replace the foods you seem to be eating most often with others that you haven’t tried yet.

Everything you eat plays a role in running—or ruining—your body. Incorporating varied, balanced, and high quality forms of energy is the best path toward a long and healthful life.

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on September 28, 2014.]

Image credit: Fitnut

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.

On a Mission: Field Work, Food Service, and Feeling Good

Being homeless in New York City does not mean having to live on the streets or in subway tunnels thanks to organizations like The Bowery Mission, which offers recovery programs for men and women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, poverty, and long bouts of unemployment.

Bowery Mission

Earlier this year, as part of my Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) at Lehman College and before I became a Dietetic Intern, I volunteered over 100 hours of my time at The Bowery Mission-Harlem Men’s Transitional Center, which is designed to move formerly homeless men into independent living through faith-based counseling, education, and career development training.

The center houses about 70 men in single-room units and provides them with clean clothing, showers, optical and medical services, and three hot meals a day. For my field work assignment, I was supervised by Gretchen Roth, the Food Services Manager (promoted to Senior Manager of Kitchen Operations on my last day), who oversees the center’s kitchen services and coordinates with The Bowery Mission’s larger location, the soup kitchen at 227 Bowery, to deliver food and supplies—all donated by the general public, restaurants, and food recovery organizations like City Harvest—to the Harlem location as needed.

Many of the Harlem Center residents were known as “chronically homeless,” meaning that they found themselves on the streets for long periods of time—sometimes decades—or in emergency rooms or crisis service centers over and over again without any improvements to their health and well-being. Having mental health issues or being institutionalized at some point also played a big part in their substance use or abuse.

According to a 2004 study, homeless persons and addicts stated that they sold their personal belongings, provided sexual favors, used rent money, or panhandled to purchase drugs and alcohol. Once they ran out of money, lost their jobs, or became addicted, they found themselves living on the streets. However, half of these respondents claimed to be less involved in drugs and alcohol after leaving recovery programs (such as The Bowery Mission’s) because of the personal attention, guidance, and intervention they received while in the program.

In a more recent article, homeless persons were positively affected in recovery programs because they offered constant social and personal reinforcements in addition to providing them with medical, mental health, and substance abuse support. Being in this kind of environment gave them a sense of normalcy and security, both necessary components of a successful recovery process. They appreciated the structure and routine this type of recovery program gave them.

Regardless of the reasons that brought these men to the Harlem Center, they are now better equipped and motivated to live independently once they graduate from the program.

Since my field work at the Harlem Center involved meeting specific criteria for my DPD program, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the inner workings of some of the center’s food service management components. For example:

  • HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points)—This is a food service management system where an organization can address processes for everything from receiving deliveries from vendors to managing inventory to preparing, cooking, and distributing meals to consumers.
  • Inventory control—The Harlem Center, like most Bowery Mission locations, relies on food donations which vary greatly each day and week, so receiving and inventorying is always a challenge.
  • Purchasing—Since the Bowery Mission relies solely on donations, there is no food purchasing involved, but there is regular and ongoing correspondence between the Harlem Center and the main soup kitchen, and the organization will sometimes send a blast out on social media to request needed items and supplies. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee as to what items will be received or in what condition they will be once they arrive, e.g., sometimes donors don’t check their stock beforehand to see if they’re sending out moldy cheese and freezer-burned fish which have to be thrown away instead of being used to feed the residents.
  • Food preparation—I assisted with and/or handled on my own the preparation of hot meals during lunch and dinner each week. Thankfully, from time to time, additional volunteers (like the kind souls from the United Nations in the photo above) would come to help with peeling and chopping massive amounts of potatoes, onions, and other veggies.
  • Service—I assisted with and/or handled on my own working the lunch and dinner tray lines each week in the Center’s cafeteria. On any given day, we would feed about 70 residents. I really enjoyed getting to interact with these guys and learning about their journeys over the few months I was there.
  • Menu—I assisted with and/or created on my own the dinner menus on the days I worked. The kitchen staff and residents would always give me feedback (usually positive) and I would make adjustments accordingly for the next meal.
  • Cleaning—I monitored and participated in kitchen and cafeteria cleaning procedures like sanitizing cook and prep surfaces and dishwashing. I also helped create a daily cleaning schedule for the pantry/stockroom. Even though the center doesn’t serve food to the public, it still must adhere to strict food service guidelines since it does getting inspected by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene every so often just like a restaurant would.
  • Supervision of personnel—On every occasion at the Center, I observed managers commend staff for a job well done or provide feedback about learning and teaching moments. Sometimes, a little “thank you” goes a long way in establishing staff morale, even if you’re volunteering your time and not a paid employee.
  • Time sheets/payroll—A weekly schedule was always posted for kitchen and cafeteria duties. Most of the center’s kitchen staff are residents and unpaid. These duties are a part of the “on-the-job” training component of the recovery program.
  • Miscellaneous—I helped create a fluid pantry/stockroom system for easier storage and retrieval of ingredients needed for the kitchen. Again, because the center receives donations only, there could be racks full of peanut butter or a complete shortage of pasta at any given time. Figuring out how to accommodate these situations without redoing the entire room layout was a little tricky, to say the least.

My experience at the Harlem Center was fantastic, but extremely humbling, as I’m sure all volunteer opportunities are. As a hyper-organized person by nature, I cannot imagine having to face the daily challenges of running a kitchen without knowing what food exists to be served. Add to that the patrons are previously homeless men who now reside in the facility and the responsibility to create a quality meal for them becomes overwhelming.

I have a lot of respect for the staff at the Harlem Center who can pull together a menu—for nearly 70 men, no less—like they are on the Food Network’s TV show Chopped* where they are forced to use whatever ingredients they are given at that moment. It was fascinating to watch the choreography between them and learn how to conduct that same dance on the days I worked on my own, even with so many years of food service already under my belt.

I also appreciated how everyone in that facility—from the front desk receptionist to the counselors—worked to create an interdependent, cohesive, and dynamic environment. Every moment spent at the center revolved around its mission to support and motivate the residents in making their new life possible.

I encourage you to volunteer your time, money, or goods at an organization that is close to your heart or click here if you’d like to donate to some of my faves.

*Fun fact: Gretchen Roth was recently a contestant on the Thanksgiving episode of Chopped. Click here to check it out!