You may end up wondering why you still aren’t losing weight when you’ve made all of these healthy changes to your diet.
Our food supply is abundant. With the popularity of the “healthy snack” niche on the market, you may get fooled into consuming too many calories from snack choices. There is always a new bar popping up, or a new product in the organic food section, that leads you into believing you’ll have ‘instant health’ by consuming it.
Sneaky Healthy Calories
- Are you loving hummus or hard cheese as a snack? These are good for you, but they also add up. A typical 2 TB of hummus offers up 50 calories, and its easy to consume four times that amount, adding up to an extra 200 calories. A one ounce chunk of hard cheese provides 150 calories.
- And how is the hummus or cheese getting into your mouth? Via cracker? While a nice whole grain wheat cracker is great, these can sneak too many calories into you too. Six crackers provide about 120 calories – so keep count. Or better yet, use vegetables to scoop your hummus. Slice up a red, orange or green bell pepper into strips, or try cucumber slices.
- Nuts, granola or trail mix. Nuts are healthy right? Right! But they are also high in calories. Just a small handful can add up to 250 calories – as much as a candy bar. Enjoy a few nuts every day, but count them out (1/4 cup trail mix, 20 almonds, 25 peanuts, 50 pistachios).
Sure, a glass of red wine could be good for your health, and coffee and tea has been shown to be beneficial, but chances are you may ignore the calories that could be coming from your beverage choices.
- Coffee and tea are calorie-free, but the things added to them may not be. Creamers, flavored syrups, chocolate, whipped cream and milks, all add calories. It’s great to enjoy a latte once in a while since the milk provides both calcium and protein, but watch out for the extra sweet drinks and the larger “Grande” and “Vente” sizes. A 16-ounce Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks® will add 380 calories to your day. Go with a Short instead (8-ounces) and you’ll get 7 grams of protein at a reasonable calorie intake (180). A 16 ounce Chai Latte has as many calories as a candy bar (240).
- Don’t be fooled into thinking plant-based drinks are doing you any favors in terms of calories and health. A 16-ounce Starbucks® Almond Protein Blended Cold Brew offers up 270 calories.
- Every 5-ounce glass of wine contributes about 150 calories. Today’s pours are often over 5-ounces, so keep track. And, the health guideline for alcohol is one glass for women, and up to two for men per day. Don’t overdo it too often.
- Smoothies are still popular, and even the ones you create at home may be adding calories to your diet than you realize. If you are picking up a smoothie between meals, pay attention. A medium Strawberry Banana Smoothie from McDonalds® is 240 calories. At home you can use nonfat Greek yogurt, smaller amounts of juice, and fresh fruit to reduce calories from sugar.
If you enjoy a latte, or a smoothie as a meal replacement once in a while or occasional snack, it’s fine. But if you are randomly guzzling these kinds of liquids thinking “It’s healthy!”, think again. Homemade smoothies made with yogurt, juice, vegetables, and then topped with protein powders, can be upwards to 500 calories a serving. If you are consuming this as a supplement to regular meals, you may be going overboard without knowing it. Liquids typically don’t fill you up. You may be better off eating a more satisfying 500 calorie lunch (turkey sandwich on whole wheat, a cup of watermelon, and an 8-ounce glass of 1% milk or maybe a beef-veggie stir fry with rice) for the same calories but more fiber and protein.
Rethink your drink. Pay attention to your liquid calories this week.
September is Family Meals Month – a chance to focus on the importance of regularly eating meals together. Eating with others can have great impact. I often talk about what you should be eating, but how and where you eat matters to your overall wellness too. Studies have shown that children who eat meals with family fare better in their school and social life.
Having more meals at home together can also help raise healthy eaters that will try a variety of foods. Remember – it can take several exposures of a new food before a young child will try it. Don’t force it, just offer. Everyone has different preferences, so it’s okay to allow your child to be choosey at times (just don’t cater to their every whim). Keep it simple and nutritious for younger diners, and gradually introduce new flavors or textures. Even the way foods are arranged on a plate may impact their willingness to try new foods.
As my mother always said, “Cook what they like.” This way, there’s no waste, everyone eats, mealtime is pleasant, and you get the opportunity to set the table, be together, and share a meal.
Raising children is hard work, and it’s easy to get into the rut of picking up take-out food or going through the drive-through on busy days, but reframe the idea of eating at home. While there are no guarantees, eating meals together as a family is something you can do to help lower the risk for risky behaviors.
Consider what benefits the time and effort spent on a family meal can do for you and your family:
- Allows more together-time. Don’t think of cooking a quick meal as “one more thing to do”. Instead, think of it as a stress-free break, that’s not rushed, and can even be fun!
- Is an opportunity to learn about nutrition and how eating well helps you feel better, grow, and stay strong and healthy/
- Is a time to share your day with everyone at the table and learn more about each other.
- Provides opportunities to learn basic, lifelong cooking skills.
- It can save you money.
- It provides opportunities for children and teens to develop responsibility (setting the table, cooking on their own, cleaning up, doing dishes, organizing a kitchen).
I do recommend setting the table – whether it’s a kitchen table, countertop, or coffee table – make it special. It doesn’t matter what your definition of “family is. What’s important is that you get together, relax, and enjoy a nice meal.
Here are some quick meal ideas to help you get the family to the table:
- Pick up a roasted chicken, and add your own healthy side like these Apricot Glazed Sweet Potatoes and a quick bagged tossed salad.
- How about Taco Tuesday? Taco night is a super simple way to get everyone involved and it’s easy to prepare and clean up.
- Save money with our Mama Mia Meatball Pizza is lower in sodium and calories than anything you’d pick up on your way home. Like Taco Night, Make-your-own-pizza-night is an easy and fun family dinner idea that is suitable for everyone to participate in from age 3 to 13 to 83!
- Dinner isn’t the only possibility for family meals. Try these egg cups for breakfast or simply pour a bowl of cereal and sit together! School mornings may be too busy, but try these pancakes on your day off when everyone’s home. Make extra, and you can put them into freezer bags, and heat them in the toaster on weekdays.
- Of course, “breakfast for dinner” is always a crowd-pleaser and an easy go-to.
Share your ideas about family meals in the comment section! Happy Family Meals Month!
From time to time I receive free product samples from companies and may write a review. Good Idea Drinks™ sent me some drinks to try over the summer, but the feedback shared here is my own and I have no affiliation with the product and I was not compensated in any way.
Functional products are a growing sector of the supplement market and are also appearing on traditional grocery store shelves in the form of foods, snacks, and beverages. Good Idea™ (the Swedish Sugar Buster® Dietary Supplement) is marketed as a supplement to aid blood sugar control. It’s a sparkling water beverage supplemented with a special mix of amino acids and a chromium that could have a beneficial effect on the blood sugar spike following a meal. Their Swedish researchers found that when the beverage is consumed with a meal rich in sugar and simple carbohydrates, it reduced blood glucose by 20-30%. Their research is founded on the idea that the consumption of whey (a milk protein) before or during a meal, along with chromium picolinate, may reduce blood sugar spikes (this is also why consuming milk or dairy aids is associated with better weight control).
Chromium has been shown to have an impact on glucose control in people with diabetes. Studies over the years have shown that 200mg of chromium daily may be of benefit, but those with more impairments in sugar tolerance and diabetes usually require more. You’ll find chromium in common foods such as egg yolks, whole-grain products (including bran breakfast cereals), coffee, nuts, green beans, broccoli, meat, and brewer’s yeast. You also may find it in your typical vitamin-mineral supplement, or at higher doses (of 200-600 micrograms) in a chromium picolinate supplement. The US National Academy of Science recommendation for chromium is only 50-200 micrograms per day, but there’s no upper limit. Studies seem to show that the effectiveness of chromium in controlling blood sugar may have to do with the type, and the dose. The Good Idea™ drinks contain 250 micrograms of chromium picolinate.
The drinks are packaged in slim 12-ounce cans, and come in a variety of flavors. Consumers are directed to drink one before or during a carb-heavy meal. I tried each flavor, with my lunch meal. I don’t have diabetes, and was not able to monitor my blood sugar after consumption, so can only evaluate these products based on their taste and the science behind them.
Some scientific studies on chromium supplementation is suggestive of improving both glucose control and insulin sensitivity in some people with or without diabetes. These sparkly beverages may be an easy way to meet that need. The effectiveness of the amino acids is not as clear cut, but some research does show there could be benefits in terms of glycemic control.
Good Idea™ (the Swedish Sugar Buster® Dietary Supplement) did have a slightly metallic taste to me but I was able enjoy them nonetheless. I am intrigued by the preliminary research but can’t say that I could feel any impact in a short period of time in terms of weight or energy level. I also think the price point may be too high for many consumers if they are to include at least one beverage daily into their meal plan. Nonetheless, with the popularity of sugar-free sparkling waters, these beverages could easily be appealing to someone who prefers to drink and eat their meal, over taking a pill or a meal replacement bar. So stay tuned, and check them out here for more information.
Two words I hear often, “Fear sells”.
Is fear guiding your food choices? Whether it is an environmental issue, a political topic, or the safety of our food supply, fear-mongering has become a common technique used to sway you into believing one side of a story. Usually it’s done by sharing some facts either out of context, or without full background.
Much of the worry about chemicals used in food processing, or chemical residues that may occur within our living environment, is viewed without consideration for the amount of exposure, nor the safeguards already in place. There is no possible way we can live in our modern society without exposure to chemicals in the air, water, or soil.
Exposure doesn’t mean toxicity.
When I was in grad school, I had to take a toxicology class. It was a fascinating class, and helped put in perspective the basic toxicology principle of “The dose makes the poison”, and how it applies to almost any chemical substance in our environment.
How to Spot a Fear-Monger
There’s been a lot of news of late about the issue of pesticide residue in our food supply, and the headlines are generally created to worry you. As you read the headlines about food or nutrition, there are a few questions you may ask yourself:
- Does this news sound overly shocking?
- Are pictures or emotional images used? If there are no pictures, it’s likely the news is more fact-based. If an image is used (such as a sad child, cross bones, or food with needle in it), read closely. Images like these are often used to create emotion and divert you from all of the facts.
- What facts might be missing? Does it seem like this is only “one side of the story”
- Are you knowledgeable on the subject at hand. For instance, if it’s an article about genetically modified plants – are you familiar with plant biology? If it’s about chemical residues in our environment – are you familiar with toxicology principles?
Recent News about Pesticides in Cereals
A lot of Americans enjoy cereal for breakfast. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published a misguided report suggesting that your morning cereal could contain pesticide residue. The EWG is an organization that is expert in using the fear-mongering technique. They want to live in a world where all farms are small and organic, and where households only use vinegar as a cleaning agent. They also perpetuate a lot of myths about cancer, lifestyle and diet and offer misguided advice about pesticide risk in produce, and mercury levels in seafood.
While the EWG has criticized the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans for being “influenced by the food industry”, the EWG itself has clear ties to the organic food industry (they collaborate closely with the Organic Voices Action Fund, which represents organic brands including Stonyfield®, Earthbound Farm®, Organic Valley®, Nature’s Path® and Annie’s®). Kinda hypocritical no?
The latest EWG report titled “Breakfast with a dose of Round-up” is a prime example of how to use fear to make your case or sway your audience. Despite the fact that their report contained residue samples from 21 food products, they chose to highlight the products from “Big Food” companies – General Mills®, Quaker® (PespsiCo®) and Kellogg’s® – in their headlines and “call to action” (even though other brands such as Bob’s Red Mill®, Back to Nature® and Great Value® were also reviewed). Worse, they used the popular brand Cheerios® as their poster child for this misguided report, seemingly intentionally to scare mothers of young children.
Science, Standards, and Common Sense
The EWG tends to use their own science, and in this case, the state of California’s guidelines, about pesticides. So let’s look at some facts.
- The products tested were oat-based. The EPA has a system in place to determine safe levels of pesticides and other residues that occur in our environment, including safe tolerance levels for grains.
- The tolerance level of glyphosate residue (including its metabolites) in grains (including oats) is 30 ppm (parts per million), or 30,000 ppb (parts per BILLION). The results from the EWG testing were in parts per BILLION. So doing the math puts this in perspective as you compare a safe level of 500 ppb to the 30,000 ppb threshold set by the EPA.
- I see some inconsistency in the EWG report. Why were some products tested once, others twice, and only four tested three times? Instead of averaging the results, they used the highest result to report (poor quality control in testing?).
This is where common sense comes in. The dose makes the poison – the presence of a “potentially toxic” substance does not equal “toxicity”. When healthy foods are taken off the table, family nutrition is going to suffer. Whole grain foods such as oat cereals, provide fiber and important nutrients to the diet. Fresh produce is also an important part of a healthy diet. Both are important to heart health. The EWG instills fear leading some consumers to not purchase these healthy food items. I encourage you to use The Alliance of Safe Food and Farming calculator and guidelines to you can enjoy adding more produce in your weekly grocery cart. In regard to enjoying grain foods, the Whole Grain Council is an excellent resource for facts.
You’ve been on a mission. You’re trying to drop a few pounds, and it’s not happening.
Weight loss is hard, at any age, but it gets even more difficult as you age. Your metabolism is the process in which your body turns what you eat into energy. Metabolic rates naturally decline, and women often experience more struggles (due to both menopause and naturally less muscle mass). This is why you may find that even though you aren’t eating more, you are gaining weight as you age. You can help boost metabolism with regular exercise, including weight training (which can add muscle, but you can’t really do much about your genetic predisposition or the aging process. Weight loss is going to take a calorie reduction.
Aging more gracefully isn’t just about your weight however. Even if you put a few pounds on as an older adult, you can still have some control over your health. Eating well and moving your body as much as possible just makes you feel, and function, better. It takes some effort, and a little guidance, but you can do it!
Eating well and getting regular exercise helps your body:
- STAY BALANCED. Balancing your intake of carbohydrates with protein and fat at each meal, helps keep you full and satisfied. Keeping hunger at bay will help with weight maintenance. Exercise also help with physical balance and strength, so you may prevent injuries from falls or accidents.
- LOWER YOUR DISEASE RISK. High blood pressure and diabetes risk can be lowered with weight loss and healthy eating. Even if you do end up with a diagnosis, if your diet is decent now, it will make eating healthier easier down the road since these diseases can be managed with proper diet and exercise.
- BOOST YOUR MOOD AND ENERGY LEVEL. Exercise is a mood booster because it elevates serotonin levels – feel good chemicals in the brain.
- GET THE VITAMINS AND MINERALS YOU NEED. When you eat a balanced diet (that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, lean meats, nuts, dairy foods) you are sure to get the vitamins and minerals you need.
- SUPPORT GUT HEALTH. Some research has shown that exercise may be beneficial to your gut microbiome.
Key Vitamins and Minerals
I don’t really like the phrase “food is medicine”. Medicine infers a substance used to treat disease. Food can’t really treat disease (unless the disease is a vitamin deficiency for instance). But good food can help your body function at its best, help you maintain a healthy weight, support a healthy immune system, maintain muscle, and keep blood sugar levels steady. Here are just a few examples of important vitamins and minerals, and what they do for your body.
- Vitamin A (found in orange vegetables, dairy and meats) is a fat-soluble vitamin involved in healthy vision, and your immune and reproductive systems. Sweet potatoes, beef liver, spinach and carrots are excellent sources.
- Vitamin C (found in many fruits, especially citrus, kiwifruit, and also bell peppers and white potatoes) is a water-soluble vitamin, an an antioxidant, and is important for wound healing. Antioxidants help take care of “free radicals” in our body – compounds that form in the body and can cause harm to cells.
- Potassium is a mineral found in most fruits and vegetables, and dairy milk. It’s especially high in dried apricots, prunes (dried plums), raisins, potatoes, bananas, lentils, and kidney beans. It’s present in all body tissues and is required for normal cell function. It’s important for both heart and kidney health.
- Magnesium is a mineral important for muscle and nerve function, blood sugar and blood pressure regulation. Legumes, beans, nuts and green leafy vegetables are good sources, as well as fortified cereal, to include in your diet daily.
- Iron is a mineral found in red meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish, legumes, leafy greens and fortified cereals. It helps support your red blood cells which carry oxygen in the body.
- Calcium is a mineral, and important for healthy bones and teeth. It’s also helps muscles contract and relax (including your heart). It’s important for immune function, nerve function, blood clotting, and blood pressure regulation. Its found in milk and milk products (cow’s milk), fortified tofu, spinach, mustard greens, and legumes. Milk is one of the easiest ways to get the calcium you need daily, and it also provides potassium (2 servings of milk are part of the DASH Diet regime).
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. Add some grains. Include lean protein and 2-3 servings of dairy. And watch out for the extra calories, especially the ones that seem to have a “health halos” on the surface (think “healthy” packaged snacks). Even if it’s a healthy choice (like hummus, nuts, or a fiber bar), the calories may be more than you need. If you are over 40 and trying to lose weight, stick with three meals a day, with one or two 100-150 calorie snacks. Stick with the science and common sense — choose a sound diet.
A friend of mine recently asked for the recipe for these easy egg cups. They are super easy, and so versatile. You can make a batch of 6 or 12 – whatever you need – and keep them in the refrigerator so you can heat them up for a quick no-prep morning protein.
Eggs are a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. The yolk contains cholesterol, but also the important nutrient choline. Eggs can definitely be part of a heart-healthy diet.
The add-ins to these egg muffin cups are endless! Whatever vegetable you have on hand – chopped peppers, leftover asparagus or zucchini, chopped spinach, onions, mushrooms, or any leftover cooked vegetable from last night’s dinner. The more vegetables the better for your DASH Diet eating plan. Add a sprinkling of shredded cheese, and you’re set.
The DASH Diet is the best eating plan to follow if you have high blood pressure, or have a family history of high blood pressure (also called hypertension). While adopting an entire eating plan can be daunting – especially if your current diet consists of subs, pizza, and potato chips – adding just a few new foods each week can bring you quick results.
If you have high blood pressure you should be aware of the sodium in your diet. Potassium* is also important, as potassium offsets the effects of sodium by helping your body excrete more sodium. Try adding these 9 foods to your diet over the next two weeks, and you’ll see a reduction in your blood pressure, and maybe even a drop in weight. Even a small weight loss of 4-8 pounds can reduce blood pressure.
Bananas are loaded with potassium (about 420 milligrams), easy to eat, and versatile. You can add them to a glass of milk and make a smoothie, slice them onto yogurt, or just eat one for a snack. Make grain foods better for you – top your cereal or a slice of whole grain toast or waffle with a sliced banana and a drizzle of maple syrup. Make a banana into a well rounded snack by smearing it with 2 teaspoons of natural nut-butter.
The lowly potato is sometimes dissed, but both white and sweet potatoes are high in potassium (over 600 milligrams in white potatoes!). They are also a good source of vitamins C, and a medium (4-inch) potato provide about 2-3 grams of fiber.
- Milk and yogurt
Milk is a powerhouse of nutrients including protein, calcium, and potassium. With about 350 milligrams of potassium per 8 ounces, adding a glass of cow’s milk to your meal is an easy way to lower your blood pressure. An 8-ounce glass of milk also makes a simply fantastic post-workout snack. Add a banana or a cup of berries and milk to your blender or smoothie-maker and you have an even better post-workout snack! Yogurt also makes a great snack. Use plain yogurt as a base to top with flavor – fresh/canned/frozen fruit, a small drizzle of honey or maple syrup, granola – create your own combos.
- Raisins and Dried Cherries
Raisins are high in potassium but try adding more dried cherries to your diet too for an extra boost of antioxidants which help support heart health, and may even help reduce inflammation. You can add them to your oatmeal, or tossed salads, or throw some into your slow cooker with chicken or a lean pork loin roast.
- Tuna or Salmon
These fish contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids which lower your risk for heart disease. They also may help lower inflammation.
Good old fashioned oats are still good for you. This timeless breakfast offers a satisfying dose of fiber as well as 150 milligrams of potassium and 4 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup dry. Skip the ‘instant’ varieties (high in sodium and sometimes sugar) and use Old Fashioned or Quick (both offering almost identical nutrition).
*Note:Speak to your doctor and dietitian if you have kidney disease, as you may need to limit your potassium intake.
I have been having a rough time sitting down to focus on my writing lately. I’ve been writing a regular nutrition column of some sort since 1995 when I penned my first column for the local Meadville Tribune in August (Fad Free RD), after visiting the County Fair. It was an article about “Fair Food”, and I concluded that most of it isn’t healthy, and that you should share it with someone so you can consume smaller portions (I would never deny your Funnel Cake). I also concluded that the turtle soup and fruit cups were the best choices.
Ah, 1995, when eating wasn’t that complicated.
Why am I having a hard time getting energized about writing sensible advice about eating and food? Because there is so much nonsense in the media now about nutrition, eating, and food, that it’s drowning out all of the common sense.
Here are just a few frustrations:
- Anybody, and everybody, is a self-proclaimed nutrition expert. For instance, anyone who has lost weight using a “Keto” or “Paleo” diet, are now weight loss experts (I use quotation marks because these really aren’t real diets. The Ketogenic diet is a therapeutic diet to treat epileptic seizures. It works and is appropriate for some people with seizure disorders. Paleolithic diet is just made up. No clinical trial proved it’s healthy or realistic for the greater population).
- Sadly, food manufacturers have followed the crazy in labeling their products and also in product development. Today’s shopper seems to value a food product labeled “Gluten Free, GMO Free, No artificial flavors or colors” over what nutrition value the overall food actually provides.
- Moo-ve Over. Many consumers any are abandoning cow’s milk and replacing it with non dairy alternatives, or nothing at all. Moms are raising children who have high calcium, Vitamin D, and protein needs to build bones and teeth, on low protein alternative or no milk at all. It’s interesting to me that some will choose a product like Almond Milk, with some brands adding calcium to it (and some not), but will shun other foods because they have “additives” or shout that “cow’s milk has Vitamin D added!” My advice: Drink cow’s milk (but not raw milk, and not if you are truly lactose intolerant).
- Detox. Please make this word go away. There are so many products that falsely advertise this notion we need to detoxify on a regular basis. (Did your grandmother detox? Mine lived to 83, and no she did not. Neither did my parents who each lived to 90). Many of these false claims are marketed using superficial results, with key words such as “younger looking” or “flat belly in 3 days”. Some may claim to “increase your energy level” and, hey, what over 35 year old doesn’t want more energy? But I wish it would stop. Because it’s bullshit.
- GMO safety and “where your food really comes from”. The answers to these questions can be answered by farmers and scientists. It’s not a secret, what you think of as a “factory farm” is really just a farm with acreage. It’s about real people who own land, work hard every day, and provide us with the food and resources to make food. And as noted here, “GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply”.
- The Beauty Business should not sell nutrition. I have seen more and more anti-aging cream companies also sell a little “detox lemonade” on the side. This won’t work for the long term. Sure if you drink a 100 calorie beverage for lunch, you’ll lose weight. If you lose weight, your belly will flatten. But – call me in 2-5 years and let me know if you’ve maintained that weight loss, and what you are going to eat for the rest of your life. Please, just stick to moisturizer and skin firming creams, and skip the side nutrition hustle.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s really getting discouraging to see so many consumers so fixated on the quick fix over choosing changing some negative eating behaviors and adopting healthier lifestyle for life. It’s also discouraging that the public chooses to accept all of this misinformation and believe everybody but me and my registered dietitian colleagues (or other health care providers, including physicians).
The panel that reviews these best diets every year are health professionals who are qualified to evaluate both the data and the overall compositions of the diets, as well as whether they are realistic to adhere to. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow (who while she makes an occasional delicious and healthy recipe, she also peddles a bunch of quacky crap!) or the ladies on the View, are not qualified to provide nutrition advice.
The best diets? DASH, Mediterranean, Flexitarian/Vegetarian. That’s about it (and the other top 20 diets rated by US News and World Report are all sound, just not ‘best’).
Same As It Ever Was
I will continue to stand by balance, moderation and variety when it comes to eating. I’ll continue to encourage you to eat cake (but only a 2 inch square) as a treat. I won’t tell you that sugar is toxic, nor that you have to avoid gluten in order to lose weight. But I will tell you that you need to incorporate more vegetables and grains into your diet (for fiber, vitamins, and for both gut and heart health). I won’t tell you not to eat meat if you want to, and I also won’t tell you to eat more meat if you want to be a vegetarian. I will always tell you that regular exercise is very important to your health and quality of life. I won’t misguide you with information that either simply isn’t true, or has no evidence behind it.
The calendar may not officially say “summer” but that summertime vibe is definitely here. Somehow summertime seems to be less scheduled than other months of the year. This lack of structure can unknowingly impact your eating plan. You may find yourself on vacation, taking a long weekend, running out the door to a baseball or soccer game every night, or just sitting on the porch more often. So what happens to dinner? It likely is eaten on the run, or worse, at the concessions stand.
A little bit of planning ahead can make the most of the nights that you have to run out the door. Side dishes are usually the most time-intensive part of the meal to pull together. Choose a night of the week (or perhaps a Sunday evening) when you do have time to mix up 2 batches of side dishes to have ready when the time-crunched nights hit.
The bonus here is that you’ll be adding more plants to your diet. You can pair any of these with grilled chicken, fish, or steak, or even eat some of these as a main dish. To keep the meal plant-based, focus your plate on the whole grain-vegetable side dish, with smaller portions of meat.
Here are a few simple ideas for do-ahead dishes:
- Potato salad. Potatoes are rich in potassium. Boil up some small red potatoes (they cook more quickly, saving time) and try adding Greek yogurt instead of mayo for a richer, more nutrient-dense salad. Cook 2 pounds of red potatoes, cool slightly then add ¼ cup mayonnaise, ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, 2-3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped dill (or 2 teaspoons dried), chopped chives, shredded carrots, a pinch of salt, and ground pepper.
- Grilled veggies. These are simple enough to do anytime, but if you grill a big batch some ahead, they will be ready in the fridge and will only need to be reheated or added to a salad. Green beans, asparagus, eggplant and zucchini slices (about ¼ inch thick) are all quick to grill. Lightly toss the cleaned vegetable with some olive oil and your favorite fresh or dried herbs (I love Herbs de Provence). Place onto hot grill for about 5 minutes, turning half way through cooking. You can also use a grill pan for this – spray it with cooking oil, and place tossed veggies onto it.
- Pasta or Grain salad. This is such a great thing to have ready in the refrigerator since the healthy options are endless. A grain salad mixed with a vinaigrette (oil with vinegar, lemon or lime juice, and herbs or spices) keeps for about 5 days in the refrigerator too. You can chop and add those grilled vegetables to it, or a rinsed can of beans (garbanzo, black beans, cannelloni beans), chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, fresh peas, or chopped bell peppers. Add the veggies to pasta (any type – try whole wheat or tricolor), rice, or orzo.
- Use More Whole Grains: Try adding whole grains like farro, or barley to salads in place of pasta. Farro is an ancient Italian grain that cooks in 20 minutes (similar to method for lentils). Or try quinoa or freekeh, both high protein. Freekeh is an ancient grain made from green (young) wheat, and is quick to prepare. Lentils are also nutrient-rich and easy to cook. Add 1 cup lentils to 4 cups boiling water, cover, reduce to simmer and cook for 20 minutes. You can freeze cooked lentils in zippered freezer bags for later use.
- Make use of frozen vegetables. While summer is a great time for farmer’s markets, when you are in a time crunch, items such as frozen bell peppers and onions, or cubed butternut squash, can be real time savers. Sauté butternut squash with a chopped onion in olive oil, and then mix it into a cooked grain like barley or farro. Add a few dried cranberries, and toss.
Spend a little bit of time making a big batch of a healthy side dish you love, and you’ll have more time to enjoy a meal when you are too busy to cook.
Even if you have nowhere to go, it’s nice having something ready in the refrigerator so you can take a night off from cooking. Dine al fresco, and enjoy your summer evenings.
I attended a food and nutrition conference earlier this year including a session sponsored by California Walnuts, but the following thoughts and opinions are my own based on recent research.
Could eating walnuts increase the good bacteria in your gut? According to a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois, it may be worth adding more walnuts to your diet. The study was partly funded by the California Walnuts Commission, but as with any research, the funding does not determine the outcome. It’s the data that we want to evaluate. Even though this was a small study, preliminary research is showing a healthy connection with walnuts to a healthy gut.
All high fiber foods have a positive impact on the gut microbiome. This study found that consuming walnuts correlated to a higher relative abundance of three bacteria: Faecalibacterium, Roseburia, and Clostridium.
Faecalibacterium is of particular interest because it has been shown to reduce inflammation in animals, and animals with high amounts of this bacteria are also more insulin sensitive.
Also to note is the effect walnuts had on lowering LDL, or low density lipoproteins (your “bad cholesterol”). High LDL is related to heart disease risk. The higher the number the higher the risk. This is all good news for those with high blood pressure, since insulin resistance is a risk for diabetes, and increases heart disease risk. We absolutely know that walnuts are high in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Enjoy More Walnuts
Adding a handful of walnuts to your diet each day is pretty easy (or as often as you can) and will not only add fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein to your diet, but may also help reduce inflammation thereby reducing your disease risk. Even though diet may not be the sole treatment for diseases like hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes, a healthy diet reduces your overall risk, and helps you live better (and likely longer). It may also help you require less medication.
Nuts are to be included in the blood-pressure-lowering DASH Diet, so try these easy ways to add walnuts to your meals:
- Add chopped walnuts with fruit to your oatmeal
- Add chopped walnuts to your tossed salads
- Keep a small bag of walnuts in your bag or in the car for snacktime
- Add a walnuts to a sheet pan of cubed vegetables, drizzle with olive oil and roast for 30 minutes
- Treats should be eaten in small portions, occasionally, but you can add chopped walnuts to homemade chocolate chip cookies, or top each brownie square with a beautiful walnut half.
- Add walnuts to basil instead of pine nuts for a pesto recipe
- My co-author Cindy Kleckner’s Penne with Zucchini Yogurt Sauce and Walnuts is easy to make, and delicious!