Book Review: How a Family Garden Can Nourish Your Life

My colleague Jen Haugen is a mom first, a dietitian second. I certainly can relate to that.

Since becoming a mother twenty two years ago, I have always noted “mom” as my primary role and identity. I may not be perfect (there are empty pages and missing years in my children’s school scrapbooks), but I am content in knowing that I was present in my time with my children, and enjoyed just about every minute of it.

The Family Garden

As a child, I grew up with a family garden. My grandfather brought his green thumb from “the old country” (Italy), my father brought his artistic design to the garden with neat squares, straight rows, and perfectly weeded beds, and my mother and grandmother helped with harvesting and procurement. We had a very large garden. In addition to tomatoes, beans, peas, potatoes, beets, carrots, broccoli, swiss chard, corn, onions, and herbs, we also had dozens of fruit trees.

Me and my grandfather in 1968 holding the biggest beets every harvested.

Nurture the Soil and Yourself

Jen’s book, A Mom’s Guide to a Nourishing Garden, isn’t just a how-to-start-a-garden book. It also encourages you to embark on a reflective journey of motherhood. It is a journey, let me tell you (check out Jen’s “How Moms Can Change the World” TedxTalk). Jen uses analogy and metaphor to illustrate how the plan for nurturing plants and nurturing your own needs are similarly important, and must be done with intention, with margins and with compost. And of course, don’t forget to keep up with the weeds!

The funny thing is, that while I really appreciate garden-fresh produce, I am not enthusiastic about working in my own vegetable garden. I’m more passionate about planting and arranging flowers. Luckily, I married a wonderful man who didn’t grow up with a garden, so he has sought to raise some vegetables for us, and plant some fruit trees, and we’ve always have anything from pots to full plots of herbs and vegetables.

Sit Down for a Quiet Read

This book is an easy read for any mother who is interested in planning and planting a garden for her young family. Fresh air and dirt are good for young children, and most young ones are very enthusiastic about helping out, and playing in the dirt. I love that Jen offers lots of ideas from container gardens, to deck gardens, to raised beds or plots – something to fit everyone’s needs. I especially love her garden theme ideas in Chapter 8 (you’ll have to order the book to find out more!).

At the end of each chapter is a short work session with four to six questions to help you think about your goals, reflect, and create an action plan.

You can easily read this book in a weekend. So give yourself this gift. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, find a cozy, quiet corner, and read it.


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More Matters: Canned Veggies can be Easy Ways to Add More Veggies

You know that adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet should be a weekly goal. This dish is a variation of my coauthor and culinary dietitian Cindy Kleckner’s Southwest Corn with Chipotle Peppers, from DASH Diet For Dummies® (check out Toby Smithson’s video here). Adding black beans provides more fiber, protein, potassium, magnesium phosphorous, and B-vitamins (especially folate) to the dish. It’s also super easy to throw together.

I also want to point out here, that you don’t always have to follow a recipe exactly (baking, yes, but cooking? Not always). Let’s say you don’t have fresh corn on hand (as used in original recipe), or don’t have time to grill it – you can use canned or frozen corn.

Canned vegetables seem to have a poor image – and they shouldn’t! Not too many people can always have fresh produce on hand. Canned vegetables help fill that gap, when you don’t have time to “run to the store”, and canned staples such as tomatoes, beans, corn, and Mexican style peppers, will help you create tasty healthy meals or side dishes.



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Fire up the Grill! Pork Loin with Peaches

For those who live in seasonal weather, there’s nothing better than being able to get outdoors, enjoy fresh warm air, and fire up the grill. Outdoor grilling is an American tradition, and can be a great way to get the family together for quality time and good nutrition.

Pork loin is low in saturated fat, and easy to cook. You can add a multitude of different flavors to it – BBQ, fresh herbs (rosemary, oregano), garlic, or a spice rub (cumin, cinnamon, turmeric). It’s much better to add your own seasoning over purchasing the pre-seasoned pork loins (which tend to be very high in sodium), and it’s really very easy.

To note – the USDA modified the cooking guidelines for safe temperature of cooked pork.

Try this recipe for your next gathering. If you cook a larger pork loin, you’ll have leftovers that you can make soft tacos with or slice onto a tossed salad.


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What are Plant Stanols?

As a Nutrition Communications Consultant and blogger, I sometimes am sent free samples of products, but with no obligation to promote the products. When products provide evidence-based information, and I feel could be helpful to incorporate into a diet, I’ll write about them and share posts on social media. I was not compensated to write this post.

Have you heard of plant stanol esters? They are naturally found in all plant foods and help block the absorption of cholesterol in your body, lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. 

I recently tried a free sample of Benecol® with a coupon that was sent to me. This is a vegetable oil spread with plant stanol esters added to it, that you can use on toast, bread, or vegetables. The product claims to reduce cholesterol when used daily, and numerous studies have shown that plant stanols can reduce cholesterol levels. Of course, a heart-healthy lifestyle also requires exercise and an overall healthy diet, that’s low in saturated fat.

Cholesterol Lowering Diet

It’s definitely worth working on your diet if you have high cholesterol levels. Having high cholesterol adds to your risk of heart disease (along with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle). Include foods such as:

  • Vegetables and whole grains should be the showcase on your plate. Be sure to include a variety of vegetables and legumes, and choose grains such as barley, brown rice, or quinoa.
  • Include fruit. Like vegetables, fruit supplies fiber and antioxidants.
  • Make breakfast count. Including oatmeal into your meal plan can help lower cholesterol. Sweeten it naturally with fresh or frozen fruit.
  • Use healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, corn, or soybean oil. Choosing a variety of vegetable oils is your best bet (oils high in polyunsaturated fat, or PUFAs, may have adverse affects, the key is to use all fats sparingly, and substitute vegetable oil for butter or shortening in baking when possible).
  • Add nuts and seeds to your diet. These foods are high in fiber and healthy fats. Snack on small servings of nuts, and add seeds to salads or in baking.
  • As you add more vegetables, reduce your portions of meat. To reduce saturated fat, choose lean cuts of meat, remove skin from poultry. Add more fish to your diet, which can add omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Limit sugar, high fat desserts and fried food. Don’t overdo sweets, and cut back on the total amount of sugar in your diet. Try baking your own treats, and using fruit as a weekday dessert. Any form of sugar (table sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar) provides calories and no nutrients. It can also impact your triglyceride level if you are prone to high triglycerides.

If you have high cholesterol and you are already using a vegetable oil spread every day, it certainly can’t hurt to try a product like Benecol® along with a healthy diet. I found it tasty on toast (I love toast), and I think I’ll try spiking my oatmeal with some too.

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Pasta Cici

Growing up Catholic with an Italian mother and grandmother, we went meatless on Fridays during Lent. Unlike many of our other Catholic counterparts who did fish fries, we usually at what my mother used to call “peasant food”. Meals such as polenta, pasta fajole, or pasta cici were common. She also baked fish, such as flounder or cod, that would be topped with a mixture of bread crumbs, herbs, and olive oil, then baked.

I recently made this pasta dish for a lenten Friday. The simple photo was so popular, I decided to share the recipe here. It’s a delicious comfort food to me, and it’s fairly simple to make. Enjoy!

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Why Aren’t You Following the DASH Diet?

“The DASH diet is proven to work. Why hasn’t it caught on?”

This was the title of a recent article from the Washington Post by Christy Brissette that has gotten a lot of shares this past week, offering thoughts as to why the diet hasn’t been adopted (despite being ranked #1 by US News and World Report for several years).

Brissette reports that while the original research studies for the diet were directed toward managing and preventing high blood pressure, the diet also has additional appeal.

“…the model eating plan for all Americans is the DASH diet, because it outlines a generally healthy diet from which anyone can benefit. Following the DASH diet’s principles will mean you’re eating a nutrient-rich yet not calorie-dense diet that has been shown to be helpful for promoting weight loss and maintenance. A growing body of evidence suggests DASH is also helpful for managing diabetes, preventing cancer and improving kidney health.”

The Post article offered opinions as to what the barriers may be in not adopting an evidence based plan for health. Let’s take a look.

People Don’t Have Access to the Foods and It’s Expensive

This is an easy excuse. Dori Steinberg, a research scholar at Duke University, suggests that people don’t adopt the diet because they may not have access to the foods included. This may be the case in some geographic areas, but there are many people who do have access to markets, have transportation, and could indeed follow the diet plan if they wanted to. Or, if they knew about it.

While “food deserts” exist, there are many who have plenty of access to supermarkets that aren’t following the diet. The notion that it’s too expensive doesn’t fly with me. You don’t have to eat avocados everyday. You don’t have to eat the most expensive cuts of meat. You don’t have to buy designer food. You can buy the vegetables that are on sale or in season, you can look for BOGO fruits (buy one, get one half off or free), you can rinse canned beans (which are very inexpensive), you can purchase store brand barley or brown rice, or store-brand yogurt. You can buy frozen vegetables or canned fruits, that are on sale, or try store brands, which are generally less expensive. There are lots of options.

Patients also need to begin to view some of the more expensive food items as an “investment” in their health. For instance, nuts are expensive; but you are only supposed to eating about 1/4 cup serving, so they can last a while. In the long run, fruits and vegetables are not more expensive than junk food or convenience food (the foods you’ll need to cut back on). Meats are to be consumed in smaller portions (3-6 ounces), so you can spend less, and stretch the portion out for four people.

Do People Who Could be Following the DASH Diet Actually Know What they are Supposed to Eat?

This is my thought – despite the news reports that tout the benefit of the DASH Diet lifestyle, and despite my own efforts to market the diet plan – people, in general, still don’t know what the diet plan includes, or how to follow it, or why they should.

I couldn’t agree more with Ms Brissette:

“The key to helping people eat better is giving them the tools they need to put nutrition information into action.”

For the most part, this education should begin in the doctor’s office. We need more primary care physicians to promote the DASH Diet as an option for “how to eat well”. And then, give the patient some resources. It’s great to say “Well, you should try the DASH Diet or the Mediterranean Diet”, but if your patient has no idea what that means, then the “advice” is useless. Whether the direction to “follow the DASH Diet” comes with a simple flyer, one-pager, a book referral, or a referral to a registered dietitian for counseling, there must be a “next step”.

Next Step: Proper Health Education and Follow-Up

You’d think we’d have this figured out by now. This has been one of my pet peeves for thirty years: Physicians telling their patients to “go on a diet”, “lose weight” or “try the DASH Diet” without any further instruction or support. When I worked in a health center, one of my favorite things to do was clean out the “nutrition education” file drawer that the doctors and their nurses kept…the handouts filed in there were generally outdated, and unappealing. Nobody will take a faded, poorly printed or unprofessional-looking document seriously.

Most patients need the extra step of seeing a registered dietitian to guide them in the first steps of adopting the eating plan. It may only take a few visits.

My goal is to continue to help people understand what the DASH Diet is, and how to set goals to adopt it. As always, my advice is to set small goals, and build on them to create healthy, long-term habits. Nobody can be perfect every day. The goal is to adopt a lifestyle. This means continuously setting goals each week to eat well and exercise. It’s never an all-or-nothing deal, and you don’t have to be an overnight-success.

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Food Safety Fact-Check: Storing and Cooking Beef

I will be blogging this month about how you can incorporate beef into your healthy diet. These posts are sponsored by the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative and the Pennsylvania Beef Council, but are expressions of my own.

When designing a kitchen, you may be looking for the shiniest range or refrigerator, but don’t put proper food safety on the back burner.

As National Nutrition Month® comes to a close, I want you to continue to put your Best Fork Forward with proper food handling knowledge. Past posts this month have featured fabulous recipes showing you how to incorporate various cuts of beef into your healthy diet. This one will provide you with tips for proper storage and cooking methods for beef, keeping your whole kitchen healthy.

Proper storage of beef

How long can you keep fresh beef in the refrigerator?

It depends on the cut, but a general rule of thumb is three days for steaks and roasts, and 1-2 days for ground beef. If you aren’t going to use the beef you purchased in that time frame, you can freeze it up to twelve months.

How should I defrost frozen beef?

Always defrost meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter (you can also thaw in the microwave). Foodborne illness is prevented when foods remain at safe temperatures (that bacteria can’t grow in). Be sure the meat is on a plate or in a container that can hold any raw juices as it defrosts.

A note about cutting boards

One of the handiest items you’ll use when cooking, is the cutting board. Try to stock a few different cutting boards, using one for meats, another for vegetables or fruits, and another for breads. Always be sure to clean the boards with hot soapy water after each use. Never cut something on a board that you had raw meat on until it’s washed (be sure not to reuse the plate you had raw meat on either). 

Cooking Beef

There are so many quick and easy ways to cook beef, making it a great choice for busy weeknights and special occasions alike. Here are some terms to be familiar with:

  • Grilling is probably one of the most popular ways to prepare beef steaks and burgers. You can light up the grill and cook the whole meal here. Use foil pouches to steam vegetables, or just toss veggies with olive oil, and cook them right on the grill. Set the  veggies aside and keep warm, while you finish grilling the beef. You may also enjoy marinating less tender cuts for the grill. The marinade adds flavor and tenderizes.  
  • Roasting. Using your oven is great for large beef roasts (such as a rib roast). Simply season the roast, and place into a roasting pan with rack.
  • Braising. Who doesn’t love pot roast? This cooking method requires browning the beef first, and then simmering (I often just brown it in the same pot I’ll roast it in). After browning, season the beef, transfer to large stock pot, add liquid (water, red wine, low sodium stock), and simmer.
  • Stewing. All the nutrients get sealed into the liquid with comforting stews. Try our Easy Beef Burgundy from Hypertension Cookbook For Dummies®
  • Stir-Frying. This is a great way to stretch your food budget. Try slicing beef sirloin into thin strips, and adding sliced peppers, broccoli, or other favorite vegetables. Serve over rice, creating a delicious meal.

How do you determine doneness?

You are probably familiar with the terms rare, medium rare, and medium or well done. They each relate to a certain temperature. Using a meat thermometer, place it into the thickest part of the steak or roast to test (145 degrees is medium-rare, 160 is medium, and 170 is well done).

Ground beef (burgers, meatloaf) should always be cooked to at least medium, or 160 degrees. Also, keep in mind that temperatures will continue to rise about 5-15 degrees for larger roasts once you remove them from the oven.

Keep your kitchen clean, organized, and food-safe to enjoy meal planning, and stay healthy!

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Making the Most of Your Food Budget with Beef

I will be blogging this month about how you can incorporate beef into your healthy diet. These posts are sponsored by the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative and the Pennsylvania Beef Council, but are expressions of my own.

The great thing about heart-healthy cuts of beef, is that they are also economical. Cuts such as round steak or lean ground beef can work nicely into your food budget. While cuts such as sirloin and tenderloin may cost a bit more, they can stretch a long way with the right recipe.

Ground Beef: Economical and Nutritious

Ground beef is so versatile in the kitchen. It’s certainly a family pleaser, and with it you can create all sorts of healthy, quick meals. Choose lean beef (90-95% lean) when possible. If you are using a higher fat ground beef, brown the meat, and drain off fat, before adding to the recipe. Here are just a few ideas for quick and healthy dinners using ground beef:

  • Chili. A hearty beef chili is versatile and an excellent opportunity to add healthy beans to your diet (beans like kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans), as well as lycopene-rich tomatoes, and vitamin-C and potassium-rich bell peppers.

    This ground beef is 90% lean. Since the Nutrition Facts reflect a 4-ounce portion, that has 11 grams of fat per 4 ounce serving, only 4.5 grams saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol, it fits the “lean” definition.

  • Stuffed zucchini squash “boats”. Squash is full of vitamins and fiber, and is low in calories. Make a meal out of it by cutting 4 medium zucchini or yellow squash, or one acorn or spaghetti squash in half, scooping out seeds (with summer squash, just spoon out enough squash to make a “bowl”, cook scooped squash with peppers). Saute minced onion, bell peppers, and squash in hot oil, then remove from pan. Season lean ground beef with turmeric, ground pepper, and chili powder. Add beef to pan, and brown. Add pepper mixture back to pan with beef, and mix. Mix the beef mixture with 1 cup cooked brown rice, then fill each squash half with it. Top with 2-3 TB of shredded cheese and bake on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until squash is tender. 
  • Beef tacos or wraps. These are kid-friendly and you can really be creative with toppings. If you have a picky eater in the house, try linking favorite ingredients into new meals. Have you even tried peanut butter and jelly in your beef wrap? Try it!
  • Skillet meals. Beefy pasta or Beef with Barley are not only easy to make, but easy to clean up since they use only one pan. By adding high fiber barley, and your favorite vegetables to cooked ground beef, you’ll have a quick, well-balanced, and satisfying family meal. 
  • Classic Meatloaf. This comfort meal is always welcome at the dinner table. Balance out this delicious meatloaf with a side of green beans and mashed potatoes.
  • Enjoy burger night at home. Not only will you control the fat and sodium in your burger when you grill it at home, but you can also get fancy with the toppings. Instead of shredded iceburg lettuce, go for shredded cabbage or baby spinach. Try avocado slices or alfalfa sprouts with sliced tomato. Dice some peppers and onions to make a quick relish of your own by adding flavored vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt, then refrigerating for an hour or more.

Get through the week with these ideas for quick family meals

The classic question: What’s for dinner?, is solved with these easy recipes and ideas. There are so many ways to create quick meals with beef.

  • Leftover Mondays: You don’t have to use sirloin steak to create this steak salad. You can use Sunday’s leftover pot roast and create a new meal with it on Monday night.
  • Taco Tuesday: Add chopped romaine, finely chopped tomatoes, black olives, and bell peppers to your tacos. Pair tacos with a side of red beans and rice (fun fact: crispy taco shells are lower in calories than most soft tortillas). Or make a Taco Salad with lots of leafy greens and veggies.
  • Bow Tie Wednesday: Pasta is so quick and delicious! Add lean beef and asparagus and you have a one dish meal. 
  • Pita Salad Thursday: This recipe is a Greek-inspired version of an open face taco using pita bread.
  • Fajita Fridays: Create a “Make Your Own Fajita Bar” at home. Saute the beef, then set up a buffet with soft whole wheat tortillas along with peppers, and onions low fat sour cream and salsa or homemade Pico de Gallo. Add a mixed fruit bowl as a side dish.
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Bold and Beefy

I will be blogging this month about how you can incorporate beef into your healthy diet. These posts are sponsored by the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative and the Pennsylvania Beef Council, but are expressions of my own.

While the DASH Diet is heavy on plants (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds) it also includes dairy products and allows for lean meats. Our Bold and Beefy Slow-Cooker Stew from DASH Diet For Dummies® is a perfect example of how you can incorporate lean beef into your DASH Diet.

This video shows you how simple it is to put this meal together. You can have everything chopped and ready the night before, store in the refrigerator. Then in the morning, it only takes five minutes to put it into your slow cooker, and cook on low heat for 8-9 hours (you can shorten cooking time to 5-6 hours, with the setting on high).


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Herbs and Spices and Everything Nice

Herbs and spices add flavor to foods, and are often a great way to reduce the salt you use in cooking. However, some spices may also provide additional benefits to your health. Many contain “phytochemicals”, potentially having some added health benefits.

Last year, General Mills sent me some samples of their new cereals that use natural ingredients and spices to provide color (in place of artificial colors). Turmeric is one of the ingredients they are using to provide an orange color to foods, naturally. They sent me a jar of the spice and I’ve been looking for new ways to use it ever since. I’ve added it to chicken dishes, and soups and stews. But today I thought I’d add some to a smoothie!

Turmeric comes from the turmeric plant, and is often used in Asian cooking (curry). It has a bright orange color and may have beneficial properties that can help ease an irritable bowel, reduce inflammation, or tame a headache. It seems to be trending, and since I had a jar in my pantry, I figured I’d add some to a smoothie.

Inulinwhich is sourced from chicory root, is a functional prebiotic fiber, that may also help support gut health It’s sometimes used as a fat replacer, in foods such as yogurt or pudding. This allows for a lower calorie product (great for middle aged women and men), that also has the benefit of additional fiber.

This smoothie recipe includes both turmeric, and Dannon Triple Zero® yogurt (which contains chicory root fiber). And of course, I wouldn’t share it if is wasn’t delicious! Not to mention that it’s filling, and only 160 calories!

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