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October 9, 2013 · 9:49 am

Food (and Nutrition Conference) for Thought

Two weeks ago I attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, referred to in the biz as “FNCE”. This annual gathering of registered dietitians, dietetic technicians, and other food and nutrition professionals brought 10,000 of us to the City of Brotherly Love for a long weekend of learning, networking, and for me, personal reflection.

Each year, sponsors of the event include the biggest Big Food companies, and this causes a bit of a stir in the blogosphere and beyond. Unsurprisingly, many nutrition and food policy advocates are concerned about the influence of these sponsors on the Academy and its members. You can read excellent examples of the interesting (and biting!) commentary here and here. I agree that it’s troubling to see prominent displays by Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Monsanto in the Expo hall. Even more troubling is the sponsorship of some of the educational sessions (like a session on food intolerances that ended up being a dairy industry sponsored milk fest). I hope that the Academy gets the message that its members don’t want to be entangled with Big Food because this threatens the credibility of RDs everywhere.

Luckily, I’m savvy enough to avoid the potential pitfalls of FNCE. I ignored the junk vendors (no McDonalds “oatmeal” samples for me, thank you!). I didn’t go to many sponsored talks. I maintained a healthy skepticism and attention to whether information was being taught or sold.

Overall, for me it was just great to see old friends and to be in the midst of many other like-minded nutritionistas. And it was a much needed infusion of nutrition inspiration for my professional life which, as many of you know, is nutrition-free from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.

In closing, I’d like to share my two takeaways from the conference:

  1. I must get more involved with hunger and food insecurity. The issue of hunger has always resonated deep down in my food-loving soul. The idea of a mother not having enough food for her children or an elderly person going hungry all alone…well, I can’t even type it without tears starting to flow. Two excellent educational sessions that I attended on the topic have catapulted this issue back into my immediate consciousness and have inspired me to put my skills and passion toward the issue of food insecurity in my community. I have a call in to the Pleasantville Interfaith Food Pantry already to see how I can get involved. Stay tuned for more on this.
  2. I have to get back to blogging! A session led by RD bloggers extraordinaire Toby Amidor and Dana White encouraged me to get back to it! I love to write, I love to translate my nutrition expertise into practical info and tips to help others. Plus, you never know where a good blog can lead in a career these days. So, I shall write. The floodgates have re-opened. Consider yourselves warned!

Until the next time, fair readers.
-Amy

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Teach Your Children Well

One of my goals as a parent is to raise kids who enjoy food and for whom eating in a healthy way is second nature.  And though I’m a nutrition expert, even I am sometimes overwhelmed by this daunting responsibility. The problem I face is simple, really: my children are not mindless automatons.  Despite my fancy nutrition degree and years of experience, I can’t just snap my fingers and make them like the foods I like, eat the things I want them to eat, and make good choices when they aren’t with me.

Instead I have to teach them. (Sigh.)

So I teach by example –  I eat lots of vegetables, I eschew junky crap and go for homemade goodness, I shop at the farmers market and fill our house with fresh whole foods. I also talk with my kids about food and my food values: “I have had enough – I’m going to stop now”, “I like this one because it doesn’t have food coloring”, “I love when summer comes and we get to enjoy fresh tomatoes again”, etc.

And I can hardly believe it, but it appears that they are paying attention!

Playing restaurant the other day my little one (age 3) told her patron that he had to eat his healthy food first before picking out dessert. And my older one instructed the customer to choose a “side dish”, not just a meat.  Then there was the time that I overheard the 6 year old explaining to his sister that fruit snacks are “not really fruit.” Instead, he explained, “they are mostly sugar…and butter.” (Well, he  didn’t quite have the details right, but he had gotten the point.)  And recently he and I negotiated a deal wherein I agreed I would buy a “junky cereal” (Lucky Charms, Lord help me) after he suggested that he wouldn’t eat it for breakfast, only for dessert, and not all the time, because it’s a “sometimes food”.

Not to gloat, but it’s really gratifying when they show me that the messages are getting through. And of course there are plenty of occasions when they act like, well, normal kids – they pick the nasty blue ice cream at the ice cream parlor, they whine when the vegetable is Brussels sprouts, they complain that we never eat at Pizza Hut.  But in those moments I try not to react in a negative way (lest they learn that these are good ways to shock and annoy me) and instead I think about the times when they’ve given me hope that my positive teaching is having an effect.

And all this talk about setting examples and educating doesn’t diminish the fact that sometimes as parents we do need to dictate how it’s going to be – “No candy for breakfast”, “This is the only dinner you’re going to get tonight so eat it”, “Get that carrot out of your nose,” etc.  But just barking orders and being rigid isn’t a strategy that will work for the long haul.

So, I suggest that though it may feel sometimes like a futile effort, and certainly can be emotionally and mentally trying at times, if you teach your children, they will, in the end, be well.

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Follow-up: The Lunch Menu

I had a few requests to share the lunch menu choices that I came up with for my boy (see My Back-to-School Bento Strategy).  Here you go, along with some notes for clarification:

Main Courses (I have him pick this first)

  • Amy’s Black Bean burrito
  • Chicken nuggets (I prefer Applegate)
  • Hot dog (again, Applegate) with dipping ketchup
  • Broccoli and Cheese Quiche (Homemade and then frozen in individual slices)
  • Pasta w/ pesto
  • Pancakes (homemade in advance and frozen, usually oat-whole wheat-banana)
  • Chips & Salsa
  • Pizza bagel
  • Baked Ziti
  • Chicken Cheese Quesadilla
  • Mac & Cheese
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich
  • Cheese cubes w/ crackers
  • Cheese and salami sandwich
  • Spinach Ravioli
  • Taco dip (leftover taco fillings) w/ tortilla chips
  • Tiny Meatballs with tomato sauce for dipping
  • Hummus w/ pita triangles
  • Hard-boiled Egg
  • Steamed dumplings (frozen or Asian restaurant leftovers) with soy sauce for dipping
  • Cheese and salami slices

Side Dishes (He tells me that he only has time to eat 1 or 2 other foods besides his main course)

  • Peaches (fruit cup or whole)
  • Cucumber spears
  • Edemame
  • Pineapple rings
  • Kiwi rounds
  • “Shell nuts” (pistachios)
  • Olives
  • Mini-muffins (homemade and then frozen – usually banana oat or pumpkin)
  • Fruit leather
  • Grapefruit slices (peeled)
  • Carrots w/ ranch dip (recipe from Weelicious)
  • Red bell pepper strips
  • Pears (fruit cup or whole)
  • “Candy carrots” (homemade roasted carrot bites)
  • Popcorn
  • Crackers
  • “Mommy’s Power Bars” (actually Ellie Krieger’s power bars)
  • New pickles
  • Grapes
  • Apple slices
  • Dried apricots
  • Fig bar
  • Cookies
  • French fries (leftover homemade or Alexia brand) w/ ketchup for dipping

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My Back-to-School Bento Strategy

Earlier this year, I wrote about the challenges I have packing school snacks for my 6 year-old  (See Snack Time).  I didn’t get into this in that post, but the thing that frustrates me most about his picky snacking is that he’s NOT a picky eater!  He’s actually an enthusiastic eater who will eat almost anything… unless it’s in his lunchbox. Here are some of the foods which he has enjoyed recently: sautéed flounder, red quinoa, stir-fried bok choy, golden beet yogurt smoothie, roasted potatoes tossed with garlic scape pesto, chicken in green curry sauce, duck bacon, broccoli rabe. Does this sound like a picky eater to you?

What happens at school (and this summer, at camp) is peer pressure, I think. It’s so annoying. And after forcing my preferred lunches on him for almost an entire school year, and seeing 75% or more of the food come home uneaten (and then having an over-hungry bear on my hands), I was really getting upset. And the daily arguments were really getting old.

A child psychologist who knows my son suggested that I needed to let go of lunch and let him select his own food. It was becoming a major power struggle and my nutritional ideals were no longer worth it. Fair enough, I thought, though the idea of letting him have free reign didn’t sit well. Then, my mother threw in the advice that tipped the scale: Make a list of ALL of the potential lunch and snack options that I would be comfortable serving him and let him choose the menu each week.  Brilliant, I thought. Let him THINK he’s getting his way while still holding my Dietitian dignity intact.

As part of my new plan, I bought a bento-style lunch box from Laptop Lunches. I don’t know why, but a bento box lunch is just more fun.  It allows for the provision of a variety of foods along with nice extras like dips or small tastes of sweet treats (in its tiniest covered container). And for some reason packing a lunch in a bento box gets the creative juices flowing – suddenly you think of new ideas and your packed lunches become so much more attractive and appealing.

With bento box in hand, I made a list of foods for my boy to choose from and tested the strategy during the last few weeks of summer camp. The verdict: Success! The fights have basically ceased, and he’s actually selecting more fresh fruits and vegetables than he was eating before. The illusion of power has mitigated his picky-ness.

So, now as the start of the new school year approaches I have a bit less stress. I may not know WHAT I’m sending in the lunchbox each day, but I do know HOW!

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Just call me Ms. Schweppes

I’m a cook-from-scratch-er.  I would never think to buy pancake mix or one of those frozen vegetables in butter sauce.  No instant oatmeal here.  I make my own marinara sauce. My own lemonade. Cake. Guacamole.

Of course, there are many things that I don’t make from scratch. Here’s a partial list: ketchup, mayo, chicken stock, BBQ sauce, bread, pizza dough.  I am able to make these things (and in fact I’ve made all of them before), but I just don’t.  No desire to.

This week I expanded my repertoire and made something from scratch that I’m really excited about: ginger ale.

I’m a big time ginger ale drinker – I have mild Irritable Bowel Syndrome. When I’m having a flare up of intestinal woes, I open a little can of ginger ale and sip on it. It makes me feel better. It’s mostly psychological, of course, because really it’s just a can of fizzy sugar.

When my stomach was bothering me a few days ago my trusted cans of ginger ale just did not appeal. Too syrupy. Not gingery enough.

I poked around my recipe collection and found this one for homemade ginger ale.  My husband thinks it’s too lemon-y, but I think it’s perfect. Fresh, crisp, gingery. The kids liked it too. And it’s not a scientific assessment, but I do think it did a better job than ginger flavored corn syrup at easing my nausea.

I’m going to freeze a bunch in an ice cube tray so I can always have it on hand.  Poor Canada Dry. Just lost a regular customer.

Ginger Ale* – makes about 8 servings

1/2 cup grated ginger (use a box grater)
4 teaspoons sugar
5 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Seltzer (I make my own, courtesy of my Soda Stream seltzer maker)

1. Put grated ginger in a bowl and stir in sugar. Set aside for 1 hour.
2. Place a strainer over a cup or bowl. Spoon the ginger/sugar mixture into the strainer and use the back of the spoon to press down on the ginger to extract ginger juice. Discard left over ginger pulp.
3. Stir lemon juice into ginger juice.
4. Stir in brown sugar and dissolve completely.
5. Store the ginger mix in an airtight container in the fridge. When you want a glass, give it a shake and then add about a tablespoon of ginger mix per cup of seltzer, adjusting to your own preference.
6. Use within a few days or freeze for future use.

*I have no idea where I got this recipe. It’s not my own.  If you happen to know where it’s from, please let me know!

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About last night…

I served the fam stuffed baked potatoes for dinner last night and I didn’t know I was stepping into a hot-button issue until I read the paper.  An article in the Wall Street Journal  (“Spuds, on the Verge of Being Expelled, Start a Food Fight in the Cafeteria”) highlights a provision in a proposed USDA regulation which would limit the amount of starchy vegetables (i.e., white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and peas) served as part of the National School Lunch Program to 1 cup per week. The rule is based on Institute of Medicine recommendations noting that kids eat too much starch and not enough other vegetables.  The USDA’s intention is to “encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones.”  (See here for the complete language.)

Perhaps because they have a louder lobby than, say, the lima bean folks, potatoes have been the starchy vegetable to make the headlines about this proposed rule. So, let’s talk for a moment about the potato.

A medium potato grows in the ground, not in a factory. It contains about 160 calories, mostly from carbs.  It also provides about 4 grams fiber, 10% of your iron for the day, 28% of your vitamin C, 27% of your B6, 26% of your potassium, good amounts of magnesium and phosphorus, and even a few grams of protein.

Yeah, this sounds like a terrible food. Better serve the kiddos pizza boats instead.

I’ll spare you ALL of my thoughts on this issue, and let’s put aside for a moment the fact that it’s probably the case that too many potatoes served in schools are in the form of French fries.  My problem with this rule is that placing limits on an entire food group feels like ” nutritionism” – the focus on specific nutrients and dietary components of a food to decide whether or not it’s “good” for you or to decide whether or not it fits into a healthy diet. This kind of rule-making leads to the absurd reality that schools can serve processed foods as long as they are specially formulated to meet all of the NSLP requirements. Why would we want make a rule that will in effect limit the consumption of a whole healthy food?

(Perhaps it’s odd for an RD to express anti-nutritionism leanings, but I’m definitely concerned with the way food manufacturers and marketers and uninformed consumers can use this kind of perspective to build a diet full of processed foods.  Attention to nutrients certainly has its place, especially in Medical Nutrition Therapy for certain medical conditions, but for me personally, when selecting manufactured foods I tend to read the ingredients list but not the Nutrition Facts.  But I digress.)

And finally, does anyone honestly believe that by eliminating potatoes and corn it will force kids to try other vegetables? (“Well, there’s no mashed potatoes today so I guess I’ll eat this over-boiled asparagus instead!”) I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.

So about last night: I served stuffed baked potatoes and they were enjoyed by all.

Mushroom, Spinach & Feta Stuffed Potatoes  (adapted from Rachael Ray) – Serves 4 (2 adults, 2 kids)

  • Olive oil
  • 4 baking potatoes (I pick out larger ones for me and the husband, smaller ones for the kids. And I prefer organic.)
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 bunches spinach, stems trimmed and leaves chopped.
  • 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • S/P to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Bake the potatoes until cooked through, about 50 minutes.
  2. In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
  3. Add a little more olive oil to the skillet; add the spinach and cook until wilted. Add the spinach to the mushrooms; add the feta and stir until mostly melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cut a deep “X” into the top of each potato and squeeze together to open. Generously stuff each with the spinach mixture.

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Confessions of a Dietitian

At one time I considered calling this blog “Confessions of a Dietitian.” The plan was to document my dietary transgressions and share the tips and strategies that have helped me to improve. I’d empower people with nutrition info and the insight that there’s no need to strive for perfection when it comes to healthy eating and feeding, just to aim to do better. To show them that even dietitians have their nutrition challenges.

I decided not to take that route (for now) because it would be too much of a bummer to focus on my own  shortcomings all of the time. I mean, I’m actually really proud of the things I do right in feeding myself and my family!

BUT.

I am, in fact, only a human Registered Dietitian and mom who faces the same pressures and challenges that many others face. Sometimes, I break “the rules.” And sometimes, it just feels good to confess. So, here it goes:

Recently, I bribed my kids (ages 3 and 6) with lunch at McDonalds.

Bribing and rewarding with food, and junk food at that?!  This is precisely the kind of thing I have advised other parents against!  Bad, Amy.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my kids have eaten at McDonalds a few times – with their grandparents, once or twice on a road trip. I don’t forbid them from eating it with other people.  But, when they ask me if we can go, which given the constant marketing and peer pressure, is quite often, I simply say something like, “No, not today.”  I think my older one understands by now that this reply is rooted in my healthy eating philosophy – he doesn’t appear too surprised when I deny him. The younger one doesn’t seem to give it too much thought.  I try not to make it a thing.

So anyway, a few weeks ago when the weather changed and we were once again able to walk to school, I was finding it hard to get out the door on time (walking adds 15 minutes to our morning routine). Nothing was working. They were sluggish, I was sluggish. And then it occurred to me that I should just bribe them with something highly coveted, get us back into the routine, and it will be smooth sailing from there.

I won’t bore you with the details, but let me just say that it worked. Spectacularly. It was quite magical, actually.

Did it reinforce the unhealthy idea that bad-for-you food is something to reward yourself with?  Maybe. Or maybe it just reinforced the very healthy idea that a meal from a junky place like McDonalds is a “sometimes” occurrence, not to be eaten often, but to be saved for rare occasions.  Isn’t that the best message to send my kids… the message of moderation and self-control?

Am I rationalizing? Perhaps, but hey, nobody’s perfect!

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The Taco Salad Stratosphere

My husband Josh and I enjoy a good taco salad.  What’s not to like about a meal that’s super easy to make and is what nachos would be if they were a salad?

So, I made a taco salad recently. The kids had heard only part of the menu and were excited for tacos. After they saw no shells, and instead a large bowl of chopped lettuce, they eventually managed to choke back the bitter disappointment and try it out. Nonchalant but praying that they would eat it, I waited for the verdict.

“I will eat 18 bowls of this salad!” declared my 6 year old. Score! “I will not eat this. It is yuck. I want just the lettuce, cheese, and beans,” declared my 3 year old. Fine, I’ll take that.  And my husband… well, he declared (on Twitter to all SEVEN of his followers – @joshmarlow if you’d like to show him some follow-love) that we had reached the “taco salad stratosphere”. It was a bold (and quite ridiculous) statement. It was not untrue.

Here is the now-legendary Taco Salad recipe for you.  It’s not fancy. It’s not for highbrow foodies. It’s not 100% made-from-scratch. It’s not low in sodium. But damn, it was a tasty weeknight crowd pleaser!

Amy’s Taco Salad – Serves 2 adults, 2 children

1. Slice some carrot sticks, bell pepper strips, cucumber rounds and serve (with or without a healthy dip) as an appetizer before the meal. This is not a veggie-heavy salad.

2. Chop enough lettuce for the family (I used organic romaine hearts) and put into a large bowl.

3. Make Cilantro Lime vinaigrette: This is a semi-homemade dressing which starts with a packet of Good Seasons Italian dressing (which seems like it could be junky, but it’s actually all-natural and I happen to like the flavor) plus 1/2 cup canola oil, 1/4 cup water, 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice, and 1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro.  Toss the lettuce with a small-ish amount of dressing, to taste. (Don’t skip this. I think that tossing the lettuce in the dressing first was key.)

4. Brown 1/2 pound ground beef or turkey (definitely organic), drain all fat, return to the pan and add 1/2 a packet of Old El Paso Mild taco seasoning (I hate to admit this part – these seasoning packets are full of sodium and preservatives and I should have just made a homemade seasoning but I just didn’t) and 1/3 cup water. Bring to a boil and cook until it thickens, about 3 – 4 minutes. Remove to a serving bowl.

5. Drain and rinse a can of black beans and put into a small serving bowl. I used no-added-sodium Eden Organic beans. (I like that there’s no BPA in the lining of their cans.)

6. Shred about 1/2 cup of cheese into another small serving bowl. I used a delish queso blanco, made nearby in the lovely Hudson Valley by the Amazing Real Live Food Co., procured at my local farmer’s market.

7. Serve the salad make-your-own style with all the aforementioned components on the table, plus salsa (fresh, if possible) and reduced fat sour cream.  We also serve with multigrain tortilla chips on the side.

Superlative-worthy?  You be the judge. Enjoy!

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Food Legacies (Another reason to cook with the kids)

The last of my four grandparents died recently (may she rest in peace) so I’ve been thinking a lot about their legacies and my memories of them – My Nantucket grandparents’ work ethic and inspiring generosity, my Florida grandmother’s poise and fierce pride in her children and grandchildren. I’ve thought so much about their fine characters and their strength through the many adversities that life can throw at a person who lives, blessedly, into very old age.  And it has occurred to me that many of my memories and connections to them involve food! (I suppose I should not be so surprised… I’m about as food-obsessed as they come.)

As a child, a beloved ritual was breakfast with my Grandpa Milton, often taken in the middle of the day because his sleep pattern was so disrupted by his narcolepsy. Each day the same: hard salami and sharp cheddar cheese, sliced paper thin with a very sharp knife, placed on a slice of seedless rye with spicy mustard. And as if that didn’t smell enough, he usually put sliced raw onion on top!  He’d sit and methodically build his breakfast sandwich and dole out thin slices of cheese to any grandchild who walked into the kitchen. The smell of raw onion and mustard will never cease to conjure the image of him in my mind.

Grandma Zelda, a restaurateur and the author of a cookbook of her restaurant’s recipes, provides so many food-based connections for me. I can picture her cluttered bookshelves FULL of cookbooks, many of which I have been lucky enough to inherit for my own collection. Her dinners of fresh fish coated in buttery bread crumbs. Her passion for garlic. And best of all, her “Tipsy Pudding”, bread pudding made with whiskey and topped with vanilla ice cream. (I wonder if my early tastes of Tipsy Pudding contributed to my love of whiskey to this day!)

My memories of my Bobu (based on the Yiddish word for Grandma, Bubbe), who passed last week at the accomplished age of 97, are not as rooted in food, but even so, there are kitchen connections that bind us. She was the daughter of a baker and told me many wonderful stories about her father, whom she clearly loved so deeply, and she spoke of the pleasures (and challenges: the waistline!) of having fresh bread made by him. Each time I bake with my kids I imagine those baker genes pulsing through each of us, connecting us with the past and with our family heritage.

I wonder what my own children will recall about their grandparents and of me and if any of it will come to them in the form of food memories. Will they think about my mom’s made-to-order muffins, brought each time she visits? Their other grandmother’s “Orange Stuff”, served at Thanksgiving? Or the “Blizzard Cookies” that I bake each time there’s a big snow storm?  Maybe the Farfel Kugel that my husband loves at Passover, or his famous “kuchen”, made each summer when peaches are fresh.  I hope that they remember being in the kitchen with me, standing on the stepstool by the counter, helping me measure ingredients and sneaking tastes when I’m not looking. I hope the flavors and aromas of their childhood stay with them and help to shape their sense of family and tradition, as these kinds of memories have formed my own.

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