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! – in moderation, of course)

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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Snack time

My kindergartener eats lunch at 10:45am so they have snack in the early afternoon.  At the beginning of the year, I foolishly (brazenly!) packed his snack bag with “real food” – not chips or cookies or little fish-shaped cheese crackers. I gave a cheese stick one day, a yogurt another.  Half a sandwich.  An apple. Well, did I get a talking to. “Mommy, I DON’T want ANYTHING from the REFRIGERATOR!” (translation: “I don’t want real food – I want snack food from the pantry instead).

Of course, for the first few weeks I ignored his whines, secure in my RD-mom knowledge. But eventually these nutritious morsels started coming back home in the bag, uneaten, unwanted (and now spoiled after being at room temperature for 10 hours).

So, trying to reach a common ground, and accepting that he has his own opinions, I asked him what he wants for snack. “I dunno,” he said.  Well, what do the other kids eat? “Candy,” I was told.  This can’t be true.  Kids are given candy to get them through the afternoon?  Brilliant. (Actually, for you NY Magazine readers, it’s Despicable-Lowbrow.)

Well, I can’t abide candy for a snack. But I also grew very tired of wasting food and arguing with my son. And so I got kinda lazy. Those fish-shaped crackers are really easy to throw into a baggie each day.  And granola bars aren’t so bad… I mean, I buy the organic ones. And Sun Chips are made with whole grains…and on and on.

And at this point I must let you in on a little secret: this post was going to be about how it’s not a big deal that I give my child processed snack foods every day because I choose the “right” ones and the rest of his diet is really healthy and I’m tired of fighting and I’m not an uptight food nazi, you know.

But as I’m writing this, I have decided that that’s just silly.  These snacks may be “healthy” processed foods, but they’re still too high in sodium, too high in sugar.  I do have these foods in my home and I think in moderation they’re ok.  But, a few hours after snack time at school it’s snack time at his afterschool program, where he is served a lot of junk like Oreos, Doritos, lollypops. (I’m thrilled when I hear he had something relatively wholesome like plain pretzels or Cheerios.) So, suffice it to say, he gets plenty of processed snack foods.  Also, I like to give him ice cream for dessert sometimes or make cookies together or other treats without feeling like he’s already so full of junk that I’m junking him up even further.

And so, as of this week, I’ve decided to fight back, get back to my good nutrition roots.  I made a batch of homemade energy bars with nuts, dried fruit, oats, wheat germ, and a touch of maple syrup (from Ellie Krieger’s cookbook, “The Food You Crave”). I’m making oatmeal applesauce muffins this weekend.  I’m going to make yogurt dip to go with some 100% whole grain tortilla chips and carrot sticks.  I’m going to make him try edamame again. And I’m giving him a cheese stick sometimes, darnit. Occasionally I’m going to throw some little fishies or Fig Newmans in a baggie and send him on his way.  But I’m not going to completely give up again. It’s hard, but gosh if I can’t give this a good effort, how do I advise others with a straight face?

That’s it for now. Go forth and snack healthy…er.

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Products, products everywhere and not a bite to eat

I’ve lived in the ‘burbs for about 6 weeks now, and I’m slowly adjusting. I’m used to driving. I’m used to going up and down the stairs all day.  I’m used to the peace and quiet (sorta). BUT. I am not anywhere near being used to the grocery shopping.

The grocery stores here are enormous.  So, imagine my dismay after shopping at one the size of two city blocks, when I couldn’t find many of the things on my grocery list.

In the middle of September (in New York state for goodness sake!), not a single organic apple.

In the substantial meat department not a single organic chicken breast.

Aisles and aisles of snack food, but I could count on one hand the ones that don’t contain high fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives, and/or artificial colors.

It was such a bummer.

Fortunately, our town has a wonderful farmer’s market and every Saturday we can stock up on fresh local produce, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, fresh eggs.  Then later, I drive to the mega-mart to fill out my menu – milk and yogurt (they do carry organic dairy!), beans and pasta, bananas and clementines, some snack foods for the kids, etc.  It makes it all so much more bearable for me. Though each week, I do return from the store a tad depressed.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but when I started jotting down ideas for this post last week I couldn’t really figure out what my point was, other than a rant about the abundance of processed foods in American supermarkets and a chance to gloat about my farmer’s market.

But then, it was Sunday again, and I was back at my mega-mart doing my weekly shopping. And finally it occurred to me why I feel so bummed out each time I shop there!  It’s because shopping there feels like a chore. I’m overwhelmed by the abundance and not inspired by the food. Perhaps because there are so many items that I feel we (and by “we” I mean humankind) shouldn’t be eating or perhaps because I’m disappointed in the produce section which is huge but offers surprisingly little variety (not to mention that the fruits and veggies, most flown in from Cali, Mexico, or Chile, don’t always look so fresh).  I have found little joy in my local mega-mart.  And there, surrounded by more food than my whole town could eat in a month, I feel little connection to the food.

On the other hand, when I’ve shopped at farmer’s markets, or in some of the better small NYC food stores, or online at NYC’s fantastic grocer Fresh Direct (oh, my beloved Fresh Direct, how I miss you!) I get a different feeling. It seems that the people who are selecting and selling the merchandise actually enjoy food as much as I do, and have put thought behind which products made it on the shelves, and which were dispensable. There are not 20 different types of granola bars available to me, but who needs more than just one good kind?

So, I suppose my point is this: When I feel connected to my food it doesn’t feel like as much of a chore to do the shopping, feed the family, clean up and do it again the next day. And it makes preparing healthy and minimally processed meals seem more doable and more enjoyable. I’d go so far as to say that the lack of connection to our food – and the lack of joy we experience from it – fuels America’s dismal dietary habits and obesity problems.

If your local supermarket (and busy lifestyle) is like mine it may seem hard to get that connection and enjoyment, but I encourage you to find a way. Here are some ideas that work for me:

  • Focus on whole, fresh, non-junk food for your meals and snacks, and try to prepare it simply, letting the flavors and textures come through.
  • Go to local farm stands or farmer’s markets whenever possible or, even better, grow some of your own fruits and vegetables in a garden.
  • Use your freezer wisely. Buy extra in-season produce (or something that you can’t find all the time in your community– grass-fed beef, sustainably harvested fish, etc) and freeze it. (Google it if you’re not sure the best way to preserve something.)  For example, make sauce of your August tomatoes and then enjoy it in the wintertime.
  • Plan your meals in advance and head to the store with a list. This will help you drown out the clutter (a whole aisle for just soda and juice drinks??!) but…
  • … be prepared to shift gears if something isn’t available or isn’t good quality. For example, if you get to the store and the greens are all wilted, choose a different vegetable.
  • And as you plan, think seasonally. I guarantee you that a bunch of asparagus purchased in November will not be as enjoyable as one found in late March.
  • Try to grocery shop without your kids if you can. Even if you’re a parent who finds it easy to say “No” (to “Mom, can I get Scooby Snacks?”, “But I LOVE Pop Tarts!!”, “Can we get the chocolate cereal?”, etc) it can still be really annoying!
  • Instead, involve your family in food growing and preparation.  I find that cooking with my kids infuses joy into the dishes, no matter what they are, and no matter where the ingredients were purchased.

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The Beauty of a Go-To Meal

My birthday arrived this morning at the same time as my son’s stomach bug. A bummer, to say the least.  It got me thinking about the obligations of parenthood, and as they tend to do, my thoughts have turned to food.

Of the many obligations I have as a mom, getting weeknight dinners on the table (and by “dinner” I mean a balanced meal that is nutritious, mostly homemade, affordable, and has at least a 50/50 chance of being consumed by my two kids) is one of my most challenging.

Years ago, I leisurely created elaborate meals for myself (and my husband if he made it home from the office in time) during the week, wine glass in hand, good music on the stereo…   Nowadays, the scene is a tad different.  Sometimes I cook something the night before, bleary-eyed from a long day and racing through a simple (and usually boring) recipe. Sometimes, I cook dinner at 6:30am before leaving for work. And then there are the days when I leave pre-prepped meal components (marinating raw chicken, a cooked vegetable, and raw potatoes, for example) labeled and in the fridge for my nanny to throw together around 5pm before I arrive home from work at 6.

I could ramble on for hours – days, probably – about how I manage to feed my kids well, most nights of the week.  In fact, many future blog posts will be devoted to this very topic.

For today, I just want to share with you my “go-to” meal – the dinner I plan for those weeks when cooking time is painfully limited and creative ideas are few and far between.  It’s nothing magical. It’s not gourmet. It’s… tofu with vegetables over brown rice.

Step 1: Find a vegetable(s)  in your fridge or freezer. (My favorites for this dish include broccoli, baby bok choy, mushrooms, red bell peppers, spinach, cauliflower… really any vegetable works.)  Cook it the fastest easiest way you know how. Steam, saute, microwave… whatever you can manage.

Step 2: Drain a block of firm or extra firm tofu.  Cut into chunks or strips. Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes (on a lined baking sheet), or quickly saute in canola oil in a pan until lightly brown, or… hold on to your hats… don’t cook it at all and move to step 3.

Step 3: Toss cooked vegetable(s), tofu, and an Asian sauce together.  Truth: I usually use a bottled product – Soy Vay Hoisin Garlic Glaze.  Yes, it’s fairly high in sodium.  Yes, it’s fairly simple to make a homemade Asian sauce.  Yes, I plan to stick to my Soy Vay.

Step 4: Put it all over steamed brown rice and serve.  I use a rice steamer so making the rice is super easy and hands-off.  You can also serve over rice noodles, which take less than 5 minutes to cook in boiling water.

It’s cheap. It’s fairly easy. It’s very fast. It’s rather tasty. It’s ridiculously healthy.  Though I must admit the real reason it’s my go-to dinner: A certain gorgeous blue-eyed 5 year-old boy told me that it’s his favorite.

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Sullivan County weekend / Pro-RD rant

We recently visited a friend’s Sullivan County, New York weekend house for a couple of days. Something about getting out of the city and being in the country ignites my passion for local food, in-season produce, and home-grown homemade meals. Our hosts didn’t disappoint: lettuce, chives, cilantro, basil, shallots, scallions, zucchini, and baby fingerling potatoes from their garden made for some good eatin’.  (The setting didn’t disappoint either: tranquility, stunning sunsets, hummingbirds, butterflies, and more.)

The sun sets on Sullivan Co.

While there, I picked up this month’s issue of GQ magazine and read a wonderfully engaging article about ethical eating by Alan Richman (“Eat No Evil” – not available on-line).  Mr. Richman examines many aspects of what has become a hot trend in food, driven in part by books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  He interviewed farmers and self-proclaimed ethical eaters to try to come to an understanding of what it really means to eat ethically.  Among the issues raised: the question, ‘is it better to buy the local-but-conventional food, the organic-but-imported food, or the organic-but-industrial one?’ – a debate I often have when shopping at FreshDirect, my on-line grocer here in NYC, which has products in all of those categories.

When you consider the nutrition, the environmental impact, animal rights issues, and labor issues relating to the foods we eat, you begin to sense that there’s no clear roadmap to ethical eating. Richman basically concludes that eaters must reconcile their options and choose for themselves what they feel is the “right” path, through mindful eating and conscious consumerism.

My only criticism of the article, and the reason I was moved to write about it, is that on page 130 Mr. Richman states, “only your doctor or your mother should tell you what to eat.” What?!  I beg your pardon, Mr. Richman, but REGISTERED DIETITIANS are the nation’s food and nutrition experts. Doctors, with all due respect, are not.

Now, I’ve said my piece. I’m off to eat dinner: a hamburger (made from ground beef from a cow raised on a small family farm which is not certified “organic” but is a farm where I know the animals are treated humanely and allowed time in a pasture instead of kept in an industrial livestock feedlot) on a bun made in a factory in who-knows-where with whole (but conventionally grown) grains and some artificial preservatives added for shelf stability, with plenty of Heinz ketchup (not the organic kind) on top. On the side is broccoli – organic but (gasp!) frozen and delivered in an airplane from California to my store in New York.   And I ask myself, is this an “ethical” meal?

Um… Well…

Ethical enough.

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