Be a Smart Snacker

Whenever I mention the word “snack” at one of my nutrition-related Lunch ‘n Learns, I make sure to look around the room to gauge participant’s reactions. Through my unofficial observations, I’ve determined that most people’s definitions of the term fall into one of three categories: 

  1. Cookies, candy, chips, crackers – anything that comes in a package and tastes good.
  2. Something to avoid at all costs if you want to lose weight or maintain a recent weight loss.
  3. A small portion of something healthy that helps you stay full in between meals.

While you are welcome to think of the word “snack” in any way you like, only one of the above definitions is nutritionally correct. If you think a snack is a small portion of something healthy that helps you stay full in between meals, you have the right idea. Snacks, from a nutritionist’s perspective, are portion-controlled foods that serve a purpose – namely, to help stabilize your blood sugar and therefore give you energy and keep you feeling full in between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner. In order to serve this purpose, the ideal snack has the following characteristics:

 

  • It’s eaten in between meals to ensure that you’re not going longer than 4-6 hours without eating something
  • It contains 200 calories or less (anything more than that and you’re looking at what I consider to be a small meal)
  • It contains a mix of fiber and protein, which both take awhile to digest and help you feel full
  • It’s minimally-processed and low in added sugar, salt, and saturated fat
  • Ideally, it contains a fruit or vegetable

 

The best snacks are the ones you pack yourself and always have on hand when hunger strikes. Good snack choices include:

 

  • 1 medium apple and 1 tablespoons natural peanut or almond butter
  • 1 cup sliced veggies and 2 tablespoons hummus
  • Homemade trail mix: 2 tablespoons almonds, 1 tablespoon raisins, 1 teaspoon semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 15 Wheat Thins crackers and 1 Laughing Cow cheese wedge
  • 1 Kashi granola bar and 15 grapes
  • 1 string cheese and ½ cup sliced cantaloupe
  • 1 low-fat fruit-on-the-bottom Greek yogurt and 1 teaspoon slivered almonds

 

While the snacks listed above may not fit some people’s typical definition of the term, they’re sure to taste good and power you through until your next meal. Snacking is really an important part of weight loss and weight maintenance, as it can help prevent you from getting too hungry in between meals and overdoing it when it finally comes time to eat.   If your body tells you it needs food in between your regularly-scheduled meals, it’s perfectly okay to reach for a healthy snack – as long as it fits the requirements listed above, it shouldn’t sabotage your weight loss or healthy eating plan.

 

Now, what about the foods that many people consider “snacks” – cookies, chips, candy, crackers, and most other goodies that come in a box? By my definition, these aren’t snacks at all; rather, I consider them “treats.” Treats contain little nutritional value and normally don’t help stabilize your blood sugar or keep you feeling full in between meals. Treats are not what you want to reach for when mid-afternoon hunger strikes. There is some good news about treats, however – they can be a regular part of your daily routine, as long as you consume them in moderation. Almost any healthy diet has room for 200 “treat calories” each day, which means you can enjoy your daily candy bar or bag of potato chips – just as long as you don’t eat more than 200 calories’ worth of these items in any given day, and you save them for times when you want something to eat. Stick to the healthier selections above when you feel that you need food – your body will thank you for making the right choice!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Kidney Beans

If you’ve ever eaten the classic Cajun dish Red Beans and Rice, then you’re familiar with kidney beans. These beans are full of fiber and protein, making them a filling addition to any meal. They’re also an excellent source of the B vitamins thiamin and folate and a good source of iron, magnesium, and phosphorus. Kidney beans are available dried and canned; you can get them on the table much quicker if you use the canned variety, but as always, be sure to watch their sodium content by choosing low-sodium varieties and rinsing the beans before you cook with them. I normally try to feature each Healthy Ingredient in a new or unique way, but I couldn’t resist paying homage to my favorite city in the world, New Orleans, by including a recipe for its signature dish (albeit in a slightly healthier form).

Guilt-Free Red Beans and Rice

Ingredients
1 cup brown rice or wild rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 15-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed, or a heaping ½ cup dried kidney beans, soaked and cooked
½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning or blackening spice mix
¼ teaspoon black pepper
4 scallions, sliced

Instructions
1.  Cook the rice according to the package directions.
2.  Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 minute.
3. Add the beans, Cajun seasoning, ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook, tossing, until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes.
4.  Fold the rice and scallions into the bean mixture. Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from Real Simple

The Three-Step Approach to Achieving Life Balance, Part Three: Maintaining Your Commitment to Yourself

The last step toward achieving life balance may be the hardest, but it will certainly end up being the most fulfilling. Once you have mastered the art of making things easier on yourself, try and sustain all of the progress you’ve achieved by continuing to put yourself first.

Step 3: Maintain Your Commitment to Yourself

Hopefully you’ve already taken a few steps to simplify your life and reassert your commitment to yourself. Once you feel that you’ve made all the positive changes you need to achieve greater life balance, your goal will be to focus on maintaining your newfound sense of balance by:

  • Continuing to take care of yourself. Make sure you continue to eat right, schedule regular exercise sessions, and get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night in order to feel your best.
  • Developing your social circle. Once you’ve cut out the negative people in your life, seek out more positive sources of support. Aim to have at least one family member, close friend, and coworker with whom you can share your feelings on a regular basis.
  • Reassess periodically – what worked, and what didn’t? Sometimes, it’s obvious when we need to make a new plan. Other times, we need to take a step back and look at our priorities and the way we’re going about doing things. Take the time to check in with yourself to assess your sense of balance every few months. If you catch yourself feeling even slightly out of balance, you’ll be able to make small changes to get back on track.

Three weeks ago, you may have thought that achieving life balance was an impossible task. Hopefully you’re already on your way to a greater sense of balance – and a greater focus on what matters most to you.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Millet

A few weeks ago, I decided to continue my quest to incorporate as many types of whole grains as possible into my diet by trying millet. Out of all the new grains I’ve consumed within the past year, millet is definitely one of my favorites. I enjoy its creamy texture and mild taste, both of which make it well-suited for a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Upon doing some research, I found a few interesting facts about millet: for starters, it’s technically a seed (although it’s normally classified as a whole grain due to its nutritional properties and the way it gets cooked and consumed); and it’s the primary ingredient in one of the most popular foods…for birds. Yes, millet happens to be the main ingredient in birdseed, but it’s been a regular part of humans’ diets for centuries. Ancient cultures enjoyed millet not only for its taste and versatility, but also for its nutritional properties – it’s high in protein and a good source of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, and phosphorus.   I encourage you to try and make millet a staple of your diet by substituting it for other whole grains like rice, oats, or quinoa. The possibilities are endless!

Millet-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Ingredients
⅓ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped, plus 2 tablespoons oil from jar
4 green onions, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup millet
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
4 medium portobello mushroom caps
1 Roma tomato, sliced

Instructions
1. Heat 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato oil in saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add sun-dried tomatoes, green onions, garlic, and rosemary, and cook 5 minutes, or until onions are soft, stirring constantly.
3. Add millet, and cook 1 minute more.
4. Add 3 cups water, cover, and reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer 25 to 30 minutes, or until millet is tender and all water has been absorbed.
5. Remove from heat, and stir in ¼ cup cheese. S eason with salt and pepper.
6. Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat baking sheet with cooking spray.  Scrape gills from mushroom caps. Brush with remaining 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato oil, and place upside down on prepared baking sheet.
7. Divide millet mixture among mushroom caps, mounding slightly to fill. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, and top each with tomato slice.
8. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until browned and cheese has melted.

Recipe from Vegetarian Times

Hot Millet Cereal

Ingredients
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup millet
2 cups boiling water
Fruit, milk, brown sugar to serve

Instructions
1.  In a large saute pan, heat oil. Add 1 cup millet and cook, stirring until the millet begins to toast and become brown.
2.  Add 2 cups boiling water, cover and simmer 30 minutes or until liquid has been absorbed.
3. Let stand for five minutes then serve with milk, fruit of your choice and brown sugar. Makes 9 ½ cup servings.

Recipe from Food Network

The Three-Step Approach to Achieving Life Balance, Part Two: Reasserting Your Commitment to Yourself

Last week, I talked about some ways you can simplify your life to pave way to take back control of it and achieve greater balance. This week, your mission involves making a commitment you may have forgotten about amidst all the chaos in your life – the commitment to yourself.

Step 2: Reassert Your Commitment to Yourself

Once you’ve accepted the fact that you need to make your life easier, you’ll be ready to take the next step of actually starting to do so. The goal here is to put yourself first by:

  • Taking care of yourself. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting regular exercise. If you don’t feel healthy, you’ll be less efficient and more likely to feel out of balance.
  • Reprioritizing and making a new plan. One of the keys to achieving life balance involves making a list of priorities so that you can tackle tasks in order of importance, one at a time, without feeling overwhelmed by having to do too much at once. Oftentimes, your priorities will change, at which point it’s time to make a new list and change the way you do things to make your life easier and more efficient.
  • Now that you’re okay with the fact that you can give up some control, do it! Ask your family members or coworkers to take on some of your workload where appropriate. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of hands-on training, or a little bit of faith, to enable someone else to get the job done for you.
  • Learning to say no. It’s okay to say no when your family and friends ask you to do something, especially if your calendar is already pretty full. Trust me when I say that your friends will still like you if you have to pass on dinner every once in awhile.
  • Avoiding emotionally draining relationships. We all have at least one of what I call a “toxic” friend, family member, or coworker in our lives. These people really zap our energy by wanting us to focus solely on them and their many problems. They rarely ask how we’re doing or how they can help us out, yet they want us to pay attention to them as much as possible. These are the people with whom you should limit your interactions. Instead, make plans with the positive people in your life.

Reasserting your commitment to yourself takes time, but once you do, you’ll notice a tremendous change in how you feel, both physically and mentally. Once you’ve taken back control of your life, it’s up to you to maintain your progress and continue to make yourself a priority.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Apricots

If you’re like me, you’re probably most familiar with apricots in their dried form. These stone fruits have a very short growing season, so it’s often difficult to find them fresh. However, dried apricots are easy to find, and even easier to cook with, as they add great flavor and texture to sweet and savory dishes. They also pack a lot of nutrition into a small package; apricots are a good source of fiber and potassium and are high in Vitamins A and C. I like to chop up dried apricots and add them to cooked cous cous or quinoa, but they’re also great as the main ingredient of a dish, like the appetizer below.

Apricot Canapes

Ingredients
16 dried apricots
8 teaspoons crumbled blue cheese
2 ounces chopped shelled pistachios
½ teaspoon honey
Freshly ground pepper

Instructions
1. Top each apricot with ½ teaspoon cheese.
2.   Sprinkle with pistachios and drizzle with honey; sprinkle with pepper. 

Recipe from EatingWell

The Three-Step Approach to Achieving Life Balance, Part One: Simplifying Your Life

Life balance seems to be an elusive goal for all of us who hold full-time jobs and have family and other responsibilities waiting  when we get home. However, it’s not as difficult as you might think to meet this goal of being able to focus equally on all the areas of your life that demand attention. All it takes are three easy steps to help you better focus on yourself and the things you want and need to do. In the interest of making things as balanced as possible, I’ll be focusing on a different step each week for the next three weeks.

Step 1: Simplify Your Life

I look at simplifying as a way of preparing to make your life easier and more efficient. Simplifying your life involves:

  • Giving up some control by allow someone else to take the lead once in awhile. You don’t have to immediately start delegating responsibilities – you just have to prepare yourself to be okay with the fact that it’s perfectly normal to ask family, friends, and coworkers to help you out.
  • Sharing your priorities. Let those around you know what you need to get done. If your family members or coworkers know how busy you are, and what needs to get accomplished, they can either help you or leave you alone so you can get things done.
  • Reducing your number of commitments. Clear out your calendar so you have several free nights each week.
  • Redesigning your nights and weekends. Take back your free time by making it your own. Do what you want and need to do during the hours when you’re not at work.

Once you’ve become okay with making things easier on yourself, you’ll be ready to take the next step of reasserting your commitment to the person that matters most – YOU!

 

 

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Figs

When you hear the word fig, you probably think of Fig Newton cookies. Just thinking of the fig in terms of a cookie, however, doesn’t do it justice. Figs are a great snack on their own, and they can be used as a healthy substitute for candy the next time you’re in need of a sweet treat. Figs, most commonly sold in dried form, are lower in sugar than candy, and higher in fiber, too. A quarter cup of dried figs also counts as a serving of fruit, so you can’t go wrong by adding them to your repertoire of healthy treats, or using them to add a little bit of sweetness to your meal.

Black Beans with Figs and Bell Peppers

Ingredients
1 ½ tablespoons corn oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
12 medium dried figs, diced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 15-ounce can low-sodium black beans, rinsed

Instructions
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onion, bell peppers, garlic, cumin and cilantro. Cook, stirring often, until the onion softens, about 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Add the diced figs, lemon juice, and brown sugar to the onion-pepper mixture.
3. Add the beans, cover and cook over low heat until the peppers are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking. Serve hot or chilled. Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from California Figs

Adding Positivity To Your Day

In my mind, one of the best ways to manage stress is to focus on the positive, rather than negative, aspects of a stressful situation, as well as your life in general. Few people realize that there are actually two forms of stress – distress is the chronic, negative, overwhelming form we most often associate with the term, while eustress is positive stress that we use to take positive action and make positive changes. Most stressful situations can be turned into something positive with a little bit of focus and determination. For example, if you are stressed about a tight deadline at work, you can turn the situation into something positive by challenging yourself to work more efficiently to get the job done. It’s also important to surround yourself with positive thoughts about both the stressful situation and the rest of your day. Two ways to do so are by following the Positivity Ratio and by keeping a positivity calendar.

The Positivity Ratio states that for every one negative thought you have about a person or situation, you should also think of three positive thoughts. If you have the unfortunate job of telling a coworker they did something wrong, follow that conversation up with three things that they’re doing right. You’ll shift your focus away from only thinking about the negatives and will help spread a little positivity to your coworker as well.

As for the positivity calendar, the premise behind it is simple – every day, challenge yourself to write down (on a calendar, journal, or a piece of paper) at least one good thing that happened to you. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event – your “positive” for the day could be something as basic as getting a seat on the subway or bus. The goal is to have a visual reminder of all the good things that happen to you, which will help take your mind off of anything negative that might be occurring. I’ve kept a positivity calendar, and have challenged my friends and family to do the same, so I can tell you first-hand that it’s easy to do, and it really works to help erase negative thoughts.

We don’t always have control over our stressors, but we do have control over our thoughts. It’s up to you to try and make the most out of a bad situation; remember, a little positivity can go a long way!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Corn

Corn is a very misunderstood food. You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t eat it because it’s higher in calories than most vegetables, it’s too starchy, and it’s difficult to digest. While the last two points may be true, they’re not a deal-breaker, because corn has a lot of other positive attributes. For starters, it may appear to be higher in calories than many vegetables, but that’s okay, since it’s not actually a vegetable – it’s a whole grain! As far as whole grains go, corn is nutritionally comparable to many of its counterparts. It’s a good source of fiber, Vitamin C, several B Vitamins, and potassium. It’s also a very versatile grain – you’ve probably eaten it in several different forms including on the cob, ground up as cornmeal, and as popcorn. Since corn is currently in season, the recipes below showcase it in its natural state.

Grilled Corn on the Cob
Ingredients
4 ears of corn, husked
2-3 teaspoons olive oil
Your favorite spice blend (I like salt-free ones like Mrs. Dash or McCormack Perfect Pinch)

Instructions
1. Heat grill to 350°, or set a stovetop grill pan to medium heat.
2. Brush corn with olive oil and sprinkle with seasoning.
3. Wrap each ear separately in aluminum foil, twisting the ends closed.
4. Allow the corn to cook for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway in between.

Fresh Corn and Tomato Soup
Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
10 ears corn, husked and cut from the cob, or 10 cups frozen corn kernels (4 10-ounce packages)
10 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
5 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ cup sour cream
8 sprigs dill

Instructions
1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium-low heat and cook onions without browning until tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the corn and cook for 2 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat and simmer until corn is tender and liquid has reduced slightly, 15 to 20 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, and pepper, stir, and remove from heat.
3. Serve in bowls with dollops of sour cream and dill sprigs. Serves 8.

Recipe from Real Simple

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