Eating Healthy at…Mexican Restaurants

When I think of Mexican food, the first thing that comes to mind is cheese, as some of the most popular Mexican dishes are smothered in it.  Many dishes on the menu at Mexican restaurants, however, don’t contain cheese at all; they’re full of lean meats, low-calorie sauces, and fresh vegetables, all much better choices than anything that’s fried and covered in cheese.  The next time you go out for Mexican food, instead of ordering your go-to chimichanga, take a good look at the menu and try one of more of the following strategies instead:

  • Start your meal off with a cup of ceviche (fish stew). Like the broth-based soups I recommend eating at Chinese restaurants, it’s a low-calorie way to fill up before a meal.
  • Go easy on the tortilla chips. Just five chips can pack in over 100 calories!  If you must indulge in chips pre-meal, put a handful on your plate, and don’t go back for more.
  • When it comes to condiments, salsa is often your best bet, as it’s very low-calorie and often fat-free. Guacamole, made from avocados, is full of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, but the calories in it can add up quickly; if you do choose to order a side of guac with your meal, portion out 1-2 spoonfuls and consume only that amount.
  • Fill your burritos, quesadillas, or tacos with veggies and black beans instead of meat and cheese – you’ll end up feeling more satisfied thanks to the extra fiber and protein.
  • Choose whole wheat or corn tortillas instead of those made with white flour. While whole wheat tortillas are not always on the menu, gluten-free (and whole grain) corn ones often are.
  • Opt for dishes that contain jalapeno or chili peppers or other spicy ingredients – the more spice a dish contains, the more full and satisfied it’s likely to make you feel.
  • Grilled chicken or fish dishes are omnipresent on Mexican menus – they’re healthy and filling, and you probably won’t even miss the fact that they don’t come smothered in cheese.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Walnut Oil

Several months ago, my husband brought home a bottle of walnut oil.  I was a little confused as to what to do with it, but I soon discovered that walnut oil has many uses in cooking and baking, adding a nutty flavor to any dish to which it’s added.  Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of recipes that include walnut oil, so I guess my husband was ahead of the trend when he purchased that bottle for us to use.  Walnut oil, made from English walnuts, contains many of the same nutrients as whole walnuts, including Vitamin E and several B vitamins.  Walnuts and walnut oil are also excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  Walnut oil, like other nut-based oils, can turn rancid quickly when left at room temperature, so be sure to refrigerate it after opening.  Although walnut oil can be used in cooking, heating it imparts a slightly bitter taste, so first-time users may prefer to consume it raw, as in the recipe below.

Lentil Salad with Walnut Oil

For the lentils:
2 cups dried green lentils, washed and picked over
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 medium carrot, quartered
6 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ cup broken walnuts

For the dressing:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 shallot, minced, or 1 garlic clove, minced
⅓ cup walnut oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


  1. Combine the lentils, garlic, bay leaf, onion, carrot and water in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 35 to 45 minutes until the lentils are tender.
  3. Remove from the heat and discard the onion, carrot, garlic cloves and bay leaf. Drain through a strainer set over a bowl.
  4. Whisk together the vinegar, Dijon mustard, and shallot or garlic. Whisk in the oil and 2 to 4 tablespoons of the liquid from the lentils.
  5. Stir dressing into the lentils. Add the parsley and pepper.
  6. Spoon onto plates, arrange walnuts on top of the lentils, and serve.

Recipe from The New York Times

Eating Healthy at…Chinese Restaurants

Who can resist Chinese takeout?  Although it may be tempting to stick with your usual order of fried chicken fingers and lo mein whenever a craving for Chinese food strikes, you will probably feel just as satisfied, if not more so, by employing a new ordering strategy:

  • Start your meal off with a filling cup of soup; studies show that consuming broth-based soup at the start of a meal will result in fewer calories eaten overall.
  • Choose steamed vegetables, without any added oils or sauces. Many Chinese restaurants sauté their vegetables in oil and then top them off with a sugary or oily sauce, which increases their calorie count and lowers their nutritional value.
  • Ask for brown rice, instead of white rice, on the side – it naturally contains more fiber and protein, which will help fill you up.
  • Opt for grilled or steamed meats rather than those that are breaded and fried. Sure, sweet and sour chicken tastes good, but it’s full of unnecessary calories.
  • Condiments like soy sauce tend to be very high in sodium, which can leave you with an unpleasant bloated feeling, not to mention an increased risk of developing high blood pressure if you consume high-sodium foods regularly.  Choose Chinese mustard, duck sauce, or chili sauce instead of soy sauce to keep sodium levels in check.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Peanuts

Contrary to popular belief, peanuts are not nuts at all – they’re actually legumes, meaning they’re part of the same family as peas and beans.  Peanuts are often lumped in the same category as nuts like cashews and almonds due to their similar nutritional properties and the fact that they’re often consumed in similar ways.  Like other nuts, peanuts are high in protein and a good source of fiber and Vitamin E.  They’re an easy way to add protein and crunch to meals and snacks, like the two recipes below.

Crunchy Chutney Pork

1 pound boneless pork tenderloin
Black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon peanut oil
⅓ cup bottled mango chutney or your choice of bottled fruit chutney or jam
⅓ cup finely chopped dry roasted unsalted peanuts


  1. Slice pork into ½-inch thick slices. Season pork lightly with pepper.
  2. Heat oil in skillet and gently sauté pork, turning once, about 6 minutes or until browned and cooked through, but still juicy.
  3. Add chutney or jam to pan and stir pork to coat. Cook 30 seconds.
  4. Using 2 forks, dip each piece of pork halfway into peanuts. Serve at once with brown rice and steamed vegetables. Serves 4.


Recipe adapted from the National Peanut Board 


Georgia Peanut Salsa

3 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 (8-ounce) jar picante sauce
1 (7-ounce) can white or shoepeg corn, drained
⅓ cup Italian salad dressing
1 medium green pepper, chopped
1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped
4 green onions, thinly sliced
½ cup minced fresh cilantro
2 garlic cloves, minced
2½ cups unsalted roasted peanuts



  1. In a large bowl, combine the first nine ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
  2. Just before serving, stir in peanuts. Serve with tortilla chips.


Recipe adapted from Taste of Home magazine, August/September 2007 

Eating Healthy at…Italian Restaurants

If you’re trying to lose weight, or eat healthier in general, there’s no need to avoid your favorite restaurants or takeout places completely.  It’s absolutely possible to enjoy a healthy, satisfying meal when you eat out, as long as you come prepared to make the right choices.  For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on healthy (and not-so-healthy) menu items at different types of restaurants.  This week’s cuisine of choice is Italian, which isn’t just limited to dishes smothered in cheese and sauce!

Italian food, in the traditional sense of the word, can be extremely healthy.  In fact, the popular and effective Mediterranean diet includes foods that heart-healthy Italians have been eating for centuries!  The next time you’re dining out at an Italian restaurant, follow these tips to create a meal that would make any Italian grandmother proud:

  • The bread basket can be tempting. Stick to one piece, and avoid dipping your bread in olive oil.  Even though it’s heart-healthy, olive oil is high in calories that can add up fast when you’re not paying attention to how much you’re actually putting on your bread.
  • If you order a pasta dish, ask for whole wheat pasta to add fiber and protein to your meal.
  • Meatballs are typically fried and made from ground beef; see if the restaurant offers a lighter alternative, like baked turkey meatballs, instead.
  • Opt for marinara sauce or garlic and olive oil on top of your dish rather than alfredo sauce or pesto – both are made with high-fat and high-calorie ingredients like cheese and cream.
  • Choose a dish that includes lots of grilled or roasted veggies – there should be plenty of them on the menu!
  • For flavor, top your meal with parmesan cheese – a little goes a long way, and the cheese’s strong flavor will help you feel more full and satisfied.

Next week, I’ll share some strategies for making healthier choices at Chinese restaurants.  If you have a favorite cuisine you’d like to see featured in an upcoming post, send me an email.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Cannellini Beans

Cannellini beans, also known as white kidney beans, are a staple of central and southern Italian cooking.  Adding cannellini beans to meals is a great way to make the meals more filling, thanks to the beans’ high protein and fiber content.  Cannellini beans are also an excellent source of iron and folate and a good source of magnesium and potassium.  Cannellini beans are versatile; they can be added to recipes whole, or pureed to make a sauce or dip.  Canned cannellini beans are a quicker alternative to their dried counterparts, but canned beans can be high in sodium, so make sure to choose a low-sodium variety and rinse the beans before using.

White Bean and Pumpkin Hummus 

1 cup canned pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
2½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 (15-ounce) can low-sodium cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
2 garlic cloves, chopped


  1. Place all ingredients in a food processor; process until smooth (about 30 seconds).
  2. Serve pumpkin spread with pita chips or cut-up vegetables.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light magazine, October 2014 

Penne with Cannellini Beans

8 ounces whole wheat penne pasta
2 (14½-ounce) cans no-salt-added Italian-style diced tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) can low-sodium cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 (10-ounce) package fresh baby spinach, chopped
¼ cup Romano cheese, shredded


  1. Cook pasta according to package directions.
  2. In large saucepan, combine the tomatoes and beans, and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
  4. Add spinach, cook and stir for 2 minutes, or until spinach is wilted.
  5. Drain pasta, top with the tomato mixture. Sprinkle with cheese. Serves 5.

Recipe adapted from



Non-Dairy Milks: Healthy, or Just Hype?

Non-dairy milks, products that look and can be used like cow’s milk, but don’t contain any actual dairy, are all the rage lately.   Some people turn to non-dairy milks because they are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy, some drink them in order to save calories, and others simply enjoy the taste.  No matter the reason for choosing a non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk, it’s important to understand exactly what you are actually drinking – and what you are not.

Non-dairy milks run the gamut from widely-available soy milk and almond milk to up-and-comers like flax milk.  Most of these “milks” are fortified with similar vitamins and minerals as those found in cow’s milk; remember, however, that your body prefers most nutrients in their natural state, meaning that the fortified nutrients in non-dairy milks will probably not be absorbed as well as those same nutrients that naturally occur in cow’s milk.  In addition to being fortified with nutrients, non-dairy milks also often contain added sugar to make them more palatable.  The added sugar in these beverages can add up fast, so much so that you may end up consuming more calories from a glass of non-dairy milk than from a glass of soda!  When choosing a non-dairy milk, look for unsweetened varieties, which contain no added sugar and often taste good enough on their own.

With these guidelines in mind, which milk alternative should you choose?  Is one better than the others?  Here’s how they stack up:

Soy milk:  Soy milk, probably the most ubiquitous non-dairy milk on grocery store shelves, has the closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk, so it’s a great milk substitute if you’re concerned about missing out on nutrients since you’re not consuming dairy.  Soy milk is also higher in naturally-occurring protein than many of its other dairy-free counterparts, making it a good choice for those who want a little more substance, and a feeling of satiety, from their beverages.  You may be avoiding soy milk and other soy products because you’ve heard that they have estrogen-like effects; while this is true, there is really only a chance of these effects appearing when soy products are consumed in extremely high quantities (think:  all throughout the day, every single day), so drinking the occasional glass of soy milk shouldn’t do you any harm.

Almond milk:  In recent years, almond milk has been giving soy milk a run for its money in the popularity department.  Although almond milk is made from real almonds, most of the nuts’ nutrients are lost in the milk-making process.  This means that almond milk has almost no protein, and many of the nutrients it contains, like calcium, have been added back in during processing.  That’s not to say that almond milk isn’t a good choice for milk-avoiders; unsweetened varieties are extremely low in calories (30-40 per cup), and the thick consistency of almond milk lends itself well for baking and smoothies. It’s perfectly fine to make almond milk your non-dairy beverage of choice, as long as you make up for the nutrients it lacks elsewhere.

Rice milk:  Rice milk has a much thinner texture and naturally sweeter taste than other non-dairy milks.  This makes it well-suited for use in cereal or sweet recipes that call for skim milk.  Although it is often made from brown rice, all of the fiber in that rice is lost during processing, so rice milk is not a high-fiber beverage.

Flax milk:  Flax milk, unlike other non-dairy milks, has the added bonus of being high in omega-3 fatty acids.  These omega-3s can help with circulation, heart health, and brain health, making them a valuable asset.  Flax milk is a little harder to find than other non-dairy milks, but if you’re looking for an easy way to sneak some omega-3s into your day, it’s worth the hunt.

Coconut milk:  The coconut milk that’s found in the refrigerated section and in shelf-stable packages next to the soy milk and almond milk isn’t actually “real” coconut milk; that title belongs to the milk of actual coconuts that’s sold in a can and often found in the baking or ethnic foods aisle of the grocery store.  The coconut milk with which you may be familiar is actually considered a “coconut milk beverage,” and it’s quickly become a sensation in the non-dairy milk world.  If you enjoy the taste of coconuts, then you’ll probably like coconut milk, which has a faint taste of the real thing.  Like real coconuts, however, coconut milk is also very high in saturated fat, so it should be consumed in moderation, as drinking more than one glass a day will put you close to the halfway mark for your recommended daily intake of heart-unhealthy saturated fat.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Cashews

Cashews are my favorite nut, mostly because I like their taste and texture.  I also like the fact that cashews are an easy way to sneak some extra protein into my meals and snacks.  Besides being a good source of protein, cashews are also a good source of Vitamin K and iron an excellent source of magnesium and phosphorus.  Cashews, like all nuts, are high in fat, so they should be eaten in moderation (meaning, a handful at a time).  However, most of the fat they contain is the heart-healthy unsaturated kind, so there’s no reason not to sneak these tasty, healthy nuts into meals or consume them as a quick snack once or twice a day.

Honey and Mustard Roasted Cashews

1½ cups raw cashews
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ teaspoons ground yellow mustard seed
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment or silicone baking mat.
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together honey, olive oil, mustard, red pepper flakes, and salt.
  3. Toss cashews into mixture and stir until all of the cashews are coated.
  4. Spread cashews in a single layer on baking sheet and bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes until fragrant, stirring once about halfway through cooking time.
  5. Remove from oven. Toss to coat and loosen from the pan.  Allow to cool before enjoying.  Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Recipe from Joy the Baker 

Eat for the Health of It Recipe Contest – We Have a Winner!

As part of our Eat for the Health of It nutrition challenge, WellMASS sponsored a recipe contest for all state employees, contractors, and temporary workers.  Employees were challenged to create an original recipe, or adapt one from an outside source, that contained at least one fruit, vegetable, or whole grain.  Recipes were judged by the WellMASS team and a group of Wellness Champions from various agencies on four criteria:  originality, nutritional value, skill level, and most importantly, taste.  We received over 40 entries to this contest, all of which looked just as delicious as they were nutritious. At the end of the day, however, there could only be one winner, and that honor went to Theresa Harkin of EHS and her recipe for Baked Nectarines with Pistachios.

Baked Nectarines with Pistachios
Recipe by Theresa Harkin, EHS

4 tablespoons shelled pistachios
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 drops (less than ⅛ teaspoon) almond extract (optional)
⅛ teaspoon salt
2 nectarines, halved and pitted
½ cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 400° F.
  2. Chop 3 tablespoons pistachios in a food processor until finely ground. Add butter, confectioners’ sugar, almond extract, and salt. Process until combined.
  3. Place nectarines, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
  4. Place a generous tablespoon of pistachio mixture on each nectarine half.
  5. Chop remaining tablespoon pistachios, and sprinkle on top of nectarines. Bake until fruit is tender and topping is crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to four plates.
  6. Whisk together yogurt and granulated sugar. Spoon over nectarines, and serve.

Theresa first saw this recipe, which originally appeared on the WellMASS blog, in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ TGIF newsletter.  It caught her attention because, “In all honesty, I’m not much of a cook.  When I saw this recipe in TGIF it looked easy enough to prepare and I liked most of the ingredients.  I just tweaked it a bit to better suit my tastes.  I have made it several times for various functions and it is always a big hit.  You can even store the leftovers and enjoy the next day.”

Theresa, like many other home cooks out there, believes it’s important to prepare healthy meals and snacks, especially ones that have staying power:  “Now that I’m getting older, eating healthy is more of a commitment; the pounds don’t come off as easily as they used to.  This recipe is nutritious, delicious and repetitious!”

Our Wellness Champion judges chose Theresa’s Baked Nectarines with Pistachios recipe as the overwhelming winner of the contest due to a number of factors, most notably how great it tasted.   When asked to comment on the dish, tasters shared the following remarks:

“Delicious!  Great to bring to a party.”

“Hands-down winner!”  I like that the Greek yogurt adds protein value.”

“Very nice flavors and textures.”

“Would bring as a dessert to a party.”

“Impressively yummy dessert!  I would totally make this for a special treat.”

If you’re looking for a great healthy treat to bring to a party, or indulge in on your own, I’d encourage you to try these Baked Nectarines with Pistachios.  Theresa’s recipe, along with our other contest submissions, will be published in a forthcoming e-cookbook; be sure to ask your agency’s Wellness Champion for a copy!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Red Onions

Red onions are a flavorful way to add some color to your meals.  In general, fruits and vegetables that are darkly- and deeply-colored contain more nutrients than their neutral-toned counterparts.  This means that red onions have a greater variety of nutrients than the more traditional white onions, although the two can be used interchangeably in many recipes.  Like white onions, red onions are an excellent source of Vitamin C and a good source of several B vitamins and fiber.  Red onions’ vibrant hue gives them a leg up, however, as their color signals that they are high in antioxidant flavonoids, particularly quercetin, which may offer protection against allergies, heart disease, and certain cancers.  Red onions are extremely versatile, as they can both serve as the star of a dish and brighten up the flavor profile of any dish to which they are added.

Red Onion Soup with Cheese Toasts

Olive oil
3 pounds red onions, peeled and sliced ⅛-inch thick
Black pepper, to taste
9 cups water, divided
1 cup dry red wine
2 bay leaves
1 small bunch thyme, tied with string
8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
6 slices day-old whole wheat bread, lightly toasted
6 ounces grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon chopped sage

1.  Set 2 large, wide skillets over medium-high heat. When pans are hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and a large handful of sliced onions to each pan. Season onions with pepper, then sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are a ruddy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
2.  Transfer onions to soup pot and return pans to stove. Pour ½ cup water into each pan to deglaze it, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve any brown bits. Pour deglazing liquid into soup pot.
3.  Wipe pans clean with paper towel and begin again with more oil and sliced onions. Continue until all onions are used. Don’t crowd pans or onions won’t brown sufficiently.
4.  Place soup pot over high heat. Add wine, bay leaves, thyme bunch, and garlic. Simmer rapidly for 5 minutes, then add 8 cups water and return to boil. Turn heat down to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for 45 minutes. Skim off any surface fat, taste and adjust seasoning.
5.  To serve, remove the thyme. Make the cheese toasts: Heat broiler. Place toasted bread on baking sheet. Mix grated cheese with chopped thyme and sage, along with a generous amount of pepper. Heap about 1 ounce of cheese mixture on each toast. Broil until cheese bubbles and browns slightly.
6.  Ladle soup into wide bowls and top with toast.  Serves 6.

Recipe adapted from The New York Times

Radish, Arugula, and Red Onion Salad with Tangerines

2 tangerines
2 tablespoons finely chopped radishes plus 12 large radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced on diagonal
1 tablespoon chopped red onion plus ½ cup thinly sliced
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons fresh Meyer lemon juice or regular lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 medium fennel bulb, quartered lengthwise with core intact, very thinly sliced lengthwise
3 cups (packed) arugula
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
1.  Finely grate enough peel from tangerines to measure 1 teaspoon; place in small bowl and reserve for dressing.
2.  Using sharp knife, cut off top and bottom of each tangerine, then cut off all peel and white pith, following contour of fruit. Cut tangerines vertically in half, then crosswise into ¼ inch-thick slices; set aside.
3.  Combine finely chopped radishes, chopped red onion, lemon juice, and grated tangerine peel in small bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in extra-virgin olive oil. Season salad dressing to taste with coarse freshly ground black pepper.
4.  Combine tangerine slices, radish slices, onion slices, fennel slices, arugula leaves, and chopped fresh mint in large bowl.  Drizzle dressing over salad and toss to coat thoroughly. Transfer salad to large shallow bowl and serve.  Serves 6.

Recipe from Bon Appetit 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.