Friday, June 27, 2014

Superfoods Defined

The popular press often touts superfoods and berries and dark leafy greens are often cited as examples.  A researcher defined what are also called powerhouse fruits and veggies based on their nutrient density.  To understand nutrient density, think of corn as low and spinach-rich in vitamins and minerals-as high.  Superfoods and powerhouse fruits and veggies are associated with decreased chronic disease risk.

Categories (with examples) were:
green leafy (chard, beet green, spinach, chicory, leaf lettuce)
yellow/orange (carrot, tomato, winter squash, sweet potato)
citrus (lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit)
cruciferous (watercress, Chinese cabbage, collard green, kale, arugula)
berry fruits (strawberry, blackberry)
allium veggies (scallion, leek)

Overall, foods in the top 2 categories above scored higher than those in the bottom 4 categories.

Those that didn't make the cut were:  raspberry, tangerine, cranberry, garlic, onion and blueberry.  Some surprises there?  Looking at the methodology, foods that are excellent sources of a particular nutrient were capped in the scoring system so foods with a variety of the 17 nutrients of public health concern (per FAO and IOM) scored better.  Also, phytonutrients were not included in scoring.

The good news for foodies:  watercress was at the top of the list and white grapefruit, though still making the cut, was at the bottom.  New and perhaps unusual foods included chicory, kohlrabi, rutabaga and leek.

The good news for home gardeners:  many of these are easy to grow in most climates. 

The good news for farm to school programs:  many of these (spinach, leaf lettuce, winter squash, sweet potato, collard green, kale) are affordable options for school lunch menus. As a side note, the subgroups of veggies required each week in the National School Lunch Program are:  dark leafy greens, legumes, red/orange, starchy and "other" (green beans, cucumbers, celery, etc.). 

The good news for consumers:  this classification system helps them plan menus that include powerhouse fruits and veggies and the beneficial nutrients they provide.  And maybe they'll try some new things along the way.

Grow it, try it, like it!  Have a family taste test.

FAO:  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
IOM:  Institute of Medicine

Source:  Preventing Chronic Disease, June 2014


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Quality and Quantity-Let Kids Serve Themselves

There is a respected saying in Registered Dietitian circles that "the parents decide what to eat, the child decides how much to eat" (Ellyn Satter).  Learn more here.  This respects inherent appetite controls that children have. You decide the quality, they decide the quantity.

Recent research from the University of Illinois Child Development Laboratory suggests that children who serve themselves at meals are less likely to overeat.  They need that practice of deciding for themselves. It is a lifelong skill, as important as the three R's.
Researchers also found children who serve themselves at mealtimes are more likely to try new foods.  That may be "the participation effect".  Just like when my husband makes dinner, he thinks everything tastes perfectly, kids who help with meal planning, preparation, and chores are more likely to like it. Thumbs up.

Having some structure around those meals is also helpful.  Set the table.  Say grace.  Practice table manners.  Have conversation.  Expect everyone to stay at the table until the last person is done eating.  Have everyone help with clean up.  These things seem old school and obvious, but they are dwindling in current, busy, over scheduled families.

Here's to family meals!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I Am A Lunch Lady

I write the menus for our school system.  I am a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Education.  I mention that up front for two reasons-I know how to plan a healthy meal, how to prepare it in a healthy way, and how to make recipe substitutions to make it even healthier.  And I know how to teach our staff how to understand and implement complicated federal regulations, even as they-the regulations-change year to year.

Last week, I spent two work days pouring over all the recipes that make up our four week high school cycle menu, attempting to cut any amount of sodium to get our weekly sodium levels into compliance with limits that take effect July 1.  We cut salt shakers, salt packets, and added salt years ago.  Now I was looking for no salt added or low sodium canned products and lower sodium choices for other ingredients in our recipes.  I had many challenges

As we transitioned to more entrĂ©e and side salads and fresh veggies with dip over the past few years, we selected low fat dips and dressings.  At the time, total fat was a nutrient we tracked for federal and state compliance.  Now we don't even track that, which is okay, due to positive changes like: 
  • many products have become fat modified
  • schools carefully control portions of high cost, center of plate meat or meat alternate items
  • fryers are no longer in most schools
So, total fat levels are not a problem-most schools are well under 30% of total calories. 

However, when manufacturers cut the fat they often raise the sodium, attempting to carefully merge texture, flavor and kid's palates.  Many products available to school systems are not yet sodium modified to the low levels we will be required to offer.  The pre-cooked diced chicken we get from USDA is very high in sodium.  One side salad with two tablespoons of dressing can throw us over our daily limit. Our sodium levels actually come out lower in our nutrient analysis program if I sub low sodium canned veggies for fresh side salads.  We lost the forest for the trees, looking at sodium grams rather than whole, fresh foods.

What's a kid favorite?  Cheese.  We add it to pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads, refried beans and more.  Sometimes it is just as a garnish, to make it more kid friendly.  But cheese is high in sodium so I was cutting the cheese in recipes.

Two  years ago, I spent days counting whether our breads and buns were equal to 1.5, 1.75 or 2 grain servings, as defined by the National School Lunch Program, based on the grams of grains per serving.  It mattered not whether they were whole grains, just if they were too much grains.  At the time we had maximum grain limits on what we could serve.  Again, we had lost the forest for the trees.  We weren't transitioning to tasty (to kids) whole grains, we were worried if a hamburger bun counted as 1.5 or 2 grains.  And remember, folks like me, all over the nation, in every school district, were spending days doing this.  Then, mid school year, the grain maximums were "relaxed" (fed speak for oops), per federal regulation change.  We got our forest back and could move on to more important things.

Ah, but this year, we have to transition to 100% whole grains, meaning EVERY bun, roll, bread, wrap, cereal, rice or grain we serve must contain at least 51% whole grains.  Show me how many families are doing this at home?  This is not moderate.  My Plate says "make half your grains whole grains".  I can work with that.

We also had meat/meat alternate maximums.  I was taking the cheese off our cheeseburgers to meet the meat maximums, despite the fact that we have to place our cheese orders with USDA about two years before the year of service, which was before the regulations changed.  No cheese burgers went over really well with the students.  Remember, local school meal programs are a self sufficient business with customers.  They typically receive no local funding and must rely on federal and state reimbursement for free and reduced meals and income from paid meals (customers) and a la carte sales.  (Note:  limits on a la carte sales kick in this summer too, but that is a whole other blog post, or two).  Customers like cheeseburgers.

By the way, meat maximums were "relaxed" too.  It is great that the feds are responding to school feedback, but getting it right - and realistic - from the start would also be great.


1.  Give manufacturers time to reformulate before implementation dates of federal regulations.  This takes years and millions of dollars. Do you have any idea how they scrambled to make 1 or 1.5 grain hamburger buns and dinner rolls, before the maximums were relaxed and we could go back, mid school year, to regular sized 2 grain buns?  Supply chains too are not always able to respond quickly.

2.  Follow reasonable, moderate national food guidance, such as the Dietary Guidelines.  Balance, variety and moderation. Yes, school meal programs can be a model for families, but not if they go out of business or the food goes in the trash.

3.  Keep politics out of school meal nutrition criteriaIt should be science based, not partisan based.

4.  Pilot proposed regulatory changes in real school districts - large, small, high free and reduced rates and low free and reduced rates, rural and suburban and urban. 

5.  Slow down.  Meal pattern changes for both the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, strict sodium limits, whole grain initiatives, new certification reviews, a la carte and fundraiser limits, professional standards regulations, and mandatory Wellness Policy updates have our heads spinning at the local level.

Note:  I say I am a lunch lady with the utmost fondness for the dedicated, kid loving people with whom I work.  That title has no negative connotations for me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Home Grown Goodies and Kiddos

So you've prepared the soil, planted your garden, weeded and watered, and now you are reaping what you sow, bearing the fruits of your effort, and harvesting.  Great!  Read more to see how it can be great for your kiddos too!  Here is today's harvest for me:

Home grown produce takes a little more effort in not just the planning and growing stages, but also in the food preparation step.  Things need a little more culling and a little more washing and scrubbing than produce you buy in the store or even at the farmer's market.

In the photo above, the sugar snap peas are at the end of their harvest.  I actually pulled out the plants today.  The peas will need sorting, small tender ones to have in a salad, in their pods, raw and thick, more mature ones to shell and enjoy as cooked green peas. Sorting is a great math skills task for little children.  I had mentioned that peas are good to grow with kiddos, as the seeds are large and easy to sow.  They are also rewarding for kiddos, as tender, sugar snap peas are definitely something they can eat right off the vine while they are working with you in the garden.

My preferred method for cleaning garden fresh lettuce, spinach and other small greens is soaking.  Rinse the greens, and put them in a large bowl 2/3 full with water to soak.  The dirt falls to the bottom.  A little science project for the kiddos?  Do this at least twice.  Greens harvested after heavy rain will require extra rinsing and soaking as the rain causes the dirt to splash up onto the leaves.  Yes, a little more work than bagged lettuce but without all the headlining risks associated with bagged greens.  And this lettuce will be enjoyed for dinner tonight within 6 hours of harvesting - super fresh!

Hand digging for potatoes is more fun than an Easter egg hunt!  Try it with your kids-they will love it!  Potatoes need a good rinse with the garden hose or in a deep sink before bringing into the kitchen sink for the final rinsing and scrubbing.  Home grown, promptly harvested potatoes have much thinner skin than store bought so they are easier to clean and they have no eyes as they are so fresh.

The zucchini just started coming in - thank goodness for blogs and the Internet for recipe ideas for what to do with all that zucchini!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Beauty of Beets

Beets are a beautiful plant, with abundant, colorful tops and bulbous roots, rich in color. Like most root vegetables, they are high in fiber and minerals. Here is today's harvest from my garden.

Beets are super easy to grow from seed.  They are an early crop, best sowed in early spring.  Just make sure you thin them when they are about 2-3 inches tall or they will crowd each other and not grow to the size you want.  Harvest in about 45-60 days.  Rinse well before bringing into your kitchen.  Subterranean veggies need a little extra attention for food safety.  Then tear off the tops and wash them thoroughly again under running water, rubbing or brushing off any soil.  No need to remove the skins, enjoy them just like a potato skin. After you trim the tops you end up with this:

Slice thinly, discarding the top and the root end - kids love to see this part as your fingers turn pink!  Toss with olive oil, minced garlic and salt and pepper.  Place in a single layer on a sheet pan.  This is a step I learned from my chef friend, that veggies must be in a single layer to roast and caramelize, rather than to steam and get soggy.

Roast at 375 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, until soft in the middle and lightly browned at the edges.

Think about My Plate - you started with a healthy veg now add a Protein, and a grain and fruit for dessert and there is dinner!

Friday, June 6, 2014

What's Trending for You?

News and topics can be trending-usually because they are popular, controversial, interesting, or worthy.  What worthy trends do you have?  What is trending for you that you can make into a habit?

Choose the top 5 health or wellness related trends in your life.  Here are some prompts:

What do you like to eat, that you know is good for you?
What do you choose to drink, that is a healthy choice? 
What do you tend to do to be more active?
How do you prepare a certain food in a way that is healthful?
When are you at your best, over the course of the day?
What is a seasonal food that you really like?
How do you get your best night's sleep?
Where do you dine out, that allows you to make healthy choices?
What is your favorite fresh vegetable?
What is it that you did on a day when, at the end of the day, you said it was a great day?
How do you season your food?
What food have you tried, that you would like to eat more often?

Now, lock them in.  Take them from trendy to habitual.  Embrace the good things you do in your life.  You might find you have less time for, interest in, room for and appeal in the not so good things. 

Choose your 5 trends, write them down (sticky notes on the mirror work well!), and make them a habit.  Try this with your kiddos.  What is trending in their little lives that is a "keeper"?

Live deliberately. Notice that the root word there is LIBERATE? 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Appreciating the Hands That Feed Us

Five Lessons from Blessing the Hands That Feed Us (Vickie Robin, 2014)

By the author of the bestselling Your Money or Your Life, this book is about "what eating closer to home can teach us about food, community, and our place on earth."  I learned appreciation.  

1.  Appreciation for mindful eating in the sense of making the effort to think about the work that went into planting, growing and harvesting your food.  You may eat less if you truly value this.  It is easier to overeat from an anonymous bag of something from the big box grocery store than it is with a pound of something you paid dearly for and smiled at the farmer when you purchased it.

2.  Appreciation for the potential purity of food.  Food starts out as one item, one pure simple item, before it is processed, adulterated, packaged, transported.  Eating close to the source shows you pure food.

3.  Appreciation for the seasons.  Certain foods are meant to be eaten at certain times of the year, for optional cost, flavor, nutrition.  Think about the carbon footprint of a tomato in Virginia in August versus a tomato in January?  Think about the flavor of a summer tomato versus a winter tomato.  Think about the cost of a farm stand, in season tomato versus a hot house, off season tomato.

4.  Appreciation for devoting time to eating well.  We are not so busy as to not take the time to eat properly.  What are we doing that is more important than preparing and enjoying a healthful meal, with others?  What could possibly be more important than nourishment and fellowship?  This is not meant in judgment-we've all eaten in our car, at the kitchen counter, or straight out of a package.  Be realistic, but do stop and think about it.

5.  Appreciation for our agricultural history - the pioneers, the dust bowl, the victory gardens, the families who lost the farm.  Those were the original locavores, before being a locavore was hip.

This is a great, inspiring, thought provoking book.  The author leaves you with an understanding of "relational eating", and where you stand in the center of your own food web.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What's In My Garden Now? Tips to Share

It has been a late spring, and it is now June 1, so what am I harvesting here in southern Virginia and what are some lessons learned?
Yesterday, I had a smoothie with almost the last of the strawberries.  Tip:  I put netting over the raised bed this year so I only had to fight off the moles not the birds. Just reach under the net to harvest.

I am also getting nearly the last of the sugar snap peas.  They were great in a pasta salad last night.  Tip:  They did not freeze well at all last year, so I planted just 2 rows this year, not 3.  Harvest when very small and tender and enjoy raw - delish!

Blueberries are just starting to turn blue.  Tip:  I may need to net those so as to beat the birds to the harvest.

The beets are crowning and should be ready any day now. Tip:  push soil up and around the base of the beet plants to encourage them to get a little bigger without the tops getting tough.

In about a week or 2, I expect to have red potatoes, green beans and wax beans, followed shortly by yellow squash. Pepper, tomato, zucchini, cuke, cantaloupe and sunflower plants are in too!

Tip:  I am trying the "bed a day" approach to keeping up with the weeds.  How do you climb a mountain?

The moles managed to wipe out an entire raised bed of red potato plants (12 plants) until I bought a solar powered spike that emits a tone every couple of minutes.  They are not in the second bed of potatoes. Tip:  I read that mulching potato beds encourages little critters, as they have cover to scurry around under.  They are not in the bed that I did not mulch.

Tip:  eat and grow local!