Better Eaters at Home

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We polled top chefs and dieticians to discover smarter ways to help you bring less fat and better taste to your family cooking.

Sure, you can just get take-out, zoom through the drive-thru or zap up a frozen dinner. But if you really want your kids to eat healthier (without busting your budget) — start chopping, stirring and sautéing.

“With home cooking, you know what’s in it, you can adjust it to taste and it’s a good way to keep your portions under control,” says JoAnn Cianciulli, TV food producer and author of L.A.’s Original Farmers Market Cookbook.

If you’re skeptical about the power of DIY meals for your kids, consider this: During the past 30 years, the number of restaurants in the United States increased 89 percent along with the average calorie intake, which rose by 615 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Home cooking can reverse the trend.

To help you jam-pack your family’s meals with better-for-everyone fuel — and think outside the take-out container — we polled chefs, bloggers, registered dietitians and other foodies for their healthiest cooking tips. The gist? Small cooking changes can make a big difference for picky eaters. Here’s the dish on top practical meal tweaks that can easily become part of your family’s cooking success.

Smart Swaps

Makeover mashed potatoes. “Replace some of the potatoes with steamed cauliflower for a lighter texture, a boost of nutrients and fewer calories,” says Natalia Strasenko, a registered dietician. It’s a great way to get more vegetables into kids.

Go Greek. Substitute plain, low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt for just about any recipe calling for sour cream (dips, sauces, dollops on a baked potato or nachos), saving 45 calories per two-tablespoon serving. Greek yogurt’s creamy texture and tangy taste mimics sour cream with little or no fat and as much as 50 percent more protein. “You’ll never know the difference,” says Rene Ficek, a dietician.

Secret sauce: balsamic vinegar reduction. “It’s a healthy substitute for buttery, salty sauces or sugary BBQ sauce,” says Ficek. Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, then simmer until it’s reduced by half (about 20 minutes). Add a tablespoon or two of fruit-infused flavored vinegar for an additional layer of flavor, such as strawberry vinegar for chicken or pomegranate vinegar for fish.

Whip up a dream cream. “When you’re making whipped cream, use one cup skim milk plus one tablespoon cornstarch instead of heavy cream to reduce saturated fat,” says Jenna Allen, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Western Dairy Association.

Cut the amount of cheese. To reduce a recipe’s saturated fat and calories, forget swapping in low-fat or non-fat cheese. Yuck! Instead, “cut the amount of cheese a recipe calls for in half and substitute a sharper cheese that’s naturally low fat, such as parmesan, romano, asiago or manchego to intensify the flavor,” says Jonas Falk, a restaurant chef.

Slash sugar, get zesty. With desserts, such as pudding or even your grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe, “cut the sugar in half and add orange or lemon zest or a teaspoon of vanilla, hazelnut, rum, caramel or almond extract,” says Jennifer Iserloh, chef and owner of Zest can emulate sweetness and halving the amount of sugar won’t change a recipe’s texture or diminish its nutrient content. At 16 calories per tablespoon of sugar, you’ll save 256 calories per omitted cup. “You’ll put any dessert recipe on an instant diet,” Iserloh says.

Thickening trick: “Use pureed chick peas or white beans to thicken soups and sauces rather than flour and butter,” says Amanda Skrip, a natural foods chef and health coach.

Nutrition Know How

Get picky. While preparing meals, stop and look at the recipe, or what’s on your plate and think, “How can I make this meal healthier?” Pick one thing; it could be to add a vegetable, increase protein, use a leaner meat or switch from a refined grain like white rice to a whole grain like quinoa.

Sneak in produce. The next time you’re making a batch of tomato sauce for pasta, lasagna or meatballs, give it a nutrient and fiber boost by adding pureed white beans or zucchini, frozen spinach or finely chopped mushrooms, Strasenko says.

Reserve butter for baking. Forget using applesauce, pureed prunes or mashed bananas instead of butter in baking — just use butter! “You don’t want butter in every aspect of your meal, but it’s OK to reserve it for dessert,” says Kristy Lambrou, a culinary nutritionist at Rouge Tomate in New York City. “Dessert should taste like dessert.”

Time Savers

Freeze onions. Onions — a decent source of quercetin, which helps keep blood pressure low — are a recipe staple. “Save time and money by pre-chopping all of your onions and freezing them in a baggie. You can pull them out whenever you need them to get cooking right away without any fuss or tears,” says Jennifer Fugo, a certified gluten-free health coach.

Skip the rinse cycle. Don’t rinse raw chicken before cooking. “Any bacteria present can be splashed around your kitchen, potentially contaminating other foods that don’t get cooked, such as fresh produce,” says David Acheson, M.D., a food safety expert and former chief medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration. Any potentially harmful bacteria on chicken will be destroyed during cooking anyway. Poultry can go from package to baking dish, pan or grill. The same goes for beef, pork and fish. Similarly, consider pre-washed, ready-to-eat lettuce good to go. But do rinse all other produce. “Anything that comes from a field that isn’t pre-washed should be washed, including heads of iceberg lettuce and whole cantaloupe,” Acheson says.

Calorie Saver

Say yes to the dressing. Forget bottled salad dressing with its long list of iffy ingredients. Make your own with lemon or lime juice or apple cider, red wine or balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “An acidy ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar helps the body absorb the iron and minerals in greens while the oil allows us to absorb fat-soluble compounds, such as vitamins and antioxidants,” says Ali Miller, a certified diabetes educator. To curb salad calories, “chop lettuce and vegetables finely. The small pieces will meld, creating a flavor explosion in your mouth, and you’ll need less dressing,” says Devin Alexander, chef of NBC’s The Biggest Loser and author of The Most Decadent Diet Ever.


Top Tips for Better Eaters

Don’t say “picky.” Taste is a skill that’s acquired. Tastebuds change over time, so go with your child’s flow. Say “Oh, you’ll like it when you’re older.”

Introduce before serving. Show your child the food before you prepare it. Let him touch it, hold it and watch you fix it. This may make him more interested in tasting it once it’s ready.

Talk about taste. Instead of saying, “Eat this, it’s good for you!” Say, “Taste this, it’s really yummy.”

Try to stick with a schedule (and limit snacks to two a day). Try feeding your kids breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times and limit snacking so your kids are hungrier at mealtimes. It may be unrealistic for your family to set a dinner time, but any movement in that direction will be a step in the right way!

Source: From the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.


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