{Repost} Making, and Keeping, Traditions

This post originally appeared last year. While the organization mentioned has changed its name to Britepaths, the mission and need remain the same. Please consider donating this Giving Tuesday.


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This year I spent it at my sister’s house with her family, my mom, and lots of friends. We ate until we were stuffed, waited a while and ate some more. The next day there were plenty of leftovers for another Thanksgiving meal (“second Thanksgiving” is secretly my favorite dinner). We have our favorite foods and even our not-so-favorite (I’m thinking of you, pecan pie) which we can easily pass up because there’s a lot of other, tastier stuff to go around (ahh…cherry pie!).

What I love about Thanksgiving most of all is the tradition. Yes, traveling can be a hassle, especially with kids and all the gear they require. We eat too much and sleep too little. But it’s all worth it for the memories, the connections and the familiar scents from the kitchen.

But sometimes, “tradition” translates to “responsibility,” or worse, “burden.” I felt a smidgen of this when I was a young professional, living on my own for the first time. My entry-level job barely paid the rent, but the holiday season meant trips back home and presents to buy and extra tipping. For a while my holidays came with a little black cloud (let’s call it “credit card debt”) that I hoped a Christmas bonus that may or may not materialize would go directly to help make that cloud go away.

My holiday burden was nothing compared to a parent with kids depending on them. To this parent, the holidays mean trying to keep tradition alive even when it seems impossible. This is especially true for households already living from paycheck to paycheck, with income levels “too high” to be eligible for assistance. Many times these families were doing OK until circumstances led to a downward spiral, things like a job loss, divorce, injury or serious diagnosis. These families don’t necessarily need ongoing support, but they do need help to get back on their feet at minimum, and most certainly a little extra help around the holidays. And their kids…they need a sense of normalcy.

This year, my family started what I hope will be a new tradition. Through a local program called Our Daily Bread, families in Fairfax County are matched with a sponsor to provide essentials for a holiday dinner. As a dietitian, I can’t imagine not having a delicious meal at Thanksgiving, not to mention the aromas and togetherness and family time it can bring. That’s why we sponsored a family of six and provided them with provisions to cook their own Thanksgiving dinner. It was so easy: I was matched with a family, called the main contact, asked about food allergies and preferences, and arranged a drop-off. I knew I found a great match when I asked the mom if she wanted a pre-made meal, but she said no: she’d like the ingredients so she could make the Thanksgiving meal together with her kids.

Food insecurity isn’t a problem “out there” or in a city far, far away. It’s here. It’s everywhere. It may affect your child’s classmate. Or your favorite store clerk. It may be your coworker, who hides his debt behind a facade. A full 14 percent of households in the U.S. were food insecure last year. That’s 48.1 million people, 15.3 million of which are children.

Finding the courage to ask for help is tremendously hard. Having no one answer that call is heartbreaking. This Giving Tuesday, please find a way to make someone’s holidays a little brighter.


Crandall, Crandi and Cranberries – A Thanksgiving Story

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – but it wasn’t always. That’s because yeah, while Thanksgiving is all about family and giving thanks, it’s really all about food. Although my preferences have changed over the years, when I was younger I didn’t like any of the traditional Thanksgiving foods (except for dessert – mmm…warm apple pie!) In my teen years I remember my mom’s Thanksgiving table included the usual turkey (yuck), stuffing (never liked it), and a smattering of unusual side dishes (Israeli salad? Not exactly what the Pilgrims ate). After whining and complaining as my mom was planning the next Thanksgiving she offered to make one side just for me. “Green beans,” I told her. Green beans with what, she asked? “Just green beans. Steamed.” She shrugged, but she made it. And I ate it. That, and pie.

My husband with his coveted cranberries

Years later the Thanksgiving hosting duties were shifted to my older sister, who gave a gourmet twist to Thanksgiving. We didn’t have just turkey, but picked-from-the-farm, homemade-brined, cooked-on-The Big-Green-Egg organic turkey (luckily by then my aversion to turkey was a thing of the past. My brother-in-law’s turkey is soooo gooood!) Sides were multicolored cauliflower, brussels sprouts with pancetta and shallots, homemade stuffing with chestnuts and fresh herbs, cranberry chutney. And that was just what my sister and her husband made. The multi-family and -friend feast was a potluck, and everyone was encouraged to bring their favorite food. My husband’s contribution? Canned cranberries.


Our joke was that we needed to give some balance to the gourmet-ified Thanksgiving, but the truth is canned cranberries – in all its ridged and sliced glory – is a key element of my husband’s Thanksgiving tradition. It starts with the perfect can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberries (store-brand or frou-frou versions need not apply!), carefully opening the lid and letting the gelatinous contents fall out in one audible “thwap” in a perfect can-shaped form, then sliced uniformly into round full moons, and displayed lovingly on a plate.

The best part – when the canned cranberries and the cranberry chutney were served side-by-side on the buffet, guess which went faster? Yup. Don’t mess with tradition.

One year another guest took it upon him or herself to plate the cranberries, deciding to “pretty” it up with some fork-fluffing. The look on my husband’s crestfallen face was priceless. After that, we guarded the can until the timing was perfect to unleash the cran-goodness.

Last year we had some fun with my sister: we dressed up a can of cranberries like a Pilgrim, named him Crandall, and documented his journey from can-to-plate.

All buckled up – safety first, of course!
No time to visit the relatives!
Almost there!

As with most traditions, Thanksgiving has evolved for my immediate family. We now rotate years, going to my sister’s house every other year and my husband’s family in the opposite year. This year was also a change for my sister as she took a year off (after 11 straight years of hosting duties) and flew to the nearest tropical island with her family. Can you blame her?

So this year, in our absence, we sent Crandi. So far, she seems to be having a blast.

All packed up and ready to go, passport in hand
Enjoying some sushi pre-flight
Watching in-flight TV (a cooking show, naturally)
Rum punch upon arrival. Vacation has begun!

It’s Thanksgiving – and it’s all about family, food, and having a bit of fun.

My sister, her family, and Crandi

Happy Thanksgiving! Go ahead…play with your food.

The Easiest Recipe to get Kids in the Kitchen

August is Kids Eat Right Month, a time to help kids learn more about nutrition and to give them the tools and skills they need to make better choices. As a dietitian you’d think my kids are the poster children for Kids Eat Right…but they’re not!

My kids love their sweets, prefer dessert over dinner, and could live off of snack food. Dinnertime is a challenge, trying to get them to eat anything except pasta with grated cheese or cherry tomatoes (whole – never cut! I learned my lesson). As a mom I do everything I can to get them into the kitchen with me, to help with dinner or assemble salads. Usually I lose to the television or iPad.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a brilliant way to get kids interested in exploring the kitchen and creating something delicious. And it involves no cooking and nearly no supervision. I wish I could take credit for this discovery, but alas it was an activity done in their summer camp/daycare that piqued their interest.

The theme for the week was Western, and my son made “cowboy chow” (otherwise known as trail mix). He brought home a white paper bag with a mixture of cereal, pretzels, raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips and marshmallows. For the next few mornings the kids wanted to make their own trail mix breakfasts, complete with cereal, whole-grain goldfish crackers, raisins, peanuts, almonds – whatever we had in the pantry. They explored, tried different textures (including taking a chewy granola bar and crumbling it up), mixed salty and sweet…and were completely self-sufficient.

While trail mix isn’t my favorite breakfast to serve the kids, and it certainly isn’t the most healthful choice in our kitchen, the lesson here was less about nutrition and more about discovery and self-reliance. It’s my job as parent (and dietitian!) to stock better-for-you choices in my pantry, and then my kids have the freedom to take it upon themselves to experiment. That’s what cooking – and creating – is all about: the discovery and the delicious final result.

You can make your own trail mix (or cowboy chow, or princess power food – or whatever will get your kids excited) with pretty much anything in your pantry. Let your kids explore and choose a few bite-sized finger foods, throw them into a bowl and see what happens. Ask them if they want it a little sweeter, a little more salty, or maybe a bit more colorful. When you go shopping, explore the dried fruits aisle and see if there’s something new your kids might want to try (try to avoid pre-sweetened or fried fruits, and opt for naturally-sweetened or dehydrated versions instead).

The clincher for me was the following Saturday morning. My kids were darling enough to let my husband and I sleep in, and when I woke up there were two very proud children with a buffet-like spread laid out on the kitchen table. They made their own breakfast bar for the family to enjoy!

Kids buffet


Savor the Flavor. Period.

I couldn’t let National Nutrition Month® go by without sharing my thoughts on this year’s theme: “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right.” The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional organization for dietetic professionals, is the sponsor of this annual event, and it’s no surprise that each year’s theme is often some kind of build off the organization’s catchphrase: Eat Right. (The website URL for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is, in fact, eatright.org).

I love the first part of the tagline: savor the flavor. It jives with my philosophy toward food: that eating is not just about nutrition but that it’s an experience, a source of enjoyment and a sense of culture. I feel strongly that when eating people should take note of all five senses: the sound of the sizzling stovetop, the smell of a dish that evokes a childhood memory, the look of a well-plated meal, the feel and texture of the food on your tongue, and of course, the taste! It’s when we fail to engage all senses that we find ourselves eating mindlessly, which can lead to unhealthy habits.

It’s the second part of the phrase that rubs me the wrong way: eating right. It implies a dichotomy: right vs. wrong. Good vs. bad. Pure vs. poison. No wonder people think of dietitians as the food police. The last thing people want to be told is that they’re eating wrong. Don’t even get me started how finger pointing like that can lead to disordered eating and views toward foods…

If I were in charge, I’d change the Academy URL and all associated phrasing to eating better. There is always room for improvement, no matter how healthful you diet may be already. There are plenty of other choices to make, foods to try, small steps to take. There is no perfect healthy eating plan (because then the food police will knock on your door and tell you to get some variety, for goodness’ sake!)

Think of it this way: when I introduce myself as a dietitian at a dinner event, people tend to get uncomfortable and say things like, “please don’t look at my plate!” I tend to say back to them, “don’t look at mine either!” This is one meal, on one day, and most likely a special occasion. This is not my everyday pattern.

If there is a definition of eating “right,” to me that means making more nutrient-packed choices and staying within your energy (calorie) needs. But it also means enjoying a rich dish or decadent dessert – heck, maybe even daily – so long as it’s portioned right and within a framework of an overall healthy eating pattern and lifestyle.

Not Your Nana’s Nutritionist

Everybody eats, therefore everybody knows about nutrition. At least that’s what you might think by clicking through various articles and posts about health, food and what you should and shouldn’t eat.

The true nutrition expert is registered dietitian (or registered dietitian nutritionist, abbreviated RD or RDN, respectively). RDs all have a college degree – many have advanced degrees – and completed didactic coursework plus hundreds of hours in internship rotations (unpaid, for the most part!) before sitting for and passing an exam to earn the privilege of putting those precious abbreviations after their names. Not only that, but RDs must complete at least 75 hours of continuing education credit every five years to maintain their credentialing and be allowed to keep those little letters.

What credentialing does a nutritionist need? Nothing, really.

The truth is, while some states have laws on licensure for health professionals, practically anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Only dietitians can administer medical nutrition therapy and have some of their services covered by insurance providers.

Where can you find an RD?

Traditionally, RDs are found in some kind of clinical setting – working in a hospital or outpatient clinic. They may be developing diets for newly diagnosed diabetics or celiac disease patients, or working alongside cardiologists to help at-risk patients adopt heart-healthy diets, to name a couple of roles. You may envision her as the weight loss specialist (NOT “the food police”) suggesting foods you may want to incorporate into your diet and which to save for special occasions. But hospitals and clinics aren’t the only places where RDs can be found. You may see us in:

  • Schools: Have you been to a school cafeteria lately? It may surprise you. Many school foodservice directors at the helm are registered dietitians, and these folks have a tremendous job trying to feed thousands of children daily, in a limited amount of time and on a limited budget. For some students, school lunch may be the most reliable, substantial meal of their day, so the foodservice director needs to make sure the lunch she serves is not only nutritious but also appealing so that it gets eaten and not tossed in the trash.
  • Community Settings: Many RDs heed to a calling to help underserved and underprivileged populations. These are the RDs running programs for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), SNAP-ed (formerly known as food stamps) and many more, helping individuals spend their food dollars wisely and learn basic cooking skills.
  • Kitchens: RDs are chefs, working at major restaurants, spas, or managing their own chef/culinary business. Many have traditional culinary training in addition to their nutrition degrees, training at the Culinary Institute of America or other fine institutions.
  • Research/Academia: Nutrition research is ongoing, and who better to be designing and conducting studies than the food and nutrition experts? Not only do RDs work in food science, but many have expertise in behavioral nutrition, economics, and other fields.
  • Industry: Call me biased, but RDs working with industry are the unsung heroes. Talk about effecting change – these are the folks with actual seats at the actual table, helping companies reformulate products to make them more healthful and desirable to consumers (it’s not nutrition unless people buy and eat it!). These folks have the ear of senior leadership, telling them what issues they need to address today, given the current policy and labeling landscape. These are RDs taking the research conducted by their their colleagues in academia, and disseminating it to their front-line RD peers working directly with consumers.
  • In the Media: More and more (and rightly so), RDs are being called upon to provide expert insights to educate consumers on a larger platform than simple one-on-one communications. We see RDs as commentators on news programs, writing articles in major newspapers, building up audiences on social media. Heck, even winning reality TV shows!

Today is National Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day and a time not only to recognize these allied health professionals, but to also applaud them for the sometimes thankless jobs they are doing. These are people working every day to improve the health and diets of those around us so that we can live longer and better.

RDN poster
Feature photo and RDN logo were both used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietietics

For more information, or to locate an RD in your area, visit www.eatright.org.

Foods I Heart – For American Heart Month

February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on your heart and health. Generally speaking, a heart-healthy diet is one that’s modeled after how the people in the Mediterranean region eat. That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, seafood, healthy oils, whole grains and an occasional glass of wine. People in the Mediterranean region also tend to walk more, linger over their meals and have close bonds among family and the community. I simply couldn’t let the month go by without putting together a list of my favorite heart-healthy items – things you can easily find here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Let’s see if you agree:

  • Oatmeal: This fiber-rich breakfast staple is a heart-healthy powerhouse. The beta-glucan in oatmeal acts like a magnet to cholesterol in the bloodstream and flushing it away. Oatmeal is also really inexpensive and versatile. Not only does it make for a hearty breakfast (check out this recipe for my perfect oatmeal), but in my family also use it in place of breadcrumbs for our favorite meatloaf recipe.
  • Beans: I think of beans as nature’s perfect food. It’s a vegetable and a protein, has little fat and calories yet provides numerous vitamins and minerals. The little legume – also called a pulse food – is perfect for pregnant and breastfeeding moms as it provides folic acid, iron and fiber. The United Nations called 2016 The Year Of The Pulses, and my favorite way to get more pulses is by eating black beans with tomatoes and a sprinkling of reduced fat cheese. Yum!
  • Nuts: Yes nuts have fat, but it’s primarily heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Nuts also provide fiber (are you noticing a theme here with this amazing nutrient and heart health?), and protein to keep you satisfied. I eat pretty much all kinds of nuts, but my favorites are lightly-salted almonds and peanuts. I even make my own peanut butter after being inspired by this post from a fellow dietitian blogger. Rarely does a day go by without having a dab of my homemade PB on an apple or a piece of toast.
  • Salmon: I don’t eat salmon very much at home, as certain family members have an aversion to its smell (not an uncommon turnoff, I’ve learned). But this pink fish is my go-to source for another kind of heart-healthy fat: EPA and DHA omega-3s (disclosure: The Global Organization for EPA and DHA omega-3s is a client, but they did not ask me to write this post). These marine-based long-chain omega-3s – not to be confused with plant-based ALA found in certain nuts, seeds and other foods – have been shown to support cardiovascular health, as well as brain health and other possible benefits (more science needs to be done). If you’re a health profession wonk like me and want to learn more about the science behind EPA and DHA for heart health, read this white paper. Or, you can get some basic information at AlwaysOmega3s.com. Salmon is great on the grill (and leaves the smell outside) and is also really convenient – and inexpensive – when you buy it canned or in pouches.
  • Grape Juice: We all know that red wine can be good for the heart, but the same goes for your childhood favorite: 100% grape juice – the naturally sweet purple stuff made with Concord grapes (disclosure: I also work with Welch’s, but again, they did not ask me to write this. I just really like this juice and find the science compelling.) The Concord is a unique grape – it has a thick skin with a fleshy middle that literally pops out of its skin when you squeeze it. It also has crunchy seeds. Both the skin and the seeds are concentrated sources of polyphenols, or plant nutrients associated with health benefits including heart health and healthy circulation. You can’t find fresh Concords very easily outside of the fall season, but drinking 100% grape juice made with Concord grapes is really your best option for reaping the benefits. As you would with nuts – and frankly, all of the items mentioned above – portion size is important. Just ½ cup, or 4 oz., of 100% grape juice is enough to supply one serving of fruit. Remember also that 100% fruit juice (which, by its nature contains no added sugars but only natural fruit sugars) should be a complement to, not a replacement for, whole fruits. That is why…
  • Fruits and Vegetables – all varieties also make my list. I eat vegetables pretty liberally, as they provide tons of vitamins, fiber and nutrients for very few calories. I eat plenty of fresh fruit as well – sprinkled on my oatmeal, mixed in a smoothie or as a snack on its own. Fruits and vegetables should take up roughly half your diet. My favorites change by the season but these days I’m really into jicama, snap peas and clementines.

The best thing about the foods I’ve listed here is that they’re all easily accessible, found in your local grocery store, and are typically inexpensive. Eating a heart-healthy diet need not only be for those who can afford luxuries. Don’t forget to couple all this healthy eating with being active. Walking, playing, dancing – all of that is free!!!

Tell me your favorite ways to be heart healthy by commenting below.


Disclosure: I was not asked to write this post by any of my clients or colleagues, nor was I compensated to do so. I only work with companies and organizations that I believe in and that place a high priority on science and research. All opinions expressed are mine and mine alone.