Bring Some Spring to the Table

Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted spring to be just around the corner, but where I live it’s still undoubtedly winter. And while I enjoy the cozy smells and warmth of soups, stews and fresh-made breads that I tend to make more of when the snow falls, there comes a point when you and everyone in your family says: enough is enough! We want something light, healthy and served at room temperature!

It’s about that time that my family and I decided to bring a little spring inside, at least to our dinner table. The other night we made a platter full of Thai spring rolls – light, flavorful rolls made with shrimp, assorted vegetables, rice noodles and rice paper. The dish is not for last-minute scrambling – it takes at least an hour to make from prep to presentation! And all that work is for about 5 minutes’ worth of gobbling before it’s gone. But it is so worth it. (And, if you follow a gluten-free diet, these are GF, too!)

The trick to good spring rolls is all in the preparation. Once the noodles and wrappers have soaked, you have mere moments to assemble before everything turns to mush. Finished rolls also don’t keep particularly well, so try to make only what you’ll eat that day or at most, by the next day.

Here’s what you’ll need for the spring rolls:

  • Shrimp: cooked, peeled and de-veined
  • Carrots: matchstick-style
  • Cucumbers: matchstick-style
  • Cilantro leaves
  • Rice or bean thread noodles
  • Rice paper wrappers
  • Boiling water for soaking the noodles and more hot water for soaking the rice paper wrappers

Note: I’ve also stuffed the rolls with chopped romaine lettuce and other veggies, but I’ve found that the crunch of the matchstick-cut carrots and cucumbers go well with the chewy noodles and wrapper. Play with whatever you have on-hand and what will work for you. Cooked chicken, tofu or avocado strips also work well in place of shrimp.

Here’s the setup, mise en place (meaning everything in its place so you can assemble quickly).

Mise en Place 2

First step is to lightly soak the rice paper wrapper in hot (not boiling) water. Do not submerge it in the hot water, but rather dip the sides and rotate, leaving the middle section dry (the water will eventually soak into all the dry spaces).

Rice paper

Next, place 3 shrimp in the middle of the wrapper, followed by the carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and noodles. Try not to overdo it on the noodles. The filling should be no more than 50% noodles, 50% everything else.

Wrap it like a burrito, folding over the fillings, then folding in the sides, then rolling it all up into one log. Lightly squeeze it to remove any air bubbles.

Place on a plate or tray, and repeat as needed. The rolls will stick to each other, so try not to stack them too high or close.

Finished spring rolls

Because the rolls themselves are somewhat bland, a good dipping sauce is necessary. We like two types: a spicy sweet and sour, or a peanut sauce. The sweet and sour we use comes from Trader Joe’s, and the peanut sauce I make myself. The recipe was adapted from something I found in an old Cooking Light cookbook (do step 1 of the recipe).

Serve with dipping plates, and enjoy! Now, if only eating these would bring on the warmer temps outside…

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Lying there on the couch for a much-needed rest after making and eating dinner with the family, the realization came to me: it’s time for a change.

Caffeine, I need you out of my life.

I’ve done it once before, when trying a friend’s (and fellow dietitian’s) detox-style eating plan for a few weeks. Letting go of coffee was the easiest part of that plan, after the initial headaches subsided.

It all began innocently enough. Since I was in middle school (don’t judge), I’ve enjoyed my morning mug of coffee. Sometime around my early 30s one cup turned into the occasional two. Then two-a-day became a habit. I’d have a cup of coffee in the morning while my kids ate breakfast and I got their bags ready for school. After dropping them off I’d return home for my own breakfast, which also included a piping hot cup of coffee alongside whatever I decided to eat that morning. I’d bring my meal and coffee up to my office, sift through my inbox and read the morning headlines while cradling my mug, letting the coffee waft and hit my nose. It was a ritual.

Sometimes for lunch, I’d grab a can of Diet Coke since plain water was getting boring and it was too early to switch over to sparkling water (that’s for dinnertime, of course). Suddenly, I realized I was depending on this caffeine trifecta to get me through the day.

Striking out the soda was pretty easy. As for the coffee, I tried to wean myself off the second cup, substituting green tea instead. And that worked…sometimes. But that day of the post-dinner repose I had had two cups of coffee in the morning, followed by a medium-sized fountain soda with my lunch (very uncharacteristic, but I had an errand to run that day, forcing me to grab lunch on the go). After working all day, driving around to pick up the kids, and preparing and eating dinner, I had the overwhelming urge to just lie down. I was crashing. That’s when it hit me: caffeine was a culprit and not a companion.

My plan is to cut down to one caffeinated cup per day. If I feel the urge for another cup, I’ll switch to decaf. It’s more about the flavor or the need for a hot beverage to warm my hands and insides than it is for the caffeine jolt. Eventually, perhaps I will switch to green tea exclusively for my caffeine fix, and then perhaps graduate to herbal tea exclusively for my morning pick-me-up, kicking the caffeine habit for good. Preferably without any headache side-effects.

Were you able to break up with caffeine? Tell me how you did it.

Oatmeal – My Way

On snowy days like today, I just can’t bring myself to make my usual breakfast smoothie. That’s when cozying up to a piping hot bowl of oatmeal is what I crave.

I know oatmeal is a “stick to your ribs” kind of breakfast, but I tend to think of oatmeal also as cleaning out my blood vessels and digestive tract. That’s because oatmeal is a great source of fiber, which keeps you full and regular, and it also keeps your heart healthy by lowering cholesterol. The type of fiber in oatmeal, beta glucan (or β-glucan), acts like a magnet to attract cholesterol in the blood and flush it out of the body. While I missed National Oatmeal Month in January, the fact that February is Heart Month gives me another reason to talk about this favorite breakfast. Plus, the way I make oatmeal is loaded with heart-healthy goodness.

One thing to know about me: I’m an oatmeal snob. You’ll never find me ordering oatmeal at a restaurant or choosing it in a breakfast buffet. Once I perfected cooking oatmeal at home, I just can’t have it any other way. I’m happy to share my recipe with you:

  • First, start with ½ cup of old fashioned oats. These are whole oats that have been rolled, keeping the fiber more or less intact. Quick-cooking oats have been chopped a bit more, but I like the toothiness of whole oats (plus, you know, the fiber).
Whole oats are really inexpensive, but to save even more $ you can buy store brand. Same nutrition and flavor.
  • Add 2/3 cup milk (I use fat-free) and 1/3 cup water. This ratio is important! I’ve found too much milk has a less delicious outcome, and too much water makes the oatmeal bland. Besides, I like the protein and nutrients from the milk, which is why it’s a must-have (and a reason why I *don’t* get oatmeal in restaurants. Most cook the oatmeal in water and then serve milk as an add-on, which makes the oatmeal too runny).
Milk and water
Please excuse the mismatched measuring cups, but each are 1/3 cup.
  • Microwave on high for 2 ½ minutes (actual times may vary. You want it hot, but don’t let it explode).
  • Add frozen, unsweetened fruit and coarsely chopped nuts (I like slightly-salty almonds). Frozen fruit is a must, since fresh this time of year is hard to find. It also brings down the temperature of the oatmeal and helps it congeal a bit. In the summertime when fresh berries are abundant I use those (about 1/2 cup) and add them to the very end. Coarsely-chopped nuts (1/2 ounce) lend some heart-healthy fats, which also keeps me satisfied longer. I like having them coarsely chopped to make the oatmeal a bit more chewy.
Fruit and nuts
Trader Joe’s 50% less salt almonds are the best! And I buy frozen unsweetened berries in bulk at Costco.
  • You may also choose to add some sweetness here (I like 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, but regular sugar, maple syrup or honey would also work) and a hefty sprinkle of ground cinnamon.
  • Microwave on high for 2 minutes more. Stir and let sit at least 1 minute before enjoying. The longer it sits the thicker it becomes.
Finished oatmeal
Not the prettiest picture, but it sure was tasty!

Eatin’ Like In Sweden

Today the nutrition community is all in a frenzy over the release of the highly anticipated (and overdue) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015. [I like that they tried to hide their tardiness by calling this 8th edition the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.” Maybe they were hoping to buy themselves another year or two?] While the nutrition community and pundits will debate the effectiveness or science base or applicability of the updated Guidelines, I’ve decided for the time being to defect to Sweden – dietarily, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep respect for the Dietary Guidelines process and how it will be applied in nutrition policy. And I will pore over the 2015 revision in due time and make my own conclusions about those. But I can’t help but think that we could do a much better service to health professionals and the general public with simple guidelines. Like this one-minute summary of the Swedish Dietary Guidelines:

Key messages from the Swedish dietary guidelines

Here’s why I like it:

  • The messages are clear. Have more of this, less of that, and make better choices like these.
  • The messages are positive. There’s no language like “never” or “don’t” as in “don’t eat sweets.” Because let’s face it, we all like to treat ourselves every so often (just not too often).
  • The messages imply that all foods are in relation to one another…and that’s how we eat. We tend to get stuck on the notion of an “ideal” diet. But the fact is, we’re all human and we all have different ways we approach food – and likely different ways we metabolize food. The best approach I think is to consider individual food items in relation to one another.
  • This takes a mindful approach to food, which is key to healthy eating. Making food decisions, a person could take this tool and think to themselves: could I add more broccoli to this meal? Should I have a glass of wine with dinner tonight given I had two glasses last night? That’s being mindful and thoughtful about what you eat when you’re eating. Even the healthiest eater could likely stand to eat more vegetables and less salt. Show me someone – anyone – who is counting up all their sodium values from Nutrition Facts labels to ensure they’re staying within their 2,300 mg daily limit. Right…I thought so.

I applaud the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on its science-based review of the latest evidence and for compiling its tome of a recommendation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I appreciate the time and effort taken by our government officials to take those recommendations into consideration as they set nutrition policy. But next time, can’t we just keep it simple, like the Swedes? Tack.


Photo credit, cover photo: by Carlos Porto. Published on 13 June 2010
Stock photo – Image ID: 10017690

New Year’s Resolutions: a marathon, not a sprint

The New Year has begun! I love this time of year because it’s just brimming with possibilities and hope for the future. And while, sure, there are probably a million-and-one articles and blog posts about how to make (or not make) New Year’s resolutions, I hope this one will resonate with you.

First things first: I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions. I feel like bettering ourselves should be a year-round effort and not confined to an otherwise dreary time of year (sorry, January-lovers). But, I do believe in setting goals and formulating a plan to meet those goals. With the craziness of the holiday season behind us, the New Year is as good a time as any.

For me, New Year’s Resolutions (or goals) is a lot like training for a marathon. You have a big ultimate goal in mind (to complete that marathon) and you have a training plan in place to get you to that finish line. You can’t just get up tomorrow and run the full 26.2 miles – that is, unless you’ve already got a strong foundation. That training plan is also filled with a lot of interim goals to keep you motivated and inspired. So whether your goal is to lose weight, quit smoking, or – yes – run a marathon, here are my tips to getting you to your goal:

  1. Harness that newbie energy. Starting anything new is fun at first – you might have recently joined a gym, gotten a new gadget, or formulated a plan that’s now ready to be implemented. But more than that, you have the energy and desire to reach that goal. However…
  2. Don’t blow all your energy at once. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. In long-distance running, if you go out too fast at first, you can easily burn up all your energy stores. While it’s possible to recoup some of your losses on the run by taking in drinks or nutrients, or even slowing down to a walk at times, it’s really hard to get back to your original energy levels. Slow and steady, while not flashy and exciting most of the time, really does win the race.
  3. Welcome outside help. We can’t do this all alone. Join a group, have an online community, work with a therapist or coach – whatever it takes. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. In fact, it’s a strength. You know that feeling when you’re in a race and you feel like you can’t go on any further…then you hear the cheering crowd? Those cheers are what carry your feet when your legs seemed to have given up. At the same time…
  4. Know that the strength to succeed exists inside you. Sometimes even the most well-intentioned help can only get you so far. That’s when you’re in the 20th mile, and the cheers are loud but your legs feel like bricks. That’s the time to dig deep, to block out the noise around you, find that strength within yourself, and pull through. That’s true if you’re trying to quit smoking, cut out desserts, whatever it may be.
  5. Celebrate your accomplishments. Not just the big major goal, but all the little ones along the path to success. The first 14-mile training run I did was huge to me because it was the longest distance I had ever done. Or maybe it’s the work happy-hour you happily attended without imbibing because your goal was to cut out alcohol. Each step counts.
  6. The end is just the beginning. After a marathon I feel elated to have finished, but that feeling soon became despair because I don’t know what to do next. I feel the same way after reading an amazing book. Celebrate like crazy when the big goal is met, but also be ready with the next goal in mind. It could be completely different from the first one or somewhat related. Like, if your goal was to quit smoking maybe your next goal will be to put those pink, healthy lungs to use and register for a 5K. For me, after a marathon my husband bought me a FitBit Flex, knowing that the daily goal of hitting at least 10K steps was enough to feed my competitive spirit while giving my body a much-needed rest from running.

Whatever you goals may be in the New Year, please remember these tips and know that you can do it! I’d love to know what you have planned in 2016. Share your New Year’s resolutions in the comments below, and tell me what steps you’re taking to reach them.


The One Dish That Brings Everyone Together

It’s the holiday season, and while some debate whether turkey or ham is the ideal dinner, there’s one entree that sticks in my mind this season: pizza.

OK, so pizza is basically a year-round food for us. But come holiday season in particular, pizza has special meaning. It’s a meal I cook with my niece and nephew (and now my own kids) before Thanksgiving takes over the kitchen at my sister’s house, and it’s a dish I make every time my in-laws come at Christmastime.

What I love about pizza is that it’s democratic – everyone has a vote and every vote counts. I’ve been known to make a single pizza with 4 different toppings – one in each quadrant to suit people’s preferences. One child will only eat cheese, whereas another likes pepperoni. I like goat cheese which my husband can’t stand, so he gets regular pizza cheese on his. One pizza, four ways – everyone wins!

I also love pizza because it’s a great way to serve up vegetables. When I was living on my own after college, I ate plenty of fruits but couldn’t think of a tasty, easy and cost-effective way to make sure I ate enough vegetables. So I turned to pizza – I took a dough, added sauce then piled on whatever veggies I felt like, such as bell peppers, mushrooms and broccoli. Add some cheese, cook it up and enjoy. Leftovers were delicious for brown-bag lunches (also economical) or another day’s dinner.

I’ve been making homemade pizza now for (gulp) 20+ years. Here are my tips for perfecting your homemade pizzas:

Invest in a Pizza Stone

While a stone is not required, it’s certainly less expensive than purchasing a pizza oven – and gives you many of the same results. Pizza stones give you a crispy crust without overcooking the cheese and toppings. Keep the stone in the oven as it preheats, at least for 60 minutes before putting your pizza on it. I actually keep my stones (I have two) in my oven all the time. And never wash your pizza stone with soap! Just scrape it with a pan scraper once it’s cooled.

Use Raw Dough

Sure you can make your own, but chances are you can also find balls of raw dough in the deli section of your local grocery store. Trader Joe’s has some good ones (though I must say, the whole wheat dough is too dense for me and my family). Or, if you have a favorite neighborhood pizza place, ask if you can buy a ball of fresh dough directly from them.

Let the Dough Come to Room Temperature First

Cold dough is very elastic and will contract when you try to roll it out, meaning you’ll have to keep fighting the dough to stretch it out.

Use Any Sauce You Want … But Not Too Much

Too much sauce can make the dough soggy and drippy. Leave about a ¾-inch space from the edge to make a pizza parlor-style crust.

Sprinkle Toppings Evenly

And, pay more attention to the edges than the center. As the pizza cooks, the toppings will gravitate toward the center. The center also takes the longest to cook.

Oil the Crust

Lightly brush olive oil on the crust before baking. It gives the crust a really tasty crispness.


Here are some of my favorite pizza toppings, using a plain dough and tomato sauce base, and topped with pizza cheese (shredded blend of 4 or 5 cheeses, or just use mozzarella). But feel free to experiment with your own ideas – that’s half the fun!

  • Kale & bacon
  • Clam (canned works great) with red onions and bacon
  • Veggie medley: green peppers, yellow onion, olives and mushrooms
  • Mushroom medley: button, baby bella, shittake, oyster and enoki mushrooms
  • Meatball with green peppers, onions and mushrooms
  • Broccoli, sundried tomatoes and goat cheese (instead of pizza cheese)


What are some of your favorites? Please share in the comments!