How to Have a Healthy & Relaxing Turkey Day

Thanksgiving is a holiday most people enjoy, but it can also be stressful time for some. Preparing food and entertaining guests can take a toll on the body and mind so to make the process easier, I’m sharing some food safety tips, tips on making the healthiest choices during the meal, and tips on how to have a relaxing holiday.

Food Safety Tips for A Healthy Thanksgiving Meal 

  •  All cooking and handling surfaces should be fully sanitized before and after foods are placed on them. This is especially important when handling raw turkey.
  • Be sure to use separate cutting boards and knives for vegetables and meat/poultry items. Cross-contamination is a serious issue in household kitchens.
  • If you purchased your turkey frozen, it will take a minimum of 24 hours to defrost PER 4-5 pounds. Therefore, if you bought a 10 pound turkey, allow at least 48 hours to defrost in the refrigerator.
  • When storing your bird, it should be placed in a leak-proof bowl on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
  • Warm water should not be used to thaw a frozen turkey because warm temperatures are a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Stuffing…should not actually be stuffed into the bird during cooking. The inside of the turkey has to fully cook to at least 165° F or else bacteria can rapidly grow, especially in the moist internal areas of the turkey. The stuffing may not be able to reach those temperatures without overcooking the turkey, which can lead to bacterial contamination. Prepare your stuffing in a separate oven-safe dish and cook outside of the turkey.
  • If you are going to cook your stuffing in the turkey, make sure you have a thermometer that can fully reach the inside where the stuffing is and make sure it is at least 165°F. Be aware, the oven temperature for cooking a turkey is usually set to 325°. Higher temperatures for longer periods of time may dry out the turkey.
  • Check the temperature of the bird in several locations during the final stages of cooking. Be sure to poke at the thickest parts.
  • Have a fire extinguisher readily available (Have this in your kitchen at all times).
  • Once cooking is done, serve within minutes. The longer the time elapsed between taking the turkey out of the oven and serving, the higher the risk for bacterial growth.

In addition to having a safe cooking experience, you’ll also want to have an enjoyable, healthy eating experience.

Tips on how to enjoy the meal and make the healthiest choices:

  • Light meat poultry is lower in fat and calories than dark meat poultry, but dark meat poultry is typically a bit juicer and is also higher in iron. Keep that in mind while making your turkey selection and mix it up. I tend to choose light meat turkey (found in the breast) but only because I like the taste better.
  • Try mixing a bunch of oven-roasted veggies in with your stuffing. Depending on what stuffing recipe you’ll be eating, it can either be a healthy choice, or not so much. Bread-based stuffings are not what I’d call a health food, but it is a holiday, so enjoy in moderation. If you’re the one preparing the stuffing, try a quinoa or wild-rice based recipe.
  • If you’re a guest, prepare a healthy salad or side dish ahead of time. If you’re traveling and have access to a healthy eatery, make a pit stop and pick up a vegetable platter or veggie-based side. Your hosts will be appreciative and you’ll also have something healthy to nibble on as an appetizer. You can also bring a healthy dessert, such as fresh fruit.
  • Try to make your plate ½ veggies, ¼ turkey, and ¼ of another side dish (such as stuffing). The veggies will fill you up and the protein from the turkey will make you feel full for a long time (decreasing the desire for multiple rounds of desserts).
  • Limit calorie-containing beverages and stick to water or light fruit juice with seltzer. With so much good food, it’s better to enjoy yourself with solid deliciousness than empty liquid calories. However, if you are going to drink your calories, and if you are going to consume alcohol, do so in moderation. This is especially important if you’re driving home later in the evening.
  • Desserts are one of the best parts of holiday meals, and thanksgiving is no exception. If pie is your thing, enjoy small slices of your favorite types. You can prepare or bring a fresh fruit platter and have half your dessert plate be fruit to limit that heavy feeling after eating too much pie. If cookies are served, sample one or two, and again make half your dessert plate a healthier choice with fresh fruit.
  • Another idea for dessert is to serve a fruit sorbet or frozen Greek yogurt, instead of ice cream to accompany the pie and cookies.

Holidays should be a time for relaxation and enjoyment. Be sure to make time to relax in a healthy way with these tips:

Tips on Holiday Relaxation:

  • Relaxation shouldn’t mean you park yourself in front of the TV eating a bag of chips and feeling sloth-like. As tempting as that sounds, you won’t feel good after the chip-eating has ended (trust me, I’ve learned from experience). Instead, try to get outside or do some physical activity during the day. You’ll work up an appetite and the thanksgiving meal itself will be more enjoyable than if you snacked all day.
  • If physical activity during turkey day doesn’t appeal to you, and the couch still beckons, choose healthier fare for snacking like roasted mix nuts, popcorn with olive oil, and whole wheat pretzels.
  • Sometimes we need an escape from our otherwise loving, welcoming family. If you have access to a car, try taking a ride somewhere scenic. Bring your favorite music and forget about your worries.
  • A steaming hot shower does wonders to relieve tension, especially if you’re the one cooking. Have someone else keep an eye on the bird, and take time for your self.
  • Instead of going out shopping on Black Friday, stay in and watch your favorite movies. If you’re crafty, another idea is to make your holiday gifts during this time.

I’ll be posting some recipes later in the week, and some turkey-day leftover recipes as well, so check back soon! Most importantly, have a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!

-Jess

The Benefits of Quinoa and a Few Recipe Ideas

Since I’ve been writing about gluten-free diets, I’ve decided to devote an entire post to my favorite gluten-free grain, quinoa. Did you know that quinoa is technically not a grain, but a distant relative to spinach and beets? Here is some additional info quinoa.

Benefits of Quinoa

Quinoa is a high-quality vegetarian source of protein that also has 3 grams of fiber per serving. In a ¼ cup dry serving, there are 160-175 calories (varies by brand). Quinoa is safe for people with Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance because it is gluten free and can be used in recipes as a replacement for gluten-containing grains. Another benefit of quinoa is its vitamin and mineral content. Quinoa is rich in iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Iron is especially important for women and for those following a vegetarian diet.

How to Cook It

For a recipe that calls for quinoa, cooking is quite simple. The most important part of the cooking process (in my experience) is rinsing the quinoa prior to cooking. Rinsing eliminates any granules of sand and also decreases the naturally soapy, bitter taste that can sometimes be present. To cook quinoa, use a saucepan and a small amount of oil/fat. I usually spray coconut oil or olive oil. Add ¼ cup portion to the pan just enough to lightly heat the dry quinoa for a minute without water. Next add enough water to cover the quinoa. For a ¼ cup dry serving, you can use ¾ cup or 1 cup of water. Simmer on low-medium heat. The quinoa is ready when the grains have softened, are soft when tasted, and when all of the water has been absorbed (sometimes more water needs to be added if it was cooked at higher temperature and still appears undercooked). Each quinoa grain has an O-shaped particle that will sometimes separate from the rest of the grain and both parts are edible.  Quinoa does not require rinsing or draining once it’s done.

How to Use it

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Quinoa in a mexican-inspired dish. Instead of rice, I used quinoa and added black beans, onions, broccoli, and topped with a generous helping of salsa and a few olives.

Quinoa can be used in many dishes. My favorite ways to use quinoa are in place of rice or pasta. Instead of adding rice to a burrito or Asian-inspired stir-fry, use quinoa as the base. The same spices can be added to the quinoa as it is cooking or after it is fully cooked. Quinoa can also be used in ways similarly to oatmeal. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, and other dried or fresh fruit to hot quinoa for breakfast. You can also use quinoa when making your own granola instead of using oats. The most interesting way I’ve used quinoa is in cookies (I’ve included the recipe below).

Other Quinoa Products

Quinoa is now on the market in a variety of food products, from quinoa pasta, quinoa flour, bread with added quinoa, and the list goes on. If you do follow a gluten-free diet, be sure to read the label of these products and make sure that wheat or other gluten-containing grains have not been added to the flour mixtures. Otherwise, enjoy quinoa in its many forms!

Quinoa Cookies

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Ingredients:

(makes about two dozen cookies)

  • 2 cups brown rice flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil (melted) or other fat
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup grade A Maple Syrup
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup dry measured quinoa (when cooked, will greatly expand)
  • Optional: Raisins, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, and or brown rice cereal.

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. You’ll want to cook the quinoa prior to adding to the rest of the ingredients, so use the cooking method listed above (stovetop, in a saucepan. Be sure to rinse the dry grain before cooking!)

  •  Measure the dry ingredients (brown rice flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda) and mix in a large bowl.
  • In a separate bowl, mix wet ingredients (melted fat, eggs, maple syrup, vanilla)
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients using a wooden spoon or spatula to lightly mix the two together. Be careful not to overmix.
  • Once the quinoa is finished cooking, remove from heat, and mix in with the combined wet-dry mixture.
  • Add the rest of the optional ingredients
  • The mixture should now be the consistency of a chocolate-chip cookie dough. If not thickened due to the heat of the quinoa, allow to harden a little bit in the fridge.
  • Grease a baking pan (cooking spray does the trick for me), and use a spoon to scoop out dough onto the pan  I usually can fit  a dozen on the baking pan, but it depends on what size you like.
  • Bake at 375 degrees F for 10-14 minutes.
  • Allow to cool for a bit and enjoy!
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Enjoy a side of healthy quinoa cookies with breakfast.

-Jess

The Case of the Mid-Day Snack Attack

Recently I’ve noticed that the mid-day meal often gets replaced with several snacks for many people. A busy workday or a day full of classes and studying can make it difficult to sit down and enjoy a full lunch meal because you may be eating at your desk or have limited time. Skipping lunch is a bad idea, so how can you make the most out of your snack choices to replace a single full meal during the daytime, or how can you make the wisest snack choices when lunch isn’t keeping you full until dinner?

Having snacks that provide a mix of protein, carbs, and fats will keep you better satiated than having a snack consisting of just carbs. For me, eating an apple only makes me more hungry for another apple an hour later. I like to eat fruit with a tablespoon or two of almond or cashew butter, which provides satisfying, healthy fat and a little protein as well. Another filling snack idea is whole grain crackers with hummus and a hard-boiled egg. If you’re craving a sweet crunch, try mixing your favorite trail mix with a cup of whole-grain cereal.

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Trail mix and whole grain cereal make a great snack that satisfies a crunchy craving.

Here are some other snack ideas (and keep in mind, all it takes is a little tupperware to transport your goodies to your desk or backpack for mid-day munching)

  • For a sweet treat, try 6 oz. low-fat Greek yogurt with 1 cup of whole grain cereal and 2 tbsp. of dark chocolate chips
  • If savory is more your style, prepare garlic kale chips the night before. To prepare, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F, wash, drain, and cut kale into smaller servings. Use a non-stick spray and give both the pan and the kale a light spray. Top with copious garlic powder, and a little salt and pepper. Heat for about 25-35 minutes, flipping the “chips” half way through and adding more garlic powder to the opposite side.  Garlic-y kale chips taste great with roasted, salted almonds, which provide some protein also.
  • You can’t go wrong with a raw veggies and hummus, add an egg or a serving of soy nuts for a great protein fix.

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    My snack-meal during a busy day of class.

  • Feeling spicy? Try whole grain or blue corn tortilla chips and pack 2 tbsp. guacamole (or avocado slices) along with 2 tbsp. spicy salsa in a small container. You can even make your own guacamole, and add some protein with it by blending with a little Greek yogurt (if you haven’t already noticed, I’m a big fan of all things Greek yogurt).
  • If you’re on the run and your options are found in a convenience store, look for a healthy protein bar, such as Luna, Clif, or Larabar. (The less ingredients listed on the package, the better). Add a 5 or 6 oz. container of yogurt, typically available at most convenience stores.
  • Once again, if your choices are limited and you find yourself in a place with less than healthy options for snacking, go for a small package of whole grain pretzels or popcorn and mix with trail mix for a crunchy, salty, complete snack.
  • Rice cakes, although they have a bad reputation for being bland, make a good base for a protein fix. I like to top mine with cottage cheese, almond butter, and chocolate chips—although for me, I’ve only had this as a late night study snack, feel free to give it a try if you can transport all the fixings to wherever you may be.

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    Rice cakes with cottage cheese, almond butter, and dark chocolate chips. Yum!

These are just some ideas on how to get complete nutrition during a busy day. If you know you don’t usually eat a big meal for lunch, having one or two of these snacks will prevent you from being ravenous by the time dinner rolls around.

Happy Snacking!

-Jess

Eating Well and Staying Healthy on Vacation

When on vacation, we often go into “vacation mode eating” which can mean eating whatever looks and tastes good. If you’re in a situation where rich, decadent food is present, and is culturally unique, it’s easy to sample everything because the same food-tasting opportunities may not be available at home. I thought I would share some observations mainly about eating habits during a vacation, rather than specific foods because that will differ based on where you are staying.  Keep in mind, during any vacation, try to aim for foods that aren’t fried and/or heavily processed. Keep portions sizes on the small side, since you’ll probably be dining out quite a bit (share your meal with your dinner pals or ask if you can have a half order of your meal), and be sure to follow these tips for a healthy vacation experience:

1.    Distinguish between whether you are tired from traveling, or actually hungry

Spending time in transit can be exhausting, especially if you’re waking up to catch an early flight.  If you are indeed tired, use that time spent on the plane to take a nap and if possible, hold off on eating a meal until you feel somewhat rested. If you still feel hungry after resting, eat a protein-rich snack, which unlike a carb-filled one, won’t make you feel even more tired.  Luckily, food concessions at airports are improving so look for a healthy snack before you board. Protein-rich snacks include yogurt, nuts, ½ a turkey wrap, a protein bar, or crudités with hummus.

2.    Avoid buffets or have a game plan.

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This was one breakfast I had while sampling the buffet. I had a heavier breakfast the following day, but prefer to not feel overly full from a heavy morning meal.

This may sound extreme because what fun is staying at a resort without dabbling in an all-you-can-eat food fest? But, buffets can be difficult for anyone who finds it hard to exercise portion control. Having a game plan of what you’re going to eat when at a buffet is a smart way to avoid feeling overly full and uncomfortable afterwards. Try to take small portions of the foods that most appeal to you. Don’t worry about sampling everything, the food will still be there when you’re done and if you’re physically not satisfied, then you can sample something else at a later time or at a later buffet visit.  If and when you want to sample dessert, try getting a few different things and sharing with your dinner companions.

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Dinner buffet pickings. (Clockwise) Top left is chicken fricassee, pastelon (a plantain topped-lasagna), a mini empanada, and grilled mahi mahi with mango topping.

3.    Treat yo self…in other ways besides food.

Vacations in general come with a feeling of indulgence, but eventually they come to an end and it’s not fun looking back at a trip and feeling guilty over food or feeling like you have to make up for what you ate. Some ways to experience enjoyment and relaxation are by laying out in the sun, getting a massage, taking a quiet walk by yourself, sitting in the hot tub or Jacuzzi, or buying yourself a souvenir.

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Relaxing poolside with two hotdogs (just kidding, those are my legs).

4.    If you drink, do so in moderation

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This was rum, mango and pineapple juices.

If you’re staying somewhere where frozen fruity alcoholic beverages are available, set a limit to what you’re going to drink beforehand. This will help minimize liquid calories (which aren’t filling) and also help your wallet (assuming you’re not at an all-inclusive resort). If you do decide to sample a bunch of tropical cocktails, you can alternate between the heavy cream and frozen fruit-based options (like a pina colada) and lighter choices (sangria or mojito).  Additionally, always have a cup of water between imbibing your cocktails to limit dehydration and avoid a hangover.

5.  Keep active

Just because you’re on vacation, doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time lying in a beach chair (although, I do love a good lounge day myself.) If your hotel has a fitness center, use it! Better yet, enjoy the sights and sounds of your vacation spot by having an outdoor exercise session.  A morning run, walk, or hike is one way to stay active while getting acquainted with your surroundings during your stay. If offered, find out what recreational activities your resort or city has to offer.

6.    Be realistic and stay flexible

You may not be able to eat 100% healthy but that doesn’t mean you should stuff yourself silly with an excessive amount of food or unhealthy food in general. Stick to whatever fresh, whole foods are available and if something less healthy appeals to you, enjoy it in moderation.

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Octopus salad and cod ceviche. If available, stick to fresh whole foods like these.

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Sweet potato fries, which are just slightly healthier than regular fries, and grilled chicken skewers are a good way to indulge a bit while keeping health in mind.

How else do you stay healthy on vacation?

Gluten Free: What’s the Hype?

When I tell people that I’m studying nutrition, some of the first few questions I’m asked is “what is gluten?” and “should I be on a gluten-free diet?”. It’s difficult to provide an accurate answer to their second question, because people react differently to certain foods. Food intolerances and allergies are real and one should consult a Gastroenterologist, Registered Dietitian, and/or Allergy Specialist when making any changes to one’s diet. However, gluten has become the latest food to be harshly criticized and many people think that eliminating gluten from their diet will be the panacea for any and all physical problems.

So, what is gluten?

Scientifically speaking, gluten is a protein composed of gliadin and glutenin. Gluten gives food products like bread that chewy, doughy texture and familiar mouth-feel that’s difficult to replicate (try making a bread using non-wheat flour!). Gluten is found in all wheat products and in several other grains such as barley, rye, and spelt to name a few.  Wheat (and therefore, gluten) is found in the majority of processed foods. Soy sauce and dressings, snack foods, cereals, protein bars, etc. usually contain wheat derived ingredients and pose a threat to those with real, diagnosed gluten/wheat sensitivity issues (such as Celiac Disease). Symptoms of Celiac Disease and gluten/wheat sensitivity include failure to thrive (in children), low BMI, gastrointestinal issues, fat and other nutrient malabsorption, and skin rashes.

Gluten has become the vilified ingredient as of late due to several reasons. One reason is the fact that more people are legitimately being diagnosed with Celiac Disease because of increased awareness and better testing methods. If you do have any of the above symptoms, or if autoimmune diseases run in your family, I encourage you to voice your concerns to your doctor. However, if the thought of going gluten free appeals to you because you’re looking for a way to lose weight then you should carefully examine your diet. Most likely, you’re consuming too many calories.

It’s very easy for calories to add up if you’re eating a lot of processed foods. Some people find when they do eliminate gluten from their diet, they shed a few pounds. But, most likely, this weight loss is resulting from a decrease in total calories mainly because fresh, whole foods are less calorically dense than pre-packaged, processed foods. For example, someone eating a Pop-Tart (which happens to have gluten in it) for breakfast (and let’s be honest, they’re going to eat two because there’s two in a package) will consume around 400 calories in the form of simple sugars and fat for that meal.  Let’s say that person decides to eliminate gluten from their diet and so they replace the Pop-Tart calorie bomb with a gluten-free meal of two eggs and a small fruit salad (around 300 calories total). That person has now lowered their calorie intake for that meal by one hundred, while getting more protein and fiber (resulting in a lasting fullness sensation) than in the Pop-Tart. Instead of coming to the conclusion that whole foods=probable decrease in total calories, people are quick to point at gluten being the enemy.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether eliminating gluten from your diet can help you. If you have gastrointestinal issues, it may help alleviate symptoms. If you’re consuming a lot of processed foods, it might help you get in touch with a more whole foods-diet. One thing to keep in mind is that food manufacturers are coming up with so many different gluten-free items that are often higher in sugar and fat than their gluten-containing counterparts. This is because eliminating gluten from a baked or processed food product requires ingredients to replace the desirable taste and texture of gluten. Fat and sugar do just that. A gluten-free cookie is no better than a wheat-containing one. It’s still a processed food and should be consumed in moderation.

On the topic of gluten-free and whole foods, I’ve decided to share with you my experimental lunch recipe from yesterday. I had a spaghetti squash in the fridge that I wanted to eat. Sometimes I prepare spaghetti squash and use it as I would regular spaghetti (with tomato sauce, some form of protein, and a vegetable) and sometimes I eat spaghetti squash with a light maple syrup and raisins, almost like a dessert. Yesterday, I went with the former.

 Spaghetti Squash with Seafood & Vegetable Sauce

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Serves 1-2

Ingredients:

1 spaghetti squash (should be firm, yellow in color, free of bruises)

1-2 cups chopped kale

½ cup chopped onion

Thinly sliced garlic, or 1 tbsp. minced garlic

1-2 tbsp. olive oil

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup tomato paste

1 cup diced tomatoes (if using fresh, remove skin)

4 ounces clams, scallops, oysters, or any seafood of your choice (I came up with this recipe as I was going, and all I had were canned clams from Trader Joe’s)

Oregano (to taste)

Basil (to taste)

Salt and pepper (to taste)

  •  To prepare the spaghetti squash, cut lengthwise into two halves. I cooked mine in the microwave to save time. Using a large fork or piercing device, pierce both halves several times. This allows air to ventilate the squash.
  • Place both halves with the exposed sides facing up. Sprinkle a few drops of water on top of both halves and on the bottom of your microwave safe dish or bowl.
  • Heat for 10-12 minutes. Be careful, the squash shouldn’t be handled immediately. While the squash is cooking, you can start on the sauce.
  • In a pan, add olive oil, chopped kale, onion, and garlic. Cook under medium heat for a few minutes.
  • Next add the white wine, tomato paste, and diced tomatoes. Stir well. Add the oregano, basil, and salt and pepper. Cook until the white wine has evaporated (the sauce will be less liquid-y)
  • Now add the clams and/or other seafood. Cover the pan and cook for a few minutes (about 5-8 minutes). (Note- I didn’t add the clams until I cooked the sauce, but based on the taste, I would have combined the clams with the sauce).
  • To remove the spaghetti like strings of the squash, you first take a fork or spoon and dispose of the seeds that will be easily removable with a little scooping. Next, take your fork (use a fork, now) and start scraping the inside halves of the squash. The pieces should be easily removable and appear like strings of spaghetti. After removing the squash “innards”, set aside.
  • Combine the spaghetti squash and contents of the sauce/veggie/clam mix.
  • Serve hot and enjoy!

-Jess