DIY: Trail Mix

I hope you all had the happiest/merriest hannukah/x-mas/kwanza. Now onto trail mix. It’s a great snack.  And, it’s so easy to make.  Making it at home will save money AND involve your kids if you let them choose and mix the ingredients.

Nuts are a nutritional power house – they provide healthy fats, fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin E, and protein that help satiate us. Dried fruit provides vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.

However, beware tail mix is calorically dense, meaning it’s high in calories for the portion. That’s because dried fruit, as the name indicates, is fruit that has been dried of water, leaving only the concentrated fruit sugar. And, nuts are high in the “good” un-saturated fats (healthy fats are still calories). Despite the high calories, the other healthy factors (vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, protein) make it a nutritionally dense food that can be a great snack. Like most good things in life that have limits, so too with trail mix. Portion control is key. We’re talking 1/4 cup or  about a handful.

Simple Steps to Do-It-Yourself Trail Mix:

1. 1 cup of nuts of your choice, preferably unsalted (almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, brazilian nuts)

2. 1 cup dried fruit of your choice (raisins, cranberries, diced apricots, diced prunes, diced dates)

3. 1/4 cup dark chocolate if you’re really craving chocolate

4. 1/4 cup seeds of your choice to boost the fiber load (flax, pumpkin, sunflower seed)

5. Add a dash of sea salt — it’s better to buy unsalted nuts and add in the salt yourself this way you can control how much salt goes in there. Feeling crazy? Spice around. A dash of chili or cayenne powder never hurt a handful of nuts.

6. Mix all together. Store in plastic bags at room temperature(if your house gets hot, put it in the fridge to prevent the chocolate from melting).

Viola! Quick and easy. Key to portion control – don’t eat out straight out of the bag or else there’s no stopping. I’d suggest dividing ~1/4 cup portions into separate little baggies, but that wouldn’t be very earth-friendly now would it?

Holy Pesto

I know that in almost every post I say “if I only had 1 message to get across…” and so far that has included kids’ involvement in cooking, bravery to try new foods, food label reading and the banning canned goods. But, I am back with another main theme: Cooking isn’t that hard – it can be accessible to anyone. Hey, I work with a tiny kitchen that has a small fridge (breaks my heart) and no dishwasher. So if I can do it, you can. A perfect example – home-made pesto.

People think to buy pesto, not make it. I had a bunch of basil on it’s way out, and I knew I had to do something. Plus I couldn’t miss the opportunity to use my fav kitchen gadget – the immersion blender. I didn’t follow any recipes, and through trial and error I got it right. My first batch was quite garlicy to the point of un-edible (but like mother like daughter my Mama just told me she did the same thing).

Little Bites Home Made Pesto:

1 bunch of fresh basil (always keep basil in the fridge wrapped in wet paper tower)

1/4 cup heat-healthy olive oil to start– I usually end up adding more

Salt + Pepper

1/2 clove garlic, chopped

Instructions:

1.Clean basil well and tear off leaves from stems — a great thing for the kids to do

2. Add basil leaves, garlic, dash of s+p and 1/4 cup olive oil to start

3. Use an immersion to puree until smooth

4. Add more olive oil to thin out as needed. Add more salt, pepper, garlic for flavoring

Many recipes call for pine nuts which adds texture, so feel free to add in 1/4 cup at a time. I didn’t have any in my cabinet, so I had to improvise using what I had, and it came out great without them. Many recipes also call for parmesan cheese, but that’s just adding fat and calories to something that already has a fair amount of oil.

Ways to eat pesto:

1. Add onto pasta, or in my case gnocchi

2. Mix into potatoes – taste great in mashed or roasted potatoes

3. Use as a spread on your next turkey or egg sandwich instead of high fat mayo and high sugar ketchup

4. Delicious as a salad dressing

5. Add onto orzo + cherry tomatoes for a quick, easy and inexpensive side dish

6. Flavor up your hummus

7. Add onto plain grilled or baked chicken breast or fish

Do It Yourself (DIY): Oatmeal

Ah, the wonders of oatmeal. This little girl seems to agree.  It’s usually associated with breakfast, but it’s great as a snack or for any meal, especially on a cold day. Oatmeal is a whole grain high in soluble fiber. And, it’s a good source of the B vitamin thiamine and iron. Soluble fiber is beneficial in a few ways. First it absorbs water in our bodies which slows digestion, making us feel full for longer (helpful in weight control and maintaining stable blood sugar). And, it helps lower cholesterol by removing the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) out of the body. According to Quaker,  3/4 cup of oatmeal each day can lower cholesterol. The research is so strong that the FDA approved the label claim that it can reduce risk of heart disease when combined with a low-fat diet.

Kids can sometimes be scared of oatmeal because of its mushy texture. Great, a perfect opportunity to get them involved. Because if you haven’t picked up on one of my main themes = if kids prepare the food they are more likely to eat it. A fun activity is an “oatmeal bar” – have kids set up cups of fruit, spices, add-ins, natural sweeteners (honey/maple syrup). Make a big batch of oatmeal on the stove and have everyone add in their own toppings.

Types of Oats:

All oats are whole grain meaning they have all parts of the oat gran including the bran, endosperm and germ. But they can differ in taste, preparation, cooking time and nutritional value.

Steel cut/Irish: Inner portion of the oat kernel is cut into small pieces by steel rather than being rolled.  It has a nuttier flavor and is and chewier than rolled oats. It takes longer to prepare because of its minimal processing. Cooks in 15-30 minutes on the stovetop.

Rolled oats/old fashioned: Inner portion of the oat kernel is rolled into flat flakes with heavy rollers, then steamed and lightly toasted. Cooks in 5 minutes on the stovetop.

Quick-cooking rolled oats/quick oats: Rolled oats cut that are cut into small pieces before being steamed and rolled to cut down cooking time. Cooks in 1-2 minutes on the stovetop.

Instant: Rolled oats that are pre-cooked and dried, then sodium is added as a preservative. Just add boiling water and does not require cooking.

Nutritional Comparison of Quaker Oats (per 1.5 oz dry = single portion packages):

Rolled/old fashioned: 159 Kcal, 4.3 gm fiber, 0 mg sodium, 1.1 gm sugar

Steel cut/Irish:   159 kcal, 4.3 gm fiber, 0 mg sodium, 1.1 gm sugar

Quick oats:  159 Kcal, 4.3 gm fiber, 0 mg sodium 1.1 gm sugar

Instant (Maple & Brown Sugar): 160 Kcal, 3 gm fiber, 270 mg sodium, 13 gm sugar

Surprising, huh? Instant oatmeal is much higher in sodium and sugar and lower in fiber. Another case where you can thank salt for being a preservative in pre-cooked goods. I was surprised when I learned that those with high blood pressure should avoid instant oatmeal because of added sodium. My vote? Any type besides the instant. Really, rolled, steel cut and quick oats are nutritionally comprable, they just differ in cooking time and taste.

Since I’m the barrer of bad news on instant oatmeal, it’s only fair I provide some alternatives. Making oatmeal from scratch is really easy, I promise.

Do It Yourself Oatmeal:

1. Buy either rolled, steel cut or quick oats. I like the flavor and texture of steel cut best even though it takes a little longer to make.

2. Follow instructions on the label for amount of liquid, oats and cooking time.

3. Substitute water for fat-free milk if you don’t eat much dairy and need to boost calcium intake.

4. Add in flavorings of your choice: cinnamon, vanilla extract, dried fruit, fresh fruit, teaspoon of peanut butter (similar to hummus, I try PB with everything), teaspoon of natural sweetener like honey or maple syrup.

If you’re not ready to part with instant, you can still make a healthier choice if you buy unflavored package and add in your natural sweetener or fresh flavors. This way YOU can control how much sugar goes in.

Have leftover rolled “old fashioned” oats? They’d go perfectly in this  cookie recipe.

It’s Raining Spaghetti Squash

One of the best things about fall is the return of the spaghetti squash, part of the winter squash family. It varies in color on the yellow-orange spectrum. The darker the orange the more beta-carotene, a plant pigment with antioxidant properties that can be converted into Vitamin A, which helps promotes  skin and eyes health. True fact- if you eat too much beta carotene it can start tinting your skin orange. But don’t worry, you’d have to eat A LOT. Spaghetti squash is very low in calories. Compared to pasta spaghetti, it’s a nutrition rockstar. 1 cup of cooked spaghetti squash weighs in at about 45 calories, 10 gm carbs, 2 gm fiber compared to about 220 calories, 3 gm fiber, 43 gm carbs in 1 cup of cooked refined (white) spaghetti.

Not only is it good tasting and healthy, but it’s really fun to make.  Is it normal that I was excited to come home from work last night to make it? I still can’t get over how one squash turns into a pile of spaghetti. It’s magic. And being that I am in my mid-twenties and still find it fun, imagine what kids would think? For all those who have kids or little cousins or siblings, try to make it with them this weekend or next week (perfect T-giving side).

Steps to Spaghetti Squash

Look at that beauty

1. Heat oven to 375.

2. Cut squash in half, lengthwise – warning, man power and a good knife required.

3. Use a fork to remove the seeds (wait, before you throw them out re-use them in his  recipe).

4. Place the 2 halves on lighty greased baking sheet open side down.

5. Cook for about 30 minutes.  Depending on the size  of squash it could be as short as 25 or as long as 35 minutes. You are looking for a soft texture that can easily pierced though with a fork.

6. Cool for 10 minutes.

 

7. Keep the squash on baking sheet or cutting board. Using a fork, scrape lengthwise  along the squash pulling off the spaghetti-like strands.

 

 

 

 

Viola! Look how much 1 squash makes. Crazy right? That’s a whole-lotta squash.

 

 

 

Now do whatever you crave. You can eat it as is or throw it back on the stove and mix it with well, anything. Whatever would be good on spaghetti would be good on this. Try sauce, cheese (preferably low fat), sauteed veggies, roasted garlic, chicken, fish, turkey meatballs, beans, fresh herbs and spices. Add cumin and coriander for an Indian flare. Add part-skim mozzarella and tomato or pesto for an Italian style. Try feta olives and roasted peppers for Greek flavor.

The finished product

Last night I wanted simple, so I threw 1 1/2 diced tomatoes, 1/2 chopped onion and 1 garlic clove on a medium flame for 5 minutes, then added the spaghetti squash and mixed for 1 minute. Delicious.