Dinner in 30 Minutes: Fat Chance?

Healthy and quick have always seemed to be on different playing fields when it comes to dinner. But pediatrician and dad of two Robert Lustig, M.D., has spent 16 years trying to change that—all while treating childhood obesity and studying the effects of sugar on the body. In his latest book, The Fat Chance Cookbook, he provides more than 100 delicious and wholesome meals for families to prepare in 30 minutes or less. Still not convinced? Every recipe was vetted by high school students in home economics classes—if they can do it, so can you!

Dr. Lustig recently shared his secrets for cutting sugar in baked goods and convincing kids to eat spinach.

The main premise of the book is that not all calories are created equal. Can you tell us why that’s so important?

It goes without saying that 100 calories from a cookie are not equal to 100 calories from spinach. Your body uses and stores fuel—calories—very differently, depending on the quality of those calories.

I’m often dubbed “anti-sugar,” but I hate that. I’m actually anti-processed food. As a society, we are eating too much processed food, which contains a lot of added sugar to make it more palatable. Most of us are not consuming enough real food, which has fiber to balance its natural sugar content. We are way over the threshold on sugar and need to return to real, fresh food.

I highly recommend the TED-Ed series on hidden sugars and the food industry called Hiding in Plain Sight. It delves into the larger issues and helps parents make better decisions while grocery shopping.

What do you think is the root cause of the childhood obesity epidemic?

We are consuming all the wrong things. We need more fiber, more Omega-3 fatty acids, more micronutrients, less sugar, no trans fats. I remember when sugar used to be a condiment, not a dietary staple. It’s okay for sugar to flavor food, but not be your food. With this cookbook, my message is that you can prepare real food fast. And not one recipe includes processed ingredients.

If parents aren’t counting calories, what should they be doing?

Look at labels. More importantly, buy food without labels like fresh produce. Then determine how much added sugar or trans fats there are in the labeled foods you’re purchasing. Look for sugar hiding behind one of 56 pseudonyms like corn syrup, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose; the list goes on and on.

Be wary of health claims on the front of your favorite products. The rules governing statements like “hearty-healthy” and “low-fat” are bizzare and less strict than you’d think. Typically, if there’s a health claim on an item, you should probably ignore it and check its nutritional value and ingredients list.

Understand that real food has the answers: the fiber in your apple balances its natural sugar content. Use whole, fresh ingredients and everything improves.

Okay, so how does a busy family get a wholesome dinner on the table while running to sports games, after-school clubs, and PTA meetings?

I know exactly where parents are coming from. I have two girls, a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old, so we shuffle between soccer practice and debate team. We’re always running, but somehow my wife or I find a way to get a real-food dinner on the table every night.

Our trick: stocking the pantry and freezer. I keep a lot of options in my freezer, including chicken breasts and steak. Don’t be afraid of weekend prep. It saves so much time to cook something up, store and save it, or even freeze it for later.

Cindy Gershen, who developed the recipes in the cookbook, is stellar at using leftovers. Because of her, we were able to include tips for how to do that in the book.

What are the first few steps to make toward a better family diet?

You have to build it in slowly. It takes forethought, planning, and trips to the supermarket. It takes a little time, but it doesn’t take a lot of time. Plus, it’s typically cheaper! Start by simply planning a week’s worth of meals ahead of time and prepping a few sides over the weekend.


Which recipes are best to start with?

My favorite weeknight recipes are Quinoa and Black Bean Burrito Bowl (page 214), Brown Rice with Lime and Cilantro (page 225), and Joe’s Scramble (with homemade sausage, green onion, mushrooms, spinach, and parmesan cheese; page 142). Some may sound lengthy, but the active time of every recipe is 30 minutes or less.

And my overall favorite recipe in the book is Polenta Patties with Sautéed Greens, Poached Eggs, and Basil Salsa (page 143). But that’s more for weekend brunch, and it’s slightly elaborate.

Temptation can be hard to battle. Do you ever treat yourself?

My wife loves to bake, but when she does, she cuts the sugar in every recipe by a third. That sounds crazy but it works, and it tastes better! Without being sickeningly sweet, you can taste the other ingredients like nuts and dried fruit.

Our anniversary is coming up and we’re going to a French restaurant. We’ll definitely have dessert and we’ve planned for it: we haven’t had dessert all week!

My kids know that on weekdays dessert is a piece of fruit. If it’s the weekend, then we’ll talk about treats. And the thing is, it doesn’t bother them. They don’t feel like they’re missing anything.

Growing up, were your kids ever picky about fruits, veggies, or other healthy options? How did you work around it?

Of course they were picky. I just had to keep at it. Sure, it’s a pain to keep serving up spinach, but you have no choice. It can take 13 tastes of one savory item before a toddler will like it. Sweets only need introducing once.

But don’t give in! The problem perpetuates when people opt for the easy answer: letting their kids eat refined carbs. Then those same kids become picky eaters who won’t eat anything but processed food.

Putting the effort in is hard, finding the time and where-with-all is hard, but life is hard and raising kids is hard! In the end, it’s all worth it.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Images: Mother and happy child via Shutterstock, The Fat Chance Cookbook cover courtesy of Hudson Street Press, Healthy and unhealthy food on scale via Shutterstock.

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