Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
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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Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
Frances Largeman-Roth is a registered dietician, author of four cookbooks, and a mom of two—with a third on the way. A health expert who has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, and the Today Show, she has helped thousands of women find the best foods during pregnancy, lose weight the right way, and incorporate healthier meals into their lives. Her latest book, Eating in Color, hits bookstores this month so we asked her how to add pops of color to our dinner plates and why it’s so important.
This book is entirely about fruits and vegetables—when they’re in season, how to choose them, how to store them, and, of course, how to use them. I have to ask: which is your favorite?
Mangos! When I spent a semester abroad in Australia, I learned how to cut them properly and incorporate them into many dishes. There are two seasons there: fall/winter and spring/summer, so you get different varieties.
You write about a study that found only 30 percent of Americans are getting the recommended 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit each day. Why is improving this statistic important to you?
My father passed away when I was 12. He had all the things that we now understand as warning signs for heart disease and diabetes. We just didn’t know it at the time. Growing up we ate fruits and vegetables, but with my mom’s German background there was also a lot of cured meats and pastries. Now that I’m a parent I understand that moms and dads are super busy, aren’t getting enough sleep, and are more stressed than ever. Because of that, convenience often outweighs nutrition. But this book is about eating better in a fun and visual way.
Tell us more about the five rules you created: eat color often, don’t be monochrome, go outside your comfort zone, make dates with your kitchen, and exercise.
I wanted to explain to readers how they can actually attain this lifestyle and not just admire beautiful images of fruits and veggies. I wanted to connect the message and explain the execution. Sure, everyone is crazy about kale right now, but you can’t just rely on that one super-healthy thing. Plus, trying new things is essential to your health. We all get stuck in ruts with the same go-to recipes or takeout dishes. Pushing out of your comfort zone, though it may take more time and planning, is worth it! And eventually a new recipe will become part of your repertoire. And getting active just has to be part of it.
You describe nutrition not just as a career choice but a life path. How can families make this a priority in their life while balancing their often-crazy schedules?
When you’re rushing home from work to pick up your kids to then rush home to cook something up for them, it’s easy to rely on processed food. But if you can spend time in the morning or on Sunday, you can make so much happen! Simply put it into your calendar to “chop veggies.”
A trip to a farmers market is a great way to get inspired and it’s really fun for your kids. It exposes them to new sights and tastes. You can do something similar at the grocery store because there’s always something new in season. Just the other day I saw a beautiful dragon fruit that turned into an entire lesson: I asked my daughter where it came from, what color it would be inside, how the rough and scaly texture looked and felt. The bottom line: What kid wouldn’t want to try a super-bright pink fruit? This is such an easy way to dive in.
When your daughter Willa was learning colors in school, you offered her “reds, oranges, and greens” instead of “beets, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.” How did changing your food vocabulary help?
It sounds like such a small idea, but it made everything much less frustrating at the dinner table. I completely understand that from the parents’ perspective, trying to get your child to try one item 15 to 20 times is just too many. By the tenth try, you’ve wasted too much food and energy. Instead, go into it with a no-stress mentality. Just put a new food on the table and see what happens. Remember: sometimes kids are simply exerting independence when they are picky about dinner. If you take the pressure off both them and yourself, much of it can be resolved. This doesn’t mean your kids will eat and love everything, but it helps them try new things.
I like to display fruits and veggies in little bowls and in compartmental kids’ plates. I often ask them, “How many colors we can get on our plates tonight?” My two can get a bit competitive with each other, which can help on the dinner-table front.
Some families have super-picky eaters. What else can they do to make the introduction of new foods easier or more appealing?
Let your child have some control. During a trip to the farmers market or grocery store, ask him or her to pick out produce by color—one yellow and one red. Depending on your child’s age, have him or her pick out a recipe and then make it with them. I can guarantee that because they had a hand in it, your children will be more willing to try it.
Just remember that it takes patience. Kids can love something one time and hate it the next. (And vice versa.) But don’t ever stop offering! Their tastes are constantly changing. Or, like in my daughter’s case, their siblings can be influential. When she saw her brother eating avocado, she wanted some.
Don’t cater to “kid food.” The more you offer tater tots and chicken nuggets, the less your children will try the other things. I’m a big advocate of the family meal. Sure, you can have back-ups on hand, but you are not a short-order cook.
Your recipes run the gamut from meals, sides, and snacks to drinks and desserts. Why so much variety?
I wanted to show that fruits and vegetables have a place in everything. When I first started working on the book, I made a list of my chapters. I always knew it would be organized by color. So I started asking myself tough questions like “Besides a pie or crumble, what else can I do with rhubarb?” I approached recipes from outside the box.
You also added a black and tan chapter—including grains, seeds, nuts, and oats. (And my favorite: chocolate!) Why are these are just as important?
I think of the black and tan chapter as the items you pair with all of the other colors. It’s your base layer. To me, these items are a great way to bring in a lot of texture to your dishes.
Okay, we want the scoop. What’s your go-to when you’re in a pinch?
We have pasta often because it’s very versatile. I personally like to make roasted veggies on the side. I use whatever’s in season—butternut squash, sugar snap peas, purple onion, baby carrots, zucchini, cherry tomatoes. Creating a mix is best! We always have grated Parmesan in the fridge so a spaghetti dish can be done in 15 minutes.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Author photo by Quentin Bacon.
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