Expert Q&A: Meal Makeovers

How to choose healthier recipes and make meals that kids will love.

Family Nutrition

Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, and Liz Weiss, MS, RD, authors of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers, offer simple advice on how parents can make over their pantries and cooking habits.

The number of overweight children has tripled in a generation, and childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S. To make matters worse, families are busier than ever with both parents working and kids joining a plethora of after-school clubs and sports teams. Making time for a well-balanced family meal is low on the priority list, especially when a fast food drive-thru seems more appetizing than anything you could whip up in your own kitchen.

But good nutrition is still important and this month, in honor of March's National Nutrition Month, we spoke with Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, and Liz Weiss, MS, RD, about their new book, The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers. Janice and Liz have easy solutions to making your own recipes healthier, creating simple snacks, cooking tempting dinners, and getting the whole family involved in making over your meals!

Use the Mom's Guide to Makeovers Shopping List and the five-week plan to healthier eating to get your family started.


Simple Ideas for Better Eating

Question: Janice and Liz, as the authors of The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers, what can you tell us about why today's busy moms should make over their tried-and-true dinner recipes?

Janice and Liz: Many family recipes are high in saturated fat, sodium, and calories, and low in fiber, calcium, and other important health-enhancing nutrients. We're concerned about the growing epidemic of childhood and adult obesity in this country and equally troubled by the overall poor quality of today's fast-paced, grab-and-go convenience diets. The family dinner table offers an excellent opportunity for weaving "super" nutrition into the diet. The trick, however, is in knowing how to do it. That's why we wrote The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers with its 5-Step Meal Makeover Plan, Makeover Pantry, and 120 super-simple "makeover" recipes.

Q: How does your 5-step plan to meal makeovers help families eat better?

J&L: Our plan offers simple strategies for improving the family diet. The plan begins with, "You Have to Start Somewhere." With this first step, we show how small changes, like switching from white bread to 100-percent whole wheat or adding a shredded carrot when making recipes with sauteed ground meat, can bring a burst of great nutrition (and taste) to the table. Another step in our plan, "Market Good Nutrition to Kids," tells parents how to compete with fast food companies -- who successfully market burgers and fries to kids -- by marketing the good stuff instead.


Q: Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems families face. The number of overweight children in the U.S. has tripled in a generation. How do your program and book help parents help their children overcome obesity, lose weight, or even prevent their children from becoming overweight?

J&L: Poor eating habits, super-sized portions, and lack of physical activity all contribute to obesity. To tackle poor eating habits, we encourage parents to limit fast food, soft drinks, and other highly caloric, nutritionally devoid foods, and instead make "fast food" at home. For example, rather than driving to a place like Taco Bell, we offer a recipe for Quick Quesadilla Pockets. This recipe is easy, filling, and incredibly delicious, with a fraction of the sodium and fat found in fast food.

To deal with the problem of super-sized portions, we encourage parents to super-size the good stuff like fruits and vegetables and go easy on the calorie-laden junk foods. The suggested portion sizes of our recipes help with this issue as well. Our pasta dishes, for example, typically call for 2 ounces of dried pasta per person (a reasonable portion) versus half a box!

Finally, we remind families to get moving and limit TV and computer time. Given the fact that children, on average, watch more than three hours of television a day, physical activity is a must.

Q: What is the single best thing parents can do to help their children avoid becoming overweight, now and later in life?

J&L: The best thing parents can do is to teach them to fuel their bodies with fruits, vegetables, and other minimally processed, great-tasting foods, and to incorporate walking and other physical activities into their everyday lives.

Advice for Moms of Picky Eaters

Q: What advice can you offer to moms of picky eaters? How can they get their families to like healthier food?

J&L: We hear this question all the time. The key with picky eaters is to present a variety of colorful foods and to make them taste and look great. For example, steamed broccoli may not wow many children but if that broccoli gets a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt (which, by the way, has half the sodium of table salt), it will taste awesome. We also recommend parents become good role models by eating all those healthy foods they want their kids to eat. Finally, when moms offer new foods over and over again without getting discouraged or fueling a battle at the dinner table, they'll have better success getting kids to take that very first bite.

Q: What's your favorite healthy snack food?

J&L: Some of our favorite healthy snacks include a fruit smoothie (made by blending 100-percent fruit juice, 1/2 ripe banana, a handful of frozen berries, and 1/2 cup of vanilla or fruited low-fat yogurt), peanut butter on apple wedges, and our Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins and Blueberry Snack Cake from The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers.


Q: Are there any frozen foods or TV dinners that you'd recommend for moms on the go?

J&L: We have a very helpful chapter in our book called, The Best of the Bunch. In it, we evaluate the top 10 kid convenience foods on the market and recommend the best tasting and most nutritious products out there. So yes, some frozen foods can indeed be part of a healthy diet as long as you choose "the best of the bunch." For example, when choosing frozen chicken nuggets, we suggest a product with the most protein (a tip-off: it contains real chicken meat), and no hydrogenated vegetable oils, because these add cholesterol-raising trans fats to the diet. With the nuggets, it's also important to serve super-nutritious side dishes such as a salad, our Sweet Potato Fries, or fresh fruit.

Advice for Families on the Go

Q: Today's families often find themselves in four different locations at dinnertime. What healthy eating suggestions do you have for the family that simply can't find time to eat together?

J&L: We believe that eating together as a family should be a huge priority. That said, however, we certainly understand that on some days it's simply not possible. But when schedules get hectic and family members are running in a million different directions, it doesn't mean you have to compromise good nutrition with fast food and frozen dinners. Here's how: If, for example, Mom (or Dad) prepares a big pot of our Halftime Taco Chili or our Beef & Sweet Potato Stew, the meal can still be enjoyed whenever a family member happens to roll in! In addition, if one of the kids is running out the door to soccer or baseball practice, parents can pack their own "take-out" meal such as our Colorful Sweet Potato Burritos, Ham & Cheese Pinwheels, or even a thermos filled with our Mega Minestrone.

Q: Do you think eating dinner together is more important than sports, piano lessons, dance lessons, homework, or the other activities that kids participate in so they can compete in today's world?

J&L: It's important for families to find a balance that works for them. If sports, piano lessons, karate, homework, and other activities end up eating into family time at the table, then perhaps it would be appropriate to cut back a bit. We've both had to make those quality-of-life choices before. Liz's 8-year-old, for example, was involved in a travel hockey program that required two evening practices a week as well as two games a week. After a few hectic weeks of missing family dinners and running ragged, Liz switched him over to a lower-key in-town program. It ended up being the best decision for the entire family.

Q: What about other family members -- what can moms do get them involved in cooking healthier meals?

J&L: The weight of preparing dinner and cleaning up after meals should not have to fall on Mom's shoulders entirely. It's okay to assign tasks to each family member. Janice's 4-year-old helps by setting the napkins on the dinner table while her 11-year-old pours the beverages and sets and clears the table. Janice's husband makes the salad and washes the dishes. When kids help with food preparation, they may be more willing to try something new, so we encourage parents to welcome their children into the kitchen.

The Best Ingredients

Q: What's the first step to making over a meal?

J&L: There are really two major steps to making over a meal. The first is to identify ingredients that sabotage the good nutrition of a dish. The second step is to look for opportunities for weaving "super" nutrition into a recipe. Here's an example: The original recipe for our Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins called for two sticks of butter and all white flour. To reduce the saturated fat and increase the fiber, we nixed the butter and replaced it with 1/3 cup canola oil (a rich source of healthy omega-3 fats) and added some whole wheat flour and wheat germ. Our Have-It-Your-Way Tacos call for lean ground beef to lower the saturated fat and a can of black beans and salsa to kick up the antioxidants and fiber.

Q: What one ingredient or food you would remove from the homes of American families if you could. And why?

J&L: We would eliminate hydrogenated vegetable oils. Hydrogenated oils are in 40 percent of all supermarket food items. They're found in everything from Oreo cookies and Goldfish crackers to Crisco and chicken pot pies. Hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids -- a type of fat that can raise cholesterol levels. Currently, food companies are not required to list trans fats on their labels but the FDA will require it by 2006.

Q: What's your favorite healthy dessert recipe?

J&L: Janice's favorite dessert recipe in The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers is Our Favorite Chocolate Cookie made with finely chopped pecans (a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats). Liz's hands-down winner is our amazingly delicious Chocolate Pudding with Toppers. Made with 1-percent low-fat milk, it provides a big kick of calcium and unlike commercial puddings, contains no artificial colors or flavors.


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