Menu Makeover: Healthy Thanksgiving Dishes

Let’s talk turkey about overstuffing -- and we don’t just mean your Thanksgiving bird. America’s harvest holiday has become an excuse to gorge on everything from chips and dip to towering slices of pumpkin pie.

“It’s common for many people to eat 2,000-plus calories in one sitting,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (That’s the amount that a sedentary 30-year-old woman needs in a day, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

The fault’s not entirely due to wobbly willpower; research at Cornell University and elsewhere shows that we’re encouraged to overeat by the abundant variety and tempting aromas of dishes and the heaping serving bowls -- not to mention the urgings of well-meaning relatives. But you don’t have to give in to gluttony. Whether you’re cooking or going to Grandma’s house, try these healthier takes on Thanksgiving dishes and other calorie-busting tips:

Don’t go hungry.

Be sure to begin the day with a stick-with-you breakfast, like oatmeal with raisins and apples. If dinner doesn’t start till late, eat a light lunch that includes protein, such as a tuna sandwich or scrambled egg whites. “It’s nearly impossible for people to choose wisely when they’re starving,” says Cohn, the author of Overcoming Binge Eating for Dummies.

Start smart.

If you’re the host, offer sensible snacks as your guests arrive -- popcorn, salsa, hummus and raw veggies, steamed shrimp -- or bring them along, if you’re the guest. And if you’re serving wine or beer -- better caloric bets than mixed drinks -- opt for tall, skinny glasses rather than wide-bottomed ones; research suggests you’ll pour yourself less without even realizing it.

Foil the fat.

Look for ways to reduce or cut out the butter and oil in your Thanksgiving dishes where you can, says noted food writer Jan Turner Hazard, co-editor of the culinary website Kitchen Gadget Gals. Chicken broth or Greek yogurt will make your mashed potatoes just as creamy, for instance. Hazard also suggests using the helpful fat-cutting gizmos you’ve probably tucked into the back of your kitchen drawers, such as the fat separator and salad-dressing mister.

Don’t pass the potatoes.

Several studies show that we eat more food when it’s close at hand. So instead of passing the serving bowls around the table set your Thanksgiving dishes out on a buffet or kitchen counter, where guests will have to work harder to get those second helpings. “At a buffet, it’s much easier to know what you’re eating, and how much of it,” says Cohn.

Lighten up on the classics.

Your dinner may not be complete without green-bean casserole, but you’ll cut calories and add flavor by using low-fat milk instead of creamy canned soup and topping it with sautéed caramelized onions. To help lighten your meal, try to tinker with at least one of your traditional recipes. The Mayo Clinic and Cooking Light magazine offer numerous healthy Thanksgiving recipes based on old favorites, including cider gravy, cornbread stuffing with turkey sausage, maple-roasted sweet potatoes, and frozen pumpkin mousse pie.

Take your time.

Leave the gobbling to the turkeys. Going too fast makes you eat more because the brain needs time to register that your stomach is full, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. So slow down. Catch up with family members and say thanks for the blessings of the past year. “If you focus more on the company and sharing a wonderful time with those around you, you’ll likely have more fun,” says nutritionist Elisa Zied, RD, author of the forthcoming book Younger Next Week.

Work it off.

Instead of diving straight into dessert, work off some of those calories and speed your digestion by taking a walk around the neighborhood. Or pitch in on cleanup -- Weight estimates that a 160-pound person burns about 140 calories an hour bustling around the kitchen! 

5 Nutrients You Need Right Now

Busy days at work and with the kids, plus a packed social calendar means your life isn’t always conducive to eating healthy, vitamin-packed meals.

“So many women tend to be deficient in nutrients that play key roles in our health,” says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian with the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.

Learn more about these five important vitamins and minerals and how to get more of them in your diet. 

1. Calcium fights PMS.

You probably know that calcium prevents osteoporosis, but a diet rich in calcium is also shown to prevent PMS symptoms, according to a study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That’s good news if you’re one of the roughly 85 percent of women who suffer from cramps, fatigue, irritability and bloating each month.

Even if your cycle is pain-free, know that foods rich in this mineral have also been linked to a lower risk of high blood pressure and some cancers, although more studies are needed to say for sure.

Increase your intake: A staggering 78 percent of American women don’t get the recommended 1000 to 1200 mg of calcium each day. So reach for low-fat dairy foods, which are an excellent source, says Haggans. You’ll find plenty -- milk, yogurt, cottage cheese -- in single-serve, carpool-friendly containers.

2. Vitamin D boosts your immunity.

Haggans calls vitamin D the newest “wonder nutrient,” since recent research has found that the vitamin, which plays a role in your immune system, may help you ward off such respiratory infections as the flu.

Vitamin D’s main function is to help your body absorb calcium, yet it may also protect you from diabetes, hypertension and some cancers, including breast cancer, according to other studies.

Increase your intake: Milk and other dairy products fortified with vitamin D will help you consume the recommended 400 IUs. Also eat fatty fish like mackerel and salmon twice a week, says Haggans.

3. Iron increases energy.

Forget pumping iron: Eating iron can help you feel strong too. Iron is necessary for blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Getting enough iron keeps you energized, whether you’re on a power walk or running to a parent-teacher conference.

Iron also helps ferry oxygen to your brain. Adequate amounts of the mineral may help you stay more alert, think clearly and concentrate.

Increase your intake: Attain your 18 mg a day by eating beef, turkey and oysters. Also try lentils, beans and tofu, but eat them with vitamin C-rich foods, such as red peppers. (Vitamin C helps your body better absorb plant-based iron.) “Women who are menstruating or pregnant can have trouble getting enough iron,” says Haggans.

4. Folate protects your breasts. 

You may do self-exams and have a doctor check you annually. But getting enough folic acid is also healthy-breast behavior. Women who eat foods high in folic acid and vitamin B-6 have a lower chance of breast cancer, report Harvard University researchers.

A lack of folate may also cause birth defects, so adequate intake is essential for women of childbearing age, even if you aren’t actively trying for kids. “It’s key to have enough folate in your system since birth defects can form before you even know you’re pregnant,” says Haggans.

Increase your intake: Hit your recommended 400 mg with fortified cereals and bread, spinach, asparagus and beans. Eating plenty of these foods are especially vital for women who drink alcohol. Even moderate drinking may interfere with your body’s absorption of the nutrient.

5. Fatty acids keep your heart healthy.

“Low fat” used to be the diet term du jour. Now experts encourage “good” fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. These fats protect against heart disease by reducing the presence of triglycerides (a fatty substance in blood linked to coronary disease), lowering blood pressure and preventing artery blockages, according to research from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Other studies have linked omega-3-rich diets with a decreased risk for depression and certain cancers, although more conclusive evidence is needed, says Haggans.

Increase your intake: There’s no specific amount recommended, but Haggans suggests eating fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines twice a week.  

“You can get enough vitamins, fatty acids and minerals from a balanced diet,” says Haggans. “But if you need assistance meeting your requirements, talk to your doctor before turning to a supplement.” Some supplements can interfere with medications or put you at risk for a vitamin or mineral overdose.

Photo: Corbis Images

Swapping Ingredients Never Tasted so Good

It’s tempting to jump on the latest diet bandwagon in the hopes of losing weight fast. But as you may know from trial and error, fad diets often set you up for failure. Think about it: Any regimen that bans your favorite foods (or entire food groups) and makes it difficult to share meals with friends and family is ultimately impossible to stick with over time.

Experts agree that the most effective way to lose weight -- and keep it off -- is to make smart changes to your everyday eating habits. One of the best ways to do this is by swapping ingredients -- taking out high-fat and high-calorie ingredients and replacing them with similar-tasting healthier alternatives. 

“You’d be amazed how many calories and fat grams you can shave off your meals -- and not miss any of them,” says Jason Graham, executive chef at Cal-a-Vie Health Spa near San Diego.

Check out Graham’s smart swaps below and lose weight happily. 

1. Use fat-free yogurt for dips and dressings.
You can substitute plain, fat-free yogurt for sour cream or mayonnaise in almost any recipe. Think veggie dips, creamy salad dressings or toppings for tacos, fajitas, chili and baked potatoes. Not only will you get a tangy taste with less fat and fewer calories, yogurt is also a great source of protein.

Greek-style yogurt works best for dips and as a topping because it’s as thick as sour cream. When making creamy salad dressing, use regular yogurt.

Bottom line for your waistline: A few dollops (a quarter cup) of fat-free yogurt contain about 30 calories, which saves you 93 calories and 11 grams of fat compared to sour cream.

2. Swap more egg whites for egg yolks.
Whether baking or making breakfast, using egg whites instead of whole eggs can significantly cut the fat content of your favorite dishes. A good guideline for recipes: Substitute two egg whites for every whole egg, says Graham. For example, instead of a three-egg omelet or scrambled eggs, use one whole egg and four egg whites. When baking, however, replace no more than half the number of eggs with egg whites for best results.

Bottom line for your waistline: Egg whites have zero fat and only 17 calories (but still retain half the protein of a whole egg). That means, for every yolk you toss, you cut nearly 5 grams of fat and 57 calories. 

3. Substitute applesauce for oil or shortening.
Many bread and dessert recipes call for vegetable oil or shortening, two diet disasters. But you can have your cake (or muffins or cookies) and lose weight too! The secret: Trade half the oil or shortening for unsweetened applesauce. For instance, if a cake recipe calls for 1/2 cup of oil, mix in only 1/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup applesauce. It will be lighter yet still meet the high standards of your discriminating taste buds.

Bottom line for your waistline: A quarter cup of applesauce is nearly fat free and has only 25 calories. The same amount of oil or shortening, by contrast, packs more than 50 grams of fat and 450 calories. Per slice of cake, that translates to a savings of about 6 grams of fat and 50 calories.

4. Cut the oil content in vinaigrette.
“Most vinaigrettes have a 3-to-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio,” says Graham. And although olive oil is healthy, it does have a high fat and calorie content. Too much of it can be a diet detriment, despite the fact that you’re eating salad. So try substituting lemon juice or more vinegar for one or two parts of olive oil, or mix either with pre-bottled oil-based dressing. You’ll get a similar taste but more diet-friendly greens.

Graham also offers Cal-a-Vie’s vinaigrette recipe: In a blender, combine 3 cups water, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 cup vinegar (red wine, balsamic or apple cider), salt, pepper and your choice of herbs and spices, plus a pinch of xanthan gum. (Xanthan gum is a tasteless corn product chefs often use as a thickener. You’ll find it at a health food or gourmet grocery store.) “A little xanthan gum goes a long way,” says Graham. “Start with a dash and check the consistency before adding more.”

Bottom line for your waistline: Traditional vinaigrettes can contain between 10 and 15 grams of fat and have about 100 to 140 calories per 2-tablespoon serving. Replacing one part olive oil with lemon juice or vinegar will eliminate about 5 grams of fat and 50 calories per serving. Graham’s Cal-a-Vie recipe, on the other hand, contains less than 2 grams of fat and has a mere 17 calories per serving.

5. Pour coconut milk in place of heavy cream.
Most creamy soups get their richness and silky texture from heavy cream, which as the name implies, is loaded with fat. But cream isn’t the only ingredient that delivers rich flavor and texture. “Omit all the heavy cream and substitute half the amount with canned light coconut milk and half the amount with chicken or vegetable stock,” suggests Graham.

Bottom line for your waistline: One tablespoon of heavy cream packs almost 6 grams of fat and 52 calories. The same amount of coconut milk and broth has only 1 gram of fat and 11 calories, a difference of 5 grams of fat and 41 calories.

6. Saute with cooking spray.
Instead of using a tablespoon or two of oil or butter to saute vegetables, spray the pan with nonstick spray and drizzle only 1 teaspoon of olive oil or less. “The oil will thin and spread out as it heats up,” explains Graham. “You still get the rich taste of cooking with oil but with fewer calories and fat.”  

Bottom line for your waistline: A tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil has a full 14 grams of fat and about 126 calories. By combining fat-and-calorie-free cooking spray with only 1 teaspoon of olive oil, you’ll purge your healthy veggies of nearly 10 grams of fat and 84 calories.

Making small changes can add up to major weight loss over time. If you cut a mere 117 calories a day, for example, you’ll lose a pound a month. To drop a pound a week, shave 250 calories from your daily meals and burn 250 calories throughout the day. (Try walking for an hour or ride your bike for 30 minutes.) Regardless of the route you take or tricks you use, you’ll be on track for successful, long-term weight loss, all while eating your favorite foods. What could be more satisfying than that?

Healthy Brown-Bag Lunches Your Kids Will Love!

With the stresses of another new school year, packing a healthy lunch for your kids can feel as tough as a final exam. But don’t give up and reach for the PB&J just yet. There are plenty of healthy school lunch ideas to tempt young taste buds.

The keys to any healthy school lunch are portion size and variety, says Jill Kammerer, a registered dietician at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Because portion size varies by age, weight and activity level, Kammerer suggests visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate site for suggested menu plans and calorie requirements. Once you know how much your children should be eating, try these tips to find a good mix of lunch choices they won’t trade with their friends.

Stay Balanced

A healthy lunch should have a mix of protein (meat, beans or nuts), vegetables or salad, fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, whole grains (rice, pasta or bread) and dairy or vitamin D-fortified soy products.

Get Your Child’s Input

Ask your child to help plan her lunches for the week, or take her grocery shopping and encourage her to pick something new. Suggest themes, such as Spanish-food week. “If they feel involved, they’re more likely to eat it,” Kammerer says.

Make Healthy Swaps

Create your own nutritionally superior versions of packaged meals. For instance, instead of buying prepackaged deli lunches -- which are both pricey and high in sodium and preservatives -- go to the deli counter and get slices of lean roast beef or turkey and low-fat cheese. Add whole-wheat crackers, and your kids can make their own mini-sandwiches!

Try Variations of Old Favorites

Take a break from peanut butter in the classic PB&J and use almond or cashew butter instead. Both of these are equally high in protein, and almond butter is also rich in vitamin E. Or put your child’s favorite lean cold cuts and cheese in a tortilla for a quick wrap; slice it, and you have fun-to-eat pinwheels. Spread tomato sauce in a pita pocket and add shredded low-fat mozzarella and veggies for a lunch pizza.

Watch for Added Sugars

Fruit cups are often packed in sugary syrup, and fruit strips are usually “fruit” in name only. For healthy school lunches, choose fresh fruit or fruit cups in natural juices to keep.

Go Fresh

“Get them used to things that are fresh,” Kammerer says. “The younger you start, the better.” Let your kids dip raw vegetables into reduced-fat sour cream jazzed up with spices, or have them choose fresh fruits and nuts for a homemade trail mix.

Make Them “App”-y

Kids love to nibble, so a lunch of appetizers should be a hit. Try baked pita chips with hummus or fresh salsa, cheese cubes and frozen grapes.

Pack Smart Sweets

Flavored gelatin, low-fat pudding, a homemade oatmeal-raisin cookie or graham crackers will all satisfy your kids’ sweet tooth without an excess of fat and calories (save the cupcakes for class parties!). But, adds Kammerer, “If your child is overweight, fruit needs to be the dessert.”

Have Fun with Presentation

Divided plastic containers can help if you have an eater who doesn’t want certain foods to touch. Colorful plastic wrap instead of a resealable plastic bag is sure to bring a smile. And be sure to add a riddle or an “I Love You” note once in a while -- it’s a perfect no-calorie surprise!

Photo: Corbis Images

The Dirty Truth About Kitchen Germs

What would you guess is the germiest thing in your house? The trash can? The toilet? It’s actually -- gulp! -- the kitchen sink. In fact, the entire kitchen is a hotbed of bacteria, according to a study by the Hygiene Council, a group of global health experts. The room plays host to half of the top 10 germiest areas in your home, even though most people say they regularly clean the kitchen.

“The potential for bacteria is so high in the kitchen because you bring in uncooked meats and produce that can introduce E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria,” says Dr. Charles Gerba, who holds a doctorate in microbiology and teaches at the University of Arizona. “Cooking kills the bacteria, but handling it increases the risk of spreading germs to other foods and surfaces, like the sink and countertop.”

Fortunately, getting rid of your kitchen germs is a snap. Here are the top five germ-prone areas -- plus quick tricks for cleaning them.

1. The Kitchen Sink

In most drains alone, there are half a million bacteria per square inch, says Gerba. “Everything gets tossed in the sink -- raw food, scraps, dirty dishes,” he says. “Plus, it’s constantly wet, which creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.”

Banish the bacteria: Simply spray your basin and drain with disinfectant every night after cleaning up the dinner dishes. No need to wipe!

2. Sponges

The thing you rely on to clean your kitchen may be sabotaging your efforts. “If you use a sponge to wipe a bacteria-containing area and then use it to wipe countertops and other surfaces, you give germs a free ride around your kitchen,” explains Gerba.

Banish the bacteria: Designate one sponge for washing dishes and another sponge or cloth for wiping surfaces. Toss sponges in the dishwasher with a regular load at least once a week (or whenever one touches raw food). Microwaving a sponge for two minutes also kills bacteria.

3. Cutting boards

Cutting boards are big germ hangouts. Why? “First, you use them to prep things like raw chicken,” says Mary Findley, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Cleaning and owner of Mary Moppins cleaning products. “And second, knives create tiny grooves that trap bacteria and make them hard to clean.”

Banish the bacteria: To prevent cross-contamination, use one cutting board for meat, poultry and seafood, and another only for produce. Wash them after every use: Glass and plastic boards can go in the dishwasher, but wood cutting boards need to be washed and dried by hand. You can also apply mineral oil to wood boards every month or two, which helps seal crevices and block bacteria, says Findley.

4. The Faucet

After handling raw meat, most people reach for the faucet to wash their hands. But that leaves bacteria behind on the handle. What’s more, germy sponges and dishcloths are often stored nearby or draped over the faucet.

Banish the bacteria: When you spray the sink’s basin, also hit the faucet, the handle and the spigot. Or wipe all faucet surfaces with an antibacterial cloth, says Gerba. 

5. The Refrigerator
The fridge handle sees a lot of action, and all those hands can unknowingly spread pathogens. As for the inside, “the bottom shelf is the worst,” says Findley. “When foods leak or drip from above, they all collect there.”

Banish the bacteria: Wipe down the handle, drawers and bottom shelf before your weekly supermarket trip, suggests Findley. Once a month, take out and wash the drawers with soap and water, letting them dry thoroughly.