Healthy Living in the North

Foodie Friday: You, too, can enjoy healthy, home-cooked meals during the work week!

Being both a mom and a dietitian, cooking nutritious meals for my family is definitely at the top of my priority list. But it’s not always easy. During the work week, I find it especially difficult to find enough time to prepare and cook healthy, well-balanced meals. Did I mention I live 30 minutes out of town and have to pick up a toddler on the way home? Or that by the time we get home, my son and I are usually starving, tired, and often hangry*? (*See definition below).

Slow cooker recipes are a fantastic, convenient way to bring nutritious homemade meals to your family dinner table.

I’m only a couple years into this whole working-mom-juggling business, but along the way, I have picked up some tricks that help my family put together yummy meals that include at least 3 out of 4 food groups most nights of the week.

Here are some tips I’d like to share:

  • Plan out your protein options for the week. I have found that taking stock of the proteins in my freezer/fridge and having a general idea of what I will make each night takes away a lot of stress. Proteins like beef, pork, moose, chicken, and turkey take 2-3 days to thaw in the fridge (depending on the cut) and require a bit of forward-thinking. Fish and seafood thaw much quicker, usually in a day or less. Eggs are always my go-to if I don’t have anything thawed and ready to go.
  • Prep vegetables on the weekend (or on your days off if you work weekends). Chop up a variety of your favorite vegetables, place in them in a container or bag, and store in the fridge. Now they’re ready to throw into your recipe or eat raw. Our favorite vegetables include bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, cucumbers and spinach (bought pre-washed, no prep required). I usually chop up onions, too, because I cook with them a lot.
  • Keep an assortment of frozen vegetables on hand. Especially in the winter, I make sure to have a variety of vegetables in the freezer. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones and can be steamed or microwaved in 5-10 minutes. Season with olive oil plus lemon pepper (or other herbs) and voila!
  • Invest in a slow cooker. If you haven’t yet discovered or purchased a slow cooker, I highly encourage you to consider it. I like to toss whatever it is I’m making into the slow cooker insert the night before, store it in the fridge overnight, then just plop it into the cooking vessel and turn it on before I leave for work. I also use it to cook just the protein portion of our meal, like a whole chicken and then add vegetables and a side dish separately. Or I use the protein for making soups and stews (see recipe below for one of my favorite slow cooker stews).
  • Plan for leftovers. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of leftovers. But I have to admit that having them at least one night out of the week makes good sense. I also like freezing individual portions of leftovers to pull out for last minute/emergency purposes.
  • Keep it simple. Life is hard enough – let’s keep cooking during the work week simple, colourful, and fun.

I personally feel that if we are eating homemade food most of (and not necessarily all of) the time, then we’re on the right track. Not only will your wallet thank you for cutting down on take out and eating out, but you’ll be setting a great example for your loved ones.

Have some tips to add to my list? Please share by commenting below!

Recipe: Slow Cooker Sausage, Bean and Pasta Stew

Adapted from the Food Network

Servings: 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3-4 carrots, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 8 oz dried white beans, such as cannellini, rinsed and picked over OR one 28-oz can of white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with a piece of kitchen twine
  • 454 g (1 lb) of your favorite sausage (4-6 links)
  • One 14.5-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or stock
  • One 4 oz chunk Parmesan rind (optional) plus grated Parmesan, for serving
  • 1/2 cup ditalini pasta (or other small pasta such as orzo)
  • 2-3 large handfuls of spinach
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Crusty bread, for serving

Instructions:

  1. Spread the onions over the bottom of a 6- to 7-quart slow cooker and top with the carrots, garlic, white beans, thyme bundle, and sausage links. Mix the diced tomatoes with the broth and 3 cups water and pour over the sausages. Add the Parmesan rind if using.
  2. Cook on high for 4 to 5 hours or on low for 7 to 8 hours. Uncover the slow cooker, remove and discard the thyme bundle and Parmesan rind and transfer the sausage links to a cutting board. Stir the pasta into the stew and continue to cook, covered, until the pasta is cooked through, about 20 minutes.
  3. Turn off the heat. Cut the sausages into bite-sized pieces and stir into the stew along with the spinach, parsley, and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with grated Parmesan on the side for sprinkling on top and crusty bread for soaking up the broth.

Tamara’s notes: I do step #1 the night before by placing the ingredients in the insert portion of the slow cooker and keeping it in the fridge overnight. Before I leave for work in the morning, I put the insert into the cooking vessel and turn it on.

*Hangry is defined as “being irritable or angry as a result of hunger”. It’s a real thing.

Tamara Grafton

About Tamara Grafton

Tamara is a registered dietitian currently working with the clinical nutrition team at UHNBC and in long term care facilities in Prince George. Originally from a small city in Saskatchewan, she now lives the rural life on a ranch with her husband and young son. She has a passion for nutrition education, healthy eating and cooking. In her downtime, she enjoys reading food blogs, keeping active, and trying out new recipes on her family and friends

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The sit-down family meal: A thing of the past?

Family eating at a table

Is it really worth it to take the time to eat as a family? The answer is yes!

When I think back on my childhood, some of my best memories involve food: big family gatherings for holiday meals, unplanned barbecues in the summertime, baking with my grandmother. They all revolve around enjoying food together as a family. Even when my sister and I were busy with various after-school activities, my parents almost always made sure we sat down and ate together. Now that I have a family of my own, I make a point of having a sit-down dinner most evenings. Is it really worth it to take the time to eat as a family when we could just eat on-the-go? The answer is yes!

The way in which families dine together has changed from 20+ years ago. People are often distracted by technology and lead fast-paced, busy lives. But what are we missing out on when we don’t sit down to eat together? Research shows that family meals have a big impact on the health and happiness of children. Structured family meals can:

  • Serve as an opportunity to “catch up” with one another and exchange stories.
  • Engage children in trying a variety of foods in a safe setting where others are enjoying the same foods.
  • Teach children to come to the table hungry, and eat with pleasure. They will leave happily satisfied and energized to do other things.

Family meals don’t have to be elaborate. They can be as short or as long as your schedule allows. Even sitting down to enjoy a snack together is beneficial. Some meals might be missing a family member or two for whatever reason – and that’s okay. The key is to have everyone as often as your family can manage. To get started, try these tips:

  • Set a realistic goal. If you aren’t already having family meals, try for 2 or 3 meals a week and build from there.
  • Pick a time to eat that works for most family members, or alternate times so everyone has a chance to participate.
  • Communicate to all family members about the time and place. This avoids the “I didn’t know” excuse.
  • Set aside all distractions. Come to the table gadget-free, ready to eat and connect with one another.
  • Keep the mood positive. Don’t pressure children to eat; provide a variety of food and allow them to choose whether and how much to eat.

Remember: it’s not always about what you eat, but that you are taking the time to eat together. Start making plans for your next family meal today!

More tips and resources on family meals

The Ellyn Satter Institute:

Healthy Families BC:

Tamara Grafton

About Tamara Grafton

Tamara is a registered dietitian currently working with the clinical nutrition team at UHNBC and in long term care facilities in Prince George. Originally from a small city in Saskatchewan, she now lives the rural life on a ranch with her husband and young son. She has a passion for nutrition education, healthy eating and cooking. In her downtime, she enjoys reading food blogs, keeping active, and trying out new recipes on her family and friends

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Foodie Friday: Make small changes to your portion sizes

It’s Nutrition Month and this year’s theme is “Take a 100 Meal Journey: Make Small Changes, One Meal at a Time”. It’s a great chance to reflect on what small, healthy changes we can all make in our food choices and habits, including portion sizes.

Consider the following:

How many times do we overeat when we are presented with a large, delicious-looking plate of food? Do we know when to stop eating because we are full and not because we’ve eaten every last bite? Just think about how easy it is to sit down with a bag of chips or popcorn and eat more than our share’s worth.

I know I’m guilty of these things at times.

Over the past few decades, larger portions have become normal. The size of dinner plates has increased, packaged goods come in larger quantities, and restaurants serve meals so large that they skew our perceptions of what a “normal” portion size actually looks like. Undoubtedly, larger portions play a role in how much we eat and can contribute to excess weight gain. When larger portions, especially larger portions of less nutritious foods, become part of our daily norm, they can impact our health and well-being in the long run.

If portion sizes are an area you struggle with, now is a great time to start making small changes! Consider the following tips to help you begin:

  • Become familiar with the recommendations for total daily servings for your age and gender and what a serving size looks like, according to Canada’s Food Guide. Take a look at this handout on estimating portion sizes using your hands.
  • Fill half your plate with vegetables at mealtimes. Increasing the amount of vegetables you put on your plate will help moderate the portions of other foods.
  • When eating out, ask for a to-go container with your meal and place some of your meal in it before taking your first bite. Or split the meal with a friend.
  • Instead of taking the whole bag, place a couple handfuls of chips or popcorn into a small bowl to prevent mindless munching.
  • Check out your plate size. Consider choosing a smaller plate to help avoid dishing up too much food.

It’s also important to remember to enjoy the food we eat; paying attention to when we’re hungry and when we’re full. Small, conscious changes to what we eat and how much we eat can lead to long-term benefits.

Bowl of curry over rice

Tamara’s small, nourishing change for Nutrition Month is to switch out some of her portions of meat and poultry for protein alternatives like beans, lentils and chickpeas. Her favourite sweet potato chickpea curry recipe is a great way to get started!

What changes will you make for Nutrition Month?

I’m pledging to switch out some of my portions of meat and poultry for protein alternatives like beans, lentils and chickpeas. I already started by digging out one of my favourite vegetarian recipes, which I’m sharing with you below. I hope you enjoy!

Sweet Potato Chickpea Curry

From Chef Michael Smith

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

  • Splash of vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Small knob of frozen ginger (*see tip below)
  • 1 tsp (5 ml) Thai curry paste
  • 2 sweet potatoes (or yams), peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
  • 19 oz (540 ml) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 14 oz (398 ml) can of coconut milk
  • 1 cup (250 ml) orange juice
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) peanut butter (or other nut butter)
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • 1 cup (250 ml) frozen green peas
  • Several handfuls baby spinach
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) chopped cilantro (optional)

Instructions

  1. Add a splash or two of vegetable oil to a stockpot over medium-high heat. Toss in the onion and garlic and sauté them until they’re lightly browned, about 5 minutes or so.
  2. Grate the frozen ginger into the pan and add the Thai curry paste. Continue cooking until the spices are heated through and fragrant, another few minutes.
  3. Add the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, coconut milk, orange juice, peanut butter, and salt. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat and continue simmering until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas, spinach and cilantro.
  4. Serve over rice.

*Tip: I like to store whole, unpeeled ginger in the freezer and grate it as needed. If sealed in a bag or container, it’ll keep for many months so I always have some on hand.

Tamara Grafton

About Tamara Grafton

Tamara is a registered dietitian currently working with the clinical nutrition team at UHNBC and in long term care facilities in Prince George. Originally from a small city in Saskatchewan, she now lives the rural life on a ranch with her husband and young son. She has a passion for nutrition education, healthy eating and cooking. In her downtime, she enjoys reading food blogs, keeping active, and trying out new recipes on her family and friends

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