Healthy Living in the North

Foodie Friday: microwave cooking 2.0

This summer, when I was trying to beat the heat, I used my microwave more often. It worked well, keeping my kitchen and the whole house a little cooler. I was amazed because I’d never used the microwave to cook things like rice and pasta. Now the temperatures outside are closer to the freezing mark but I’m still exploring what I can cook in the microwave. Today I’m tackling meat.

spaghetti and meatballs on plate

I decided to try cooking spaghetti and meatballs, one of my family’s favourite meals, in the microwave. Besides being quick, the other bonus is there are less pots to clean up after!

When I heat food in the microwave, the meat can dry out a bit, making it a little tough and chewy, so I was worried that cooking the meat from scratch by this method wouldn’t work well. I was also concerned that I wouldn’t cook the raw meat long enough and cause someone to get sick when they eat it! Nevertheless, I decided to try cooking spaghetti and meatballs, one of my family’s favourite meals, in the microwave. I have to say, besides microwave cooking being quick, the other bonus is there are less pots to clean up after. I like that!

Microwave Meatballs

Makes 30 small meatballs

Ingredients:

  • 450 grams (1 lb) ground beef
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup of minced onion or 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3 teaspoons total of any of all of these dried herbs: basil, oregano, parsley
  • ½ cup quick oats or dried bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 egg

Instructions:

Step 1: Microwave the meatballsUncooked meatballs on plate.

  1. Combine all ingredients until they are well mixed with equal amounts of quick oats throughout the meat.
  2. Create the size of meatballs you like but remember that the bigger the meatball the longer you’ll have to cook it. I made 30 small meatballs using a tablespoon measure as my guide.
  3. Place meatballs in a microwave safe dish. Try to keep them spaced apart from each other (I cooked mine in two batches).
  4. Cover with a microwave safe cover. Cook at 70% power for 6 minutes. (My microwave has 1200 watt power so you’ll need to change the cooking time if your microwave has less or more watts than mine.)
  5. At the end of the cooking time, if you have a meat thermometer you can use it to check the temperature inside the meatball. The temperature should get to 160C (320F). Another way to know if the meat is done is to cut it open; there should be no redness to the meat anymore.

Step 2: Microwave the spaghetti

  1. Measure how much spaghetti to use. I hold the spaghetti between my thumb and forefinger. For about two servings, I measure out an amount the size of a toonie coin.
  2. Break the spaghetti into smaller pieces and put it in a microwave safe dish with about three cups of water on top. The dish should be big enough for the water to boil and the spaghetti to get bigger (My dish holds eight cups of water).
  3. Add ¼ tsp of salt to the water and one tablespoon oil.
  4. Cook in the microwave, uncovered for four minutes on high. Then, use a fork and break up the spaghetti so it can continue cooking without sticking together.
  5. Allow spaghetti to sit in the microwave for two minutes and then cook again for four minutes on high.
  6. At the end allow the pasta to sit for five minutes in the microwave. It will keep cooking and become tender.

Step 3: Put it all together!

  1. Use your favourite spaghetti sauce, add it to the meatballs and reheat in the microwave. I warmed my up for about two minutes.
  2. Pour over the spaghetti and serve! Enjoy!
Judy April

About Judy April

Judy works in Dawson Creek as a dietitian. A true northerner, she grew up just 75 km away in Fort St. John. She still wonders why the winters are so long but seems to forget when the long summer days arrive and she can go out in her garden at 10 o’clock at night without a flashlight! She’s a person who loves variety in life and at the table!

Share

Foodie Friday: Pumpkin-more than just a spooky decoration

woman holding pumpkins.

Carving pumpkins are less flavourful than their smaller relatives, but the seeds are edible and extremely delicious when roasted!

It’s that time of year again – when kids are getting their Halloween costumes ready, and pumpkins are being carved. I recently learned that the tradition of carving pumpkins began in Ireland, as a way to ward off evil spirits. Interesting, right? To this day, pumpkin carving is still a fun way to spend time with family or friends, to be creative, and to celebrate the fall season.

But pumpkins are much more than a fun Halloween activity. As a dietitian, at this time of year I often get asked, “Aside from carving and eating it in pie, what can you actually make with pumpkin?”

Pumpkin, like many of its cousins, is an edible squash, like butternut or acorn squash. It comes from the same family as cucumbers, zucchini, and watermelon. For some reason though, pumpkins seem to be less well known for their versatility as a food. While we see pumpkin flavoured things everywhere these days: in coffee, granola bars, and yogurt, it’s not often featured in main dishes.

Ways to eat pumpkin:

  • You can eat pumpkin in many of the same ways as other squash: add it to soups, stews, pasta dishes, sauces, oatmeal, pancakes, baked goods, or your favourite snacks. Pumpkin even works in stir-fry.
  • You can buy canned pumpkin puree in the store – this is a convenient way to have pumpkin around, and you can store it for a long time. You can also make your own pumpkin puree
Row of carved pumpkins.

This week Laurel learned that carving watermelons is just as effective as carving pumpkins – and the flesh is a tasty treat while you carve!

Tips on types:

There’s a difference between edible and ornamental pumpkins:

Ornamental

  • Large carving pumpkins: not nearly as flavourful as their smaller cousins. They’re watery and stringy. You can still roast and eat the seeds – highly recommended!
  • Huge show pumpkins: these are really cool, if you’ve ever seen one at a fair, but they’re not edible.

Edible

  • Sugar pumpkins: they’re a few pounds (~2-3lb) and have a rich, sweet flavour.
  • Miniature pumpkins: provide a lovely centre piece at a fall themed table. You can also eat them. They become bitter as they age, so if you’re using as a centre piece, eat within a few weeks.

Benefits of pumpkin:

  • They’re a great source of fibre, potassium, and vitamin C, as well as vitamin A, which is important for vision and a strong immune system.
  • Working with pumpkins can be a fun activity for kids: choosing one, roasting the seeds, or helping to make a tasty recipe!

Don’t forget about the seeds!

  • You can roast them: Add your favourite spices or just with a little oil and salt (a fun activity for kids).
  • Add to salads, cereals, trail mix (for a great on-the-go snack), yogurt, and baked goods, or eat a handful as a snack.
  • Pumpkin seeds are a great source of protein, fibre, iron, zinc and magnesium.
Pumpkin oatmeal.

Pumpkin oatmeal: a cozy breakfast. Any toppings of your choice can work.

Pumpkin oatmeal

Prep time: 5-10 minutes             Cook time: ~15 minutes           Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of quick cooking oatmeal
  • 4 cups of water, or 2 cups water & 2 cups of milk (if you’d like a creamier oatmeal)
  • 1 (14 ounce) can of pumpkin puree, or 1 ¾ cup of roasted sugar pumpkin
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 tbsps. maple syrup or honey

Instructions:

  1. Combine water, oatmeal and bring to a boil. Add the pumpkin puree and spices.
  2. Cook as instructed on your oatmeal package (should take around 7 -10 minutes for the oatmeal to cook). Stir often.
  3. Add maple syrup, stir, and serve.

Optional: sprinkle with pumpkin seeds, coconut shavings, or any topping you like.

This Halloween, when you’re picking a carving pumpkin from your local Farmers’ Market or grocery store, grab a sugar pumpkin and try it for your next meal!

Laurel Burton

About Laurel Burton

Laurel works with Northern Health as a population health dietitian, with a focus on food security. She is a big proponent of taking a multi-dimensional approach to health and she is interested in the social determinants of health and how they affect overall well-being, both at the individual and population level. Laurel is a recent graduate of the UBC dietetics program, where she completed her internship with Northern Health. She has experience working with groups across the lifecycle within BC and internationally to support evidence-informed nutrition practice for the aim of optimizing health. When she is not working, Laurel enjoys cooking, hiking and travelling. She is looking forward to exploring more of the North!

Share

Foodie Friday: To-fu or not To-fu – Smart ways to adopt plant-based eating

Plant-based eating has become one of the largest food and health trends of the past few years, which, as a dietitian, I’m delighted to see. Aside from being delicious, plant-based protein choices are typically lower in saturated fats, higher in fibre, and can be more sustainable for the environment. You can’t deny the health benefits of vegetarian or vegan eating when it’s done properly, because there are many benefits!

However, that doesn’t mean that we need to adopt a strict new lifestyle to reap the rewards. It’s up to you what kind of commitment you want to make. Many of us probably wouldn’t fare well on a strictly vegan diet (me included!), but we could make small steps to better our health, and the planet’s. Most of us eat 21 meals each week – is there opportunity for you to make one or two more of those meals meatless?

Plate of tofu and veggies.

Looking to include more meatless ingredients in your meal rotation? Tofu could be that quick-and-easy staple your family is looking for!

If meatless eating is a new ballgame for you, it doesn’t need to be a complicated affair; try simple items like vegetarian chili, tofu stir fry, lentil soup, homemade black bean burgers, or falafel. You could also be more adventurous and include things like TVP (textured vegetable protein), seitan (made from the protein gluten), or tempeh (a fermented soy product). I don’t usually recommend the “fake meat” products which are highly processed, usually pack a dose of sodium (and are expensive). As always, fill your plates with delicious vegetables and whole grains to make these meals as satisfying as possible.

Tofu, in particular, is one of those foods that people decidedly dislike before they’ve had a chance to try it. I get it, it’s bland, spongy, and there are so many types – it can be intimidating to make for the first time. With the right techniques, like pressing out the excess moisture, and using a delicious marinade, it just might be that quick-and-easy staple your family is looking for!

Amelia’s Tofu “Un-Recipe”

Ingredients:

  • 1 block extra firm tofu (454 g)
  • 2 Tbsp cornstarch

Marinade (or use another favorite marinade recipe):

  • 1 tsp oil of choice (sesame, canola, olive)
  • 2 Tbsp cup low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock (or use water if none on hand)
  • 1 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce (or use extra stock for lower sodium)
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar (or honey, molasses, maple syrup)
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced (or a hefty pinch of garlic powder)
  • 1 tsp grated ginger (or a pinch of ground ginger)
  • Optional: Hot sauce, to taste. (Or use black or cayenne pepper for lower sodium)

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or with lightly oiling. Tofu can also be cooked by pan frying over medium heat or even bbq-ing, 5-8 minutes per side, if that suits you better. Tofu can also be eaten raw; uncooked marinated tofu is a yummy addition to a green or pasta salad.
  2. Open tofu package and drain excess water, dry the surface of the tofu with a clean towel. Slice the tofu widthwise in 1cm (3/4 inch) slices. Slice each slice into 2 triangles.
  3. Lay the triangles between two clean, dry kitchen towels and press firmly to remove any excess moisture, removing moisture allows the tofu to soak up delicious flavour!
  4. Mix marinade ingredients in a dish and add tofu, ensuring all pieces are covered, and let sit at least 20 minutes, turning halfway through to coat. During this time you can chop veggies and start to prepare your side dishes.
  5. After 15 minutes, drain excess liquid (if any) and add cornstarch, tossing to coat evenly.
  6. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake 40 minutes, flipping tofu after 20 minutes.

My favorite way to enjoy baked tofu is dipped in a spicy peanut sauce and served alongside some colorful veggies and roasted potato chunks.

Have you tried incorporating vegetarian mealtimes in your household? Let us know in the comments what it’s like for you to eat off the “meaten” path!

Amelia Gallant

About Amelia Gallant

Amelia is a Primary Care Dietitian living and working in Fort St. John. Born and raised near St. John's, Newfoundland, she made her cross-country journey to northern BC in 2017 and is delighted to see comforts of home in the kindness of the people she meets and their love of the outdoors - even in the long and snowy winters. Forever a foodie, Amelia's the one at your dinner table trying to snap the perfect picture, or trying to replicate the latest food trends in her kitchen. As a dietitian, she hopes to simplify the mixed nutrition messaging and help people re-learn to enjoy their eating experience while supporting their healthy living goals.

Share

Foodie Friday: back to school lunches

It’s now the first week of school. Where did the summer go?!  If you are like me and a parent of school-aged kids, you are now struggling to get back into the school routine and this includes packed lunches. Sometimes we just need some suggestions and creativity to find lunch solutions that keep our children engaged.

Back to school blocks.

Your child is going to need something nutritious to eat to get them through the school day.

One of the best things that happened this last year was my children’s school instituted a play first lunch, where the kids play outside and then eat their lunch. This has resulted in my daughter eating more of her lunch as she isn’t in such a rush to get outside and play. If you’re interested in this concept you can find more information here.

However, no matter how the lunch time is structured, your child is going to need something nutritious to eat to get them through the rest of the school day. Looking for ideas? Try Lise’s Master Fruit Muffin Recipe, for some more lunch ideas check out HealthLink BC. Overall, remember that variety is key. Rarely would anyone want to eat the exact same food day after day; your child is unlikely to want the same lunch every day. Aim for at least three out of the four food groups and don’t forget the ice pack. Here are a few ideas:

  • Sandwich, wrap, roti or pita stuffed with meat, cheese, egg, tuna, peanut butter*, jam, vegetables and/or hummus.
  • Chili, stew, perogies, soup, samosas, pasta salad
  • Waffles, pancakes or muffins
  • Cereal and milk
  • Quiche, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs
  • Crackers or tortilla and cheese
  • Yogurt and granola
  • Kebabs (meat, cheese, vegetable)

*Note: due to allergies, some schools do not allow peanut butter.  Alternatives such as Wowbutter may be allowed.

Rebecca Larson

About Rebecca Larson

Rebecca works in Vanderhoof and the surrounding communities as a dietitian. She was born in the north and returned after her schooling. Rebecca loves tobogganing with her daughter in the winter, gardening and camping in the summer and working on her parents cattle ranch in her spare time.

Share

Foodie Friday: Creating fast and efficient meals for big events

I recently went home to visit family – people who now live far apart from each other, in different corners of the country, and the globe! On this particular visit, my sister and her small children were returning from Singapore, so along with additional family, we were navigating some significant jet lag! Needless to say, we wanted to have hassle free, easy to prepare meals. Also, when you’re visiting family you haven’t seen in at least a year, who wants to spend all that time cooking?

Planning meals for large gatherings (such as family reunions or celebrations) can take a lot of work, and can be stressful! Fear not. Here are some tips that can make meal time faster and more efficient, so you can spend more time visiting.

Tips for preparing big meals:

  • Stick to familiar meals, and keep it simple: for big family gatherings, we often stick to meals we know best. That way, cooking is easy, and less risky! Keeping recipes flexible helps make cooking easier.
  • Meal plan: to prepare for meals the next day, my mom and I would take a moment to plan the night before. This helped us to stay organized and take stock of what we needed to prepare. You can meal plan as far ahead as you need to!
  • Prepare snacks ahead of time: to prepare for our family’s arrival, we made a few key foods ahead of time, including muffins, dipping sauces, and cut-up vegetables. This way, we had some snacks ready for people to munch.
  • Prepare parts or all of the meal ahead of time: it’s often helpful to prepare dishes ahead of time (e.g. lasagna). However, if this isn’t an option, preparing some meal components in advance can help with efficiency. We cook our spaghetti sauce ahead of time. That way, all we have to do is cook the noodles at dinner time, and we can spend the day visiting.
  • Assign tasks: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Each day we assigned cooks (and dishwashers!) for different meals. My four year old nephew even helped out – he picked the basil for a pesto sauce I made, and helped put the ingredients in the blender (with supervision).
  • Serve foods buffet style: at meal time, food was placed on the kitchen table and everyone served themselves. This allowed everyone to choose from what was provided.
  • Plan for leftovers: consider sending guests home with extra food, freeze individual portions for future lunches, or incorporate leftovers into the next day’s meals.

I made the following recipe while home visiting. It was a hit! It incorporates summer vegetables, is quick to prepare, and is a definite crowd pleaser.

Bowl of lentil sauce.

The lentil and zucchini dish served with toasted bread and cheese. A quick and simple meal for large groups!

Lentil Sauce with Zucchini Noodles

Ingredients:

  • 1-2  large fresh tomatoes (or 1 15oz (475ml) can of diced tomatoes)
  • 1/4 cup hummus
  • 1/4 cup split red lentils
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional, but delicious)
  • 2 tsp Italian seasoning (or any standard herbs you like: basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, etc.)
  • 2 large zucchini, spiralized (I use one fairly large zucchini or 2 small ones)*
  • Sprinkle with parmesan cheese (optional)

Note: If you don’t have a spiralizer (which I don’t), you can use a cheese or vegetable peeler to slice the zucchini thinly.

Instructions:

  1. If using fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks. If using canned, add with other ingredients as directed below.
  2. Boil the water in a pot. Add lentils and let simmer for 3 minutes. Add all other ingredients, except cheese. Let pot simmer until sauce is the desired thickness (if you like a thicker sauce, let it simmer a little longer).
  3. Remove sauce from burner and pour over the raw zucchini. Option: you can also cook the zucchini right in with the other ingredients if you prefer cooked zucchini.
  4. Sprinkle on parmesan cheese and enjoy!

This recipe can be served as a meal or as a side dish.

Little girl eating from spoon.

My niece Lilian taste testing. At meal time she enjoyed eating this dish with her fingers; exploring the different textures and colours.

What are some ways that you make large group meals efficiently and less time consuming?

For more zucchini recipes, check out:

For other tips on using leftovers, check out:

Laurel Burton

About Laurel Burton

Laurel works with Northern Health as a population health dietitian, with a focus on food security. She is a big proponent of taking a multi-dimensional approach to health and she is interested in the social determinants of health and how they affect overall well-being, both at the individual and population level. Laurel is a recent graduate of the UBC dietetics program, where she completed her internship with Northern Health. She has experience working with groups across the lifecycle within BC and internationally to support evidence-informed nutrition practice for the aim of optimizing health. When she is not working, Laurel enjoys cooking, hiking and travelling. She is looking forward to exploring more of the North!

Share

Foodie Friday: Keeping cool in the kitchen

I love the long days of summer when I can be outside and enjoy life without wearing a heavy coat or big furry boots. Ahhhh, beautiful, warm, sunny days! Fast forward: It’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I can’t sleep because it’s just too hot! I’ve got the fan going but I still can’t get cool. Sweat, yes; sleep, no. Sound familiar?

To keep the heat out of my home I’ve learned to close up all the windows and pull the blinds and curtains. I’ve even put a big piece of cardboard in my bedroom window frame to block the sun. It doesn’t look beautiful, but it works! Unfortunately one thing that heats up my home, more than anything, is cooking a meal on the stove or in the oven. I mentioned this at work one day and someone suggested I try using the microwave; it doesn’t create as much heat when you cook. I had never cooked a whole meal using the microwave but the weather outside told me I’d better try something different! Already the temperature in my kitchen was 24.2 C; I’ve seen temperatures of up to 27 C after I’ve finished cooking supper. Would using the microwave keep things cooler? I experimented with the recipe below.

Note: this meal was cooked in a 1200 watt microwave. Depending on the strength of your microwave you’ll need to cook the food for a longer or shorter period of time.

Very important: use microwave safe bowls and lids that let steam escape during the cooking process.

plate of veggie fried rice.

Cooking with the microwave can help lower the temperature of your home during the hot summer months.

Microwave Veggie “Fried” Rice

Serves: two

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup long grain rice
  • 1 cup water
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1 cup of frozen vegetables
  • 2-4 eggs

Rice instructions:

  1. Place rice and water in a bowl that is about three times as big as the rice/water mixture. You want to make sure the water does not boil over and the rice can double in size.
  2. Cover and cook, for three minutes on high.
  3. Allow rice to sit in the microwave for two minutes and then cook again for three minutes on high.
  4. At the end, allow the rice to sit for five minutes in the microwave.

Vegetable instructions:

  1. Add 1 cup of frozen vegetables
  2. Cover and cook for two minutes on high.
  3. Let sit for five minutes.
  4. Repeat step 1 and 2 until the vegetables are cooked to your liking.
  5. Mix in 1 teaspoon margarine or butter at the end of the cooking time.

Egg instructions:

  1. Scramble together 2-4 eggs.
  2. Season with a pitch of salt and pepper.
  3. Place in bowl and grease the bowl with a little oil.
  4. Cover and cook for one to two minutes on 80% power level.
  5. Uncover the eggs and mix them so the cooked and uncooked parts are broken up.
  6. Cook for another 30-60 seconds on 80% power level.
  7. Eggs should be cooked but if they are not cook for another 30-60 seconds.

Variations

  • Instead of rice you can make pasta in the microwave as well. Use equal amounts of pasta and water and us similar cooking times as the rice.
  • Instead of rice you can have a dinner roll or toast.
  • Instead of eggs, open up a can of salmon, tuna, lentils, or black beans and add that (cold or hot) to the rice, vegetable mix.

Temperature in the kitchen after all that cooking? 24.5 C – not bad! All in all, I’m going to use the microwave more often, especially when the temperature outside heats up. Next, I’m going to try cooking meats. I’ll let you know how that goes when I write my next post.

close up veggie fried rice.

New to microwave cooking? Check out my tips below!

Here’s a few tips for microwave cooking:

  1. Cut food into small pieces. Shred raw carrots, minced onions, and cube potatoes. The smaller the piece of food the quicker it can cook.
  2. Cook in shorter time periods and stir the food in between. Microwaves cook unevenly. Foods in the outside edge of the microwave cook faster than foods in the middle so that can make some parts of the food very hot and other parts just warm. By stirring the food every few minutes that food will cook more evenly.
  3. Foods with skins like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and sausages may explode. Make holes in the skin with a fork so the steam has a place to go. For eggs, break the yolk, or scramble the egg. If the egg is whole, cover it with water so it poaches as it cooks.
  4. Cover the foods you’re cooking but always use microwave safe containers and let air/steam escape the cover. This keeps the food moist and the food can cook more evenly.
  5. Let the food stand for five to ten minutes after cooking. For example, rice, pasta, or potatoes will continue cooking when they sit in the steam of the microwave. This is good advice for casseroles, as well. Another good reason to let the dish stand for a few minutes is that the dishes get very hot in the microwave! Make sure you use oven mitts when you take the food out of the oven.

How do you keep your place cool in the summer? What you like to cook in your microwave?  Tell us in the comments below!

Judy April

About Judy April

Judy works in Dawson Creek as a dietitian. A true northerner, she grew up just 75 km away in Fort St. John. She still wonders why the winters are so long but seems to forget when the long summer days arrive and she can go out in her garden at 10 o’clock at night without a flashlight! She’s a person who loves variety in life and at the table!

Share