It’s hard to believe we’re almost halfway through January. And there’s a good chance all those New Year’s intentions to eat better are starting to wane in the face of a busy post-holiday, return-t0-work routine. One way to stay on track is to join a group challenge, and there are a number of national diet and fitness challenges currently underway. You can start them anytime.
“I am going to do the Small Plate Movement Challenge and start eating dinner from a salad plate,” says Health magazine associate editor Shaun Chavis. “I love eating food from bowls, so I’ll have to find some smaller ones.” (Check out Shaun’s awesome weight-loss blog for Health.com.) Here’s the deal on the Small Plate Movement and four other (free!) challenges you can join:
For portion control: This year, Shaun is accepting the Small Plate Movement Challenge, which was developed by Brian Wansink, PhD. Wansink is a psychologist who heads up the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. He has done fascinating research on food behavior, including the influence of plate size on how much we eat. It’s pretty simple: When we eat off larger plates (and dinner plates have gotten larger over the last couple of decades), we consume more food. The Small Plate Movement challenges participants to eat the largest meal of the day off a 10-inch plate for one month. It’s a simple challenge, and an easy way to start controlling portion sizes.
To keep an eye on what you eat: Munching while distracted (i.e., mindlessly) leads to consuming unwanted calories. The National Mindless Eating Challenge is another of Wansink’s projects; it allows you to customize weekly and monthly goals, for which Wansink offers research-supported tips to improve your chances of success.
To improve your overall diet: The editors of EatingWell magazine have designed the EatingWell Diet Challenge, which you can start anytime. The 12-week program has interactive tools, tips, and research to help you set realistic goals and meet them. I really like this one, because it anticipates obstacles, like weight-loss plateaus and overeating triggers.
Short and sweet: If you just need to kick-start better eating habits, try the Dairy Council of California’s Meals Matter Nutrition and Fitness Challenge. Designed by registered dietitians, “the Challenge has three weeks of diet, fitness, and lifestyle assessment and improvement through interactive tools,” says Sara Floor Miller, the council’s communications manager. Miller has accepted the challenge. “I’m already planning to increase my excercise by walking my dogs. I’m also planning to be more dilligent about planning and preparing healthy meals.”
Extra incentive: Register for Discovery Health’s National Body Challenge, and you’ll get a free 30-day membership to Bally’s health clubs–in addition to free online tools to set and track your diet and fitness resolutions.
Previous posts in the Resolutions That Work Series:
My friend Donna Florio, who’s a senior writer at Southern Living magazine, rolled into 2009 with this goal: Eat less meat. “I’ve been in a bad meat habit lately, choosing beefy entrees, eating fewer meatless meals,” she says. (By the way, Donna is not referring to the Big Texan’s 72-ounce steak challenge, pictured above.) “I’m going to work on getting back to enjoying meat as an accessory rather than a main dish.”
I’m not including this resolution to demonize meat. I love meat, and believe it deserves a spot in a healthy diet–especially if you choose lean cuts and enjoy them in reasonable portions. If you visit a steakhouse, chances are the 8-ounce New York strip steak is the light-eater’s option. And on a menu populated with 24-ounce porterhouse steaks and other mega-cuts, it is. A 3-ounce cooked portion (that’s about 4 ounces raw) is more like it, according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
I’m not including this resolution to demonize meat. I love meat, and believe it deserves a spot in a healthy diet–especially if you choose lean cuts and enjoy them in reasonable portions. The USDA considers a serving of beef to be 3 ounces cooked (4 ounces raw). That’s not a lot, especially if you’re accustomed to larger, restaurant-size portions.
There are several ways to “accessorize” with meat.
Keep an eye on portions. The USDA considers a serving of beef–or pork, lamb, chicken, or seafood, for that matter–to be 3 ounces cooked (4 ounces raw). That’s not a lot, especially if you’re used to larger, restaurant-size portions, though if it’s surrounded by ample veggies and whole grains, you won’t feel deprived. A kitchen scale is a handy tool to help you keep portion sizes in check. Serious Eats’ Meat Lite recipes offer plenty of inspiration on how to do more with less meat.
Look to other cuisines for inspiration. Meat may be a mainstay of the American diet, but in other parts of the world, meat is an expensive ingredient and cooks have had to devise creative ways to stretch its flavor. Asian stir-fries are a classic example of this. For inspiration, check out the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Healthy Flavors site.
Add meaty flavor in subtle ways. If you love hearty, meaty flavor–what’s known as umami, the so-called fifth taste sense–you can enhance that quality in many ways. For example, last night, I made pasta with some leftover Pantry Pasta Sauce. The sauce itself has a touch of soy sauce, which lends it a meaty, umami-ness that helps tame the tinniness of canned tomatoes. For extra meaty heft, I added sauteed mushrooms and pancetta, and finished it off with a grating of pecorino Romano cheese.
[Interesting side note: In all fairness, I have to point out that the Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas, which is famous for offering a free 72-ounce steak to anyone who can gobble the thing in under an hour, also serves a nice, comparatively lil’ 6-ounce filet.]
Previous posts in the Resolutions That Work Series:
Sometimes you get lucky and you’re able to improvise a tasty, healthy meal. But for the most part, eating well takes at least a little planning. But life is busy, and it’s all too easy to overlook that key planning step.
“I’m going to be more dilligent about planning and preparing healthy meals,” says Sara Floor Miller, communications manager for the Dairy Council of California. That’s a goal many of us share.
Planning is also a core tenet of eating cheaply, since it enables you to make use of everything you buy. I attended a seminar at the Culinary Institute of America’s Northern California campus last fall, where Chef Adam Busby (he’s one of just 62 Certified Master Chefs in the States) discussed the virtues of “planovers.” This is not the same thing as making a massive amount of one recipe and eating the leftovers throughout the week. Instead, it’s a matter of choosing recipes with similar elements to make your shopping and cooking more efficient. For example, on Wednesday, I made a batch of Pantry Pasta Sauce, which I used on homemade pizza that night and planned to serve over pasta on Friday. When I make roast a pork tenderloin, we’ll enjoy it sliced with veggie and grain sides that night; we’ll have again in quesadillas later in the week.
“Planovers” are not the same thing as making a massive amount of one recipe and eating the leftovers throughout the week. Instead, they’re a matter of choosing recipes with similar elements so your shopping and cooking are more efficient.
Here are ways to create your own planovers:
Designate a half-dozen or so dinnertime meals as your go-to recipes. We all have family favorites that we prepare in a more or less formal rotation. The more often you make them, the easier it will be to plan and shop efficiently. You’ll also become more comfortable with substituting different ingredients so you don’t get bored and more confident working in a new recipe every week or so to expand your repertoire. Free, online resources like Meals Matter offer meal planning tools, recipe storage, and shopping lists to make it easy.
Keep the pantry stocked with basics for your favorites. These might include chicken broth, pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, olive oil–whatever you use regularly. That way, you can pull together a good meal on the fly if you need to.
Plan your meals for the week, and create a shopping list. Be sure to check the pantry and fridge to see what you already have on hand so you don’t buy duplicates at the store.
When you’re cooking one night, do work for the next. Stretch prep work by cleaning and chopping extra vegetables for recipes later in the week. You can even cook extra food with little extra effort. Let’s say you’re fixing rice for a side dish. Double the amount, refrigerate the extra, and use it to make stir-fried rice another evening. If you have the grilled fired up, use all the space to cook extra food for another meal. Cooking Light‘s “Grill Once, Eat Twice” guide is a perfect example of this strategy.
Previous posts in the Resolutions That Work Series:
My mother never told me to eat my greeens, because she never made them. I’m not sure if she didn’t like greens or just wasn’t sure what to do with them, but spinach, collards, kale, and other hearty cooking greens are something I only came to enjoy as an adult.
And I’d like to join my friend, freelance writer and editor Hillari Dowdle, in her 2009 endeavor to eat more hearty, dark greens. Of course, greens are good for you–they’re rich in a host of vitamins (especially vitamins A and C), minerals (like iron and manganese), and phytonutrients. Even better, hearty greens are at their peak right now, and their earthy flavor is a perfect fit for winter meals.
Select greens that have fresh, crisp, unblemished leaves; they’ll keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Their leaves tend to trap dirt and grit, so you’ll want to wash them thoroughly. I like to do this in a salad spinner after trimming and chopping the leaves. You also can dunk the leaves several times in a large bowl or sink filled with water; this allows any grit to settle at the bottom. You’ll want to trim away the thick, fibrous stems of tough greens like collards.
Select greens that have fresh, crisp, unblemished leaves; they’ll keep in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Sally Schneider has some helpful guidelines for cooking with greens in her book A New Way to Cook:
Tender greens (those with young, small, and supple leaves) can be cooked quickly (i.e., sauteed or briefly boiled) or eaten raw.
Mature greens (those with large, tough leaves) must be cooked. You may want to blanch them (cooked in boiling water for a minute or two) before proceeding with a recipe. Blanching also renders bitter greens less assertive. Mature greens also fare well braised or boiled.
Though you can use most greens interchangeably, their flavor ranges from mild to spicy. For substitution guidelines, visit The Cook’s Thesaurus (a site worth bookmarking). Here’s a rundown of a few of my faves:
Beet greens: If you buy a bunch of beets with the leaves still attached, don’t throw those delicious, earthy-tasting leaves away. Instead, simply saute them, much as you would spinach. Yum!
Broccoli rabe has a pungent, bitter quality that Italian cooks adore. A bit of olive oil and salt helps tame the bitterness. Try it steamed, braised, or fried.
The Italians also love bitter chicory, which they boil and serve with a white sauce, or puree with a touch of cream.
I’ve come to love the mild flavor of collard greens, which generally benefit from long braising, though you also could saute them (see my recipe below).
Kale is a part of the cabbage family, so it (not surprisingly) has a cabbage-y quality. Discard the center stem and treat the curly leaves much the way you would spinach. Frilly-leaved kale is the most common variety, but you’ll find other types (lacinto, for example) at farmers’ markets and gourmet stores.
For a spicy, peppery bite, try mustard greens, which do well braised with bacon. For an even more assertive selection, try turnip greens.
Spinach may well be the most popular variety. Large, mature leaves should be cooked (steamed, boiled, braised), while baby spinach does fine with a quick saute.
This is by no means a complete list. If you visit an ethnic market or farmers’ market, you’ll find many other varieties. Just ask the merchant for tips to cook them.
Taking a few moments to thinly slice hearty greens like collards means they’ll cook quickly–ideal if you want to serve this with a weeknight supper. I find it’s easiest to wash the greens in a colander or salad spinner after they’ve been trimmed and sliced. You can treat other greens, like kale, chard, mustard greens, or turnip greens, the same way. This will look like an ungodly amount greens once you have them trimmed and sliced, but it cooks down, much like spinach.
1 pound fresh collard greens (or other hearty greens)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or cracked red pepper
1/2 cup fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
1. Trim the center ribs from the collard leaves. Stack the leaves and roll them up like a cigar; thinly slice (chiffonade).
2. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil. Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds. Add a large handful of collards to pan; cook until collards wilt. Repeat with remaining collards until all of them are in the pan. Stir in salt and peppers; sauté 2 minutes. Add broth; cook 3 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates and collards are tender. Yields 4-6 servings.
Next up on our tour of food-related New Year’s resolutions is what some people call mindful eating, or what I consider simply paying attention to what you eat. Nichele Hoskins, a Birmingham, AL-based magazine editor, put it best when she sent me her 2009 resolutions: Avoid eating in transit, topped the list. Sounds simple, but if you’re an avid grazer (a k a snacker) like me, you first have to acknowledge how much mindless chowing you actually do. You know, those times when you find yourself nibbling on this or that because you’re kinda, sorta, well, not really hungry. Sound familiar? Hmm, I just ate a scone while folding laundry. In fact, when I think about it, most of my eating is done while doing something else.
Evenings have been a downfall for David Mark, a consultant who specializes in nutrition research and development.. “No calories of any sort after dinner,” Mark vows for the coming year, to avoid mindless eating and reduce the likelihood of bedtime acid reflux.
Nichele’s and David’s seemingly small goals are powerful. Essentially, they involve avoiding situations where you eat while engaged in another activity, such as driving, working, reading, watching TV, or noodling on the Internet.
Nichele’s goal: Avoid eating in transit. That’s a simple, yet powerful goal that can help short-circuit mindless consumption. Eating while distracted makes it difficult to register when you’ve had enough.
Too many of us eat without taking notice too often. According to Brigham & Women’s Hospital, 66% of us regularly eat dinner in front of the TV (yep, guilty of that one). So what? Well, it turns out mindless munching could make the digestive process up to 40% less effective, not to mention create unwanted side effects like bloating, acid reflux, or just plain eating too much. Eating while distracted makes it difficult to register when you’ve had enough.
There are lots of ways to eat mindfully, some of them not really suited to everyday living (are you going to close your eyes and register every bite, or chew every bite 30 times? Not me). But there are some simple strategies to bring your attention back to the task.
- Eat with your nondominant hand to slow you down. (I can do that.)
- Don’t watch TV, read, drive, or troll the Internet while you eat. (This one will be tough; I love eating and reading or watching TV.)
- Serve up a proper portion on a plate. (Easy.)
- Sit down to eat. (Not so easy, if sitting down doesn’t also involve another activity.)
- Try to make the meal last 20 minutes. (That isn’t so long, but if you’re in the habit of bolting down your food, it will probably feel like forever at first.)
- Eat food you like. (I like this one–why waste time eating food you don’t enjoy?)
There are many triggers to mindless eating, as Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, can attest. He’s made a career of studying the psychology of eating–everything from how different-size plates influence how much we eat to why people consume more calories at Subway than they do at McDonalds. His (often surprising) findings are collected in his book and Web site Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. I’ve signed up for his National Mindless Eating Challenge, which allows you to customize weekly and monthly goals to eat better and with more attention. Also check out Brian’s blog on the Prevention magazine Web site. Now, I am hungry, so I’m going to go eat something. Just eat, nothing else.
[Update: I had a carton of blueberry nonfat yogurt and managed to sit down while eating it (though I had to fight the urge to get up and at least walk around, maybe pet the dog). But it was tasty, and I did note my enjoyment of it. However, I caught myself reading the nutrition info on the carton, which was a bit of a cheat. At least I was reading about the food I was eating.]
We all do it: After an indulgent holiday season, we crawl into the new year with promises to do it better this time. Lose a few pounds, hit the gym regularly, revamp our diet. We set resolutions with all the hopefulness of the newborn year, but we’re barely into the first week of 2009, and I know some friends’ resolve is already wavering.
I’m a big believer in small, positive changes. It’s easier to embrace an enjoyable behavior than it is to break a bad habit. So in that spirit, I’ve asked friends and colleagues to share their food-related resolutions for 2009. I’ll focus on one a day for the next week or so, with tips to help them stick.
The first one up is courtesy of Cooking Light contributing editor and NourishNetwork.com founder Lia Huber: Eat one piece of seasonal fruit a day. “I’m not much of a fruit person, so I tend to just skip over them,” she confesses. “But when I do finally bite into an apple or peel an orange, it makes me feel so grounded and good and vibrant.”
I’m in the same boat; fruit isn’t the first thing I reach for when I’m hungry, and I have to make a point of eating the stuff. Which is odd, because I have an impressive sweet tooth that fruit can satisfy.
Lia’s resolution to focus on seasonal fruit is a smart way to expand your palate and enjoy a terrific variety throughout the year.
This time of year, I love citrus fruit, and especially satusma oranges. Once you start focusing a bit of attention on seasonal fruit, you’ll realize that there are many ways to incorporate it in your diet Here are three simple strategies:
Expand your fruit vocabulary. If you see something that looks interesting at the farmer’s market, or even the supermarket, pick it up. You can always ask the farmer or store produce manager for ideas on how to enjoy unfamiliar fruits. Or check out the produce distributor Melissa’s Web site. It has a helpful tool that allows you to search for fruit and other produce by season, with tips to buy, store, and cook with it.
Incorporate fruit into recipes. Of course, you can always enjoy a piece of fruit out of hand as a snack, but fruit can play many roles in sweet and savory recipes. This time of year, sectioned citrus pairs wonderfully with salad greens. You can use different fruits in salsa (depending on the season, try pineapple, mango, or peach), or in a smooth sauce (try tart cherries in summer) to pair with roasted meat or chicken. Fruit-based desserts can satisfy a sweet tooth and boost your nutritional profile; the Culinary Institute of America has some great tips for putting fruit front and center in desserts. Melissa’s site has plenty of recipes, too, from big-name chefs, as well as from Melissa’s test kitchen. (I want to try their Meyer Lemon Custard to use up some sweet lil’ Meyers I picked up the other day.)
Discover the range of flavors and textures. Many of us associate fruit with sweet flavors, but that isn’t always the case. Consider the avocado. It’s a fruit that boasts creamy texture and mellow vegetal flavor. And I’m always happy to eat one.