Back-to-School Basics: Food Edition

In just a few short weeks, kids will be boarding school buses and moms everywhere will be jumping for joy…but not before school supplies have been bought, book bags have been packed, and school lunches have been made. As a natural-born writer and honors student, back-to-school shopping for supplies was my favorite part of summer. But my lunches? I didn’t give them a second thought. Thankfully, my mom made sure we had (relatively) healthy lunches each day.

Build a Better Breakfast

The typical American breakfast rivals dessert in terms of sugar content. One Pop Tart contains approximately 17 grams of sugar and only 2 grams of protein. A Toaster Strudel pastry is only slightly better, with 11 grams of sugar and 3 grams of protein. But, how often does anyone eat just one of either of those? So, two Pop Tarts contain 34 grams of sugar and only 4 grams of protein. One half cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream contains 28 grams sugar and 5 grams of protein—arguably a ‘better’ choice than two Pop Tarts!

Instead of pumping your kids full of sugar before their long day at school, consider a breakfast higher in protein and fat than what is typically found in breakfast cereals or granola bars. Aim for about 15 grams of protein at each meal for elementary and middle schoolers. Eggs, yogurt or meat should be an integral parts of a child’s breakfast. When buying yogurt, choose varieties high in protein and low in added sugars, or choose plain and add your own fruit. One egg and one ounce of meat both contain 7 grams of protein, which makes it easy to estimate how much your child is getting at each meal. For vegans and vegetarians, use organic soy and tempeh as meat-alternatives, or newer varieties of ‘protein nut milks’ for increased protein at meals.

Just because it’s breakfast doesn’t mean veggies are off the table. While V-8 juice (choose the low sodium variety) is a great choice as it provides a full serving of vegetables per half-cup, eating actual vegetables shouldn’t be disregarded. Baby carrots, sliced peppers, cucumbers, celery and cherry tomatoes are a great option in the morning. Pair veggies with some fruit or toast and a source of protein, like an egg. Or, blend spinach and kale into smoothies, along with a frozen banana and a source of protein, such as a plant- or whey-based protein powder.

Don’t forget about fat! Fat helps keep us feeling full longer than simple sugars, like fruit and white bread. Spread whole grain toast with peanut butter or mix avocado into smoothies. Because bacon is very high in fat, it’s not a great source of protein, but can (and should!) be enjoyed every once in awhile.

Breakfast Basic: 1-2 cooked eggs, 1 cup cut-up veggies, 1 piece whole grain toast with 1 tablespoon almond butter

Bento Box Lunches

These divided dishes are all the rage and make what I call ‘snack’ meals even more fun and festive! I often make ‘snack dinners’ if I’m solo in the evenings. An easy-to-pack bento lunch might include: deli meat rolled and secured with toothpicks (for protein), an apple (for carbs) and some nuts (for fat). Add in some blueberries and a cheese stick for variety and increased calories for older kids. Bento boxes are a great way to ‘think outside the sandwich’ without adding extra cooking or a lot of prep time. Simply get familiar with your macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) and build a balanced meal.

I grew up in the time of NutriGrain bars and fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts, both of which were considered health foods. These days, it’s easy to find healthier items (i.e. fewer added sugars, fresher alternatives). While we shouldn’t eschew carbohydrates for fear of sugar (approximately half our daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates), it is important to find higher quality carbs, like whole grain bread that is high in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and plain yogurt.

No need to include an ice pack! Simply freeze a water bottle that will help keep food cold and thaw enough to drink by lunchtime.

Lunch Basic: 1 cup mixed veggies and hummus, ½ large apple, 2-3 slices deli meat, 1 tablespoon cashews

Balanced Dinners

Busy nights call for preparation! It’s hard to bust out the crock-pot when it’s still warm, so rely on cold dinners, like salads with chicken, or sandwiches. Cooking big batches of mains on the weekends helps, as leftovers can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner the following days. Grill a few days worth of meat and veggies that can be used a variety of ways. Recently, I had a chicken with BBQ sauce, two kinds of sausages and cut-up cauliflower on the grill all at once, knowing I had some busy evenings ahead.

Dinner Basic: large salad with dried cranberries, feta cheese, sliced steak, and grilled pita bread

Interested in finding out more about building a better lunch? The East Aurora Cooperative Market is holding a ‘Lunchbox Workshop’ in the café from 4-5 pm Sunday, August 26. This event is open to the public and adults and children are welcome to attend. Sign-up using the event’s link, found on the co-op’s Facebook page. Attendees will bring home a completed lunch!

lentil pasta that actually tastes good!

You know I’m a pretty adventurous eater.  I’ll make black bean brownies and sneak greens into just about anything.  But, not all of the creations or products I try hit it out of the park, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes, beet pancakes taste a *little* too much like beets, and quinoa flour really does taste like dirt. Just sayin’.  (It does, however, do very well mixed with OTHER flours and with acidic ingredients, like plain yogurt or sour cream.  These Sour Cream Fudge Cupcakes are shockingly good.) Continue reading “lentil pasta that actually tastes good!”

Book Review: The Nordic Way

The Nordic Way
By Arne Astrup, Jennie Brand-Miller and Christian Bitz
Pam Krauss Books/Avery (2017)
Reviewed by Holly R. Layer, RD


The Nordic Way, a Mediterranean-like diet, is based on the results of the 2010 Diet and Obesity Genes study in Europe.  The ‘DiOGenes’ study followed more than 1,000 overweight adults and children who had recently lost weight.  The study found that a small reduction in high-GI foods and a moderate increase in protein was able to curtail weight re-gain.  The book asserts that the obesity epidemic has coincided with an increase in refined carbohydrates.  While the diet structure is based on scientific research, the tone of the book is decidedly optimistic, stating that The Nordic Way is “the world’s best diet” and that by increasing intake of dairy protein, it “will help you get a flat stomach!”  In no uncertain terms, the book declares that, “no matter what, you will lose weight more easily and achieve significant health benefits if you replace the high-GI foods in your diet with their low-GI counterparts” because low GI foods promote weight loss and prevent weight gain.

Synopsis of Diet Plan:

The Nordic Way promotes two guiding principles: the 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, and that lower-GI carbohydrates are better for weight loss and maintenance.  Like the Mediterranean diet, The Nordic Way is heavy on fruits and veggies, emphasizes whole grains and highlights lean sources of protein.  Fat is less of a player in The Nordic Way, but healthy sources from cold water fish, nuts and canola oil are recommended, as well as low-fat dairy. The book asserts that a “modestly higher protein and slightly lower amounts of carbs” will enhance satiety, reduce hunger and increase metabolism.  The eating plan does not preclude any one food group or item, even if it is a high-GI carbohydrate, and many recipes feature higher-GI items, such as potatoes.  The book provides a list of GI values for common foods, alternatives to high-GI foods, sample weekly meal plans and more than 80 recipes.

Nutritional Pros and Cons:

While the tone of the book may leave something to be desired, the eating plan itself does not.  The book explains the difference between hunger and appetite, emphasizes the importance of satiety and the palatability of meals, and that ‘quick-fixes’ and deprivation diets don’t yield lasting results. It also doesn’t eliminate foods or food groups, including high-GI carbohydrates, but rather offers alternatives or to enjoy those items in moderation.  The Nordic Way eating style relies heavily on lower-GI carbohydrates and lean sources of protein, such as rye breads, lowfat dairy and fish. It also introduces the reader to new foods, such as whole kernel rye bread (the dense, moist variety) and skyr, Icelandic yogurt. The diet does not advocate for counting calories or restricting, but challenges participants to learn to stop eating when they are satisfied, which may happen sooner with slower-digesting carbohydrates and sufficient protein at each meal.

Bottom Line:

The book may over-promise results, but adopting a ‘Nordic-style’ eating pattern is perfectly healthy.  The book provides easy-to-understand explanations for the diet, as well as weekly meal plans and easy-to-prepare recipes with minimal ingredients.  Some readers may have trouble trying to figure out the 2:1 ratio, but the concept is relatively simple. Because the eating pattern is based on the results of a study of overweight individuals, it may appeal to those who are trying to maintain weight loss in addition to those trying to lose more weight.

As a side note, I’ve incorporated full-fat cottage cheese and that dense, rye bread into my diet, and had already been eating full-fat Icelandic plain yogurt and find I’m satiated for longer periods of time. I also like the simple combinations of foods, at they are often things I already have in my kitchen, such as deli meat on whole grain bread with cottage cheese and vegetables.