Surviving Picnics, Parties, Barbecues

The fall and winter holidays are thought of as a time for feasting but there are lots of opportunities to overeat during the summer, too.  I thought I would share some of the tactics I use to control my calorie intake at events like this.  Most can be applied to any party or celebration involving food.

Eat before you go – You may be tempted to skip a meal or two during the day to compensate for extra calories. This can mean that you arrive at the party so hungry that you just fill a plate with everything that looks good.  To avoid this eat your regular meals during the day and consider eating a snack just before you go to take the edge off.

Take something healthy – If it’s a potluck and you’re taking a dish, make sure it’s something you can fill up on if there are no other good options.  You won’t be the only one who appreciates it.

Survey the spread – When you are standing in line with someone breathing over your shoulder you can feel pressured to move quickly and take a spoonful of everything.  Before you grab a plate take a moment to look over the offerings. This gives you an idea of what’s there to choose from and some time to think about what you are going to take.

Use a small plate – The size of your plate can influence how much food you take by as much as 30-40%.  If the only plates provided are platter sized ask your hostess if she has a smaller one (or take your own.)

Map your plate – A great visual for building a healthy plate is to picture your plate divided into quarters. Attempt to fill an entire half of your plate with fruits and vegetables; one quarter with a lean protein; and the remaining quarter with some type of starch.  For more information about this concept please refer to the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate information.

Be a picky eater – To fill your plate as I have described you may need to get creative.  Maybe the only vegetables available are the cherry tomatoes and broccoli in a pasta salad.  Don’t be shy about picking them out.  You can bet there is somebody behind you who is going to pick out only the pasta because they don’t want the vegetables.

These are just some of the habits I’ve adopted to navigate food related events.  I will share more of these “behavioral” tips in my next column.

Stuff It

  • Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
  • Spinach Stuffed Portabellas
  • Simple Stuffed Peppers
  • Stuffed Pepper Soup

Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

A few years ago I discovered the ingredient search function on  This feature allows you to enter ingredients you have on hand and search for recipes that use those ingredients.  Genius!  One of the first searches I tried was for dishes that combined sweet potatoes with black beans. After I tried a recipe that paired these two ingredients with Southwestern spices I’ve been hooked on the combination ever since.  This recipe for  Southwestern Stuffed Sweet Potatoes from Hell Yeah It’s Vegan hits all the buttons.


Tip: I simplified the avocado cream and reduced the number of dishes to wash by combining the avocado, lime juice and spices (skip the water) in a quart size ziploc freezer bag.  Squeeze out the air, close the bag, and squish everything together until there are no avocado chunks remaining.  Snip one corner of the bag and squeeze contents on top of the finished dish. I might have added a little chipotle chili powder to the stuffing mixture also because I have a bit of a chipotle problem.

Spinach Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms

There are thousands of recipes for stuffed mushrooms out there.  I’ve eaten and cooked  some really good ones and I’ve eaten (and cooked!) some really bad ones. Bad stuffed mushrooms are often soggy but this recipe for Spinach Stuffed Portabellas from Allrecipes works because the mushrooms are partially cooked and drained before stuffing. Don’t skip that step.

I made these mushrooms vegetarian by using sun dried tomatoes in place of the pepperoni.  As you can see my mushrooms were a bit over stuffed but the filling cooked down nicely.  These make a nice side dish or vegetarian main dish.

spinachstuffmushbefore spinachstuffmush

Simple Stuffed Peppers

In the Health Transformation Program at CGH Medical Center our employees learn how to reduce their risks for diabetes and heart disease. One of their assignments is to cook a meal from scratch using whole fresh ingredients.  I’m calling this submission from Jason G. “Simple” Stuffed Peppers because it shows that cooking for yourself can be easy.  You don’t have to have a lot of fancy ingredients, or even a recipe.  Jason told me he didn’t have it down to a science yet and he wasn’t sure how helpful his cooking style is.  I think he did a great job!



1lb ground turkey

1 jar of salsa (I had used homemade)

Boil-in-bag brown rice (1 package)

6-8 bell peppers (I prefer to use yellow and orange)


  1. Brown turkey
  2. Prepare rice according to package directions
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees
  4. Cut peppers in half starting near the stem and then scoop out seeds and remove rest of stem
  5. Drain any excess fat out of turkey (hopefully none)
  6. Add rice to turkey
  7. Scoop in salsa about ¼ cup at a time in case you do not like the consistency to be too runny.
  8. Scoop mixture into bell peppers
  9. Bake for 20-25 minutes. If desired, add shredded cheese and bake for an additional five minutes.


Stuffed Green Pepper Soup

Our hospital cafe offers some pretty outstanding homemade soups.  If you love stuffed peppers you will enjoy this easy to follow recipe:


2# Ground Beef, cooked and drain fat

2 ½ cups Canned Diced Tomatoes

12 oz. Fresh Chopped green Peppers

2-3 oz. Beef Base

1 ¼ Cups Uncooked Rice

Approximately 2- ½ Quarts Water

Salt and Pepper to Taste


Add all ingredients to a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for minimum 2 hours. Yields 1 gallon.

Hope you enjoy stuffing your face with these recipes.  Next week’s post is all about beans!


Inflammation is Hot

Inflammation sounds like a bad thing but it’s actually part of your body’s immune system response to injury. Your white blood cells and the substances they produce rush to the area of insult to defend against bacteria and viruses. There is generally heat, redness, swelling, and some pain involved.

Arthritis is one example of a disease where the inflammatory response can cause pain and discomfort.  Other diseases and conditions linked to inflammation include asthma, premature aging, and multiple sclerosis. I’ve even read recently about a study that linked inflammation to depression.

Sometimes inflammation occurs when there is no obvious reason or triggering event and sometimes inflammation can become chronic, outpacing and wearing out your immune system.  Chronic inflammation is a hot topic right now as it is believed to be linked to major diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Our first response to dealing with inflammation, whether it be joint pain or high LDL cholesterol that contributes to plaque, might be to reach for a pill. By doing that you are just treating the symptoms; not addressing the cause of the inflammation. Not surprisingly I am going to suggest that you look at what you eat as means to preventing and controlling inflammation.

There are foods that seem to contribute to the body’s inflammatory response and others that have been shown to calm and/or prevent it.

Foods That Hurt – Sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats, have been shown to promote inflammation. Sugar in particular has been linked to increased arthritis symptoms. Removing these foods from the diet should be the first step in calming chronic inflammation.

Foods That Heal – You may have read or heard about the benefits of cherries and cherry juice in alleviating the symptoms of gout. Another substance that is garnering attention is curcumin, a compound that is found in dried spices and especially prevalent in the spice turmeric. Curcumin has even been shown to reduce pain and inflammation after surgery. It turns out that many plant foods that are highest in anti-oxidants are helpful in reducing inflammation. These foods include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and spices.

Physical activity also plays a role in strength of your body’s immune system and the manifestation of inflammation. Studies have shown that people who are more active have lower levels of inflammation.

My advice? Eat better, move more, and stay cool.

Shred It

  • Spaghetti Squash Marinara

  • Carrot Apple Muffins

  • Shredded Brussels Sprouts

Okay, confession time.  I do not own a big food processor that shreds, slices, dices, and doubles as a hair dryer.  It’s not a storage issue; it’s more of an energy thing.  If I am chopping, slicing, dicing, and shredding by hand I am using more of my body’s energy and less of the Earth’s. When it comes to shredding things I use simple tools like my hands, my chef’s knife, and a box grater.

They say a cook’s best tools are her hands and many whole, cooked foods can easily be shredded with the fingers. It’s really the easiest way to shred meats, i.e. pulled pork, chicken breast, etc. Here’s how they did it at the barbecue cooking school that my husband and I attended a couple of years ago.


Spaghetti Squash Marinara

A simple kitchen fork in the hand also works well for shredding some things like the spaghetti squash for this Spaghetti Squash Marinara dish from one of our CGH employees:




  • 1 medium to large spaghetti squash
  •  5 fresh tomatoes, chopped into bite size pieces
  • ¾ cup onion chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • ¼ teaspoon basil, oregano, black pepper and garlic powder


Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Cut squash in half; drizzle with some olive oil and place face down on foil lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes 350F oven. Let cool and then shred the squash pulp out of the shell with a fork. (Did you know that you can also cook a whole spaghetti squash in your slow cooker?  Click here for directions.)


While squash is cooking sauté onion and garlic in large pan until soft. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 60 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Pour desired amount of sauce over squash to serve.  The employee who submitted this recipe sometime adds beans (as she did in this picture) or chicken for protein to make this a complete meal.

This recipe makes extra marinara sauce. Freeze or refrigerate for another time.

Quick Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

A chef’s knife is one tool you should not be afraid to spend a little extra money on. A good one will last you forever. When you shop for a knife go to a kitchen store that sells several brands.  Pick up each knife and pay attention to how it feels in your hand. Make sure the grip and weight feel comfortable. This is my favorite chef’s knife (J. A. Henckels brand) which I have owned for many years.  I wash it by hand and sharpen it each time I use it.


I really prefer a knife for shredding things like cabbage and I also use it to shred Brussels sprouts.  Slice the sprout in half so you have a nice flat surface on the bottom and you can work your knife down the length of the sprout.

slicedsprout shreddedbrussels

The shredded sprouts were used for this quick Shredded Brussels Sprouts and Scallions recipe from (Hint: I’m watching my saturated fat so I chose to saute in a few tablespoons of vegetable broth instead of the butter.)

Carrot Apple Muffins

Another kitchen tool powered entirely by elbow grease is the classic box grater.  Most have 4 different sides that can be used for grating, shredding, and slicing.  I have to confess that I rarely use the grating or slicing sides of the box.  Most of the time I am just using the shredding blade but I like this tool because the shape of the grater makes it stable on a flat surface and the shredded ingredients stay contained inside (mostly!)  I always rest it on a paper towel or flexible cutting board so that I can easily transfer the shredded ingredients to my bowl or pan.  Here I’m using it to shred carrots for these one bowl Carrot Apple Muffins from The Minimalist Baker.


That’s enough of this shred thread.  Next week it’s on to “Stuff It”!

Thanks for reading.  I’d love to answer your questions.

Stick It

Grilling season is here.  Meat is the first thing most people think of throwing on the grill, but I really enjoy grilling all kinds of vegetables.  I’ve even grilled romaine lettuce! Some vegetables lend themselves easily to the grill, others are a bit more challenging but that’s where the “stick” comes in.  Here’s what I’ve been grilling recently:

  • Mushrooms
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Asparagus

I discussed Portabella mushrooms recently but smaller ones also make for good grilling.  Here I used baby bella mushrooms.  I made a flavored oil by gently simmering 2-3 cloves of thinly sliced garlic and 1 teaspoon of dried thyme in 1/4 cup of olive oil until the garlic cloves turned golden.  When the mixture was cooled I  brushed it on my skewered mushrooms. I grilled them over high heat, turning once, until the mushrooms were tender.  It took just just 5-10 minutes. The time will vary depending on the size of the mushroom.

garlicoil mushroomkebab mushroom kebab grill

Brussels Sprouts

I used to think I didn’t like Brussels sprouts and then discovered other ways to cook them.  When they are pan sauteed, shredded into slaws, or roasted they do not resemble the stinky, mushy, blobs I remember from my childhood in any way!

Grilling is another way to avoid bad Brussels.  To prepare fresh sprouts, simply rinse and trim the stem ends.  If you tried to cook raw Brussels sprouts on the grill they might end up getting burnt to a crisp before they are cooked through so I suggest steaming  them in a steamer basket for about 5 minutes. Let them cool until they can be handled and thread them onto skewers. Brush with a little oil so they don’t stick.  (I like to use wooden skewers for vegetables as they tend to “grip” better.  The skewers should be soaked in water for a few hours before use.) Grill over high heat just until they are heated through and you get some nice charred marks on each side.

brussels kabobs brussels grill 2


Here is one more vegetable that takes to grilling.  Thicker stalks of asparagus work well for this.

To trim a bunch of asparagus quickly, take one stalk and bend it until it breaks.  Line up all the stalks so the tips are even and trim the whole bunch to the same length as the broken stalk.  I usually save the tough ends in the freezer and use them to make soup.

asparagus breaking asparagus trimming

A little steaming softens the stalks just enough to easily spear with the skewer. A quick way way to steam your asparagus is to wrap the cleaned, trimmed spears in a damp paper towel and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Using two skewers spaced a bit apart to make an asparagus “raft” makes it easier to turn them on the grill and keeps them from falling through the grates.

asparagus skewered

Again, as with the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, brush with a little oil to prevent sticking.  Cooking time is just 5-10 minutes depending on the size of the stalks. Flip once during cooking.

So stick with me, kid.  Grilled vegetables are awesome.


Where’s the Harm?

“First do no harm” is a reminder to health care practitioners that every decision related to caring for a patient has the potential to do harm. How might this apply to what you eat and how you exercise?

People who want to control their weight often concentrate on adding healthy foods or intense exercise. Maybe more protein, the latest supplement/super food, or insane workout will miraculously improve their waistline.

Food wise it only makes sense that you can’t just add things to your diet and expect to control your weight.  Something has to come out. Why not focus first on substances that might actually be harmful? These examples come readily to my mind:

Sugar – Excessive sugar in our diet has been linked to obesity, tooth decay, and some cancers as well as chronic inflammation, which contributes to heart disease, arthritis, etc. Eliminating most of the added sugar from your diet will reduce calorie intake and is a good first step toward improving your weight and your health.

Fat – Saturated fats and trans fats contribute excess calories and also affect cholesterol levels.  Trans fats are especially troubling because they have been shown to both raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels.  Eat less meat, poultry, and dairy (cheese is one of the largest sources of saturated fat in the American diet) to reduce your fat intake.  Read the labels on all packaged foods and look for the word(s) “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” to avoid foods that contain trans fats.

Salt – We need a tiny bit of salt to maintain our body’s fluid balance. Too much increases blood pressure and risk for kidney cancer, osteoporosis, and other problems. Preparing your own meals from fresh whole ingredients and eating out less can help to reduce the amount of sodium you consume.

As far as exercise is concerned, study after study shows that while it is important, it cannot be relied upon for weight loss. Furthermore, people who are not used to exercise often injure themselves by attempting to work longer or harder than they are able.

Being completely inactive is one of the most harmful things you can do for your health. In this case “first do no harm” means getting up out of your chair and moving more.  But don’t cause harm by overdoing it.  If you need to move more, gradually increase your activity so that you do not become injured or discouraged.