Make This: Delicata Squash Rings

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While I love the flavor and creamy texture of starchy winter squash (not to mention the nutrition punch in the form of fiber and vitamin A), it feels like such a chore to hack at that tough outer skin to get to the good stuff. 

Until I discovered Delicata squash, the squash that requires NO PEELING! The skin is super thin and very edible. 

You'll recognize it as the oblong light yellow squash with green or dark yellow stripes running longways. Wash it well, then cut it in half, and use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and pulp. Slice it into half-inch thick rings, and it's ready to bake.

Set the rings on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and season with a sprinkle of sea salt, and take things up a notch with one or more seasonings, like cinnamon, garlic powder or onion powder. You can add a small swizzle of olive oil if you like to help the seasoning stick, but by putting the rings on parchment they won't stick, and by giving plenty of space on the pan, they'll brown nicely. Pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes and then flip them. If you’re feeling super fancy, swizzle a scant teaspoon of pure maple syrup at the halfway point, but again, that's optional. Roast for another 15 or so minutes (depending on their thickness). 

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For a quick and balanced weeknight meal, serve them as the starchy component of your meal: They're great over wilted kale or collards, or with roasted green beans or Brussels sprouts. Add your protein, or some rinsed and drained canned beans and a handful of raw pumpkin seeds, and you're set. Leftover squash rings (if you have any!) make tomorrow's lunch salad really special, too, or enjoy them with yogurt for breakfast or a snack.

Recipe: How to pumpkin spice without derailing your fitness goals

I do not have enough fingers and toes on which to count the number of times the term "Pumpkin Spice" has come up in conversation with clients this fall. Lattes, cookies, cake and fudge spiked with artificial pumpkin spice flavoring, cheap soybean oil and loads of sugar are ridiculously tempting this time of year, but they're cinnamon-y landmines if you're trying to eat more healthfully. For example, the ubiquitous Grande (16 oz) Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, even with non-fat milk and no whip, contains a whopping 49 grams of sugar—that’s 98% of your daily allotment of added sugar in a 2,000 calorie diet (based on a the American Heart Association recommendation of max of 10% of calories from added sugar).

Is it possible to enjoy the autumn joy that is pumpkin spice without consuming a day's worth of sugar? And could you even--dare I say it--find a way to make pumpkin spice a healthy choice? I say YES! and the proof is below...

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Pumpkin Spice Dip

Makes 1 serving but is easily multiplied

  • Make the Pumpkin Spice by shaking up these spices in a small jar (you could also use a commercial mix, but why would you?!):
    • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    • Pinch of cloves
    • Pinch of allspice
  • Make the yogurt dip by blending these ingredients with a whisk or spoon:
    • 2 Tablespoons of unsweetened non-dairy yogurt (I used Anita’s Plain Coconut Milk Yogurt Alternative, or you could use Kite Hill Plain Unsweetened Almond Yogurt Alternative) OR an excellent quality Greek or Icelandic plain yogurt
    • 1/2 cup of canned pumpkin (make sure it's plain pureed pumpkin, not canned pumpkin pie filling)
    • Prepared pumpkin pie spice to your liking: Start with about a teaspoon and add more to your taste
  • Add a topping if you choose:
    • Drizzle a teaspoon of natural peanut or almond butter
    • Sprinkle a Tablespoon or two of muesli (I used Michele’s Toasted Muesli--made locally in Baltimore!)
    • Add a Tablespoon of raw seeds or nuts
  • Slice up some apples or pears and enjoy as a tasty dip, or eat it with a spoon for breakfast or a snack.

Fall Group Health Coaching

The holidays are coming! Will this be the year that you finally avoid the annual holiday weight gain? If you're ready, not just for a happy holiday, but to lay the foundation for long-term health, greater energy and lasting weight loss, I'm excited to announce my fall group health coaching program:

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During this four-week program in Towson, participants will…

  • Learn what a healthy diet is
  • Identify the habits and environmental factors that impact the way we eat
  • Acquire practical skills for shopping for, ordering and preparing healthful meals
  • Master the skills for planning healthy meals and snacks
  • Share recipes and strategize for eating healthfully to make progress towards health and fitness goals through the holiday season.

The greatest benefit of the program is support and accountability, not just from your health coach, but from the other members of your group. 

Full details and registration coming next week, but complete the form below, and I'll forward those details to you directly:

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PSA: It's National Black Dog Day!

Meet Osita Shafer, my personal Black Dog Day ambassador.

Meet Osita Shafer, my personal Black Dog Day ambassador.

Inviting a dog into your family is a wonderful way to give your health a boost. Not only does having an animal give you a great excuse to be more active and to get outdoors, interaction with a dog can be a tremendous stress reliever.

After our beloved dog died suddenly on New Year's Day in 2014, I couldn't imagine adopting another dog ever again, but in the summer of that year, puppy fever hit the Shafer household. We talked about dogs, followed every local shelter on social media, and constantly visited and re-visited animal shelter websites looking for a new addition to our family. 

Around the fall, my husband John came around to the idea that he really wanted a border collie--known for their smarts and for being highly active--so we started following all the border collie rescue sites. We kept a running notebook with names and locations of all manner of beautiful white and spotted dogs and puppies, and exchanged emails and applications with shelters and rescue organizations. We went out to meet a couple dogs but something just wasn't right. 

Then one day John sent me a flurry of forwarded emails and texts, all worked up about a profile of a dog he found on a rescue website. I looked at the photo of the dog, and I was baffled. This dog was black in color. You couldn't read any expression on her face. I couldn't see anything special about this puppy, and if I had seen the profile first, I certainly would have kept going.

Turns out I would have been in good company. Did you know that black dogs are statistically among the last to be adopted in shelters, and the first to be euthanized? There is some thought that because of their color, they don't photograph as well, which is a huge component of adoption these days, especially considering how many potential adoptive puppy parents scroll through photos before visiting shelters. 

Thankfully, John was insistent, and on 12/13/14, we met Osita and adopted her the same day. I can't imagine our home without her now. Happy National Black Dog Day!

Let's talk about those healthy cookies...

I lived through the '90s, so when I hear "healthy" and "cookie" in the same sentence, I flash back to the unmistakable kelly green box of Snackwell's fat-free cookies. Masses of people (including everyone in my household) assumed these cookies were not only healthy, but a prescription for weight loss. Years later, we now know that fat doesn't make us fat, and when fat is replaced by loads of sugar, we're certainly not making a nutritious choice.

A client working toward a weight loss goal recently came to me quite excited that she found a way to indulge her sweet tooth with a "healthy cookie." No green box. This cookie is a 4-ounce beast, individually packaged with the words "Complete Cookie" and the tagline "Baked Nutrition" along with some BIG claims on the label: Vegan! 16g Protein! No High Fructose Corn Syrup! No Artificial Sweeteners! 8g Fiber!

Even if all the claims are true, is this a nutritious choice? The truth lies within the ingredient listing, sorted from most to least volume in the cookie:

1. Enriched wheat flour. Make no mistake, friends: This is not whole wheat flour. "Enriched wheat flour" is good old fashioned refined white flour, stripped of its natural fiber and mineral-containing fats. This is the kind of starch we're all trying to avoid.

2. Cane sugar. This is sugar. Period. How much sugar is in one cookie? I noted that there are two servings in each cookie (who eats a half a cookie?!), so if you were to eat the whole cookie (of course you're going to eat the whole cookie), you'll consume 28 grams of sugar, which is 7 teaspoons, or 2 tablespoons plus a teaspoon. For a comparison, a 12-ounce can of soda has 39 grams of sugar, just about a tablespoon more. 

3. Palm margarine. In no universe is margarine a nutritious food, but at least this margarine is made without the use of trans fats. 

4. Chocolate chips, made from chocolate liqueur, sugar, cacao butter and vanilla. These are standard chocolate chips. No big nutrition wins here. 

5. Protein blend. This is the only ingredient in this product that significantly distinguishes it from your standard chocolate chip cookie. There's a blend of pea protein, brown rice protein and wheat gluten beefing up this confection. If you were to eat this whole cookie, you'll be taking in 16 grams of protein, a nice chunk towards your daily needs. However, as Americans, our diets are in no way protein deficient. In fact, we're far more likely to consume excess protein than we need than to be undernourished.

6. Oat fiber, chicory root fiber. With the natural fiber stripped from the wheat flour, the 8 grams of fiber per cookie has to come from somewhere. This added in fiber does not necessarily have the same benefit as naturally occurring fiber in our foods. Chicory root fiber, also called inulin, is added to foods from Fiber One bars to Splenda to give a health halo to naturally fiber-free products, and is often referred to as "farting fiber" in the industry because...well...you can guess (more on inulin HERE). 

7. Molasses, vanilla flavor. One natural sweetener plus one likely synthetic flavor.

8. Baking soda, salt. Standard cookie ingredients.

9. Flaxseed. Finally! A wholesome seed! But with this item sooooo low in the ingredient list, even less than salt, it's a very small amount added here. 

10. Sunflower lecithin. This is an emulsifier, used to help keep ingredients well-blended. I'm not losing sleep over this ingredient for sure, but it's not a requirement in baking. 

On further examination and considering my client's weight loss goal, this is not a great choice for regular indulgence. Does that mean she can never eat the cookie as long as she's trying to lose weight? Of course not. This cookie could be an okay choice right after a tough workout. But otherwise, in order to keep focused on here fitness goal, my client will treat this cookie as she would any other cookie and follow the Treat Treats as Treats rule. And for my money, I'd rather have a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie from a really great bakery or homemade by a friend than a prepackaged cookie like this one. 

Do the claims on our food, on the internet and in our grocery stores have you confused about what you should be feeding yourself and your family? Let's talk! 

Are our genes our fate?

My grandmother Shappy partying hard on her 99th birthday, July 2017

My grandmother Shappy partying hard on her 99th birthday, July 2017

This is a strange time of year for me: Over a span of less than three weeks, I celebrated my maternal grandmother's 99th birthday, observed the 14th anniversary of my dad's death, and I'll soon celebrate (celebrate?!) my 40th birthday. 

At this time of year, I can't help but think about that age old question: Are my genes my destiny?

My maternal grandmother was sharp as a tack right up until she was about 97, when she had her driver's license revoked, began losing her memory and started showing signs of dementia. She was always tiny and slim, and looked fantastic dressed up for her 99th birthday dinner. My father, on the other hand, was a giant man, literally and figuratively, who was obese for most of his life, yo-yo dieted for decades, developed type 2 diabetes, and died very suddenly at 57 (which was all at the same time a huge shock and yet wholly predictable).  

Surely genetics play a role in the health and lives of my dad and my grandmother. My grandmother smoked for decades before quitting sometime ago after a health scare. But she also has habits that support her longevity: She's always eaten like a bird. No meal is complete without a pile of tomatoes on her plate. Up until she was no longer able, she was mobile, loved to travel. And she kicks the butt of any fool willing to play her at Scrabble. 

My dad was a Division One football player in his youth but was completely sedentary in adulthood. His diet was lousy despite my mom's attempts to serve the family "green stuff." The cause of his obesity was no mystery, though the reasons he leaned so hard on food are sadly complex. 

I may have genes from my dad's side that make me X% more likely to become obese or to develop type 2 diabetes. I may also have genes on my maternal side that protect me somewhat from the damage of long-term smoking or otherwise promote longevity (alas, I can confirm I did not get the Scrabble gene). 

That said, there are habits I can practice today to support my long-term health: I can move my body regularly. I can fill my diet with nutritious whole foods: Vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. I can make sure I get enough sleep (still not as consistent as I could be here--work in progress!). I can limit risk factors like consumption of red meat, processed meat, added sugars and refined carbs, and I can avoid serious risk factors like smoking.

My genetics are my floor and my ceiling, but I have the power to determine how high off the floor I can rise. I have no plans to hang out on the floor. 

"But what do YOU eat after a tough workout?"

I've been making the rounds to running groups and talking to runners about eating well to fuel their workouts. One of my favorite topics is what to eat before and after a workout. I'm always surprised at just how few people make a consistent habit of eating after their tough workouts and long runs.

Eating a nutritious snack after workouts an hour or longer helps you gain strength and recover more quickly. Skipping that snack could lead to poor recovery and an out-of-control appetite. Following a workout with greasy or sugar-loaded foods doesn’t help you recover, either. A broadly accepted ratio for a perfect long run snack is about 3 or 4 to 1, carbohydrate to protein. That means a nice chunk of carbs and some protein, and the next meal should be rich in quality protein to speed recovery.

I often suggest a home-blended smoothie with frozen fruit and nuts; or whole wheat toast with banana and natural peanut or almond butter; or a loaded sweet potato with yogurt and almond butter. Even with these great suggestions, I often get the follow-up question, "But what do YOU eat after YOUR workouts?," as if I'm hiding a big secret, like I've got some supplements, or commercial shake powder (sorry, Shakeology--I ain't buying your crap), or I'm hitting up a smoothie shop and getting kooky, expensive boosters. 

I'm revealing all today and sharing one of my favorite homemade post-workout treats: The Hot Pink Smoothie Bowl! It's got plenty of carbs from bananas, berries and dragonfruit (sounds exotic but easy to find), and who needs protein powder when I've got the real deal from seeds and nut butter! And with the bright colors in the fruit, I know I'm also getting plenty of antioxidants to aid in recovery. Here's my formula...

  • 1 giant handful of frozen banana chunks, maybe a couple bananas worth (check my freezer any day of the week, and I've always got a container of frozen bananas)
  • 1 packet of unsweetened, frozen dragon fruit (I like Pitaya Plus, available at Wegmans or MOMs)
  • A splash of unsweetened almond milk
  • A tablespoon of chia seeds
  • A heaping tablespoon of chunky almond or peanut butter
  • A handful of fresh fruit

Blend the bananas and dragon fruit with just enough liquid to make the blender work, using a tamp down thingy to keep, well, tamping it down so the blade can do its work. When it's blended, pour it into a bowl and add the toppings. Enjoy! 

Light + Refreshing Cucumber Salad

Have I mentioned in the last 10 minutes that I love summer? Because I do--for far too many reasons than I have time to list here. One of the best parts of summer is the amazing variety of produce that grows locally in and around my fine home state of Maryland. Last week, we got about a zillion cucumbers in our CSA share from One Straw Farm, providing the perfect opportunity to whip up my favorite, super-fast summer side. It's less a recipe than a concoction; somewhere between a light pickle and a salad, you can enjoy this as a condiment on a sandwich or salad, or as a side dish at your next barbecue:

Refreshing Cucumber Salad

  • Cucumber, thinly sliced into rounds or half moons
  • Sweet onion, thinly sliced into half moons
  • Fresh dill, roughly chopped
  • Rice vinegar (plain, not "seasoned," which contains added sugar)
  • Coarse salt + pepper to taste

Combine the ingredients except for the salt + pepper in a flat-bottomed dish so everything can marinate well. Allow to sit at least 4 hours or overnight. Add salt + pepper to taste  Make as much or as little as you like, adding more or less of any ingredient to your preference. The longer it sits in the fridge, the more delicious this gets!

Need support in shopping and eating seasonally? Please get in touch!