Happy new year! I hope your 2021 is off to a good start…or at least a not-too-bad start or…yeah…
I personally didn’t have any expectations of reality making a dramatic turnaround with the change of the calendar. Although I do have hope for this new year, I think we’re all going to be living in some pretty stressful conditions for quite some time, between what my friend Sally calls the “P and Ps”: the pandemic and politics.
So raise your hand if you’re still struggling. Yeah, me too. After the 10 months we’ve all been through, it can be hard to muster motivation for work, parenting, and keeping your house from looking like a tornado blew through–let alone making a healthy dinner every night.
I’m right there with you, but as a nutritionist and long-time mom/chef, I have some tips for getting a home-cooked meal on the table, even when you’d really rather drink wine and watch Ted Lasso. (Or is that just me?)
Here are my top suggestions.
5 Ways to Make Pandemic Cooking a Little Easier
1. Give yourself built-in breaks
These days, I try to pencil in at least one really, really easy dinner a week. Maybe that means a three-ingredient salmon, a fix-and-forget “dump” meal in the Crock Pot, or a healthier Trader Joe’s meal. I especially like TJ’s chili-lime chicken burgers and their lentil soup with ancient grains. These go-to products save my bacon on those evenings when I just don’t have the energy for a more impressive meal (and the dish washing that comes afterward). Give yourself planned breaks with super-simple meals.
2. Go for almost-homemade
There’s no shame in getting a little boost from meal-starters that take some of the work out of prep. I personally draw the line at high-sodium boxed meals like Hamburger Helper, but almost-homemade is better than not homemade at all. Consider shortcutting your way to a more convenient meal using ingredients like pre-made pizza crust, pre-sliced veggies, or rotisserie chicken.
3. Meal plan (always!)
I will beat the meal planning drum until the day I die, but I find it especially important during the pandemic. Going into the week without a plan for (at least) your weeknight dinners is just asking for stress. So set aside an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon–or any time that works for you–and hammer out a plan for the week ahead. An ounce of meal planning prevention is worth a pound of fast food cure. (Or something like that.)
4. Double up
Here’s another tip I’ll happily advocate all day long. Doubling up on entire meals or sides makes life soooo much easier. Use a large pot of rice as a side dish for chicken, then as the base of fried rice later in the week. Make a batch of pulled pork for tacos, then put the rest on a pizza. Or straight-up make two casseroles, soups, or pasta dishes. and save half for another evening. In the words of my husband’s favorite bizarro TV personality Dr. Steve Brule:
5. Get the whole family involved
News flash: Even if you’re a mom, you’re not the only person in your household who can take part in meal-making. I know…
The fact is, any able-bodied person in your home can–and should–help out with cooking. Getting kids to join you in the kitchen doesn’t just help you; it sets them up for a lifetime of healthy home cooking. (Check out my article on Verywell Family that will get you started on age-appropriate cooking tasks for kids!)
So get those kids and husbands and grandmas and anyone else you can grab to help with slicing, dicing, sautéing, and more. The family that cooks together weathers the pandemic together–with some healthy, homemade meals on the table.
Need recipes for healthy, easy meals? Here are some of my faves:
Even if you’re not gluten-free, you’ll love the rich, chocolatey flavor of this Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Torte. Serve with fresh whipped cream!
Ready for Christmas yet? I’ll admit, even though it’s only three days away, I’m not exactly prepped for the big day. I still have a couple of gifts to buy and wrap and I’m still not 100% sure of my Christmas dinner menu. What can I say, it’s been a crazy year, right? (If there’s one upside to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s the fact that we can all point to it as an excuse for just about anything…including not being ready for Christmas. At least that’s the story I’m sticking to.)
Even in the midst of this surreal year, I’m fortunate that my family’s Christmas won’t look too much different from our norm. We’ll celebrate Mass the afternoon of Christmas Eve, where I’ll be singing soprano in the choir (in the parking lot because #socialdistancing). Then we’ll go out to dinner at our favorite seafood restaurant, come home, and snuggle by a fire watching A Muppet Christmas Carol. Singing Muppets never get old.
However you’re celebrating the holidays this year, it’s entirely possible you’ll be eating with folks with food restrictions. (Or perhaps you have some yourself.) Among my own family and friends, I can count dozens of people who don’t eat one thing or another–and the most common no-no seems to be gluten. Fortunately, for those living the GF life, there are plenty of tasty ways to get around gluten, even when it comes to my favorite course of the holiday meal: dessert.
I made this gluten-free flourless chocolate hazelnut cake back at Thanksgiving for my GF sister-in-law–and, who am I kidding, for myself because it’s DELISH. It was definitely a hit among all the eaters gathered at my husband’s family’s holiday dinner. With 12 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, it’s super dense and rich, meaning a little bit goes a long way. I also love that it’s flavored with liqueur (chocolate liqueur or hazelnut, like Frangelico, does the job). Fresh whipped cream on the side is optional, but I’d say more or less necessary, as its fluffiness helps cut the cake’s rich texture.
Regardless of your food allergy or sensitivity status, this dessert is sure to please. Hazelnuts are, in my opinion, a totally underrated nut with plenty of fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B-6, plus a little iron. (And, yeah, ok, quite a bit of fat…but at least it’s mostly the healthy monounsaturated kind!) Besides, they’re always an excellent flavor match with chocolate. Check out their full nutrition facts here.
Wishing you a very merry Christmas filled with delicious food! Tell me if you make this Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Cake as a last-minute dessert!
Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Cake
- 12 oz. 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped or chocolate chips
- 3/4 c. butter, cut into chunks
- 6 large eggs
- 1 c. packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 c. hazelnut or chocolate liqueur
- 1 c. hazelnuts, ground in the food processor
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- Optional: Fresh whipped cream, for topping
- Preheat to 350°F. Spray a 9-inch-diameter springform pan with cooking spray, then line bottom with a parchment paper round. Wrap the outside of pan tightly with 2 layers of heavy-duty foil.
- Combine chocolate and butter in a medium metal bowl or double boiler. Bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer and place the bowl on top. Whisk until the mixture is melted. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, brown sugar, chocolate or hazelnut liqueur. Whisk in the chocolate mixture until smooth, then stir in ground hazelnuts and salt.
- Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. Fill a roasting pan halfway with boiling water and carefully place the pan in the center (so that water reaches about halfway up the sides of the springform pan). Tent the top of the springform pan loosely with foil and bake about 90 minutes. The top will still look shiny but should be dry to the touch.
- Remove the springform pan from the roasting pan and cool. Refrigerate about 3 hours before serving, then enjoy with fresh whipped cream!
Crunchy and sweet, these healthy Popped Sorghum Protein Balls make a super-easy vegan, gluten-free snack!
Whaddaya know about sorghum? You may have heard of this grain as the base for syrups or food flavorings, or maybe you have a vague association of it with endless Midwestern fields of grains–but have you ever tried it all by itself? If not, you’re in for a treat, both eating it all by its lonesome and using it in these tasty, nutty Popped Sorghum Protein Balls.
What is sorghum?
Like most Americans, I haven’t exactly thought of popped sorghum as a go-to snack throughout my 38 years of life. In fact, I had never given the stuff a second thought until I attended a nutrition conference last year and was introduced to it as not just a ho-hum grain that flavored cereals (maybe? or something?), but a snack in its own right.
Sorghum is an African ancient grain that has found a home on American soil. It’s not only gluten-free, vegan, high in fiber, and rich in antioxidants, its growing practices are pretty darn good for the environment, too. According to the presenter at my most recent nutrition conference, 90% of American sorghum farmers do not irrigate, saving valuable water. Plus, three-quarters of them use conservation tillage practices, which conserves soil by reducing erosion. A sorghum habitat even protects and increases wildlife! I don’t claim to be a soil expert (I’ll leave that to my uncle Scott in Quincy, Illinois) but it’s nice to know the majority of sorghum grown in the U.S. has a top-notch environmental profile.
Okay, but what is popped sorghum?
All well and good, I hear you say, but I’m here for the food.
I recently had the chance to try out Nature Nate’s Popped Sorghum, which takes sorghum grains and pops them to create itty-bitty bites of salty deliciousness that are, essentially, like shrink-rayed popcorn.
Look how cute! So tiny!
So far, I’ve tried the Avocado Oil and Sea Salt, Coconut Oil and Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, Rosemary Garlic, and Organic Ghee Butter flavors. In terms of taste, I’d say popped sorghum is like a slightly nuttier popcorn, with a somewhat softer texture. Bonus: There’s no giant, tooth-cracking kernel in the middle just waiting to throw you under the bus for dental work.
My 13-year-old son is our family’s biggest popped sorghum fan. After school, he sits on the couch with a large bowl. My only complaint is, being a teenage boy, he pretty much always leaves the bowl (and the crumbs) for me to clean up.
With savory flavor, scoopable size, and crunchy (but not too crunchy) texture, popped sorghum makes for great snacking. But, as a recipe developer, my mind is always churning out thoughts of how else I can use a food. (You know, ’cause eating something all by itself just isn’t exciting enough.)
I’m a fan of energy bites, which always seem tastier with a hint of crunch. So I figured the Avocado Oil and Sea Salt Popped Sorghum from Nature Nate’s could be just the thing to add to a quick batch of peanut buttery protein balls. Sure enough, the little crunchies brought a unique, salty twist (and a boost of fiber and nutrients) to these snacks.
With just six ingredients and one bowl, these bites came out sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy. They also formed up nice and easily into portable, poppable balls. (I’m now trying to convince my 13-year-old to eat them instead of just popped sorghum to save on crumbs.) If your afternoon snacks have gotten a little boring lately, give them a try!
Other ways to use popped sorghum
Got some extra popped sorghum left after you make protein balls? Here are some creative ways to eat this unique grain:
- Sprinkle some in a trail mix
- Use it as a salty topping on ice cream
- Scatter some throughout a chocolate bark
- Add crunch (and extra fiber) to oatmeal
Popped Sorghum Protein Balls
- 1/2 c. Nature Nate's Avocado Oil and Sea Salt popped sorghum
- 1/2 c. creamy peanut butter
- 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
- 1/4 c. flax seed
- 1/2 c. old-fashioned oats
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients until well combined.
- Using your hands, form into golf ball-sized balls.
- Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a week.
Disclosure: This post sponsored by Nature Nate’s Popped Sorghum. All opinions my own.
Pumpkin Olive Oil Muffins bring the heart-healthy goodness of olive oil to your breakfast table.
Is olive oil all it’s cracked up to be? You hear it touted as the heart-healthy oil–almost a savior of recipes. Something’s got three pounds of cheese and oodles of bleached, refined flour but it has olive oil???? Must be healthy!
As a nutritionist, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that olive oil automatically makes anything good for you, but it does come with significant health benefits.
As part of a Mediterranean diet, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), especially if you’re already at risk. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people at risk of CVD who followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with–get this–extra olive oil had fewer major adverse cardiovascular events than those who supplemented with nuts. In another, more olive oil (yes, more fat and calories!) helped reduce body fat and improved blood pressure.
I’m convinced that subbing olive oil for other oils and butter whenever possible is a smart choice. I’m especially into including it in baked goods. (These delicious banana chocolate muffins and orange cake are among my favorites.) As long as the olive flavor isn’t overpowering, I find it a really nice, mellow complement to the sweetness of most baked goods.
So, being that it’s fall and therefore time for ALL THINGS PUMPKIN, I of course wanted to give olive oil a whirl in some pumpkin muffins. Trouble was, I had a hard time finding a recipe. When I Googled “Pumpkin Olive Oil Muffins,” it yielded very few results. “Pumpkin olive oil face mask” was much more popular. (Why would you put these delicious ingredients on your face without putting them in your mouth??)
Clearly, it was time to get creative. I adapted this recipe from the one on Olio Olive Oils’ website. A bit less sugar, a bit more time in the oven, and a yogurt-milk blend instead of time-consuming DIY buttermilk made these turn out perfecto–full of pumpkin spice flavor with a delicate, chewy crumb. I *may* have conveniently hidden the Tupperware full of these muffins under our countertop bread stash, where my kids wouldn’t readily notice them.
If you’re looking to add more olive oil to your home baking, you won’t be disappointed with these perfect-for-fall treats!
P.S. Want to know more about cooking oils? You can learn more about which oils work best for which types of cooking in this guide I wrote on Healthline.com.
Pumpkin Olive Oil Muffins
- 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 c. unsweetened applesauce
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 c. plain Greek yogurt
- 1/4 c. milk, any variety
- 1 c. canned pumpkin
- 1 c. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 c. whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
- scant 1/3 c. white sugar
- scant 1/3 c. brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with baking spray (even better if it's olive oil-based.)
- In a large bowl, stir together olive oil, applesauce, eggs, yogurt, milk, and pumpkin until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients and combine until no lumps remain.
- Distribute among prepared muffin cups and bake 20-22 minutes. Let cool 5-10 minutes.
Cashew butter puts a unique spin on the expected in these chewy Cashew Butter Oatmeal Cookies.
Not too long ago, I received an assignment from one of the publications I write for about the nutrition of cashew butter. Having limited experience with this particular nut butter, I was basically starting at square one. I’m your typical American when it comes to nut butters–as in, peanut butter is my gold standard. When our family lived in Germany a few years ago, the lack of this grocery staple in stores led to much weeping and gnashing of teeth (until my mom arrived from the States bearing some precious PB).
Doing a bit of research for my article led to some interesting revelations about cashew butter. Even though it has a teeny bit more calories than peanut butter, its fats are 80% unsaturated (aka the healthy kind). Plus–how weird is this?–certain antioxidant compounds in cashews have been associated with improved vision and eye health. You can read my full article with all cashew butter’s health benefits here.
Coincidentally, I happened to receive a few samples of cashew butter shortly after writing my article. One of which was this intriguing salted caramel variety.
Up until now, I’ve been noshing it slathered on graham crackers and as a dip for green apples. (Not sure if it’s giving me superhuman vision yet, but it sure is tasty.) With its creamy texture and comparable flavor to peanut butter, I figured I could put it to work in some of the other vehicles I’d normally use PB for…like cookies!
These Cashew Butter Oatmeal Cookies are a twist on the usual peanut butter oatmeal cookies. They’ve got the craveable crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside you know and love in the best peanut butter oatmeal cookies, with a slightly different taste. I especially enjoyed the hint of salted caramel in the variety I used, but you can easily use any kind of cashew butter here.
I guess I’ve come full circle on my cashew butter journey. Now that I know a bit more about it and have used it in several ways, I’m all aboard on the nut train. And I’m pretty sure if you try these cookies, you will be, too.
Cashew Butter Oatmeal Cookies
- 1/2 c. butter, softened
- 1/2 c. cashew butter
- 1/3 c. brown sugar
- 1/2 c. white sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 c. old fashioned oats
- 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- generous 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a large baking sheet with cooking spray.
- In a large bowl, combine butter, cashew butter, brown sugar, white sugar, vanilla, and egg. Blend with a hand mixer until well mixed, 1-2 minutes.
- Add oats, flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Mix by hand until combined.
- Form into balls and drop onto greased baking sheet. Bake about 12 minutes until tops of cookies are set. Cool 10 minutes and store in an airtight container.