Thursday, July 28, 2011

Family Eats--Encouraging Healthy Family Eating Habits

Credit: AP/Meredith Corp.
This past week I have noticed many articles about eating healthy.  This past Sunday, the New York Times had an article in their Sunday Review about what it will take to get America to eat healthier.  This month’s Better Homes & Gardens featured First Lady Michelle Obama with ideas on helping children eat healthy.  This seems to be a growing trend, and over the last few months I have connected with a few organizations that I believe echo the same philosophy that I spoke of in Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide To Creating Family Traditions; those of sitting down together as a family for dinner, living mindfully, eating locally produced seasonal foods, and truly connecting one with another. 

Family Eats & I connected to share ideas recently, and I’m proud to introduce them to our readers.

Rosanna:  Much of the Family Eats mission is to help others learn about the importance of sitting around the table as a family during mealtime.  What advice do you have for people trying to start this daily ritual?

Family Eats:  Numerous studies have confirmed that families who eat together at least once a week are healthier – both physically and emotionally. But despite this, many families continue to be caught in an endless cycle of running, running, running. Running to work. Running to a soccer game. Running to everything except dinner with the family.

Our goal at Family Eats is to help readers reconnect with the food we eat and the families we love. But it takes a commitment to do so. It takes a commitment to slow down and make the effort to gather around the table, whether it is for dinner, breakfast or lunch.  

Photos Courtesy of
John Granen Photography
Because the transition from eating on the run to eating around the table may seem daunting, Family Eats suggests taking ‘baby steps.’ Choose one day a week to sit down at the table for dinner, and keep that ‘date’ for several weeks running. Be it Sunday dinner or Friday night (homemade) pizza and a movie, after a few weeks, it will become a habit. Then you’ll be more likely to take another small step to gather for another meal together. Eventually, gathering around the table will turn into a great family tradition.

And, if dinnertime is too much of a commitment, then try something else – breakfast on Saturday morning, teatime on the weekends, or a packed lunch enjoyed in the park mid week.

Yes, memories can be made on the soccer field, but true connections are made at the table. Start the tradition today!

Rosanna: In the olden days neighbors used to stop by for a cup of coffee and for a visit.  Our lives seem so fast-paced that this practice has nearly disappeared.  What recommendations do you have for “spontaneous entertaining”?

Family Eats:  Just the other day while Greg was out front watering the garden, he ran into some friends returning from the library and invited them to come on in. When I offered them something to drink and eat, they refused, saying that they didn’t want to intrude.

The ritual of dropping by – or spontaneous entertaining – shouldn’t be an intrusion, rather it should be treated as a celebration, a time to connect with friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, I think the joy of spontaneous entertaining is something our society has lost.

Gathering with friends and family on a moment’s notice is about building community, building relationships and building memories. When it comes to offering food for guests, it doesn’t have to be anything complicated requiring much preparation, just something simple such as crackers and cheese, premade pastries or cookies that are stored in the freezer, or chopped fruit and nuts. My mother always has some sort of baked goods in the freezer ready for whomever it is that stops by, even it is me.

Welcoming guests into your homes for a bit of spontaneous entertaining doesn’t require too much effort – just a bit of planning. If you routinely keep your home stocked with healthy foods for yourself and your family, then you’re all stocked and ready to welcome whoever may stop by.

Rosanna:  Please share some practical tips on how to integrate healthy eating into our children’s everyday menu?

Family Eats:  It is very hard for parents to fight the ‘healthy eating versus junk food’ battle with their children. But a lifetime of healthy eating habits starts at home, which is why a discussion about food needs to be a continual discussion you have with your children.

We don’t lecture our kids about food, demonizing snacks and candy, but rather make them aware of the goodness that can be found in certain foods, and how they can help the body grow. (You know, the old ‘carrots are good for your eyesight,’ type of discussion.)

It is also important to surround your children with good food choices. Having a kitchen stocked with healthy choices, and making meals at home is a great way to involve the children in the discussion about foods. Because children learn from all their parents do, it is important to make healthy choices yourself, so that you send a message to them that food is important.

And, when it comes to snacking, we don’t keep cupboards stocked with an endless supply of boxed cookies, crackers, chips and other convenience foods, allowing them to grab a handful whenever they want. Instead, we have set specific times for meals and snacks. I plan what and when snack time will be, then give them a specific portion of snack.

Because my children are young, I feel it is essential that I make the choices for them, guiding them to make better decisions. And, yes, I do allow them to enjoy ‘unhealthy’ snacks from time to time. It just isn’t an option on a daily basis.

We always have fresh fruit available, and prepare cut vegetables such as carrots, celery, cucumbers or red peppers ahead of time, and place them on a plate with a dipping sauce or hummus and crackers during late afternoon snack. On occasion, I make muffins or scones in the morning to serve for both breakfast and as an afternoon snack.

We talk about choices, we offer variety, and make healthy food choices a part of our every day lives. Now I find the kids starting food conversations among themselves at the dinner table. They ask for olive oil to dip their bread into instead of butter. They participate in a “Who can make the largest crunch with their carrot” competitions, ask for juicy apples in the afternoon, and tell me that they’d like my homemade granola bars in their school lunch the next day.

I feel that this is because we have had discussions about food on a continual basis. And by making the connection with food a positive experience, I feel confident that they will be equipped to make better decisions when they are away from home.

Rosanna:  How often do you serve your family vegetarian meals?  Do you have a favorite recipe to share?

Family Eats:  We try to incorporate vegetarian meals at least once a week into our menu. However, it doesn’t always turn out that way, partly because I don’t always have it in me to fight the vegetable fight with the kids.

With that said, we have made an effort to cut back on our consumption of meat, trying new recipes with the goal to incorporate more meat-free meals each week. In the process, the family has enjoyed more grains, beans, and vegetables. And, I haven’t heard them comment, “Is this all we’re having?”

It was hard to do at first, but once we made the decision to do so and followed through with it for a few weeks, it became habit. It is still a challenge from time to time, but it is a challenge that I think is well worth it.
Family Eats' delicious Greek white
bean soup.  Click photo for

Some of our favorites are quick, easy and familiar meals such as a vegetable stir fry, a Greek white bean soup, and Grilled Cheese with Smoked Mozzarella and Basil.

Another one of our favorite recipes is for Spicy Peanut Sesame Noodles, and one I have enjoyed ever since I interviewed Helen Chen for Family Eats. It appears in her book Easy Asian Noodles (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2010). It is a quick and easy recipe to prepare, and one that is a hit with my peanut-butter loving kids.

1 lb. Chinese wheat or egg noodles, or thin spaghetti
3 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsp raw sesame seeds
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup canned chicken broth, warmed
3 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp chili-garlic sauce, or to taste
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp thinly sliced scallions
1 tsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
½ seedless cucumber, shredded
¼ lb snow pees, ends snapped off, strings removed, parboiled 15
seconds, drained, rinse in cold water and shredded
1 medium carrot, shredded
¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and stir in the noodles. Cook until a little more tender than al dente. Drain and rinse noodles under cool water. Drain again and toss with 1 tbsp sesame oil, place in large bowl, and set aside.

Toast sesame seeds in ungreased pan. Transfer all but 1 tbsp of seeds to a mortar and pestle and crush until most of seeds are broken.

In a small bowl, blend the peanut butter with the broth, soy sauce, vinegar, chili-garlic sauce, and sugar into a smooth paste. Stir in 1 tbsp of the scallions, the ginger and crushed sesame seeds. Cover until ready to use.

When ready to serve, gently toss the noodles with the cucumber, snow peas, carrot, peanut sauce and cilantro, if using, and the remaining 2 tbsp scallions. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with reserved sesame seeds.

Note: I leave out the chili garlic sauce and allow anyone who wants, to add to bowls individually.

Rosanna:  Your recent blog post is titled, “Gathering Around The Table in Style:  The Table and its Cloth”.  Share with our readers how your use of table setting has encouraged family traditions.

Family Eats:  The ritual of setting the table – with dinnerware and not to-go containers – is an essential part of creating a family tradition. Even if you bring a take-out dinner home, transfer the meal to serving dishes and set the table.

Simple table decorations set the stage for a pleasant dinnertime experience. Whether it is the everyday placemat with the day-to-day dishes, a holiday table decorated with Grandma’s tablecloth and set with themed dinnerware, or a small vase filled with flowers, creating an enjoyable atmosphere in which to eat is important.

I love my collection of tablecloths, but we don’t always use them (I’d be washing it every night!). When not covered with a cloth, I try to have something on the table that has a story to it. Sometimes it is a vase filled with flowers cut from the garden. Other times it is a casserole served in the cazuela I bought while in Portugal years ago, my grandmother’s covered glass bowl in the shape of a chicken, or olive oil and vinegar cruets from Italy. These little appointments make the table feel like home – and that is a wonderful tradition to have.

Rosanna:  What are your must-haves in the house for healthy eating?

Family Eats:  A well-stocked pantry is essential for healthy eating. If you’ve nothing in the cupboards, then you’ll tend to grab whatever you can find to munch on – and most likely it will not be a healthy choice.

I am a perimeter shopper, buying a lot of bulk foods – from rice to beans and grains. They are a versatile way to mix things up for dinner – and, when you have these items on hand, you’ll be ready to create a wide variety of healthy mealtime options from bean soup to barley salad or quinoa cakes. Other essentials for the kitchen include a healthy dose of olive oil, garlic, and spices, which can also help transform the mundane dinner into something different. As well, I keep a couple of cans of San Marzano tomatoes on hand. They are great for making a quick salsa when you don’t have fresh tomatoes on hand, are the perfect addition to a slow cooked pot roast tacos, as well as the go-to choice for creating great sauces, including my new favorite, Rosanna’s Tomato Vodka sauce.

Don’t forget the produce aisle. Although perishable, it is essential to have a healthy dose of fruits and veggies on hand, especially when they are prepared and ready to eat. If you shop on Saturday, make Sunday the day you wash up the veggies and chop them for the new few days. When they’re prepared and ready to eat, you’ll be more likely to grab them for a snack or a meal.

Finally, and perhaps the most important ingredient to have on hand to ensure calm nerves in the kitchen, is some chocolate. I enjoy breaking off chunks from a bar of bittersweet chocolate, or, when I find some time alone, I indulge in one (or two) of Fran’s Chocolates Smoked Salt Caramels.

While we were talking, Family Eats also asked me a few questions. To read their interview of me, and find my delicious and healthy vodka sauce recipe, visit the Family Eats blog.  For more information about Family Eats, visit their website at  They also have a Facebook page and a Twitter page.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A New Discovery of Oldways

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: what we eat, how we eat it, and with whom we eat have a significant impact on our health, well being, and sense of community. These notions have provided the foundation for our design philosophy at Rosanna from the start. They are also the heart and soul of my book, Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide to Creating Family Traditions So imagine my surprise when I discovered the same core values in another book, The Oldways Table: Essays and Recipes from the Culinary Think Tank by K. Dun Gifford and Sara Baer-Sinnott. These two founded and run Oldways, the self-described “food think tank.” I was intrigued by their work, especially as it applies to the Mediterranean Food Pyramid. The book was so compelling that I contacted Oldways to find out more.  Dun passed away last year, but Sara continues with Oldways and was gracious enough to grant me an interview to explore their approach to eating well.  I hope you find these answers as educational and inspiring as I did.
Rosanna:  What is the bio mission of Oldways?  What is its purpose?
Sara Baer-Sinnott:  Oldways was founded by K. Dun Gifford, a food enthusiast and advocate in 1990.  Dun began Oldways as an educational organization to combat the rising prevalence of “pseudo foods” that were taking over the marketplace.  He saw that poor eating habits and chronic disease were spreading he wanted to change the way people ate—the base of our mission still today.  He began with the idea that if he could bring people back to the table, reintroduce them to the ‘old ways’ and revive the healthful pleasures of real food he could make a difference and collectively we could change the way people eat.
Although Dun passed away a year ago and many things have changed since 1990, our work continues and his mission lives on through our educational programs including the Whole Grains Council and Mediterranean Foods Alliance.
Rosanna:  What is the Mediterranean diet?  Why is it beneficial to one's health?
© 2009 Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust
Sara: The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating based on the traditional foods (and drinks) of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.   The Mediterranean Diet is not a diet, as in “go on a diet,” even though it is a great way to lose weight or improve your health. Rather, it is a lifestyle – including foods, activities, meals with friends and family, and wine in moderation with meals. It has been consistently reported to promote good health. The health benefits are endless, from cardiac to brain function, this tried and true way of life looks at total health and well-being.  U.S. News & World Report recently announced their ranking of top diets and named the Med diet as one of the best overall diets. The Traditional Mediterranean Diet, has at its core vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, peanuts, herbs, spices, and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil; fish, poultry and lean red meat; cheese and yogurt; and moderate amounts of wine. Other vital elements of the Mediterranean Diet are daily exercise, sharing meals with others, and fostering a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.

In 1993, as a way to help people bring this diet to life, we developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.  Throughout the years we have introduced modified versions of this pyramid.  And have developed alternative traditional diet pyramids for other cultures including an Asian Diet Pyramid, Latin American Diet Pyramid, a Vegetarian Diet Pyramid and we will actually be introducing an African Heritage Pyramid this November, which is very exciting for us!
Rosanna:  What are the most important steps to take to begin eating more healthy?  Is there a step by step plan?  Are there specifics--i.e. what does one need in their refrigerator and pantry to start this process?
Sara:  Taking small steps can be the best way to make positive, healthy changes.  We are all creatures of habit so it is important to not let yourself feel overwhelmed by an instant overhaul, you should nurture yourself and enjoy the process.  At Oldways we offer simple steps to help with better health.  It's important to keep meals simple and easy, aim for making every meal taste great, and to eat nourishing foods that promote satiety.  We outline these 8 simple steps to help people learn how to adopt the Mediterranean eating pattern: Eat lots of vegetables; Change the way you think about meat and if you eat it, add small amounts to vegetable sautés or use as a garnish for a dish a pasta; always eat breakfast; eat seafood twice a week; cook a vegetarian meal one night a week, and then aim for two nights a week; use healthy fats in daily meals, especially extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, peanuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. In addition, we encourage consumers to discover the wide variety of delicious Mediterranean foods at the supermarket and learn how to routinely break old habits and make healthy substitutions. For example, buy Greek yogurt and use that instead of sour cream; sample different varieties of hummus, find your favorites, and use that in place of mayonnaise.
Rosanna:  I’m very intrigued by the section on moderate alcohol intake, especially since many in America are over-drinkers.  Explain the health benefits of alcohol intake.  Define "moderate."
Sara:  The definition of moderate in the Mediterranean diet is they idea of enjoying a glass of wine with dinner.  Studies show that this type of moderate alcohol consumption with meals – one glass for women and two for men – has cardiovascular benefits.
Rosanna:  Because we design dinnerware with the explicit purpose of bringing people together, this last question is one I attempt to answer every day: How does eating well build a sense of community and bring people together?  
Sara:  When I learned about you and your work, I was so excited to hear that you’re is so committed to bringing people together to enjoy food.  If you're enjoying meals with others, you aren't inhaling a quick meal.   And if you eat in the presence of conversation, you're not mindlessly eating in front of the TV. The Mediterranean Diet is grounded on the principles of enjoyment and pleasure. Foods, drinks and meals are especially enjoyable if eaten with others, when possible, and savored.  Research is even pointing to more health benefits gained when meals are enjoyed together. From the food to the ambiance to savoring the taste of food and wine to the company we keep while eating—this is all part of the total experience.
What the world needs now, more than ever, is to think like Oldways. We need to come together, eat together, and turn our attention towards the total experience of breaking bread as a community. I second Oldways' ideals, and truly believe this is one of the most important ways to live well.
While we were talking, Oldways also asked me a few questions. To read their interview of me, and find a delicious healthy pasta recipe, visit the Oldways blog. For more information about Oldways, visit their website at  They also have a Blog, Facebook, and Twitter.