My name is Lisa Tsakos, Registered Holistic Nutritional Consultant, corporate speaker and author. This blog provides professional advice from a nutrition and weight loss expert (me!) about corporate and family health. Here you'll find recipes and articles that address work-related challenges like eating on-the-go and maximizing your productivity with the right foods. You'll also find out about how you can help your children develop strong immune systems and healthy bodies. As a nutrition instructor, I often found myself thinking, "When I have kids, this is how I will feed them." With two toddlers, I have the opportunity to practice what I have been preaching and to try out my theories. So far, they seem to be working! Follow me on my journey and also on Twitter @NuVitalityHW.

20 Oct 2015

Back to School Lunches for Toddlers!

After five l-o-n-g years, my daughter finally started kindergarten. (Can you hear me cheering?) And after years of giving advice on back to school lunches to parents, it's my turn to put my money where my mouth is. 

We're almost at the end of October and so far, so good. Surprisingly, Olivia has finished every lunch (phew). At home, she barely touches her food these days. In fact, she eats much better at school than at home. I've tried to snap pics of her lunches as they're being packaged up (usually the night before, sometimes 10 minutes before she leaves for school when it suddenly hits me that I forgot to make her lunch) mainly as documentation of meals she liked for those days when I just can't think of anything to prepare.

I’m guessing some of you are in the same boat – running out of ideas or worried that your child is going hungry at school.

Liv was supposed to start school last year (when we lived in Toronto), so I’ve had a lot of time to think about her lunch objectives (yeah, seriously!). To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been very experimental and have mainly stuck to the foods she likes. I always consult with her to make sure she’s in the mood for a certain lunch food. It’s a lot of pressure having a nutritionist as a mom (mostly for the mom). Actually, I'm more concerned about her lecturing other kids about artificial colours in their lunches than about her finishing every bite of hers. Nonetheless, besides nutritional quality (always the main objective), when preparing lunches, the emphasis is on:

1. Bite-sized foods
2. Small amounts of each type of food
3. Fresh, raw  
4. High-quality source of protein! 
5. A small, healthy treat.

More on this in a moment, but first, there are certain brain foods that are key to optimal mental performance and good behaviour:

-Omega-3 fats – found in cold-water fatty fish, nuts and seeds, some greens
-Probiotics – found in yogurt and fermented foods
-B vitamins – found in whole grains, dark leafy greens and some animal foods
-Protein – animal foods, nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, quinoa
-Vitamin D – salmon, trout, milk.

In an ideal world, these nutrients would be part of every lunch. That doesn’t always happen, so omega-3 fish oil and vitamin D drops are sneaked into mango juice (diluted with water), we eat fish for dinner three times a week, probiotic powder is added to smoothies and yogurt, and B vitamins find their way in via whole grain waffles and pancakes, wraps and bread, oatmeal, brown rice and beans. The kids also take a daily multivitamin designed for children.
All right, back to the other lunch objectives: 

1. Bite-sized foods
To me, lunch time is like a cocktail party: think finger foods and bite-sized. Olivia, like most kids, is an easily distracted eater, so all her foods are small and easy to chew. For example, baby carrots, one of her favourite foods, are steamed. Perhaps it's my mom-paranoia that imagines her choking on a raw carrot while hanging upside down on the monkey bars… I just don’t want to get that phone call. Ever.

2.  Small portions of each type of food
Variety is the spice of life and one of the keys to good health. Every natural food presents a different set of nutrients. Rather than a lot of one thing, I pack up a little of everything. It keeps lunches interesting and provides a broad spectrum of nutrients. Side thought: it’s important to encourage kids to be mindful of the difference between feeling satisfied and feeling full. Olivia is often reminded that she isn’t obliged to finish all of her food. Providing small portions prevents overeating and helps her decide which foods can be saved for snack time. 

3. Fresh, raw
Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe – my daughter loves these foods. She loves apples and pears too (but not the peel), and to combat browning, first they are diced up or peeled using a ceramic knife (it works!), then a little ascorbic acid in the form of apple juice or pineapple juice is drizzled overtop. If she gets a whole apple, it’s peeled and then stored in a sippy cup. Hey, if the shoe fits. I love that she eats so much raw food at lunch, supplying her body with enzymes and antioxidants. Do I sound like a proud mama?

4.  High-quality protein source
This is the most important objective and for me, the most challenging. So many meals and snacks are carb-based. Protein is an important brain-nutrient, acting as a co-factor to make neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help kids learn and stay focused. Some protein at every meal and snack helps keep blood sugar levels balanced so that kids don’t get sleepy, hungry or cranky at school.

My daughter has practically sworn off meat, with the exception of roast beef. I’m not a big beef eater, but because she devours it, I’ve been making roasts in the slow cooker (with tonnes of veggies). Occasionally, I’ll pack a couple of slices of antibiotic-free turkey slices into Olivia’s lunch bag, keeping in mind that the L-tryptophan in turkey, along with the carbs in the rest of her lunch will likely cause sleepiness. Like I said, it happens rarely, when I want her to go to bed early, lol. Instead, smoked salmon (packed with healthy omega-3 fats) with a couple of crackers makes a more regular appearance in her lunch.

She isn’t big on sandwiches either, but a slice of whole grain bread topped with SunButter (sunflower seed butter that is nut-free) or almond butter goes over well. You can form two hearts out of one slice of bread using a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Olivia’s favourite source of protein is plant based and inexpensive - beans! Packing them is a dream (you don’t need an ice pack) and they can fit into practically any type of container. A boy at Olivia’s schooled teased that beans make you fart. As long as they don’t make her fart, they are welcome in her lunch anytime.

We tried various types of cheese, even resorting to a few rounds of Babybel, but they cause tummy trouble. Like her mom, Liv is a little lactose intolerant. She can digest yogurt, though, so as long as her meal isn’t too high in carbs or fruit, Greek yogurt (in a pre-bought container or containerized at home, but always organic) will serve as the meal’s protein source.

Energy balls made with SunButter, honey, coconut & flax

5. A small healthy treat (infrequent)
A favourite snack lately has been energy balls (recipe coming soon). They're super easy to make and the best part - I always have the ingredients on hand. Just two of these delicious bite-sized snacks provide fiber, some protein and antioxidants and while they taste sweet, they are very low in sugar. Individually wrapped quinoa cookies (I buy them from Costco) have been a big hit and they’re small enough to fit into any tightly packed lunch bag. Some other great snacks to sneak into lunch are PC Organics dried fruit & veggie bars, Nature’s Place All Natural Fruit Animals (I picked these up in Maine recently), Florida’s Natural Organic Fruit Nuggets and SnapPea Crisps. If I’m in the mood to bake, a fiber-rich mini muffin might make it to the next day’s lunch (just barely. Muffins don’t last long around here). Such healthier versions of junk food are occasional. I don’t want her to expect them or to think that they are dessert. Find lots of great ideas in this post, Healthy Snacks for Kids

Here are some examples of her lunches: 

Wrap filled with SunButter (sunflower seed butter, nut-free)
Lightly steamed baby carrots
Cherry tomatoes
Pineapple chunks 
PCO Orange Mango Sweet Potato bar
Water (water is packed almost every day, but an organic juice box might get packed when lunch is low-carb and she has phys-ed or gymnastics) 

Smoked salmon, sliced
3 gluten free seasoned crackers (from Glutino)
Lightly steamed baby carrots
Fruit salad (blueberries and cantaloupe)
Organic applesauce + spoon
So fancy.

Sometimes when I'm preparing Olivia's lunch I think about the lunches my mother made for me. Time and time again, I watched her face drop when she found my uneaten sandwiches. Ultimately, she resorted to butter or jam sandwiches on white bread - something she knew I would eat. I cringe every time I think about it, but at the same time, I feel her pain.

You may have noticed, one area where I am receiving a failing grade is my overuse of plastic! Every food container is plastic. They all state BPA free, and hot food or liquid never, ever goes into any of them; still, I am actively looking for plastic-free options that a toddler can handle. This will be a work in progress. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

13 Oct 2015

Happy Healthy Thanksgiving

I have much to be grateful for this year. 

I'm surrounded by beauty. Inspiring, overwhelming beauty. The colours take my breath away - gardens still abundant with summer flowers, the changing leaves, the sunlight glistening on the ocean. I can hardly stand it. After a magnificent summer, our first living by the ocean, what a blessing to have mild fall days that feel more like early September than mid-October. Our tomato plants are full of blossoms!

This weekend, for Canadian Thanksgiving, Mother Nature graced us with glorious sun and warm temperatures - perfect for celebrating the fall harvest. 
Carrots from our organic garden!

It was our first Thanksgiving living away from family, so we celebrated with new and old friends - friends who have helped us feel at home in our new city and for whom I am very  grateful. 

One of our guests, a pescetarian with an allergy to wheat, inspired a meat-free, gluten free meal. I was more than ok with that!

In a way, it was liberating. I didn’t feel obligated to prepare a traditional turkey dinner and it may have been the first holiday dinner that didn’t leave me feeling bloated and tired. No turkey coma for us this year! 

With some willing guinea pigs (who are also health conscious) coming over, it was a great opportunity to try out some recipes I've been eyeing, and I hit the jackpot with a couple of them. In our household, that means foods our kids will eat. 

Our Thanksgiving feast began with a few appetizers. Nothing fancy - assorted cheeses, gluten free crackers, mixed olives, healthy spreads, and bocconcini & cherry tomato skewers. 

Sweet potato casserole from Oh She Glows

Dinner was a colourful celebration of vegetables! From the rainbow carrots to the candy cane beets, it was a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy. This was our dinner menu:

Grilled salmon with balsamic glaze (seared and barbecued)
Arugula salad with shaved pear (similar recipe here)
Sweet potato casserole (from Oh She Glows, Saweet! Potato Casserole with a Crunchy Nut Crumble)
Rainbow heirloom carrots
Roasted beets (candy cane, golden & red)

Dessert was a buffet of fall veggies disguised as delicious treats: squash cupcakes (recipe coming soon!), sweet potato brownies (gluten free - made by one of our guests) and pumpkin pie!  

In the spirit of Halloween month (and to celebrate the array of fall reds), my husband made Blackberry Smash cocktails from a recipe we found on Pottery Barn's blog (thank you Instagram!). He couldn't bring himself to use the 1 cup of sugar the recipe called for (whoa!) so he reduced it by less than half, and the drink was still outstanding!

Our friend Dan enjoying a delicious Blackberry Smash cocktail

If it sounds like a lot of food for 6 people, it was. The bonus: leftovers for days! Isn't it great not having to cook?

As far as I was concerned, the show stopper was the Grilled Vegetables with Chickpeas and Basil recipe from Whole Foods Market. I added three portobello mushrooms and 1/2 cup of pitted Kalamata olives to the recipe, and used one delicata squash (the recipe calls for 2 winter squash).

No, it isn't traditional Thanksgiving fare and it doesn't feature only fall veggies, but it's a salad that can be eaten year-round, warm or cold, for lunch or dinner as a main course or as a side dish. And it will last in your fridge for a few days. It's perfect for busy people who are always on the go. Heck, you can even toss some into a wrap or pita. 

Grilled Vegetables with Chickpeas and Basil

Unlike other salads that leave you hungry for more, this salad is sooo satisfying thanks to the chickpeas, which provide 10 to 15 grams of protein and 5 to 7 grams of fiber (depending on the size of your portion).  

By the time we finished eating, we were engaged in a lively conversation and comfortably full. No one was passed out on the couch!

The moral of this story: the traditional Thanksgiving meal provides 3,000 calories (it takes 3,500 extra calories to gain 1 pound of body fat!) and can leave you feeling blah for days. This year's meal reminded me of the origins of Thanksgiving - a celebration of the harvest, and proved that feasting on healthy, delicious food is far more satisfying than eating gobs of mashed potatoes with gravy. It was a tradition game-changer. 

By the way, if you're having trouble finding delicata squash, it is also known as sweet potato squash, baked potato squash, peanut squash and Bohemian squash!

4 Mar 2015

Phenomenal Fennel Recipe!

Ever stopped to look at fennel at the supermarket and wondered what to do with it?

To be perfectly honest, my exposure to fennel was pretty limited. Before I ever ate fennel as a vegetable (it's actually an herb), I had tasted it many times in the form of a tea. Once I tried roasted fennel, I was hooked! The bulb is layered like cabbage - but it doesn't taste anything like cabbage (I promise!). Instead, it's mildly sweet and tastes a little bit like licorice. 

Here's a fantastic and easy recipe featuring fennel as the main event. As I love to do with many of the recipes I post (like my favourite Brussels sprouts recipe), this dish is a great way to introduce fennel to your friends and family. It's a nice accompaniment to seafood and will undoubtedly serve as a conversation piece at a dinner party.

1 whole fennel bulb (save the feathery bits at the top - you'll need them as a topping later) 
1 large or 2 small onions
1 large or 2 small apples (any variety)
1 teaspoon olive oil 
sea salt or Himalayan salt to taste
freshly ground pepper   

1. Preheat oven to 400°C. 
2. Chop the fennel, onions and apple into small chunks.
3. Spread chopped vegetables and apples in a roasting pan, distributing the pieces evenly. 
4. Drizzle with about a teaspoon of olive oil and season with sea salt (use a dark sea salt for maximum nutritional value) and pepper (and I sprinkle most of my food with seaweed flakes for extra minerals).
5. Bake at 400°C for 1 hour, stirring every so often. It's ready when the veggies and apple are soft and golden brown (not burnt!).

Just before serving, chop up the frilly bits that you put aside earlier and sprinkle over the roasted veggies. As a side dish, this recipe serves 4.

Once you taste fennel, you'll be a believer, but it isn't just a pretty taste. Parsley's cousin has a slaw... I mean a slew of medicinal purposes.

Several years ago, my husband and I noticed serving dishes with fennel seeds by the front desk and at the door of the Indian restaurant we frequented. In India, chewing a handful of 'after-dinner seeds' is an effective breath freshener and digestive aid. Come to think of it, I'm going to try that at my next dinner party!

Fennel tea is an incredible carminative (meaning, it relieves gas, the fart kind). It's conveniently available in teabags or you can DIY with fennel seeds. Combine it with peppermint tea to really combat belly bloat, indigestion or gas.

Fennel's most interesting nutrient is anethole, a component of the volatile oil in fennel that contributes to its taste and aroa. It's also found in anise and licorice. Anethole is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and it may help ward off cancer by turning off TNF (tumor necrosis factor) mediated signaling.

Here's some more info on fennel found on Naturally Savvy. Let me know how you like this recipe and send in some of your own favourites!

1 Mar 2015

Can Diet Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

This time of year, I’ve pretty much had it with winter. My body and brain are craving an outdoor jog, a walk to the park with the kids, running an errand without having to put on 10 pounds of warm clothing (sigh). Most of all, I long to wear footwear that is not a boot! 

The long hours of darkness can certainly affect mood and attitude, but when symptoms begin to affect sleep patterns and weight, it could mean seasonal affective disorder or SAD. 

Also known as seasonal depression or the winter blues, SAD is associated with dramatic changes in mood, depression, and low energy. Although rare, it can occur during the summer months too, with symptoms presenting as anxiety, weight loss and trouble sleeping.

The changes in mood seem to be related to light. In the winter, less direct exposure to sunlight and reduced physical activity contributes to a shift in the production of the hormone melatonin, affecting the circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) and serotonin production. This can cause us to oversleep and have trouble waking up in the morning, a lack of energy and reduced motivation, and strong cravings for carbohydrates, leading to overeating and weight gain.

But for about 6 percent of Americans, the ‘winter blues’ are serious. Changes in season can trigger a severe form of clinical depression that returns and disappears at the same time every year. If you recognize this pattern and it has occurred for two consecutive years or more, seek medical attention.

SAD is more common in women than in men, and cravings for carbohydrates – foods like potato chips, pasta, bread – are one of the main indicators of the condition. It’s normal to crave carbs when you’re feeling down. Carbs raise serotonin levels promoting a better mood. Since SAD can cause changes in appetite and eating behaviors, food and specific nutrients can help combat symptoms too. Here are some mood-boosting strategies:

Improving Mood with Food
The key foods to include in your diet during the glum winter months include:

Fish: SAD is lower in countries with high fish consumption, such as Iceland and Japan, suggesting that low omega-3 intake may be behind the symptoms. That makes sense considering the relationship of omega-3 to mood and depression. Research indicates that omega-3 in fish can help improve symptoms of all forms of depression, from mild to serious, and is critical for a well-functioning central nervous system. Cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines provide the most omega-3. If you prefer to supplement, choose products with more DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). Flax seed oil, raw nuts and seeds and nut butters also provide some omega-3.

B vitamins: This group of vitamins is critical to mental and emotional health. Leafy greens (like spinach and kale) and whole grains are the richest sources of B vitamins, with the exception of vitamin B12, which is found exclusively in animal foods and by-products (yogurt, cheese, eggs, etc.). Keep a variety of washed leafy greens on hand for quick salads. If you can tolerate grains, prepare homemade muffins from oats and whole grain flour, and center meals around brown or black rice. Have your vitamin B12 tested If you frequently experience low energy levels and lethargy. Low levels of B12 are linked to depression and could result in serious illness. Keep in mind that B vitamins are depleted by stress, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and refined sugars. Yikes!

Protein: Amino acids in protein make neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that have an immediate impact on your mood and behavior. The amino acid tyrosine, for example, increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels, making you feel more alert and energized. It’s also necessary for healthy thyroid function. SAD can affect the thyroid in women, contributing to fatigue and weight gain. Start each day with about 20 grams of protein. Eggs, high-protein cereals, nut butters or a high-quality protein shake are excellent sources.

Vitamin D: There is some evidence that low levels of vitamin D may contribute to symptoms of SAD. This is not surprising, since the sun is our most direct source of the vitamin, but studies have been inconsistent. Nonetheless, vitamin D is linked to a host of other diseases including cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease and autoimmune disease. Take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily, especially during the winter months when you aren’t regularly exposed to direct sunlight. Better yet, have your vitamin D levels tested to determine if, in fact, you are deficient, and base your daily supplementation dose on the results. Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna, fish liver oils (cod liver oil, we’re talking about you!) and egg yolks.

Probiotics: While information about the relationship between probiotics and SAD is frightfully lacking, since most of our serotonin (about 90 percent) is located in the gut and new research strongly suggests that gut flora has a profound effect on mental health, it makes sense to encourage the growth of good intestinal bacteria. Serotonin influences mood, sleep, appetite and memory. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut, as well as probiotic supplements, should be part of our daily diet and supplementation protocol.

Melatonin: Studies show that supplementing with melatonin can significantly improve symptoms of depression if the supplement is taken at the correct time of day. For those who go to bed sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight, taking melatonin in the middle of the afternoon appears to regulate the sleep cycle and can reduce symptoms related to SAD.

Exercise: Physical activity, especially when exposed to bright lights or sunny days for at least 20 minutes, appears to be effective for treating symptoms of depression.

Finally, since sleep plays an important role in the development or prevention of SAD, establish a good sleep routine. Avoid any screens – computer, tablet, or TV within an hour of bedtime, and instead, spend that hour preparing for restful sleep.

17 Feb 2015

Seasonal Affective Disorder Talk on RadioMD

Are the long, dark days getting you down? 

Do you experience strong cravings for sweet and starchy foods this time of year and are you gaining uncontrollable weight as a result?

Join us on the Family Food Kitchen, RadioMD show this Thursday, Feb. 19th from 12:20 to 12:30 EST for a discussion about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). 

Learn about the various types of SAD, the symptoms of each, and the link to diet.

Tune in live at http://radiomd.com/

SAD is Super Sad
Time: 12:20 - 12:30 p.m. ET
Family Food Kitchen, RadioMD

1 Feb 2015

Super Bowl Sunday Snacks

Woot woot! It's Super Bowl Sunday! 

Tonight two teams face off for the title, and we face a mountain of excess calories, unhealthy fat and sodium. 

Here's some help. Before shopping for the game, check out this article I wrote:

Unjunk Your Super Bowl Party with Savvy Snacks

Super Bowl parties and salty snacks go together like peanut butter and jelly. Tortilla chips, potato chips, snack mix, pretzels: Salty snacks are the perfect finger food for any sports event. They’re cheap to buy, easy to share, and you can find them just as easily at gas stations as you can at the supermarket... Read more: http://www.tipsonhealthyliving.com/diet-and-fitness/unjunk-your-super-bowl-party-with-savvy-snacks

This hilarious video from Naturally Savvy explains what some of the artificial additives in Super Bowl snacks can cause: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4FcudTLRf8

Good luck to your team!