My name is Lisa Tsakos, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, 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!