Healthy heart, happy family: Weeknight meals get an update

Man and daughter shopping for healthy meals in grocery store

The day after I met with dietitian Tiffany Krogstad, I only ate tortilla chips and cookies.

And I chased them with Diet Coke and coffee.

It was the opposite of everything she told me when we sat down together to go over a new vegetarian cookbook I had been given. I have a pretty average diet: pretty good on the fruits and vegetables, pretty bad on the protein and water consumption. And, even though I blame it on buying treats for my two kids, the truth is I have a terrible sweet tooth and that translates to a house with a lot of treats. And by that I mean a drawer full of different kinds of Oreo cookies (I like the vanilla ones the best).

Read more: Too much sugar can put you at risk

Like many moms, I found myself in a rut with cooking. It was a lot of chicken tacos and spaghetti and meatballs, and other easy but uninteresting foods. So we decided to give ourselves a challenge and try to go vegetarian for the month of January. It was less about finding healthier foods and more about forcing myself to try new recipes.

I was raised by my dad, and between the two of us, we had no idea how to cook. Until I went to college, I didn’t learn how to make anything. And the two friends who taught me were vegetarians (who now own an organic farm outside of Columbus, Ohio). I made a lot of curry.

But in the 20 years since, I’ve grown lazier and lazier, except for a few summers where I subscribed to different community-supported agriculture programs, where you buy a share of a local organic farm and pick up a box of produce every week. That helped me re-set a bit, and I found recipes those summers I still love.

Healthy heart cooking, on this schedule?

Cooking for a family can be a huge downer — every parent knows how picky kids can be. Every working parent, like me, knows how jammed evenings can be, and every single mom, like me, knows that sometimes the best you can do is chicken nuggets and boxed macaroni and cheese on a random Tuesday.

It’s all OK — everyone is still growing and we’re making our way through the fruit bowl on the counter.

But it was time, and “Vegetarian Heartland” was the cookbook that was going to, if not save me, at least offer me some other ideas for what to make. The cookbook is beautiful, and it includes recipes for camping, bikepacking and hiking – which sums up my summer. Beyond that, it’s arranged seasonally, which is my favorite way for a cookbook to be. I know whatever I choose in that season will be readily available.

I see Krogstad fairly regularly in my work at Sanford Health. She’s a registered dietitian in the heart hospital, and I field media inquiries. So we often connect when someone needs a story on heart health or healthy eating. And inevitably the two of us spend some of our time just chatting about food.

It’s a little awkward to sit in front of someone and lay your sins out – when Tiffany asked me how much protein I’m eating or how many carbs, I not only couldn’t answer, but I didn’t know what the right amount was. I don’t think that hard about what I’m eating.

But I want to be more mindful of it — it’s not like I’m getting any younger. And I need to be able to eat right for what I love to do — ultramarathons and yoga and cycling and riding to the library with the kids.

She wasn’t judgmental at all — after all, she has kids of her own, works full-time and spends her days with people who are trying to turn their lives and hearts around through a healthier diet. She’s seen it all — and knows how difficult it can be.

I told her some of my favorites I’d made so far: black bean and sweet potato enchiladas, a lentil and lager French onion soup, broccoli frittata, a chili with cocoa powder in it.

“These use all natural ingredients,” Krogstad said as she went through the book. “It uses a lot of spices and herbs, which provide lots of flavor and antioxidants.”

Good fats are good fats

She explained that a heart healthy diet looks more at sugar and processed foods and less at fat – good fats are good fats. But a bunch of added sugar isn’t good for anyone.

“That’s the big thing that causes inflammation with autoimmune disease and diabetes and cancer,” she said. “Cut out the added sugar and refined grains.”

As my candy and tortilla chip day shows, easier said than done. That kind of things usually happens when you aren’t creating the right balance and end up hungry at work – or when you get home, and grazing the entire time you make dinner.

Krogstad told me I should be getting at least 20 grams of protein per meal. As a runner, maybe more. She also told me the quinoa, beet and spinach salad with feta I eat almost every day for lunch wasn’t cutting it.

“Quinoa does provide some protein, but in order to get the amount of protein found in 3 ounces of meat, you would have to consume almost 3 cups of quinoa,” Krogstad said.

Eggs, however, have 7 grams of protein. The next week, I made a dozen hardboiled eggs and brought one to put on the salad every day. Upside: The kids saw me cutting them up and began asking for them every morning. A hardboiled egg is a good side dish to the cereal we had been eating most mornings. Baby steps, right?

That’s how it kept going for the month.

As I steamed sweet potato sticks to put into enchiladas, my daughter, who is 7, asked to eat some. She probably ate five of them as I made the enchiladas. My 9-year-old son found out he loves vegan chili. Both of them ate lentil soup and manicotti stuffed with spinach.

We went back to making oatmeal for breakfast, and I added in walnuts and milk.

For me, I found several new recipes.

Staying on a healthy heart track

It hasn’t always been easy. I discovered some of my favorite restaurants offer almost no vegetarian choices. I also discovered that many places offer pretty good homemade black bean burgers. If I ate fish (I don’t, generally), I would have had many more options.

But it did push me out of my comfort zone: I’m a lifelong mushroom-hater. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been able to get past it. But I’m also a polite guest, and several times in January I found myself sitting down with friends and what they offered was full of mushrooms. I ate it — and not only lived to tell, but found that I liked it. I know your tastes change as you age, and maybe this is the next milestone for me. Pre-menopause and mushrooms? Is that a thing? I don’t know. I’ll save that for another column.

In the meantime, a mushroom pizza from a downtown restaurant is pretty good. And a cabbage and mushroom soup from another was even better. Both good enough that I began eyeing a mushroom frittata recipe and considering making it.

And then a glazed salmon recipe.

You never know.

Did it make me healthier to go vegetarian? I’m not sure yet. I’m still making my share of absurd choices (when the kids wanted ice cream sandwiches, I said yes). But as a family we’ve found ourselves going through cookbooks together, with my daughter putting in sticky notes on pages with recipes she thinks I should try, and my son deciding to make his own lunch on a recent weekend – a pizza quesadilla he dreamed up himself.

That’s why we do all of this anyway, right? The shared experience of cooking together. The conversation around the table. The joy in finding something new. The hope that all of it leads to making a few better choices,  here and there. The moment when we look at each other around the table and marvel, “hey, this turned out OK.”

That’s sort of all you want out of life. For everything to be OK.

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Posted In Health Information, Healthy Living, Heart

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