Save time, money and calories with advanced meal planning

Read my latest Working Mother blog about saving time, money and calories with advanced meal planning. I’d love to hear from you! Do you plan your meals for the week? How do you make sure your veggies don’t rot in the crisper drawer?

My top ten favorite items from Trader Joes

I love Trader Joes! Oh how I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. They are inexpensive

2. They carry a wide selection of healthy, organic and fresh foods

3. Their Trader Joes brand is high quality

4. They sell grass-fed beef and chicken with no antibiotics or hormones

I shop at Trader Joes weekly and I have many favorite products, so I wanted to do a series of my top ten favorite items from Trader Joes:

10. Fiberful Ends and Pieces – These flavorful, sweet dried fruit strips are delicious and full of fiber. The perfect food to throw in your purse for a day full of errands.

9. Just a Handful – Cashews – Two words – Portion Control

8. Organic Sorrento Mix – You can’t beat $1.99 for a fresh, organic blend of fresh salad greens.

7. Trader Joe’s 0% Greek Yogurt – I use Greek Yogurt in everything! I use it instead of sour cream, I use it in place of oil in my baked goods, I eat it with berries, I use it in cooking. Yum! My favorite way to eat Greek Yogurt is by mixing in frozen blueberries and a drizzle of honey and then stirring until combined. It tastes like ice cream!

6. Almond Butter with Flaxseed – This is the best of both worlds. Healthy almond butter, rich with vitamin E, and flaxseeds full of lignans, which protect against breast and prostate cancer.

5. Pre-sliced mango – Have you ever tried to slice a mango? It is not easy because of the big pit in the middle of the fruit. Watch this video made by SparkPeople on how to slice a mango, it definitely made it easier, but it is still much easier to buy pre-sliced.

4. Chicken Eggrolls – My kids love having Chinese food night, but most commercially made egg rolls are full of fat, sugar and oil. Not the Trader Joes version! You can have one of these heathfully packed egg rolls for only 150 calories. Not bad!

3. Strawberry Keifer – My daughter is allergic to milk and I was getting concerned with her calcium intake until I found Trader Joes delicious strawberry keifer. My daughter loves it and it also makes a great substitute for butter and oil in baked goods.

2. Organic Free-Range Whole Chicken – I love that Trader Joes sells organic, free-range, antibiotic-free chicken. I feel better knowing that I’m not pumping my kids full of unnatural ingrediants. I usually roast the chicken on Sunday and serve half of the chicken on Sunday night. I make homemade chicken stock with the carcess and then add the leftover chicken, veggies and brown rice for a filling soup to eat for lunch for the remainder of the week.

1. Melange a Trois – This trifecta of red, yellow and green peppers makes eating veggies easy, delicious and fast! I add these frozen peppers to everything from my eggs in the morning to my chicken fajitas. Even my kids will eat them! The best part – no cutting or mess!

What is your favorite Trader Joes product? Would love to hear from you!

Artichokes: Chock full of goodness

Did you know that vegetables are the number one food eaten in homes during the last three Super Bowls? The NPD Group market research firm that tracks Americans’ eating habits found that while pizza, beer and wings are popular, vegetables top the list. I was thrilled to finally read a positive statistic about Americans’ diets.

This year we decided to have a healthy Super Bowl spread, incorporating lots of fruits and vegetables. I made a lightened up version of spinach and artichoke dip and it was a huge hit! The typical spinach and artichoke dip is filled with mayonnaise, sour cream and cheese, making it a heart clogging indulgence. This light version allows the spinach and artichokes to take the lead.

Can you believe that I had never cooked with artichokes before? I have to admit that they appear a bit intimidating. All of those leaves and layers make it look like a porcupine baseball. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat the leaves or peel it like an orange. So, I went the easy route and bought the frozen artichoke hearts for Trader Joes.

I am glad that I gave artichokes a try because this odd vegetable is actually chock full of vitamins, nutrients and health benefits.

Artichokes are:

  1. A liver-cleaning food – The silymarin in artichokes help protect and nourish the liver
  2. Great for digestion and relieving gastrointestinal (GI) upset – In one study researchers found that 85 percent of patients experienced relief from stomach pain, nausea and vomiting when given artichoke extract.
  3. Excellent source of flavonoids which prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol
  4. Good for your eyes – artichokes are full of eye-friendly carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin
  5. Full of fiber for very little calories (6 ½ grams of fiber in one artichoke for only 60 calories)

Try out this recipe for light Spinach and Artichoke dip to give artichokes a try:

Spinach and Artichoke Dip

Ingredients

  • 1 bag Trader Joes frozen artichoke hearts (cooked and drained)
  • 1 bag Trader Joes frozen spinach (cooked and squeezed dry)
  • 2 cups 2% shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ½ cup non-fat plain greek yogurt
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 blocks fat-free cream cheese
  • Dash of salt

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350
  • Process the artichoke hearts, spinach, garlic and salt in a food processor
  • Combine 1 ½ cups of mozzarella cheese, 2 Tablespoons parmesan cheese, greek yogurt and cream cheese in a bowl and mix well. Add the artichoke and spinach mixture – stir until combined.
  • Spoon mixture into baking dish and top with the remaining ½ cup mozzarella cheese and 2 tablespoons of parmesan.
  • Bake at 350 for 30 minutes

Did you serve healthy foods this year for the Super Bowl? Do you have light versions of your favorite dishes? Please share.

Chicken Cacciatore Made by a Cacciatore – Secret Family Recipe Lightened Up

Given that my last name is Cacciatore, you would think that Chicken Cacciatore would be part of our family’s regular repertoire of meals. However, traditional chicken cacciatore can be high in calories, especially when served over pasta, so I hadn’t prepared the beloved family recipe in years.

I bought fresh mushrooms at Trader Joes last weekend because they are one of the 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. I originally planned to make a mushroom pizza, but I realized I didn’t have all of the ingredients. I scanned my cookbooks and my dog-eared, worn and stained family cookbook and tripped upon our old family recipe for Chicken Cacciatore. I decided to lighten up our version and make it in the crock-pot instead of on the stove.

The mushrooms took the lead in this recipe, which had my kids skeptical. Mushrooms are odd if you think about it. They are a fungus and they grow on organic matter, such as decaying wood and cow patties. They’ve been used medicinally in Eastern medicine for years. Mushrooms are able to absorb and safely eliminate toxins. Cremini (white button mushrooms) are packed with nutrients. One 5-ounce serving has 50 percent of the Daily Value for the cancer fighting mineral selenium, 40 percent of the Daily Value for riboflavin, 35 percent of copper and 30 percent of niacin, 20 percent of panthothenic acid, phosphorus, zinc and 10 percent of manganese and thiamin. Also, a new study in The Journal of Nutrition just found that cremini mushrooms reduce the severity of collagen-induced arthritis. That is just among many of the the health benefits of mushrooms which include:

  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Protect against breast and prostate cancer
  • Protect against infections with their natural antibiotics
  • Boost immunity
  • Contribute to weight loss
  • Relieve arthritis

I was surprised when I read research that proved mushrooms can contribute towards weight loss because of their antioxidant L-ergothioneine. L-ergothioneine.acts as a metabolic energy enhancer and stimulates the breakdown of sugar in red blood cells and transports fat into the mitochondria of the cells where the fat can be burned for energy. This amazing transformation is exactly what those expensive weight loss pills promise to do, but don’t deliver.

My Chicken Cacciatore recipe is a great example of a traditional favorite made even better with healthier ingredients, quicker prep time and easier preparation for the busy working mom. This recipe only took me minutes to throw together in the crock-pot before work and my family has begged me to start making this every week. This recipe is also great for sneaking veggies in your diet. There are three servings of vegetables in this recipe; tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms. Quick, easy, healthy and perfect for the busy family on the go – You can’t ask for more! Try out the recipe and let me know what you think.

Cacciatore Family Chicken Cacciatore

Ingredients

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 cups cremini mushrooms
  • 1 cup Trader Joes triple pepper mix
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • ¼ cup chicken broth
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese
  • Whole Wheat Penne Pasta

Preparation

  • Place the chicken breasts in the bottom of the Crockpot and sprinkle with salt and pepper,
  • Mix the tomato sauce, tomato paste and chicken broth together. Add the 2 cups of mushrooms, red pepper flakes and Italian seasoning and pepper strips. Pour tomato sauce mixture over the chicken breasts.
  • Cook on low in the Crockpot for 7-8 hours
  • Right before serving, cook whole wheat penne until al dente.
  • Serve chicken and sauce over penne and grate a bit of parmesan cheese on top.

Exhausted? Eat this to get your energy back.

I was completely shocked when I read that America’s top weight loss coach, best-selling author and nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health – Dr. Jonny Bowden said that sardines are “health food in a can.” I was even more shocked to learn that sardines can not only help with overwhelming fatigue, but they can improve my mood, memory and metabolism. 

Sardines are full of healthy omega-3 fats. While we typically think of fat as “bad,” Omega-3 fats are definitely the exception. Why? Consider that a mere ½ gram of omega-3 fats a day can significantly decrease cardiovascular risk. Omega-3s can also reduce the risk of stroke and reduce the symptoms of depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s have even been linked to protection against Alzheimer’s

We’ve all heard that we should eat more salmon to increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acid, but sardines are an equally good choice. Sardines are also convenient, since they can be eaten straight from the can, no preparation needed.

Speaking of the can, make sure that you get sardines packed in their own oil or olive oil, but do not buy the kind packed in vegetable oil. The vegetable oil simply loads them up with omega-6 fats, which are not good for you at all.

 Omega-3 fats aren’t all you will get from those little fish. Sardines are also loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. One can of sardines also provides over 150 percent of your Daily Value of vitamin B12. Sardines are also a great choice for pregnant women because they are low in mercury, unlike tuna. 

I headed to Trader Joes to pick up my dreaded can of sardines. I trust Trader Joes and figured if I had to try those little suckers, I’ll buy it from my go-to health food store. 

I have a confession though – I let that little can of sardines sit in my pantry for three full months before I built up the courage to try them. I was dreading the day I would have to try them. I even considered blogging about the health benefits without trying them, but quickly snapped back to my senses. My commitment to you is that I will try every one of the top 150 foods on earth, even as horrible as they may sound. I survived bee pollen. I actually enjoyed kale. I could survive sardines. 

I found a sardine recipe in the December 2010 edition of Whole Living magazine and decided that it was time….

The article stated that this dish, Spinach Pesto with Sardines, was essential to try if you are “feeling fatigued and spreading yourself too thin.” Bingo! I was definitely feeling run down, tired and overwhelmed – maybe this would help. 

I prepared the recipe (below) and gingerly placed two sardines on top of the pesto covered Naan bread. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at those little fish bodies and I bravely took a bite. The spinach pesto was delicious and the sardines were innocuous. Their flavor was milder than tuna and the texture was firm, neither crunchy nor mushy. If I could just get over their appearance, I’d be willing to add these babies to my regular rotation, but I have a difficult time ignoring their headless shining bodies. 

Give this recipe for Sardine topped Spinach Pesto a try and let me know what you think. The recipe suggested serving on rustic bread, but I found the Indian Naan bread at Trader Joes to be absolutely delicious! 

Spinach Pesto with Sardines 

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. baby spinach
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 can sardines
  • 1 package Trader Joes Naan Bread

Instructions

Sautee spinach with garlic and red pepper flakes until wilted. Transfer to food processor and add pine nuts and Parmesan. Pulse until finely ground. With the machine running, add the olive oil and season with salt. Meanwhile, toast the Naan bread. Spread the Naan bread with the spinach pesto and top with two sardines.

Day 59: Keen Who?

The first time I heard about Quinoa, I actually read about it in a magazine and I pronounced it “Kuh-oh-na” like Ramona. When I later heard someone refer to “Keen-wa” I didn’t even know they were talking about the same thing! No matter how you say it, Quinoa is good stuff! 

I think that the key to losing weight and keeping it off is to consume a higher ratio of protein to carbohydrates and fats. When my weight peaked several years ago and I could not take it off, I visited a dietician to glean insight into how to shed the weight. She advised me to consume 75-100 grams of protein every day and lessen my dependence on carbohydrates. I thought she was crazy at the time, but boy did it work. A couple of things happened: 

  1. I concentrated on how to get more protein, instead of focusing on how to eat less
  2. Protein increased my satiety levels, therefore helping me eat less overall 

What does this have to do with Quinoa? While Quinoa looks like a grain, it packs a nutritional punch as a protein, which is a great combo in my book. Quinoa only has 127 calories for ½ cup, but packs 4.5 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber and 8 mg of iron. You can eat Quinoa like rice, breakfast cereal or even dessert, but have the amino acid content of a complete protein, similar to that of casein. 

You may be asking, “OK, but what is Quinoa?” Quinoa is known as “the Mother grain” to the Incas and they used this plant as their main source of nutrition. Quinoa dates back over 5,000 years, grown mostly in the Andes Mountains of South America. You can easily substitute classic Quinoa for rice and Quinoa flakes for flour in any recipe. You can buy Quinoa at Trader Joes, Earth Fare or Whole Foods (if you are lucky enough to live near one.) 

I had a box of Quinoa in my pantry for a couple of months, but I kept avoiding making it for dinner. I was nervous that I would go to the trouble to make it and no one would eat it. Well, last week we ran out of brown rice and had no other side item to go with dinner, so I dusted off the box of Quinoa and stuck it in rice cooker. Much to my surprise it was not only delicious, but my kids ate it without one complaint and they actually thought they were eating couscous (which they love.) 

Today I wanted to kick it up a notch because I knew I’d be blogging about Quinoa, so I made Quinoa Blueberry-Banana Muffins. My seven-year old loved the muffins so much that he came to be with blueberry smeared across his cheeks and asked if he could have another one! And he is the picky one! 

Try out this recipe or substitute Quinoa for rice in your favorite recipe and let me know what you think. 

Stacy’s Quinoa Blueberry-Banana Muffins 

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • ½ cup whole-wheat or quinoa flour
  • ½ cup Quinoa flakes
  • ¼ cup Silk Vanilla Almond Milk
  • 1 small jar peach baby food
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp Pumpkin Pie Spice
  • 2 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1 tsp Baking Soda
  • 1 tsp Vanilla
  • ½ tsp Salt
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries 

Instructions

  • Pre-heat oven to 400
  • Mix all dry ingredients in one small bowl and wet ingredients (except the blueberries) in another. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing well, but do not overbeat.
  • Add the blueberries and gently fold into the mixture.
  • Fill muffin tins ½ to ¾ full.
  • Bake at 400 for 20 minutes 

Have you tried Quinoa? Do you like it? Please share!

Day 37: Down in the Cabbage Patch

You know that you are a child of the ’80s if you remember The Cabbage Patch kids. Ah, those were the days. Neon shirts, scrunchies, poufy bangs, The Smurfs and The Cabbage Patch kids. They have brought The Cabbage Patch kids. back for all of us 80’s mommies who now have kids of our own and we are now living vicariously through our kids…..but it’s not the same.

Anyhoo, too bad that The Cabbage Patch kids never really made me crave cabbage in the same way that Strawberry Shortcake made me crave strawberry shortcake. I’ve never been a fan of traditional cabbage, as far as cooked of boiled cabbage. However, in the early ’90s I did go on the Cabbage Soup Diet to lose weight. Oh my gosh, it was horrible! The first day wasn’t bad, but I still cannot smell cabbage soup to this day because I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for seven days straight. I think that this diet works because the dieters get so sick of eating cabbage soup, they’d rather eat nothing at all!

Cabbage is a member of the brassica family, which also includes broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussels sprouts and chard. Just like other members of the brassica family, cabbage is a powerful cancer fighter. I’ve spoken of the phytochemicals, called indoles, on my post about Brussels sprouts, but as a refresher, indoles are remarkable at fighting cancer, especially breast cancer cells. How does this work? Well, the indoles alter estrogen metabolism in a favorable way, therefore reducing the risk of cancer. Estrogen has three basic metabolites, two of which are “bad” (have a carcinogenic affect) and one is good. Indole-3-carbinol, one of the main indoles in cabbage, raises the “good” estrogen metabolite. Additionally, indole-3-carbinol has been shown to protect against the carcinogenic affect of pesticides and other toxins.

Cabbage also has many other phytochemicals that pack a powerful anticancer punch, including dithiolethiones, isothiocynates and sulforaphane. Sulforaphane increases the production of phase-2 enzymes which can disarm damaging free radicals. Research published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention shows that sulforaphane is the most potent inducer of phase-2 enzymes of any other phytochemical.

I always thought that the purple cabbage in the salad mix was added just to make it pretty, but it turns out that purple cabbage has special health benefits because the same substance that provides it with the purple color, acts as a powerful antioxidant. Anthocyanins have the strongest antioxidizing power of 150 flavonoids studied and the Anthocyanins in cabbage protect against toxins. The Anthocyanins are also known for their anti-inflammatory effects, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and allergic reactions.

As if the cancer-fighting and antioxidant properties were not enough, cabbage also contains calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K, beta-carotene, luetin and zeaxanthin. One cup of cabbage is extremely low in calories and packed with fiber, which is probably why The Cabbage Soup Diet is so popular.

Now, as I mentioned above, I’m not a fan of cabbage in traditional terms. I don’t like stuffed cabbage, coleslaw or even the little purple cabbage in my salad. In fact I was dreading this day of eating cabbage until I realized that I don’t have to eat cabbage in its traditional form to reap its health benefits. And again, Trader Joes comes to the rescue! Trader Joes has changed me from a cabbage hater to a cabbage patch kid!

I fixed my family’s favorite dinner, homemade Chinese food with chicken marinated in Trader Joes Soyaki Sauce, Trader Joes Chicken Gyoza Potstickers, Trader Joes chicken egg rolls and Trader Joes frozen brown rice. This meal is an awesome way to get the Chinese takeout “feel” while still eating healthy and keeping your calories in check. It is also super quick and easy to prepare. I always marinate the chicken in the morning with the Soyaki Sauce and by dinner time everything is ready to throw together in minutes. Both the potstickers and the egg rolls have cabbage and they are delicious! I thought about trying to make my own egg rolls, but why should I go to all of this trouble when I can get it from Trader Joes, where it meets my top three CTQs (Critical to Quality) – Cheap, Fast and Healthy!

Do you enjoy cabbage? If so, how do you eat it? Are you a traditionalist or do you hide the flavor?

Day 33: Sweet Pepper of Mine

Sweet peppers exude health & wellness, as their colors of red, green, yellow and orange look so vibrant that you just almost feel healthier just by looking at them. Did you know that all peppers actually start out green and they change colors when they are fully mature? Red peppers are the sweetest of all of the sweet peppers and they are actually just a green pepper, fully ripened (must be why they are my favorite.)

If you smoke, definitely consider adding red bell peppers to your diet.

A 1-cup serving of red bell peppers provides over 100% of your DV of vitamin A. This is great for smokers because Vitamin A has been shown to promote lung health. Red peppers also contain beta-cryptoxanthin, a cartenoid that has also been shown to lower the risk of developing lung cancer. A study in the Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention found that those eating the most beta-cryptoxanthin foods had a 27% lower risk for lung cancer. Not only that, but some studies show that exposure to the carcinogens in cigarettes results in a vitamin A deficiency, so foods rich in vitamin A help counter that and offer protection. Vitamin A is also great for the immune system.

Red Bell Peppers Are Great for Fitness

Sweet peppers are also high in vitamin C (1 cup provides nearly 300% of your daily value!), so you have two very powerful antioxidants that work synergistically to neutralize free radicals. This helps prevent cancer and build up of cholesterol in the arteries. Vitamin C has also been shown to boost the brain chemical norepinephrine, a key fat-burning hormone that can elevate your mood. If that wasn’t enough, vitamin C helps dilate blood vessels, resulting in improved fitness performance and nutrient delivery. Peppers also contain lycopene (also in tomatoes), which is associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer and boosts muscle growth.

All of these health benefits for low calories, great flavor and compatibility with a great number of dishes or as a snack food eaten alone.

My son claims he doesn’t like sweet peppers, but I tell him that a sweet red pepper is similar in taste and texture to an apple. My daughter, on the other hand, loves peppers both raw and cooked. I love to put a variety of colorful sweet peppers on my salad, which my favorite restaurant, Jason Deli, has on the salad bar. I love green peppers on my sandwiches, which I actually got yesterday at Subway. Again, I have to tout my love for Trader Joes, because they have the BEST sweet pepper variety with their Melange a Trois, which is a frozen bag of red, yellow and green pepper strips. I love it because the peppers are already cut up and you get a good variety of three sweet peppers. I also love it because it is only $1.69 for the entire bag! I’ve been known to pay $3.00 just for one red pepper, so this is a steal!

My favorite recipe using sweet peppers is my healthy chicken enchiladas. I’m sharing my secret recipe with you guys, so please try it out and let me know what you think!

Stacy’s Chicken Enchilada’s

Ingredients

Instructions

  • Defrost the chicken breasts and then rub with spices
  • Place tomato sauce, black beans, sweet peppers and chicken breasts into a slow cooker and place on low for 6-8 hours
  • At the end of 8 hours preheat the oven to 375
  • Take the chicken out of the slow cooker and place into a big bowl. Shred the chicken with two forks.
  • Add the remainder of the ingredients in the slow cooker in the bowl (use judgement on how much of the tomatoes or “juice” to include. I usually leave some behind so my enchiladas are not watery.)
  • Add 1/4 of the can of enchilada sauce and 1/4 cup of cheese to the mixture
  • Warm the tortillas in the microwave on high for 30 seconds
  • Place heaping scoop of filling into the tortilla and wrap up and place in a glass baking dish (sprayed with non-stick cooking spray)
  • Top enchilada’s with remaining enchilada sacue and 1/4 cup of cheese
  • Bake at 375 for 20 minutes
  • Serve with non-fat Fage greek yogurt in lieu of sour cream

These require a little bit of work, but are so worth it! Please share your sweet pepper recipes here!