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With the holidays upon us it’s easy to get mired down in the usual craziness that comes with them, but if you really want to embody the spirit of the season, I’d encourage you to do something that gives back to those less fortunate.  I know it is this time of year that I’m reminded of how much I’ve been given and it’s a really great feeling to help make someone else’s holiday a little brighter.  There are always the obvious ways to donate–the Salvation Army comes to mind with their traditional holiday season bell ringers, but here are a few other ways you might want to consider making a difference in someone’s life: 

  • Donate to a local food pantry.  Many shelters are looking for donations this time of year, especially with holiday meals on the menu.  Fruits & Veggies–More Matters even has some ways you can donate healthier items so that those in need are receiving good nutrition!
  • Adopt a family.  This is a really fun group activity.  Let’s say you have a book club or a team at work–consider adopting a needy family for the holidays.  I’ve done this through an organization like the United Way where they provide what the family needs and as a group you go in together and purchase those items.  It typically means items for a holiday dinner and gifts for the children in the family.  We ended up throwing in extra items and found this to be a really rewarding experience.
  • Give your time.  Often the most rewarding thing is donating your time to help at a shelter.  I joined a group of colleagues a few times to serve lunch at a soup kitchen and it really puts things into perspective–not only do you find yourself thankful for what you have, but you also have much more empathy for those who are going through a rough time in their lives.  I’d even suggest doing something like this as a family if you have older teens–it’s a good lesson for them.  Another option is spending time at a nursing home with elderly patients who may not have family that live close by. 

There are plenty of choices–just visit your local United Way website to see what is available near you.  I can promise you that giving back to your community will be a present you’ll end up giving to yourself!

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Chilly winter evenings call for a bowl of hearty, steaming soup.  But on a busy weeknight who has the time to prepare homemade soup after a day at work?  I’ve got a great solution for a quick, easy and healthy homemade split pea soup that will take you no more than an hour from start to finish!

If that’s not great news–it’s also a hit with my whole family, plus it’s budget-friendly.  Seriously, this recipe is a win-win.  I serve it with some fresh bread or rolls and you can also make a side salad if you choose.  I had enough soup leftover for two lunches and that was after my husband and both teens went back for seconds.  I hope you and your family enjoy it as much as mine does.

Easy Split Pea Soup

2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 package (16 oz.) dried green split peas
9 cups water, divided*
1 pound smoked turkey sausage, browned and sliced
4 medium carrots, thinly sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
*you can use vegetable broth in place of water if you choose

In large pot cook celery and onion in olive oil until tender.  Add split peas and 6 cups of water or broth, bring to a boil and reduce heat, cover and simmer for 25 minutes.  Stir in smoked sausage, carrots, potatoes, basil, salt, pepper and remaining water or broth.  Return to a boil, reduce heat and cover and simmer for another 20-25 minutes until peas and vegetables are tender.  Serve hot.  Yield: 3 quarts or 12 servings.

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When school started this year, our kids were welcomed with healthier fare in the cafeteria.  The new school nutrition guidelines kicked in, which meant less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.  It all sounds great, right?  However, there has been some criticism in the past few months that kids aren’t getting enough to eat.  As a mom, I wanted to see for myself what the new food trays look like so I did a little investigative work and I’ve got lots of information to report back to you–thankfully, it’s all good news!

I reached out to the head dietitian at the Red Clay School District (my local district), Jessica Terranova, and explained to her some of the comments and concerns I’ve been hearing.  I asked her if I could meet with her and visit my local K-8 school (Brandywine Springs) to see for myself what the meals looked like and if there was any truth to this perception that our children were being underfed with the new guidelines.  Jessica was more than happy to have me come visit as she had heard some of the complaints herself and was eager to set the record straight on all the great work the district had been doing with the new guidelines.

Healthy Meal Lunch Tray

Not only was I satisfied when Jessica took me to the school’s cafeteria and began showing me the choices the children had, I was impressed!  They were able to choose from a hot lunch, which is the traditional lunch tray line and then the cold lunch, which looked more like an a la carte lunch.  The hot lunch line that day consisted of a whole grain taco/quesadilla with beef and cheese, their choice between diced pears or applesauce, a marinated veggie salad and baby carrots and, if they wanted they could choose either a fresh plum or a small dish of fresh red grapes and sliced orange sections.  Fat free milk of their flavor choice (plain, chocolate or strawberry) completed the meal.  This is a good amount of food for children 5-12 years of age!  The calorie guidelines for that age group are 550-650 calories while the guidelines for the high school age group are 850.  If the children selected the cold lunch line they had options like a chef salad, various sandwiches on whole grain bread, low-fat yogurt parfaits with fruit and even a hummus platter with veggies and whole grain pita chips.  All the snacks that were available were of the baked variety and only water, fat-free milk and 100% juice were the beverages options.

Hummus w/Carrots & Whole Grain Pita Chips

I walked through the lunch room to see if the children were eating their meals and for the most part I’m happy to report they were.  One thing I was surprised to find was how many of the kids opted for salad–girls AND boys!  Jessica tells me that since the new guidelines have gone into effect, they have seen an increase in their consumption of fruit.  For example, last year they would go through one case of apple sauce per week, they’re now doubling that.  I asked how the guidelines have changed the look of the plate and she tells me not much–basically they’ve had to cut down on the amount of meat or cheese they would put into the taco, but now they require the children to take a fruit and veggie, where before some of the kids might walk away from the line with only a taco on their trays.  As it turns out, in these cases the kids are actually taking MORE food than they had in the past.  The reality is not that the kids aren’t getting enough to eat, it’s are they getting what they necessarily want or are used to eating?  In fact, a visual the district has provided for parents shows how 850 calories of fast food compares with 850 calories of nutritious lunches the schools are providing.  Jessica says that in the younger grades there is much less resistance than the older grades, which supports the idea that the younger you start children with healthy eating, the better! 

A few tips Jessica and Red Clay have used is to cut some whole fruit (like oranges) up for younger grades to make it easer to eat and encourage athletes who require more calories to bring healthy snacks with them for later in the day before practice.  I hope this has helped to shine some light on the confusion around these new guidelines.  My advice to parents would be to contact your own school nutritionist or food service manager and see if they are also doing some of these things to help with the transition to the new guidelines.  Get involved and share some of these tips with them as it will only benefit your own kids.  You can get even more info from the USDA website.

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If you’ve seached online or through a magazine lately, you’ve probably seen at least one recipe that calls for roasting autumn vegetables.  One reason is that fall veggies hold up well to this cooking method.  Sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, brussels sprouts, acorn and butternut squashes, and cauliflower are just a few vegetables that are ideal for roasting. 

Roasted brussels sprouts & cauliflower

If you’ve never tried roasting veggies, I strongly encourage it.  You’ll be surprised at the depth of flavor it gives to your vegetables.  I recently found a recipe for roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower, which I’ve altered to make it a bit healthier and it’s become an instant hit with my family.  The funny thing is that my husband is not a big fan of brussels sprouts and cauliflower is not on the list of favorite veggies for my son.  However, roasting these vegetables gives them a different flavor than boiling or sauteeing.  You might find that a vegetable you don’t normally enjoy will surprise you with an entirely different flavor after roasting it.

I’ll share this recipe for roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower with you.  It’s easy and makes for a great weeknight side dish.  My version uses turkey bacon and no butter, unlike the original recipe.  Enjoy!

Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower

1 large head of fresh cauliflower
1 pint container of fresh brussels sprouts, halved
6 fresh garlic cloves, chopped
6 slices of turkey bacon, cooked and crumbled
olive oil
Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray a non-stick roasting pan with cooking spray and add all vegetables (including garlic) to the pan.  Drizzle olive oil on top of vegetables and then stir so that oil coats the vegetables well.  Roast vegetables for 15 minutes and remove from oven and stir.  Test vegetables with a knife to see if they are tender.  If not, place back into oven for another 10 minutes.  When tender and slightly browned remove from oven, sprinkly lightly with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

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