Butternut Squash Pasta

'Tis the season to celebrate all things squash! Spaghetti squash, butternut quash, acorn squash.. you name it. While spaghetti and acorn squash will have their moments on this blog, tonight we're talking strictly BUTTERNUT - and specifically butternut squash pasta. 

This dish combines naturally sweet and savory flavors - and I promise it's barely time consuming with my shortcuts (ie. you can use butternut squash puree if you don't have the time to dice and bake). While you can use whatever pasta you prefer, I recommend using chickpea pasta (ie. Banza) or red lentil pasta. Both of these are delicious high protein, high fiber pasta options. 

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Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 2 cups pasta, dry (chickpea pasta or red lentil pasta)
  • 1 can organic butternut squash puree (I used Trader Joe's brand)
  • 1/2 white onion, diced 
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded 
  • 2 teaspoons thyme, dried 
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 
  • Pepper, to taste 

Directions:

  1. On one stove top, begin to cook pasta according to directions on box.
  2. On another stove top, caramelize onions on medium heat until they begin to brown. While onions are cooking, put butternut squash puree and spices in blender. Once onions are cooked, add them to blender and blend on high for about 30 seconds or until ingredients appear uniform. 
  3. Once pasta is cooked, drain water and place pasta in bowl. While pasta is still hot, add Parmesan cheese and mix together. Allow cheese to melt into hot pasta. 
  4. Top pasta with blended butternut squash sauce. May top with additional thyme for aesthetic. 
  5. Enjoy! 

 

Cottage Mac n' Cheese

Mac n' cheese is one of my favorite childhood foods. And adulthood foods. I mean I don't really have to sell anyone on mac n' cheese - I think a universal consensus exists that buttery and cheesy warm noodles are delicious. BUT, knowing how unhealthy traditional mac n' cheese actually is, makes it fall on my forbidden foods list. I'm talking like, top 5.

The silver lining is that as a dietitian, one of my favorite pastimes is experimenting with food and creating innovative, healthy ways to enjoy the otherwise unhealthy foods many of us grew up with.

Here, I used chickpea pasta instead of traditional elbows made from refined white flour. Chickpea noodles are loaded with fiber and protein, while white noodles have little, if any. I also added muuna 2% plain cottage cheese for extra protein, flavor, and creaminess. This recipe calls for zero butter or artificial flavorings. In other words, this dish has lots of fiber and protein, and you can confidently prepare it without feeling an ounce of guilt! 

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Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 1 box elbow Chickpea pasta (I used Banza)
  • ½ cup 2% plain Muuna cottage cheese
  • 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese (note: set aside ~¼ cup to sprinkle on top before baking)
  • ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt

*Note: for those of you who like it extra cheesy, feel free to double the sharp cheddar to 2 cups total. 

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Cook chickpea pasta according to instructions on box. Once cooked, be sure water is completely drained.
  3. While cooked pasta is still hot, add cheddar, parmesan, Muuna cottage cheese, garlic powder, and salt, and mix ingredients together until they appear uniform. Remember to set aside ~¼ cup cheese to sprinkle on top before baking.
  4. Transfer pasta and cheese mixture to baking pan. You may sprinkle the remainder of the cheese on top. Bake for ~10 minutes, or until cheese appears melted.
  5. Serve and enjoy!

Southwest Quinoa Salad

This recipe is one of my all-time favorites, partially because it's completely fool proof, but mostly because it's so delicious. Bonus: it's packed with fiber and protein and serves as a standalone meal, or as a side dish to a larger meal. I like to make a big portion of this in the beginning of the week and keep it on-hand in the fridge all week long. Note: if you want to make a larger portion, just double (or triple) the ingredients below. 

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

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  • 1 cup quinoa, dry
  • 3/4 cup organic canned black beans
  • 3/4 cup organic canned corn 
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved 
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled 
  • 2 whole, organic eggs 
  • 2 limes, for juice 
  • chili lime seasoning, to taste
  • smoked paprika, to taste 
  • sriracha sauce, if desired 

Directions:

  1. Cook quinoa according to instructions on box. Once cooked, set aside in bowl to cool. 
  2. Combine quinoa, tomatoes, corn, feta and black beans together in bowl. Add paprika and chili lime seasoning, according to desired taste. Squeeze juice of 2 limes. Mix ingredients together until contents appear evenly distributed. 
  3. You may poach, fry, or scramble egg to top quinoa salad. Note: Add egg right before serving. 

Spice Up Your Eggs

Breakfast foods are my absolute favorite. I love breakfast for breakfast... and I also love breakfast for dinner. Especially when I've had a long day at work and I have about 5 minutes of dinner prep in me, at best. As a dietitian, maximizing the nutrition in my meals is always a priority - and it just so happens that nutrients and flavor go hand-in-hand when it comes to my scrambles. I'm big on adding spices to eggs because 1) they provide a ton of flavor, and 2) spices are super high in antioxidants - that substance that combats otherwise harmful free-radicals. I urge you to try my recipe for spicing up your scrambles, regardless of what meal you make it for.  PS: feel free to get creative! If there is a spice that you love not listed below, modify my recipe and make it your own! 

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Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 2 whole eggs, organic, cage-free
  • 2 tablespoons feta cheese 
  • dash of soy milk (or almond if you prefer)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 
  • generous pour of garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of thyme 
  • may top with sriracha 

Directions:

  1. Crack 2 eggs in bowl and whisk so that egg yolks break and mixture appears uniform and yellow. Add dash of soy milk and mix again.
  2. Add spices to egg mixture and mix again.
  3. Use nonstick pan and turn heat to medium. Add feta cheese to skillet. Scramble eggs until they are cooked to your liking.
  4. May garnish with more thyme or spices, as desired.  

When a Dietitian Loves Dessert

They say the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging its existence, so today I am publicly acknowledging that I have struggled with my ability (or inability) to say no to d....dessert. Sounds kind of funny, especially coming from a dietitian, but it's MY reality and I can completely sympathize with all of my clients who have a serious case of sweet tooth. Truth: I cannot be trusted alone with a pint of ice cream - and sometimes I have to cover my eyes when I walk past a candy store. Okay fine, the latter is dramatic, but there really was a time in my life when I would frequent this "all natural" candy store on my block and I would try to justify my habit by reminding myself that this particular store doesn't use artificial ingredients or food dyes in their products. Eye roll.

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So how do you break this viscous sugar cycle? I've heeded my own advice and implemented the following strategies, so I hope this is helpful to all of you who share my diet-downfall:

  1. Listen to your body: I've fortunately never suffered from stomach issues, so while many people may not be able to tolerate the lactose in ice cream, I was never one of those people. What I'm trying to say is that a massive stomach ache post ice cream never stopped me from diving in spoon first. BUT, I began to notice that my head work hurt after I ate too much sugar. Literally, my evening routine would look like: candy --> Advil --> bed. Eventually I succumbed to my reality that excess sugar was inducing my headaches (yes, that's a real thing) and my iron stomach may not forever remain iron at the rate I was popping Advil. Although not everyone reading this is destined to suffer from sugar-induced headaches, you should listen to your body both pre- and post dessert, because I can guarantee you will not be feeling as good afterwards. 
  2. Stop kicking the can: In other words, GET STARTED NOW. Like, right now. Go into your fridge, or your pantry, or wherever you keep the goods, and toss them. No, you're not wasting food, candy isn't real food. In fact, sugar consumption is correlated with increased risk of chronic disease, including cancer. You're doing yourself a favor. 
  3. Don't turn to the "Sugar-Free" alternative: Just because you shouldn't be eating regular Twizzlers doesn't give you the green light to buy the sugar-free Twizzlers. Junk food is junk food, and you're not actually breaking your junky habit! Plus, there's a good chance that your sugar-free candy is loaded with preservatives, food dyes, artificial ingredients, or sugar alcohols, which are often stomach irritants. 
  4. Don't test yourself: Don't buy the ice cream (or the cookies, cakes, candy, etc.) Seriously,  do not keep it in your home. You think you'll really be able to eat 4 m&ms and walk away? I'm not buying it. And you shouldn't either. 
  5. Find sweetness in other things: No, I'm not going to tell you to go play with your dog or to take a walk the next time you have a sugar craving, because if you're anything like me you'll walk yourself right into the nearest ice cream shop. However, I am going to tell you that because you are human, it's natural to have cravings. You don't have to entirely deprive yourself, but you do have to make healthier choices. So here are some Tovita-approved products that you can feel good about enjoying:
    1. Sweet Dreams Dark Chocolate Rice Cakes: A serving of these sweet treats are 2 rice cakes, and serving has only 4 grams of sugar (and 2 grams of fiber!). Each serving comes individually wrapped, which reduces the risk that you'll eat the whole box. 
    2. Sweet Cinnamon Roasted Bean Crisps: Get yourself a 100 calorie pack of these roasted bean crisps! With 6 grams of fiber, 7 grams of protein, and only 1 gram of sugar, you won't feel an ounce of guilt. If you end up buying a larger bag, try not to eat the whole thing - not because I'm worried that you'll overdose on sugar - but the high fiber content may be a lot for your stomach to handle... 
    3. Fruit Roll-ups for adults (well, probably intended for kids) also known as Bear YoYos. If you're simply craving candy, this is your best bet. These natural "fruit roll-ups" are made with real fruit and have no added sugar, or added anything for that matter. 1 packet is 60 calories and has 8 grams of sugar. 
    4. Use Your Fruit! No this option doesn't come pre-packaged in a supermarket, and yes, it requires about 6 minutes of your time and effort, and some sort of blender, but it's WORTH IT! Try some of these smoothie recipes that really will satisfy your sweet tooth. Bonus: Feel free to snack on some frozen fruit while you're concocting! 
      1. Mango-Lassi
      2. Chocolate-Cherry Bowl
      3. Blueberry SMOBBLER

Mango-Kefir Lassi

Have any of you ever tried a traditional Indian Mango Lassi? Have any of you proceeded to fall in LOVE with this drink, before learning it's loaded with sugar, fat, and calories? (guilty). I decided to put the Tovita touch on this smoothie because I felt it had so much potential to be a healthy dessert (or breakfast, or snack, or whatever you want to call it) and honestly, I love mangoes. It's that simple. 

Some ingredients worth mentioning: I added tofu as a source of protein. Rather than adding protein powders, tofu is a good source of protein (7 - 9 grams per serving) and easily absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients. Plus its natural pudding-like consistency makes it a perfect addition to the recipe. Next, I added kefir because it's a great source of probiotics. Remember, probiotics are those organisms that provide a host of benefits to our guts. 

Ingredients (serves1):

  • 1 cup cubed, frozen mango 
  • 1/3 cup plain, unsweetened kefir 
  • 1/3 inch slice of silky, organic tofu 
  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup of vanilla almond milk (or other milk substitute) 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash of turmeric

Directions:

  1. Blend all ingredients together until evenly distributed. Note: may add more liquid base per consistency preference. (more liquid = thinner consistency; less liquid = thicker consistency) 

 

Cannellini Bean & Chocolate Cherry Smoothie Bowl

If you've been following this blog for a bit now, you probably know that I love experimenting with unusual ingredients or atypical combinations. If you're landing here for the first time, well, now you're in on it too. 

When making my usual after-work smoothie bowl the other day, I found myself thinking about how I could add more fiber without increasing sugar content, and without compromising the sweet flavor. Yes, I could add more greens, but that would create a tarter taste. Yes, I could add cauliflower (and that probably would have been perfect), but cauliflower smoothies feel like the new avocado toast these days, and that didn't make me feel like I was living on the edge. That's when I thought of adding cannellini beans! (because that's what everyone thinks of when they want to live on the edge, obviously). They're loaded with fiber and protein (1/2 cup has 5 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein), they're bland enough that they adopt the flavor of the fruit smoothie - or any smoothie - without compromising the taste, and they would add some more volume - because whoever wants their smoothie to end!? 

Here is the recipe for my cannellini bean & chocolate cherry concoction - highly recommend you try it. Oh, and I will DEFINITELY be experimenting with other fruit/vegetable flavor iterations of this bean-based delight, so stay tuned :) 

Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 1/2 cup unsalted, organic cannellini beans 
  • 1/2 frozen banana 
  • 1/4 cup frozen wild blueberries 
  • 1/2 cup frozen dark and sweet cherries 
  • 1/3 cup organic soy milk (or milk of choice)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash of cinnamon 
  • 4 I Heart Keenwah chocolate quinoa puffs (for topping)
  • 1 tablespoon cherries (for topping)

Directions:

  1. Set aside topping ingredients and add all other ingredients to blender. Blend on high for about 30 seconds, or until contents appear evenly distributed. 
  2. Pour mixture into bowl. Use your hands to crush quinoa puffs, and sprinkle on top of smoothie. Add remaining tablespoon of cherries for topping.
  3. Enjoy! 

 

Why I Don't Count Calories

Note: I originally wrote this piece for mindbodygreen (click here to see article).

When clients see me for weight loss, one of the most common questions they ask is "how many calories should I be eating each day?" My response is always the same: "You're not going to count calories." I'm often met with a confused expression, which subsequently leads to the "why?" conversation. Well, for those of you who are curious why a dietitian - whose job is often to help people reach their goal weights - doesn't count calories, read on! 

Let's begin by defining a calorie. A calorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Sounds complicated, right? What you should take away is that we use this measurement to determine the amount of energy that a given food provides.  

Let me give you some context here. One serving of Twizzlers (4 pieces) is 160 calories. One serving of almonds (~23 almonds) is 163 calories. It's fair to say they are comparable in calories, meaning they provide the same amount of energy. So, if a serving of Twizzlers has the same amount of calories as a serving of almonds, why don't we all have diets filled with Twizzlers, gummy bears, and sour patch kids!? 

The answer: NOT ALL CALORIES ARE CREATED EQUAL! Calorie discrimination? Totally... and I'm cool with it. 

Technically we all could choose the candy and even lose weight doing so, after all, a calorie is a calorie, right? But 160 calories from Twizzlers is very different than 160 calories from almonds. Let's take a closer look at where these calories come from. A serving of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, about 1 gram of sugar, lot's of healthy fats, and 3.5 grams of fiber. Not to mention it's high in vitamin E and magnesium. A serving of Twizzlers contains only 1 gram of protein, 19 grams of sugar (yikes),  and 0 grams of fiber. Oh, and can't forget those lovely food dyes and artificial ingredients. So, yes, while they both provide the same amount of calories, which do you think is the better choice?  

I tell my clients to evaluate their meals by asking "what can this food do for my body?" After all, we only get one body and each meal is an opportunity for us to nourish it. There's no insurance policy on irreparable damage done to our insides (well, that's not entirely true these days, but who wants to deal with that!?). While the gummy candies may look, smell, and taste appealing, they don't provide the nutrition that our bodies need to properly function. 

So what does all of this have to do with counting calories? Sometimes healthy foods, like nuts and seeds for instance, are high in calories and may deter a "dieter" from eating them, despite their incredible nutrient profiles. Here's the thing: it's OKAY to eat high calorie foods, even if you're watching your weight! One of the keys to successful and sustainable weight loss is eating the right combinations of nutrients that keep you satiated for a period of time. If you snack on a serving of Twizzlers versus almonds, I can guarantee that you'll be hungry again shortly after. This means you'll end up eating 160 calories of candy PLUS calories from another snack. If you snack on the almonds, the combination of protein, fiber, and fat will keep you fuller for longer while providing great nutrition. See what I mean? 

Lastly, constantly counting calories can lead to unhealthy and obsessive habits. Despite the fact that math isn't my strong suit, meticulously counting and adding and subtracting at each meal sounds like a pain! When you attach a number to every morsel of food you put into your body, how can you possibly enjoy it!? 

Rather than calorie counting, I support eating a diet filled with as many whole, real, and natural foods possible. We all have our diet downfalls or food weaknesses (hellloooo chocolate), and that's okay because we're human! As long as you maintain a diet that's highest in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, your waistline will inherently reap the results. 

 

Eggplant Pizza (part II)

Summer is right around the corner, which means it's time to stop talking about putting an end to pizza Fridays (fine, late night pizza too...) and actually do something about it! Now this is where eggplant pizza really comes in handy. It provides the same cheesy deliciousness as pizza - sans the white bread, guilt, or typical massive stomach ache that follows.  

While we've provided eggplant pizza recipes in the past, this one is mildly tweaked in effort to offer fewer steps. We know - the nicer the weather, the less time you want to spend in the kitchen. You're welcome. 

Ingredients (serves ~4):

  • 1 large eggplant
  • tomato sauce of choice (we like Trader Joe's Traditional Marinara Sauce)
  • mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
  • spices: salt, garlic powder, basil, red chili flakes (or other spices of choice) 

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Slice eggplant into 1" thick discs. In separate shallow bowl, combine olive oil and a pinch of salt and garlic powder. Dip each eggplant disc into bowl, and then lay on baking sheet. Bake discs for 20 minutes.
  3. Momentarily remove eggplant sheet from oven and top eggplant discs with about 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce, and sprinkle mozzarella cheese, chili flakes, and basil (or other spices) atop each disc. Allow to bake for another ~5 minutes, or until cheese is melted to your desired consistency. 

Cauliflower Pizza

Thank goodness for the invention of cauliflower pizza. Seriously. If I ate traditional pizza as often as I eat cauliflower pizza, let's just say my RD license might be at risk of being revoked. While I'm really good at scarfing this deliciousness down, I can't say I'm particularly good at making it. So, when a client recently asked me for a cauliflower pizza recipe, it occurred to me that I don't actually have one... awkward... 

Fortunately, my friend @officialcauligirl knows a recipe or two :) and was happy to help me out. Well, US out. She so kindly offered her recipe for cauliflower pizza, and it's much easier than you think!! In fact, the pictures below are taken from a client who took on the cauli task, and it was a total success! So, feel free to try out her recipe OR if you're like me and you live in NYC, feel free to order from her and get the pizza delivered straight to your door. Email cauligirl29@gmail.com to place your order and remember, Tovita clients and followers receive a standing 10% discount when you mention Tovita x Cauli Girl in your email. 

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 1 large head of cauliflower
  • 2 organic eggs 
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese 
  • dash of salt
  • dash of garlic powder
  • dash of oregano

Directions:

  1. Cut 1 head of cauliflower into fourths. Place in food processor until cauliflowers appears to have the consistency of rice. 
  2. Drain with a cheese cloth to get rid of excess water.
  3. In a large bowl, add eggs, cheese, salt, oregano, and garlic powder to cauli rice, and stir together.
  4. Spray a generous amount of cooking spray on a cookie baking sheet and spread mixture into any shape desired. 
  5. Bake at 500 degrees for 25 minutes. 
  6. Remove crust from oven and top with desired sauce and cheese. 
  7. Bake for another 10 minutes and broil on high for the last 2 minutes, until the cheese begins to bubble. 
  8. Allow to cool, and use pizza scissors to cut into slices. 

It's Good To Be Gluten-Free... ?

If I could have a dollar for every time someone tries to justify eating junk food with “but it’s gluten-free,” I’d be one lucky lady. These days it seems like “gluten-free” is the universal get-out-of-jail-free card.  You simply attach “gluten-free” to a food label or a recipe and instantly all other elements are abandoned (hello! remember calories and sugar!?) and it’s the most instagrammable “health” food. Well guys, I hate to break it to you but double chocolate fudge caramel gluten-free cookies are still double chocolate fudge caramel cookies! They just don’t contain gluten. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Now that’s good news if you’re allergic to gluten and you’re craving a cookie. But if you’re not…?

I’m going to take this opportunity to dispel the misconception that “gluten-free” translates to “healthy.”

Let’s start from square one. What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein commonly found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley. It provides many starch products with shape, texture, and elasticity. So, there you have it. Gluten is not some people-eating-cancer-causing bacterium that’s destroying humanity one bagel at a time. It’s just a protein, and it’s been the foundation of the Western diet since the start of civilization.

So why does gluten get such a bad rep?

Celiac disease (CD), widely known as a gluten allergy, is an autoimmune condition that occurs in response to gluten consumption and can ultimately destroy the small intestine if not properly handled. This is a very real condition and should be taken seriously – by those who test positively for the allergy. A blood test is used to screen for CD and an intestinal biopsy will ultimately diagnose CD. The only treatment is strict, lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. For some people, the allergy is so severe that using a utensil that had previously come in contact with gluten can cause painful GI symptoms for days.

In the early 1990’s CD was under-diagnosed. Now, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 1% of the population suffer from CD. This is largely why gluten has made headline news so often in the last decade.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) seems to be the condition that has people most confused. People with NCGS test negative for CD; however, they experience painful GI symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods, similar to those of people who have CD. Furthermore, many people find that their symptoms subside when gluten is removed from their diets.

Where do you fall into the mix?

If you have been diagnosed with CD, you know where you stand: GF4L (gluten-free for life). No two ways about it!

If you fall into the “I feel my best self without gluten” category, you’re also going to try your best to avoid all products wheat, rye, and barley. Don’t be afraid to be a label detective. Ask how foods are prepared when you order at restaurants. Ask about additives in medications. Ask, ask, ask!

Whether you have CD, sensitivity, or want to try out the gluten-free diet for kicks, you should still understand that gluten-free does not mean healthy. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite. Gluten-free food alternatives must often compensate for taste and texture with increased amounts of other ingredients, so it’s not uncommon to see lots of sugar or fat in these foods. Furthermore, they’re often lower in various vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

If you’re going gluten-free in hopes to lose a few pounds, I recommend you reconsider your plan. Sorry. And sorry for not sugar coating it either. Again, gluten-free just means sans gluten. It does not mean “good for you.” To put things in perspective, let’s look at some other gluten free foods:

  • Cape cod potato chips
  • Doritos toasted corn tortilla chips
  • Ruffles original potato chips

Would you eat any of the above foods if you’re watching your waistline? Probably not! So, when you’re indulging in those gluten-free chocolate fudge ice cream sandwiches, enjoy every last bite, but understand that you’re INDULGING, and not eating a healthy snack. “Gluten-free” is not justification for eating dessert! Eat dessert because you’re human and you’re allowed to treat yourself. 100 percent of the time I prefer when a client admits “I was craving a cookie, so I had one!” versus “It was gluten-free so I had one.” See the difference!?

To wrap things up, here are my takeaways:

  •  If you have CD, you’re always gluten-free.
  • If you have NCGS, be gluten-free as much as you can.
  • If you’re none of the above, don’t use gluten-free as an excuse to eat unhealthy. It’s not. And now you know better.
  • Treat yourselves to dessert sometimes, gluten-free or not! You’re all hard working employees, employers, moms, dads, husbands, wives, girlfriends or boyfriends, or whatever you are – and you deserve it!