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Greek Yogurt: Our New Secret Weapon

Z eats yogurtI remember reading in a women’s magazine several years ago that plain yogurt was a good alternative to sour cream, but when I tried it, I found the yogurt was too runny to be used the way that one would use sour cream. I just wrote it off as one of those substitutions that fails to live up to its promises–the sort of thing that makes people give up on diets.

But recently, when we got into clean eating and started reading Clean Eating Magazine, I realized my mistake. There is a yogurt out there that is as thick as sour cream with all the tangy flavour, but has a fraction of the fat: Greek yogurt. It’s not super easy to find, which might explain why I didn’t know it existed when I was younger. But as people are increasingly interested in eating healthier, more and more stores are carrying it.

Since we started using it as a substitute for sour cream we’ve also discovered a myriad of other uses for it, and all of them make for healthier dishes and healthier families. Obviously, it’s yogurt, so you can just eat it straight up with your breakfast. The vanilla or honey flavoured varieties make tasty desserts (especially if you add some fresh berries or melon) and make great substitutes for whipping cream on waffles, pancakes, pies, etc. But plain is the most versatile. We use it wherever we would normally use sour cream or mayo. Plain Greek yogurt goes great with Mexican-style dishes in lieu of sour cream and makes excellent chicken, tuna or egg salad sandwiches. Use it as the base for a dip at your next party and serve with chips or fresh veggies–we promise that no one will notice the difference. And because it’s thick and rich, Greek yogurt is a better choice than regular yogurt when you’re using it as a substitute to reduce fat in your baking. There is only one place where it doesn’t work as well as regular yogurt: salad dressing. If you want a creamy, yogurt-based dressing, it’s best to go with the runnier version.

Try it; you will be pleasantly surprised by how little you miss your old sour cream and mayo.

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Introducing Your Baby To More Textured Foods

The banana palate

The different textures side-by-side, for comparison.

Early on in my parenting journey, I was very lucky to attend an amazing talk on infant nutrition given during the Parent and Infant Drop-in at the JBCC. The primary focus of this talk was the introduction of solid food, and I credit this talk with giving me the confidence to feed Z such a wide variety of foods and textures before he turned a year old. The thing that made the talk so incredible was the visual aids. The nurse who led the talk, Kit, brought in samples of food from her own fridge that she had prepared so that they were a suitable texture for a baby just starting to eat solid foods. The most helpful visual aid of all was the plate of banana prepared a variety of ways. It really helped me to visualize the ways I would need to prepare food for Z as he grew and became more adept at eating and feeding himself.

I made my own version of this banana plate and photographed it so that I could pass this information on to those parents out there who are wondering how and when to introduce chunkier foods to their wee ones. This knowledge made such a difference for me that I just couldn’t keep it to myself.

Please note, you don’t have to go through each of these steps using bananas. I simply chose banana so that you could easily compare the differences between the textures at various stages for yourself. But regardless of the food you choose to use, at every stage you should be using soft fruits, vegetables and grain products. Fruits and veggies should either be cooked until fork-tender or very ripe and soft. Grain products should either be soft or dissolve easily in the child’s mouth. When it comes to meat, you will probably want to mince or finely dice it for quite some time as it is difficult for babies without a lot of teeth to chew most cuts of meat.

And no matter what stage your baby is at and no matter how adept your baby becomes at eating, always make sure you watch your child throughout his meal and be sure to feed him in an upright seated position. Allowing your child to eat while playing or while riding in the car or stroller puts him at a far greater risk for choking than introducing chunkier food. As an extra precaution, I recommend you take St. John’s Ambulance’s Save That Child course or a similar course so that you will know exactly what to do should the worst case scenario arise.

STAGE ONE: Pureed Food

Stage OneWhen you first introduce your baby to solids at around six months of age, you will want to stick to single ingredient purees and very runny baby cereal. This stage will last at least a couple weeks. Once your baby can remove food from the spoon well (i.e. more food ends up in baby’s mouth than on baby’s face/bib/hands/high chair/caregiver), move the food around in his mouth with his tongue and can swallow the food well, you can begin to introduce some texture to his food.

STAGE TWO: Mashed Food

Stage Two

At this point, your baby is probably 6.5 to 7 months old. You should still be feeding your baby single-ingredient foods and can continue to introduce a new food every two or three days. The easiest way to introduce lumpier textures is to mix thicker baby cereal and then move on to mashed fruits and veggies from there. Food prep gets a little easier here because foods that are already soft, like avocado and banana, can just be mashed with a fork–a lot less equipment to clean up than at the puree stage. Feeding your baby exclusively mashed foods need only last a few weeks as well. Once you have introduced enough foods to start mixing ingredients together, your baby is probably ready for small pieces of food though there will still be room for purees and mashes in baby’s diet. If you, as an adult, would normally eat that food pureed or mashed, that’s how you should feed it to your baby (e.g. mashed potatoes, apple sauce).

STAGE THREE: Finely Diced Food

Stage Three

We began this stage with Z when he was about 7 months old. During this stage, you will begin to feed baby small pieces of food so that she learns to chew it a bit before swallowing. If you’re worried that your baby will choke because she won’t be able to chew food without teeth, just put your finger in her mouth and let her bite it. I think you’ll quickly learn just how powerful baby gums can be. At this stage, you can begin mixing ingredients together (I loved making Z little fruit salads).  Pieces of finely diced food should be no bigger than a kernel of corn. Smaller foods like rice, lentils, peas, etc. can be fed to your baby without any cutting. At this stage you can also offer your baby a few finger foods that are dry and easy to grasp like Cheerios, but don’t expect her to be able to feed herself full meals just yet. She’ll need lots of practice. During this stage, I would put a handful of Cheerios on the tray of Z’s high chair so that he could entertain himself while I got his meal together.

STAGE FOUR: Finger Food

Stage Four

Once your baby can handle chewing and has had a little practice with easy to grasp foods like Cheerios, he’s ready to start feeding himself at least part of his meal. For Z, this stage came in his seventh month. Soft ripe or well-cooked fruits and veggies cut into pieces about the size of a dime work well. You can also start giving your baby crackers, teething biscuits, small pasta, toast fingers and similar bread products. You will need to supplement finger foods with spoon-fed foods until your baby’s pincer grasp develops more fully. If you want some ideas on getting started with finger foods, check out this earlier post.

STAGE FIVE: Increased Self Feeding

Stage Five

This is the stage that Z is at now (he’s 9 months old). He can pick things up easily with his fingers and about 80% of what he picks up makes it to his mouth. At this stage, you still have to cut food into pieces smaller than what you would eat yourself in order to prevent choking, but your child can handle fairly large chunks of soft food. You still need to be careful to cut meat quite small as it is harder to chew, but there is less need to mince it. Chances are your baby’s appetite is increasing and you will be feeding her larger meals as well.

STAGE SIX: Table Food

Stage Six

This stage is what you are ultimately working towards: the time when your baby can eat exactly what the rest of the family eats. There is no longer a need to prepare special food or meals for your child. You will be teaching your child to feed himself with utensils at this stage and will still need to cut pieces a little smaller than you would for yourself. For most babies, this stage begins around their first birthday.

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Risotto with Shrimp, Asparagus and Red Pepper

Risotto with Shrimp, Asparagus and Red PepperTHE VERDICT: As far as risotto goes, this dish is relatively simple to prepare.  Risotto is always time consuming, but the process is generally the same. Once you’ve made it for the first time it should be easy to do again.  First, heat the spices to release flavours, then cook the risotto with the dry ingredients for a short time.  Then, add your initial liquid, be it stock, wine, or a combination thereof.  From there on, slowly add ladlefuls of warm liquid, reduce each time, and repeat until the rice is soft, smooth and creamy.  The main differences are what kind of liquid(s) used, when ingredients are added, and what spices are used.   This was a straightforward recipe, so I thought I’d do a more detailed step-by-step review to show people who are not familiar with this process how easy it can be.

If you want to try it yourself, here is your step-by-step visual guide (the full recipe follows below). . .

Ingredients

The ingredients are ready to go!

Saucepans Ready

As you cook the base ingredients (butter, onion, garlic, risotto), heat up the stock and/or wine in a nearby pot.

Reduction

Add about 1 cup or a ladleful of hot liquid to the rice and reduce, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Repeat until the liquid is used up.

Pre-duction

Adding enough liquid each time to wet but not drown the risotto is a good rule of thumb. Here is the pan with the liquid added.

Post-duction

Here is the pan after the liquid has been reduced. Once your risotto looks like this, it is time to add another cup of liquid.

Ingredients

Having your ingredients ready to toss in ahead of time is important because risotto needs constant stirring and it will be difficult to prep meat and veggies while adding and reducing the liquid.

Adding Ingredients

When the recipe calls for it, add the remaining ingredients and serve.

THE RECIPE:

1kg uncooked prawns

500g fresh asparagus

6 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

30g butter

1 large brown onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups arborio rice

2 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 tsp cracked black pepper

  • Prawns should be shelled and deveined, but with tails intact.
  • Cut asparagus diagonally into 3cm lengths.
  • Combine stock and wine in large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and keep hot.
  • Melt butter in large saucepan.  Cook onion and garlic until onion is soft.
  • Add risotto and stir to coat in mixture.
  • Stir in 1 cup of the hot stock mixture.  Cook, stirring, over low heat until liquid is absorbed.
  • Continue adding stock mixture in 1-cup batches, stirring, until liquid is absorbed after each addition.
  • Total cooking time should be around 35 minutes.
  • Add prawns, asparagus, tomato, and pepper.  Cook, stirring, until prawns are cooked and asparagus is tender.

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Preparing Fruit and Vegetables for Baby

Luckily, most babies take to fruit and veggies more easily than they take to meat. It’s probably because fresh produce is sweeter and the texture is more pleasing. The good news for parents is that fruit and vegetables are also much easier to prepare. In fact some of them hardly need any preparation at all.

Any soft fruit or vegetable can simply be mashed or finely diced and fed to baby. There is no need to cook it first. It is always good to have a small supply of these foods on hand in order to throw together easy meals for baby. Our favourites are tofu, kiwi, banana, strawberries avocado, mango and tomato because Zayden really enjoys eating them. In the early days of solid food, I would mash them up, but now I just dice them into small cubes that he can easily chew (yes, babies can chew even before they have teeth). We have also found some other food that can be fed to baby without pre-cooking though Zayden doesn’t like them as much. These include nectarines, watermelon and ripe cantaloupe. Though we haven’t tried them ourselves plums, peaches,  most berries, apricots, yogurt, soft cheese, papaya, ripe pears, cottage cheese, and grapes can also be served to baby without pre-cooking.

The following photos will walk you through the steps of preparing harder fruits and vegetables to feed to baby.

Peeling veggies

Babies can't eat the tough skins on most fruits and vegetables, so the first step is to peel them. You may also need to coarsely chop them so that they are easier to cook and/or mash up.

Steaming veggies

The next step is to steam or braise them until they are fork tender.

Mashed veggies

If baby is new to solids, you will want to mash or puree the veggies. Start by mashing them very thoroughly so that the consistency is quite smooth. Gradually increase the lumpiness so that baby learns to handle chunkier foods and different textures.

Diced veggies

Once baby is used to lumpy mashed food, you can begin to finely dice the veggies. As baby's fine motor skills improve, he can feed these small cubes of food to himself.

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Preparing Meat for Baby

I was told that after introducing baby cereal, the next food we should introduce should be meat because babies need iron. Our first experiment, ground beef, resulted in a lot of funny faces and gagging, but we kept at it and finally found a method to prepare meat in a way that was palatable for Zayden, and it takes surprisingly little time.

STEP ONE: Either set aside a little of the meat you plan to prepare for supper or purchase some meat, especially for making baby food. Then cut it into cubes and cook thoroughly using your preferred method. I personally like pan-frying because the searing seals in the juices keeping the meat from getting too dry and flavourless for baby. Whatever method you choose, just be sure you cook the meat thoroughly.

Cooking the meat

STEP TWO: Place the cubes into a food chopper (an immersion blender and a large bowl can also be used). Have some water and rice cereal handy. Process the meat with a few quick pulses to break it up into smaller pieces. Then add a few tablespoons of rice cereal; the cereal will help make the meat puree a little smoother and more palatable for a baby who is just getting used to solid food. Once your baby is more experienced with solids you can omit the rice cereal.

Essential ingredients

STEP THREE: Add a little water and process the meat until pureed. Continue to add water and process the meat until it is the desired consistency. You will want a very fine puree at first, but soon you can leave out most of the water and just mince the meat as baby gets used to chunkier foods.

Meat puree

STEP FOUR: Once your puree is ready, you can serve it to baby immediately or store it in the fridge or freezer. The whole process takes only about 20 minutes and will result in about two dozen tablespoons of food for feeding your baby.

Puree storage

We’ve now used this method to prepare steak, ground pork, shrimp, chicken and ham for Zayden with great success. Hopefully you will have similar success with your little one.

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What Is Clean Eating?

PepperWe’ve made reference to clean eating a lot in our posts, and it’s left a number of our friends asking us exactly what it is, so I thought I would take a moment to explain the concept to the best of my abilities. But first, one caveat, I am no expert in clean eating. If you Google clean eating, you’ll find many people who ascribe to the philosophy, but not all of them agree on exactly what it entails. What I am going to share is based on the basic philosophy as I understand it and the goals that Justin and I have set for ourselves.

Core Philosophy: Eat food that is in its most natural state or as close to it as possible. While many use a clean eating approach to dieting, it is not a diet. The goal of clean eating is to change the way you prepare and eat your food; it’s a lifestyle change, not a temporary fad diet to drop 10 pounds. Here’s how you do it:

1. Eat 5-6 times a day: You should be eating three meals plus 2-3 small snacks. Meals should be a balanced combination of lean protein, fresh fruit or veggies and complex carbs. Snacks should be healthy and fresh, not junk food. To achieve this goal, we plan our snacks as well as our meals each week, so that we’re not tempted to grab a granola bar or stop at a drive thru just because it’s easier or we have nothing better on hand.Raspberries

2. Drink water: To be more specific, drink water instead of other beverages–even juice. Pop, juice and alcohol are all full of empty calories. While it’s okay to have a beer or a soda on occasion, it should be a treat, not a daily staple of your diet. Because many clean eaters are also into protecting the environment, it is also preferable to drink your water from a reusable bottle or glass rather than from a disposable plastic bottle. If you don’t like drinking straight from the tap, use a Brita filter (or similar) rather than drinking bottled water.

3. Avoid overly processed and refined foods: The goal is to eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible, so where you can, buy fresh food. If a fresh option isn’t available, read the labels. Choose products with the fewest ingredients possible and avoid those that contain 2 or more ingredients that you can’t identify or pronounce. Compare the labels of similar products and choose the one that has the lowest sodium, sugar and saturated and trans fat levels. Where you can, try to buy processed foods (e.g. bread) that is made locally rather than something that is mass-produced and available in every grocery store in the country–it will be fresher and will contain fewer preservatives. Plus you get the good feeling that comes from supporting a small business.

Peas4. Shop with a conscience: Eat produce that is seasonal and local whenever possible because it’s less taxing on the environment. The added bonus is that locally harvested food is picked at its peak ripeness and tastes far better than the stuff available in supermarkets, which may have traveled from overseas to get to your table and was likely picked before it had fully ripened or was frozen on the journey to maintain its “freshness.” Your local farmers’ market is a great resource for seasonal local food. When you can, you should also make the effort to purchase humanely raised, local meat. It can be more expensive, but if you shop around, you will find places that offer reasonable prices. When you are buying processed foods, try to purchase items that have environmentally friendly packaging. As little packaging as possible is preferable. At the very least, the packaging should be easily recyclable (e.g. choose glass containers over plastic because not all plastics can be recycled by all municipal recycling programs).

5. Eat reasonable portions: This element of clean eating can be really difficult as our view of proper portion sizes is pretty skewed in North America. Restaurants and food manufacturers, emphasizing value over health, typically serve and package foods in such large quantities that we are sometimes eating three or four portions of a food in a single serving. To learn more about portion sizes, check out this article.

6. Avoid certain foods whenever possible: Clean eaters should steer clear of overly processed refined foods, refined flour and sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, fried foods, pop, juice and alcohol. Some clean eaters on the more extreme end will avoid these “unclean” foods 100% of the time. Justin and I are less extreme. We try to avoid them as much as possible, but make compromises when we do decide to indulge a bit. We might have a glass of wine for a special occasion, but we don’t polish off a whole bottle over dinner. If my sweet tooth is nagging me, I make dessert from scratch instead of running to the corner store for candy. That sort of thing.

7. Eat at the table: Sit down and enjoy your food. Don’t rush through a meal. You will enjoy your food more, and it will be easier to recognize when you are full. Besides, it’s just nice to eat together and connect with friends, family or co-workers over a meal.Tomatoes

8. Cook your own meals whenever possible: This is the only way to know what is going into your food, and if you are committed to clean eating, this is the best way to ensure that your food contains the “cleanest” ingredients possible. The other benefit is that people who cook for themselves tend to eat healthier and consume more reasonable portion sizes. Cooking together is even better; you have a chance to connect before you even sit down at the table. And for families with young kids, it’s a great way to teach them about healthy eating without preaching and teaches them a valuable life skill–and those Mother’s and Father’s Day breakfasts in bed will start tasting better too.

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