Back to school schedules are new every year, unfamiliar, hectic, and not really settled until the end of September. So if you are a parent, or a collegiate or high school athlete looking to take charge of your eating habits to improve performance, this is your weekend to get on track!

  • Plan the week’s meals. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
  • Take into account what you already have in the fridge and pantry so that you can be efficient.
  • Breakfast for some is a bowl of cereal every day. That works, but you can increase your brain power and energy throughout the morning by including berries and walnuts in that cereal. img_3068
  • Be realistic based on your schedule- you will cook some meals, others you will compose from leftovers or eat at a restaurant, or you may have a sandwich night.


    Re-purpose leftovers: The rice in this bowl was precooked, frozen, and reheated, the chicken left over and reheated from fridge, the salad prepped in bulk and eaten over several meals, and the squash pan fried in less than 5 minutes.

  • Pick a recipe that you can prepare on Saturday or Sunday and freeze for 1-2 meals later in the week. Check out this fantastic resource from Oldways on freezer-friendly Mediterranean meals.
  • If you’ll eat out one night, decide when and where. Some nights are so crazy it is impossible to cook dinner. If you’ll eat out, where will you eat and what will you order?
  • Make your grocery list based on your week’s meals.

Do the work this weekend and enjoy the sanity the rest of the week!

*Disclosure: I provide nutrition coaching for clients in my Northern Virginia practice, serve on the Health Professional Network for the California Walnut Commission, coordinate health research programs for the Cranberry Institute, and serve as Chair-Elect of the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. My writings on this blog are my own opinions, based on published, peer-reviewed research, and experience with my own clients and family.

My middle school child had an assignment to research and prepare a Depression era meal. She was given guidelines about what foods were allowed or not, in what forms they could be purchased, based on what would have been available in the U.S. during that time. There were many other aspects to this school project, but of course as a mom and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I get SO excited about every food project. And even more excited about projects that teach children about what it’s like to live on a budget for something as essential as food.

Because there were only 2 of us home for the official meal, she had to spend no more than $2.75, and she had some freebies like spices (which were probably hard to come by in the Depression). With a little help from me, she made black beans (from dry), brown rice, and kale. She also served canned fruit and milk. Milk was by far the most expensive component of the meal. But she certainly came in under budget.

Nutrition wasn’t a component of the lesson, but of course, she built a nutritionally balanced meal. A complication was that she got braces put on that morning, so while she generally does not like cooked vegetables, raw was not an option. That’s where kale came in– she loves kale chips, and they pretty much disintegrate in your mouth. I discovered that kale chips are DELICIOUS crumbled into black beans and rice. But I digress…

Really we are all on a budget, some just bigger than others. And we are on a food budget, too. Food is essential and wonderful, and it’s not the only thing in life. So it’s fun to eat food that simply tastes good and doesn’t add much to our daily needs. But indulging in food beyond our needs too frequently leads to health problems, plain and simple. Even people who do not gain body fat easily cannot live healthfully on cake alone.

So even if your food budget leaves you a little or lots of leeway (and for most people, the Depression Era restrictions are simply not a reality in the U.S. today), think about this… Sometimes making healthier food choices will also reduce your food bill. How?

  • Buy unseasoned versions of meats and grains– they cost less and you control how much salt goes in. A little salt goes a long way on flavor when combined with lots of healthful spices and herbs (and sometimes none is needed).
  • Buy unflavored versions of frozen vegetables. Frozen veggies are a great way to get these important foods on the plate at the end of the week when you can’t get to the grocery store. Unflavored means it’s just the veggies without added salt or saturated fat. You add the flavor. Try roasting frozen veggies with a sprinkling of herbs to avoid soggy-veggie-syndrome (I made that up).
  • Do you throw away fresh produce you didn’t eat before it spoiled? Buy only enough fresh to last 3-4 days. Buy frozen and canned produce to eat later in the week before you get back to the store. Reducing waste is good for your bottom line, and good for the planet.
  • Respect meal times. And snack times. Planning for meals will help you to avoid waste in the kitchen. Sitting down to eat a complete meal or well-prepared snack at the table, in place of grazing, will nurture mindfulness, increase your ability to recognize fullness, and make food taste better (not literally, but you will over time enjoy every bite more fully).

There are other choices we make for health that are undoubtedly more expensive than the unhealthy choice. For example, milk is a lot more expensive than soda. That’s when I factor in the health cost of the cheaper option. Sure, my kids drink a soda now and then. But milk is the mainstay at most meals, juice is available and a favorite at snack time or an occasional meal, and water is the all-day choice.

So one of the coolest things about that simple meal my daughter cooked is that the leftovers lasted us a week. The $2.75 was the cost of the single meal for the two of us. But we had to make more because of the cooking methods (for example, starting with a bag of dried beans). We changed it up throughout the week because we have that luxury. Still, it’s good to remember which things are the basics and which are luxuries, even with something as basic as food.

Sodium. Essential for life. But too much is a recipe for a health crisis. Sodium plays a key role in hydration during high-intensity exercise and hot, humid conditions. For the rest of the day when you aren’t working out, and especially if you don’t exercise much, it’s time to dive into a world of flavor beyond salt.

I want to be very clear that the idea that salt or any food or ingredient is the big bad reason our health suffers is flawed. Salt, sugar, fat, carbohydrates, bread, bacon, soda– what is the nutritional villain of the day? Anything in excess is bad for you, and even the most indulgent foods can be enjoyed some of the time. If you eat out a lot or eat a lot of packaged foods, you may be getting to much sodium. If you are frequently refilling your salt shaker at home, you may be eating too much salt.

I recommend ‘strategic salt’ in the diet. Use it in small amounts where it will help you get more good stuff that you need, and use it when your health requires it (see “A note for athletes” below).

It’s time to diversify your palate. I buy small containers of a wide array of herbs and spices so they are fresh when I need them, and I have a LOT of these flavor boosters in my pantry. I’m better at keeping fresh herbs around during the summer, but some can be grown year-round. When cooking:

  • If you are not sure what to add,  smell a few things, close your eyes, and imagine what it might taste like in the dish.
  • Encourage kids to add a new spice or herb to a dish, or use paprika or oregano or thyme to personalize their own plates.
  • Instead of folding cheese into a dish, sprinkle a smaller amount on top for visual appeal and a more subtle cheesy flavor.

What about snack foods? Sometimes we just crave salt, especially if we have not learned to enjoy other flavors yet. So again with the nudging:

  • Mix salted popcorn with unsalted dried fruits or nuts. These additions also add phyto(plant)nutrients, healthy fats, and more fiber, so help you to feel satisfied sooner and boost nutrition. Eventually try unsalted popcorn with fun additions.
  • Take a smaller portion of chips or salty crackers and enjoy with guacamole (try straight smashed avocado with a little lime juice, or maybe add a little diced onion, hot pepper, or tomato).
  • A little salt from hummus is also bringing healthful chickpeas to your diet. This is one example ‘strategic salt’. Then dip fresh veggies in hummus to cut the overall proportion of sodium in your snack.
  • Simply look for lower salt snack foods– pretzels tend to be higher, some crackers are quite low. Still watch your portions, and remember that a simple apple is also delicious!
  • Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, but also high in salt (strategic salt!) and saturated fat, so balance out small portions with pears or berries instead of salty crackers.
  • Mix salsa with nonfat plain yogurt for a creamy dip for veggies.

A note for athletes: If you are a salty sweater or will be exercising in hot, humid conditions, a small salty snack with your water before you work out is a good idea. If you’ll work out for more than an hour, a sports drink will deliver the water, sodium, and carbohydrates you need to stay hydrated.

Whether a student, pro, or recreational athlete, are you struggling to figure out what to eat pre, during, or post exercise? What about on competition days? You know you need to fuel, but you don’t want to get sick when the competition starts. You’ve heard carbs are bad, but what to do instead?

As with your training, nutrition does not start on race day, or when the workout begins. It begins now, wherever you are, and it is continuous. Start with a well-nourished, well-hydrated body. How do you do that?

First, carbohydrate, protein, and fat are ALL essential nutrients for your body. Carbohydrate has gotten a bad rap, but here are the facts. Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel choice for your brain, the only viable fuel source for certain types of exercise (all types of exercise require your body to work in different ways, so this isn’t just endurance versus strength training), and a requirement for efficiency in using other fuel sources.

At this moment, what you should eat depends on 1) when and what you last ate, and 2) when you last exercised, 3) when you will exercise next, and 4) your unique needs.

Your unique needs can’t be adequately addressed in any blog. Remember that any article you read doesn’t know you as an individual. Think of this as a starting point that must be tailored to your fitness and performance condition and goals, your health condition, your lifestyle, and other factors. However, there is one critical truth for athletes that often gets lost:

How you eat all day long, day after day, helps you to build up glycogen in your muscles that your body can use during exercise.

There is no short-term substitute for eating an appropriate balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, and staying hydrated over time. So ask yourself- Is my energy swinging high and low throughout the day? Do I bonk during a long, intense training session? Am I able to turn on the heat at critical points in competition– at the end of a match, to climb a hill, to move the ball down the court? Am I training hard but not making progress? We all have genetic limitations and advantages, but nutrition is often the obvious answer to gaining a competitive edge that is hiding right in front of us.



Does your school host a breakfast or lunch to show appreciation for the teachers and other staff? My kids’ school PTA does this once a month, and it is a big hit.


Baked Pumpkin Oatmeal from my oven this morning! Had to sample to make sure it was suitable- oh yeah!

A balance of indulgence and healthfulness is appreciated by these angels in our children’s lives. Fresh fruits and juices and tea packets, egg casseroles full of veggies, whole grain breads and cereals, yogurt, and nuts sprinkled wherever they work… you get the idea!

Here is a season-perfect Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal I whipped up for today’s breakfast for our teachers, packed with whole grains, fiber, healthy fats, protein, beta carotene, vitamin C, and potassium. I cut the brown sugar by one-third and added in walnuts to kick up the omega-3 fats for heart health and brain power!

Thank you teachers, everywhere!


This saturated fat debate is now escalating to a point that public health is threatened. While I work with clients to include the foods they love, let’s be clear on the facts: If you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, choosing more unsaturated fats than saturated or trans fats is important.

That doesn’t make saturated fat the boogeyman. Notice, I didn’t say choose more sugar or honey or agave over saturated fat. I didn’t say eliminate meat or milk. Fruits matter. Vegetables matter. Food preparation matters. How much and how we eat matters. Physical activity matters. Although these are topics for another day, I want to be clear that I’m not villanizing saturated fat. But it isn’t a hero either!

Are we just looking for justification to eat what we want? Or do we want to know what research has really shown will support health and wellness? Do we want to pretend that scientists are conspiring against our health, and that any evidence that doesn’t support our beliefs is wrong? Or do we want to consciously decide when our food decisions will be based on science and health versus taste and culture and enjoyment? Science does not always have all of the answers. Our understanding expands and deepens over time. But if we take the whole picture over time, and insist on high-quality scientific methods, we see consistency and facts emerge.

Taste and culture and enjoyment are wonderful reasons to eat a food or eat in a particular way over time. Scientific evidence, uncovered through rigorous scientific methods over time, taking into account individual differences in needs and preferences, is the best guide to eating for health.

So eat for your health or eat just for the fun of it. But don’t get duped by the celebrity of the day into thinking that decades of research is wrong, unless they have equally strong scientific research to prove it.


This is the biggest pitfall of new year’s resolutions: we stack the deck against ourselves with holiday binging, comforted by the idea that we have a date set for the healthy habits to start.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good about truly enjoying the feast. This is a very special time for a lot of people, myself included. So I believe in embracing all of the goodness of the season, along with good health. How?

Try thinking about feasting in a new way.

We think of eating food when we think of feasting, but there is also celebration in deciding what to eat, how to prepare it, and who you will share it with. The party may include a holiday cocktail, but it is complete when there is good conversation, fun games, maybe a little dancing. What else beyond food will you feast on this week?

Will you feast on building a strong body? Keep exercising, perhaps even try something new. I run, but have had a hard time with consistency with the cold weather. I am walking more throughout the day, and I also made it to the gym to try out pilates again for the first time in many months (wow, what a great feeling to use those forgotten muscles!). When is the last time you went ice skating? Or dancing? Or skiing? 

How about feasting on sleep? Not just because you have a hangover! Everything will be less stressful and more enjoyable if you are well-rested. Period.

As for food, it is an important part of the feast. Enjoy traditional foods without guilt. Sometimes you’ll eat more than a little (don’t we all!), but slow down, savor every bite, and make a mindful decision about how much you’ll eat. Also, find ways to expand the types of foods you eat during this time and tweak recipes so that you can embrace both your favorite foods and yourself. I grew up with sweet potato casserole, made by coating sweet potatoes in brown sugar and butter, then baking marshmallows on top. Yum! But I also enjoy sweet potatoes with red and golden beats, coated with olive oil and spices and roasted to perfection. 

Why would we need to sacrifice ourselves to the idea of holiday indulgence? Why does holiday feasting have to subjugate feeling physically empowered to feeling physically sedated by our food? Food is indeed powerful. In these final days of the year, feast on foods that will empower you, that will allow you to feel healthy, energetic, and grateful for all that you have, and all that is to come.

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