General Tso’s Chicken Gets a Healthy Makeover + Food Rules for Your Family (Podcast Episode #186)

General’s Tso’s Chicken is a classic Chinese restaurant takeout dish, and we gave it a healthy makeover by using less fat and sodium and adding more vegetables.

Healthy General Tso's Chicken via

This month, we had articles published in two magazines: Kiwi and Every Day with Rachael Ray. For Kiwi, our story on The New Dinnertime Rules featured rules like No TV or Cell Phones, One Family, One Dinner and Take a “No Thank You Bite,” and we made the point that better nutrition can be achieved when families eat together … happily (something you can more easily achieve with realistic food rules).

For Every Day with Rachael Ray, we contributed a recipe for General Tso’s Chicken to their Makeover Meal section … a recipe lower in fat and sodium (and filled with veggies) than the meal you’d find in most Chinese food restaurants. We dish about both articles on this week’s Cooking with the Moms podcast, and we hope you’ll tune in!

Healthy General Tso's Chicken via

The recipe we share below is a bit different from the Every Day with Rachael Ray version. That’s because RR had to shorten ours up a bit so it fit on one page. Feel free to make either version, and be sure to let us know what you think of it.

Healthy General Tso's Chicken via

We LOVE these magazines!

General Tso’s Broccoli Chicken Stir Fry

Makes 4 Servings

Lean chicken breast and just 2 tablespoons of heart-healthy canola oil help to cut back on the fat, and reduced-sodium soy sauce keeps the sodium in check.

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
  • 3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 cup water
  • 1¼ pounds head broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-size florets (about 5 cups)
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut on the diagonal into thin rounds (about 1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Thinly sliced scallions, optional
  • Sesame seeds, optional
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and black pepper until well combined. Add the chicken and toss until evenly coated.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Carefully add half of the chicken in a single layer. Cook until the meat is no longer pink, about 3 minutes per side. Stir occasionally. Place the cooked chicken on a plate and cover with aluminum foil. Repeat with the remaining oil and chicken.

3. While the chicken cooks, place the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and the remaining 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a medium bowl and whisk until well combined. Whisk in the honey. Set aside.

4. When the chicken is done, remove from heat and carefully wipe out the wok to remove excess oil. Return to medium-high heat, carefully add the water and garlic and bring to a boil. Add the broccoli and carrot, cover, lower the heat, and simmer until crisp tender, 3 minutes.

5. Uncover, add the sauce and stir until it thickens and bubbles, about 1 minute. Stir in the chicken until well coated with the sauce and heated through, about 1 more minute. Garnish with scallions and sesame seeds as desired and serve over rice. (Yields 6½ cups chicken/veggie mixture.)

Nutrition Information per Serving (2 cups): 480 calories, 15g fat (2.5g saturated, 0.8g omega-3), 630mg sodium, 56g carbohydrate, 5g fiber, 30g protein, 90% vitamin A, 100% vitamin C, 15% iron

Print Recipe

Healthy General Tso's Chicken via

Here are some of the food rules we featured in Kiwi magazine … (see the Kiwi article for more details).

ONE FAMILY, ONE DINNER:  Promote Mom or Dad from short-order cook to executive chef. Plan the nightly menu and stick to it: Once the kiddos realize that one meal and one meal only will land on the dinner table — versus a different meal for each family member — they will know not to ask for grilled cheese instead.

NO TV OR CELL PHONES:  Electronic devices are a distraction, so turn them off during family mealtime. Checking work-related emails or returning texts from friends can certainly wait until after the table is cleared. With fewer distractions, family members can slow down, relax, and talk about their day. Talk about the perfect time for family bonding!

TAKE A “NO THANK YOU BITE” … To encourage family members to eat, or at least try, what’s been served. Then kids, (or parents!) can either say, “No thanks. I’m not a fan,” or “Thanks, I’ll have some more.” It’s a low-key and often amusing way to introduce new foods and flavors.

… UNLESS YOU HAVE A “TASTE BUD TURNOFF” PASS:  Some rules are meant to be broken … sometimes. It’s important to respect personal preferences. So if a family member has a short list of “taste bud turn off” foods — foods they’ve tried before and just can’t seem to stomach, then they get a pass on the “No Thank You” Bite.

Do you have rules in your house that make mealtime more pleasant? Please share.

Janice Eats School Lunch with Leah to Celebrate “National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day”

When was the last time you ate lunch at your child’s school?  If you are like most parents, the answer is probably, “never.” For me, the answer was also “never” until this week when I joined my 6th grade daughter, Leah, for a lunch of jumbo cheese raviolis with basil marinara sauce and Italian-style green beans. Yes, she was mortified when I showed up, and yes, the lunch was quite delicious!

Leah can’t bear to look at our intern Sarah who was taking the picture. No worries though. She eventually let her hair down and seemed to enjoy the attention!

October 12th is National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day. The initiative was launched by KIWI magazine and the School Nutrition Association. I first heard about the project when my friend, Editorial Director Sarah Smith from KIWI magazine, asked me and Liz to help spread the word about the campaign. I jumped at the chance because as Sarah explained, it provides a chance to line up with a lunch tray, eat with your child, and talk to the people who serve up the food day in and day out. And it’s about communication — talking to your school and to your child to learn about what’s going well, and how you can work together to make school food even better.

In many elementary, middle, and high schools, the daily food offerings have come a long way since the days of mystery meat. So why not taste for yourself? Some of you may be thinking, “there is no way I would eat a school lunch.” In fact when Liz and I posted a photo from my lunch day on Facebook, one of our fans wrote this about school food: “I would rather chew glass!” She went on to say that her 5th grade son had never bought a school lunch and that until the food choices changed, he never would. Given that sentiment, I have a challenge for all of you. But first, I’d like to give you a little bit of background on Leah’s school.

There are no kitchen facilities at Leah’s school, so we have to work with an outside vendor to prepare and deliver the food. For years, this meant reheating meals that were cooked and flash frozen off site. The meals lacked fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, and the food was highly processed and too high in sodium and saturated fat for my liking. About five  years ago when I joined the school’s Wellness Committee, I began to rally for healthier menus. Finally, we found a new company called, Sidekim Foods. They came on board last year and the improvement has been dramatic. When teachers suddenly start ordering school lunches, you know they must be good.

Leah’s teacher, Mr. W., eats all of his green beans 🙂 He says his favorite lunch so far has been the Homemade Chicken Fingers with Noodles, Capri Blend Vegetables, and an orange

So, here is my challenge: Participate in National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day. Go to your child’s school and see what’s being served. If you don’t like what you see (or eat!), do something about it. Join the Wellness Committee, meet with the foodservice director, and be part of making a difference in the health of our nation’s children. To help you get started, check out the resources on the National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day website or visit Chef Ann Cooper’s Food Family Farming Foundation site.  And of course, before you head off to lunch, contact your child’s school to “make a lunch reservation.”

Judy gets the lunches ready for each classroom. Let’s hear it for the hard-working “lunch ladies” across the country. By the way, according to Sidekim Foods, the lunch trays are made from 100% recycled materials and they are biodegradable. As for the film on top, it is BPA free.

Let me know if you eat lunch with your child next Wednesday, and tell me all about it. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this Q&A with Robert Clickstein, School Food Specialist from Sidekim Foods.

Q: How many meals do you serve each day at Mystic Valley Charter School?
A: Approximate 450. As for all of our sites (schools and catering and senior centers), we serve about 4,200.

Q: Tell us about your menu and how you provide students with nutritious meals each day.
A: Our meals are prepared fresh every day using local ingredients. We provide students with a variety of whole grain, fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and healthy snacks. Our menus meet and exceed the USDA regulations for school meals.

Q: What sorts of vegetables do you serve and how do you make them appealing to kids?
A: We provide fresh steamed broccoli, zucchini, carrots, and a colorful vegetable medley as well as very tasty butternut squash from scratch. Instead of French fries, we prepare fresh roasted and homemade whipped potatoes.

Q: How do you design your menus so that kids will like the food?
A: We do a variety of things from surveys and site visits to weekly feedback from our schools food service coordinators.

Q: School lunch often gets a bad rap. How is your lunch different from those out there that have fallen under fire?
A: Our mission is to provide a healthy and nutritious alternative to the frozen prepared and prepackaged products that you typically see in school cafeterias. We do this by purchasing from local vendors and holding them to a higher standard and quality. We emphasize, “Eat Smart Be Smart,” which means prepared fresh, from scratch, lean, low sugar, whole grain, and whole wheat.

Q: Do you ever get push back from the kids on the menu? If so, what items have been the “toughest sell” and how have you won the hearts and taste buds of your students?
A: We do not necessarily get push back but we can tell by the participation and comments if a particular menu is not popular. It is important to us that we design menus that students will eat, so we are constantly looking for feedback and adapting to students’ tastes. For example we just rolled out a Latin menu for one of our customers and it has been a great success.

Q: Why is it important for parents to eat school lunch with their kids from time to time?
A: We feel that it is important for parents to see what their children are eating at lunch. We want them to see that their kids are eating a healthy meal which in turn will give them the energy and motivation to learn throughout the school day.

Liz and our intern, Sarah, pose with Leah. The best part about this experience for Leah:  seeing us walk out the door!

The teachers and most of the high school students have been happy with the changes to our lunch program, but it’s been less popular for some of the lower-school students. My hope is that as time goes by the student skeptics will learn to love the chicken fajitas, whole wheat penne pasta, vegetables and fresh seasonal fruit that Sidekim offers. From the way Leah ate her ravioli lunch with gusto (okay, maybe she didn’t eat all her green beans), I’m confident more and more kids will embrace the changes soon.

Leah and her friend Tommy enjoy the apples served with lunch!

Have you ever eaten at your child’s school? Do you plan to participate in the National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day?  Have you seen improvements in the school lunch program over the past few years?

School Lunch Revolution & a Recipe for a Healthy Hero (Podcast #102)

Over the past few months, we’ve been absolutely wowed by the growing momentum behind school lunch reform. Both of us have spent time in the “trenches” working to improve the school lunch options in our children’s schools, so we understand the time and commitment it takes to bring positive change to the system. On this week’s Cooking with the Moms podcast, we dish about several of those efforts and chat about the role we see for ourselves in the movement.

If you watched the last episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC, you may recall his disappointment when some of the kids brought brown-bag lunches filled with candy, chips, and soft drinks. We were disappointed too, so from now on, we will be making a greater effort on our website and blog to provide our readers and listeners with tips and recipes for adding ease, nutrition, and fun flavors to kids’ lunches. Under the Mealtime Tips section of our main site, we have a fact sheet on Brown Bag Boredom Busters, and we have some helpful articles you may want to check out too: Think Outside the Lunchbox and Smart Snacking. Read on for a lunch box Healthy Hero recipe and links to some of our favorite school lunch reform websites.

Healthy Hero

Makes 4 Servings

  • 1 cup packed baby spinach or romaine lettuce
  • 1 tablespoon lite or regular Italian salad dressing
  • 4 teaspoons honey mustard
  • 4 whole wheat submarine rolls, halved
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced roast beef
  • 4 sandwich-cut dill pickles
  • 1 medium tomato, thinly sliced, optional
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced reduced-fat cheese (mozzarella, American, Swiss, or provolone)
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced low-sodium deli turkey

1. Combine the spinach and salad dressing in a bowl and mix well.

2. Spread 1 teaspoon of the mustard on one side of each roll. Layer evenly with the roast beef, spinach, pickle, tomato as desired, cheese, and turkey. Place the remaining roll halves firmly on top. Slice in half or pack whole.

Nutrition Information per Serving:  350 calories, 11g fat (4.5g saturated), 870mg sodium, 39g carbohydrate, 6g fiber, 28g protein, 15% vitamin A, 25% calcium, 15% iron

Print Recipe

We could spend all day going from website to website reading about the people and organizations working to improve what our kids eat in school. Here is just a brief overview of some of our favorites:

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Jamie Oliver offers recipes, tips for reforming the school lunch program, a petition to save cooking skills and improve school food, and lots more!
Two Angry Moms:  Two moms make a movie about their quest to improve their school lunch program and provide tools to help you bring change to your district.
Let’s Move: More than 31 million children participate in the national school lunch program, and Michelle Obama, through her Let’s Move initiative, wants to make it a whole lot healthier.
Chef Ann Cooper: As the self-described Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann’s life work is to transform how we feed our children in school each day, from highly processed to highly nourishing food — one school lunch at a time.
Farm to School Initiative: The USDA encourages schools to buy produce from local farmers.
Fed Up with Lunch: Blogging anonymously under the pseudonym, Mrs. Q, this third-grade teacher from the Midwest is eating school lunch just like the kids every day in 2010. Her photos and insights are a real eye opener!
Moms Inc.: A group of concerned moms provides tips and tools for helping fellow parents approach school administrators and food service directors with the goal of improving the nutrition in school lunches.

What’s happening in your community? Do tell!

Casseroles with a Healthy Twist: A Recipe for Silly Salmon Noodle Bake (Podcast #90)

Gooey and gloppy are just two of the words that come to mind when we think about classic casseroles.  Typically made with creamy soups and lots of butter and full-fat cheese, casseroles get a bad nutrition rap because they have a tendency to stick to the ribs … and to the waistline. In this week’s Cooking with the Moms, we add a contemporary twist to casseroles by skimming away some of the bad fat and the excess calories and by incorporating some good-for-you ingredients … and we do it without sacrificing the time-honored flavors. The inspiration for the show came from a casserole article we just wrote for Kiwi magazine.  The February issue hits newsstands soon, so be on the lookout.

For the Kiwi story, we featured three recipes: Crushed Tortilla Chip Casserole, Sweet & Nutty Rice Casserole, and a makeover of the classic kid favorite, tuna noodle casserole. For this recipe, we added an updated twist by switching from tuna to boneless, skinless canned salmon (salmon is one of the richest sources of brain-boosting omega-3 fats), using a whole wheat blend pasta versus white, and by adding peas for a kick of color and fiber. We also topped it with a mixture of Panko breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. We promise you won’t miss the crushed potato chips on top!

Silly Salmon Noodle Bake

Makes 8 Servings

The soy sauce in this recipe may surprise you, but it adds a deep, rich umami flavor to the dish. Leftovers freeze really well.

  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • One 12-ounce package whole wheat blend egg noodles
  • Two 5-ounce cans boneless, skinless pink salmon, drained and flaked
  • 1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3½ cups 1% low-fat milk
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup light sour cream

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Lightly oil or coat a 9 x 13-inch baking pan or dish with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Combine bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese in a bowl and set aside.

2. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and return to saucepan. Stir in the salmon and peas and set aside.

3. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add mushrooms, dill, onion powder, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender, about 7 minutes (there may be liquid from the mushrooms in the saucepan, but that’s okay).

4. Stir the oil and flour into the mushroom mixture and whisk constantly until smooth, about 2 minutes. Whisk the milk and soy sauce slowly into flour mixture. Raise heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Reduce heat and continue to simmer and stir gently until the  mixture thickens, about 3 minutes.

5. Remove from the heat and stir in sour cream. Pour sauce over pasta mixture and stir to combine.  Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan. Top with the bread crumb mixture.

6. Bake until the casserole is bubbly and topping turns golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes.

Nutrition Information per Serving: 390 calories, 13g fat (5g saturated, 0.8 omega-3), 660 mg sodium, 22g protein, 50g carbohydrate, 6g fiber, 25% calcium, 10% iron

Print Recipe

We have other healthy casseroles on our website and blog.  A few you may want to check out include Simply Delicious Shepherd’s Pie, Chicken Broccoli Crunch, and The Whole Enchilada Bake.

After-School Snack Attack {Podcast #20}

If you’re like us, kitchen craziness kicks in every day around 3:00PM when the kids get home from school. After backpacks are unloaded and hands are washed, it’s snack-attack time. What you choose for a snack can have a major impact — either positive or negative — on the quality of your child’s overall diet. In this week’s Cooking with the Moms radio podcast, we feature lots of healthy snack ideas along with two snack recipes: Lime ‘n Honey Black Bean Dip and our oh-so-delicious Grab & Go Granola Bars. Be sure to tune in to our podcast to get the skinny on snacking or check out our Smart Snacking story featured in this month’s issue of Kiwi magazine (it’s on the news stand now).

Lime ‘n Honey Black Bean Dip
Makes 6 to 8 Servings

One 15 ½ -ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup salsa
1/4 cup light sour cream
2 tablespoons lime juice (juice of 1 lime)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1. Place the beans, salsa, sour cream, lime juice, honey, cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth and creamy.

2. Serve with baked tortilla chips or baby carrots.

Nutrition Information per Serving (1/4 cup): 60 calories, 0.5g fat (0g saturated fat), 180mg sodium, 13g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 3g protein

If you have a favorite after-school snack idea you’d like to share, post it here on our blog!

The Biggest Bean Ever

Last week, Liz traveled to Chicago for a nutrition conference on the benefits of beans (yes, we know, as dietitians we get all the perks). Before heading back to the airport, she took a walk over to Millenium Park where she was greeted by what looked like the world’s largest bean! Turns out the 110-ton sculpture is not a bean at all but rather an abstract structure called Cloud Gate designed to reflect the city’s famous skyline and the clouds above.

Beans were clearly the theme of Liz’s trip to Chicago. Here are a few things she learned:

* Beans wear two hats: They’re rich in protein — like beef, chicken, and eggs — so are listed on the government’s MyPyramid in the meat & beans category. They’re also categorized as a vegetable. In fact, beans have more protein and fiber than any other vegetable out there!

* Black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, canellini beans and the hundreds of other bean varieties are incredibly versatile and are found in almost every cuisine from around the world.

* If you visit, you’ll find over 1,000 bean recipes as well as info on the Moms And Kids Panel where families can test and rate bean recipes.

Speaking of vegetables, be sure to tune in to our Cooking with the Moms podcast this week as we chat about vegetable recipes kids love. And while you’re at it, check out the May/June issue of Kiwi magazine and read our Veggie Love article!

Hearty Winter Pies

Okay. It’s 60 degrees in Boston today — admittedly a bit bizzare — but that hasn’t stopped us from cooking up some hearty winter pies. For this month’s issue of Kiwi magazine, we took two of our favorites, chicken pot pie and shepherd’s pie, and gave them a makeover. We lightened them up and then added a few good-for-you ingredients to make them more nutritious. Click here to read the article and sample our stick-to-your-ribs dishes. What’s your favorite winter comfort food recipe? Please share!

Holiday Cookie Makeover

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us and the holiday season is in full swing, you may be dusting off your old recipe box as you plan for a month of baking your favorite festive treats. If that’s the case, we hope you’ll try some of our hot-off-the press cookie recipes featured in this month’s issue of Kiwi magazine. There, you’ll find five of our best-ever cookie makeovers. Perfect for cookie swaps, neighborhood parties, and family gatherings, you’ll love our sweet, better-for-you confections. Click here to check out the article (hey, we even made the cover with our Chocolaty Coconut Mini Tortes recipe).

Chocolaty Coconut Mini Tortes
Makes 2 Dozen

These super fudgy, hard-to-resist nibbles get a healthy makeover with a few smart switches. For starters, we use whole wheat flour instead of white. For the clincher, we swap the usual stick or two of butter for a healthier fat: canola oil. By using omega-3 eggs, we also up the ante on nutrition.

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (about 1 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
5 large omega-3 eggs, beaten
Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil or coat 24 mini muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Stir the chocolate chips and canola oil in a medium saucepan over low heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, and coconut in a large bowl until well combined. Whisk in the eggs until well blended. Add the melted chocolate mixture and stir to combine. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared muffin cups. Bake about 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Remove the tortes and cool. To add “snow” to the tops of each torte, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Nutrition Information per Serving: 150 calories, 9g fat (3g saturated, 0.5g omega-3), 15mg sodium, 18g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 2g protein