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Six simple (yet innovative) ways to add nutrients to your meals

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 17/09/2015 Kristin Kirkpatrick

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I've noticed an inspiring thing in my patients lately: They're more motivated than ever to get the right foods into their diet to improve their health. They're more interested in nutrition, and actually see the value and connection of how the food we choose to put into our mouths effects every aspect of our well-being. Despite this positive shift, though, many still struggle with getting everything they'd like to on a daily basis. "I can't possibly eat seven servings of vegetables,""no way can I swallow that big fish oil pill" and "bean every day? Are you crazy?" are incredibly common phrases coming from patients. The truth is that if we just look beyond what we envision as a meal (meat, starch and vegetable), we might recognize there are many ways to get the nutrients you need every day. Here are six of the easiest.

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1. Rethink your "starch." I grew up in a Polish, Dominican household, so in virtually every meal, there was either white rice or potatoes as the "side starch" – two foods that make your blood sugar and insulin scream for mercy. The fact is, we don't need to have a starch at dinner at all (apologies to old-school moms around the world), and your "starch" could actually be turned into a vegetable, giving you even more benefits without the carbohydrates. My favourite new "dough," for example, is cauliflower. Search any recipe site, and you'll stumble across loads of recipes for cauliflower crusts that you can create into glorious (and virtually carb-free) pizzas by using pesto or tomato sauce as the sauce and topping with loads of vegetables and crumbled feta cheese (my personal favourite topping; caramelized onions).

Cauliflower can also be used to mimic rice or mashed potatoes, but probably the best reason to use cauliflower as your starch alternative is that it could help you in the prevention of certain cancers and increase your odds of survival for others. Another huge way to add huge benefits: Swap your grain pasta for bean based pastas. Most of them far exceed the nutrition value when compared to other pastas made with grains (yes, even the ones with whole grains) because they're high in protein (about 25 g per 2 ounce dry serving) and fiber (12 grams) and low on the glycemic index (carbohydrates are around 15 g). Spiralled zucchini and spaghetti squash can be used as well, but these take more time to prepare.

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2. Sneak in the goods. I see plenty of moms who struggle with getting enough vegetables in their little picky eaters and stress at the thought of not being able to properly nourish their child. Here's where the sneak can come in handy. For example: pureed sweet potato in macaroni and cheese, pinto beans or blueberries in brownies, using avocado puree in soups, smoothies and puddings, and pureed spinach in creamy pasta dishes and meatloaf. Tofu can also be a great add-on to dessert-like goodies for kids. Want even more options? Check out some of the "trick your child" books that are packed with fabulous ideas for hiding healthy foods from suspicious eyes.

3. Choose chia. Chia is a fabulous! Chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, this little seed has some not-so-little benefits, including helping protect our aging brains, joints and hearts. Above and beyond these benefits, however, is a culinary one. When you put chia in liquids, it gels. That gelling feature makes it a perfect addition to thicken soups, add moisture to low-fat meatballs, muffins and pancakes, all the while getting your daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

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4. Be a freeze baby. The majority of my patients are challenged with giving up the late-night snack. "I just need it, and I'm not even hungry" falls from the lips of so many who want to change. New research indicates that perhaps it's the brain's fault we eat at night. This theory stems from findings that indicate we simply don't get the same pleasure response (or high) from snacks such as foods and sweets that we get during the day. So, if you just have to have something, why not make it something satisfying and healthy?

The cure: chocolate-covered grapes or bananas. Simply take dark 70 percent chocolate and melt in a double broiler or in the microwave, then dip (not submerge) your fruit of choice into the chocolate, covering half of the fruit. Place on a baking sheet, and put in your freezer. When you're ready for that late-night snack that takes time to eat and includes heart-healthy chocolate, you now have a viable option. Try and avoid dipping dried fruits; they tend to high higher concentrations of sugar than their fresh counterparts. 

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5. Get sauced. Missed a fruit or vegetable and want a delicious way to add it back in? Simply add sauce. Both tomato sauce and pesto add an abundance of nutrients and can top pretty much anything, from your bean based pastas to grilled chicken. Tomato sauce is loaded with lycopene, which can help decrease your chances of developing cancers of the breast, prostate and kidney and can reduce your risk of having a stroke, as well. Plus, heating tomatoes (as you would when making a sauce) increases the bioavailability of this very capable carotenoid. Pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts and basil (which are both chart-toppers in terms of health), but you can also make pesto with arugula or spinach as well as walnuts and pecans. Be creative, and think outside the pesto bottle. (That's code for make your own).

6. Colour up your chips. I get it: You're not always going to be able to put spinach in your meatballs or sweet potatoes in your macaroni and cheese. In these cases, you can at least get your side dishes to be nutrient dense. Instead of potato chips, try kale or beet chips; instead of corn chips, try plantain chips. The sky's the limit – just try and make sure that sky has lots and lots of colour (a true sign of nutrient value in plants).

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