Greenlight your favorite family dinners

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FEATURE — A common strategy for teaching healthy eating to children involves using a stoplight. This begins with a list of “green light” foods, which are typically fruits, veggies, nuts, beans, healthy fats and healthy protein sources. Foods on this list can be eaten daily.

Stock image courtesy of St. George Health & Wellness Magazine, St. George News

Then, just like a stoplight, there are the “yellow light” foods, which generally include foods on the green light list with some of their nutrient value removed, like apples to applesauce or whole grain bread to white bread. These we eat less often.

Next, we have the “red light” foods. These are the foods we eat occasionally and include foods from the green and yellow light lists with added sugars and fats. So white flour bread becomes a donut or apples become apple pie filling. 

In an effort to please some taste buds in our home, I took a few common meals and adjusted them to green light level. I hope it sparks some ideas on how you can greenlight some of your own family’s favorite dishes. 

Spaghetti dinner

Typically, this meal is heavy on the carbohydrates: pasta, garlic bread and croutons for the salad. The beef hamburger can be high in saturated fat, and the dressing can really pack on the calories quickly. Here is what I do to make this meal healthier.

I replace the white pasta with whole grain pasta. (Hint: Don’t overcook the pasta. By using whole wheat pasta and keeping it more al dente, it will slow the body’s digestion and slow the release of glucose into the system.) If whole grains are a stretch for your family, consider mixing whole grain pasta with the traditional white pasta, and ease them into it.

If you are ready to take it a step further and bump up the vegetable level of this meal, replace the whole grain noodles with zucchini squash noodles. I make my own from zucchini I have harvested from the garden, but you can buy frozen squash noodles in the freezer section, too. I like to prepare both whole grain noodles and zucchini squash noodles and let people take their pick. Sometimes, I mix them so my family or guests still get a nice serving of carbohydrates from the whole grain noodles along with a healthy serving of veggie pasta noodles. You can also try spaghetti squash for the noodles. 

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For the sauce, I use the family’s favorite spices and tomato sauce, ensuring that the overall flavor of the spaghetti remains nearly the same. I begin with the usual onion and garlic sautéed in a little bit of olive oil. Next, rather than using ground beef, I up my game, entirely replacing the ground beef with a large 16-ounce container of whole white mushrooms that are roughly chopped. (The first time I made this, it looked like I was using a mountain of mushrooms, and I was unsure if the amount was excessive. But the mushrooms cooked down when I added them to the chopped onion and garlic.) I then pour the sauce and spices over the sautéed vegetables. Yum! You can also try using ground turkey or cutting back on the ground meat by half while also using half the amount of mushrooms I suggest. 

To greenlight the garlic bread, I purchase a whole wheat Italian loaf. I replace the butter with an omega-3 rich spreadable butter and spread it lightly on each slice. I sprinkle the bread with garlic and onion powder and carefully toast it in the oven. You can also opt for an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip with a sourdough loaf or whole grain option. Go easy on the oil if you are watching your calories.

For the salad, I like to pile it high with a variety of veggies. Your typical Caesar salad has greens, parmesan cheese and croutons – very simple. I add whatever vegetables are in the fridge, but typically this includes broccoli, celery, cucumbers and carrots. If I am up for it, I will make my own dressing with an olive oil base or just purchase the traditional dressing and use less. 

Enjoy the taste of healthy eating!

Pizza Friday

I finally said, “OK, we can have pizza Fridays!” At first, I used a frozen cheese pizza and cringed a bit that it was not whole grain (sigh). I added processed meat and pepperoni on half for the pepperoni lovers (another sigh). I tried piling high the supreme veggies and baking it in the oven, but that led to soggy pizza. Yuck! With a little experimentation, I was able to change the not-so-healthy pizza into a green light pizza. 

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First, I make a whole grain pizza crust following a recipe that uses whole wheat flour, baking soda and low-fat Greek yogurt. I prepare the crust, top it with a traditional pizza sauce and a modest amount of mozzarella cheese, and bake it on a pizza stone. To satisfy the nutritionist in me, I sauté all those lovely supreme veggies – onion, chopped black olives, chopped red and green bell peppers and a little green onion – on the stovetop to remove the excess moisture. I make sure there is enough that I can have 1-2 cups of veggies after they have cooked down. I simply spoon them on top of the pizza when it comes out of the oven. 

Of course, I have to eat it with a fork and knife, but it is oh so good. If I have fresh basil, I run outside and snip off a small handful to sprinkle on top for a little extra flavor. Voila, green light pizza night! 

If you don’t want to make your own crust, there are lots of various options available for purchase, from cauliflower crust to chickpea crusts or even ready-made whole wheat crust. And if a pile of sautéed veggies is not your thing, try a great salad with your favorite veggies and fill half your plate with it. You can have a healthy pizza night and enjoy this traditional family meal with everyone gathered together. 

I hope this sparks some ideas to greenlight some of your own household favorites.

Written by ANNELIES NEWMAN, RDN, CD. Newman received her bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University with a major in nutrition and dietetics and a minor in music. She is a speaker and presenter on nutrition-related topics.

Currently, she owns a private practice guiding individuals to make changes for better health and wellness. On the side, she enjoys adventuring with her husband and three little boys outdoors. She believes that real food is good for the body and should be enjoyed!

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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