The Realistic Dietitian #3: Getting Spicy!

The Realistic Dietitian #3: Getting Spicy!

Welcome back, readers! This week I added some non-soy based protein to my vegetarian meals, made a yummy salad and stuffed some things. See the recipes below for curried-lentil-stuffed acorn squash, black-bean-stuffed sweet potatoes, Island Pork Tenderloin salad, and honey-lime fajita chicken/bean/tofu rice bowls.

Before I get to the recipes, I should point out that a lot of my cost calculations do not include the spices because I have most of these on hand. Adding spices to foods helps decrease the need for added salt, without sacrificing flavor. Americans eat WAY more sodium than we should each day. The average American consumes around 3,400mg per day, more than twice the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 1,500mg. An excess of salt in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, which is frequently called the “silent killer” because it has few signs or symptoms but can lead to heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. I often hear people say “but I don’t add salt to my food.” That’s great, but approximately 75% of the sodium we eat comes from processed foods. Eating fewer processed foods, and cooking more meals at home can help to drastically reduce your sodium intake. Keep reading my column (shameless plug) and I’ll show you healthier ways to add flavor to your meals!

So in general, it’s a good idea to stock up on some essential spices. Here are some spices that I recommend always having on hand: dried basil, cayenne pepper, chili powder, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, garlic powder, ground ginger, oregano, crushed red pepper, rosemary, thyme and kosher salt. If you don’t have a lot of these, you can purchase great starter spice racks for around $20-$30. It works out to be a lot cheaper than purchasing them individually at the grocery store. And don’t forget about extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, white-wine vinegar, and honey (from bees, of course).

Now to the food!

Curried Lentil Stuffed Acorn Squash

IMG_0753Serves: 4
Total Time: 1 hr 15 min
Active time: ½ hr
Cost: $3 per serving

I have had this recipe cut out for over a year and finally decided to make it! When a reader requested that I make a vegetarian dish without tofu or soy protein, I realized this dish would be perfect. And it was worth the wait! It definitely is a bit more time-consuming, so I would call this more of a weekend meal. But it’s only about a half-hour of active time, so if you roast the squash (and maybe even make the filling) ahead of time, it could work on a weekday. I served this with steamed green beans (with garlic powder, lemon juice and black pepper)


2 small acorn squash
1 Tbsp butter (or Smart Balance Light), melted
2 tsp honey
1 tsp Garam Masala spice (Note: This can be expensive. If you don’t have it, combine 1/4 tsp ginger, 1/8 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 1/4 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp ground coriander, 1/8 tsp nutmeg, 1/8 tsp cloves. BUT if you like Indian food and make it a lot, garam masala is worth the investment!)
1/4 tsp Kosher Salt
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup lentils
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 large leek, chopped (white and light green parts only)
2 carrots, finely diced
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
2 jalapenos, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup jarred roasted red peppers, sliced
1 tsp ground pepper, or to taste
1/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp curry powder (optional)

To prepare the squash:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Halve the squash through the stem end and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash, cut-side up, on a rimmed baking sheet. To keep it laying flat, and so it doesn’t wiggle, cut a small slice off of the bottom to create a sturdy base. Combine the melted butter, honey, Garam Masala, and 1/4 tsp salt in a small bowl; brush all over the cut sides of the squash.
  3. Bake the squash for 10 minutes. Brush again to redistribute the butter. Continue to bake until the squash is tender, 30 to 35 minutes more. When done, turn off the oven, cover the squash with foil, and keep it in the warm oven until the filling is ready.

To prepare the filling:

  1. Bring the water and lentils to a boil in a medium saucepan. Lightly boil for 7-8 minutes. Drain, saving the lentil-cooking liquid; set the lentils and liquid aside.
  2. Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil and cumin and cook, stirring until fragrant (around 1 minute). Stir in leeks, carrots, shallots, and ginger. Cover and cook on low-medium, stirring occasionally, until the carrots begin to soften (about 5 minutes). Stir in jalapeños, coriander and turmeric and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Stir in tomatoes and 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid (if there isn’t enough, make up the difference with water). Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, then cook for 5 minutes. Stir in lentils and simmer until they are soft and tender but not falling apart (3 to 5 minutes). If the mixture seems dry, add more cooking liquid (or water). Stir in roasted peppers. Season with the remaining 1 tsp pepper. Divide the lentil stuffing among the squash (1 cup per half). Combine curry powder with yogurt, and add a dollop to the squash.

Yum, lentils! Maybe not an expression you hear a lot, but they are delicious, nutritious, and very filling. Even my omnivorous husband thinks so! I geeked out on chickpeas last week, so this week it’s the lentil’s turn. Here’s what’s great about lentils: They’re really cheap (around $1.50 for a large bag), and can be used to make a hearty stew, veggie burgers, or delicious Indian meals. They’re very easy to cook and don’t require lengthy soaking times like other beans. Lentils have a nice nutty flavor and give vegetarian dishes a more “meaty” texture. They’re also extremely filling, thanks to their high fiber content (not to mention potassium, calcium, zinc, niacin and vitamin K). One cup contains around 16g of fiber, which is about 60% of your daily needs. Lentils, and other legumes, are also a great source of protein, with about 18g per cup. And of course, you may recall from grade school that lentils, like all beans, are a “magic fruit.” Just make sure to enjoy some extra water and you’ll be fine on that front J

Nutrition Facts (1/2 squash with 1 cup filling): 355 Calories, 9g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 226mg sodium, 57g carbs, 18g fiber, 15g protein, 9g sugar

*Adapted from Eating Well

Honey-Lime Chicken, Beans and Veggie Fajita Bowls with Chipotle Cream

IMG_0700Serves: 4
Prep Time: 2 hours 15 minutes (marinating time)
Active Time: 30 minutes
Cost: With chicken, about $3-$4 per serving; with tofu or just beans, about $2-$3 per serving

This meal looks like it has a lot of ingredients and takes a lot of time, but I promise it doesn’t (especially if you keep some standard spices on hand and do some prep work ahead of time). I recommend making the marinade and chopping the veggies the night before. Then you can have dinner ready in about ½ when you get home from work.


Chicken Marinate:

12 chicken-breast tenders/ OR 1 block tofu
3 Tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 Tbsp honey
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp white vinegar
2 tsp reduced sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
3/4 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper


Fajita Veggies:

1/2 of marinade mixture
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 red onion, cut into strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 green bell pepper, cut into strips
3/4 cup frozen corn or 1 ear of corn


Lime Rice with Black Beans (remember, beans and rice make a complete protein!)

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 cups brown minute rice
3 cups water
1 can (15oz) low-sodium black beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 Tbsp lime juice
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped, if desired

Chipotle Lime Cream Sauce

3/4 cup fat free Greek yogurt
1 1/2 Tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sauce from a can of chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
1 tsp honey
1/2 tsp cumin
Top with cheese, salsa or guacamole as desired


  1. For the marinade: If using tofu, cut block into 4 equal pieces, lengthwise. Place between two sheets of paper towels and put a plate on top. (This will “press” the tofu and remove extra moisture.) Let sit for about 15 minutes. Place chicken/tofu in a large Ziploc bag. Mix the marinade ingredients together, and pour HALF of the marinade mixture into the Ziploc bag with the chicken/tofu.
  2. Add chopped vegetables to a large Ziploc bag or Tupperware.
  3. Take the remaining half of the marinade, whisk in 2 Tbsp honey, and pour the marinade into the bag with the vegetables. If you have time, let the veggies marinate for 2 hours. (If you don’t have time, everything will still be delicious—just not as moist and soaked through).
  4. For the rice and beans: Heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cumin; stir for 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the rice and sauté for a few more minutes to toast. Stir in black beans and water; bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low, simmer, covered according to package directions. Remove from heat and add lime juice and cilantro, if desired.
  5. For chipotle lime cream: While the rice cooks, mix together the Greek yogurt, lime juice, cumin, honey, and adobo sauce. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  6. Chicken/Tofu: Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken/tofu and discard the marinade. Cook for 3 minutes, flip, and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until cooked through.
  7. While chicken/tofu finishes cooking, add 1 Tbsp olive oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add the marinated veggies to the hot skillet and sauté, stirring occasionally, 4-5 minutes.
  8. Put it all together, any top with chipotle lime cream and any other desired topping.


Nutrition facts

With Chicken: 470 calories, 13g fat, 66mg cholesterol, 467mg sodium, 60g carbs, 8g fiber, 34g protein, 20g sugar

With tofu: 440 calories, 14g fat, 1mg cholesterol, 382mg sodium, 62g carbs, 8g fiber, 20g protein, 20g sugar

Just veggies, rice and beans: 364 calories, 10g fat, 1mg cholesterol, 348mg sodium, 60g carbs, 8g fiber, 11g protein, 20g sugar


Adapted from Tastes Better from Scratch


Black Bean (and Sausage) Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Avocado Cream

IMG_0726Serves: 4
Time: 20 minutes
Cost: About $2-$3 per serving


Incredibly fast meal! I was rushing and short on time when I made this. I think we made and ate this dish within 30 minutes. Plus, I already had a lot of ingredients from the honey-lime fajita bowls, so it was very cheap. And of course, it’s also healthy! I served this with green beans.



1 medium sweet potato
2 chicken breasts or sausage links (if you’re into that)
1 cup frozen corn (thawed)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup fresh salsa, such as Pico de Gallo
1/2 cup 2% shredded Mexican Cheese Blend


Avocado Cream
1 medium ripe avocado, peeled and seeded
1/4 cup fat free, plain Greek Yogurt
2 Tsbp lime juice (from about 1 lime)
1/4 tsp cumin
Splash of milk or almond milk, if necessary
cilantro, optional for garnish


  1. Bake the potato, or microwave it if you’re short on time (that’s what I did). If baking, go for about 45 minutes (or until soft) at 375F. If microwaving, pierce the potato with a fork a few times before cooking it on high power for about 7 minutes (medium size) to 10 minutes (large). You can cook up to 2 potatoes in the microwave at one time; for 2 potatoes, just increase the time to 10-13 minutes.
  2. After baking (or while the potato is microwaving), preheat the oven to broiler setting.
  3. If you are serving with sausage, crumble the sausage and sauté in olive or canola oil for 5-6 minutes.
  4. Mix together the corn, black beans and Pico de Gallo. I suggested portions, but you really can use whatever proportions you like!
  5. Make the avocado cream by adding all of the cream ingredients into a food processor, blender or just a bowl. If it’s too thick and not very smooth, add a splash of milk.
  6. When the potato is ready, slice it in half lengthwise and hollow out a center column of each half with a spoon. I dont remove any of the skins and keep some potato in the middle. You’re just making room for the filling. Place on a non-stick baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  7. Evenly divide the corn and bean salsa between each potato half, and top each half with about 2 Tbsp cheese, and sausage if you’re using it.
  8. Broil for about 1-2 minutes, or just until the cheese bubbles and begins to melt. I think closer to one minute is best; any longer risks burning.
  9. Garnish with avocado cream, and optional cilantro.

Adapted from Averie Cooks

Nutrition Facts

Potato with filling and cheese, without sausage: 288 calories, 9g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 385mg, 45g carbs, 7g fiber, 9g protein, 7g sugar
Potato with filling and cheese, with sausage: 358 calories, 13g fat, 25mg cholesterol, 600mg, 45g carbs, 16g protein, 7g sugar



P90x Island Pork Tenderloin Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

IMG_0740Serves: 4
Time: 20 minutes
Cost: $5 with pork (organic pork) or $3 with tofu

This salad came from the meal plan offered with the P90X workout program, and was our favorite dish. It’s also a great workout, of course. It was how I got in wedding shape! (The workout, not just the salad.) I adapted this a bit to fit my tastes and nutritional needs.



16oz pork tenderloin (or tofu for my veggies out there)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp chile powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 Tbsp hot sauce or Sriracha



8 cups mixed greens
2 oranges
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1/4 cup raisins
1 cup red cabbage
1/4 cup chopped almonds


Cumin Vinaigrette:

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp orange juice
1 Tbsp honey
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Stir together salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, and cinnamon. Coat the pork/tofu with spice rub.
  3. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet: medium-to-high for pork; medium-to-low for tofu. (You can also use a regular skillet. If you go that route, you will transfer the pork/tofu into a roasting pan after browning.)
  4. Cook pork/tofu for 4 minutes, each side.
  5. Stir together brown sugar, garlic, and hot sauce. Pat onto top of tenderloin/tofu. Place cast-iron skillet in oven and cook for 20 minutes.
  6. While the pork/tofu cooks, make the salad and divide it up between your plates.
  7. Make the dressing by adding all the ingredients into a bowl or jar.
  8. Put everything together and enjoy!


Nutrition facts

Salad with pork: 400 calories, 12g fat, 75mg cholesterol, 430 mg sodium, 47g carbs, 4g fiber, 34g protein, 25g sugar
Salad with tofu: 319 calories, 13g fat, 1mg cholesterol, 390mg sodium, 49g carbs, 4g fiber, 14g protein, 25g sugar

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