The Realistic Dietitian #2

Comfort-Food for the Soul (and Waistline)

Welcome back! Another week, another menu. This week I made sweet and sour chicken/tofu with rice noodles, roasted butternut squash salad with a delicious (if I don’t say so myself) creamy honey-maple dressing, Pasta e Fagoili soup, and orzotto (i.e., what you would get if orzo and risotto had a baby). I was sick this week, so all of the recipes are pretty comfort-foody. Healthy comfort food? Yes, please! I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as we did!

Sweet and Sour Chicken/Tofu with Rice Noodles

IMG_0635Takeout? Nah! Make a delicious sweet-and-sour sauce at home and save a ton of sodium. No MSG here. The average sweet-and-sour chicken at your favorite Chinese restaurant contains around 1,700mg sodium. To put that into perspective, an average, healthy adult should consume less than 2,000mg of sodium per day (1,500 mg if you are on a heart-healthy, low-sodium diet). This meal is easy to make at home and contains only 650mg of sodium. That’s a bit high for my meals (I try to stay under 500mg per meal), but considering the alternative, I think it’s pretty darn good.

Serves: 4

Time: 30 minutes

Cost: Approximately $3.50 per serving


1 14-oz package extra-firm tofu, drained; OR 4 skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
3/4 cup water, divided
1/3 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbsp sugar
4 garlic cloves, minced and divided
3 1/2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp finely chopped hot red chile (e.g., red jalapeño or Thai Chile), with seeds
1 Tbsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp canola oil, divided
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
1 bunch broccoli, cut into florets and stems cut into ½ inch pieces
2 cups cooked brown rice noodles (you can also use another noodle like soba, or brown rice)


  1. Place tofu on a plate. Place a paper towel on top and weigh it down with a pan or plate; let stand 20 minutes. Discard liquid and cut tofu into bite-sized chunks. It’ really important to press the tofu; if you don’t, it will be squishy and soft, and will not sauté as nicely.
  2. Boil large pot of water.
  3. Combine 1/2 cup water, vinegar, and sugar in a small pan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir 2 cloves of garlic into the sugar mixture. Stir in soy sauce, ketchup, and chile. Cook mixture over medium heat until boiling. Reduce to simmer and stir in cornstarch, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Let simmer until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Add rice noodles to pot of water. Turn off heat and let sit 8-10 minutes.
  5. Heat a large cast-iron skillet or wok over high heat. Add 1 Tbsp oil; swirl to coat. Season chicken/tofu with garlic powder and crushed red pepper. Add tofu/chicken in an even layer; cook, without stirring, 2 minutes. Turn tofu; cook 2 minutes. (The chicken will need to cook 4-6 minutes on each side.)
  6. Remove chicken/tofu from pan. Keep warm.
  7. Add 1 Tsp oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add bell pepper; stir-fry 2 minutes. Add remaining garlic; stir-fry 10-20 seconds. Remove to the plate of tofu/chicken. Add remaining 2 Tsp oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add carrots; stir-fry 1 minute. Add broccoli; stir-fry 3 minutes. Add remaining ¼ cup water; cook 3 minutes or until water evaporates. Return tofu/chicken mixture to pan. Add sauce mixture; stir to coat. Divide rice noodles among 4 plates. Divide tofu mixture evenly over the noodles and enjoy!

Nutrition Facts (made with tofu): 408 calories, 8g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 650mg sodium, 70g carbs, 6.1g fiber, 14g protein, 5g sugar

Nutrition Facts (made with chicken): 440 calories, 7g fat, 65mg cholesterol, 700mg sodium, 68g carbs, 6g fiber, 28g protein, 5g sugar

*Adapted from Cooking Light

Roasted Butternut Squash, Walnut, and Cranberry Salad, with Bacon (or chickpeas) and Creamy Honey-Maple Vinaigrette

IMG_0626Servings: 4 entrée salads

Time: 30 minutes

Cost: Approximately $4 per serving

Personalize this salad by using whatever toppings and cheese you like!

As I did last week, I used plain, fat-free Greek yogurt to make the dressing creamy—and delicious—without all of the fat, sugar, sodium, and calories that come in packaged salad dressings. Plus, making your own dressings saves money. Win-win!


2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes (you can buy pre-cut squash to save time)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
2-3 slices turkey bacon (or 1 cup chickpeas if you’re a vegetarian like me)
10oz mixed greens
1/2 cup dried cranberries (no sugar added) or pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans
2oz goat cheese, crumbled

Creamy Honey-Maple dressing:

1/4 cup fat-free, plain Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick spray.
  2. Place butternut squash on baking sheet and drizzle with 1 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and ground black pepper. Toss and spread into a single layer and roast for 25-30 minutes (tossing squash halfway through).
  3. While the squash is roasting, cook the turkey bacon according to its package instructions, and crumble. (If you’re using canned chickpeas, just drain and rinse; you don’t have to cook them.)
  4. To make the dressing, just combine all the ingredients in a blender or food-processor (or mix with a whisk).
  5. Add mixed greens to a large bowl, top with crumbled bacon, cranberries, and walnuts. Add the warm butternut squash, crumbled goat cheese and dressing.

Nutrition facts (for the salad with bacon and dressing): 350 calories, 18g fat, 17mg cholesterol, 413 mg sodium, 43g carbs, 4.5 g fiber, 10g protein, 29g sugar

Side Note:

chockpeaTime for me to nerd out on the chickpea, a nutritious powerhouse for vegetarians and non-veggies alike! Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are inexpensive, versatile legumes. These little guys contain around 7 grams of protein per half-cup, making them a good source of protein for vegetarians. And if you combine chickpeas with a whole grain, like brown rice, you form a complete protein (a protein source that contains all 9 essential amino acids) comparable to meat or dairy, but without the saturated fat. A half cup of chickpeas also provides about 50% of the recommended daily folate and magnesium requirements (important for heart health), around 15% of daily iron, and 25% of recommended daily fiber intake. Fiber is great for the digestive track, can help lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, and promotes weight loss because it helps you feel full longer. Add these little guys to salads, throw ‘em in a soup or stew, mash them into veggie burgers, or roast them with a little olive oil for a heart-healthy snack! 

Pasta e Fagioli

Thank you to my sister, Renee Kovalik, for this recipe! She is a fantastic photographer so I recommend checking her out!

soupServings: 4

Time: 20 minutes


3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 stalks celery heat, chopped
2 stems fresh rosemary, left whole
Several sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves stripped from stem (about 2-3 Tbsp)
Coarse black pepper, to taste
45oz low-sodium veggie or chicken broth
1 can cannellini beans
1 cup ditalini noodles
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to serve


  1. Heat olive oil over in Dutch Oven or large pot. Add the garlic; cook for 1 minute.
  2. Add carrot, onion and celery, rosemary stems, thyme and black pepper. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add broth and bring to boil.
  4. Add beans and noodles.
  5. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for 10 minutes until noodles are soft.

It’s a simple recipe, but the result is fantastic, especially this time of year. And obviously I’m going to suggest that you serve this with some fresh Italian bread. Add around 100 calories per one-inch slice of bread.

Nutrition facts: 318 calories, 8g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 320mg sodium, 63g carbs, 13g fiber, 14gprotein, 9g sugar

Asparagus and Lemon Orzotto


Serves: 4

Time: 35-45 min

Cost: Approximately $2.00 per serving


3 1/2 low sodium vegetable stock
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (or my favorite butter substitute, Smart Balance Light)
2 Tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups uncooked orzo pasta
1 1/2 Tsp grated lemon rind
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 Tsp black pepper
1 lb. green asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated and divided
1 Tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley


  1. Bring stock to a simmer in a saucepan (do not boil). Keep warm.
  2. Heat a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add butter and oil; swirl to coat. Add shallots and onion and cook 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and cook for an additional minute. Add orzo; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in rind, juice, and pepper.
  3. Add ½ cup stock to pasta mixture; cook 2 ½ minutes or until liquid is nearly absorbed, stirring frequently. Keep doing this, ½ cup at a time, until all of the stock is gone. This will take about 15 minutes. It is very important to keep stirring that whole time; do not let the pasta sit. This makes it nice and creamy, and also serves as an arm workout. And you’ll get the best results if you drink a glass of wine during the stirring process—it’s science. Reserve 1 cup of the stock.
  4. Stir in the remaining 1 cup of stock and asparagus. Cook 7 minutes or until asparagus is tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in half of cheese. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and parsley. Serve immediately.

This meal is great with some Italian sausage crumbled on top (I’m told). You can also choose a different green veggie if asparagus isn’t you’re thing—sugar snap peas or spinach work just fine. Just start with the broth, oil, garlic and onion base and go from there. You really can’t go wrong. If you’re cooking for a large group, this is a great choice.

Nutrition Info: 318 calories, 8.5g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 167mg sodium, 42g carbs, 3g fiber, 18g protein, 6g sugar

*Adapted from My Recipes

Thanks again for reading! Please feel free to leave comments with questions or recipe requests for next week! Last week I was asked for a meal with a non-tofu, vegetarian protein. I’m thinking of some good options, and will make sure to include one next week. I’m thinking of a bean/lentil/veggie patty, or a bean-focused meal. Stay tuned!

The Growing Season: Merritt Learns to Garden- Part 1

This is the latest installment of The Growing Season. For the other installments please click here.

Today I have at least brought shoes downstairs in the event that she appears, and I slip on my fuzzy snow-proof boots—leftovers from many New York winters. I approach her as she surveys the garden, looking around and appearing lost in thought. She seems to always be taking stock of this tiny space. I wonder what she can see here.

“Hi,” I call out, breaking her out of her reverie.

“Hi, Merritt,” she responds. “How are things?”

Suddenly I’m at a loss for words. I’m still not completely trusting this experience, or my sanity in having it, and besides that, how do you answer that question when it comes from something not entirely human? All the activities of the past twenty-four hours seem too commonplace to mention as I behold her glow. So I decide to deal as I always do when faced with intimidating scenarios: make jokes.

“Oh, you know, pretty good,” I tell her. “Just growing a baby, facing unemployment, and hallucinating fairies.” Continue reading

The Realistic Dietitian #1

Welcome to The Realistic Dietitian—a column focused on healthy, delicious, budget-friendly and nutritionally balanced meals. I am a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) and nutritionist, with a Master’s in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition. I consider myself a “realistic dietitian” because although I love home cooking and “health” foods, I also love foods like pizza and desserts, and recognize that not everything can be homemade all the time. My goal for this column is to answer common nutrition questions and concerns and provide healthy weekly menu and recipe ideas. I am not a chef—just a nutritionist who loves to cook! I modify almost every meal I make to lower calorie content, fat, sodium, etc. In my recipes, I’ll explain what I changed and why. I should also note that I am a vegetarian, so you’ll see a lot of veggie meals—but I also cook meat for my husband, so I’ve got something to offer meat-lovers as well. I promise to only present meals that I make for my family!

I feel like people are constantly asking me what the “secret” is to healthy eating and nutrition. Hint: it isn’t the latest fad diet. I think one of the best things you can do for you and yours is to plan meals ahead of time so you know what you’re making every night. Every Sunday (or the best day for you), take some time and make a meal plan for the week. Pick recipes, write a grocery list, and go shopping. Not only does this save money (because you only buy what you need), but it also helps prevents those nights where you can’t figure out what to eat and just end up ordering take-out as a default. With this advice in mind, each week I’ll be setting out four recipes that could all be made over seven days, along with info on nutrition and costs.

This week, I made a roasted sweet potato, corn and black bean salad with creamy avocado dressing; roasted veggies with honey balsamic chicken/tofu; roasted veggie soup; and creamy leek and lemon pasta with roasted Brussels sprouts. So here we go! Continue reading

Photo Phriday: Renewal

Summer is my favorite time of year. The long hours of daylight, a hot sun beckoning a day at the beach, barbecues, outdoor patio parties, and languid afternoons at the pool all make me dread the coming of Winter. I can barely enjoy the Fall, its decaying foliage a prelude to the gray freezing blanket that hovers over us from December until late March.

20150201_But over the past few years, I’ve tried to make my peace with Winter, accepting that it is entirely my choice to live in a place that endures four seasons. In previous years, I contemplated Winter as a time to rest, not an easy feat for an energetic extrovert.


Continue reading