Nutrition and Fitness with Randa

Healthy “Brown Bag” Lunches

I realize it has been too long since I last posted - life seems to have gotten a little hectic! But here is a post that is helpful for both kids and adults when making lunches for school or work. My own son complains that I give him the same snacks all the time so I know we could all use a little help thinking outside the box when our thinking capacities are stunted!

It's back to school time again, so when planning meals and snacks, teach young children about making healthy choices by explaining how "grow-and-go" foods will help them feel good and have fun at school. Grow-and-go foods are foods high in complex carbohydrates, good sources of protein, include vitamins and minerals and a moderate amount of fat.

Here are some quick and easy ideas, some of them courtesy of the Defense Commissary Agency for lunch and snacks that are grow-and-go foods:

  • B-n-B wrap (Banana and nut butter wrap). Mash a banana and mix with any nut butter. Here is an opportunity to try a different butter - like almond butter, which is high in vitamin E and protein. If your child prefers, sprinkle with dried fruit or coconut for a different flavor. Spread it on a whole-wheat wrap or flat bread, roll it up, cut it up and bag it.
  • Turkey, ham or chicken with hummus or Greek yogurt wrap. Spread some plain hummus or Greek yogurt on a wrap, add meat slices, any cheese (optional), lettuce or spinach and cucumber slices. Roll it up and bag it. Hummus or Greek yogurt adds a unique flavor, so if your children do not like it, use mustard or a little mayonnaise.
  • M-n-C roll up (Meat and cheese roll ups). Take any thinly sliced luncheon meat and your children's favorite cheese, sweet peppers and thin cucumber slices. Roll it up and bag it.
  • Pita pocket with curry chicken salad. Take chopped chicken and mix it with a little curry, Greek yogurt, chopped celery and chopped carrots. Put it in a whole wheat pita pocket with spinach or romaine lettuce.
  • Flat bread or bagel pizza. Toast a flat bread or 1/2 whole or sprouted wheat bagel and make a pizza with a little spaghetti sauce, shredded cheese and your choice of vegetables such as spinach, tomato slices, squash or broccoli.
  • Stuffed Bagels. Stuff with cottage cheese and berries or stuff with omelet pieces and sprinkled cheese.
  • Baby carrots, cucumbers chunks, grape tomatoes, hummus, whole-grain crackers and pita chips. Put some hummus in a small container to use as a dip. Bag the carrots, cucumber chunks and grape tomatoes. Also pack some whole grain crackers or pita chips for energy-packed carbohydrates.
  • Vegetable Roll Up. On lavosh or whole wheat tortillas, spread roasted red pepper sauce or pesto, add vegetable sticks and roll. Or, spread with bean dip, sprinkle with jack cheese and grated carrots and zucchini, and roll.
  • Also try lettuce leaf wraps. Stuff lettuce leaves with egg salad or canned chicken and olive spread, then roll. Or stuff with hummus and vegetable shavings and roll.
  • Whole what pita stuffed with ricotta cheese, goat cheese and herbs. This is for kids who like a little variety with their cheeses!
  • Tortilla chips, plain yogurt and salsa. Cut up tortillas in quarters, sprinkle a little salt on them and heat them in the microwave for a minute or two. Mix the yogurt, for protein and calcium, with salsa or just put plain salsa in a small container for a dip.
  • Trail mix. Mix almonds, peanuts, dried fruit and whole-grain cereal for a nutrient dense, energy-packed food and bag it. This is a great "take it anywhere" kind of food.
  • Great snacks. Cheese sticks, nuts, yogurt tubes, dried fruit, fresh fruit and canned fruit (packed in water) all make great snacks and additions to lunches. Mix a handful of granola with dried apricots and cranberries and pumpkin seeds. (Try to avoid the pre-packaged snacks such as Lunchables, that contain more fat, salt and unnatural ingredients than a child needs, not to mention the excessive packaging made with petroleum derived plastic and dyed cardboard.)

I encourage you to keep trying certain foods that your kids may not care for - one day, they may just change their minds unannounced. My 5 year old was never crazy about tomatoes, and one day out of the blue, he ate an entire bowlful of sweet baby grape tomatoes and loves them now! Don't give up!

If you have some healthy brown bag lunch ideas, please comment. We would love to hear!

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Is Organic Better?

Is organic really superior to non-organic? Is organic better for my health?  Is it worth the additional cost? Or is just a "fad"? These are questions I hear often.

Though this post could be a novel, here are some interesting, basic facts about organic foods:

What are organic foods?

  • Technically, organic foods are grown without pesticides and are not processed with chemicals like antibiotics, preservatives or hormones.
  • Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.
  • They are also produced in a manner that reduces pollution and conserves water and soil.

Are organics better?

  • Organic foods have lower levels of pesticides than conventionally grown food - children and adults who eat them have lower levels in their bodies.
  • Critics say: "So what? Pesticides are safe. Nobody has ever died from eating the small amounts of pesticide residues on food." Ummm, if they are harmful to farm-workers and kill pests, can they be good for you? Why should the government bother to regulate them if they are completely harmless and benign?
  • Are fruits and vegetables better if they are organic? Probably, but not necessarily for nutritional reasons. Consider the words of Joan Gussow, former head of the nutrition department at Columbia University: "Isn't the most important story that organic production conserves natural resources, solves rather than creates environmental problems, and reduces the pollution of air, water, soil...and food?"

So what?

  • Wash those veggies before eating them, especially if they have been sitting on shelves in the produce section getting misted at regular intervals. In the teeth-gritting words of Marion Nestle: "It is best not to look too closely at the misting devices...some are covered with green algae or encrusted with mold." So wash up! Washing cannot remove all microbes, but it takes care of most of them.
  • Pesticide-free produce may not look as pretty, but if you want fewer pesticides in your body, buy organics.  (The cost or organic produce is definitely a factor for many, so if you are considering organic and when to spend your money on it - check out the Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen list below)

What’s the Difference?
EWG research has found that people who eat five fruits and
vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen™ list consume an average of
10 pesticides a day. Those who eat from the 15 least contaminated
conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables ingest fewer than 2
pesticides daily. The Guide helps consumers make informed choices
to lower their dietary pesticide load.
Will Washing and Peeling Help?
The data used to create these lists is based on produce tested as
it is typically eaten (meaning washed, rinsed or peeled, depending
on the type of produce). Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate
pesticides. Peeling helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the
drain with the skin.

The best approach: eat a varied diet, rinse all
produce and buy organic when possible.

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Cooking with Zucchini Lebanese-Style

It is the season for summer squash! While this dish is also great in the winter, it uses that extra zucchini in your garden very nicely!

One of our favorite Lebanese dishes is called Koussa. It is a tomato-based meat and zucchini stew served over Arabic rice*. My mother, cooked this satisfying, delicious meal for us growing up and I now cook it for my kids.

There were four of us siblings aged within 4 years of each other, so my mother wisely altered the original recipe to one that was easier to make and took a lot less time. This is the version I am sharing with you....... (You're welcome!)

It is an easy weeknight meal, and I have also served Koussa to guests on many occasions with a side of toasted pita bread, hummus, and cucumber mint yogurt**. Once again, it is a meal that takes few ingredients to make and not much time.

Let's get started!


  • 4 medium zucchini, cut in 4 lengthwise and chopped
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1 lb. ground beef (I have used turkey, but preferred lean beef for a more authentic flavor)
  • 1 medium or large onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp all spice
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 18. oz. V8 juice (if you use low-sodium, add a little more salt at the end to taste)
  • 1/2 -1 cup toasted pine nuts (if you are a member at Costco, if is much cheaper to buy in bulk)

1. In a large pan, sautée zucchini in 1tbsp butter on medium heat with the lid on until zucchini is tender but not overcooked.

2. While zucchini cooks, season with spices and saute the meat and onions in 1Tbsp butter for 10-15 minutes until onions are tender and meat is browned.

3. When meat mixture is done, add in zucchini, V8 juice, and pine nuts. Bring to a boil, then simmer with lid on for 20-30 minutes.

4. Serve over Arabic rice and a dollop of laban, or plain, non-fat yogurt on top,  or a side of cucumber mint yogurt.

ARABIC RICE: Rice with Vermicelli (ruz bi shirieh)

  • 1 cup uncooked rice*
  • 2/3 cup vermicelli broken into small pieces
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 tsp salt

1. Melt the butter on high heat and toss the vermicelli until golden brown (be careful not to scorch!)

2. Add the rice and stir until it is well mixed with the vermicelli. Pour in the water and add the salt.

3. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until rice is done.

*White rice is typically used in Lebanon, and while not as authentic,  you can certainly use brown. My friend made this recipe with brown rice to try and "convert" her 5 year old from eating white, and he loved it. He now asks for "Randa's Rice"!

CUCUMBER MINT YOGURT: A refreshing addition to any meal or snack

  • 3 cups plain yogurt (I use non-fat)
  • 1 cucumber, chopped into small pieces
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed, or 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp dried mint leaves

1. Stir yogurt until smooth. If using Greek Yogurt, add a little water to thin it. Blend in the garlic or garlic powder.

2. Add cucumber.

3. Season with salt and dried mint leaves and mix well.

4. Serve chilled sprinkled with fresh (or dried) mint leaves.

Enjoy! Sahtan!

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