Back to School Basics for a Healthy Diet

Millions of Missouri & Illinois children headed back to the classroom this month, and, for many, this will be their first experience with cafeteria meals. Some studies have confirmed a connection between what our children eat and how they perform in the classroom. Students who eat a well-balanced breakfast, for instance, pay closer attention and perform better on standardized tests. By consuming the right amount of nutrients, children improve their mental power as well as their chances for a healthy body now and in the future.


Parents may be confused about how to shop when trying to improve their family’s diet. Healthy eating is not about counting calories, but rather making calories count. Eating a combination of nutrient-rich foods helps to satisfy your body, helps you feel full longer, and provides your body with important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.


Here are some shopping tips to help you prepare nutritious meals for your family:


  • Colorful produce = lots of nutrition
  • To save money, purchase produce which is ‘in season’.
  • If you can’t find fresh, choose frozen… it’s just as nutritious!


  • Stock up on lean protein items when prices are good. Look for coupons and in-store specials.
  • Look for family-sized value packs of lean meats that can be used for more than one meal by freezing some for later use.


  • Choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products for a great source of calcium, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium.
  • Stock up on  milk, regular and Greek yogurt, and low-fat cheese.
  • Choose family-sized items for cost savings such as plain yogurt by the pint instead of single serve. For a protein ‘bump’ use plain Greek yogurt as an alternative to sour cream or mix it with chopped fruit for a yummy snack.


  • Select whole grains as a good source of fiber, folate and energy.
  • Look for flavorful options such as 100% whole wheat or grain bread, multi-grain pastas, brown or wild rice.
  • Think ‘outside your box’ and experiment with some of the other grains such as spelt, quinoa, bulgar or barley

– Liz Erker, RD


Cholesterol: Get the Facts and Take Control

What is cholesterol and how does it impact my body? As a registered dietitian, those are two questions I’m commonly asked. Hopefully this post will help you better understand cholesterol and its effects.

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol. The waxy substance is also found naturally in animal foods, such as eggs, cheese and shellfish. We need it to help digest other foods and to make hormones and vitamin D, but too much of it can cause health concerns.

Approximately 17% of Americans have high cholesterol for a variety of reasons, most of which can be controlled. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can harden and stick to your artery walls, causing them to narrow and result in a condition known as atherosclerosis. Clots can then form, further blocking the narrow arteries, and causing a heart attack. Eating a healthy diet, mostly plant foods, is one way to reduce the buildup of this fatty substance in your artery walls. High cholesterol levels – above 200 mg/dL or higher – can lead to heart disease.

To avoid having elevated cholesterol, make the following lifestyle adjustments.

  • Eat a diet that is low in saturated and trans fats.
  • Reduce your sodium intake.
  • Eat only enough calories each day to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit your carbohydrate intake. Complex carbohydrates are best: whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise daily. Just 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise like biking, walking or swimming can help lower cholesterol.
  • If you smoke – QUIT!
  • Clean up your diet and prepare, cook and eat more of the foods that nature provides like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, peas and legumes. Eating a variety of these plant foods will ensure you receive plenty of nutrition, while still keeping your cholesterol intake to a minimum.

Take control and act now to lower your cholesterol and decrease your risk of heart disease!

–          Liz Erker, RD

How to Boost Vitamin D Intake

In the past 6 or 7 years, vitamin D has received quite a bit of attention due to the fact that many people have tested with low levels of the nutrient.  Numerous studies have reported on the benefits of adequate vitamin D intake. In fact, one study in The Archives of Internal Medicine found that those with sufficient amounts of the vitamin tend to live a longer, healthier life. Vitamin D has become a ‘super nutrient’  as it has shown it may lower mortality rates. It may also reduce one’s risk of cancer, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, as well as gum disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

It’s never too late to take in more vitamin D, even if you’ve tested low in the past. There are two ways for humans to get vitamin D: into the skin through sun exposure, and through diet.

Vitamin D through Sun Exposure

Of course being in the sun for extended periods of time without sunscreen is dangerous. However, it doesn’t take much sun exposure to get enough vitamin D into your body. All you have to do is expose your hands for 5-10 minutes, without sunscreen, two or three times a week and you will produce the maximum amount of the vitamin. Other than that exposure, you should wear sunscreen any time you are outdoors.


Vitamin D through Diet

Fatty fish provide the most vitamin D for your diet. Examples include 3 ounces of wild salmon, Atlantic Mackerel, sardines or shrimp (even though shrimp is not fatty, it has a decent dose of D). Other sources of vitamin D are Shiitake mushrooms, fortified milk (1% or skim), and egg yolks. Some cereals, cheese and yogurt are now fortified with vitamin D too.  If you are taking a Calcium supplement with vitamin D, make sure the D is in the form of D3, which is the most bioactive form.

The amount of Vitamin D you need each day depends upon your age. Average daily recommended amounts for adults 19-70 years is 600 IU. So make sure that you eat the foods fortified with Vitamin D, and the foods where it occurs naturally, as well as exposing your hands in the sun, unprotected for that short amount of time, & your levels should improve.

wild salmon

Lighten Up!

Spring has finally arrived, and so have the veggies!  Let’s stick with the theme of eating cleanly and lightening up those meals by incorporating fresh, vibrant vegetables into more of our meals.  A tasty trick to eating lighter this spring is to substitute hearty starches, such as pasta, with nutrient rich vegetables – and I am not talking about salads!  While salads can be wonderfully nutritious, let’s think “outside the box” and get creative with other, highly nutritious vegetables to create easy, one-dish meals that will leave you feeling light and completely satisfied!


A perfect example of a light, healthy meal is the following recipe from the July 2006 issue of Parade Magazine. I have modified it from the original recipe as I always add quite a bit of spinach for extra nutrients, as well as a beautiful bright green color. Once the dish is done, I serve it over a small spoonful of some whole grain, such as barley, couscous or brown rice.

5 large tomatoes
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp minced garlic
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp fresh pepper
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp (peeled & deveined), rinsed & patted dry
4 handfuls of fresh spinach
1/2 cup parsley
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup feta cheese

Preheat oven to 450. Place tomatoes in 9 x 13″ baking dish. Spoon oil & garlic over tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt & pepper. Place on top rack of oven & roast for 20 minutes. Remove baking dish from oven & stir in shrimp, spinach, parsley & lemon juice. Sprinkle with feta. Place back in oven for 10-15 minutes.

APPROXIMATE NUTRITION: calories 251, CHO 11g, fat 14g, protein 23 g, Na 479 mg

Some of my favorite vegetables I use in place of starches are zucchini, spaghetti squash, cabbage, eggplant, beets, and French beans. If you’re looking for new ways to use these ingredients, go to and to find many easy recipes for each of the items listed.  Whether they’re from the grocery store, the local farmer’s market or your own backyard, make a point to incorporate vegetables into your meals this spring!

– Liz Erker, RD

Spring Snacking

It has certainly been a long, terribly cold, winter which resulted in many of us putting our healthy habits on hold until the weather broke. But at long last, spring has arrived!

Let’s get back to our healthier ways, starting with choosing the right snacks. Many people think that snacking is a bad idea. I disagree. I think snacking is absolutely part of a healthy diet and can be a wonderful opportunity to fuel your body with plenty of nutrients. That’s as long as you keep with the theme of eating for health by avoiding empty calories and keeping portion size small.

In order to keep hunger at bay, it is important your snacks include a balance of protein and carbs with a ratio of 1:2. If you’re physically active you can increase the carbs.

Here are some of my favorite nutritious snacks.

  • 1 low fat string cheese with fresh fruit OR 6 Triscuits
  • 1 TBSP peanut butter with 1/2 banana (100% natural peanut butter), 1 apple OR 6 Triscuits
  • 1/2 nut butter & honey sandwich on 100% whole grain bread
  • 1/4 cup almonds or pistachios
  • a handful of veggies with 1-2 TBSP hummus
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1 hardboiled egg with 1/2 orange
  • 1/2 cup low fat cottage cheese with berries
  • 1/2 cup Edamame

What are some of your favorite healthy, balanced snacks?

–          Liz Erker, RD

Good, Clean Cooking: Not Another Chore

I enjoy everything about cooking: the smell, taste, and texture of the ingredients.  Plus I know the foods I choose to cook with actually benefit my overall health! I love to dig into my fridge, freezer, pantry and spice cabinet and get into the groove of creating a colorful, nutritious mini-feast. That being said, I don’t like to play in the kitchen every night. Many nights, time is an issue.

Here are some tips to help you create fast, nutrient-dense meals to get you through the week, without spending every night slicing and dicing.

1. Be Organized

On the weekend, make a double batch of hearty soup or lasagna and freeze half. Whole wheat noodles, and veggies such as tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms and diced peppers, will give the dish a nutritional ‘bump’. Defrost in the fridge on a day when you know you’ll need it. When you get home, heat and serve with some additional veggies!

2. Stay Stocked

If you’ve ever had a hectic day and are unsure what to cook, you may end up sacrificing nutrition and taste, for speed. The trick is to keep your pantry well-stocked with healthy, convenient foods you can throw together in a hurry.

–          Cans of beans for making soups, salads, tacos or quesadillas

–          Tomatoes, pesto or olives for a sauce in which to simmer frozen fish

–          Dried lentils: add water, veggies and curry spices and you’ll have a nice soup in 30-45 minutes

–          Canned wild salmon, tuna or smoked trout to mix with panko-style seasoned bread crumbs and an egg to prepare easy fish cakes

*If you purchase high quality prepared foods, you won’t feel guilty about a meal of sandwiches and canned soup every now and then!

3. Embrace Salads

Not every meal has to consist of an entree and several side dishes. A substantial salad makes a great, quick meal. Just chop some veggies, toss in cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, nuts and dried fruit with your favorite protein and your dinner’s ready!
Some great combos include canned or wild salmon, smoked trout or tuna plus soft mozzarella cubes, hard-boiled egg, grilled chicken, fried tofu chunks plus peanuts, or flank steak plus blue cheese crumbles.

4. Grow a Garden

Maintain a small patio-type garden. Try planting a few herbs, lettuce or tomato plants in containers and you’ll have produce so fresh and tasty that no additional preparation is necessary.

Sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh lettuce will compliment your grilled burger nicely. Fresh basil is a wonderful addition to any pasta dish!

–          Liz Erker, RD

The Versatility & Simplicity of Nutritious Foods

The “Taste of Eating Right” involves preparing simple and nutritious meals and snacks which contain wholesome ingredients that benefit your overall health.

There is no need to spend hours preparing nutritious and delicious foods. If you stick with the theme of Eating Simply, you will not only be eating for health, but you will be saving time in the kitchen and retraining your taste buds to yearn for the taste of good, clean eating.

I found this recipe for Soft + Chewy Sugar-Free Baked Granola Bars and have prepared these bars quite a few times, changing it a bit each time to fit the ingredients I have on hand. For instance, the last time I prepared it, I didn’t have pumpkin seeds, so I substituted pecans.

Bars Mixture Blog Size  Bars Blog Size

Enjoy your time in the kitchen surrounded by the bounty of healthy ingredients which benefit your body!

–          Liz Erker, RD

The Clean Eating Challenge: Are You In?

Well, it’s done! My first blog post is out there for all to see. Phew! I am thrilled with the responses I have received and excited to continue to share my passion for ‘eating for health’.

I realize that not only is eating for health a ‘health’ necessity, but it’s a wonderful way of fueling your body in order for it to operate in tip top shape. We need to take responsibility for our choices. And that will not happen until we stop and THINK about what in the world we put into our mouths!

With that being said, I challenge you to increase your awareness and really pay attention to what you’re eating. I challenge you to eat more of the foods that nature provides: fruits, veggies, nuts, seed, grains, beans, peas and legumes.  I challenge you to start tasting food as it was meant to be tasted.  That means you have to stop pouring on all the extras. You don’t need ridiculous amounts of salt, fat, sugar, sauce or gravy to enjoy the foods you’re eating.

Take my challenge and awaken your taste buds to clean eating! Are you in?

–         Liz Erker, RD LD MS

Let’s Start the Conversation and Keep it Simple

For the past 1 ½ years, I have not only been posting daily nutrition tips on Facebook, but also recording videos for Signature Medical Group’s website which cover a wide range of topics pertaining to overall health and nutrition. I am truly passionate about helping people realize the multiple health & economic benefits of cooking and eating for health.

Being a dietitian who receives great pleasure from cooking and creating nutritious meals, I hope to encourage those of you who share this interest/passion to exchange recipes, ideas and tips with each other.  What better time than March, National Nutrition Month, to start this ongoing conversation on ‘all things health’?

By making simple changes such as cooking at home, using fresh and fewer ingredients, and drinking more water, just to name a few, you begin to see and feel the benefits of eating for health within a few short days. Not to mention it’s easier on the wallet.

So let’s keep it simple. Here’s a recipe from EatingWell Magazine that takes minutes to prepare, but provides tremendous nutritional benefits. It’s a one-bowl wonder!

IMG_0398 IMG_0391

Tuscan Spinach, Bean & Sausage Soup

Note: Pantry staples like cannellini beans, frozen spinach & chicken broth make this soup a snap to throw together on a busy weeknight. Serve it with crusty whole grain bread and sliced tomatoes!

4 servings, 1 ½ cup each


  • 1 link        hot Italian turkey sausage
  • 1 19 oz      can cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 1 14-oz      can reduced sodium chicken broth
  • 8 oz          frozen spinach
  • 1 clove      garlic, minced
  • ¼ tsp      dried marjoram
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
  • 2 Tbsp      freshly grated parmesan cheese


  1. Bring sausage & ¼ inch water to a simmer in small skillet over medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until water evaporates, 5-10 minutes. Continue to cook until sausage is browned on all sides, ~ 4 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board: cut in ½ inch slices
  2. Combine sausage, beans, broth, garlic, spinach & marjoram in medium saucepan. Cover & cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Season with salt & pepper. Stir in cheese just before serving.


Per serving: 143 calories; 4 g fat; 17 mg cholesterol; 19 carbs; 14 g protein: 7 g fiber: 590 mg sodium; 509 mg potassium

Remember… optimal health is a privilege each one of us deserves!

–          Liz Erker, RD