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

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