Genie Johns was working 12-hour shifts as a nurse at Carroll Hospital Center and holding down a part-time job in a clinic.
Toss in friends and studies toward an advanced degree and her plate was full - full of everything but healthful food. Eating had become something to do in her car or in one big sitting late at night.
Weary of a family history of health maladies, the 27-year-old contacted a registered dietitian about a year ago for help getting in shape. And she stuck with it, for a while anyway. She lost 34 pounds and noticed she felt healthier and was healthier, as measured by her cholesterol level and sleep patterns.
Then, like so many other dieters before her, she faced a cascade of events that interfered with her efforts. On top of work and school, she attended three weddings, one out of the country, with lots of tempting food. And she developed debilitating inflammation and pain in her joints that turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis.
Johns still had the discipline to cut out the drive-through and all but one of her beloved Diet Cokes, but months had passed since she stopped exercising or closely monitoring her food intake. She faced a hurdle well-known to others looking to lose: She plateaued.
She didn't gain much weight back, but she just wasn't losing anymore. And she still was not quite halfway to her goal weight.
She needed fresh advice. So Johns volunteered for The Sun's Make Over My Meal series.
We visited her Owings Mills home with Judith Feola Gordon, the Finksburg-based dietitian she originally hired.
"I never totally lost my motivation; it was just one thing after another with the weddings, being overseas, illness," said Johns. "We all know a lot of the right things to do, but that's different from incorporating them into your own life."
To show what was once a typical meal, she filled a frying pan with vegetable oil, coated some chicken breasts with egg and herbed flour and dropped them in. She doesn't turn much to the old standby anymore, but she likes the core ingredients and wanted a more healthful version.
Over the sizzle and scent of seasoned grease, she said, "I picture it hardening in my arteries."
Johns said she didn't need anyone to tell her it was bad. But she said it was familiar and fast to fry chicken, boil frozen potato pierogi and open a can of green beans. She wouldn't bother trimming fat from the fowl and she wouldn't hold back on the butter, either.
She needed not only a healthful alternative but also something pretty fast to accommodate her lifestyle, which had become even busier because she had bought a house, stepped up schoolwork and brought home a puppy.
Gordon didn't lecture or criticize. She sees herself more as a counselor. And she's learned finger-wagging doesn't work from her other jobs: She also teaches culinary nutrition at Baltimore International College and feeds a husband and two kids.
First, Gordon offered a specific alternative to everything on John's stove, and even used John's familiar and fast frying pan. She used olive oil instead of vegetable oil and butter because it has a better ratio of good fat to bad.
She used slim pieces of chicken breasts, trimmed of fat, and replaced the processed pierogi with antioxidant-rich sweet potatoes, fiber-full skin left on. She substituted fresh asparagus - low-calorie, no-fat and a good source of potassium and folic acid - for the salty canned beans. It all went into the same pan along with some chicken stock, onion and just a little salt.
The goal, Gordon said, was to make every calorie count - but not burden. She advised using spices instead of fat for taste and a variety of colored vegetables for visual appeal. Don't make the recipe too complex during the workweek, and if an ingredient such as asparagus is expensive, use just a small amount, she said.
"Keep it simple, but try and get the most nutrients out of everything you eat," she said. "There's no sense in getting your calories from things like soda."
Johns was enticed by the easy one-pot cooking and the bright orange of the sweet potato.
Next, Gordon addressed the larger issue of weight loss. She said planning and shopping weekly are the keys to staying on target. That way, there's more control over calories and nutrition and no surprises in the cafeteria or temptations from the drive-through.
She suggested Johns keep a log of everything she consumes as long as she's dieting, and not just in the beginning, so she's aware of everything she eats and can spot places to trim. Gordon also suggested talking about her goals with others and seeking out support.
She also reminded Johns about how good she felt and how much weight she lost when she was exercising regularly.
Johns said she knows that to lose weight, she really has to want to change. She knows all the small changes she makes will add up, success will motivate her to continue and she can even make dieting a little bit fun. So, she said, she will plan, shop, cook and walk.
But what about that fried chicken?
"Put it down the garbage disposal," she said. "I'm not eating that."
Chicken With Sweet Potatoes and Asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
4 ounces boneless, skinless chicken tenders
3 cups water with 1 chicken bouillon cube, or 3 cups chicken stock or broth
1 small sweet potato (sliced 1/8 -inch thick)
4 ounces asparagus (ends cut off)
salt and pepper to taste
5 fresh basil leaves, chopped, for garnish
Place olive oil and onion in skillet over medium-high heat; let sizzle. Add the chicken tenders and cook 3 minutes on each side. Leave the chicken in the pan.
Pour in 3 cups water and chicken bouillon cube (or stock or broth). Place sweet potato slices in skillet, then place asparagus over sweet potatoes.
Cover the pan, reduce to medium heat and simmer for 25 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken and vegetables from the pan, leaving any remaining liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve sprinkled with basil.
Per serving: 330 calories, 34 grams protein, 6 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 56 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 130 milligrams sodium
Recipe and nutritional analysis courtesy of registered dietitian Judith Feola Gordon.
Make Over My Meal
Looking for ways to eat better? If you'd like to be a candidate for Make Over My Meal, send an e-mail to meredith.cohn@baltsun .com with "Makeover" in the subject line, your name and phone number, and a bit about the meal (or snack) you'd like us to make over.
TIPS FROM THE DIETITIAN
Here are tips for more healthful eating from dietitian Judith Feola Gordon:
Plan all your meals and shop once a week to control your intake and nutrition.
Clean and cut veggies and meats into portions immediately to save time during the week.
One time a month, try a new vegetable, ethnic food or spice to keep your diet interesting.
For protein, substitute beans or soy-based products for fatty meats. Consult a cookbook for preparation.
Log all food eaten, including snacks, for awareness of calories, fat, etc.
Don't eliminate all your forbidden food favorites at once. Rather, whittle down a soda and candy habit over time.