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Healthful and fast

The Baltimore Sun

Briana CaBell didn't need a physician to tell her she had to do something about her diet.

An admitted carb-fats-salt junkie who's been overweight as long as she can remember, CaBell has known for years that she needed to mend her food ways, to stop thinking of salty, deep-fried onion rings as a vegetable staple and, especially, curb her fast-food intake.

The 30-year-old single Laurel resident said the time constraints of working two jobs, plus sharing a small catering business with her mother, squeezing in college courses and maintaining a schedule of church activities keep her on the run from before dawn to late in the evening.

"I don't have time," CaBell said. During the school year, as a therapeutic aide for Baltimore City public schools, she'd joined in on whatever takeout her co-workers were getting and grabbed whatever starchy snacks were handy. In her summer job as a day-care provider, she wasn't doing much better. In her second job as a family cook and housekeeper, she's busy until after dinnertime, and often stops on the way home to pick up fast food in a bag.

Prepared diet meals and substitutes over the years hadn't been the answer. But the menus she prepares for work aren't either - they can be elaborate and feature specialty foods.

Recently, her doctor told her she was pre-diabetic - a startling message that focused her on the need to adjust her diet.

"I have to totally change my eating habits," she said.

This summer, CaBell decided, would be a good time to create those new habits. Dinners that could be thrown together quickly and also would create either a portable lunch of leftovers or the next night's dinner would be a godsend.

CaBell sought help from The Sun's Make Over My Meal series. We contacted Anne Arundel Medical Center and discovered Maureen Shackelford, a registered dietitian who is also a certified diabetes educator.

Shackelford began by illustrating "portion distortion" - that a 1/2 -pound cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, ketchup and fries was 1,345 calories. (Cut in half, it would be closer to what should be a single-size portion - and still more than 600 calories.) The fried chicken dinner CaBell often brought home also was high in calories and fat. If the onion rings counted as a vegetable, then it had one vegetable.

CaBell should ditch the takeout in favor of shortcuts at home, Shackelford said, to create healthful, balanced, nutritionally dense meals that are low in carbohydrate, salt and fat.

How fast did CaBell want to make dinner? Fifteen minutes would be great, she said.

Shackelford said that CaBell could use the culinary skills she had learned as a teenager through a Job Corps program to help herself.

First, rather than trying to make more healthful versions of takeout foods she enjoyed, Shackelford suggested CaBell make a totally different meal and, instead of adding salt, opt for other seasonings.

"It's a matter of what you get used to," she said, explaining that if you're swapping out a high-fat dish for a low-fat version, you probably will decide it doesn't measure up to the fattier version. You have a better chance of liking a new low-fat menu item because you have no idea what the high-fat version tastes like.

"We can give your mouth the memory of a different flavor standard," she said.

Shackelford said CaBell should go for timesavers at home. Bagged salads and slaws, steam-in-the-bag frozen vegetables, minced garlic and packaged roasted chicken breasts are good staples.

The dietitian advised preparing more than a single serving at a time to both save time and promote creativity.

Shackelford started with a recipe from cooks.com for spicy, low-fat chicken fajitas, allowing for spot adjustments by CaBell. Broccoli slaw and hot steam-in-the-bag mixed vegetables would round out dinner.

CaBell, who likes chicken, said she'd go for it, even though it would be a far cry from the Popeyes two-piece fried chicken with a biscuit, onion rings and mashed potatoes with gravy that she enjoys.

CaBell quickly sliced an onion, tomato and green bell pepper and put them into a frying pan with butter-flavored cooking spray.

The recipe didn't say anything about pepper, but CaBell added some, admitting it was difficult not to grab the salt shaker, too, then added minced garlic.

The chicken breast, which was packaged already cooked and cut-up, went into the mix. A homemade breast could be lower in salt.

CaBell put a low-carb tortilla between two damp paper towels to keep it moist in the microwave. In seconds, it was on the plate, topped with about half the chicken mix, a scoop of broccoli slaw, mild salsa, grated reduced-fat cheese and fat-free sour cream.

The steamed mixed vegetables would be a problem - she dislikes peas -without butter and salt, CaBell said.

"I can't eat naked vegetables," she said. After dumping the hot steam-in-the-package mixed vegetables into a bowl, she opened a well-stocked spice cabinet. She shook into her hand thyme, parsley, garlic, celery seed and an Italian seasoning blend, sprinkling it on the vegetables.

From hand-washing to dinner table, the project had taken less than 15 minutes. CaBell tasted the meal.

"It's not bad," she said of the fajita. "It's a little bit dry."

That could be remedied by adding a little chicken broth or water during cooking it or stirring some in before putting it in the tortilla, Shackelford said.

But CaBell didn't like the fat-free sour cream. Shackelford recommended adding ranch-flavored powder for a different taste or substituting reduced-fat sour cream to restore some of the creamy sensation.

Of the hot vegetables, CaBell said, "I don't taste the peas, which is excellent." Still, she said, she'd probably prefer a broccoli-cauliflower blend instead. And she missed butter.

Substituting a different vegetable blend is fine, Shackelford said. For a buttery taste, Shackelford suggested a sprinkling of a butter-taste substitute.

The steam-in-the-bag vegetables allow for flexibility. At 50 calories a serving, or 250 for the entire bag, it's fine for CaBell to have more than one serving, Shackelford said. CaBell had spooned out two.

The simplicity and speed of preparing a tasty meal appealed to CaBell.

"I'd make it," CaBell said.

In minutes, she and Shackelford were discussing ways to vary it and ideas for leftovers.

"You have a chicken fajita for dinner; you have leftovers for the next day. You can roll them up for lettuce cups - you can put anything in that," Shackelford said.

She encouraged CaBell to experiment with leftover creations. A salad is an option. So's another fajita.

Different vegetables, flavored cooking sprays and a host of spices can take the basic recipe in a new direction, Shackelford said.

As Shackelford left, CaBell was wondering how it would taste with leftovers of pork chops in her mother's fridge.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Tips

Here are dietitian Maureen Shackelford's tips for healthful eating:

*Include at least five fruits and vegetables daily, but really aim for nine servings.

*Healthy eating doesn't just happen. It starts with the grocery list, which dictates your options. Plan ahead.

*Keep staples on hand, such as bagged salad, chicken breast, salsa, tuna, and fruits and vegetables.

*Don't skip meals.

*Watch portion size. Too much of even healthful food is too many calories.

*Avoid fast foods and last-minute eating.

[Andrea Siegel]

Online

To read about previous makeovers, visit baltimoresun.com/makeovermymeal

Chicken fajitas

Serves 1 for dinner with leftovers for lunch or another dinner

cooking spray

1 bell pepper, diced

1 Vidalia onion, diced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tomato, diced

2 cooked boneless skinless chicken breasts

1 bag steam-in-the-bag mixed vegetables

1 low-carb tortilla

2 tablespoons salsa

3 tablespoons fat-free sour cream

2 ounces 75 percent reduced-fat cheese, shredded

1/4 cup broccoli slaw (optional)

Coat the skillet in cooking spray. On medium heat, add the diced bell pepper and onion to the skillet.

Saute until the peppers have softened enough to be cut easily with a spatula. If the skillet becomes too dry, a few teaspoons of water may be added to prevent sticking.

Add the minced garlic and diced tomato.

Cut and add cooked chicken to the skillet.

Meanwhile, put the bag of vegetables in the microwave and cook according to package directions (usually about 5 minutes).

Set aside the cooked fajita filling in a covered bowl.

Heat the tortilla. Place fajita filling in the middle of your warm tortilla and top with salsa, sour cream, shredded cheese and broccoli slaw, if desired.

To use leftovers: Roll extra fajita filling in large bibb lettuce leaves or serve salad-style with lettuce and with the toppings or low-fat salad dressing.

Adapted from cooks.com by Maureen Shackelford, a registered dietitian at Anne Arundel Medical Center, who provided the analysis

Per serving: 450 calories, 38 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 39 grams carbohydrate, 11 grams fiber, 75 milligrams cholesterol, 1,108 milligrams sodium

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