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Say goodbye to Norman Rockwell

September 24, 2014

The recent article by Sarah Bowen and colleagues published online in Contexts have caused a bit of a firestorm. Their research on preparing and eating more meals at home suggest that some families have barriers that are often too big to overcome. Limited resources, lack of facilities, transportation issues, and demanding work scheduled all point to fewer and fewer meals made at home.

Some of the criticism of the article has centered on the misunderstanding (in my opinion) that the authors are saying the eating and preparing meals at home is not a move toward better health. I don’t think they are saying that at all. I think they are pointing out that parents are struggling to meet what they think is the ideal as far as food for their families. Struggling to feed a family on a budget is certainly not new. What is new is trying to do it in the current food environment that is less than conducive to healthy eating in a time where wages have not kept up with the cost of living.

I am one nutrition educator that applauds their work and look at it as a call to action to change our message. I have for years given the message of “cook your own food.” I believe it is the single most important thing we can do to improve our diet. I still believe that. However, their research has made me stop and examine my message. Have I made families feel that there are only two choices – a perfect home cooked meal or a trip to the drive thru? Thanks to this research, I will be able to more carefully craft a message that is not an all or nothing proposition.  We need to do a better job of explaining what we mean when we say – cook more meals at home. This may, for some, dredge up a vision of a mom with an apron and flour in her hair – NOT what we are talking about at all. I hope to help families say goodbye to the unattainable Norman Rockwell view of a home cooked meal. I would hazard a guess that Norman never tried to get dinner on the table while holding down two jobs on minimum wage.

Perhaps new messages can include cooking part of the meal at home while using healthier prepared foods for some of the meal. Encouraging simple meals with few ingredients as is used in the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and SNAP-Ed program. We also need to define home cooked meal. It could be as simple as soup and a sandwich. Before you say – soup is too high in sodium and what kind of sandwich? To that I ask, what is the alternative? Can we please help families find a middle ground between the perfect meal and the dollar menu? Our messages need to help families identify where they can (and cannot) make tradeoffs with respect to meals. Finally, I do agree that we need to look at outside the kitchen options as well – not instead of cooking at home – but in addition to. This may include encouraging food manufactures to make healthier prepared options, community meals, or healthy fast food options (as Sarah and company outline).

As nutrition educators job one must be to listen to our audience. Thanks to Sarah, Sinikka, and Joslyn’s work we know they are saying help us find a balance of time, money, and stress while feeding our family a healthy meal. We must meet families where they are with messages, skills, and information that help instead of adding one more burden to struggling parents.

Fast Facts about Cutting Boards and Food Safety in Your Kitchen (from The Abstract)

September 23, 2014

Channeling my inner Dean Cliver, I had a chat last week with my friend Matt Shipman about cutting boards and food safety. Matt, a science writer, public information officer at North Carolina State University, curator of The Abstract, and all around swell dude, writes:

Anything that touches your food can be a source of contamination and foodborne illness – including cutting boards.

For example, if you cut up a raw chicken, and then use the same cutting board to slice a tomato for your salad, you run the risk of cross-contamination – with bacteria from the chicken being transferred to the tomato. That, of course, would be bad.

And vegetarians aren’t off the hook either. Fruits and vegetables can also carry pathogens (and transfer them to cutting boards).

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness in your kitchen, here are some things you should know about cutting boards.

Plastic Versus Wood

For a long time, most (if not all) cutting boards were made of wood. But at some point people began using plastic cutting boards. The idea was that they were easier to clean (and sanitize), and therefore were safer.

But in the late 1980s, a UC Davis researcher named Dean Cliver – the de facto godfather of cutting board food safety – decided to investigate whether plastic cutting boards really were safer. Answer: not really.

Photo credit: Betsssssy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic cutting boards, Cliver found, are easier to sanitize. But cutting on them also leaves lots of grooves where bacteria can hide. Wood is tougher to sanitize, but it’s also (often) tougher in general – you won’t find as many deep scratches in the surface.

In addition, researchers have discovered that the type of wood your cutting board is made from also makes a difference.

“Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria – which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “Soft woods, like cypress, are less likely to dull the edge of your knife, but also pose a greater food safety risk,” Chapman explains. “That’s because they have larger grains, which allows the wood to split apart more easily, forming grooves where bacteria can thrive.”

Which type of cutting board should you use? Chapman recommends using plastic cutting boards for meat and wood cutting boards for fruit, vegetables, or any ready-to-eat foods (like bread or cheese).

Why use plastic cutting boards for meat? Because of how you wash them.

Cleaning Your Cutting Board

Plastic and wood have different characteristics, so you have to handle them differently.

Plastic cutting boards can be placed in the dishwasher, where they can be sanitized by washing at high temperatures. But wood cutting boards would quickly be ruined by a dishwasher, and not everyone owns a dishwasher. If you’re washing a cutting board by hand, you should:

  • Rinse the debris off the cutting board (being careful not to splatter contaminated water all over the place);
  • Scrub the cutting board with soap and water (to get out anything in the scratches or grooves on the board’s surface); and
  • Sanitize the cutting board (you should use different sanitizers for wood cutting boards than for plastic ones).

For plastic cutting boards, you should use a chlorine-based sanitizer, such as a solution of bleach and water (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water – has a shelf life of a week or two). But for wood cutting boards, you should use a quaternary ammonia sanitizer, such as a solution of Mr. Clean and water (follow the dilution instructions on the label).

“This is because chlorine binds very easily to organic materials, like the wood in a cutting board, which neutralizes its antibacterial properties,” Chapman says. “Quaternary ammonia is more effective at killing bacteria on wood or other organic surfaces.”

It’s worth noting that you should also sanitize your kitchen sponge/rag/brush after you’ve used it to scrub the chicken-juice off your cutting board – or else you run the risk of contaminating the next thing you wash (which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do).

The last step in cleaning your cutting board is an important one –dry it.

“Make sure you put the cutting board somewhere that air circulates, so that it can dry completely,” Chapman says. Bacteria need moisture to grow, and you don’t want to give them a welcoming environment.

“Historically, butchers used to put salt on their butcher blocks to keep them from smelling bad,” Chapman says. “This worked because the salt drew the moisture out of the wood and prevented bacterial contamination, which is what caused the smell – though the butchers didn’t know it at the time.”

When To Replace Your Cutting Board

At some point, scrubbing and sanitizing might not be enough. When your cutting board has accumulated a lot of deep grooves from repeated use, you probably need to replace it.

“The more grooves it has, and the bigger they are, the more area is available for trapping moisture and giving bacteria a place to proliferate,” Chapman says.

Great tacos – MUST try recipe!

August 28, 2014

Tacos are a staple in our house. Bean tacos, fish tacos, chicken tacos. We have some sort of taco mophotost weeks. This recipe is delicious and healthy since so much of the taco mixture is vegetables. The home made taco seasoning is a great way to have that strong Mexican flavor without the salt found in store bought taco mix. Finally, the ginger-mango salsa is a cool but spicy addition for a completely delicious meal. It sounds complicated but once you get started, you can have this together in about 30 minutes. You MUST try this recipe – you will be glad you did!


Beef and Mushroom Tacos

The beef base for these wonderful tacos uses lots mushrooms and onions to lighten the calories and increase the vegetables. The mushrooms add a great umami flavor. Using your own taco seasoning allows for you to control the heat and the salt. For a vegetarian version, triple the mushrooms and leave out the beef.


Vegetable oil (canola or grape seed), 1 tablespoon

Onion, chopped, 1 large

Taco seasoning mix (see recipe below), 1-2 tablespoons

Tomato paste, 4 tablespoons

Ground beef (or turkey), cooked and well drained, 1 pound

White mushrooms, chopped and cooked, 4 cups

Salt 2 teaspoons

Heat a large skillet and add the vegetable oil.
Add the onions and cook for 1-2 minutes.
Add the taco seasoning and continue to cook on medium heat.
Add ½ of the salt.
Add the tomato paste, cooked and drained ground beef, and cooked mushrooms.
Add the remaining salt, to taste.
Add ¼ cup water if needed to loosen mixture.

Taco Assembly

Heat corn or flour tortillas.
Place 1/3 cup of beef mixture on each tortilla.
Top with 2 tablespoons of ginger-mango salsa (see recipe below).
Top with shredded cabbage tossed in lime juice.

Taco Seasoning Mix

This is a great alternative to the store-bought taco seasoning that contains lots of salt. Adjust the heat to your taste by using less or more cayenne.

Chili powder, 1/3 cup

Paprika (hot or smoky), 3 tablespoons

Ground cumin, 3 tablespoons

Oregano, 1 tablespoon

Black pepper, 2 teaspoons

Cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon

Suga,r ½ teaspoon

Combine all ingredients. Store in airtight jar.


Ginger-Mango Salsa

This is a good salsa for beef mushroom tacos or as a chip dip. You can substitute pineapple for mango or use a combination if you like.

Ripe mango, peeled and diced small 1

Ginger, grated 1 teaspoon

Fresh mint, minced 1 tablespoon

Jalapeno, minced 1

Salt pinch

Rice wine vinegar 1 teaspoon

Combine all ingredients. Can be made a day ahead to allow flavors to combine. If you want less heat, remove the ribs and seeds from the jalapeno. If you want more heat, choose a hotter pepper such as habanero.

Kachumbar salad – with a twist

August 27, 2014

While this recipe originates in India, it veers far from its Indian heritage. In doing so, the resulting salad provides a unique twist on the

This salad is a riff on a salad that is common in northern India. Kachumbar salad is traditionally cucumber, tomato, onion, chili, and lemon juice. It is served with many meals as a side dish. Kachumbar is a Hindi word that literally means cut into small pieces. In fact, according to my friend and co-worker Surabhi who is from India, if someone has had a particularly hard day they may say “Aaj Kachumbar ban gaya” loosly translated means that the day chopped me up.

This version of Kachumbar adds tropical fruit for a Hawaiian twist. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator. You can vary the fruit depending on the season.

Kachumbar “chopped” salad

1 large tomato, chopped (1/2”)

1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped

4-5 green onions, chopped

1 jalapeño, finely chopped

1 mango, chopped

1/2 fresh pineapple, chopped (or 2 cups canned)

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2-1 teaspoon salt (to taste)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper                                                                 

juice from 1 lime


Combine all ingredients.

Healthy birthday cake alternative

August 27, 2014

photo-e1408963824196Birthdays are a time to celebrate. They don’t have to be a time to eat bad cake with even worse icing. If you love birthday cake, then mindfully eat a piece every now and then – especially when it is YOUR birthday. If, however, you are like me and really don’t even enjoy birthday cake – pass on the 300 plus calories that a square of dry cake and cloying icing brings.

What then can you do to punctuate the celebration if there is no cake with candles to blow out? Leave it to my very creative mother to come up with a healthy, fun, and delicious alternative. Enter the watermelon cake. This is not a cake in the shape of a watermelon mind you. It is an actual watermelon, chilled to perfection, decorated with a birthday wish, topped with a candle. The writing on the cake was applied using white out, told you she was creative. After the ceremonial lighted candle with a wish upon blowing out, we carved up big slices of watermelon – HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Asking questions at the farmers’ market

June 6, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 8.46.11 AMA couple weeks ago I took my kids to the farmers’ market. Sam, who is 3, is all about food shopping: picking out what the family will be eating while trying to convince me to buy him treats and snacking on the free samples. While Jack and Dani were looking at plants for our gardens, Sam and I toured the food stalls. We came upon a vendor selling cider (right, exactly as shown).

Worrying more about my kids safety than looking like a nerd, I asked, “Is it pasteurized?”

The dude at the stall answered, “It sure is, flash pasteurized to keep it safe.”


My friend Judy Harrison writes in this month’s Food Safety Magazine that farmers’ markets continue to increase as a place for folks to connect with their food.

Visiting with your neighbors, listening to live music while shopping, meeting the farmer who grew the produce, sampling the fresh food in the market, the festival-like atmosphere…that is the downhome feel that has Americans flocking to farmers markets.

Who are the customers shopping at these markets? It takes only a trip on an early Saturday morning to see that many of the customers are senior adults, people who may have health problems and mothers with young children all shopping for foods they perceive to be healthier and safer than those you buy in the grocery store. What is often casually observed is an attitude, not just among consumers but among farmers and market managers as well, that “It’s locally grown…I know that farmer…It’s organic…so it is healthier and safer than what I could get at the store.”

If you took a tour of your local farmers market, what would you see? Many local markets are held in open fields in city parks or even in parking lots. Conditions may be less than sanitary. You are likely to observe fruits and vegetables displayed on the ground rather than being held at least six inches above this surface, as would be required in food storage areas of restaurants or grocery stores. You are also likely to encounter customers or even vendors bringing their dogs into the market area and having access to displays. You may or may not see handwashing facilities or at least hand sanitizer being provided in the market. Some of the produce may already be packaged in open bags for customers to pick up, or customers may be allowed to handle and select their own produce. You may even see stations where customers can bring produce they have just purchased to be juiced or blended into healthy shakes—with no evidence of facilities for washing produce, hands or equipment. You may see displays where customers can sample cut produce that is not being kept on ice or refrigerated. You may also see entrepreneurs who are making and selling food products that you hope are at least following cottage food regulations. As a food safety professional, you see opportunities for increased risk of foodborne illness.

Judy’s comments are bang-on, lots of people shop at the farmers market, have various perceptions and may not see the world through the eyes of a food microbiologist. The conversation I had with the cider vendor led me to revisit a project idea we’ve had steeping for a while: what questions do I ask at the farmers’ market – and what do I think the answers should be? Stuff like what does the producer do to evaluate the safety of the water they use, do they use composted manure, how do they handle ill staff who show up to pick?

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.07.26 AM

I have linked a draft of a document that captures those questions and more and I’m asking the online food safety nerds to share additional thoughts and questions to make the document more robust. Feel free to add a comment here on the blog, tweet @benjaminchapman, post a comment on our Facebook page or use old fashioned e-mail.



FDA proposes update to nutrition facts panel

June 2, 2014

The Food and Drug Administration began requireing foods be labeled with the nutrition facts panel more than 20 years ago. With the exception of addition of trans fats in 2006, the label has remained pretty much the same, until now. The FDA is proposing some rather bold changes to the look and content new_labelof the nutrition label.

The biggest and most helpful change for consumers may be the addition of added sugars to the label. The Dieatray Guidelines for Americans suggests that added sugar should be decreased. However, the average consumer would have a hard time estimating the amount of added sugar consumed. The current label does not dicern between added sugar or sugar naturally occurring in the food. Strawberry yogurt, for example, may have 22 grams of sugar but how much of that is added sugar and how much is being contributed by the lactose in the yogurt or the fructose in the strawberries. The new label will make it easy to see the difference.

Another important change is the serving size. Regardless of the size, a container designed for a single user will have 1 serving. For example, a soft drink may be 12 or 22 ounces but if it is deemed to most likely be consumed in one sitting, it will have 1 serving. Other serving sizes are eing updated to reflect more typical servings. Other changes can be seen in the graphic below.

There will be a 90 day comment period then the FDA will decide on a final version of the new label.

Do you think the new label is an improvement?



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