Interviews / August 16, 2012

Brenda J. Ponichtera

By Charles Platkin, PhD

As a medical professional and nutrition and diabetes counselor, Ponichtera has specialized in helping people develop healthful, lifelong eating habits. An active member of the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association, she received the American Dietetic Association’s Mary Abbott Hess Award and the Award of Merit from the Oregon Dietetic Association. These awards honor her outstanding achievement and contribution as a health professional and author. She is also an editorial advisor for the popular publication, Today’s Diet and Nutrition.

Her Quick & Healthy cookbooks were originally written at the request of her clients who wanted healthy recipes that would be quick to prepare and enjoyed by the whole family. The cookbooks — which have now sold more than 700,000 copies — clearly fill a need for today’s health-conscious, busy cook. Having garnered praise from the media, health care professionals, and busy cooks, they also received the Benjamin Franklin “Book of the Year” Award and the Benjamin Franklin Best Cookbook Award.

Diet Detective: How did you learn to cook? How about the healthy part? When did that come?

Brenda: Actually, I did minimal cooking growing up. My husband had more experience cooking as a teenager, and after we got married, he would help me figure out how to get everything cooked so it was ready to eat at the same time. I think he finally got tired of eating in courses, with the baked potato ready an hour after we had eaten the main dish.

The healthy part really started around the same time. Since I was teaching Foods and Nutrition, I already knew that eating healthy was important. The connection really intensified after becoming a registered dietitian, where I would provide recipes, menus and helpful eating tips to my clients. I did more recipe testing and compared lower fat products and recipes with regular ones. I wanted to be sure that what I recommended was not only healthy, but also tasted good.

Diet Detective: What is it about healthy cooking that seems so daunting for people? Is it easier and quicker than people think?

Brenda: When people think of healthy cooking they often don’t know where to start. Having some easy, quick, and healthy recipes you know your family will enjoy is the best place to start.

Yes, healthy cooking is much easier and quicker than people assume. There are many reputable sources that offer recipes that fit the criteria. In my 3rd Edition of Quick & Healthy Recipes and Ideas, I have family tested, low-fat recipes. There are also 20 weeks of easy menus, each with a subsequent grocery list. Since it’s the menu planning that often stumps people, I have included menus and grocery lists, which helps to make the process quicker and easier.

Diet Detective: What are some great general tips for cooking clean, healthy, and quick?

Brenda: Here are some ideas to make cooking easy and quick:

  • Buy partially prepared foods such as cleaned lettuce, stir-fry vegetables, dried onion, and chopped garlic.
  • Use a salad spinner when cleaning whole heads of lettuce.
  • Use local vegetables and fruits in season — they often taste better than those shipped in — and preparation is easy. Just serve raw or microwave.
  • Have ingredients on hand in a well stocked pantry and freezer.
  • Plan ahead — do menus and prepare a grocery list — or use the grocery lists and planned menus in Quick & Healthy Recipes and Ideas, 3rd Edition
  • Collect quick, healthy recipes that your family will enjoy.

Diet Detective: Do you have to be a good cook to follow the recipes in your book?

Brenda: Absolutely not. The recipes in my book are very basic. These recipes focus on meals that families will actually eat and enjoy — they’re not gourmet recipes.

Diet Detective: Some people don’t realize that freezing food is a great way to save time. You recommend cooking more than what you need and freezing leftovers for another meal. You also suggest keeping some foods on hand in the freezer to limit trips to the grocery store. Which foods do you recommend stocking up on?

Brenda: I like to say “Cook once and serve twice” — now that’s saving time. You can freeze the extra and serve again next week. Freezing usually works well with lasagna and casseroles.

The foods I like to keep in the freezer are chicken tenders (or breasts), extra lean ground beef, berries such a blueberries, corn, peas, spinach, walnuts, fat-free whipped topping and low-fat ice cream.

A well-stocked pantry and freezer reduces trips to the grocery store, which saves time and money.

Diet Detective: You recommend having a weekly shopping list that’s divided into categories and posting it at the beginning of each week in a central location at home. Why are you so specific about categories? Why do you emphasize one trip a week to the grocery store?

Brenda: You can save time in a grocery store and have less of a chance of missing an item if your grocery list is grouped by categories, such as canned vegetables, frozen foods etc. Also, post the grocery list in the kitchen and encourage family members to add to it.

If you go to the grocery store only once during the week you will save time and also money — less gas and less temptation to buy extras, especially if you go after work when you’re hungry.

Diet Detective: What makes your methods different than others that have attempted to tackle the “quick and healthy cooking” conundrum?

Brenda: In my many years of counseling, I have really searched for what people want, and more importantly, what they will actually use to eat healthier. In a nutshell, that is what I have included in my books. Below are three of the several sections designed to help people eat healthier without spending a lot of time.

  1. Quick-to-prepare recipes that work for the whole family. Besides having recipes that are family–tested, all of the recipes include nutrition information so they work for the average family as well as anyone with diabetes, heart disease, or people wanting to lose weight.
  2. Twenty weeks of easy dinner menus, each with a grocery list. This is what sets this book apart from other cookbooks. It’s an incredible time saver.
  3. The section on meals and snacks that don’t require a recipe. Basically, you can just open your cupboard and put together a quick meal — no recipe needed. A super help for last minute meal and great for college students!

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient?

Brenda: Fat-free yogurt. I have it at breakfast topped with cereal, nuts and berries. It works great in a fruit smoothie (yogurt, ice and fruit blended), and it’s a portable snack that comes in many flavors.

Diet Detective: What’s the one kitchen utensil or tool that you can’t live without?

Brenda: French knife. I use it a lot — even for cutting pizza.

Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Brenda: I would have to again choose fat-free yogurt because it is a good source of protein and calcium and also has carbohydrate without too many calories. Alone, it is low in fiber, but you can add nuts, fruit and whole grain cereal to greatly increase the fiber content.

Diet Detective: Would you mind sharing a few recipes with us?

Brenda: I would love to. The following are available on my Web site to download, with the grocery list: Turkey French Dips, Pear Salad with Raspberry Dressing, Creamy Cabbage Stir-Fry, Mandarin Orange Seafood, Pork Chop Suey (also works well with chicken), White Chocolate Mousse with Berries, and Basil Tomatoes.

Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?

Brenda: In my refrigerator you can find fat-free yogurt, and many delicious fresh foods from our garden: zucchini, string beans, yellow summer squash, cucumbers. We also have — direct from our yard — plums, peaches, nectarines, pears and tomatoes. I’m not the gardener, my husband is, but we both reap the benefits.

My pantry has the basic seasonings and spices and canned foods. We have canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, low-fat soups, beans, salsa, water chestnuts, spaghetti sauce, pineapple chunks, mandarin oranges, enchilada sauce, diced green chilies, an assortment of pastas, quick -cooking brown rice, tuna packed in water and basic baking ingredients such as flour, etc.

Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food?”

Brenda: Okay, we all have a weakness. Mine is snack size snicker candy bars. I just don’t buy them, especially at Halloween, because I will eat them all before the trick-or-treaters arrive!

Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?

Brenda: Picking blueberries — not my passion.

Diet Detective: What’s your motto?

Brenda: Cook Once, Serve Twice.

Diet Detective: As a child you wanted to be:

Brenda: Always close to my family.

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