Building a Strong Immune System

Over the past few months, parents have been focused on doing everything they can to keep their families healthy. Stressing the importance of proper hygiene and frequent hand washing, staying at home more often, and cooking almost every day have been our daily normal in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While practicing all of these habits can help flatten the curve, one of the questions that remains top of mind is what else can families do to strengthen and maintain a healthy immune system to help ward off infections and illness.

The key to a healthy child begins with a strong immune system. Our body’s immune system is an amazing function which we rely on for our entire lifespan. One of its main functions is to fight disease producing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. A strong immune system can provide a child with powerful defenses against diseases, while a weak one makes them more susceptible to colds, the flu, and more serious illnesses.

You may be wondering if eating special foods or nutrients can strengthen an immune system, but you don’t need to stress about loading up with expensive immune boosting supplements. Supporting healthy and normal immune function can be achieved with proper nutrition, along with other healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, regular physical activity, and managing stress for emotional stability.  

Key nutrients to keep your immune system healthy include vitamins A, C, and D, protein, copper, magnesium, and zinc. These nutrients can be found in a wide variety of wholesome foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lean meats, and whole grains.  Supplementing these nutrients with mega doses beyond our recommended daily intakes doesn’t necessarily create a stronger immune system and can potentially lead to more harm than benefit.

Here are our top tips for maintaining a healthy immune system.

Eat the colors of the rainbow.

Aim to serve at least 2 – 3 colorful varieties of fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack. Each color of fruit and vegetable provides a different healthy vitamin or mineral, so eating a variety will ensure that you get the most nutrients.

Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D.

While vitamin D is knownfor its bone building qualities, it also plays a beneficial role in the immune system. Studies have found that a deficiency in this essential nutrient is linked to an increased risk of infection. Vitamin D is made in the body when we are exposed to sunlight and is also available in fortified milk or cereal, eggs, and cheese.

Choose the best types of dietary fats.

Food contains many different types of dietary fats from marine oils, plant oils, and solid animal fats. The oils found in nuts and seeds, olive oil, canola oil, and fish oil have a beneficial role in our health compared to the solid animal fats such as butter, cream, lard, tropical oils, and partially hydrogenated oils. Studies have confirmed that a diet that includes large amounts of processed foods, fried foods, and other solid saturated fats predisposes children to recurrent infections and inflammatory conditions. Reversely, a balanced diet that is rich in healthy sources of plant oils is found to enhance the body’s immune system.

Power up with protein.

Protein from animal and plant sources provide the body with important immune supporting amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Choose lean options of chicken, beef, pork, and dairy to get vitamin B12, iron, and zinc.

Iron also has an important role in a healthy immune system. In addition to animal protein, dietary sources of iron can be found in plants, such as kidney beans, lentils, and dark leafy greens. Combining foods with good sources of iron with foods rich in vitamin C, such as a salsa or fruit salad, help boost the body’s ability to absorb iron.

Zinc is especially interesting because it supports many different functions related to growth and development in the body. It also plays a key role in the maintenance of the immune system by protecting DNA and our cells’ metabolism. Zinc can’t be stored in the body, so look for it in dietary sources such as lean beef, pork, chicken, fish, whole grains, and dark greens. For most people, it’s not recommended to supplement with zinc unless your primary care physician has advised otherwise.

Powerful plant proteins such as quinoa, amaranth, whole grain protein pasta, or beans are also beneficial for the immune system. Plant sources of protein offer most of the same key nutrients as lean meats but as an added boost, also provide fiber and antioxidants.

Try to look on the bright side and maintain healthy habits.

An often-overlooked key to a healthy immune system is having a positive outlook on life. Studies have shown that laughter and optimism stimulate the cells of the immune system. It’s also important to make sure your child feels loved and safe because emotional stress may deplete the immune system and lower a child’s resistance to disease. The more children enjoy life, the healthier they will be. Maintaining healthy habits are also essential to the immune system health. For example, getting plenty of sleep can help regenerate and renew the body’s immune system and emotional responses. Participating in regular physical activity helps boost your mood and energy levels.

Meal Planning Tips

One of the many challenges our community faces due to the spread of COVID-19, is the change in our typical day-to-day activities. To help flatten the curve and reduce our time in public, we must be more thoughtful as to what our family needs before going out to stock up on essentials. Planning out meals and grocery lists for an extended period can be an added burden to our already hectic lives. To make life a little easier, we’ve put together a list of meal planning tips, smart pantry information, and recipes to use next time you’re headed to the grocery store.

Why Planned Over Meals?

Instead of having leftovers, start prepping for planned overs. These are meals that are created using extra leftover ingredients from previous meals. For example, if you cooked too much chicken breast and don’t feel like eating the same thing tomorrow night, repurpose the chicken and make shredded chicken tacos or add it to a stir-fry. If your meal has leftover grains, add them to a salad for extra fiber or serve them with tomorrow night’s curry.

Planning meals in advance helps with unprecedented situations such as what we are experiencing now with COVID-19 and in the future when we resume with our everyday busy lives of balancing school, work, and family time. Smart planning leads to less time cooking, less money spent on groceries, and most importantly, delicious wholesome meals for the family to enjoy.

How to Get Started

The first step is to organize your pantry and choose your recipes for the week. We recommend starting with a smaller group of recipes that you know your family enjoys, then gradually adding in another 1-2 new recipes. Grouping recipes by common ingredients will simplify shopping and save you money and pantry space.

If it’s been a while since you stocked your pantry or gone shopping, you may want to first go through and get things organized. Start by removing expired ingredients and opened packages that aren’t sealed tightly. Next, review your spices and remove those older than 6 months. While this can be a tedious process, afterwards you’ll have a better idea of what ingredients you’re missing and what you already have stocked up. For more ideas on how to clean out and organize your pantry, check out our blog on how to give your pantry a CHEF-Approved makeover.  If you want to go the extra mile, consider creating your own smart pantry. A smart pantry, stocked with wholesome grains, spices, beans, flavorful oils and vinegars, plus a few other essentials makes it easier to prepare delicious meals on even the busiest days of the week. Here’s a checklist of what our experts recommend you keep stocked in your kitchen.

Go Shopping and Start Cooking

Once your pantry is organized make a list of all the ingredients in the recipes you would like to prepare this week. Compare this list to what you currently have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer and then eliminate by crossing out the ingredients what you already have on hand.

After you’ve shopped for the ingredients you need, you’re ready to start cooking. You may find it easier to prepare some of the recipes by batch cooking over the weekend. Weekends usually allow enough time to set aside an hour or two to get some of the recipe basics out of the way. We like to use this time to wash and prep vegetables, prepare seasonings, and marinate or grill proteins. Prepping ingredients is a great way to get the entire family involved in the cooking process. Everyone can find a role in the kitchen, no matter what age. Check out our blog to learn how to involve your children in the cooking process and which culinary skills are appropriate for each age group.

Keep prepped ingredients refrigerated in air-tight containers. Practice safe food handling and follow food safety guidelines to avoid cross contamination risks in your kitchen. Here’s a helpful link from the USDA to ensure you’re cooking safely.

Menu Tips for Planned Overs

  • Extra raw or cooked vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers, and asparagus make for a nutritious addition to a frittata, egg scramble, or omelet. Use them in our Broccoli and Cheese Frittata or Egg Scramble.
  • Meats, vegetables, and pasta are perfect for adding to soups. Vegetable, chicken, or beef broth or bouillon cubes are also good ways to give your soup some extra flavor. Check out our Fiesta Chicken Soup and Garden Vegetable Soup.
  • Blend herbs or cooked vegetables into sauces you can use throughout the week. Roasted bell peppers make a delicious pureed sauce to be used with eggs, lean meats, or even as a pasta sauce. Chimichurri sauce adds a tasty tang to grilled meats and vegetables. Here’s our version!
  • Leftover roasted chicken and bones are an excellent base for homemade broth. Save extra herbs, wine, and vegetables to add flavor and use the broth to build soups. Watch our culinary skills video to learn how to make your own.
  • Your favorite salad dressings can be used as a marinade or combined with a broth to make a light sauce or poaching broth. We like using our Italian Dressing.
  • Stock your freezer with a variety of meats such as ground beef, turkey, chicken, or fish to be used in future meals. Many frozen meats are available in convenient portioned cuts such as chicken breast tenders. These are easy to defrost and provide a quick way to put together a meal. Check out our video on how to defrost foods the safe way and use them in recipes like our Arroz con Pollo, Bolognese Zucchini Pasta, or Herb Rubbed Flank Steak.
  • Unseasoned frozen vegetables such as corn, green beans, bell peppers, broccoli, and green peas are great to add to a stir-fry or curry. Check out our quick and easy Super Veggie Stir-Fry and Curry in a Hurry for inspiration.
  • Add unsweetened frozen fruit such as berries, mango, and peaches to smoothies for sweetness without the added sugar. We like using them in our Mango Smoothie or Tropical Green Smoothie.
  • Keep your pantry stocked with your favorite seasoning blends, dry spices and herbs, vinegar, cooking oils, salad dressings, and condiments. These staples help to make the flavors in a meal complete and allow you to pull together a tasty meal on even the busiest nights of the week. Use our CHEF Pantry checklist to see what we recommend you keep in your kitchen.

Food in the Time of Coronavirus

By Katy Bowen, MS, RDN, LD

During this unprecedented time, many families find themselves suddenly cooking more at home. While cooking at home has plenty of benefits, meal preparation can feel like an added burden during self-isolation. Parents and caregivers are now balancing work, childcare, homeschooling, housework, and providing 3 meals plus snacks for their families each day—all while in close quarters!

Let’s get real for a minute, this is not the time to be hyper-focused on ensuring that our children eat every color of the rainbow of fruits and vegetables each day. Grocery store shelves may be bare, making that challenge near impossible. Instead, shift your focus to making fun “quarantine cuisine” while incorporating a few nutritious options. Whether you use canned, frozen, or fresh fruits and vegetables, aim to incorporate at least one of these food groups with every meal. Learn more about the benefits of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables in this blog.

Do you feel like you’re in the kitchen all day cooking and cleaning? Get your whole family in the kitchen to make meal prep easier! You can even involve your children in planning out your meals. MyPlate is a helpful tool for planning your meals. Choose low-fat milk and cheese; eat a variety of grains, especially whole grain bread, pasta, and brown rice; vary your protein by eating plant protein along with lean animal protein; and try to eat at least five fruits and vegetables each day.

Use the chart below for some helpful suggestions as you adapt the ways you cook and eat at home:

Instead of: Try this: Link:
Offering fresh fruit at every snack Enjoy a smoothie with frozen fruit Recipe here
Giving your children candy as a reward Treat your family’s sweet tooth to our Mini Fruit Tartlets Recipe here
Drinking plain water Get creative with a daily infused water Recipe here
Offering chips at snack time  Make your own Trail Mix with your family Recipe here
Cereal for breakfast Try one of our delicious, wholesome breakfast options Recipe here
Sandwiches for lunch Mix it up with Sandwich Sushi Recipe here
Running out of tasty recipes to make with your pantry staples? Check out these CHEF-Approved recipes using rice, beans, and other staples! Three Bean Chili

Arroz con Pollo  
Can’t exercise outdoors? Discover fun activities your whole family can do on YouTube You Are What You Eat Dance

Greece Cultural Dance  

Garden Yoga
Need new recipe ideas? Search our recipes for healthy inspiration! Recipes can be narrowed down by special diet and type of recipe. Recipes here 

Have a nutrition or culinary question for CHEF? Use our Ask a Dietitian tool here.     

Make Sleep a Priority

While we adjust to the changes COVID-19 has brought to our routines, making sleep a priority is essential for supporting the health of the entire family. With more free time on hand, major changes in daily schedules, and less structured days, children may find themselves spending more time on their devices and less time outdoors. Spending so much time in front of a TV or computer screen, especially close to bedtime, can lead to difficulty and disruptions with sleep. Children are used to routine and structure, so keeping them focused on tasks, healthy eating habits, and getting enough sleep each night, will help them stay centered and more resilient during these tough times.

Adequate sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development. Growing research shows that children who are sleep deprived are at a higher risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and mental and behavioral problems. A lack of sleep is associated with poor dietary choices and an increase in appetite, leading to a greater risk of eating too many calories. There is also science that suggests not getting enough sleep can reduce the body’s ability fight common illnesses such as a cold and the flu. While stress can interfere with sleep, a lack of sleep can also increase your stress and anxiety levels.

How much sleep do we need each night?

  • Children ages 6-12 years old need 9-12 hours.
  • Children ages 13-18 years old need 8-10 hours.
  • Adults should aim for 7-9 hours.

Sleep Tips for School Age Children

  • Set a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.
  • Try to follow a daily schedule.
  • Make a child’s bedroom conducive to sleep by keeping it dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Keep the TV and devices out of the bedroom and avoid them close to bedtime.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine and eating sugary foods.
  • Spend more time outdoors and be active.

Wise and Informed Choices with W.I.C.

By Alie Cantu, RDN, LD

In recent weeks we have all been affected by COVID-19 in more ways than one. Luckily, there are many resources that we can turn to for support during this difficult time. One of these resources is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, more commonly known as WIC. WIC aims to provide nutritional support for pregnant, breast-feeding, and post-partum mothers and their children up to five years old.

Here are a few WIC shopping tips, healthy cooking ideas, and more.

Shopping Tips:

  • Before you go shopping, make sure to call your WIC Clinic if you need to schedule an appointment to load your benefits onto your WIC card. The San Antonio clinics remain open to make sure all participants and applicants are receiving their benefits and support.
  • While you are shopping, make sure to use the myTexasWIC app to keep track of your monthly benefits, create a grocery list, and scan items to check if they are WIC approved. Although resources may be scarce in the aisle, the state WIC office has allowed for some temporary and permanent changes in approved items which the app can help you navigate through.  
  • If you are not a WIC participant, it may be wise to double check the tag on the shelf and select non-WIC approved items. By doing this, you can help WIC participants find the items that they need.   

Healthy Cooking:

  • During this stressful time, it’s important that we are taking care of ourselves and remaining fueled with delicious “quarantine cuisine” such as Egg Muffins, Three Bean Chili, or Apple Cheddar Quesadillas. These recipes can be made with WIC approved items and are tasty ways of staying healthy while at home. 

More Resources:

  • Be sure to check out TexasWIC.org for all your WIC-related questions, to start an application for WIC, or for more recipes to try at home. Stay updated with the  City of San Antonio Website for any changes in services offered throughout this time.

Meal Plan for 3 Meals, Featuring Oven Roasted Chicken and Toasted Quinoa Pilaf

This meal plan starts off with Oven Roasted Chicken and Toasted Quinoa Pilaf. We are cooking enough chicken and quinoa to have planned overs that will be used in other meals throughout the week so don’t be surprised if you have plenty left over. We will use these planned overs to create a Toasted Quinoa Chicken Bowl and Greek Chicken Salad with White Beans later in the week. These tasty meals are simple and nutritious! Feel free to swap ingredients out depending on your family’s taste preferences but remember that the ingredients on the grocery list are for the recipes as they are written. You’ll need to add extra items if you choose any variations or ingredient swaps. This meal plan can serve as 3 meals for a family of 4 or 6 meals for a family of 2. If you have a family of more than 4, you might want to double the recipes.  

Printable PDFs for this meal plan:

Oven Roasted Chicken

Toasted Quinoa Pilaf

Chipotle Roasted Chicken

Toasted Quinoa Chicken Bowl

Greek Chicken Salad with White Beans

Grocery List

Meal 1: Oven Roasted Chicken and Toasted Quinoa Pilaf with a vegetable or salad of your choice

For your first meal, use the recipes for Oven Roasted Chicken and Toasted Quinoa Pilaf. You can serve these with your choice of a vegetable or side salad. We recommend serving your meal with Asparagus with Lemon and Parmesan, Roasted Root Vegetables, Strawberry Spinach Salad, or Garden Salad.

Each serving of your meal should equal about 4 ounces of chicken, 1 cup vegetables or salad, and ½ cup quinoa. Since there will be leftovers, save the chicken and quinoa for your planned over meals.

Oven Roasted Chicken

Cook Time Start to Finish: 1½ – 2 hours

Yield: 12 servings|1 serving = about 4 ounces

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons white wine or white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons rosemary, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 – 4 pound whole chicken, giblets and excess fat removed

Directions:

  1. Place a shallow roasting pan with a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a small bowl, combine olive oil, wine or vinegar, mustard, rosemary, and garlic. Season with pepper.
  3. Gently loosen the skin from the breast and legs of the chicken, being careful not to tear the skin. Rub ¾ of the rosemary mixture underneath the skin of the chicken. Rub the remaining amount all over the skin.
  4. Place the chicken in the roasting pan and roast for 50 – 60 minutes, until the juice runs clear or until the chicken is 165°F at the thigh or approximately 160°F at the breast.
  5. Let rest in a warm place for 15 minutes prior to carving.

Culinary Notes and Tips:

  • Basting the chicken while it cooks will give the chicken an even color and keep the skin moist.
  • Never cover or tightly wrap a chicken while it’s roasting. If steam is trapped by a foil cover, it will cause the chicken to steam rather than roast.

Variations:

For a Latin variation of the recipe, try our Chipotle Roasted Chicken. Simply replace the white wine or vinegar, mustard, rosemary, and garlic mixture with:

  • 1 Tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle in adobo sauce, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 Tablespoons lime juice

Toasted Quinoa Pilaf 

Cook Time Start to Finish: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings | 1 serving = ½ cup

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained well
  • 1 cup onion, diced
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • 4 cups water or vegetable stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil and quinoa. Stir to toast the quinoa. It will start to pop like popcorn and have a slightly nutty aroma. Add onion and garlic and stir until aromatic.
  2. Add water or stock and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly, and cook for 28 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat, let sit for 4 minutes, and fluff with a fork.

Culinary Notes and Tips:

  • This dish is gluten free and a great source of plant-based protein.
  • Quinoa has a natural coating on the outside called saposin. It’s bitter to the taste, so it’s important to rinse quinoa in water, then let it drain for a few minutes before cooking. Make sure to drain it the best you can. If the grain is wet, it will be more difficult to toast.
  • Quinoa can also be toasted by spreading it on a sheet pan and placing in a 350°F oven for 5–10 minutes, stirring periodically.
  • It’s important to let the grain sit for a few minutes once it’s removed from the heat. This allows the grain to settle and slightly firm up. If you stir it immediately after it has finished cooking, it will mush up and become gummy.

Variations:

  • If you’d like to add some extra flavor to the quinoa, add 2 cups of mushrooms sautéed with garlic.
  • Another tasty option is to add ¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes and 1 Tablespoon basil.

Meal 2: Toasted Quinoa Chicken Bowl

Our Toasted Quinoa Chicken Bowl is easily customizable depending on your family’s taste preferences or what you already have in your kitchen. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand or can’t find any at the store, you can use dried herbs. Just remember to use less if using dried instead of fresh. You can also swap out the almonds for any other type of nut you have in the pantry.

This meal makes for a quick dinner option when you need to throw something together on a busy weeknight. Or, make this dish the night before and pack it for an easy work lunch. Keep in mind that this recipe calls for more vinaigrette than you will use in your bowl. Make sure to save the left over dressing for your third meal.

Toasted Quinoa Chicken Bowl

Cook Time Start to Finish: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings | 1 serving = 1½ cup

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 cup radishes, cut in quarters and thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa (use leftover Toasted Quinoa Pilaf)
  • 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded (use leftover Oven Roasted Chicken)
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons dill, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon mint, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons toasted almonds, chopped

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, combine cucumbers and radishes. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes.
  2. In a small bowl or mason jar, combine lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then whisk well.
  3. Add quinoa, chicken, scallions, dill, and mint to the large bowl. Gently mix.
  4. Add the ½ cup of vinaigrette to the large bowl and gently mix. Fold in nuts and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Culinary Notes and Tips:

  • You will use some of your leftovers from the Oven Roasted Chicken and Toasted Quinoa Pilaf to make this dish.
  • When preparing meals with grains, remember that grains and starchy ingredients will absorb seasoning and need to be re-seasoned just before serving.
  • The tartness and bitterness of lemons may vary throughout the year. During the winter, the vinaigrette may need a pinch of sugar and more salt to counteract the bitterness of the juice.

Variations:

  • This meal can easily be made vegan if you leave out the chicken. Add some chickpeas instead of chicken and top with heart healthy avocado.
  • If you can’t find radishes at the store, use celery instead. It will provide the same crunch to the recipe.
  • You can replace lemon juice with lime juice.
  • Some other tasty swaps include, replacing dill and mint with basil, adding water-packed canned tuna instead of chicken, or adding ½ cup of cooked corn and replacing the dill with chopped parsley.

Meal 3: Greek Chicken Salad with White Beans

For your last meal, we will use the remaining planned overs and mix them with some other tasty ingredients to create a Greek Chicken Salad with White Beans. We know some people find salads boring but don’t fear! This salad is packed with flavor and nutrients to will keep your family satisfied until your next meal. 

Greek Chicken Salad with White Beans

Cook Time Start to Finish: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings | 1 serving = 2 cups

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes,diced or chopped
  • Boiling water, as needed
  • 8 cups mixed salad greens, torn
  • 2 cups cooked skinless chicken breast, sliced (use leftover Oven Roasted Chicken)
  • 1 cup canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • ¼ cup toasted almonds, slivered
  • ½ cup dressing (use leftover vinaigrette)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. Place sun-dried tomatoes in a small bowl. Add enough boiling water to cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Drain well.
  2. In a large bowl, combine salad greens, chicken, cannellini beans, feta cheese, and almonds. Gently mix to combine.
  3. Add drained tomatoes and vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.  

Culinary Notes and Tips:

  • You will use some of your leftovers from the Oven Roasted Chicken and vinaigrette to make this dish.
  • Save the water from rehydrating the tomatoes and use it in tomato soups or sauces.

Variations:

  • Replace the chicken with marinated pork.
  • Use a red wine vinaigrette instead of the leftover lemon vinaigrette.
  • Toss the chicken and cannellini beans with 1 teaspoon Spanish paprika, salt, and pepper for extra flavor.

For even more tips on meal prepping, check out our blog on how to get started. If you have a culinary or nutrition question, use our Ask a Dietitian tool for expert advice delivered straight to your inbox.

Culinary Skills for All Ages

Cooking is a fun activity for the entire family and a great way to build creativity! Including your children in the meal preparation process can expand their taste preferences and help them explore new foods. Even the youngest members of the family can join in! If you’re wondering how to include your family next time you’re in the kitchen, here’s our tips on which culinary skills are appropriate to practice for each age group and some ways you can help grow your child’s confidence in the kitchen.

Children ages 3-5 years:

  • Highlight the importance of food safety by properly washing hands before, during, and after touching raw and ready-to-eat ingredients.
  • Practice using a spatula to clean out ingredients in bowl.
  • Show them how to wash vegetables and fruits – this is also a great way for them to discover the names of different produce and spark an interest in tasting new foods.
  • Let them use a fork to mash potatoes and demonstrate how a potato masher tool can be used.
  • Teach them how to stir and mix ingredients using a spoon or clean hands.
  • Practice pouring or spooning ingredients into scales, measuring cups, or measuring spoons.
  • Let them cut soft ingredients such as butter, mushrooms, strawberries using a kid-friendly knife.
  • Teach them how to bread and flour different foods by setting up three stations with flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs.  
  • Show them how to tear ingredients such as herbs and lettuce.
  • Demonstrate how to use a sieve for measuring flour.
  • Explain how to use a pestle and mortar.
  • Practice light kneading, rolling, shaping, and cutting dough.

Children ages 5-7 years:

  • Highlight the importance of food safety by properly washing hands before, during, and after touching raw and ready-to-eat ingredients.
  • Teach them age appropriate knife skills and the “claw” technique to keep fingers and hands safe.
  • Allow them to use scissors to cut herbs and other delicate ingredients.
  • Show them how to safely use a grater or a micro-plane.
  • Practice measuring wet and dry ingredients using scales, measuring cups, and measuring spoons.
  • Explain the process of cracking, beating, and folding eggs.
  • Try greasing and lining a cake tin or tray.
  • Demonstrate how to peel citrus and hard-boiled eggs.
  • Practice pressing garlic through a sieve.
  • Teach them how to help set the table.
  • Show them how to clean their kitchen work area.

Children ages 8-11 years:  

  • Help them understand the basic principles of reading and following an age appropriate recipe.
  • Highlight the importance of food safety by properly washing hands before, during, and after touching raw and ready-to-eat ingredients.
  • Teach them age appropriate knife skills and the “claw” technique to keep fingers and hands safe.
  • Practice using a spatula to remove ingredients from a bowl.
  • Let them observe and help them understand the safe and proper use of a food processor and blender.
  • Allow them to use scissors to cut herbs and other delicate ingredients.
  • Show them how to safely use a grater or a micro-plane.
  • Demonstrate how to peel citrus and hard-boiled eggs.
  • Practice measuring wet and dry ingredients using scales, measuring cups, and measuring spoons.
  • Explain the process of cracking, beating, and folding eggs.
  • Show them how to safely use a can opener.
  • Try greasing and lining a cake tin or tray.
  • Demonstrate the safe use of an oven and stove top for baking, roasting, toasting, and sautéing.
  • Practice using an oven timer.
  • Teach them how to help set the table.
  • Show them how to clean their kitchen work area.

Children ages 12 years and older:

  • Highlight the importance of food safety by properly washing hands before, during, and after touching raw and ready-to-eat ingredients.
  • Show them how to safely use a grater or a micro-plane.
  • Allow them to organize ingredients and the cooking process according to the recipe.
  • Teach them age appropriate knife skills and the “claw” technique to keep fingers and hands safe.
  • Let them read and follow a recipe to create a final dish.
  • Practice kitchen math for counting, dividing portions, and doubling recipes.
  • Teach them different ingredients and their origin.
  • Review the different types of kitchen equipment and explain their proper use. Here’s a list of basic equipment to get you started.
  • Show them how to safely use a can opener.
  • Practice using an oven timer.
  • Demonstrate the safe use of an oven and stove top for baking, roasting, toasting, and sautéing.
  • Review the basic science of cooking and how common ingredients change during cooking.
  • Practice hand skills and coordination of carrying, transferring, and pouring of ingredients.
  • Teach them how to help set the table.
  • Show them how to clean their kitchen work area.

Additional resources:

  • If you’d like to brush up on common culinary skills, check out our skills videos.  
  • To take the confusion out of cooking, review our kitchen vocabulary terms with your child.
  • Now that you know what skills are age appropriate for your child, try recreating one of our recipes at home with entire family using our recipe videos.  

Simple Ingredient Swaps

If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the grocery store or don’t have an ingredient on hand at home, don’t fear! Check out our list of simple ingredient swaps.

  • Don’t have canned beans? Use dried instead! Remember to wait to add salt to the beans until they are almost done cooking.
  • Swap out fresh fruit for frozen or canned fruit. When purchasing canned, just look for “no sugar added” on the label or canned in juice, instead of syrup.
  • Out of fresh vegetables? Canned or frozen can be just as nutritious! When shopping canned, choose the low-sodium or no salt added option. You can also rinse canned vegetables to remove excess sodium.
  • Can’t find bread or pizza crusts at your local grocery store? Put your baking skills to the test and make your own pizza dough at home.
  • Getting bored of plain water? Try making your own infused water. You can even add club soda to make your infused water sparkling!
  • No fresh herbs on hand? Simply swap them out with dried herbs. Just remember, you don’t need as much when the dried version.
  • Down to the last drop of vinegar? Swap it out for fresh lemon juice, which mimics vinegar’s acidity.
  • Substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream! The thick, tangy consistency makes a great replacement.
  • Running low on rice? Experiment with a different grain instead! Some good options are quinoa, barley, farro, couscous, and bulgur.

For more ideas, ask our experts using our Ask a Dietitian tool.

10 Tips for Keeping Your Family Healthy During Self-Isolation

  1. Involve your children in cooking. Get the whole family in the kitchen to make fun, simple meals. Children are more willing to try new foods if they have had a hand in creating it. Check out our website and social media (@CHEFSanAntonio) for healthy, family friendly recipe inspiration.
  2. Enjoy your favorite fruits and vegetables. Many farmers markets and produce wholesalers are offering curbside pickup for fresh, local fruits and vegetables. If you’re headed to the grocery store, add fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables to your list. Make sure to check for labels with “no sugar/salt added”.
  3. Reward your children with fun activities. Use fun activities to reward your children for completing online homework or household chores instead of candy.
  4. Make a daily infused water to keep in the fridge. You can add any combination of herbs and fruit or vegetables to flavor your water. Add club soda for some bubbles! Our Cucumber Mint Infusion is a great place to start.
  5. Wash your hands and produce. While this is something you should always be doing, it’s especially important now. Remind your family to wash their hands for 20 seconds and wash your fresh fruits and vegetables before you eat them. We know 20 seconds feels like a long time, so turn this into a fun activity by singing the chorus of a popular song while you wash! Here’s some suggestions.
  6. Avoid drinking alcohol in excess. While there are benefits to drinking a glass of red wine, too much alcohol can be harmful to your health. Enjoy in moderation!
  7. Get adequate sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone, not just growing children. Inadequate sleep is linked with certain diseases including Type II Diabetes and Obesity.
  8. Practice mindfulness daily. Take some time each day to have a quiet moment and think of all of the things you are thankful for, such as time with your family.
  9. Eat meals at the table with your family. Turn off the TV and have a conversation while you eat. This is a great way to eat more mindfully and connect with your family.
  10. Go easy on yourself. Self-isolation is tough on everyone – don’t worry if every meal you serve your family isn’t the most Instagram-worthy or even the most nutritious. Allow yourself to acknowledge that you are doing the best you can.

Cooking With Canned or Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

by Katy Bowen, MS, RDN, LD,  Director of Community Outreach, CHEF

Cooking with canned or frozen fruits and vegetables is a quick and convenient option for busy weeknight meals. They can even be more nutritious! Shopping in the canned food aisle and freezer section, in addition to fresh produce, can provide a wider variety of meals for even the most discernible palates.

Canned fruits and vegetables have a long shelf-life and are typically free of preservatives. The canning process uses high temperatures to cook and seal the contents. Canned foods are also a quick option as they only need to be reheated. There are many canned foods that come in microwave-safe packaging and can be reheated in minutes. Be sure to look for sodium-free, low-fat, and no added sugar on the labels of your canned foods. Rinsing certain canned vegetables like canned beans can help to remove excess sodium.

Frozen fruits and vegetables can be more nutritious as they are flash frozen closer to the time of being picked. Many frozen vegetables can be microwaved for quick, easy cooking. Choosing plain vegetables or vegetables in low-fat sauces can help control the amount of fat and calories you consume. Frozen meals and entrees can be a great option if you are counting calories – just be sure to compare nutrition labels and serving sizes to find better-for-you options.

Whether you use canned or frozen fruits and vegetables to cook part or all of your meal, you can expedite the time it takes to prepare a delicious, nutritious dinner!

Give Your Pantry a CHEF Approved Makeover!

by Katy Bowen, MS, RDN, LD

If you’re stuck at home, looking for something to do, now’s the perfect time to give your kitchen a CHEF-Approved makeover! Cleaning out a cluttered pantry will not only help you stay organized but also more likely to use the ingredients you already have on hand. Stocking up on healthy staples will mean your family is more likely to make nutritious choices.

After a long day, opening the door to a messy pantry doesn’t provide any encouragement to cook a healthy meal.

Preparing a healthy meal starts with an organized pantry, full of healthy ingredients. Being able to see which ingredients you have, can help cut down on food waste. The First In – First Out (FIFO) method is a great way to organize your pantry in order of which food you purchased first. After returning from the grocery store, simply move existing ingredients to the front of the shelf and add your new items to the back of the shelf. This process will help eliminate food from reaching its expiration date, saving you money!

Here are 7 easy steps to organize your pantry:

  1. Declutter! Go through your pantry and toss out food that has expired.
  2. Clean it up! Wipe down your pantry shelves to clean up any dust, dirt, or food crumbs to keep your food safe from germs.
  3. Group similar foods. Organize the food in your pantry by food group so that your ingredients are easy to find. Be sure to place healthier foods on shelves at eye level to encourage you to cook healthy meals more often.
  4. Arrange foods based on their expiration date. Practice First In, First Out to prevent food waste and save money.
  5. Shop your house for pantry organizers. Before you spend lots of money on pantry organizers, search your house for unused baskets, shoe boxes, and other storage containers that can help you organize your pantry for free.
  6. Optional: Purchase pantry organizers. No need to splurge on pricey pantry organizers. Simply shop around to find a few airtight containers to help extend the life of your food. I purchased a can rack, and I don’t know how I ever lived without one!
  7. Label it: Use labels to help keep each shelf organized and to identify foods in airtight containers. Be sure to write the expiration date on the label for items you remove from their original packaging.

Are you wondering which foods should go in the pantry instead of the fridge? Check out this helpful guide from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics:

Healthy Pantry Swaps

by Katy Bowen, MS, RDN, LD and Celina Parás, MSc, RDN, LD

Cooking healthy meals at home starts with a pantry stocked with healthy ingredients. Finding easy substitutions for foods you already know and love can help you stick to your New Year’s Resolution all year long. Check out these Healthy Swaps from our CHEF Dietitians:

Go with the (Whole) Grain

Whole Grains are a great source of B-vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eating whole grain foods each day may help prevent risk factors associated with heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and even certain cancers. Try these whole grain substitutions to start your pantry makeover today:

Healthy Swaps:

  • Whole Grain Bread for White Bread
  • Whole Grain Flour for White Flour
  • Whole Grain Cereal for Sugar-sweetened cereal
  • Whole Grain Pasta for Enriched Pasta
  • Whole Grain crackers and pita chips for
  • Plain popcorn for buttered, seasoned popcorn

CHEF Tip: Add chili powder or Cinnamon for great flavor without salt!

Fruits and Veggies: Yes we CAN!

Canned fruits and vegetables have a longer shelf life and tend to be lower in cost than fresh fruits and vegetables. BUT – watch out for added sugar in canned fruits and added sodium in canned vegetables and beans. Too much sodium (salt) can lead to high blood pressure, which is a leading cause of Heart Disease. Be sure to check the label and look for “No Sodium Added.” Try rinsing and draining canned foods to remove some of the extra sodium or undesirable ingredients added during the canning process.

Healthy Swaps:

  • Fruit canned in juice for Fruit canned in Syrup
  • “No Sodium Added” Vegetables for regular canned vegetables

Protein Power

Beans, Nuts, and seeds, are a great source of plant-based protein and they have a long shelf life. Buying canned beans with a “No Sodium Added” label is a great way to limit the amount of sodium you eat. You can also rinse the beans the remove excess sodium.

Try choosing nuts and seeds without added salt or sugar. There are many options to choose from including walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. You may store nuts and seeds in the refrigerator to extend their shelf life.

Healthy Swaps:

  • “No Sodium Added” Canned beans for regular canned beans
  • Dried Beans for Pre-seasoned beans
  • Unseasoned nuts – no salt or sugar added for raw nuts and seeds

Rethink your Drink

Drinking 8 cups of water each day may sound like a difficult task, but there are many fun ways to rethink your drink. Try these healthy swaps to decrease the amount of added sugar you eat each week!

Healthy Swaps:

  • Bottled water or sugar-free drinks for sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Infused water with fresh fruits and herbs instead of “fruit drinks.”

Spice It Up!

There are lots of ways to flavor your food without adding salt. Dried spices are a great way to flavor your food without relying on too much sodium, sugar or fats. You may use other flavoring agents such as citrus juice, fresh & dried herbs, and fresh aromatic vegetables such as onion, garlic, celery, and green onions.

Healthy Swaps:

  • Dried herbs & spices for salt
  • Garlic powder for garlic salt
  • Dried spices without added sodium vs. spice blends with MSG (monosodium glutamate) or added sodium.
  • Rely on fresh aromatics to add flavor, nutrients, and dietary fiber to meals!

Top it off!

Use oils, vinegars and better-for-you condiments instead of condiments with added sugar, salt, and high in fat.

Healthy Swaps:

  • Swap olive or canola oil for Crisco and other fats that are solid at room temperature
  • Vinegars such as balsamic for high-fat salad dressings
  • Make your own vinaigrette vs. store-bought vinaigrettes. Homemade vinaigrettes are inexpensive and free of preservatives, check out our CHEF salad dressing recipe!

These simple swaps can make a huge impact to help you eat healthy foods all year long!