Q: I have recently begun a weight-reducing diet and am making consistent progress. I am even learning to like vegetables, which I almost never ate before. But plain vegetables are starting to bore me, and I am hoping that you can give me some suggestions about how to jazz them up without adding calories.
A: As you know, the world of vegetables is varied, although few people love them all. But assuming you do like a reasonable number, the possibilities for low-calorie combinations and alternative seasonings are limited only by the imagination of the cook.
Here are several popular, easy-to-prepare examples:
Steaming a small amount of diced celery along with green beans alters both the texture and the taste. Sprinkling a bit of thyme on top will make it even better. Just two or three tablespoons of chopped scallion and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg will heighten the flavor of chopped spinach.
Or try a "stew" of vegetables such as zucchini, yellow summer squash, green peppers, eggplant slices and tomatoes seasoned with onion and garlic for an excellent low-calorie dish that can be served hot or cold. Among good herb choices for this mixture are basil, oregano or rosemary. If you plan to eat it cold, you might add some wine vinegar. Naturally, the vegetables included in the stew can be chosen according to your taste.
Bear in mind that while fat is the most concentrated source of calories in your diet, a small amount, used judiciously, can go a long way toward expanding possibilities. A tablespoon of oil, enough for four servings, adds only 30 calories a serving and opens up endless possibilities for stir-fry mixtures. The method is consistent: Heat the oil, add the vegetables, and stir-fry over medium heat until they are as tender as you like them, perhaps adding a cover for two or three minutes of cooking. When using several vegetables, add them in order depending on how long each one takes to cook.
Chinese cabbage lends itself especially well to this method, and the overall dish can be prepared at minimal caloric cost by adding ingredients such as mushrooms, water chestnuts, sliced onions, Chinese pea pods, bean sprouts and green pepper. A small amount of soy, teriyaki or oyster sauce or a dash of hot pepper oil or sesame oil contributes extra zest. And you may want to saute' some garlic, onion or fresh ginger -- or all three -- before adding the other vegetables.
These suggestions are only a beginning. Experiment on your own both with vegetable combinations and with seasonings. Some of the most improbable mixtures may turn out to be among your favorites.
Q: I often read that Americans are eating out more and more frequently. Just how rapidly is the number of meals eaten away from home increasing?
A: It has been estimated that in the 25 years from 1960 to 1985, the number of meals eaten away from home rose from one in four to one in three. According to figures available from the USDA, the cost of foods eaten out increased from 26 percent of the total spent on food in 1960 and to 43 percent in 1985.
As you might expect, the largest share of that growth has occurred in fast-food franchising operations. In the eight years between 1977 and 1985, after correcting for inflation, spending at these establishments rose about 46 percent. The actual amount went up from $20 billion to more than $51 billion. Of that, in 1985 no less than $11 billion was spent at McDonald's, which at that time had more than 9,400 units worldwide and estimated that it was opening a new one somewhere in the world every 15 hours. Second was the Pillsbury Group, which owns Burger King -- with sales in that year of more than $5 billion -- as well as Bennigan's Steak and Ale, Bay Street, Godfather's and Quik Wok.
Q: As the mother of a toddler, I need guidance about the role of snacks in the diet. What's your opinion?
A: Snacking has three components: selection of suitable foods, timing, and the way snacks are served.
Snacks should provide more than calories; they should make important contributions of nutrients to the diet. The best choices remain foods such as fresh fruit or juice, vegetable sticks, peanut butter on crackers (preferably those that are lowest in salt), unsalted pretzels, milk, dry cereals, popcorn, cheese cubes, yogurt with fresh fruit, and occasionally such treats as oatmeal-raisin cookies and ice cream.
Many of these basic foods can easily be combined to make a variety of other snacks. Examples: melted cheese on English muffins, grated cheese on popcorn, or "milkshakes" of milk, fruit and perhaps vanilla flavoring. Of course, the youngest children should not be left alone with foods on which they might be likely to choke. But then, children generally prefer company when they eat. (If they have a friend visiting, it is a good idea to stay nearby.)
The issue of timing is important. Snacks should be placed well apart from meals, so that children are hungry enough to eat when lunch or dinner rolls around. If it appears that dinner appetite is lagging, you may want to serve the afternoon snack somewhat earlier. Alternatively, if your family mealtime is later, two afternoon snacks may be needed, with the second, which is closer to dinner, relatively small.
Finally, snacks should be well defined "happenings." Children should sit down, eat their snacks and be done with it. Random nibbling, often while doing other things, does nothing to encourage sound eating habits.
You have control over the type of foods that come into your home, and therefore over the foods available for snacks. However, as your child gets older, he or she will be visiting homes where the choice of snack foods may not always be what you prefer. There is little you can do about that without it becoming more of an issue than it should.