Updated: Mar 20

As a Nutritionist, many tend to assume that my daily meals consist of lots of leafy green salads, baked chicken breast, and sautéed kale. The truth is, my eating habits growing up were similar to many other 90's kids: lots of hot dogs, mac 'n cheese, and pop tarts. And even now, as a Nutritionist, if I could get away with it, I'd live off of these same foods for the rest of my life if I could get away with it!


Fortunately, as I moved into adulthood, I began taking an interest in nutrition and eventually became a Certified Nutritionist, but my taste buds and eating preferences didn't miraculously change. Yet, when you know better, you do better, which is why I was determined to slowly transition my eating habits into healthier ones that would support better health for myself and my family.


Surprising as it may be, I actually don't care much for lots of raw veggies, and my son isn't a fan of veggies at all. But knowing how crucial vegetables are for good health, I've had to get creative over the years and come up with ways that would ensure me and my family consume at least 3, ideally 5, servings of veggies a day. Below are 5 ways that I accomplish this.



Smoothies


As a busy mom, I don't have the time nor head space to follow every health trend that pops up on my Instagram feed. In fact, I seldom do. But green smoothies make a regular appearance in my house, thanks to the fact that I can pack so many nutrients into a small glass. No, I'm not referring to strawberry-banana smoothies, which make a wonderful occasional treat, but can be a sugary nightmare. I'm referring to smoothies packed with sweet, delicious fruit to offset the undertones of avocado, spinach, carrots, cucumber, and zucchini.


If you're like me, sitting down to a large salad of leafy greens and crunchy veggies may not appeal to you, or perhaps it doesn't every day. Instead of forcing myself to eat things I don't enjoy, I stick them in a high-speed blender, where they marry the flavors of nut milks, fresh juice, and/or frozen fruit, creating a delicious, drinkable smoothie.


Check out my extensive smoothie board on Pinterest (here) for loads of smoothie recipes and ideas.



Breakfast casseroles


I'm a firm believer of getting in as many nutrients as you can at breakfast time to start your day off right, similar to starting off your day with a bit of exercise. In addition to veggie omelets, egg muffins, and baked sweet potatoes topped with nut butter and fruit, I frequently bake breakfast casseroles filled with veggies like onion, bell pepper, shredded sweet potato, and spinach. Not only are they loaded with veggies, they typically serve as breakfast for several days!


Explore my extensive Pinterest board (here) for some of my go-to breakfast casserole recipes.



Soups and stews


Soups and stews are traditionally thought of as cold-weather dishes, but they're year-around dishes in my home. Don't fret if vegetable soup isn't your things -- the ways to marry protein-rich meats and nutrient-rich veggies in a soup or stew are endless! Lots of soups and stews contain 3 incredibly healthy veggies -- onion, garlic, and tomato -- and offer a perfect way to include even more plant foods, like spices, beans and legumes, and herbs.


Seldom do I prepare extravagant soups or stews that require dozens of ingredients and hours in the kitchen. Instead, I focus on veggie-packed soups and stews that the whole family enjoys, like taco soup, stuffed cabbage soup, and chili. Check out my Pinterest board (here) for over 100 simple, healthy soup and stew recipes!





Stir-fries


For years, I was intimated by stir-fries and would only enjoy them when eating out. I finally watched a few videos and mustered up the nerve to make my own, and I can't believe I've been missing out for so long! Stir-fries have since become a regular meal in my home, and serves as the perfect way to use up the vegetables before they spoil.


Although I normally don't cater to each family member's food preferences, I prepare stir-fries in a small pan and thus can easily customize each of our stir-fries to include our favorite ingredients. I always keep a jar of homemade stir-fry sauce handy and whip up a mixed veggie stir-fry for my daughter, a chicken, mushroom, and cabbage stir-fry for my son, and a mixed veggie and chicken stir-fry over rice for myself.





Á la Sneaky Chef


I keep a container of diced onion and a jar of minced garlic in olive oil in the fridge, and tomato sauce and paste in the pantry, at all times. Sautéed onion and garlic are delicious additions to just about every meal, and both pack a powerful nutrient punch. When making tomato sauce, I add in grated zucchini and carrot, both of which can also be added to ground beef dishes like meat loaf and meatballs without changing the flavor. Among my favorite baked goods are those that contain zucchini, carrots, and sweet potatoes, like these Flourless Chocolate Banana Zucchini Muffins or these Avocado Sweet Potato Brownie Bites.

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There is definitely no shortage of advice on healthy eating. How often have you settled on a particular eating philosophy or habit only to come across something contradictory, leaving you doubtful and confused? The constant onslaught of dietary advice leaves most of us overwhelmed, confused, and discouraged, especially busy moms like myself who are already juggling so much.


The reality is, there is no one-size-fits-all lifestyle diet, but fortunately there are 3 simple things that everyone can do to improve the quality and nutrients in their current lifestyle diet:




1. Crowd Out the Crap


Often times, our first approach to eating healthier is eliminating certain foods. For most of us, however, this approach only leads to us wanting these same 'bad' foods even more! Instead of focusing on what to eliminate or limit, focus on what to increase in your daily diet.


The trick here is what I like to call "crowding out the crap." If you keep your tummy full of more nutritious foods, you'll have less room for junk. The easier healthy food is to access, the more likely you are to reach for it when you're hungry, so be sure to have foods that you enjoy eating handy. Fresh fruit, vegetables and dips, nuts and seeds, beans, and whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice are super convenient and can provide a quick snack between meals or even simple meals themselves.


Whenever you're preparing to indulge in an unhealthy meal, enjoy a healthier side with it, like a salad that you enjoy, a vegetable of your liking (baked sweet potato, anyone?), or snack on a handful of nuts while you're ordering or preparing it. This way, you'll have less room for the unhealthy food but still be able to indulge in it.





2. Plan Ahead


Even as a Nutritionist, if I have access to unhealthy food when I'm hungry, I'll almost always eat it. A popular meme that sums this up perfectly is "I looked in the pantry for food but all I found were ingredients." We've come to expect eating to be done as quickly as possible -- even better if it can be done on-the-go.


Unfortunately, these packaged, convenient foods almost always contain a ton of sugar, artificial ingredients that our bodies can't recognize as food, unhealthy fats, and empty carbs that contribute to weight gain. The good news is, with proper planning, healthy eating is not only doable, but it doesn't require spending copious amounts of time in the kitchen.


Plan your meals out for the week and designate a day to grocery shop. Next, designate a time once a week to do some prep work, like chop vegetables, cook a large batch of grains like rice or oats, bake a batch of chicken breasts to use in salads and stir-fries, or portion out meat for each meal you'll cook that week. Consider cooking a few meals at the start of the week and either freezing or refrigerating, or toss ingredients for slow-cooker recipes into gallon-sized zip-lock bags and freeze for effortless meals.




3. Eat More Fruits and Veggies


A vast majority of us don't even get half of our recommended daily intake of fruits or vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain an array of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients that are essential for good health, and increasing them in your daily diet is one of the most powerful ways to improve your overall health.


Although sticking with organic produce is ideal due to lower pesticide residue and higher nutrient content, if you are unable to afford or access organic produce, purchasing conventional produce is better than none at all. A good middle-ground is purchasing the "dirty dozen" fruits and vegetables organic, twelve of the heaviest pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables on the market. Get the current list of dirty dozen here.



The most crucial part of all 3 steps above is ensuring you still enjoy eating. I personally don't care for lots of raw vegetables, so I wouldn't prepare a large leafy salad alongside a pizza. Instead, I'd order a Greek salad and load the pizza with the veggies I enjoy most. Similarly, the meals we rotate through weekly are those that both the kids and I thoroughly enjoy, even if they're not packed with superfoods and leafy greens. Food is designed not to nourish only the body, but the mind as well.

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Updated: Feb 24

In 2017, I packed up my belongings and headed to Morocco with my children, who were four and six years old at the time. Although America was the only country I knew, I was strongly inclined to raising my children abroad even before becoming a mom (for more info on why, check out Why I Chose to Leave America & Raise My Children Abroad). We spent four years abroad, namely in North Africa and the Middle East, which afforded incredible benefits not just for myself, but for my children.


While it was certainly no easy feat raising my children in foreign countries, especially as a single mother who doesn’t speak the local languages well, in my personal experience, the benefits far outweighed the cons. I will expand on the cons in a separate blog post, but what follows is five of the greatest benefits of raising my children abroad.


1. Total Immersion in Other Cultures and Languages.


Both of my children were born and raised along the east coast of America, and most of the friends we had were first- or second-generation immigrants from countries all over the world. This meant we were constantly exposed to a bit of their cultural practices, norms, and foods, yet I yearned for something greater than mere glimpses. Living abroad enabled us to adopt some of the positive aspects of the various cultures we were immersed in, not the least of which were the two additional languages (Arabic and French) that both kids learned to some degree. They also adopted a higher level of respect for their elders, and the ability to entertain themselves rather than always expect to be entertained.


In addition, my children have no practicing Muslim family members on either side of their parent’s families, so it was also incredibly beneficial for them to spend a part of their childhood immersed in Muslim-majority countries, which strengthened their identity as Muslims and provided a sense of belonging.



2) Building Greater Resilience and Flexibility.


Though we set up a home base in each of the countries we traveled in, we also traveled quite extensively throughout that country, or its neighboring countries. Needless to say, we were frequently on the move. This frequent travel meant constantly adjusting to different places, cultures, environments, languages, etc. Fortunately, perhaps because they were still so young, they became accustomed to going with the flow and making the best out of our changing environment. In the case of frequent travelers, you either learn to accommodate, or you spend most of your time miserable and frustrated.


There were numerous instances where we didn’t have access to particular things that we were used to having, leaving us no choice other than to make due with an alternative. Many of the playgrounds we had access to lacked the usual playground equipment they were used to, so the kids began developing their own ways of playing that didn’t require swings or slides. They also became accustomed to making new friends everywhere we went. A lot of my baking necessities were either nonexistent or incredibly overpriced, so I developed recipes for baked goods using whatever I had access to. In the end, we discovered we could do without a lot of the same things we once considered essentials.



3) Becoming more appreciative of things we had previously taken for granted.


Like the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Although we always opted to live in modern, developed cities abroad, the conveniences found there paled in comparison to the conveniences found in America. Without online shopping, I no longer had the world at my fingertips, and I frequently found myself scouring the entire city in search of a single product.


The comfort of life in America was even more pronounced when we'd visit friends in their homes in remote villages, where most homes had old-fashioned toilets (holes in the ground) and 1 running faucet for in the center of the home to be used for hygiene, cooking, and cleaning. Poverty and homelessness were evident nearly every city we lived in or visited, and was a sobering reminder of just how fortunate we were to have easy access to what we had. During our extended stay in Damascus, Syria, to visit the children’s father’s side of the family, the electric was cut for several hours each day, so life was typically planned around when you knew you'd have electricity.



4) Experiencing the beauty and diversity of the world firsthand.


One of the most important things I seek to instill in my children is the understanding that they are part of a world much greater and diverse than they ever could have grasped from the comfort of our middle-class, predominately-white suburban neighborhood in America. Of course, there was no shortage of exposure to diversity even in America – my children went to a Church-based preschool, have family members from several religious backgrounds, and have participated, to some degree, in many of the holidays traditionally celebrated in America. Yet, I wanted them to experience the diversity within our own religion.


Our adventures abroad included visiting with the indigenous Nubian people of Egypt, dining with Berbers and dancing to traditional Gnawa music in Morocco, touring the Christian quarters of Old Damascus, and marveling at ancient cypress trees while learning about the beliefs of our Druze tour guide in Lebanon. I hope that their experiences abroad have opened their minds and will prevent them from ever adopting a narrow-minded, superior mindset when dealing with others from different walks of life.



5) Access to quality, cheap food and reasonably-priced conventional and alternative healthcare.


This benefit in particular has made it very hard to willingly resettle in America again. In America, junk food is far cheaper than fresh, organic foods. Combine this with our hectic, over-scheduled lifestyles, and it’s obvious that we’re systematically set up to fall into unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. On the contrary, fresh produce and meats are reasonably-priced in each of the countries we’ve lived, and typically, things run much slower, leaving time for homecooked meals. By the time the kids and I left America, we were spending several hundred dollars a month on healthy foods, and even more on health insurance, and seldom did it cover any of the alternative practitioners that we turned to for most of our healthcare needs.


Though medical technology is far more advanced in American than it is in many other countries, for healthy individuals with no major health problems, the healthcare offered in most developed countries is more than sufficient, and offered at a fraction of the cost. In most of the countries we’ve lived, conventional doctors’ visits were $20, alternative healthcare practitioner visits were $30, dental cleanings with x-rays were $35, and my one-day stent in the hospital due to severe food poisoning was $200, which covered everything including medications and an ultrasound to rule out gallbladder issues. Medications are also available without a prescription, which was convenient for me, as I was able to order my own blood work and determine if my medication for my autoimmune disease needed to be adjusted.



Raising my children abroad was definitely one of the most challenging feats of my adult life, but with immense benefits that made it well worth the effort. In fact, truth be told, if it weren’t for the educational benefits afforded in America, I would admittedly be inclined to permanently settle abroad. Oddly enough, it simply feels like home.

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