Summer means simple

Even in the middle of this crazy pandemic time, I feel like summer is still fairly busy at our house. Even if we aren’t going as many places, we keep busy cleaning, reading, playing in the yard, riding bikes, etc. That means by dinner time, none of us are in the mood for a big complicated dinner that will take hours to cook. Also, I don’t mind eating hot food even when it is hot outside, but I don’t want my oven on forever heating up the house.

Summer Watermelon

Today, I’m sharing some tips for simplifying summer meals.

1) Make it a family affair. Rotate who has the job for meals each night. If your kids aren’t old enough to cook, you can have them at least help you pick out one night’s meal. If possible, rotate between you and your spouse. It feels less overwhelming when more people take turns.

2) Go fresh. Now is the time for fresh fruits and vegetables. Let the freshness shine! We have been eating our version of a veggie tray as our side dish for a lot of dinners. I buy the fresh veggies we like, cut them up, and have them waiting in the fridge ready to go. Homemade ranch has also been a huge hit this summer. Watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, pineapple, cherries. All of these are beautiful as is. Just slice, chill and serve!

3) Grill. Grill. Grill. Grilled food just tastes like summer. It also cooks quickly, is generally healthy, and doesn’t heat up your house. Kebabs, chicken breast, fish, and vegetables are great items to grill. Even the traditional hamburgers and hot dogs can fit in a healthy diet. Just pair them with the simple fruits and veggies from above.

4) Prep ahead when possible. By the end of a long, hot day, everyone is tired. So prep as much as you can in the morning or at lunch time. Slow cookers are great for this. But you can slice veggies or fruit, make kebabs, marinate meat, etc. By moving the grunt work to when you have energy and enthusiasm, you are more likely to eat better later.

5) Store standbys. When possible, I like to keep ingredients for quick meals I know my family likes on hand. The pressure cooker chicken tacos I shared recently are a great example. Everything is freezer or shelf safe. Spaghetti, homemade macaroni and cheese, black bean nachos, and potato soup are just a few examples. Then, even when I’m tired and what I originally planned sounds like too much work or I don’t have enough time, I know I have a back up that can be ready in a flash.

Hope these tips help you have a healthy and fun summer!

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Brownie Date Bites

Are you a chocolate lover? I hope so, because I sure am. I’ve tried giving up chocolate before, and I found I just ate more junk. I like all forms of sweets, don’t get me wrong. But I’ll almost always choose the chocolate option.

Being at home often leads to more snacking. These little bites are healthy and chocolatey. They also easily lend themselves to portion control because eating too many dates can really upset your tummy. They don’t taste healthy though. The dates make them rich and gooey like a fresh brownie. Yum!

Brownie Date Bites (Makes 20 bites)

Brownie Date Bites

½ cup chopped walnuts
1 cup pitted dates
⅔ cup almond butter
⅓ cup cocoa powder
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
cocoa powder (optional)
shredded coconut (optional)

1. Place dates in a food processor. Process until almost a paste. Add remaining ingredients except walnuts. Process until well combined. Mix in ½ of walnuts by hand.

2. Roll into 20 balls. Roll each ball in remaining walnuts, cocoa powdered, or shredded coconut. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes until eating. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Nutritional information (amount per 2 bites):

Calories: 190
Protein: 5 g
Fat: 14 g
Saturated fat: 2 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Carbohydrates: 17 g
Fiber: 4 g
Sodium: 97 mg

Source: adapted from Cooking Light

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Creamy Spring Pasta

Even though we are spending more time at home, I don’t find that personally translates into wanting to cook long, complicated dishes. I especially don’t want to make 5 pans dirty that I then have to clean up. Any one else?

This creamy spring pasta is quick, easy, and doesn’t make a ton of pans dirty. I could even lie to my children and say it was like mac and cheese, so they ate it. Wins all around. It LOOKS there is alfredo, but this is a mornay sauce. What is the difference? Mornay sauce is a béchamel sauce with cheese added to it. Béchamel is a roux based sauce, so like how this macaroni and cheese starts. Alfredo sauce is technically a sauce made by reducing cream, but many recipes start with a basic béchamel recipe. All of that was a convoluted way of explaining why I didn’t call this alfredo. Hope you enjoy it no matter what you call it!

Creamy Spring Pasta (Serves 4-6)

Creamy Spring Pasta

1 lb pasta (any medium shape would work, penne, rigatoni, bowties)
1 bunch asparagus, chopped (about 1 – 1 ½ cups chopped)
¾ cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 tablespoons flour
2 cups skim milk
1 can chopped artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained well, chopped
½ cup parmesan, divided
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Boil pasta without salt or oil according to time on package. With 6 minutes left, add asparagus to pot with pasta. With 2 minutes left, add peas. Drain all well.

2. Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan. Add garlic, cook stirring, for about 1 minute. Add flour. Whisk together for 1-2 minutes. Stir in milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently, until desired thickness, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in ¼ cup parmesan cheese.

3. Add pasta, asparagus, peas, and artichoke hearts to cooked sauce. Stir well. Top with parmesan. Serve with extra parmesan at the table.

Nutritional Information: (Amount per serving)

Calories: 437
Protein: 18 g
Fat: 8 g
Saturated fat: 4 g
Cholesterol: 19 mg
Carbohydrates: 74 g
Fiber: 6 g
Sodium: 275 mg

Recipe notes: You could mix up the vegetables here with whatever you have on hand and like. These were just nice spring flavors.

Source: Adapted from Food Network and NYT Cooking (recipe was free but now is behind paywall, so no link, sorry!).

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Teaching Kids to Cook

I’ve seen quite a few parents share lofty goals of things they’d like to teach their kids during this time of staying at home. Teaching kids how to cook frequently shows up on that list. As this period of staying at home has gone on, I’ve also seen most of those people post that they aren’t accomplishing most of the goals.

First, I want to say that is 100% ok to not accomplish the goals and just move on. This is a difficult time for all of us in different ways. Doing your best is all you can do.

I will be honest, I had lofty goals of things to accomplish for MYSELF, but didn’t really think about goals with my kids. Sadly, I haven’t accomplished most of my personal goals. And that’s ok. The answer to most things in this post is “that’s ok”.

Why? The most important part of teaching your kid any life skill is actually building a positive relationship with your child and having a positive experience. So do what you have to do and that’s ok. Repeat it to yourself.

However, I have actually randomly had a fair amount of success cooking with my kids during this time. This isn’t something that comes naturally for me, actually. And we have plenty of failures. But today, I thought I’d show some tips I’ve found to work for me and my kids in the kitchen. If you have any, please share in the comments. (None of the links in this post are sponsored or affiliate links. I get nothing from you clicking them. Just passing on information.)

1) Find something that makes your kid(s) excited to cook. There are subscription services out there that can be very fun, like Raddish. My daughter got a cookbook for her birthday that has really set her cooking dreams aflame. We are liking that one, but there are plenty of options out there. During this time of quarantine, America’s Test Kitchen has opened up their kid website for free. Not everything is open, but a lot is. And their kid’s club is discounted right now as well. But you don’t need any of these “official” things. Just ask your kid what they want to make and find a recipe somewhere. If they are old enough, have them find the recipe.

2) If you have multiple children, only cook with one at a time. This has caused huge breakthroughs in our house. I used to always try and cook with everyone. It just led to fights between the kids and me yelling. By going individually, things go much smoother. Does it mean my other kids sometimes watch tv? Yes, and that’s ok. Not only does this eliminate fighting amongst the kids, it lowers your stress level. You aren’t having to watch more than one kid with a knife or hot stove, etc. Also, kids love one on one time with parents, so it is a win on multiple levels.

3) Make it a “set” thing. As set as you can make it. We don’t have a set night, but my daughter knows she will cook dinner one night a week. When I am menu planning, she picks it out and we put it on the schedule. She knows it is coming and is excited about it. This also makes it a bit easier only allowing one kid in the kitchen – the other’s know when their turns are.

4) Allow for spontaneity. I know that goes against the last one. While we have the set times, if my daughter randomly asks to make breakfast or a dessert, I try to work that in as I can. But if I’m not feeling up to it, I say no. And that’s ok.

5) Be prepared for a mess. A huge mess. As they are making the mess, just take deep breaths. Realize you were going to have to clean up no matter what. If they are old enough (or have cooked enough to know how to not make as much of a mess), make them help clean it up. Nothing like cleaning up your own mess to teach cleaner cooking. But also, it is ok to have messes. It’s part of the process. However, if the mess is getting out of control and raising your stress level, you can end the cooking session with kids at anytime. And that’s ok.

6) You don’t have to let them do everything. A kid with a knife stress you out? Don’t give them one. That’s ok. The kid can’t muster the muscles to mash potatoes (true story at our house)? That’s ok. Every time the kid whisks half of the mix ends up on the counter? Don’t let them whisk. That’s ok. Let them do as much as you can while keeping the experience positive for both of you. If either of you hate it, it won’t keep happening.

7) Keep the end goals in mind. Positive time together. Building a relationship. Some day (far away likely) they will be independent. Teaching some health and life skills. A picture perfect meal with a picture perfect kitchen isn’t in there. And that’s ok.

I hope any of these tips help you out. Let me know if you have any great tips for cooking with kids. We all need all the help we can get!

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Pressure Cooker Mexican Chicken

I love celebrating holidays with food whenever possible. Cinco de Mayo is a great holiday for food. Who doesn’t love a big spread of Mexican food, however authentic? (If you don’t, I hope we can still be friends.)

Today’s recipe is very versatile. You can make tacos, enchiladas, salad, nachos, and rice bowls. The world is your oyster with this one. And it uses lots of canned ingredients you may have hanging around. I also could find all of these ingredients at my local Walmart this week, so if you don’t have them, they shouldn’t be hard to find. Have a bueno Cinco de Mayo next week!

(Sorry for no picture. We ate it before I got a picture.)

Pressure Cooker Mexican Chicken (Serves at least 6)

1 can no salt added black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can diced green chiles
1 can corn, rinsed and drained
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 T taco seasoning
1 can no salt added dieced tomatoes (not drained )
4 ounces low fat cream cheese

1. Place all ingredients except cream cheese in pressure cooker. Close lid.
2. Cook on high pressure for 20 minutes. Use natural pressure release for 10 minutes. Then release any remaining pressure and remove lid.
3. Shred chicken (can do this in pot or remove it).
4. Return pressure cooker to moderate heat (saute function if instant pot). Stir in cream cheese and shredded chicken.

Nutritional Information (Amount per serving):

Calories: 336
Protein: 46 g
Fat: 9 g
Saturated Fat: 3 g
Cholesterol: 142 g
Carbohydrates: 17 g
Fiber: 5 g
Sodium: 295 mg

Recipe notes: I didn’t include tortillas or anything else as the way you serve this is up to you. You can start with frozen chicken as well. I add about 5 minutes to the cook time when the chicken is frozen. I’ve kept everything else the same but cut the amount of chicken in half as well if you are rationing meat. Worked very well, but would say it definitely only served 4 as tacos that way.

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More tips for healthy eating during a pandemic

Line for toilet paper at my local Wal-Mart recently

I like to keep posts fairly short and sweet around here. Especially right now, I often don’t have the world’s greatest attention span. Small steps help me. I hope you enjoyed my tips last week and found them helpful. Here are a few more tips for eating healthy while staying safe during this pandemic.

1. Keep to your pre-pandemic routines. If you had a good routine for meal prepping or making a lunch to take to work, I would recommend keeping that up. While it may seem silly since you are home, it will have at least two good effects. First, it will make life feel a bit more normal in this crazy time. Second, when life does go back to normal, you won’t have to start your good habits up again. Plus, if you make lunch in the morning, you can use your “lunch break” time to eat and go for a walk or read a book or something else fun.

2. Celebrate food holidays. There are tons of food holidays. Use your time at home to celebrate them if you can. We need any reason to celebrate. A friend or relative having a birthday? Make their favorite foods for yourself. Next week is Cinco de Mayo. This Saturday was supposed to be the Kentucky Derby. It is beef, barbecue, egg, salad, salsa, and strawberry month in May. Have fun with it!

3. In a similar vein, try new things. Always wanted to learn how to cook a certain dish? Maybe now is the time to try. Perfect your Grandma’s pierogi recipe (see Some Good News for a cute segment on that). Have fun!

4. On the opposite end of the spectrum, remember not every meal needs to be a made from scratch homemade gourmet wonder. If you have kids, they very likely could make their own lunches. Many school districts around the country are offering school lunch pick up. We do this a couple days a week. They also pack breakfast for the next day – we usually use these as the rest of the day’s snacks. Check with your local school district to see what options they have. Just because you are home does not mean you need to spend inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen. I am personally veering toward quick and easy dinners as I’m usually out of patience by the time dinner time rolls around.

5. Get creative in your grocery shopping. Most of us are trying to go to the store less. There are often CSA’s or other produce services out there that will deliver produce to you. You can also choose produce that lasts longer. Carrots, potatoes, onions, brussels sprouts, garlic, apples, and oranges are a few items that keep particularly well. Frozen veggies are also a good option. Not storing your produce wet will often help it last longer. Placing asparagus bottoms in a glass of water in the fridge helps it last longer.

On a side note, many sites have some great offerings to help in this time. America’s Test Kitchen has some great recipes, substitution tips, free videos for kids, and more. There are many others as well, but that is one of my favorites.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ll hopefully be back later this week with a pantry friendly recipe for Cinco de Mayo. Happy staying at home!

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Eating healthy and reducing stress during a pandemic

Pandemic life shouldn’t be THAT different than my regular life. I’m generally home with 3 of my 4 kids everyday anyway. But trying to get a good schedule and routine where I have time for posting here is harder than I anticipated. Also, I want to make sure things I am posting right now are applicable to today’s situations. I have lots of recipes and pictures ready that use a lot of ingredients that maybe are harder to find. Still working on that.

Today, I wanted to share a few tips for trying to eat healthy during this crazy time while also not increasing your stress level. Hope any of these help!

The in and out of stock board at my local Costco recently

1. Menu planning is your friend. If you are trying to go to the grocery store less frequently, plan out LOTS of meals and buy the ingredients. I generally plan about a week of menus. Right now, I’m trying to go about a week and a half to two weeks out. Do I have to know exactly what day we will eat everything? No. But knowing what meals I have food for reduces my stress.

2. Strict menu planning is your enemy. Try to pick recipes that have somewhat flexible ingredients. Be flexible about what types of beans, pasta, vegetables, cheese, meat, you need for a recipe. These things can often substitute with ease. For example, my daughter had a birthday in the midst of this pandemic. She requested lasagna for her birthday dinner. I warned her ahead of time I would make her some sort of pasta casserole, but it would depend on what noodles I could find at the store. Luckily, lasagna noodles were about the only pasta stocked that day.

3. Keep fruits and vegetables in the mix – in any form you can get. At least at the stores I have been to, fresh produce has been fairly well stocked. One or two things might be wiped out, but they generally have things. Frozen has been pretty obliterated. Canned is hit or miss. Just remember a couple things if you are having to get canned fruits and vegetables. First, that is 100% ok! Second, look for no salt added vegetables or canned in water or juice fruits. But just doing your best is all you can do. So give yourself grace!

4. Watch your sodium intake. A lot of us are switching to more canned products than normal or using more shelf stable products to avoid frequent shopping. That is great. Just know that shelf stable products often, but not always, have sodium added. So check your labels. And check yourself on adding more salt.

5. Teach your kids or yourself how to cook. I’ll have a post soon about tips for teaching your kids to cook. But with yourself and your children stuck at home, it is a great time to add in some cooking lessons. Or if you don’t have kids, teach yourself a new cooking skill!

Learning to make pretzels with my daughters

6. Give yourself grace! If you need a treat now and then, it is ok. If you can’t handle a long drawn out meal but really on freezer food, that is ok. This is not going to be normal life forever. Try to keep things as healthy nutritionally as you can while still maintaining good mental health. (And if that involves a lot of diet soda like it does at our house, go for it!)

Got soda?

Hope these tips help! If you have any questions I could help with your nutrition or cooking in this pandemic, please email me at kimberlykmarsh at gmail dot com.

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Quick Eggs Benedict (or Florentine)

Friends, the world has completely changed since my last post. I’ve been trying to navigate this new temporary normal with my family as I know you are with yours. My daughter has been using my laptop most days for school. We just got a loaner from the school for her, so I might be able to get on here more frequently. But the craziness in this world is hard right now. The most stressful part of my week is menu planning and grocery shopping. It’s tough. I almost hesitate to share recipes right now since I know finding ingredients can be hard. I will do my best to provide timely content as much as possible right now. If you have any questions or issues I can help with, please reach out to me. I’d love to help if I can!

With all this time at home and everything topsy turvy, it is important to find things to celebrate. Small victories, random holidays, you name it. This Thursday is Eggs Benedict Day. Random? Sure. But why not? For once we have time to do these things.

Today’s recipe is a pseudo benedict. It should technically be called florentine since I included spinach. And it uses a make shift hollandaise sauce because 1) it is faster and 2) I don’t actually love traditional hollandaise. Hope this makes your week a little brighter!

Quick Eggs Benedict (Serves 1)

Quick Eggs Benedict

1 whole wheat English muffin or 1 slice of whole wheat bread
1-2 eggs
1 tablespoon skim milk
1 cup spinach
1 oz slice of ham
½ tomato, sliced
¼ cup shredded cheese or 1 slice of cheese
1 tbsp light mayo
½ teaspoon dijon mustard
dash lemon juice

1. Toast muffin or bread.
2. In a small skiller over medium heat, heat ham. Cut in half and place half on each half of muffin. Top with cheese.
3. In same skillet, saute spinach until wilted. Place on top of cheese. Place tomato slices on top of spinach.
4. Whisk together egg and milk. In same skillet, scramble egg until set. Place on top of spinach.
5. In a small bowl whisk together mayo, mustard, and just enough lemon juice to make it almost thin enough to pour. Drizzle sauce over eggs.

Recipe notes: The recipe has instructions for scrambling the egg. This is easier for splitting 1 egg over 2 halves of an English muffin. However, as pictured, you could also go for a more traditional poached egg. Alton Brown explains this process well here.

Nutritional information:

Calories: 396
Protein: 23 g
Fat: 20 g
Saturated fat: 8 g
Cholesterol: 221 mg
Carbohydrates: 34 g
Fiber: 6 g
Sodium: 804 mg

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Cast Iron Skillet Beef Pot Pie

Pi Day is this coming Saturday. I love making some sweet pies for us to eat on that day. But it is fun to spread the pie love throughout the day. Try a quiche for breakfast or brunch. Pizza “pie” for lunch or dinner. Or a pot pie. Make it a party – even with just your family. Small changes can help with the quarantine time most of us have looming over us right now.

This pot pie is very simple to throw together. It all cooks in one pan. Super simple and hearty. Fill yourself up with some yummy veggies before sampling some sweet pie this Saturday! Enjoy!

Cast Iron Skillet Beef Pot Pie (Serves 4-6)

Cast Iron Skillet Beef Pot Pie

Pie Crust:

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into cubes
1 ¼ cups white whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup cold water (or more)

Filling:

1 lb beef stew meat
1 tablespoon canola oil
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
2 ¼ cups low sodium beef broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup frozen peas
¼ teaspoon dried thyme

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Make crust: cut butter into flour, sugar, and salt to form small crumbs. Gently stir in water to form crust. Roll to fit size of skillet. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in large cast iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add beef and mushrooms, cooking for 5-7 minutes until lightly browned. Add carrots, celery, and onion. Cook for 5 more minutes, or until vegetables begin to soften.

3. Add tomato paste, garlic, and sweet potato. Cook for about a minute, stirring. Stir in flour and cook for 1 more minute.

4. Stir in ½ cup of broth. Stir until almost evaporated. Add remaining broth and Worcestershire sauce, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring to remove lumps. Stir in peas and thyme.

5. Cover skillet with pie dough. Cut a couple slits in the top of the crust. Bake for about 30 minutes, until crust is browned and filling is bubbling. If crust is browning too quickly, cover it with foil. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

Nutritional Information:

Calories: 467
Protein: 24 g
Fat: 26 g
Saturated fat: 14 g
Cholesterol: 99 mg
Carbohydrates: 38 g
Fiber: 6 g
Sodium: 481 mg

Recipe notes: You could mix up the veggies if you have some you prefer. You could leave out the mushrooms and do more beef. Or skip the beef and do all mushrooms. I liked the half and half since I have some non mushroom eaters at my house. You could also use your favorite pie crust recipe. This was just an idea for a whole wheat one to try.

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Added Sugars and Nutrition Labels

How much sugar should we eat? Is high fructose corn syrup bad for me? What sweeteners should I use in my home? These are questions I frequently get asked. A dietitian friend of mine, Melanie Betz (@the.kidney.dietitian) did a great post on instagram recently about sugar.

First off. Sugar is sugar is sugar. I don’t care if it is white sugar, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or whatever other sugar you have seen. These are all sugar. They all are broken down into sugars that are used by our bodies. Having too much of ANY of these isn’t a good thing. There is no evidence in human studies to date that shows a strong difference between caloric sweeteners.

What about non-calorie sweeteners? People are often concerned about these. In moderate amounts, these are generally considered safe. However, it likely isn’t good to rely on these as a stop gap to solve your eating pattern issues. If you are eating too many sweet treats or drinks, just switching to a sugar free version will not fix the overriding problem. The overriding problem is you are consuming these foods that do not provide necessary nutrients. Switching from regular Coca-Cola to Diet Coke saves you 140 calories per can, yes. But did you gain any nutrition? No. Plus you’ve consumed lots of other additives that can have health effects – phosphorus on your bones and kidneys for example.

So how much sugar should you eat in a day. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to 10% or less of calories per day. For the generic 1800-2000 calorie diet, that translates to 45-50 grams of added sugar per day. For reference, one 12 oz can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association is even more strict. They recommend 100 calories per day of added sugar for women and 150 for men. That translates to 25 and 38 grams respectively.

But how do I look at added sugars? The Dietary Guidelines points out that what we are looking at is an overall eating pattern. MOST people consume too many added sugars in sweet beverages and desserts. However, not all sugar is evil. Sometimes it is added to make healthy things more palatable.

I think the classic example to look at is cereal. Here are pictures of 3 cereal labels I found in my cupboard. Let’s take a look and compare.

Cereal Comparison

So let’s look at the carbohydrate section.  Both Raisin Bran and Frosted Mini Wheats have more total carbs than Honey Nut Cheerios.  For total sugars, Raisin Bran has the most at 17 grams.  Until a few years ago, this is all a label would say, total sugar.  Why is Raisin Bran, which you think is healthy, so high in sugar you say?  Two reasons.  First, it has raisins (and bananas in this box), which NATURALLY has sugar in it.  Second, you do need some sugar to make the bran palatable for most people.

Now let’s look at the added sugars.  Raisin Bran is actually the lowest at 11 grams, compared to 12 grams in both of the others.  This is a classic example of why I’m so incredibly glad “added sugars” has been added to nutrition labels.

But wait?  Mini Wheats and Cheerios are the same in added sugars?  Let’s delve one step further then.  In this case I would go look at the fiber.  Mini Wheats’ 8 grams of fiber definitely beats out the 3 grams in Honey Nut Cheerios.  (Another place you could look would be protein, but that is a discussion for a different day).

I hope you found this helpful as you look at added sugars and nutrition labels!

Disclaimer:  I have no vested interest for or against any products mentioned in this post.  Similar comparisons could be made between any regular vs diet soft drink.  These three cereals happened to be in my cupboard that I purchased at the most recent sale at the grocery store.

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