Winter squash: Benefits, tips and recipes

By Kristen Miller, registered dietitian at CHOC

Winter squash appears in the supermarket during the fall and winter months. They come in many varieties and are often characterized by their thick, hefty rinds and bulky appearance. While the tough exterior may appear intimidating, it also gives the fruit a long shelf life. Winter squash can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to three months!

Various winter squash varieties share the health benefits of being  low in calories, fat and cholesterol and high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Three common winter squash varieties found in most supermarkets include acorn squash, butternut squash and spaghetti squash. Here are some of my go-to tips for choosing the right squash and preparing it, as well as a favorite recipe.

Acorn squash

Acorn squash has a distinct acorn-like shape and has a mild, buttery-sweet flavor. Choose acorn squash with a dull dark green color, firm rind and smooth exterior. Avoid any that are yellow or orange. The fruit is packed with nutrients, and is specifically high in vitamin C, thiamine and magnesium.

If the rind is too tough to cut, try microwaving for a short time to soften the exterior. Acorn squash can be roasted, sautéed, made into soups or even baked into pies.

Butternut squash

Butternut squash can be spotted by its bell shape and has a sweet nutty flavor. Choose butternut squash that has a tan-yellow rind. If you want a slightly sweeter flavor, choose one that is darker orange. But be careful, darker means riper! Make sure to check for soft spots or bruising, as this would indicate rot. The fruit is high in vitamin A, vitamin C and magnesium.

To make butternut squash easier to maneuver, cut the neck and work with the two halves separately. If you want to avoid the knife and cutting board all-together, many popular winter squash varieties, including butternut squash, can be found pre-peeled and cubed. The versatile nature of butternut squash caters to both savory and sweet lovers.

Spaghetti squash

Spaghetti squash has an oblong shape and a very mild flavor. The common supermarket varieties have a yellow rind. Choose a firm spaghetti squash that does not have any bruising. Once cooked, the flesh of spaghetti squash can be fluffed with a fork to form noodle-like strands that resemble spaghetti. The fruit is a good source of vitamin C, manganese and vitamin B-6.

Use the “noodles” mixed with your favorite spaghetti sauce for a vitamin-packed pasta alternative, turn the squash into a burrito bowl, or use in casseroles. See the recipe below for a savory dish that requires minimal ingredients and very little prep work!

3-Ingredient Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash Recipe


  • 1 spaghetti squash (medium size)
  • ½-1 cup pasta sauce (adjust according to preference)
  • ½- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (adjust according to preference)
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Optional: fresh garlic (fresh chopped basil , dried oregano or Italian seasoning)


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Carefully cut spaghetti squash in half lengthwise (before cutting, consider softening in microwave for a few minutes). Remove and discard seeds. Place spaghetti squash cut side down on baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until a fork can pierce the shell easily.
  3. Remove from oven. With a fork, loosen and separate spaghetti squash strands from shell. Reserve shells.
  4. Place strands in a bowl. Mix strands with pasta sauce (and additional spices, if you wish). Spoon mixture back into the empty shell(s). Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.
  5. Bake for 7-9 minutes or until cheese is melted, bubbly, and slightly browned. Spoon and serve directly from shell.

Burnt out planning school lunches for kids? A clinical dietitian is here to help.

By Shonda Brown, clinical dietitian at CHOC

Back-to-school is a busy and exciting time, and as a parent or guardian, you have likely checked off many to-dos to get your kids started off on the right foot:

  • School supplies
  • New shoes
  • School clothes
  • Orientation

The start of a new school year is a great time to try fresh new ideas with school lunches helping children form healthy habits, but perhaps you got caught up in the pandemonium of parent meetings, drop-offs and afterschool activities. Time has flown by —the school year is now in full swing — and new routines have already formed. Good thing it’s never too late!

I spoke with a few of my dietitian colleagues, who are also busy moms, to see what strategies they use to pack healthy lunches for their kids. Here are few strategies to try.

  1. Plan ahead. Stephanie Chang, a registered dietitian at CHOC, likes to plan lunches for the entire week. This helps her from grabbing whatever is easy or available that may or may not be healthy. Taking the weekend or an evening to prep foods for the week can save time. For example, wash and cut up vegetables, or cook chicken or eggs ahead of time, and store them in the refrigerator, ready to go as needed. Have staples on hand that your kids love to keep things easy. Gina O’Toole, registered dietitian at CHOC, keeps refried black beans in her cupboard. “My kids love refried black beans topped with cheese and corn, in a burrito, quesadilla or just to dip with chips,” she said.


  1. Pack the food you would like your child to eat. Most parents want their children to eat healthier, but many are timid when it comes to offering new foods. Gina encourages parents to never give up, as it may take multiple exposures of a new food before a child will eat it. Sharing meals together is an opportunity to model healthy eating. Children are more willing to try unfamiliar foods when they can learn and experience it in different ways. You can take your children shopping and allow them to pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try in their lunch that week, read a book about different cultures and cuisine or take a field trip to the farm.


  1. Make it fun. Children can help create new combinations of foods and name their recipe or creation. For example, avocado and pita chips might become “Monster Mash”, and crackers topped with peanut butter and raisins might be “Bug in the Mud.” Include a healthy and fun alternative to some of the popular food classmates are enjoying or just limit the portion size. Colleen Trupkin, registered dietitian at CHOC, occasionally packs a bubbly water instead of a popular fizzy juice drink for her son.


  1. Include variety. Joyelle Temming, registered dietitian at CHOC, always focuses on variety and color when packing her children’s lunches. She tries to pack something different each day, but does keep it simple. She rotates between grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, pasta, quesadillas, and meat and cheese with crackers. For color, she adds a fruit and vegetable with each entrée — this could be green cucumbers and red strawberries, or orange bell peppers with green grapes or kiwi.


  1. Keep it balanced. Colleen recommends using an age-appropriate bento box to help guide portion size and prevent liquids, like yogurt and apple sauce, from mixing in with dry foods. Look for one with enough sections to include foods from all the different foods groups as well as a smaller section to include a sweet treat.

 To pack a balanced lunch, include each of the following:

  • Grain –crackers, bread, tortilla, pasta, quinoa or rice
  • Protein –beans, hummus, tofu, chicken, lunch meat, hard-boiled eggs, nuts or nut butter
  • Fruit –grapes, apple slices, strawberries, blueberries or melon
  • Vegetable –cucumber slices, bell pepper, carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes
  • Healthy beverage –water or milk

In addition to the above elements of a healthy lunch, also consider including: 

  • Healthy fat –avocado, salad dressing, nuts or nut butter, mayonnaise or olives
  • Calcium-rich food or beverage –yogurt, cheese, milk or a milk alternative

Peanut butter is a staple for many kids’ lunches, making it difficult to pack lunches if your child’s school has peanut or nut restrictions. Below are some examples of balanced meals that are nut and peanut free:

  • Crackers with hummus and cheese cubes, cucumber slices. strawberries and water
  • Turkey and avocado wrap with bell pepper strips, grapes and milk
  • Tofu kabobs with cherry tomatoes and avocado, whole grain crackers, apple slices and milk

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Healthy drinks for kids this summer

By Christina Wright-Yee, registered dietitian at CHOC

Heading into summer in Southern California means anticipating the above 100-degree temperatures, but we know what we need to do: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! While registered dietitians and doctors encourage you to drink plenty of fluids throughout the summer, we also want to help you make healthy decisions. Sodas, juices, slushies, iced coffee and sports drinks may be fluids, but they can be full of calories and sugar that can lead to weight gain, heart disease and cavities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests limiting our added sugars to less than 5% of our calorie needs. For kids ages 2-8, this is about three teaspoons per day. For kids older than age 8, it’s no more than six teaspoons per day. New research suggests even 100% fruit juices are similar to the sugars added to the soda and other sweetened beverages, meaning juice is no healthier than soda!

The amount of sugar in your favorite beverage may surprise you! One teaspoon is equivalent to one sugar packet like the ones you might find at a restaurant or café. In the below table, the serving size for all beverages is 12-ounces, even if the average serving size is typically larger.

Sugar content in your favorite drink
Type of beverage Number of packets of sugar
Water 0
Diet sodas or sugar-free drink mix 0
Powerade Zero or Propel 0
“Light” Sodas 0-2
Unsweetened tea 0
G2 Gatorade 2.5
Sports drink (Gatorade/Powerade) 5
Lemonade 6.25
Orange juice 7.5
Snapple iced/sweet tea 8-8.5
Powdered drink mix (with sugar) 9
Cola soda 10.25
Fruit punch 11.5
Root beer 11.5
Grape juice/cranberry juice cocktail 12
Orange soda 13
Starbucks Frappuccino 14
Naked/Odwalla Juices 12-14

Remember to always read the nutrition facts label to find out the actual amount of sugars and added sugars. When choosing a drink for you or your kids this summer, you might see the terms sugar-free, reduced sugar or no added sugars. Here’s what they mean:

  • Sugar free: less than 0.5g sugar per serving
  • Reduced sugar: less than 25% less sugar than the typical brand, but this doesn’t mean it is always the healthiest option. There still might be other beverage options lower in sugar.
  • No added sugars or without added sugars: no sugar added during processing, but the product may have naturally occurring sugars.

What can you do to stay hydrated and healthy this summer while quenching your thirst?

  • Swap out your favorite drink for one lower in sugar
  • Eat nutrient-rich juicy fruits and vegetables that contain more than 90% water, including: watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, frozen grapes, pineapple, grapefruit, berries, cauliflower, bell peppers, broccoli and tomatoes. Just watch portion sizes!
  • Make your own popsicles using fresh fruits and veggies
  • Add mint and lemon to an ice cube tray and freeze with water, then pop them into water or sparkling water for added refreshment!
  • Add lemon, lime, mint, strawberries, cucumbers or berries to sparkling water or water to boost the flavor.
  • Make homemade lemonade to cut back on the amount of sugar found in store-bought lemonade!
  • Try making a watermelon slushy. Mix two cups watermelon, 1-2 cups of ice, and 1 sprig of fresh mint in a blender and blend until smooth. Add ice to reach desired consistency.

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Healthy snacks for kids this summer

By Janelle Sanchez, registered dietitian at CHOC

Summer is right around the corner, which brings with it, endless pool days, picnics in the park, and surfing. Staying hydrated is an important part of staying safe this summer. Our bodies are 60% water which maintain the function of various systems including your heart, brain and muscles. Sufficient water intake also helps to regulate your body temperate and even help prevent constipation. It is important to pay attention to not only the water you are drinking, but to be mindful of consuming foods that will also contribute to your water intake. What better way to fight off the heat than by cooling down with some refreshing treats?

Summertime also generally includes a lot of relaxation, celebrations and parties- which often translates into more fun foods than healthy foods, leading to an increased risk for weight gain.

Let’s look at some common summertime treats and try swapping those out with some healthier and more hydrating choices.

Instead of a sugary frozen slushie drink, prep some Cucumber Mint Citrus Infused Water:

  1. Fill pitcher up with water. To make a sizzling drink, use unflavored sparking water.
  2. Add 1 lemon sliced, 1 sliced lime (or as desired), 1/2 cup mint leaves, 1/2 cup sliced cucumber, and stir.
  3. Refrigerate overnight, stir and enjoy!

Instead of indulging with an ice cream sandwich, opt for a DIY Fruit and Yogurt Popsicle:  

  1. Blend your favorite fruit  in a food processor or blender on high speed until nearly liquified into a smoothie-like consistency. Try blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or banana.
  2. Pour blended fruit into a large bowl. Add Greek yogurt and lightly mix together. Blend more to get a mixed look, blend less to get a more patterned white and fruit look. For additional sweetness, try adding some agave or honey to the mix.
  3. Pour the thick liquid into popsicle molds. If your popsicle mold has slots for sticks, you can insert them before freezing. If not, freeze for two hours, then insert a wooden popsicle stick in the middle of each mold. Continue to freeze for an additional four to six hours or overnight.
  4. Run popsicle molds under warm water to easily remove.

Recipe adapted from

Instead of opting for corn dogs or pizza for a quick meal, try this Avocado Chicken Salad:

  1. Drain and shred canned chicken or tuna in a bowl.
  2. Chop up cilantro, avocado, cucumber, bell peppers, tomato, red onion and add to the protein mix.
  3. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into a bowl, add salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix together, and pour over salad mixture.
  4. Eat with a spoon and enjoy! Or add inside of a whole wheat pita and enjoy as a wrap!

More ideas for healthy summer snacks for kids:

  • Frozen grapes
  • Frozen bananas dipped in Greek yogurt and chocolate chips or nuts
  • Hydration-loaded fruit and vegetable “fries” including jicama, watermelon and cucumber sticks
  • Chilled spring rolls
  • Cold pasta salad made with zoodles and a light dressing
  • Fruit-filled ice cubes

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Tips for traveling with picky eaters

By Sarah Kavlich, registered dietitian at CHOC

When you’re a parent dealing with a picky eater, childhood and picky eating can seem synonymous. It’s easy to cater to the pickiness in an effort to avoid a struggle at mealtimes. However, this can sometimes worsen their habits. With summer just around the corner and as we move into warmer months filled with fun, travel and a break from school, parents can use this opportunity to try some new and interesting foods with their picky eater. Whether you’re traveling or staying at home, this time of year can offer an opportunity to experience a new culture through food.

Tips for introducing new foods to toddlers

Remember that kids are learning to eat so consider changing your mindset before heading into meals. Remember that they won’t necessarily eat much of a new food the first time they try it. Repeated exposure to that new food will help them become more comfortable with the food over time. Research suggests it can take up to 20 encounters with a food before someone develops a preference. So, if it is a food you would like to be a mainstay in your child’s diet, don’t give up right away but also don’t force it. Maintain structure by letting your child know that everyone in your family eats the same meals, and there are no separate kids’ meals. This can be a tough pattern to break but offering a small amount of the new food alongside a few familiar foods or a favorite dipping sauce during the meal can help.

Tips for traveling with picky eaters

Exposing your children to new foods while at home, in a lower pressure environment, can help expand their palate before traveling. Start by offering just a small taste test of the new food alongside some familiar foods that your child already feels comfortable eating.

Talk about your upcoming adventure and some of the things your family might experience there, including testing new food together. Kids learn by example and often model the behavior of the people they are closest to, so make sure you have an open mind as well. It’s ok for children to have different food preferences than their parents.  If your child shows interest in a new food that you may not enjoy, go ahead and let them try it without assuming they won’t like it.

On your trip, pack a few of your child’s favorite foods or snacks that travel well like bars, dry cereal or crackers, or pick up some fruits, vegetables, yogurts, or cheese at a local market to help ease them into the new cuisine. Healthy snacks will also help your child from becoming overly hungry between meals. Use words like “exploring” and “adventure” as you offer new foods to promote a more enjoyable atmosphere. Most importantly have fun as you learn together and create lasting memories with your family.

At home before a trip, set the stage by offering some of the foods you might experience on your upcoming travels, like this healthy recipe:

Rice with Lemongrass and Green Onion


(Serves four)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2/3 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 cup long-grain white rice

1 3/4 cups water

2 12-inch-long lemongrass stalks, cut into 2-inch-long pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large green onion, chopped


Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup onion and turmeric and sauté 5 minutes. Mix in rice. Add water, lemongrass and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 18 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand covered 10 minutes. Discard lemongrass.

Heat remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add green onion and sauté 1 minute. Add rice and stir until heated through. Season to taste with salt.

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