Holly Ebel: Plan to beat stress this holiday season

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Jen Welper, executive wellness chef for the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living program makes a simple chicken and veegtable noodle dish at the Dan Abrahamson Healthy Living Center kitchen.

Are you getting that anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach? Feeling stress over everything you have to do?

The holidays can do that to you. On top of all the seasonal preparations, there is daily life to tend to, such as providing healthful meals for yourself and your family.

The temptation is to pick up a pizza or fast food, but there are healthier, more nutritious options you can do from your own kitchen. Chef Jen Welper, executive wellness chef at Mayo Clinic's Healthy Living Center, has helpful suggestions as well as one word of advice: Plan.

"If you plan your meals ahead and the cooking strategy, you will come out way ahead," she said. 'Try to kill two birds with one stone. Say you are planning on chicken breasts tonight and salmon tomorrow. You can save time by searing the chicken, then searing the salmon. Partially cook the one you plan to serve the next day, cool it down, then refrigerate. Tomorrow you can finish it off in the oven or cooktop in less than half the time it would take otherwise. Learn to be efficient in your food preparation."

Welper knows what she is talking about. A native of Caledonia, she attended culinary school at Johnson and Wells in Rhode Island, and prior to coming here was involved with several healthy eating and weight loss venues as well as a clinic in Hilton Head, N.C.


These next few weeks, the freezer should be your best friend, she says.

"Cooking ahead and freezing can really make your life easier, especially if you have a family or are entertaining," Welper said.

She gives an example of cooking an extra-large portion of brown rice, cooling it, then portioning it into containers or freezer bags.

"It can then be added to a soup, a stew or turned into a holiday rice pilaf with walnuts and cranberries," she said.

Another quick meal from the freezer is pasta. Why would you freeze it when it is so quick anyway? By dropping it into hot water, as some restaurants do, it is ready to serve with a sauce in much less time than it takes to cook. She does warn not to reheat either rice or pasta in the microwave, as it can change the texture and dry them out.

Take time on a Sunday afternoon and make some soups and stews, or roast a chicken and cut off the meat for a simple casserole. Pack them in appropriate serving sizes in freezer containers and into the freezer they go.

An efficient way to thaw foods is to put them in the refrigerator the night before you are going to serve them so they have a chance to thaw safely.

Other foods that you can freeze to help you save some time include brunch dishes like a frittata or an egg dish. She suggests baking these until just set, cooling them down, then wrapping them for the freezer.


"They only need a few minutes in the oven to finish cooking and heat up," Welper said.

While fresh vegetables always are preferred, she advises to use frozen varieties where it won't make a difference to you in a dish, like corn and peas.

"Those are fresh frozen and just fine, as are other frozen varieties," she said.

And to make cookie baking more efficient, she advises freezing the cookies on cookie sheets, then putting them in bags and baking off as needed. No thawing necessary.

While Welper's mission is to make everyone eat more healthfully, she does acknowledge that it is hard to do during the holidays.

"All of the traditional foods are not necessarily low in fat, salt or calories," she said.

And desserts? "There is no such thing as a healthy dessert, but when putting one together you can cut back on sugar and fat," she said.

And again, Welper stresses that planning is the key to making things, especially meals, easier this time of year.


"If you fail to plan," she said, "you plan to fail."

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Jen Welper, executive wellness chef for the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living program makes a simple chicken and vegetable noodle dish at the Dan Abrahamson Healthy Living Center kitchen.

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