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EATING well

We all have our fingers in the childhood obesity mess

Kids today are eating themselves into an early grave.

So many children are not just overweight, but obese. And everyone from parents, schools, food producers, even the government has had a role in this. That's the bad news. The good news is that they also all can have a role in reversing it.

I'll concede that life is tougher these days. In an era of single-parent and three-job families, many people are short on time and kitchen know-how. And too many people too often resort to microwaving processed junk and calling it dinner.

And in the process we're getting our kids hooked on these foods.

I don't have all the answers, but I do know that one of the first — and easiest — ways to combat childhood obesity is to teach ourselves and our children to cook wholesome, nutritious foods. Which doesn't mean you or the kids need to sacrifice the foods you love.

Pizza is a great example. Kids love pizza. Heck, I love pizza! But pizza is one of those foods with more sodium, fat and calories than anyone needs.

A large slice of pizza has 600 or more calories with 26 grams of fat. My version? Just 226 calories and 8 grams of fat for two pizza pockets.

OK, technically my recipe isn't a classic pizza. This is a "pizza pocket" made from nutritious whole wheat bread and stuffed with traditional pizza toppings. Those fillings are easily adapted to your tastes; I've used lean Italian turkey sausage, shredded fresh zucchini, fresh mozzarella cheese, a natural marinara sauce and fresh basil — all low-calorie ingredients.

Plus, this recipe is something your kids can help with. And when kids help make something, they are much more likely to think it tastes good.

Just be sure to resist the temptation to use processed low-fat mozzarella cheese, the sort of shredded cheese so often used on regular pizzas. I used it for years until I experimented with fresh mozzarella. It has a sweet, rich, milky quality, and a low melting point, which allows it to meld with flavors like basil. The fresh variety, unlike the shredded processed form, adds pizzazz to the pockets. And best of all, I have found it as low as 60 calories per ounce, compared to 80 to 100 calories for regular mozzarella.

I know what you're thinking — why not just buy frozen processed pizza pockets and toss them in the microwave? Fine, if you like preservatives along with your fat and sodium. Plus, it's important for parents to set a good example by eating and serving healthy, nutritious foods as often as possible.

Part of this is teaching kids that convenience foods should be an occasional treat, not a dinner staple. Children also need to understand that meals are made from ingredients, not pulled from boxes. Those are two critical lessons that are easy to forget in the weekday rush to get dinner on the table.

That's why I love recipes like this one. It's fast. It's easy. And it replicates a convenience food your kids will love, but that you can feel good about.

TIPS

• Hide any vegetable your child doesn't like in these pockets. I bet the kids will devour it once it's covered in sauce and melted cheese.

• Choose bread slices that are square, such as Ezekiel sprouted grain bread. Square slices are easier to fold in half than rectangular slices.

PIZZA POCKETS

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4 (2 pockets per serving)

1 link raw Italian turkey sausage, casing removed (about 4 ounces)

1 small zucchini, coarsely shredded

2 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, coarsely shredded

1/2 cup no-salt, no-sugar, fat-free marinara sauce (such as Pomi)

12 leaves fresh basil, torn into bite-sized pieces

8 slices whole wheat bread, flattened with a rolling pin

Extra-virgin olive oil cooking spray

Heat the oven to broil.

In a small saute pan over medium heat, cook the sausage until cooked through, using a wooden spoon or spatula to break it into crumbles as it cooks. Drain off any fat.

In a medium bowl, mix the zucchini, mozzarella, marinara, basil and the cooked sausage. Place the flattened bread on a work surface. Spoon the zucchini mixture evenly in the middle of each piece of bread. Fold one corner of each slice to the opposite corner and seal the edges by pressing with a fork. Trim off the excess crust.

Place the pockets on a baking sheet. Lightly spray both sides of each pocket with olive oil cooking spray. Place on a rack 4 to 5 inches under the broiler and broil until browned and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip each pocket and then brown the other side under the broiler, 1 to 2 minutes more.

Nutritional information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 226 calories, 8g fat (31 percent of total calories, 3g saturated), 29mg cholesterol, 25g carbohydrates, 15g protein, 4g fiber, 501mg sodium.

We all have our fingers in the childhood obesity mess 11/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 4:30am]

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