Homemade soups for a cold, wintry day

Nothing says comfort like a warm mug or bowl of soup on a cold winter day. Soups come in a variety of styles including broth-based, thick and creamy chowders and bisques, and chunky stews and chili. Whatever you’re craving – there is a soup for you. The great thing about soup is that it usually includes several food groups and can be the main course of a meal or simply a side dish. Soups can provide protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals depending on its ingredients.

There are generally two options when preparing soups. The first comes from the grocery store as condensed canned soups, microwavable cup-a-soup, soup packets, frozen or hot ready-to-eat soups. The advantages are that they are quick and easy to prepare, often just adding water and heating. However, many prepared soups can be high in sodium so be sure to read the nutrition facts label. For example, one can of condensed tomato soup provides over half of the recommended daily sodium intake for American adults. Even though one can has two servings, most people eat both servings (one can) as a meal.

Vegetable soup photo, public domain food CC0 image from RawPixel.com.

The other option is making your own healthy, low-sodium soup. This can sound intimidating but it is not as difficulty or time-consuming as you may think. The first step is to start with a base, choosing either a broth or cream base. Low fat, low-sodium broths and stocks are available at the grocery store or you can make your own. Cook beef, chicken, sausage or turkey with water. After cooking, refrigerate to allow the fat to float to the top. Skim off the fat, remove meat and bones, and use the stock (broth) for soups. You can also freeze it to use later when making soup. The meat can be frozen as well to use in other receives or in soup recipes. Another alternative for your soup base can be a low-sodium canned soup.

The next step is to choose the ingredients you want to add to your soup. There are recipes to follow but you can also be creative and make up your own. This is a great way to clean out your refrigerator or freezer for leftover vegetables and meats. Some great choices are carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes. Usually one cup to one-half cup of diced vegetables is good for most soup recipes depending on how chunky you like your soup. Meat options can include beef, chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, ham or sausage. Beans are also a great protein source to add to your soups. Some starchy choices for soups include rice, noodles, macaroni, barley and lentils. Flavor with herbs and spices from your kitchen cabinet to keep it low-sodium.

When making soup, do it big! It takes about the same amount of time to make a large pot of soup as a smaller one, so make it worth your time. A large pot of soup can make enough for several meals so freeze some or share it with others to enjoy. Once the soup is cooked, divide the soup into small containers for 1-2 servings. If you are going to eat it within 3-4 days, you can put it in the refrigerator. If not, freeze your soup and use it within 2-3 months. Be sure to label and date the soup before putting it in the freezer. Thaw frozen soup in the refrigerator overnight or in the microwave. To reheat soup, heat to boiling over low heat or in a microwave. Add water or broth if it is too thick. Add toppings to your soup like homemade croutons, grated carrots, grated cheese, popcorn or sour cream. Homemade soups are a great way to perk up your meals on a cold, wintry day!

PFAS – Prevalent and Persistent Pollution 

Per- and poly-flouroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of over 4,500 manufactured fluorine chain chemicals that are used in a wide variety of non-stick, heat, stain and oil resistant products. Common applications and products containing PFAS include non-stick cookware, food packaging, stain resistant fabrics, cleaning products, shampoo, cosmetics, toothpaste and floss, paint, pesticides, and firefighting foams. 

Due to the extensive use, PFAS compounds have been observed in groundwater and drinking water supplies, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans throughout the United States and world. Due to the many carbon to fluorine bonds, one of the strongest bonds in nature, these compounds are very resistant to breakdown and therefore persist in the environment, giving rise to the term “forever” chemicals. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that over 95% of people in the US have measurable amounts of PFAS in their bodies, with certain PFAS compounds remaining in the body for 4-8 years. Compounding this prevalence and persistence is the fact that the amounts are increasing in the environment, some food products and animals, a process known as bioaccumulation, and as the use of PFAS containing products increase, the amount in surface and groundwater accumulate. 

The source of PFAS in humans is from food, dust and drinking water, with recent studies showing that the contribution from drinking water is as high as 90%. The effect on human health has been researched only on a dozen or less PFAS compounds including PFOA and PFOS, the most widely used PFAS compounds. 

Exposure to these two chemicals have been attributed to significant health risks including increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, hormonal changes and decreased fertility, thyroid disruption and low birth weight. PFOA and PFOS were phased out by the mid 2000’s, and concentrations in humans have decreased slightly since then. However, many more PFAS are being used and produced and there remains a significant gap of knowledge on the environmental and human health effects of other PFAS compounds.

PFAS concentrations in drinking water tend to be greater near manufacturing plants, military bases and airports were firefighting foam is used. The EPA has issued a health advisory (not a regulation) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for drinking water, whereas Europe and several US states have imposed more stringent limits of PFAS in drinking water. 

Even though our knowledge of the extent of risks of all PFAS compounds is very limited, the good news is that several filtration systems have been shown to be effective in removing many PFAS contaminants. These include activated carbon (10-97% removal), ion exchange (90-99% removal) and reverse osmosis (93-99% removal). These filters can be installed in homes to treat either the entire home (point of entry, POE), or point of use (POU) typically installed under the sink for drinking and cooking use. 

In addition to treating our drinking water, we can all be better stewards by the choices we make. Proper recycling and disposal of unwanted household goods and products may help contain some PFAS. Investing in learning what products contain PFAS could help in making better product choices, but unfortunately, only broad product categories, as described earlier, are published. Whether a specific product contains PFAS is not readily available since no labeling requirement exists currently. More info on PFAS can be found at: CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFAS_FactSheet.html; EPA: https://www.epa.gov/pfas; and MDE: https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/Water/water_supply/Pages/PFAS_Home.aspx   


  • PFAS compounds are very resistant to breakdown and therefore persist in the environment, giving rise to the term “forever” chemicals.
  • Studies have shown that over 95% of people in the US have measurable amounts of PFAS in their bodies, with certain PFAS compounds remaining in the body for 4-8 years.
  • Health risks include increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, hormonal changes and decreased fertility, thyroid disruption and low birth weight.

A Taste of Hispanic Heritage

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the contributions of culture and history by American citizens of Hispanic descent. According to the National Hispanic Heritage Month website, observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to start on September 15 and end on October 15.

In honor of the month, we offer some of our best Hispanic recipes from our sister blog, Eat Smart. The Eat Smart blog features family recipes, parenting tips, and more to keep your family healthy.

Try one of these recipes for a meal or a snack!

Simple Fish Tacos

Enchilada Casserole

Fruit Salad with Jicama

Black  Bean and Corn Salsa

Mango Smoothie

Southwest Veggie Bake

Mango Salsa

The Eat Smart blog is also available in Spanish. Sign up to receive post updates and more in Spanish at https://extension.umd.edu/programs/family-consumer-sciences/snap-ed/eat-smart/en-espanol/eat-smart-blog-en-espanol.

Diggin’ into Plant-Based Diets

Following a plant-based diet is very trendy these days. Whether it’s an environmental reason (reduce your carbon footprint) or health goal (decrease the risk of some chronic diseases), many people, including myself are consciously reducing their consumption of animal products.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet?  That really depends. Some interpret it is being a vegan or vegetarian. Others view a plant-based diet as being broader, including more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and also fewer animal foods, like meat, fish and dairy. It’s not necessary to give up all the animal foods you enjoy; however, you can consider decreasing the portion sizes so these foods are no longer the main attraction on your plate. 

Ever since attending a 2019 nutrition conference, I’ve been inspired to consume more plant-based foods. It’s unlikely I will give up my glass of cold, fat-free milk in the evening (with one cookie); however, I do consume at least three meatless meals per week, eat smaller portions of chicken, fish, and lean beef and pork, and I load up half of my plate with vegetables (see my grilled vegetable recipe). This summer, my deck garden provided enough delicious red tomatoes to enjoy almost every day on salads. Since making these changes, I’ve maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure and feeling good about doing something for Mother Earth. 

Are you ready to ‘dig in’ and adopt a more plant-based diet? Here are some tips that helped me get started.

1. Go meatless one day a week. Beans, lentils, and nuts are great sources of plant-proteins and add fiber to your diet, which makes you feel full. Instead of adding meat to my pasta, I toss it with grilled vegetables. If you like chili, peruse recipe websites for a bean-based chili that appeals to your taste buds.

2. Combine vegetable proteins. Quinoa, is a perfect protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids your body needs daily. You can also combine other plant foods to get that perfect protein. Some of my favorite combos are black beans and rice, chick peas and pasta, and whole what bread and peanut butter (with some jelly).

3. Re-think your meat portions. You can still have meat at your meals, but in smaller amounts, like 3 cooked ounces (the size and thickness of a deck of cards). Many of meals like soups (winter) and salads (summer) are full of vegetables and whole grains, but I add a small piece of protein, like a leftover grilled and shredded chicken breast or a few slices of pork tenderloin.


Try this recipe for Easy Grilled Vegetables!

Selection of vegetables:

  • Red, yellow or green peppers – cut in half and seeded
  • Yellow and green squash – sliced length-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Eggplant – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Mushrooms – whole cleaned
  • Onion – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick

Additional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons, minced garlic
  • Fresh chopped or dried herb (parsley, thyme, basil, etc.) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Mix oil, salt, pepper, vinegar and garlic together.

2. Arrange vegetables on grill or in a grill pan (medium heat).

    Note: depending on the size of your pan you may need to work in batches.

3. Grill vegetables 6-8 minutes, brushing with oil, and vinegar mixture.

4. Remove vegetables from grill or grill pan and place on a platter. Drizzle remaining oil and

    vinegar mixture on vegetables. Sprinkle herbs over vegetables and serve.

Fashionable Flavor: Do the spices of your life match what’s en vogue?

At home, we have our dried spice and herb staples. Granted, there are some in the back of the cabinet that get less use than others; we have them on hand nonetheless for seasonal or specialty recipes.

We live in an ever-changing world with technology and resources that make information on anything ultra-accessible. The same goes for spices and herbs, their health benefits, how to use them, where they come from, and the like. Influxes of information can definitely be overwhelming and even confusing at times. People who want the best for themselves and those they care for feel the pressure to be current. Where can one start to process and apply flavor related changes? Well, when it comes to spices and herbs, I say look no further than the past for the present.

What does that mean? It means that the flavors we introduce into our kitchens have been around for a long time. When we embrace the people and their cultures which have been producing and utilizing them, we open up a newfound realm of appreciation for various spices and herbs.

Living in the U.S. affords us a plethora of cuisines. When the 2019 pandemic hit, I was nudged to recreate the foods I typically enjoyed outside of my home. I began to notice a “one off” ingredient I got for a particular recipe is actually common in other dishes from the region or even other regions. By expanding my awareness of cuisines, I accumulated new dishes to add to my meal plans.

Image from Rawpixel.com

Take turmeric for example. Many may be familiar with using it in a curry. With a little exploration, one may find traditional uses in rice or beverage recipes. Colleagues, classmates, cookbooks, neighbors, TV and the internet have brought a wealth of exposure to me and my kitchen. 

The latest research on the positive health effects of *insert spice or herb here* tends to send people (consumers and industry professionals alike) into a frenzy on how to incorporate it into our diets. By being open to a diversified palate, one adopts a lifestyle that complements the waves of science. Hopefully, we fret less about how to incorporate a spice or herb into our humdrum shakes, bakes or pancakes and use flavors as a gateway to bridge our understanding of others’ culinary cultures.

Sometimes, we put too much onus on ourselves to reinvent the wheel. Creativity is certainly an adventurous blessing, though we can consciously leverage the brilliance and benefits of generations past as continued by present cultures. Perhaps, we could view history as more than a subject; it’s a tasty way of life. Please, visit the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and FoodData Central for resources on how to “make every bite count” towards good health.

This post contributed by guest blogger Esu Obu

Fire up the grill for a healthy and safe cookout

Last weekend, millions of Americans will be fired up the grill for July 4 celebrations. Be sure to plan ahead and follow these steps to ensure a healthy and safe meal when cooking out with your friends and family.

Image by rawpixel.com
  • Clean the Grill: An important step in preparing the grill is cleaning it. Many people use the same brush year after year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report an increase in reports of people swallowing bristles from these grill brushes. To prevent this, replace grill brushes regularly before the bristles wear down or use a brush for cleaning that does not have steel bristles. Also, wipe down the grill with a wet cloth after scrubbing to remove small pieces of bristle on the grill racks that are difficult to see.
  • Select your meat: One of the advantages of grilling is the flavor it adds without extra fat.  Here are some suggestions for healthy meat choices. For hamburgers, try lean ground beef, turkey, chicken or veggie burgers made from chickpeas or black beans.  Another option is chicken, shrimp or fish.  You can make skewers with meat and vegetables or put them together in a “foil packet” to cook on the grill.
  • Marinate: If you want to marinate the food for extra flavor before cooking, be sure to marinate in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Since the marinade has been exposed to bacteria from the raw food, you need to boil the leftover marinade to kill any harmful bacteria before serving it over the cooked meat. A better idea is to keep some marinade aside in a separate container in the refrigerator that you can serve with the meal. 
  • Storage: Raw foods, including meats and vegetables, need to be stored safely in the refrigerator or a cooler until it is time to grill and serve the food. If you buy the meat, poultry or fish more than 2 days before your barbeque, freeze it to prevent it from spoiling. Be sure to thaw it completely, in either the refrigerator or microwave, before grilling it to ensure even cooking.  
  • Use food thermometer to make sure meat is cooked:  Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast.  Watch the temperature to avoid burnt food on the outside and undercooked food on the inside.  Do not rely on its color to determine if it is done.  The only way to determine if a food is cooked to a safe temperature is with a food thermometer.  Ground meats need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.  Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F.  When reheating fully cooked meats like hot dogs, grill to 165 °F or until steaming hot. After cooking meat and poultry to a safe temperature, keep it at 140 °F or warmer by placing to the side of the grill rack or in a pre-heated 200 °F oven until ready to serve. 
  • Avoid cross-contamination: When taking food off the grill, use a clean platter instead of the one used for the raw meat.  Bacteria present from the raw meat juices could contaminate the cooked food.  

Plan your menu today for a healthy and safe summer and fire up the grill.  If you have any questions about grilling meat and poultry, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6843 or visit www.fsis.usda.gov .

Grow and Capture the Flavor of Fresh Herbs

Early this spring, I checked my outdoor herb garden to see what survived the winter. Many herbs are perennial and come back each spring. To my surprise, my kitchen garden was alive and growing! Parsley, rosemary, chive, sage, and mint all came back!

Herbs are easy to grow and do well in pots if you don’t have a space for planting. If you relish DIY projects you can build your own raised garden box. Many of my friends start growing herbs from seeds, which is less expensive and takes longer. I like to purchase small herb plants from my local gardening store, so I can reap the benefits from these tasty and nutritious greens sooner.       

After expanding my herb garden, the last few seasons I learned a few tips to share from my more experienced herb-gardening friends. Most herbs love full sun (at minimum 6-7 hours a day). Find a sunny spot in your yard to plant your garden or position your raised bed or pots. Also, add a soil or potting mix to your soil, which will help keep the soil well drained. Don’t forget to water your herbs daily, especially if your herbs are in pots. Potted soil tends to dry up quickly and you don’t want to pre-maturely ‘dry’ your herbs. Last but not least, remove flowers forming on your herbs. Flowers use up the herb’s energy and removing gives the energy back to the leaves; the part of the herb we use most often. Also, flowering herbs may lose some of their flavor and taste bitter.

I love using herbs when preparing my favorite foods and beverages. Herbs add flavor and eye appeal to my meals and fill my kitchen with mouth-watering aromas. Nutritionally, herbs contain similar nutrients found in green leafy vegetables like vitamins A, C, and K and polyphenols; which are plant substances that provide antioxidants and reduce inflammation in our bodies. Using flavorful herbs can also cut down the amount of salt and fat, making your meals healthier. Below, are some of my ‘go to’ herb parings:

  • Stuff  a chicken cavity with lemon and a combination of sage, rosemary, and thyme sprigs. Make a mixture of olive oil, pepper, and a dash of salt and brush it on the outside of the chicken. Bake it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
  • Make a rub of finely chopped rosemary, chopped garlic (fresh or in the jar), and pepper. Mix it with olive oil, enough to form a paste and rub it on all sides of a pork tenderloin. Bake or grill to an internal temperature of 155 degrees.
  • For refreshing botanical-infused beverages, add a rosemary sprig and a lime wedge,  fresh mint and strawberry slices, or basil and a watermelon wedge to tap or sparkling water served over crushed ice.
  • For an extra flavor punch in salads, toss snipped lemon thyme or lemon balm, chopped chives, parsley, basil or oregano.

Speaking of snipping, one of my most used kitchen tool in the summer is my herb scissors. You can purchase herb scissors at kitchen stores or online. A pair of craft scissors designate as ‘herb scissors’ also works well. Keep them sharp and wash with soap and water after each use. 

I have an abundance of herbs and found another use for them. I filled mason jars with water and a variety of fresh herbs and placed them around my house, including my bathrooms. What an amazing aroma to smell when I walked into my house!

Stay tuned for part two of this blog, Capture the Flavor with Spices!

Food Around the World

Food is a big part of our lives. Different cultures have different traditions and rituals that involve food. It can bring people together to celebrate and mourn. There are several different types of cultural cuisines but a few of the most common are Japanese, Indian, and Greek.

Japanese Cuisine

Japanese cuisine is mostly known for sushi, but there are other popular dishes such as ramen, tempura, gyoza, and sashimi. Tempura is the deep-frying of vegetables, meat or seafood. Gyoza is typically an appetizer or a side dish of dumplings filled with meat and vegetables. Sashimi is thinly sliced raw meat or fish that is often accompanied with soy sauce. Rice and noodles are a staple food in Japanese culture and there are always side dishes that are usually fish or pickled vegetables. Seafood is also very common in this type of cuisine because of Japan’s location being surrounded by the ocean. 

Each dish is usually served in different bowls and plates which relates to Japanese food etiquette and table manners. Each individual eating will have their own bowl and plate and it is disrespectful to eat from others’ plates.

Unlike in American culture, chopsticks are primarily used to eat food. While eating, there are certain things to do and to not do. For example, it is inappropriate to burp while eating at the table because it is considered rude. Yet, it is appropriate to slurp noodles because it shows that the food is good and your appreciation.

Indian Cuisine

Indian cuisine is another delicious type of food! The most popular foods from an American point of view are chicken tikka masala, biryani, naan, and samosas. While these are very yummy foods, there are many more great dishes to try. I’ve been able to try other dishes because my roommate is Indian and her family often sends her home with traditional food. One of my favorite dishes is palak paneer which consists of spinach and Indian cottage cheese. Another dish that I love is vada pav which are deep fried potato patties inside of a bread bun with a spicy chutney. 

palak paneer

In traditional Indian culture, once the meal is announced, hands must be washed and dried. People eat with their right hand because the left hand should remain clean. Some families have meals on the floor but that is typically in rural areas, and there are no “courses” like in Japanese culture – all of the food is served at one time. 

Greek Cuisine

Greek cuisine is another great option for hungry bellies! The most common Greek foods are olives and olive oil, dolmades, hummus and tzatziki, meat, fish, and spanakopita (spinach pie). Spices are a very important part of Greek cuisine. Spices such as mint, basil, coriander are most common and typically used in marinades for meats like lamb and pork. 

Greek dining etiquette is different from the other two cultures mentioned above. For example, wine is accompanied at lunch and dinner, and guests cannot eat until the host invites them to. Knives must remain in the right hand and forks in the left.

While the types of cuisines differ, there are also similarities. One of the most common similarities is that almost every culture has a dumpling. A dumpling consists of any type of starch that has a filling inside. In Japanese cuisine, gyoza is a dumpling. In Jamaican cuisine, a beef patty can be considered a dumpling. In Italian cuisine, ravioli and tortellini are dumplings. In Greek cuisine, spanakopita is an example of a dumpling. 

Food is a great way to bring people together and another commonality is that families and friends are able to share special memories with each other while enjoying a delicious meal. Knowing the basic rules of table etiquette for each culture may not be necessary for everyday life, but it could come in handy if traveling! 

Check out this site to look at more healthy and delicious recipes! Some examples of cultural cuisines from the University of Maryland Extension website are bok choy stir fry and Mexican pinwheels. 

This blog post written by Samantha Brenner, Family Science Major and Human Development Minor, Graduating May 2022