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Rethinking special-occasion food

Within the next week, my family will celebrate Mother's Day, my dad's birthday and my son's college graduation. Each celebration will provide an occasion to share a meal together.

Sharing food with others is a way of expressing love and kindness, and food plays a key role in many of our special celebrations.

The problem is most people get plenty of sweet or high-fat treats -- "empty calorie" foods -- on a regular basis. U.S. children and teens consume nearly 40 percent of their calories from foods high in solid fats or added sugars -- at least twice the amount recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

To change this trend, maybe it's time to view celebration foods in a different way. If you truly care about family members and friends, do you want to load them down with empty calories that create a host of health concerns?

Here are a few ideas to rethink special-occasion food:

* Focus on fruit. Fresh fruit can be a healthful treat instead of a sweet dessert or snack. Most of us fall short of eating recommended amounts of vegetables and fruits every day.

* Offer smaller portions. Make smaller quick breads, cookies and muffins. Cut cakes, brownies and bars into half the usual size.

* Take a vote. Decide as a family or group how often empty calorie treats can be shared and make an agreement to provide healthful treats more often. Those watching their weight or with health problems such as diabetes will be grateful that they can participate more often.

* Make it more healthful. When baking, an easy (and very tasty) way to include more fruits and vegetables -- and get the benefits of their nutrients -- is by adding vegetable or fruit purees to baked goods. How can you do this? Buy plain canned pumpkin, unsweetened applesauce or baby foods, which already are pureed. Or, mash soft fruits, such as canned fruit, over-ripe bananas or dried fruits that have been softened in hot water.

Decrease the amount of fat or oil called for in the recipe by half, and replace the other half with pureed vegetables or fruits.

* Substitute whole wheat. Replace half of the white flour called for in your recipes with whole wheat flour. This will increase the nutrients and fiber.

* Cut sugar. When making baked goods, you typically can cut the sugar called for in your recipe by about one-third and not notice a difference. To boost the sweet taste in reduced-sugar foods, you could add a half-teaspoon of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg or a flavoring such as almond or vanilla extract.

* Cut salt. Except for recipes that require yeast, you can eliminate the salt in most recipes completely. Yeast products need enough salt to prevent the dough from rising too quickly and for good texture.

* Choose beverages carefully. The largest category of empty calories is sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, fruit drinks, punches and sports drinks. Offer an unsweetened beverage choice for gatherings and celebrations. Drink milk at meals and water when thirsty.

These suggestions will make your special occasions more healthful, and knowing you're keeping everybody healthy will make family time more fun. For more ideas, see the USDA fact sheet "Make Celebrations Fun, Healthy and Active" from the 10 Tips Nutrition Education Series at www.choosemyplate.gov.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu