Boost your Muscles Bones and Brain

Being physically active is one of the most important things Americans can do to improve their health. Being active is so good for you. It gets the blood pumping, from your heart to all your muscles, bones and brain. As a result, it prevents a whole host of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. It is good for our mental health and helps with healthy aging as well.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans released in 2018 refined how much physical activity we need. Adults need 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity for general health benefits. Moderate intensity physical activity is anything that gets your heart beating faster. The good news is small bursts of activity add up all week long, and they have an activity planner to help you think through when you can find time for activity!

The activity planner helps you choose activity you want to do and see how it can all add up to 150 minutes. It can also help you set weekly goals, get personalized tips and stay motivated.

Let us know how you’re incorporating activity into your day by chatting with us on Facebook (@Spend Smart. Eat Smart.) or Twitter (@SpendEatSmart).

Sarah Taylor Watts, MPA, PAPHS Physical Activity Coordinator Iowa Department of Public Health

Meal Planning for the Health of It

Last week Rachel shared five red flags to look out for when considering diet advice. In the blog, she
mentioned learning new skills that can improve your health, like meal planning, instead of focusing
solely on weight. Meal planning is a popular practice; especially at the beginning of the year when
people are trying to eat better, save money and be more organized. It can help you check off all three!
Today I’m going to share with you five tips for meal planning with health in mind.

  1. Include foods from each of the food groups. This allows you to get a variety of nutrients provided by
    each of the food groups needed for good health. Our 5-Day Meal Planning Worksheet has a checklist at
    the bottom to help you determine if you included something from each food group.
  2. Balance the food groups throughout the day. Aim to have 1-2 food groups at snacks and 3-4 food
    groups at meals. For example, at breakfast you might have a scrambled egg, slice of whole-wheat toast,
    an orange, and glass of milk. Then at snack you have celery sticks with peanut butter.
  3. Include two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables. This is a general guide for each person
    per day. An example would be a banana for breakfast, an apple and broccoli for lunch, and vegetable
    soup for dinner. To determine the specific amount you need and for information on what counts as a
    serving, visit
  4. Include whole grains. Whole grains have more fiber, which is important for health. It is recommended
    to make half your grains whole grains. Therefore, if your family prefers white pasta, balance that out by
    including other whole grains in your menu plan like brown rice or whole wheat bread.
  5. Include both plant and animal proteins. Animal proteins are a good source of iron while plant
    proteins are higher in fiber. If you have chicken at lunch, consider having lentil tacos for supper. Or mix
    both beans and meat with pasta instead of just meat.
    If you’re new to meal planning, use our sample meal planning calendar to help get started. We also have
    a new sample vegetarian meal planning calendar.

Next week Justine will share a recipe for Cheesy Chicken Casserole that you just might want to include
on your meal plan!

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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The Red Flags of Diet Advice and Where to Turn for Help

The new year is upon us and you can hardly turn on the TV, open up a magazine, or visit with a friend without some diet trend surfacing. Whether it be probiotics to boost your gut health or intermittent fasting, everyone seems to be an expert. While there is no shortage of diets, reliable nutrition information can seem scarce at times. So where do you turn when presented with nutrition advice that seems well intentioned, but actually may do more harm than good? Read below for five red flags to look out for when considering diet advice.

Red flags when considering diet advice:

  • Promises rapid weight loss. Weight loss more rapid than 1-2 pounds per week tends to be regained even faster. Many factors play into our weight status, including genetics and physical activity levels, along with what we eat. Rather than focusing solely on weight, consider if you will be learning new skills that improve your health, like meal prepping or choosing whole grain foods.
  • Cuts out entire food groups. Removing an entire food group (like dairy, grains, or legumes) without a medical reason to do so (such as a food allergy) is impractical and can cause you to miss out on key nutrients.
  • Detoxes/cleanses/fasts. Did you know your body comes with built in detoxifiers? That’s right, your kidneys and liver have been doing this since the day you were born! Additionally, there are many concerns regarding following a cleanse diet for an extended period of time, including fatigue due to limited protein, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and dehydration.
  • Requires you to purchase pills/bars/or shakes. A sustainable (and affordable!) eating pattern is based on food readily available in grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
  • No need to be physically active. Physical activity is essential for good health and weight management and should be a part of your daily routine.

So what should you be looking for in terms of nutrition advice? First, consider recommendations that focus on your overall meal pattern rather than a specific diet. Your health status is a reflection of what you consume over the course of time, not a diet you follow for a few weeks. A healthy meal pattern encourages balance and moderation, does not exclude any particular food or food group, and emphasizes small changes to improve your health. For healthy meal pattern ideas, visit Spend Smart. Eat Smart.,, and Next week on the blog, Jody will share some tips and tools to help you get started with healthy meal planning.

Written by: Rachel Wall, MS, RD, LD

Good or Bad? Finding Reliable Nutrition Information on the Web

The Keto diet, the DASH diet, the Paleo diet. What about Intermittent Fasting? With the start of a new year, many people set New Year’s resolutions with hopes of making some sort of change in their life. A top New Year’s resolution is to eat better and lose weight. And a popular source people look to for nutrition information is the internet. You can find reliable nutrition information on the web, but you need to be careful where you look and what websites you trust. Below are five tips for finding trustworthy nutrition information online.

  • Consider the source. Choose most often sites that have web addresses that end in .gov, .edu, or .org. These are most often websites for government agencies, educational institutions, and professional organizations.
  • Know the sites purpose. Is it to provide information or to sell something? If available, read the “About” section of the site to help determine the reliability of the information on the site.
  • Look for the evidence. Health decisions are best based on medical and scientific research, not on opinion. Look to see the sources of information for the website. Be cautious of sites that offer information from a single source.
  • Check the date. Health information is continually changing. Check the bottom of the page to find out how recently it was updated or reviewed.
  • Visit a health professional. Online health information should not replace talking with your physician or other health professionals.
  • Along with Spend Smart. Eat Smart., visit and for reliable nutrition information. Next week we will have guest blogger Rachel Wall share red flags to be aware of when considering different diets and how to find an eating pattern that is right for you.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Which Yogurt Should I Buy?

For me, one of the most confusing parts of the grocery store is the yogurt area.  There are so many options! There are different types and flavors, different nutrition, and different prices.  To play it safe, I usually stick with what my family likes – citrus flavored yogurts for me, peach yogurt for my husband, drinkable yogurt for my oldest son, Greek yogurt for my daughter, and small containers of yogurt for my youngest son.  


But, I have wondered, what if I am sacrificing nutrition or paying too much by playing it safe?  Down below, I have created a table to help make decisions when buying yogurt. I used the information for yogurt that is available at a local grocery store where I shop.



Yogurt Type

Container Size (oz) Cost Sugar (g) Calcium (%DV) Vitamin D (%DV)

Fruit flavored (original)


$0.46 19 20


Fruit flavored (light)

6 $0.46 10 15



5.3 $0.78 6 15


Greek fruit flavored (light)

5.3 $1.00 6 15



1 tube


(per tube)

8 10


Drinkable                 3.1


(per bottle)




*Percent Daily Value or %DV is the amount of that nutrient for a 2000 calorie diet.

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Fast Food Restaurant vs Homemade Breakfast

Written by Kathryn Standing

Student Assistant, ISU Dietetics

It can be difficult to keep to a budget, keep yourself healthy and keep to your schedule. I have been trying to change my breakfast routine with the goal of reducing my stress and spending, all while being healthier. Easy right? If I pick up breakfast on the way to work from a drive-through, would it save me time and money? How healthy would it be? I tried a couple of fast food breakfasts near my home to see what I find and I’m sharing the low down with you.

Drive through breakfast


Time: 10 min — The fast food restaurant is about 6 min out of my way and the time through the drive-through was 4 min for a total of 10 min invested in my breakfast.

Cost: $ 2.59

Calories: 340

Fat: 15 g

Saturated fat: 5 g

Cholesterol: 175 mg

Sodium: 640 mg

Fiber: 1g

→ Comments: The sandwich was pretty good! I got crumbs all over my car, though. Plus, I couldn’t resist getting some breakfast potatoes, which I regretted later. If I had chosen this sandwich on a croissant instead it would have doubled my fat and added 160 calories!


Time: 12 min — The fast food restaurant is about 5 min out of my way and was very busy! The time through the drive-through was 7 min for a total of 12 min invested in my breakfast.

Cost: $ 4.19

Calories: 240                                   

Fiber: 3g

Fat: 2.5 g                                          

Sugar: 26 g, Added 18.95g

Cholesterol: 5 mg

Sodium: 125 mg

→ Comments: It was a good parfait, very sweet! It was also in a handy container. The fast-food restaurant I went to was very busy. I managed to get the last parfait, but I worry they would be out if I wanted to get one again.

At home breakfast


1 whole wheat English muffin – 1 egg – 1 slice reduced fat white American singles

Time: 7 min — It took me about 4 min to cook the egg and toast the bread, plus another 3 min for clean-up.

Cost: $ .56

Calories: 245

Fat: 8.5 g

Saturated fat: 3 g

Cholesterol: 196 mg

Sodium: 530 mg

Fiber: 3g

→ Comments: This sandwich was very similar to the one I had gotten at the drive-thru, except I used the whole wheat version of an English muffin. The sandwich I made at home had better nutrition for me with almost half the fat and triple the fiber. Though the cholesterol was higher, I assume that is only because of a difference in the type and size of eggs used. The sodium was a little lower in mine, but this experiment does show that sodium is hard to limit sometimes.


½ cup plain non-fat yogurt sweetened with 1 tsp honey – ½ cup berries (frozen, thawed) – 2 T granola

Time: 5 min — It took me about 3 min to make, plus another 2 min to clean up.

Cost: $1.16

Calories: 150

Fat: 2 g

Cholesterol: 5 mg

Sodium: 80 mg

Fiber: 6.9g

Sugar: 19.2 g,

Added sugars 6g

→ Comments: This was so easy to make. It has significantly less sugar and sodium, as well as more than double the fiber!

Verdict: Overall it was significantly cheaper to make the food at home. I saved $2.00+ on the sandwich and $3.00+ on the parfait, that’s over $5.00! $5.00+ per workday is equivalent to savings of over $100 per month! Both of my homemade items were a lot healthier for me too. The food from the fast food places was convenient, though I had to clean the crumbs out of my car later and it didn’t end up saving me any time. The largest downside for me was the temptation of all the other options available. Fried potatoes, whip cream coffee mocha-whatever-latte, and icing covered anything calling my name make it hard to stick to healthy eating. Overall the answer seems clear: skip the fast food breakfast and take the 5-7 min to make yourself something at home. Your wallet, your health, and your schedule will thank you.

Oatmeal Cookies

It is the time of year for sharing food, especially cookies.  Our December recipe of the month, Oatmeal Cookies, is perfect for sharing.  Take these delicious cookies to a party, family gathering, or cookie exchange.

You can also make these cookies into a gift.  Start with a quart sized glass jar. Pour in any optional ingredients you would like to include from the recipe such as dried cranberries, raisins, white chocolate chips, or coconut.  Then pour in the oatmeal. Top that with the brown sugar. Pour in the rest of the dry ingredients – the whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Close the lid tightly on the jar so there are no accidental spills.  Write out the instructions to the recipe on a card to give with the jar. Make sure to include amounts for the wet ingredients that are not included in the jar. You could even give out an individual serving size cup of applesauce with each jar – these are the perfect amount for this recipe.  Finally, share your jar as a gift! It is so fun to give and receive homemade gifts like this.


Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Homemade Dried Onion Soup Mix

Last week, I shared our homemade taco seasoning mix.  This week, I would like to share our homemade dried onion soup mix.  This dried onion soup mix is useful in seasoning soups, dips, and meats.  To make this mix, stir together dried minced onion, sodium free beef bouillon granules, onion powder, and sugar and store in an airtight container for up to six months.

This mix makes the equivalent of three packages of store bought dried onion soup mix.  This homemade mix is more expensive than the store bought version. Homemade costs $3.72 for the equivalent of three packages and the store bought is $0.72 for two packages.  However, the extra cost is more than balanced out by the savings in sodium. The homemade version has 15 mg of sodium in 1/3 cup (about the same as one store bought package) while the store bought version has 4,560 mg of sodium in one package, which is 570 mg of sodium per serving.   

The savings in sodium in this mix is important because reducing sodium consumption has health impacts.  Find more information about the connection between sodium and high blood pressure here and sodium for children here.

Try our homemade Dried Onion Soup Mix in our Slow Cooker Roast or any other recipe that calls for dried onion soup mix.


Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Homemade Taco Seasoning Mix

Taco seasoning mix is a staple in many people’s cupboards.  It adds great flavor to taco meat, beans, soups, and dips. You can buy pre-packaged taco seasoning mix at the store or you can use our homemade version.  To make homemade taco seasoning mix, you simply need to combine minced onion, chili powder, cornstarch, crushed dried red pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, and ground cumin in a container with a tight fitting lid.  This seasoning mix lasts a year in your cupboard.


This seasoning mix makes the equivalent of six packages of store bought taco seasoning mix.  The homemade seasoning mix costs about the same as store bought. Homemade is $2.46 for six packages and the store brand at my local grocery store is $0.44 for one package, which comes out to $2.64 for six packages.  


The big difference between the two mixes is the sodium content.  One package of store bought taco seasoning mix contains 2,580 mg of sodium, which is 430 mg per serving.   Two tablespoons of our homemade taco seasoning mix (the equivalent of one store bought package) contains 80 mg of sodium, which is about 13 mg per serving.


Use our Taco Seasoning Mix in Lentil Tacos, Slow Cooker Lentils, or in your own favorite taco recipe.

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Spice it up! – Part 2

Last week Jody gave us some helpful tips on using spices in cooking to give food lots of flavor without using too much salt. She also shared which spices we use most in our recipes and how to store them for maximum shelf life. You have probably guessed that we on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. team really like to cook so experimenting with different flavors and spices is fun for us.

Even though I like to cook and cook at home most of the time, I can still get ahead of myself when it comes to spices. Ground spices (cumin, chili powder, curry powder, etc.) have their maximum flavor for 2-4 years after you open them. Dried herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, etc.) are best used within 1-3 years. Given how quickly some foods perish, this seems like a really long shelf life. Nevertheless, it is easy to have a spice in your cabinet for many years if you only use it on rare occasion. Here are some tips I use to keep my spices in check and avoid wasting money on spices I have to throw out.

  1. I buy spices in the smallest container I can. This saves space in my cabinet, reduces the risk of waste and allows me to try new spices without committing to buying a large container.
  2. I mark each container with the date that I open it, so I do not have to guess how long it has been sitting in my cabinet.
  3. Once a year I go through my spice cabinet and make my own all-purpose seasoning blends with the bits of spices I have left in my cabinet. I like to do this around New Year’s Day when I tend to have a lot of time around the house. I find that I go through the blends faster than individual spices. You can adjust the ratios of these blends based on what you have and what flavors you enjoy most. Some of my favorites include:
    • Taco Seasoning: This works well for any Tex Mex dish I am making. It is delicious in taco meat, beans or even soups with a similar flavor profile.
    • Dried Onion Soup Mix: I have several recipes I make that call for dried onion soup mix and I would rather use up the seasonings I already have than buy a packet at the store.
    • Italian Seasoning Blend: rosemary, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, oregano and onion powder. I use this on chicken, steak, vegetables, roasted potatoes and in pasta dishes. It is all of the same ingredients as store-bought Italian seasoning, but it allows me to use what I already have rather than buy another jar.
    • Grill Seasoning: garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, red pepper flakes and paprika. This is tasty on meats and veggies that I grill or roast.
  4.  If I find a recipe that calls for a spice I do not already have, I look for one or two other recipes that use it before I buy it. This way I know that I have multiple ideas for using that spice and I will make good use of it.

These are some tips that work for me…how do you keep your spice cabinet from getting out of control? Share with us in the comments or on our social media this week. You’ll hear more about the Taco Seasoning and Dried Onion Soup Mix from Justine next month.

Happy Cooking!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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