Briana CaBell didn't need a physician to tell her she had to do something about her diet.
An admitted carb-fats-salt junkie who's been overweight as long as she can remember, CaBell has known for years that she needed to mend her food ways, to stop thinking of salty, deep-fried onion rings as a vegetable staple and, especially, curb her fast-food intake.
The 30-year-old single Laurel resident said the time constraints of working two jobs, plus sharing a small catering business with her mother, squeezing in college courses and maintaining a schedule of church activities keep her on the run from before dawn to late in the evening.
"I don't have time," CaBell said. During the school year, as a therapeutic aide for Baltimore City public schools, she'd joined in on whatever takeout her co-workers were getting and grabbed whatever starchy snacks were handy. In her summer job as a day-care provider, she wasn't doing much better. In her second job as a family cook and housekeeper, she's busy until after dinnertime, and often stops on the way home to pick up fast food in a bag.
Prepared diet meals and substitutes over the years hadn't been the answer. But the menus she prepares for work aren't either - they can be elaborate and feature specialty foods.
Recently, her doctor told her she was pre-diabetic - a startling message that focused her on the need to adjust her diet.
"I have to totally change my eating habits," she said.
This summer, CaBell decided, would be a good time to create those new habits. Dinners that could be thrown together quickly and also would create either a portable lunch of leftovers or the next night's dinner would be a godsend.
CaBell sought help from The Sun's Make Over My Meal series. We contacted Anne Arundel Medical Center and discovered Maureen Shackelford, a registered dietitian who is also a certified diabetes educator.
Shackelford began by illustrating "portion distortion" - that a 1/2 -pound cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, ketchup and fries was 1,345 calories. (Cut in half, it would be closer to what should be a single-size portion - and still more than 600 calories.) The fried chicken dinner CaBell often brought home also was high in calories and fat. If the onion rings counted as a vegetable, then it had one vegetable.
CaBell should ditch the takeout in favor of shortcuts at home, Shackelford said, to create healthful, balanced, nutritionally dense meals that are low in carbohydrate, salt and fat.
How fast did CaBell want to make dinner? Fifteen minutes would be great, she said.
Shackelford said that CaBell could use the culinary skills she had learned as a teenager through a Job Corps program to help herself.
First, rather than trying to make more healthful versions of takeout foods she enjoyed, Shackelford suggested CaBell make a totally different meal and, instead of adding salt, opt for other seasonings.
"It's a matter of what you get used to," she said, explaining that if you're swapping out a high-fat dish for a low-fat version, you probably will decide it doesn't measure up to the fattier version. You have a better chance of liking a new low-fat menu item because you have no idea what the high-fat version tastes like.
"We can give your mouth the memory of a different flavor standard," she said.
Shackelford said CaBell should go for timesavers at home. Bagged salads and slaws, steam-in-the-bag frozen vegetables, minced garlic and packaged roasted chicken breasts are good staples.
The dietitian advised preparing more than a single serving at a time to both save time and promote creativity.
Shackelford started with a recipe from cooks.com for spicy, low-fat chicken fajitas, allowing for spot adjustments by CaBell. Broccoli slaw and hot steam-in-the-bag mixed vegetables would round out dinner.
CaBell, who likes chicken, said she'd go for it, even though it would be a far cry from the Popeyes two-piece fried chicken with a biscuit, onion rings and mashed potatoes with gravy that she enjoys.
CaBell quickly sliced an onion, tomato and green bell pepper and put them into a frying pan with butter-flavored cooking spray.
The recipe didn't say anything about pepper, but CaBell added some, admitting it was difficult not to grab the salt shaker, too, then added minced garlic.
The chicken breast, which was packaged already cooked and cut-up, went into the mix. A homemade breast could be lower in salt.
CaBell put a low-carb tortilla between two damp paper towels to keep it moist in the microwave. In seconds, it was on the plate, topped with about half the chicken mix, a scoop of broccoli slaw, mild salsa, grated reduced-fat cheese and fat-free sour cream.
The steamed mixed vegetables would be a problem - she dislikes peas -without butter and salt, CaBell said.