Burlingame mom develops low-sugar recipes for every meal of the day

Learn how to make healthier versions of everything from lasagna to brownies.|

For Jennifer Tyler Lee of Burlingame, it all started with a family table game she invented when her daughter Catherine, now 15, was in kindergarten.

“She was a picky eater, and she was particularly fierce. So we came up with this little game,” she said. “You could earn color cards and points as you ate your fruits and vegetables.”

In 2011, she and her kids turned the homegrown idea into a product. By the end of that year, her “Crunch a Color: The Healthy Eating Game” had spread nationwide through Pottery Barn Kids.

“That's how the food adventure started for me,” said Tyler Lee, who has a certificate in Nutrition and Healthy Living from Cornell University.

“At the beginning of 2012, we started a challenge on my blog - to try one new food a week - and Jamie Oliver promoted it throughout the year.

“That turned into my first book (‘The 52 New Food Challenges'), which was published in 2014.”

With her newest cookbook, “Half the Sugar, All the Love,” Tyler Lee continues her food odyssey, leading families away from the sugar highs of “Candy Land” and closer to the USDA's healthy “My Plate” guidelines.

The new cookbook grew out of a project she worked on with pediatrician Anisha Patel, a mother of two and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford who has studied how to help children and families reduce daily sugar intake, especially from sugary drinks.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages represent about half of our added sugar intake,” Tyler Lee said.

“If you can make that change, you are going to make a huge impact. I did a video series on making water fun and flavorful, so I added all sorts of fruits and vegetables.”

But the healthy eating advocate still wasn't satisfied. Her next goal was to cut sugar that is added to food during cooking or right before eating.

While Patel provided evidence-based science on why sugar is a problem, Tyler Lee researched recipes to show families how to cook with more fiber-rich fruits and veggies and less sugar.

“What's really insidious is the sneaky sugars, which show up in savory foods like dressings and condiments and sauces and soups,” she said.

“That's why our consumption is three times the recommended daily limit. ... Kids are consuming their weight in added sugar every year - 64 pounds.”

Researching popular dishes

First, Tyler Lee looked at what people's favorite dishes were, analyzing recipe searches on Google and sales data from grocery stores.

“I took an analytical approach to what is it that people want to eat right now,” she said.

“Then I remastered those things with at least 50 percent less sugar, and sometimes no sugar at all. Banana bread comes up really high on searches. ... So I remastered the banana bread recipe in the book to have zero added sugar. I sweeten with dates, and it is so incredibly moist.”

The fiber in fruits and vegetables is key to eliminating sugar, she said, because it helps you feel more full and satisfied and changes the way sugar is processed in the body.

“Fiber is really the key in that story, because it slows the absorption of the sugar, making it easier for your body to process,” she said.

Along with spices, Tyler Lee uses nuts and seeds to add flavor to her low-sugar recipes, providing nut substitutions for those with food allergies.

“I have a healthier version of Nutella that I make with toasted hazelnuts,” she said.

“But if you have a nut allergy, I have a nut-free version that's made with pumpkin and sunflower seeds.”

One thing she is adamant about is making all of her food delicious. So she enlisted three chefs to help her develop recipes that would not skimp on flavor, plus a registered dietician from UCSF to make sure the nutrition targets were still sound, without too much sodium or fat added.

“If it doesn't taste great, nobody is going to get on board.”

Busting the sugar myths

One of the myths the book tries to bust is that some sweeteners - such as honey, maple syrup and agave syrup - are considered healthier than others. Not so.

“Honey is a sweetener that is added, so it still counts,” she said. “A teaspoon of honey has 5.8 grams (of sugar) per teaspoon, more than the 4.2 grams in granulated sugar. ... So you definitely can't swap them one for one.”

The book also explains how to read a nutrition label to figure out how much added sugar is in a product.

To find out the added sugar in a yogurt, for example, take a single serving of plain, unsweetened yogurt and subtract the amount of sugar in it from the amount in a sweetened vanilla yogurt.

The number will be in grams, and if you divide by four, you'll find out roughly how many teaspoons of added sugar are in the vanilla yogurt.

“It can be startling,” she said. “Breakfast with granola and yogurt can have as much added sugar as a candy bar. You think you're doing something healthy, and whammo, you've just exceeded your added sugar intake for the day.”

Salad dressings are another sticky wicket. A packaged jar of creamy, poppyseed dressing can have up to 18 teaspoons of sugar in the bottle, she said.

“You're not putting the whole jar on your salad, but you're probably putting more than one serving,” she said.

This month, if you want to cut added sugar but keep flavor and sweetness, Tyler Lee suggests restocking your pantry with some key ingredients she uses in the cookbook: dates and ripe fruits to replace natural sugar, canned pumpkin and sweet potato for natural sweetness, spices like nutmeg and cardamom for flavor, nuts for texture, nut and seed butters for creaminess, whole milk yogurt for moisture and egg yolks for binding.

Set yourself up for success

“Half the Sugar, All the Love” includes 100 easy, low-sugar recipes for every meal as well as for common condiments, sauces and dressings.

“Breakfast is a really sneaky place where added sugar shows up,” she said. “And it's so important to set yourself on the right track.”

One of her favorite breakfast recipes is Pumpkin Spice Waffles, which she cooks halfway, then freezes for later. All she has to do is pop them out of the freezer and into the toaster to finish cooking.

“A typical waffle with maple syrup has 16 teaspoons of added sugar,” she said. “My Pumpkin Spice Waffle with Maple Yogurt has one and a half teaspoons of added sugar.”

One of her favorite snacks for kids is a “Newtella” and Banana roll-up, which can also be made in advance and left in the fridge.

As an extra special treat, she suggests the recipe for Maple Caramel Corn, which calls for baking soda to create a light, crispy texture.

For dessert, you can't beat the super-easy Double Chocolate Brownies, which are sweetened with sweet potatoes and almond butter plus chocolate chips and maple syrup.

“They end up being less than half the sugar of a boxed brownie mix,” she said. “I don't tell anybody that they're healthy, and everybody loves them.”


The following recipes are from “Half the Sugar, All the Love” (Workman Publishing, 2019) by Jennifer Tyler Lee and Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH.)

“Crispy, chewy, crunchy and tender - this colorful autumnal salad has a variety of textures to keep things interesting,” Lee writes.

“The combination of farro, pumpkin seeds and Parmesan cheese provides plenty of savory flavor as well as protein - without meat. Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing brings it all together with less than half the sugar of a store-bought dressing.”

Fall Harvest Mason Jar Salad with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing

Makes 2 servings as main or 4 as side salad

½ cup farro

1/8 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt

1 cup diced, peeled butternut squash (cut in ½-inch pieces)

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing (see recipe below)

¼ cup pomegranate seeds

3 ounces lacinato kale, ribs removed, leaves very thinly sliced (about 3½ loosely packed cups)

4 ounces Brussels sprouts (6 to 8 sprouts), root ends trimmed, very thinly sliced (about 1¼ cups)

¼ cup roasted salted pumpkin seeds

2 tablespoons shaved Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the farro in a strainer and rinse with cold water. Transfer the farro to a small saucepan with 11/2 cups water and 1/8 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 30 minutes.

Return the farro to the strainer to drain any excess water. Spread the farro on a plate and let it cool completely.

Meanwhile, line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the butternut squash on top. Drizzle the squash with the oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Toss gently until the pieces are evenly coated.

Roast the squash until lightly browned and tender, about 20 minutes, stirring the squash halfway through cooking. Let the squash cool completely.

To assemble each salad, pour 2 tablespoons dressing into the bottom of a wide-neck quart-size Mason jar. Add half of the farro, followed by half of the squash, 2 tablespoons of the pomegranate seeds, half the kale, half the Brussels sprouts, 2 tablespoons of the pumpkin seeds, and 1 tablespoon of the Parmesan cheese.

Repeat with another wide-neck quart-size Mason jar and the remaining ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, empty the contents of the jar into a bowl and toss well. Serve immediately.

Note: If serving this recipe as a side salad at home, place all the prepared ingredients except for the cheese in a large serving bowl and toss to combine. Sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.

What kids can do: Kids can help assemble the jars.

Make ahead: Prep and assemble all the components, including the dressing, up to 2 days ahead of time and store in the jars in the refrigerator for a quick grab-and-go lunch.


“The addition of a ripe pear gives this typically sugar-laden dressing the bulk of its sweetness, as well as a rich and creamy consistency without the need for milk,” Tyler Lee said.

Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing

Makes 1 cup

1 medium very ripe Bartlett pear (about 7 ounces), cored and diced (skin left on)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons honey

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

11/2 teaspoons poppy seeds

Place the pear, oil, vinegar, shallot, mustard, honey, salt and pepper in a blender. Blend until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute.

Add the poppy seeds and pulse to combine. Transfer the dressing to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Make ahead: The dressing will keep in a jar or airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.


“This recipe is packed with vegetables, so when you need a healthy, one-pan dinner that feeds a crowd, you're covered. Tomato sauce is an unexpected source of added sugar, which is why many prepared lasagna dinners contain up to 2 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.

Quick-Cook Tomato-Basil Sauce is an easy addition here, but if you're tight on time, you can use jarred sauce.”

Rainbow Chard Lasagna

Makes 10 servings

- Nonstick cooking spray

- Kosher salt

2 bunches rainbow chard, stems removed

- Freshly ground black pepper

1 container (15 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

5 cups Quick-Cook Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe below)

9 sheets oven-ready lasagna

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the chard and set a strainer over a bowl near the stove.

Blanch the chard leaves in batches until tender, 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or skimmer to the strainer. Let cool to the touch.

Move the strainer to the sink and squeeze the chard with your hands until very dry. Chop roughly and place in a medium bowl. Toss with 1/16 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste.

Combine the ricotta, 1 cup of the mozzarella and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan in a medium bowl. Season with 1/16 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste.

Pour 1 cup of the sauce in the prepared baking dish and spread it in an even layer. Place 3 sheets of pasta on top in a single layer, leaving some space around them to allow them to expand when they cook.

Add 1 cup of the sauce on top, spreading to cover the edges of the pasta. Sprinkle with half the rainbow chard, then dollop with half the ricotta cheese mixture. Spread or flatten the ricotta cheese gently with a large spoon (it will spread out more later).

Repeat the layers, starting with the sauce. Cover the final layer of pasta with the remaining 1 cup sauce, making sure to spread the sauce over the edges.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup mozzarella and 1/4 cup Parmesan on top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil.

Bake until the edges of the pasta are cooked through and the sauce is bubbly, about 35 minutes. Uncover and place under the broiler to brown, about 3 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes before cutting into 10 pieces and serving.

Quick tip: Use two jars (24 ounces each) of no-added-sugar pasta sauce to save on cooking time (be sure to check the label for sugar or any of its derivative names). Instead of rainbow chard, you can use a 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed according to the package directions. Follow the same directions for squeezing the greens dry.

What kids can do: Kids can tear the leaves from the rainbow chard. More experienced junior chefs can assemble the lasagna.

Make ahead: You can assemble the lasagna ahead and store it, covered, in the refrigerator, then bake it the next day.

Remove from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven. Make sure the sauce comes to a full boil in the oven.

Leftover baked lasagna will keep, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, in the freezer for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating in the microwave.


Quick-Cook Tomato-Basil Sauce

Makes 5 cups

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cans (28 ounces each) low-sodium, strained tomatoes or tomato puree

1 teaspoons salt, plus extra if needed

4 large fresh basil leaves, torn

Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. When it is warm, add the garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano and swirl in the oil until just fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the tomatoes and salt. Bring to a low boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have lost their raw flavor and the sauce is sweeter, about 20 minutes.

Stir in the basil and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Make ahead: The sauce will keep in a jar or airtight container in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for 3 months. If frozen, thaw the sauce overnight in the refrigerator.


“Our rich, fudgy brownies hit the mark with less than half the sugar of a boxed brownie mix,” Tyler Lee said. “The secret ingredients are ones that none of our tasters could guess: sweet potatoes and almond butter. Sweet potatoes give these brownies a natural sweetness, while almond butter adds a creamy, rich texture - plus they're studded with chocolate chips. They don't need flour, so they're great for gluten-free families.

If you use canned sweet potato puree, the whole recipe comes together in less than 10 minutes in the food processor, so you can satisfy chocolate cravings quickly.”

Double Chocolate Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

- Nonstick cooking spray

1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled, cubed and boiled until fork-tender

1/2 cup unsweetened almond butter

1/2 cup coconut oil or unsalted butter (1 stick), melted

1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk

1/4 cup maple syrup

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips (63/4 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, leaving 2 inches of overhang on each side, and coat with cooking spray.

Combine the sweet potatoes, almond butter, coconut oil, egg and egg yolk in a food processor.

Process until very smooth, making sure no chunks of sweet potato remain, about 1 minute.

Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the maple syrup and vanilla. Process until combined, about 30 seconds.

Add the cocoa powder, salt and baking soda and process until all the dry ingredients are incorporated, about 1 minute more.

Fold in 1 cup of the chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spread it into an even layer and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons chocolate chips. Bake until the top is set and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, 27 to 30 minutes. Let the brownies cool slightly. Cut into 24 bars.

Quick tip: You can substitute 1 cup canned sweet potato puree for the fresh sweet potato.

What kids can do: Little chefs can measure the ingredients and sprinkle the chocolate chips.

Make ahead: The brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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