Easy Ways to Create Nutritious Meals

by | Jan 2023

Molli Pletcher chopping vegetables.

Photos: Chris Emeott

Substitute these ingredients for healthier alternatives.

Self-taught chef and recipe developer Molli Pletcher says eating healthy is in her DNA. Pletcher, a trained nurse, says, “My mom is also a nurse, so I was raised eating healthy. I didn’t know any different.”

Pletcher has always had passion in the kitchen and has served many roles in the food industry. The Woodbury resident of 16 years served as a private chef for numerous players for the Minnesota Vikings, has done food preparation and meal planning for local families, developed her own recipes and more.

Now, Pletcher along with her husband, Ken, are raising their two boys, Dayton (14) and Dax (12), to enjoy healthier options, as well. “In my daily life, I know, as a nurse and how I was raised, how important healthy food is,” she says. “My kids are busy, and I often have to find meals quickly.”

Pletcher notes she first began learning how to cook from Rachel Ray’s TV show, 30-Minute Meals. “It’s all about making fast meals that are healthy,” she says. Pletcher often utilizes fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs from her garden, plus her trips to the farmers markets in the summer, and the meat she cooks with comes from her family’s farm. “My mom taught me well,” she says.

When cooking for her family, Pletcher is sure to add in a few ingredients that her kids may not approve of—like kale—or she substitutes a few household staples with healthier options. Instead of butter or vegetable oil, she reaches for ghee or olive oil. She’ll go for brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice, and chicken or beef stock instead of cooking wine. As someone who steers clear of alcohol, she’s whipping up mocktails instead of cocktails.

“I’m the queen of mocktails,” she says. “When I make a mocktail, I use carbonated water—that’s what I drink all day. There’s so many great flavored ones now, [and] I have so many mixes that are nonalcoholic.” She often muddles fresh herbs, like mint or basil, and fresh fruit, including oranges, lemons and limes, into her mocktails for a crisp flavor.

Each summer, she freezes and preserves her garden’s fresh bounty, so it’s ready to go all winter long. “It’s one of my favorite things in the summer,” she says. Pletcher showcases many of her recipes on her blog and Instagram. “I have a ton of things on there, but I use the word ‘blog’ loosely. It’s just my favorite recipes and photos of them,” she says.

Molli Pletcher

This and Not That

Pletcher recommends substituting a few pantry staples with healthier alternatives. Here are a few of her go-to substitutions.

This Not That
Agave: 1 g. sugar/Tbsp. Honey: 17 g. sugar/Tbsp.
Apple cider vinegar White vinegar
Brown rice White rice
Canola oil, olive oil or any nut oil Vegetable oil
Chicken stock/beef stock White wine/red wine
Coconut aminos: 270 mg. sodium/Tbsp. Soy sauce: 879 mg. sodium/Tbsp.
Ghee (also known as clarified butter) Butter
Homemade fresh fruit popsicles Store bought, sugar-free popsicles
Kale or dark leafy greens Iceberg lettuce

Healthy Additions

Pletcher understands a child’s desire for sugary foods. “We’re never going to get away from the fruit snacks and fruit rollups. They’re treats, and they love them,” she says. Instead of depriving yourself or your child of their favorites, Pletcher says to eat things in moderation. She also recommends adding in these items when available.

  • Beans: Lentils are a great substitution for rice, but can also be added to things like taco meat, pasta, soups, stews and more for added protein. “A lot of people on high protein diets add beans into their meals. They’re a great substitution or addition,” Pletcher says.
  • Bulgur wheat: This ancient Mediterranean whole grain is good for the body and the heart. “I make salads with bulgur wheat … It’s really good for you. It’s also in things like tabbouleh,” she says.
  • Chia seeds: Boost the amount of fiber in meals with the addition of chia seeds. “I sneak a lot of chia into a lot of things, and you don’t know it’s there. Along with kale, I do it in my soups, stews, chili and spaghetti sauce,” Pletcher says.
  • Kale: Pletcher adds kale to just about anything, ranging from smoothies to spaghetti sauce. “I sneak kale into a lot of my soups, stews and sauces … It’s packed with vitamins, but you don’t taste it,” she says. “You can sneak kale into your brownies and cookies, too.” She notes that spinach is another great substitute.

Healthy Recipes from Molli Pletcher

  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • ¼ cup extra fine bulgur wheat
  • 2 bunches parsley, about 2 cups chopped (I prefer flat leaf parsley)
  • 1–2 vine-ripe firm tomatoes
  • 2 green onions, both green and white parts
  • ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and lemon juice until well combined. Then add the bulgur wheat to the dressing, and let it soak until it’s soft and plumped, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the other ingredients. When preparing the tomatoes, it helps to use a colander to drain the excess juice. Place the chopped ingredients in a large bowl. Season with kosher salt and ground black pepper. Pour the bulgur and dressing mixture over it. Gently toss to combine. Serve at room temperature or cold, with lettuce if desired.

Spaghetti Sauce

Molli Pletcher's Spaghetti Sauce

  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 lbs. Roma tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2–1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • optional: 1 lb. ground beef
  • optional: 2 cups kale, chopped

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and sauté until onions start to soften. Move the onions to the sides of the skillet, and add tomato paste to the center of the pan. Stir and cook the paste in the center of the pan for about 30 seconds before incorporating it into the onions. Add tomatoes, garlic and sugar. Cook about five minutes or until tomatoes start to break down. Stir in all the fresh herbs, and season with more salt and pepper. Using an immersion blender, purée the sauce. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can remove the pan from the heat and pour the sauce into a blender. Be careful to hold the top of the blender.) When blended well, pour sauce back into the pan. Turn heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for additional seasoning if needed.
If using meat sauce, add seasoned, browned ground beef to the mixture. Add kale if using.

Pletcher’s Tip: Salt pasta water, and top spaghetti with freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Kale Pesto Quinoa with Grilled Vegetables
  • 1 cup uncooked quinoa
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable broth
  • 1 medium zucchini, ends cut off and cut in half lengthwise
  • 3 roma tomatoes, halved and seeded
  • 1 large jalapeno, cut lengthwise and seeded
  • 1 small red onion, halved
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • Freak Flag Organics kale pesto
  • ¼ cup each: fresh, chopped Italian parsley, basil and cilantro
  • feta cheese, crumbled

Add the quinoa and broth to a large saucepan and heat over high heat until it boils. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer until cooked according to package directions. Preheat grill to 350 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl toss the vegetables with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the vegetables on the heated grill. Cook the first side until slightly charred (about 10 minutes). Flip the vegetables and repeat on the second side. Remove vegetables from grill and roughly chop. To the cooked quinoa add 1/2 jar of pesto and the chopped vegetables. Add chopped herbs and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with feta cheese.

Instagram: @mollipletcher


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