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Sarah Stegner

Co-chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe, Northbrook

Photo: (after) Saverio Truglia

Boosted Her Energy

Much of her adult life, Sarah Stegner had hovered at around 180 pounds, and the confident chef, a James Beard Award winner, was comfortable with that. “I wasn’t bingeing. I wasn’t eating a whole box of cookies,” she explains. “I didn’t think I was particularly unhealthy, so I didn’t really think about it.”

But by 2010, Stegner was still carrying the 30 pounds she’d put on during her pregnancy with her daughter, Jaya, now 10. With her hectic schedule, Stegner found it almost impossible to shed the weight. “I didn’t eat enough during the day, then I was hungry at night. I would try to eat healthy, a lot of salads and fish and vegetables, but I found that, no matter what, if I ate late at night, I didn’t lose weight.”

How She Lost It

In 2010, Stegner’s husband, Rohit Nambiar, who manages Prairie Grass Cafe, started to get more serious about his fitness, working out with a trainer. “So I thought, OK, I better do this, too,” Stegner says.

Personal trainer Phyllis Theodoropoulos designed an exercise program aimed at boosting Stegner’s endurance after years of little activity. Three times a week, Stegner did 30 minutes of light weights on the exercise machines at her Evanston gym, Fitness Defined, and 20 minutes of cardio on the treadmill or elliptical. It took more than a year, but she dropped 20 pounds. “It was a slow process,” says Theodoropoulos. “But once she realized how great she felt, she took the next step to get her food in a healthier mode.”

Starting last October, Stegner heeded the advice of her friend Carol Wagner, a holistic nutrition consultant: Choose one or two behaviors and change them until they become habit. First up: She swapped her morning mocha routine for an actual breakfast, eaten within an hour of waking up. She experimented with egg whites and cereal for breakfast but found that nuts and veggies worked best (and were easiest) for keeping her appetite satisfied. Eventually, she settled on a plan built around multiple small meals spread throughout the day to keep her cravings down. It took another three months to achieve her current weight, just above 140 pounds.

“I don’t believe in counting calories, but I know I didn’t start eating less than before. I just started making different choices,” Stegner says. “And once I started, I realized this is a lot easier than I thought. If I eat the right foods throughout the day, I don’t have the cravings. Because once you get those cravings, forget it. You’ve already lost.”

How She Maintains It

Stegner follows Wagner’s mantra: “A hit of protein and something live.” For breakfast, she crunches on raw peppers, carrots, celery, or almonds while she’s getting her daughter ready for school. Midmorning, it’s egg whites with sautéed veggies. “Around 2 p.m., I’ll eat a salad, usually with bacon or chicken. Then I’ll eat at the [restaurant’s] family meal around 4:30 p.m., but I’ll ask the cooks to do things like roast chicken or tacos in corn tortillas sans sour cream and cheese. Then I’m done eating for the day.” Except, of course, when she’s sampling her own creations. (“Tasting is part of being a chef,” she says.) Nor will she deprive herself of dining out from time to time. “I eat whatever I want at those meals.”

Once a week, Stegner works out with Theodoropoulos, doing 30 minutes of strength training (pull-downs, kettlebell moves, and battling ropes, typically three sets of 12 for each) and 20 minutes of light cardio, either on the elliptical or by running along the Winnetka Park District beaches. Twice a week, she does 20 minutes of balance and flexibility exercises on her own, including sit-ups, squats, and planks.

“A lot of regulars, when they notice [my weight loss], it makes me feel good,” Stegner says. “But I have tried to keep the focus on being healthy and feeling healthy, not on how I look. I wasn’t aware of how tired I was before. I feel a whole new level of energy now.”

 

Sarah Stegner’s Egg White “Flat” Omelet

Egg White “Flat” Omelet
Photo: Anna Knott

Yield: 1 serving
Calories per serving: 510 (If you leave out the bacon and use nonstick spray instead of olive oil in step 2, you can drop the calories to 215.)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes

Pico de Gallo

¼ cup Tomato, diced fine
⅛ cup Red onion, diced fine
⅛ cup Jalapeño chili, seeded and diced fine
1 Tbsp. Cilantro, chopped
½ Lime, juiced
½ tsp. Olive oil
  Salt and pepper to taste

Omelet

2 Tbsp. Olive oil
¼ cup Onion, diced
¼ cup Green pepper, diced
½ cup Mushrooms, sliced and stems trimmed off
⅛ cup Jalapeño chili, seeded and diced
  Salt and pepper
1 Bacon strip, diced, then cooked crisp
¼ cup Tomato, diced
3 Egg whites

Garnish

¼ Avocado, sliced

1. Combine the pico de gallo ingredients. Set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch pan and sauté the onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and jalapeño until soft and starting to brown (8 to 10 minutes).

3. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

4. Add the bacon and tomato. Sauté an additional two minutes, or until the tomato has softened.

5. Pour on the egg whites and cook until underside begins to brown; flip and brown the other side. (Do not worry if the omelet breaks while flipping; it will come together on the second side.)

6. Serve hot with pico de gallo and avocado slices.

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