Archive for the ‘Food for Thought’ Category

New Beginnings

The neighborhood I live in offers community garden plots to residents on  a first come, first serve basis. Last year, my family and I were “wait-listed” due to an abundance of eager gardeners and a lack of plots. We waited out the long winter in hopes of being offered a plot this spring…and much to our surprise, we got one!

On a lovely spring morning over the weekend, we journeyed the three blocks to our plot—lucky number 18—armed with rakes, spades, and gardening gloves. It was time to work the soil, to get in there and get dirty, to see what sort of ground we had on our hands. This is what we found.

Lots of rocks and pebbles, plastic plant tags, torn bits of potting soil bags, more rocks, clayish soil, scraps of wood—oh, and more rocks. The previous gardeners of this plot also left us a large square strawberry patch. Unfortunately, it’s quite overgrown and riddled with pesky weeds and thistles, so I think we’ll end up pulling it out and growing more vegetables there instead.

The strawberry patch (and yes, that is me in the photo waving to you. Hi!)

Spring is full of new beginnings. Out with rocks and weeds, in with the soil and seeds. Our adventures in gardening are only beginning. Hopefully, in a good 12 weeks or so, I’ll be able to post some stunning before-and-after photographs and maybe a tasty recipe or two using up our garden’s abundance. Stay tuned!


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I really wished that I had a recipe to post for you today. But I don’t. Here’s why.

I’ve been putzing around in the kitchen all week trying out new recipes. I was hoping one of them would turn out good enough to post here. But not one did. The salmon salad I made with a few unusual ingredients—hoping they’d be unique and refreshing—was bland and almost mushy. The tartlets I prepared (if you could even call them that) with sweet potatoes and dates were a terrific idea—but, in the end, a terrific flop. I tried making a chickpea-brown rice burger for lunch one day. It was edible, I’ll say that much, but tasted more like a soft hummus cake than a sturdy burger. Much more work must done on the chickpea front. 

So I come to you today with no tasty salmon salad, no sweet and delicate tartlets, and certainly no vegetarian bean burgers. I come empty-handed with nothing but the bitter taste of reality in my mouth. In a perfect world, every new recipe I test would turn out deliciously and my kitchen would always be stocked with tasty creations. In a perfect world, I’d be munching on gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free sweet potato tartlets right now and writing to you about how wonderful they are and how you need to make them soon. But…

Reality #1: we don’t live in a perfect world.

Reality #2: even someone as familiar with cooking as myself goofs up now and again.

When you tell people that a large part of your job is cooking and teaching other people how to cook, I think they assume that anything that comes out of your kitchen is food fit for a royal family. You mention one recipe or comment about one ingredient in passing and they immediately start “mmm-ing” and “ahh-ing” over it. Truth is, not everything I make tastes good. In fact, I get rude awakenings on a weekly basis that shed light on how I can improve or what I need to do better. It’s a little thing called life-long learning. No matter how passionate you are about something or how long you’ve been in a certain business (or how good of a chickpea burger you can make, for that matter), there’s always room to improve. There’s always new techniques to learn, new experiences to undergo, new ideas to try.

Even though I have nothing but a wordy reflection to give you in today’s post—no recipes, no photos, no nutrition tips—I’m actually okay with that. Try as I might, I’m simply not perfect. But it’s through my imperfections and flaws that I often learn the most about life. And, more importantly, about myself.

Back soon with a tasty recipe…hopefully!

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This will probably be my last post before Christmas, so–instead of a holiday recipe or clever cooking tip–I just wanted to share with you all some reflections I have as we near the end of 2009. Hopefully this won’t put you to sleep.

There’s nothing like the warmth of a fire, a heavy snowfall, and some classic Christmas tunes drumming in the living room to put you in a festive mood. I’ve got to tell you, I’m so excited looking at those gifts under the tree that I could just jump up and shout right now. (But then, of course, the laptop perched on my knees would go flying onto the glass coffee table in the middle of the room. And that would be very bad, wouldn’t it?)

As a little girl, my parents could never put gifts under the tree (for me or anyone else) until just a few days before Christmas because I was known to rip tiny holes in the packaging just so I could get a sneak peek at the treasures that lay beneath all that pretty wrapping paper. I also used to snoop around in my parent’s closet and bedroom during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in hopes of discovering an unwrapped gift or two. Many times I also begged pathetically enough for my mom and dad to give in and allow me the thrill of opening one package on Christmas Eve instead of waiting until Christmas morning. (I did a few other naughty things on holidays. You can read about my Easter candy binge here.)

I’m relieved to say that with time and age, I did outgrow my obesession with gifts. But I will admit, the season of giving things all wrapped up in pretty paper and watching people open them and get all happy and smiley—well, it really still gets me excited! What can I say? I’m a self-proclaimed lover of giving and getting gifts.

But lately I’ve found myself enjoying the holiday season for reasons much more meaningful than the gifts alone. Take my family, for instance. About a year and a half ago, my sister got married and moved 1,000+ miles away. We talk almost every day and are constantly emailing back and forth, but there’s something so precious about being live and in-person with her and my brother-in-law. There’s no fancy way to say it, so I’ll just say it. It’s really hard having them live so far away. But there’s always a light in the darkness, you know what I mean? There’s always something good that comes out of a tough situation. And the good that comes out of the thousand-miles-apart-thing is this: when I do get to spend those precious, face-to-face, everybody-in-the-same-room-at-once moments with my entire family (mom, dad, sister, and brother-in-law), it is so sweet and so special that it makes me appreciate them all ten times more than I ever used to. The gift of family is a greater one than any that can be packaged and stuffed in stocking.

Other gifts? Good health, for one. With all the swine flus and bird blus and who know’s what else floating around out there, I’m so blessed to have a body that’s healthy and well in the midst of a world of illness. A home, that’s another gift. Like I said, it’s snowing and blowing to beat the band out there…but no worries. I’m sitting in a warm and comfortable home all bundled up in clean clothes and reindeer socks. No icy toes or fingers here.

I could go on forever about the gifts surrounding me in my life, but I think I’ll stop here. Family, good health, and a cozy home. When you stop and think about it, those are pretty great gifts, aren’t they? While they don’t fit under a tree or in a stocking, they fill a little corner of my heart to the brim. And on this eve of Christmas Eve—as I write this post surrounded by snowbanks and gusty winds outside and the toasty heat of a fire inside, as I look forward to a year ahead sure to be filled with more beautiful, wonderful things—I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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As much as I love the holiday season, I am dismayed to frequently meet with clients or fellow foodies and hear them groan about the struggles that go along with making healthy choices during the holidays. It seems that everywhere you look, dietary temptations abound this time of year. There’s just no denying it: food (and alcohol, for that matter) is central to holiday celebrations. From about Halloween all the way through the New Year, we feast and feast and feast. In our culture, you just can’t separate the holidays from scrumptious suppers, decadent desserts, and fruity cocktails.

It is estimated that the average American gains 5-10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. It’s not surprising, actually. Think about it: the holidays kick off with an enormous Thanksgiving feast laden with platters of succulent dishes and even richer desserts. Then comes December closely on Turkey-Day’s heels, filled to the brim with Christmas parties, family gatherings, traveling, and more feasting. Christmas culminates with another big meal, followed by an indulgent New Year’s celebration with more food and alcohol a week later. On top of all this eating and drinking and making merry, there’s the increased stress level to think about. With gifts to buy (and return), families to visit, trips to take, and–all the while–an ever emptying wallet, it’s no secret that the holidays bump up our stress levels quite significantly. Sadly, most people end the holiday season exhausted, broke, and glad to have it behind them. In my opinion, this is no way to spend the season. Something’s got to change.

Below are a few tips to help you enjoy healthy holidays. Don’t let such a joyous season pass you by and wear you down. Embrace it! Here’s how:

  1. Set boundaries. Food boundaries, that is. It’s okay to indulge a little at the holidays, just be picky and choosey about what you indulge in. Say you’re off to a Christmas party tomorrow night. Give yourself one area where you can indulge. That may be having a dessert, a cocktail, a plateful of appetizers, or whatever most appeals to you. Then do your best to make healthy choices for the rest of the evening. (Example: enjoy your fill of an array of tasty appetizers, but hold off on the egg-nog, pumpkin pie, and after-dinner drinks.)
  2. Think ahead. If you’re going to be traveling for the holidays, plan ahead as to what healthy foods you can bring with you to enjoy while on the road or as a guest at someone’s house. Take along lots of fresh fruit and nuts to enjoy for breakfasts (that way you can skip Grandma’s sticky buns), or homemade snacks like trail mix, date balls, or fresh veggies to tide you over between meals so you don’t have to binge on caramel corn and candy canes. 
  3. Remember to exercise. So often we forget this one. Although it’s the Christmas season, that doesn’t grant you the right to turn into a couch potato for 6 weeks! Exercise is critical for maintaining optimum immune function, which helps fight bugs like the common cold and flu. (For more tips on fighting the bug, click here.) It also keeps your metabolism fired up and churning, therefore burning the extra calories you may have enjoyed in that egg-nog or pumpkin pie. Aim for at least 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise each day such as brisk walking, ice-skating, jogging, or other aerobic activity.
  4. Manage stress. Even if you’re making every effort to be healthy this season (munching on carrots instead of candy canes or running outside instead of parking it in front of a Christmas movie), you may still be buckling under holiday stress. Remember to take time amidst all the hustle and bustle of the season to just relax and enjoy the holiday for what it is: a holiday! A time to take a break and reflect on the past year, enjoy the company of family and friends, and set goals for the future. Seek out practical stress management methods like journaling, exercising, reading, arts and crafts, etc. to help give your brain some “space” and breathing room.
  5. Get adequate sleep. Visions of sugarplums should dance in your head because you are, in fact, sleeping! Without proper rest, your body won’t be able to keep up with all of the repair and detox it needs to do during this busy time of the year. Come mid-January after the holidays have passed, you’ll end up sick with a cold or the flu and have a very compromised immune system due to all that stress and lack of sleep you had earlier in the season. If you sleep now, your body will thank you later. 

May your holidays be merry, your body be healthy, and your life be filled with joy by the gifts of the season. Stay well, everyone!

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Almost everyone I know is sick themselves, has been sick recently, is coming down with sickness, or knows someone else who’s sick. It’s really quite frightening when you think about it. All those germs out there, just floating around infesting everyone with nasty colds, bothersome flus, or other maladies.

I myself haven’t fallen prey to the dreaded flu yet…I hope I can say that all winter long! I think the biggest thing people can do right now in the midst of a world of sickness is to prevent it from happening before it can strike them sniffling in their tracks. So what are we to do to fend off “the bug?” Below are a few simple tips. No, they’re not brand new strategies or reinventions of the wheel. Just some basic ideas that really work.

  • Eat a colorful diet: try to eat as many colors of the rainbow each day as you can. Fruits and vegetables, packed with vitamins and minerals that fight viruses from A to Z, are your best bet at giving your body proper nourishment. Go for reds, blues, greens, yellows, oranges. Pack in the color wherever you can! Vitamins and minerals are bug-busters for sure, but fiber also helps keep the system “cleaned out” (if you know what I mean) and free of toxins.
  • Get enough zinc: this mineral is notorious for boosting immunity and strengthening the body’s reserve system. Zinc is found in a variety of foods including fruits/veggies, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It’s also plentiful in seafood and some meats. High quality zinc supplements can also be purchased at natural food stores or Whole Foods Market. Supplement with 15-30 mg per day to give your body a fighting chance.
  • Drink lots of water: and I mean lots! Here’s a simple calculation to help you figure out how much you need each day: divide your body weight (in pounds) in half. Drink that number in ounces per day. For example: if you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces of water or approximately 9 1/2 cups.
  • Exercise: regular movement gives your lymph system a kick in the you-know-where. The lymph system works on flushing toxins out of the body, therefore removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and germs.
  • Get some ZZZs: strive for 8-9 hours of sleep per night, or more if you find yourself tired. It’s unbelievable how much repair and restoration the body does during periods of rest. Good sleep is critical to keeping your body on the top of it’s game, energized and ready to fight whatever comes it’s way.
  • Stress LESS: stress plays a huge role in your body’s immune defense system. When under stress, the body will become weaker when it comes to fighting off “the bug” and you’ll be more susceptible to getting sick. Toning down your schedule, practicing daily “quiet time” or meditation, setting aside time for unrushed meals, or going for an afternoon walk in the sunshine can all help de-clutter the brain and relieve stress. Do whatever works for you, just be sure to find outlets that relieve your stress and allow some time for bodily relaxation.

Those are just a few tips to get you started. I hope they help both you and me stay healthy this winter season! I’ll be posting more tips on colorful eating, reducing stress, and other related topics in the coming weeks so keep your eyes open! Until next time, keep eating well, loving life, and staying healthy!

(This post is linked up to Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays.)

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Walk into any “average Joe” grocery store in this country and chances are you’re bound to be overwhelmed at some point in your shopping trip.  Take the cereal aisle, for instance.  How do you choose a cereal when there is a 30-foot long, 7-foot high row of boxes lined up in front of you, each plastered with a flashy brand name and flashier package?  Or what about all those yogurts?  Last time I went to my local grocery store, I couldn’t even count the number of tiny white containers lining the shelves.  Some were your classic “low-fat vanilla,” others claimed they were made with real fruit or had extra fiber, and still others boasted the “certified organic” seal.  You could literally spend hours scanning labels or decoding ingredient lists.

Let’s face it: we live in the land of plenty.  Or perhaps a better phrase would be: the land of choices.  Endless choices.  High-fiber yogurt, real fruit yogurt?  Granola with flax, granola with blueberries?  Low-fat mayo, olive oil mayo?  No-sugar-added jam, spreadable fruit jam?  100% whole wheat bread, 100% whole grain bread…and what, pray tell, is the difference?  I think the point is hard to argue.  In our food world today, we are bombarded with choices, options, brands, colors, flavors, styles, fat-levels, etc, etc. 

I remember hearing a story once about an African family who moved to the Chicago area from Kenya.  The wife (and primary grocery shopper) went to a large supermarket for the first time and quickly found the choices mind-bogglingly abundant.  When she went to select an apple, not just one variety was available but dozens!  “How do you choose from all these apples,” she wondered.  In the African markets she was used to, you were lucky if their would be a dozen apples there at all–no matter the variety.  (This woman ended up asking a friend to do the grocery shopping for her to spare her the overwhelming task of selecting food for her family.)

Some might argue that great variety and plentiful choices in our stores are excellent, beneficial qualities.  True, to a point.  There have been many times when I’ve enjoyed picking up fire-roasted canned tomatoes (or even fire-roasted, petite-diced canned tomatoes with garlic) for en extra flavor punch in a recipe versus the standard canned tomatoes I usually select.  I’ve also had fun experimenting with a plethora of olive oils from other regions (besides your standard Californian or Italian) that I’ve found right in the aisle of my grocery store…no gourmet market needed.  Don’t get me wrong….variety is nice.  Choices are liberating.  Options are fun.

But here’s the catch.  All these options have landed people into a heap of trouble.  Too many paths (aka: too many boxes of high-fructose-corn-syrup laden cereal or refined flour crackers or crumb topped chocolate-glazed donut holes) have led to food OVERLOAD.  We’ve all been there.  Intrigued by the packaging, you pick up a tasty-looking new brand of crackers and throw it in your cart, forgetting that you have three new flavors already at home to try.  And try them you do.  The late-night munchies get the best of you and all too fast those crackers are down the hatch and you’re at the store again picking more of them up (and this time, you buy a package of those new donut holes too). 

So what’s the remedy?  How do we remove the temptation of all those flashy products from our path?  Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but–unfortunately–we don’t.  In our culture of megamarts and convenience stores, club stores and supercenters, we just can’t remove the temptation with the snap of our fingers.  But what we can do is take a few simple steps in the opposite direction of those donut holes and empower ourselves to avoid the pitfalls of tempting grocery store aisles.  Here are five simple tips:

  1. Make a List and STICK TO IT!  When you go the store for your weekly groceries, go armed with a list.  A nice, long list of everything you’ll need to eat well that week.  (This means you’ll probably have to do some meal planning.  Read more on that here.)  Don’t buy something that’s not on your list.  If you see something that looks interesting–say, a salad dressing for instance–make a note of it and pick it up next time when you actually need salad dressing.  The idea is to use up what you have before buying more.
  2.  Shop the Perimeter.  The healthiest foods around the perimeter of the store–vegetables, fruits, bulk items like rice and dried fruit, proteins, etc.–never really change.  I mean, chicken breasts are always chicken breasts and spinach is always spinach.  They don’t make new flavors of those with added sweeteners, fats, oils, and fake ingredients (I call them the un-pronouncables).  The goal is to avoid the center aisles (snack foods, sweets, beverages, prepackaged meals, etc.) and all the health hazards they pose.
  3. Shop in the Produce Department FIRST.  When you enter the store, spend most of your time and the first portion of your shopping trip in the produce section.  I cannot tell you how many times I have lingered there forever piling my cart high with veggies, fruits, and bulk bin goodies and thinking through all the great meals I could make with them.  By the time you get to the aisles, you’ll realize you already have a ton of healthy food in your cart (which hopefully will play into your meal plan) and that you have no need for processed foods at all.
  4. Don’t Clip Coupons!  You read that right.  Unless you’re absolutely positive that you actually eat the item you’re clipping the coupon for, don’t clip it.  Many times, coupons are just a company’s creative way of getting you to buy something you don’t need (and that your waistline doesn’t need, either).  If you buy butter and you find a 2-for-1 coupon, go ahead and clip it.  But if you spot a coupon for “that brand of yogurt I’ve always wanted to try,” keep your scissors to yourself!  If you’re not eating it now, you probably can live without.
  5. Don’t Grocery Shop If Hungry.  I know this probably seems like a funny one, but it’s true!  If your stomach is rumbling and it’s been a while since your last meal, a bag of chips you don’t need or freshly baked donuts in the bakery are going to be a lot more tempting than if you’re not hungry.  Trust me….I speak from experience.  When you’re starving, you’ll literally fill your cart with whatever sounds good.  And when you’re starving, isn’t that pretty much anything edible?

So there you have it.  Five tips to help you out in this land of plenty.  If you’ve got others, I’d love to hear them so please share.

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Last night I had the opportunity–along with thousands of others–to spend an evening listening to an interactive and entertaining lecture presented by Michael Pollan, author of the wildly popular In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  Masses of eager listeners–myself among them–piled into a downtown Madison sports arena to hear the words and ideas of the nation’s “real food expert” right from his own mouth.  It was highly informative and educational, to say the least.

One thing in particular that Michael Pollan said last night really stuck with me.  He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we as a culture have lost our ability to eat for pleasure.  With every forkful of food, we’re either ruining our diets or redeeming them.  You know the last time you ate that bowl of ice-cream at 10 pm?  You were, in a sense, sabotaging all the “good” efforts you made that day by eating oatmeal for breakfast, nothing for lunch, and a salad for dinner.  After downing the pint (dare I say more!) of ice-cream, you became infested with guilt.  The next day, you awoke committed to “redeeming” yourself by eating SUPER healthy.  It’s likely that you starved yourself most of the day, then found yourself ravishing that night and binged on sweets or comfort foods all over again.  It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.  And all the while, you are not enjoying anything you’re eating because it’s either a good food or a bad food, not a nourishing food.  That brings me to my next point.

Pollan talked a bit last night about how we categorize foods so quickly.  Fat is bad, carbs are good.  No, carbs are bad, protein is good.  Wait.  Vegetables are good, everything else is bad.  High fructose corn syrup is REALLY bad, but plain old sugar is okay after all.  No, no, no.  Carbs, including sugar, are bad…remember?  Although, new research has said they’re not so bad after all.  See what I mean?  One food becomes a god, another becomes the devil.  In our nation today, everything is labelled good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.  This labelling system, this diet cycle of ruining-redeeming-ruining-redeeming, is making us fat, sick, and downright confused about nutrition.

So what are we to do?  In a world of swiftly changing ideas about what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy, how are we to make sense of it all?  Here are some tips: 

  1. First (and this is suggested by Michael Pollan and highly endorsed by me!), eat REAL food!  What is real food?  Stuff that is eaten just as it is found in nature.  Fruits, vegetables, quality proteins that come from humanely raised animals treated with care.  Apples, not apple pop-tarts.  Wild-caught fish, not fish sticks breaded in a list of 17+ ingredients. 
  2. If there’s more than 5 ingredients on the list, don’t eat it.  Ever look at what’s in your morning breakfast cereal?  You might be surprised what you find there.  Stick to plain, simple, whole foods.
  3. If it wasn’t around 100 years ago, don’t eat it.  (I don’t think you could have found Go-Gurt at the county general store back in the early 1900’s.)
  4. Cook at home.  When you cook at home, YOU control the quality of ingredients that goes into your food.  You can support local farmers and choose humanely-raised animal products to eat when you cook at home.  You have the power to vote for organic, free-range, or grass-fed products with your food dollar.  Learn to cook.  More important, learn to love it.

More than anything, last night’s lecture was both educational and encouraging for me.  Looking around and seeing thousands of others in support of real, whole food was such an inspiration.  I was reminded that real-food-lovers really are out there.  Change is happening, and can continue to happen, starting with average-Joe people across the country…people like you and me. 

 When it comes right down to it, it is our decisions, choices, and opinions that will spark change and make an impact in this nation.  So I hope you’ll join me in continued support of healthy, delicious, real food.  Let’s be the change.

(Note: this post is part of Food Renegade’s “Fight Back Friday.”)

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