Eat for your Life! (aka: Our Flexitarian Family)

When I was a kid, food was all about three square meals per day. One food from each of the four crucial food groups: meat and eggs, bread & cereal, fruits & veggies, and, of course, milk, to do a body good. The food pyramid was pretty straight forward, too. Stuff yourself with bread and grains, add five servings of plants, then top it off with a little protein.

Vintage American meals

Back in those days, vegetarians were almost unheard of, too. Since I lived in the Bay Area, we always had one or two in each group, and the only choices they had for lunch were cheese sandwiches or PB&J. Everyone else ate pretty much the same thing — Oscar Mayer bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread, with a fruit roll-up on the side. The only thing that varied was the flavor of fruit roll-up, and the occasional novelty of Hostess treats or Capri Suns someone’s mom tossed into the lunchbox.

1980s kids lunch

My family’s diet was typically American, too. Spaghetti, chicken casseroles, sloppy joes. Meatloaf with a side of mashed potatoes. Plenty of salt, sugar, and simplex carbs for all. None of us dared to complain, or to request something healthier. After all, we were eating three square, all-American meals per day, provided by hard-working parents.

Fast forward several decades.

A few years ago, I lost a lot of weight. Around 60 pounds, total. Now I will admit that the final 20 pounds or so were likely due to an eating disorder. But the first 40 were due to a change in daily diet. I scrapped the nostalgic all-American diet, for the most part, and opened my mind to a global variety of healthy, whole foods. I cut way back on meat. I also began to exercise regularly, around 3-4 days per week.

Then came a startling health discovery. My doctor found that my blood sugar was slightly elevated; a somewhat common state known as prediabetes. Unchecked, this condition can spiral into full-blown Type 2 diabetes.

I was shocked. But my daily habits were so healthy! And my BMI was in the ideal range. How could this be? Answer: genetics. Sometimes, no matter what we do, our bodies are prone to develop unfortunate conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Luckily for me, I was able to make some more effective changes. I further reduced my intake of animal proteins. Switched out simplex carbs for complex carbs (aka whole grains). Cut out most sugar, except for the occasional treat. And I began to work out every single day, with few exceptions. And, yay! My blood sugar levels dropped back down to normal, healthy levels.

chickpea curry

With my own kids, I abolished the idea that everyone has to eat the exact same foods. After all, everyone is different. We have different tastes, different nutritional needs, different health challenges. My 13yo son can’t stand cooked vegetables. So he has permission to switch them out for fresh veggies or salad. My 16yo daughter has decided that she is now a pescatarian, and has begun a zero-sugar diet challenge with her friends. Luckily, I usually prepare a vegetarian option for family meals (not just PB&J, haha). Zero added sugar is a lot harder than it sounds, but I’ve been cheering her on, and being sensitive to her goals while grocery shopping. My 18yo? Well, he still hasn’t jumped into the health nut boat with the rest of us, so it’s still all-American junk food for him.

pescatarian meals fish

Our household of four has four different food pyramids. Some of us are more likely to nibble six small meals than three square meals per day. One of us prefers veggie dogs and veggie burgers to the meaty versions. Three of us are happy to munch on nuts, seeds, and roasted edamame for snacks. All four of us adore sweet, sugary treats more than we probably should — perhaps another genetic tendency. But we are learning and growing as we explore new yummy recipes and exercise together. Hopefully these healthy habits will stick with my kids as they head off into the world, and help them to live long lives, free of those killer diseases that plague so many us.

Healthy Choices

It’s not easy to change your diet for the better. It’s not easy to give up old favorites that remind us of childhood, like smoky grilled meats and big bowls of chocolate ice cream. It’s not easy to make yourself get up and move for 30 minutes every day. But the ability to enjoy a long, good life makes those changes worthwhile. Life is sweet. Live healthy.

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The Best Part of Wakin’ Up (aka: Coffee Time!)

In the beginning, there was coffee. And the coffee was black and bitter. Then someone said, “Let there be cream!” And there was cream. And later, someone else discovered that sugar made coffee sweet and delicious. And thus, America’s favorite beverage came to be.

perfect cup of coffee

I discovered coffee when I was a ten year-old kid. Of course, back then, it meant a milked-down, over-sugared mug of Folgers or Maxwell House alongside my bowl of Wheaties each morning. Still, it was coffee! The best part of wakin’ up. Good to the last drop.

“You’ll stunt your growth,” my family members warned. I ignored them, sipping my hot drink, engrossed in a novel. They were mistaken, of course. Fast forward to the present, and I still engage in my daily cup of java, which didn’t hinder me from reaching a comfortable height of five-foot-six. The only difference between then and now, is that I’m less likely to drink good ol’ Maxwell House or Folgers, and more likely to sample a variety of roasts grown in different regions of the world. I’m also far more like to drink decaf. (I know — blasphemy!)

Keurig Green Mountain Inc. Product Illustrations Ahead Of Earnings Figures

It’s interesting how the way we drink coffee has changed over the last several decades. By the time I was in middle school, flavored creamers hit the stores. Coffee wasn’t coffee unless it was Amaretto or Irish Cream-flavored. Throughout high school, I went back to black. And then, during university, some friends invited me to a local coffee shop that changed my life: Java City. Suddenly, coffee was not merely coffee. Coffee was Espresso! Cappuccino! Mochas and Lattes! Fancy, exotic coffee drinks blended with foamy steamed milk, drizzled in chocolate or caramel.

Then Starbucks came along and chased the other coffee shops out of town with their ever-growing selection of mouthwatering caffeinated beverages. Despite the fact that a cup of Starbucks coffee costs the same as an entire family meal, hordes of people began to flock to the popular coffee shop for its hip, ultramodern decor; milkshake-like Frappuccinos, and most importantly, free wi-fi. Some might say that Starbucks is the reason behind the large uptick in U.S. coffee consumption that began around the turn of the century.

fancy starbucks coffee drinks

Some of the more recent trends in coffee-drinking are a little more puzzling to me. Cold brew? Seriously, peeps — now we’re paying $3 for a cup of cold coffee? Come over my house, and I’ll sell you a cup of the coffee I left sitting on the counter all day. I’m sure it’s nice and cold by now.

Cold Brew Coffee Trend

Luckily for the 62% of Americans who drink a daily cup of coffee (hot or cold brew), there’s great news. Coffee is good for us. No, really! This article by Medical News Today and this comprehensive study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine are chock-full of information about the benefits of drinking coffee, both caffeinated and decaffeinated (yes, decaf). That daily bean juice habit is connected with reduced risk of death from cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and then some. Other studies have proven additional health benefits from regular coffee-drinking, including reduced risk of certain types of cancers and improved liver health. (Not a single study proved that coffee results in stunted growth, by the way).

Folgers coffee old-fashioned

No matter how you brew it, one thing is clear: coffee is a worthwhile habit for most of us. So get those percolators popping! Get your Mr. Coffees dripping, your Keurigs Keuringging, and your cold brewers chilling your favorite gourmet, roasted, ground-up beans. After all these years, coffee is still the best part of wakin’ up, and even though our brewing methods and favorite flavors have changed, it’s still good to the last drop.

 

Not Milk (aka: 80s Girl Meets Lactose Intolerance)

lactose intolerance stomachaches

I consider myself a super-healthy person. But sometime during the past few months, something changed. It started with a few minor tummy-aches, which made me question everything. Was it something I ate? Was I drinking too much coffee? Was it stress? Then, over time, the discomfort increased. Before long, my body was in constant turmoil. No one knew it, but I was walking around feeling as though my stomach was full of Pop Rocks mixed with Coke, constantly on the verge of explosion.

Yeah, I know. Go to the doctor, dummy. And if I had medical insurance, then I totally would have.

Luckily, I had a light bulb moment a couple of weeks ago. What if my chronic stomach-aching had something to do with dairy products? I did some Googling, and learned that lactose intolerance is something that commonly develops during the adult years; not during childhood as I’d thought.

Could I be lactose intolerant?

It was unthinkable.  After all, I was a child of the 80s. From early childhood, we were force-fed the idea that dairy products were the healthiest thing in the world. Milk does a body good! Cheese, glorious cheese! If I just kept ingesting milk (flavored with Nesquick), then my outside would catch up with my inside, and I would grow from an invisible girl with a crush to a strong, confident woman who has outgrown Michael Martin.

dairy products cheese milk butter Still, I had to find out. So for a few days, I cut dairy out of my diet. Or, tried to. I switched to almond milk cream in my coffee, and gave up my beloved cheese (very hard to do when you are an almost-vegetarian). But the war inside my abdomen didn’t cease. Then I learned more — lactose can be hidden inside many non-dairy foods, like breads and cereals. Noooo!! I would rather live with the chronic stomach upset than give up my favorite foods.

Then I remembered something I’d once seen on a TV commercial. There is an over-the-counter drug called Lactaid, which contains an enzyme that helps the body to digest lactose. Could it work for me, too? In desperation, I raced to the drug store and bought a box of Lactaid chewables. Just before my next meal (spinach and mushroom quiche with swiss cheese), I popped one in my mouth. It was like eating a piece of vanilla-flavored chalk. Then I ate my cheesy dinner, and waited.

Ta-daa! The months-long battle in my gassy, bloated stomach came to a screeching halt. All was quiet on the southern front. I couldn’t believe it! The next day, I chewed a Lactaid before each meal, and the seas continued to be smooth and calm. Same for the next day, and the next. In fact, since I began taking Lactaid, I have returned to my usual, 100% healthy self, and it feels wonderful.

Yes, I know. I am starting to sound like a total drug commercial. Even worse, I can’t think of some clever, humorous way to wrap up this post. I’m too busy thinking about the yummy Garlic Alfredo sauce I plan to cook for dinner, and all the cream and parmesan cheese it will require. But thank goodness — I will be able to sit with my kids and enjoy every bite. Because for the lactose intolerant, Lactaid does a body good. Pass it on.

 

 

 

Slow Can Be Mmm Good (aka: Slow Food)

I like a lot of fast things. Running fast. Speeding fast down a deserted stretch of highway. Fast roller coasters (with fast-moving lines). Fast rock songs that leave you breathless after a fast impromptu dance session. The charge of adrenaline, the fast blood pumping through your veins – speed can be quite a rush.

But not always.

slow sunrise heart Sometimes, slow is much, much better than fast. Slow sunrises on a warm summer morning. Slow hikes through a mountain wilderness. And especially, slow food. No, I don’t mean crippled prey that hobbles away as you aim your hunting rifle. I mean sloooow food, as in the opposite of fast food. As in, the slow food movement, which, in case you don’t know, is an entire thing.

There’s some political stuff, too, but to keep it simple, the slow food movement is about three things:

  • Avoiding fast food and processed foods with long lists of ingredients
  • Buying whole foods, then cooking and eating them
  • Making efforts to buy organic, sustainably grown foods from local growers, and even growing your own

There are so many good reasons to avoid fast food, that I could write an entire blog about it. Or, I can point you toward eye-opening books, such as Fast Food Nation or Food, Inc. I try to very rarely eat fast food. Yes, it can be very challenging in today’s fast-paced culture to make meals a slow-paced affair. Believe me – as a single mom of three kids who just happens to be a college student with a job, I get the whole time-crunch defense. Still, I try to find ways to cook healthy meals from scratch for my family on a regular basis. With a little effort, advanced planning, and some help from the kids, I manage to produce homemade soups and stews, veggie-loaded quiches, and pots of thick, spicy chili. We plant a small, organic garden plot each spring, and by summer, enjoy a harvest of juicy cucumbers, crisp green beans, and plump, colorful tomatoes.

more good slow food

Do we ever take shortcuts? Sure! Schedules can get pretty hectic some days, and there is just no time to wait for a casserole to bake. During times like these, we try to turn toward not-so-fast foods – foods that cook quickly, but are still minimally processed, like grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie omelettes, or homemade bean burritos. Foods like these are nutritious and packed with flavor, and can often be prepared faster than a trip to a drive-thru window.

veggies are the best

There’s one more component of the slow food movement which really appeals to me. It is about slowing down and savoring food. Sitting with family and engaging in conversation while eating meals (something I need to work on). Taking a moment out of our busy lives to enjoy the flavors of good, well-prepared foods, and taking comfort in knowing exactly where they came from and how they were produced. There are plenty of moments in our lives when faster is better. Food, however, is much better in the slow lane.

Wine, food and great friends

 

 

Sriracha Everything! (aka: A Spicy Food Experiment)

Sriracha is the key Yesterday, I discovered an amazing new sandwich combination: two slices of white bread spread thick with avocado, plus mayo, a few leftover fish sticks, and plenty of Sriracha sauce. Mmm…my mouth is still watering, just remembering how it tasted.

What’s that? Ew? Okay, I know…maybe most people would have tossed the leftover fish sticks. But I didn’t want to see them go to waste. And anyway, who cares what the rest of the sandwich consisted of? It was all about the Sriracha sauce.

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Sriracha newbie. I’ve been happily dousing my Asian food dishes with the delectable, spicy red sauce for years. But recently, I decided that maybe it was time to experiment a little. After all, I am not a big fan of bland American food, like hamburgers or mac ‘n cheese. So why not try spicing it up a little?

So I did. I poured Sriracha onto my pizza. Squeezed some onto my scrambled eggs. Slathered it onto my cheese sandwiches and painted it onto my black bean burgers. And know what I discovered? That Sriracha makes just about everything taste better. Sriracha is the key. Sriracha is like edible poetry. Sriracha food pyramid

My kids have been amused, watching me worship at the church of Sriracha during meals. “How do you manage to keep a straight face while you eat that?” they ask. “Isn’t it super spicy?” Sure, I say. But that is the great thing about it – the blaze of fire that gives way to flavor. The calculated risk, like the sudden, shocking drop of a roller coaster that leads to a thrilling joy ride.

Sriracha everything!

Sriracha fire bear

I thought about making that my new motto, but my kids kind of ruined that by creating a list of foods they think I should try with the sauce: Peanut butter and Sriracha sandwiches. Sriracha pancakes. Sriracha ice cream. Ugh…grody. So maybe there are a few limits — Sriracha can’t make everything taste better.    But for the most part, it has been a fun experiment. Sometimes we need to try new things to put a little spice in our lives.

I Love Sriracha Sauce

To Meat or not to Meat (aka: Going Mostly Meatless with Kids)

Just for the record, I am not a vegetarian. Although I am far more likely to choose a meatless alternative than not, I do eat meat on occasion. My children, however, are crazy about meat. They love big, homemade meatballs, grilled salmon or chicken, and sausage pizza. Unfortunately, anyone who has walked into a supermarket lately has probably noticed the outrageously high meat prices. If not, you can read more about it here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/04/16/cpi-shows-food-prices-rising/7742669/ and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/meat-prices-are-skyrocketing/371383/ .

greasy hamburger

greasy hamburgers are what the kids crave

Veggie Burgers are the best

Now the kids are eating more veggie burgers, just like me.

And so, thanks to inflation, my kids are now half-vegetarians, like me. I’ve cut the amount of meat in many of our usual recipes by half, and I’ve been serving meatless meals 3-4 nights per week. If the kids have noticed a difference, they haven’t said a thing. I’m hoping that it’s due to my mad cooking skills. J

It isn’t really that hard to cut out meat-based meals, or to adjust them to use less meat or no meat at all. And thanks to the internet, there are about a bazillion great vegetarian recipes available to choose from. I’ve finally begun to organize them on my Pinterest page, to make them easier to find. Of course, I’m not bothering to include the super easy meat-free standbys that we eat so often, like grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen black bean burgers, or egg salad. (And as I write this, my teen is cooking a huge bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts).

Will I ever take the leap to become a full vegetarian? Probably not. I have a genetic tendency to develop iron-deficiency anemia and already must take iron pills twice a day. So my health really does benefit from meat. Besides, I love seafood too much, and occasionally crave a good juicy piece of meat. As for my kids, I like to give them the freedom to choose what they enjoy eating, meat or no meat. But unless the prices come back down, they will have to enjoy meat a little less often.

 

Grilled-Meats

What the rich people may be grilling this summer.

grilled veggies

What the rest of us will be grilling this summer.

The Bread of Life (aka: The Joy of Baking Bread)

So here I was, baking fresh sweet rolls to go with dinner, and totally thinking about writing something profound and creative about the way yeast causes bread dough to rise could be a metaphor for life. But instead, I was overwhelmed with hunger pangs as the smell of baking bread began to drift throughout the house. So if this post is a little lacking in depth, well, blame it on the bread. 😉

Bad Bad Baking Bread

Okay, I’ll admit it. I cheat. I’m a big cheatery-cheater-head. I use a bread machine.

I know — shocking. Right about now, all the purists out there are judging me, because surely homemade food should be prepared without relying on modern aids and shortcuts. Well, I don’t care. My trusty bread machine has been faithfully helping my dough to rise since 1997, and I am not ashamed.

Baking Bread

I adore baking bread. Hot, buttery rolls; flaky croissants, and crusty French baguettes. Challah bread beside a bowl of winter stew, and sweet, spicy Finnish Pulla bread with Christmas dinner every year. I can think of no baked item quite as special as fresh, home-baked bread. Now you can talk science all you want, but to me, there is something almost magical about the process, and the way a plain, gooey blob of dough undergoes a metamorphosis, growing, rising, and changing during each step.

Christmas bread

After I have punched, pushed, and twisted the dough into submission, it at last goes into the oven to bake. And then comes my favorite part — the aroma. That delicious, mouth-watering aroma of fresh bread baking. That amazing fragrance that fills the kitchen and wafts into every corner of your home, until at last, you are so overwhelmed with hunger, that you rush to pull those shining, golden-brown loaves from the oven. In your mad impatience, you tear into the hot crust to expose the soft, white interior. Although it is still steaming, you pop your first bite of fresh bread into your mouth.

You burn your tongue of course. But it is worth it. It is always worth the burn to get that first taste of bread while it is still piping hot and perfect. Just as I am going to do right now.

 

 

My Favorite Challah Recipe (Makes 2 Loaves)

Challah bread recipe

2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast

6 cups bread flour

5 eggs

1 cup warm water (110 degrees)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Instructions (without bread machine):

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 4 of the eggs and beat well. Mix in oil, sugar, and salt. Beat in flour to make a firm dough. (You may not need at 6 cups). Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (between 5-10 minutes should do it). Place dough in greased bowl and turn once. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place 1 hr. or until double in size.

Punch down dough and turn onto floured surface. Divide into two portions (each will make a loaf). Divide each portion into three. Roll each section into a rope of around 15 in. Place the three ropes side by side and braid, then pinch the ends together to seal and tuck them under the loaf. Places braided loaves on greased baking sheets, cover, and let rise 1 hr.

Beat together last egg with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Use pastry brush to paint loaves with egg mixture. Sprinkle on poppy seeds or sesame seeds, if desired. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes. Remove and cool before eating. (Or not).

(Note: There’s more than one way to braid a challah. Try braiding all six ropes together, like in this recipe: http://www.chow.com/recipes/29091-challah )