Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Day After Christmas

Every Christmas season starts out with good intentions.  This year we will bake cookies.  This year we will finish our shopping early.  This year we will do Advent Readings.

Yet Christmas Eve I found myself buying ingredients for pecan pie and stocking-stuffers amid other last-minute shoppers and football game traffic.  Fast forward to see me and the hubby baking aforementioned pie and stuffing said stockings late that night while the children were nestled all snug in their beds.

And the Christmas cookies?  I really tried.  Promise. But I left the dough out too long and it stuck to the counter.  We managed a few cut outs that looked more like Gingerbread poop than Gingerbread men before deciding to postpone the cookie-making until later.  Later never came.

As far as Advent Readings go, I read two.  Which is one more than last year.  So there's hope, right?

To be honest with you, this year I've wrestled with the idea of how we celebrate Christmas.  Of how we buy gifts and from whom and to whom we give them.  Of whether the way we celebrate is the way Jesus would want us to celebrate Christmas.

Seeing my children's excitement when opening long-awaited gifts shifted my view a bit.  Their childlike anticipation and joy reminded me that Christmas isn't only a time to reflect, but also to celebrate.  Waiting over. Promise fulfilled.  Who better than children to remind us how to party?

I know that Christmas isn't Jesus's "real" birthday. I know about the pagan roots, etc, etc.  But it's the time that we've decided to remember His birth.  And isn't it right that we should do so?  We set aside time for our birthdays and anniversaries, veterans, presidents, and patriotic holidays.  In the Bible the Israelites set aside time to remember and to celebrate important events.  And they celebrated.  And feasted.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't remember Jesus's birth every day and live in a way that lines up with our faith.  I'm not saying that we should give in such excess that we dig ourselves into debt.  I don't think it's all about giving or getting the nicest, newest, latest "toy" that Plastic Inc. produces.  However, giving thoughtfully and lovingly to our family and friends and giving generously to those who have not seems like a fitting way to honor a King who told us to have faith like a child.

This year I'm baking Christmas cookies the day after Christmas.  And mailing a few cards.  After all the waiting and preparing and anticipation of Christmas, one day seems too little for celebration, as if it's an all-or-nothing, now-or-never, let's-move-on-to-next-year event.  The Son of God came to Earth!  I think we'll celebrate all week.

Here are some yummy recipes for those of you who procrastinate or lack time-task judgement like me...

Pecan Pie (no corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils)
Gingerbread People
Pumpkin Pecan Snickerdoodles
Rum Balls
Chocolate Truffles
Sugar Cookies

Note: If you're interested in making your chocolate recipes with fair-trade chocolate or want to know why you would want to, find more information here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The best part of waking up...

is already having a plan for breakfast.  I had a conversation this past week about my breakfast meal plan.  And, yes, it may seem a little uptight to some. I have used some variation of a breakfast plan for years, tweaking it as my family's needs and our nutritional awareness has changed, and it has made life so much easier in the mornings.

What's wrong with Fruity Pebbles?

Our cultural norms for breakfast tend to be bread-based.  Navigating bread, crackers, cereals and the like is a path full of landmines of food substitutes, additives, trans fat, and high fructose corn syrup.  Studies performed on lab rats have shown breakfast cereals to be at best extremely limited in nutritional value compared to whole wheat and at worst (when eaten exclusively) to cause organ failures from insulin shock.  Even the "healthier" options for cereal are not that good for you.  Not to mention they cost a pretty penny.

"But I don't have time to fix breakfast!"

Mornings are not my thing, so let me tell you I am NOT up at the crack of dawn cooking up breakfast.  Plus, we have four children (and ourselves) to get ready and out the door on time for work/school.  I looked at our family's schedule and nutritional needs and created a weekly breakfast plan.  And it works for us.  I don't have to try to think at 6:30 in the morning, and the children like knowing what's coming which makes for smoother mornings. One night my son asked me what was for breakfast in the morning. When I told him I wasn't sure, he said, "Look at your calendar, Mom."

Below is our family's breakfast meal plan. I included links to some of the recipes mentioned.  Feel free to use it as a starting point to plan for your family.  Keep in mind that nutrition isn't one-size-fits-all, so you may need to adjust accordingly.

Mondays- Baked good and fruit-I make some kind of quick bread or muffin on Sunday for breakfast the next day.  I vary it by the season or what we have on hand, such as banana bread or muffins, pumpkin bread, blueberry muffins, or cinnamon rolls if I made bread over the weekend.  Another option is to make a large batch of muffins or bread once a month or so and freeze it for later use.

Tuesdays- Cereal and fruit-I know I just said boxed cereal isn't good for you.  It isn't.  And we don't eat it.  We eat homemade granola, oatmeal, or we make a muesli-type breakfast that we call "make-your-own-cereal."  Granola is one of those things I make on the weekend.  Although, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort so I do sometimes throw it together during the week.  If you're not a fan of oatmeal, try making your own from raw oats or steel cut oats in the crock pot overnight.  I never liked oatmeal as a kid, but love the stuff I make myself with pecans, apples, cinnamon, and honey stirred in.  I had to play with the amount of water and the cooking time for both kinds of oatmeal because I do not like my oatmeal mushy. Yuck!

Wednesdays- Yogurt and fruit- I start my own yogurt in the crock pot on Sunday nights (can you tell I love my crock pot?)  It is soooo easy and soooo yummy.  If you don't want to make your own, pick up a large container of the plain organic yogurt in the store.  We stir in fresh or frozen fruit and honey or make smoothies and serve it with a half slice of toast or leftover bread from Monday.

Thursdays- Toast and fruit- I make my own bread most of the time, which I'll cover in a later post. When buying bread from the store pick one that is 100% whole wheat without partially hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup.  

Friday- Eggs-This is kind of my Friday treat.  The kids aren't here so it's a little easier for me to take care of breakfast, although I could probably cook eggs on a kid-day occasionally.  Eggs actually are healthy and good for you, believe it or not.  Normally I make an omelet or a breakfast burrito to get some veggies in with it.  (Salsa counts, right?)  Breakfast burritos can be pre-made in a large batch and frozen to be reheated later. Supposedly you can mix omelets in Ziploc bags, freeze them, and then cook them in boiling water, but I'm not really comfortable with cooking my food that way. It takes me maybe five minutes to cook up breakfast, so not that big of a deal. It can take some searching to find tortillas without the yucky stuff. Whole Foods is the only place I have found healthy flour tortillas at a decent price.

Saturday & Sunday- Chef's Choice- Homemade biscuits, pancakes, waffles, coffee cake, or whatever we feel like cooking up.

Helpful Tips

-Look ahead at your week on Sunday to see what you might want to pre-make or to see if you need to tweak your plan for some reason.

-After dinner look at your plan to see if you need to get anything started that night for breakfast the next morning. Have a backup plan if you forget. In our house that's usually toast.

-Set a time for waking up, breakfast, and leaving the house. For example: the kids wake up at 6:30, breakfast is at 6:45, we clean up and leave at 7:00.  If they miss breakfast once or twice, I promise they won't starve, but they will start learning to manage their time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't Throw that Out: A Thanksgiving Tale

Last Saturday night we had a Thanksgiving-ish meal since my parents were in town and the kids were with us.  Since all of us would be eating another Thanksgiving meal, and because we like to get creative in the food department, we decided to put a little twist on the traditional meal.

The Menu

Pumpkin Soup 
(I did NOT actually serve it in it's own shell. I cooked the pumpkin first and then made the soup.)
Glazed Ham with Pecan Crust
Scalloped Potatoes
Zwieback Rolls
Cranberry Apple Crisp

The pumpkin soup was not such a hit with the kids, but Ben and I liked it.  Everything else was a definite hit. And I have finally fulfilled my responsibility to the family heritage by making Zwiebacks.

The Leftovers

Of course Thanksgiving always brings to mind leftovers and endless days of eating leftover turkey sandwiches.  Which is an option.  We don't often buy lunch meat because the better options are EXPENSIVE, so some of the ham will be used for sandwiches as a treat.  (Side note: I remember turning up my nose at sandwiches made with leftover turkey as a kid because I was accustomed to slimy packaged lunch meat!) However, my favorite way to use up leftovers is to turn them into a "new" meal.  For example, the leftover scalloped potatoes and some of the ham became part of this morning's Farmer's Breakfast casserole.  

We don't often eat ham, so I am in the process of finding some decently healthy recipes for the leftovers to be spaced out over the next couple of months.  I searched for freezer meals, but a lot of the recipes I found don't really fit into our eating habits.  Also, my preference is to cut up the meat and freeze it in about two-cup portions to be added to recipes rather than pre-make the entire meal.

These are my initial findings in the recipe department:

Lentils with Ham and Rosemary
Southwestern Bean Pot
Split Pea Soup
Ham and Scalloped Potatoes
Cut up ham to add to homemade pizza, breakfast burritos, etc.

(Not a very long list, I'd love to hear any recipe ideas!)

The leftover pumpkin soup I froze in two-cup portions.  I often freeze the leftovers from soup or beans in smaller portions to be used in the future as quick-and-easy lunches or dinner.  Cheaper and healthier than Lean Cuisine, just add a salad, raw veggies, bread, or piece of fruit to round out the meal.

Other Ways to Save Food

I also spent a little time this morning taking care of fruit that was on its way out.  Pears that were getting overripe are sitting in my crock pot with apples and ginger about to become Apple and Pear Sauce with Ginger.  Grapes are flash-freezing on a cookie sheet in the freezer to be added to future smoothies.  Overripe bananas also go great in smoothies, banana bread or muffins, and pancakes.  Old (not moldy) bread can be frozen for use as bread crumbs or turned into croutons.

Yes, this does take a little time in the kitchen, but the alternative is throwing out the food and going to the grocery store to buy more food (think time, gas, and food money).  Saving the food you already have costs little-to-no money.  Plus, it probably doesn't take as much time as you'd think.  I spent about a half hour getting the food started this morning and then walked away to do other things.

Note: Several of the recipes I mentioned can be found in Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, my favorite slow cooker cookbook.  I checked it out at my local library before buying a copy for myself.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Halloween Dilema

I have issues with Halloween. Not even because of the association with death and horror, although we do leave those aspects out of our activity choices.  It's all the candy.  Yes, I realize it's just one day.  But that candy hangs around much longer than just one day.  And it's not like our children aren't inundated with candy and sweets on a regular basis--birthdays, Valentine's Day, Christmas, prizes, etc, etc. Why do we feel that a celebration has to be tied to large consumption of unhealthy, processed food?

I know some people have their kids donate a portion of their candy to their dentist who donates it to a charity or trade it in for a book or other toy.  And in my house the candy has simply "disappeared" as soon as Halloween becomes a distant memory.  With these options the candy is being thrown away (wasteful) or given away to "less fortunate children," because we don't want our own children to eat it. Really???

I have found another reason this year to not be a fan of Halloween. Child slave labor. I realize this is a sticky issue and that people have different opinions on child labor in other countries.  I realize that standards of living and standards of pay can be different in other countries than they are here.  And I am sure I am unwittingly supporting companies whose practices I would disagree with on a regular basis.

However, for the whole I believe that we have created a country that is so concerned with having it all and having it now, that we either do not care or do not know where our food, clothing, and general goods come from or what it has taken to get there.  I believe we have allowed the wool to be pulled over our eyes because we have decided that it is more important to have excess than to have value.  Rather than choosing moderation and self control, we have created a world in which bananas, coffee, sugar, chocolate and the people who produce them can be easily exploited for profit.  I believe this isn't the fault of large corporations, but more so we as individuals who have voted with our dollars and with our lifestyles.

Please don't misunderstand, I know this is a very complicated issue in which it is difficult to determine which side started it, and what then to do to change it.  Sometimes we are stuck with two less than optimal choices.  In no way am I trying to say that I am "holier-than-thou" because of my choices.  What I am saying, is that when an issue pricks my conscious, I believe that I have a responsibility to then make changes in the way I live to line up with my values.  These values have already lead us to make changes such as buying our meat and dairy from local farmers as much as possible, to minimize the amount of processed food that we allow into our diets, and make most of our own food.

Back to Halloween...

This year we decided to have a little Halloween party for the kids, because we still want to do something fun.  The kids, except for one, picked out costumes to make.  We'll make Monster Face Sandwiches with veggies, hummus, meat and cheese, salad, Spider Snacks out of crackers, peanut butter, pretzels, and organic chocolate chips.  For desert we'll have homemade sugar cookies shaped like pumpkins.  We're also brainstorming some game ideas with a pumpkin/Halloween theme and going to download fun music.  For the trick-or-treaters we have sticky eyeballs and the like to give away. (Which may not be the best option either, but we're taking it one step at a time as we learn.)

My challenge to you is not to make the same exact choices I do, but rather to think about what bothers your conscious or doesn't sit well with you.  Then, decide what you can do differently to better reflect your values. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Variety is the Spice of Life

About a month ago we realized that we had fallen into a pattern of eating out or stopping by the store to pick up something "quick." 
It wasn't that we hadn't planned a menu or that there wasn't food in the house to eat.
Tiredness may have been a factor in the dinner-time blues, but after reflecting, we came to the conclusion that boredom was the culprit.
I plan a two-week flexible meal plan that I modify seasonally, and we were overdue for a change.  Following a rotating meal plan helps me to plan for grocery shopping and simplifies my life.  For all it's benefits, sometimes it just gets a little old and it's time to change the disk.
So without further ado, this is our current "fall" (we live in Texas) meal plan.

Week One

Saturday- Kale Risotto
Sunday- Chef's Choice
Monday- Lentil Soup (The picture looks nothing like the actual soup, and I add Spike Veggie Seasoning.), Brown Rice, Salad
Tuesday- Crock pot Meatloaf, Potatoes, Veggies
Wednesday- Sweet Potato Quesadillas
Thursday- Chicken Tortilla Soup (We have homemade chicken broth and cooked chicken on hand in the freezer, which makes this recipe easy to throw together!)
Friday- Homemade Pizza

Week Two

Saturday- Black Bean Salad/Chili
Sunday- Chef's Choice
Monday- Veggie Stir Fry, Brown Rice
Tuesday- Crock pot Chicken (However we feel like making it.)
Wednesday- Curried Quinoa
Thursday- Spanish Tortilla
Friday- Leftover night

This is just a springboard for our menu for a two-week period. As I mentioned with my previous menu post, since we get our produce through a coop, I alter the menus to fit what we actually have on hand. I.e: Butternut Squash Soup instead of Veggie Stir Fry, Black Bean Soup instead of Black Bean Salad, etc.  I like planning in an open night (Chef's Choice) as well to eat out, go to a friend's house, or have company over and plan whatever fits our fancy.  And I will admit that one Wednesday or Thursday night a week often ends up being picking up take out, especially if Ben's out of town and I work late (read every single week). Pad Thai, anyone?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tales from the dark side

I turned off the crock pot full of chicken with a half grimace and sigh of defeat tonight.  "Real food" hasn't exactly been happening in my "real life" lately.  Tuesday night we stopped in at Arby's on the way to soccer practice.  (The chicken pulled out from the night before hadn't defrosted by that morning to be put in the crock pot, and both my husband and I were caught up with work at dinnertime.)  Wednesday night I worked until 7 and picked up Thai food on the way home.  Thursday night we both worked late, and I picked up sushi.  Tonight was supposed to be homemade pizza, but I forgot to thaw the crust and both of us were caught up with work yet again.  Pizza Hut to the rescue? Ugh.

It's not that we don't eat out. (Although not normally four nights in a row.)  And I can handle the occasional food failure. 

But that chicken.  You see, even though it hadn't defrosted by Tuesday morning, we were going to cook it for dinner after work.  And then when that went out the window we decided to throw it in the crock pot this morning and use it for chicken wraps for lunch tomorrow.  Except that one of us forgot to turn on the crock pot and it sat there until he got home at one and turned it on.  And I am not going to be the guinea pig to find out whether or not it's still good after sitting on the counter for several hours raw at room temperature.

However, throwing away food is one of the seven deadly sins.  I think.  At least that's the impression I got growing up.  Then as I realized that not one, but two meals had been sabotaged in one day, all the thoughts of how I should have planned better and how I am working too much and neglecting my family and how I am completely inadequate and incapable of doing everything I need to do at work and at home pop up in the back of my mind like unwanted and yet oh so familiar friends.

The beginning of the school year is one of those seasons for me that is very difficult.  No matter how much I plan ahead, it never seems to be quite enough.  And this year has been a doozy.

My temptation, I realize, is always to focus on the negative--of what I didn't do "right," instead of what I did do well.  I made yogurt this week. I ate a nutritious breakfast and took a healthy snack and water to work with me every day.  I ate the last bag of beans and rice I had previously frozen for lunch one day.  We had family game night tonight.  I loved my husband and children and students and friends. 

And I get to start over again tomorrow, let it all go, and do what I can do to the best of my ability.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Lunchbox Edition

Yikes! I haven't posted in a month!  The start of the schoolyear is always a little crazy for me, and this year is no exception.  (In my next life, I am going to live on the beach and teach yoga. True story.)  In the meantime, here is a post to on what real food can look like on the go.

For the kids:

This year I have decided to get the kids involved with making their own lunches. The first time went great. The second time I realized it works better to get them going two at a time rather than four at once.  However, it is way more enjoyable for me to get them in the kitchen helping than be stuck by myself until 9 at night making lunches for four kids.  Plus, they are learning responsibility and taking ownership of what they eat.

I created a table which gives the four of them six options for lunches over the course of a week and placed it inside a plastic sheet protector so that we can cross of when they've taken a particular item for lunch.

Tuna or Chicken Sandwich
PB & Jelly or Honey Sandwich
Cheese & Crackers or Tortilla Roll Up
Soup or Beans
w/ Bread or rice
w/ Granola Bar or Trail Mix
School Lunch

They also get to take a fruit or veggies and a "treat" such as homemade cookies or snack crackers. 

Choosing after the first day was difficult for a couple of them, "Why can't I just take (fill-in-the-blank) again?" I decided to provide them a menu of main items that they check off to prevent one kid from taking the same thing every day and using it all up. Plus, it is easy for me to plan ahead to make sure I have enough food on hand for their lunches.  There is enough flexibility built in to where they can each have their individual preferences. (By the way, we pack lunches the night before. Mornings are WAY too crazy.)

School lunches have improved at my school this year.  They are serving whole wheat bread, and the sides options are fruits and vegetables, including a fruit and veggie bar.  Even before they made changes, we decided to allow the kids to buy school lunch one day if they choose for two reasons.  One, we aren't purists.  We still eat out and eat whatever we're served out of the house.  Two, I don't want school lunches (or certain other foods) to become the "forbidden fruit" and turn my kids off to the way we normally eat as they grow up.

     On a side note, we don't buy juice boxes. The kids all have water bottles to take.  Also, we bought small thermoses for hot/cold items and sandwich wrappers and snack bags off of etsy. And no, I'm not worried about them losing them. We told them it's their responsibility to buy any replacement items.

For the older crowd:

Pop quiz, if you're over 10, packing a lunch is still cool because

A. It's healthier.
B. It's more economical.
C. It's less wasteful. (If you use reusable containers.)
D. All of the above.

Yes, it's D. How did you know??? Here are some tricks of the trade (drumroll, please)...

Plan ahead. Unless you are crazy like my husband and jump out of bed ready to start the day and sometimes even EARLY (gasp), pack your lunch the night before.  The easiest way to pack your lunch is leftovers from dinner.  Add a salad and a water bottle, and WALLA, instant lunch.  I also take a piece of fruit and some nuts or the like for a snack.

    Tip: If it's a family favorite or your family will continue to eat until there is no more food on the table, you may want to set some aside for your lunch before you serve them.

Cook ahead. We do this with items like bread, yogurt, beans, hummus, cookies, and brown rice.  Two weeks ago we made hummus to eat on pita bread with veggies for a quick no-reheating-required lunch.  When we make a pot of beans or lentils, we also make extra rice and store it together in the freezer in individual portions for "frozen meals."  Soup can be stored this way as well. Cookie dough can be store in the freezer in batches to be baked up for the week.  Once a month or so I make a large batch of dough which yields four loaves of bread, cinnamon rolls, and pizza crust.  The extra loaves go into the freezer for lunches in future weeks. (No I don't make all of these foods in one weekend.)

Cut ahead. Some of our fruits that we get in the co-op can end up just sitting unused because we don't feel like cutting them up during the week.  We have started precutting fruit like mangos and cantaloupe when we get them.  Sometimes we freeze part of the fruit we get for smoothies or to add to yogurt.  Lettuce keeps longer if you wash it and store it with paper towels.  Other veggies can also be precut to add to a salad or sandwich.  It is totally worth it to take a little time on the weekend to prep your fresh fruits and veggies to make it more convenient to make a quick lunch or snack during the work week.  And you can give yourself a pat on the back for not paying the grocery store the ridiculous upcharge buy it cut up for you!

Have a back-up plan.  Give yourself some grace.  As I mentioned above, the start of the schoolyear is crazy for me.  I try to plan ahead and freeze items, but it never goes as well in real life as it does in my head.  If you're going through a busy time, buy a few healthier frozen meals to keep in the freezer for lunches.  If you're going to grab something out, try to think of where you can go and get something relatively healthy that won't weigh you down. Some grocery stores have salad bars and soup.  The other day I picked up pineapples and mandarin oranges packed in fruit juice, ginger snaps, and healthier crackers to keep in my classroom for afterschool snacks.  It's not organic or fresh or homemade or raw, but it's a better option than junk food or cranky me and cranky kids.

If you're looking for me, I'll be the one with the retro Hello Kitty lunchbox.  *sigh* I wish.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Where's the beef?

Previously I covered various ways to shop for fruits and veggies, this week we’re moving on to meat.   Meat is an item that I plan for differently from my fruits and vegetables.  I have a basic meal plan of which meat I’m going to serve which days and I shop based on that, whereas with vegetables I start with what I have/what’s in season and plug that into my meal plan.
As with vegetables, there are a few different methods for purchasing meat depending on your priorities.
Method One-Grocery Store
Sketch out a basic meal plan for which meat you will eat over a two to three month time period.  (I have a basic two week rotating meal plan that I change out with the seasons, example below.) Start watching the prices of meat at the grocery store when you shop or look at the ads.  When a particular kind (that you actually eat) goes on sale, buy enough for two-three months (most items go on sale about every 12 weeks) and freeze what you won’t use in the next couple of days.  It will take you a little bit of time to build up a stockpile of meat in the freezer, so at first you might spend more as you are buying what you need for a week or two plus what you will need for three months of what is on sale. Eventually you won’t need to pay full price for meat, unless you’re in a pinch.
Advantages to this method overall is the cost.  However, I don’t use this method because of the quality of meat that you find at the grocery store.  Do your research.  Whether or not you have opinions regarding animal cruelty, I have qualms with eating meat that came from sickly animals because of my own health.
Method Two-Coop
Just as there are coops for produce, there are also coops that you can join for purchasing natural or organic meat.  Normally the coop host places an order every month or two months, and you pick up your order on a set day.  With this method, you also need to plan for your family’s needs over a period of time.  By purchasing with a group of people directly from the farmer, you have the opportunity to purchase higher quality, healthier meat at a lower price than you can purchase it at the grocery store. 
Method Three-Meat Market/ Rancher
A meat market or the rancher himself can also provide the opportunity to purchase higher quality meat than you find at the store.  Some ranchers sell their meat directly to customers via phone or internet or have a store set up for purchases.  You may have to make a drive to purchase as most ranches are not within large cities, or you can ask about their delivery options.  Many farmers have websites where you can read about their products and their story before making the trek.  It is also pretty common for large purchases to receive a discount. You may even be able to get a friend to split a large purchase with you.
Saving $$$$$
Tip #1-Cut back on meat
Higher quality meat does cost more than sale prices at the grocery store.  We help curb those costs by not eating meat every day.  Yes, our kids are healthy and eat very well.  Meat is not the only source of protein and studies have shown that it is healthier to eat less meat than is typical in the American diet.  If eating less meat is scary to you, try eating one meal a week without meat and see how you like it. 
Tip #2-Menu planning
Below is my menu plan which I refer to as my Dog Days menu. It is really really hot here, and I do not want to heat up my house any more than I have to.  Saturday’s and Sunday’s meal can be cooked on the grill. The others can be made in the crock pot or do not require much cooking. Make your own salad night is one of my kid’s favorites. Not included below is that we eat salad and/or other vegetables with every meal. (Monday is the only one I’ve ever made up a name for prior to this post, but I didn’t want the other days to feel left out. And I know the table is off centered, I just don't know how to fix it!)
Sizzling Saturday
Super Sunday
Meatless Monday
Tasty Tuesday
Wacky Wednesday
Veggie Thursday
Fun Friday
Pineapple Teriyaki Burgers or plain burgers on whole wheat buns
Beef Kabobs
Make your own salad night
BBQ Chicken
(crock pot)
Southwest Bean Salad
(Cold dish made from leftover or canned black beans.)
Hummus & Veggies
(Hummus can be made in advance.)
Fruit & Waffles
(Waffles can be premade and frozen.  Reheat in toaster.)
Brats & Dogs on whole wheat buns (This is kind of a cheat meal. Pick hot dogs without MSG, etc.)
Chicken Fajitas
Black Beans (crock pot) & Rice (can be premade)
Chicken Burritos
(Use leftovers from fajitas and black beans.)
Fish and/or Curried Brown Rice (can use leftover brown rice)
Stuffed Peppers
(You can use leftovers or get creative with the stuffing.)
(This is use it up or toss it night before coop pick up.)

Because I get my vegetables from a coop, I tweak it as needed.  For example, if I didn’t get peppers in the coop pick up, I’ll do grilled chicken instead of fajitas, and will cook the vegetable I have in some way instead of making stuffed peppers.  And sometimes we go out or to friends or family one night.  This just gives me a starting point so I’m not recreating the wheel every single week, and I know that I have enough food on hand for the week. 
Tip #3:
Always look ahead to the next day’s dinner before you go to bed in case you need to pull something from the freezer or prep food for the crock pot.  When school is in session, we look ahead at our meal plan and pre-make some items to save us time during the week. It may seem like more work, but once you get in a groove, planning ahead saves you so much time and money in the long run! (Less last minute stops at the store or drive-thru!)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The First Step Part II (aka Shopping for Produce)

At long last I will tell you everything (well, almost everything) I have learned about buying fresh produce.  I know. Super exciting.  There are a few ways to go about it, depending on where you're at in life and what your priorities are.  I'm going to be upfront with you and let you know that all three methods require a paradigm shift in menu planning (foreshadowing of future post) because you plan your cooking from what's in season or what's available.  And here's a little secret: the food tastes better in season.

Method One: Grocery Store Bargains

It's not a huge secret that grocery store prices vary from week to week on produce.  (If this is a new concept to you, grab the ad for your local grocery store and check the front and back page for their weekly specials.)  This method is kind of like the stock market, you buy what's on sale now to get the most bang for your buck.

I don't really like this option because it's not easy to find what I want in organic produce at the neighborhood grocery store, and our healthier grocery store is expensive.  If I do go buy fruits and veggies to the grocery store, I consider which foods it is more "important" to buy organic.  For information on why organic and which foods to avoid click here.

Method Two: Farmer's Markets

If you are looking for fresh, local, in season produce this is the place for you.  I like this option because I like knowing where my food came from and I like supporting small farmers.  Grocery store varieties of fruits and vegetables are chosen because of their ability to pack and transport well--not for taste.  Most of what you buy at the grocery store comes from a distant state or country and was picked before it was ripe.  It may cost a little more than the grocery store, but if you'll eat more of it because it tastes better, isn't it worth it?

The downsides to this method are that farmer's markets aren't open all year round and all hours of the day, and I don't know whether the food is organic or not.  I've been told that a lot of the time it is, however, I don't know whether that holds true in Texas because it is not the easiest state to grow in.  The good news is, you can easily find out how the farmer grows the food if you aren't a wuss like me and afraid to ask!

Method Three: Join a Coop

This is the method that we employ for the majority of our produce needs.  It's super easy.  Once every two weeks I go pick up an 18 gallon tote of organic produce from the host's home for less than what it costs to buy the same at the grocery store.  We added an extra fruit share because Ben and I weren't eating much fruit because we were giving it all to the kids.  It is enough produce to feed the six of us for two weeks. Sometimes we have leftovers for the freezer, too.

I like this method because it saves me time and money by keeping me out of the grocery store.  We can order certain dry goods as well through the coop.  Plus it ensures that we are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.  It is amazing how what is (and isn't) in the house affects what you eat! 

If you don't like the idea of needing to pick up your produce on a certain day, that could be a downside for you.  My only wish is that it were more local. As it is there is some local organic produce as it is available.  That being the case, I still pick up a handful local produce here and there if I see it available at farmer's markets, etc.  I mean, who can resist fresh from the garden tomatoes?

Bonus Method: Garden

I didn't mention this method above because admittedly, it takes someone who really wants to do it.  It's really more of a hobby (or obsession) that you hope actually gives you something in return.  I, for one, cannot help but dream of fresh from the garden produce when it's time to plant, and curse the squirrels, bugs, and weather that threaten to impede that dream.  When we are able to harvest the fruits of our labor, it is thrilling on so many levels: fresh organic food from our yard that we planted ourselves!

If you are as crazy as I am, and want to give it a whirl, try planting some herbs or plants in pots to start out with.  Fresh basil! Oregano! Cherry tomatoes!  Beyond that, there are so many books on gardening, try browsing the library for options. 

Maybe one of these days I'll be able to grow enough food to feed my family. In the meantime, I am so thankful for other people who can do it for me!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Detour Edition

Yes, I know I promised Part II of The First Step. And it's coming. Soon. 

However, this past week my family took a road trip to Colorado to visit family and so I decided to write about eating real food on the road.  I'm going to be up-front and let you know we relax our norms a little while we're traveling, but still try to eat a good portion of fruits and vegetables, overall make good choices, and drink plenty of water, etc, etc.

This one takes a little preplanning.  If you leave yourself to the mercy of Billy-Bob's Truck Stop and America's Favorite Drive Thru, your options are going to be very, very limited. And you will pay a fortune for those items.  Our solution for car trips has been to pack a cooler, along with reusable water bottles, and a bag of snacks. (If you're flying you can still pack a couple nonliquid snacks in your carry on.)

The way there is always easier, because you're at your own home to prep.  My husband and daughter made peanut butter balls.  (Oh. so. yummy. You can find the recipe here. We substituted the coconut and currants for chocolate chips and almonds.)  The kids made individual snack bags of trail mix from ingredients in our pantry.  We packed fruits and vegetables, homemade ranch, granola and yogurt, Bunny crackers, water jugs and walla!  With some fruits and vegetables, it is better to cut them up and pack them in a hard container first.  Can we say smushed kiwi?  The trip out was a success, the only hitch being that I forgot to pack the lettuce for salad on day 2, so we feasted on trail mix, cantaloupe, and baby carrots at the park.

If you plan to eat out, it is a good idea to do a search on the internet first of to turn up healthier options.  These may not be visible from the highway.  Confession: we planned to eat at Jason's Deli in Amarillo, but ended up at Texas Roadhouse instead.  In my book, not a big deal.  We had eaten sandwiches for lunch, and you know, if you're in Amarillo...  At least we didn't attempt to eat the 72 oz steak.

The day before heading back home, we stopped at a local grocery store to stock up for the way home, and bought the following:
Granola Bars

Lettuce (for salad)
Grape Tomatoes
Organic Ranch
Kashi Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
Izze Blackberry Sparkling Juice

Pita bread
Monterrey Jack Cheese

Organic Yogurt
Popcorn (didn't actually eat it, I'll explain later.)
Salt and Pepper Potato Chips
A couple of gallons of water to refill water bottles

Total cost: $65.  Add up the costs of eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks or bottled water on the road, and we estimated our savings to be $35 at a minimum. Although a few of the items we bought were more prepackaged than we like to eat, all of the food was either "natural" or organic, and it fit our no high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils goal.  Plus, still better than truck stop food. 

Speaking of which....

Somewhere around Amarillo our 115,000 mile state-of-the-art Chrysler minivan decided to give up the good fight.  The AC broke. For the third time this year. In over 100 degree weather.  With five hours left to go. In the interest of family harmony and cooling off the troops, the kids were allowed to pick out a cold treat at a gas station.  And I didn't even read the label.  Because it's not about doing it "perfectly," it's about doing it better.

(This is just how we did it.  Your version of "better" may look totally different than ours based on where your family is at.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The First Step (Part I)

There are a number of first steps you can take that can be taken on the road to eating real food. I'm going to share with you what I feel to be the easiest and where I got started. 

Add in fruits and vegetables.
These are the easiest real foods to start adding into your diet.  I'm not talking about those disgusting overcooked, over-salted or over-sweetened wannabes that come in a can. I'm talking about fresh, ripe, sweet, flavorful fruits and veggies that come straight from the plant and don't even have to be cooked (read quick and easy).  They're loaded with the good stuff your body needs. And they even come in their own God-made package.  How convenient is that?

I'm not even going to tell you to give up soda or stop eating candy bars or potato chips.  To be honest with you, that type of white-knuckle mentality may work for a little while, but it's short-lived.  Focus on the positive aspect of eating more of something good.  Here are some ideas of how to incorporate this into your diet:

Note: This post is divided into two parts because of length.  Next post will cover buying fruits and vegetables economically.

1. Eat a piece of fruit or cut up veggies as a snack. 
This one is so easy to do, yet I will confess to recently searching the Internet for unprocessed snacks for my family and coming across a blog that listed different fruits and vegetables as snacks.  Duh! 
I know, some of you are saying that isn't enough to fill me up.  Eat the fruit or veggies first, dip them in peanut butter or almond butter if you want or eat some nuts with it.  If you still want to eat chips, etc afterwards, go for it.  You've at least given your body what it really needs first and you're less likely to pig out on chips and still feel hungry later.

2. Make a salad to eat with dinner.
Start with romaine, green leaf, spring mix, spinach--you want to go for the dark greens, not iceberg.  Add cut up veggies, fruit, some almonds or sunflower seeds.  We commonly eat a variation of the following salad, changing it to fit what we have on hand:

A little Gouda or feta (sometimes)

Homemade Vinaigrette:
Two parts olive oil
One part vinegar (we like balsamic or red wine)
Italian seasoning (basil, oregano)
Minced garlic cloves (or garlic powder in a pinch)
Squirt of honey
A dash of Chipotle Tabasco Sauce

3. Cook a fresh vegetable to eat with dinner.
This honestly isn't rocket science, but you don't want to overcook your vegetables.  (They lose their flavor as well as their nutritional value.) Green veggies should still look bright green, not pale like the broccoli in school cafeterias.  They should still have a little firmness, not turn to a mushy, flavorless mess. (Again see aforementioned broccoli.)
An easy way to prepare vegetables like squash, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, green beans, etc, is to wash them, cut them up however you choose, heat a little olive oil or butter in the pan, sprinkle them with a little basil, oregano, pepper and salt if you wish, and lightly saute them over medium heat. 
Another option is steaming them in a steamer basket over boiling water.  When I steam broccoli, I test one and turn off the heat just before they're done as they continue to cook a little from the steam after you turn off the stove. Toss with seasonings after cooking, if desired.
If you need recipes, google the Internet, but go for recipes that call for light cooking and minimal ingredients to keep it simple and "real." 

Alright, it's rubber meets the road time.  Pick one of the babysteps above to put into practice this week or make up one of your own.  Everyone's journey is different so your step may range from "Eat a piece of fruit for a snack this week," to "Every night before bed, cut up veggies to take for snack to work the next day."  This isn't a competition.  Any step in the right direction makes a difference!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The beginning

All stories start somewhere and this may as well be the beginning of this one.  My family and I already eat "real" (read unprocessed) food most of the time.  I know there are many blogs out there addressing the real food dilema in our prepackaged society.  However I still hear/read two comments over and over again when discussing healthier food choices:

I don't have time.

It's too expensive.

I hope that this blog can address these two issues, however my initial two cents are the following:

One, it does take time to make changes and learn new tricks.  The way we eat now is the result of baby steps over time.  My personal experience is not that I have less time to do other things, but rather I have chosen to reallocate my time. Taking care of cooking and shopping for food is actually something my family enjoys doing together and is a great educational experience for the children.

Two, yes, when you look at the price of organic packaged food and compare them to conventional packaged foods, they are more expensive.  We don't eat many of these foods.  Concerning other foods you also have to consider the nutritional value of what you are buying.  The $2.50 bag of chips is a complete rip off, considering your body will still be void of the nutrients it needs after you eat it.  The health benefits of eating good food help you make up for it in other areas which do benefit your pocketbook--less doctor visits, less days missed from work, more energy.  The old addage, "Pay the farmer now or the physician later holds true."  And by the way, eating real food doesn't have to cost a fortune.

Okay, I'll get down off my soapbox.  None of that matters if you don't know how to do it, right? How do you work full time, part time, play mom or dad or wife or husband, or whatever all the roles are in your life and still have time and money left over?  That is my hope for this blog--to walk out that journey with you, rough edges and all.