A bounty of vegetables from Gracie's Garden in Ely, MN – August 2010
Yesterday, columnist Mark Bittman announced the end of his weekly “The Minimalist” column in the weekly Dining section of the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Bittman’s column for the ease and sense of “no big deal” with which he approaches everyday cooking – while paying attention to details and great flavors all at the same time. I’ve also admired his shift in direction towards eating more plant foods in his own diet by adopting a "vegan until 6" eating style on an earth conscious as well as health conscious premise, and sharing that story through his column and most recent two books, Food Matters and Th≠e Food Matters Cookbook.
An occasional feature of The Minimalist was to produce a big list of super fast, tasty, and 3 ingredient “recipes” – again, aimed at encouraging people to cook more often and to dispel the myth that great tasting food has to be complicated or too long to prepare.
With this blog, I pay homage to The Minimalist by keeping this short, and by making a short list of my own based on all of the things that are close to my heart: eating more vegetables and fruits, increasing the nutritional value of what we’re putting in our bodies every day, and keeping things delicious and interesting.
So here it is – 21 ways to boost the nutrition on your plate. Why 21? Because it’s three weeks of good ideas - and hopefully enough time to turn some of these new ideas into lifelong nutritious eating habits. Some of these may seem obvious, but on the other hand; some ideas may not have occurred to you yet. Either way, I encourage everyone to keep up the good work – and to keep striving to make your way of eating even better.
21 Ways to Eat More Plant Foods (and Boost the Nutrition on Your Plate)
1. Keep a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter so that fruit is always visible and accessible for snacks.
2. Thaw frozen organic blueberries or organic mixed berries in a glass jar in the fridge; add to breakfast oatmeal, use for yogurt topping or as smoothie ingredient.
3. Chop up vegetables at the beginning of the week and refrigerate in an airtight container for easy, affordable snacking.
4. Pack a piece of fruit and a mixed container of veggies every day - for snacks, for errands, and to eat with lunch.
5. Add greens to your fruit smoothies.
6. Add greens to your pizzas.
7. No matter what you’re eating for dinner, add a salad with 1 or two extra (colorful) veggies on it and add a side vegetable (corn, potatoes and green beans don’t count).
8. Make sure that at least 1/2 – 3/4 of your plate is green and colorful.
9. Stir a green leafy vegetable into your favorite soup - escarole, chard, spinach or kale are all good options.
10. Choose a different colored fruit for every snack.
11. Put vegetables on, under, and in between your sandwiches.
12. If you’re eating an egg, have it with vegetables.
13 Make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with half pasta, half cauliflower.
14. Better yet, make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with all cauliflower!
15. Eat fruit with nut butter for your own “power bar”.
16. Make your own batch of dried fruit and seeds for your “energy snack”.
17. Switch to dipping your hummus, guacamole, baba ganoush or yogurt dip with sliced vegetable “chips”.
18. Blend fresh spinach into your hummus or yogurt dip.
19. Eat your cheese or nut butter with an apple instead of crackers.
20. Eat a main dish salad once a week for dinner and use protein for your topping, not the main course. (2-3 times a week in summer!)
21. Count your veggie and fruit servings every day for a week to get used to the idea of how much to consume.
My husband and I recently returned from a quick trip to Europe - a day in Amsterdam waiting for a connecting flight and a short week in Vienna. What I was struck by while wandering the two cities and stopping into cafés to warm up or have lunch was the variety and amount of soup being eaten for meals.
It sounds weird to say that this was something remarkable - soup was being eaten for lunch everywhere, by women and men. But it’s not so weird to notice the contrast when you read the stats on what's going on over here in the US: we’re eating more breads or food prepared with bread products for every meal, more than ever before.
What I love about soup is this: it’s warm, it’s filling and satisfying, and it is a simple way to deliver a number of good things – vegetables, whole grains, beans or pulses, root vegetables, garlic and onions, an earth-friendly amount of meat, and even meat broth (if you make your own stock) – in one convenient bowl. Better still, it delivers all of the good stuff for a minimum of calories (as long as your spoon isn’t standing on its own or the name of the soup doesn't include the words beer and cheese) – making it a wholesome, waistline-friendly meal option.
We ate some delicious soups in Amsterdam and Vienna: tomato soup; a light, fresh mushroom soup; pumpkin soup; winter root vegetable soup; and a carrot-chickpea soup. Nothing fancy or exotic – just simple, nourishing and delicious.
Soup doesn’t just taste good - it’s especially good to eat during these chilly seasons, when viruses abound and our immune systems and sinuses are prone to overworking. You may have heard by now the famous study done in 1993 by a researcher named Stephen Rennard, M.D., from the University of Nebraska who was able to show in the laboratory that chicken soup did indeed slow down the activity of cold and flu viruses. Isn't it gratifying when research proves what grandmothers around the world have known all along?
On the other hand, what’s wrong with eating so much of our food on, in, between or under bread? For one, when we’re consuming so many calories from one food group, chances are that we’re not eating an adequate amount of foods from the other food groups - namely fruits and vegetables or even non-wheat whole grains. Additionally, if it’s not 100% whole wheat, you’re most likely consuming GMO grains that have been stripped of any nutritive value by the processing and degerming processing – leaving an empty source of calories that wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels. (More on the bread issue in an upcoming blog.)
But what happens instead when you have a bowl of soup and a couple of whole grain crackers with a piece of cheese, or slice of turkey or a couple of spoonfuls of chickpea hummus? You are filled with warmth and a sustained source of energy, with vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrient-dense calories to keep you operating without suffering the classic craving/crash cycle. If you think that a bowl of soup is not filling enough, then eat it with a salad or have two bowls of soup - you’d STILL be better off than eating two slices of pizza.
As far as stressing out over the amount of time it takes to make soup, why not make a big pot over the weekend? It reheats quickly and transports easily in a lunch box to work and tastes good all week long. Or use a crockpot by preparing the ingredients in the morning (or the night before and refrigerating) and letting the soup simmer while you’re out for the day. Few things smell as good as a dinner waiting for you when you walk in the door, hot and ready to go.
Of course homemade soup is better than canned, packaged or deli soups - high sodium content, excess sugars and quality of ingredients would be the main reasons to avoid them. In a pinch, a couple of local companies sell freshly prepared soups ready to go in some refrigerated sections of area grocery stores, as do local bakeries.
Ultimately if I can convince you to make a pot of soup – or at least eat soup for at least a couple of meals a week, then I’d think you were on to something good.
2 cups corn, either cut fresh off the cob (in summer) or frozen kernels
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or a combination of both
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, (green sprout removed) and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
3 medium potatoes, cubed (3 cups)
5 cups vegetable stock or low-sodium bouillon, dissolved (or corn stock in summer)
1 tsp. salt
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, basil or other herbs, chopped
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Sauté onions in olive oil or butter for 3-5 minutes or until golden. Add garlic, carrots and celery (and potatoes at this point if you’re cooking at high altitude) and sauté another 5 to 8 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add potatoes (at sea level), corn and stock. Season with salt and half of the herbs; cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
For a creamier soup without the cream, remove 2 cups of soup and purée in a blender. Add the purée back to the soup. Finish seasoning with additional salt, if necessary, the remaining herbs, and freshly ground pepper before serving.
(To make in a crockpot, sauté onions and garlic until tender in a skillet on the stovetop. Add to crockpot along with remaining ingredients (reduce water to 4.5 cups) and cook on low while you’re away. To finish, season to taste with fresh pepper and additional salt, if neccessary, and add fresh herbs.)
We should be worried, but we’re not. We should care about what we put in our bodies, but we don’t. I am guessing that many of us know what we should be eating, but decide that we can't or won't do much about it and continue to eat junk.
Well, we are becoming exactly what we deserve, as a nation, on our current diet: overweight, patched together with drugs, unhappy, and sick.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a study this month which reveals that Americans still aren’t eating their vegetables, in spite of a decade of campaigns designed to bring awareness to the importance of a healthy diet. The New York Times article that details the report shows that we’re eating fewer salads than we were 16 years ago, and only 23 percent of our meals include a vegetable.
In order to meet the recommended guidelines for 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or 41/2 cups for a person who consumes 2000 calories each day, that means eating at least two vegetables or fruits at each meal, plus snacks in between. If we were eating that many veggies, we wouldn’t have room in our bellies to be hungry for the bad stuff.
Except that all we want is the bad stuff. As a nation, we are addicted to sugar, fat, hyper-salted foods, caffeine and artificial flavors. And it is making us sick.
Of course we want someone to blame when we become sick. We want a pill when our blood pressure is too high, when our cholesterol is out of whack, and when we get heartburn every time we eat. We accept Type-2 diabetes as if it were inevitable. We don’t want to prepare a meal with fresh foods: we want convenience and instant satisfaction.
Of course it’s all our fault - no one is shoving those fried, sweetened, microwaved, chemical-laden food into our guts. We are. Until we can wake up and take ownership for our health before our desire to eat another meal of junk takes over, nothing will change. We have to make a commitment to our bodies that will require carving out a little extra time to treat ourselves better.
I have no illusions that a frustrated rant against the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) will change anything, but I am passionate about helping people who are interested in making a change for their health by seeking out ways to learn more about it. I teach healthy cooking classes, I lead healthy living retreats and I do one-on-one food coaching where I help clients by designing custom food plans, complete with shopping guides and recipes.
At the end of the day, I believe that there is hope. I know how good it feels to eat well, get exercise, and sleep for at least seven hours per night. I also know that the basics of what I'm talking about are completely achievable for everyone, no matter where they live. Barriers exist for all sorts of reasons - I am aware of that - but if something is important enough, there is always a way to make a difference at any level.
Recipe for Making a Personal Change
A commitment to a change in lifestyle takes more than just thinking you want to change. In order to find success, following a series of steps is the surest way to reach your health goals.
1. Decide exactly what you want to achieve for your personal goal.
2. Write it down CLEARLY and in as much detail as you can.
3. Set a specific deadline. If it is a large goal, break it down into subdeadlines and write them down in order.
4. Make a list of everything you can think of that you are going to have to do to achieve your goal. As you think of new items, add them to your list.
5. Organize the items on your list into a plan by placing them in the proper sequence and priority.
6. Take action immediately on the most important thing you can do in your plan. This is VERY important.
7. Do something every day that moves you toward attaining of one or more of your important health goals.
8. Share your plan with the world - the more people who know what you’re doing, the more support you’ll gather, plus you’ll increase your accountability – and you’ll probably even inspire a friend or two!
Over the holiday weekend, I spent a few days Up North in a Cabin by a Lake as a fortunate Minnesotan able to escape the urban zoo for a while with friends. Full of northwoods-style fun with long walks, swims and canoe paddling, it also turned out to be a ripe weekend to forage for wild berries. Mostly I was keeping an eye out for ripe wild raspberries to pop in my mouth as I walked along the woodland road, but out by the edge of the woods I saw a different color, much closer to the ground: blue!
I have eaten so many foods, grown and picked all kinds of varieties as well in many places in the world, but I have never seen a blueberry growing wild on a little bush before. I was charmed, excited and amazed – these little fruits, warmed from the sun, bursting with tart-sweet flavor and so wonderfully colorful.
It was the blueberries that got me thinking about color in our food, and how lucky we are that there are still places on earth to find small wonders of incredible wild fruits. It’s more than just the fruit, though – the earth is providing us with a guidepost for the healthiest foods to eat.
It’s all in the color. You don’t have to know the first thing about which fruits or vegetables are the best choices for a healthy diet – you just have to let the color be your guide. Berries, which are abundant, available from local sources right now, and at the peak of their flavor, are all superstars in the fruit world. Pale and timid? Definitely not – berries are deeply colored in shades of red, magenta, purple, and blue – promising juicy, flavorful and nutrient-packed goodness.
Around Minnesota in summer, we have strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or black raspberries, blueberries and thimbleberries – and all of them are especially high in Vitamin C, fiber, manganese and perhaps most importantly, ellagic acid. Ellagic acid is part of the phenol classified phytochemical group called flavonoids, which are responsible for those brightly colored plant pigments as well as many medicinal properties of foods, and have been shown to have a broad and effective range of antioxident activity because of their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiallergic and anticancer properties. Ellagic acid, specifically, has especially high anticancer activity against pollutants and toxic chemicals.
Ultimately the key is to eat a rainbow assortment of foods, and to try to eat a wide variety of these ellagic acid-rich foods throughout the season from different fruits. Among our local fruits where ellagic acid is found, raspberries top the charts, followed by blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and later this year, apples and cranberries.
It’s always better to get a super compound from its original source, and to provide your body with as many of them as possible rather than relying on a supplement in pill or additive form. Next to fresh in season, frozen berries are the best bet for the highest antioxident content for out of season choices, with freeze-dried coming in second – even over shipped-in berries – because they were picked at the height of freshness and preserved immediately for storage.
So you don’t really have to remember that it’s the flavonoids that are the source of those bright colors, you just have to remember that bright colors equal good things for your body. If we allow our eye to be witness to the beauty and promise of juicy, sweet flavors, then we have let instinct and the earth guide us to what is really good and what we really need to heal, repair, and keep us healthy every day.
Just like that little bit of blue out of the corner of my eye, hiding under some shiny green leaves – protected enough to be able to ripen, but just tempting enough to be discovered – and eaten!
Food often figures prominently at the heart of my closest relationships, as well as at the center of my favorite recollections, my most memorable travels, and of course in regular, everyday living.
My partner of 16 years has been the one with whom I have shared some of the most incredible meals, close to home and far away. In fact, it was food that wove our lives together as friends, before we were even a couple. And it was at our wedding, 16 years ago today, that we shared a meal with family and friends in my parent’s backyard which we had prepared by hand and served out of my mother's kitchen. It was only fitting, since it was in my parent’s home that I learned to eat well, to grow my own vegetables and fruits, and to cook wonderful foods from scratch.
It quickly became a cornerstone of our marriage to open our home and prepare a table of food to eat with friends new and old. We’ve probably thrown well over one hundred dinner parties, and a couple of handfuls of big holiday parties – all with food made by hand, and with love. But whether we were having a meal with many or just a few, or even just the two of us, one thing has been constant – honoring the importance of sitting down together, while eating good food – simple or otherwise.
There have been plenty of reports over the years which connect eating family meals with more open communication, better grades, good behavior and better social adjustment for teens, lower incidences of substance abuse, and healthier lifelong nutritional habits for children in families who sit down to a shared meal.
Is that surprising? It is a powerful message to send that we have made ourselves too busy to sit and eat together, or that the television carries greater weight in our homes than each other during mealtimes. No doubt schedules are pulling families in many directions, but when something is important enough, time can be made, at least on a regular basis.
The bottom line, really, is alignment between what we profess to be important (family, good communication, healthy relationships with ourselves and with others, nutrition and physical activity, spiritual and mental health) and what we really end up doing. Of course finding that alignment is often not the easiest course – racing home from busy days fighting traffic, travel schedules, and workloads – but it’s probably one of the most critical to a happy life.
One of the things I appreciate most about my partner is that he keeps sacred the time that we spend together over meals. Even though time is stretched, travel schedules are busy, and workdays are long, carving out enough time to come home and share dinner together is a priority for the day. It is a time for us to check in, swap stories, plan for upcoming projects or travels or visits – and just to simply be together.
So in 16 years of marriage, I’ve learned a few things, among them that fact that he loves red sauce, potatoes and broccoli, but still won’t eat eggplant or shiitake mushrooms. Topping the list has to be declaring what is truly important, and then following through to make it happen. It hasn’t been a perfectly executed model, but with enough time and practice, I’d say we’re getting there.
So cheers to us, and to you and yours – and to many more meals eaten together.
Rösti (Swiss Shredded Potato Pancake)
4 medium russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (allow 1-2 per person)
pinch of salt for each potato
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, or a combination of both
Shred scrubbed potatoes onto a large cutting board or bowl and toss with salt and pepper.
Heat a cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium-low heat until very warm to the touch. Add oil or butter and swirl to coat the entire surface of the pan. Sprinkle the shredded potatoes evenly over the entire pan surface, leaving a 1/4” space around the entire perimeter. Long method: cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes on the first side, or until deeply golden brown and crispy. Flip the entire pan with potato cake onto a large cover or cookie sheet. Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary. Slide the potato cake back into the skillet and cook, uncovered, for an additional 20 minutes.
Shorter method: cook, covered, for about 10 minutes or until the first side is a deep, golden brown. Re-oil pan and flip as directed above, but cook uncovered on the second side to develop a nice crust, about 10 minutes. When second side is finished, flip the cake back to recrisp the first side.
Carefully slide the entire potato cake onto a cutting board and cut into wedges, or cut in pan, and serve immediately.
Lavender is one of the most widely used and studied essential oils.
Ever since I rented my first apartment on my own back in 1993, and didn’t have to share in decision-making or purchasing decisions about how to keep the space, I have been totally committed to an organic home environment using all-natural cleansers with essential oils and other pure ingredients, recycling (obviously) and composting my kitchen scraps.
Since then, my interest in creating a healthy life for myself and my family has only grown: I am continually taking part in learning opportunities to add to my own knowledge and to be able to share more of these ideas through my cooking classes, skin care classes and retreats.
One of these amazing opportunities is coming up this weekend – a two day seminar with Robert Tisserand, who is a well-known researcher, educator and practitioner of aromatherapy. I will be a little on the fringe this weekend, since the focus of the seminar will be directed at health-care professionals, intermediate students of aromatherapy and practitioners, but I am excited about applying what I’ll learn into my own development of healthy living options.
Robert Tisserand has been at the forefront of aromatherapy since the early 1970’s, when he wrote the first modern-day book on aromatherapy in English, and followed that with the quintessential book on safety for professionals on the use of essential oils in clinical applications, Essential Oil Safety. His career has been focused on research for practitioners, which stems from his early career as a practitioner himself, before it led him to found his own essential oil business and the Tisserand Institute where he began to focus on research and education.
Tisserand’s workshop this weekend will be devoted to the use of essential oils in health care, specifically in clinics and hospitals which have complimentary therapy programs, to detail the specifics of how the oils work and the scope of their use in practice for palliative care and for supporting current care and intervention for healing patients.
The use of essential oils in hospitals and clinics is far more widely practiced in Britain, Germany and France, where physicians and nurses often include botanical therapies in their medical practice. Here in the US, there is growing interest in incorporating the use of essential oils in the clinical setting – and Tisserand is one of the leading educators bringing research and documentation to health care practitioners to encourage their safe use.
One of the areas of research that will be discussed at the seminar will be on the use of essential oils in palliative care – relaxing, soothing and comforting patients who are suffering from debilitating symptoms of serious illness. Because of the biologically active compounds in essential oils, research shows that they have behavioral, physiological and emotional effects on our system – and in the health care setting those benefits can be extremely effective therapy in palliative care for patients.
Essential oils have incredible potential in health care because of their proven ability for boosting immunity, for communicating with other cells and for their synergy with other complimentary therapies. Tisserand’s seminar will break down the research and get into science of how this is possible – discussing the chemistry of the essential oils and looking at the therapeutic mechanisms of what makes them active. Targeted at practitioners, a portion of the seminar will discuss dosing and safe dilution of the oils, considering widely varied opinions as well as the pros and cons of different options of using the oils in varying methods.
What makes Tisserand so special as a leader in practioner education is his focus on the scientific research that supports the recommended guidelines for practice and use, giving students a greater sense of scope of possibility for uses and application in a clinical setting.
I’m thrilled to have the rare opportunity to attend one of Tisserand’s seminars this weekend right here in the Twin Cities, hosted by Plant Extracts International, Inc. in Hopkins, in order to further my own education on the safe use of essential oils in my home and in my skin care products, and to be able to discuss them and put them into practice in my classes, my skin care products and retreats.