What’s standing in the way between you and a good dinner most evenings? If you’re like most people, you’ll say some combination of time, expense, lack of skills and a shortage of ideas.
So, what can we do about it?
We can’t get more time in the day, but we can free up more available time by simply shifting our attention. Maybe it doesn’t exactly mean killing your television, but by turning it off or allocating more time to making real food we have the potential to have a real impact on our health. One of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your family is to make it a priority to prepare real, whole foods meals with nutritious ingredients that are organic, locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible - this week, next week, and all year.
Why cook? Because you were born with one amazing machine, my friends - emphasis on one - and the best way to fuel your machine is with nutritionally-dense real, whole foods. Period. We may get extra chances now and then to clean up our act and shift our eating style, but most of us wait until something drastic is staring us in the face to make those tough decisions about doing the best thing for our bodies. (Nutritionally dense foods are essentially foods or ingredients that are as close to their original state as possible as when they were grown or harvested - unprocessed, unrefined, and with a correspondingly high nutrient value.)
You may need a few more resources to help you on your way if you’re ready to get started right now. By asking friends whose healthy lifestyle inspires you to share a few recipes, subscribing to pra approachable food magazines like Real Food or Whole Living, taking a cooking class, or following a healthy food blog, you’ll get access to new ideas and tested recipes to start moving in the right direction of learning how to prepare great food.
To keep things affordable, consider shopping for staple items in bulk at a co-op grocery or at most grocery stores. Foods purchased in bulk allow us to buy more without paying extra for packaging, plus we contribute less garbage to the waste stream and we can buy just what we need, eliminating excess food being thrown away or not used. To save money while keeping it local, shop for pantry basics when they’re on sale, sign up for a CSA share this summer and plan to frequent a farmer’s market throughout the growing season to make use of fresh foods while they’re in season. Learn how to preserve foods for later – by freezing or canning fresh foods when they’re at their peak of flavor and nutrition – to eat fresh and locally on a budget throughout the year. If your family eats a lot of meat, consider sharing a portion of a large animal to freeze to have access to top quality, ethically-raised meats without paying the highest prices in the grocery store.
No matter what, using any of these thoughts to help shift us toward adopting a more nutritious way of eating will have us spending more time in the kitchen. That’s not a bad thing. The kitchen is typically the heart of any house, so let’s bring it to life and start cooking up some better stuff for our bodies with the goal of simply living better.
Curried Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
adapted from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
6 - 7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1.5 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup carrots, diced
1 jalapeño, minced (optional)
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
5 cups sweet potato (choose one with deep orange flesh), diced
1 14-oz. can organic coconut milk
2 cups dried red lentils, sorted and rinsed
8 cups vegetable stock or bouillon
juice of one lime
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Sauté red onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil for 15 minutes in a large soup pot. Add curry powder, hot pepper, carrots, bell pepper, and sweet potatoes. Sauté another 5 to 10 minutes.
Add coconut milk, lentils, and the stock. Simmer, covered, until lentils are done and sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 45 minutes. Add lime juice and cilantro and serve.
To make this in a crockpot, prepare soup on the stove through the addition of adding coconut milk, lentils and the stock, then transfer to a crockpot on low to cook for 6-8 hours. Reduce stock by 1 cup and add lime juice and cilantro just before serving.
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!
Two words: zucchini and cucumbers. Don’t groan! I know that this is the time of year when our collective enthusiasm for all things garden-fresh is shifting from waning to dread. It’s okay. Instead of feeling guilty about summer abundance, and instead of finding ways to turn everything into cake (even though I’ve enjoyed a good chocolate zucchini cake as much as the next person) I’m offering two ways to make easy green vegetable foods.
Here’s the quick version of why you should be eating zucchini and cucumbers right now: they’re at their peak and they’re good for you.
Guess what - all vegetables are good for you! Sometimes we mistakenly think that some vegetables are not good for us because we know that some vegetables (like kale, broccoli, and sweet potatoes) are incredibly great for us. But don’t be fooled - it’s variety that counts - not just confining our diets to the super foods.
Here’s the detailed version of why zucchini and cucumbers are good for you. First, cucumbers – with the skin on – are a great source of vitamins C and A as well as the B-vitamin folic acid. They provide fiber for the diet, and help prevent water retention because of the ascorbic and caffeic acids that they contain. But here’s my favorite reason to eat more cukes, though: silica. The mineral silica is very important for maintaining the strength in our connective tissues – muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and bone – which in turn contributes to a healthy frame, which in turn helps maintain healthy joints.
Zucchini are good for us because, like cucumbers, they provide a lot of fiber for a minimal amount of calories by way of their high water content. More than that, however, in addition to providing vitamin C, antioxident-rich carotenes and potassium, zucchini (as well as all summer squash) contain naturally rich anticancer properties that protect us from cellular damage, especially sun damage. Again - you’ll want to keep the skin on, because that’s where the most valuable part is found.
Eating abundant amounts of both of these water-rich vegetables helps to provide our bodies with...water!, which is especially important during a season in which dehydration can easily occur.
Choose cucumbers and zucchini that have a firm flesh - no squishiness - and clear skin. Store them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Eat them on salads, grilled in fajitas (yes, you can cook cucumbers just like a zucchini!), sliced into “chips” for dipping your favorite hummus, or blended into a soup. Below are two of my two newest summer recipes using two of my most favorite summer vegetables. Enjoy!
Chilled Cucumber-Avocado Soup
3 cucumbers, ends trimmed
1/8 – 1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed juice from organic lemons (NOT out of a bottle)
zest of one organic lemon
1 tablespoon maple syrup or raw honey
1/2 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh mint (peppermint or spearmint)
2 tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon sea salt
additional basil or mint to garnish
Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Add a little bit of water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed, to blend. Taste for salt and serve immediately or chill to serve later. Garnish with shredded basil or mint. Serves 4
Summer Zucchini Bisque
4 zucchini or summer squash, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2” pieces
1 medium new potato or other potato, scrubbed and cut into 1/4” pieces
3-4 summer onions, with the tops, chopped into 1/2” pieces (or use 1 medium red or yellow onion)
5 cloves summer garlic cloves (or use 3-4 regular garlic cloves)
2 tablespoons organic butter
2 cups water
1 vegetable or chicken bouillon cube (optional)
1 teaspoon salt (DO NOT ADD if using bouillon cube)
large handful fresh herbs: mix basil, oregano, chive, parsley)
freshly ground pepper
Heat a medium saucepan or soup pot over medium heat until warm to touch. Add butter and onions and sauté until onions turn translucent. Add garlic and sauté for two minutes longer. Add potatoes and zucchini and sauté until zucchini just begins to brown slightly.
Meanwhile, heat water and add bouillon cube, if using, to soften. After zucchini begins to brown, add water with bouillon (or water wtih salt) to the sautéed vegetables and simmer for 25 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add herbs and pepper and blend with a stick blender or very carefully in batches in a regular blender. Return to pot, taste for salt and pepper, adjust as necessary, and serve immediately. Serves 4-6
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.
I’m a big fan of knowing where my food comes from, as much as possible. There’s no better time to start planning on where to source food closest to home - either from a garden that is grown in your own backyard or a community garden, a pot of herbs on a patio or windowsill, or from a local CSA that delivers fresh vegetables weekly throughout the growing season.
There are so many ways to create a little patch of urban garden that will reward your family with green growing treats throughout the season. A section of turf can be turned into a bountiful kitchen garden; a wood box made from untreated lumber can be transformed into a raised bed garden; a big pot can grow a bumper crop of the most delicious cherry tomatoes right on your deck; and even a little trough of soil can sprout a nice variety of herbs to snip and use in salads or cooking throughout the season.
If a garden in your yard isn’t possible, then there may still be time to join a community garden. Your best bet is to find a community garden near you that is a little on the young side to find available space to grow. Gardening Matters is a website that runs a listserv with lots of information and all kinds of community gardening talk.
No time to garden? A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share is a wonderful way to become directly involved in a small farm by directly investing in the farm operations in return for a weekly share of vegetables throughout the season. A CSA might be one step removed from a backyard garden, but it still provides the share members with a close connection to the growing season. With weekly updates along with a box of vegetables, members are naturally partners and risk takers as the changing whims of weather and nature positively or negatively impact the produce grown on the farm. The reward is incredible – fresh off the farm vegetables, with a deeper understanding of what truly seasonal food means and how hard it is to be a farmer.
Even if there is only time to make a weekly trip to the farmers’ market, the benefits of eating vegetables grown as close to your back door as possible are huge. Less time spent out of the ground means fresher, more nutrient-packed and better tasting vegetables, which need nothing more than a little washing and light preparation to make their flavors sing.
I saw a reproduction of an old sign when I was shopping at the Traditional Foods Warehouse yesterday. It read:
1. Buy it with thought.
2. Cook it with care.
3. Serve just enough.
4. Save what will keep.
5. Eat what would spoil
6. Home grown is best.
Just about says it all, doesn’t it?
Spring-Summer Garden Salad with Herbs in a Bowl
1 clove garlic or 2 teaspoons minced garlic scapes
juice of 1/4 lemon, squeezed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
big pinch sea salt
2 - 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
2 big handfuls fresh salad greens, rinsed and spun dry - use any combination of arugula, baby greens, leaf lettuce
1 big handful fresh herbs - use any combination of basil, oregano, mint, tarragon and nasturtiums
In a big salad bowl, combine garlic, onion, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Whisk with a fork to combine. Let sit while you wash and spin-dry the lettuce and remove the herbs from their stems. Whisk the olive oil into the salad bowl ingredients until well-combined. Add pepper and salt to taste. Tear lettuce into the bowl and add the handful of fresh herbs. Using two forks or two big serving spoons, toss the salad greens with the dressing in the bowl until all the leaves are coated and glossy with oil. Taste a leaf and add more fresh pepper as desired. Garnish with a big handful of pansies or nasturtiums and serve.
With Earth Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important making healthy decisions are for our kids - not just for their little bodies, but also for the earth and what that inheritance will look like in their future.
Of course there are so many related issues that contribute to the health of our children, from school lunches to exercise, but my focus is on the importance of eating clean, organic foods, and minimizing exposure to chemicals in our most controllable environment – home.
Children are sponges, as we know, absorbing information through all of their senses at a rapid rate. The same is true for their bodies: because children are small beings, growing and developing so quickly, they are more susceptible to suffering an impact to their health and development through chemical exposure. Potential damage comes their way on a daily basis through contact with pesticides, plastics, common personal care products, cleaning product residues and building materials.
It’s not one chemical or another that can be isolated as doing the most damage, rather it’s the accumulated exposure to a plethora of chemicals that has the most impact on growing bodies. Environmental exposure is linked to endocrine-disrupting toxins, which affect young girls in their pubertal development by wreaking havoc with their endocrine, or hormone, systems. It’s also linked to neurodevelopmental disabilities, which include learning disabilities, ADHD and Autism, as well as more common ailments such as asthma, allergies and eczema.
The overall picture can be gloomy and overwhelming, which is why I think that it’s critical to look closely to see how we can minimize risk to our children by making changes at the place where they spend the most time – at home.
First, make an commitment to buy as much organic dairy, meat and produce as possible. When we look at pesticides, it is sobering to read that even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows that 33% of all pesticides are potentially cancer-causing, in spite of the fact that they are EPA-approved. Topping the list of foods that are most important to buy as organics are milk, meat, baby food, oatmeal, apples, potatoes, grapes, strawberries, peppers, peaches and pears. Click here for a link to a downloadable shoppers guide to fruits and veggies.
Second, clean up your home. Do you have a cabinet of household cleaners that is locked so that your children can’t get into them? Why use household cleaners that are dangerous to your family in the first place? There a many safe, effective cleaners available – either premade in the natural cleaning section of the store, or at any co-op grocer. Natural alternatives can be made at home with as few ingredients as baking soda, lemons and vinegar. Click here for a helpful link of 10 things to do to make your home safer. (I’m teaching a class at Lakewinds Minnetonka on Green Cleaning on May 5 which gives recipes and ideas for greening your home).
Third, lead by example, and avoid using the most harmful beauty care products that you wouldn’t want your children using. Toxins are found as synthetic ingredients in nail polish, perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions. For everyday products, choose natural alternatives, but look closely at the ingredients to make sure that the label matches the claim (ie: no hidden synthetics), and avoid products with petrolatum, phenols, sodium laurel sulfate, phthalates, parabens, and propylene glycol - to name just a few. Follow this link to a shopper’s guide to keep in your wallet as easy way to remember. Read about homemade skin care products in today's article in the StarTrib Variety section about the classes that I teach.
How will all of this help the earth? By cleaning up the cycle of harm and repair. The fewer toxins that are created to grow our food, unclog our drains or wash our skin, the cleaner our rivers, lakes, oceans and soil will be – from the manufacturing process to the waste process – allowing a healthier world to exist for generations to come. I think our children deserve a greener legacy than the one we're on target to deliver. Every single small change matters.
Scrub Your Sink
2 tablespoons baking soda
Wet the surface of sink. Sprinkle baking soda liberally over entire surface. Squirt lemon juice over baking soda and watch it sizzle. Scrub away soap scum easily with a cleaning cloth or sponge.
Safe Hand Soap Pump Refill
8 oz liquid castille soap (available as Dr. Bronners in a bottle, or bulk at local food co-op groceries)
40 drops peppermint essential oil (optional)
Reuse an empty soap pump container with this mixture for an affordable, non-toxic and naturally antibacterial alternative for clean hands. Suitable for children and adults.
Simple Body Oil
2 oz. sweet almond oil, coconut oil (I like Wilderness Family or Nutiva brands), or olive oil (cold-pressed extra-virgin)
5-10 drops lavender essential oil (or your favorite essential oil) - optional
Shake to combine in a small glass bottle or jar. Use over the whole body after showering and before toweling dry for silky smooth skin. Store remainder tightly covered in a cool, dark place. Suitable for children and adults.