Gift Guide: Shopping For A Sustainable Ocean

Busted – that’s the Potomac River.  But rivers feed into oceans, so you get the idea!

As the holiday shopping season heats up, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of gift ideas that do double duty – hopefully, delighting the recipient and supporting environmental conservation through either their low planetary impact or their direct contribution to earth-friendly causes.  Here are some of my favorites…

Creative Conservation

  • Upcycled sunnies.  I’ve got a thing for great design, and I especially love great design that makes creative use of materials, so I’m predictably obsessed with Norton Point sunglasses.  They’re polarized, completely UV-blocking, and made from recycled ocean plastic!  I have a pair – “The Tide” – and was waxing poetic about them to my BFF, Rebecca, who said “I have a hard time imagining you wearing garbage on your face.”  But I assure you – they don’t look like garbage; they get more compliments than any of my other pairs of sunglasses.  I can’t get enough of them, and I’m hoping they come out with more designs soon!  (I love “The Whitecap Swell,” but I have a very similar-looking pair from goodr, and can’t justify spending the money for almost the same exact look.)
  • Jenga for ocean nerds.  I first spotted this Jenga game, made from recycled plastic fishing nets, in the National Aquarium gift shop, and I thought it was such a cool idea.  If we ever decide to add Jenga to our game closet, this is definitely the version I’m going for.
  • 4Ocean bracelets.  I looked at 4Ocean’s products for a long time before pulling the trigger and buying the whale bracelet, and I LOVE it.  The basic gist is that for every bracelet that is purchased, 4Ocean will pull a pound of trash from the ocean – and the bracelets themselves are made of recycled materials (glass beads and a string made from plastic water bottles) pulled from the beaches and waterways.  You can even get a subscription and receive additional bracelets – with corresponding good feelings – throughout the year.  I think these look especially cute stacked, so I’d love to add to my collection at some point.
  • A wetsuit yoga mat?!  If I didn’t already have a yoga mat that I love, I’d be so into this one, made from recycled wetsuits.

  • A recycled recycling truck.  Nugget has a fleet of vehicles – trucks, cars, buses, helicopters and airplanes, and even a submarine and a ferry boat – from Green Toys.  (He doesn’t actually have the recycling truck, but I love how meta that idea is.)  The products are made from recycled milk jugs, the packaging is all cardstock and recyclable, and with no small parts to choke on, they’re suitable for the youngest kids.  Ours have done bathtub and sandbox duty, driven over the tough terrain at the beach and playground, and served as snuggle buddies at night.  Yes – I’m serious.  Nugget went through a phase when he was about a year and a half old, in which he wouldn’t be caught dead with a stuffed friend and would instead fall asleep cuddled up with his Green Toys fire truck.

Low Impact Gifts

  • Experiences.  My high school BFF, Jenn, gifted our family tickets to the National Aquarium in Baltimore last Christmas.  We saved the tickets for a rainy spring day and enjoyed every minute of our aquarium visit.  The National Aquarium is on the pricey side (especially in an area where many museums, zoos and other experiences are free) so having the tickets bought and paid for took some of the heat off of our wallets and encouraged us to go.  And bonus – the tickets were delivered by email and my phone was scanned at the entrance, so the carbon footprint of the gift was literally nada.  The year before, my very generous mother-in-law gave us a gift certificate to the Inn at Little Washington – the dinner of a lifetime, and almost no packaging.  (I have an experience gift planned for Steve this year, and I think he’s going to love it.)

  • Memberships.  We’re big on memberships in my family.  I’ve gifted Steve with an annual membership to the Buffalo Museum of Science when we lived on the tundra, and down in DC we renew our Mount Vernon membership, our Friends of the National Zoo subscription, and our America the Beautiful pass every year.  As with experiences, memberships are a great low-impact option – very little packaging, just a tiny membership card, and an entire year’s worth of enjoyment.
  • Support local businesses.  I’m a busy working mom, so I’ll be relying on Amazon to help me stock under the tree for Christmas morning, but I really love shopping locally.  Given where I live, I am spoiled by the opportunity to walk out my front door and have dozens of fabulous local businesses to support within just a few blocks.  We try to shop at our neighborhood children’s bookstore for every birthday party, and I’ve given plenty of handmade gifts purchased from the neighborhood farmers’ market (which includes craftspeople), the shops along King Street, and the Torpedo Factory Art Center (a favorite, because I can support local artists within walking distance of my house!).  The earth-friendly bonus to supporting my neighbors: less packaging, I can use my own bag, and I don’t have to burn any gas, whether my own or FedEx’s.
  • Gifts from your travels.  I won’t be doing this in 2018, because I wasn’t on the ball enough when we visited the Adirondacks, but in other years I’ve thought ahead and picked up holiday gifts while on vacation.  I’m there anyway, so it’s not burning any additional fuel, and I get the fun of including in my adventures those family and friends who weren’t on the vacation with me.

  • Make it yourself.  Once again, I probably won’t be doing this in 2018, but once upon a long time ago I had some spare time and I did an entirely handmade Christmas – I crocheted scarves for the women in my family, made homemade soaps and bath teas for my mom, and gave extended family members homemade rosemary and lemon-infused olive oil.  The gifts were a hit!  This year, I may try having the kids make something for their grandparents, but they’re not always in the mood to be cooperative, so we’ll see how that goes.  But in my experience, gifts from the kitchen are usually a hit – one year, I’d love to do preserved lemon in pretty glass jars for everyone – and they’re as low impact as farmers’ market ingredients and some of your time and love.
  • Green their laundry.  Lately I’ve been really focused on microfibers and microplastics.  I’d love to find the Guppyfriend under my tree – it would give me so much peace of mind to know that if my laundry is shedding microfibers, that I’m catching them and keeping them out of the Potomac and the Chesapeake.

Gifts that Give Back

  • Adopt an endangered animal.  Fun story: when Steve and I were on our second date, I told him about my friend Nicole, who had an adopted whale, and how much I had always wanted one.  A couple of months later, for my birthday, he surprised me with my very own humpback whale, a calf named Ember.  (Cue the collective awwwww.)  Years later, I added an orca to the family: J-51 Nova of the southern resident population.  Later I adopted L-119 Joy, also a southern resident orca, for Peanut’s class, and Steve and the kids adopted me J-26 Mike as a birthday gift.  The money for the adoption goes toward research and conservation efforts, and if you choose to adopt an orca through The Whale Museum, you can even choose an environmentally-friendly paperless subscription.
  • Donations.  I love gifting (and receiving!) donations to a good cause.  For the past few years, I’ve done donations to educational causes for Peanut’s teacher gifts – last year she gave three “a year of school for a Syrian boy” donations, one for each of her teachers.  For me, I set up a birthday fundraiser through Facebook, with proceeds going to The Center for Whale Research, the leading research and conservation organization dedicated to protecting my beloved SRKWs.  As with many experiences and endangered animal adoptions, donations can be paperless for the lowest impact possible, and there are so many great causes to support.
  • Reveal techie goods.  I’m obsessed with my Bluetooth earbuds from Reveal Shop.  For every purchase of their – beautifully-designed, cruelty-free and affordable – products, Reveal plants a tree.  I’m seriously considering adding this bamboo Bluetooth speaker and smartphone charger to my Christmas list this year.
  • Glassybaby for everyone.  I couldn’t make a sustainable/low-impact gift list without including glassybaby.  I’ve been collecting them for years.  In addition to their handmade uniqueness and gorgeous glow-from-within look, glassybaby is committed to giving back to causes including environmental and wildlife conservation – for every single glassybaby purchased, the company donates a portion of its proceeds to charity.  I love that they’re on a mission to make the world better, one light at a time.  (Note: glassybaby is based in the Pacific Northwest, so if you’re not local to one of their shops, this is a gift with a little bit of a carbon footprint.  But I think the company’s commitment to charitable giving makes it worth it nonetheless.)

What are your favorite eco-friendly gifts?

2014 Intention: Update 1

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As you may remember, instead of making resolutions or setting goals for 2014, I decided to set an intention (a la yoga class) and let that intention guide my decisions and actions this year.  My intention for 2014 is: A Better Life.  Basically, I want to take the already-pretty-great life I have going and make it even better.  Here’s how I’ve been working to create a better life for myself, hubby, and Peanut so far this year:

January

  • Started a new habit of drinking a glass of warm lemon water every morning.  This was an idea I saw in Giada’s Feel Good Food and I wanted to give it a try.  Lemon is great for the liver, and warm water is a little less shocking to the early-morning system than cold water is.  I’ve tried, in the past, to get into the habit of drinking a glass of water before I eat or drink anything else, and it’s finally stuck.  (The lemon flavor really helps – and that’s coming from someone who loves water and has no trouble getting 64 ounces every day.)  I keep lemon wedges in a Rubbermaid container in the fridge and every morning, the first thing I do when I get downstairs is pop one in a glass and fill it with some warm water.  It’s such a nice, gentle way to get going and I love that I get two cups’ worth of water in right away.
  • Experimented with a gluten-free lifestyle.  I sometimes feel a little silly trying out new eating philosophies – like, am I a sheep?  Am I succumbing to trends?  But I’ve been doing some reading about gluten sensitivities, and gluten was the only food that gave me trouble when I reintroduced it after my last Whole30, so I think it’s worthwhile exploring whether eating gluten-free might benefit me.  By asking these kinds of questions and looking for the answers, I am working on saying YES to myself and tuning out my worries about what others might think.  (Since going mostly gluten-free, I have fewer headaches and less digestive distress, and I’ve noticed other health improvements, so I think there might be something to it.  I also notice that I feel considerably worse when I am less disciplined about eating gluten-free.  I’m hoping to visit an allergist at some point and get some more concrete answers.)

February

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  • Ran my second half marathon!  Seriously, I’ll bet you’re all sick of hearing about it by this point, and I promise I’ll shut up eventually.  But this was a big thing for me this month.  I loved having the training time be something “just for me” and it meant a lot to me to know that I could chase after this big goal and achieve it.  Running definitely makes my life better in so many ways – it’s good for me, it’s something I can do for myself, and it lets me work to improve.  Now I’m looking to the next step, but more on that later.

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  • Started juicing.  I’ve been wanting a juicer for awhile, but neither the budget nor the kitchen cabinets have space for it at the moment.  So I decided to give juicing in my VitaMix another whirl.  I love the VitaMix for soups, smoothies and baby food, but the one and only time I’d tried to make juice it just didn’t turn out very well.  When I found out that our Stroller Strides instructor had been making fresh juices in a blender, though, I thought I’d better give it another whirl.  (<– See what I did there?)  I’ve come up with a formula for a fresh green juice that I really like, and I’ve been drinking a cup most mornings with my breakfast, and occasionally as an afternoon snack.  I love fresh juices, and I’m so glad I’ve found a way to make them inexpensively at home.  So far, I’m the only one who is really enjoying the homemade green juice.  Hubby says it “tastes better than it has any right to,” but he won’t drink a glass, and Peanut will occasionally take sips from me but she prefers to pirate my morning lemon water.  They’ll come around.

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  • Visited the Buffalo Botanical Gardens – twice!  Hubby planned a Valentine’s Day outing (actually, it was the Saturday after) to Night Lights at the Botanical Gardens – basically, a seasonal event in which the Gardens are kept open late and light shows play in each of the greenhouses.  We all loved the event, but Peanut particularly had a ball.  She discovered the koi pond and was completely entranced by the fish swimming around, and “Pond! Pond! Pond!” is pretty much all we’ve heard since.  So, since she loved it so much, we went back the very next weekend during the day.  Of course it was fun to see her big eyes take in the majesty that is the koi pond (LOLwut?), but I also found it to be a good winter survival tactic (a la my pal Katie).  Spending a couple of hours wandering around in the heated greenhouses, with the winter sun baking down through the glass ceilings, was absolute bliss.  It felt like summer for the afternoon.  You can read more about our Botanical Gardens adventures here, and I’m sure we’ll be going back many times – but especially in the winters.

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March

  • Started a new job!  Although it’s been tough to leave Peanut, she’s in good hands during the day and I know that me bringing in an income is a good thing for our family, and will definitely contribute to a better life for all of us (starting with enabling us to finally start looking for a permanent home, and it’ll feel great to be settled again).  It’s also good for me to get back out there in the legal community, and I’ve been lucky enough to find a position practicing my specialty with a well-regarded firm.  I couldn’t ask for a better situation and I think this is going to be a great thing for our family.
  • Taken several family walks, including one at Tifft Nature Preserve and one with Grandma and Grandpa at Chestnut Ridge (the same park we visited with Zan and Paul back in December).  Even though there was still snow on the ground for most of the month, we were so over the indoors.  It was good for all of us to get out and breathe some fresh air.

Have you set an intention for 2014?  How’s it going?

A Day of Eats, Whole 30 Style

So, as I mentioned in this post, I went on the Whole 30 again.  As it turned out, I didn’t finish this pass before giving it up as a bad job – I guess I just wasn’t committed enough this time around.  I gave myself a couple of nights off, some for good reasons (mother-in-law’s birthday; dinner at the home of new friends who I didn’t want to burden with my food demands) and some for not-so-good reasons (primarily, because I wasn’t feelin’ it).  As a result, I am definitely not seeing the same benefits as I’ve seen in the past when I’ve stuck religiously to the program through inconvenience and don’t-wannas.  But I’ll give it another try in April and do better next time.

Whenever I tell people about the Whole 30 – “no grains, no dairy, no sugar, no legumes, no soy, no corn, no white potatoes, no preservatives, no alcohol” – I inevitably get the same question: “So what exactly do you eat?”  My answer is, always, “Really delicious food.”  I’ve found that the key to succeeding with the Whole 30 is focusing on what you can have, and that list is actually pretty long.  Meat and seafood is welcome (although I still avoid beef, pork and ham products as I have since I was 17), fruits and nuts (except peanuts) are encouraged, and vegetables are the cornerstone.  Still, it can sometimes be hard to envision, so I thought I’d show you a full day of eating on the Whole 30.

A couple of things to note: first, while on the Whole 30, I don’t count calories, nor do I worry about fat, protein or carbs.  I stick to the list of approved foods and let the chips fall where they may.  It always takes care of itself.  And second, please keep in mind that this is a fairly light day of eating.  I try my best to eat intuitively, to have something when I’m hungry and to stop eating when I am full.  I just wasn’t especially hungry on the day that I had planned to photograph my meals and snacks.  (Probably because I’d been too busy to work out for a couple of days prior to documentation day.  I’m always more hungry when I’m exercising a lot.)  I promise, if I’d felt hungrier, I’d have eaten more!  So, with that, here we go:

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Breakfast was a baked egg cup with a side of orange.  (I gave three of the orange slices you see here to Peanut.  She had her own breakfast but – as usual – was more interested in mine.  Oranges are delicious, so I can’t blame her.)  The egg cups are something I’ve been experimenting with as quick, easy, protein-packed breakfasts to have on hand for when I go back to work.  I don’t like to eat sweets in the morning – except for fruit, of course – and I’m not a cereal person (I’m hungry again in an hour), so I sometimes have trouble getting a breakfast together.  The egg cups are the perfect solution.  They’re filling – each cup is the equivalent of two eggs, plus some veggies (sautéed broccoli and onions in this case).  They’re also a delicious way to have my favorite breakfast (eggs) in quick and convenient form.  I’ll be sure to share a recipe soon!  Unpictured: a cup of Harney & Sons “Tower of London” tea, which is amazing.

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I didn’t have a morning snack – too busy chasing a goofy kid around to think about my stomach – so lunch was next and I did put a fairly good spread together.  On my plate: turkey sausage (it’s tough but you can find Whole 30 compliant sausages – this one is a turkey kielbasa from Garrett Valley, which I got at the local co-op), sliced kohlrabi, red bell peppers, and leftover Brussels sprouts.  I eat a lot of salad on the Whole 30, but sometimes I’m not feeling it and when I’m not, a “snack plate” like this is my go-to option.

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I was still hungry after my snack plate, so I tossed together a fruit salad – half a banana, a few strawberries and a handful of raspberries.  Fruit is my favorite food and I could eat a fruit salad every single day and not get bored.

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Afternoon snack was another quick and easy one: half a small sweet potato topped with almond butter.  I make baked sweet potatoes (in the microwave, it’s actually quick and easy) ahead of time and keep them in the fridge to toss into stews or soups, blend into smoothies, or just snack on like this.  If you’ve already got the sweet potato cooked, it’s just a quick 3 minute blast in the microwave and you have a warm, filling snack.  I know it looks revolting, but I promise it tastes good.

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Dinner was late because I had a volunteer commitment in the evening.  (I tutor a basic literacy student for two hours each week.)  When I got home shortly after 8:00, I was starving and wanted something quick and easy, so salad was the clear answer.  I used Romaine lettuce (which I prefer to spring mix; I used to throw out an entire container of spring mix every week and finally it occurred to me, eureka, don’t buy it if you don’t like it – it’s hubby’s favorite salad mix, but I eat far more salad than he does, so now I buy my favorite lettuce instead), cucumber slices (I keep them in the fridge for snacking and tossing on salads), shredded chicken from a roast I made a few days ago, and a simple dressing of herb-infused olive oil and a flaky pink sea salt.  Perfectly yummy, filling from all that fiber and chicken, and on the table in a flash!  Followed that up with an unpictured cup of herbal tea to unwind before bed, and… it was good.  It was very, very good.

Have you ever done a Whole 30?  Are you curious or do you think it’s crazy?

Reflections on my Second Whole30

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Last Friday I wrapped up my second Whole30.  For those who haven’t heard of the program, it’s basically 30 days of super-charged Paleo-style eating.  No grains, no sugar, no dairy, no legumes, no preservatives, no soy, no alcohol, no corn or white potatoes, no cheating.  As I said when explaining the program to my mom, it’s a little nutty, but you can be nutty for 30 days.  Here are some thoughts from the past 30 days:

Buddying Up

Both times I’ve completed the Whole30, I’ve done it with a buddy – my sister-in-law, Emma.  The first time we did the program, she was living with us and taking care of Peanut during the day.  This time, we kept in touch via motivating texts, emails and Instagram photos and exchanged recipes over the phone.  I’d definitely recommend doing the Whole30 with someone else.  Having a buddy to motivate me when it got hard – and it does get hard, but Emma and I cheered one another through those tough parts – was invaluable.  Hubby is supportive, but I don’t know that I could have gotten through it either time without knowing that Emma was in it with me.  When I was tempted to say, “Whatever, it’s just a little bit of preservative, what does it matter?” I remembered that she was sticking to the program and I needed to do the same.  Cheating on the Whole30 would have felt like cheating on Emma, and that pushed me to adhere to the program strictly.

Missing Halloween… Sort Of

Emma and I planned the timing of our Whole30 very carefully.  We started after my birthday (and weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake) and wrapped up well in advance of Thanksgiving.  It was important to me that I was free to really enjoy the heck out of my birthday, and neither of us wanted to miss out on Thanksgiving festivities.  But unfortunately, that meant that we kind of missed Halloween.  It wasn’t too awful.  I got to enjoy my favorite treat, roasted pumpkin seeds (see above) – I’m more of a salty girl than a sweet tooth.  But it was tough to miss out on the delicious-smelling cider donuts at the pumpkin patch, and I’ll admit to eating more of the Halloween candy that was still laying around after my Whole30 ended than I really meant to.  I’m packing the remainder of the candy up and sending it to work with hubby posthaste.

What I Really Missed

Everyone, it seems, has one thing that’s tougher than anything else to give up.  I’m okay abstaining from sugar (it’s actually easier for me to completely avoid sugar than it is to eat it in moderation), and I’m not a big drinker anyway so it’s not hard to stay away from alcohol.  (I do enjoy wine, but it’s not something that I’ve ever had trouble avoiding if I needed to, especially if there was a good reason – like pregnancy.)  Avoiding all grains is a little harder, but I typically stay away from “junk grains” like white rice and sandwich bread anyway, and save my carbs for really good stuff, like fresh kalamata olive bread from an artisan bakery, which is worth every carb and don’t ever let anyone tell you different.  But for me, the absolute toughest thing to avoid during the Whole30 was dairy.  I’m not a big milk drinker, but I love my plain Greek yogurt and my sharp cheddar cheese.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to eat cheese, of all things, than at the end of this Whole30.  (I’m eating cheese as I type this.  Mmmmmmm, cheese.)

Working Out on the Whole30

On Day 2 (which is typically my toughest day, when I get what I call the “lettuce hangover” where I want to destroy everything green) Peanut and I went for a three mile run in her jogging stroller.  It wasn’t the easiest run, between a bulky jogging stroller, a disgruntled baby, and a queasy tummy, but we got ‘er done.  And from there, it got easier.  Slacking on workouts isn’t an option at the moment, because I’m getting ready for a five mile turkey trot and ideally, I’d like to finish it without embarrassing myself.  Eating clean made my workouts feel easier and I felt my speed increasing run by run, much more so than it does when I’m not as strict about eating whole foods.  (I’m still not fast, but I’m faster than I was.)  They do say that you should really take it easy in the first week, and I did, but then I cranked it up and I feel like I’m in a pretty good position to achieve my goals for the turkey trot and a 5K that I have scheduled for a few weeks after, thanks in large part to eating so well during training.

Lessons Learned

I’ve done the Whole30 before so I didn’t expect that this one would have anything new to teach me, but it did.  The main thing I learned is this: I need to stick with something long-term and not slack as soon as I see results.  It’s harder for me to moderate than it is to just avoid problematic foods.  I’m not saying that I need to abstain entirely and forever from sugar or grains, but I’m going to commit to making those foods count when I eat them.  Going forward, I’m going to make a real effort to only eat sugar or white flour if it’s really worth it to me.  (Kalamata olive bread?  Worth it.  Sandwich bread from the grocery store?  Not worth it.  Fabulous dark chocolate from my co-op, or my mother-in-law’s homemade pies?  Worth it.  Leftover Halloween candy?  Ugh, not worth it.)  I also had a good reminder that, as I said above, eating clean really helps me feel better when I’m running.  Since I have some big running goals for 2014 and 2015, that’s something to keep in mind.

Would I Do It Again?

You betcha!  Emma and I have talked about making the Whole30 a regular thing.  I think that 2-3 times per year would be about my sweet spot.  We both felt sorely in need of this “nutritional reset” (as the program dubs itself) this time, and I’m sure that we will want it again in another six months or so.  It’s well worth the headaches in the grocery store and the additional planning to feel as wonderful as we feel after a few weeks of strict Whole30 eating.

Have you ever done a Whole30?  Would you, or do you think it’s insane?

Babyfood Diaries: Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

Big news, fellow foodies: a certain little lady is starting her gustatory journeys!  Peanut is now six months old (four months adjusted) and her pediatrician has given us the go-ahead to start introducing solid foods.  Even though we’ve known for awhile that we’d be beginning the solid food journey around now, it still snuck up on me.  The decision to start now is based on a few things: Peanut’s age is the primary factor (our pediatrician starts most kids at 4 months, but our little preemie is starting at 6 months/4 months adjusted), but the doctor also took into account our report that Peanut has been staring at our food lately.  She watches me cook and watches all three of us eat with a “you’re holding out on me” expression on her face.  Yep, she’s interested all right.  Interested, and developmentally ready, so we’re charging forward.

Now comes the part that many of you are going to say is crazy: I’ve decided to make all of her food from scratch.

Oh you are, are you?  And with what free time do you plan to do this?

I know, I know, it sounds nuts.  I don’t have a lot of spare time on my hands, it’s true, and do I really want to spend it making baby food?  Well… yes, I do.  I have a lot of reasons for wanting to make Peanut’s food from scratch, not least of which is my desire to fill her little tummy with healthy, fresh options without preservatives.  I think her food will taste better if it’s freshly prepared from ingredients chosen by her picky mama, and she’ll learn to eat fresh, whole foods from day one.  It’s also cheaper (those little jars add up, especially if you buy organic – I want Peanut to eat all organic at least for the first couple of years of her life, and it will cost me a lot less if I DIY) and better for the environment, because I’ll be able to reuse her jars and buy produce without packaging.

There’s another part of my reasoning which is, admittedly, a little bit selfish.  You see, I had to let go of a lot of things when Peanut was born two months early.  A full pregnancy, for one.  The experience of being oh-so-pregnant, which I know isn’t the most pleasant, but I didn’t have it, so.  A baby shower – mine was cancelled; I spent the day in the NICU instead.  Taking the baby home from the hospital immediately – I got to spend the next seven weeks commuting to the NICU instead, coming home to a house that seemed so empty every night.  Cloth diapering – it was something I really wanted to do, but it just seemed too overwhelming with everything else we had going on when Peanut came home from the hospital.  And there was other stuff too – like the way I have had to feed Peanut in her early days; it hasn’t been what I expected, and that’s all that I’m going to say about that.  The last of my pregnancy “expectations” was that I would make Peanut’s food from scratch and… I just don’t want to let go of this too.  I want one thing to go as planned.

So when we got the green light to start Peanut on solids, I was psyched.  I immediately started researching the best foods to start babies on – I knew I wanted to do a vegetable, not rice cereal, which doesn’t have any added nutrition for her (the only benefit is iron, but she gets plenty of that from formula), and I decided to go with sweet potato.  I looked at dedicated baby food makers like the Beaba Babycook and decided to use what I already have in my kitchen (a pot, a food processer, and a Vitamix) and see how that goes, and I stocked up on OXO Tot puree cubes and silicone spoons, plus two cookbooks that should take Peanut into her toddler years.

I’m so excited for this step!  I hope that my making Peanut’s purees (we’re also going to dabble in a bit of baby-led weaning, at the pediatrician’s advice, but I’m planning to wait to start that until she’s bigger) will set her up for a lifetime of enjoying fresh, healthy foods.  Next week – sweet potatoes, a recipe, and some hilarious photos.

Let the wild rumpus start!

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part IV: Cook’s Tools

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(Well, this concludes my series on kitchen essentials for the healthy lifestyle!  If you’re just catching up, read about my favorite ingredients from the pantry, fridge and freezer.)

I’ve been a home cooking enthusiast for several years now, and I’ve accumulated quite a collection of tools of the trade in that time.  And while I love my pie plates and cookie cutters, I find myself reaching far more often for the tools that make it a little easier for me to prepare healthy meals for hubby and me.  Some are pricey and others are cheap, but they’ve all been invaluable to me.

Citrus Press.  This is my favorite low-budget kitchen tool.  I asked Santa for one a few Christmases ago and I’ve used it at least three times a week – and usually more – since I got it.  I have this one from Williams-Sonoma, and it’s an amazing item.  Great quality and incredibly well-made, it squeezes half a lemon, lime or orange with next to no effort on my part, is dishwasher safe, and looks as good as the day I unwrapped it.  If you only buy one non-essential kitchen gadget, make it this one!

Microplane.  I think this is the best zester on the market.  I have a couple including this rasp, which I use for grating Parmesan and citrus, as well as a citrus-specific rasp.  I don’t use it as much as the citrus press above, but I do my fair share of zesting and this baby has seen a lot of action.

Oil Mister.  I got this from Santa too, and it’s wonderful for spraying just a fine mist of olive oil.  I can sometimes have a heavy hand with oil, so this keeps me honest.

Vitamix.  Okay, this isn’t exactly a budget item, but if you have been saving your pennies for a new blender, I can’t say enough good things about my Vitamix.  Before I got it, I had a regular blender which worked okay, but the Vitamix makes all other blenders look like dinosaurs.  It whips me up a smoothie in mere moments, and there are no chunks of ice to contend with.  It also makes a perfectly velvety pureed soup.  I can’t remember how I lived without my Vita.

Measuring Cups and Spoons.  If you’re practicing portion control, then measuring cups and spoons are absolutely essential.  Before I started measuring portions, I really had no idea what an appropriate serving size looked like.  But a cup of pasta or a teaspoon of oil are no-brainers with the right measuring devices.  I love these All-Clad cups and spoons, because they look like miniature pots.  Heh, fun.

What cook’s tools do you use to support your healthy lifestyle?

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part III: Freezer

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(Since we’re all on the healthy eating bandwagon… for awhile, anyway… I’m doing a series on my favorite kitchen essentials for healthy cooking.  Catch up on Part I – pantry – and Part II – fridge – if you’d like to!)

The freezer is another contraption that no kitchen is complete without, and when used well it can be a fantastic arsenal for the healthy cook.  I love to stock mine with plenty of raw materials and – like with the pantry – there’s almost nothing that feels better than knowing I have a full freezer at my fingertips.  Here are my freezer essentials for healthy cooking:

Frozen Seafood.  We eat fish a couple of nights per week, because I love it, and I always have a few varieties on hand in the freezer.  I’ve usually got a big bag of shrimp (shelled, if I can get them) and a couple of bags of salmon fillets and tilapia fillets.  We buy our frozen fish from Costco, so we get them in huge quantities that last us several weeks and the quality is great too.  My favorite thing about the Costco fillets is that they are generally evenly cut and the same size, which means they all finish cooking at the same time, and there are no thin bits that are overcooked while the center remains raw (a pet peeve of mine).  I start to panic when we get low!

Frozen edamame.  With the shells, these make for a fun appetizer.  But shelled, they’re an incredibly versatile protein source!  I toss them in soups, defrost them and add them to salads, or saute them up for stir-fries and goddess bowls.  If I have a night where I don’t know what else to make, odds are I’m going to reach for edamame.

Frozen greens.  They’ve come a long way from the disgusting frozen spinach of your youth.  Whole Foods stocks frozen kale, frozen collards, and frozen green mixes and I always have a bit on hand.  My favorite is the frozen kale.  I’m always throwing it into soups and stews, or heating it up to toss with pasta and chicken or veggie sausage.  It’s great to have on hand for those days when you’re out of the fresh stuff.

Frozen berries.  Another Costco purchase, I have a gigantic bag of these in my freezer and it has seen me through many a breakfast smoothie.  I love to make my smoothies without ice, using just frozen berries – they cool the smoothie down without watering it down like ice cubes do.  And they’re a fun dessert too, just slightly defrosted in a bowl with a drizzle of milk.

Parmesan cheese rinds.  Whenever I finish a wedge of Parm, I stick the rind in a plastic baggie that I keep in the freezer for use later.  I make a big pot of vegetable soup many weeks, just to get rid of any aging vegetables from my crisper, and the Parmesan rind takes it from hum-drum to hum-dinger!  (Sorry.)  Just remember to fish it out before you eat…

Orange and Lemon Peels.  This is my favorite tip.  Whenever I’m using a lemon or orange for a dish or a snack, but not zesting it, I take a minute to peel the zest off in big strips, using a vegetable peeler (and carefully avoiding the bitter pith).  Since I use a lemon or orange almost every day, but don’t always zest it for a recipe, I’ve amassed a huge collection of strips of zest in baggies in my freezer.  They’re on hand for whenever I want to chop them up for adding to a side or dessert and they make me feel so gourmet.  I love looking at my little baggies of zest, ready and waiting for anytime I want to fancy up a recipe!

What ingredients do you keep in your freezer for healthy cooking?  Spill!  (Your secrets, that is, not the ingredients themselves please.)

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part II: Fridge

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(Psst – missed Part I, where I talked about my favorite healthy pantry ingredients?  Check it out here.)

Ahhhh, the fridge.  Command Central for healthy eating.  Home to fresh ingredients – produce, dairy, the works.  No kitchen is complete without one, and I like to strategically stock mine with the raw materials for all kinds of healthy meals.

Veggies.  This one’s a given, right?  I keep most veggies in my fridge.  (Winter squash and potatoes go in the pantry, but everything else is fridge-bound.)  I’ve always, always, got salad greens, carrots, onions, cucumbers and broccoli on hand – those are the most basic of basics in my casa.  Other frequent visitors include kale, baby spinach, brussels sprouts, cabbage, red and green bell peppers.  When I’m feeling particularly fancy, I’ll also pick up some fresh mint or cilantro, my two favorite fresh herbs.

Fruits.  Another given.  I am a huge fan of fruit – it’s my favorite food group – and I always need at least a little bit in the fridge.  I try to eat in season, both because that’s when produce has the most nutrients and it’s the cheapest.  So I favor apples and Asian pears in the fall, citrus in the winter, stone fruits and berries in the spring and summer.  At the moment my fruit drawer is stocked with avocados (I always have those on hand for salads, Mexican food night, sandwiches, smoothies and snacks), oranges (I’m trying to eat lots of cold-preventing foods), lemons (another fridge constant) and a few apples (Honeycrisp are my favorites).

Eggs.  They’re a quick, easy protein – I whip up scrambles for “brinner” (breakfast for dinner) many nights when I just can’t face anything more complicated.  If I have any eggs left from a carton after a week in the fridge (I usually do), I hard-boil them and eat them for snacks or lunch.  I know eggs get a bad rap sometimes, but I think they’re great.  I buy Omega-3 fortified eggs and we eat them in moderation for a kick of protein that feels more indulgent than it really is.

Yogurt and Skim Milk.  These were two of my biggest cravings during pregnancy.  In fact, one of the first hints I had that something was “different” with me was when hubby and I were grocery shopping and I suddenly felt a massive urge to drink skim milk, which I rarely bought before getting pregnant.  And my Greek yogurt “like” turned to full-on “love” when Peanut took up residence.  Even now that she’s out of the oven, I’m still enjoying skim milk, although not in the quanties I did while pregs.  (I pounded that first half-gallon in one day.)  And I love Greek yogurt for being a low-cal, fat-free source of protein and calcium.

Nuts.  I keep nuts in the fridge since they go rancid too quickly in the pantry.  They’re high-cal, high-fat nuggets, so I practice careful portion control, but they make for a wonderful hit of protein and healthy fats.  My favorites are pecans and almonds, so I always have at least one or the other kicking around my fridge.  I use them for snacks occasionally, but more often for sprinkling over salads or my morning yogurt or oatmeal.

Hummus.  This one is for hubby, since he can’t get enough of the stuff (although I like it too).  Hummus makes a wonderful sandwich spread instead of mayo, but hubby especially likes it for dipping pretzels or veggie crudites.  I love to put it out when we want a snack – it’s far better than a high-fat dip (although it does have some fat from the olive oil and tahini, so mind yourself).  I will occasionally make my own hummus or bean spreads, but I don’t always have time, so many weeks we buy a tub of our favorite grocery store brand and that stands in for us until I have a few minutes to whip up a homemade batch.

Dates.  They’re nature’s candy!  I love to grab a date or two for a sweet treat at the end of a meal (unless I’m having a square of dark chocolate) or for fuel before long runs when I’m training for a race.  I buy a big tub from Costco, and it lasts me forever.

What do you keep in your healthy fridge?

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part I: Pantry

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As we all continue trying to live our best, healthiest lives in January (before February arrives and everyone falls off the wagon at the first sight of Valentine’s chocolates), I thought I’d do a mini-series of posts talking about the ingredients I’ve found to be key in my healthy kitchen.  Now, I’m not claiming to be any kind of an expert here.  But I try to put healthy meals on the table for my family every night most weeks (although I’ve succumbed to takeout a bit more than usual with an infant in the house) and over my years of cooking I’ve developed some preferences.  So I’m going to share my favorites over a series of four posts.  Part I will focus on my pantry essentials, in Part II we’ll talk fridge, Part III will be devoted to the freezer, and in Part IV I’ll share some of my favorite kitchen tools for healthy eating.

I think the pantry might be the most important part of my kitchen.  I love the feeling of well-being that comes with a full (and organized!) pantry.  I love knowing that I have everything I need at my fingertips, whether I’m pulling together an entire dinner from pantry ingredients because I’m due for a trip to the grocery store, or whether I’m just flavoring up something fresh from the fridge.  And there are a few pantry ingredients I can’t live without.

Herbs de Provence, Thyme and Oregano.  Dried herbs are one of the best ways to bring flavor to a dish without blowing your calorie budget, but they can be tricky.  I’m not a fan of most dried herbs – I think fresh is usually best.  Mint, for instance, is an herb that I’ve bought dried in the past and you know what it tastes like?  Nothing.  At least, nothing like fresh mint.  I love fresh mint so much that I’ll always, always spring for the real thing.  But there are a few herbs that I must have dried in my kitchen – namely thyme, which I like both fresh and dried, oregano, which really benefits from being dried (fresh is way too strong), and Herbs de Provence, my favorite blend.  I sprinkle them over pasta dishes, in egg scrambles, soups, stews and anything else I can think of.

Spices.  Here’s one area where I’ll probably never pare down.  I love spices, and they’re another great way to add flavor without fat or calories.  I buy plenty of spices, but my favorites are cinnamon, curry powder, ancho chili powder, and Northwoods seasoning mix (a Penzey’s blend).  Although I use plenty of different spices, those are my top must-haves for flavoring foods.

Fancy Salts.  Sure, excess sodium is pretty bad for you.  I try to avoid processed foods because of the sodium, but there is definitely a place for salt in a healthy pantry.  As with things like chocolate, I firmly believe that buying the good stuff means you can use less to better effect.  I always have Maldon sea salt on hand for finishing dishes, and I usually have a couple of other salts as well.  Right now I’m working my way through a little pot of French Grey sea salt that I acquired from R, and I also have a jar of lavender salt for when I’m feeling particularly fancy.  The better the flavor, the further you can go on just a little pinch.

Beans (canned and dried).  I love making heirloom dried beans from scratch, and I keep several bags in my pantry for long winter days when I don’t have anywhere to be and I can devote plenty of time to soaking and cooking beans.  (There’s not much active labor involved, but you do need to be around to babysit once they go on the stove.)   But for quick weeknight meals, I keep plenty of canned beans around.  Hubby loves chickpeas, while I favor cannelini beans or black beans – so we keep copious amounts of all three handy.  They’re great for soups, stews and chilis, salads, goddess bowls, Mexican food night – you name it.  (Just remember, if you buy canned, look for a brand that doesn’t use BPA in the can linings – yech – and rinse the beans well before adding them to your dish!)  On those nights when I’ve gone awhile since making a grocery run and I’m scrounging dinner from the pantry, beans are almost always involved.

Quinoa.  I’ve already told you that quinoa is one of my favorite healthy swaps.  I’ll use it in place of rice in almost every dish (except for risotto or rice pudding), because it’s healthier and quicker than most rices.  I keep other whole grains on hand too – I do have rice, for when I’ve got lots of time on my hands, and I always stock barley, millet, rolled oats, and often a grain mix.  But when I want a grain to go with dinner (well, it’s really a seed, but who’s counting?) I almost always reach for quinoa.

Olive oil.  While I don’t follow any particular diet or eating plan, my eating style tends to be similar to the “Mediterranean Diet” and that means I eat my share of olive oil.  I have several different extra-virgin olive oils (and other oils, too, but olive is my favorite).  They are great for adding flavor and healthy fats to dishes.  (They are still oils, though, so don’t go crazy.)  I always have the following: a less expensive, generic EVOO to use for cooking; a nice EVOO for finishing or drizzling over salads (I love Olave brand); and at least one infused oil (I keep white truffle-infused oil on hand because I love it, even though hubby’s not a huge fan, and I often have a basil-infused oil from Olave kicking around the pantry too; right now I’m also loving the blood orange-infused oil from Olio Tasting Room).  And for very special treats, I have a little bottle of EVOO that my parents picked up in Tuscany.

Dark Chocolate.  Sometimes I want a little something sweet to finish off a meal, and a square of dark chocolate is just the ticket.  Just a wee nibble is enough, since it’s a strong flavor, and you’ll feel as though you had a special treat without breaking the calorie bank.  I keep bars on hand and break off a square or two a few times each week – not too often, but enough so that I don’t feel deprived (because feeling deprived is NOT healthy).  My favorite bars are Chocolove – almonds and sea salt in dark chocolate, or candied ginger in dark chocolate.  Again, a little goes a long way!

Tea.  I saved the best for last!  Plenty of research shows that drinking tea is all kinds of healthy.  Black tea packs potent antioxidants.  Green tea helps with weight loss, and brings antioxidants of its own.  And there’s an herbal for whatever ails you.  Plus, if you don’t pour sugar or honey in, tea is calorie-free!  (I rarely sweeten my tea, since I like to taste the tea itself.  I’ll do a bit of milk and sugar in an English afternoon tea, once in a blue moon, but the vast majority of the cups I brew are unsweetened.)  I always have black tea on hand, and lots of it in many different flavors, because it’s my favorite.  I keep a bit of green tea knocking about the pantry too, and a tin of coconut oolong from the Spice and Tea Exchange in Alexandria, which I love.  For herbals I favor chamomile (especially Celestial Seasonings honey vanilla or Traditional Medicinals chamomile with lavender), but I always have Celestial Seasonings “Mint Magic” around because it was my favorite tea as a child.  I go through several cups each day, so my healthy pantry would be woefully incomplete without a wide selection.

What’s in your healthy pantry?  What good-for-you ingredients can’t you live without?

My Favorite Healthy Swaps

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Since it’s January, I expect many of us are embarking on healthy eating challenges and setting new goals to be more active, consume more veggies, etc.  I love January, because I love challenges and turning over a new leaf.  I know, I know, you don’t need to wait for the New Year to commit to making healthy changes in your life.  But for those of you who are on the New Year’s Resolution train right now… raises hand… here are some of my favorite healthy swaps so you can keep the delicious coming out of your kitchen, but maybe without all those cals.

Greek Yogurt instead of Sour Cream.  This one gets prime billing because it is my all-time favorite healthy swap.  I’m not gonna lie.  I love sour cream.  My grandmother used to make a cucumber salad with sour cream at the holidays, and man I could do some damage to that thing.  But I’m going to let you in on a little secret (actually it’s not much of a secret) – nonfat Greek yogurt tastes almost exactly the same as sour cream.  Like, seriously, almost exactly the same.  And it has fewer calories and more protein, plus it packs a wallop of calcium.  I love the taste of Greek yogurt and I’ll eat it plain by the bucket (especially when pregnant – it was one of my biggest cravings and I ate it pretty much every day).  But it works incredibly well as a sub for sour cream in things like potato salad, chicken salad, cucumber salad or chilled cucumber soup, and Mexican food.  (I always have it on hand for dolloping during chili, taco or enchilada night.)  And it’s great swirled into soups or mashed potatoes for a creamy accent.

Quinoa instead of Rice.  I am a huge fan of quinoa.  I buy it in bulk from Costco and go through the stuff like water.  I love it for stirring into soups and stews, sprinkling over salads and even baking into muffins, but I’ll also use quinoa in place of rice in pretty much every dish that calls for rice – stir-fries, pilafs, etc.  Partially, this is to save time: unless you buy par-boiled, rice takes about an hour to cook, and who has that kind of time?  Quinoa is twenty minutes, tops, wham, bam, thank you ma’am.  Oh, and it’s mad nutritious.  Quinoa is a complete protein and much lower in carbs than rice (even brown or wild rice, which I favor for the nutrition when I do take the time to make rice, which is almost never).  It’s light and fluffy like rice, but without the starch coma.

Applesauce instead of Butter or Oil.  This is for the bakers out there.  Most people have heard of the trick of subbing in applesauce for some of the butter and oil to lighten up a recipe.  I think most bakers probably sub in applesauce for about half of the butter and oil, but I’m here to tell you that you can go further.  One day, I decided to try cutting the oil completely out of a muffin recipe and using all applesauce and you know what?  I couldn’t taste the difference at all.  If you’re sensitive to sweet tastes you might want to cut the sugar down a bit in the recipe, but I don’t think that’s even necessary if you use unsweetened applesauce.  It’s my favorite way to lighten up the calories and fat in baked goods.  I haven’t made a muffin or a quickbread with butter or oil in years and no one is ever the wiser.

White Whole Wheat instead of All-Purpose Flour.  Healthy bakers love-love-LOVE to swap whole wheat for all-purpose flour in their baked goods.  The general rule is to use half whole wheat flour, half all-purpose for more protein and nutrition.  But what if you don’t want your baked goods to taste… dare I say it… healthy?  Because let’s face it, most of the time whole wheat muffins taste like something your hippie aunt scraped off her floor.  But what if I told you there was another way?  Enter white whole wheat flour.  Made from a different kind of wheat, it’s still a whole grain flour, but without that characteristic whole wheat taste (you know, the one that screams “I’M GOOD FOR YOU!!!!!”).  It tastes a bit more distinctive than all-purpose, but like with applesauce, I’ve found that very few people can tell that I’m using a healthy ingredient instead of the traditional.  Most bakers will still sub one-third to half white whole wheat, and use all-purpose for the other half, but again, I usually go whole hog and use all white whole wheat in my baked goods, and people rarely notice.

Maple Syrup instead of White Sugar.  Because white sugar is the devil, right?  Okay, okay, I don’t really think that.  I think there’s a place for everything in a sensible diet, as long as you don’t go overboard.  But in general I like to pick the less-processed item, and I often sub in a “natural sweetener” in place of white sugar in baking recipes.  You can choose your favorite “natural sweetener” – mine happens to be maple syrup because I love the flavor, but you might prefer honey (like my hubby does) or agave nectar, or even Stevia.  Here you’ll want to do your own experimenting to determine the appropriate ratios if you’re swapping.  I usually reduce the sweetness by about 2/3 in my baked goods and use maple syrup instead of sugar (so, for instance, if a recipe called for 1 cup of sugar, I might use 2/3 cup of maple syrup instead).  It’s all about what works for your palate and the sweetener you choose.  For instance, I find honey to be a very strong flavor, so if I’m using it in a recipe I’m going to cut the sweetness WAY down, where I might have used more sweetener if I was going with maple syrup or agave nectar.  These “natural sweeteners” are generally more nutritious than white sugar – they have vitamins and minerals, and they’re less processed – but remember, they’re still sweeteners, so you can’t go crazy!  Everything in moderation, right?

Those are my favorite ways to bring a bit more nutrition into my kitchen.  What healthy swaps do you like to make?