Thursday, July 18, 2013

Healthy and Affordable Grocery Shopping

Organic mangos 3 for $1.00 (in season)

I remember watching a documentary a while back about unhealthy foods in America.  In one of the scenes, a family is interviewed in a supermarket.  I do not remember the specifics, only that the mother expressed concern about how to make healthy choices for her family when an apple and a hamburger are the same price. People seem to be under the impression that eating healthy costs more than eating unhealthy.  Perhaps this misconception can be attributed to high-end retailers like Whole Foods Market, or maybe it is due to expensive weight loss programs selling value-added prepared meals.  Whatever the reason, it just does not have to be true.


When I was discussing this topic with a friend, he pointed out that (brown) rice and beans are some of the cheapest things to buy and some of the best for you.  I thought that this was a very good point, especially when the products are purchased in bulk. In regards to the apple that was discussed in the documentary, sure, if you are buying an apple from a grocery store in Alaska in the middle of January, it is probably going to cost you a pretty penny.  If you were to buy the same apple from a farmer in central Washington in September, you probably aren't going to pay very much at all.  It is all about knowing where to buy what, and when to buy it.


Here are a few of the tricks that I use to keep my family eating healthy at affordable prices:


  • I always buy beans, lentils, and whole grains from the bulk bins at the supermarket.  You can get almost a pound of dried beans in the bulk bins for the cost of a single can off the shelf.  The dried beans also do not contain all of the sodium and preservatives you will find in cans.

  • I use a lot of spices in my cooking to add flavor to low fat recipes.  Jarred spices are very expensive, that is why I always buy loose spices from the bulk spice section in the grocery store.  Bulk spice departments can be found in most natural food stores, organic sections in conventional grocery stores, as well as in local tea/spice shops.  If you do not have access to a bulk spice department, spices can be bought for reasonable prices at ethnic markets, Trader Joe's, Costco or from various online retailers.

  • I look at the ads for my local grocery stores every week, and I stock up on my favorite products when they are on sale.  I also use the sales ads to help determine what meals I am going to prepare for the week.  If you don’t receive weekly grocery ads, look online, even small family run grocery stores usually put specials on their websites.

  • I try to use produce that is in season.  Not only does it taste better, it is a lot more affordable.  To find out what is in season in your area, check the grocery store ads for produce specials, check out what is available at your local farmer's market, or do a quick search on the internet.

  • Ethnic markets are a great source of low-priced produce. Eggplants, for example, are six for $1 at my local Mediterranean market.

  • I only buy the amount of food I need for the week.  I am always amazed how much food people waste.  I buy extras of things that are on sale only if I am sure that I will use them, and they are shelf stable or can easily be frozen.

  • I don’t waste anything.  If I have a few stalks of celery leftover in the fridge, I will toss them into a stir fry or soup that I am making.  I am always poking around the fridge looking for things that need to be used up.  I figure if I don’t find a way to use up that milk, it is just money down the drain.

  • I don’t spend money on pre-made products that can easily be made at home.  The best example of this is salad dressing, which can be made quickly from things you already have on hand like vinegars, oils, mustards, honey, jams, herbs and spices.

  • I shop at discount stores that sell products that have slight mistakes in packaging, out of date packaging or that did not sell well at conventional grocery stores. These stores often have a great selection of natural/organic products (Kashi, Bear Naked, Bob’s Red Mill, Cascadian Farms) for a reduced price.  On the West Coast we have Grocery Outlet, and I’m sure that other parts of the U.S. have something similar.  Stores like TJ Maxx/Marshalls/HomeGoods often have great buys on balsamic vinegars and olive oil (even my foodie uncle buys his vinegar at TJ Maxx).

  • I pay attention to which stores have which items for a good value.  For example,  I know that Trader Joe’s has good prices on bananas, but it is a lousy place to buy most other fruits.  You don’t need to have every grocery store memorized, just know where to get the basic things you buy on a weekly basis.


My husband and I eat three healthy meals from home, six days a week, and we spend about $50 a week on groceries.  We save a lot of money by cooking at home, eating leftovers and practicing smart shopping habits.  I hope these tips can help your family as well!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Shocking Ways Restaurants Add Calories



There are certain guidelines that keep reoccurring on this blog: eat healthy snacks,  move often, stay positive, don’t drink your calories, avoid dining out too often.  These are all things that were so fundamental to my weight loss, that I think they are worth repeating....and repeating.  It is almost as if these guidelines have become my weight loss mantra.  


Over the last several months I have been reminded of the importance of the last guideline, “avoid dining out too often”. We have had a series of visitors staying with us, and done a bit of traveling ourselves, which has lead to a few too many restaurant meals.  Despite my battle to compensate for the extra calories with exercise, I have noticed my pants getting a little bit snug (don’t worry, nothing that can’t be fixed by a few solid weeks of home cooking!).

Most of us know that eating out is not ‘good for us’, but we don’t often think about just how bad it is.  Culinary students are taught the mantra “fat is flavor”, and trust me, they stand by that slogan.  Even after years of educating myself about healthy versus unhealthy eating, I am still shocked by some of the common practices at restaurants:

  • Most Mexican restaurants fry their rice before it is steamed, and the re-fried beans are often cooked with lard.
  • Hamburgers are sometimes ‘grilled' in butter, and buns are almost always buttered
  • Restaurant steaks are often drizzled, or immersed in butter
  • Grilled and steamed vegetables are almost always coated with butter or oil (sometimes before and after cooking)
  • Scrambled eggs (and omelets) are cooked with hearty helpings of butter, oil or margarine
  • Some restaurant ribs are brushed with bacon grease

All of this talk about fats reminded me of when a kid in my high school class ate an entire stick of butter.  He was trying to show off to win votes for an upcoming class election.  Outside of some crazy high school antics, most people would never knowingly eat a stick of butter, but that is essentially what is happening with some restaurant meals.  Even Applebee's Oriental Chicken Salad has more fat in it than a stick of butter.  To give you another perspective, one food blogger wrote about how her meal of BBQ ribs at Chili's had as much saturated fat as 26 strips of bacon. Now who is going to sit down and eat a plate full of 26 strips of bacon, or a stick of butter?  Nobody.  But there sure are a lot of people eating those ribs.

I am not trying to scare you out of eating at restaurants all together. I am just trying to educate you, so that you realize exactly what is going on in restaurant kitchens.  It is easy to get into the habit of eating out, but if we take a minute to think about what we are actually putting into our bodies, it is usually easier to break the bad habit.

For more help on how to navigate hidden restaurant calories, take a look at my post from last April!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring Vegetable Quinoa


For the longest time I thought I hated asparagus.  It is just one of those unfortunate looking vegetables whose appearance suggests that it should not be eaten.   A few years ago, I bought a bundle during a spring produce sale.  Since I was sick of winter vegetables, I thought I might as well give it a shot.  I roasted it up in the oven with some olive oil, sea salt and pepper.  It turns out roasted asparagus is actually amazingly delicious.  In this recipe I combine roasted asparagus with quinoa, a protein-rich whole grain, to make a healthy spring entree.  The original recipe for this dish was featured on the Whole Foods Market website, and included shredded chicken.  If you would like a heartier entree, you may want to add the meat back into the recipe.

1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth

1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1.5-inch pieces
olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup frozen or fresh peas
2 cups sliced baby spinach leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

lemon and Parmesan, for topping


Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse and drain quinoa.  Combine chicken broth and quinoa in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes.

While quinoa is cooking, rinse and dry asparagus stalks. Snap off woody ends and cut stalks into 1.5 inch pieces.  Lay asparagus pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake for 10 minutes; then shake the baking sheet to turn asparagus. Bake for another 5 minutes.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add one tablespoon olive oil to hot pan.  Cook onion until golden.  Add garlic and peas, cook for a few minutes longer.  Stir in asparagus and quinoa.  Add the spinach and cook until wilted.  Season with salt and pepper.  Top with a few squirts of fresh lemon juice and Parmesan cheese, serve warm.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Healthy Holiday Dinners

We often think that after the Christmas holiday season is over, and the last cut-out cookie has been eaten, that it will be a lot easier to be healthy.  Holidays give us so many opportunities to indulge.  We often blame December for our winter weight gain, but in truth, after Christmas comes the Superbowl, then Valentine’s Day, then those cute little Girl Scouts selling cookies on every corner, and then Easter....

It can be hard to enjoy holidays when you are trying to lose weight. I used to get anxiety attacks just thinking about the mounds of junk food I would face at a Superbowl party! 

I have found that the best way to eliminate some of this overindulgence anxiety, is to either host the event yourself, or offer to help.  When you are the one in charge of making dinner, you know exactly what is going into each dish. I have a friend who always brings quinoa salad to BBQs. I think this is such a great idea because she is always guaranteed a healthy option.

Here are a few of the healthy side dishes I like to serve on holidays:

Mashed Potato Substitutes:

Instead of Candied Yams:

Load up on Vegetable Sides:
Dessert Alternatives:
Strawberries with Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Setting Reasonable Goals


A few months ago I started getting really enthusiastic about outdoor running.  It probably had something to do with the fact that I moved from one of the rainiest places on earth (Seattle), to one of the sunniest (San Diego).  I was running between 6-10 miles every other day.  Lately, I have watched that number slip down to about 4-6 miles two times per week.  I have now replaced the longer runs with other endurance exercises.  Even though I am exercising an equal amount, I still feel guilty for cutting down my running times.  I feel weak for only running 5 miles at a time, which I know is ridiculous because just a few years ago I could barely run a single mile.

Considering the current trends in fitness, it is easy for me to see why I have felt such pressure to push myself.  It seems like everyone is under the impression that you have to perform some military style exercise in order to lose weight and stay in shape.  When I started exercising, gyms were filling their schedules with aerobics, yoga and pilates classes.  Now, every gym has their own form of a “boot camp” or “cross fit” class.  I imagine the world was an easier place when everyone was “Sweatin to the Oldies” with Richard Simmons, instead of doing “Insanity” with Shaun T. or Tony Horton’s “P90X”.

I have no problem with “boot camp” style training, in fact, I practice this kind of training several times a week.  I do wonder, however, if the current fitness climate is creating too much pressure to be super fit and causing us to create unrealistic goals for ourselves.  When I first started running, I wasn’t training for anything.  I just wanted to make it to the end of the block.  Seriously.  Now, it seems like everyone thinks they need to be training for a marathon in order to be a “runner”.  The expectations we are setting for ourselves are getting alarmingly high. Despite what you may hear on TV, getting washboard abs in 60 days is just not a reasonable goal for the average person.  We cannot all drop weight like they do on the Biggest Loser.

Setting reasonable goals is a very important aspect of weight loss.  There is nothing more motivating than achieving a goal. On the other hand, failing to meet goals/expectations is one of the things most likely to cause us to give up.  That is why it is so important to create specific, small and realistic goals along the way.  The overall goal is to lose weight and be healthy, but it is the small goals along the way that will add up to get you there.

Here are some examples of specific, small and realistic goals:

  • I am going to cook at home at least 5 nights of the week.
  • I am going to run for 10 minutes without stopping within the next month
  • I am going to add an additional day of exercise per week
  • I am going to stop “pinning” recipes for cheesecake on pinterest.com

Here are some examples of goals that may be unrealistic:

  • I am going to lose 20 lbs before my vacation next month
  • I am going to go from couch to marathon by this spring
  • I am going to completely give up candy
  • I am going to switch immediately to a fat-free, carb-free, wheat-free, dairy-free......diet
The last thing we want to do is to set ourselves up for failure. A good goal can be very empowering, as long as it is truly reachable!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Choosing the Right Foods for Weight Loss


In a recent blog entry I posted a timeline of photos from my weight loss.  I really love the visual image that the timeline provides of my journey, but there is one thing that bothers me about it. The pictures make the whole thing look so easy.  It looks like one Christmas I was big, and then *poof*, the next Christmas I was thin.  I wish that I had some way to visually portray all of the blood, sweat and tears that went along with those images.  I assure you it was not all instant success, there were a lot of missteps along the way.

In the first few months of my weight loss journey I made just about all of the classic diet mistakes.  You know, the ones that I am always warning you not to make, l
ike thinking you can eat as much as you want of something just because it is labeled as “low fat”.  I can’t tell you how many containers of low fat ice-cream I went through while I was “dieting”.

When I finally realized that foods labeled as “low fat” were not necessarily “low calorie”, I started paying more attention to food labels.  I began watching my calorie intake, but payed no attention to what nutrients were in the foods that I was eating. This plan backfired when I found that I had no energy and was hungry all of the time.  I knew that my plan was not sustainable, and I would need to make adjustments.

I discovered that things like fiber and protein helped to fill me up for longer periods of time.  This led me to realize that I needed to pay attention, not only to the calorie content, but the amount of nutrients in the foods I was choosing.  I began choosing foods that had the most beneficial ingredients (lean protein, fiber, vitamins/minerals), for the least amount of calories.  It was this adaptation to my diet that helped lead me to weight loss success.

After a lot of experimenting, I have found that my favorite sources of lean protein and fiber are whole grains and legumes. These are two things that can be intimidating to the unfamiliar (I know they were to me at first), but over time you realize how easy it is to incorporate these things into your diet.  Brown rice, quinoa and black beans seem to be the items that all of the health food websites are talking about, but there are sooooo many other legumes and whole grains that aren’t getting nearly as much press.

Here are some of the ones I have experimented with:

Whole Grains:
Barley, Bulgur, Popcorn, Farro,  Millet, Oats, Quinoa, Colored Rice(brown, black, red), Wheat Berries

Legumes:
Black Beans, Cannellini Beans, Chickpeas, Great Northern Beans, Kidney Beans, Lentils (brown, green and red), Navy Beans, Pinto Beans, Split Peas (green and yellow)

The fun thing about there being so many different types, is that you can experiment, and you never get bored. The Whole Foods Market website is a great source of recipes for all different kinds of legumes and whole grains.  In their recipe section you can do an “advanced search” for recipes with certain ingredients. I have found many new recipes this way, and experimented with ingredients that I would not normally pair. A great example is this recipe for Yellow Split Pea and Sweet Potato Soup.

I hope to get more in depth information about cooking with whole grains on the blog, but for now, just let me know if you have any questions.

Happy Cooking!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yellow Split Pea and Sweet Potato Soup


The original recipe for this dish, which appeared on the Whole Foods Market website, was for a pureed soup.  I prefer my soup to have a little more substance, so I lightly mash the potatoes into the soup instead of pureeing. In order to bring a bit of heat, I added chili flakes and cayenne pepper.  Feel free to add more, or less, depending on your preferences.  Sweet potatoes or yams can be used interchangeably in this recipe.

2 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tbsp ginger root, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp chili flakes
8 cups water
½ tsp ground coriander
dash cayenne pepper
2 cups dried yellow split peas
2 medium sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper, to taste


Preparation:

Sort and rinse peas; set aside.

Heat Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to pot.  Once oil is heated, add onion. Sauté until onions begin to brown slightly.  Add garlic, ginger and chili flakes, stir for 30 seconds.  

Add water, coriander, cayenne, peas,  and sweet potatoes.  Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low.  Simmer 1 hour, stirring often.  

Remove lid and gently mash sweet potatoes with potato masher (alternatively,  press potatoes against side of pot with spoon to mash).  Add salt and pepper.  Cook 15 additional minutes.