Sunday, April 3, 2016

Kitchen Tools for Healthy Cooking

I’m not gonna lie, eating clean and healthy is a lot of work. I cook most all my meals at home and make all my own snacks and desserts. In an effort to avoid GMOs and processed poison as I like to call it, I even make a my own condiments like salad dressing, ketchup, spice mixes (taco, sloppy joe, ranch dressing), nut butters, granola bars and pancake mix. You get the idea.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, having the proper tools in the kitchen really help make the job easier and more fun. Here are my essential kitchen gadgets and how I use them.

My most frequently used kitchen tool is a high speed blender. I have a Vitamix and I cannot express my love for this appliance enough. I use it for smoothies at least twice a day and frequently for sauces for dinner like pesto, salsa, and chimichurri. It’s essential for making nut butters and makes awesome fruit juices, apple sauce and my favorite, “ice cream” from frozen bananas. It will set you back a pretty penny, but in my opinion, it is very worth the investment. The seven-year warranty is top notch. When mine started making a strange noise and the rubber gasket started to shred, they sent me a prepaid shipping label to return it, fixed the base and sent a brand new container.  It was the longest two weeks of my life being without my Vitamix.  There are some things a food processor or emersion blender just can’t do. They sell them refurbished and you can get a good deal on one.  I’ve also seen them at Costco on occasion. BlendTec also makes a great one.  Here’s a great comparison: 

One of my all-time favorite kitchen tools is a Spriralizer.  It turns vegetables into noodles, amazing. I use zucchini noodles (zoodles) in place of pasta and also in my salads. A girl can only eat so many spinach salads, and let’s face it, leafy green salads get boring. I’ve figured out how to make a salad without any leafy greens, just raw vegetables. You could also use a julienne peeler for a similar affect. This just makes vegetables more fun. There are other, larger versions with multiple blades on it but I don’t have the cabinet space for that one. Mine reminds me of an old school pencil sharpener. You can find them on Amazon and at Bed Bath & Beyond. This is the one I use:

This is one of my favorite salads to make using zucchini noodles and corn (the dressing is amazing):

I use my George Foreman grill several times a week. I have the one with the interchangeable plates (grill, griddle, waffle iron) and with the plates being removable and non-stick, cleaning it is a breeze. Chicken breasts only take 5-6 minutes and you can even throw them on there frozen for a super quick dinner. I also love to make egg waffles for dinner, stuffed with veggies of course. Breakfast for dinner is usually a Friday night meal at my house since it’s quick and easy and provides a great opportunity to use up leftovers from the week. Veggies, meats, eggs, you can cook virtually anything on a Foreman and since it cooks from both sides, it makes for quick work. The slanted plates allow the fat to drip off and you even get nice grill marks.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the great things you can use the waffle iron for.  A few of my favorites are bacon, hash browns using spaghetti squash or potatoes, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, crab cakes, grilled cheese, burgers, cakes and brownies. I use the griddle for sandwiches, I’m crazy about cuban sandwiches, and I just can’t eat a plain old sandwich, it must be grilled or at least toasted. Think outside the box, a Foreman grill is a very versatile tool, and allows you cook healthy foods in interesting ways. 

A FoodSaver vacuum sealer comes in super handy for storing food. We buy meat at Costco, then portion and freeze it. It’s great for freezing leftovers or pre-made meals for ready-to-go dinners when I’m in a pinch.  Mine came with canisters which is great for storing bulk pantry items and dry goods. It really is worth the investment and helps extend the life of your food and protect it from freezer burn.

I never realized what a difference good knives could make until I had them. My husband bought me a set of Cutco knives for our anniversary one year and Oh. My. God. I struggle with grip strength from carpal tunnel and it was actually painful for me to cut through meats and hard vegetables. Having sharp knives makes cutting not only easier but faster. I probably still would not have good knives had I not seen a story on TV about carpal tunnel and the issues workers in a chicken factory were having. The problem was so wide spread among workers who were cutting and deboning the chicken that it was impacting productivity. They discovered that by sharpening their knives every two weeks, the problem virtually went away. That was when I said I must get some better knives. Do it, you won’t be sorry. I also took a knife skills class at one of the local grocery stores which really upped my game in the knife wielding arena. Cutco knives are primarily sold by independent distributors but I have seen them at Costco as a special promotion.

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know weighing and measuring your food is critical to success.  A digital kitchen scale is the way to go. It’s not only useful for weighing my meals but for cooking and baking as well, especially if the recipe uses the metric system. Math is not my thing and converting grams or kilograms is not an option. There are two features to look for, the first being the unit measurement that allows you to measure in ounces or grams. The second is a zero out feature that allows you to put your plate on the scale, zero it out and load up on your protein or whatever you need to measure. No extra dirty dishes, yippee.

This last one isn’t really essential or even necessary but more convenient and fun. Full disclosure…I love straws. And since I like my smoothies really thick I use a milkshake straw. I’m usually drinking one for breakfast on the go and it’s difficult to drive and drink from a giant cup. Plus, getting hit in the face with a big glob of smoothie and dribbling it all over myself before I even get to work is not how I like to start my morning. I get mine at Bed Bath & Beyond or on Amazon. They’re cheap, colorful, fun and I reuse mine so one package lasts me forever. 

I've been eating clean for 6 years and continue to be amazed at the chemicals and additives that are allowed to be in our food supply. Really, it's quite unregulated and food manufacturers are doing all kinds of scary things to our food that is neither nutritional nor healthy, and in some cases, harmful. Their concern is the bottom line, not our health and wellness.  It is up to each of us to be informed and let our voice be heard by where we spend our dollars. Clean eating is not easy or cheap, but a lifestyle I have chosen for myself. There is so much to learn about eating healthy and finding optimal wellness and I continue to try new things to find what works for my body and my lifestyle. I hope these tools will help you on your path to wellness or at least help you save some time and have some fun in the kitchen. 

What are your essential kitchen gadgets?  What is worthy of your counter space? 

Monday, March 28, 2016

What’s for dinner? Easy answers with a menu plan

Those three words “What’s for dinner?” make my head explode. I despise them. Maybe it’s the implication that someone is hungry and waiting and I’m on the hook for getting it done. I really need a 1950’s housewife to help manage the household, wouldn’t that be nice?!

I admit I’m a foodie. I love to eat it, cook it, make it pretty and I think about it all the time. I usually have some kind of food in my purse and I’m always thinking about my next meal or snack. It’s kind of an obsession with me really. Now, some of this is because I am very focused on eating healthy and want to avoid processed and fast foods, so planning ahead and being prepared for anything is necessary. But some of it is because I enjoy it so much, besides the fact that I need it to survive, when I eat, I want it to be good…really good.  It must be good or I’m just not satisfied and will want something else.

Menu planning for me started as a necessity when I would get home late and money was tight. It was the first sign that I was turning into my mother. 😱   Now, it’s just an efficient use of my time and money and keeps me on track with a clean, healthy diet. I think about it once a week and I’m done with it. It really does have it advantages: 1) I buy only what I need, minimizing wasted food and money 2) Weeknight dinners are less of hassle 3) Whoever gets home first knows what to make 4) There is always something healthy and delicious to eat 5) This question doesn’t get asked anymore.

I’ve had so many friends ask me to share my method & tips so here you go:
  • Know what you have - Do a quick inventory of your fridge, freezer and pantry. Look for items you already have or need to use before they go bad and incorporate them into you menu.
  • Account for the weeks schedule - When starting your menu, think about the week ahead. Are there any nights you’ll be home late or alone or on the run and plan accordingly. Be realistic here. You know by Thursday you won't want to mess with a meatloaf that needs an hour to bake, but consider baking it in a muffin tin to reduce the cook time if you have to have it. Plus, it’s great portion control and fun to eat.
  • Eat food in season - This really helps with the grocery bill and provides for the tastiest produce. If you do a CSA and aren’t sure what you’ll be getting, be more flexible in your plan knowing you can use your vegetables in a stew or as a side to lean protein and leafy greens for a salad.
Here’s a handy infographic: 

  • Repurpose leftovers - I’m a fan of big batch cooking. I usually cook very large meals on the weekend when I have more time and use leftovers and quick dishes for later in the week. Sunday’s pot roast can become Tuesday’s tacos and Monday’s roast chicken can be Thursday’s chicken fried rice. You can also freeze the extra for another time so you have something prepared when you have a busy week ahead. I just can’t wrap my head around people not liking leftovers. Lots of dishes taste better the next day, plus, as the cook in the family, they make life so much easier.
  • Consider shelf life - Some things just won’t be good after they have been in your fridge for a week.  I only shop once a week so meals towards the end of the week use more frozen, canned and dry goods than at the start of the week.  I have found that a 10 minute water/vinegar (4:1 ratio) bath not only removes pesticides and bacteria but also extends the life of some produce, especially berries.
  • Prep in advance - I add a ‘Prep’ column to my menu. Usually I use this area to note when I need to take something out of the freezer or marinate meat the day before.  Sometimes I’ll chop vegetables to use later in the week, especially if I’m chopping onions on Sunday and will also need some on Tuesday. Being time efficient is key for me, I don’t want to spend all evening in the kitchen. 
  • Keep recipes organized - Having your favorites all in one place helps the process go faster. Flag your favorites and organize by whatever method works for you (slow cooker, 30 min. or less, meatless, etc.). I like to use Pintrest, organized by course, and a few favorites from my old school recipe box.
  • Include all meals, snacks & desserts - Be sure to include breakfast, lunch, snacks and any special items you may need for the week (birthday cupcakes, work potluck). I do a ton of meal prep and usually eat the same thing everyday for the week with minor variations. For example, I’ll make a dozen egg muffins with a variety of add-ins on Sunday and have them for the week.  Makes my life easier and by adding variety to the add-ins (some vegetables, some bacon or ham) and having options for a starch (toast & butter, english muffin & jelly, bagel & cream cheese) it’s not so monotonous.
  • Make your grocery list - Make your grocery list as you build your menu and don’t forget to add those staples that you’re running low on. I like to write my grocery list in the order in which the store is laid out, it keeps me focused and makes for an efficient trip (produce, canned/bottled, dry, dairy, frozen). Make a template, use the back of an envelope but write it down as you go, thinking through everything you’ll need for that particular meal.  Do you need tortillas, shredded cheese and avocados for your tacos?  Stick to it when you shop, cutting out the impulse buys.  If you use coupons, now is a good time to go through your list and mark those items for which you have coupons. Or look at your coupons before you build your menu and plan to what coupons you have or what’s in the weekly flyer. 
A few of my favorite tools and time savers:

I can’t live without my slow cooker, especially in the summer.  My oven heats up the house too much plus, the house smells fantastic and dinner is virtually ready when I walk in the door. I’ll do most of the prep work the night before while I’m making dinner and any final steps in the morning. Then all I have to do throw together a quick salad or side dish and dinner is ready. It's also great for when I'm going to be late. Dinner can be ready and I don't have to be there to get something nutritious on the table.

Rotisserie chickens are great time savers.  They’re $5 at Costco for a big one that I can get two meals out of.  I buy several at a time then shred, portion and freeze them.  They’re perfect for whipping up some tortilla soup, enchiladas or pot pie in a hurry.

I use a small dry erase board for my menu. I’ll take a picture when I’m done so I have it when I go to the store just in case I need it. I also leave room to keep a list of things I need. This is for everyone in the family since my husband eats things that I don’t, I never know when he’s low on something. 

A FoodSaver vacuum sealer comes in super handy. We buy meat at Costco, then portion and freeze it. It’s great for freezing leftovers for ready-to-go meals when I’m in a pinch.  It really is worth the investment.

I also  like to pick a theme for the week like Mexican or Thai or at least recipes that use similar ingredients. It keeps me from buying a bunch of different ingredients.

I hope these tips help you in planning your meals and giving you back some time. Eating should be enjoyable as well as nutritious and I’m all for anything I can do to make it less of a headache while maintaining my healthy eating goals.

Follow me on Pintrest to see what I’m eating or find me on myfitnesspal where I post some of my favorite recipes. 

What works for you in the kitchen? 

Happy eating!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

From Fat to Fit

Social media, and the media in general, today is crazy to me.  All the "shaming" that happens, the ugliness and mean-spirited commentary, especially as it relates to how others look.  Such judgement and discrimination, it makes me so angry. I've been on the receiving end of that, for most of my life actually. As an overweight person. I want more kindness and encouragement, more love and acceptance of others and of ourselves.
I am so grateful to my parents that they instilled in me self-worth and confidence in who I am, regardless of how I looked on the outside. I never really suffered from body image issues. Quite the opposite actually. Although I have been overweight since childhood, who I saw in the mirror was not a fat person, but a human being. I've always been comfortable in my skin and with who I am. So now, since I am no longer overweight* and am exceptionally fit, my view in the mirror is only slightly different. I am still the same human being I have always been but now I'm wrapped in a different package. I still feel the same. But I know others' perception of me is different.
It's really been a head trip. Because people that I meet now, have no idea about my past. One of the instructors at the gym recently said to me "I thought you were an athlete, you have an amazing physique." She found out about my weight loss through a mutual acquaintance. This really got me thinking about image and how we perceive each other and the judgements we place on one another based on outward appearances, be it weight, skin color, disability, etc. I have never been, nor do I want to be, even now, defined by my pant size. I am so much more than that. Everyone is. 
So my internal struggle now is should I tell? I'm at a crossroads right now and I'm torn. I'll be starting a new job soon (hopefully) and I've been thinking about if I should tell people about my transformation. On one hand, I feel like there will always be judgement. That once they know, they'll always associate me as the overweight girl. But this is a prime opportunity to reinvent myself. Since I've had to replace every piece of clothing I own, down to my socks, it's been a great opportunity to redefine my style.  So should I go all in and redefine myself? And just be the healthy, fit girl? On the other hand, it's a huge accomplishment and something that I'm proud of. It's part of who I am and it gives me a unique perspective. It provides an opportunity to inspire or educate someone who may be struggling. 
I'd appreciate your thoughts on this.
And now that you're thinking about it, I encourage you to reflect on those judgements you may have towards others. Are you seeing their true self or are you judging them based on their outward appearance? I invite you to look at yourself with a new filter, one that is free of judgement and is truly accepting of who you are, flaws and all. Because you are awesome just the way you are.

*As a side note, I don't like to say that I "lost" weight. I didn't lose it, I know exactly where it is. It's on the floor at the gym.