Friday, February 26, 2010

Top Five Favorite Things In My Kitchen

Part of healthy eating is cooking for yourself. And I don't mean popping a Healthy Choice entree in the microwave, I mean actually putting together a meal with fresh veggies and meat/soy, and cooking it on your own stove. It's something I've come to really enjoy. Not only does cooking for myself with the fresh stuff save me money (more on that in another blog), but it's fun to experiment with different ideas I have. I'm not a huge recipe person, I usually just come up with something that sounds like it *might* be good, and then throw stuff together. I figure if it tastes good, then I've succeeded. But in order to eat healthy, you have to cook healthy, and you have to have the tools to do that. These are my top five favorite things I use in my kitchen.

#5. An air popper. So, my old roommate had one of these little babies. You drop some popcorn kernels in the top, plug the sucker in, and about three minutes later have a big bowl of fresh popcorn. Speaking as someone who loves snacks, fresh popcorn is pretty much guilt-free when it comes to that after-dinner "I'm hungry but shouldn't eat a big meal" period. I typically throw on some salt and some butter spray. (Side note: the "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" spray is fat free, cholesterol free, it's practically calorie free. I don't know what they put in it, but it's pretty damn useful on popcorn, veggies, tons of stuff.) Luckily, my amazing roommate gave me my own for Christmas, so I am free to pop all the popcorn I want.

#4. A vegetable steamer. I love my little steamer. I put a little water in a pot, put some veggies in my little collapsable steamer, and put the steamer in the covered pot. A few minutes later, freshly steamed veggies. There are also pans you can buy that have a steamer built right in, but I got my steamer through Pampered Chef. Very useful!

#3. My Magic Bullet. I keep telling the world to get one of these, and no one listens!! Ok, that's not true, some people listen. The Magic Bullet, for those who don't know, is a smoothie genius. You dump fruit and yogurt or whatever you like in your smoothie in the individual cup. You screw on the blending tool, put the whole thing in the console, press down, and suddenly you have a single-serving smoothie in your hands. It's seriously outstanding. And really easy to clean up, too.

#2. A great set of knives. Cutting vegetables is a lot less frustrating if you invest in a set of knives that actually works. I'm lucky in that I inherited my awesome knives, but I highly recommend you get a good set if you don't have one. It speeds up the cooking process immensely.

#1. An awesome stir-fry pan. You need a pan that you can cram a lot of vegetables in, and cook without everything flying all over the stove every time you try to flip your veggies over. Something with high sides and a good non-stick coating. There is really nothing more important to healthy cooking than the ability to sautee' vegetables efficiently. I can't stress enough, there should really be vegetables incorporated into every meal. But I know that's not entirely possible, so you definitely want to make sure you have a big bunch of them with dinner. It leaves you feeling full, and stocks you with nutrients and vitamins that you absolutely NEED! So get a good pan, and start trying vegetables!

Check your kitchen... do you have any or all of these things? They certainly make my life happier! Next I'll be talking about shopping, and how I do my shopping to eat healthy AND save money.

until later...

A word to the wise ain't necessary. It's the stupid ones who need the advice." ~Bill Cosby

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Run on....

Never, ever, in my whole life was I a runner.

Remember that kid who picked dandelions out in left field during softball when you were 8? Yup. That was me.

How about the girl who finished a mile run in middle school in just over 18 minutes? Oh yeah, that was ALSO me.

You know the old saying, "I only run if I'm being chased?" I'm not sure I would have even run then. It just wasn't something I had in me, nor something I had an interest in. I did theatre! I was a singer! I was going to go to Broadway and never have to run, because theatre people aren't athletic and it's okay!! At least, this was how the 17-year-old version of myself rationalized my lack of athleticism.

Eventually though, I started to get bored with *just* doing theatre. I always saw the same people. I did shows at the same theatres. It was a routine I was very comfortable in, but it was making me restless. I wondered if there was more out there, something different that could give me a similar thrill to being on stage, but would give me a chance to push myself in a new way.

I started this little run club about three or so years ago. I called it the "Run Club for Losers". The premise was, a bunch of theatre kids who weren't necessarily runners would get together a couple of times a week at a local run path. Together, we would theoretically be able to push ourselves to run, something none of us particularly loved.

And the scary part was, it worked. Sure, we had different people every week, and some people came once and never came back. But there was a small core of us who faithfully showed up every week, and two miles turned into three, and then four... and it was only a couple of months before I actually... LIKED running.

Then I started racing. Here was the thrill I was looking for. Hoards of people getting up early on a Saturday morning JUST because they loved to feel their feet pounding on the pavement? I loved crossing the finish line with a new personal best. And watching the cows in a field watch me as I run past. I even loved running in the pouring rain and getting completely soaked.

It was like this little Narnia I didn't know existed was waiting for me right on the other side of the stage. And that summer, I ran and I ran and I ran. I'm not sure how many races I ran, but it had to be at least 8-10. It felt so good to stretch my legs, and accomplish something new. Something I didn't even know I had in me!! I wondered why I had always hated the idea of this sport, why I just assumed I wasn't a runner and could never be.

I ran my first half-marathon, the Detroit Free Press Half, in the following fall with a couple of "Run Club" devotees. Did I ever in my life think I would run a half-marathon? Of course not. But we trained, and we pushed, and sometimes it sucked. One of my friends experienced what could have been a setback, as personal tragedy hit her family in the days before the big race. I've always admired her courage, that despite losing someone so dear to her, she made the commitment to fight on and race. That just proves how the human spirit and body can triumph... why would you ever tell yourself you can't do something? There is so much strength inside of you, so many things you can do if you put your mind to it.

There was a perfect moment at sunrise as I neared the bridge to Canada during that race. I pushed up the hill, the bridge loomed up before me. With red and orange rays streaming across the water, I looked up- literally hundreds of people were moving almost like one body across the bridge, through the early light. Passionate people, all doing something they loved. Maybe doing something for someone they loved who was gone. Hell, maybe doing something they didn't love, but did to prove something to themselves. 90-year-olds, 13-year-olds, skinny people, not-skinny-at-all people... there is no set mold for running like I had thought when I was younger. Just regular people, like you'd see on any street in America, getting together and doing something special for themselves.

Never tell yourself you can't do something; "can't" is the unwillingness to try. And you may be missing out on something absolutely awesome in the meantime.

until later...

"Regret for wasted time is more wasted time." ~Mason Cooley

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Squash Casserole

A super delicious winter squash casserole. This is me we're talking about, so you know I substituted stuff.

-1/2 a butternut squash, cubed into about 1/2 inch cubes OR you can buy the bagged stuff that's already in blocks, if you're pressed for time.
(I added about 3/4 cup chopped sweet onions and 3/4 cup diced fresh mushrooms, too.)

-2 tsp olive oil (I used olive oil Pam instead)

-sprinkle of salt (I also used some ground black pepper and Italian seasoning)

-1/2 lb whole wheat elbows (that's about 10-ish ounces, I think. I don't know, I used half a package.)

- 2 Tbs butter (I used Smart Balance olive oil butter)

- 2 Tbs flour (I used whole wheat flour)

- 1 1/2 cups reduced fat milk (I used skim)

- 1 3/4 cups reduced fat white cheddar cheese (I used fat free Kraft cheddar, I'm sorry, it melts awesome and tastes fine to me. But feel free to use the reduced stuff.)

- optional: handful of bread crumbs

Step one: Preheat oven to 375. Spread squash (and any other veggies) on foil lined tray, and eat coat with olive oil or spray with cooking spray. Add salt/seasonings. Bake for 20 minutes or until tender, then set aside.

Step two: Cook pasta for two minutes less than package says. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, melt butter over low heat. Add flour and whisk in- cook for about two minutes.

Step three: slowly whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, then simmer. Cook about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 1 1/2 cups cheese, stir until melted.

Step four: Spray casserole dish, I used the 9 by 13 glass kind. Add pasta, then add the squash/veggie mix. Mix it all up, then stir in the cheese sauce mixture. add the last 1/4 cup of cheese to the top, then sprinkle on the bread crumbs if you like.

Step five: Bake for 10 minutes.

Also, once you've mastered this cheese sauce, you can use it for pretty much anything. I've used it in macaroni and cheese, topping for potatoes, you name it. Pretty handy little side recipe.

until later....

Monday, February 22, 2010

Owning my sweet tooth....

Hello. My name is Jen, and I'm a recovering sugar addict.

I have a sweet-tooth that is difficult to match. In fact, I can't think of a sweet I didn't like at some point in my life, with the exception of Licorice Snaps. Which really, no one but old people and my mom actually *like*.

I remember once going to the dentist when I was about 15. I almost fell out of the chair when Dr. T told me that I had nine cavities in my mouth, so many that we'd have to drill four on one day and five on another. They blamed it on things like poor enamel, but I knew the truth- I ate too much sugar.

Fast forward 11 years, to the first months into a new job, a job I'm still holding; working as a nanny for a major cereal company family. Everything was great at first. More cereal than I knew what to do with, boxes of granola bars, crackers.... I thought, "Sweet. I pretty much never have to shop again. Care for a toaster pastry, guest at my apartment? How about a case?" I felt like a Snack Pimp.

But in reality, it only took probably three or four months to notice I was putting on weight. I couldn't figure it out, what was I doing differently? I was eating cereal, granola bars... these are healthy!! Right?

Then I started flipping those boxes around and paying attention to what was in them. Sugar, corn syrup, cane juice... sweeteners everywhere. Hiding in my tomato soup. Lurking in my bran crackers. Peering out from the depths of my yogurt. Everywhere.

I decided to try a little experiment. I wondered what would happen if I made the conscious choice to try and avoid refined sugar. Now, I'm not talking about the natural sugars you find in things like milk and fruit. I'm also not talking about avoiding carbs altogether. And I certainly wasn't putting down my glass of Jameson on the rocks. What I was proposing was refusing desert, cutting back on things with lots of sugar. Checking labels to see how many grams are in things.

And I was shocked by the results. Sure, the first few weeks sucked. I wouldn't even lie to you about that, it was agony to be near a plate of brownies. But I started noticing that not only was I losing weight, but I had more energy. No more ups and downs with an afternoon snack bar.

I started cutting the sugar out of other things. No more cereal- switch to oatmeal with fruit, BAM! Peace out, sweetened yogurt! What up, plain Greek yogurt?! After a few months, cantaloupe tasted like candy, and I hated the smell of donuts. It was like this crazy new world of deliciousness opened up for me, and it tasted so fresh!

I'm not so crazy that I don't eat peanut butter, or enjoy a pancake once in a while. I eat artificial sweeteners every so often. I love dark chocolate, but only if it's 88-90%. And people often tell me they don't think they could do it, but what they really mean is that they don't WANT to do it. And that's ok, it's probably not a lifestyle for everybody. It's not always fun to be the jerk at the birthday party who refuses the cake.

But really, I haven't had a cookie in a good year and a half, and I'm totally okay with that. It's interesting- I just don't miss what my body seems to have forgotten.

until later...

Live today. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Just today. Inhabit your moments. Don't rent them out to tomorrow. ~Jerry Spinelli

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Getting started....

It seems like people have been encouraging me start a blog about all the healthy crap I do for a long time. And to those friends, I say, "Blogging? That is so 2002. Tweets are where it's at."

But as it turns out, a "Tweet" is really not enough space for a recipe. Or a story about soy vs meat. Or a little anecdote about the little old man who passed me in Mile 12 of a Half-Marathon. It's really more of a space to say, "Wow- great squash casserole, too bad I don't have enough characters to tell you about it!"

So here I am, fighting the evolution of technology, regressing to the roots from whence MySpace and Facebook and yes, even Twitter, once began. And actually, it's good to be home.

So who am I? Well, I'm a girl. A girl who is quickly leaving her 20's, bound for those 30's everyone keeps raving about. I'm not so sure what's so great about them; I'm not married, I don't have kids, I rent my apartment, I'm more or less exactly where I was 5 years ago.

Except for the part where somewhere in those last five years, I became something of a health nut.

I started reading about what we put in our bodies, and how little exercise we get. I opened my eyes, and I started looking around. With a slice of pizza in one hand and a delicious McDonald's Shamrock Shake in the other, I asked (in between chews and slurps), "Why is this country so FAT?" Other places simply don't have the obesity problem we have. And I wanted to know why.

So I put down the pizza. I put down the Shamrock Shake. Then I picked it back up and finished it, because Shamrock Shakes are deeeeeeeelicious. But once it was gone, I totally threw the container away, and said "No more! I'm done with junk food!"

Two weeks later, I was back to cookies and fast food. "Eating healthy is HARD!" I cried, to no one in particular.

No, it was a few more years before I was able to really put myself on the healthy track. Because the fact of the matter is, most of us have spent our whole lives enjoying donuts and sodas and McNuggets. Our bodies know them, our bodies crave them. There is something so familiar and comforting about these foods, they blanket us... no, seriously. They REALLY blanket us. Because as tasty as they may be, they are full of chemicals and preservatives and syrups that our bodies turn into a nice, warm blanket of fat. It's the truth; a sad truth, because things that taste good should be good for us.

The awesome news is, there are plenty of natural foods out there that DO taste good. I know, I've tasted them. And I'm all too willing to share my journey with you, in the hopes that you can take away what's useful to you, and scrap what isn't. As I push into my 30's, I think about that family I don't have yet, and I wonder, "What kind of example would I like to set for them?" Maybe you have a family, or want one. Thik of your eating/exercising habits- are they a legacy you'd like to pass on?

And hey, maybe you'd rather sell your uterus than have a kid. I can understand that. But do you have a list of things you'd like to do before the big grave party? Are you doing enough to ensure that, assuming there is no plane crash and no piano drops from the 56th story, you can enjoy that hike through the Grand Canyon tomorrow?

Overhauling your entire diet and exercise regimen in one fell swoop is a really easy way to fail. You're not Superman and you're not Wonder Woman. Wait, are they relevant enough? It doesn't matter, the point is that taking on the world all at once is impossible, but making small changes is not. You start with one thing, maybe biking a couple time a week, or even taking the dog for a walk. Just stand up while you're typing instead of sitting, I don't care!!! I'm challenging you to pick one thing to do differently, or eat differently. Add a vegetable to a meal. Have one sweet a day instead of four. Just one thing.

And see if you feel differently. Give it a week, and then say "Oh, that wasn't so bad. I didn't mind taking the stairs instead of the elevator too much." Congratulate yourself on whatever small change you made.

And then... find another one. Just like the calories from the fast food we love so much, the small changes ALSO add up. In a great way. In an empowering way. In a way that helps ensure we make the most of the small amount of time we get on this beautiful planet. All I ask is that you give it a try.

until later...

I believe we form our own lives, that we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best. I know I drive some people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me. ~Jim Henson