Balance

The idea that much of what is good for us lies in the middle has been resonating with me lately.  Much of what ails us is caused by too much or too little of a good or bad thing.  A few that come to mind:

  • Too much sunlight can cause cancer, but too little can lead to not enough Vitamin D conversion.
  • Too much exercise can lead to overuse injuries, but too little can lead to lots of negative effects (cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer, etc.)
  • Being too strict with your kids can lead them to rebel (some claim), while being too lax can cause them to be spoiled.
  • Too much work can cause stress, while too little work leads to boredom.

I think about these ideas when I am health coaching people.  A lot of times, someone is doing too much or too little of something, and I am trying to lead them towards the middle.  It’s safest in the middle.  It’s not terribly exciting, but it’s safe.

I find myself in a daily struggle to maintain that balance.  I know that I do best when I spend a good amount of time with my kids: teaching them, feeding them nourishing food, guiding them, playing with them, begging them to clean up their rooms.  But, after an entire day with them, I’m done!  I need balance.  I need time alone with a book or show that is not for kids.  I need to re-balance that scale.

I take the same approach with food.  I love dark chocolate, rich desserts, and gyros.  And, every once in awhile, a big plate of ribs hits the spot. But, after a day or evening of indulging, I’m all for some high fiber cereal with fruit–or as Patch refers to them: “horkin’ fiber chunks”.  It’s why I have no problem with you seeing me eat those deliciously greasy chupaquesos (an egg filled quesadilla with a cheese shell).

I find the same balance with my love of our great city (Chicago), while maintaining a yearning for a simpler country life.  I often wonder if I moved to the country would I get used to not having a TJ Maxx or Trader Joes only a few minutes away.  I’m not sure!  I get excited to check out a new restaurant in the city, but after two hours one way in traffic, I’m ready to head north to the green and open spaces in Wisconsin.  As soon as I cross the border, I breath easier.

When I think back to times in my life when I was not as happy.  A lot of the unhappiness stemmed from a lack of balance.  When I was working too much and not seeing my kids enough, having more money didn’t make up for the lack of balance.  I may not make as much money now, but the balance has brought happiness.

I guess the ancient Taoists knew what they were talking about when they came up with the concept of Yin and Yang.  This principle attests that there are two halves to every whole, and when one side dominates, the other works to bring the two back into balance.  This concept can be applied to many aspects of health and life, even if it is simple small steps in the direction of balance.

Are there areas in your life that you find are unbalanced?  What could you do to begin to restore that balance?  It might be as simple as going to a walk and enjoying some fresh air after a long day at work.

Watching these two sweet boys help out in the yard helps me feel balanced.

Why We Meal Prep

A couple weekends ago, we did another cook-a-palooza.  If you recall, earlier this year I wrote about how we plan, prep, and freeze a mass quantity of breakfasts, snacks, and dinners.  We spent a good deal of money at Costco in preparation for the endeavor.  And, it took the better part of the weekend to accomplish our goal and clean up from the chaos that ensued.  But, here’s where it gets good!  Guess what our bill was last week for groceries?!  Drum roll please…$54!  That is correct.  $54 for a family of 7.  In a quick 30 min trip to Aldi, I was able to get milk, fresh fruits and veggies, bread, nuts, some crackers, and a couple treats.

Not only did I save money, but I saved time.  I spent less time shopping for food.  I spent less time thinking about a menu and what ingredients I needed.  I spent less time prepping that food.  I spent less time cleaning up from the meal prep.  And, our family still ate home cooked meals all week.

Now, I will not sugar coat the actual weekend of cooking.  It is exhausting.  And, it’s messy.  See here for a heart-stopping, morning after shot:

That is not easy for me to share.  I still cringe at the site.  Anyway, the good news is, it looks much better now!

The kids’ involvement in the process is another positive aspect of this undertaking.  As our cooking day approaches, we pep talk them as if they are gearing up for a big game.  They understand that their contribution is critical for a successful day.  Their pride is palpable when we warm up a dish that they helped prepare.  It also makes it more likely that they will eat the food.

Our plan is to keep doing these days every few months.  We make enough food to get through 2-3 months with little daily meal prep.  It is one less worry on our plates–pun intended.

In case you are interested.  We made the following foods:

You may notice that many of these are repeats from the past, as they were hits with the family.  We made about 3-4 recipes (7 of some!) of each of these.  It is a lot of good food that I’m excited to enjoy with the family!

Sisters, Sisters

As my two younger girls get older, I’ve become somewhat fascinated by their interactions.  For those of you that know them, you understand that they are quite different in many ways.  Eleanor is older than Abbie by 20 months.  Eleanor is calm, patient, thoughtful, very bright, competitive, and hard working.  Abbie is passionate, spirited, athletic, and nurturing.  They share a room, hence spend a good amount of time together.

In the summer, they spend about 8 weeks on our local swim team.  They attend the same practice each day.  The mornings are essentially a metaphor for their relationship.  They both wake up around the same time, 7:30ish.  Often, Eleanor will spend some time reading in bed, while Abbie begins some dramatic play with her Barbies.  Next, they wander downstairs where they watch a TV show.  Lately, it’s been Bunk’d, which I refer to in a high pitched “Kikiwaka!”  As the show nears an end, I remind them of their impending practice, and tell them they need to eat something before practice.  I say for the 30th time this summer that they should have eaten before they watched TV, but that typically falls on deaf ears.

Immediately upon being prompted, Eleanor pops up and begins getting food and then changing to ready herself for practice.  Meanwhile, Abbie whines on the couch that her stomach hurts, she’s too tired, and she’s not going to practice.  When there is about 10 minutes until practice begins (and they have a 5-10 minute bike ride to practice), Eleanor will declare that she is leaving without Abbie, as she doesn’t want to be late…again.  At this point, Abbie will run up, say she is going, throw on her suit, and announce she lost her goggles…again.  Eleanor will stand on her bike telling Abbie to hurry.  Abbie practically falls out of the house, can’t find her helmet, and then sulkily rides off (late) with her sister.

Upon arriving home, the moods have changed.  Abbie is bouncing around and chipper.  Eleanor is slightly annoyed that she was late, her sister beat her, and that she had to fix Abbie’s bike chain on the ride home.  But, all in all, they are happy.  After all of this, they usually find something to do together.

What resonates with me is the way they support and balance each other.  Eleanor’s drive and dedication helps Abbie get to practice each day, which helps Abbie develop her talent, and keep her excited.  At the same time, Abbie helps push Eleanor to be better, and to experience something that doesn’t come easy to her, as Eleanor excels at school with ease.

I hope this relationship will serve them well in the future.  And, I hope that each one learns something from the other that they can take with them.

In the meantime, the iconic song from White Christmas keeps playing through my head: “Sisters, Sisters, There were never such devoted sisters…”

Blue Zones

Have you ever heard of Blue Zones?  This is a topic I find very intriguing.  Blue Zones are specific areas of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives.  They have a strikingly high number of individuals living past 100.  These people are not in nursing homes, hooked up to machines, and in bed all day.  They lead active, fulfilling lives.  Because of their healthy longevity, researchers have begun to hone in and try to tease out the keys to their fountain of youth.  I find their habits inspiring.

The five areas of the world that are considered Blue Zones include:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Loma Linda, CA, USA
  • Ikaria, Greece

There are several common habits that each of these communities practice.  First, they eat fully plant based (vegetarian) or mostly plant based diets (flexitarian).  The foods they eat are not processed or they’re minimally processed.  Most of their calories come from beans, fruits, vegetables, low saturated fat oils, whole grains, and some fish and red meat.  It’s the same foods that you hear us dietitians recommending all the time.

Another common trend was that these communities encouraged regular bouts of physical activity.  This was not marathon training or heavy weight lifting.  Rather, their environments and daily activities involved lots of moving, climbing, squatting, etc.  Some of these groups do a lot of gardening.  Others live in houses or environments that forced them to walk up and down stairs much of the day.  Their built environment was conducive to effortless activity on a regular basis.

A sense of purpose and belonging has also been found as a key to longevity.  These cultures each place high value and respect on their elders.  They are also communities that come together regularly.  Some come together for religious services, others to talk over tea.  They do not isolate themselves.  The reach out and have strong social networks that can help support them when the need arises.  This helps to lower stress, which is critical for a happy long life.

Most of these groups (not the Adventists) consume alcohol regularly, but they don’t over-consume it.  They are not binge drinking on the weekends.  They are enjoying a glass of wine with a neighbor, while discussing the happenings of the day.  It’s a delicate balancing act, that when played right, can reap real benefits.

It’s concerning to compare these habits to our typical American habits: diets heavy in processed foods, mostly sedentary jobs, long commutes sitting in a car, social isolation, built environments that discourage walking.

I’m hoping we can work toward habits and lifestyles that more closely mimic these cultures.  I think we’d all be happier for it.

Here are the kids after 5 days of camping and a 1.5 hour hike.  They were tired and a bit scruffy, but happy.  Being outside does them good!

Striking a Balance

We had just wrapped up Noah’s swimming lesson.  I told the boys that we could run into the craft store next door to grab a treat, and I was going to look at some fabric.  I was carrying Elliot in my arms, as well as the swim bag, and my purse.  It was a heavy load that slowed me down a bit.  Noah ran ahead, along the sidewalk and stopped in front of the entrance to the store.  I was maybe 20 yards behind him.

“Is this the right store?  May I go in?”  He shouted.

“Yep.  That’s it.  You may.”  I replied.

He skipped into the store.  Now, we live in a middle/upper-middle class suburb of Chicago.  It was a lazy spring morning.  The parking lot was not very full.  I strolled into the store.  Noah was still ahead, but I could see him.  The woman working the front post at the store immediately commented:

“Hey buddy, you’re getting ahead of mom there.”  “Whoa, be careful.”  She was older–a baby boomer.

I became upset/annoyed and mumbled, well, maybe it was a bit more than a mumble.  “He’s just fine.  He is not going to get hurt.”  “Not sure when letting your kid walk a few feet in front of you became a crime.”

Patch and I are known for teaching our kids to be independent.  My 2nd and 4rd graders walk to and from school on their own most days.  Our freshman in high school walks about 1 mile to and from school most days.  We encourage them to ride their bikes around our safe neighborhood or walk and see if their friends are out.

Yet, we frequently get comments of concern about their safety.  They wear helmets when they’re riding their bikes.  We ensure they know where they are going, if it is a new place.  We teach them about people who they do not know approaching them (God forbid) and what to do (don’t engage, and run home).  But, the concern continues.

I recall running and biking around my neighborhood (similar demographic to our current neighborhood) when I was young.  I don’t recall other parents being concerned about this.  What I don’t understand is how the ability to let our kids have a small amount of freedom in a safe environment has changed so much.  I feel like everywhere I go, adults are asking my kids, “Where is your adult?’  I hear them ask the question, so I am clearly not too far behind.  When did it become essential to be touching your child at all times in a public place?

I understand that terrible things have happened to some kids, and I would never wish that for anyone.  But, if you look at the statistics, it is highly unlikely.  I feel like sheltering kids and driving them everywhere (when it would be very easy, safe, and healthy for them to walk) is turning us into slaves and producing kids that lack confidence in their abilities.  We are depriving them of essential life skills that will serve them well in the future.

At the same time, I understand that parents want to protect their kids.  They don’t want them to be harmed.  But, a small amount of risk, sometimes reaps large gains.  Are parents willing to protect their children so vigilantly from harm, yet willing to highly risk their ability to navigate around, speak to others, and instill unnecessary fear in them?

I guess I’m looking for input.  I honestly find myself letting my kids having less freedom, not because I think they can’t handle it, but because I fear being accused of neglect by others.  It is frustrating.  I’m curious to hear what other think.  I know other parents struggle with this.  In fact, I was so happy to hear about a law in Utah that says parents will not be accused of neglect for letting their kids outside without supervision.  She this article.

I want my children to grow into happy, confident, capable, respectful adults.  I see every day that they are more capable and willing than they are often given credit for.  I strive to give them the support and guidance they need to one day be happy, caring adults.  I hope that the careful freedom I give them helps them in the future.

I’d love to hear what others think about this struggle for balance between too much protection and too much freedom.  Feel free to comment!

 

Kids in the Kitchen

Patch implemented a routine in our house called sous chef.  Essentially, each weeknight one of the kids is assigned to function as my sous chef for the evening.  It is noted in our Google calendar.  So, when I am prepping dinner, I can pull up the calendar and see that Noah or Abbie or Eleanor or Maddie is my sous chef for the evening.  (Elliot, on the other hand, hangs out near me, opening the oven door, dumping containers on the counter, pressing any electronic buttons he can find.  Quite helpful.)  😉  Some nights, I don’t have much to prep or I’m in a big hurry, so I don’t call on them.  Others, I’ll yell, “Noah, you’re sous chef, come and help me!”  Usually, he is more than happy to assist.  This does not always speed up the process of dinner making.  But, I do know how important it is for their futures. So, I do try to include them.

While teaching in a university nutrition department for over 10 years, I saw many college-aged students taking our Foods course who were clueless in the kitchen.  Many had an interest in nutrition and health, but lacked the skills necessary for creating healthy meals.  Research has found that cooking and eating meals at home is correlated with lower body weight, and vice versa.  (See studies: here and here)  Cooking with your children is the perfect way to teach them the skills they will need to be healthier adults.

You can start by including them at a relatively young age with age-appropriate tasks.  See this post from thekitchn.com (one of my favorite recipe, cooking, meal planning, organization sites), where they list various skills that are likely appropriate for certain ages.  As they point out, every child develops at a different rate.  Some are more mature.  Others have great fine motor skills, while some struggle in this regard.  You know your child best, so take their skill level into consideration when assigning them tasks.  As long as you are right there, you can jump in and help when needed.  Simple changes like allowing younger kids to use a plastic knife instead of a real knife can lower the risk of an accident.

If you are not skilled in the kitchen, then this is an opportune time to learn simultaneously with your children.  Start with some simple recipes and build from there.  They do not have to be fancy or turn out perfect.  I have had my fair share of Pinterest fails!  If a recipe doesn’t work out, try to figure out what went wrong and where you can improve.  If you just hated it, then move on and try another next time.  (Maybe have some pasta on hand (to cook up in a pinch), in case this is a possibility.)

You will likely be surprised how much the kids like helping and how quickly they pick up skills.  And, these are skills that they will carry into adulthood.  So, don’t let your need for a perfectly clean kitchen or fear of what could happen hold you back.  Kids thrive on gentle encouragement with supervision.  Get them cooking and start them on the road to home cooked meals for life!

 

 

Fiber–A Simple Strategy

Making healthy choices can be difficult and confusing.  I talk with people each day about strategies for leading healthier lives.  Many are making a sincere effort to make positive changes, but they are not sure if the approach they are taking will work long term.  Whether someone is looking to lose weight, manage diabetes, lower cholesterol or simply stay healthy long term, I’ve found one simple strategy that can help.  I am not claiming that this will lead to a huge weight loss or guarantee blood glucose control or very low cholesterol, but there is substantial research to support the benefit of this substance.

What am I referring to? Fiber

Why Fiber?  It is elegant.  Fiber is found in food that comes from plants.  It is a type of carbohydrate that our bodies cannot digest.  Hence, it does not get digested into glucose nor does it provide any calories.  But, it provides several other benefits.

There are actually two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble

Soluble fiber dissolves in water.  It helps slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream from the digestive tract (helping keep blood glucose down).  It also binds to LDL (bad) cholesterol, lowering its concentration in the body.

Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water.  But, it helps keep food and, eventually, waste moving through your digestive tract smoothly, which may help you lower risk of colon cancer long term.

Good sources of soluble fiber include: beans (legumes), whole grains (such as oats), lentils, apples, blueberries, and more.

Good sources of insoluble fiber include: whole wheat products, brown rice, legumes, vegetables, and more.

These foods also have many other nutrients, including: vitamin A, folate, magnesium, potassium, iron, and antioxidants that have been shown to lower risk of disease.

Foods that contain little to no fiber, include meats, cheeses, most fast food, processed carbohydrates, juices, chips, and candies.   These are also the foods that we tend to recommend you limit.

Most experts recommend that we eat at least 25 grams of fiber a day.  Sadly, most Americans fall far short of that threshold, only eating about 14 grams of fiber a day.

But, if we aimed for reaching at least 25 grams of fiber a day, we would be consuming more fruits and vegetables, more legumes, more nuts and seeds, and more whole grains.  These higher fiber foods would displace more processed foods and foods that are higher in fat, particularly saturated fat.  We would eat more vitamins and minerals.  We would eat less calories.  We would get more antioxidants.  We would eat more sodium and less potassium.  We would get a lot more bang for our buck!

So, if you are looking for a simple way to better health, count your intake of fiber.  It is an uncomplicated approach to wellness.

agriculture, basket, beets

Cleaning Out and Inventory: Essential to Meal Planning

I spend a lot of time coaching people to help them make more healthy eating decisions on a regular basis.  Most people have a basic grasp on how to eat healthfully.  But, when I delve into their daily habits, I begin to understand the disconnect between their health knowledge and their actual behaviors.  Often, the problem lies in the lack of planning and limited time.  Many of us lead very busy lives: kids’ activities, tough work schedules, caring for others…you name it.  But, as I tell my clients, some simple small changes, done consistently, can really help transform your habits.

One of the most basic habits I recommend adopting in order to consistently plan and make healthy meals is to clean out and organize your fridge, pantry, and freezer on a regular basis.  The pantry and freezer do not necessitate a clean out as frequently as the refrigerator, but all must be inventoried regularly.  I recommend cleaning out the fridge weekly and cleaning out the freezer and pantry every 2-4 weeks.

Why is this step so essential?

  • It helps you see what foods/ingredients you already have
  • It helps you not to waste as much food
  • It helps keep everything clean and organized

When cleaning the fridge, you should purge anything that has gone bad.  I like to wipe the shelves with a clean, warm dish cloth, as I go.  I rearrange the items to make sure the maximum number of containers are visible.  I’ll place taller items towards the back and shorter ones toward the front. After the dirty work is done, I take note of items that need to be used in the near future.  I do my best to integrate those items into the meal plan or alert other family members to be sure to eat them that week.

The freezer is a little more involved.  I find it best to remove most items to assess what you have.  Obviously, you should move quickly to insure nothing melts.  But, this is the best way to see it all.  Once you know what you have, place the items back in your freezer in a logical manner.  For example, place all veggies in one area, stack boxes or containers with labels facing in the same direction, so you can easily read them.  Trash anything that has been in the freezer too long.  Again, take note of foods that should be integrated into meals in the near future.

The process of cleaning and organizing the pantry is similar to that for the freezer.  I recommend removing all items from the pantry to start.  I dump anything that has gone bad.  And, I make a note of foods that I have and ones that should be used soon.  Next, I organize based on category–for example, all canned beans in one section, breakfast cereals in another, and drinks (coffee, tea, etc.) in yet another.  Once the items are organized, they can be placed back into the pantry with taller, bulkier items in the back and smaller shorter items in the front.

A lot of this advice may seem logical, but the key is actually making it happen.  It is not the most exciting task, but it can really help you stay organized and on task with your health goals, as well as help you to save money!  So, start that Netflix show you love to binge watch, and dive in.

Cook-a-polooza Jan 2018

Patch and I held another cook-a-palooza a little over a week ago.  Essentially, we choose a bunch of recipes (focused on dinners), make a list, and shop.  Then, on cook day, we cook, prepare, assemble, and freeze a large number of meals.  We started doing this about a year-and-a-half ago, after our fifth child was born.  We have been consistently holding our cook-a-palooza days 3-4 times a year.  I think we are finally hitting our stride concerning which recipes work best.  We are definitely still a tad overambitious, but we accomplished a lot.  And, after 7 days of not having to cook a meal from scratch, yet still eating a home cooked meal, I’m loving it!

Let me take you through the process.  The planning began here:

While at our family lakehouse, we talked about which recipes we’d like to make.  We used cookbooks, other blogs, websites, and one recipe from memory.  Here is the list of recipes we used (including links if applicable):

Thai Chicken/Tofu Noodle Soup
Stuffed Shells (My own recipe–I need to write it down!)
Broccoli Garlic Quiche
Caramelized Shallot and Gruyere Quiche (we did not make the crust)
Slow Cooker Black Bean Enchiladas                                                                                                   
Orange-Glazed Chicken (Williams-Sonoma One Pot of the Day book)                                     Japanese Turkey Meatballs – Instant Pot
Mahimahi with Onions Capers and Lemons (We substituted with Tilapia to save on cost)
                                                                                                                                                               Quinoa Black Bean Crockpot Stuffed Peppers
Bagel Bombs
Potato Leek Soup

For the first time we used a website/app called Pepperplate.  It has been wonderful! With this site, we were able to automatically upload or enter in the recipes depending on the source.  It then generated a shopping list for our planned recipes.  When we shopped, I was able to check off the items as we went.  The shopping list was organized by section.  It was very easy to follow and helped me feel a little less crazy.  After a marathon night of shopping at Costco and Meijer…

We woke up and began our day of marathon cooking and prepping.  The kids were involved in every step of the process.

We try to choose recipes with a variety of flavors that are relatively healthy, but that we hope will generally appeal to the kids.  So, far this round has proven to be most successful (the recipes taste great and have been given the thumbs up by most of the kids)!

The process takes the entire day and goes into the early hours of the next day (Patch was up until 3am!).  But, the time we save on our weeknights, is well worth that sacrifice.

Here’s the tilapia with garlic, lemons, and capers–before and after.  This one was a big hit with the kids.

                              

Maddie made her bagel bombs, which the kids have been fighting over, as she tries to ration them.

I don’t want to sugar coat things.  This is by no means a tidy process.  I almost had a heart attack when I came down to see my kitchen in this state the next morning. (It’s still painful to look at!) But, we cleaned it up, and now I’m having a glass of wine while our enchiladas cook in the slow cooker.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with freezing meals ahead!

This post contains affiliate links.  However, I was not compensated for any of the above information.

New Year’s Contemplations

As we wind down from the chaos that was Christmas 2017, my thoughts have begun to turn to the new year.  What would I like to accomplish in 2018?  How can I simplify things and try to savor the time I have with my kids (instead of flipping out about the tornado that hit our great room–for the fourth time this week)?  What can we do to budget better in order to enable our family to do more of the things we dream of doing together?  How can we give more and take less?  How can I be better at managing paper?  (I never imagined the mass quantity of paper that would enter my house on a daily basis–help!)  How can we meal plan and prep in order to eat healthy, while not spending too much time in the kitchen on weeknights?  I am positive and hopeful about what this year will hold.  What are your hopes and resolutions for 2018?