Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Present for YOU

Have the Christmas Crazies got you yet? Have you panicked and grabbed something you don't even want just to escape all the pushing, hurrying people and get a jump in line? Have you given in and gone for the gift card because you are just SICK AND TIRED of Christmas shopping? Have you looked around your house and been overwhelmed at the amount of work left to do and the unbelievable mess? Have you opened yet another Christmas card that arrived before Christmas and been overcome with guilt that you haven’t even started yours yet?

OK, so maybe I exaggerate, or maybe not. My cats and I spent the day baking cookies for a cookie exchange and wrapping homemade candy for the teachers at the middle school. I felt very on top of things, like I have this Christmas thing under control - as long as I stayed in the kitchen and didn’t venture towards the filthy living room with pine needles and dog toys covering the carpet. Or the laundry room with the kids hampers stacked in the hall outside because of the sheets, towels, and last week’s laundry already claiming the place. And I didn’t dare go in my office where the boxes are stacked waist deep and the Christmas wrapping covers the bed and the workbench is sagging with the weight of all the Christmas projects yet to be finished and wrapped. And let’s definitely not talk about the bathrooms, the barn, or the front porch that is showcasing my broken treadmill, a case of oranges from Florida, two broken flower pots (WHO did this???), and several mouse carcasses (grateful gifts from the cats now lounged in front of the woodstove).

As long as I stay in the kitchen I am on top of Christmas. Got it under control. Possibly you’ve noticed there was no blog post last week, and there wasn’t going to be one this week either, but as I cooked and wrapped today I thought about what I might be able to give you, dear reader, since I have no enlightening post prepared for the week. My day has gone swimmingly, but now dinner hour approaches and I honestly have no idea what to make for dinner. Nothing has been thawed out and my mind is occupied by the question of how to decorate these yummy chocolate-caramel delights (a recipe stolen from the York Daily Record’s Cookie Contest). It occurs to me, that maybe you wrestle with the same daily dilemma – what should I make for dinner?

So, as a gift to you I have posted a week’s worth of recipes. All are fairly simple to make and several utilize a crock pot, my favorite kitchen helper. Enjoy! 

May you holidays be filled with delicious food, precious children, beautiful music, and moments of wonder.

Blessings to you.

Bistro Roast Chicken
(adapted from Cooking Light)

2 T minced fresh tarragon (or 3 t dried)
1 T minced fresh thyme (or 2 t dried)
4 t butter, melted
1 t salt
1 t Dijon Mustard
½ t black pepper
1 roasting chicken

Preheat oven to 375.

1.     Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.
2.     Remove and discard (or save for broth) giblets and neck from chicken. Starting at the neck cavity, loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Rub herb mixture under loosened skin and over breast and drumsticks. Tie legs together with kitchen twine. (I can never find any kitchen twine – my kids have other uses for it – so I skip this usually and it works out fine) Lift wing tips up and over back; tuck under chicken. (I can’t seem to figure out how to do this either – again it’s all fine) Place the chicken breast side down, on the rack of a broiler pan or shallow roasting pan (I put it in a stone cooker with lid).
3.     Bake chicken for 40 minutes. Carefully turn chicken over (breast side up). Bake an additional 40 minutes or until a thermometer inserted in the meaty part of  thigh registers 165. (Must confess that I never remember to flip the bird and I pull it out when the thermometer approaches 160 because I hate a dry chicken. It will continue to cook after you pull it out and we’ve never ended up with underdone chicken)
4.     Place chicken on cutting board and let stand 10 minutes before carving.

I’ve made this replacing the melted butter with lemon grapeseed oil – divine.

Beer Beef Stew with Dumplings

1 1/4 lbs beef, cut in small pieces
3 T flour
2 onions – sliced
3 carrots – sliced
½ pint beer
2 t mustard
1 t brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Dried herbs and/or steak seasoning (oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc.)

1 cup flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
½ cup  milk
1 tsp dried herbs
Pinch salt and pepper

1 Put flour in plastic bag and add beef. Toss to coat.
2. Put onion and carrots in crock pot, add beef.
3. mix the other ingredients together and pour over the beef.
4. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.
5. Combine ingredients for dumplings to make a soft dough (add more flour or milk if necessary). Shape in to small balls.
6. About 45 minutes before beef is finished, add dumplings to crock pot.
7 Turn on high, replace lid.

Note: Everything in this recipe is approximate, because I don’t have exact measurements and just “eye ball” everything. You really can’t go wrong here. I like to use a fairly strong beer like Yeungling.

Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas
(adapted from Cooking Light)

1 Cup chopped onion
1 ½ C shredded cooked chicken breast (about ½ lb)
1 1/2 C (4 oz) shredded reduced fat sharp cheddar, divided
1 C bottled picante sauce (or mild salsa)
3 oz 1/3-less fat cream cheese (about 1/3 cup)
1 t cumin
1 ½ T green taco sauce (optional)
8 six inch flour tortillas

Preheat oven to 350

1.     Place large skillet, coated with spray on medium-high heat. Add onion, sauté 6 minutes or until tender.
2.     Add chicken, ½ cup cheese, 1 cup picante, cream cheese, and cumin. Cook 3 minutes or until cheese melts.
3.     Spoon 1/3 cup chicken mixture down center of each tortilla and roll up.
4.     Place in 13x9” baking dish, drizzle with ½ cup picante sauce and taco sauce and sprinkle with ½ cup cheddar. Cover and bake 15 minutes.

This is absolutely yummy. It’s the dish I always make for other families when I have to take a meal to them. Never fails. I usually try to double it and freeze half so I have one ready to go.

Spicy Shrimp in Coconut Sauce
(Cooking Light)

½ Cup coconut milk
1 T fresh lime juice
1 t bottled minced ginger
1 t low-sodium soy sauce
1 t honey
½ t cornstarch
½ t chile paste with garlic
½ t bottled minced garlic
¼ t salt
2 t canola oil
1 ½ lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T chopped green onions
½ t crushed red pepper
2 cups jasmine rice (I serve this over coconut rice, see below – WOW!)

Combine first 9 ingredients in a medium bowl – set aside.

Heat canola oil or grapeseed oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and sauté 2 minutes. Add green onions and red pepper; cook 1 minute. Add coconut milk mixture to pan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 minute or until shrimp turn pink. Serve immediately over rice.

Yield: 4 servings (1 cup shrimp mixture and ½ cup rice), 310 calories per serving

Quite possibly my absolute favorite recipe when served over coconut rice. 

Coconut Rice
(Nourishing Traditions)

2 cups long-grain brown rice
2 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 cardamom pods
2 cups chicken stock and/or water
2 cups coconut milk
½ t salt

1. Melt butter and olive oil.
2. Open cardamom pods and add seeds to the pan.
3. Saute rice in butter and oil, stirring constantly, until rice begins to turn milky.
4. Pour in liquid, add salt and bring to a rolling boil. Boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes until water has reduced to the level of the rice. Reduce to lowest heat, cover tightly and cook forever or until done.

Dave’s Crab Chowder
(Shirley Pigliacampi)
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
3 T butter
3 cups milk
1 16oz can cream corn
3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
¼ t salt
¼ t thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup dry sherry
8 oz crab
5 oz frozen baby shrimp

1.     Sauté onion and celery in butter until tender.
2.     Add remaining ingredients except sherry and cook 15 minutes or until heated.
3.     Add sherry and cook 2 minutes more.
4.     Remove bay leaf and serve.

We also add cooked diced potato and because Nick is allergic to shrimp, I usually double or triple the crab and occasionally add bay scallops. I don’t always use cream of corn either (to much sugar), so I add regular corn and a little cream. Be sure to use the sherry – it’s the key ingredient. We have this soup on Christmas Eve every year. (Shirley P is my other mom)

Honey-Hoison Pork Tenderloin
Cooking Light

2 T sliced green onions
2 T hoison sauce
2 T low-sodium soy sauce
2 T sage honey (isn’t honey, honey? Not sure this matters)
1 T hot water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (1 pound) pork tenderloin
¼ t salt
½ t sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 400.

1.     Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.  Pour ¼ C honey mixture into a large zip-top plastic bag; reserve remaining honey mixture.
2.     Add pork to bag; seal and marinate in refrigerator 20 minutes, turning bag occasionally.
3.     Remove pork from bag; discard marinade.  Sprinkle port with salt 
4.     Heat a large ovenproof skillet over med-high heat.  Coat pan with cooking spray.  Add pork; cook 2 minutes, browning on all sides.
5.     Brush 1 tablespoon reserved honey mixture over pork; sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Place skillet in oven Bake for 20 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160 (slightly pink) or until desired degree of doneness.
6.     Place pork on platter; let stand 5 minutes.  Cut pork across the grain in to thin slices.  Drizzle with remaining honey mixture.

I love everything with hoison, but this one is especially good.  It’s nice that it only has to be marinated 30 minutes – I’m forever forgetting to do the marinade until 5:00, and I still have time for this one.  I didn’t have an oven-safe skillet the first time I did this recipe, so I just transferred the pork to a casserole dish I had pre-warmed in the oven and it worked out fine.

Spinach Lasagna
(adapted from Prevention Cooking)

2 cans (15 oz) tomato sauce
1 can (28ox) tomatoes, drained
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon marjoram
½ teaspoon tarragon
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ t black pepper
1 package (10 oz) fresh spinach, chopped or 2 frozen, squeezed dry
8 oz no-cook lasagna (or cook your own noodles – better!)
1 container (15oz) ricotta
1 cup (8 oz) shredded mozzarella

1.     In large bowl, combine sauce, tomatoes, and spices.  Set aside
2.     Coat skillet with spray.  Cook spinach until wilted.
3.     Spread ½ cup tomato mixture in 13”x 9” baking dish.  Place 2 sheets lasagna on top.  Spread ½ of ricotta over noodles. Layer with ½ of spinach.  Top with 1/3 of remaining sauce and sprinkle with 1/3 mozzarella.  Cover with three more noodles, remaining ricotta, then remaining spinach.   Spoon on ¼ cup remaining sauce and ¼ remaining mozzarella.  Cover with three more noodles and top with remaining sauce and mozzarella.
4.     Cover and bake 30 minutes at 375.  Uncover and bake 15 minutes more.  Let stand 10 minutes.

Makes 8 servings
253 cal, 17g protein, 10g fat, 3g fiber

My Mother-in-law Margot will tell you – this is a really good vegetarian lasagna (and she would know!). 

Crock Pot Meatloaf
(I found this in my junk pile copied on an old "xerox" with the purple ink and don’t know where it came from! Maybe my high school home ec class?)
2 eggs
¾ c milk
2/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 t dried minced onion
¼ t salt
½ t sage
1 t oregano
1 t basil
½ t rosemary
½ t thyme
¼ t tarragon
2 t minced garlic (or less if you don’t love garlic like I do)
1 ½ pound ground beef
¼ c ketchup
2 T brown sugar
1 t ground mustard
½ t Worcestershire sauce

1.     In a large bowl, combine the first 12 ingredients.
2.     Crumble beef over mixture and mix well (mixture will be moist)
3.     Shape into a round loaf. Place in a 5 qt slow cooker. Cover and cook over low heat 5-6 hours or until meat thermometer reads 160.
4.     In a small bowl, whisk ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Spoon over the meatloaf. Cook 15 minutes more.
5.     Remove and let stand 15 minutes before serving.

This is absolutely delish. I played with the recipe and added all the spices. I also used 2 pounds of beef. Everyone loved this recipe and I loved that I could make it at lunch time and it made the house smell yummy.
A few side dishes:

Oven Fries
(Cooks Illustrated)

3 russett potatoes (about 8 oz each), peeled, each potato cut lengthwise into 10 to 12 evenly sized wedges
5 T vegetable or peanut oil (or grapeseed oil)
Salt and ground black pepper

1.     Adjust oven rack to lowest position; heat oven to 475 degrees.
2.     Place potatoes in large bowl and cover with hot tap water; soak 10 minutes.
3.     Coat 18 by 12 inch heavy duty rimmed baking sheet (I used my stone) with 4 tablespoons oil (I didn’t use quite this much!) and sprinkle evenly with ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper; set aside.
4.     Drain potatoes. Spread potatoes out on a triple layer of paper towels (horrors! Use dish towels!). Rinse and wipe out now-empty bowl; return potatoes to bowl and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil.
5.     Arrange potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet; cover tightly with foil and bake 5 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until bottoms of potatoes are spotty golden brown, 15-20 minutes, rotating baking sheet after 10 minutes.
6.     Using metal spatula and tongs, scrape to loosen potatoes from pan, then flip each wedge, keeping potatoes in single layer. Continue baking until fries are golden and crisp, 5 -15 minutes longer, rotating pan as needed if fries are browning unevenly.
7.     Transfer fries to second baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

I have to confess that I don’t always follow this recipe exactly. When I do the fries are perfect, but when I don’t cover them with foil or flip them, they still turn out pretty good. This recipe also works with sweet potato fries. I don’t usually coat the pan with oil; just really coat the fries with oil (maybe 2 tablespoons tops). Cooks magazine is for gourmets, so their recipes are always pretty complicated, but incredible.

Quinoa with Parsley and Pine nuts

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add 1 cup plain quinoa.  Cook 2 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently.  Add 1 (14 oz) can fat-free, less-sodium chicken (or vegetable) broth; bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 15 minutes or until most of liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat; cover and let stand 5 minutes.  Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, and 1 ½ tablespoons yellow raisins.

This is way yummy, real quick, and super healthy! If you don’t have broth on hand, water works fine too.

(from the book So The Woman Went Her Way)
4 Tablespoons oil
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salt

Put in a big bowl.
Pour about 5 cups warm water over the top so the sugar dissolves.
Add 2 packages yeast until it bubbles and then enough flour mixed in to make a kneadable bunch. 
Knead, set aside for 20 minutes or so.
Punch down.
Divide in to 2 or 3 leaves. ( I always make 3 BIG loaves)
Put in cake baking pan with sides touching.
Let sit another 20 minutes.
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes.

I know this recipe sounds loosy goosy, but it is awesome!  The author’s point during the story was that anyone can make bread, it isn’t that mysterious.  You can add other ingredients – different flours, beer, etc and it almost always works out.  It is classic – doughy and soft inside with a wonderful crust.  I make one recipe and freeze two of the loaves

And of course, a few sweet things:

Caribbean Dream Pie
(Enchanted Broccoli Forest)

Sweet Crumb Crust:
2 cups crushed graham crackers or ginger snaps
½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/ cup finely minced pecans
6 T butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350.

1.     Combine all ingredients and mix well. Press mixture firmly into the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie pan, building a ½ inch ridge around the edge. You will have more than enough to fill the pie pan – sprinkle the rest in another pan. Place both in the oven, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

1 14 or 15 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 T grated lime rind
½ cup plus 1 T fresh lime juice
2 bananas, peeled and sliced
½ a ripe mango, peeled and sliced (or chopped)

1.     Pour the milk into a medium –sized bowl.
2.     Add the grated rind and juice, and whisk for a few minutes until the milk thickens.
3.     Layer the banana and mango slices in the baked, cooled crust. Pour the thickened milk mixture over the fruit, spreading it into place. Sprinkle the top with the extra crumb mixture, and chill until cold. Serve cold.

Super yum. Kind of healthy.

Spicy Molasses Crackles
(Adapted from Weight Watchers)

1 C flour
1 C whole wheat flour
2 t baking soda
1 ¼ t cinnamon
1 t ginger
¼ t nutmeg
1/8 ground cloves
1/8 t salt
1/3 Cup butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 T Molasses
2 ½ T sugar

Preheat 350.

1.     Combine flours and next six ingredients.
2.     Beat butter with mixer at medium speed until creamy; graduatlly add brown sugar, beating well.
3.     Add egg and molasses; beat well.
4.     Add flour mixture; beat until smooth (dough will be slightly crumbly)
5.     Shape into 1” balls. Roll balls in sugar and place on sheets coated with spray.
  1. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes. Cool 2 minutes in pans. Remove and cool completely on wire racks.
 Yield: 38 cookies
1 cookie: 68 caloried, 1.8 g fat, 0.2 fiber

This recipe makes more than 38 cookies. These are yummy and always elicit recipe requests. They freeze well too.

Bourbon Fudge Brownies
(Cooking Light)

¼ cup bourbon
¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs

1.     Preheat over to 350
2.     Bring bourbon to a boil in a small saucepan; remove from heat.  Add chocolate chips, stirring until smooth.
3.     Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, stirring with w whisk.
4.     Combine sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well combined.  Add vanilla and eggs; beat well. Add flour mixture and bourbon mixture to sugar mixture, beating at low speed just until combined.
5.     Spread batter in to a 9” square baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan on wire rack.

Yield: 20 servings
148 calories, 5g fat, 1g fiber, 2.2g protein

These brownies are my go-to recipe and always get rave reviews.  The bourbon makes them taste like a rich expensive chocolate.  Don’t overcook – better gooey than dried out!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dangerous Soup

Soup for dinner last night. It’s that time of year. I’m a single parent this week and there were several places I needed to be at once, so last night it was soup from a box. The box irritates me because I can’t recycle it, but I suppose the trade off is avoiding the BPA lined cans. Over lunch I read an article in Time magazine about BPA and I’m going to steal shamelessly from that article for this post, since it was the inspiration.

We all know about the BPA (bisphenol-A) in plastic water bottles. That’s why we’re paying through the nose for the metal bottles these days. I’m also paying in terms of the number of times my kids have spilled the metal bottles because they don’t have those nice plastic flip tops the plastic ones have. Lately I’ve been buying metal bottles that come with a plastic spout, but wondering – does the spout have BPA?

Which leads to my next question? Just how bad is BPA? The science is not completely clear on that question. In Europe, the use of BPA in baby bottles has been in place for some time and in the US, companies (with any brains) are voluntarily removing it from their products. So someone knows something. Researchers have claimed that there is a compound in BPA that can interfere with hormones. It’s been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity and most alarmingly (for those people bottle-feeding), problems in the development of young children.

There are also plenty of studies that claim that BPA is harmless. Unlike other dangerous chemicals, BPA doesn’t remain in your system very long. In fact, the Time article sites a recent study that asked participants to either eat canned soup or homemade soup for five days. The participants who ate canned soup had their BPA levels increase by 1200%, while the homemade soup eaters had normal levels of BPA (whatever that might be).

Apparently 93% of Americans have detectable amounts of BPA in their system right now. How is this possible, you ask? I don’t even like soup. Because BPA can be found just about everywhere – lining of aluminum cans (not just soup), cashier receipt paper (try avoiding that), plastic water bottles, pizza boxes, soda cans, toilet paper, dental sealants (What? Someone needs to do the pro/con on this one), and some wine bottles (much to my chagrin). So it’s pretty much everywhere.

How do you avoid it? And should you? You know I’m going to say stay away from it. Although even I am at a loss for avoiding the BPA in toilet paper. But there are some things that are easy - 

  1. Give up your bottled water habit and buy a reusable BPA-free re-usable bottle. Not only will you avoid BPA, you’ll save lots of money and be doing a kindness for the environment.
  2. Make your own soup. If you’ve never done it before – consider giving it a try. Truly, nothing is easier to create than homemade soup. Just about anything works if you can make a broth. Broth is simple and free to make. The next time you cook a chicken or beef that has bones, save the carcass/bones (and the giblets – I don’t know what they are but they’re usually in a little bag stuffed inside your chicken) and put them in a big pot on the stove. Fill the pot with water and simmer it for as long as you want (probably at least 30 minutes). Done. Instant broth. I cool the broth and then freeze it in large yogurt containers which is about how much we need for a soup base. You can get fancy with your broth and add vegetables, spices, and salt or you can keep it plain and get fancy later. Truly, you can make broth. It is also possible to can broth in glass jars, but you need to use a pressure canner for this and I am still too frightened of my pressure canner to attempt it.
  3. Avoid cans of all types. Buy frozen vegetables (or better yet, freeze them yourself in the summer in plastic bags or can them with your pressure canner, you brave soul you).
  4. Make food that normally comes in cans yourself – cranberry sauce is super simple. I wrote about it last year. Ditto applesauce. There is no need to buy canned pumpkin either – if you cook up one pumpkin, you’ll have enough pumpkin puree to last you six months. I don’t know how much to worry about the BPA in pizza boxes, but this is something else you can easily make yourself.
  5. Just say no to soda. You don’t need it. Your kids don’t need it. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about a can of soda. Nothing. I could go on, but I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.
I don’t know if BPA is harmless. I’m inclined to think that it isn’t on the basis that the products it is found in have become more and more plentiful in the last 50 years, as have the health threats that are linked to BPA. The parallel is too neatly drawn. Erring on the side of caution is smart, but making more of your own food fresh is good for reasons that go way beyond the potential danger of BPA. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hunting Treasure!

What did you do on the day after Thanksgiving? Hit the stores and grab up all those crazy deals alongside all those crazy people? Lay on the couch and rub your belly? Travel back from whence you came?

We still had a few relatives hanging about, so we took advantage of the gorgeous day and went geocaching! Ever heard of it? As my husband likes to point out, it is only a familiar term to the true nerds among us. We’re charter members.

Geocaching is treasure hunting with a GPS. It’s free to sign up at  Once you narrow down your choices to the caches you want to search for, you program your GPS (or download the geocache app) and off you go! The website lists how difficult the cache is to find, how tough the terrain is, what size the cache is, helpful hints and clues, and even notes from others who have found the cache already. Your GPS will get you within 20 feet of the cache, but then it’s all about the hunt. Our kids have become experts at searching out hollow logs, rock crevices, anything that looks a tad bit out of the ordinary, because that’s where you’re most likely to find a cache.

A cache can be anything from a magnetic key holder (a ‘micro cache’) to a plastic Tupperware tub. Inside the cache you will find an explanation as to what geocaching is (just in case a muggle stumbles upon the cache by accident), a log book, and sometimes trinkets. Trinkets are tradable items. You can take one thing out as long as you put one thing back. This is the part the kids really like. Before we leave to go geocaching, they comb their rooms for trinkets to trade – jewelry, matchbox cars, lego figures, plastic animals, key chains, really anything small that someone else might want. The junk drawer is always a good place to find trinkets to trade. On this past geocache, Addie came away with a jar of bubbles, Ian claimed crayons, and one young cousin found a really annoying birthday noise maker which he used to serenade us on our drive to the next cache (the WHOLE drive). On other searches we’ve found chapstick, craft kits, magnifying glass, super balls, sunglasses, hair accessories, and any number of strange plastic creatures that delighted the finder. My favorite find was on a particularly arduous, mosquito infested hike when the cache contained a bug-repellent wet wipe!

Sometimes a cache will have a “travel bug”. This is an object whose sender is trying to move it somewhere. It could be across the country or it could be to another continent. If you are headed that direction, you take the travel bug and place it in another cache closer to its destination. Its original owner can follow the travel bug’s journey online. Each time you find a cache and/or move a travel bug, you log back in to and make a note. If you’re an overachiever your account quickly becomes laden with a long list of finds. We rarely remember or have time to log back in, so most of our caches are recorded in our memory.

There are geocaches on all seven continents. There are geocaches in just about every Cracker Barrel restaurant gift shop. There are “cache and dash” geocaches alongside pretty much any road. If you looked it up right now, odds are you’ll find 50 geocaches within a 25 mile radius of where you’re standing. They are among us. And now you’re not a muggle (non-geocacher), so you know this. When you see a strange group of people traipsing around in a wooded area, you don’t have to wonder if someone’s lost their toddler, you can wonder if it’s a bunch of nerds searching for a cache.

We found four caches last Friday. One cache was a bit of disaster as I didn’t read all the clues provided and two of the kids wandered in to some sucking mud which sucked off my youngest son’s croc, never to be found again. This necessitated a quick trip back home for a change of clothes. Not a problem since this cache was less than a ½ mile from home. The others led us on a pretty hike down the rail trail and then a smelly search behind a crab shack. All caches are rated on a 1-5 scale for difficultly and terrain. We mostly stick with 1’s and 2’s when the kids are with us.

Geocaching is a great way to get your family outside together. No one can resist a treasure hunt. This time of year it’s not always easy to motivate young people to venture in to the great outdoors. But it’s also easier to find geocaches this time of year with no heavy foliage, sticker bushes, or poison ivy to contend with. Geocaching is also a great way to take a break when you’re traveling and need to get the kids out of the car. We’ve seen some beautiful places we would never have encountered had it not been for geocaching.

If you’d like to try it and don’t own a GPS (you need a handheld GPS because you’re car can only get you so far and most caches require at least some hiking), you can download a free app that will lead you to three caches and give you a tutorial along the way. The full-version app is $9.99. On the website you can find information on purchasing a GPS. It also has a cool scrolling banner along the bottom that lists the most recent finds as they come in. Today I watched as several caches were found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden. The site lists a running tally of how many caches have been logged in during the last 30 days. As I write this there have been 5,152,296. Betcha didn’t know there that many treasure-hunting nerds in the world!

When you look up a cache, many will list clues and sometimes encrypted messages (with the code). This makes it even more fun for the kids. On the website you can also see when the cache was last found and make sure it’s still viable. The person who places a cache (anyone can do this) is responsible for following strict guidelines and making sure the cache stays viable, so it’s rare for a cache to go missing (probably it’s just hard to find). I know, hard to believe there are people in this world with that much time on their hands!

If you own a GPS, you can sign up on the website for free and start seeking your treasure. Even if you download the app, you’ll still want to access the website for the more detailed information and to log in your finds.

Give geocaching a try. It’s got all the ingredients for great family memories – outdoors, treasure, adventure, challenge, and best of all – it’s free! Just beware of muggles and use stealth. Also, remember ‘cache in, trash out’ whenever you are geocaching and do your part.

Friday, November 18, 2011

O Christmas Tree!

We found the perfect tree!
As I was merrily surfing the other day, I came across an entire new organic issue for me to worry about! Christmas trees! Cue the eye roll from my husband. See, I thought we’d settled this issue long ago when we chose a real Christmas tree rather than a fake one. We didn’t want that big plastic conifer outgassing PVC all through our house, so we developed our tradition of selecting a tree at a nearby farm and cutting it down ourselves. A fresh, live (for now) tree! Love the pine scent, don’t mind the needles too much. We always have fun picking the tree and gather plenty of pictures and memories. But now a shadow has been cast over this lovely family adventure.

Is this pungent pine beauty scenting our house not only with its own perfume, but also pesticides? Or for that matter, has anyone applied a toxic fire retardant spray to prevent it from igniting in my house? These questions had never occurred to me.

When I was a child, I have vague memories of returning from our Christmas tree harvest and waiting impatiently while my father (the chemical engineer) applied some kind of fire retardant spray to our tree. That was just what you did. When my husband and I bought our first tree (from a neighbor), we never even thought to douse our prize with chemicals even though we lived in a 150 year old farm house (that hadn’t been updated). Was I naive not to worry?

The National Christmas Tree Association has this to say about the danger of real trees igniting in your home:

A) Less than 0.0004% of Real Christmas Trees used each year are ignited in home fires and NEVER has a Real Christmas Tree caused or started a fire. Even though the chance of a Christmas Tree fire is very slim, you can ensure that your Real Christmas Tree stays fresh and safe by following the NCTA recommended care tips. Anyone who has ever tried to start a camp fire with green wood understands how flame resistant a properly watered tree is.

Don't believe us? Watch this clip shown on the NBC Tonight Show with Jay Leno in December, 2004

The clip is kind of fuzzy, but it’s funny. Every year, the press warns us about the danger of Christmas trees and fire, but I have to wonder how much of that hype isn’t generated by the Artificial Christmas Tree manufacturers. Seriously. I never realized that the real vs fake tree dilemma is such a battleground. I found two sites while looking in to this Christmas tree issue – The National Christmas Tree Association, which takes the side of live trees, and the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes the use of artificial trees.

The American Christmas Tree Association website is a pretty scary place to visit if you’re planning on a live tree this year. There are all kinds of dire warnings about the hazard of a real tree inside your home. Still, I can’t help wondering why my dead, dry tree (their words, not mine) is any more a fire hazard than the papers my kids leave everywhere. When I light the fires in our woodstoves, I never having any trouble getting paper to light, but I’ve spent some pretty frustratingly cold mornings struggling to light the 2 year old dead wood placed in the stove. There is enough intrigue, deceit, and raw material here for a movie, or at least a Michael Moore documentary. But I’ll leave these issues, fun as they are, so I can get back to discussing organic Christmas trees.

Most Christmas tree farms use some kinds of pesticides, although the only way to know for sure what and how dangerous they are, is to ask the grower. You can also buy Christmas trees infused with other scents (orange, spice, etc.), although I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want that refreshing pine scent the tree produces naturally. There’s no data on how scents are ‘infused” or whether they are natural or artificial. You do have the option of certified organic Christmas trees (of course!), but I’m willing to bet they don’t come cheap. You can find a local organic tree farmer through Local Harvest.

I’m still committed to a live Christmas tree. I just can’t imagine a plastic one, convenience or not. And it’s not just the outgassing or the fact that plastic trees are not recyclable, it’s the smell. I love the smell of a pine tree in my living room. And I love trooping all over the tree farm arguing about the perfect tree. And I love coming home and decorating it together. This is one of the few things we do as a family anymore.

This year I might ask my tree grower a few questions. But he seems like a nice guy and the trees are literally in his front yard, plus the yard is definitely not weed free and the trees are cheap ($40 bucks any size), so I can’t imagine he’s heavily invested in expensive chemical pesticides.

Like so many other organic issues, it comes down to trust and your best speculation. You have to trust the person you’re buying from and you have to speculate just how much risk there is in bringing a live, possibly pesticide-coated, tree in to your house. We can’t know for sure that pesticides are a definitive danger to the health of your home’s inhabitants, but we can’t know for sure that they aren’t. I’m not sure we will ever sort out the effects of the chemical soup ingested by all of us over the years.

I suppose the only way to truly know that my Christmas tree doesn’t pose a danger to my family is to grow it myself. I’m sure my husband is groaning as he reads this, but next spring you know what will be gracing the back edge of our property.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Define 'Organic'

I’ve had the opportunity to lead several workshops on eating organically recently, and it has led me to think long and hard about the definition of organic. Here's Webster's take on it-

Organic, adj. 1. of or having to do with an organ 2. inherent, inborn 3. systematically arranged 4. designating or of any chemical compound containing carbon 5. of, like, or derived from living organisms 6. grown with only animal or vegetable fertilizers

I’m not sure any of those definitions fit with the generally acknowledged definition most people acknowledge these days. The first comment I run in to most often, is “too expensive”. And many people, my children included, can’t help but say the word organic without a slight sneer, kind of the way Nellie Olsen talked on the original Little House on the Prairie series. Somehow organic has gone from a good idea to a trendy idea to a snobby idea.

As I thought through the message I was trying to convey at the workshops, I kept coming back to the word ‘organic’. I think there is a danger in defining ‘organic’ as the food that has received the government’s little green label. In fact, I might even venture to speculate that most of the certified organic food you find in the grocery store isn’t nearly as organic as the food you’ll find at your farmer’s market or roadside stand.

The people defining the word ‘organic’ are the people with the most to gain from that definition (and that wouldn’t be you and me). The food manufacturers have loads of money to spend on lobbyists and plenty of political power to ensure that the definition is watered down enough to make mass production of ‘organic’ food possible and profitable. If you do a little research, you’ll quickly discover that just about all of the organic brands you find in the grocery store have been bought up by conventional food manufacturers. It’s a bit of a curse to be successful at an organic start up; it virtually guarantees your days are numbered.

Truly it’s a free for all. Just about anything can be twisted in to acceptance with the right amount of influence and legal documents. There are over 500 exceptions (probably hundreds more since my source is over a year old) for pesticides, preservatives, additives, food colorings, artificial flavorings, and stabilizers in organic food. At a workshop I led for young mothers, I was hard pressed to come up with an answer to the question, “What kind of organic snack can I give my toddler?” Fruit, being my first response, isn’t always practical. And the overpriced organic snack food being hoisted on well-meaning mothers, isn’t necessarily any better than the goldfish crackers and cheezits I raised my children on. It’s a tough call. And there is no simple answer.

Until we are all ready to go back to growing all our own food or knowing the person who grows it for us, the best we can do is the best we can do. I still keep harping on label reading. It’s pretty much your only weapon against the marketing. Much of the “organic” processed food you find in the grocery store has only a few organic ingredients, most likely just enough to qualify for the little green and white seal.

I was reading today that Horizon organics, who own more than 50% of the market on organic dairy products, keep their cows in a grassless feed lot and stuff them full of “organic” feed. They have so many cows at their manufacturing facility in southern Idaho, it’s a statistical impossibility to keep them on grass (the acreage they would cover would make it impossible to gather them in to the milking barn three times a day). I’m guessing it’s the same situation at their international facilities too. And I have to stifle a giggle at the idea of “organic” cow feed. With all the shenanigans involved with certifying organic people food, I have to wonder who’s certifying organic cow food? My guess it’s pretty much a fox guarding the hen house.

So which is better - milk you buy from local farms who don’t proclaim to be “organic” but graze their cows on fresh grass every day, or certified “organic” milk shipped to you from across the country or continent?

I’m truly getting tired of the “organic” label. I’m not sure it means anything anymore. I think we need to talk about ingredients and processes because they mean much more than the indulgent, expensive certification process that costs us as taxpayers and as consumers.

No one wants to hear this, but it’s the message I have to keep spreading – make your own food. Don’t groan and roll your eyes at me. It’s not difficult and many times it’s not even very time consuming. And for sure, it saves you money. Deciding to make your own food is a mind set. It requires moving beyond the part of you that says, “I can’t do this.” Sure, in the beginning it will take a little work, some serious research, and a rearranging of priorities.

It seems to me, as I watch the lines at the fast food drive through and the overflowing carts at Walmart, that most people are sheep. They are following everyone else, trusting that if they are eating it and the store is selling it and the government is allowing it, than it must be OK.

Sure, it won’t kill you, at least not today. All you have to do is look at our ever-expanding population to know that we can survive on artificially colored, chemically-created, pesticide and preservative laden food. We can live just fine. All we’ll need is seriously good health insurance and some major savings to support us when our bodies finally max out on the toxins and we have to pay the piper. Not to be all doom and gloom, I’m just saying.

My mother-in-law tells me that I need to be sure my readers know that I’m not super-woman, that I truly don’t get it right all the time. So let me tell you what I brought home from the grocery store last night for my 15-year-old’s upcoming birthday gathering this weekend. (he chose the menu) – cheezits in multiple flavors, tortilla chips, pretzels, mountain dew, sierra mist in that bright red color you know is laden with Red No. 5, and several ridiculously impossible “fruit” juices that claimed to be “100% from concentrate” (which means, what?). And on Saturday I will bake a cake laden with fat and chocolate and real cream and then we’ll order pizza from a parlor. And I promise that not once will I say “you shouldn’t eat that”!

I don’t want to be the “food nazi” as Stephen Colbert accused Michael Pollan of on his show this week. My oldest son is a huge fan (of Colbert, not Pollan) and enjoyed sharing the clip with me. Pollan took the chiding very well, but he also made his point – people need to eat real food. He didn’t talk about organics, he talked about common sense.

I think we need to remember that eating “organic” (for lack of a better word) is not an all or nothing venture. Every change we make that moves us towards a healthier life is progress, however small. It’s time to take responsibility for our food. It’s dangerous to trust our family’s health to the government, the food manufacturers, or the grocers. We need to know what we are eating. Or as my favorite quote says, “If you are what you eat and you don’t know what you’re eating, how do you know who you are?”

Defining the word ‘organic’ in terms of our food system is difficult, as it seems to be an ever-evolving claim, but defining organic as food that is real, honest, and good for our bodies might be a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pumpkin A Day....

Wait! Wait! Don’t toss that pumpkin on the compost pile now that Halloween is over! Did you know that the pumpkin is a veritable boatload of healthy eating? Me neither, but this morning I did a little research. We finally carved our jack-o-lantern last night after the urgent pleading of our youngest. We even took the obligatory pictures of the kids scooping out the seeds, although the older two participated under some diress. My daughter even donned the rubber gloves (“I’m not touching that – it’s disgusting”). When it was all said and done my 9-year-old chased my 15-year-old out of the kitchen with pumpkin gut loaded hands outstretched and I rinsed the seeds and spread them out to dry over night.

This morning I surveyed the yucky mess. Pumpkin guts spattered on the counter and floor, dried pumpkin seeds now laminated to the towel where they were drying. The jack-o-lantern does look cute though. I was all set to roast our seeds, when I noticed an e-mail from one of my favorite blogs – Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen. A recipe for pumpkin seeds! I quickly clicked over and was dismayed to see that I’ve been doing my seeds all wrong forever. Every recipe I’ve ever seen, and every person I’ve ever asked, has said that you should rinse your seeds. Not so, Maria! Rinsing them takes away much of their delicious flavor. And this makes sense because really, why would you rinse them? They’ve been in a somewhat sterile environment inside a pumpkin for months. And we cook the pumpkin insides without rinsing them. So why would we rinse the seeds – it can’t be for the joy of prying them off the towel where they’ve been drying (according to directions!).

Too late for my seeds, but it got me wondering what else I don’t know about pumpkins. A lot, it turns out.

Let’s start with the pumpkin itself (if you want to know how to cook fresh pumpkin, check out my post of a few years ago), here’s the nutritional breakdown:

Pumpkin Nutrition Facts
(1 cup cooked, boiled, drained, without salt)
Calories 49
Protein 2 grams
Carbohydrate 12 grams
Dietary Fiber 3 grams
Calcium 37 mg
Iron 1.4 mg
Magnesium 22 mg
Potassium 564 mg
Zinc 1 mg
Selenium .50 mg
Vitamin C 12 mg
Niacin 1 mg
Folate 21 mcg
Vitamin A 2650 IU
Vitamin E 3 mg

Notice the Vitamin A, not bad huh? And folate and fiber? Those are good numbers too. All the Vitamin A comes from the beta-carotene in the pumpkin. Bet you were already clued in to that fact due to the pumpkin’s bright orange skin. Bright colors always seem to be a good thing in vegetables. Brilliant how we were designed to be instinctively attracted to what is healthy for us. Too bad that also makes us reach for the M&M’s.

According to research, beta-carotene may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers and offer protection against heart disease. It also may help us avoid some aspects of degenerative aging. I’m all for that.

I’ve been reading lately on the benefits of selenium, plus B-complex vitamins found in pumpkin like folate and niacin. It’s all good (but I’ll save it for a later post). So cook up that pumpkin and make it in to bread, soup, ravioli (yum), or if you must – pumpkin pie.

Now back to those seeds I shouldn’t have rinsed. As I surfed over the internet this morning, I came upon site after site proclaiming that pumpkin seeds are miracle workers when it comes to prostate health! Who’d have thought? Apparently pumpkin seeds have been prescribed by alternative practitioners for years to alleviate difficult urination associated with enlarged prostate. Hmm. Good to know. But they also are believed to improve bladder function in general.

Here are a few more claims found repeatedly (for what it’s worth) on websites far and wide:

Depression Treatment
They contain L-tryptophan, a compound naturally effective against depression.

Prevention of Osteoporosis
Because they are high in zinc, pumpkin seeds are a natural protector against osteoporosis. Low intake of zinc is linked to higher rates of osteoporosis.

Natural Anti-Inflammatory
Pumpkin seeds effectively reduce inflammation without the side effects of anti-inflammatory drugs.

Prevention of Kidney Stones
They prevent calcium oxalate kidney stone formation, according to studies.

Treatment of Parasites
They are used in many cultures as a natural treatment for tapeworms and other parasites. Studies also show them to be effective against acute schistosomiasis, a parasite contracted from snails. (snails??)

Great Source of Magnesium
1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds contains 92% of your daily value of magnesium, a mineral in which most Americans are deficient.

Lower Cholesterol
Pumpkin seeds contain phytosterols, compounds that that have been shown to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol.

Cancer Prevention
The same phytosterols that lower cholesterol also protect against many cancers

While some of these claims may seem far-fetched, I saw nothing in my reading or online claiming that pumpkin seeds aren’t good for you. So at least we have some agreement.

Pumpkin seeds are also known as “pepitas” and look flat and green when you buy them in the bulk aisle. I grind them and add them to my whole wheat bread. They give it a sweet, nutty taste and add some more nutrients. I bet they’d be good in pastas and soups too.

So, if your jack-o-lantern was left with the candle burning too long, like mine, and is now blackened on the inside (adding carcinogens to cancel out all the good stuff), head out to the market or, better yet, the roadside stand and pick up a few pumpkins to cook. Starting tomorrow, they’ll probably be reduced for quick sale. It’s pumpkin season – don’t miss out on this nutritional windfall!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Open Season for Sugar

Now we all know you shouldn’t take candy from strangers. But what about parents-of-kids-you-know who offer you candy? And what if you're old enough to know your mother will most likely be really annoyed that you’re eating candy at 9:30 at night? (especially when that same mother is about to arrive and has already promised to stop for ice cream on the way home to celebrate a recent academic achievement!) Maybe this sounds like something that only happens in fairy tales or Law & Order re-runs, but this actually happened to one of my children just a week ago! Sure, maybe I’m overreacting, but here’s how it went down:

I pull up only a few minutes late to pick up said child from the evening’s sporting practice. As I look in the door, I see my child crouched in front of a candy machine, reaching in to retrieve something. I think, “Gross, he’s grabbing for leftover candy in that filthy machine!” I spot said child’s friend leaving the practice with his father and wave at them, climbing out to go fetch my disgusting child who is now shoving nerds in his mouth as fast as possible and trying to look innocent.

Of course, I confront this child and he tells me that no, he wasn’t gathering leftover candy, but had purchased the candy himself. With what? I ask, knowing full-well that this child is flat broke. And he tells me that his friend’s dad who has just left, handed him a dollar and told him to go buy some candy. An avalanche of emotions rushed through me at this point. Anger, because who is this guy to think he can order my kid to eat candy? Embarrassment, because I know the motivation for this is that my child has claimed (more or less truthfully) that his mother never buys him candy. Frustration, because I’m sick of being the odd man out in nearly all parenting situations. Sadness, because apparently my devoted spawn feels deprived. And then back to Anger, because I had promised this little Einstein that we would stop for ice cream at Handels (where they make all the ice cream fresh every day from real cream!) on the way home that night.

This episode traveled with me for a few days. It’s silly. As much as I wanted to hunt this man down and explain to him why my child’s diet doesn’t consist of daily sugar loads, I resisted. I’m sure he thought he was earning brownie points with my kid (although for the life of me, I don’t understand why parents want to impress kids, their own or anyone else’s). And I’m sure he never gives the dangers of sugar a second thought. But I do.

Sugar is not good for any of us. As recent research is bringing to light, sugar, and not fat, may be the real cause of our collective health issues related to obesity. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a UCSF professor of pediatrics and very eloquent and passionate anti-sugar advocate, Americans are consuming about 141 pounds of sugar per person each year.

He also points out that we weigh 25 pounds more than we did 25 years ago. His lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” can be found on You Tube. It’s fascinating and very convincing. He boldly states that sugar is a poison that is slowly killing us all. And after watching his lecture, I’m convinced that he’s on to something. We are eating more sugar now than we ever have. A 12 ounce soda (and Lustig points out that the “normal” soda from a machine these days is actually 20 ounces) has 8 teaspoons of sugar in it. How many sodas does the average person drink in a day? Sodas contain all that sugar to mask the huge amounts of salt in each can. I only pick on soda because it’s sited as the number one source of sugar in the American diet on several websites.

The USDA website which promotes the latest version of the food pyramid, labels sugar “empty calories” and has a chart explaining how many “empty calories” are acceptable in a typical diet.

Children ages 2-3 years: 135 calories

Children ages 4-8 years: 120 calories

Girls ages 9-13:  120 calories

Boys ages 9-13:  160 calories

Girls ages 14-18: 160 calories

Boys ages 14-18: 265 calories

Females 19-30: 260  calories

Males 19-30: 330 calories

Females 31-50: 160 calories

Males 31-50:  265 calories

Females 51+:  120 calories

Males 51+:  260 calories

The average soda (and I’m going to assume it’s only a 12 oz can, silly me) has 145-160 calories. All of which, would be empty. So there’s your day’s worth of empty calories if you’re the average kid. Hope you don’t plan to eat any other junk food or processed food today, cause you’ve already reached your limit. And if you’re hankering for a candy bar, you better divide it up between several days or you’ll blow 2-3 days worth of your empty calorie limit in one day.

Bottom line: We’re all consuming way too much sugar. We drink soda like water. We eat candy mindlessly. Sugar is one of the primary ingredients in pretty much every processed food you buy. Don’t believe me, head for the grocery store and check for any of the following names for sugar on the ingredients list of your favorite cracker, prepared meal, frozen burrito, seasoning, dressing, or what-have-you. Just because it doesn’t say sugar, doesn’t mean it isn’t sugar:

• anhydrous dextrose

• brown sugar

• confectioner's powdered sugar

• corn syrup

• corn syrup solids

• dextrose

• fructose

• high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

• honey

• invert sugar

• lactose

• malt syrup

• maltose

• maple syrup

• molasses

• nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)

• pancake syrup

• raw sugar

• sucrose

• white granulated sugar

Dr. Lustig’s belief (shared by many other doctors and researchers) is that sugar is the main culprit in causing not only obesity and dental disease, but diabetes heart disease, and host of other ailments, effectively poisoning us. Sugar has been linked to immune disorder issues, chromium deficiency, cancer, arthritis, and even learning disabilities. While sugar gives you a temporary “high”, very quickly your body crashes from that surge of false energy and you are left grumpy and tired. So what do you do? You crave more sugar.

Being a confirmed sugaraholic myself, I would never tell you to cut out sugar completely because you can’t. We get plenty of natural sugar from fruits, vegetables and grains. But the refined sugar we could do without. I might know this, but offer me a key lime cheesecake and I’ll take back everything I said. Sugar is a powerful thing.

Still, cutting out as much as possible might just be the best thing you could do for your health and your child’s. here’s just a few ideas for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet.

1. Read labels. If sugar (in any form, see list above) is one of the first four ingredients, but the package down.

2. As much as possible, cook from scratch. Make your own smoothies with fresh fruit. Most prepared foods have extra sugar and salt to mask the taste of the all the extra preservatives and additives.

3. Consider using Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from a plant, 300x sweeter than sugar with no calories.

4. Eat lots of fresh fruit and limit dried fruit which has considerably more sugar by proportion.

5. Cut out soda completely. You don’t need it and it is only damaging your health. Drink water or tea instead. It’s just a matter of changing habits.

6. Control the sugar added to what you eat. Buy your tea unsweetened. Buy plain yogurt and sweeten with fruit. Make plain instant oatmeal and sweeten it with dried fruit (those tiny, seriously expensive packets are more sugar than oatmeal!)

7. If you must drink fruit juice, buy only 100% juice with no added sugar.

8. Be very careful of “fat free” foods, many times the manufacturer compensates for the lower fat with higher sugar (and salt)

9. Start dialing back your sugar gradually. If you normally add two packets of sugar to your coffee, go for 1 ½, same with your kids oatmeal, cereal, etc.

10. Curb cravings with fruit. When the urge for sugar seems to overwhelm you, reach for fruit. It’s still sugar, but with some extra fiber and a few less calories. I keep dried cherries on hand for these moments. And distract your kids cravings by offering them fruit after a meal or as a snack.

Giving up sugar is not something I can claim I’ve done. I have been able to reduce my refined sugar consumption and it becomes clear very quickly that it improves my mood, energy level, and reduces the amount of sleep I need. But I’ll be the first to wrestle that chocolate out of your hand if you tell me I have to give up all my sugar forever. Not happening. This I do know: If I can reduce the amount of refined sugar in my children’s diet, I’ll be helping them to not only be healthier and avoid cavities, I’ll be helping them to think more clearly and handle their emotions more consistently. That pay off makes the battle worth fighting.

I still don’t know why that dad ordered my child to eat candy last week. But the next time I see his kid, I might just tempt him with some fresh, homemade, organic applesauce with cinnamon! So there!