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!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Free To A Good Home: One Rooster (maybe two)

The thing about chicks is they grow up. (Guess the same could be said about having babies or puppies or kittens) They don’t stay tiny and cute and manageable for long. Soon they are big and awkward and making all kinds of noise. Our seven little chicks that hatched out last Memorial Day are now chickens. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except some of them, or at least one of them, is a rooster. I know this for certain because of the crowing. It’s time to put the new hens in with all the old hens, but what to do with the rooster? Surely if I toss little rooster-boy (he actually has a name the kids have given him, but I can’t ever keep them straight) in with the big roosters, I could get sited for cock-fighting. Although, I have no spare affection to shower on any rooster, and the extra cash from side bets might help me buy the new breadmaker I need, I really can’t bring myself to do that.

Instead, I’m investigating butchers. As much as I like to think I’m a farm girl and for as much as I can handle the realities of the animal kingdom, I can’t quite bring myself to take a life. I have no problem with taking the little crowing, strutting life to someone else for the killing, but I just can’t do it myself. So I’ve been making some inquiries. The butchers say, “Oh, it’s easy, you can do it.” I’ve had two very nice gentlemen carefully explain exactly what I need to do. Simple, kill ‘em, drain em’, pull the insides out (ew), boil ‘em, and the feathers come right off. Simple. Uh huh.

I need a farmer friend to volunteer his services. Another neighbor suggested I just take the rooster up in the woods away from the house and turn him loose for the foxes. This also seems cruel and irresponsible. What if the rooster finds his way to one of the nice 4 bedroom-2 ½ bath colonials nearby filled with pleasant people recently transplanted from the city? Will they trace it back to me? Is there a law against rooster-abandonment?

As I write this I can hear the little boy rooster crowing away and for every effort he makes, the big rooster yells back even louder. They’ve got a real call and response going, only I don’t think the message is anything like what you’d hear in church.

I’m giving myself until next weekend to make a decision. Then I’m going to put on my big-girl panties and take care of this situation. My ancestors did this. And really, all of us who eat meat should be able to do this. We’re hypocrites if we can’t, right?

First, I have to determine how many roosters I really have. Determining chicken sex is not as simple as you might think. There are two other young chickens in with rooster-boy who look suspicious. They have longer tail feathers and small attitudes. But they haven’t let loose with a crow yet. I don’t know if they’re intimidated by the guy already doing all that crowing, or if they haven’t figured it out yet, or if maybe (hopefully) they’re actually hens in rooster drag. I do want to be certain who I’m killing before I start killing.

Next spring when my hens start all their brooding nonsense, I promise I won’t be such a softy. There is no reason they need to hatch chicks. The Achterberg farm is a small China in reverse – only one male allowed in the chicken pen. The rest, well, the rest are going to be eliminated by someone. Maybe me. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I welcome your chicken butchering suggestions and assistance. Free To A Good, oh heck, ANY Home: One rooster.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Don't Waste the Mustard (or anything else)

I love mustard. Love it. Especially the sweet-hot kind. My youngest child is also a mustard lover and feasts on the plain yellow kind with a fistful of pretzels most days after school. Being a male of the species, when the mustard becomes difficult to get out of the jars he simply puts it back in the fridge and opens a new one. Thanks to this habit, at any given time there could be 2-3 almost empty open mustard containers in our fridge.

Yes, of course I rant about this. But it falls on def, hungry ears. A better mother would stop buying mustard. But then that would just be punishing myself, right? So we carried on, until I read this GREAT idea for almost empty mustard containers, especially the squeezeable kind. I found this brilliant idea in a free copy of a home cooking magazine, which has long since landed in the recycling, so I can’t give credit where credit is due. It was one of those abbreviated versions of a bigger magazine sent with stickers and a subscription offer you can’t resist. Since I’ve got stacks of magazines on my desk to be read, I could resist. But before recycling it, I did skim through it while waiting for the mustard-eating child to locate his cleats.

Here’s the great idea: when your mustard jar is almost empty, add oil and vinegar and whatever other things you like in your salad dressing and shake. Brilliant! I added garlic grapeseed oil, elderflower-lime-apple vinegar, salt, and pepper. Yum! Simple, easy, gourmet dressing and no more wasted mustard. And when I’m finished with the dressing, the jar is easy to rinse and recycle.

I’m thinking this idea might also work on BBQ sauce bottles too. You could make a quick marinade by adding oil and vinegar and worchestershire sauce or soy sauce and water, plus whatever spices float your boat.

So there you go, my healthy-eating-good-for-the-planet-don’t-waste-anything tip for the day!

One of the biggest excuses I hear time and again for not eating organically is - "I can't afford it." The first step in affording to eat organically (or affording to eat at all) is to not waste the food you do buy. I've blogged about this in the past, but now I'm focusing on this and other ideas for an upcoming workshop I’ll be giving on Eating Organically and Affording It. I’m still a bit stuck searching for a catchier title for the series of workshops I’ve been developing on all the aspects of kid-friendly organic life. I’ve started with Healthy, Happy, Homemade Life, but that’ a mouthful. If you’ve got a better idea – I’d desperately love to hear it.

And if you’re local, mark your calendar for Wednesday October 26 at 7pm. I’ll be presenting at the Paul Smith Library in Shrewsbury and I’d love to see you there. It’s free, of course. Bring your own ideas for eating organically and saving money, or send them to me and I’ll share them. We’re all in this together and we need all the help we can get.