Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's Not What You Eat, But What You Eat Ate!

Meat eating has come under scrutiny at our household of late. Partly due to my daughter’s desire to be a vegetarian (which might work out if she could bring herself to eat beans and stop eating steak), and partly because my mother-in-law is visiting. Although, my MIL is just about the most flexible and reasonable vegetarian I know, it has created a bit of a puzzle at dinner time. She’s fine with our carnivorous habits and is happy to find herself something to eat when we indulge, but I like to include everyone at our table so I seek out meals that work for all of us. I can usually come up with a week’s worth, but this visit she’s gracing us with her presence for two weeks so it’s requiring a little extra thinking.

I asked her about her reasons for her long-time vegetarianism and her reasons are complex and deep-rooted. (Unlike my daughter who I think is just looking for an excuse not to eat what I’m serving!) This conversation led me to think about why I eat meat, beyond the fact that I like the taste of it. Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma gives some excellent data to explain why most people like the taste of meat. We’re hard-wired to eat meat. And not just any meat. Grass fed meat.

He goes further to challenge the fish vs meat debate by saying it’s not just what you eat but what you eat ate. Think about that one. A grass fed cow is better for you than a farm-raised salmon. At least in terms of omega 3’s and 6’s and many of the vital nutrients you find in grass fed meats like beta-carotene and CLA. The body of research verifying the higher nutrient value of grass-fed meats (and dairy products) versus grain-fed grows all the time. But you don’t need a microscope and a fancy degree to know that the food that went in to the cow you are eating for dinner defines the nutrient value of what you are eating. Common sense can tell you that.

Animals have been eating grass since there were grass and animals. It’s only been in the last hundred years or so that we’ve started feeding cows, pigs, chickens, and other meat animals exclusively on grain and corn. In fact, cows have been selectively bred to survive on corn, something they are not biologically engineered to digest. (Hence the incredible amounts of gas spewed forth from cows living in feedlots.) Feeding corn and grain to fish is even more farfetched. Yet, that is the brilliant idea for cheaply growing fish on farms.

Pollan’s argument for why this food is better for us goes back to the time when we were hunter-gatherers. Our bodies are designed to eat the food of wild animals and plants. Grass-fed animals best mimic those meats. Again, common sense.

So my desire to eat meat isn’t so much the result of my upbringing, although I’ll allow that it plays in to it. Especially since I still can’t stomach fish or beans, two foods I forced down so that I could leave the table when I was young. My body is hard-wired to eat meat. Guess that means my ancestors come from a hunting clan. Maybe that means my mother-in-law’s ancestors are from a clan that survived more on gathering. Who’s to say?

Listening to our bodies is a habit that has fallen by the way-side for most of us. I’ve only recently begun to respond to the foods my body craves. Probably because for many years I craved the foods the media had taught me to crave. Just the other night while watching the NFL play-offs my kids learned about another food they should crave. McDonalds created a new idea with their commercial about McMuffins. “What’s a McMuffin?” asked my nine-year-old after watching scene after scene of happy people comparing McMuffins to the best kind of apartment, boyfriend, automobiles, etc.

If you ask someone what their favorite food is, they don’t generally say, “grass-fed beef”. More often you hear, “chocolate,” or “pizza”. But is that really what our bodies want? I think if we could truly listen to our own bodies, we might hear something different. My daughter has been eating lots of nuts lately. While I’m thrilled at her healthy choice, I do think it’s her body telling her what she needs. Lacking any discernable form of protein beyond the occasional egg, her body demanded something of substance. Since her mind was saying “I’m a vegetarian,” and her stubbornness was saying “I hate beans,” nuts were the perfect fill in.

Trusting our bodies to tell us we need is a novel concept, but one worth thinking about. As is considering what you eat ate. Grass fed meat and dairy products may cost more than traditional products, but the nutritional disparity is even greater. Beyond that, we need to vote with our pocketbooks and support farmers who are raising their animals on grass instead of feedlots. Your health and your children’s health are worth a few more bucks per pound, don’t ya think? 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Selling Out Again

“I’m buying today!” announced my youngest son when he stumbled down the stairs for breakfast. Buying, as in buying that salt-laden, sugar-laden, fat-laden, excuse-for-food school lunch. No veggies to be seen. Oh, excuse me, I forgot! There will be French fries – that counts doesn’t it? According to our Congress, who take their marching orders from the processed food industry’s powerful lobbyists, pizza sauce counts too. Sorry, climbing on my soap box much too early today, but it can’t be helped. 

I’ve been stewing on this news since last November when the USDA backed down from their assertion that school lunches contain vegetables. Actually they didn’t back down so much as sell out by reclassifying French fries and pizza sauce as “vegetables” much the same way they declared ketchup a vegetable during the Reagan years. It garnered a few comments from sarcastic columnists and cartoonists, but for the most part, everyone sort of chuckled and let it drop. That’s the problem with this country! It seems we really don’t care. Or maybe we care, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it. Or we don’t know how to do anything about it. Or we think nothing we do will change anything.

That’s what the food manufacturers and lobbyists who fought Congress on the USDA standards count on. How dare we insist that food for our children be healthy?? School meals are subsidized by the federal government, so the government has the final say on what is or isn’t on your child’s lunch tray. This means the government has the power to make the options healthier. Only they don’t. Because they are beholden to multi-million dollar businesses that fund their campaigns. And we aren't nearly as vocal.

The schools, for their part, don’t put up much of a fight. How can they? Bottom line: It costs much more to feed children healthy food. Their budgets are beyond tight as it is. When they are making decisions between baby lettuce and classroom size, they make the only choice there is. Why do we put them in this position?

And when you really get down to it, what kids will eat those vegetables anyway? No actual kid will enjoy soggy, salt-laden green beans or stinky lima beans or canned asparagus. I don't actually know what veggies the kids are turning their noses up these days, but those are the ones I threw out in my own school years. Odds are the menu hasn't changed all that much. Why is that? I'm sure the congressional lunchroom serves up some very nice healthy food. In fact, I know the government is capable of offering healthy food because my husband and sons had a nice, reasonably priced, somewhat nutritious (at least better than the average school cafeteria) lunch at the Supreme Court Building while touring DC.

How is it that our congress can lament the cost of childhood obesity and yet, do nothing to fight it? The first line of defense is the cost of healthy food. It’s within their power to subsidize broccoli instead of corn, spinach instead of soybeans. If our government really wanted to change the way our nation eats, they could do it. They already did it once. That’s how we got in this predicament in the first place.

Back in the 70’s, in the name of feeding our country cheaply, the government convinced farmers to forego diversified crops and plant only corn and soybeans. In the end, instead of meeting a need, we have a surplus. So what do you do with a surplus? You find ways to use it. Enter High FructoseCorn Syrup. The rest is history. And we all know this. So does the government. So why does it continue? That’s my question.

Is it because they don’t care? Is it because they’re too busy doing other things? They don’t know how to fix this? Is it because they are powerless to make this change (and lose all those campaign contributions)?

I have an idea. I think they do nothing about it because they think it’s too hard. It would be incredibly difficult to re-train farmers, re-educate the general public, and re-tool the food industry. And that would probably cost a little money. Yes it would. But it’s not impossible.

It’s human nature to avoid the hard stuff. It’s the same reason my kids don’t vacuum anywhere but the center of their rooms. It’s too hard to deal with the rest of the mess. It’s the same reason we don’t demand that our government enable our schools to feed our kids healthy food. It would take a lot of work to make that happen.

Here’s my great fear – we’re going to let our aversion to hard work and difficult tasks turn us in to selfish people. We need to do something. But where do we begin?  We can start by asking questions – of our school boards, of our elected representatives, of the USDA. We can contact organizations that are already actively campaigning for change, like Food Democracy Now , Slow Food USA, Healthy School Lunches, and The Lunch Box. There are plenty of other organizations out there too who need your support to bring change.

Here’s some inspiration to make you reach for the phone or the keyboard from two of my favorite guys -

“Start by doing what's necessary, then what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” 
–St. Francis of Assisi

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Something Seedy

Seeds may be tiny, but they pack a big nutritional punch. Adding flavor is only the bonus, what they really add is nutrients and antioxidants that help protect you against heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. There are lots of ways to incorporate seeds in to your daily diet. Read on to learn about a few of my favorites. Keep all your seeds in the fridge or freezer so they stay fresh longer.

Sunflower Seeds
This is the easy one. Chewing and spitting seems to be as important as batting when it comes to Little League, so come baseball season, my youngest son will be getting plenty of these. ¼ cup serving of sunflower seeds provides 82% of the Vitamin E and 34% of the selenium you need for a day. They're also loaded with folate. These are powerful antioxidants, so load up. It’s easy to toss sunflower seeds on salads and in your baking, but try sprinkling some on your pasta or stir-frys for an interesting nutty crunch.

Pumpkin Seeds
Another easy one when it comes to snacking. Make your own when you carve your pumpkin, or buy them ready to eat. They are a nice neat snack to take in the car or hiking (if you drop a few, you might start a wild pumpkin patch). Besides serving up some protein, pumpkin seeds also offer magnesium and zinc. Eat them with the shells on and you add some fiber to boot.

Shelled pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) are the secret ingredient in my yummy whole wheat bread. I grind them up so that no children notice their green color or suspect I’m adding nuts (heaven forbid!) to their bread. They are also delicious added to salads and granola. Experiment with adding pepitas to your cooking for their sweet, nutty flavor.

Whole Wheat Bread with Flaxseed and Pumpkin Seeds
(for bread machine)
1 ½ cup water
2 Tablespoons oil or melted butter (I use butter-flavor grapeseed oil)
3 Tablespoons honey
¼ cup Flaxseed Meal
¼+ cup chopped pumpkin seeds (I process them in a big bunch and freeze them to use in recipes)
2 Cups Whole Wheat bread flour
1 ½ Cups White Bread flour
1 ¾ teaspoons yeast
Place ingredients in bread machine in the order above and bake on whole wheat setting.

Flax Seeds
I’ve written so much about flax seeds, there’s no need to repeat myself. You can catch up by clicking here.

Chia Seeds
And what’s not to love about chia seeds? They are chock full of omega 3’s, calcium, and antioxidants. A serving (1 oz) of chia seeds gives you 43% of the fiber you need for one day! Many people say that after eating chai seeds on a regular basis you will notice clearer skin and glossier hair. Plus, the seeds digest very slowly making you feel fuller longer and aiding in weight loss. Several websites proclaim that eating chia seeds helps you think more clearly, increases your energy, and puts you in a calmer, happier mood. I’m also thinking if you plant your chia seeds in fancy pot, you can grow that cute little grass patch you see sold as a decorative touch in fancy magazines. Again, what’s not to love?

Chia seeds are tiny black seeds (but can also be white). I bought a small bag from the bulk aisle at Sonnewalds. They sat on the counter for the first few days while I wondered what to do with them. My daughter enjoyed using the bag as a stress reliever saying she liked the way the seeds felt when you squished the bag. I was determined to find a better use for them. 

First I mixed up some cinnamon chia pudding. I found this recipe in a comment on a blog called chowhound. The commenter who goes only by alexa52, says her 9-year-old loves it. I have my own suspicious 9-year-old who needs some healthy options, so this was all I needed to hear to send me off to the kitchen. I happened to have almond milk on hand (the only odd ingredient beyond chia seeds), so I whipped it up in a matter of minutes.

Cinnamon Chia Pudding
1 ½ cups almond milk
¼ cup chia seeds
1 T honey or maple syrup (I went with honey on this and was very heavy-handed)
1 vanilla bean or a dash of vanilla extract
½ t cinnamon
Pinch of sea salt

I have to admit it looked pretty unappetizing when I slipped it in to the fridge. The directions said to chill it for 1-9 hours. Apparently when you add liquid to chia seeds they become gelatinous. That would be good, because otherwise what you would basically have is poppy seed pudding and that could be pretty tough on the teeth. They have a subtle nut-like flavor and one of the cooking sites I checked said they take on the flavor of whatever they are mixed with which makes them excellent for thickening.

When offered the lovely chia pudding (see pic), my older children put on a brave face and each took a spoonful. My son said it was fine, but didn't need another taste. My daughter had a bowl for breakfast!  My nine-year-old wouldn't even consider a spoonful. It reminds me of tapioca and tastes like chia tea. While I'm not sure I'd make it again, if I had an unsuspecting (and trusting) younger child, I might pass it off as dessert and raise them on it. So much good stuff in there. 

I also used chia seeds to make banana bread. Although there isn’t a ton of chia seeds in there, I am treading lightly on this first run-through. I don’t want to scare off the natives. The bread turned out delicious. The recipe directs you to make mini-loaves, but that’s just too much pan cleaning, so I made one big (relatively short) loaf, and that worked out fine. The banana bread was gone in less than 24 hours, so that’s a “yes” on the question of did they like it (one of them even chose the last piece as the dessert for his lunch box).

The addition of banana to these mini loafs makes them both moist and flavorful. Bake two mini loafs and freeze one for later, or give one to a friend or coworker to share the love!
Makes 2 full mini loafs or 3 smaller loaves
½ c. sugar
¼ c. brown sugar
1 egg
¼ c. canola oil (I used grapeseed oil)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ½ ripe bananas, smashed
¼ c. whole wheat flour
1 c. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. chia seeds


Preheat oven to 325 degrees and spray two mini loaf pans with cooking spray. Beat sugars, egg, oil and vanilla extract in a large bowl. Once sugar mixture is combined, beat in bananas. In a separate bowl, combine flours, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Slowly beat flour mixture into sugar mixture. Beat in chia seeds. Pour batter into two loaf pans. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, until the tops of the loaves are light brown.

For breakfast, I whipped up Chai Pumpkin Pancakes. This caused quite a stir. Instead of heading out the door or downstairs to the treadmill to run, I was hanging around with the kiddos at breakfast time. Plus, I only make pancakes for them on special occasions. So the mere fact that I was cooking breakfast instead of grumbling at them not to miss the bus, made them sit up and pay attention. They loved the pancakes! They were delicious and although I occasionally found a seed stuck in my teeth later in the morning, it wasn’t a bad thing. Especially knowing that I’d loaded the kids up with lots of healthy goodness (under all that syrup!). Even the fussy one who wouldn’t touch the hemp cookies (see below), loved the pancakes and asked for seconds.

While normal pancakes may not pack much of a nutritional punch, these pancakes, made with whole wheat flour, oats, honey, and chia seeds are full of fiber and whole grains.
Makes 8–10 pancakes
1 c. milk
1 egg

1 tbsp. canola oil
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. old fashioned oats

1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. chia seeds (plus more for garnish)
Syrup or other desired toppings

Spray griddle or pan with cooking spray and heat to a medium heat. Beat egg and add milk and oil. In a separate bowl, combine flour, oats, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder and salt. Slowing stir flour mixture into egg mixture. Add honey and stir until combined.
At the last minute, stir in chia seeds. Pour 1/4 c. portions of batter onto griddle and cook until edges of pancakes start to bubble and bottoms are light brown. Flip and cook until centers are completely done (about three to four minutes). Top with syrup, additional chia seeds or desired toppings and enjoy.

Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds were my other project this week. Luckily, my hubby was away and I was spared the endless cannabis jokes that would have ensued had he been here to witness my efforts. Two of my kids are either too young or excellent actors because they raised nary an eyebrow when I told them I was making hemp cookies. My 15-year-old came closer and whispered, "Really?" He excuses much of my behavior by joking that I'm a hippy, but maybe now there would be proof!  Yes, hemp seeds do come from the same Cannabis species as marijuana, but they have drastically lower levels of the psychoactive chemical that gives pot its power. I'm not sure he completely believes me.

At any rate, cookies being the operative term, most everyone was game. They thought the cookies were a bit crunchy (they are), but passable. They even came back for seconds and knowing these cookies were loaded not just with hemp seeds, but plenty of flaxmeal as well, I served them right up. My 9-year-old heard the words “seeds” and “good for you” and ran the other direction. He’s seen too much to trust me when I tell him, “It’s delicious!”

Joking aside, there is much to appreciate about hemp seeds. Hemp is loaded with protein. Two tablespoons cover 24 % of your daily requirement. It’s the best kind of protein too, with all the essential amino acids. Hemp is also a rich source of omega 3 & 6 and contains plenty of antioxidants like vitamin E and chlorophyll.

Christina's Hemp Seed Cookies (from the blog, A Few Scraps)
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1/4 cup applesauce (a little single serving applesauce cup happens to be 1/4 cup!)
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup hulled hemp seed
1/2 cup ground flax meal
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 handful each chopped hazelnuts and chocolate chips (I went heavy on the chocolate chips, figuring chocolate covers a whole host of evil)

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a cookie sheet. Mix butter, applesauce and brown sugar together in a small bowl. (I had to add a little more melted butter because the mixture was too dry) Mix all remaining dry ingredients (except nuts and chocolate chips) in a large bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry, mix with a spoon. Add chocolate chips and hazelnuts. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls and flatten with the palm of your hand. (I didn’t notice this directive to flatten cookies, but they flattened on their own) Bake for 10-12 minutes, let cool on a cooling rack. Makes about 24 cookies depending on how much of the dough you eat.

I know I left out several other fabulous seeds, but my kids could only take so much of my experimenting this week. If you’ve got your own favorite seed recipe, I’d love to hear about it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Go Nuts!

Lately my daughter, the non-eater (except pasta and sugar), has taken to eating what she calls, “nut salads”. She creates these salads herself, filling a small bowl with every kind of nut she can find in my freezer stash and covering the whole mess with sunflower seeds. She then finds a comfy spot and a good book and settles in for a long munch.

For the past several years, I’ve quietly worried about her. Why won’t she eat? Is she developing an eating disorder? Is she eating in secret? In the mornings I watch her pack her lunch of one hard-boiled egg, several brazil nuts (her favorite), and as many cookies as my evil eye allows her, and I wonder if this is becoming a test of wills. The pediatrician keeps telling me to leave her alone, “eventually she’ll hit puberty and get hungry”. So maybe this is what the nut salads are all about. Nuts are just about the perfect food. Throw in an occasional hard boiled egg and you’ve got a pretty healthy diet.

Not being a good vitamin-taker, I make it a habit to add nuts whenever I can. I know they impart all kinds of good vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to cover a multitude of deficiencies. Just about all nuts are heart-healthy, meaning they lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. You really can't go wrong, but here’s the run-down:

Almonds: Vitamin B, E, and magnesium that all help your immune system and prevent oxidation that can lead to heart disease. They pack more protein and fiber than other nuts, plus potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and iron!

Brazil: Exceptionally high selenium content, plus plenty of vitamin E. Selenium is hard to find in many foods and helps your heart and liver, while helping fight cancer. 1-2 nuts a day is all you need to get your daily recommended amount of selenium. Much yummier than a vitamin! I keep mine stashed in the fridge at eye level, so I’ll remember to grab some every day.

Cashews: Rich in B vitamins, iron, copper, selenium, manganese, potassium, and a host of other antioxidants and health supporting vitamins. Chop some fresh cabbage, add an Asian dressing and a handful of cashews - instant lunch!

Hazelnuts: proanthocyanidins, compounds that may help strengthen blood vessels, reduce heart disease risk, and boost brain health. Also vitamins E, fiber, and B vitamins. These are a delicious added to anything with chocolate.

Macadamia: fiber and B-complex vitamins. (Addie hasn't tried these yet because I'm a cheap skate and also because it's near impossible to get fresh ones. Having traveled to Hawaii once and realized a fresh, local nut is a world away from what we buy here in a can, it's been hard to spend the money. Inspired by her nut fetish, I just ordered some through localharvest direct from a farm on the big island, so she's about to be enlightened!)
Here's another goodie I found on Lifescript, "Macadamia nuts are one of the only food sources that contain palmitoleic acid (a type of monounsaturated fatty acid that may speed up fat metabolism, thus reducing the body’s ability to store fat)."  It's a diet nut!

Peanuts: folate, oleic acid, and resveratrol (the same good stuff found in chocolate and red wine – now there’s a nice diet). They actually contain all nine essential amino acids. To make peanut butter, simply process peanuts in food processor until they are the consistency you like -no need to add oil, sugar, but you can always add other kinds of nuts. You'll never buy blechy store-bought peanut butter again.

Pecans: higher antioxidant score than even wild blueberries! And according to a University of Massachusetts study regular servings just might help delay age-related cognitive decline!

Pistachios: high in blood pressure-lowering potassium, plus as much fiber as oatmeal! Great snack food - slows kids down because they have to shell them first.

Walnuts: only nut that provides a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 that boost cognitive function. Also high in vitamin E, B6, and copper. Look for them to receive even more press as one of the best “super foods”. Have walnuts with brie and cranberry sauce (add a little decadence in the form of a splash of whiskey and/or brown sugar) warmed in the oven.

Need another reason to eat nuts? According to the Nurses' Health Study, looking at the dietary data of 80,718 women, eating at least one ounce of nuts a week gives women a 25% lower risk of developing gallstones!

While nuts might have a lot of calories, most people (other than my daughter), don’t eat very many at a time. They tend to fill you up and those are calories that stick with you, preventing you from over-eating later on. The health benefits definitely outweigh the calorie content. Avoid nuts at your own health risk!

Be sure to either eat your nuts right away or store them in the fridge or freezer where they’ll stay fresh up to 3 months (or longer, I know mine are in there much longer sometimes and always taste fine). Nuts will become rancid if left in warm places too long. Yuck.

So the next time you’re whipping up a batch of cookies or bread, toss in a few nuts. If your kids are nut-phobic, run the nuts through the food processor and they’ll never notice. Just about any nut is awesome on a salad or cereal, but eating them straight is great too. Keep a stash in your purse for a quick snack or pack them in your kids’ lunches since they travel so well. Do be careful of the many people with nut allergies out there and eat your nuts considerately. And when you’re home, you can always copy my daughter and make a nut salad. Sunflower seeds are good for you too – vitamin E, selenium, and folate! But more about all the benefits of eating seeds in the next post!