Take the Stress Out of Cooking

Some chef’s are natural in the kitchen and good at improvisation.  My husband is one of those people – he can open the fridge and cupboards, look at the ingredients and whip up a fantastic meal in thirty minutes.  When it is my turn for dinner, however, I research the recipe days in advance, torment myself over picking the right one, plan when to go the store, and then stress all day about cooking it.  No matter how good it turned out, I still won’t enjoy it as much because of all the stress!

For those of you like me, here are some key points I consider when choosing whether or not to attempt a recipe.  These points help me stay as stress free as possible, while still cooking great food!

  • Does it require special equipment?  Cheesecakes often require an off-set spatula, and the first time I saw that I had no idea what it was, but I knew I didn’t have it!  Other types of special equipment could be an immersion blender, sifter, or specific food processor attachment.  Pay special attention to these types of requests before you commit to the recipe!  If all you have is a small mini food processor, then you probably don’t have a french fry disc.
  • Does it require ingredients that either a) you’ve never heard of or b) have never cooked with before?  Of course, it is always fun to venture out and try new things, but if you are cooking for a large group of friends or your in-laws, it probably isn’t the right time to use mustard greens if you never have before.  Another reason to be wary before buying new ingredients is that you might not ever use them again!  Maybe the recipe calls for a specific type of seasoning.  Well, you have to buy a whole canister of that, and then it may just sit in your cabinets unused for years to come.
  • How much special preparation does the recipe call for?  My favorite recipes are casseroles, and in a perfect world they only involve a spoon and a bowl.  Does the recipe involve a lot of cutting or chopping?  Do you need to coordinate multiple burners at one (saute the onions in one pan while you brown the meat in the other)?  It always helps me when I can prepare portions of the recipe in advance.  Maybe at lunchtime I will measure out some of the spices and have them sitting ready to go so it is one less thing to handle at actual meal prep time.  This is great – but if something has to be done in advance (for example, a dough recipe where the dough needs to have time to either refrigerate or rise before baking) it is important to know that in advance so you are not caught off guard at the last minute.

Cooking can be fun and relaxing, but you should know your limitations.  Don’t try to cook a fancy four course meal under a pressure situation if you are more of a hot dog and macaroni and cheese type of chef.  Lastly, here is my favorite recipe that I’ve been making for years – it is easy, tasty, and requires no special preparation.

Baked Ziti

  • 1 box of ziti
  • 1 can of pasta sauce
  • 1 tube of sausage

Brown sausage and cook pasta.  Combine with sauce in a casserole dish.  Sprinkle cheese and top and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Better Food Quality: Americans Are On Board

better quality food cooking with the best gas grills

Courtesy Sami Sieranoja

You know those times when little, seemingly insignificant things happen, and you’ll think to yourself: wow, I must be changing because that does/does not bother me. That might be the case, maybe you are changing, but it’s probably more likely that you’re staying the same, and the world around you is changing. That’s one fact of life that can be hard to accept: you’re getting older and things aren’t the way they used to be.

Well, there is one thing that’s changing from the way it used to be, and everyone in America can benefit from it: better quality food. Americans are demanding better quality food, and the two main demands come from grass fed beef and organic fruits and vegetables.

Grass Fed Beef

Ah yes, summer is here, and with it comes the time honored American tradition of cooking out. So, not to pull you away from your Internet search of the best gas grills, but if you’ve never had the please of cooking a grass fed burger on the grill, this is the summer to do so.

You may be wondering what the difference in a grass fed burger is. Well, most meat we buy in grocery stores are from meat factories that pump their cows with steroids and growth hormones to ‘beef’ them up, while also injecting lots of antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick from the poor conditions the animals are housed in. The animals rarely see daylight, grow at an accelerated rate, and are slaughtered with meat infested with the chemicals stated above. Grass fed beef has none of this.

Americans are onto the benefits of grass fed beef as the demand for it is on the rise.

Cows in their natural habitat don’t graze in corn fields, so why would we think cows fed a diet of grains made from corn would be healthy. 100% grass fed cow meat is free of any steroids, growth hormones, or antibiotics, and their meat is higher in heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid that is thought to reduce the risks of heart disease and cancer, as well as antioxidant vitamins like vitamin E.

Think about it, a cow raised in the sunlight with little stress, no chemicals injected into it, and allowed to eat its favorite food – grass – is going to be healthier, therefore healthier for us.

Organic Fruits & Vegetables

If you’re like most Americans, you try to get the best deals possible when grocery shopping. You look for sales, maybe grab some coupons, and stock up when something’s a great price. The problem with that line of thinking – and yes, there are some people who are forced to shop this way because of finances and family size – is that you ultimately get what you pay for.

Ten cent head of lettuce? Great for the budget, but bad for the body. The lettuce could have been grown in another country, hauled by several trucks to get to your store, and doused with pesticides along the way. Sure, it looks like every other head of lettuce you’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t mean it’s as nutritious. It’s believed that a certain amount of pesticides are safe for human consumption, but I don’t want to consume anything that was designed to kill, even if it is just a bug.

Fortunately, Americans are now in favor of stricter regulations on food companies, and the market demand for organics are growing. To be considered an organic food, the USDA states that the food has been produced through approved methods that do not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. In other words, it’s supposed to be grown like our ancestors grew their foods – or as close as they can get it – without any harmful toxins or genetically modified processes along the way. You may have heard of the a company called Monsanto in the news lately. They are the leading force in the GMO (genetically modified) foods industry, and are taking heat for their practices.

Organic foods are more nutritious, easier on the environment, encourage local purchasing (you probably have a local farmer who sells organics at a relatively inexpensive price), and don’t contain the harmful chemicals conventional food in our grocery stores do. They are more expensive, but you have to ask yourself if your health is worth it?

Why Cooked Natural Food is Better than Supplements

One interesting theory is that eating cooked food is what has distinguished humans from the animal kingdom. Cooking has released the full value of the nutrients found in food. These nutrients have supplied our human brain with the added energy it needed to expand and function at a higher level than animals.

Research on Food Nutrients:

Much of the research on food nutrients has been done by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and can be found at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=6282

The UDSA has identified the three major food groups. They are: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats.

Carbohydrates are found in sugars including sucrose, glucose and fructose, starches found in cereal flour, rice and potato.

Protein is found in edible animal material including muscle, eggs, mushrooms, milk and smaller amounts in vegetables. It’s important for muscle building as well as balancing out testosterone levels. Some people have resorted to taking testosterone boosters like these shown here instead of more heavily regulating their diets which is far more important.

Fats are found in vegetable oils, butter, lard, and fats from grains such as corn and flax oils.
In addition, they list 19 nutrients found in food. These include: water, calories, protein, total fats, saturated, monosaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, total dietary fiber, iron, potassium, calcium, sodium, Vitamin A, IU and RE units, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and ascorbic acid.
It is the cooking of natural foods that releases these nutrients. The amount released depends on the food chosen and the specific nutrients it contains.

Vitamins Found in Specific Food Groups

It is important to know which Vitamins a food group contains. Here are some specific findings that can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking#Cooking_and_health
Vitamin C – fresh fruits and vegetables
Vitamin A – liver
Vitamin B – cereal bran, bread and liver
Vitamin D – fish liver oil
Vitamin K – fresh green vegetables.
How Natural Foods are Fortified:

We must also mention that research has identified specific conditions associated with certain nutrient deficiencies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_fortification
One common missing ingredient is iodine. It is estimated that iodine deficiency (IDD) is prevalent in over one billion people worldwide. It has been found to be the cause for hypothyroidism, goiter and mental retardation. As a preventive measure iodine has been added to salt in the US and other countries.
Folic Acid (folate) is needed to reduce blood homosysteine levels, forming red blood cells, proper growth and division of cells and preventing neural tube defects (NTDs). Deficiencies may cause megaloblastic anemia, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and NTD in infants. For pregnant mothers, the dosage of folic acid is increased by 72%.

Niacin was added to bread to prevent pellagra. Niacin deficiency may cause alcoholism, anorexia disorders and certain cancers.
Vitamin D has been added to vegetable oils and dairy products to prevent disorders including osteoporosis, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma, rickets, hypertension, congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and certain cancers.

Why Supplements Fall Short of Cooked Foods:

One argument made by proponents of supplements is that you never can be sure if you are getting all these nutrients from the foods you eat, hence the need for supplements. On this point the research indicates that there is no increased benefit from taking a multi vitamin over just eating a balanced diet. One important fact to note here is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test or approve supplements. Supplements cannot make claims of “cures” of any kind. Like the products seen seen here at this site, they can only use words like: “This supplement ‘may’ improve overall health.”

As you can see, a balanced diet of natural cooked foods is far superior to relying on supplements. Natural cooked foods provide all the nutrients we need to maintain optimum health.

Surprise! We Do Deep Fry

If you have been around here for awhile, you’ll know how conscious we are as a family when it comes to eating healthy. I am a real stickler for a balanced diet with as few preservatives, chemicals, and unnecessary calories as possible.

Reading through my articles, you might think that we have a terribly boring life and that my children hate me. I get it, okay? Seriously. Our life style is not for everyone, but I’m trying to give you all the information you need to make the decision for yourself as to whether or not our life style would be right for you.

So, I’ve decided today to try and move the scale back to the central position a bit by confirming that yes, we do occasionally get a bit crazy and shake up our diet. Not only is it good for your body to get shocked once in awhile and work extra hard, but for our mental health as well, we need a change of pace now and then.

Not just for the kids – growing up with me as a mother, they have always known that this is how we eat, and they view other diets as being different. They have no desire to get a pizza or a burger from a fast food joint, but sure they have a craving now and then. But for us, too. I can be as high on my horse as I wish to be, but very rarely I know that it is not just alright, but in fact good for me to do something different and get our secret deep fryer out of it’s little corner of the highest cupboard.

We recently bought a new one after looking at some interesting articles at http://www.fryerhq.com. We ended up picking a the Presto DualFry because it has enough room for us all to get enough and is a really high quality model.

I spent a significant amount of time learning how to work the thing, how cooking with oil actually works, and how to keep it as ‘healthy’ as possible. The cool thing is, if you understand how things work, you see that there are a lot of incorrect assumptions out there. Just because you are cooking food in oil or fat, doesn’t mean it automatically becomes ultra-fatty.

Sure, there is a bit of the oil that can get into the food (and the batter), but do you know how frying actually works? The ultra hot oil is an absolutely outstanding way to get huge amounts of heat to the food, which then heats up the moisture inside the food, effectively steaming it from the inside out. Because the moisture is escaping at such high pressure from the food, oil actually can’t get into the food.

The only problems you get is when you overcook something. The moisture runs out and therefore oil is allowed to penetrate the food, which makes it oily and can negatively effect the quality of the meal.

So, as you can see, just keeping your mind open and taking the time to learn WHY and HOW things happen can change the way you think of things. You can certainly tell I’m a mother after a sentence like that! (-:

You can find some healthier deep fry recipes here: http://www.babble.com/best-recipes/healthier-deep-fried-food-at-home-plus-20-fantastic-fried-food-recipes/

Essential Tools For the Kitchen

Cooking can be easy and fast when you have the right equipment in your kitchen. If I have a sharp chef’s knife, a skillet, and a honing steel, I can make just about any dish! By stocking your kitchen with all of the right tools, you can cut down on the amount of work you have to do, as well as how long it 

chef's knifetakes to prepare meals. Following is a list of kitchen gadgets and implements I suggest every home chef have on hand.

Before you begin to cook your meals, you’re faced with the prep of ingredients. Having a food processor in your kitchen can be handy, but you can make do with a sturdy cutting board (I recommend bamboo) and a good set of knives. Your knife set should include a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. It’s good to choose a set with various other types of knives included so you have a variety of cutlery on hand for all your food prep needs. Don’t forget to stock your kitchen with a grater, a garlic press, kitchen shears, and a peeler.

Using a Honing Steel to keep knives sharp

Using a Honing Steel to keep knives sharp

When it comes time to serve the dishes you worked so hard to create, you’ll want to serve them up with ease and style. Of course you’ll want serving dishes and dinnerware that is elegant and a reflection of your personality, but don’t forget the serving utensils. Every kitchen needs a ladle with a large bowl to serve soups, stews, and even sauces; a ladle with a bent handle allows you to hook the ladle over the side of your pot for convenience. Your kitchen drawer should also have a pair of locking tongs for stirring meats and veggies in the skillet as well as on the grill, a metal spatula for flipping and a rubber spatula for mixing and scraping, a couple of large serving spoons, a couple of slotted spoons, and a whisk.

Handy gadgets to have around the kitchen include: an electric can opener, a corkscrew, a thermometer, measuring cups and spoons, a good set of mixing bowls, a peppermill, a well stocked spice rack, a timer, and a set of colanders. Personally, I feel that no kitchen is complete without a great set of pots and pans in various sizes and the ever so handy crock pot. A crock pot is perfect for creating large meals with little fuss. If your kitchen is stocked with the right tools and gadgets, cooking will cease to be a chore.

How One Reader Keeps His Family Healthy

My family and I take great pride in being very athletic and healthy. To be honest, I enjoy the fact that my kids don’t stay inside all day playing video games, watching TV, surfing the INTERNET, etc. I enjoy the fact that my kids don’t eat terrible food at school. Some parents may call us not fun or too strict, but I refuse to bring my kids up in a way that promotes an unhealthy life style.

To give you guys a picture of what I am talking about. I set my watch and wake my kids up every morning at 6AM. I start the kids off with 30 minutes of activity. Some times we go for a job, sometimes we jump rope, and some times we play a game such as tag, basketball, etc. Then we eat a healthy breakfast that includes fruit, eggs (yoke and everything), berries, some kind of meat, and a shake.

To make sure we stick to this, I have bought my significant other and our kids watches to time our meals, workouts, etc. This way, we are all on the same page from the moment we wake up, until the time we go to bed. Our family functions as a single unit.

Additionally, we think it is important to have the proper athletic attire. Our kids play a TON of sports, so we have to make sure they not only have the appropriate shoes or cleats for their respective sports, but also great, supportive shoes for their everyday lives to improve their posture and keep them generally healthy.

My parents were not near as strict with health as I am, not even close. I went through a period where I was unhealthy, after my wife and I got married and started thinking about having kids, we agreed we would bring them up in a strict regiment to promote healthy habits for life.

In addition to physical healthy, we also make sure the kids do at least an hour of homework a night, we also like them to go out and play to benefit their social lives. Our goal here is to make sure the kids keep their priorities straight and continue with healthy habits. We believe this sort of behavior paves the way for success in other areas of life.

I would encourage other parents to at least get started in the direction we are going. We wouldn’t say take it to the extreme that some people think we do. But encourage your kids to turn the TV off once in a while and get some activity. Also, we should stop feeding out kids fast food, and other junk foods, we are promoting a lifetime of unhealthy habits. It has to start with us before we can try to promote this sort of food and activity in schools. I am thankful for the route my family and I have taken. I love how active my kids are and I love that these activities bring us closer as a family.

Helpful dietary tips for children with ADHD:

Proper nutrition is so important for children of all ages and sometimes children require a bit of extra dietary attention. For my 4 year old daughter this is most certainly the case as she has ADHD. I am very lucky that I am a stay-at –home mom and am able to monitor and control what she is putting into her body at all times, but this isn’t always the case for other mom’s out there. Many parents face the challenge of working outside the home and/or their child with ADHD is in school. I am going to share a few of the things that have helped to improve my daughter’s ADHD that I have learned by adding and/or removing certain foods and vitamins/minerals.

A diet rich in protein is very beneficial to children with ADHD. A high protein intake can help to increase concentration and in some cases increase the amount of time that ADHD medications work if your child is on them. There are many great sources of protein and even the pickiest of eaters is sure to be satisfied with great options like: eggs, beans, meat, nuts, cheese and many vegetables.

Eating more complex carbohydrates and omega-3 fatty acids are two great dietary elements to add to your child with ADHD’s diet. Complex carbohydrates are said to possibly aid in sleep since many children with ADHD experience sleep disturbances. Great sources of complex carbohydrates would be vegetables and even some fruits (oranges, pears, grapefruits and kiwi to name a few). Omega-3 fatty acids are reported by researchers to increase brain function, which in the long run would again help to increase concentration.  There are many great sources of omega-3’s in fish, nuts, olive and canola oil. Some children may not be too fond of fish, so there are great omega-3 supplements available in vitamin form.

We have covered what to add to your child’s diet, so now let’s cover what to remove from it diet. Simple carbohydrates, such as, white sugar, candy, corn syrup, white flour and white rice should be avoided when your child has ADHD. Simple carbohydrates actually rob the body of much needed vitamins and minerals all while fueling the proverbial fire causing an increase in hyperactivity. Another very important thing to remove from your child’s diet is additives and artificial colors/flavors. These additives are intended to “enhance” the flavor and appearance of food, but should really be avoided at all costs. Additives usually have an adverse effect on children with ADHD and will again increase hyperactivity and loss of focus, which is suspected to actually be an allergic reaction to the chemicals and dyes being ingested. They are unnatural substances that can easily be replaces with natural sources of flavor and colors.

I have seen major improvements in my daughter’s ADHD and her coping skills since putting her on an all-natural, protein, complex carbohydrate and omega-3 rich diet. She is able to concentrate for longer period of time and is able to reign herself in when she feels a burst of hyperactivity charging her way. I hope that these suggestions prove helpful and make your child’s daily struggle with ADHD a little easier.

Paleo diet intro and “spaghetti” recipe

As the mother of three young girls I try to avoid the fad diets and any negative food associations as much as possible. I instead approach healthy eating as a vital element to improve the day to day life of my family. Each person in my family has specific dietary needs that I am always striving to ensure that they are eating nourishing, vitamin rich and non-processed foods.

The way I do this is by following the paleo, whole foods diet. A paleo, whole foods diet eliminates anything that is processed, filled with preservatives and unethically raised. There are tones of benefits, especially with your skin; you can treat acne or other blemishes just by eating well.

Eating a paleo diet really is simple and is essentially eating only what you are able to obtain through nature, so basically what our ancestors ate during the day of the caveman. It can seem a little daunting to eliminate many of your favorite foods, such as pasta, but it can be done with little effort and great taste. Give this great “spaghetti” recipe a try and you will be a paleo convert!

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb of Grass-fed ground beef
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 organic tomatoes, chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 2 small cans of organic tomato paste
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • Fresh basil, oregano, rosemary and marjoram
  • 1 medium to large Spaghetti squash
  • Extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut squash in half long ways and scoop out the insides, much like you would a pumpkin. Once the squash is hollowed out drizzle both sides with either olive oil or coconut oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place squash on baking sheet until the oven preheats and allow oil and seasoning to soak in. Place squash halves in the oven once it has preheated completely to avoid burning. The squash should take about 40 minutes to fully cook.
  2. Sauté onions and garlic in oil until tender and translucent. Add meat, pepper and a little dash of salt. Once meat is cooked, drain grease and set aside.
  3.  In a medium sauce pan add both cans of tomato paste and chopped tomatoes, mixing well. Once tomato base is created add the meat, onions and garlic allowing to simmer on low heat. Roughly chop fresh basil, oregano, rosemary and marjoram then add it to your sauce.
  4. The squash should be done about the time you have finished preparing your sauce. Remove squash halves from the oven and allow to cool slightly so you are able to handle them. Once cooled run a fork through the center of the squash. You will see at this point why it is called Spaghetti squash. Plate squash topped with meat sauce.

** You can easily use any other grass-fed, cruelty free meat in place of beef. I have used turkey, pork and chicken for this recipe with great results. I am a vegan and make this without the meat portion as well. It is equally as good, so that option is on the table to please those paleo vegans out there!

Meal time tips for children with autism:

Cooking healthy, well rounded and simple meals is a challenge for any mom, but it can be an even greater challenge when one of your little ones has autism. Many children with autism struggle with food and meal time. This is a struggle I am intimately aware of and am constantly searching for a way to accommodate my 3 year old daughter’s food, texture, temperature and color aversions all the while still needing to provide a healthy diet for her. Each day brings new challenges and hurdles that need to be breached, but I feel as though I am getting the hang of meeting her dietary needs as well as working around her sensory food issues. I hope that my tips prove to be a helpful jumping off point for other families trying to navigate the shaky ground that is feeding a child with autism.

One of the major things I have had to work on during my daughter’s autism journey was to be patient in terms of her sensory aversions to food. One week she may like carrots and only other orange foods, only to switch it up on me once I have stocked up on as many healthy orange foods as possible. I have had to learn that in this case I am not in control and I have to let her steer the ship wherever her autism allows her. I have learned to be rather clever and started slipping in foods that she normally has an aversion to without her knowing. An example of my trickery is when I make summer squash bread. My daughter has a serious sensory aversion to anything yellow, but especially food and this is a great way to get the vitamins that the squash provide without causing her any upset.

Utilize your child’s doctor or nutritionist and find out ways to ensure your child is getting proper nutrition if there are certain foods that your child is refusing to eat that provide much needed vitamins and minerals. I have found that powdered vitamins added to my daughter’s food are a convenient little tool that enables her to eat the foods she is comfortable with and allows me to feel that she is receiving the proper nutrition. The more tools you have in your bag the better you will feel about your child’s health and nutrition.

Lastly, it is important to learn to adapt to your child’s sensory issues and let go of any concrete notions of how meal times should go and what he/she should be eating. Trial and error is the way that we go about meals in our home. Some days she will be content to sit and eat with us as a family, while others she prefers to sit at her own table. Some days she will allow me to serve her hot food and some days only cold or frozen will do. It is all a learning curve, but it is doable with the right attitude and tools. Once I was finally able to let go of my expectations meal time became much less stressful for the both of us.

Healthy vegan creamy Tuscan white bean soup

During these long winter months when the cold feels like it goes straight to your bones I cannot think of anything that will warm you up more than a hot, hearty bowl of soup. With three little girls under the age of four running around I do not have the extra time to slave over meals. While time may be limited, the desire to cook healthy, protein rich vegan meals for my family is not. I have received many questions about how I can provide the proper amounts of protein and other necessary vitamins needed for my family and most importantly my growing girls. The answer is simple for this dish…beans, kale and cashews. The serving size of protein for a meal is about 5-6.5 ounces for adults and 2-4 ounces for children, so the combination of the beans, kale and cashew cream pack a powerful protein punch and is a healthy alternative to using any meat or other animal byproducts. The recipe I have included is so tasty that my carnivorous husband is even a fan and does not protest the lack of meat.

Ingredients:

  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 3-4 gloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • 1 ½ tsp dried sage
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 3 ½ cups organic vegetable broth
  • 3 cups white beans (Cannellini or Great northern beans are perfect)
  • 1 cup chopped sun dried tomatoes
  • ½ cup raw cashews
  • ½ cup water
  • 5 cups shredded kale
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: Roasted red pepper flakes
  • Optional Garnishes: Fresh basil or sage

Directions:

1: Soak cashews in water for 6-8 hours (or in hot water for 1-2 hours). Drain, rinse and set aside until ready to make the soup.

2: Drizzle a little olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until tender and translucent. Add the basil, sage, salt, broth, beans and sun dried tomatoes.

3: Meanwhile, combine the soaked cashews and water in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

4: Add the cashew cream and kale to the soup and mix to combine. Cover and turn the heat off. Let  the soup sit for about 5 minutes. The soup is ready to serve once the kale has started to wilt.

5: To serve, spoon the soup into individual bowls and sprinkle with extra salt and pepper, as well as red pepper flakes, fresh basil and/or fresh sage to taste.