The Candy Bar Alternative

The more I learn about sugar and how my body processes the stuff, the less I worry about the particular source–be it low glycemic coconut sugar or the demonized high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

I definitely don’t go out of my way to eat products containing HFCS. I don’t keep it in my kitchen or cook with it, but I agree with the Nutrition Diva on this one.

We should be less concerned with the form sugar takes and more concerned about the quantity. Excessive consumption seems to be the American Way. I wrote about recommended levels of sugar intake in a previous postAll sweeteners should be consumed in moderation.

That said, there’s a ginormous difference between a homemade treat and a Snicker’s Bar.

SNICKERS® Bar

This candy bar contains almost three-quarters of the recommended maximum amount of sugar for a teenage boy!

Check out the ingredient list: MILK CHOCOLATE (SUGAR, COCOA BUTTER, CHOCOLATE, SKIM MILK, LACTOSE, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR), PEANUTS, CORN SYRUP, SUGAR, MILKFAT, SKIM MILK, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, LACTOSE, SALT, EGG WHITES, CHOCOLATE, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR. MAY CONTAIN ALMONDS

Definitely not real. Highly processed and not something I could make in my own kitchen. Not to mention a rather alarming amount of sugar.  I definitely wouldn’t send one with my teenager for quick energy before after school sports.

No calorie counting here!

No calorie counting here!

The question then is what can be sent that is easily portable, real and sweet enough to appeal to a teenage boy more concerned with taste than nutrition.

The inspiration for one of the sweet treats that can be commonly found in my son’s backpack came from a vegan cookbook I found at Costco. The Forks Over Knives Cookbook has an awesome dessert section and, with a couple of improvisations, the following recipe was born…

A Better Granola Bar

  • 1/2 cup peanut or almond butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup brown rice syrup (or honey)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract (can use all vanilla)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8-1/4 cup uncooked millet
  • 2 cups whole rolled oats (not the quick kind)

Line the bottom of an 8×8″ pan with foil that extends up the sides. Lightly grease with cooking spray.

Heat nut butter and sweeteners together in a bowl in the microwave–just enough to mix easily, then stir together until smooth.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and almond extract, cinnamon and salt.

In a large bowl mix oats and millet with the syrup mixture. Stir well until oats are evenly coated. Use wet hands or the back of a wet spatula (water will keep it from sticking) to very firmly and evenly press the mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 for approximately 15 minutes–or until the edges look a bit browned. Cool to room temperature, remove from pan, remove foil and place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before cutting with large kitchen knife (pressing straight down for a clean cut) into 8 equal rectangles.

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To make it even more decadent, add 1/3 cup chocolate chips to the oat mixture before pressing into pan. Try chopped, dried apricots, toasted and roughly chopped almonds or whatever else appeals to you.

Perfect for packing! Only 3 teaspoons of sugar per bar.

8 Easy Ways to Go Mediterranean

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As my husband, Vegan Man, likes to say, “It’s a Lifestyle–not a diet.” The same is true of the Mediterranean Diet.  And while this way of eating developed in a certain part of the world, far from our home in California, its increasing popularity is a result of its remarkable health benefits and delicious flavors.

A study conducted in Spain, with results published by the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that a Mediterranean Diet is responsible for a 30% risk reduction for heart attacks and strokes. It proved far more valuable than just eating a low-fat diet. They even had to stop the study early because the health benefits were so ridiculously clear that to continue would have been unethical.

Here’s the lowdown, eight simple ways to bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to your own family’s table without having to cross an ocean:

1. Eat lots of vegetables. With every meal. Fresh salads with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese, garlicky greens, roasted cauliflower, healthy veg topped pizzas. Vegetables are an important part of going Mediterranean.

2. Change your relationship with meat. Become acquaintances instead of best friends. Think of meat as a side as opposed to an entrée. Reduce red meat to no more than a few times a month.

3. Eat breakfast. Start your day with fiber rich foods including oatmeal and other whole grains, fruits/vegetables and a protein source.

4. Enjoy seafood once or twice a week. Fresh or water packed tuna, trout, salmon or mackerel are all good choices. Just nix the deep-fried variety.

5. Eat vegetarian one or more nights a week. Build your meals around beans, grains and vegetables. Experiment with herbs and spices to enliven your evening meal.

6. Use good fats. Olive oil is a good replacement for margarine and butter. Try olive oil with a splash of balsamic vinegar as a delicious dip for crusty french bread. Mashed avocado spread on toast is quite nice as well.

7. Enjoy dairy products in moderation. Eat plain yogurt with fruit and nuts. Use Greek yogurt as a substitute for sour cream. Try small amounts of a variety of cheeses.

8. Choose fresh fruit for dessert. Look for what’s in season. Limit sugary treats for special occasions.

And since it’s a lifestyle, not a diet, don’t forget to include other healthy practices like daily exercise and enjoying meals with family and friends. If you’re a wine drinker, you have the green light to enjoy a glass with dinner on occasion for its heart protective properties.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Homemade. Dinner. Fast.

Homemade. Dinner. Fast. You don’t often see those three words standing so close together. But with a little preparation, it can be done–and done well.  The trick is to keep what you need in your freezer.

It involves three main ingredients:  pizza dough, grated cheese and sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

In the morning transfer them from freezer to refrigerator.  Keep them all in the fridge for most of the day to thaw slowly.  The dough came out a couple of hours before dinner to sit on the counter and finish thawing. I then removed the plastic wrap, set the dough on a plate and covered it with a clean tea towel to warm up and rise a bit.

The crust:  I’ve been using this particular recipe for the past year.  It makes a thin, extremely crispy crust that is absolutely delicious.  Find the recipe on another really great blog, Dinner a Love Story.  The only difference being that I substitute half the white flour with whole wheat.  Works perfectly.  I also am a fan of prepping the dough in my food processor. It’s quick and easy.  The recipe makes enough for two crusts.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and tuck them into a freezer bag.

Grated cheese:  Freezing grated cheese destined for melting works well.  I cut a pound of mozzarella into three equal pieces that would fit through the intake tube of my food processor.  Freeze the cheese for about 20 to 30 minutes in advance for easier grating. Use the grating blade attachment.

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The food processor will definitely save time, but hand grating works fine, especially if you have lots of eager helpers.  I packed the cheese equally into three pint size freezer bags. One bag works for one lightly cheesy pizza, but use two bags if you like yours rich and gooey.

Ready for bagging!

Ready for bagging!

The sauce:  If all you have is a large can of diced tomatoes (or a freezer full of frozen ones), you can whip up this pizza sauce in minutes with the addition of four more common ingredients.  There is no cooking required! The recipe comes from cookbook author, Amanda Haas.  It’s so easy your kids can make it while you prepare a green salad.  Use some and freeze the rest.  I prefer sturdy jars for freezing this sauce in.

Putting it all together:  Simply spread the dough in a large, very thin rectangle on a heavily oiled (olive oil–it does great things to the crust) cookie sheet.  Cover with sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese.  I brush olive oil on any exposed crust, but I try to take the toppings as close to the edge as possible. I also drizzle some good quality olive oil over the top as well.

Bake at 500 degrees.  Check after ten minutes.  The edges should be brown and the cheese bubbly.

The result?  Gourmet pizza at a fraction of the cost of take-out.

What pizza toppings do you prefer?

With the addition of black olives.

With the addition of black olives.

5 Surprising Foods to Keep in the Freezer

You’ll save money and waste less with the freezer as your friend.  These five foods are handy to have on hand:

1. Tomatoes  When you find a great source for tasty tomatoes (your garden?), and you want to preserve the flavor of summer, it’s a simple matter to pack them clean and whole in a freezer bag.  When needed, simply rinse under warm water, and the skin peels right off.  Core and chop to the desired size while still semi-frozen.  When thawed they will be comparable to canned tomatoes.  Use in soups, stews, casseroles and sauces.

All that's left from last summer's garden.

All that’s left from last summer’s garden.

2.  Avocados  Simply wash, slice in half and peel.  Pop them into a freezer bag just like this.  Alternatively you could mash them up with a little lemon juice and freeze.  The texture of this fruit does change from its fresh state, but previously frozen avocado makes a great guacamole.  I like to use mashed avocado on my sandwich as a replacement for mayo.

Peel and freeze!

Peel and freeze!

3.  Grains  When you have time, make an extra-large batch of your favorite grain.  Let them cool thoroughly, spread out on a baking sheet before freezing.  Then divide grains into small portions in freezer safe bags.  Squeeze out all extra air in bag to avoid ice crystals and freezer burn.  Keeps in freezer for two to three months.  Use as the basis for a quick dinner, an addition to casseroles or soups, or as a breakfast cereal.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

4.  Milk  When I started buying organic milk on a regular basis, it was a shock to the pocketbook.  But then I found out that I could buy it on sale and stick the extra jugs in the deep freeze.  Yes, the texture does change.  It may be slightly “grainier” and needs to be shaken before use to blend the fat back into the milk.  Not great for drinking a glass with cookies but fine for cooking/baking, and I happily use it on my cereal.

5.  Ginger  We love cooking with ginger.  Unfortunately, it always seemed that we didn’t use it up before it went bad.  Then I stumbled on a tip in my Cook’s Illustrated magazine that changed my despair to, well, if not joy, then satisfaction…  Peel and freeze.  Easy.  Frozen ginger makes grating simple.  Also, check out this page from Lunch In A Box for more ideas about freezing ginger.

What do you find that works well coming out of the freezer?

Friday Feature: Bulgur, It’s What’s for Breakfast

This afternoon, shortly before picking Sam up at school, I was in the kitchen cooking up…breakfast.  It’s true, I’ve been a little preoccupied with breakfast lately, but I’m not completely disoriented.  In fact, my sense of timing has never been better.  I’m ahead of the game.  Tomorrow’s breakfast is done.

Lucky for Sam breakfast bulgur makes a great after school snack too.  Admittedly, he regarded my offering warily at first.  But in the end, he scarfed it down in record time.

Not an especially mouth-watering name, but bulgur is really quite tasty and versatile. Bulgur, wheat that has been hulled, dried and ground, is a quick cooking grain frequently used in a middle eastern salad called tabbouleh.  But it is so much more than that.

020Turns out that bulgur (as well as many other grains) makes a great addition to the breakfast scene and is a simple and delicious alternative to oatmeal. The following recipe uses another handy kitchen tool, the rice cooker.  If you don’t have one, you can cook bulgur the traditional way, but the rice cooker gives you especially tender, fluffy results.

This useful machine is fitted with a round, removable, aluminum bowl.  A simple button turns it on, and it goes off by itself when your grain has absorbed all the added liquid.  It cooks basic grains in lots of different ways including risotto, pilaf, paella, and breakfast porridge (among other things).

Of course, you can cook grains without one–a pot with a lid will suffice, but the rice cooker makes perfectly cooked grains every time.  And clean up is about as easy as it gets. Keep your eye out for a rice cooker at yard sales or thrift stores.

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Breakfast Bulgur

  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 T. brown sugar
  • 1 T. butter

Add bulgur to the bowl of the rice cooker.  Then add the rest of the ingredients–stirring to combine.  The butter will melt during cooking.  Cover and cook.

When machine switches to “OFF”, let bulgur steam on the warming cycle for 10 minutes.  Fluff with wooden spoon and serve nice and hot.

If you don’t have a rice cooker, don’t fret.  All you have to do boil two cups of water, add bulgur and other ingredients.  Cover and reduce heat to a low simmer.  Check for water absorption at about 10 minutes.

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I like eating mine with yogurt, apples and walnuts.  Sam enjoyed his with milk, blueberries and cinnamon.  It is lightly sweetened, but a drizzle of honey or syrup can be added if desired.

Leftovers?  Put them in a container in the fridge and heat them up as needed all through the week!

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Recipe: Baked Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

Mornings are just plain busy—if not completely manic.  There’s not a lot of time to fuss over breakfast.  Since Sam took over putting together his own morning meal, he’s looking for easy.  But he also knows the requirements: whole grains, protein and fruits and/or vegetables.  So, while he’s quite adept at scavenging, (and what self-respecting teen isn’t) it’s also a comfort to know that Mom has a breakfast favorite ready to eat and only as far away as the freezer.

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Baked Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

  • 7.5 ounces (1/2 can) pumpkin pie mix (We like the Farmer’s Market brand.  It always goes on sale around Thanksgiving so I buy lots.)
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 T. butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups quick oatmeal
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl. Blend together well.

Stir the 3 remaining dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.

Add wet ingredients to dry and stir with spoon until just mixed.

Spoon resulting mixture into a greased 8X8 pan and bake for 25 minutes.  Check for doneness with toothpick in the center.  Bake an additional 5 minutes if needed.  Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.  Cut into squares when completely cool.

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Eat one right away, if you must (I always do) and pack the rest into a labelled freezer zip bag.  When ready for breakfast, simply remove a square or two from the bag and heat in a bowl in the microwave.  When hot, serve with milk, kefir or yogurt.  Top with fresh fruit and a drizzle of maple syrup if extra sweetness is desired.

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Sam likes to use the remaining pie mix to stir into his yogurt.  This is also a breakfast he willingly makes on his own or becomes a snack after school.  Alternatively, you could simply double the recipe using the whole can of pumpkin pie mix.

This recipe makes a delicious, not-too-sweet, hot breakfast in a hurry. The hard part’s done; just heat and eat.

3 Ways to Build a Better Breakfast

We know that breakfast is an important meal, especially for children.  But what we eat is equally important.  Turns out the best morning meal is one that’s composed of three types of foods:

1. Whole grains

  • whole grain hot cereals like oatmeal
  • Whole grain toast
  • Whole grain rolls, bagels, tortillas
  • Leftover grain based salads
  • Cold breakfast cereals that follow the Rule of 5:  no more than 5 grams of sugar and no less than 5 grams of fiber.
Heritage Flakes cereal follows the Rule of 5!

Heritage Flakes cereal follows the Rule of 5!

2. Lean protein

  • Peanut or other nut butters
  • An ounce or two of whole nuts
  • Eggs
  • Fish or chicken
  • Yogurt/milk or non-dairy milk (check the label for protein)

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3. Fruits and vegetables

  • Fresh, seasonal sliced fruit
  • Leftover dinner vegetables/salad
  • Frozen fruit

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Simply choose 1 or 2 food items from each category to create a breakfast that will not only taste good but will keep your brain sharp and your belly comfortably full until your next meal or snack.  You want a breakfast that will provide complex carbs, fiber, protein and a little fat.

Eat separately or combine foods to create a meal that not only feeds you nutritionally but pleases the palate as well.

  • Scrambled egg on an english muffin and a side of strawberries
  • Chopped hard-boiled egg and fresh spinach stuffed into a whole wheat pita pocket
  • Bean and rice tostada salad, for breakfast, really!
  • Oatmeal with fruit and milk
  • Smoothie with fruit, peanut butter and toasted wheat germ
  • Grilled chicken with lettuce and bell pepper strips on whole wheat bread

Obviously there are lots of options.  It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…  What are your favorites?

Who knew breakfast could be such fun.  Kiwi, yogurt and whole grain toast.

Who knew breakfast could be such fun. Kiwi, yogurt and whole grain toast.