Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Do Box Tops for Education Really Promote?

I collect Box Tops for Education for my daughter's elementary school. One or two products that I buy are involved in the program and I dutifully clip the box tops for the school. I recently noticed a commercial for Pillsbury® Toaster Strudel® Pastries promoting their affiliation with the Box Tops for Education Program. It got me thinking: How healthy are the food products that are involved the program?

"Box Tops for Education is a program created by General Mills to provide funding for education." This is the description of the program on the eHOW website. The official Box Tops for Education website claims to have raised over $320 million for schools since 1996 (each box top collected is worth ten cents). Compare this with the annual cost of obesity which was recently stated as $147 billion per year, and the benefit of the Box Tops program pales in comparison! With increasing rates of overweight and obesity in kids, it's pretty important that programs designed for schools promote healthy eating habits.

I surveyed the food products involved with the program and created three categories: healthy, pseudo-healthy, and refined. I classified each food in a category for each division of food products (refrigerated, frozen, beverages, etc.). This is by no means a scientific study and my criteria for healthy vs. pseudo healthy foods is perhaps a bit blurred (I classified Juicy Juice as a pseudo-healthy food. Consumed in small amounts, it is fine, but even 100% juice can contribute to weight gain when over-consumed). If a food contained a majority of whole grains, was in its natural state, contained lower amounts of sodium, and had limited added sugars, I considered it a healthy food. Food products close to their natural state, but with some added sugars (or high natural sugar content) and added ingredients to bump up their dietary fiber were considered pseudo-healthy. Foods with a high amount of refined grains and sugars (including artificial sweeteners) and higher in sodium were classified as refined foods (notice how I didn't call them unhealthy, although it is implied).

As you can image, most of the food products promoted by the Box Tops for Education program are processed. You can view the participating products for yourself. The list changes often as new products are added and limited products are deleted. Of the one hundred and eighty-eight products that I looked at, 14.3% were healthy, 14.8% were pseudo-healthy, and 70.7% were refined. These results are not so impressive, especially when it comes to feeding our kids!

Ehow suggests using the program only for products that you normally buy. But we all know that this is not really how promotions and coupons are intended to be used by their creators. They want us to buy their products and the more we buy the better. It behooves manufacturers to offer promotions to encourage us to buy; if we think that they are socially minded in the process, all the better for them. I wish they would just donate money to the schools without pushing us to buy products, but that's not how America works.

Fortunately, there are non-food products that are involved in this program, so you don't have to worry about contributing to childhood obesity because you want to clip a few box tops. Even better is the online program. There are many participating stores selling many non-food products that will provide a multiple of box tops per every $10 spent.

I'll continue to clip the box tops for the three food products that I regularly purchase and resist the urge to buy more because I think that I'm helping my daughter's school by doing so.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How Food Can Help You Score in Love

Set the stage for love by following a healthy diet 
The connection between food and love goes much deeper than eating certain foods to increase arousal. The right foods convey vitality, endurance and improved blood circulation; all very important for a special night with that special person. There is no mystery; a healthy diet sets the stage for a fulfilling romantic experience. We’ve all heard it before; eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. Not eating this way yet? Well you should, and here is another good reason why: what’s good for your health is also good for your mojo. We are just beginning to understand how the array of nutrients we get from unprocessed foods impact our bodies; from the phyto (plant) chemicals in blueberries that help relax your blood vessels, allowing blood to flow through them more freely, to boosting your libido by eating enough zinc from meat, whole grains, legumes, and seafood (oysters, a famed aphrodisiac, are high in zinc). If you abuse your body with foods high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, over time you’ll increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes, two chronic diseases with serious negative ramifications in the love department.

A little foresight is required to set the tone for a romantic evening. Follow a few simple guidelines to help you get ready for that perfect encounter.

1. Eat Breakfast: Eating breakfast is the best way to assure that you have the energy to make it through the day and into the night. Breakfast foods such as oatmeal, fortified cereals, milk, and eggs provide a good dose of B-vitamins, which will keep your libido soaring and the stress of courting under control. One of the B-vitamins, niacin, is important for the secretion of histamine, a chemical that your body needs for arousal.

2. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: In moderation, both are fine, but tip the scale in the direction of excess and your night of romance could be railroaded. More than three cups of coffee can act as a diuretic and cathartic; where a little caffeine and alcohol may help keep you alert and relaxed, too much and you could spend most of the night in the bathroom rather than with your love interest.

3. Minimize Foods that Create Unpleasant Odors: Many foods that create odors, such as garlic, onions, curried dishes, broccoli and cauliflower are good for you. You still want to eat these foods, but not on date night. The alternative is to persuade your date to eat them with you, that way you will both be blissfully ignorant about how you smell to the world.

The best aphrodisiac is to feel good about yourself. The confidence that you exude because you feel good about the way that you look and feel can make you irresistible to others. A few types of foods can help add to your appeal. If you want to be assured of a “sure-thing”, try one or more of the following:

Celery: Celery doesn’t come to mind when you think about passion, but this unsuspecting vegetable releases pheromones—chemicals that naturally turn us on—with every bite. Munch a few stalks, and you could give another meaning to the term “rabbit food”.

Chocolate: Chocolate contains chemicals that heighten the love experience. One is phenyethylamine—called the “love molecule” because it is suspected to cause the feeling of bliss lovers experience. The other, methylxanthine, is a stimulant responsible for increasing skin sensitivity. Chocolate rightly earns its reputation as a treat for lovers.

Vanilla: The scent of vanilla has been shown to be relaxing, putting people in the mood for intimacy. Light a few vanilla candles and serve vanilla ice cream with a chocolate dessert and you and your intended will soon be in the mood for love.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Adventures in Soup Making

Delicious and easy red lentil soup 
We love soup in my house. I began making soup a more regular part of our meals a few years ago. I started by using prepared organic broths. There are many easy recipes out there making soups with prepared broths. The only problem is that they are high in sodium. Yes, I know that you can buy low sodium broths and this is a good option, but I have flavor fatigue from most commercially prepared broths. As my husband and I are pushing the second half century of our lives, I think that it is better to prepare more homemade soups with homemade stock.

This may seem like a daunting task, but really, it isn't. You can prepare your soup or broth when you have more time. Once you get familiar with what tastes good to you, you'll be able to "wing it" without a recipe. I still like to find a great soup recipe like Red Lentil Soup from The Best of Bloodroot, Volume Two, but most of my soup adventures are flying by the seat of my pants. I throw all kinds of combinations of food into a pot and typically the results are great.

I'll share the recipe for Red Lentil Soup as this one is really out of this world and it can teach you some soup-making skills. After the recipe, I'll include some guidelines for mixing up your own creations.

Red Lentil Soup

2 cups red lentils
2 large onions, sliced
8 cloves garlic, sliced
3 T. fresh ginger, sliced
2 T. grapeseed oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
8 cups water
1/3 c. low sodium tamari
2 cups canned diced tomatoes (low sodium is best)
pepper to taste (only add salt if you really have to after you serve the soup)

Spiced Oil Garnish

4 T. grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. whole cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1-2 sliced green onions

1. Pick over and rinse lentils (I admit that I usually skip this step-I rarely find rocks in my legumes).
2. In a large stock pot heat oil and saute ginger, garlic and onions with cumin and coriander for about 2 minutes.
3. Add lentils, water, and low sodium tamari. Add tomatoes (the original recipe says to drain the tomatoes. I add the whole can, including the liquid. I use a 28 oz. can of organic diced tomatoes. It is not low sodium and I do not add any extra salt). Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer until lentils are tender, about half an hour (I find that red lentils cook quickly since they are so small).
4. Puree soup until smooth. You can use a blender, but this is a big task. The soup is hot and you have to blend it in batches. I can't tell you how many times I've had hot soup going everywhere. It is definitely not fun and enough of an annoyance to prevent future blended soup adventures. I suggest using a hand held immersion blender. It will make this step much easier.
5. Season with pepper.
6. To make spiced oil garnish, heat grapeseed oil in a small pan and add red pepper flakes, cumin and turmeric, stirring for a few seconds.
7. To serve, ladle hot soup into bowls and drizzle a spoonful of spiced oil on top. Sprinkle with sliced green onions (the recipe calls for cilantro. I much prefer green onions).

Serves 6 to 8 people

Hints for Creating Your Own Soups

1. Begin by making soup a few times following a recipe. I tend to make vegetarian soups so I look for vegetarian recipes. Bloodroot is my new favorite cookbook and if you're looking for amazing vegetarian recipes, I highly recommend it. I've learned a lot about flavor combinations by following recipes.

2. Choose healthy ingredients. I encourage you to make soup the main part of your meal. To get the nutrition you need you should include healthy sources of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In food lingo that means lean meats, legumes, whole grains (barley, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, millet, etc.), and lots and lots of vegetables (don't forget the greens. Soup is a great way to eat greens)!

3. Season for flavor and that doesn't mean salt! You can use a little salt or salt containing foods such as canned legumes or tomatoes, but experiment with a variety of flavors from spices, herbs and flavorful foods (garlic, onion, lean meats, citrus peel, dried mushrooms, etc.).

Add a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices to your soup 

4. Go for color. Colorful foods have antioxidants and add to the appeal of food. I'll add onion skins to my stock because I like the color that it gives the broth. I'll also add beets. Nothing looks prettier than a red vegetable soup in a white bowl.

Colorful foods add nutrition, flavor, and eye appeal 

5. Be daring. When you've made soup a few times you'll begin to improve upon what you've made. Perhaps you may decide that a stalk of lemon grass would enhance your recipe. Or you might like to add a bit of lime zest or some coconut milk. Get out of your comfort zone and explore new flavors.

Soup can be served as part of a larger meal or it can be the main dish. I often serve it as the main dish. I'll round out the meal with crusty whole grain bread and a salad containing a variety of interesting greens.

One of the benefits of eating soup is that it promotes a feeling of fullness that can help decrease calorie intake. If you've stuck around long enough to read this statement, it should motivate you to experiment more with homemade soups.

Please share your adventures in soup making. I'm always looking for interesting combinations of flavors to add to the pot!

To your health!

PS: When my son was 18 months old he commented on his grandfather eating soup. As he couldn't pronounce his "s" it sounded like, "Papa eating poop." Papa replied, "I hope not!"

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Porcini and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

Porcini and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers served with Tamari Roasted Cauliflower and Sauteed Escarole  

Talk about making half of your plate vegetables, this meal does more than that! I was looking for a good recipe to serve as a substitute for meat stuffed peppers. I came upon a quinoa stuffed pepper recipe, but I didn't love the flavor. So, I made my own. I love the flavor that the dried mushrooms add to the quinoa. I also added diced potatoes for a couple reasons. My kids love potatoes and their flavor really enhances this recipe. Also, my teenagers are athletes and they need a lot of carbohydrates, especially my son who has type 1 diabetes. I'm always looking for a balance of healthy high fiber carbohydrates and protein to feed my son to prevent the blood sugar crashes that can happen about 8 hours after his training. 

Along with the healthy protein and carbohydrate from the quinoa, there is an abundance of antioxidants and nutrients from all the other ingredients in this meal. I hope you enjoy these recipes!

Porcini and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 small leek,  cleaned and sliced
1 c. quinoa (I used red)
2 T. grapeseed oil
5 red bell peppers
1 stalk celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 medium potato, diced
scant 1/2 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
2 1/2 tsp. low sodium tamari
If you are unfamiliar with how to clean a leek, follow the link for directions.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Soak porcini mushrooms in 1 c. hot water for about 15 minutes. When soft, drain through a cheese cloth, saving mushroom broth. Dice the mushrooms.
2. Cook quinoa in 1 1/4 cup water or vegetable broth.
3. Core and wash peppers, removing seeds.
4. Heat grapeseed oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Saute onion and garlic for 1 min. Add leeks and saute another minute. Add celery, carrot, mushrooms and potato and cook for another 5 minutes or until potato starts to brown.
5. Reduce heat to low. Add cooked quinoa and mushroom broth. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until liquid is absorbed.
6. Stuff peppers with quinoa mixture, dividing the mixture equally among the peppers and filling them to the top.
7. Place stuffed peppers in a baking pan. Drizzle 1/2 tsp. low sodium tamari on top of each pepper. Add about 1/2 c. water to the bottom of the pan and bake the peppers 30 minutes or until cooked through.

Serves 5

Tamari Roasted Cauliflower

1 small head cauliflower split into florets
1 T. grapeseed oil
1 T. low sodium tamari

1. Mix all ingredients together on a rimmed cookie sheet.
2. Roast at 375 degrees F for about 20 minutes or until browned and tender. Stir half way through cooking.
3. Serve and enjoy! It couldn't be any easier!

Sauteed Escarole with Spiced Oil

The spiced oil in this recipe comes from a vegan cookbook that I have been using a lot lately. The Best of Bloodroot, Volume Two has many wonderful recipes. I highly recommend it!

4 T. grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. whole cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 T. low sodium tamari
8 c. chopped escarole

1. Make the spiced oil. Add grapeseed oil, red pepper flakes, cumin and turmeric to a small pan and heat over medium heat until aromatic. This will take only a few seconds once the oil gets hot.
2. Add 2 T. of the spiced oil to a wok. Heat over medium-high temperature. Add escarole and saute for a couple minutes, until escarole is half wilted.
3. Add tamari and serve.

Save the extra oil to use in other dishes. It provides the nutritional benefit of capsaicin and curcumin, two plant chemicals with health properties. It also tastes out of this world!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My 500-Calorie Lunch

Koshari with a side of Sugar Snap Peas 
It started as dinner a couple of nights ago. I made a recipe of Koshari, Egyptian lentils and rice, from my new vegan cookbook, The Best of Bloodroot, Volume Two. It was a simple recipe to make. Dinner was ready in less than an hour. The flavor was delicious and my 13 year old daughter took second helpings, a rare event in my house!

Fortunately, the recipe made enough servings to eat as leftovers for lunch! I love eating leftovers for lunch! This particular recipe fares well served as a leftover. The flavor is enhanced with time and the texture stands up well to "fridge time." I describe the flavor and method of making this recipe similar to a healthy version of Rice a Roni. Recipes like this prove that we don't need to rely on convenience items for a quick (and much more delicious) meal or side dish.

Egyptian lentils and rice

1 1/4 c. basmati rice
1 1/4 c. French (green) lentils
2 large Spanish onions, thinly sliced
1/3 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 c. very fine vermicelli noodles, crumbled
Kosher salt to taste
1 1/2 c. fresh tomatoes, diced

1. Rinse rice. Cover with water in a bowl and let soak while preparing other ingredients.
2. Pick over and wash lentils. Cover with 2 1/2 c. water and cook until tender (I added additional water as they cooked. I didn't use a lid and some of the water evaporated. I suggest using a lid).
3. Heat olive oil in a pan being careful not to overheat it to avoid smoking. Add onions (I chopped my onions. I don't enjoy eating long strings of onions). When onions are transparent, add red pepper flakes (you may use less depending on your tolerance to spicy foods) and garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until onions just begin to caramelize. Remove onions to a bowl using a slotted spoon.
4. Add crumbled noodles to the frying pan (I used very thin Japanese wheat noodles, but the recipe calls for fides or shehriah available in Greek or Arabic stores). Saute noodles in remaining oil until brown and crisp, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Turn off heat and set aside.
5. When lentils are soft, add drained rice to the pot and continue cooking until rice is fluffy (make sure to cover with a lid). Add onions and noodles and turn off heat. Add salt to taste (I didn't add any salt as I used a 28 oz. can of organic diced tomatoes which were plenty salty).
6. Add tomatoes to the lentil/rice mixture. Serve hot or at room temperature.

For lunch, I microwaved a cup of sugar snap peas in a tablespoon of water for a minute and sprinkled them with a teaspoon of low sodium tamari (my new wonder seasoning--I use it instead of salt in many recipes).

I'm not positive that this is a 500-calorie lunch. I call it this in the title to show that it is OK and appropriate to eat this much for lunch. Base your lunch on healthy foods that are nutritious and satisfying. Of course, everyone's calorie needs are different. Don't short change yourself by eating too little and then overindulging on junk food later.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My 500-Calorie Bowl of Cereal

I admit that I don't always eat breakfast immediately upon waking up in the morning and sometimes I wait until I've finished my early morning workout. I eat breakfast every day, but I'm often not hungry first thing in the morning. One or two hours after waking up, when hunger kicks in, I look forward to eating a healthy and satisfying breakfast.

With the release of the new Dietary Guidelines a week ago, I've been paying particular attention to the recommendation to make half of my plate fruits and vegetables. Dietitians have been recommending this for years. Half of all the foods that we eat in a day should be fruits and vegetables. Breakfast is a great place to eat a full serving (or two) of fruit. It's also a great place to eat whole grains and satisfy the Dietary Guideline to make half of our grains whole.

How do you pick a healthy breakfast cereal? I choose a whole grain cereal, either cooked or dry. The first ingredients listed on the package should say "whole" and the list should not be excessively long or contain unrecognizable ingredients. I also look at fiber and sugar. I don't always choose the highest fiber cereal because sometimes it comes with too much sugar. Currently, I'm eating Cascadian Farm Organic Multigrain Squares. Three-quarters of a cup has 2 grams of dietary fiber and 4 grams of sugar. I eat about one and a quarter cups which is 3 grams of fiber and 6 grams of sugar. The calories listed on a cereal box are the last thing that I look at. I find that many of the low calorie breakfast cereals are anemic; they don't provide much nutrition and can leave you hungry an hour later. I'd much rather eat a cereal with substance, and for a cereal to have substance, it must have some calories.

To my bowl of cereal, I add a hefty portion of fruit. I easily add more than a cup of fruit. I'm trying to fill half of the bowl with fruit. I add my own fruit rather than choose a cereal with fruit-like pieces that may or may not be real fruit. All this fruit provides me with a bounty of antioxidants, nutrients and fiber, and it fills me up. I top off my cereal with a scant quarter cup of nuts for added nutrients, fiber and protein and a full cup of milk (I prefer soy milk) for more protein.

My 500-calorie bowl of cereal sufficiently fuels my morning activities and meets my nutritional needs.  I'm not hungry again until lunch, at which time I'm ready for my 500-calorie leftovers!