Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

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Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Simple, Delicious Maple Apple Crisp (Optional: Gluten-Free)

Apple crisp

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a wonderfully simple and tasty apple crisp. We’re fully gluten-free at home these days, so we used a flour substitute, but regular flour would work just as well, of course.

If you are also gluten-free, be sure to use both vanilla extract and oats marked as gluten-free as well. Bob’s Red Mill makes some of the oats, though, disappointingly, they are not organic.

Overall, this desert is easy and comforting winter food, and is relatively healthy on that scale. The apples get a wonderful gooey-ness to them, and the oat crisp is just enough texture to keep things interesting. I’ll say that I was initially skeptical of the lemon-maple-vanilla flavor pile-on experiment I cooked up, but it works as well. I’ve made this twice now, and would venture to say that you can’t really mess it up. And you’ll want some ice cream for over top — we used a ginger-flavored local ice cream last night, which was out of this world.

I think I’ll go and eat some of the leftovers from last night right now!

IMG_5651Ingredients:

Filling:

  • 4-5 cups organic apples (no need to peel; and you really want organic as apples have the highest levels of pesticide residues out there)
  • 1/2 cup (organic, unsulphured) raisins (or cranberries)
  • 1/4 cup (organic) maple syrup
  • juice from 1/2 of a fresh (organic) lemon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg or 8 scrapes of a fresh nutmeg (far more potent!)
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (check to be sure it’s gluten-free if so desired)

IMG_5665Topping:

  • 1 cup (organic, or gluten-free) oats
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional, but nice)
  • 1/3 cup (organic) flour or gluten-free substitute (we used gluten-free pancake mix, which worked well)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 2-3 Tbsp. melted (organic, grassfed) butter, as you prefer

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large baking dish, toss the apple slices with the ingredients for the filling.

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Prepare the topping by mixing the dry ingredients together, and adding the melted butter. Spread over the apples and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the apples are soft.

IMG_5670Top with ice cream or whipped cream. Serve to delighted young (and old!) fans.

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A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?

Beef Tagine with Oil-Cured Olives, Almonds and Quince

I love my tagine. Why such gooey affection for crockery cookery, you ask, in a calm and reasonable tone?

Tagines, the Moroccan style of steam-boiling sauces and meats using a hat-shaped piece of pottery, allow me to have a really delicious and hearty dinner on the table in just over an hour, with minimal fuss and feathers. And mine has proven remarkably tolerant to my whatevs-in-the-fridge-and/or-cupboard approach to recipes, as the title for this post attests.

I already presented you with this delicious chicken dish with lemon. In fact, I probably use our stove-top tagine at least once a week, which is way more than I anticipated when I first boldly acquired yet another large new piece of specialized cookware.

One trick has been a side-investment in the most wonderful spice mix I’ve found — Ras el Hanout. It includes more than 20 spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace.

The blend is mild enough to be acceptable to Maya and me, while also interesting enough to add enough depth to foods so that my husband, who prefers it very spicy, doesn’t drown the result of my modest efforts in sriracha. It’s a magical middle that had eluded me for years, and, as a bonus, it smells heavenly.

And, although the flavor variations are endless, the method for this style of cooking is fairly simple: heat the tagine over low heat, add oil, aromatics and spices, then the meat until it browns, then water or stock to about half an inch below the edge. Bubble until falling apart and delicious.

Lacking a tagine, you could try this combination in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, like my (almost) equally beloved enamel ones. If you do this, please let us know how your venture into uncharted territory turned out…

Ingredients:

(Grass-fed, organic) Beef, cut into bite-sized pieces (I tried to use a full roast at first, as you’ll see, which, er, didn’t work at all)

2 Tbl ras el hanout or as many of those spices as you can muster

2/3 cups oil-cured black olives (I know, these use intense chemical processing. But I can’t help it! If you know things I should know about these, please share.)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Generous Tbl or 2 of quince paste (also called membrillo)

1 cup (organic) peas, fresh or frozen

1 good-sized (organic) chopped tomato

1 C-shaped piece of ginger, chopped (JK, yours could also be L-shaped)

1 (organic) onion, chopped finely

3 TBL butter, grapeseed or coconut oil

Sufficient water or (organic) stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice or cous-cous for serving

Directions:

Heat oil, ginger, onions and eventually, the spices, including salt and pepper, on low until the onions are translucent. (If you don’t have ras el hanout, use your best approximation from what’s on hand. And then order some… it’s truly worth a try!)

Add the olives, almonds and peas, and stir.

Next, add the meat and brown on all sides. Do not make my mistake and foolishly think the tagine can conquer a roast, unaided by humans. Duh. Tagines are great. They’re not that great.

This…

…eventually became the more sensible stew format that the universe intended.

When the meat is well browned, add water or stock to about 1/2 inch below the edge and put the hat on.

Keep it at a high simmer for an hour or so, depending on the texture desired. Serve the stew over rice or cous-cous and enjoy for several days, until you feel compelled to tango with your tagine again.

Channa Masala (Simple Chickpea Tomato Curry)

Chickpeas or (less elegantly) garbanzo beans, rock. They are high in folate (which is key during pregnancy, as we all know), zinc and protein. For protein-lovers like my family, chickpeas are satisfying enough to make a complete meal, especially when accompanied by this rich mix of spices.

So if you love chickpeas and want to look beyond the ubiquitous hummus, you might give this wonderful, savory dish of India a try. (Bemusing side-note: an oldish, peevish David Brooks column actually called wielding hummus a telltale sign of “hipster” parenting. Um, how can a substance present at every single party I’ve attended since 1992 be the least bit hip? David, dear, haven’t you ever been to a gathering of the humans?)

A few notes:

One) If you don’t have all the spices listed below on hand, just do what ya’ can.

Two) The Weston A. Price folks don’t like pressure cookers, which I think is loopy. Pressure cooking tends to retain the nutrients and texture of food better than slow cooking does, and makes it possible to cook beans on a far more regular basis, which has got to be good for health.

Whether it’s my beloved Moroccan tagine or the Indian-style dishes we make in the pressure cooker, steam cooking has been a major part of these and other traditional cuisines for a long time (the tagine, at least, goes back hundreds of years). And the limited liquid you add becomes a flavorful part of the dish, so if the nutrients end up there, you get all that goodness included.

Just be sure your cooker is stainless steel, and not aluminum, to reduce exposure to aluminum where you can, particularly if cooking for children.

Ingredients

2 cups (when dried) soaked (organic) chickpeas (we favor soaking them for 24 hours in salty water and find them far more toothsome than canned ones area; if you are using canned, try Eden brand for their BPA-free-ness)

Spices galore: Cayenne pepper, Turmeric, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Cinnamon, Thyme, Coriander Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Ground Cardamom, Garam Marsala (I just put a good shake of each, except I was more stinting on the Cayenne), plus salt and pepper to taste

Fresh (organic) tomatoes (found these heirloomy ones at the farmer’s market — what great flavor!)

4 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1/2 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 chopped (organic) onion (I love how noble this one looks)

3 Tbl Olive oil, grassfed butter, or ghee (what I used)

Directions:

Warm up the pan and add the oil, butter or ghee. When heated, saute the garlic and onion over low to medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the spices and stir.

After a few minutes, add the tomatoes and stir.

Finally, drain and add the chickpeas and give it a good stir, then add fresh water up to 2/3 of the cooker.

Bring the cooker up to 15 psi, and then slightly lower the heat. (Follow directions for your pressure cooker on the time allotted for cooking chickpeas, likely around 20 minutes or so.)

Serve over brown (organic) rice or wholewheat (organic) couscous. Also lovely with a little plain yogurt. Serves 4.

Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

Slightly Sprouted Green Lentil Salad

Moong (or mung) beans are eaten far more in Indian cuisine than American, but they shouldn’t be. For a dose of health, you can’t do much better than these. The small, oval dark green lentils known as “moong dal” or “green gram” are high in protein, and Vitamin C, and also contain magnesium, phosphorus and potassium in smaller amounts.

More importantly, they are delicious, and especially when sprouted, very digestible for both adults and toddlers. The flavor is slightly nutty, and they are filling and comforting food.

Mung bean sprouts are very common in grocery stores, but since I prefer them more like beans and less like gangly sprouts, I sprout them at home and eat them just when they are barely ready to slip off their small green skins. (I’m also skeptical of store-bought sprouts, which are a far-too-frequent trigger for e coli and similar food poisoning incidents.)

The recipe below takes 3 days and 30 minutes, but don’t let the advance prep fool you — all you have to do for the first few days is change the water twice a day, morning and night. The hard part, once you become as fond of them as we are, is waiting for the days to pass…

Ingredients

2 cups whole green moong dal

1 rough-chopped (organic) tomato

1 chopped (organic) cucumber and/or raw zucchini

1 chopped (organic) yellow onion

3 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1 finely chopped small green chili

2 Tbls coriander seeds or powder

1 1/2 Tbl cumin seeds or powder

2 Tbls brown mustard seeds

3 Tbls chopped fresh cilantro

Juice from 2 freshly squeezed limes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Optional:  3 Tbls toor (yellow) dal, split

Optional: Grated (organic) carrot

Directions

Place the beans in a vessel with some room in it for expansion and cover with water for 3 days. Twice every day, rinse and replace the water — once at morning and once at night.

On the third day, the beans will be bubbly and look like these (Maya loved the bubbles, and kept poking them):

On the third day, you’re ready! Over low to medium heat in a deep saucepan, saute the onions, garlic and spices. Drain and add the beans to the pan, stirring in the spices and salt and pepper, and warm them through. Remove from the heat.

Optional addition: roast the toor dal in a small amount of oil in a separate pan and set it aside. This adds texture and crunch, but is not completely necessary.

Add the tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini, carrots, and last the fresh cilantro and fresh lime juice and combine. Top with another shake of salt and pepper. Serve while still slightly warm.

The Twinkie Did It, Mom, I Swear: The Crisis in Child Nutrition and What It Does to Our Kids

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...When I read Kelly Dorfman’s new book, What’s Eating Your Child, a few weeks back, I was stunned by the number and variety of child health problems that turned out to be related to diet. The book is a quick yet informative read, built from clearly explained case studies of children with health issues ranging from anxiety to Asberger’s, all of whom are significantly helped by her simple, effective nutritional fixes.

Here’s Dorfman’s compelling version of “we are what we eat:”

One basic law of physics says that you cannot make matter from nothing….In the case of the body, its ability to create must start from what it takes in or is born with. In other words, any growing, healing, development and functioning you accomplish must evolve from from what you come with, eat, drink or breathe. You are born with about seven pounds of matter that will expand into a hundred-something pounds….What one eats has bearing on mood, energy, susceptibility to illness, digestion, sleep, learning, healing capacity, and more.

The book centers mainly on Dorfman’s sensitive, case-specific assessments of the issues affecting particular families, and the tone is gentle and explanatory rather than judgmental. But it was nonetheless amazing to me that so many children in the book, living in a food-abundant society like our own, have such utterly crappy diets.

In many cases, though it should perhaps be obvious, diet is the last place it seems anybody looks for a solution, even for serious child health problems. The book is full of stories of families who have been to an elaborate pantheon of expensive medical specialists for their child’s health issues, and of drugged-up children taking medications more suitable for adults — medications that do little to address the problem, and carry a risk of serious side effects. All the while, the kids are snarfing down nothing but Twinkies, Wonder Bread and soda, yet no one apparently connects the dots until Dorfman gently suggests a vegetable or two might improve the situation.

Predictably, she puts it in a nicer way than I just did:

Few parents start out with the goal of feeding their children toaster pastries for breakfast and peanut butter crackers for lunch, yet an astounding number (if my practice is any indication) end up there. … The scenario of a typical diet gone bad starts at age two when a sleep-starved mother hands her red-faced, screaming toddler a cracker or cookie so he will just shut up.

She goes on to rightly label cookies and crackers for toddlers “like crack.” As someone who very recently violated every principle I hold dear to repeatedly stuff “Toppables” crackers into Maya in an attempt to get her to shut up for the duration at recent family memorial service, I can personally attest to their addictive, and seductively taming, properties for toddlers.

Even my own impertinent darling, despite our generally uptight dietary controls, asks for “biscuits” “crackers” and “cookies” daily and by name. While she only very rarely gets them, and the ones she typically does get are made of organic oats and taste like wallpaper paste, this has yet to cool her ardor. Toddler crack? I’d say more like heroine.

And past the toddler stage, things don’t look very bright either. Dorfman reports that most children over-consume salt, bad fats, and added sugar, adding:

An October 2010 study reported that the top sources of calories for 2 to 18-year-olds were [] cookies, cakes, granola bars, pizza and soda. Nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumer were from empty-calorie foods.

Up against these odds, Dorfman is undaunted. To find the cause for a specific problem, she becomes what she calls a “nutrition detective,” putting the clues together either to figure out when a food is a harmful irritant, or to identify a deficiency might be causing the problem. Some of her conclusions are astonishing, as when she demonstrates that chronic ear infections may be related to milk allergy, or that speech delays in two children were likely caused by a lack of adequate essential fats in their diets.

She also points out that each of us has highly individualized nutritional needs, a factor called bio-individuality. This means that even within a family, the dietary needs of one child for a particular nutrient or mineral may be higher than for her sibling, a reality that unhelpfully may conceal the relationship between nutrition and that child’s health issues.

On the flip side, there are also linkages among family members due to genetics, as in the family in which a shared intolerance for gluten negatively affected the behavior of both parent and child, causing irritability, behavioral irregularities and distraction in both.

How a Nutrition Detective Clearly Links Child Health Back to Food

I highly recommend this book. I found its approach balanced, sensible and sensitive. When families and other doctors were skeptical about the contributions of nutritional factors, Dorfman explains how she would patiently allow them to exhaust the traditional medical diagnoses first, and then move in to restate the obvious. Her approach, overall, is both gentle and painstaking. And behavioral change is obviously harder than popping a pill. Still, at times I wished the book was a little more directive, as it lacks a chapter that summarizes all the dietary “do’s.”

Nonetheless, the overall message is obvious: sugars, highly processed foods and refined flour products tend to take over the diets of children, taking up space where real foods should be, and creating taste preferences that lead to “picky eater” syndrome. She suggests a method for insisting that picky eaters diversify their food preferences, and also takes this problem of a mono- (and nutrient-deprived) diet as seriously as it likely deserves.

For stiffer medicine, she also suggests that we not keep anything in the house that we don’t want our children to eat. This is harsh, but good advice. I know the day is fast approaching with Maya that “do as I say” won’t work anymore — and this rule of thumb seems right to me (and will push me into the final clean-up of my own dietary act, as it were. Ahem.).

In addition to emphasizing organic, whole foods and a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and highlighting the importance of a protein- and nutrient-rich breakfast (a few of my own ideas on that one are here), she recommends that children (and adults) take a multivitamin, and she touts the significant properties of cod liver oil for its essential fatty acids.

Since I have always been skeptical about the uptake of minerals and vitamins from supplements, her insistence that these additions are important to the diet, and her well-reasoned arguments in support of that idea, are causing me to do a rethink.

I looked around briefly for products that would fit the parameters in the book, and they were hard to find. For vitamins, she recommends one with a good variety of minerals, and the full set of B-vitamins (which gummy vitamins are typically missing), and not more than 2,500 IUs of Vitamin A.

For cod liver oil, she indicates that we need more than 1,000 mgs total of the active ingredients of EPA and DHA. We were already taking a popular brand of fish oil capsules, but a closer reading of the label revealed we’d need choking hazard-levels of 15 pills per day each to get that amount of active EPA and DHA! (She also recommends probiotics — the more live bacteria the better, and chewable ones should be avoided because they are too low in live cultures.)

So I wrote to Dorfman to ask for recommended brands for vitamins and for high-potency fish oil that had been cleansed of mercury, PCBs or other pollutants found in fish. And wonder of wonders, she actually wrote me back, of course with some very helpful answers. Noting that it would have been far more dicey for her to officially recommend particular products in her book, she said:

With [cod liver oil], it is tough to stabilize the potency so to get the higher amounts of EPA/DHA you may have to get regular fish oil.  Nordic Naturals has a patented process for purifying fish oils and are good.  They are available widely.   Their Ultimate Omega (which is also available with vitamin D) comes in a bottle as a liquid.  I recommend it a lot.  However, their products have a strong fish flavor.  If you need a neutral tasting clean product, consider 2 tsp. of Omega Cure.  It mixes easily with other foods.

As far as a well balanced multiple, check out these wafers.   Two per day contain 15 mg of zinc.

We’ve ordered both products, but they have not yet arrived. I’ll just note that the Omega Cure site also includes fish oil chocolates and cookies, thereby introducing significant cognitive dissonance into my nutritional wanderings. I’m so curious about whether these are tasty or not that I’m sure to break down and order some eventually… if you’ve tasted them, please let me know how they are! Fish oil chocolates, mmmm!

Two New Zealand chocolate fish.

They don’t really look like this.

One more note:  Given the frightening lack of any real regulation of food supplements, you may want to check the products you are using against the testing being done by the only private group to fill in doing what the government should be.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. The group is called Consumer Lab, and membership is $33/year. They do regularly find problems with supplementation products, so if you spend a lot of money on these kinds of things, it would easily be worth it to join.

You also can and should look for labels on supplements that indicate that they adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the highest sanitation, process validation and quality standards that are voluntary standards from the federal government. Especially if you are feeding the supplements to children, this level of compliance with basic health standards is a no-brainer.

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This book may be for you if…

Because Dorfman’s book presents nutritional solutions to such a wide range of child health problems, below I provide a list of issues with her accompanying suggestions so that readers grappling with these issues in a child’s or their own health will see that this book may offer some useful insights, or at least some avenues to try as an alternative to prescription drugs or mere desperation.

If you are dealing with any of these issues, the list below by no means should replace your review of all of the information in the book, which includes detailed case studies, full descriptions of the problem and methodology and a candid discussion of how well the nutritional solutions worked. Dorfman is also available for consultations and is based in Northern Virginia.

Health Conditions Addressed by Nutritional Changes, by Issue, Cause and Solution

Frequent nosebleeds/stomach pain — Gluten intolerance (despite negative test for Celiac disease)

Lyme disease symptoms not addressed by antibiotics — High Iron levels in Prenatal Vitamins (brief mention)

Very picky eater, upper respiratory and ear infections — milk (casein) allergy or other food allergy

Serious reflux (GERD) — Milk allergy, addressed by alternative formula (not soy-based), probiotics and zinc carnosine

Near-constant stomach pain, craving wheat-based foods, eczema, anemia, severe mood swings and/or behavior issues — Gluten intolerance (again, despite negative test for Celiac)

Very picky eater, deficient growth, lack of hunger — Zinc deficiency

Constipation, Eczema — Milk allergy, addressed with pro-biotic supplements, Liquid-L Carnitine

Rash or “chicken skin,” dry hair, lack of thirst — Essential fatty acids deficiency, addressed with fish oil supplement

Insomnia — Melatonin, in small doses (caution about drug interactions with SSRIs); other practical advice, such as increasing exercise and decreasing sugar/caffeine

Hyperactivity, Aggression, Moodiness — Decrease sugar (she notes that a small subset of sugar-reactive children do get hyperactive from sugar, despite more general findings of no link between hyperactivity and sugar); increase magnesium; DMAE supplements (sardine oil nutrient)

Anxiety — fish oil supplementation to increase amino acids, protein and nutrient-rich diet

Ear infections linked to ADHD — Eliminate common allergenic foods (dairy, wheat, soy and/or eggs); address with probiotics; evaluate auditory processing

Autism with behavioral deterioration from some foods and sudden rash, or                 Itchiness or red cheeks or rashes from certain foods — Pesticides on strawberries (my note: likely methyl iodide or methyl oxide) or other foods, such as fruit

Hives (after all food allergens and contaminants are removed) — Allergy to genetically modified corn and soy

Dyspraxia, or speech delays — Deficiency in essential fats, addressed with Fish oil supplementation, Vitamin E complex, and Choline supplementation (one child also needed Taurine supplementation in addition). The book also helpfully contains a guideline by which to measure speech delays in toddler development, and highlights the developmental urgency in addressing this issue as early as possible.

Hyper-sensitivity (Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD) — Deficiency in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, addressed with fish oil, and mineral and vitamin supplementation 

Toddler Nutrition: Feeding Your Child for Optimum Health

The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.

But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!

Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.

I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.

We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.

While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.

Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.

Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).

Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.

1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:

We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.

We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).

Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.

In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.

Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.

Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.

On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:

Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.

As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.

We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.

2) Minimizing processed foods:

I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums”  and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.

In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.

Sugar

3) Minimizing sugars:

Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.

Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.

We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).

We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.

Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)

We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.

In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)

The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:

Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.

We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.

While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.

Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).

I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.

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Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.

There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.

I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)

And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.

As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.

Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.

I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.

Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.

More resources:

Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”

  1. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
  2. Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
  3. Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
  4. The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
  5. Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
  6. The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
  7. A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
  8. Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  9. Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  10. The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.