Monday, November 30, 2009

Ways to save money on healthy foods, Part 1

I am a person who loves a great deal. Nothing gets my heart pumping like scoring a quality item for a bargain, and I am constantly scouring websites, blogs, newspapers, and coupon circulars to make sure I get the best price on whatever it is that I need (or want) to buy. Some of my recent successes include $25 worth of cold & flu meds for $2, $140 worth of wine for $50, and a pack of 40 diapers for $3.

I am also a person who goes to Whole Foods and easily blows $100 on two measly bags of groceries such as frozen organic flax waffles, dairy-free pesto, and Kefir probiotic smoothies.

This may seem incongruous to some, but the unfortunate fact is that there are rarely great deals to be had on healthy, natural and/or organic foods. Sure, you might stumble across a sale here and there at your local health food store, but it's nothing like you'd find in the mainstream stores with their coupon doubling, BOGO promotions, and rewards cards. Technically that's a good thing - it shows that the companies and farms producing the good stuff aren't willing to cheapen their products (and thereby cheapen their prices). However, it sure hurts when that $100 tab rings up and you've only got 3 meals worth of food to show for it.

So what's a deal-loving, trying-to-eat-healthy gal to do? Well, I'd love to offer up a secret website or coupon code that can get you a year's worth of organic produce for $10 a month. But unfortunately there's no such thing. What I can offer, though, is what I've learned over the past few years about the best ways to save money on groceries without compromising on quality. Here is tip #1:

Know what things should cost

Grocery stores are fantastic at making things look like a great deal when they are anything but. They are counting on the fact that people will be lured by the big displays, overuse of exclamation points, and words like "savings!" "sale!" and "bargain!" and not pay attention to the fact that they're only saving 15 cents off the regular price. Even the crunchy, natural foods stores are guilty of this.

If you don't know whether a carton of OJ should cost $2 or $5, you're not only susceptible to grocery stores' slick advertising ploys, but you're also less likely to notice a truly great bargain. The other day I saw a huge sign touting "$3.49 Calcium-enriched Orange Juice! Price Reduced!" at my local grocery store. Because I know that I can get this same OJ at a different store for $2.49 every day, I didn't bother buying any there. On the flip side, when I see my favorite OJ selling for $1.99 a carton, I know that it really is a good price, and I stock up.

It is especially helpful to pay attention to produce costs since they can vary so much depending on region and season. In Arizona, an avocado can cost anywhere from 75 cents to $2.50 depending where and when you buy it. Knowing this, I've set a rule that I won't ever spend more than $1.25 on an avocado unless I absolutely have to, and I make sure to stock up when they are at the low end (guacamole...yum!).

To increase your "price awareness," write down a list of 15 or 20 food items you regularly stock in your house...snack foods, bread, fruits, cereals, frozen foods, meats, etc. Now, see if you can name the average price of each item. If you can't, make sure you pay attention to what it costs the next time you go to the store. Once you've done some research to find out the average prices for the foods you buy, do some comparison shopping at your local stores. I've discovered some great deals on certain organic foods at Target and Costco. For instance, my daughter's favorite burritos (Amy's Organic Non-Dairy Burritos) are regularly priced at $2.24 each at SuperTarget, whereas they're about $3.50 a piece at Whole Foods and other grocery stores. Clif Kids Zbars (snack bars that are dairy free) are also way cheaper at Target than at the natural foods stores and mainstream grocery stores.

I also recently found a 6-pack of Amy's Individual Organic Vegetarian Frozen Lasagnas at Costco for around $13. (These are delicious BTW, and are my go-to meal when I'm eating solo). At a cost of around $2.25 each, that's a fantastic deal since they're usually $5 a pop at the grocery store.

Becoming savvy about prices helps you know when to stock up and when to hold off. It also helps you determine when a sale is truly worthwhile and when it's just a gimmick.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

(CLOSED) Giveaway: A free Zhu Zhu pet (Chunk) in time for the holidays

And the winner is...Kathleen (comment 44)! I've attached a pic of the winning number that came up on, just in case anyone wonders how I came up with it.

Congrats Kathleen! I hope your hamster serves you well.

Thanks so much to everyone who commented - I loved hearing all the interesting, healthy foods everyone's been eating...lots of great ideas and there are some things I definitely want to try.

A few months ago, my good friend Ange tipped me off to the toys that were to become the rage of Christmas 2009: Zhu Zhu Pets. I hadn't yet heard of them, as my daughters are thankfully still too young to care what is under their Christmas tree. (In fact, Sydney's only request is that Santa NOT come into our house this year because she thinks he's scary. So we're writing him a letter to ask that he kindly leave the toys in a bag in the backyard.)

Anyway, after learning about the Zhu Zhu Pets, I snagged a few of the little hamsters at Toys R Us while I was there shopping for a birthday gift. At that time, a mere 6-7 weeks ago, you could actually wander into a Toys R Us at a normal time of day and buy a Zhu Zhu Pet without having to bribe or trample anyone. I know...crazy, right?

As Christmas nears and my daughters still don't give a hoot about whether or not they own a Zhu Zhu pet, I've found myself in a quandry about what to do with the three I possess. Do I give them to the girls anyway, since they are pretty darn cute and they'd probably enjoy playing with them? Do I sell them on ebay or craigslist at a 400% mark-up? Do I donate them to some charity for disadvantaged kids?

I decided that I will give two of them to the girls, and give the third away on my blog. It might not be the world's most charitable act, but hopefully it will mean one less parent having to wait in line at a ridiculous time of night or beat down some poor old lady just to make their kids happy on Christmas morning.

So here's how you can win this little guy:


Post a comment below briefly describing the most delicious nutritious food you've eaten recently. It can be something as simple as a crunchy Fuji apple, or as complex as a side dish of steamed, marinated haricot verts at some fancy-shmancy restaurant.

Be sure to include your email address, or if you're uncomfortable posting your email address, include your first name, last initial, City & State (ie: Alicia M. Salt Lake City, UT) in the comment. I will be either emailing the winner or posting the winner's name (if no email is included) next Saturday, 12/5 at 8:00 am Arizona time (I think it's Mountain?? Not sure because we don't do daylight savings).

Bonus entries:

A) If you subscribe to my blog or become a follower on Google, you can leave an additional entry telling me you've done so.

B) If you post a link to this giveaway on your own blog or website, you can leave an additional comment as well. Please include the link in the comment field.

Next Saturday morning, I will go to and have a random number chosen to select the winner. And I promise the winner will receive his/her Zhu Zhu pet in time for Christmas!

Friday, November 27, 2009

A brussels sprouts dish I actually ate three helpings of

If you'd asked me yesterday morning how I felt about brussels sprouts, I would have said I absolutely hate them. If you'd asked me at 5:00 pm yesterday how I felt about brussels sprouts, I would have said they are my new favorite vegetable.

About two months ago, I clipped a brussels sprouts recipe out of the local newspaper. It was the only time I'd read a brussels sprouts recipe that looked like it might actually taste good. Each week since then, I've intended to make that recipe, and each week I have failed to do so - either because I didn't have time, didn't have the right ingredients, didn't have time to get the right ingredients, etc.

So I was delighted when I went to my aunt's house for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, and discovered she had clipped the exact same recipe and actually made it! And then I was even more delighted to discover that it was fantastic! Seriously, I ate three helpings and I probably would have had more, except that I was starting to get embarrassed by my brussels sprouts consumption.

So if anyone is looking for a holiday side dish, or just a regular weeknight side dish, you must try this out! The recipe comes from the Chandler Tribune and was created by Scottsdale, AZ resident Cheryl Korwin.

"Cheryl's Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Lemon"


1 sweet yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 pints fresh Brussels sprouts, shredded by finely slicing with a knife
1 large lemon (juice and zest)
4 tbsp butter
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper


Melt butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until soft (about 5 minutes). Add garlic and mushrooms, and cook for about 1 minute. Add the shredded Brussels sprouts, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until sprouts are just tender (about 15 minutes). Add 1 tbsp of lemon zest and 3 tbsp of lemon juice. Also add salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in the parmesan cheese.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Everything's better with bacon

That's Better - Bacon!
Originally uploaded by unprose
Lately my girls have become SO picky. The realistic side of me knew it was coming, but the idealistic side was hoping we would skip that whole "picky toddler" phase due to my diligence in feeding them diverse foods from the time they first started solids. Alas, I have to admit defeat. While the girls used to beg for peas, happily chomp on roasted beets and joyfully scarf down whole grain muffins, suddenly they're those stereotypical kids who love something one week, hate it the next. Brynn even turned down a cookie today with an emphatic "Yuck!"

Although many of my meals have been rejected lately, I enjoyed some success last night in getting my girls to not only eat green beans, but devour them and even ask for seconds! How? By sauteeing them in bacon fat.

I cooked two pieces of bacon in a skillet, pulled them out once they had shed a fair amount of grease, and then added a few handfuls of fresh green beans. I sprinkled on a little bit of salt to taste, but the bacon fat provided a good amount of flavor & saltiness on its own.

So it wasn't the healthiest side dish in the world...but it got my girls excited about eating greens. Now I am looking forward to combining bacon with some other greens - I see a kale & bacon experiment in my near future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

5 things I wish I would have done with my baby spinach, instead of what I actually did with it

It drives me crazy when I buy food and never get around to using it before it goes bad. I've gotten much better about this than I used to be, but once in a while due to poor meal planning, an overstuffed fridge, or plain old forgetfulness, I end up having to throw away something I never even opened. Tonight, I just emptied a brand new container of pre-washed, organic baby spinach into my garbage disposal because it was turning brown and smelled like socks.

So in order to avoid having my spinach purchase be a total waste , I am listing five things I could have done with it during the 9 days it sat unopened in my fridge. And maybe by doing so, I will help prevent this same thing from happening to another innocent batch of spinach out there:

1) make a delicious baby spinach salad with any number of add-ins...hard-boiled eggs & bacon come to mind, as do pomegranate seeds and gorgonzola cheese

2) blend it with some lemon juice, olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and a few other ingredients to make a homemade pesto

3) wilt it down and throw it into an omelet

4) chop it up and stir it into pasta sauce

5) layer it with tomatoes and meats and other goodies in a panini sandwich.

Pretty good ideas, huh? If only I had used them...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What "healthy" means to me

I realize I've used the word "healthy" a lot in my blog posts, yet I haven't really described what I mean when I use it. "Healthy" can mean different things to different people, especially as it pertains to food.

My own interpretation of the word has changed a lot over the years. In my teenage years and early 20's, "healthy" meant fat-free; I considered healthy foods to be plain bagels with jelly, pretzels, Saltine crackers, pasta with marinara, salad with fat-free dressing, and Twizzlers.

When I went to college, I was determined to avoid gaining the "Freshmen 15," and as a preventive measure I stuck to the high carb/low fat diet that was all the rage at the time. I ate virtually no fruits and vegetables, and considered Coca-Cola a health food since it didn't have any fat. And guess what - I gained at least 15 pounds during this period of so-called "healthy" eating.

After I caught on to the scam of the high-carb/low-fat diet craze, I redefined "healthy" to be synonymous with deprivation. Eating healthy meant constant vigilance regarding your diet: banning sauces and salad dressings to "the side;" starving yourself for a day because you overindulged the day before; always turning down dessert. Since healthy eating in those terms didn't really appeal to me, I chose to eat what I wanted and exercise to make up for my bad eating habits. I figured that my margaritas, burritos, and pizza wouldn't catch up to me as long as I was hiking and yoga-ing with regularity. It worked...but those things do tend to work when you're 25 years old.

Now I define healthy foods as whole foods (ie: foods in their natural form, that haven't been processed, dyed, bleached, etc.). I don't worry much about fats unless they're trans fats, and I don't count calories. Basically, if I eat a meal that contains components of at least three food groups, and it doesn't contain preservatives, artificial flavorings, artificial colorings, or chemicals, I feel good about it.

But I also have a life that doesn't always allow for the meals I wish I could eat. In a perfect world, I would have a personal chef who would steam artichokes and broccoli for me, and cook me delicious meals of seasonal, local foods. Since I don't live in a perfect world, I start many days off with good intentions (I think I'll make grilled Tilapia and sauteed asparagus for dinner tonight) and end them with yet another frozen pizza.

Taking care of two little ones and trying to constantly cook fresh, nutritious meals around the clock just doesn't really go hand in hand. Even before I had kids, I found it nearly impossible to find the time and energy to grocery shop and cook the way I wanted to.

Therefore, I've come to view "healthy" as an attitude as much as a diet regimen. To me, healthy means trying your best to eat well, but not beating yourself up if you can't. It means eating a burger and fries from In-N-Out for lunch without feeling guilty, but then eating fruits and veggies later to compensate. It means cooking "from scratch" pancakes for breakfast one morning, and throwing a handful of dry Cheerios in a bowl the next. And it means only eating foods that you enjoy, but trying hard to find ways to enjoy foods you know are really good for you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Banana Quinoa Bread (it's realllly good, I promise)

In continuing my quest to find ways to eat quinoa and actually enjoy it, I decided to try adding it to my favorite banana bread recipe. I got the idea from my box of Trader Joe's quinoa, which says "truly versatile, it can be used in soups, salads, breads, puddings or as a breakfast cereal."

Usually I make this banana bread recipe exactly as written, except I substitute the butter with a vegan "buttery spread" which is dairy-free. It is seriously the most amazing banana bread in the world. Since it's so heavy on the banana, it is super-moist and also sweet without a ton of sugar.

I wasn't entirely sure how to go about modifying the recipe to add the quinoa, so I basically winged it. But I must say I am very proud of the results. This time I used only 2 cups of banana instead of 2 1/3. Then I added about 1 1/2 cups of cooked quinoa to the banana mixture (I eyeballed it, so my measurements aren't completely accurate). Then I added the flour mixture, but not the whole thing. I just kept stirring it in until the batter was about the same texture as thick oatmeal. I baked it as directed, and it turned out perfect! If I didn't have a husband who hates walnuts, I would have added some chopped walnuts too, which I think would've made it even better.

Now I can eat my banana bread for breakfast or a snack and feel like I'm getting some protein & other nutrients as well. And the best part is the girls love it too - win, win for me! I needed a successful experiment after I spent 15 minutes last night cleaning discarded sweet potato raviolis off the floor (needless to say, it wasn't a hit).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Just a spoonful of chocolate helps the healthy stuff go down

I hate 3:00 pm. Even if I slept great the night before, ate well, exercised, and showered, I always feel sluggish and crappy at 3:00 pm. What makes it worse is that this is usually the time the girls get up from their naps and are pretty cranky themselves.

This used to be the time of day when I would head for the chocolate. Thanks to our relatives and friends in our hometown of Hershey, PA (many of whom work for the Hershey Company), we were always in constant supply of chocolate. And consequently my coffee table was in constant supply of Hershey Kiss wrappers, carefully rolled into a tight ball to conceal how many had actually been consumed.

Although I've managed to kick the Kiss habit, 3:00 pm is still my worst time of day in terms of cravings. I just can't seem to bring myself to bite into an apple or carrot with the same enthusiasm I might have at 10:00 am or 1:00 pm. So I've decided that instead of conquering the chocolate monster, I will simply try to tame him.

The best solution I came up with is trail mix. My current favorite is a blend of peanuts, almonds, raisins, dried cranberries, and M&Ms. It satisfies my need for sweets, and it also succeeds in keeping me full until dinner time. As an added bonus, nuts contain healthy Omega 3 fats, so it's technically brain food. Sometimes I buy the trail mix ready-made, and sometimes I make my own. I actually prefer making my own since I can experiment with the ingredients. I've found that just about any trail mix tastes delicious with some M&Ms thrown in, so I plan to keep experimenting to see how healthy I can get it while still keeping it crave-able.

I also recently made a chocolatey pancake concoction that was a big hit with the girls. I started with the Hungry Jack Whole Wheat Blends pancake mix, then added some milled flax seed, smashed banana, chopped walnuts, wheat germ, and some mini chocolate chips. (I've discovered that Sydney can tolerate semi-sweet chocolate chips since they only contain milk fat and not the milk protein).

Sydney was so excited that she was able to eat something with chocolate in it, she thought she had died and gone to heaven. I actually ate these pancakes too, and thought they were delicious. Brynn yelled "yuck" and threw it on the floor. But it wasn't because of the healthy stuff - the crazy child doesn't like chocolate!

The nice thing about chocolate is that a little goes a long way. I find my chocolate fix is just as easily satisfied by something that contains a little chocolate than by an entire bar of chocolate. Well, almost. Nothing will ever beat a Snickers bar...but hey, it has peanuts, so at least it's a source of protein.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Carbs: Brown vs White

I grew up on Maier's Italian Bread, a sandwich bread so white and fluffy that you could gently poke it with a finger and leave a permanent dent. I still have fond memories of that bread, toasted and buttered, smeared with crunchy peanut butter and Smuckers strawberry preserves, or topped with delicious smoked turkey and Dijonnaise. I sneered at people in restaurants who ordered their sandwiches on whole wheat bread, figuring they were health nuts or gluttons for punishment, or both.

My husband was actually the one who got me to conquer my hatred of brown bread. He was going through one of his random health kicks (which usually occur about once a year and last about two weeks) when he declared that he would no longer eat his sandwiches on white bread. Begrudgingly I bought a loaf of the brown stuff. We started with the "fake" whole wheat bread - the beige kind that is mostly refined flour with a little bit of the good stuff thrown back in. Then when I learned to look for "whole wheat flour" as the first ingredient, we graduated to the hard stuff. Now I actually prefer the thicker texture and taste of whole grain bread to the fluffiness of the refined white bread. (Except in the case of crusty breads - nothing beats a crusty loaf of bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, and unless I develop a disease that is only cured by banning crusty bread I will continue to eat it for the rest of my moderation, of course.)

Although I made the conversion to whole wheat bread years ago, I've been slow to embrace other whole grain carbohydrates, specifically brown rice & whole wheat pasta. I feed whole grain pasta to my kids all the time, but I rarely make it for myself.

First, I had to ask myself - is it really worth it? If you compare the nutrition information on brown vs. white foods, it's not that much different, especially if you're just looking at fat and calories. But since one of my main concerns is my constantly lagging energy, I do see a valid reason to choose whole grain over refined. Whole grains take longer to digest and contain more fiber; as a result, they keep you fuller longer and help you avoid the "crash" that comes from eating refined carbs. That "crash" is probably my biggest roadblock to healthy eating - when I get that sudden ravenous, shaky feeling, any healthy intentions I had go right out the window and I'm shoving aside my yogurt and busting open the box of Snyder's pretzels.

Another area where the brown stuff wins is in the vitamins and minerals. One might argue - why not just eat the white stuff and take a multi-vitamin? Well, I guess you can. Except some health experts maintain that there's no way to truly know how the body processes and absorbs naturally-occurring vitamins & minerals vs. supplements. I'm not a scientist, but my gut tells me that it's probably better to eat something in its natural form than to eat something that's been stripped of its nutrients by machines and then injected with a weakened form of those same nutrients.

My personal answer to whether or not it's worth it to go for the grains is this: Sometimes. I don't foresee a time in my near future where I'll be ordering my Thai curry with brown rice, or asking for my penne, sausage & vodka sauce to be made with whole grain pasta. But I do feel that it's important that the majority of my carbohydrate intake be whole grain. I've even found some instances where whole grains can be substituted for refined grains without sacrificing flavor at all.

If you're having trouble finding true enjoyment in whole grains, start with the sweet stuff. Whole grain cereals, muffins, and snack bars taste pretty good. You can also make french toast with whole grain bread (my kids' favorite). When it comes to snack foods, Triscuits is a good whole grain option, as are many other crackers.

I've found that whole grain pasta seems to work best in dishes which maximize earthy flavors, such as those containing onions and mushrooms. For example, I made this recipe from Rachel Ray, which worked well. And while I tend to go for the white stuff when I use tomato-based sauces, my kids gobble up whole wheat rotini, marinara and meatballs like it's the best thing ever.

As for the rice, I can't quite bring myself to pair brown rice with curries or other spicy foods. But I've had success with this chicken salad recipe. I have also used brown rice to make stuffed peppers with tasty results. I've been meaning to pair it with swedish meatballs because I think the flavors would complement each other, but I haven't had time to try it out yet.

So the answer to whether to eat brown or white doesn't need to be black or white. I think as long as you make sure a healthy portion of your carbs are brown, there's room to enjoy the white stuff too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Halloween candy is the devil!

I just dumped all of my daughter's Halloween candy into the garbage. She doesn't care in the least since she can't eat any of it anyway (due to her dairy allergy). I, on the other hand, keep opening the trash can lid and questioning my sanity. Some of my favorites are in there...Peanut M&Ms, Reese's peanut butter cups, Snickers, Raisinets...mmmmmmmmmmmm

I simply lack the willpower to have that candy in the house and not eat some every single day. And I know it wouldn't kill me to eat a mini packet of M&Ms each afternoon, but the problem is that it easily turns into two, and then I toss in a bite-size snickers because, well, it's only a bite, right?

So in keeping with the lessons I learned from my detox program, I am eliminating the tempting junk foods from my kitchen. Now I'm about to go throw a dirty diaper on top of the candy in the trash so that I don't try to dig it out in a few hours. :)

Monday, November 2, 2009

A healthy alternative for cheesecake lovers

I usually cringe whenever I read about healthy alternatives to decadent foods and desserts. It's always something like: "If you're really craving a brownie, try eating a rice cake with a little unsweetened cocoa sprinkled on top!" Sorry, but that's just not going to cut it for me.

Recently, however, I found a yogurt that really did beg for a comparison to cheesecake. No, it doesn't taste exactly like cheesecake, but it definitely has a lot of the same characteristics.

And it's not one of those "desserts masquerading as yogurt" either. You know what I mean...those caramel chocolatey sugar-filled mousse yogurts that have no real nutritional value. In fact, this particular yogurt has 10 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, 130 calories, 17 grams of sugar and all natural ingredients. (If you need something to compare it to, regular Yoplait has 27 grams of sugar, 5 grams of protein, and 170 calories, not to mention artificial flavors and colors.)

I recently began eating greek yogurt just to try something new. I'd heard good things about it, namely its thick, super-creamy texture and high protein content. I've tried a few different varieties over the past few months, but my favorite by far is FAGE Total 2% yogurt.

This yogurt is unique in that it comes with two compartments: the main compartment contains the plain flavored greek yogurt, and the little side compartment contains a fruit topping that you can mix in. It comes in strawberry, peach, honey, and cherry varieties; my personal preference is the cherry because it adds to the cheesecakeyness.

There is a trick to eating this yogurt: the key is rationing the fruit filling so that there's enough to combine with each bite of the yogurt. If you get too filling-happy on the first few bites, you'll end up with a pile of unflavored yogurt at the end, which is kind of a bummer. Oh, and I also recommend using a baby spoon because it helps you get every last bit of the fruit filling out of the small compartment.

This yogurt has become my lunchtime or afternoon treat. My favorite time to eat it is when the girls are napping, so I can sprawl out on the couch and devote my energy to getting the perfect cherry-to-yogurt ratio on each spoonful.

Look for it next time you're in the yogurt section of the grocery store. I can find it in almost all health/natural grocery stores I go to, as well as some mainstream grocery stores. If you are desperately jonesing for the double fudge snickers cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory, this probably isn't going to fulfill your craving, but if you just want a healthy snack that doesn't scream "healthy" then I definitely recommend the Fage.

PS: make sure you check the label - there's a "classic" version that has a lot more fat than the 2% kind (12 grams vs. 2.5). If you're not concerned about fat it's no biggie, but just wanted to give a heads-up to those who are.