Recipe: Cous Cous with Collard Greens & Squash

One of my favorite stalls to visit at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market every Sunday is New Morning Farm.  The organic farm in south-central Pennsylvania produces fruit, vegetables, and herbs that are always colorful and flavorful.  The other week, I received a Twitter message from the farm challenging me and some other local bloggers to create new recipes for the collard greens that are often overlooked at the market.  Kale and spinach are now trendy, leaving collard greens behind in the dust.  I was excited to get my creative (green) juices flowing.  I’ve eaten collard greens before, but only in its most common southern-style form — slow cooked with a salty ham hock.  I decided not to overcook it into a grayish-green oblivion, but instead keep the vibrant green color by wilting it with fluffy whole-wheat cous cous, tender chunks of acorn squash, and tart dried cranberries.  The result was a flavorful dish for early autumn.

Ingredients

1 small acorn squash
*3 cups cooked whole wheat cous cous
*vegetable bouillon
1 bunch collard greens
1 medium sweet onion
1 cup dried cranberries
1 + ½ tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
salt to taste

Peel the squash and cut off the stem.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.  Cut the two halves into small bite-sized pieces.  Prepare the collard greens by washing them thoroughly, cutting out the stems and then rolling them into a bunch lengthwise and chopping them into 1-inch strips. Dice the onion.  Heat ½ tbsp. of the ghee in a large pan over a medium flame.  Add the onions and stir until they become a golden-translucent.  Transfer the onions to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon ghee to the pan and melt before adding the cubed squash.  Lower the heat to medium-low.  Cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender when stabbed with a fork. Add the greens a stir until they just start to wilt.  Remove from the heat and add the cous cous, onions and dried cranberries.  Gently fold all the ingredient together to combine.  Add salt to taste (but remember the bouillon already added some salty flavor).

*Follow the instructions on the box to prepare your cous cous, but instead of plain water, add the appropriate amount of vegetable bouillon for flavor.

Culture Shock & Awe

I just recently returned from an incredible trip to Africa with one of my best friends.  I would love to share every single detail of the camel-riding, souks-shopping, safari-camping experience, but alas I know this is not a travel blog.  However, I did observe something that relates to non-toxic living that I wanted to share: lots and lots of trash.

Our travels took us through Morocco, Tanzania, and Zanzibar and it’s difficult to share just one aspect of the trip, especially one like trash which is such a downer compared to every other amazing thing we experienced: flavorful foods, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating people.  But perhaps it is because of all the wonders I saw that I was so shocked and saddened by the endless litter scattered around streets and homes in the places we visited.

Now, America is by no means litter-free, especially in cities like DC.  But visiting countries that are still developing is really eye-opening to just how much an organized trash collection system makes a difference in people’s lives.  And going from the U.S. to Morocco and then onto Tanzania was very interesting because it allowed us to see various levels of development in the world.  

The Moroccan cities we visited had buildings, paved roads, and lots of restaurants and stores.  Garbage was noticeable on many of the busier city streets, and in the medinas (old, walled parts of the cities).  We saw some dumpsters in alleyways as a means of trash collection but they were often overflowing and crawling with dozens of stray cats.  

 

Then on our first day in Tanzania, we drove through the small city of Arusha.  It was the middle of the day and there were people crowding the streets on foot, on motorbikes, and with wagons full of goods to sell.  One of the many sights that struck me as we drove through the city was how much trash there was ALL over the place.  Plastic, metal, glass.  It was on the streets, and in the bushes, and floating in shallow streams. People of all ages were walking around in it barefoot.  I saw people eat food and then just toss the wrapper right on the ground in front of them.  There was no trash disposal system, at least not on the outskirts of town and out in the countryside.  No public garbage cans let alone recycling bins.  It was mind-blowing to see that kind of poverty and so much trash, especially because just a few miles away were the most beautiful and pristine national parks, full of lush grasslands and exotic wildlife.

 

At the end of our visit to Tanzania, we had a very heartening experience when we visited Shanga, an open-air workshop in Arusha that employs people with physical disabilities to create beautiful products out of recycled material.  I was incredibly humbled to see such a positive and productive operation.  People who are deaf, or missing limbs from childhood polio would otherwise have no means to make a living for themselves in Arusha.  But here they were part of a supportive community where they could create beautiful art, things like blown glass vases, woven blankets, and beaded jewelry.  To add to the wonder of this place, most of the materials were recycled, like old wine bottles melted to created new glass pieces, and my favorite — a rock tumbler made from a salvaged bicycle tire and an old motor.

My culture-shock coming back to the U.S. was almost as deep as it was arriving in Africa.  I struggled internally with meshing the beauty and luxury I had seen with the destitution and pollution.  I could donate all of my material goods and do volunteer trash collection for the rest of my life and even that wouldn’t make a dent.  What I’m starting to realize is that there are things I can realistically do in my everyday life back here in the U.S. to be impactful.  The first is to continue to cut back on material items that I really don’t need like plastic bags from pharmacies to hold a pack of gum or plastic utensils with a carry-out meal.  Just because I’m lucky enough to live in a place with regular trash pick-up, doesn’t mean I should try to make more trash!  Secondly, I can make a more concerted effort to reuse bottles, boxes, wrapping — anything that can be upcycled (thanks Shanga for the inspiration!).  And thirdly, I can support great organizations like Shanga that make a difference for humanity and for the planet.  If you are interested to learn more or donate, here’s their foundation’s website: www.shanga.org/shangafoundation.  You can also order their beautiful products online!

If ever you have the opportunity to travel abroad, I hope you take it.  It puts so much into perspective.  And the more I see of this world, the more I want to care for it so that future generations can see it too.

Water Bottle Woes

Humans are supposed to drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day to stay healthy and hydrated.  And in the past decade, more people actually are reaching for water as their daily thirst-quenching drink rather than soda — a great step towards better health!  But because so many of us are on-the-go, we are much more likely to drink water from bottles in our cars than from glasses sitting at a dining room table.  However, disposable plastic bottles have a huge impact on the environment.water bottle fact text

Most empty water bottles are tossed into a garbage can rather than a recycling bin and end up in a landfill or incinerator.  And by most, I mean billions of them every year.  With billions more to come the next year. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that, “Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”

Plastic water bottles also require a huge amount of oil in the process of getting into our hands.  Yes, the trucks and ships that transport pallets of water bottles around the world daily require energy, and don’t forget about the bottles themselves!  Plastic is a petroleum product and water bottle manufacturing in the U.S. alone requires millions of barrels of oil.  Not to mention, when you buy a whole case of water the whole thing comes shrink wrapped in plastic as well.

You can choose help diminish the environmental impact from plastic water bottles with a few simple actions:

  1. Avoid plastic water bottles.  Instead use a water filtration system at work and at home, and use glasses and/or reusable water bottles.  My favorite is the glass Camelbak Eddy
  2. When you must use plastic water bottles, always recycle them.  Even if it’s not convenient and it means carrying around your empty bottle for a while until you spot a recycling container.
  3. Encourage recycling in your community.  If your neighborhood streets and parks have trash bins but no recycling bins, petition your local government.

Also, this quick video does a great job of showing how water bottles are marketed, manufactured and disposed of — with shocking truths all the way through the process…

Recipe: Kale Caesar Salad with Greek Yogurt Dressing

In the past few years it seems to be hail to the kale in grocery stores and on restaurant menus.  Kale salads are available everywhere from the trendy DC restaurant Lincoln to the WaWa before the Bay Bridge. And now kale chips are much more widely available than just at health food stores.  Maybe someday we’ll even see kale on the dollar menu at McDonalds!

My favorite way to enjoy kale is in a caesar salad.  Caesar salad is pretty standard on restaurant menus, and the traditional version with romaine lettuce is tasty, but kale has more health benefits than lettuce (it has more iron than even beef!).  I make kale caesars with lacinato kale — also sometimes called dinosaur or tuscan kale.   It is flat and smooth and I find it a lot easier to eat than curly kale which is completely unruly on your fork and makes you feel like a slob.  Kale is definitely tougher than lettuce but that’s why I think it’s complemented so well by caesar dressing, which is really creamy and flavorful.  I generously dress this salad, even though I’m usually a light-on-the-dressing girl, so that the flavor balances out the vegetal toughness of naked kale.  This dressing does not contain raw eggs, like a lot of caesar dressings.  It’s also made with greek yogurt to boost protein.  Don’t be intimidated by the anchovy paste.  They sell it in squeeze tubes in most grocery stores and it DOES NOT make the dressing fishy.  You won’t even know it’s in there.  Spoiler Alert: It’s the secret ingredient in every real caesar dressing.  Go crazy with toppings like radish slices, homemade croutons, hard-boiled eggs, or anything else!

 

Ingredients

1 large bunch Lacinato kale

Dressing:

¾ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. lemon juice/juice from a large lemon wedge
1 tsp.anchovy paste
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove

Wash kale leaves thoroughly in a colander.  Especially organic kale can often contain little buggers, obviously, because it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticide.  But no thank you to eating those little guys.  Dry the kale thoroughly and tear out the stems.  Tear or chop the kale into bite-size pieces and put into a large bowl.

For the dressing, combine all ingredients in a mini-blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  spoon desired amount of dressing onto the kale and toss until fully combined.  It’s best to let the salad sit for a while after dressing it.  With most salads, the greens get soggy and wilted, but with tough kale you want the dressing to somewhat saturate the greens.

Note — You can keep the dressing in a container in the fridge for up to a week and a half and use it as needed on individual-size salads — these are great to take to work for lunch.

Smell Ya Later: Perfume & Toxic Chemicals

“I love to stink!” said nobody, ever.  Let’s face it, we live in a relatively vain and materialistic society where we are drawn to products that make us smell good — perfume, lotion, body wash.  And not just women.  Men use cologne, body spray, etc.  The thing is, that floral perfume or fruity body wash that you’re using probably doesn’t even contain the flower pictured on the front of the bottle.  A fantastic article by Courtney Humphries of Wired reads,  “By volume, perfumes today are mostly synthetic chemicals that tend to be cheaper and more manipulable than natural materials…To mimic an aromatic substance like an essential oil using a man-made molecule, chemists first analyze it through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in an attempt to figure out its chemical components. Using this information, they can sometimes identify which molecules are responsible for the odor and then re-create them synthetically…It’s common for companies to use these analytics to reproduce a well-loved smell in nature, like pear or lilac flower.”  Perfume ads usually show a beautiful woman in a flowing dress running through a field of wildflowers.  Probably because you wouldn’t sell as much perfume if you showed 10 chemists in white coats pipetting in a lab.  model-chemist comparison

Another issue of concern with fragrances is that, like make-up and other personal products, fragrance manufacturers are not required to label the ingredients on the packaging and so most perfumes and other ‘smelly’ products include several chemicals that the consumer is just not privy to.  The Environmental Working Group cites, “In the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans (Silva 2004) and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies (Swan 2008), and musk ketone, a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk (Hutter 2009; Reiner 2007).”

You may be thinking, ‘Psssh, it’s fine.  It’s only a tiny bit of chemicals.’  Just remember that your skin in your body’s largest organ.  And  think back to every perfume, scented lotion, deodorant and body wash you’ve used every day of your life.  That tiny bit is actually regular exposure to lots of chemicals that can stay in your system for a long time.

fragrance ingredients
Wait…daisies aren’t actually in this perfume?!

Do a little experiment tonight and look at the ingredient list on the back of your shampoo, lotion, or perfume.  Almost always, one of the ingredients is “fragrance/parfum” with no more explanation than that because it isn’t legally mandated.  So it could be anything from all-natural lemon essential oil to butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane.  Companies like Burt’s Bees often list fragrance as an ingredient but note that it is a natural fragrance instead of chemical.

I said goodbye to my Chanel Chance and Versace Bright Crystals bottles months ago, but I quickly found that there are great non-toxic alternatives for smelling yummy.  Natural food stores like Whole Foods and Roots sell natural perfumes and you can buy them online once you find a brand and scent you like.  My favorite scent is from a little shop called Bath Time in Cape May, New Jersey.  They have an apothecary-style set up in a the back of the store where they will mix any combination of essential oils for you and put it into a rollerball stick.  My coconut and açaí berry essential oil stick makes me feel happy every time I put it on — happy because I smell like tropical vacation and I’m not spritzing myself with toxic chemicals.

 

Note:
If you are interested in taking action to eliminate toxic chemicals from the products you use, you can:

1: Educate Yourself:  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group are great sources for additional information on this topic.

2: Stop buying those products and supporting those companies’ bottom lines!

3: Lobby for change: You can write to your Congressional representatives asking them to pass legislation to regulate labeling OR write to companies asking them to remove toxic ingredients from beauty products.   No need to re-create the wheel; you can sign onto petitions already written with just a few clicks: EWG – Tell Congress to Reform Our Broken Cosmetics Regulations and CSC – Tell L’Oreal: Cosmetics With Cancer Chemicals are Not So Glamorous!

Buying Eggs: Cage-Free to Pasture-Raised and Everything In Between

egg options

When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade A Extra Large, brown or white.  Those were basically the only choices.  Now with consumers being more concerned with how their meat and dairy products were raised, there are many more options in the dairy aisle.  Have you ever wondered what the actual difference between pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free eggs are or even assumed they are the same thing?  Or have you ever felt kind of guilty about buying the regular eggs when the free-range eggs are right next to them but $2 more expensive?  I definitely have, so I did some research.  Here’s a quick guide:

chickens-battery-cages

Battery cages
Battery cages are what most chickens produced in the U.S. are kept in.  It’s basically like spending your whole life in an overcrowded jail cell where nobody ever changes out the latrine bucket.  Ick.   According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, for many chickens raised in these conditions, “their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death.”  If you buy eggs that aren’t labeled pasture-raised/cage-free/free-range or buy any breakfast sandwich from a fast food place, you’re almost sure to be eating eggs raised in this environment.

cage-free-chickens

Cage-Free
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds.  However, cage-free really just means the chickens just have the ability to roam around a larger enclosed structure like a giant warehouse that holds thousands of birds.  At least then they can literally spread their wings, make nests, etc.  But see the light of day during their lifetime? Not so much…  This looks like a red-line Metro platform during a rush-hour delay!

Free-Range-Hens-Overcrowded

Free-Range
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry.  If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking around a wide open field each day and Farmer Frank gently guiding her back into the coop at night, you’re about to have your bubble burst.  In order for a poultry product to be labeled Free-Range,  the UDSA only requires that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  Often this still means a HUGE warehouse of thousands of chickens, with one little access door, or a high-up strip of windows.  But since they are overcrowded chickens, and not National Geographic explorers, they’re not likely find the outside access door especially if it’s not near their food and water source.

Pasture-raised chickens.  Image courtesy of Honeyhillorganicfarm.com

Pasture-raised/Organic
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way.  This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier.  People say that eggs from this environment taste better, and while I’m not an egg connoisseur I would probably agree with this.  After all, are you more likely to turn in a fantastic report to your boss if you’re extremely stressed or relaxed and enjoying life?  It’s probably the same for chickens and the product they make.  Not to mention I don’t want to feel badly that a chicken led a wretched life just so I could have my omelette. However, it can be really difficult to find pasture-raised or organic eggs in conventional grocery stores.  Also just because eggs are labeled organic, doesn’t mean they are pasture-raised.  They could have been stuffed into a “free-range” warehouse and just given organic feed.

So with all that being said, it’s really not my intention to scare you into being a vegan.  I actually really like eating eggs.  My suggestion is just to be more conscious of egg labels and where your eggs come from. Know what you are comfortable buying and eating.  If you want pasture-raised, organic or free-range eggs and don’t see them available, take 2 minutes out of your week and talk to your grocery store manager.  Tell them that you’d like to see more of those products on their shelves.  Same thing with restaurant menus.  Retailers listen to their customers — that’s how we’ve gotten this far from those days in the 80’s with 2 kinds of eggs.

If you want to learn more about this, here are some good resources:

Poultry labeling terms: www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chickopedia/
Where and how to buy organic chickens: www.localharvest.org/organic-chicken.jsp
Facts about pasture-raised poultry: www.apppa.org/getting-started-in-pastured-poultry

P.S. — If you do some google image searching on this subject, be prepared for horrifying visuals.  I tried to only include PG pictures.

Recipe: Farro with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

The other day I had one of those moments in the grocery store where I stared blankly at the produce shelves thinking, “Why did I not plan what I’m going to make dinner next week before coming into the store?”  Because that’s the thing, if I don’t go in with a game plan, I come out with 17 random things that can’t possibly be put together into a sensible/edible meal.  Then I had a small epiphany right there next to the bananas, realizing that a favorite and easy meal favorite of mine are vegetables sautéed with some kind of grain.  I knew I had something in the barley/risotto/rice family at home, so I bought two vegetables that I thought would make a yummy meal: leeks and mushrooms.  I’ve met a lot of people who have a lifelong aversion to mushrooms.  I plead with you — give them another shot!  They are tender, filling, flavorful and they make so many dishes really tasty.  If you aren’t familiar with leeks, they look like scallions that have been roid raging.  They similarly have an oniony flavor, although not an overpowering one.  When I got home, I decided the leeks and mushrooms would be best with farro, an “ancient” Roman grain — props to my Italian ancestors for cultivating this wonderful food.  Yes, this is a vegetarian recipe, but the hearty farro and mushrooms easily make it a main dish.  Hope you enjoy it!

 Ingredients

2-3 medium leeks (or 1 ½ REALLY BIG ones)
3 large portobello mushrooms or 1 pint button mushrooms
1 cup farro
2 cups vegetable broth (you can use  vegetable bouillon cubes and water)
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt (if desired) 

Put the vegetable broth and farro into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cover.  Cook for about 20 minutes or until the grain is tender and the liquid is almost all absorbed.  Remove from heat.  Meanwhile, slice leeks crosswise into ⅛ inch slices. Rinse in a colander (leeks grow in sandy dirt and often bring the outside in with them when they are harvested).  Clean the mushrooms by wiping them gently with a dampened paper towel.  Cut mushrooms into ½ in pieces.  On medium heat, melt butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan or dutch oven.  Just as the butter starts to become golden and bubbly, add the leeks and mushrooms.  Add the salt.  Stir to coat with the butter and oil and stir every few minutes until the vegetables are tender. Mix the vegetables with the cooked farro, and serve warm.

 

Favorite Thing: Non-Toxic Personal Products

When I first took an interest in avoiding allergenic/carcinogenic/hormone-disrupting chemicals, I sat down one night with a legal pad and wrote down every category of product I regularly used, from hand soap to facial moisturizer to deodorant. For a few weeks, I researched other blogs, online stores like Amazon.com and Vitacost.com, and organic grocery retailers to see what alternative products were available, and what other users thought of their prices and effectiveness.  Then I filled in a few products to try for each category on my list and over time, have put them to the test for myself.

Balancing price, availability, environmental implications, and the toxicity score on Environmental Working Group’s Skip Deep database, I’ve honed in on favorites in each category. I continue to update this list over time as better products become available. Hopefully I can save you some time and headache figuring out your go-to products.

I try to buy as many of my products as possible from Vitacost.com because they stock products made with natural ingredients and their prices are more affordable than at Whole Foods or Amazon.com. Plus, there’s often an available coupon code that you can use there. I highly recommend that online store. Here’s my list of favorite products:

Astringent

Fave: Dickinson’s Witch Hazel

Why I Love It: Witch hazel is nature’s astringent and I haven’t found any better man-made alternatives. Dab some on a reusable towelette and swipe over clean skin. I like Humphrey’s because it’s organic and easy to find in most stores and online.

Runner-up:  Nope. Witch hazel all the way, baby!


Bug Spray

Fave: Honest Bug Spray

Why I Love It: This spray seems to work as well as mainstream bug spray at keeping buggies at bay and it smells just like citronella candles. The slim can fits easily into a purse or beach bag.

Runner-up: Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent


Deodorant

Fave: Lavanila Solid Stick

Why I Love It: Deodorant is challenging when it comes to finding a non-toxic alternative, because many of us are used to antiperspirants which almost always contain aluminum. [Read more about why aluminum-free is the thing to look for.] Lavanila is aluminum-free and their vanilla coconut, vanilla lavender, and pure vanilla scents all smell great. The solid stick rolls on smooth and doesn’t irritate my skin like some baking-soda based deodorants. Like most deodorants that aren’t antiperspirants, I often find myself reapplying a few times throughout the day, but with those yummy scents, I don’t mind. They also make a min travel size stick that’s great for a purse or desk drawer!

Runner-Up: Meow Meow Tweet Deodorant Cream


Eye Makeup Remover

Fave: Pure Coconut Oil

Why I Love It:  I’ve tried a few things and the very best for removing eye makeup and not drying out skin is a dab of straight coconut oil. You can buy it at any health food store, and now at most grocery stores. Look for sustainably-sourced coconut oil. Read here about how I apply it with reusable towelettes.

Runner-Up: While traveling, I use Acure wipes, but they are drying for everyday use — and the packaging they are in is not recyclable.


Face Lotion: Daytime

Fave: Andalou Naturals Age Defying Ultra Sheer Daily Defense Facial Lotion SPF 18

Why I Love It: This moisturizer is the one that fits all my criteria — contains sunscreen, lacks excessive toxic chemicals, and is available somewhere I shop. With my pale skin, I need as much sunscreen as possible. But this eliminates the unnecessary added artificial fragrance that so many moisturizers have. And I can get this on Vitacost.com.

Runner-Up: Earth Science Almond Aloe Moisturizer Fragrance Free 


Face Lotion: Nighttime

Fave: Mineral Fusion Overnight Renewal Nighttime Recovery Face Cream

Why I Love It: No need to wear sunscreen at night, so after washing my face before bed, I apply this face cream. It moisturizes without feeling thick and heavy. Mineral Fusion products are typically available in Whole Foods stores.

Runner-Up: Nourish Organic Ultra-Hydrating Face Cream Pomegranate & Argan 


Facial Scrub

Fave: Andalou Naturals Clear Skin Facial Scrub Lemon Sugar

Why I Love It: My face doesn’t feel clean unless i really scrub it. I’m all about exfoliation, especially why dealing with breakouts. A dab of this starts out scrubby and then melts into a thick, soothing cleanser. It’s expensive, but you only need a small bit of it at a time.

Runner-Up: Mineral Fusion Skin-Renewing Facial Scrub


Mouthwash

Fave: Listerine Naturals

Why I Love it: WHYYYYYYYYY as a society do we think mouthwash has to be blue or green to work? It’s dye, people! #^%$! Okay, I’m done now, sorry. Fluoride is a must for my teeth and alcohol-free mouthwash just doesn’t work for me. So this is the best I’ve found that meet my criteria without dyes. It’s hard to find in stores, so I usually have to order it from Amazon.com or the like.

Runner-Up: I tried once to make homemade mouthwash but the gentle mineral water + drops of essential oil didn’t cut it. I may try again with an alcohol formula.


Shampoo

Fave: Acure Shampoo

Why I Love It: Unlike some other natural shampoos, it really lathers. The lemongrass scent is refreshing, and I also really like the coconut scent. Acure recently switched its packaging from squeeze bottles (not recyclable in all areas) to rigid plastic (recyclable). I would love to use a shampoo bar that eliminates packaging, but haven’t yet found one without sodium laureth sulfate.

Runner-Up: 100% Pure Mint & Kelp Volumizing Shampoo


Anti-Wrinkle Serum

Fave: Homemade Serum

Why I Love It: I found it very difficult to find an anti-wrinkle serum without allergenic or hormone disrupting chemicals. Because I make this, I know EXACTLY what’s in it e.g. jojoba, myrrh, and lavender oils. Using just a few drops each day means that a bottle lasts a long time before I have to remake the formula. You can buy the ingredient oils from natural food stores. I use this recipe via Savory Lotus.

Runner-Up: Nope. Homemade or bust!


I hope this helps give you some ideas!

If you want recommendations on other products that I haven’t listed here, comment below and I’ll be sure to respond.  There is some information I didn’t include above due to space limitations.

Vegan Food Diary

I thought that going vegan one day a month during Lent would be a breeze because meat is not an everyday must for me.  But the sacrifice made me realize how much I rely on non-meat animal products for protein in my diet.  I often add cheese or hard boiled eggs to a salad, or make veggie quesadillas or pasta salads with cheese. Without being able to rely on those ingredients each Monday, I had to more thoughtfully plan my meals every week.  Here’s the lowdown on what I ate each Monday for 6 weeks:

Monday #1

IMG_0293

Breakfast – Ezekiel bread toasted with peanut butter and blood orange slices; Lunch – Roasted Brussels sprouts and lentil soup; Dinner – Roasted tomatoes and barley risotto with broccolini and mushrooms; Snack & Dessert – Tortilla chips with guacamole, salsa and black bean dip, white wine and vegan brownies

To prepare for these vegan Mondays, I pored over recipes for a few days and put together a list of foods I could eat over the next few weeks.  However, I quickly learned that choosing Mondays as my day of the week to eat vegan was an extra challenge because with my weekends being so busy, I often lacked the time on a Sunday evening to prepare the next day’s meal.  Case in point was the first Monday, when I did not have time to prepare a lunch, so I had to grab something from the deli near my office.  I guess I can’t be 100% sure that no animal products (like butter) were used in these, but I tried my absolute best.  After dinner, I went to my friend’s apartment to watch The Bachelor (don’t judge).  My kind friend knew about my Lenten goal and bought a bunch of vegan snacks for us.

Monday #2

IMG_0611

Breakfast – Breakfast “cookies” with jam and a peanut butter drizzle; Lunch – Quinoa tabbouleh; Dinner – Veggie burger, sweet potato fries, and kale salad with pecans, cranberries, & homemade vinaigrette dressing

I came across the recipe for these breakfast cookies on Pinterest and they are filling with just a few ingredients like banana, oats, flaxseed and jam.  The sweet and tart plum jam I used was perfect.  I also came across this refreshing tabbouleh recipe online — it was touted as Jennifer Aniston’s favorite.  No idea if it’s true, but if I can look like her in 15 years by eating this salad, bring it on!  For the veggie burger, I had to read the package carefully because some veggies burgers contain egg.  I give this one an unenthusiastic 5 out of 10.  Like most store-bought veggie burgers, it was underwhelming.  I’d like to make my own in the future especially because I could leave out the soy.

Monday #3

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Breakfast – Lemon-Blueberry oatmeal with almond milk and toasted pecans; Snack – Homemade chex mix, Lunch – Kale salad with apples, walnuts and homemade balsamic vinaigrette, and hummus with bell pepper strips; Dinner – Coconut curried lentils over brown rice; Dessert – Coconut milk ice cream

I was more prepared for the second week and prepared a delicious oatmeal recipe for breakfast.  The real recipe includes a dollop of mascarpone cheese which I left out on Monday but added the rest of the week.  I have to say the mascarpone made it bomb dot com, but I guess that’s what made my vegan Mondays a sacrifice.  Salads are easy for a lunch at the office and the walnuts added some protein.  The coconut curried lentils were delicious and creamy and didn’t really contain actual curry so check out the recipe even if you aren’t a curry person.  Coconut milk ice cream is a wonderful non-dairy alternative and the So Delicious brand has a wide flavor selection at most grocery stores.

 Monday #4

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Breakfast – Ezekiel toast with apricot jam, and apple slices with peanut butter; Snack – Pamela’s cranberry almond bar, Lunch – “Niçoise” salad with chickpeas, golden beets, olives, potatoes and green beans; Dinner – Udon noodle and veggie lo mein; Dessert – Apricot jam tart

Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted grains and is actually a great source of protein which you might not expect from bread.  It’s not the most delicious bread ever but I never eat naked bread anyway so once I spoon on the jam or nut butter it’s as good as regular wheat toast.  I love niçoise salads and the hard-boiled egg and the tuna/salmon is usually the best part.  but I got creative with chickpeas and veggies and it made a very hearty, filling salad.  Many noodles contain egg, but udon noodles are just wheat and water, while remaining a normal and delicious consistency, so the lo mein was yummy.  Here’s the recipe.  I made the rustic tart with a bit of dough leftover from a pie I’d made for Pi Day.  Throw any kind of jam into some pie dough and you have a delicious dessert.

Monday #5

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Breakfast – Ezekiel bread toast with avocados, tomatoes and balsamic reduction; Snacks – Cherry fruit leather; Lunch – Mixed greens salad with artichoke hearts and hummus with sliced cucumbers; Dinner – Cuban black beans and rice; Dessert – Coconut milk ice cream bar

Toast with avocados and tomatoes may not seam like breakfast food, but I’m all about savory food in the morning.  It was hearty and filling and the sprouted grain bread provided protein.  It was a busy day so lunch was basic.   For dinner, the beans and rice was delicious and also one of the cheapest and healthiest meals you can prepare.  Check out the recipe I used.  The brand So Delicious makes the ice cream bars and they are so good — they pretty much taste like the real thing you bought from the ice cream man as a kid.

Monday #6

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Breakfast – Handful of raisins and a banana; Lunch – Tabbouleh salad; Dinner – (not pictured) Salad of mixed lettuces and roasted tomatoes with vinaigrette dressing, tomato stuffed with quinoa and nuts; Dessert – Mandarin orange and peach confit with coconut shavings

This was a weird day for me because I was traveling for work.  Because I was nervous for work, some raisins and an airport banana were all I needed for breakfast.  Lunch was at a small bistro in Houston and to my delight, they had tabbouleh on the menu.  I double-checked with the cashier that it was vegan and after looking at me like I had two heads, he had to go in the back and check with the chef.  It was vegan and it was delicious.  Dinner was a catered event that I attended for work, so I couldn’t take pictures of my meal because it would be unprofessional and creepy.  The kitchen did a fairly good job with an alternative menu, although they added a chocolate straw to my dessert, making me question whether they knew the difference between vegan and vegetarian…

 

Overall, I was pretty happy with my vegan trial.  It made me aware of the amount of cheese, eggs, and butter I eat on a regular basis. And cheese is the #1 source of saturated fat in the American diet! (Read more here).  Echoing my original post on the subject, I am going to continue to make small sacrifices when I can to eliminate animal products in some meals.  I feel that it is doing my part to help with the environmental cost of raising livestock for food.  It also makes me more aware of the foods I do put into my body — not just the end-product meal but the ingredients that go into it.  The next time you reach for some cheese crumbles for your salad, consider nuts or beans instead.  It can help your body and your planet!

Non-Toxic Happiness

When I was in high school, I saw an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where she recommended to her audience keeping a gratitude journal and each day writing in it three things for which you are grateful, and three things you want to improve about yourself.  Back then I did this for a week or so, and then got bored with the idea and stopped.  But a few years ago I was going through a rough patch in my life and picked the habit back up so that I didn’t drown in self-pity and negativity.  I began to feel a small change in how I viewed myself and the world — I was kinder to both.  I really focused more on the many wonderful opportunities, experiences and people in my life, instead of thinking about what I didn’t have or hadn’t accomplished.  I also began to reframe my perspective about other people, trying to be less judgemental and more compassionate and understanding.  I retrained my brain to look for the positive, kind thoughts in a given situation.

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Again, I eventually stopped writing down my thoughts, but each night as I lay in bed thinking over my day, I mentally noted what made me feel grateful.  Soon, I began to also tack on well-wishes for friends and family, and for people in need I saw on the street on in the news.  One night, it suddenly dawned on me that what I was doing was essentially praying.  Though I never really directed the thoughts to God, Jesus, Mother Earth, or the cosmic powers of the universe, I was focusing my thoughts on positivism and it was changing the way I felt.  I’m certainly no saint and I’m not here to preach any kind of religion, but I am definitely a convert to the idea of optimism and gratitude changing the way we view ourselves and the world around us.  Staying positive is one way I try to keep my life toxic-free.  Because what’s the point of seeking out organic apples only to poison my mood with negativity?  Scientific research show that people who are optimistic live longer and avoid more illness, so it’s clearly as important for our bodies as for our minds.

So if you’re going through a hard time, I encourage you to come up with three things every day that make you thankful.  Sometimes it’s as obvious as a work promotion or successful relationship, and sometimes as inconspicuous as the warm weather or the smell of baking cookies.  But if you start to actively recognize these gems in life, it may become habit and it will absolutely help you to see the silver lining on even the darkest cloud.