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.

Advertisements

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

When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade egg optionsA 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:

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 chickens-battery-cagesovercrowded 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
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds.  However, cage-free really cage-free-chickensjust 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
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry.  If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking Free-Range-Hens-Overcrowdedaround 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/Organic
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way.  This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier. Pasture-raised chickens.  Image courtesy of Honeyhillorganicfarm.com 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.

 

Friday Favorite: Non-Toxic Beauty Products

A few friends have asked me lately which toxic-free products I use and like, so I thought it might be helpful to share my list here.  When I first took an interest in avoiding chemicals, I sat down one night with a legal pad and wrote down every category of product I regularly used, from hand soap to face lotion, to laundry detergent, to toilet cleaner.

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 price and effectiveness.  Then I filled in a few products to try for each category on my list and over the past year, have put them to the test for myself.  Doing that research turned out to be a good plan of action because I didn’t have to start from scratch and go through 5+ products that were more hype than help.  So I’m hoping to use my research to pay it forward to you.  Here’s my exhaustive list of toiletries — I’ll share my favorite household cleaners later:

Product Category Favorite Non-Toxic Product Why I Love It Other Non-Toxic Products Tried Would still like to try
Astringent Dickinson’s Witch Hazel Witch hazel is nature’s astringent and I haven’t found any better man-made alternatives. Dab some on a cotton ball and swipe over clean skin.  Witch hazel all the way, baby!
Bar Soap Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One Hemp Pure-Castile Soap Almond I went straight for this bar after smelling all the bar soaps in a natural food store and haven’t looked back since. It’s terrific. Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Bar Soap
Body Lotion Burt’s Bees Cocoa & Cupuacu Butters Body Lotion I was looking for a big bang for my buck and at $10 for 12 oz. this seemed a better deal than most tiny lotion bottles.  The lotion itself is great, but I’m open to finding other favorites EO Essential Oil Products Everyone Lotion Coconut and Lemon Alba Botanica Very Emollient Body Lotion
Body Wash 100% Pure Body Scrub Coconut I LOVE this body scrub. Exfoliates skin, but very moisturizing and smells DELICIOUS! Honest Shampoo & Body Wash Absolutely nothing.  I LOVE the 100% Pure Scrub
Bug Spray  Honest Bug Spray  This spray seems to work as well as mainstream bug spray and smells just like citronella candles. Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent
Conditioner Dermorganic Intensive Hair Repair Masque with Argan Oil The Dermoganic masque smells great and really moisturizes hair, even when it’s been destroyed by hairspray and curling irons Shea Moisture Organic Raw Shea Butter Deep Treatment Hair Masque Allafia Shea Butter Moisturizing Conditioner
Deodorant Lavanila “The Healthy Deodorant” AND Meow Meow Tweet Deodorant Cream Deodorant is challenging when it comes to finding a non-toxic alternative. Read here why aluminum-free is the thing to look for Tom’s of Maine Naturally Dry Antiperspirant Nothing — I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!
Facial Cleanser Burt’s Bees Deep Cleansing Cream Soap Bark & Chamomile It’s the natural equivalent of Noxzema cream cleanser.  Makes my face feel cool and clean. Burt’s Bees Peach & Willow Bark Scrub Acure Organics Facial Cleanser Superfruit plus Chlorella
Facial Moisturizer Herbal Choice Mari Day Cream Herbal Choice Mari is not a mainstream brand yet. But this lotion is so moisturizing even on dry winter skin, and the hint of orange essential oil adds a great scent. Love that it contains SPF too. First Aid Beauty Daily Face Cream; Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Lotion; Burt’s Bees Renewal Day Lotion SPF 30 Everyday Coconut Daily Face Lotion, SPF 15
Hairspray Andalou Naturals Medium Hold Hair Spray Sunflower and Citrus Honestly, non-aerosol hairspray doesn’t spray evenly. It just doesn’t. But regular pump spray bottles are more eco-friendly and I like the refreshing citrus scent of this spray. It does firmly hold flyaways. Alterna Bamboo Smooth Anti-Humidity Hair Spray
Hand Sanitizer Honest Hand Sanitizer Gel The Honest gel feels slimy until you rub it in. Then you realize it’s actually just very moisturizing. EO Hand Sanitizer Spray, Lavender
Make-Up Remover Pure coconut oil Yup I’ve tried a few things and the very best for removing eye makeup is a dab of straight coconut oil on a cotton ball. You can buy it at any health food store, and now at most grocery stores. Sensitive Facial Cleansing Towelettes  Pure coconut oil is the best thing out there!
Mouthwash Tom’s Wicked Fresh I initially tried making my own mouthwash but I didn’t feel the minty burn. So I tried Tom’s and it definitely freshens breath without fake dyes or chemicals Tom’s Cleansing Jason Sea Fresh Sea Spearmint Mouthwash
Nail Polish Mineral Fusion I thought that nail polish was inherently full of toxic chemicals but was thrilled to find more natural alternatives. This brand works as well as the standard OPI. 2 coats plus a top coat lasts a week. 100% Pure Nail Polish; Scotch Naturals; Piggy Paint; Zoya
Shampoo 100% Pure Mint & Kelp Volumizing Shampoo The shampoo is sort of thin and runny but don’t let that deter you. A little goes a long way, and it really lathers unlike some other chemical-free shampoos. The mint scent is really refreshing and my hair feels really clean after using this shampoo. Honest Shampoo & Body Wash; Acure Clarifying Shampoo 100% Pure Yuzu & Pomelo Glossing Shampoo
Sunscreen Alba Very Emollient Sunscreen Sport SPF 45 Yes SPF 45.  I am REALLY pale and SPF 15 is like, why bother?  I previously tried Aveeno Naturals, but it had a cottage cheese, greasy consistency. Aveeno Natural Protection Lotion SPF 50  MyChelle SunShield-Coconut SPF 28
Toothpaste Tom’s Sensitive I have always used Sensodine toothpaste and when I switched to a more natural alternative, I was glad to see that Tom’s has a variation for sensitive teeth. It’s the same taste and consistency as regular toothpaste, so I’m sticking to it.  Haven’t seen other natural toothpastes that are sensitive-teeth-specific.
Wrinkle Cream Acure Argan Oil & Starflower Line Eraser I was worried an oil-based wrinkle treatment would make me break out but Acure is great. I can’t say my wrinkles have been erased, but I think using it regularly going forward will help prevent them from deepening. Burt’s Bees Radiance Eye Cream Alaffia Everyday Coconut Eye Cream

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

IMG_0319

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

IMG_0320

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

IMG_0612

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

IMG_0610

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.  And as for others, a very large person jogging while wearing a very teeny outfit, for example — instead of ogling and wondering why she would do that as I might have in the past, I began to think, “Good for her for getting out there and exercising.”  I retrained my brain to look for the positive, kind thoughts in a given situation.

Again, I eventually stopped writing down my thoughts, but each night as I lay in bed thinking over my day, I mentally noted grateful1what 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.

Something Fishy

Fish is one of my favorite foods.  I like eating other kinds of meat, but am picky about having lean cuts.  With fish, I never have to worry about cutting off slabs of fat.  Fish is also a great source of protein without a lot of saturated fat like cheese, red meat and poultry have.  You’ve probably also heard that many fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which sort of sounds like a bad, gross thing but is actually good for your brain.  You may have also heard that some seafood is high in mercury. This is unfortunately true.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Mercury is emitted to the air by power plants, cement plants, certain chemical manufacturers and other industrial facilities. In addition, over the years, many companies have used mercury to manufacture a range of products including thermometers, thermostats and automotive light switches. These products can release mercury, particularly at the end of their useful life during waste handling and disposal. Mercury pollution released into the environment becomes a serious threat when it settles into oceans and waterways, where it builds up in fish that we eat. Children and women of childbearing age are most at risk…. During the first several years of life, a child’s brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities. Less frequent, high dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.  In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. “

The Simpsons puts a humurous spin on polluted water, but it's a serious matter.

The Simpsons puts a humorous spin on polluted water, but it’s a serious matter.

So what’s a girl to do when she wants to eat fish but also plan for a healthy pregnancy in the future?!  Luckily there is lots of delicious seafood that does not pose a risk in terms of mercury ingestion (like salmon, flounder, crab, shrimp, and canned light tuna).  It might take a few minutes of research before you dig in to your dinner, but it seems a good rule of thumb to avoid foods high in mercury if having a getting pregnant in the near future is a possibility.  Even if you’re not pregnant now, chemicals can stay in your body long after exposure.

I often find myself wanting to order fish when I’m out at a restaurant, but it’s hard to remember off hand which ones to avoid.  I got into the habit of referencing a guide that I bookmarked on my phone.  When I come across an unfamiliar fish on a menu, I can discreetly pull out my phone and quickly access the list without having to type and search.  Though there are several websites that list mercury levels in different kinds of fish, I’ve found the Eat Fish, Choose Wisely brochure produced by the NYC government to be the most helpful because it directly notes how often it’s safe to eat specific fish, ranging from several times a week to never.

It’s definitely a sacrifice to give up tuna, my favorite thing on a sushi menu.  Perhaps in my golden years I’ll treat myself to it once in a while.  But for now, I would rather know that I’m doing the best thing for my body and any future Hilary Jr.