I might as well be watching Game of Thrones, blasting EDM and owning a cat I so hardly recognize myself: for the last several months, I’ve eaten ZERO vegetables. (Fine, zero may be an overstatement, but it’s been capped at, like, six total bites.)
Once a staple of my diet – I’ve literally been known to call kale chips my favorite food – vegetables have totally lost their luster for me this winter. And you can’t really blame me: New York City isn’t particularly known for its farm-fresh produce this time of year.
The farmers’ markets have been hawking nothing but cabbage, onions and last fall’s potatoes, and the perfect summer tomato is still a full fiscal quarter away. (Don’t @ me. I know its actually a fruit.) I even asked my west coast bestie to stop sending me salad recipes calling for “fresh spring greens” out of crippling jealousy. Bib lettuce may be paving the streets of San Francisco but it’s still an unattainable luxury in this concrete jungle where it definitely doesn’t yet feel like May.
But (wo)man cannot live on carbs/meat/dairy/fruit alone, and I know I’ve got to find a way to add more veggies into my diet whether or not the arugula seeds I planted in my upstate garden ever poke through. Even if the off-season variety is boring as all heck, they’re still crucial for the fiber, nutrients and reduced risk of chronic diseases they provide, and I’ve got to convince myself to eat some.
So I’ve been doing everything I can to add more vegetables into my diet, or — let’s be honest — treating myself like a four year old in a bid to disguise all the healthy stuff I’m sneaking past my lips. For example:
To trick myself into eating carrots, I made this “carrot cake” smoothie, which, weirdly, was surprisingly good.
To trick myself into eating cauliflower, I made this cauliflower-crust pizza, which would have been better covered in pepperoni and/or build on top of a real pizza crust.
To trick myself into eating kale and sweet potatoes, I doused my Dig Inn “salad” in mac and cheese (no regrets.)
Fortunately, my local upstate farmers’ market reopens on Sunday after a dark four-month hiatus, and hopefully it inspires me to love green things all over again. But in the meantime, at least I’ve been getting my green in other ways…
For all the stereotypes about New York City that are ill-founded, at least one rings true: we move too fast.
From whipping out our checkbooks within the first 90 seconds of seeing an apartment to weaving through Times Square tourists like Brer Rabbit in a briar patch, those of us residing in the city that never sleeps move so quickly we hardly have a chance to sit down.
I wish I could tell you that my New Years resolution is to finally rein in my pace, but with a half marathon on my schedule for April and the number of hours in the day stubbornly holding at 24, deceleration just doesn’t seem possible.
Well, except in one area of my life: cooking. Welcome to 2015, folks: the year of the crock pot.
I’ve been wanting a slow cooker for awhile, and that dream became a reality this Christmas when my brother’s fiancée left this New York apartment-sized slow cooker for me under the tree. I might question her taste in in-laws, but her gift-selection skills are downright impeccable.
Why did I want a slow cooker for Christmas, you ask? Plenty of reasons:
They allow you to cook entrees without added oils or fats.
They do the heavy lifting while you’re at work, allowing you to walk in the door at 8 p.m. to a ready-to-eat home-cooked meal.
Owning one makes you feel like a bonafide adult, whether or not you can grow facial hair.
I tried my inaugural recipe on the first workday after the holidays: a slow-cooker beef stroganoff. Of all the recipes on the internet, I chose this one because it fit all my requirements: it only used real ingredients, rather than cream of something soup; it let me throw most everything in at once, rather than browning something first; and it said I could cook it for 8 to 10 hours, which I interpreted to mean 13 hours due to a busier-than-expected day at the office. Whoops.
I’m not sure how the 3 to 5 extra hours of cooking may have impacted the ultimate end product, but what came out of that crockpot that evening was creamy and hot and delicious nonetheless. Most importantly, it went from slow cooker to mouth in less than 15 minutes after my walking in the front door, and that’s an all-star performance in my book.
My first foray into slow cooking was a success, and I’m already stockpiling recipes from friends and blogs to make in the weeks ahead. A few in particular that have caught my eye, so long as they don’t mind being cooked for five to six hours longer than the recipe suggests:
This one. Chicken tikka masala with a cucumber-cilantro slaw? Sign me up.
This one. Steak house chili with big chunks of sirloin? Yes please.
This one. Nah, I’m just kidding. That one was just a link to my niece laughing at a joke.
I have a few ideas up my sleeves, but now I need your help: what slow cooker recipes do you make that I can add to my very limited repertoire?
In most of life’s situations, when it comes to choosing between real or unreal, reality wins out. In today’s 24-hour reporting cycle, for example, the most successful news is real time. One of the best things about your late 20s is knowing who your real friends are and taking real (i.e. non-megabus) transportation up the Eastern seaboard. People buy real estate, watch Real Housewives and use the real unemployment rate to discuss the state of the economy. And let’s not forget soccer. There’s a reason everyone loves Real Madrid. (Spanish jokes!)
But for all the time we spend pursuing authenticity in our friendships and love lives and day-to-day existence, there’s one major component of many of our lives where we don’t strive for reality – our food.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to go on some healthy-eating rampage or try to convince you to make your own yogurt. Heck, just today, my boyfriend and I shared a family-sized box of knock-off cheez-its and called it lunch. For years, I thought the word “organic” was little more than a punchline, and even now, some of the violent opposition to genetically-modified agriculture can come off sounding a bit like a Portlandia spoof.
But at the same time, in the years since I’ve cleaned up my diet and started thinking more critically about my nutrition choices, it’s become glaringly obvious that much of our food intake has gotten far more complex and unnatural than it ever needed to be.
Take, for example, a loaf of bread. When made from scratch, bread requires little more than flour, yeast, water and salt. Now go to your kitchen and check out the ingredients list on your store-bought loaf. Even if it’s boasting buzzwords like “whole wheat” or “multigrain,” odds are good the ingredient list is dozens of items long, and some of the additions – from corn syrup to soybean oil – don’t sound like necessary add-ons at all. Despite what every locally-sourced menu in Brooklyn might lead you to believe, the vast majority of the food that passes through our lips is complicated and processed and anything but simple.
And this is especially the case in the lucrative world of so-called healthy items. When I was trying to lose 30 pounds in 2011, I remember I stocked my drawers full of 90-calorie Special K cereal bars because, well, that’s what the commercials told me to do. I’d inhale one every morning and another every afternoon, and while I’d successfully keep my calorie count under the 1,500 goal I was targeting, I was never, ever satiated.
The more I learned about nutrition, the more I began to understand why. Sure, the bars were low-cal and tasty, but they had virtually no protein or fiber, and the ingredient list was longer than a Saturday night wait at the Meatball Shop:
CEREAL (RICE, WHOLE GRAIN WHEAT, SUGAR, WHEAT BRAN, SOLUBLE WHEAT FIBER, SALT, MALT FLAVORING, MALTODEXTRIN, THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2]), CORN SYRUP, SOLUBLE CORN FIBER, FRUCTOSE, STRAWBERRY FLAVORED FRUIT PIECES (SUGAR, CRANBERRIES, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL STRAWBERRY FLAVOR WITH OTHER NATURAL FLAVORS, ELDERBERRY JUICE CONCENTRATE FOR COLOR, SUNFLOWER OIL), SUGAR, VEGETABLE OIL (SOYBEAN AND PALM OIL WITH TBHQ FOR FRESHNESS, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM KERNEL OIL)†, MALTODEXTRIN, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF DEXTROSE, SORBITOL, GLYCERIN, NONFAT DRY MILK, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL STRAWBERRY FLAVOR, SOY LECITHIN, SALT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NIACINAMIDE, COLOR ADDED, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), BHT (PRESERVATIVE). †LESS THAN 0.5g TRANS FAT PER SERVING
I soon realized that for nearly the same number of calories, I could have a string cheese (7 grams protein, four ingredients) and a handful of cherry tomatoes (lots of fiber, just one ingredient), simplifying my diet and leaving me feeling full. With that realization, I started swapping out increasingly more processed “health” foods for fresh fruit, roasted nuts and “clean eating” choices, and by that summer, I was out of a size 14 and training for my first half marathon.
Clean eating has been a goal of mine in the three years since, but between my long working hours and the hundreds of delivery options on every New York City block, it’s easy to let home cooking and other good habits go by the wayside. And it certainly doesn’t help that my office stocks its free-food pantries with all the processed deliciousness a hungry employee could ask for.
But January is about recommitting yourself to the things that are important to you — and about changing your stance on snow from amused to infuriated — so I’m vowing here to recommit myself to clean eating, at least when the option is available.
And I’m going to brag here for a second. I got off to a pretty good start last week. On Monday night, I roasted my own chicken.
The following night, I simmered the bones to make a homemade stock.
The night after that, I used the stock to make homemade Brussels sprout risotto.
And then I ate aforementioned box of cheez-its for lunch today and undid a week’s worth of toxic-free eating. But what the heck. Cheez-its are delicious.
The truth is, I know I’m not always going to choose the “real” food option, especially with Cadbury Crème Egg season so fast approaching, and at least a good portion of the time, I’m still going to choose convenience over health. But at least trying to keep these goals in mind in the months ahead might help me choose the fresh fruit over the crab chips during my next trek to the office kitchen. Hell, even if we go best out of three, I’ll still be moving in the right direction. (And, as much as it pains me to admit as a Baltimore native, away from the crab chips is probably the right direction.)
Certain things happen once a year like clockwork – New Years, tax season, another Peter Jackson installment of The Never Ending Hobbit – plus the one annual tradition flooding the internet as we speak: holiday eating blog posts.
From Facebook to HuffPost to probably Pinterest (which I was recently disappointed to learn isn’t an online draught beer community), the world wide web is rife with tips this week on how to exit the holiday season healthy and trim and ready for bathing suit season.
Unfortunately, most of the advice on the subject of holiday eating is downright hogwash. And not the good kind of hogwash, that ends with a plate of clean, sizzling bacon.
Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s smart to go into the indulgence-laden holiday season with a game plan in order to kickstart January able to squeeze into more than just your elastic-waist Christmas jammies. But with so many of the so-called tips circling the ‘net silly, arbitrary or downright ridiculous, it’s tempting to ignore them altogether and eat for two (turtledoves) straight through Epiphany.
Take, for instance, these “healthy holiday eating strategies” I found on usually worthwhile website realsimple.com:
At a cocktail party: “Stand more than an arm’s length away from munchies, like a bowl of nuts or chips, while you chat so you’re not tempted to raise your hand to your mouth every few seconds.” (When has an extra foot of space ever stopped me from getting another cheese and cracker, honestly?)
At dinner: “Keep visual evidence around of what you’ve consumed so you don’t forget. Leave an empty bottle of wine or beer in view and you’ll be less tempted to drink more.” (Because hoarding shrimp tails and olive pits is so in this season.)
While Christmas shopping: “Avoid fast-food places that emphasize red in their color schemes. Red has been shown to stimulate the appetite more than many other colors, and many restaurants add it to their decor, in everything from the flowers on the table to the squiggles on the plates.” (Yes, because I’m sure it’s the red advertising, NOT THE FACT THAT YOU’RE GETTING FAST FOOD WHILE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING, that’s behind that holiday weight gain.)
Or my personal favorite ridiculous Christmas eating tip online: “Eat with a small group when you can. One study found that dining with six or more people can cause you to eat 76 percent more, most likely because the meal can last so long.”
What if you have 24 first cousins like I do, huh? Realsimple.com = the anti-Catholic.
But while most tips I found online made me cringe at their absurdity, there are a few pieces of advice I’d say are, in fact, worth keeping in mind as you enter Christmas Week. They’re not going to see you shedding the pounds, no, but keeping them in mind as you rock around the Christmas tree could help you do the only thing you should be aiming for weightwise between Advent and New Years — maintenance.
So without further ado, here’s my list of achievable, sustainable, non-misery-inducing holiday eating tips.
Indulge in your seasonal favorites, but skip the snacks you could have any time of the year. Seriously, which of these sounds wrong to you? “I really shouldn’t, but it’s Christmas Eve, so I’m going to treat myself to a piece of Gram’s mincemeat pie.” vs. “I really shouldn’t, but it’s Christmas Eve, so I’m going to treat myself to these Cool Ranch Doritos.” Skip the extra calories without any seasonal significance, and save room for that favorite fruitcase instead.
Offer to contribute your own dish. If you aren’t hosting the holiday party or dinner yourself, plan to bring along an appetizer or side to add to the spread — and make it something on the healthier side. That way, as you’re overfilling your plate because you have more than six friends (ahem), at least you’ll know one dish along the buffet won’t completely undo a year’s worth of good eating. Could be a plate of crudite and hummus, or a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, or even a healthier version of a holiday classic, so long as you know exactly how many sticks of butter went into it.
Commit to getting out and moving every day. You don’t have to sign on for a holiday streak like this stubborn runner, but resolving to do one active thing a day between Christmas and New Years is a great way to undo the previous night’s damage. Whether it’s taking your younger cousins sledding or playing some touch footfall or walking the dog around the block, getting your heart beating again is the best way to counteract that gallon of gravy you drank the night before.
The truth is, the holidays come once a year, and they’re a time for celebration, not calorie counting. But I know from experience laying in bed holding your stretched-out stomach in agony isn’t the best way to ring in the new year either, which is why I advocate exercising a little (but not too much) moderation this holiday season. That, and getting a fur cover-up before spring break.
What is your best tip for maintaining healthy habits during the most gluttonous time of the year?
Below is a guest post from my college friend, Tara, whose simultaneous appreciation for delicious food and healthy ingredients makes for some awesome recipes that are impossible to pass up. Tara is just two months away from her big wedding date (what up, Mike? Let’s meet someday, fo’ real.) and three-and-a-half months out from our five-year college reunion. Start gathering your favorite 80s gear now! (More for the latter event, but you never know…) Enjoy her post, and check out her blog for more recipes.
There are so many diet gimmicks out there – pills, shakes, drinks, juices, superstitions, tricks – and the list goes on. However, losing weight isn’t magic (unless you use Photoshop) – it’s a science, or a simple mathematical equation: calories in < calories out = weight loss. For those of you who hate math, let me rephrase: eat less than you burn and you will lose weight.
Unfortunately, no matter how many math or science courses we took at college, they did not teach us this equation. What they did teach, however, was how amazingly delicious calorie-packed food can be. Anne and my small liberal arts college was ranked No. 1 nationally for food, and with an all-you-can-eat dining hall, we indulged – a lot. Between the delicious meals, intense studying and a lack of physical activity save for dance parties, we were eating more than we were burning for four whole years, which meant we quickly packed on the freshman 15 (or in my case, 50).
So when graduation came and we entered the real world where sweatsuits were no longer acceptable everyday attire, it was time to drop the freshman 15 (or 50). And instead of giving in to gimmicks, Anne and I each separately decided to do it the good old fashioned way (and the only way proven to work): we resorted to healthy eating and exercise, or calories in < calories out. While running became a passion for Anne, my passion became cooking and eating healthy food.
Two years (and negative 50 pounds) after making the switch to healthy food, I decided to start sharing my recipes with the world, and my blog InspiredbyMollie.com was born.
The philosophies I follow in my blog – and life – are as follows:
Use healthy ingredients. This means incorporating ingredients that are packed with nutrition so the calories that are consumed are beneficial to your body, including vegetables, protein, fruit, whole grains and healthy fats. At the same time, it’s important to avoid empty calories, or foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition (e.g. processed white bread). Also, you can typically find low-calorie nutritious substitutes for high calorie favorites (e.g. spaghetti squash for traditional spaghetti or fat free Greek yogurt for sour cream). Here are a couple of my recipes that are packed with healthy ingredients and incorporate such substitutions:
Exercise portion control. This is especially important when eating rich foods or treats. It’s simple: if something is higher in calories, eat less of it. And if you are anything like me, and you don’t have self-control, use portion-sized bowls and plates to help you. Also, if you just need a “big” meal, increase the volume of your meal by adding a bed of lettuce or a ton of low calorie vegetables. Here are some of my portion-controlled favorites:
Indulge! Sometimes. Just because you are watching what you eat does not mean you have to deprive yourself of flavor or fun. Use low-calorie flavors like spices and herbs to enhance the flavors of your healthy food without destroying their nutritional value. Just beware of salt, as it causes water retention and thus apparent weight gain. And if you’re a sweets person, don’t skip dessert! It’s OK to eat a small treat once a day. Just remember – portion control is key. Here are some great portion-controlled desserts that won’t break the bank:
Plan and prepare. Plan ahead and prepare your own food. This allows you to make good decisions, rather than impulsive hungry decisions AND it also allows you to control what you are putting in your mouth. I try to avoid eating out more than once or twice a week and when I do eat out, I look at the online menu ahead of time and make my selection when I am not hungry. I know this could be considered a bit OCD, but if it allows me to order the beet salad (which I love) instead of the mile-high nachos, it is worth it. Also, if you are really busy and thinking to yourself you don’t have time to make your own food, think again. Make healthy food in bulk on a day when you have time and freeze individual portions for a healthy meal when you are pressed for time. Here are some freezer friendly recipes:
Drink water. Lots and lots of water. This is very important when you are running and working out and also when trying to lose weight. It helps flush your body and also helps fill your stomach – and it’s calorie free! Sick of water? Add some sliced fresh fruit to a pitcher of ice water for flavor. Lemon, limes, strawberries, watermelon and cucumber are all delicious options!
Of course, I do not always stick to these rules perfectly, but I do my best to make one good decision at a time. Like training for a race, you can get derailed and face challenges or temptation. But overall, if you stick with the training and healthy eating, you will find success, just like Anne and I did.
As difficult as it may be to eat healthy in New York – especially after Shake Shack decided its flagship restaurant 0.4 miles from my office wasn’t sufficient and opted to open a second East Side hub 0.3 miles from my apartment – eating well while traveling is infinitely harder.
There are a lot of things you shouldn’t take my word for (example: that the 5-second rule still applies in NYC bars), but trust me on this one: maintaining a healthy lifestyle while on the road is hands down one of the hardest – but most rewarding – skills I’ve ever had to master.
Why should you believe me? Because I’m writing this from San Diego.
During the height of conference season, my job has me frequenting LaGuardia at least twice a month. And besides learning who not to follow through the security checkpoint (Midwest women transporting a backpack of snow globes), my airport education has also taught me that preparation is key when it comes to Cinnabon-free transcontinental travel.
It’s impossible to be as regimented with your eating and workout schedules as you’d like when living out of a suitcase, but I’ve learned a little advanced planning can make all the difference between overstepping your daily calorie intake by 200 – and vaulting past it by 2,000.
And that’s about the best you can ask for when you’re washing your hair with a 3-ounce bottle of shampoo.
Here are my top tips for how to survive a few kitchen-less days of travel without sabotaging a week’s worth of good behavior.
1. BE PREPARED WITH SNACKS.
A growing number of airlines have stopped offering complementary soft drinks, so you can kiss your chance of getting a bag of peanuts good-bye. And with 84% of all domestic flights (I made up that number) into New York delayed, when your stomach starts growling, if you’re not prepared, you’re going to find yourself leaving the closest Hudson News with a jumbo-sized KitKat and a sinking feeling of regret. Not only will that chocolate bar set you back 410 calories, but it will rob you of $4.95 that could have been spent buying coke in a glass harmonica from a Mitch Hedbgerg-inspired mini-fridge once you arrive at your destination.
Having an arsenal of your everyday snacks in your carry-on luggage is the key to evading such a fate. When I left my apartment for this trip, for example, I came prepared with dual ziplocks of red pepper strips and dried nectarines. Did the low-cal snacks last me all the way to my Chicago lay-over? Nope. But they kept me from ordering a $12 breakfast sandwich made from powdered eggs in the Southwest terminal.
Non-bruisable fruit (oranges, apples, etc.), nuts and low-sugar granola bars also make an easy go-to, but if you don’t have anything in the cupboards to bring with you, never fear – there are healthy options for sale in the airport if you take the time to look for them. They will undoubtedly cost more than their non-airport counterparts (I paid almost $4 – or the cost of a NYC happy hour beer – for a Chiobani yogurt in the airport Thursday), but I’d wager it was worth it in the long run.
(Also, note to all the yogurt executives out there who read my blog: why doesn’t anyone make yogurt in 3-ounce containers that can make it through security? You would make a killing, particularly from me. Please steal my idea and make it happen. Thanks.)
2. BRING YOUR RUNNING SHOES.
You may not be able to maintain your usual workout routine when you’re 2,700 miles from your gym, but if you make the time to squeeze in even a little bit of exercise while on the road, you’re still going to be a step ahead of the game. Most hotels these days have at least a semblance of a fitness center, and those that don’t will usually recommend nearby running paths where you can sneak away for a quick sweat once your conference sessions break for the day. Not only will you get your workout in, but you’ll get the chance to explore a new city in a different way. (Note: not recommended if your conference is in downtown Baltimore, unless your running partner carries a sawed-off shotgun.)
If you’re short on time, you can even work out right in your hotel room. I tend to favor less-intense in-room workouts, like watching Groundhog Day on TBS, but when I found myself in my room Thursday with 20 minutes to kill, I queried my brother via text for some advice.
I’m not sure why I asked him. It’s not like he’s in shape or anything.
Next time you’re in need of a small-space workout that will really get your heart pumping, follow my marine brother’s prescription:
20 star jumps
Repeat for 20 minutes. “Work hard,” he says.
(If you do it, let me know how it goes. Because I ignored his advice and go for a 3-mile tempo run instead.)
3. DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP TOO MUCH.
Eating healthy and meeting your fitness goals is always hard, and it’s significantly harder when you’re on the road. Give it your best shot, but if you only make it 90-percent of the way there, take pride in knowing you’ve still done better than everyone else at the conference. (Although you’ve probably done worse than my brother. Let’s be honest here.)
What are your best tips for maintaining momentum while on the road?