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Oh, the long-awaited extra hour of sleep! How I pined for it, wishing and hoping that it would indeed be and feel true. Alas, as the boys woke last Sunday morning, the usual 6:30 plea for breakfast felt much more disappointing and difficult than usual. I swear the self-adjusting clock gave a wink and a sneer as it glared 5:30 in my dark and cozy room, seemingly wishing better luck next year. Bummer.

As I think about living well, healthily and happily, I have come to believe that sleep is the most important factor in the equation. Chronic, sleep deprivation, for whatever reason, is insidious and sneaky as it reaches into every fine line of our lives. I haven’t yet mastered how to fit myself into my own very busy days. Trying to do that with virtually no sleep has created mystery where there used to be routine. I just don’t know how to enjoy regular exercise and healthy, relaxing meals when I am running from early morning to late night on imitation energy. Just this week, sick and teething children have left me with fewer than four hours total sleep on three different nights. Then, as I twirl through the following days of details, work, students, drop-offs, pick-ups, errands, meals left behind for the different babysitters & same kids, laundry blah, blah, blah, I find myself reaching for yet another comforting cup of tea, diet Pepsi, handful of high-calorie nuts, chips and hummus, unbalanced meal. What I really want, of course, is to crawl into a kid-free bed and slumber. A funny word, but one so appropriate for the sleep of my dreams.

There have been moments when I could sneak a walk outdoors or a quick trip to the club by myself; however, during those pauses I am so overwhelmed with exhaustion that I can’t imagine anything worse than trying to push my body even a whisper beyond where it is. And so I skip the exercise and reach for another caffeinated drink or quick sugar shot, when what I really need is sleep. To slow down and to savor deep, uninterrupted rest. And then to go for a great, sweaty work-out soaked with lots of water. Pure and simple.

I will figure this out. I must. So for the next week or two, I am keeping my sights on this core element of my life. If my hypothesis is correct, the sleep is the kernel for health and the exercise and healthy diet the byproducts. Rather than focus on the classes at the gym that I want to attend, the veggies that I want to enjoy and the higher energy that I want to feel flooding my system, I will just sleep whenever and however I can. Ideally, the simplicity of this shift in attention will offer permission to just stop, will calm that voice that “shoulds all over myself” and will, in the end, invite health and wellness back to my days.

And so with that, good night.

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So This Is What a Plan To Fail Looks Like

I’ve often heard (and actually agree with) the adage “A failure to plan is a plan for failure”.  But the past couple of weeks, it has really hit home.  I think most people who know me would tell you I’m a very organized person.  I love lists.  If I have a “to do” list and I do something that is not on that list, I will add that task after I’ve done it just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.  But one of the reasons I am like that is that I’m actually a totally unorganized and ineffective person if left to my own devices.  So if I’m not super vigilant about planning, chaos ensues.  And all of this leads me to the point that chaos has reigned supreme in my life since I got back from vacation because I haven’t forced myself back into hyper-vigilant planning mode.  This has led to all sorts of things of which I am not proud.  Like the fact that on Friday morning, I was forced to wear a pair of pants on which the hem had come undone and I had to fix that hem after I had the pants on.  If that doesn’t sound too bad, it’s because I haven’t told you that I fixed said pants with a stapler.  And let me be clear here – this was just a regular old stapler with regular old silver staples.  And on an even more troublesome note, this lack of planning has led to dinners that look like this:

Yes, that is a bowl of Cheerios (with raisins!) and a glass of red wine.  And that was my dinner on more than one occasion this past week.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love Cheerios red wine.  But it isn’t a very satisfying dinner.  And since my lunches weren’t much better, I ended up snacking on crap a lot.  To add insult to injury, snacking on crap makes me feel sluggish and far less likely to go the gym (especially on nights when I don’t have a class).  There you have – a plan for failure.

So now I’m attempting to regain control.   Friday night I sat down with the latest issue of Clean Eating (soooo many good recipes!) and planned my meals for the week.  I spent today cooking, cleaning and actually writing down my workout plan for the week, complete with lists of exercises for nights that I don’t have a class (oh lists, I missed you!).

So I’m starting this week feeling like I’m back in control.  But just in case, I also made sure to reload my stapler.

I am, no doubt, a breakfast eater. According to the rules of healthy living, it seems this practice gains me bonus points on most self-assessment quizzes. It’s a meal that I always enjoy and prefer to eat at home. I am not one of those people who loves going out to breakfast, exploring new diners, searching for the perfect home fries, adding a long list of veggies and cheeses to my omelet or drinking the seemingly endless flow of coffee refills. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a fresh bakery bagel with a hot cup of tea every once in a while, but when imagining a meal out on the town, breakfast is seldom my choice. I was raised on non-sugared cold cereals, vats of fiber-filled hot cereals, fresh waffles, french toast and poached eggs. For a while, we even ventured into the world of homemade yogurt, adorned with wheat germ and fruit. My mother’s goal was to jumpstart the days of her eight children, six of whom were boys, with healthy, hardy fare. Clearly, I have inherited this gene as I send my own sons off to their adventures with bellies full of good choices. Luckily for me, I usually eat what I serve in the morning and so am able to stick to my own high standards.

This is the time of year when I begin to shift my cooking gears a bit, leaning more towards warm and comforting foods on these brisk mornings. Although we love our oatmeal and cream of wheat, quinoa (keen-wa) is the hot cereal that I especially like for its versatility. The Incas deemed quinoa as sacred, referring to it as the “mother of all grains” while appreciating it as a complete plant protein full of essential amino acids, dietary fiber, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. Its gluten-free qualities make it easy to digest as our bodies mine the nutritional treasures. While in other people’s homes, at cooking classes and in restaurants, I have enjoyed quinoa (both red and white) in a multitude of dinner sides; however, for me, it resides primarily on the breakfast food shelf in my heart. I am endlessly surprised (who knows why after so many trips to the supermarket) that I can never find the quinoa in the cereal aisle and must travel to the grains section of any given store to find it sitting aside the millet and barley.

Although I always enjoy quinoa infused with the flavors of apples, almonds, cinnamon and almond milk, my favorite, slightly decadent recipe includes coconut, dried berries and almonds. I do believe in some of the healthful qualities of coconut and, when eaten in moderation, don’t mind using it as a tasty ingredient in my dishes. In its various forms, it adds both creaminess and crunchiness to this meal. When I know that I won’t enjoy the luxury of the 20 minute cook time in the morning, I make a pot the night before. Usually, I’ll splash a bit of the remaining coconut milk into our bowls before reheating so that a bit of moisture is reintroduced. Another option is to drop a dollop of fat free Greek yogurt atop the cooked quinoa. If you feel like you would like a bit more sweetness, you may add a drop of stevia or honey into the mix just before eating. At our house, we find that a small teacup will provide a great combination of protein and complex carbs, keeping us satisfied and running smoothly for hours.

May you have fun playing with this recipe and venturing into new combinations and pairings.  I imagine you will find new love as well.

1 cup quinoa
1 cup water
1 cup lite coconut milk
Dried berries (Trader Joe’s has a “Dried Berry Medley” that is great in this recipe)
Sliced almonds
Unsweetened, shredded coconut
Place the water, coconut milk & quinoa into a saucepan.
Bring to a boil, sprinkle in small handfuls of almonds, berries & coconut as desired.
Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until liquid has evaporated.

I like to think I’m  someone who pushes myself in my workouts.  I also like to consider myself a “quiet” person, but a friend nearly spit out her drink when I announced this the other day, so eager was she to correct this illusion.  Apparently, I harbor under a lot of false illusions.  So when left to my own devices, I do try very hard at the gym – but I don’t try hard enough.  I’m fine with cardio and basic strength training exercise – but I totally cop out when it comes to exercise I truly detest (proof the universe hates me can be found in the fact the exercise I detest are the ones that trainers love) and when it comes to exercises where I’m not totally confident in my ability to perform it without breaking a window/maiming a fellow gym member/knocking out all of my teeth.  So this all means that my workouts on my own in Europe were not on par with my normal workouts.

That changed today.  I swore at Lauren under my breath  a few times and half way through demanded that she return the present I gave her for her birthday – but when it was all over, I wanted to hug her (I was very sweaty – so *not* hugging her was kind of like a second birthday present).

When I’m working out by myself, my thought process goes like this:  “I will do planks now.  Actually, no.  I will just lay here on my stomach for a while.   I’ll suck in my stomach while I’m doing it though – that will totally work my abs.”  Planks are probably my least favorite gym-related activity.  I did not do a single plank the whole time in Europe.  I even lost my “plank elbow” (also known as the rough skin around my elbows where my arms touch the ground during planks).  And then there was today’s workout, where we did many, many plank.

Another solo scenario:  “I think I’ll do some dead lifts with this super heavy weight.  I’m totally strong enough for it.  Hmm, but what if I do something wrong and screw up my back or break a window.  Maybe I shouldn’t risk it.  Is there a juice bar in the gym?”  But in Bootcamp, I know I can rely on Lauren’s expertise to keep me away from broken backs and broken windows, so I’m free (and encouraged) to try the heavier weight.

All of this is my way of saying that today’s boot camp was the best workout I’ve had in over two weeks and I needed it.  I felt grumpy and slow in a way that didn’t have anything to do with post-vacation/back to work blues.  Nothing like a butt-kicking work out to clear the cobwebs!  If you are interested and have never tried agroup training class, I highly recommend it.  Being a confirmed introvert and self-conscious about the way I look (and sometimes smell) when I workout, I never would have thought I would like them.  But I absolutely love them.  You’ve got a trainer to push you and you’ve got classmates who cheer each other on (and sometimes plot about overthrowing the trainer in a bloody mutiny – but that hardly ever happens).

 

Anyway, I feel I have diverged a bit.  I just feel 100% better after today’s workout.  Now I just need to get back to sticking to me eating plan…

 

no planks were done in this lovely gym….

And lest you think I didn’t work out at all in Europe, I present you with a picture of my gym in Prague (people looked at my pretty funny when I was taking this picture – I didn’t care).  A lovely and fine gym, but there was nobody there to tell me to do planks.  And I don’t know the Czech word for plank, so it would have just been confusing.

Well, I’m back from my European jaunt.  I had an absolutely wonderful time (it was one of the few times in life where things were actually *better* than I expected) – but I am also very happy to be home (not so happy to be back at work, but that is another story).    I’m just about finished catching up with sleep and laundry and I’m looking forward to spending some time cooking and preparing meals for the week (the fact that I’m looking forward to cooking shocks me as much as if I had suddenly spouted a pair of wings).  I missed having total control over my eating choices in Europe and I didn’t always make the best decisions when it came to food (and, erm, beer).  But I’m not going to waste time doing a post-mortem on the whole things – it was an amazing trip and now that I’m back I can refocus.  I usually feel invigorated at this time of year and it seems like a much better time to make changes than on January 1st (I think it harkens back to the “back to school” spirit on the season).  I’ve got my meal plan for the week all set (hurrah for soup season!) and I’m very much looking forward to getting back into my gym routine.  I would really like a new short-term fitness goal on which to focus –  I was hoping to find a Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Trot” near my house that I could aim for, but I can’t.  I think I respond well to these kinds of short-term goals because they keep me focused.  I’ll keep racking my brains because I’d really like to publically state the goal here – you guys will keep me honest.  In the meantime, I thought I’d share this picture of me and one of my new super-thin European friends:

(Just kidding – it is from this amazing church in the Czech Republic that is entirely decorated with human bones.)

This past weekend was some pretty glorious Fall weather! Unfortunately, I spent most of the weekend locked away, working on a huge paper for one of my classes (almost finished), but it was just too nice outside to not sneak out and do something fun. I ended up going apple picking with some friends at Russell Farms in Ipswich, quite possibly one of the cutest places ever. I ate the best cider donuts and hot apple cider I’ve ever had, took a hay ride out to the orchards, and brought home a ten pound “peck” of Cortland, Macoun, Macintosh, and Gala apples.

One of the great things about season fruit picking, is finding ways to eat your new bounty. Some of those apples have been getting cut up and cooked with oatmeal in the morning. Some of them might end up going into that apple chicken recipe that I wrote about a few weeks ago. And yesterday, I decided to procrastinate with that paper just a little bit more, by baking an awesome apple crisp. I love apple crisp because it’s so delicious and easy and can be prepared without a lot of extra fat or sugar. I actually really don’t like most store-bought crisps or packaged mixes – I find them to be way too sweet and gooey. Apples baked with some cinnamon and raisins have so much natural sweetness and flavor on their own, why would you want to cover that up? I prefer to keep mine simple, with just a little bit of crumb topping. Below is the recipe I came up with yesterday.

Slightly Sweet Apple Crisp

5-7 apples (I used 5 because mine were huge) peeled, cored and sliced thin. I used the aforementioned apple varieties which are all semi-sweet and tart, good for baking

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ cup raisins

3 tbsp tapioca pearls – this is optional, I like to add them because they add some fun texture

1 cups water

½ cup rolled oats

¼ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup whole wheat flour

2 tbsp butter

Preheat the over to 375 degrees, and coat a 9 x 11 glass baking pan with non-stick spray. Arrange apple slices to an even layer on the pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon, lemon juice, raisins, tapioca, and stir until evenly coated. Add water to the apples. In a separate bowl, combine the oats, sugar, and flour and mix well. (I also added an extra sprinkle of cinnamon to this mixture). Cut the butter into the mix using a pastry knife or two butter knives (if you don’t know what this means, here’s a link to a video that explains). Sprinkle crumble mixture evenly over apples. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until apples are soft.

 

I’m starting off this week wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt as the temperature starts to reflect the end of Summer and start of Fall.  Last week went by for me in a total whirlwind. I had a great Labor Day weekend visiting my best friend in Durham, NC, where I watched some minor league Durham Bulls baseball, walked around the campuses of Duke and UNC, and ate some amazing food. I was very impressed with the local food in Durham – it seemed that every restaurant I went to specifically named the farms that their meat and produce came from. Awesome! We officially said farewell to summer with a few rounds of sweet tea vodka mixed with lemonade.

 
I returned to Boston and dove right into my new graduate student life, with classes on Wednesday and Thursday nights. This is in addition to my full-time job. Whoa. I felt extremely overwhelmed right off the bat with the amount of reading and with the length of the classes – 4 hours on Weds. night! Which means I don’t get home until around 10:45 pm. Then I go to sleep, and leave my house at 7:30 am the next day for work. Repeat. Remember that “Back to School” enthusiasm I was feeling a few weeks ago? This is the reality check. I’m feeling daunted but hoping that I will adjust to the new routine. Managing my time and planning ahead for working out and eating healthy meals is going to be much more difficult now, but I’m hoping to find ways to make it work.

I’m starting off this week a little more prepared. I devoted some time on Sunday for planning out some meals, grocery shopping, and doing my cooking in advance. I now have a refrigerator full of salad supplies, healthy high-fiber homemade muffins, and the best secret weapon I have, a giant pot of black bean soup. Why is this soup my secret weapon? It’s cheap – probably costing $5-10 on ingredients; the recipe makes an enormous batch that will feed me and my boyfriend for at least a week and a half; it tastes great; and it’s full of healthy ingredients like the black beans that supply fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Perfect for a hot lunch or dinner on these cooler Fall days. The recipe is below. Do you have any secret weapons for staying healthy while you’re busy? I’d love to hear your input!

 Black Bean Soup

6 cups cooked black beans

2 tbsp olive oil 1 onion, chopped

1-2 red bell peppers, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, diced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp sea salt

1 14 oz can diced tomatoes

1-2 cups frozen corn

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar)

Sautee the onion and olive oil in a large soup pot for a few minutes, then add the spices and coat. Add peppers and carrots and sautee a few more minutes. Then add the black beans, about 3 cups of water, the tomatoes with their liquid, and the frozen corn. Simmer for about 25 minutes. Then add the vinegar. Also good with some chopped cilantro!

 – Jean

Happy Monday! I hope you all had a great weekend. I took advantage of the sunny weather yesterday by going to Revere Beach with my good friend Steph, who is also my “foodie mentor.” I think we talked about food and recipes for at least 2 hours yesterday! Steph has an amazing combination of frugality and innate culinary talent that allows her to make the most out of every single ingredient she comes in contact with – no wastefulness ever for her. I hope to learn from this, because I am guilty far too often of letting things go to waste, or throwing out unused ingredients that I don’t know what to do with. Because our beach trip was a little last minute, she told me she barely had anything in the house to pack for a lunch, yet lo and behold managed to scrounge up the makings for a gourmet picnic – open faced goat cheese and fig sandwiches (with fresh chives and rosemary from her garden chopped up in the cheese) on top of slices of bakery-fresh olive bread. Plus, homemade almond amaretto biscotti and lemonade. Amazing!

I got home from the beach feeling inspired, and rummaged through my pantry, looking for unused ingredients that I could throw together. I ended up making a beautiful Israeli Couscous pilaf with chopped apricots and pistachios that served as my lunch today, on top of a bed of baby spinach greens. Israeli Couscous are bigger, chewier cousins of the standard couscous, and I love the texture! I cooked the couscous according to the package directions and added:

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp cumin

½ cup of chopped apricots (which had been languishing in the back of my shelf)

½ cup of shelled pistachios

Juice from 1 lime

A few sprigs of chopped fresh mint

All of this was sautéed in about 2 tbsps of olive oil. It was super-simple and made for a delicious and exotic-tasting lunch. My frugal gourmet buddy would definitely be proud. I’m thinking this will also make a great side dish with some roasted vegetables and chicken later in the week.

 Do you have any tips for whipping up a gourmet dish, using what you have around the house? I’d love to hear!

– Jean

This is the time of year when I always get a nervous/excited “back to school” feeling of anticipation, whether or not I’m actually a student. It so happens that this fall, I’m going to be a student for the first time in about 6 years – I’m beginning a Health Communications Masters program at Emerson College in combination with Tufts Medical School.  It’s a pretty cool program – combining the communications resources at Emerson with medical classes at Tufts. In the future I hope to be working in some sort of marketing form for a health related organization, possibly in the nutrition and exercise field, helping to communicate messages about healthy living to the public.I’ve been super excited to get back into the classroom, and purchased my books for class about 5 seconds after the course materials list was sent out! Yesterday I went to Staples and spent about a half an hour searching for the perfect note-taking pens and notebooks. A little overboard, yes, but there’s just something about the turn of the seasons and the start of something new that makes the end of summer/beginning of fall feel like magic to me.

I love that there are some upcoming programs at Healthworks reflecting the enthusiasm at this time of year – like the “Back to School Body Basics 101” workshop in Cambridge.  Even if your schoolbook days are over, there are always ways to take advantage of the seasonal momentum and brush up on healthy skills. If you’ve been lamenting the shortening of the days and the retreat of the heat, a little back to school excitement might be just what you need to stay motivated. 

– Jean

One of my favorite things about summer in Boston is the farmers markets all around the city. I’m a big supporter of eating locally produced foods – shopping at farmers markets is a great way to support our environment, our American farmers, and our health. I’m fortunate enough to work near the Government Center market, and I love walking over there on my lunch break and meandering around the farmers’ tables, checking out their latest harvests. Last week, on a whim, I bought zucchini, summer squash, an heirloom squash, a big bunch of bright green swiss chard, and some garlic scapes, which I’d never cooked with before. I also bought a dozen fresh farm eggs from Silverbrook Farms. These eggs are amazing – definitely pricier than a cheap dozen from the grocery store, but the taste and texture is so superior that I find myself savoring them in a way that I never do with “regular” eggs. Some research studies have suggested that the nutrition content of free range grass-fed eggs is also better than their factory-farmed counterparts – providing more healthy fats, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of vitamins.

When I got home, I threw together all of my farmers market bounty into a frittata, which came out great. Below is the recipe I conjured up. The beauty of the frittata is that you can put in whatever you want, though, so it’s a perfect base to experiment with as the seasons and available produce changes.

Farmers Market Fritatta

6 eggs (preferably farm fresh!)

1 cup skim milk

Dash of salt and pepper

Sliced zucchini and summer squash, one of each

1 bunch of chard, de-stemmed and torn into small pieces

1 tablespoon chopped basil

3 chopped garlic scapes

2 sliced shallots

¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

¼ cup whole wheat breadcrumbs

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, salt and pepper, and basil. In a cast iron skillet, or a large saucepan, sauté shallots in some olive oil until browned, then add garlic scapes and sauté about a minute longer. Add zucchini and squash and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add swiss chard and sauté about a minute. Preheat over to 400 degrees. Pour egg mixture into the skillet, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for about 5-10 minutes, or until it has mostly set. Sprinkle with cheese and breadcrumbs, and place in oven for about 10 minutes, or until the top has browned.

What are your favorite finds at  farmers markets?