Healthy Eating

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Family Meals: Make Them More Frequent by Making Them Fun

Cooking and eating offer abundant opportunities to bring rituals of comfort and pleasure into daily life, simply because we all need to eat every day. Yet often, they’re missed opportunities, as frozen entrées, makeshift meals, and take-out menus call to our craving for convenience. No wonder so many Western cultures have become overfed and undernourished. Serving fresh food that’s been prepared with love (or at least a good attitude) and seasoned with camaraderie is a simple formula for nourishing both body and soul on a daily basis.

Meals aren’t only about the food on the table. The setting, atmosphere, stories, and conversations that accompany the food all contribute to making even the most ordinary meal memorable. And don’t forget that fun and memorable family meals can include breakfast, picnics, and meals shared with extended family and friends.

Here are some ideas to consider if mealtime at your home has become more of a chore than one of life’s simple pleasures:

Declutter your kitchen:

Because of its central location in most homes and apartments, kitchens often become repositories for mail, bills, school notices, homework, recent purchases, newspapers, unfinished projects, toys, and more. Make sure your kitchen suggests comfort, not chaos. The kitchen should be comfortable, functional, and as clutter-free as possible.

Consider your shopping and planning habits:

Do you plan your meals and pantry needs so that shopping can be at least a pleasant routine, and not on a par with going to the dentist? Does your food shopping include planned stops at farms stands and organic produce markets, quality bakeries, and ethnic food shops? If you find yourself frantically prowling the aisles of crowded supermarkets without a list in hand, or if you wait until there is literally nothing in the house with which to make a simple meal, then you need to rethink your shopping habits.

Bond over food regularly with extended family and friends:

Casting a wide net of family connection with food as the common denominator is one of the most time-honored ways to connect, and an ideal way to have cousins grow up together, to see aunts and uncles, siblings, and grandparents without having to make separate plans with everyone. How about a once-a-week potluck with extended family, rotating homes, or a once-a-month dinner club with a handful of other families whose company you enjoy?

Cook together:

The daily necessity of getting a meal on the table can feel like a lonely task when it is the domain of just one cook. When you involve your partner or children in the process of creating meals, you also create a perfect opportunity to pass down food customs and share culinary passions. Some families have developed rituals for cooking as a team, whether for daily dinner or for fun and relaxation, often with male partners and sons as equal participants. If your little ones want to be with you in the kitchen but are too young to help, get them a play stove and utensils so they can feel included. Gradually, give them small tasks that they can accomplish safely.

Spark conversation:

Dinner time is for checking in, exchanging news, enjoying good food, and just being together. Having a set of prompts in mind works well to spark conversation. Discuss an interesting news story or community event, or have everyone talk about the high point of their day. My older son recently suggested that we occasionally celebrate or commemorate something that happened on that date—a significant historic event, or the birthday of a person we admire. Many websites, for example www.infoplease.com, have such listings.

If you want to keep conversation light, try “conversation-in-a-jar,” suggested by Meg Cox in The Book of New Family Traditions. Prepare a container to be set on the table, containing strips of paper marked with questions such as “The strangest thing that happened to me today was…” or “The best book I’ve read recently is…”

Borrow from other cultures:

If there is a culture that fascinates you or any members of your family, borrow from it to create festive meals. New Year celebrations, harvest festivals, seasonal rites, and other non-religious holidays can give your family a fresh, exciting perspective on food and teach children to appreciate cultures other than their own. Acknowledging Cinco de Mayo (Mexican Independence Day), Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) or the Chinese New Year, is cultural education disguised as fun. There are plenty of books on these subjects geared to kids, and lots of information on the internet.

Candles at the table:

Candles are often saved for special occasions, though their soothing glow provides an easy way to elevate the nightly meal. The simple act of lighting candles gives the meal a definite beginning; older children enjoy this task. Dinner is over when the candles are blown out—the perfect “job” for little ones.

Candles are most welcome during the dark days of the year. For casual daily meals, try short, chunky candles or colorful tapers in ceramic holders. It’s also fun to set a tiny tea light at everyone’s place. Send a long, safe candle around so everyone can light their individual candle. When the meal is over, everyone blows out their own candle. While hardly a revolutionary idea, candles can sharpen the focus of a family dinner, while softening the atmosphere.

Start a breakfast tradition:

Special breakfasts are rarely a lot of work, since they often revolve around just one dish. Pancakes, waffles, biscuits, bagels, and fresh muffins seem tailor-made for enjoying in one’s pajamas, reading the morning paper. A breakfast ritual can be the perfect antidote to the weekday morning “rush hour” if enjoyed on the weekend; or if planned for, a nurturing way to launch school days and work days.

Pack a picnic:

A delicious meal eaten outdoors—deliberately planned, at any time of year—is a perfect springboard for creating a memorable family tradition. It may have been sneaky, but when our sons were young, we always found that they were more enticed by nature outings if we called them “picnics” rather than “hikes.” A picnic doesn’t have to be far from home; it can be in right in your own back yard, followed by a game of croquet or badminton. And it doesn’t always have to be outdoors, either—a meal of summery picnic foods eaten on a blanket before a warming fireplace on a dismal February day is the perfect antidote to February cabin fever.

A Shopping List for Healthy Eating

Healthy eating starts with careful planning and organization. Since fresh produce has a very limited shelf life, regular grocery shopping is a must. Creating a menu for the week and writing out a shopping list will save you time and money; while helping you stick to healthy recipes. Local health food stores and farmer markets are very money-wise solutions. Plus, frequent visits will allow you to expand your culinary horizons as well as mingle with other health-concerned people.

Healthy eating means using fresh ingredients and gentle cooking methods without adding any artificial ingredients and fats. Healthy eating requires a lot of cooking, since take-out food often contains too many refined fats and artificial seasonings. However, with modern appliances you will discover that cooking is no longer an annoying chore reserved for special occasions, but an exciting part of everyday life.

So which products should we buy when we actually decide to begin eating healthy food? Here’s what your weekly shopping list should include.

Vegetables

All vegetables should be eaten young, when they are tender and not coarse. Vegetables are best bought from fresh food markets or seasonal, when they are sold in boxes or baskets. Supermarket vegetables are often genetically modified or have been picked green and ripened in boxes when traveling long distances. Sprouts and brightly colored vegetables contain the most vitamins and antioxidants.

Fruits

Again, the trick is to buy seasonal fruit, since exotic fruits have often traveled long distances and ripened in their boxes, not on trees. Local, naturally ripened or, better yet, organic fruit are the best choice for the health-conscious cook.

Herbs

Aromatic herbs and spices can be used fresh or dried. The best idea is to plant the aromatic herbs in pots on your window and use them fresh whenever you need them. To preserve flavor, you can buy spices whole and use them freshly ground.

Cheese

Although cheese is quite rich in fats, cheese is a great source of vitamins and minerals. Buy only fresh cheeses in small quantities and try to eat them at once, since gourmet cheeses don’t have a lengthy shelf life.

Eggs

Buy only organic or free-range eggs, and shake them before buying to ensure freshness.

Fish and shellfish

The best way to buy fish is fresh and unfrozen. Again, most of the fish in supermarkets comes from fish farms where it is fed with artificial substances, and this fish cannot be used in healthy recipes. Pink salmon and other popular kinds of fish will most likely come from a fish farm. Shellfish is a more healthy choice, since shrimp, for example, does not live in chemically polluted water. When you boil mussels, discard those that do not open.

Meat

For truly healthy eating purposes it’s better to skip meat entirely, since it’s almost impossible to find meat that comes from an environmentally and health conscious farmer. Most of the meat in supermarkets has enormous quantities of growth hormones and antibiotics. The best meat for use in healthy recipes comes from small farming communities or organic farms.

Grains

Whole wheat and whole grains should become a staple of your healthy eating routine, because many healthy ingredients are contained in the grain shell. Rice is the only exclusion from the rule, because, even though the rice grain shell is removed, many nutritional elements still remain in the rice grain.

What we eat become a part of us. So make your kitchen a starting point for your new healthy eating habits, and enjoy preparing healthy meals.

Eat Chocolate And Get Healthy

Chocolate has been getting a bad rap. Although it’s often combined with other ingredients that result in calorie-laden and not particularly heart-healthy treats, the actual cocoa bean from which chocolate is derived has some significant health benefits.

Based on research from the 2004 Cocoa Symposium, sponsored by the University of California and the National Institutes of Health, chocolate was found to offer many disease-fighting properties in its pure form. Chocolate contains flavonoids, antioxidants shared by green tea and garlic, and thought to protect both heart and blood vessels. In addition, chocolate is also a good source of folic acid, copper, and magnesium and boosts serotonin, the brain chemical that enhances mood.

Historically, chocolate was highly regarded for its nutritional properties as well. Chocolate originated in the rainforests of Latin America and was known for its medicinal properties. In 17th century Europe, chocolate was touted as a remedy for such ailments as anemia, tuberculosis, and gout.

Even though there are real nutritional benefits to chocolate, this doesn’t mean that chocolate bars should join fruits and vegetables in your five a day plan. Chocolate is still higher in fat and calories than many other antioxidant-rich foods. It’s also usually combined with sugar, even though its moderate glycemic index helps provide a steady source of energy. But eaten in moderation, chocolate can satisfy your cravings for sweets and provide a health boost at the same time.

Pure cocoa powder has the highest concentration of antioxidant power, followed by dark chocolate and then milk chocolate. Cocoa powder also has the least fat—only half a gram with no saturated fat. Bar chocolate, including chocolate morsels and chips, is higher in fat and also contains sugar. Two tablespoons of chocolate chips contain approximately 4 grams of fat, including 2.5 of saturated fat.

To get started, here are three healthy, low-fat recipes in which chocolate is combined with another nutritional powerhouse.

Chocolate Cherry Cakes

In this recipe, chocolate is combined with cherries, another potent antioxidant that has been show to regulate sleep cycles and enhance memory. Each mini cake has a moist chocolate flavor and only 3 grams of fat.

1/2 cup oatmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup raw sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces frozen cherries, chopped
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons applesauce
3 tablespoons egg substitute
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup cherry jam, unsweetened

Preheat oven to 350° F degrees. Grind oatmeal until it resembles a course flour. Place the flours, cocoa, sugar, and baking soda in a medium bowl and stir to mix well. Add the cherries, oil, applesauce, egg substitute, and vanilla and stir well. Fold in the walnuts. Spread the batter evenly into an 8-inch baking pan, coated with cooking spray. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan to room temperature. Cut into 12 squares mini cakes and top with cherry jam.

Calories: 190; Fat 3g (sat 0g); Protein 3g; Carb 40g; Fiber 2g; Chol 0mg; Sodium 70mg

Chocolate Oat Bars

Oats lower cholesterol as well as reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and Type II diabetes. This recipe makes 25 bars with 2 grams of fat each.

1/2 cup raw sugar
1/2 cup applesauce, unsweetened
1/4 cup egg substitute
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup chocolate chip chunks

Preheat oven to 350° F degrees. In a medium bowl, mix together sugar and applesauce until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla to sugar-applesauce mixture. Add flours, baking soda, and cinnamon; mix well. Stir in oats and chocolate chunks. Pour into an 8-inch metal baking pan, coated with cooking spray. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown; remove to wire rack.

Calories: 73; Fat 2g (sat 1g); Protein 2g; Carb 14g; Fiber 1g; Chol 0mg; Sodium 30mg

Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake

This cheesecake combines the delicious taste of chocolate with the additional nutritional benefits of yogurt and antioxidant-rich raspberries. Use organic cream cheese and yogurt if available. Cut into 12 slices, each serving contains 10 grams of fat. For a lower fat option you can substitute fat-free cream cheese, but be sure to read labels carefully. Fat-free cream cheese is more likely to contain artificial ingredients and preservatives than its low-fat counterparts.

1-1/4 cups chocolate graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons canola oil
16 ounces (2 packages) reduced-fat cream cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup liquid egg substitute
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (1 container) non-fat raspberry yogurt
1/2 cup non-fat chocolate fudge topping, preferably sweetened with fruit juice
1 cup fresh or defrosted frozen raspberries

Preheat oven to 300° F degrees. Combine graham cracker crumbs and oil. Press into a 9-inch springform pan. Beat cream cheese in a medium bowl until smooth. Add sugar, flour, egg substitute, vanilla, and yogurt, one at a time, beating until smooth. Pour mixture over graham cracker crumbs. Bake 1 1/2 hours or until center is firm. When cheesecake has cooled, spread a thin layer of chocolate fudge topping over top. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Before serving, top with raspberries.

Calories: 222; Fat 10g (sat 5g); Protein 7g; Carb 26g; Fiber 1g; Chol 21mg; Sodium 387mg

Also see other Chocolate and Dessert Recipes on HealthSurvey.org

Choosing Organic for Health

We come from a society where growing organic and just growing produce and livestock for food was once one and the same. Small, family farms still grow their own food using traditional methods passed down through the generations. As commercial farming became big-business, however, growers and farmers started to investigate methods of increasing crops and building bigger livestock in order to increase their profits. This led to increased use of pesticides and drugs to enhance yield.

In this article, we will look at what is required in order to call a product organic, how choosing organic eating and farming impact the environment and our health, discuss the benefits of eating organic foods, and what research says about the nutritional benefits of organically-grown produce.

Calling it “Organic”

In 1995, the US National Organic Standards Board passed the definition of ‘organic’, which is a labeling term denoting products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. It states, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people.

The philosophy of organic production of livestock is to provide conditions that meet the health needs and natural behavior of the animal. Organic livestock must be given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture, and are fed 100% organic feed. They must not be given or fed hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in their feed. If an animal gets sick and needs antibiotics, they cannot be considered organic. Feeding of animal parts of any kind to ruminants that, by nature, eat a vegetarian diet, is also prohibited. Thus, no animal byproducts of any sort are incorporated in organic feed at any time.

Because farmers must keep extensive records as part of their farming and handling plans in order to be certified organic, one is always able to trace the animal from birth to market of the meat. When meat is labeled as organic, this means that 100% of that product is organic.

Although organic crops must be produced without the use of pesticides, it is estimated that between 10-25% of organic fruits and vegetables contain some residues of synthetic pesticides. This is because of the influence of rain, air and polluted water sources. In order to qualify as ‘organic’, crops must be grown on soil free of prohibited substances for three years before harvest. Until then, they cannot be called organic.

When pests get out of balance and traditional organic methods don’t work for pest control, farmers can request permission to use other products that are considered low risk by the National Organic Standards Board.

The Environment

According to the 15-year study, “Farming Systems Trial”, organic soils have higher microbial content, making for healthier soils and plants. This study concluded that organically grown foods are raised in soils that have better physical structure, provide better drainage, may support higher microbial activity, and in years of drought, organic systems may possibly outperform conventional systems. So, organic growing may help feed more people in our future!

What is the cost of conventional farming, today? The above-mentioned 15 -year study showed that conventional farming uses 50% more energy than organic farming. In one report, it was estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides actually reach the targets, leaving most of the pesticide, 99.9%, to impact the environment. Multiple investigations have shown that our water supplies, both in rivers and area tap waters, are showing high levels of pesticides and antibiotics used in farming practices. Water samples taken from the Ohio River as well as area tap water contained trace amounts of penicillin, tetracycline and vancomycin.

Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the world’s most valuable supplies of freshwater, according to a Worldwatch paper, Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution. Calling for a systemic overhaul of manufacturing and industrial agriculture, the paper notes that several water utilities in Germany now pay farmers to switch to organic operations because this costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies.

What About our Health?

Eating organic food is not a fad. As people become more informed and aware, they are taking steps to ensure their health. US sales of organic food totaled 5.4 billion dollars in 1998, but was up to 7.8 billion dollars in the year 2000. The 2004 Whole Foods Market Organic Foods Trend Tracker survey found that 27% of Americans are eating more organic foods than they did a year ago.

A study conducted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that the number of people poisoned by drifting pesticides increased by 20% during 2000.

A rise in interest and concern for the use of pesticides in food resulted in the passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, directing the US EPA to reassess the usage and impact of pesticides for food use.

Particular attention was paid to the impact on children and infants, whose lower body weights and higher consumption of food per body weight present higher exposure to any risks associated with pesticide residues.

Publishing an update to its 1999 report on food safety, the Consumers Union in May 2000 reiterated that pesticide residues in foods children eat every day often exceed safe levels. The update found high levels of pesticide residues on winter squash, peaches, apples, grapes, pears, green beans, spinach, strawberries, and cantaloupe. The Consumers Union urged consumers to consider buying organically grown varieties, particularly of these fruits and vegetables.

The most common class of pesticide in the US is organophosphates (OP’s). These are known as neurotoxins.

An article published in 2002 examined the urine concentration of OP residues in 2-5 year olds. Researchers found, on average, that children eating conventionally grown food showed an 8.5 times higher amount of OP residue in their urine than those eating organic food. Studies have also shown harmful effects on fetal growth, as well.

Pesticides are not the only threat, however. 70% of all antibiotics in the US are used to fatten up livestock, today. Farm animals receive 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics per year!

Public health authorities now link low-level antibiotic use in livestock to greater numbers of people contracting infections that resist treatment with the same drugs. The American Medical Association adopted a resolution in June of 2001, opposing the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in agriculture and the World Health Organization, in its 2001 report, urged farmers to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion. Studies are finding the same antibiotic resistant bacteria in the intestines of consumers that develop in commercial meats and poultry.

Is it More Nutritious?

Until recently, there had been little evidence that organically grown produce was higher in nutrients. It’s long been held that healthier soils would produce a product higher in nutritional quality, but there was never the science to support this belief. Everyone agrees that organic foods taste better.

In 2001, nutrition specialist Virginia Worthington published her review of 41 published studies comparing the nutritional values of organic and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and grains. What she found was that organically grown crops provided 17% more vitamin C, 21% more iron, 29% more magnesium, and 13.6% more phosphorus than conventionally grown products. She noted that five servings of organic vegetables provided the recommended daily intake of vitamin C for men and women, while their conventional counterparts did not. Today there are more studies that show the same results that Ms. Worthington concluded.

Considering the health benefits of eating organic foods, along with the knowledge of how conventionally grown and raised food is impacting the planet should be enough to consider paying greater attention to eating organic, today. Since most people buy their food in local supermarkets, it’s good news that more and more markets are providing natural and organic foods in their stores. Findings from a survey by Supermarket News showed that 61% of consumers now buy their organic foods in supermarkets. More communities and health agencies also are working to set up more farmer’s markets for their communities, also, which brings more organic, locally grown foods to the consumer. The next time you go shopping, consider investigating organic choices to see if it’s indeed worth the change!