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What Does “Healthy” Mean?

I originally posted this over at the blog I recently started with my friend Pam, Fit Moms & Full Plates.  I wantd to cross post it here as well becasue I feel very strongly about this topic.

“This should be filed under rant. I know this won’t be a popular post and I’m OK with that.  I want to start out by saying that I am not perfect when it comes to food and nutritional choices. I have been known to enjoy a chicken sandwich and fries from the golden arches; I’m a fan of ice cream in abundance; my favorite meal in the world is New York System Hot Wieners (a Rhode Island thing—think disgustingly processed hot dog smothered in a greasy meat sauce, onions, mustard, and celery salt). I say all of that and also say that I consider myself a relatively healthy individual. I am a true believer in the idea of all things in moderation (OK, so maybe a ¼ block of Comte cheese with a crusty loaf and a ½ bottle of Cabernet on the occasional Friday or Saturday night isn’t moderation)…but when does moderation cease to actually be moderation? Sure today I may have only had a ¼ block of that yummy cheese, but if it is done once a month, once a week…for let’s say from the age of 21 for the next 30-years is that REALLY moderation? A whole lot of littles can quickly add up to one big lot over time.

What has recently been bothering me is a realization that a good number of people might not really have a sense of what is good and what is bad—thinking that they are making the right choices, when in fact they are being duped (me included from time to time).   Marketing companies are labeling food products with words such a “natural” or “whole”; shakes are advertized as being good options for a “meal replacement” to lose weight (why would you want to replace a meal of REAL food with something to drink?). Even some of the most recognizable diet companies are adding to the guise of things being good for you simply because a serving “only costs me 7 points!”—meanwhile the recipe someone concocted to get to the magic number 7is comprised of regular white pasta, 2 cans of cream of condensed soup, and a whole block of—wait for it—fat free cream cheese! If you ask me, fettuccini alfredo will never be a healthy dish, even if it does only cost me 7-points per serving. Clearly people are missing the fact that at the very least whole wheat pasta should be used (better yet—no pasta at all!), that cream of anything soup is bad for you, (forget the fact that it is laden with preservatives), and just because something is fat free doesn’t make it good for you.

It wasn’t that long ago that I too fell into the trap of thinking that if the label says it is healthy, and good for you it must be true.  I rarely read the ingredients labels for products that I always thought were beneficial to my family’s wellbeing.  Take for example yogurt—I’m not sure why the idea that there was organic cane juices in my fruit on the bottom Greek yogurt surprised me—I mean shouldn’t it just be yogurt and some berries?  I now see the importance of reading all the ingredients on the package—which is hopefully less than five (though, I tend to give a pass when there are 6 herbs listed in addition to the other 4 actual ingredients).  I have since made it a priority to make myself (and my husband) aware and educate us on what we put in our bodies to fuel it.  The way I’ve been looking at it recently is in terms of gasoline.  Sure my car can run on the 87-octane fuel that is assuredly cheaper, but I can get much better gas mileage and performance on the higher octane fuel for a few extra cents per gallon.  Same goes for food and fueling your body.  Can we live on low calorie cream-filled cake treats, snack crackers that are whole wheat but may contain traces of a GMO, or boxed and canned fat free prepared food?  Sure—but there is a price our bodies will eventually pay for it.

The idea of all things in moderation has been weighing on me heavily after having my two children.  As I have mentioned before, both of my children were products of infertility treatments.  While it was discovered that I indeed had one blocked fallopian tube, my reproductive endocrinologist hesitated to say that was definitively what caused my infertility (as it continued even after opening the tube).  The fact of the matter still remained that I was not ovulating for any good reason.  All my blood work and hormone levels came back OK—I just didn’t ovulate.  In the end, after having the two children I was left with a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.”  How in the world is “unexplained” any kind of a diagnosis?  Oddly enough, there were two other women and a man at work who sat in adjacent offices to mine who were also going through infertility treatments and we all jokingly agreed that “there was something in the water.”  But what if that were in fact true to some extent?  What if it was nothing in the water so to speak, but in our food supply?

Most of our fruits and veggies growing up as kids were treated with pesticides and I can remember many times grabbing the apple before my mom had a chance to wash it.  More recently, many crops are genetically modified.  Our meats and dairy sources at some point In our lives have been given artificial hormones and antibiotics; and most food on the shelves in markets are filled with ingredient lists a mile long with words that are difficult to pronounce.  What if my occasional or “in moderation” healthy treats over time have simply built up a toxic level of garbage in my body that it’s prevented me from having normal fertility?  If that is plausible (which it is, check out what Robb Wolf has discussed on Paleo eating and fertility), then could my daughter be susceptible to the same fate if she is given the same garbage food in “moderation?”  Sure can!

Instead of shopping for “fat free” or “low calorie” foods, which are highly processed and sadly, also cheaper, maybe focus  on shifting the money from many processed snacks to a couple true healthy snacks—a big bag of organic apples and a jar of almond butter?  Instead of making the dinner with 2 cans of cream of condensed soup, figure out a way to get the same creaminess from ingredients that are in fact natural and not highly processed and refined.  Something that we have recently considered in our family is local farming.  Our produce bill is GIGANTIC because personally, we have opted to purchase organic in most cases.  This year we joined our local CSA—their produce is cheaper, fresher, and still organic.  Many local farmers are indeed practicing organic farming but simply cannot afford to pay the governmental entities the registration fees to become “certified.”  Not only are you helping your family by eating better produce, but you are also helping your local farmers in the process.

I fully recognize that eating truly healthy can be expensive and eating perfect with 100% organic and grass-fed/pasture-raised can be downright wallet emptying.  I am by no means passing judgment if you cannot afford to pay the prices that can go along with that kind of a lifestyle decision (because there are weeks where we can’t afford it ourselves).  What I am saying is that we, as a country, should do a better job at educating ourselves and our children on what is truly healthy and demand that those products, which can be out of financial reach for many, become cheaper.  I really believe that if enough people recognize that we are being fooled by false advertising and begin to boycott some of the products; it can send a message to our government.  Instead of subsidizing large corporate entities to produce genetically modified organisms they should subsidize the small farmers; we will get a better food source for all to access.  Please, be aware of what you are eating—read labels.  Try and stick with five ingredients or less.  Don’t buy something that contains an ingredient that you cannot pronounce.  If it has a shelf life that is longer than the life cycle of a gold fish—it’s probably not good for you.  If you don’t do it for yourselves, do it for our children.  Kids learn by example and they emulate what they see other do.  We have the ability to help change the thinking and health of a generation.”

Discovering Meal Planning

People tell you all the time as a childless couple that once you have a baby your world changes–I just don’t think we were prepared for how true that actually was!  Before getting pregnant with Lil One, I lived in my kitchen.  After work, I’d be in the kitchen coming up with some fantastically gourmet-sounding dish fresh inspired by the pages of my large array of food magazine subscriptions.  After my meal was complete I’d plate it up and pull out my camera so that I could photograph it for my food blog.  Upon enjoying the meal with a glass of wine, I’d head to the computer, edit my photos and write up my post for the day.  I swore that after I got pregnant, nothing would change!  I’d still be the gourmet in the kitchen and work on my food photography and continue to expand my culinary horizons.  How wrong I was…

It took me and S. about 2-years to get pregnant with Lil One.  While I didn’t have to suffer through morning sickness, and my bouts of nausea were reserved for when Mr. Way Too Much Cologne Wearer sat next to me on the commuter rail into work every day–my energy levels were just not there for me to step foot in the kitchen and make a dinner worth photographing, let alone blog about.  Instead, my meals consisted of Velveeta mac and cheese.  Yup—that’s it.  100% pure, processed mac and cheese.  It comforted me the way nothing else (other than my homemade guac, which I made once a night for the first 2-trimesters by the way) could.

Once Lil One was born and I was back at work however, things needed to change drastically.  I was not going to continue with my pregnancy-induced-processed-food-eating-ways.  When I sat down and looked at my schedule for the weekdays, it laid out something like this:

–getting up at 4 a.m. to pump my daughter’s morning breast milk needs

–getting ready for work at 5 a.m.

–get out the door for drop off at 6 a.m.

–commuter rail into Boston for work at 6:16

–train home, often times not until 6:30 at the earliest

It was clear something needed to be done in order to get a nutritious meal on the table as soon as I got home at night so that I could maximize the 45-minutes I had to spend with my daughter before bedtime.  Solution:  the slow cooker was going to become my new best friend!

I started to sit down on Saturdays and review the meals we were interested in, see how I could adapt them to fit the slow cooker and began to make my menu for the week and subsequent shopping list.  With about 25-lbs of added baby weight to lose and an equal 25-lbs of “support weight” for S. to lose we really tried to focus our meals on healthful options and significantly cut back on our processed food intake.   We decided that rather than five separate meals for the weekdays we’d focus on three—a Monday/Wednesday meal, a Tuesday/Thursday meal, and a homemade pizza Friday.  This idea of staggering leftovers and menu planning is not rocket science, nor do I claim it to be—it’s just what had gotten us through.

Sunday became my prep day.  I’d cook a massive batch of soup for lunches for the week, prep Monday’s slow cooker meal in the crock and toss it in the fridge and completed what prep I could for Tuesday’s meal.  We started to purchase the disposable crock liner bags to help save avoid the need to chisel off any debris that may have crusted on during the cooking process.  Come Monday morning, the crock got tossed in the slow cooker and we set the timer as we walked out the door.

We are now two years into our menu planning and have made a few changes to the planning process along the way.  We decided that since we were on track with not only menu planning, but limiting our processed food intake and having a steady exercise program in place, it was time to make some additional diet modifications.  Last year was called “Operation Whole Grain and Legume”—we were not eating nearly enough of them in our diet before and this needed to change. This year is being dubbed “Mission Clean Eating.”  I recently subscribed to Clean Eating Magazine—I can’t wait to get the first issue in the mail in March!

I am being realistic in that I know from time to time I’m just going to eat gross food and I’m OK with that.  I’m a firm believer in moderation.  We don’t consume large quantities of fast food, nor do we intend to, but sometimes I just crave those fries and nothing will stop me from having them.  I think the goal for me and my family is to make the best possible choices in our food consumption as frequently as possible and hope that Lil One and Baby Bro grows up to make the best choices she can as a result of what we raised her on.

So down to the nitty-gritty—what is on the menu this week?

Lunches:  Thai Chicken Soup.  I used organic for 95% of the ingredients, reduced sodium chicken stock to control the sodium content of the soup.  I also added ¼ cup of quinoa to the soup. 

Monday/Wednesday:  Tomatillo, White Bean, and Chicken Stew.  We are huge fans of tomatillos and the past two summers we tried our hand at growing them in our garden for fun.  Low and behold they were a cash crop for us putting out the largest yield of any of our crops.  We made a large batch of roasted tomatillo sauce (using jalapeños from our organic garden as well in the recipe) and froze it in small batches.  We combined some of our sauce with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, white beans and some onions in the slow cooker and served it over organic brown rice.  This is one of our favorite dishes to make, and honestly, it has gotten so much better by the addition of our roasted tomatillo sauce instead of the jarred one we had been buying.  The best part—our food-fussy Lil One LOVES this meal!

Tuesday/Thursday:   Spicy Black Beans and Rice with Mangos.  This will be our vegetarian meal for the week and is brand new.  I just recently purchased a vegetarian slow cooker cookbook and am putting it through its maiden voyage.  We totally do not have organic mangos in season locally so we are relying on the frozen organic mangos for this recipe.  I’m hoping this is as yummy as it sounds on paper.

Now it’s your turn—I’d love to hear how you approach meal planning for the week.  I am constantly inspired by others!

Do you menu plan?  What is your menu for the week?  Do you have any vegetarian recommendations to try out?