Monday, May 31, 2010

10 shelf staples (Part II)

Here's the second half of the list of ten essential foods to always have on hand.

6. Walnuts OR Almonds
Nuts have recently found fame thanks to their high content of "healthy" fats, aka unsaturated fatty acids. They're a great snack because it only takes a handful to tide you over to the next meal. Because they're high in fat, though, they're also high in calories. So you really do need to limit it to a handful. But that one small handful a day has been linked to weight management and prevention of heart disease. While most nuts are considered healthful, there are a few stars that really stand out. Walnuts are championed for their high omega-3 and antioxidant content. So not only do you have the heart-boosting power of omega-3's, but the cancer-fighting properties of polyphenols and ellagic acid (the main antioxidant found in walnuts). The second nut celebrity is the almond. While almonds don't boast as high an omega-3 profile, they are chock-full of important nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium, as well as the antioxidant Vitamin E. If you're not a fan of walnuts and almonds, though, there are plenty of other nuts that make great snacks, such as cashews and pecans. Learn more about these and others here. Thanks to their high protein, fiber, and fat content, any nut you choose will keep your tummy from grumbling in the middle of a class or meeting. (Thanks to Global Healing Center for nut nutrient information.)

7. Fresh Vegetables: Onions, Asparagus, Sweet Potatoes, Avocados, Eggplant, or Cabbage 
Fresh is best! It's a great idea to have at least one or two fresh vegetables around for a healthy snack or addition to dinner. What's significant about the six listed above (well, an avocado is actually a fruit) is that they are among the fifteen non-organically grown produce products with the lowest amount of pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). In other words, you don't have to worry about buying organic; you can buy the regular stuff at the best price you can find. If you're a carrot or potato lover, though, you might want to consider paying the extra cost for the organic versions. Why? These vegetables, along with spinach, celery, and bell peppers, are cited by the EWG as part of "The Dirty Dozen" of produce, recording the highest levels of pesticides when they're eaten. If you just don't want to sacrifice your carrots but also aren't keen on the higher price of organic, try looking for generic organic brands and buy them when they're on sale. That should bring the price down much closer to that of the conventionally-grown brands. 

8. Fresh Fruit: Pineapple, Grapefruit, Cantaloupe, Mangos, Kiwi, or Watermelon
Fruits can be even more versatile than vegetables. They can be eaten as a grab-and-go snack, breakfast, and even dessert. They can be added to salsas, salads, smoothies, meat dishes, and even to pizza. They're great sweet-tooth satisfiers with built-in fiber, which slows down the sugar hitting your bloodstream. And as explained with the vegetables above, these six fruits listed above are the safest, boasting the lowest levels of pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals. Which made the Dirty Dozen list? Unfortunately, some of my favorites; apples, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and grapes are all loaded with pesticides. Try to buy these organic or opt for the Safe Six. Whatever the fruits of your choice may be, though, have fun with them! Think outside the pizza box and try something new. Here are a few fruit recipes I'm hoping to try this summer. If you try one yourself leave a comment and let me and everyone else know how you liked it!
Mango Salsa
Avocado Grapefruit Salad
Grilled Pineapple
Mango Chicken Bake

9. Canned Tomatoes (Organic)
I can't count the number of times I've felt like there was absolutely nothing to make for dinner until I found a can of diced tomatoes hidden in the back of the pantry. Then I was in business. Canned tomatoes can be used as an in-a-pinch pasta sauce, soup flavor-booster, homemade salsa base, taco topping, and so on. No washing or chopping required; just open the can and pour. It's important to use organic canned tomatoes, however, due to the high levels of pesticides in conventional tomatoes. Thankfully there isn't too much of an added cost to do so. At my grocery store the Full Circle brand can of organic diced tomatoes costs only 13 percent more than Hunt's. Not a big difference for something that usually costs less than $2 a pop. Not sure how to pick between whole, diced, crushed, or chopped? Use this nifty Canned Tomato Guide and you're good to go.

10. Whole Grains: Brown Rice OR Whole Wheat Pasta OR Couscous OR Quinoa OR Bulgur OR Wild Rice Whether you're content with classic spaghetti or like to venture into uncharted territory with grains like quinoa and bulgur, it's always smart to have some sort of whole grain around as a meal base. As long as you have a grain, a can of tomatoes, and some protein (meat, fish, or beans) in your kitchen you always have the makings of a great dinner. By now you've probably heard all about the importance of whole grains over refined grains, but I'll give a quick review. Whole grains have all the good stuff still attached, which means they've got fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and other good stuff that refined grains remove. Never heard of couscous, quinoa, or bulgur before? You can most likely find them in the bulk foods section of your grocery store. And while cooking with a new type of grain may seem intimidating at first, there are plenty of easy step-by-step instructions online to help you out. Plus many whole grains don't take much longer to cook then your standard spaghetti noodles. For example, it only takes 12-15 minutes to cook quinoa, 10 for couscous, and 10-12 for bulgur.  Use this guide from the Whole Grain Council to help you the first time you try a new grain.  The greatest part about whole grains is the endless variety of dishes you can make with them! Pictured above is tabbouleh, a popular Middle Eastern dish made of bulgur, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice, and a few herbs and spices. Below is a recipe for tabbouleh along with a few other of the thousands of ways to cook with whole grains. 
Quick Black Beans and Rice
Pasta Italiano
Easy Curry Couscous
Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa
Parsley Tabbouleh
Wild Rice and Chicken Salad Mexicali

If you're a baking fiend...
-Whole Wheat Flour
If you must have your daily dose of caffeine...
-Fair Trade Coffee OR
-Fair Trade Tea
(Find out why it's so important to buy fair trade here.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

easy, breezy guac.

I found this extremely inexpensive and made-in-under-5-minutes guacamole recipe from Laura Dolson on most likely already have all the ingredients in your kitchen (minus the avocado). Avocados are about $1 a piece and I'd estimate that a one-avocado batch of guacamole makes two or three servings, which I consider a pretty good value. It's best known as a chip dip or a burrito topping, but if you're looking for a healthier alternative I've found it's great as a carrot dip as well. And not only does guac taste AMAZING, but it's also amazingly good for you. Why? Avocados, which are actually fruits, are full of monounsaturated fats (important for your heart, skin, and overall health), fiber, and Vitamin C. Another benefit of avocados is that their thick skin prevents pesticides from leeching in, so you don't need to buy organic. Guac definitely deserves its rep as a great party food!

Super-Easy Guacamole
-avocados (number according to the size of the crowd)
-about 1/4 tsp salt per avocado
-about 2 Tbsp salsa per avocado
-about 3/4 tsp garlic powder per avocado
-about 1/2 tsp lemon or lime juice per avocado
-optional: Chopped cilantro, chopped onion

1. Cut the avocados in half, squeeze out the pit (just gently squeeze till it pops out) and scoop the fruit into a bowl.
2. Add the salt, juice, salsa, and garlic powder. Mash it together with a fork (I like to leave some chunks).
3. Taste. If you can't taste the avocado much, add a bit of salt. If it's a little flat, dribble a little juice in. If it's not spicy enough, add a little salsa. Try more garlic powder to see how that changes it. Play with it and you will find your "ideal guac balance point".
4. Stir in cilantro and onion at the end if you want to.
5. Enjoy with tortilla chips, in a taco salad, on a burrito, or as a veggie dip!

If you want to know more about all the benefits of eating guacamole/avocados, check out this article from WebMD.

Friday, May 28, 2010

10 shelf staples (Part I)

So you honestly try to eat healthfully. You really do. But every time you go shopping you face thousands of products that shout health claims like "Low-Fat," "No Added Sugar," "All-Natural," and "Heart Healthy!" Where to start? Your common sense will tell you that Quaker Breakfast Cookies probably aren't the healthiest choice you could make for the most important meal of the day, but beyond that things get more hazy. Here are the first five in my list of ten things to keep in your pantry all the time. With these ten items you should be covered for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and meals-on-the-go. Bring this list next you go to the store and you can't go wrong.

1. Dried Beans and Lentils  
I'm not a true vegetarian, but I eat like one most of the time, and one of the biggest reasons is cost. Even the cheapest meats and poultry are more expensive than "vegetarian" sources of protein like beans and other legumes. And there are so many to choose from! Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, navy beans, edamame, split peas, lentils, and the list goes on. Experiment and find your favorites. Check out this helpful guide from the Mayo Clinic to find out which beans are best in which dishes and how to prepare and cook them.

2. Canned Tuna OR Canned Sardines
Omega-3's, omega-3's, omega-3's! You've probably heard this term tossed around a lot lately, but it's for a good reason. Omega-3 fatty acids are really important in reducing inflammation in the body, which in turn reduces the risk of common health problems like heart disease and cancer. And if you're too young to think you need to worry about those, remember that omega-3's are important for hair and skin health. The great news is that tuna and sardines (see my sardines? post for more sardine benefits) are both great sources of omega-3's and are also some of the cheapest forms of protein in the grocery store (usually at a dollar or less per can). So stock up! They're really versatile, too. On a cheese sandwich, as a cracker dip, in a hotdish/casserole, or even plain. For more ideas, look here:
20 Ways to Use a Can of Tuna
Low-Cost Cooking With the Lowly Sardine

3. Whole Grain Cereal OR Oatmeal
If you're a breakfast person (I won't judge you if you aren't, but would highly recommend you be) it's a good idea to find a whole grain cereal that's as minimally processed as possible and contains little sugar. My college-student-budget favorites?
-Kashi GoLean: One cup has 13 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber for just 140 calories. It goes on sale at Target for as little as $2.80 a box. And man is this stuff filling.
-Food Club Essential Choice Bite Size Shredded Wheat: A box of this cereal has only one ingredient. Yeah, you read right, 100% whole grain wheat is the only ingredient here. Consequently it tastes pretty bland, so I eat it with vanilla soymilk, which sweetens it up a lot. A 1-1/4 cup serving has 6 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber for 170 calories. A very hearty start to your day. Plus, because Food Club is a generic brand, boxes are almost always on sale for $2.50. A very economical start to your day as well. :)

4. Olive Oil (virgin if possible)
Olive oil is widely considered the healthiest fat to use in cooking. Why? First, because of it's richness in monounsaturated fats (called MUFAs), which are linked to the prevention of heart disease. Second, due to its high levels of phenolic compounds, which act as antioxidants. Use it for all of your cooking fat needs.

5. Popcorn (the dry kernels, not the microwavable bags)
Maybe it's not so good for you when doused in butter at the movies or covered in carmel in a Christmas tin, but make no mistake, pure popcorn is a fantastic snack. According to, one air-popped cup has just 31 calories and is high in fiber. And remeber those phenol antioxidants I mentioned are in olive oil? They're in popcorn, too.To make it healthy and tasty you can either air-pop it or make it on the stove. If you're air popping, flavor it afterward by sprinkling it with a little butter or olive oil and salt to taste. Or try something new like cinnamon or chili powder. The more flavor from spices and such, the less you'll need from butter or oil. My personal favorite way to make popcorn, though, is stove-top. My dad uses two tablespoons of oil and a "heaping half cup of kernels." So. Good. Never made stove-top popcorn before? Thank goodness for YouTube. Oh and did I mention? You can get a giant bag of unpopped popcorn for a couple of bucks.

Photos from and

Thursday, May 27, 2010

summer reads

When I think of summer, one of the first images to pop into my head is one of me lying on a blanket on the grass, reading a book. Summertime is a combination of work and leisure, and I take the leisure part very seriously. And while I love to sit down with a classic novel (can't go wrong with some Jane Austen) or old favorite (HP forever!), I also try to pick up some books about new topics I find interesting and didn't have time to learn about during the school year.

My transcript may be full of nutrition and food-related classes, but very few of them address environmental sustainability, the health consequences of pesticides and processed foods, and so on. If you happen to be an avid summer reader as well and want to learn more about all the facts behind organic food, sustainability, fair trade, etc, I've compiled three reading lists to help you get started. And, keeping with the theme of this blog, I'm almost positive you can find these at your library or as inexpensive used copies on Amazon. Happy Reading!

"Dipping Your Toe In" List:
1. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
2. Food Rules by Michael Pollan

"More Than Curious" List:
1. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
2. Food Rules by Michael Pollan
3. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

"Can't Get Enough of This" List:
1. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
2. Food Rules by Michael Pollan
3. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
4. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
5. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan


That's right, sardines.You played the game as a kid, but have you ever eaten the small and oily fish? I hadn't until today when I had my dad pick up a can at the grocery store after reading all about its benefits.

4 Reasons Why Sardines Are a Great Choice When Trying to Eat Healthy on a Budget:
#1. Sardines are a cheap source of protein. This is what all college students like to hear. One 190-calorie can of the fish boasts 20 grams of protein, and you can find cans for as cheap as 99 cents. A Big Mac, on the other hand, has only slighty more protein (24 grams) for a lot more money (average of $3.57 in the U.S.) and calories (590 kcals).
#2. Sardines are extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids. If you don't know why these are so important, hop to this link to find out. Basically, though, omega-3's are important for reducing inflammation which helps prevent heart disease, some cancers, and depression/anxiety. The great news is that sardines are one of the top three richest sources of omega-3's in the world. The other two are salmon and herring, which are far pricier.
#3. You don't have to worry about limiting your sardine intake due to mercury. You may have heard about how tuna is a great source of omega-3s as well, but that you need to limit your intake due to heavy metals like mercury that accumulate in tuna in contaminated waters. This is not an issue with sardines because they are a fraction of the size of tuna fish and therefore aren't high enough on the food chain to accumulate all these metals. So you can eat to your heart's content without having to worry about mercury poisoning.
#4. Sardines are loaded with iron and calcium. The can I made has 30% the Daily Value of calcium and 10% the DV of iron in one 190-calorie serving. Nice.

Okay, I'm convinced that they're healthy and affordable, you say. But, Alyssa, as much as I care about my health I also care about my taste buds. Aren't sardines, well, not all that tasty?

Well, obviously it depends on your individual taste preferences, but yes, sardines are known for their strong smell and taste. But if you haven't given them a chance yet, why not try? For people that naturally like sardines, favorites ways to eat them include on crackers, toast, or on a sandwich. If you're not sure you're ready for such full-on sardine-flavor, here are a few more creative ways to eat sardines:
1. Toss a few on your salad
2. Place some on your pizza.
3. Top crackers with sardines, Dijon mustard, and Tabasco sauce.
4. Cook up your favorite pasta and mix in sardines, tomatoes (canned or fresh), olive oil, and your favorite herb, such as parsley or cilantro.
5. Add them to your bruschetta (here's a good recipe).
6. Make them into a spread. I found this easy recipe in Food and Our Bones by Annemarie Colbin.

Sardine Spread

1 can (about 4 3/8 ounces) sardines, with skin and bones
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 T. grated onion
1/4 t. sea salt
1 T. tahini (unsalted sesame paste, optional)
1 1/2 T. chopped fresh parsley
4 rye crackers
Freshly ground pepper

Open the can of sardines partway, and drain out the oil or water. Place the sardines, lemon juice, onion, salt, tahini, and parsley in a bowl, and mash with a fork until well blended. Spread on whole rye crackers, and grind some pepper on top.

I didn't have all the ingredients for this recipe, so I improvised. I mashed together the sardines, lemon juice, a pinch of salt and pepper, and some dried basil. My mom and I tested it; we learned that, indeed, sardines are very "fishy" fish. And it was pretty salty, too, so the added salt is probably not necessary. So we decided to add a few teaspoons of mayo to make it creamier. I like to add shredded carrots to my tuna, so I did that for the sardine spread as well. Those two little things made it much better. We didn't have any crackers around, so I substituted in tortilla chips. Next time, though, I think I'll try adding it to a grilled cheese sandwich!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

welcome to

Why start a blog when there are millions out there already?

Hey! My name's Alyssa. My motivation in starting a blog about healthy eating stems from my frustration with trying to make healthy and sustainable eating choices on a college student's budget. If you are one of the many trying to do the same, you know how difficult this task is. But it's extremely important.

My mom grew up on a farm during the rough times of the '80s, and consequently I was raised to make frugal and thrifty spending choices. We bought generic food brands (but were still very health-conscious), shopped at garages sales, and used the library instead of buying brand new books. So, when I started in 2008 as a nutrition student at the University of Minnesota and began spending the majority of my time reading and learning about the link between diet and health, I began to stumble more and more upon terms like organic foods, sustainable agriculture, and fair trade products. While I had heard of these things before, I had dismissed them as elitist and too expensive. But the more reading I did, the more I realized that putting quality substances into our bodies is more than worth the added cost. While truly high-quality food may have a higher upfront cost, it will pay off over time through decreased health care costs, decreased damage to the environment, etc. BUT that does not mean that one's food budget needs to triple in size. This blog will explore why it's so important to eat as much fresh, unprocessed, and chemical-free food as possible without going broke.

For an in-depth look into the true costs of cheap food, check out these sources:
Time Magazine Article: "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food," by Bryan Walsh.
Books: In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.

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