Help for making nutritious food for families: Review of Supermarket Healthy cookbook

I became a fan of Melissa D’Arabian years ago when she was a contestant on Next Food Network Star, and though I never got a chance to catch her show, I appreciated her food philosophy: healthy, affordable meals for a family. (D’Arabian has four kids!)

supermarketHer new cookbook, Supermarket Healthy, is a handy resource for families who want to make the most of their grocery budget without resorting to the nutritionally lacking pre-packaged meals that are often cheaper but not necessarily better. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the cookbook from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.)

D’Arabian offers practical tips for both the shopping and cooking phases of preparing a meal, and those tips are scattered throughout the recipes. I remember her offering these sorts of shortcut tips and tricks on the show, too. One of my favorites from the book is to always add the liquid first in the blender when making a smoothie because it creates a vortex. Previously, I would add the chunkiest ingredient, thinking it needed to be closest to the blades.

And let’s talk about the recipes. While some are a bit out of reach (and maybe more do-able in an area like California, where D’Arabian lives, because of more access to fresh produce year-round), I’ve already found some new favorites.

I’m not much of a smoothie person when it comes to breakfast but the Caffeinated Coffee-Oat Smoothie was a delicious and satisfying start to my day. I wasn’t sure it would fill me up for a morning, but it did! Super easy to make (as long as the blender is clean!) and filling. With a little do-ahead prep (cooked oatmeal), it’s pretty much a snap.

For breakfast, I also tried to Healthy Breakfast Benedict, a twist on one of my favorite breakfast dishes, eggs Benedict. This one uses spinach and a basil-cream sauce. I think this one could have been better because I didn’t properly execute the poached eggs. I usually fry my eggs, so my poaching skills are a little rusty.

Tuna Noodle Bowls was probably my favorite of the ones I’ve made so far. Our family is a big fan of tuna noodle casserole, especially on dreary winter days. It’s a comfort food that warms you from the inside out. The recipe we typically use is heavy and full of processed cheese and canned soups. So, I was eager to try D’Arabian’s take, which uses reduced-fat cream cheese, a leek and fresh lemon juice, among other ingredients. It’s a refreshing twist on the comfort food I love. Still comforting but with flavorful bursts of citrus that lighten it up. Like sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day.

I notice this trend in D’Arabian’s recipes: fresh ingredients full of flavor. And that’s part of what excites me about her recipes. I look forward to using even more of them as we move into spring and start to see more fresh produce at the farmer’s market and in the stores.

Other recipes I tried were the Poached Chicken Puttanesca, which used an olives, capers and tomatoes sauce, and Spicy Honey-Mustard Chicken, which was a last-minute dinner idea one night not long after I got the book. Both were satisfying dinners the family enjoyed.

I’ve yet to try any of the snacks, soups or desserts, but this cookbook will continue to be in my rotation for meal planning. I also hope to make more use of the pantry list at the beginning of the book so that some of these recipes are more accessible on short notice.

Overall, another winning cookbook from the Food Network folks.

You can read an excerpt here.

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Melissa d’Arabian was a corporate finance executive before becoming the host of Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners and Cooking Channel’s Drop 5 Lbs with Good Housekeeping. She also developed the FoodNetwork.com seriesThe Picky Eaters Project, serves as lead judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling cookbook Ten Dollar Dinners. Melissa has an MBA from Georgetown University, and lives with her husband and their four daughters in San Diego.

Feast your mind on these 5 tasty books

By the time you read this, I will have spent a couple of days preparing food and cooking food and eating food. You, too? Marriage to my husband turned me into a foodie. I’m not sorry, except when my grocery budget takes a hit or my kitchen ends up in disaster mode because of my experiments with new recipes.

My other favorite thing to do is read, and if I can do both at the same time, I do. (While waiting for water to boil or a soup to simmer, I’ll often stand near the stove with a book or Kindle in hand to pass the time.) And lately, I’ve read some really great stories that focus on food or cooking or baking, so I can enjoy a novel and be inspired to cook at the same time!

So, if you’re at the point of the weekend where you can kick back and stop cooking or baking (and you love to read!), check out these five tasty books that will leave your mouth watering while providing an inspiring story.

1. Under the Cajun Moon by Mindy Starns Clark. This isn’t a new book, but I only read it last year. It’s a mystery set in Lousiana around a family restaurant. I went through a phase where I read several of Clark’s mysteries and I remember liking this one the best because of its ties to the food business.

when i fall in love2. When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren. This is the third in a series about a family, but it takes place mostly in Hawaii when the main character, Grace, is sent by her family on a surprise cooking retreat. Grace is then paired with a hockey player for a cooking competition and well, let’s just say the food isn’t the only thing that cooks in the kitchen. Reminded me a lot of some of the Food Network shows I love.

3. Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Setting sold this one because the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is magnificent, but this story features a hospitality consultant aiming for a promotion and a celebrity chef with dreams of restoring the family hotel. Another mouth-watering read.

4. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant. Another one with a cooking competition element, only this one love and cupcakesfeatures cupcakes. Summary: Best friends who want to be more can’t admit it to each other and don’t want the other person to have to give up their dreams for a chance at happiness. A sweet story and one that you’ll wish came with a cupcake!

5. A Table by the Window by Hillary Manton Lodge. Not necessarily my favorite among the foodie books I’ve listed, but still, it’s centered around a family in the food business–running a restaurant and writing about food. This one comes with recipes which might inspire readers to get off the couch and get cooking!

I feel like there might be others I’ve read recently but those are the first five that come to mind!

Do you have any book recommendations for readers who also love to cook (and eat!)?

When discipline stops being scary

The kids and I are eating dinner at Chick-fil-a tonight, which is not noteworthy since my husband works there and any employee who has been there for more than a month recognizes us when we walk in the door.

What IS new about this is that it’s the first time I’m ordering off the menu while trying to stick to a new eating plan. (Notice I didn’t say “diet.” That’s a dirty word for me.)

See, about three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. It’s always ridiculously high in the office because I get nervous about doctor’s appointments, but it was so high that my nurse practitioner decided medicine was the best next step. I hate that it’s come to that, but I’m grateful for health coverage and an easy fix. In the meantime, I’m getting to know my new provider really well. I’ve been back several times to check my blood pressure and the medication’s effectiveness, and while it still isn’t where it needs to be, it’s getting better.

That’s a lot of back story for a blog post. Moving on.

While the medicine does its job, I’m trying to do mine by paying better attention to what I’m eating and how much I’m eating and how much exercise I’m getting. You know, the normal stuff I’m supposed to be paying attention to but haven’t been.

And because I’m not a terribly disciplined person, I’ve had to take some actions that lead me toward a more disciplined life. (Just so you know, even typing the word “discipline” makes me uncomfortable. It sounds so structured and binding, and not fun.)

Earlier this year, at the recommendation of my mother, I started using an app called MyFitnessPal to track my calories and activity. Since I’m not a terribly active person right now, either, it helped me set my calories at a level that would help me lose weight.

Then somewhere in the middle of the year, I stopped using it, even after seeing results of 5-7 pounds lost in a couple of months. Nothing drastic, but slow and steady, just the way it should be. I stopped using the app and I stopped caring about what I ate.

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

So, when I finally went to the doctor late last month, it was no surprise, really, that my weight was up and my BP was high. Without help, I don’t always take the best care of myself. So, I’m back to using the app, and I’m reading labels, and I’m learning all kinds of things. Like there is a ridiculous amount of sodium in stuff that I normally buy. That calories don’t add up very fast when I’m eating fruits and vegetables. And I can learn to like unsweetened iced tea because drinking all those calories in sweet tea is a bad idea.

And surprisingly, it’s not as scary as I thought it might be. Sure, it’s hard. But there are a couple of things I’m learning that make it easier.

So, whether you’re trying to watch what you eat or be more disciplined about other things in your life, maybe you’ll find this helpful, too.

First, I try not to say “no” completely to anything. I could not eat when we go to Chick-fil-a tonight, but I’d probably be a little sad about it. Yes, it’s just food, but it’s also hard for me to resist a temptation right in front of me. So, if my kids were eating it and wandered away, I’d be likely to steal a waffle fry or ten. So, I wasn’t interested in avoiding eating out at all. The same was true last week when I met a friend at Panera. Normally I’d just get a cinnamon crunch bagel with cream cheese. Instead of defaulting, I ordered a breakfast sandwich with avocado, spinach and egg white. It was delicious.

Related to that, I’m trying to plan ahead, too. So, earlier today I researched the nutrition information for various menu items, and now I can order with confidence without totally blowing my eating plan. Making a plan before I’m in a situation is helpful in a lot of circumstances, not just for eating. This helps me feel like I have some control, not like I’m being denied something by an outside force. That would make me miserable.

Third, I’m trying to set myself up for success. That means buying the good stuff from the grocery store. If I have fruits and vegetables and hummus and lower sodium choices in the house, then I will eat them. If I don’t, I will resort to junk or whatever is convenient.

This is not perfect by any means, nor do I follow it perfectly all the time. I have days where I fail or make decisions that are not the best but I start over the next day and try to do better.

I still don’t like to think of it as discipline, but it’s become necessary for my health, and I’m not hating it.

That’s a win, right?

Is discipline easy or hard for you? How do you stick with a plan?

Why the worst thing can also be the best thing

We walked into the WIC office, the boy and I, for the last time a few weeks ago. His fifth birthday is approaching, which means we’ll no longer qualify for the government nutrition program.

It’s the end of an era that began when I was pregnant with him. It was a decision I’d resisted with our first child. When she was born, we were still making just enough money to not qualify for it, but a year-and-a-half later, things had changed. My husband was a student with a part-time job only a high-schooler could love, and I was at home with a toddler and a baby on the way.

The clinic where we confirmed the pregnancy gave us the paperwork we needed for WIC, which was right down the hall, in the same building, and there was almost no decision to it. I am not proud that we needed it or that our poverty was such that our son’s birth was covered by insurance we didn’t pay for. But I’m so very grateful that we had the chance to walk in the shoes of the American poor.

Most days, I hated it. Hated that we had to buy the exact item of food on the check or risk setting off the alarm at the cash register or calling over a manager to fix it or heaven forbid, having to hold up the line while we went back to the aisle for the correct item. You’d think a college-educated woman would be able to perform these tasks faultlessly. But I couldn’t and didn’t and it opened my eyes to my sheltered world of privilege.

No, I’ve never been rich, but I’ve certainly never been poor either. Not really. Even in the days when we had no money to fall back on, we had family to help us. Family by relation and family by church. A support system not everyone who is poor has.

And I know you might be thinking if I hated it so much, why did we take it? Or why didn’t I use my college education to get a job? I’m not sure any of our reasons will satisfy your questions. I’ve learned along the way that no matter how much you argue, how much you try to prove to people that you are not like the stereotypes, some people will believe whatever they want and you only accomplish making your own blood boil.

This is one of the many things I’ve learned from our circumstantial poverty. That those who haven’t walked that path might never understand the whys of it. Some days, I still don’t understand the whys.

All I know is that I see the world differently because of the years–yes, years–we’ve spent receiving government assistance. (I know some of you may find that offensive. If we’re friends and you want to talk about it, I’m all for a civil discussion. I’ve lost “friends” because of this, though, and I’d prefer not to lose any more.)

I know about the limited choices for “free” healthcare and how you don’t always get the best. How the clinic is staffed by doctors in training and sometimes they can’t find the baby’s heartbeat and you panic because you need that assurance. How sometimes they treat you like you’re less of a person because you’re at the free clinic. How sometimes you have to pick a doctor whose office is 30 minutes or more from where you live because there is so much need and so few providers willing to open their doors to those with state-funded insurance. I know the shame of feeling like you’ve been labeled as “lazy” or “pitiful” or “fraud” when your insurance provider is announced at the doctor’s office.

And the grocery store? Don’t get me started on the grocery store. I always liked shopping for our family’s meals, but that was before government assistance. Before we held up the line with our WIC checks and store policies that require the cashier to get approval from a manager on the other side of the store for every single check we’re trying to use. Before I looked at the items in my cart through the eyes of someone not on government assistance, wondering which purchases they would condemn as frivolous or unnecessary. I never thought it was possible to be hated by people you don’t even know, but I feel that every time someone comments on an article about welfare or food stamps on Facebook. It makes me want to scream “You don’t know what it’s like!” But that doesn’t solve anything either because I didn’t know what it was like.

I didn’t know there was a day the grocery stores dread because it’s the day food stamps are dispersed and people flock to the stores to buy food. I didn’t know people so quickly passed judgment on other people just because they’re poor. I didn’t know there were families just like ours–families with full-time jobs and young kids–who still couldn’t make ends meet.

It’s the worst feeling, you know, when you grow up in middle-class homes, when you have two undergraduate and one graduate degree between the two of you, and you still require help. It’s the worst because you feel like a failure. Like it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like you’re doing something wrong.

But it’s also the best because now you know what you didn’t know. Now you know it’s okay to ask for help. To get help. To do what you have to in order to take care of your family, even if you face criticism and hatred. You know what the paperwork is like. You know that it’s possible to stretch your monthly allowance, no matter how much it is. You know what shame feels like. And you see it on the faces of people you otherwise might dismiss.

Receiving government assistance has made me a more compassionate person. I’m glad we’re nearing the end of it because it means we have hope that things will be better. For some, the hope never comes. There seems to be no way out.

So, I wonder what it looks like to give people hope in their circumstances. What can I offer because of my experiences to those who are where I have been?

I’m not sure I have answers, but I’m glad I’m asking the questions.

Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance you never thought you’d be in? How did it turn out?

Are you able to see the good even in the bad?

A book for foodies: Review of All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant

Once a faithful fan of Food Network shows, I’m in a bit of a drought. I got a little burnt out on the drama. Or maybe I just needed a break. Lucky for me, though, there are novels that take the idea of cooking competitions and give you a backstage look at the people participating.

All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes is one such book. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

The book’s author, Betsy St. Amant, is a woman I’ve heard a lot about from other authors of her genre, and her writing is just as fun and witty and romantic as the hype. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes is a sweet (ha ha!) story of two friends, Kat Varland and Lucas Brennan, who have so much more between them than friendship but who are afraid to risk losing what they have for finding something more.

Kat dreams of opening her own bakery. Meanwhile, she’s stuck working at her aunt’s bakery making the same cupcakes day after day: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Kat likes to experiment with flavors, and it seems her baking is riskier than her life. Her best friend Lucas is the high school football coach and a willing participant in Kat’s baking escapades. Because he believes in her abilities, Lucas signs Kat up for a spot on a cupcake competition reality show. When she wins a spot on the show, Kat convinces Lucas to come with her to Los Angeles. And the baking isn’t the only thing that heats up.

As their feelings for each other deepen and blossom, each of them must decide what it is they really want from life, and they’re each faced with a decision about their dreams.

I loved this story. Maybe because I like to cook and bake with my husband. Maybe because we were friends before we were more. Maybe because it was just a good story about love and sacrifice and dreams.

I’m adding Betsy St. Amant to my list of must-read authors. And I’ve got another foodie favorite novel to add to my growing list.

Here’s more about the author: BStAmant-257

Betsy St. Amant lives in Louisiana with her young daughter and has a heart for sharing the amazing news of God’s grace through her novels. A freelance journalist, Betsy is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers. When she’s not reading, writing, or singing along to a Disney soundtrack with her daughter, Betsy enjoys inspirational speaking and teaching on the craft of writing.

Find out more about Betsy at http://www.betsystamant.com/

And here’s how she’s celebrating the release of her book!

Don’t miss Betsy St. Amant’s latest fiction release, All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes. A “sweet” tale of two best friends and the choices they make between dreams and a possible “sure thing,” St. Amant’s novel is sure to satisfy your romantic-fiction craving.

cupcakes-400-click

Betsy is celebrating with a fun Kindle giveaway and a Love & Cupcakes Facebook party!
One winner will receive:

  • A brand new Kindle
  • All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on September 18th. Winner will be announced at the Love & Cupcakes” Author Chat Party on 9/18. Betsy will be hosting a “sweet” book chat, giving away prizes, and answering questions from readers. She will also share an exclusive sneak peek at her next book project!

 
So grab your copy of All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes and join Betsy on the evening of September 18th for a chance to connect and make some new friends. (If you haven’t read the book, don’t let that stop you from coming!)

Don’t miss a moment of the fun; RSVP todayTell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 18th!

 

The cookbook I’ve been waiting my whole life for: Review of The Chopped Cookbook {plus a giveaway}

When my husband and I first started cooking together, I was amazed at his ability to take common, seemingly unrelated pantry ingredients and turn them into a meal. It’s a method he learned growing up in a house where he cooked a few dinners a week. Food Network’s spin on that method is the show Chopped, where contestants open a basket of mystery ingredients and are tasked with making an edible appetizer, main dish or dessert out of them. It’s addicting.

choppedWhich is why when I found out Food Network was offering a Chopped cookbook, I pretty much freaked out. Because there are nights when I look in the pantry and I’m sure I don’t have enough stuff to make something tasty. Now, I have no excuse.

(And even though I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review, I believe this cookbook is worth every penny you might pay for it. But keep reading because I have a surprise for you!)

The Chopped Cookbook is everything I’ve ever wanted in a cookbook: Tantalizing pictures, creative ideas and doable recipes. And did I mention flexibility? Most cookbooks want you to follow their instructions to a T. This cookbook emphasizes flexibility based on a basic knowledge of how foods work together. It gives you the building blocks and says, “Go, create.”

As of writing this post, I’ve paged through the entire book and tried two recipes from it. The first was Marinated Tilapia Tacos. I lacked some of the ingredients but improvised a bit and still turned out a tasty meal. Even the kids ate it! The second was Quick Skillet Kielbasa Pork and Beans, which again, I lacked some of the ingredients but was able to improvise. And it was good! (Seriously, my husband rarely raves when I experiment and both of these dishes gained his approval.)

The instructions are easy to follow and some recipes look more complicated than others, but there are 188 recipes in this book and I want to try them all.

A few of my favorite features:

  • The pantry list at the beginning. It gives you a foundation on which to build. Many of the recipes assume that you have some basics on hand. But again, the emphasis is on flexibility. No points lost if you don’t buy everything on the list.
  • The theme. “Use what you’ve got to cook something great.” It’s a confidence builder and ought to be a theme for life in general.
  • The variety. Scattered throughout the book are “go-to guides” for pan sauces, salad dressings and grains. This is where the creativity and versatility come in.

It’s been a long time since I was this excited about cooking.

And I’m even more excited because due to a processing error, I received an extra copy of this cookbook and I want to share it with you!

To enter to win, leave a comment answering ONE of these questions (and leave your e-mail address, if you don’t mind so I know how to notify you if you win):

What’s your one must-have in-stock pantry item?

What one ingredient would you hate to see in your Chopped basket?

What one ingredient would you love to see in your Chopped basket?

I’m going to leave the contest open till Sunday, July 27, when I’ll pick a winner. (Because of shipping costs, I have to limit winners to continental U.S. only.)

Happy cooking!.

To the mom at the grocery store trying to make ends meet

I used to love grocery shopping, especially in the early days of my relationship with my husband when we planned meals together and had oodles of time to wander the aisles dreaming of dishes to create together in the kitchen or daring to try something completely new.

Photo by Jenny Rollo, courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Photo by Jenny Rollo, courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com

Then we had kids. And we made decisions that affected our finances and before long grocery shopping was a necessary evil. A stress-inducing, let’s-get-this-over-with errand. Even then, though, we had flexibility to shop during the daytime hours. On rare occasions we’d find ourselves in a pinch for dinner at the end of a long week and we’d be in the store scanning the aisles for something quick and not too expensive. Because take-out or pizza delivery wasn’t an option. That’s where we first saw you. Maybe you were a working single mom in the same boat as us, looking for a quick meal at the end of a long week. Or maybe your situation was otherwise. But here’s what I want you to know: I see you. And not in the oh-look-at-her-can-you-believe-some-people-are-like-that kind of way. I. See. You. I know you think people are staring at you and judging your decisions and coming up with all kinds of neat and tidy solutions for your life that they know nothing about. I know this because I’ve done that, to my regret, and I’ve felt that unseen pressure to hide what’s in my cart, to shush my children so they don’t say anything that would draw attention our way. I’ve fumbled with my money and my WIC checks and my SNAP card at the register, certain that everyone in line is both staring and trying not to stare at the circus act that is our family. If you catch me looking at you, it’s not to judge or stare. It’s because I want to see you. I want to look at your face and smile. I want to tell you you’re doing fine and you’ll get through this. I want to. But I probably won’t because my courage leaves me the moment I open my mouth. I see you. And I hear you. Ridiculous, right? Because who doesn’t hear you snapping at your kids asking them to just make a frickin decision? It’s hard not to notice the frustrated words that come out of your mouth. Maybe other people can tune them out, but I don’t do that because the words I hear from your mouth are the same ones I’m thinking and sometimes saying. I’ve wandered the aisles muttering, speaking forcefully to my kids when they’re misbehaving. I’ve threatened and yelled and sighed with exasperation. So, I hear you, but I don’t blame you. I know that it’s hard to make one more decision in a long line of decisions you make every day and hour to keep your family afloat. And the grocery store isn’t exactly peaceful. I see you. I hear you. And I know you. I know you’d love nothing more than to fill your grocery cart with fresh fruits and vegetables but when it’s a choice between eating for a week or eating for a day, eating for a week, even when it’s not the food you want to eat, wins every time. And I know you feel like a bad mom when your kids ask for grapes and you have to say “no” because when you get home the grapes will be gone faster than a snowball in July and you know that the $5 or $6 you spent on grapes could have bought five boxes of pasta instead. I know that some days you’d rather have anything else than peanut butter and jelly, and that you know ramen noodles aren’t healthy but cheap and filling. I know you aren’t ignorant and I know you want what’s best for your kids, but sometimes, the best is too far out of reach. I know. And I’m sorry. It’s a battle our family is still fighting as we emerge from our lowest point, financially. But can I also tell you this? Your kids see you, too. I know you feel unappreciated and like all they do is take and you have nothing left to give. But someday, they will know, too. They’ll remember all the days you did your best with what you had. They’ll remember what a treat it was to have ice cream. They’ll see how you sacrificed yourself for their good. They’ll see, and I hope they’ll thank you. In the meantime, keep the faith. Do what you have to and don’t worry about the people who think you should be doing something else. And if a strange woman gives you a smile and gushes nonsense in the grocery aisle, just know she’s trying to help you feel noticed.