10 Tips for a Healthier Lunchbox

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Research shows that children think more clearly, and perform better in school, when fed a steady diet of nutritious foods. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, “The foods children consume early in life…ultimately supply their brain power. A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and seeds is the only way to ensure children get an array of phytochemicals, antioxidants, fatty acids, and other micronutrients to adequately supply their growing brains.” This means that moms like me can greatly influence our kids’ potential for success in school, by making healthy choices for their lunch boxes.

Packing snacks and lunches is also a huge opportunity to teach strategies for long-term, sustainable health. If children are at school for more than half their waking hours, then at least 50% of their dietary habits and preferences are being formed during this time. Every food you pack sends a message about what they should or shouldn’t choose to eat.

So, as you think about what you will send for lunch this year, remember that you are not just feeding your kids–you are also shaping their approach to lifelong wellness. Do your best to teach them how to create sustainable energy, and long-term health, with nutrient-dense foods. You, and your child, will be glad you did!

Here are a few strategies that work for our family:

1. Pack fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and seeds first. Figure out what your kids like, and pack those healthy foods before anything else. Raw fruits and veggies have more nutrients than most other foods. Apples, bananas, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and pitted olives are some of my kids’ favorites. Let meats, dairy, chips, and sweets take up the smallest fraction of the lunch box, so that the majority of their foods are nutrient-dense.

2. Make it fun. My kids love to play what we call “The Rainbow Game”: pack fruits and veggies of every color of the rainbow except one, and tell your kids they need to report which one was missing when they get home. Use cookie cutters to create different shapes for fruits and sandwiches. Or create your own unique games to make them smile at lunch and snack time, when you can’t be there to do it in person.

3. Take your kids shopping! Empower kids with nutrition information, and encourage them to choose healthy foods at the store. Teach them how to read food labels, and let them decide what’s best (make sure to veto unhealthy choices with love). Keep a positive attitude, and let it be their idea whenever possible.

4. Start an ongoing dialogue about nutrition. Talk about the power of nutrient-dense foods, and why you make the choices you make for their meals. Ask your kids about the foods they ate at school. What vitamins and minerals were in your apple? Why were strawberries a healthy choice? If they don’t know, help them look it up. The more they understand the reasons behind your decisions, the more likely they are to accept them.

5. Save time with leftovers and prepared soups! Make sure you have a lunch-box sized thermos on hand, so reheated leftovers and soups stay warm until lunchtime. Get in the habit of doubling dinner recipes, so you have enough to send for lunch the next day. Boxed and canned organic soups can also be lifesavers, on days that you are short on time, or low on groceries.

6. Empower kids make their own trail mixes. Kids love to be creative! Make it easy for them to design their own trail mixes. Keep a variety of nuts, dried fruits, and gluten-free cereals on hand. A small handful of mini dark chocolate chips can make trail mix more palatable to picky eaters; it also adds antioxidants, and the sugar content is negligible.

7. Teach kids to choose water over sugary drinks. Milk and juice are high in sugar, and are therefore not good choices for kids that are trying to learn. And, of course, sodas and sports drinks are a big no-no. Kids that have too much sugar from these kinds of beverages at lunch, are bound to crash in the afternoon. Sugar also decreases their immunity, creates inflammation, and adds empty calories to their diet. Water is always best in the lunch box.

8. Don’t forget about healthy dips and stuffings. Kids love to dip and stuff foods. The trick is to give them nutritious options. Try to avoid ketchup and ranch dressing. Fresh salsas and bean dips, however, are great choices! Hummus is widely available, and comes in a variety of flavors. Nut butters are also a healthy option–try cashew, sunflower seed, or almond. Stuff baby bell peppers with hummus, and teach kids to dip and fill fruits with nut butters. You might be surprised how much they like it.

9. Forget the bread. Even if you are not allergic to gluten, bread is just not good for you. It is lower in nutrients than whole foods, and hard for the body to process. Why? Because wheat has been genetically modified so much over the years, that our bodies no longer recognize flour as food. It can create inflammation, sinus problems, insomnia, and stomach issues. If your kids insist on bread, try to limit how much you serve (maybe send half a sandwich instead of a whole, and double up on the fruits and veggies), and ask for gluten-free breads at your local store.

10. Put dessert in its place. It’s okay to send dessert to school, just not every day. Teach kids that dessert is a treat, to be enjoyed on special occasions, or sometimes just because! And remember, not all desserts are created equal. A piece of organic dark chocolate with cherries and almonds is always a better choice than a gummy bear with high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring.

Most of all, try to be grateful for the chance to influence your kids’ eating habits. It might feel like a chore, but trust me on this: teaching our children about nutrition is one of the most powerful ways we have to show them how much we care.

Five Tips For Getting Healthy On A Budget

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Think eating healthy is expensive? It doesn’t have to be! Here are five simple ways to save money on a nutrient-dense diet:

1) Do your research. Learn about the nutrient density of foods, as well as when they are freshest, and prioritize your investments in food accordingly (check out what Dr. Joel Fuhman has to say, here). Loose carrots and leafy greens are generally more nutrient-dense than the pre-packaged kind, and also a lot cheaper. Packaged veggies take longer to prepare and transport for sale, which means they have been out of the earth for more days than those that are transported in bulk. They also have higher packaging costs, and that expense is passed on to the consumer at the store.

2) Buy flash frozen organic fruits and vegetables. Frozen produce can be just as healthy, and sometimes healthier, than fresh foods. It is also often easier to find non-GMO produce in the freezer section, than in the produce aisle. Certain foods, such as corn and soy beans, are healthier and cheaper, when purchased frozen. There can be significant differences in prices at different stores, so pay attention to where you get the most bang for your buck.

3) Buy in bulk. Create your own trail mixes and snacks in the bulk foods section at your local farmers markets and health food stores. You can also save money by buying packaged items in bulk. Did you know that Whole Foods offers a discount on items that are purchased by the case, and they will let you mix and match similar items? Consider stocking up on a variety of canned soups, fruits and vegetables (we love their canned sweet potatoes and butternut squash), and other naturally preserved foods. Amazon.com also offers savings on packaged items that are purchased by the case.

4) Shop more frequently, and buy only what you need. Shorter, more frequent trips to the store can save money in the long run. I have found that if I stock up on preserved items once a month, and make quick trips for fresh produce twice a week, I end up spending the same amount of time shopping, and a lot less on produce that goes bad before we can enjoy it.

5) Simplify your menus. One-dish meals, such as stir fry and mexican salads, can be just as satisfying and less costly than a protein and two sides. They can also save a lot of time in preparation. Avoid pre-cut veggies at the store, and use a food processor to save time instead. Your produce will be more nutritious, and much tastier, when it is served closer to the earth. If you do feel the need to serve three or four items for dinner, stick to simply roasted vegetables (toss with a high heat oil and sea salt, and roast at 400 for 10-15 minutes), fresh salads, hearty soups, and rice and bean dishes. They are richer in nutrients, simpler to prepare than complicated recipes, and less expensive than animal products.

It’s also important to remember that, even if your grocery bills stay the same, or increase slightly, most people ultimately save money on over the counter medications, doctor visits, and prescriptions, the more they improve the nutrient density of their diet. In my experience, the more we increase the nutrient density of our diet, the fewer medical issues we experience, and the happier and healthier we become.

Photo: intentblog.com

Crazy Healthy Snacking

Healthy-Snacks-List-1Before I learned how to be crazy healthy, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which foods might help me lose weight, cure my headaches, and sleep better at night. I tried a million different diets. Most did not work. The few that helped me drop some weight were not sustainable, and I always wound up back where I started.

The one thing that finally did work for me, was applying lessons learned on my yoga mat to my relationship with food. The more intentional I became about fueling my body, and the more aware I became about my habits, the easier it became to make healthy choices.

I still struggled with snack time, however. Somehow, snacks seemed less important than breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I gave myself permission to “cheat a little”. The problem with cheating a little is that, for me, it almost always spirals into cheating a lot.

Even after I cleaned out my diet and went vegetarian in 2003, I still struggled with snacks for a few years. Until one day I realized that, by losing control at snack time, I was giving my power away unnecessarily. What would happen if I kept that power instead, and put it to good use?

Little by little, yoga helped me rethink my habits, and create new disciplines for snacking. I wrote about what I learned for My Yoga Scene last week, and thought you might find these lessons helpful. Check it out, and share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the article: The Yoga Of Healthy Snacking.

Also, you can learn more about my snacking habits, and share your favorites, on the Facebook page for My Crazy Healthy Life!

Namaste~

Amber

Photo: http://www.health-sourcing.com

How Do We Teach Our Kids To Eat Healthy Food?

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How do we teach our kids to eat healthy food?

This is the question my friend, Wendie, asked me last night, when I bumped into her at Trader Joe’s.

She had that look on her face. The same one I see on soooooo many parents’ face. The look that tells me that she that she has tried everything she can think of, to get her kids to make healthy choices, but their diet still isn’t as nutritious as she wants it to be.

I wanted to tell Wendie that it’s easy. That if she just does this, this, or this, her kids will love healthy foods.

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? It’s hard to teach our kids to choose carrots instead of french fries, and chill out on the soda and candy.

The better question is WHY is it hard to teach our kids to eat healthy foods?

Is it because kids don’t want to learn? I don’t think so. I think kids know that knowledge is power. That’s why they ask so many questions.

“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”

“Why is it dark at night?”

“How do birds fly?”

Have you noticed how relieved they seem when you give them an answer they understand?

Is it because fruits and vegetables don’t taste as good as processed foods? Not really. The reason kids don’t appreciate fresh produce as much as processed foods is more from lack of exposure, and dulled taste buds, then it is about taste. The more our bodies experience any food–healthy or not–the more we crave it.

Could it be that kids don’t want to be healthy? Hmmm…I don’t really think that’s it either. Do you?

Personally, I think it’s hard to teach kids to eat healthy because, no matter how much we work to teach them about nutrition, there will always be other forces in their life that suggest otherwise.

Their friends tell them that veggies aren’t cool. Coaches tell them they need Gatorade to rehydrate. And candy is almost always the reward for good behavior at school.

It’s no wonder our kids are confused!

Because there are so many mixed messages, I think the only way to teach kids to eat healthy is to be the change we want to see in our kids. We have to be crazy healthy ourselves, and teach them that wellness is normal, and everything else is not.

Kids need consistent encouragement and education about what it takes to be healthy. Not in an obsessive, overbearing way. But in a “this is what we do, and I love it!” kind of way. If we arm our kids with information when they are young, about the ways foods either fuel or harm our body, they will empowered to make informed decisions about their health now, and for the rest of their lives.

But what if our kids are older? Is it too late to teach them good habits? I don’t think so. I first embraced whole food nutrition in my thirties, so I am pretty sure that people can learn to love healthy food at any age, with the right attitude, commitment, and mentorship.

As parents, we are those mentors for our kids, so we have to be stronger than they are. That’s not easy, but I promise it’s always worth it!

Oh, and, by the way, I have found that my kids are more receptive when I make it less about them doing what I want them to do, and more about doing the right thing.

So…how do we teach our kids to eat healthy food?

Do  you remember the 4 A’s of getting healthy from my recent post, The Naked Truth? The strategy is almost the same for kids, with a few modifications. Here are the 4 A’s for teaching kids to be crazy healthy:

1) Keep a positive attitude: Kids read us like an open book. If we are unsure of ourselves, doubt our choices, or act discouraged, they will pick up on it. This is why it’s essential to trust the struggle, and always believe that our efforts are making an impact. We may not see results immediately, but there will be a progression over time. And, in the process, we are arming them with information, and experiences, that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

2) Make healthy foods accessible (and simple): Keep tons of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, trail mixes, juices, nut butters, and frozen produce and canned soups on hand. Try to serve produce in its purest forms, without sauces and spices, so they can learn to appreciate what they really taste like. Chop fruits and veggies before they get home from school, and set out snacks before they ask for them. The less you say the better–I have found that my kids will eat almost anything I leave on the table! Also, don’t buy the foods you don’t want your kids to eat, and don’t let them see you eating foods you want to keep out of their diet. Eat tons of nutrient-dense foods yourself, so they know that this is what is “normal” for your family. And make sure they know how much you love the healthy stuff!

3) Cultivate awareness: Educate yourself, and your children, about the power of nutrient-dense foods (Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a great place to start!). Give them a project that they can research on the Internet. Our favorite is called “Four Sqaure”: have kids divide a sheet of paper into four equal boxes, and ask them to draw and describe a fruit or vegetable in each box. Descriptions can include nutritional benefits (is it anti-inflammatory? does it boost immunity?), vitamins and minerals, where it grows, and how it tastes. They could do this every week for a year, before they would run out of fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes to research! Also, talk about the foods you serve for dinner. Ask kids about the benefits of the carrots in their soup, and what vitamins are in their broccoli. Look it up together if they don’t know!

4) Encourage fun, healthy actions: This is the hardest one for me, because we are so stinkin’ busy all the time. I have found, however, that giving my kids dedicated time to “play” in the kitchen makes them more enthusiastic about healthy food. They like to make their own trail mixes, popsicles, smoothies, and dips. We also recently experimented with sparkling water and pure juices, to make healthy “sodas”. And, of course, they love to help me cook! Additionally, I think it’s important to take kids grocery shopping every now and then, and encourage them to explore the produce aisle for foods they haven’t tried before. Teach them to read labels, and only put something in the cart if it’s healthy. The way I see it, the more positive experiences  kids have with healthy food, the more willing they will be to embrace the crazy healthy lifestyle.

Teaching kids to be healthy is a lot of work, and a bit of a faith walk. It’s essential to let go of expectation, and trust the struggle. Be sure of what you believe and be consistent in your actions. And always remember that, even if our kids don’t react the way we want them to now, they will always remember that Mom and Dad cared enough to make healthy eating a family value.

*Follow My Crazy Healthy Life on Facebook for more insights into how I teach our kids to eat healthy!

 Photo: http://www.kiddology.com

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The Science Of Addictive Food

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This morning, instead of the usual carpool drop off, I walked into my daughter’s preschool to deliver her, and some healthy, gluten-free snack alternatives, to her teacher. As I pulled out the roasted pumpkin seeds, dried cherries, orange-infused cranberries, sunflower seeds, and raisins, and she replied with “I don’t know how you find all this stuff!”

It struck me as so funny. I laughed, and said “It’s just what I do.” But what I should have said is this:

I find this crazy healthy stuff on the outside of the grocery store. It almost seems hidden. Usually in the way back. Sometimes near the produce. Or in the organic aisle. And everywhere but the front and middle of the store, where the big food manufacturers pay to promote their highly addictive disease-causing products. Like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, they are all fighting for market share, and will do anything to improve their personal position, no matter how much long term damage it might inflict on others. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Walter White, or anyone with his lack of ethics, influencing decisions about my family’s health.

Earlier this week, the NY Times published an article on this very subject called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”. It’s long, somewhat shocking, and potentially life changing. Set aside time to read it, process it, and talk to your family and friends about how these companies use science to create addiction.

The major food manufacturers are not particularly concerned about public health. There’s no question about it. And there’s also no easy fix. But the more we learn about, and talk about, what’s in our food, where it came from, and how it effects our body, the easier it will be for those of us who think food matters to create the crazy healthy life we desire.

The Avocado Pudding Party


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Instead of the usual after school snack yesterday, the girls and I had a pudding party. Not just any pudding party, but a crazy healthy avocado pudding party. And they thought it was the best thing since sliced gluten-free bread.

It might sound decadent, but it really wasn’t. Avocados are full of protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. They actually rank pretty high on Dr. Furhman’s Nutritarian Food Pyramid (love him!), which means they are nutrient-dense, and an important part of a crazy healthy diet. The other ingredients we used for the basic pudding were also full of phytonutrients. As far as I’m concerned (and I think Dr. Fuhrman would agree), this basic avocado pudding is a guilt-free indulgence.

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So here’s how we did it: my eight-year old beat three medium ripe avocados with approximately 3 T. raw cacao, 2 or 3 T. local honey, 1 T. unsweetened almond milk (you can substitute soy or coconut milk) and a healthy pinch of sea salt, to make a basic avocado chocolate pudding. Sometimes I add a little vanilla for taste as well. *

I separated the pudding into small bowls, and then we all got creative with mix-ins. I wanted the girls to be invested in the final product, so I let them pick the flavors.

The end result was peppermint chocolate pudding, banana chocolate pudding, strawberry chocolate pudding, cinnamon chocolate pudding, and peanut butter chocolate chip pudding. This is what it looked like after they devoured it all (don’t you love the cute little signs my daughter made?).

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We tried to vote on the best flavor, but couldn’t come to a consensus. My eight year old loved the peppermint, my seven-year old preferred the peanut butter chocolate chip, and my five-year old loved the cinnamon. Personally, I thought banana chocolate pudding was the best. I also thought that raspberries would taste better than strawberries, and will try that next time.

The best part of the avocado pudding tasting party was that the girls and I had fun experimenting in the kitchen with crazy healthy foods, and they’re already begging to do it again. And that makes me really happy, because it means I now have even more opportunities to help them create crazy healthy childhood memories.

Note: I use less cacao, milk and honey than most recipes you might find because I think it’s healthier that way, but you can add more if you think you need it.

Photo: http://www.diseaseproof.com

Sweets for My Sweets

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One of my favorite things about this crazy healthy life is that it encourages me to be creative in the kitchen. I am constantly experimenting with recipes, and talking with my husband and three daughters, about how we can improve our eating habits. It feels like a game, trying to invent the next great healthy recipe.

Learning how to make healthy desserts is of particular interest to my girls. They know that sugar can be a major health-inhibitor, and that there are some good sugars, but most of them are bad.

When they ask for dessert, I help them put the request in context (Have you already had some sugar today? How much? How did it make you feel?), and challenge them to use natural sugars, such as fruit, honey, or maple syrup, to satisfy their cravings. We also try to limit sweet treats to one serving a day. Too much sugar creates noticeable changes in our energy, moods, and immunity.

Some of our favorite desserts are fresh berries with a small whipped cream “flower”, chocolate pudding made from avocados, organic chocolates, cashew creams, or strawberries stuffed with peanut butter and mini chocolate chips (my fave). It’s not the same as a piece of cake or bowl of ice cream, but it doesn’t seem to bother my family. They truly enjoy our unconventional sweet treats.

It reminds me that we have to change our minds first, if we hope to change our lives. There is a saying that “Doing what you like is freedom, liking what you do is happiness.” I believe that learning to like real sugars more than fake sugars is one of the best kept secrets to happy eating. With a little creativity, it gets easier to replace bad sugars with healthy alternatives. Ultimately, we learn that when it comes to dessert, there’s really nothing better than the real thing.

The Incredible, Edible Cashew: A Healthy Alternative to Dairy


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Photo: http://site.nutsinbulk.com

I had never paid much attention to cashews until last year. They always seemed boring and tasteless; something I could take or leave. What I didn’t know then, that I know now, is that cashews are an important part of a healthy diet, and a healthy substitute for dairy in many recipes. Studies have shown that they are rich in phytonutrients, lower in fats than most nuts, reduce cancer risk, and support bone health and weight control.

My opinion of cashews changed, when I met a vegetarian chef named Meredith Klein, who “cooks” with raw foods. Meredith changed my life, and my cooking, forever, when she served fresh fruit with raw chocolate cream for dessert. It was divine…I couldn’t believe something so simple and crazy healthy could taste so good.

I asked Meredith how she made it (cashews, raw cacao, coconut water, maple syrup, and salt), and it was the beginning of my love affair with cashew creams. I use cashews all the time now, to make vegan alfredo sauces, whipped creams, mousses, cheescakes and pumpkin pies. I serve them to my kids, and at dinner parties, with great success.

It’s so simple, it’s silly. All you have to do is soak cashews for 2-4 hours first, and process them until they are creamy, in a high powered blender or food processor.

Thanks to Meredith, I’ve fallen hard for cashews, and you might too, if you discover how helpful they can be as a replacement for milk and cream. Below is a recipe for cashew cream that I have modified from Meredith’s original guidance. It’s fabulous, served with strawberries, or Trader Joes’ Gluten-free Ginger Snaps.

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Meredith and Amber in the kitchen at Casa Barranca in Ojai, July 2012

Raw Vegan Chocolate Cream, inspired by Meredith Klein

16 oz. raw cashews, soaked in water 2-4 hours

1/4 c. raw cacao (or cocoa powder)

12 oz. coconut water (or more, if needed for consistency)

1 t. maple syrup

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/4 tsp. salt

Mix everything in a food processor until creamy.  Add more coconut water to increase sweetness as desired, more cacao to increase chocolate flavor, and more salt if desired. Enjoy with apples, strawberries, or gluten-free ginger snaps!

For the Love of Pomegranates

Have you ever peeled a pomegranate? I never had, until a few years ago. My kids tasted some at a friend’s house, and loved it. They wanted more (yay!), so of course I bought half a dozen the next day. And then I realized that it took forever to peel them, I didn’t want my kids to get juice all over themselves, and I don’t have a lot of patience for messy, time-consuming food prep.

So I stopped buying pomegranates, even though they are a crazy healthy snack that my kids love. Until last December, when my friend, Meredith Klein* at Pranaful, posted the Illustrated Guide for No-Mess Pomegranate Prep.

Absolutely brilliant! Her method works like a charm, protects us from staining our clothes, and keeps my kids busy with healthy activity. Thanks to Meredith, we are buying and eating pomegranates again. They are still more expensive, and a bit more work than say, an apple. But I feel good about the time and money invested, because pomegranates add powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients to our diets. They also look really beautiful in the fruit bowl, just waiting to be peeled.tumblr_lvlpeqH2rp1r37nv8

Photo: Meredith Klein at http://www.pranaful.com

*Meredith just returned from an amazing three-month adventure abroad earlier this week. Her blog and business were on a short hiatus, but follow her blog anyway–what comes next is sure to be amazing!