Holiday Dinners: The Salad Strategy

If you care about weight maintenance, holiday dinners are where your resolve gets tested.   Assuming there are any healthful options at all, it’s most likely a gloppy coleslaw, tray of cold raw vegetables with ranch dressing, or whatever other tasteless nod to nutrition a deli can concoct.

Theoretically, you could be virtuous and subsist on these rations, calmly ignoring the warm- out-of-the-oven cheese puffs, the bacon and cheese stuffed dates and the bread bowl with spinach dip that costs 1000 calories just to look at.  With competition like this, however, virtue is sure to take a back seat.

This is where survival strategies come in.  Only one person at a holiday party has your health as a priority:  You.  So You must have a strategy for successfully surviving holiday parties.

  • Maybe you just blow things off because you go to only one party a year.
  • Maybe you eat beforehand and go to the party for (just one) dessert.
  • Maybe you view the party as just a place to talk to friends, not an eating event.
  • Maybe you bring a dish that you’ll love to and can eat.

The last strategy is my usual M.O.  Here’s what I say to the host:  “Oh, I love to make salads, and I’ve got a great one for the holidays.  Could I bring one for you?”

Sure it takes time and money to make a colorful, tempting salad–especially when there’s a free, no-effort meal at the party.   But you would be feeding yourself anyway, why not make enough to share?  You’re sure to make a more fun and interesting salad–besides making friends with other party goers in the same boat.  Ready to give the Salad Strategy a try?

The 10-Step Salad Strategy for a Festive Holiday Salad

  1. The Dish Since salads are my party strategy, I bought two neat salad bowls that showcase them beautifully.
  2. The Greens Just walk right past the iceberg to thevibrant greens of romaine, green leaf, red leaf and butter lettuces.   Or make a spinach salad–or make a mixture of all.    Since lettuces are a cold weather crop, they are very tasty and sweet right now.
  3. Vegetables Skip the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.  They are out of season and won’t tastegood enough to satisfy.  Instead, add color and nutritional depth with shredded carrots, roasted beets, diagonally sliced celery, mushrooms, frozen petite green peas , corn perked up with a light sauteeing, and avocado.
  4. Fruits Nothing adds “festive” to a salad like fruit.  Deep red pomegranate seeds are the perfect holiday color.   Apples and pears are great local and seasonal options and become candy-like when roasted.  Good oranges are now in stores.  And in a hurry, don’t forget about dried fruits:  raisins, figs, dates, cherries, and cranberries .
    Pomegranates from California make a lusciously festive addition to a salad–and they are one of the few (if not only) fruits that are in season in December.  This picture comes courtesy of the Pomegranate Council, which has more great pomegranate salad recipes
  5. Cheeses bind a salad nicely with creaminess.  The code word is moderation, which is why I like high-impact varieties like Parmesan and feta:  lots of flavor in a small, low-calorie amount.
  6. Breads and Grains are unusual, but they add a satisfying, filling taste:  Try tossing in a little wild rice  or bulgar  or topping with whole grain croutons.
  7. The Dressing While homemade can be quite special, it’s fine to use ready made, as long as it’s free of additives, colorings, etc.
  8. Meats Most parties, thankfully, have some plain meat (turkey, a roast beef, a ham.)  I usually bank on this for a side or topper for my salad.
  9. Cost Hey, it’s the holidays–and your health.  Spend enough so you are ecstatic about eating that salad.
  10. Remember: No Free Lunch Eating well doesn’t come without effort.  But at the same time, effort always brings rewards, like the great feeling you’ll have when you survive a party without blowing your eating ideals.

Ready for more practical cooking skills, ideas and inspiration for a lifetime of healthful eating?  Healthy Eating Coach Mary Collette Rogers teaches hands-on classes to build confidence and comfort in the kitchen:   Next series begins January 13.

Join us!

(Also, read how one dedicated real foods eater put the salad strategy to good use for her Thanksgiving feast with the in-laws.)

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Diet Season Is Coming! Plan Now for After the Diet

Does that title sound like negative, defeatist thinking or what?  Let’s just call it factual.

Pic of Day Planner

Just like planning for a successful day, plan for success after the diet is over.

By definition, a “diet” is an interlude of eating differently than normal, and at some point, that interlude has to end.  Since we know that’s the ending to every diet story, why not plan for a good exit strategy?  What will eating look like for the rest of your life, once your diet interlude is over?

Take Luann.  She faithfully attended a commercial exercise and eating program for 12 weeks and came close to achieving an ideal weight.  As her program was winding down, she had the good sense to see a dietitian to set up a long-term healthy-weight eating protocol.  But then she faced the most challenging job of all:  making meals that fit those healthy eating guidelines, morning, noon and night, day after day, seven days a week, month after month and year after year–without getting bored silly or stressed to insanity.

You might find yourself in exactly this position two short months from now:  The holidays will be over, New Year’s resolution will have been made and you will have faithfully stuck to a diet for a few weeks.  Now what?  Default and stumble into defeat or gracefully execute the exit strategy?

Why not plan ahead for this fairly inevitable point in time, probably around January 31, when you’ll be tired of dieting, the rest of the year will be looming and you can’t bear the thought of eating any more turkey breast salads.  You’ll look with satisfaction at your weight loss, but then wonder, maybe with a little trepidation, “How can I do healthful eating for the next month, the next six months, the next year?”

Here’s how you do it:  You head to the kitchen, have fun, and eat lusciously!  “What?!” you say.  How can the kitchen be a place for fun, much less healthy meals that are luscious, and all for the long term?

Despite what every fast food ad would like you to believe, the kitchen can absolutely be fun when it’s not an annoying obstacle course but is instead set up for smooth meal making, with interesting recipes and new flavors.  And healthy eating can be completely luscious when you are familiar with  healthful foods and have the building block cooking skills to transform them, easily and confidently, into delightfully delicious meals.

Here’s the best news.  You don’t have to figure how to do this on your own.  Join one of our upcoming Whole Kitchen classes.  Learn an entirely manageable system for putting together wholesome meals, day in and day out, naturally and easily.  Don’t just dream about deliciously healthful meals–find out how to make them show up on your dinner table.  Have the support of others, from beginners to advanced cooks, all journeying to the land of Everyday Good Eating.  Find out how fun, engaging and exciting the world of real foods can be.

Monday, November 29:  Healthy Holiday Cooking and Eating

Starting in Early January:  New Sessions of Whole Kitchen Cooking Classes (just in time to get prepared for after the diet)

Women, Weight and Protein

Canned Chicken to the Rescue!

Did you know there’s a connection between what’s in your pantry and what’s on your thighs?  It’s true, so pay attention to this often overlooked part of the kitchen–not only to what’s there, but also to what’s not there–like high-quality canned chicken that can stave off a hunger attack in a hurry.

Weight loss is a perpetual issue among us, sadly.  Eating loses so much of its fun when accompanied by worries about weight.  So can I share a trick that helped me break out of the

I just discovered Shelton's brand but assume it will be good, as I've always been impressed by their products.

perpetual eating cycle that was threatening to turn me into a weight worrier?

Protein Balance It’s nothing new and it’s very simple, as with everything else about healthy weight eating.  And I know it works.  Just yesterday, I was on the road and had breakfast at a Whole Foods:  roasted veggies, roasted beets and yummy chicken curry salad.  I was amazed when lunchtime rolled around and I hadn’t even registered a blip on the hunger meter.

So if it’s simple and effective, what’s the catch?  As always, implementation.  For me, carbs like bread, cereal, tortillas, bagels, muffins, pretzels, chips and crackers were always easy things to have on hand.  And they were easy to grab quickly to stave off hunger.  Proteins, on the other hand, were far more problematic.  I cooked animal protein only rarely, and it was rarer still that I had any leftovers.  Plus, animal proteins have to be refrigerated, are messier to eat, and just didn’t hold the satisfying appeal of, say, a muffin.

Pantry Stockers for Healthy Weight Meal Making So it was with delight that I discovered canned chicken, but not the miserable, indescribable stuff swimming in salt water that’s sold at drug stores.  No, a can of Valley Fresh Organic Chicken is packed with clearly identifiable, very moist pieces of breast meat in a tasty broth (which can be used as a cooking element of its own as explained in the Bits and Pieces article.)  Would I serve canned chicken as a main dish for dinner?  Of course not.  But is it perfect for adding a hit or protein to a salad I’m throwing together for lunch?  You bet, and here’s a recipe where I used it:  Green Salad with Chicken plus Fresh Fruit and Herb Dressing.

Now, About the Cost. Valley Fresh is more expensive than vapid drug store chicken because of a time-honored principle we all know:  “You get what you pay for.”   Pay $1.79 and you get barely a serving of chicken that tastes like nothing, is mostly water and grosses you out.  Or pay $3.69 and get a can of chicken that makes two, really tasty protein servings and is not contributing to environmental degradation.  Make it even cheaper with a 10% case discount at Vitamin Cottage–and then you always have something on hand that can turn off the perpetual hunger machine–and help you return to a place of eating joy.

Learn more about how to stock the pantry to make healthy weight meal making easy in the Whole Kitchen Way to Wholesome Meal Making.

Hooray! You’re Not Stuck with the Taste Buds You Got

Transforming Our Taste Buds from Foe to Friend

In the battle against the bulge, the tiny taste bud is a formidable foe.  Just look at the defeats it drives us to:  right past the salad bar and into the fast food lane, straight to the cream-laden pasta dishes in the buffet line, and directly to the vending machine when the afternoon begins to yawn.  Face it, we’d all be skinny as rails if we could just muscle these tiny despots into submission.

So it seems appropriate to give some consideration to the thousands of little organs on an average tongue that seem to wield such outsized control over our eating decisions.  Despite the feeling that we are forever enslaved to their despotic whims, can I suggest a more hopeful view:  We’re not stuck with our taste buds.  It is entirely possible to reform them into allies who support, and even encourage, healthy eating choices.

My Story I came to this hopeful viewpoint after seeing delightful results in my life.  For many years, I was a donut junkie.  In my old law office a huge box of donuts and pastries would be delivered every Friday.  I couldn’t resist having a donut.  And a croissant.  And then another croissant.  Yes, I was a pastry pig, and I was no better than a bear in sight of honey when the donut box came in the door.

My pastry pig days ended abruptly, however, after my two children developed food sensitivities and we had to adopt a wheat-free, dairy-free diet.  So ended a diet comprised of mostly bread and cheese products.  It got replaced with a dazzling array of other tastes and flavors from  vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, alternative grains and beans.

I don’t know the exact point at which it happened, but I distinctly remember a day, about two years into this new diet, when I drove by a donut shop and wasn’t tempted in the least.  How could that be, I wondered, remembering my helpless donut days at the office.

That’s when it dawned on me:  My tastes had changed!  What a powerfully, freeing realization that was.  Even better was the fact that I hadn’t even tried to change them.  By just focusing on the foods that supported our health, my taste buds changed, becoming an ally that supported my choices.  In the years since, several other developments have confirmed my hopeful hypothesis on the malleability of our taste buds.

Nutritionists Are Noticing Too For instance, over the past few years, I’ve begun seeing articles that document other encouraging stories of taste bud reform.  In fact, a recent article acknowledged that “[i]t really is possible to develop a taste for healthy foods you’ve avoided for years, nutritionists say.”  The article then suggested several ways to tweak your taste buds, from taking things slow and adopting an adventurous attitude to building on familiar flavors and avoiding over- or under-cooking.  (Alison Johnson for The Daily Press, reprinted in the Daily Camera, April 7, 2010.)

Strength Training for Taste Buds Soon after my donut revelation, I read Strong Women Stay Young by Mariam E. Nelson, Ph.D., which documented the importance (and benefits) of strength training.  Dr. Nelson explained facts that are now common knowledge, i.e., “[m]uscle cells atrophy if they aren’t used,” and weight lifting reverses that process by using and stressing muscles instead of leaving them sedentary. (p. 28)

This process seemed like a good way to explain what had happened to my taste buds.  Over the years, as my life became busier, my diet shifted increasingly to bread and cheese products since they were fast, easy and transportable.  Eating such a limited range of foods, however, was comparable to leading a sedentary life.  Because they weren’t challenged, my taste buds sank to the lowest level, appreciating and craving only the most elementary flavors and foods.  Not until I began stressing them with more complex flavors did they regain their robustness and sophistication.  Eventually, I no longer wanted “baby foods,” whose cheap sugar and salt deliver an immediate pleasure jolt but not long lasting satisfaction.  Instead I craved full-bodied foods with deep, rich, rewarding flavor.

Ayurveda and the Six Tastes Ayurveda, a five-thousand-year-old medical healing system from India, contributed yet another perspective that explains how my taste buds became an ally on the healthy eating journey.  I was introduced to this system through Jennifer Workman’s Stop Your Cravings, which explained the Ayurvedic theory of the Six Tastes.  According to this theory, foods are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent or bitter.  When foods are combined so that all six of these tastes are present and balanced in a dish or meal, we will experience complete satisfaction.

My donut days represented the exact opposite of Six Taste balance.  By settling for a diet based on just bread and cheese, I not only stunted my taste buds’ development, I starved them of satisfaction, too!  That’s why I couldn’t stop eating donuts and pastries, because my taste buds were craving full satisfaction, not just a temporary sugar high.

Neuroplasticity Most recently, I’ve been reading and hearing about this fascinating development in brain science.  The idea is that the brain is malleable like plastic, even after childhood.  So it’s possible, even as we age, to “rewire” our brain circuits with targeted training.  The theory offers hope that we can address limitations that are seemingly beyond our control.  For instance, a friend is creating a documentary about a woman, paralyzed in a car accident, who has regained sensation in and movement of, her paralyzed limbs.  Another friend with MS can raise her arm high above her head, a feat that was supposedly medically impossible.

Maybe, in a similar vein, neuroplasticity can serve as a metaphor for taste bud reform, offering hope that seemingly intractable taste buds can be remolded in our favor. There is certainly a lot of neural circuitry involved in tasting, as messages are relayed back and forth between taste buds and brain.  So it’s not unthinkable that deliberately exposing taste buds to an ever-broadening array of tastes could rewire the brain to like and crave an ever-broadening array of foods.

The Bottom Line I’m seeing that there are a number of ways to imagine the process of transforming our taste buds.  Regardless of the imagery you use, however, the end result is a happy one:  We’re not stuck with the taste buds we have.  Have hope:  They can be transformed into friendly allies on the healthy eating journey.

Next Up:  Practical tips for setting taste bud reform into motion.

New Year’s Resolutions: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Good Intention

Passing out invites to our annual Thanksgiving Coffee last week, I stopped by Sue and Scott’s house.  Scott has been losing weight recently and we were chatting about his successes when Susan burst into the room waving a couple cards in front of my face.  “We’re doing it!  We’re doing it!” she babbled and bubbled.  (Sidenote:  Susan is a delightfully excitable person!)

It took a couple minutes to figure out what she was talking about:  Turns out those “cards” were the Commit Cards and Simple Prescription for Good Eating Cards that I had given them at a class–three years ago!  But instead of just pitching them, Susan had put them to use:  On her Commit Card she wrote down her deepest eating desire:  “To do everyday good eating, with Scott.”  Then she mounted the Commit Card on the refrigerator, next to the Simple Prescription for Good Eating Card, which defined “everyday good eating” by way of four simple guidelines.

There those cards stayed, posted on Susan’s refrigerator for three years.  The ones she waved in front of my face were yellowed and faded from kitchen steam, splattered with food and tattered, but they did their job:  Sue and Scott have been successfully following the South Beach Diet for three months.

More importantly, they aren’t just slugging and sacrificing their way through a pain-in-the-neck-diet for a few weeks.  They have made the lifestyle transformations and mind shifts that will make healthier eating a routine and continuing part of their lives.

And better yet, Sue is looking ahead to life after South Beach.Because she doesn’t want to return to her old ways, she is asking me the right questions now, about how to get set up for making good meals without the structure of the diet to rely on.  She’s wondering what to stock in her pantry and how to organize it for easy access.  She knows that planning ahead is critical and wants to begin getting into the habit.  She knows that she and Scott will want a little more variety at the dinner table, which means new recipes that still meet the South Beach guidelines.

Celebrating all the good news, Sue and I had to stop and marvel at the amazing way good intentions work.  Sue and Scott have sputtered, started and stopped over the years, and to be honest, I wondered whether they could really pull this together.

What I didn’t know was how Susan had kept those cards pasted to the frig.  How she had kindled her good eating intentions and kept them strong.  How she had just kept putting one foot in front of the other, steadfastedly making small changes that were all but invisible to the outside eye.

And that’s how big changes are made:  For what seems like forever, you stumble along in the twilight with just the small flame of good intention to guide you.  Then, all of a sudden, it begins getting lighter and you realize that the little flame and all the little steps have taken you halfway up the mountain.  From that point you can look back to see just how much progress you’ve made.

That’s when you realize that the hardest part of the journey–the getting started part–is behind you.  You’re far enough along that there’s no danger of slipping back, and even though the way ahead is long, it’s manageable and the benefits of going forward are clear.

Thanks Sue and Scott for the lesson on never doubting the power of good intention and putting one foot in front of the other.  Oh ye of little faith!

Want copies of the Commit Card and Simple Prescription for Good Eating that helped Sue and Scott?  Cut and paste this paragraph into an email to me.  I’ll be happy to pass them along, just in time for New Year’s Resolutions.

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