Carrot Cupcakes for Easter

Favorite Carrot CupcakesCupcakes?  For Easter?  Have I lost my mind?

I know.  We’re all in the midst of some sort of moral dilemma at this time of year — much like Halloween, and Valentine’s Day, and all the other holidays and special occasions that appear to be sprinkled rather liberally throughout our lives, Easter brings up one of those “Do I do the candy, or do I not do the candy?” quandaries.  Certainly you don’t HAVE to do the candy, and many people don’t.

I’ve disclosed before that we happily do the candy, and if I’m honest, I really look forward to it.  Easter feels different to me than other candy holidays, for a few reasons: 1) I’m in control of the candy for my kids, not left to the mercy of trick-or-treating, class parties, and so on; 2) The candy’s a fun little tradition, but not the main focus of the day; and 3) Easter is a low-expectation event for the kids — they are happy with a few sweets that they’ll enjoy over the course of a couple of days, and then they move on.  It’s sort of straightforward and old-fashioned in its simplicity, the way I imagine most candy holidays started, before they grew well out of proportion.

So on Easter, we fill baskets with a nice little chocolate bunny or two, a book for each kid, and some other fun little trinket, and that’s it.  The day’s real highlights lie in the services we share with our church community and the big, fancy meal we eat together at a table that’s nicely laid (for a change).  While we could end that meal with candy from the Easter baskets, we tend not to; the kids are happy to let the candy wait for another day, in favor of enjoying a beautiful dessert that’s a notch or two more special than anything I’d offer up on the usual weekend.

Since my boys are still on the young side, nothing — truly, nothing — feels more like a special dessert than a cupcake.  And being that we’re talking about Easter time, the idea of a carrot cupcake amuses them.  I’m finicky about carrot cake; usually I find it too dense, too greasy, and not quite balanced in its flavors.  But we’ve come up with a sweet, satisfying, not-too-cloying version that hits all the right notes.  Our version uses plenty of raisins and substitutes chopped pecans for the standard walnuts.  Maple syrup gives sweetness and depth, while helping to reduce the overall sugar — because make no mistake about it, once you’ve iced these cupcakes, they’re a pretty sugary confection.   The real winning touch for me, though, is the addition of orange zest to the cream cheese icing; the orange, played against the nuts, raisins, carrots, and spice of the cake, makes these carrot cupcakes fresher and more special than their run-of-the-mill counterparts.  Light, moist, fluffy, and full of the flavors of citrus and spice, these cupcakes are the perfect way to celebrate Easter — but if Easter’s not your thing, then they’re the perfect way to celebrate Spring.

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April 2014 Meal Plan: Almost There!

We are ALMOST THERE.

I’m writing this meal plan with the full knowledge that the next time I do this, our summer farmer’s market will be ready to begin.  No, it won’t be all tomatoes and roses in May or even June, but its arrival heralds the beginning of a new way of shopping, cooking, and eating each year — one that inevitably feels fresher, easier, and healthier for both our family and our community.

For this month, I’m trying to focus on eating as much of what’s in our freezer as possible (lots of grass-fed beef and some chicken), while also trying to devote some energy to eating a few more low-meat and no-meat meals.  With the kids (aka the Carnivorous Brothers) around, it can be hard to come up with meatless meals that don’t inspire a dinner mutiny, and frankly, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to want to argue with them.  But they’re growing older and their palates are expanding all the time, along with their appetites; that means that they’re both becoming more accepting of alternatives, and eating more than they ever have.  Something has to give, either at the dinner table or in my wallet, so we’re going to inch towards just a bit less meat and see how that goes.

April 2014

WEEK ONE:

Tuesday, 4/1: Slow cooker — grass-fed beef chili with three beans
Wednesday, 4/2: Tandoori chicken legs, spiced cauliflower, naan
Make it GF: Seek out injera bread if it’s available to you — it’s made with teff flour, which is naturally gluten-free.  Otherwise, you can sub rice for the naan.
Thursday, 4/3: Breakfast for dinner4.14 Quick Tip 1
Friday, 4/4: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 4/5: “No-fuss” chicken, yellow rice, vegetables
Sunday, 4/6: Porchetta with roasted potatoes, salad
Monday, 4/7: Cheddar quinoa with early spring vegetables

WEEK TWO:

Tuesday, 4/8: Slow cooker — chicken stroganoff over egg noodles
Make it GF: Serve over rice or gluten-free pasta
Wednesday, 4/9: Cuban-style waffled panini, sweet potato fries
Make it GF: Make Cuban quesadillas with corn tortillas
Thursday, 4/10: Mom’s old-school goulash, salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta, such as Jovial or Tinkyada brands
Friday, 4/11: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 4/12: “Jeremy’s” Szechuan beef stir-fry over rice
4.14 Quick Tip 2Sunday, 4/13: Sunday Roast Chicken dinner
Monday, 4/14: Pasta with sweet potatoes and peppers
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta, such as Jovial or Tinkyada brands

WEEK THREE:

Tuesday, 4/15: Chicken soft tacos
Make it GF: Make lettuce wraps or use corn tortillas
Wednesday, 4/16: DIY Salad night4.14 Quick Tip 3
Thursday, 4/17: Seafood from our Farmer’s Market
Friday, 4/18: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 4/19: Pasta “poulet” and salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta, such as Jovial or Tinkyada brands
Sunday, 4/20: Easter!  As usual, I have no idea yet what my Easter menu will be.  I’ll figure it out!
Monday, 4/21: Vegetable quesadillas and refried beans
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas

WEEK FOUR:

Tuesday, 4/22: Slow cooker — Mom’s meat sauce over spaghetti, salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta, such as Jovial or Tinkyada brands
4.13 Quick Tip 4Wednesday, 4/23: Raspberry balsamic chicken, vegetables
Thursday, 4/24: I have a dress rehearsal, so we’ll use leftover meat sauce to make bolognese French bread pizzas for a fast dinner!
Make it GF: Stuff peppers with the meat sauce instead and top with melted mozzarella cheese
Friday, 4/25: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 4/26: “Frog slime” meatballs before I head out for a performance
Sunday, 4/27: I’ve got another performance today and will be home late, so I declare it’s my night off!
Monday, 4/28: Homemade spinach and mushroom ravioli in vodka sauce
Make it GF: Look for gluten-free wonton wrappers to make fast, easy ravioli

WEEK FIVE:

Tuesday, 4/29: Slow cooker — Coconut milk chicken over quinoa
Wednesday, 4/30: Cheeseburgers and roasted vegetable “fries”
Make it GF: Serve the burgers off the bun or in lettuce boats

 

 

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Monday Menus: Quick and Easy Pasta

Do you ever have those nights where you get home and can barely even think about making dinner?  Work was stressful, the commute had you white-knuckling the steering wheel, the kids are crazed, there’s homework to be supervised and pets to be fed and…and…and…!

Of course you’ve had those days.  We all have.  On those nights, the very idea of having to also deal with making dinner feels like adding insult to injury.  Those are the times when it’s extra-tempting to turn to take-out (or to tell your family to make themselves peanut butter sandwiches).  Of course, there’s nothing WRONG with doing those things…occasionally.  The problem is, there are more of those crazy weeknights than any of us probably like to admit, so if we gave into our impulses to throw up our hands and succumb each time, it would end up adding up to a whole lot of less-great dinner choices.

Enter the easy dinner — the one that comes together in no more time than it takes to boil a pot of pasta.  The one that can be made with just a handful of ingredients that you’re actually somewhat likely to have on hand.  If you’ve got an onion, some bacon, and some tomatoes in the pantry, you’re halfway to dinner.

This dish sounds super fancy, but it’s really very humble.  I’ve dressed it up with a little splash of wine and some fresh parsley, but you don’t necessarily have to; you could just go bare bones with no frills, and still end up with a pretty decent plate of food.  You could also use fresh basil if that’s what you’ve got on hand, or throw in a pinch of dried oregano if you haven’t got fresh herbs in the refrigerator.  You could add a little garlic, but you don’t have to.  At the height of summer, if you’ve got an abundance of fresh tomatoes, you could chop up a whole mess of those and use them to make the sauce instead of using canned or jarred tomato products.  There are lots of ways to make this dish and to make it your own, so you never really have to worry about whether or not you have exactly the right ingredients on hand.

As an extra bonus, this is one of those cheap and easy meals that could (and probably should) be taught to kids and young adults who are just learning to cook.  Everybody ought to have a couple of pasta dishes like this one in their repertoire, especially when they’re striking out on their own for the first time or just beginning to take regular responsibility for helping with dinner at home.  Most college kids will throw together spaghetti with some sort of sauce out of a jar; for not much more effort, and a lot more taste, yours could whip up a pot of Pasta all’Amatriciana for friends.  Versatile, budget-friendly, and perfect for every member of the family – that’s what a meal for a stressful weeknight ought to be.

Pasta all'Amatriciana

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What Nutrition Labels Can’t Do

What We Need, A Bigger Calorie Count Can’t Provide.

nutrition labelMuch has been made this week of the changes that are coming in the world of nutrition labels.  There have been more articles and blog posts on the internet than I think I could ever read, debating the merits of the various accepted revisions: more accurate portion sizes, larger calorie information, the removal of mandatory Vitamin C and A counts in favor of mandatory potassium and Vitamin D counts, and the addition of an “added sugars” line item to help people differentiate between naturally occurring sugars in their food and the sugars that are added during processing.

I’ve thought a lot about whether or not I’d post my own views on the nutrition label changes, and what I’d say if I did.  What I think I really want to say is that I don’t care much about the labels.  You might think it’s because I’m going to tell you that labels aren’t required for whole, real foods, which is true; but that’s not exactly where I’m headed, because honestly, there are packaged foods in my house, as I’m sure there are in yours.  Packaged foods are a reality, and likely a permanent one.  There’s no point in arguing that they shouldn’t be here – it’s a myopic way to look at things.  Better to improve the labels, I guess, than to simply try to ignore the existence of the products.

No, I don’t care about the labels because no matter how much we improve the labels, there’s a very important function that they cannot serve.  It’s one I think is sorely missing from our current society and our national dialogue about nutrition.  It’s the one that I believe could be the single biggest game-changer in reversing the health fortunes of much of the Western world, and it’s not going to come from making either a font size, or a portion size, bigger.  What we are lacking, what the nutrition label cannot provide, is education.

Why we insist on continuing to tweak the presentation of information to people, without also launching a large-scale effort to help them understand and use that information, is beyond me.  Nutrition labels strike me the same way my son’s math homework struck me last week: It’s like we’re putting a Venn Diagram in front of a 1st-grader, expecting him to then extrapolate information from that diagram and answer word problems, without having first shown him exactly what a Venn Diagram is and why it’s useful.  We’re telling people how much added sugar is in their cereal, but we’re not accompanying that information with a big push to tell them how much added sugar is considered “okay,” how that cereal fits into their entire day’s eating, why excess sugar may not be a great idea for their long-term health, and what they could choose instead of the cereal to be better off in the first place.

Yes, some of us already know those things, and we know where to find the information we seek even if we aren’t sure of the facts sometimes.  But I think when you’re working with something as basic and fundamental as the labels on food, you’ve got to make sure that you’re teaching to the baseline – that everyone, regardless of their education level, interest in nutrition, or income level, can meaningfully use the information on those labels to make better choices and improve their quality of life and health.  And unfortunately, “MyPlate” isn’t going to do it.

What’s really at play here, I think, is that nobody – including, and maybe especially? the government –knows exactly what to say in educating people about their food.  There are as many theories about healthful diets as there are packaged foods on the store shelves, and very little consensus.  One thing that seems to be latched onto over and over again is the issue of calories (hence, the BIG calorie counts on labels) – but that’s not a very encouraging, or very meaningful, place to begin a real life-changing, food-habits-changing dialogue.

We know that mathematically, “calories in, calories out” should work.  We also know that it doesn’t, usually, and that’s something of a puzzle.  Many people have extrapolated that to mean that “not all calories are equal.”  Fine, but which calories are superior?  Talk to five different “experts” and you’ll get five different results.  In the meantime, according to an informal survey the “Today Show” conducted, over 40% of people ONLY look at the calories on a nutrition label.  Other popular answers in that survey, by the way, included looking at markers like fiber and protein. Some people said they looked at the fat or sugar content.

Guess what wasn’t even an answer?  The ingredients. Which, if you’re curious, is the only thing on a food label that I currently consult.

Now, just because that’s my personal preference doesn’t mean that it’s the “right” way to approach things.  But I came down on the side of “ingredients” for a couple of reasons:
1) That whole thing about “whole, real foods?” Yeah, it’s valid.  So I look for the least-junky ingredients I can find; and
2) I care so deeply about whole, real foods and un-junky ingredients because I truly believe that processed foods with the “right” calories and fat and fiber and so forth are making people sick.

I believe that so fully because personal experience tells me it’s true – at least, it’s true for me, it’s true for members of my family, and it’s true for friends of mine.  Case in point: When I was in graduate school and then first out on my own in the adult world, I ate “healthy.”  I prided myself on my ability to cook, and I worked hard to make “smart choices” at the grocery store.  At that time in my life, I was reading nutrition labels for the calories and fat, not looking closely at ingredients.  I ate lots of packaged oatmeal – a special kind that was labeled specifically for women and specifically for optimal weight management and nutrition benefits – and “heart healthy” yogurts and salad dressings.  Sure, lots of my food was made with real, whole ingredients, but a significant portion of my day’s intake either came directly from, or was doctored with, “healthy” items that contained low calorie and fat counts.

Sometime during those years, I started having hormonal migraines every month, as well as low-level headaches several times a week.  I also developed a funny pale-brown, almost mocha-colored spot on the side of my neck. I thought it was a recurrence of a minor, benign skin condition I’d had before, and used the same simple home remedy to get rid of it – but it didn’t go away.  Of course, it also didn’t itch, hurt, or bother me in any way, so I totally forgot about it.

Years later, after having the kids, our eating habits had markedly improved.  In everything I’d learned about food and nutrition because of our boys and their needs, the concept of “low fat” and “low calorie” packaged foods was essentially vilified. I’d gotten rid of my oatmeal packets, convenience dressings, grab-and-go soups, and yogurts, along with a host of other items.  And the darnedest thing happened.  One day, I realized that the spot on my neck was almost completely gone.  It had just vanished.  I also hadn’t had a hormonal migraine in months, and the only low-level headaches I’d had were easily attributed to back or eye strain.  Minor discomfort was no longer a near-daily condition.

What frightened me was finding out, quite by accident, that the brown spot on my neck had most likely been the manifestation of the beginnings of insulin resistance.  What?!?!?  I’m no stick-thin model, but I wasn’t ever dangerously overweight.  I didn’t eat tons of sweets and white carbs.  I didn’t drink soda.  What I DID was follow mainstream nutrition advice, and religiously seek “health” by looking at the fat and calorie counts on nutrition labels.  Of course, since nobody told me that I ought to be reading the ingredients and paying attention to sugars and other additives, I had no idea that I was really pumping myself full of sweeteners and fillers every day.  I very nearly paid a high price for that mistake.

Now, in ONLY reading ingredients and eating a highly whole-food-centered diet, I’m so much better off than I was in those days – no headaches, no brown spot, no food cravings, no insane monthly bloating, the list goes on and on.  In reading ingredients and sticking to mainly whole foods, we were able to track down P.’s mysterious allergy to food dyes and preservatives, and totally reverse a whole host of scary and dangerous health issues for him.  Our food philosophies have resulted in lower pain, fewer colds and illnesses, better energy, more stable moods, and better sleep for every single member of our family.  We never would have gotten to this place if we had kept up our diligence in following the “recommendations” and the nutrition labels’ focus on fat, calories, and isolated nutrients.

I’m not blaming the labels – after all, if I’d known what to look for and how to use the information, it would have been a whole different ball game.  But isn’t that the point?  We’re still focusing on the wrong things when we focus on how to make the labels better.  We’re making the information bigger and we’re changing WHICH facts we offer, but we’re not figuring out how to best communicate why those facts matter.  Until we do that, we’ll still be a nation of calorie-counters with chronic health issues because our nutrition, ironically, is thrown totally out of whack by the efforts to improve it.  We’ll still be a largely undernourished and overfed population with a weight obsession and a distant relationship to food.  Calories and potassium levels are instruments of distance.  Smell, taste, feel, and cooking knowledge are relational.  And they’re real.

Until we have some consensus about what actually constitutes a smart, proactive, balanced way to relate to food – and an approach that universally results in better long-term health outcomes for people – our dabbling with nutrition labels won’t, I’m afraid, amount to much.  It’s not a bad thing to do; it’s just a teeny little drop in a very large bucket.  What a nutrition label can’t do is teach people how to listen to their bodies, or how to select and cook and enjoy food that doesn’t need a label.  It can’t teach an entire population how to be really nourished by food, not just sated by convenience.  It can’t put all of its own numbers and symbols into context, or draw the deep connections between its facts and someone’s ongoing health challenges.  A nutrition label, even an improved one, is still just a label.  We’ve got much farther to go than that.

 

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Finding the Right Fit in a Farmer’s Market or CSA

004Anybody who’s read this blog for more than half a post — or spoken to me in real life for more than 20 seconds — knows that I am a passionate and devoted Farmer’s Market shopper.  Heck, indulging my inner locavore was part of what got me deeply involved in cooking, and eventually blogging, in the first place.  It’s such a big part of my life that I actually started up a Winter Market for my neighborhood last year, just so I never had to say goodbye to my local-food ways for even a few months of the year.  I’m a farm-loving, seasonal produce-worshiping kind of girl, and nothing will ever change that.

I’d love nothing more than to help others feel comfortable with shopping more at their own local farms, and less at their big chain groceries, so everyone can experience the joys of being a market groupie like me.  But I think it’s important to not just buy local; you should ENJOY buying local.  It should, ideally, be an experience that enriches your life, not just something that ticks a box on your to-do list.  Part of the allure of local eating is that you get to feel calm and confident about your choices, while knowing that you’re supporting someone who needs your dollars far more than Stop N Shop, Wal-Mart, Publix, or Price Chopper do.  But to get that satisfaction from the experience, I think you’ve got to find a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that matches up with your values, expectations, and needs.

Here are some of the most important things I recommend considering before you commit to a market or CSA program, so you can be sure your relationship to your local food producers is as rewarding as it can be:

Location

How far are you willing to go for local food?  Technically, many food authorities define “local” as being within 100 miles or less of your home, but for an individual to travel 100 miles just to get some salad greens seems less than practical.  For most of us, in fact, a farmer’s market or CSA pickup point would honestly have to be much, much closer than that; how much closer, exactly, depends on your individual preferences.  I find that having a farmer’s market that’s only about a mile from my house — one where I can also pick up a CSA box if I choose to buy a share — is ideal, because I can either walk or drive depending on my schedule, it doesn’t cut into my day too deeply, and I have more time to spend there chatting with vendors and choosing my produce because I didn’t waste precious minutes in the commute.

The bottom line is that you need a location you’ll actually visit frequently, without feeling stressed or resentful.  If heading to the farmer’s market is a major “event,” you may want to think about looking for something that’s closer to home.

Designation

Farms will designate their growing practices to consumers — that is, they should, if they’re proud of what they’re doing.  Any farmer that won’t tell you outright what his or her methodology includes is not a farmer you want to do business with.  Once you understand the terms that are commonly used at farmer’s markets, you’ll know better what types of farms and CSAs are a good match for your values.

Typically, you’ll find that farms are labeled in one of four common ways:

Conventional: Conventional farms are the ones we probably know best from our grocery-aisle days.  While their practices are regulated by the EPA for safety purposes, they do employ the use of various fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals in growing their crops.  There are hundreds of thousands of registered pesticides and agricultural chemicals on the books in the United States, some of which are in current use, others of which have been removed from activity in farming because of later discoveries that they were potentially harmful to human health. Safefruitsandveggies.com has a description of the regulations in place for conventional farming if you’d like to learn more.

Integrated Pest Management: IPM is probably one of the least well-understood methods of farming, but it’s one that’s growing in popularity; the likelihood that you’ll find an IPM farm at your market or offering a local CSA program is fairy high these days.  IPM is not the same as organic farming, but it is a more sustainable, environmentally-motivated way of growing food and caring for the land than conventional farming.  IPM farmers tend to avoid the use of chemicals on their crops unless all other known techniques have failed to resolve an issue.  Natural practices like the use of predatory insects to kill pests are more common on farms using IPM, while natural or synthetic pesticides would only ever be used in sparing doses, as a last resort.  Knowing your farmer is crucial when you’re considering purchasing IPM produce; asking specific questions about what types of pest management strategies a particular farm relies on is the only way to know what’s on the food you’re eating.

Chemical Free Farming: In “chemical free” or “pesticide free” farming, the idea is that quite simply, the farmer pledges to never use synthetic chemicals or pesticides of any kind in treating crops.  It’s not as much a strict designation as it is a philosophy that farmers may follow, which leaves it open to interpretation; as with IPM, it’s often a good idea to ask questions of “Chemical-free” farmers so you can fully understand how they interpret the term.  Some may carry it as far as not using a number of the “natural” pesticides that are legally allowed even in organic farming, while others may not consider “natural” pesticides to be chemicals and may use them more freely.  Because the term isn’t regulated in any way, having trust in your farmer is crucial.

Organic Farming:  “Organic” may be the perceived gold standard in agriculture, but you’re not likely to find a large number of organic farms and CSAs near you.  The process of becoming certified through the government as an organic farm is complex and often costly; it’s commonly out of reach for small farmers who rely on farmer’s market business to survive.  Rather than insist on produce that’s labeled “organic” if you can’t easily find it, invest some time and energy into learning more about any of the chemical-free or IPM farms that are available to you.  Often, they’re nearly equivalent to “organic” farms, without the expensive and cumbersome licensing requirements.  It’s also worth remembering that as much as we throw the term “organic” around, we may not fully understand what it means.  Organic is not pesticide-free; it’s simply far more regulated as to the types of pesticides that are allowable (no synthetics), and sets controls on the types of seeds that can be used and the land on which crops can be grown.  Those conditions are often met or exceeded by chemical-free farmers who are conscientious about their work.

Specialties and Shares

No two farms are alike — at least, they shouldn’t be.  Even at a small farmer’s market where you might find just a few vendors, all selling tomatoes, zucchini, and corn, if you look closely, you’ll probably find some differences between them.  Different farmers often favor different varieties of crops; for example, one of my favorite chemical-free farms prides itself on growing uncommon heirloom tomato varieties, while a farm run by a Southeast Asian family favors particular kinds of herbs and more exotic vegetables like Japanese sweet potatoes, bok choy, and various radishes.  You may also want to ask farmers about their seeds.  Organic and heirloom seeds are a good sign, since they’re unlikely to contain GMO material.  If you can find a farm that grows heirloom corn varieties, you’ve found a real gem.

If you’re buying your produce at the farmer’s market, then you won’t have to worry much about the different specialties grown by various farms; you’ll just choose what looks best to you.  But if you’re signing up for a CSA, make sure that you’re highly familiar with both the farm’s typical crop profiles and their description of their typical CSA share.  If you’re going to be receiving box after box of exotic herbs, you’d better know how to use them or preserve them.  And if you’re buying a share of a farm with a relatively small variety of products, be aware that you absolutely will end up with endless boxes of zucchini at the height of the season — if you don’t think you could stomach that, either look for a farm with a more diversified yield, or consider sharing your CSA membership with a friend who can take half the burden off your shoulders.

In general, the farmer’s market or CSA program you choose should be able to provide you with a very close replica of your current shopping habits, as far as produce goes — just in a strictly seasonal form.  Finding one that allows you to easily buy and cook familiar favorites, while also providing you with the opportunity to stretch your boundaries with a few more nontraditional items, is a good way to make sure you feel fulfilled by your local food experience.

Personality

There’s a definite personality to every farmer’s market, and you’ll want to find one that makes you feel welcome.  Some expand upon their offerings with plenty of local artisans, making the farmer’s market experience a bit like a craft fair.  Others have musicians, food trucks, and activities for children, which can be fun but also add crowds and noise to the farmer’s market — something you may or may not enjoy.

Personality in a market can also be felt more subtly; look for cues like whether or not your market encourages lower-income families to use their SNAP benefits at the market stalls (and possibly helps with a matching program), whether farmers are willing to barter and offer better deals to loyal customers, and whether or not special requests for items like “seconds” or B-grade produce for preservation are honored.

In a CSA program, you may or may not have as much opportunity to get a feel for personality, but you can certainly find out some subtle things ahead of time.  For example, does your CSA allow for any kind of substitutions (extra eggs instead of the bread for a gluten-free family, or choosing spinach over swiss chard)?  Is it a program that encourages splitting shares or provides flexible hours or locations for pickups, so that members find it easier to participate?  Also, some CSAs either require members to help out at the farm for a certain number of designated hours in order to continue receiving shares, or will make that type of arrangement in exchange for a discount on the cost of a share in some instances.  These may not be necessary aspects of a CSA program, but depending on your individual situation, they could be important differentiators if you’re trying to figure out which CSA to join.

Pricing

I can’t leave this post without mentioning price.  This is probably one of the most important factors to many shoppers, but in a farmer’s market setting, it may actually be one of the least tangible measurements of a successful match.

Because there are so many factors that go into determining what the real value of the products you’re buying might be — the type of pest management used by the farm, the quality and flavor of the products, the reduction in carbon footprint, the reduced food waste that you may experience when you’re bringing home freshly picked items rather than ones that have languished in a grocery store — it’s not always true that farmer’s market produce is, or should be, cheaper than what you’re used to buying.  It often can be, but it’s not always.

You can, however, try using a few tricks to keep prices in line with your budget.  Joining a CSA is one clear way to keep costs down; since CSAs provide you with a weekly “share” that’s based on the farm’s production rather than a strict fee-for-product arrangement, you’re likely to get a much larger amount of produce for your money at the height of CSA season.  If you’re not buying a CSA share, you may have to test a few other possible techniques for getting a good deal at your market.  Asking farmers to bring you B-grade produce (which is typically still very high-quality) is one way to get a deep discount on farm-fresh local food.  Another technique is to wait until later in the market to arrive; while you may have to give up some variety and the privilege of “first picks” by doing this, you’re also probably going to be able to score better deals from some farmers who don’t want to load everything up into their trucks and would rather get some money for their last wares than lug them home.  You might also, once you’ve got a good relationship with a farmer or two, ask about bulk discounting.  Meat vendors in particular might give you an excellent deal if you’re willing to pre-arrange a large order, and even produce vendors, in some circumstances, might shave a bit off the prices if you take a significant quantity of something off their hands.

As the season to sign up for CSAs and find local farmer’s markets rapidly approaches, it’s time to make sure that you’re equipped to find a local food buying experience that best meets your needs.  Feeling comfortable with your farmers and vendors, and believing that you’ve found the right ones for your family, can go a long way towards making sustainable, locally centered eating a long-term habit.

 

 

 

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March 2014 Meal Plan: Family Choice

March is a busy month for us — P. and I have our shared birthday this month, so there are inevitably celebrations to plan and family and friends to see.  This month, I decided to make my job of meal planning a little bit easier by asking J. and the boys to each tell me three favorite meals they’d like to see on the menu.  Between their nine contributions and a few other already-planned events, I was nearly halfway done planning the month before I even really got started.

I feel some real optimism, posting this plan; even though the weather forecast tells me that we might get slammed with yet another major snowstorm after the first of the month, I know that March is really the end of the death grip winter’s kept on us. By the time we eat our sesame noodles on the 31st, it will be nearly time for sunnier days, fresher produce, and the transition from our winter farmer’s market to the outdoor one that first lured me in as a shopper nearly a decade ago.  March is a month for anticipation and celebration.  What could be wrong about that?

Menu board for family dinner

WEEK ONE:

Saturday, 3/1: Homemade chicken nuggets, roasted vegetables
Sunday, 3/2: Bourbon beef stew and mashed potatoes
Monday, 3/3: Tomato soup, salad, and egg sandwichesTips for freezing food
Make it GF: Skip the bread altogether, or serve the eggs over fried polenta
Tuesday, 3/4: Crepes to mark Shrove Tuesday
Make it GF: Use my gluten-free crepe recipe!
Wednesday, 3/5: Weekend warmup — Mac and cheese casserole with broccoli and tomatoes, salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta (we like Jovial and Tinkyada brands)
Thursday, 3/6: Turkey tacos
Friday, 3/7: Kids cook

WEEK TWO:

Saturday, 3/8: We may be having a get-together with friends; if we do, it’ll be big pans of lasagna, chicken cutlets, and salad for a casual buffet dinner.
Make it GF: Use eggplant slices in place of the lasagna noodles, and crust your chicken cutlets with ground almonds and Parmesan cheese
Sunday, 3/9: “Frog slime” meatballs, roasted vegetables
Reheating potato pancakesMonday, 3/10: Potato pancakes with smoked salmon and eggs
Tuesday, 3/11: Slow cooker — apple barbecue pulled pork tacos
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas
Wednesday, 3/12: Weekend warmup — Goat cheese chicken and tortellini, salad
Make it GF:  If you can’t find gluten-free tortellini, serve the chicken over roasted potatoes
Thursday, 3/13: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
Friday, 3/14: Girls’ night away for me and my lifelong friend, C.!  The guys will survive. :-)

WEEK THREE:

Saturday, 3/15: Meatball subs, using meatballs from the freezer, for a fast meal when I get back from my girls’ getaway.
Make it GF: Serve the meatballs on a bed of polenta, spinach, or broccoli rabe
Sunday, 3/16: Sunday roast chicken dinner
Monday, 3/17: We’re postponing our St. Patrick’s Day dinner, so I’ll make spanikopita casserole instead!
Tuesday, 3/18: Slow cooker — Chicken cacciatore
Wednesday, 3/19: DIY salad nightQuick lunchbox sides
Thursday, 3/20: Linguine all’amatriciana
Make it GF: use brown rice or quinoa pasta
Friday, 3/21: P.’s birthday dinner, so it’s his choice!

WEEK FOUR:

Saturday, 3/22: Homemade pizzas after we host a gaggle of Pre-K kids for a Minion birthday party at a playspace. :-)
Make it GF: Try pizza crepes, using my gluten-free pizza recipe!
Using home brined corned beefSunday, 3/23: Our traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner, with J.’s parents — Home-brined corned beef, sauteed cabbage or brussels sprouts, vodka carrots, and soda bread.
Monday, 3/24: Minestrone and garlic bread
Make it GF: Omit the bread entirely, or serve cheese fricos
Tuesday, 3/25: Slow cooker — Sloppy joes, salad, and fruit
Make it GF: Serve the sloppy joe filling over baked sweet potatoes
Wednesday, 3/26: Steak and oven fries
Thursday, 3/27: Cobb casserole, roasted broccoli
Friday, 3/28: Kids cook

WEEK FIVE:

Saturday, 3/29: Simplest stuffed peppers
Sunday, 3/30: Roast turkey breast and vegetables
Monday, 3/31: Sesame noodles with stir-fried vegetables
Make it GF: Use Asian-style rice or buckwheat noodles

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Comfort Foods to Wait for Spring

Yup.  We’re still waiting for Spring.

No, it’s not that I’m surprised (as a friend’s astute daughter said, “Of COURSE the groundhog thinks there are six more weeks of winter — the first day of Spring is March 21!”); it’s just that some years, it feels like a longer slog than others.  This year, what with Polar Vortexes (vortices?) and continual inconvenient snow storms — with their attendant continual inconvenient snow DAYS — Spring in Rhode Island cannot come soon enough.

Until it does, however, we’re going to have to continue getting through the cold and the late-winter produce selections as best we can.  At this time of year, as much as we may be tired of soups, stews, braises, and baking…it’s almost inevitable that we’ll continue to turn to soups, stews, braises, and baking.  This week in our house is no exception; in fact, since I’ve got a busy few days ahead of me with rehearsals and performances on top of the usual work and family commitments, I’m churning out the late-winter comfort foods in full force, trying to keep the fridge and pantry stocked with big batches of ready-to-go items that will get everybody fed with minimal hassle all week long.

First came the six pounds of meatballs, which are safely stashed in the freezer; then the big batch of pita bread, which I made using my go-to recipe, adapted for the use of my sourdough starter.  I threw in a giant sourdough boule for good measure before turning my attention to a batch of granola and two roast chickens.  Then I finished out the weekend with a loaf of spelt banana bread — our second in as many weeks.

This banana bread recipe is adapted from what I consider to be the definitive sort of source for any kind of old-school comfort baking recipe: A Ladies’ League Church Cookbook.  The dog-eared spiral-bound paperback from a 1970s fundraiser sat on a shelf in my mom’s kitchen the entire time I was growing up, and my sister D. and I referred to it whenever we needed to figure out how to bake anything that didn’t come in a Duncan Hines box mix from Mom’s cupboards.  My mom is an excellent cook, but not much for baking; when we were still pretty young, no more than maybe 10 years old, she let us know in no uncertain terms that barring the occasional birthday cake or batch of box-mix cookies, if we wanted a homemade dessert, we’d have to find our way around the kitchen.

Spelt banana bread

We both cut our teeth, so to speak, on recipes like the church cookbook banana bread.  It’s a simple recipe and is frankly some of the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted, anywhere; not too greasy, not too dense, and great with a smear of peanut butter.  Now that I’m baking the banana bread for my own family, I haven’t made many changes to it, but I have adapted the sweetener (and cut the amount); I also prefer, these days, to make our banana bread with whole spelt flour.  The spelt is light and slightly nutty, and doesn’t appreciably alter the texture of the banana bread.  I like to substitute it for regular wheat flours in lots of baked goods, just as an easy way of diversifying the grains we eat.

Breads and baked goods safely stowed, I’ve rounded out my preparations for the week with tonight’s dinner: a big pot of loaded potato soup.  This probably would have been a better thing to eat during one of the really bitterly cold days of the winter, but it’s a stick-to-your-ribs kind of creamy, comforting thing to eat no matter when you make it.  It’s got all the best flavors that I associate with a loaded potato — cheese, bacon, sour cream, and even broccoli — but made with a mixture of good bone broth and grass-fed dairy, it’s the kind of rich comfort food I don’t feel too bad about serving to the family.

Loaded potato soup

It’s still cold outside, and will be colder than I want it to be for longer than I would like; but with late-winter comfort foods like these to get us through the next few weeks, I think we might just make it until Spring.

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What We Do: Helping Kids Control their Portions

How we’ve worked through the “Eat more, eat less, eat now” struggles to have a peaceful family dinner.

kids drinking hot cocoaRaising kids is a big old umbrella term.  You think it’s one thing, but it’s not.  It’s a lot of little things: Raising compassionate people.  Raising readers.  Raising thinkers.  Raising eaters.  We’re raising an awful lot, you know.  There’s a complex system of being that goes into forming a whole kid who will eventually become a whole adult, and you have to devote yourself to each and every one of those fundamental parts if you expect the outcomes to be what you want.

Here on RRG, we mainly talk about raising eaters, and there’s quite a bit that goes into that, too.  Take, for instance, the idea of helping kids to manage their own eating as far as their hunger and fullness cues.  This is a big deal.  No pressure, fellow parents, but this is actually one of the MAJOR deals – one of the ones that, if we mess it up, research shows will have an adverse effect on our kids for the rest of their lives.  Again…no pressure.

J. and I haven’t got it all figured out, for sure, but what we do have on our hands is two distinctly different kids with totally different eating styles, and we have to help them both understand how much to eat, when to eat, and when to stop.  Complex stuff, particularly if you factor in the reality that most of us adults still don’t entirely have it nailed down.  Do you always stop eating at exactly the right point, leaving behind modest portions of your food because you just don’t need to eat any more (but you’re not too full, and not too empty)?  Do you always turn down desserts or your favorite snack foods if they’re offered at a time when you’re not really hungry for them?  Yeah…me, neither.  I try, but it’s not a gracefully ingrained habit by any means.

I don’t expect perfection in this area, of myself or of my kids.  But I do try to stress the importance of being mindful of this particular eating skill.  Here are some of the steps we’ve taken to start building better self-control into our boys at the table.

Serving Family Style.

There’s a ton of conflicting research out there as to which way is better for long-term healthy habits.  Some people say that you have to keep the platters out of sight to discourage second helpings and overeating.  Others say that serving family-style allows everyone to take charge of their own plates.  This is more the direction we’ve moved in as the boys have gotten older.  I still do plate their initial meal, but I try to keep the portions modest.  Then they’re allowed to eat as they choose – as long as they’ve tasted everything on the plate, they can take more of what they like (or refuse what they don’t).

Honoring their eating clocks.

I swear, different kids are born with different internal eating clocks.  L.’s a good 3-meal-a-day guy, who often foregoes snacking but will eat a good portion of widely varied foods at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  P.’s more of a grazer who, by dinnertime, is just done with the whole idea of eating.  He’ll join us at the table for pleasant family time and he’ll get some bites in, but mostly, dinner is social for him, not sustenance.  When I finally decided to stop trying to change his style, things got much easier for us.  It helped that I was able to realize that between breakfast, lunch, and two snacks a day, he was already eating a very wide variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods; he grows well, sleeps well, plays well, and learns well, so what was I worried about if dinner happened to be more of a 6-bite affair than a real meal?

Allowing independence throughout the day.

They’re seven and almost-five years old, which means that not only are they tall enough to reach things, they’re coordinated enough to carry, open, pour, spread, and scoop (mostly) without me.  If L. does ask for a snack, I typically tell him to go to the pantry and find something – which, by the way, is a highly unemotional thing to do if you know that your pantry is mainly stocked with unobjectionable choices.  When P. asks for dessert, same goes.  They tend not to overestimate their appetites and they also tend not to take advantage of their freedoms, and as a totally separate bonus, I don’t have to jump up every time somebody wants something.

Biting our tongues.

While P. is the kind of legendary child who will literally hand me the last two bites of a cookie and say “I don’t need any more,” L. is more like the majority of us – he enjoys eating, and he will finish more than he needs on occasion (this is also, I think, made more pronounced by the fact that his sensory processing difficulties can obscure his ability to feel internal cues well).  Because nagging parents are neither enjoyable nor effective, we try to give him a little bit of rope to learn this particular lesson.  It’s hard, but the night he ate far too much at a restaurant and ended up with a stomach ache, I was able to ask him directly, “Why do you think you feel so rotten?”  He knew immediately: “I ate more than my tummy wanted.”  He’ll have more slip-ups, I’m sure, but since then he’s been far more mindful of his portions, and all it takes is a casual reminder from us (“Be good to your tummy!”) for him to slow down.

Putting the answers (and questions) in their hands.

We tried hard to never dictate how many bites our kids “needed” to take before they could have dessert, or leave the table, or what have you.  (I’m sure we haven’t been perfect on this, either, but we tried.)  P., however, seemed to have some ingrained sense of “how many more?” from the time he could talk.  He’d always ask and want us to put a limitation on things for him, no matter how small the portion he’d been served.  Finally, I started asking, “How many more bites do YOU think you should eat?”  He’d deliberate, choose a number, eat without complaint, and be done.  Now that he’s older, he’s turned it into a game: “Mommy, guess how many more I can eat.  Here are your choices: Five, or two?”  I guess, he tells me whether I’m right or wrong, and then he eats whichever number he’d decided on in the first place.  I don’t know why he feels like he needs to go through the ritual, but I suspect it has something to do with him wanting to be sure that I know he’s done – he’s not going to eat any more than he’s going to eat, and he wants to make a show of being his own boss.

Our strategies have evolved over the years, but right now, these are the tricks that tend to work in our house to keep mealtimes peaceful, and to keep the kids — and us — mindful of staying in control of our internal cues.  What works for your family?  Share it in the comments or get in touch with me on Facebook!

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Dye-Free Dining at Disney World

Need a quick reference with the most vital information?  Check out my free download, The Dye-Free Disney Guide.

Just a few weeks ago, our family went to Disney World for a short vacation.  It was the boys’ first time there, and the first time J. and I had been since early in our marriage. We were beyond excited to share the experience with them, but we were also slightly apprehensive about how a family vacation—especially a theme park vacation – would play out, given our need to stay dye-free for P.  How does one handle the whole of Disney, dye-free?

Happily, we managed very well and had no reactions at all while we were traveling.  Here’s the breakdown of how the trip went, and how we ate both dye-free and relatively healthfully at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Day 1: Traveling and Epcot

Wow!  We're at Disney!

Wow! We’re at Disney!

We wake up early, rouse the boys, and tell them the big surprise: We’re leaving in an hour for the airport, and going to Disney!  They scramble to get dressed and ready their backpacks.  We end up waiting at home for a few more hours, because at the last minute, we get word that our flight is delayed due to a mechanical issue.  Everyone eats whatever they can scrounge from our purposely empty refrigerator.

Snacks for the plane: Popcorn trail mix, made from freshly popped organic popcorn, salted pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate chips; organic fruit leathers; and Yummy Earth organic dye-free lollipops for take-off in case the kids’ ears bother them.

We order plain seltzers from the flight attendants, unpack the crayons and activity books, and have a totally uneventful flight into Orlando…only four hours or so late.

We arrive at Epcot just in time to pick up our park tickets for the week and high-tail it over to the World Showcase, where we’ve got dinner reservations with J.’s parents and aunt, who helped arrange for this vacation.  Our first Disney meal is at the Rose and Crown Pub in Epcot’s “England.”  Here’s an insider tip: J.’s family chose this particular Epcot restaurant partly because his cousin, who’s quite high up in food and beverage management for a famous luxury hotel chain, was culinary school friends with some chefs who have worked at the Rose and Crown.  Because of his connections, we happen to know that the Rose and Crown has its own dedicated kitchen and prepares its food from fresh ingredients, which is not true of every restaurant in the park.

J. orders the corned beef and cabbage dinner, and I ask for the chicken masala (which was great, by the way).  L., our seafood lover, orders the kids’ fish and chips.  For P., our dye-free kid, we order a “Mickey Check” meal of grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli, with a side of the same cucumber raita that’s on my meal so he can dip his food.

Verdict: Good food, decent service, but very crowded and with a limited selection for dye-free diets.

For dessert, we head over to the patisserie in “France,” for two reasons: 1) There isn’t much on the Rose and Crown’s dessert menu that appeals, and most of it is questionable as far as its safety for P.; and 2) J. loves the patisserie and has been looking forward to a sweet treat.  The rest of us get eclairs, but pastry cream in Disney is not always a safe bet if you have a dye allergy.  Luckily, P. is excited for a chocolate tart that’s made with real chocolate mousse – no colors added.

Verdict: If you’re going to go, try to avoid the rush. We were there with such a crowd that it was hard to take our time examining the selections and asking questions.

We end the evening with the spectacular fireworks show, then head to the rental house off-property where we’ll all be staying for a few days.

Day 2: Animal Kingdom

J.and P. meet Rafiki

J.and P. meet Rafiki

We’re immediately happy to be staying in a house, which gives us control over the food situation.  My mother-in-law has already stocked up on safe staples, so we all choose from eggs, whole-grain toast, and organic cereals before heading to Animal Kingdom.  After a morning of exploring, we’re ready for a picnic lunch.

Animal Kingdom Picnic: Sandwiches (either roast beef and vegetables or natural PB and J); bananas; pepper strips; organic granola bars; bottled water.

Verdict: This was an easy place to picnic, as there are lots of tables available throughout the park.  However, J. and I couldn’t help but notice that this is a very allergy-friendly park, with plenty of choices for gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free families.  We didn’t have to test the dye-free theory, but I’m willing to bet that many of the counter service places that serve up plant-based Indian and African specialties would have good dye-free choices; not to mention, there are fruit stands where you can get whole fruit and fruit salads if you need a quick snack.

After the Animal Kingdom, we decide to kill the last few hours of the day at Downtown Disney, browsing the shops, enjoying the Lego store, and getting a sweet treat at Ghirardelli.  I’d done some homework before our vacation and learned that many dye-free families enjoy certain menu items at Ghirardelli; you still have to order smart, but you can make a solid choice there for a dye-free child.  P. loves his Ghirardelli brownie, while the rest of us have a bit of ice cream and enjoy the view.

Verdict: Do ask questions, because there may be hidden dyes in some of the chocolate products as well as in many of the ice cream flavors.

We wrap up the day at home with a late, light dinner.  My mother-in-law has already roasted some chickens and has them ready to go in the refrigerator, so we all make salads and wraps for ourselves and then put the kids to bed relatively early.

Day 3: The Magic Kingdom

My guys couldn't wait to kiss a real princess!

My guys couldn’t wait to kiss a real princess!

A very early start finds us boarding the monorail at the Transportation Center so we can get to the Magic Kingdom for our character breakfast reservation.  We’re treated to the sight of a crowd-free Main Street, USA as we head for the Crystal Palace.

Once we’re seated for breakfast, we remind our server that our reservation should state that we’ve got a child with a food allergy in our party.  She brings a chef directly to our table to discuss P.’s needs.  Within a matter of minutes, he’s able to tell us that of the entire buffet, only three items – the strawberry yogurt, the “breakfast lasagna,” and the corned beef hash – are off-limits.  P.’s thrilled and loads up a plate with fresh berries and Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.

Verdict: How can you go wrong with personalized service that allows you to ask specifically about each food item in the place?  We had no problem finding food for our dye-free kiddo, and the rest of us had a delicious breakfast – including L., who was absolutely in heaven when he found that there was smoked salmon on the buffet.

After our breakfast, we head out for a full day of fun.  Because of the huge breakfast, we don’t need a proper lunch, so we just stop mid-afternoon at the tables near the Hall of Presidents and snack on things we’ve packed: Crackers and peanut butter, a little chicken salad for those who want it, fruit and sliced vegetables.  Water is really the star of the show.

By the time we leave the park, it’s been nearly a twelve-hour day.  We quickly boil some pasta and heat up spaghetti sauce that was made the night before, and the kids eat in their pajamas before they pass out cold.

Day 4: Hollywood Studios and the Wilderness Lodge

It’s our last official day at Disney.  Cold breakfasts at the house again before J. and I sneak off to get a few hours to ourselves, exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.  (This is not, by the way, a place I’d recommend trying to eat with a dye-free kid, but that’s a topic for another time.)  L. and P. go off to Hollywood Studios with their grandparents and J.’s aunt.

By early afternoon, we’ve caught up to them and get the report: The boys had burgers, bought at the park, supplemented with fruits and vegetables packed by my mother-in-law.  Operating on some research I’d done, they made sure the kids’ burgers were bought from a counter service place that stated they had “fresh” Angus burgers.  In the parks, the fresh burgers are fine, but any burger that’s been frozen has been pumped full of additives and therefore may or may not be safe for P. (not to mention the gross-out factor).

Verdict: Actually, Hollywood Studios has quite a few places where you can get a decent quick service meal, even for a dye-free kid.  There’s a sushi bar, as well as plenty of places serving salads and freshly made sandwiches.  I’d say if you have to eat quick service park food, this is the place to do it.

After a full day that includes L.’s personal trip highlight – an art class with a Disney animator who teaches us all how to draw Snow White – we take off for the Wilderness Lodge, where we’re booked for dinner at the Whispering Canyon Café.  As the parent of a dye-free kid, I have to say that this meal was the highlight, for me.  In fact, I’ve already written an email to Disney Parks to tell them what a wonderful impression the staff at Whispering Canyon made on me.

As we did when we had breakfast at the Magic Kingdom, we intend to remind the Whispering Canyon server that we’d noted a food allergy on our reservation, but there’s no need.  She – Suzanne – greets us pleasantly and then asks, “And I see we’ve got an allergy concern tonight?  How can I help?”  P.  (who’s not shy) raises his hand as I begin to explain his allergy, and Suzanne lets us know that she’ll send a chef right out as soon as she’s taken our drink orders.

While P. sips his plain seltzer, Chef Will comes to our table and, instead of standing formally and addressing me, squats down to P.’s eye level.  He introduces himself to both of my boys so warmly that I have to be honest, no matter how much of a geek it makes me: I get a little misty remembering the whole thing.  He asks smart questions.  He chats with the kids.  He LISTENS.  And he doesn’t just offer a list of safe items.  Instead, he asks P., very seriously, “What do you like to eat?”  Before leaving our table, he personally takes P.’s order and reassures me that he’ll make absolutely certain P. has a meal he will love.

When the food arrives, the rest of us have the Whispering Canyon’s specialty – the all-you-can eat platters of ribs, smoked tenderloin, roast chicken, grilled sausages, assorted fresh vegetables, beans, and cornbread that the restaurant is known for.  I have to say, I’m impressed with the food.  It comes with a big, gorgeous family-style salad to start with, the cornbread is moist and fluffy, and the huge platter of vegetables is fresh and vibrant, with corn, green beans, carrots, and more.  P.’s plate comes with a mound of scratch-made mashed potatoes, three perfectly sized and arranged roast chicken drumsticks, and the cornbread and raw carrots he specifically asked Chef Will to provide.  He says over and over again how much he loves his dinner.

After we’ve eaten, Suzanne comes to take dessert orders.  Amidst the berry cobblers, apple pies, and chocolate chip cookies, we remind her that Chef Will has offered to make something special for P.  She nods enthusiastically.  She gets it.  Just a few minutes later, the chef returns and presents me with the label for a raspberry sorbet he’s got on hand, saying that while he’s pretty sure it’s clean, he wouldn’t want to serve P. a product I hadn’t approved.  It gets the thumbs-up, and while the boys are off engaging in a Whispering Canyon tradition – riding hobby horses around the restaurant – Chef Will returns to personally serve them.  He’s got cookies for L., a dish of sorbet ringed with a generous tumble of fresh berries for berry-loving P….and two little Buzz Lightyear figures with LED lights inside.  “I wanted to bring these out for them,” he says, “because your two boys are so awesome.  I’ve really enjoyed them.  You guys have done a wonderful job as parents; congratulations on your great kids.”

Floored. Floored does not describe how I feel at this moment.  I thank him profusely, probably embarrassingly.  He waves me off and goes back to work.  The boys return to the table, and P. actually squeals with delight when he sees the tailor-made, beautiful dish waiting for him.

Verdict: Yes. Yes, a thousand times, to the Whispering Canyon Café.  It’s quirky, it’s fun, the food is good, and the staff blew me away.  If you have a dye-free child, eat here. If you don’t have a dye-free child, eat here.

Showing off their Buzz Lightyear toys from Chef Will

Showing off their Buzz Lightyear toys from Chef Will

Day 5: The Polynesian

Before we head to the airport, J.’s mom decides we all need to enjoy one of J.’s favorite Disney traditions: Breakfast at the Kona Café in the Polynesian Resort.

We immediately let the hostess and server know of P.’s allergy, and by now, having a chef come straight to the table is old hat to us.  I’m only four or five words into my opening sentence when he starts nodding vigorously.  He knows this allergy well.

He offers a grain-free, nut-flour waffle as his top choice for P., but my little guy’s not much of a morning person, and he seems underwhelmed by the idea.  I start asking questions.  When I ask, just for the sake of information, about pancakes, things get interesting.

“Our pancakes are made with a highly refined, bleached flour,” the chef says.  “Frankly, it’s so highly processed that I would not consider the chemical processing it goes through to be any better for your son than giving him dye.”

I haven’t had any coffee yet, so I’m not totally sure how to receive this, but later I decide that I’m giving this guy major points for honesty.  He knows the pancakes he’s serving are basically crap food, and he’s not going to recommend that I feed my sensitive kid crap.  I like that.

P. finally gets enthused about eggs, so the chef leaves with an order for scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast “with lots of butter,” and fruit salad.  I give L. the kids’ menu first, not because I generally have my boys order from kids’ menus, but because portion-wise I think maybe he’ll find the right fit here.  He reads it and shrugs.

I read it and shrug, too.  Nothing looks particularly good, and of course now I’m aware that the pancakes aren’t anything close to what I’d like him to eat, especially right before we get on an airplane to travel home.  I pass him the adult menu and tell him to go nuts.

When he places his order for steak and eggs with rye toast, our server has to try, visibly, not to laugh her head off.  J. wants the Polynesian’s famous “Tonga Toast,” but knows he should have some protein, so he orders the toast and I get a ham and cheese omelet with fruit so we can share our plates.  L. shares some of his steak with P. and goes to town on the rest of it, along with his over-easy eggs and toast.  P. just about cleans his plate and is all smiles by the end of the meal.

Verdict: The Polynesian is a great breakfast (especially if you like French press coffee), but if your dye-free kid is a selective eater, it may not be the best place to go.  We were fortunate that P. enjoys eggs and fruit, but if that hadn’t been the case, there didn’t seem to be many other options.

A note on “Mickey Check Meals”:

Before I wrap up, I need to say something about the Mickey Check system that’s being used throughout Disney as a way to identify “healthier” meal choices for children.  Everywhere we went, we saw these meals on menus, and I did a little digging online about them as well while we were there.

There are some positives I can see, chiefly the emphasis on better proteins (for the most part) and the easy availability of sides like carrot sticks and applesauce rather than fries.  However, by no means are these meals unprocessed or safe for dye-free kids across the board.   Some options, like P.’s first-night Mickey Check meal of grilled chicken and broccoli, are excellent choices.  Some are less so. The lunches in particular come with a good deal of processed stuff in them – applesauce cups that definitely aren’t without sugars and additives, yogurt squeezers, cereal bars, etc.  Some of the main meal items, like turkey sandwiches, might be okay for a dye-free kid, but I wouldn’t waste money on the meal knowing that I may have to trash a good portion of the remaining food.  And in general, if you’re looking to eat (relatively) unprocessed in the parks, these meals are not – in my humble opinion – going to be your answer.  You’re likely better off ordering food off the adult menus, as you would be in almost any restaurant anywhere in the country, than ordering these.

So that’s it – the full detail of our Disney adventures.  For a quick reference guide to dye-free Disney, download The Dye-Free Disney Guide.  If you have more questions, feel free to hit me up in the comments, on my Facebook page, or by email at redroundorgreen(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Lunch Logic: January 2014, Week Four

This week, my Lunch Logic is all about stretching ingredients.  Keeping a whole-food lifestyle viable for a family is sometimes challenging, but it gets easier (and more affordable) if you know how to easily transform things you’ve already cooked into several different meals.  I always feel just a little bit prouder of myself when I can keep something going for three or four days, stretching it out to the last bit of its usefulness. Knowing how to do that, reliably, no matter what’s in the refrigerator, is a skill that pays off both in dollars and in how you feel — in your body, and in the peace of mind that comes from a job well done.

Meal Plan Refresher:

Thursday, 1/23: Brown rice spaghetti with marinara sauce, salad
Friday, 1/24: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 1/25: Sunday Roast Chicken (I know…I know…it’s not Sunday!)
Sunday, 1/26: Spoon roast and mashed potatoes
Monday, 1/27: French onion soup and salad
Tuesday, 1/28: Slow cooker – Midwest Lentil soup

Leftover spaghetti lunchesLeftover roast beef lunches

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