Sunday, November 23, 2014

I love Lifetime and Hallmark holiday movies

I have a confession to make: I love Lifetime and Hallmark holiday movies. Not sure what it is about those formulaic flicks, but I just can’t get enough of them this time of year. The plots are generally so simple, and loosely based on more classic holiday stories like “A Christmas Carol” or “Miracle on 34th Street.” This list does a hilarious job of outlining the standard tropes of these movies.

Even with the silly clich├ęs, though, I’m still hooked. I suppose, watching those movies is like snuggling with a warm, familiar blanket. I can pour myself a cup of piping hot chocolate (like this yummy-looking peppermint hot chocolate), or maybe some egg nog, or mulled wine, turn on the Christmas tree lights and the gas fireplace, and float off into a winter wonderland of cheesy romance.
I especially enjoy the ones that feature the “real” Santa Claus. I saw one recently that featured an up-and-coming Santa (named Nick, obviously) who needed to find a wife before Christmas. (He was taking over the holiday from his dad, the real Santa, but had to have the spouse in place first, of course.) I saw another that had Santa and Mrs. Santa approaching one of their milestone wedding anniversaries. Only Santa forgot the anniversary, so Mrs. Claus ran off to Vegas. Vegas!!

Another thing I like about these movies is that you get to see 80s and 90s actors you haven’t seen in a while. What’s Steve Guttenberg been up to lately? Why, it appears he’s in this movie. Good for him! What about Daphne Zuniga? Ahhh, there she is in this movie with Jay Mohr – I always liked them.
If I’m really lucky, there will be a Dolly Parton movie. Dolly is only just my favorite celebrity of all time. In 2013 there was a Dolly movie on Lifetime called “A Country Christmas Story,” and seeing that was a highlight of my holiday season.

(Note: My husband has asked me to state for the record that he NEVER watches these movies with me.)
So if you find yourself in the middle of a stressful season, I recommend tuning out the obligations and errands by turning on one of these cable TV movie classics.

This looks like a good one!

Monday, November 17, 2014

The big food day is coming – tips for eating right and avoiding stress

Thanksgiving. A day set aside for giving thanks, spending time with family, watching parades and football. But for some, it’s a day of stress about cooking and overeating. I’ve made, and eaten, many Thanksgiving meals over the years, and while I’m certainly no expert on avoiding all stress or fattening foods that day, I have compiled an informal list of turkey day hacks that make it a little easier to eat better and relieve at least some of the pressure.

Gobble Gobble!

The actual bird

To brine or not to brine. Or maybe a dry brine?
Invert bird, then turn it over halfway to maximize juiciness.
There are so many different, and sometimes conflicting, ideas on the best way to roast that Tom. Here are my quick thoughts:
  • I would gently recommend that a fresh turkey is generally better than a frozen, if you can swing it. No judgment if you can’t, I’m just sayin’. Sometimes you have to order the fresh birds in advance, so if you haven’t done that already, you better get cracking.
  • I’m not going to say deep fried turkey doesn’t have its charms. But if you are trying to watch your weight and come away from this meal not feeling like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, deep fried may not be the best way to go.
  • I don’t need to repeat the advice on giving your Tom plenty of time to defrost in the fridge, do I?
Here’s a different take on a holiday turkey dish that’ll save you the trouble of cooking the whole bird: Turkey cutlets with cranberry pear sauce

Or no bird

You know, you really don’t have to do a turkey. You can make ham, beef tenderloin, chicken or other poultry, or any other roast beast that may be easier to make than a turkey. At past Thanksgivings we’ve done a combo of turkey (usually just the breast) with grilled pork tenderloin, or one year, smoked brisket. Here are a couple of light recipes for gobbler substitutes that still give off a festive holiday vibe:
And you don’t even have to have any meat, if meat isn’t your thing. There are some awesome options for vegetarian main dishes, like mushroom lasagna, stuffed acorn squash, pumpkin risotto, winter veggie shepherd’s pie. I made a yummy (decadent) butternut squash lasagna once that was out of this world.

Some sides on the side
  • For crying out loud, you do NOT need to peel the potatoes for mashed first. You’ll save time, and add extra nutrition, if you leave the peels on. Want fluffy potatoes? Use a russet type. Want creamy potatoes? Use a waxy type. To cut down on fat in this dish that normally screams for too much dairy, try using chicken stock instead of cream, and load up on fresh herbs for extra flavor. 
  • There are so, so many different ways to do dressing, or stuffing (I usually do a cornbread dressing). I’m sure you’ve heard the safety warnings that accompany stuffing the bird. I don’t think it’s worth the hassle, to be honest. Just put your dressing in a separate baking dish and call it a day.
  • You need some veggies, people. Green beans and Brussels sprouts are certainly traditional, and corn, beets, the ever-trendy kale and squash also taste great on the Thanksgiving table.
Here are some excellent light suggestions for sides, a few of which would be great candidates for making in advance, that use low-calorie sweeteners:
Bread basket

I like rolls at Thanksgiving. My husband doesn’t; takes up too much valuable stomach real estate that could otherwise be filled with turkey, he says. Nevertheless, they are common on this holiday. Here are some ideas for easy ways to make bread or rolls happen:
  • Want to bake something homemade that’s relatively easy and light? I recently found this really simple recipe for focaccia using pizza dough.
  • Or, what about biscuits? They go with everything. Try fridge or freezer biscuits.
  • Even easier? Let this be one of the things you buy. I’ll bet your local bakery makes awesome rolls, or there are some really awesome basic store-bought rolls.
How sweet it is

I saw a poll in a recent food magazine that confirmed pumpkin is the most popular Thanksgiving pie, followed by apple; pecan made the list, too. Growing up we always had pumpkin pie, and while I do love it, sometimes it’s fun to have something different. Here are some awesome recipes for health-conscious pumpkin pie alternatives using low-calorie sweeteners:

Ice cream or whipped cream as a topper? Sure, or you can substitute light frozen vanilla yogurt, or for something really different, try this vanilla ricotta cream.

What’s your poison?

Serving booze? Sparkling wines like champagne are comparatively light on calories, but are certainly festive for a holiday event. Light beers are also good and should satisfy the football-watchers of the day. But you also need to ensure you have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks on hand for non-drinkers or designated drivers. Coffee and/or tea with low calorie sweeteners are de rigueur; my holiday isn’t complete without Diet Cokes.

Here are some light recipes for non-alcoholic holiday beverages that use low-calorie sweeteners:
And there you go; my thoughts on making Thanksgiving a bit easier and a bit healthier. Now, if you want advice on surviving the holiday with your mother-in-law, that’s a whole other post …

Turkey photo courtesy of Don McCullough and used under Creative Commons

Pie photo courtesy of TheCulinaryGeek and used under Creative Commons

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New home, fresh healthy habits

The stress of moving from one state to another combined with a mountain of work for both me and my husband meant that our family’s healthy living routine got a little off track for a while. But now that we’ve settled into our new home, we’ve been inspired to breathe new wholesome energy into our lifestyle.

For example, we just invested in new bikes and bike helmets for everyone in the family. Our old neighborhood in Atlanta was a bit too hilly for bike riding, but our new neighborhood is perfect for pedaling. The kid has already taken her new training wheels out for some spins; there are a lot of other bike-riding kids in our neighborhood to spur her on. Luckily, working from home gives me the flexibility to work in a ride here and there between other obligations.
Check out my new ride!

Also, our new town home is on a private closed road, so it’s pretty safe for our daughter to play outside with her new friends. Instead of coming straight home from school hoping to watch TV, our daughter now can’t wait to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids every day. That gets her parents outside, too (to watch her), and that’s healthy for us!

And the food: The moving month(s) meant a lot of food on the go, much of it not very nutritious. But we’re officially back to cooking in our great new kitchen (with a must-have gas stove), which means we have better control over what we eat. Plus, lately I’ve been working hard on maintaining my portion sizes, and I’ve noticed I feel better after meals when I do that.

Of course, cutting calories and healthy eating are already part of my daily routine. I’ve got my trusty Diet Cokes on hand, use low-calorie sweeteners in my coffee, and love to experiment with wholesome recipes, such as this one for stuffed pork tenderloin. Mmmmmm, pork tenderloin!

As I’ve mentioned several times before, there’s a ton of research to support how low-calorie sweeteners can contribute to healthy living. In June, the Calorie Control Council reported on a study that showed low-calorie sweeteners have a positive effect on weight loss and appetite control compared with regular sugar. The research findings indicated that participants who ate sugar instead of low-calorie sweeteners consumed more calories each day, gained more weight and fat while those who  consumed low-calorie sweeteners lost weight and fat, and were hungrier between lunch and dinner than those who used low-calorie sweeteners. Here’s a link to more on this one.

My family loves its food, and alternative sweeteners let us have our cake and eat it, too!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pumpkin and fall: A match made in heaven

Yep, it’s fall here. Those dead leaves on my back deck need to go – thank God for leaf blowers. The sweaters are coming out, the shorts are going back. That seasonal nip is in the air. I really love fall, though not as much as my husband. No one loves fall as much as my husband, who grew up in New England where they do fall the best. (Check out this Onion article – this guy is totally my husband.)

But nothing really comes close to signifying the start of fall as much as the explosion of everything pumpkin. Pumpkin patches, pumpkin spiced lattes, The Great Pumpkin, pumpkin pie – those orange orbs are everywhere. I was at a food store recently where every single aisle had pumpkin all over it. They even had employees marching around the store with huge pumpkin signs, lest you forget about pumpkins for a few minutes.

I do like to eat pumpkin, I really do.  I love pumpkin bread, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin soup, you name it. Pumpkin is so great in savory dishes like risotto and soups. You can use pumpkin in recipes that call for butternut squash, and even in some that require sweet potatoes. Pumpkin goes great with traditional Indian, Latin and Italian flavors, and it has some actual excellent nutrition, too. It’s even been called a superfood!

Want to spice up your pumpkin this fall? Try these autumnal recipes -- as always, you’ll find them tasty and with fewer calories because they use Equal (aspartame) instead of sugar:
  • Pumpkin nog (can I just say that I love the pic of the little candy pumpkin on this page?)
I hope you're enjoying pumpkin season, too!
Illustration courtesy of poppet with a camera and used under CreativeCommons

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Big Move

You may notice that the address on my profile has changed. That’s because on September 20 my family – me, husband, almost-five-year-old and cat – moved from Atlanta to Cary, North Carolina. We came here because my husband got a new job in Raleigh, which is right next door to Cary.

Ahhh, moving. Not fun. Not fun at all. It didn’t help that work commitments gave me just a week to pack. It’d be an understatement to say it was a stressful time. Thanks goodness we had a lot of help from friends, and I had my trusty Diet Cokes to help smooth things over.

We hired movers, which took away some pressure, even though we still had to pack the boxes ourselves. We were lucky we could afford to get professional movers, but if you’re moving and don’t want to pay for movers, you can bribe your friends into helping you move by feeding them yummy treats. (At least, that bribe always worked on me when friends used to ask me to help them move!) How about baking them this yummy apple cheesecake or some cranberry orange muffins? Throw in some peanut butter chocolate bars and you’ll have all the help you need. And while they help you unpack, you’ll feel good that your reduced calorie treats say “thank you” while minimizing extra pounds.

The moving of our stuff (HOW did we end up with so much of it?) went mostly okay, except for the thing with the piano. We have a heavy, old piano. On the Atlanta side of things, the movers were able to get the piano into the truck no problem. But when unloading the truck on the North Carolina side, they weren’t able to get it up the stairs into our town home rental. We had to store it in the garage until we could get out some more help to get it in. In the meantime, a couple of the foot pedals broke off, so it looks like I won’t be playing any “Moonlight Sonata” until they’re fixed.
Interestingly, my biggest worry was that the move would be hard on my daughter, who hasn’t experienced a big life change like that before. But she seems the most excited about the change, and she can’t wait to start at her new school. Second to worries about the kid were my worries that moving the cat, who does not like to be picked up, would be a nightmare. It wasn’t easy, but some sedatives knocked him out and he (and me) made the voyage relatively unscathed. Thank goodness for those kitty sedatives.
We’re still settling in and have boxes all around that don’t seem to want to go anywhere. But we have each other, our senses of humor, and a fridge full of Diet Cokes. In no time I’m sure we’ll be just like native Tar heels.

Illustration courtesy of Madame Ming and used under CreativeCommons