Phew! Things on this blog started off kinda heavy -- children are starving, my sister is sick, beans are good for you! Here's a less serious post, just for kicks.
Dear Ranch Dressing:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight...
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light...
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith...
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!
Poor Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is probably rolling over, shocked and appalled, not only that I abridged her beautiful timeless words, but that I am using them to talk about a processed concoction of mayonnaise, buttermilk and spices. I, however, am not ashamed.
My son is 2 1/2 and from the moment he was born he has never stopped moving. Or eating. He loves a good hot dog, will devour pasta, and can eat an apple faster than you can say Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like a lot of other kids, though, he is picky about vegetables. Enter Ranch Dressing. Now, the kid will eat anything: carrots, celery, cucumbers, green beans, broccoli, and yes, folks, even asparagus!
And for this reason, Ranch Dressing, I love you! I am willing to overlook your high fat content, your MSG, and your lack of nutritional density. I don't care that my son says you are the favorite part of his meal. I accept that you are the means to my desired end, and am thankful that your presence makes it so simple to get him to eat vegetables. I don't have to buy a celebrity cookbook to bake veggies into brownies because my trickery is as quick as a squeeze. He will taste the vegetables, albeit through a creamy tangy veil, and I hope eventually learn to like them.
As a mom, I learned quickly to pick my battles, and if loosing to ranch dressing helps me win the vegetable war, I'm ok with that.
This Sunday is the annual JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. It will be my family's fourth time participating and supporting this cause. I didn't solicit money this year, opting to make a donation myself, but if you're feeling charitable and have some extra money to throw around, toss it towards the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
At the age of 23, my younger sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, in order to stay healthy, had to drastically change her lifestyle and diet. Type 1, or Juvenile, diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin, the hormone needed to move sugars from the blood in to cells where it can be used and stored. There is no cure, yet, so this lifelong illness requires constant blood sugar monitoring and insulin injections. Without vigilance, long term complications include blindness and foot or leg amputation.
Type 1 diabetics need to watch their carbohydrate intake, so my sister's diet consists of mostly salads, fruit, and lean meats. The more carbohydrates she eats, the more insulin she needs to take. Over time, the body builds up a resistance to synthetic insulin, like any other drug, so it is important for her to not over do it in the carb department.
Sunday morning our family will gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, along with thousands of other people whose lives have been affected by Type 1 diabetes, to walk in hopes of finding a cure. As we always do, we'll get lunch afterwards. I'll order according to what looks good on the menu, while my sister will sit beside me silently calculating how much insulin she'll need to take if she orders this sandwich or that salad. We'll order iced tea and I'll use sugar. She'll choose Splenda or Sweet n Low. After lunch I'll probably order dessert, feeling that I deserve it after walking 3 miles carrying one or both of my kids, and my sister will look at it longingly, maybe sneaking a bite or two after injecting more insulin into her thigh. While I relax, my healthy pancreas will release the right amount of insulin to process whatever I choose. For my sister, though, the simple act of eating a meal becomes a complicated math problem of carbs versus insulin units, a dance of choices and consequences. Every meal, every day, for the rest of her life.
At first, all the nuances of this disease were quite daunting, but with courage and strength she now gracefully keeps her blood sugar under control. (She recently started a blog, and you can check her out here.) She is a woman who loves hard, laughs easily and often, and, despite the challenges diabetes poses, is determined and committed enough to remain healthy for the rest of her life. I'm very lucky to call her my sister and my friend, and I hope that in her lifetime there will be a real way to cure this disease rather than merely controlling it. And then maybe then she'll order her own dessert!
Tonight: Red Beans and Rice.
By far the most economical meal of this week's menu, I will cook 1 lb of dried red beans ($1.19) and 3 cups of rice (probably about $0.75 worth of my 5 pound bag) and we will have enough food for three filling meals.
The beauty of red beans and rice, besides the economy of them, is the nutrition. Meats, fish, and eggs are complete proteins, which means they provide all the amino acids the body needs. Plant products are considered incomplete proteins since they have a low concentration of essential amino acids. However, if you eat certain incomplete proteins together their concentrations add up to make a complete protein. These wonderful food pairings are called complimentary proteins. An example of this is wheat bread with peanut butter, and -- wait for it -- red beans and rice! This makes eating tonight's meal just as beneficial as last night's pork curry, but without the additional saturated fat. And, beans have iron, potassium, calcium, and fiber.
Americans only get about 30% of their protein from plants, while the rest of the world gets 65% of their proteins from non-animal sources. In 2008, my mother spent some time in Tanzania and reports that the bulk of their diet comes from red beans and rice. It is delicious, filling -- with about 475 calories per serving (or more if you devour cups and cups of cooked rice like my guys do) -- and nutrient-dense, all for about $2.00.
Using dried beans is much more economical, but it takes extra time. As they say in Tanzania, "You Americans may have the watches, but we have the time." Here's how to make red beans and rice:
1 lb dried red beans
water to cover
3 cups rice
6 cups water
Things you could add if you weren't on a budget:
A few soup bones, for flavor
A chopped onion or 1 T dried minced onion
1 t celery seed
Sort through beans to make sure there aren't any rocks and then soak overnight, or at least 4 hours.
Drain soaking water, place beans in a pot and put enough fresh water in to cover by 2 inches.
Add soup bones and onion, if using.
Simmer uncovered two hours.
Partially mash the beans and season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce if desired.
Cook rice according to package directions, serve with beans on top.
Tonight we are having Pork Curry, Rice, and Green Beans. This takes some time, but is actually very simple. Here's how you can enjoy this meal too:
3/4 to 1lb (or more) stew meat, can be pork, beef, chicken cubes or even sweet potatoes for a vegetarian meal
3 to 6 T curry powder (like I said, I wasn't discounting the existing staples in my house. And yes, curry powder is absolutely a staple in my house!)
1 chopped onion -- I couldn't actually afford an onion this week, so I used about 1 T dried minced onion
Water to cover
2 T flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Here are some additional things to add if you aren't on a budget:
1 cup applesauce
1 cup shredded coconut
1 chopped tomato
Brown the meat in 1 T cooking oil in a large pot
Pour water in to cover by a few inches
Add onion and curry powder (and applesauce, tomato, and coconut if using)
Bring to a simmer and then cook covered two hours [or transfer into a slow cooker and cook 4 hours on high setting or 8 hours on low setting]
Twenty minutes before serving, cook the rice.
Ten minutes before serving, scoop out about a cup of the sauce and whisk in the 2 T flour into it
Pour the mixture back into the remaining liquid and bring to a boil to thicken.
Season with salt and pepper and serve with the rice and green beans
I don't have the nutrition facts on this meal, but it seems pretty balanced. Now, I know that this probably isn't the most kid-friendly menu. Tonight I am sure my son will only eat the rice and green beans, so I will make him a nitrate-free hot dog we had leftover from last week. By leaving out the curry powder, this meal will be bland but just as nutritious and maybe more acceptable to a child's palate. If you had BBQ sauce, you could shred the meat, drain most of the cooking liquid, and then mix BBQ sauce in.
Tomorrow: Red Beans and Rice
So I went to the grocery store with $25 to spend, and I think I did pretty well!
Here's what I bought:
1 lb box of Oat O's - the generic Cheerio - $2.19
1 gallon of whole milk - $3.75
Wonder Bread - $2.00
Generic peanut butter - $1.59
Generic grape jam - $1.15
1 lb box of pasta - $0.89
1 can of Hunts meat tomato sauce - $0.99
1 lb frozen green beans - $1.09
5 lbs white rice - $2.99
1 lb red kidney beans - $1.19
Perdue breaded chicken cutlets - $3.00
3/4 lb pork stew meat - $2.10
2 generic yogurts - $0.40 each
GRAND TOTAL: $23.63
Here's what I usually buy but could not afford (and chose not to buy):
Fresh produce, juice, hot dogs, waffles, cookies, chips, and lunch meat.
The week's menu:
Breakfast - Oat O's with milk or a yogurt (twice)
Lunch - PB & J sandwiches
Dinners - Pork Curry with Rice and Green Beans, Pasta with Meat Sauce (twice), Red Beans and Rice (three times), Chicken Cutlets with Rice and Green Beans.
What I learned:
- Grape jelly is significantly less expensive than raspberry or strawberry.
- Wonder bread is more nutritionally-dense than I thought it would be since it is fortified.
- Oatmeal may be filling because of all the fiber, but it isn't nutritionally dense. So even though it was less expensive than the Oat O's, I chose them because they were fortified.
- I would be in big trouble if I needed to buy things other than food; I would quickly run out of money if I needed household products like toilet paper, lightbulbs, or laundry detergent.
Tonight we are having pasta with the Hunts meat sauce. I cooked half the box and half the can respectively. One serving has 480 calories, 3g fat, 16g protein, 28% of your daily fiber, 35% of your daily iron, plus 20 - 50% of some vitamins. Not great, but not bad either. Tomorrow: Pork curry!
This weekend I was moved by a very sad article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how many people struggle with hunger in Philadelphia. You can read it here. I was most distressed by the children in these impoverished situations who are suffering from "Failure to Thrive." This means they aren't getting enough nutrition and calories for brain and body growth. One woman in the article with a young daughter 20 pounds underweight doesn't qualify for food stamps, but budgets $100 a month for groceries.
As a family, we usually spend about $50 per week for our groceries, and as a private chef I sometimes spend upwards of $200 per week for my clients. Having had a little training in nutrition, though, I am challenging myself to create one weeks worth of meals for my family for only $25, while ensuring that they are filling and nutrient-dense. I am trying to better understand the choices the people in the article are forced to make, and make good choices myself with the budgeted money. By sharing this experience, maybe I can put some meal ideas out there and fewer children will be diagnosed with "Failure to Thrive."
However, I know this experiment is flawed from the start for the following obvious reasons:
1) There aren't exactly four weeks in a month, so $25 for a week is slightly too much to spend.
2) Here in the suburbs, I have access to a big grocery store with great sales and lots of options, while many urban families need to shop somewhere close to them. These little corner grocery stores are, by nature and necessity, more expensive with less options than their larger chain counterparts.
3) I am not going to discount existing basics in my house (such as salt, flour, and spices) but will only use them to enhance flavor or texture. Flavor is not the goal here -- nutrition is, so this isn't cheating too much.
4) I dont believe that it is morally acceptable to subject my 2 year old son to this experiment (my 5 month old is still nursing so she wont be affected), especially because the article says it is detrimental for kids under 3 years old to experience a dearth of calories and nutrients even for a week. I am going to let him eat the cheese and salami we have left over from last week, and snack on leftovers at work like always. I will make sure to buy things that kids will eat (like PB & J, bread, Cheerios and pasta) so that I am sure to factor in the children in this experiment. Some kids get meals at school too, so that may even things out??
So here's the goal: spend $25 for one weeks worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for a family of three, making sure each meal provides nutrition and sustenance, and hopefully giving new ideas to those in need of a cheap meal.
As a chef, I'm starting this blog to have a place to talk about one of my greatest passions -- food. I'll be posting about current events and social issues related to food, dishes I am particularly proud of creating, the ups and downs of getting my kids to eat, and great places to grab a bite in the Philadelphia area.