Organic or Not?

Happy Earth Day! In honor of our precious Earth, let’s discuss organic foods. Organics is a $43 billion industry and growing every year. You may have noticed. You no longer have to go to specialty stores to find organic products because more and more mainstream grocery store chains are selling organic foods–with hefty price tags. While wandering through the grocery store, I frequently wonder whether organic food is worth the extra cost. As a result, I often buy some organic items, but not always. Maybe you too have wondered about organic, so here’s the low-down, including my tips for how to handle buying organic food.

What does organic mean?

  • Organic farming, by definition, may not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMOs).
  • Animals raised for meat and dairy consumption must be raised in a natural environment with access to outdoors, must not receive hormones or antibiotics, and must be fed 100% organic feed.
  • If a food is labeled as “USDA organic,” the farm is required to follow strict regulations, it must be accredited, and there is a costly fee associated with the certification. However, this system is far from perfect and once a farm is certified, there is little to no monitoring to ensure organic practices continue over time.
  • Processed foods containing all organic ingredients may be labeled “100% organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 95% organic ingredients may be labeled “organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 70% organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Is organic food better for the environment?

Yes. Organic farming is better for the environment and better for the treatment of animals for meat and dairy consumption. Organic farming leads to long-term sustainability, greater biodiversity and better soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the methods used in organic farming “must integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” These methods make it cost more to produce foods organically, but the environment may get what we pay for in the long run.

Is organic safer?

It seems so, but more evidence is needed. Studies have shown that organic produce can contain four to five times more pesticide residues than conventional produce.  And some studies have linked pesticide exposure to health conditions like Parkinson’s, cancer and birth defects, although these associations don’t prove pesticides cause  these diseases. However, tests on conventional produce have shown it contains levels well within the legal limits set by the USDA. So, the question remains, are the pesticide levels in conventional foods enough to cause health problems? No one knows. But it has been suggested the chemicals build up–in soil, in water, and in our bodies. If this is true, it could explain why some research suggests that those who work with pesticides may be at greater risk. So, the safest bet seems to be to reduce exposure to as many pesticides as possible. Eating organic foods as often as possible may help. But then again, are the non-synthetic “natural” pesticides used on organic food any better? And there’s the possibility organic foods can carry higher levels of potentially harmful bacteria.Unless you know where you food is coming from (which most likely means buying locally or growing your own), you may not be getting the “pesticide-free” organic food for which you think you are paying.

Of course, you may be choosing organic foods to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for fear they are unsafe. It does seem unnatural to be tinkering with nature, I’ll give you that. However, there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are unsafe. According to the World Health Organization, “[Genetically modified] foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”  That said, science can’t prove absolutely there is no risk. So in my cautious opinion, it is smart to avoid processed foods for many reasons, only one of which is that they usually contain some type of GMO, usually in the form of corn or soy.

Is organic food more nutritious?

We are not sure yet. Research does not support that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Some studies have shown certain organic foods contain more nutrients than the conventional counterparts. For example, some studies have shown organic milk and beef appear to have more favorable fatty acid profiles than their conventional counterparts, and other studies have shown certain fruits or vegetables have more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts. But the data is limited and far from conclusive, so more research is needed. But it is also very difficult to determine whether observed nutrient differences have been due to other factors, such as genetic varieties of the produce, soil, ripeness at harvest time, or even the weather. For now, it appears nutrient profile is not a compelling reason to choose organic foods.

My Organic Tips:

The bottom line: only you can decide whether organic food is worth the extra cost. You are helping the environment and likely reducing your risk of exposure to chemicals, but most likely not getting significantly more nutritious foods than when you eat conventional ones. Consider these general tips for buying organic foods.

  1. Buy organic whenever you can if your means allow–but don’t avoid conventional produce if you can’t afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” fruit and vegetable lists for guidance. Buying organic as often as you can potentially limits your lifetime exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and fewer chemicals can’t be bad, for your body and the environment. But if you can’t afford to buy organic produce at all or even sometimes, don’t avoid conventional produce. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables far outweighs the risks of pesticides and fertilizers, and there are legal limits as to the amount of pesticides and fertilizers conventional foods may contain in order to keep the food supply safe.
  2. Buy local whenever you can. Some local farms employ “near organic” standards, but fall short of the expensive certification process. So, in practice, these farms may be providing produce, eggs, meat and dairy products that are just as good as organic, but without the certification. And perhaps at a more reasonable cost and with more accountability, since they are your neighbors. Ask about their standards.
  3. Always wash your produce thoroughly with water before eating–organic or not–and even when the skin is not edible. Bacteria, fertilizers or pesticides on the skin can be spread to edible parts during cutting and preparation.
  4. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural” on food product labels.  A “natural” product is not necessarily as good as “organic,” nor is it necessarily better than a conventional product. This is because “natural” has no definition according to the FDA, except in the case of meat products, for which “natural” means the meats do not have “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients.” Therefore, “natural” meats are not held to the same standards of “organic” meats. These meat products and many other food products may use the term “natural” misleadingly; you may be wasting your money if these products cost more than other conventional options.
  5. Don’t be fooled into paying more for conventional pork or chicken when labels says “no hormones administered.” Of course, hormones are naturally present in all meat. But hormones are not allowed to be administered in any pork or chicken, so the meat manufacturer took no extra measures with these non-organic meats and it is misleading.  Buyer beware of spending extra money on these products that are not any better than cheaper conventional products.
  6. Don’t be fooled by “cage-free” or “free-roaming” on egg labels. This doesn’t guarantee the birds had access to outdoors, if that is important to you. “Free-range” is a better bet, since this means the birds are required to have access to outdoors for half their lives, but that said, it’s not monitored. Organic or local eggs where you know the producer’s standards meet your expectations are the best bet.
  7. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. Limit them and choose more whole, real foods (organic or not) whenever possible.

Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists

Food and Drug Administration Basic Questions

Organic Trade Association

Baranski M et al. Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J of Nutr. 2014;Sept 14;112(5):794-811.

Freire C et al. Pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease: an epidemiological evidence of association. Neurotoxicology. 2012 Oct;33(5):947-71. 

Smith-Spangler C. et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.

US Department of Agriculture Organic Agriculture

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press. Published 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.


Preventing Diabetes (and Obesity): We Can Do Better with Real Food

I was at a diabetes conference last week and it was eye-opening, but maybe not in the way you are thinking. (Get ready to wander with me…) As a certified diabetes educator (CDE), I am all too familiar, as maybe you are too, with type 2 diabetes and its disease process, progression, and complications. And while I did learn several new and fascinating treatment options from the conference, the most important thing I took away is much more of a practical revelation.

These well-respected medical professionals were presenting valuable information on how to manage the “train wreck” that is full-blown diabetes, but we are still largely ignoring (thanks mostly to a lack of insurance coverage) the prevention of diabetes in the whopping 86 million Americans who have prediabetes.(1)  What struck me is that while I have not been working with patients as a CDE for more than 10 years, there have been many advances in medication and technology, but not much has changed in our efforts to prevent people from getting this terrible obesity-related disease.

There are 29 million people who already have diabetes, 8 million of whom are undiagnosed. (1) What if we could also help them reduce the number of medications they are taking (and paying for), prevent complications, and improve their quality of life? It’s not just prevention, but better management we could help people attain with practical lifestyle interventions–involving easy, real food, of course.

In general, would you agree that it’s easier to prevent problems than to deal with them after the fact? It’s better to have money in the bank before you shop. It’s better to have insurance before you need it. It’s better to have a will or trust before you die. Well, I strongly believe it’s better to delay or prevent diabetes than to treat it.

Research shows lifestyle interventions, which often result in weight loss, are able to drastically slow the progression of diabetes and prevent it in many people. In the landmark study, Diabetes Prevention Program, the lifestyle therapy resulted in a 58% lower incidence of diabetes than the control. (2) Other studies have shown similarly beneficial results from lifestyle interventions. (3) I feel excited to be in a profession in which I can help people prevent diabetes. But I’m frustrated because I have encountered health professionals (not necessarily at the conference!) who seem either unaware, complacent, disillusioned–or even self-righteous at times–when dealing with people already in the throes of diabetes. Then there are food bloggers (not necessarily RDs) in the Internet realm who may seem extremist, fanatical and maybe even on the fringes of nutrition. And there seems to be no platform in between to reach the 86 million Americans with prediabetes…or the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese and may develop diabetes if they haven’t already.(4)

Further, it has never been more obvious to me that there is stark division between this RD’s idea of optimal nutrition and what most Americans are eating. But of course most RDs have to negotiate and compromise and teach whatever the patient is willing to learn. I get that there are stages of change and we need to be sensitive to a patient’s needs, but couldn’t we do better? We can and need to do better. I can say this because the number of people with diabetes is expected to double by 2050 (5) and this epidemic isn’t going to stop with advances in medications and technology alone. Indeed, they are vital for the management of diabetes, but they are like Band-aids on the symptoms (and metabolic dysfunctions) of diabetes, not solutions to the underlying problem.

I believe RDs could be a much bigger part of the solution to the problem of diabetes (and obesity). What if we were relentless in expressing our empathy and passion for helping our patients understand they have more control over their health than they may feel they do? What if the foods they are eating and their hormones are making it harder to stick with healthy changes? What if we gave them support to change how they are eating and stick with it along the way?  I believe that we all have the power to change our health habits and want to help people understand that. But I believe most health professionals working in health care institutions are limited by guidelines (and insurance policies) that are not serving their patients well.

For example, at the conference the RD presented how the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (6) recommends a limit of 10% calories from added sugar (50 grams for a 2000 calorie diet, or about 13 teaspoons of sugar), and how the new Nutrition Facts label (7) will include added sugars. This is factual information the RD was probably asked to cover. But here are my concerns: all carbohydrates affect your blood sugar, natural or added. So, 1) that is too much added sugar and it’s taking the place of more nutritious sources of carbohydrate from real foods, and 2) having added sugar on the label is not at all helpful to someone with diabetes. It’s the total carbohydrate that matters when controlling their blood sugar or dosing insulin.

As hopeless as this may sound, we will never have completely conclusive research in nutrition. That’s the nature of the beast (nutrition science). You can’t always put people in randomized controlled trials to test what you want to test. And even when you can, you can’t expect the results to apply perfectly to everyday life. But to help people prevent diabetes (and obesity), we must do better than simply relying on guidelines (that of course are influenced by all sorts of bias) and not applying whatever new research we have as it becomes available. At the conference, for example, I was hoping to hear more about the newer, very relevant evidence supporting low-carb diets as not only a viable, safe option for someone with diabetes, but as an optimal treatment. (8,9) And I was hoping to hear less about dietary fat (and especially the very outdated concern about dietary cholesterol, which even the Dietary Guidelines downplays)(6), because the evidence is mounting that we need to be less concerned about fat and salt and much more concerned about sugar. (10-15)

In all honesty, I used to believe low-carb diets were potentially harmful and inadequate in nutrition, and that they were hard to stick with. But more and more research is showing low carb diets are not harmful, people can indeed function well on fewer than 130 grams of carbohydrate each day, and they can stick with this low-carb lifestyle and reap many benefits. So, who are we as health professionals to keep this evidence-based option from people if it may help them? Low carb diets may not help everyone, but in my opinion, they are worth a try with patients who are willing (and it’s worth trying to convince those who are not willing initially) because getting diabetes has the potential to be far more harmful than any effort to follow a relatively simple, low-cost, low-carb, real-food approach.

If you’re still with me…thank you!  Please share your comments or questions. Why are low carb diets so controversial? What’s your take or experience? And always feel free to share special requests for nutrition topics you’d like to explore!

  1. American Diabetes Association. Statistics About Diabetes. Overall Numbers, Diabetes and Prediabetes. Accessed 3/25/2017.
  2. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diabetes Prevention Program. Accessed 3/25/2017.
  3. Chen L. et al. Effect of lifestyle intervention in patients with type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Metabolism. 2015; 64(2): 338-347. 
  4. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Overweight and Obesity Statistics. Accessed 3/25/2017. 
  5. Matvienko OA. et al. A Lifestyle Intervention Study in Patients with Diabetes or Impaired Glucose Tolerance: Translation of a Research Intervention into Practice. J of Amer Board of Fam Med. 2009;22(5): 535-543.
  6. US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Eighth Edition. Accessed 3/25/2017.
  7. US Food and Drug Administration. Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. Accessed 3/25/2017.
  8. Feinman RD et al. Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: critical review and evidence base. Nutrition 31 (2015)1-13.
  9. Noakes TD, et al. Evidence that supports the prescription of low-carbohydrate high-fat diets: a narrative review. Br J Sports Med. 2017;51:133-139.
  10. DiNicolantonio JJ, Lucan SC. The wrong white crystals: not salt but sugar as aetiological in hypertension and cardiometabolic disease. Open Heart 2014;1:e000167.
  11. Johnson RJ, Segal MS, Sautin Y, Nakagawa T, Feig DI, Kang DH, Gersch MS, Benner S, Sánchez-Lozada LG. Potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Oct;86(4):899-906.
  12. Te Morenga LA, Howatson AJ, Jones RM1, Mann J. Dietary sugars and cardiometabolic risk: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of the effects on blood pressure and lipids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100(1):65-79.
  13. Gardner CD, Kiazand A, Alhassan S, Kim S, Stafford RS, Balise RR, Kraemer HC, King AC. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women: the A TO Z Weight Loss Study: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2007 Mar 7;297(9):969-77.
  14. Shai I, Schwarzfuchs D, Henkin Y, Shahar DR, Witkow S, Greenberg I, Golan R, Fraser D, Bolotin A, Vardi H, Tangi-Rozental O, Zuk-Ramot R, Sarusi B, Brickner D, Schwartz Z, Sheiner E, Marko R, Katorza E, Thiery J, Fiedler GM, Blüher M, Stumvoll M, Stampfer MJ; Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial (DIRECT) Group. Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or low-fat diet. N Engl J Med. 2008 Jul 17;359(3):229-41.
  15. Krauss RM, Blanche PJ, Rawlings RS, Fernstrom HS, Williams PT. Separate effects of reduced carbohydrate intake and weight loss on atherogenic dyslipidemia. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83:1025-1031.





Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

You are probably thinking “green” for tomorrow, but don’t forget all the colors of the rainbow! Easy. Real. COLORFUL. FUN. Food. My kids love it when I make these for their classes, or even just for their own lunch bags. And I love that it’s real food and not just another holiday excuse for processed food!  And don’t dismiss this idea for adults; I’ve brought it to potlucks as well. It’ll put a big smile on their faces, too!

“An Irish Blessing”

May you always have…
Walls for the winds
A roof for the rain
Tea beside the fire
Laughter to cheer you
Those you love near you
And all your heart might desire.

30 Eating Habits of Healthy and Happy Families

Have you heard? March is National Nutrition Month!  Nothing is dearer to my heart than the topic of family nutrition, which I practice morning, noon and night on my four most important clients! So, I’d like to celebrate National Nutrition Month with you by offering this calendar of 30 eating habits of healthy and happy families.

I hope these practices help you incorporate more easy, real food into your lives. I use the word practice very deliberately; wander a little and embrace that you will not be able to achieve perfection. But when these practices become habits, I believe they can help you minimize time spent preparing healthy food, and maximize time spent making meaningful memories with your family. But that happens over time–and only if you start somewhere. What are you willing to start doing for your family’s health this month? As always, feel free to share your ideas as a comment to help others!

Click to download a printable calendar.

“Moderation” Makes Me Cringe

A while ago now, I read yet another nutrition-related news article that stated “moderation” was key–and I cringed. Then it hit me, I am a moderation-hating registered dietitian (RD). You will no longer hear me use the word “moderation” or worse, the phrase “everything in moderation.” You heard that right. Hear me out…

I used to preach “everything in moderation” as much as the next nutritionist. Especially when friends or acquaintances asked me on the fly for nutrition advice. Or when I addressed a group of people and couldn’t delve into individual specifics. I walked a line; I wanted to promote a balanced and sustainable way of eating, while not giving too much bad news. And I also towed the line with my fellow RDs; moderation was our mantra. However, recently I have become frustrated with the ambiguity and the political correctness of the “moderation” philosophy, which is geared toward the masses and therefore, grossly oversimplified.

I can see how this phrase came to be. Unfortunately, I think nutrition experts (like me), food industry, government, and consumers are all partly responsible for this ill-defined, mass-communicated, often ineffective approach to eating. But the fact that moderation has gotten out of hand as a philosophy is as much my fault as anyone else’s. As a nutrition expert, I now believe it is negligent telling people they can eat everything in “moderation” knowing it’s likely not specific enough to help them improve their health.

But in all honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting (besides a busy life) is because I have been hesitant to say it. Afraid of turning people off immediately and not getting through to help them. Afraid of taking a stand when science may disprove me in the future. And I honestly think even our political climate lately has affected me so very personally, so that I have been generally afraid of voicing an opinion. Eeek. How meek of me…

Am I a middle-child peace keeper having a mild mid-life crisis? Maybe, but the bottom line is this: I’m over it. (Until the next one.) And recipe posts are not all I have to share (although it is my pleasure to offer this practical information since I’m doing it for my family anyway). That said, I can’t make any promises about posting a certain number of times a week, although more frequently than once every five months should be doable. Ha. Blogging on my own terms…ah.

Back to my main point…in our defense, sometimes we nutrition experts have engaged in the moderation conversation when it’s not the right time or place (in a group or in public), when what we really need is more time together to make individualized changes that you can live with to improve your health. But I now think it’s more harmful than helpful to give a cursory spiel of moderation even in these situations.

The way I see it, suggesting moderation for the masses can actually hinder individual behavior change. For example, sometimes during an individual counseling session— just when I think we have made progress together, forming some specific behavior change goals—I hear my moderation philosophy echoed back to me. At this point, it is as clear as a door slamming in my face that the conversation is being shut down. (We all do that sometimes, don’t we? Sabotage ourselves before we begin when we are not ready to make changes.) But when this happens, I am only half as frustrated as the people who later realize that eating in moderation hasn’t helped them achieve their food-related goals. I can only imagine how devastated they must feel, blaming me or themselves, or both. And the viscous cycle of weight-loss efforts and failures continues…

Just look around to see how moderation fails us with weight loss. Some people eat moderately and are not overweight. Some people eat moderately and are overweight. Some people do not eat moderately, and are not overweight. And yes, some people do not eat moderately and are overweight. Clearly, “eating in moderation” isn’t effective for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of increasing physical activity. There are many overweight marathon runners. And I strongly believe achieving a healthy weight is not only a matter of will power either. Obese people have different genes that are making it harder to be thin than people who are not obese. Weight control for overweight or obese people is an uphill battle that is definitely an injustice, yet deserves no judgment—only useful tools. And “eating in moderation” is simply not specific enough to be one of them.

I think the moderation philosophy also came into being because we haven’t wanted to negatively talk about certain foods. We don’t want to take away your eating pleasure by stigmatizing “bad” foods. Eating should be enjoyable! But what you may not realize (I didn’t for a while) is that certain food industry lobbyists go to great lengths to make sure government directed guidelines don’t identify and/or quantify “bad” foods. You could say I’m cynical (BTW, I think that’s when you know you’re getting old, when everything is a conspiracy!) but this really happens. So, we nutrition experts have been left frequently hoping we all have a “sixth sense” that helps us figure out how to balance mostly healthy foods with a few treats now and then, because that seemed reasonable. But it’s not reasonable or helpful.

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I care enough to spend my priceless free time saying this (among other things): there are indeed “bad” foods. While we might disagree on some, most unbiased experts can’t deny sugar-containing foods are among the worst. So, we’ll start there. Foods containing the refined white stuff we know as sucrose, the syrups (corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and all of the 50+ other names for sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, and even honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) are not healthy when eaten in excessand they almost always are eaten in excess if you’re not purposefully avoiding them.

Sorry, but there’s no sugar-coating it. And even though it may make me a nutrition extremist, I have to take a strong stance against sugar (all types)—and even a high carbohydrate diet (more on that later)—because I feel you should know it’s a serious health hazard. And it’s not just in regards to people who are overweight or obese. Sugar is linked to many different diseases—which means you might want to read on whether your weight is in a healthy range or not.

To be clear, I am not trying to take away your eating pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows I believe eating should be truly enjoyable! But I also firmly believe eating whatever your body craves is not the only way to enjoy eating.  Changing your mindset, “resetting your body” with easy, real foods, and focusing on many positive and social eating behaviors (shopping at local farmers’ markets, cooking with friends, eating as a family, etc.) will allow you to enjoy foods in a simpler, more meaningful way. I passionately believe (and there is some evidence to support this belief) “there is something in” these social connections we make while eating. And living overseas, especially in Italy, made it even more apparent that we are often lacking those connections in our American culture.

Who doesn’t crave simplicity and meaningful social connections in this often crazy, fast-paced, disconnected lifestyle we live? I think it’s a great start to eat easy, real food at your next snack or meal. Stay tuned for more on all of these themes, starting with more thoughts and data on sugar.


How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count My Kitchen Tools…

Anyone who knows me has heard me admit that I have hoarding tendencies. (Think: cans of pumpkin from the commissary while living overseas. And then there’s my pottery “collection”…)

But anyone who admits this can’t possibly be a real hoarder. Or so I tell myself!  I just think most people have these tendencies, if for no other reason than it takes effort and energy to go through our stuff to keep it from collecting right under our noses. And if you’re busy enjoying life, working hard, raising children, etc., who has time for sorting through stuff on a daily basis to discard or organize it? Or even weekly? Are you with me???

Truth be told, I guess I could be a real hoarder if the Navy didn’t force me to come to terms with my stuff every two to four years, sifting and purging before each move. (And again immediately after the move, why does this always happen???) I have learned to keep up with it in some ways. I keep a donation bag in the corner and collect things around the house until full, and then I donate it, and start another bag. But there’s still a ton to do right before a move. Fortunately, we are still about two years out from another move.

Nevertheless, I just started reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and I’m totally on board–I’m ready to part with things that don’t “bring me joy.” While deep down I don’t believe any items truly bring joy, I buy into this “parting with material things” as part of my ongoing spiritual pursuit for serenity through living a more simple, grateful life. I am drawn to “the more of less”–even when I don’t always live by example. With food, with stuff, with everything. Kind of “new age” for me, I know.

That said…moving or not, there are some things that will never ever end up in the donation bag. Most things in my kitchen–especially these top 10 beloved kitchen tools. Most of these are nothing short of life changing! How is that possible, you may ask? Well, they add unparalleled quality, freshness, and flavor in my cooking. More importantly, they simplify my life, and allow me to cook easy, real, whole foods for my family, which brings me great joy. And this is one key way I show my family how much I love them–thrice daily. To be more precise, these tools are not exactly beloved, but my family they serve is, so I value them greatly.

Put simply, it would be more difficult to cook for my beloved family without these useful kitchen tools. At the very least–I think they can help you cook easy, real food, too! Here they are:

Kitchen Tool Estimated Cost (On Amazon) How We Use It

How Often We Use It (Days Per Week)

1. Misto spray bottle for olive oil  $7 I love olive oil; living in Italy only increased my fondness for it. I don’t like aerosol Pam, so I use this pump spray bottle with my favorite olive oil to grease pans, and spray fresh vegetables or fruits before grilling or roasting. Even when I bake (rarely), it doesn’t impart a flavor.


2. Nordic Ware Aluminum jelly roll sheets (recommend 2 or 3 of them)  $13 each Most of our dinners include roasted (or grilled) vegetables. I use these pans to roast all vegetables (zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, etc.). I add olive oil and salt, sometimes garlic, and bake for about 25 minutes at 400. B also makes bacon on the weekends in the oven with these (and cleanup is easy if you soak with hot water for 5 minutes before washing.)


3. Oxo Garlic press  $12 We love garlic. I sometimes add it to recipes that don’t call for it and I almost always press it, even when recipes call for minced.


4. Gas Grill (not pictured above)  Varies I LOVE a gas grill, because simple meats and vegetables tastes good grilled and it’s easy clean up. But I mostly love it because B’s so good at it, so he takes care of dinner on grilling nights. Win, win!


5. Citrus juicer  $20 I frequently use fresh lemons and limes in recipes, usually as marinades, salad dressings, or guacamole but sometimes in B’s low-sugar mojitos! It tastes better than store bought juice and is a breeze to squeeze with a stainless steel hand-held juicer.


6. Bovado Vegetable peeler  $7 You just have to have a peeler, for peeling the tough skins of some vegetables, such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes, the outer stringy part of celery, etc. I love these stainless steel ones B’s mom first gave me when we just married.


7. Lodge Cast iron skillet with lid $50 for both At least twice a week, we use a full-size cast-iron pan for scrambled eggs with vegetables mixed in (tomatoes, peppers, avocados, etc.) Other times, when the weather doesn’t allow for grilling, we use it for cooking chicken with my seasoning salt, or turkey burgers, etc. Of course it comes in handy for quick and crispy quesadillas for the kids with leftover chicken and cheese.


8. Oxo Hand held cheese grater  $8 Most of us (but not all) love parmesan cheese, especially after living in Italy. This hand-held grater makes it easy for some of us to add cheese at the table to roasted vegetables (zucchini, butternut squash, etc.) for extra flavor.


9. Crockpot Slow Cooker   (6 Qt+ for families)  Varies I am very picky when it comes to slow cooker meals, which is why I only use it about 2 times per week. But I love the convenience of slow cooking and how it frees up dinnertime for paying more attention to my kids when they are home from school. I avoid “easy” recipes that use store-bought processed ingredients. I use easy, real food ingredients. And I prefer to take a few minutes in the AM to brown the meat in most cases beforehand, which gives a more browned flavor and less of a “boiled” texture.


10. Paderno Spiralizer (3 blade)  $30+ We love “spaghetti” zoodles, even the kids. If the sauce is good, they don’t seem to miss the pasta. I use them in Italian dishes, or Asian noodle dishes. I’ve also used other blades to make baked apple chips and spiral baked sweet potato fries as a treat.



Just Say Yes (to Breakfast Popsicles)!

FullSizeRenderI don’t know about you, but sometimes I am a mean mom. In my opinion, there’s no way around it. Sometimes, because we love our children so much, we need to say no to our children. (True story: they are in their respective rooms as I write this. I said no to the fighting. And we still have three more weeks of summer.)

Regardless, I could probably stand to say no more often, actually. It’s just so hard. (If you didn’t hear the whine in my words, read that last sentence again!) I hate to make light of serious world issues or to exaggerate about my family’s negative behaviors—although I’m about to do both here. I often “negotiate with [my] terrorists.” It’s never more evident than when I hear my four-year old say to me in an exasperated tone, “okay, fiiiinnne” after I’ve had to ask her three times to do something. Yes, I hear my words echoing in her voice; I’ve given in with the exact words and tone after she’s whined about something to me no fewer than three times. Just being honest…although I don’t always cave, sometimes it’s easier (albeit only in the short term) than sticking with a firm “no.”

But when it comes to healthy eating, I usually stand firm. I try to provide a wide variety of foods—and believe me, there are plenty of treats—so most times I don’t give in to unreasonable requests for junk. (Especially junk I don’t like. Do you do that as a parent, too?)

Nevertheless, at the store with my three children, I am barraged with questions: “Can we buy this sugar cereal? Can we buy these fruit snacks?  We can’t agree on one, can we buy both these cookies?” Aside from the usual treats (if you know me, you know I can’t deny them ice cream and chocolate), and the occasional bribe, this mean mom says, “No. No. And no.”

And then this mean mom makes a mental note to self: do not bring all three children (or any combo, really) to the store, if it can be avoided. I highly recommend going shopping alone. If you know me, you have heard me say more than once, “If you see me at the store with all three children, you will know I was desperate for some ingredient(s).” Of course, going it alone doesn’t solve all nutrition-related problems, but it’s a good start. And it’s cheaper, calmer, and just plain easier.

FullSizeRender (15)Once at home, the testing continues. Just before dinner, “Can I have another snack?” During dinner, “Is it a dessert night?” And this summer, I have even been asked before breakfast, “Can I have a popsicle?” You guessed it: “No, no, and hell no!” I’m not sure why a popsicle after lunch is any more reasonable, but I try to hold out for as long as possible on the less nutritious foods…

Well, sometimes I like to be able to say YES to my children. It’s so much easier! So, my work around for “breakfast popsicles” is simple, yet well-received: leftover homemade smoothie frozen into popsicle molds.

While I myself hardly ever drink smoothies, I do make them for my kids now and then. Smoothies, no matter how healthy the whole-food ingredients, can quickly provide unreasonable portions, especially of sugar. And because they are liquid, they just don’t have the satiating power of solid foods because they are digested more quickly. Meaning, they will be back for more to eat before you’re even done cleaning the blender.

FullSizeRender (16)Most often, I make smoothies that are plain yogurt based with added frozen fruit, because it’s easy. I use plain, full-fat yogurt (organic and Greek-style if possible) to provide protein, fat and probiotics to balance out the carbohydrates. I don’t usually follow a recipe, because it’s hard to mess it up (here’s my smoothie recipe). However, because of this, I always seem to make more smoothie than we need. In trying to teach my kids about reasonable portions, I serve up a 9-ounce serving for each of them in these purple cups (with these amazing straw spoons) and then freeze the rest into several different popsicle molds, but the colorful silicone tubes (4 ounces) are our favorites.

Sometimes, thanks to my high-powered blender (mine is a Vitamix but many are just as powerful), I skip the yogurt and make the smoothies all whole-fruit, and sometimes they include a combo of fruit and vegetables, making for a green smoothie we affectionately call the “Shrek smoothie.” Although they are tasty, we haven’t tried freezing them yet.

All this is to say, it’s not rocket science or proprietary. I’m surely not the first to think of this. But it’s easy, real food that I feel good about serving to my kids. But perhaps the best part about it is that my kids get to eat popsicles for breakfast and I’m the best mom ever…if only for a moment.

Then it’s back to my usual “mother of the year” status…

From Our Kitchen: Lemon Marinated Chicken Thighs

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I’ve been MIA. Maybe you have been, too! When did summer become so HECTIC! Come May, I always cling to the R&R that summer promises: sun-filled vacation days, schedule and homework free. But with three kids, the work of the day continues 24/7, and there’s a schedule of a different sort all summer long. Not complaining, just keeping it real! I’m sure you can relate. But rest assured, I’ve been cooking easy, real food all the while. I just haven’t had time to blog about it! My goal is to share more substantive nutrition posts with you, but until then I’ll show you how we eat and hope it gives you ideas. You don’t need to rely on processed food, take-out, or even “meal delivery in a box” to keep meals simple and delicious.

This recipe is a family favorite. (And dear to my heart, as I modified it from my dear friend Michelle’s family recipe–thank you for letting me share it!) We usually have all the ingredients on hand. And once you pop it in the oven, you have enough time to roast some vegetables along with it, and then make a quick simple salad. It also tastes great over cauliflower rice or zucchini noodles (zoodles.) I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

Lemon Marinated Chicken Thighs

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 1 hr
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine or chicken broth
  • the juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 T. minced onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 t rosemary
  • 1/4 t. thyme
  •  1 t. sea salt
  •  1 t. black pepper
  • 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs



Mix all ingredients and marinate chicken at room temp for 30 minutes (or overnight) in the refrigerator. Bake in a baking dish along with the marinade at 375 for 1 hour.

Camping Challenges and Good Eats

Did you think I gave up blogging?  Never fear, I am not at a loss for words. (In fact, I have about 15 blog posts in the works, just don’t feel they are complete yet…) I was just sick. Very sick. Shame on me, but I never got around to getting the flu shot this winter and I recently paid a hefty price for this: two weeks of June (of all months). And if that wasn’t enough, I was subsequently stricken with a stomach virus last Thursday. But by the grace of God I was feeling better by Friday, so our End of School/Father’s Day camping trip with our neighbors was a go for Saturday!

We packed everything we own (for five people, it really seems like it), loaded up the car including the top carrier, strapped on the bikes, and squeezed the dog in the way back. We got on the road Saturday morning (a little later than we thought, after all that packing) to meet up with our neighbors at a state park in central Virginia.

En route, B and I realized we are a bit RUSTY at this camping thing. He locked up the bikes to secure them on the car, and two hours into the drive we realize I forgot my bike lock key. We almost forgot SA’s bike seat for my bike, only to arrive at the camp site and realize I neglected to grab the small clip sitting next to it that attaches it to my bike. We also bought new self-inflating mats and didn’t read the directions until the next morning, so we essentially slept on gravel. Ugh, I’m too old for that.

Well, as you can see, we made it to the bridge!IMG_5450 IMG_5449






Fortunately, our neighbor friends are old pros at camping! Sarah was so organized, she had even created an Excel spreadsheet packing list, which she shared with me in advance. All three of the other families had arrived Friday, bringing camp stoves and other handy cooking equipment, and of course, food and beverages to share. They even brought fun games (corn hole, a slack line) to entertain our kids (and as it happened, other nearby campers). When we arrived, their zip ties, duct tape and tools were offered up–along with a bloody Mary–and soon we remedied the mistakes we’d made with the bikes. It really adds to the enjoyment of camping when you team up with experienced, fun people!



Speaking of which, even when it comes to food, I realized I had a thing or two to learn from my neighbor friends on this camping trip. Father’s Day brunch consisted of these delicious, personalized boil-in-a-bag omelettes! “Fancy Nancy” (pictured above) as we began to call her, had nothing short of a system in place to crank these omelettes out. It was impressive! First, she wrote a name on each omelette bag, and then cracked two or three eggs into each bag. Large zip lock bags were turned down to form bowls, which held the toppings: broccoli, asparagus, ham, cheese, onion, peppers, squash. She took our order and scooped out the toppings each person wanted into their omelette bag. Then she tossed all the bags into the boiling water for about 15 minutes. I was in such a hurry to eat this masterpiece, I forgot to take a picture of the finished product! But trust me when I say she even had a fruit garnish on the plate! My kind of camping. I love good (easy, real) food!

Although, in full disclosure, I am not going to pretend we didn’t have some junk food this weekend. I mean, for example, how can you camp without s’mores? We go camping so rarely (once a year, or once every two years), I really don’t see a problem with this. But…it is indeed possible to eat easy, real food even while camping!

On the way home, the kids (before conking out) were already asking, “Can we go camping again?!” B told them to wait three weeks and ask again. Ha!  Yes, camping is fun, yet hard work. But I know he’ll gladly do it again for them–preferably with an air mattress. Happy Father’s Day, B!

From Our Kitchen: “Is It A Dessert Night?”


Ahhh, summer is here! It’s Memorial Day weekend and right on cue, Mother Nature turned up the thermostat and rolled back the clouds.  And it’s Friday, so as some of you might know, this means, right on cue, we will be serving up dessert tonight in the Norwood household!

One of the easiest ways we started to slash sugar was by cutting out dessert during most days of the week. Early on while the kids were toddlers, B and I instituted a weekend-only dessert policy. (Funny fact about memories: My oldest “remembers” it as her good idea. I can live with letting her take the credit.) We felt it was important to restore dessert to its former role as an infrequent treat.

While helping us all eat better, it also cut out whining, begging and bargaining at dinnertime during the week. Bonus: I also learned to introduce new meals on weekends. With a “no dinner, no dessert” rule, the kids are more likely to try and eat new foods. One of my more brilliant parenting strategies, if I say so myself…

My kids love ice cream. What kid doesn’t? That’s their dessert of choice. We usually stick with the real deal: full fat, with the fewest ingredients possible, and a small portion.

But Brian and I are fond of fresh fruit with fresh whipped cream. You can make it however you like, but it takes only 10 seconds in a high powered blender (I use a Vitamix)!

Pour about a cup of whipping cream into the Vitamix, add about 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and a teaspoon of maple syrup, if desired. Turn on LOW and quickly increase the speed to about 7. Watch carefully, and you will SEE when it stops sloshing around as a liquid at the same time you HEAR the change in the noise the blender is making. After only about 10 seconds, it’s done! Stop then, or you’ll have butter. Spoon it onto your fruit (red, white and blue in this case, of course) and indulge!

Have a wonderful long weekend, remember our fallen service members, and enjoy time with friends and family. God Bless America!