Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Self-Care Wrap-Up

July has been a really great month.

I eat better, sleep better, dabble in meditation even. I've met some great people. I've tried lots of things that were new to me. There is still a ways to go before I would be comfortable saying I am skilled at self-care, but I am not quite the colossal disaster I was previously. With any luck, some of these new, healthy habits will stick.

My new life still reflects the fruits of my month of Gorganization in June. My apartment remains uncluttered. I bulk prep meals. Junk mail no longer gets slipped into the slot on my front door. Life, I am discovering, is much easier when you are organized. That said, my receipt filing initiative was an epic fail. I will have to readdress that problem later this year - likely in December when I talk about finances.

I am enjoying a happy feeling of being on the cusp of a very wonderful life. (Granted, this happy feeling is regularly punctuated by the very unhappy feeling that is getting divorced.) I still mourn the idea of being wife, but I am redirecting that energy into projects that are allowing me to grow into a stronger, more adventurous version of the person I used to be.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Kind Words

Right now, I am writing to you while living in a small town hours away from the city I currently call home. I am here for a one-month work placement. Because of the size of the town, employees who are sent here are often billeted with local residents. Admittedly, I had mixed feelings about this prospect. First, I like my personal space. Second, more importantly, I get really sick if I eat gluten - sharing kitchen facilities with a gluten eater can be hazardous. However, when I finally arrived, I quickly realized that this arrangement is going to be great.

I am living with a single, middle-aged lady who has a meditation area in her backyard. She likes to play spa-like music and has decorated her house "to promote relaxation." She works in the same field as I do, and we share a similar approach to our professions. The icing on the cake is that she thinks my gluten-free diet is just fascinating - enough so that she is considering a gluten-free trial while I am here. She even used the words 'excited' and 'gluten-free' in the same sentence.

My host is on her own self-care journey, though I suspect she is much further along in the process than I am. We talked about how hard it is to be kind to yourself when it seems like there is always something else that is more pressing. I mentioned to her that I was taking advantage of being away from home to jump start some new good habits and learn to relax.

This morning, my first morning here and my first workday in this new environment, I entered the kitchen to see that the table had been set for two. Beside one of the plates was a note: Good luck today at work! You'll be great! I was really touched. My workday was actually terribly long and not that interesting, but my host's kind words stayed with me. I had started my day with the thought that someone believes in me. When I came home, there were freshly cut flowers and sprigs of lavender from the garden in a little vase on the desk in my room.

My host's thoughtfulness made what would have been an ok day into one that I will remember for a long time. I am reminded of the impact of kind words and gestures.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

LUSH Experience

As part of my quest to find gentler skin products, I wandered into LUSH one day. The staff were super friendly and helpful. I selected a couple different soaps to try out. When I paid for my $6 purchase, I was offered a gift card for a free facial or foot care experience.
Not the exact LUSH store, but this one looks a lot like it.
You can click on the photo for a link back to the blog I swiped it from.
Free is my favourite price.

Granted, this system is a clever sales ploy:
1. Get customer back into store.
2. Give them free stuff.
3. They fall in love with your product and keep buying it forever.
However, I happened to be in the market for new skincare products anyways. A free trial sounded like fun. And, the salespeople had been really kind and helpful without pressuring me to buy anything. I appreciated that.

When I walked into the store, I was greeted by a girl I will call Tammy. She was tall and somewhat rotund, and exudated a gentle confidence.

Excerpt from conversation between Tammy (T) and me (M):
T: What is your current skin care routine?
M: Routine? Uh, I use Spectro gel in the mornings. That's about it. I don't even wear makeup most of the time.
T: Ok. And what is your skin like?
I loved that there wasn't a hint of judgment in her 'ok' in response to my extreme low-maintenance approach to skincare. I've shocked cosmetics salespeople with this revelation before.
M: Mixed. Oh, and somewhat sensitive. I have to watch what products I use.
T: Alright, I know which products I will select for you. Just have a seat here. You can use the headband to pull back your hair, and I will put a cape on you to prevent product from getting on your clothes.
'Here' was right in the middle of the store. Anyone walking by could stop and watch my facial experience through the ginormous window if they so chose. Yikes.
Tammy came back with the products. She placed them on a table and stood behind me.
T: Just relax. You need to press your head into me. I will start by giving you a face massage.
Ok, so I like to think of myself as reasonably chill. However, 'relaxation' and 'press your head into my boobs' just don't go together in my books. Particularly when it's someone I just met, and I'm the featured product in the window display. Perhaps she could sense this, because the next thing she said was:
T: If you're uncomfortable, just say something and we'll change positions.
Oh, God. I wasn't sure how to delicately handle that situation. And, you know, I felt a certain amount of social pressure to just go with the flow.
M: I'm fine.
Meanwhile, my neck was getting really sore from maintaining the facial massage position without really pushing into Tammy's chest.
T: Next, we have the cream...

The rest of the facial was actually quite pleasant. My skin felt really soft afterwards. Tammy prepared a great little take-home bag of free samples so I can try everthing at home. She even wrote out instructions on how to use each product. There was no pressure to buy anything the same day (though I did get a couple things in the end). All in all, it was a good experience, though I'm not sure I would do it again.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Retail Therapy

Money Tree
First, as a disclaimer, I would just like to say that I am actually very frugal by nature. Not cheap, but frugal. I was the 8 year old who put her birthday money away in her savings account "for university." However, desperate times call for desperate measures. My separation was a desperate time.

As anyone who has been through a separation will tell you, it's not fun. And for many (most?) of us, it's not pretty, either. It's also a time when you're not feeling so great about yourself - because, after all, if you really were hot stuff, your husband would not have felt the need to go on a quest for a new soulmate while you were desperately trying to save your marriage.*

However, if ever there is a time when a little splurge will go a long way, this is it. I decided to allow some non-essential spending on things that would help me be my best self. Here is what happened:

1. Wardrobe Update
The combined stress of separation, moving, and work led to a 10-15 lb weight loss. Suddenly, a good chunk of my clothes didn't fit all that well. Purchasing a few classic items allowed me show up at work without feeling frumpy because my outfit was a size too big. Also, I gave myself permission to give away: a) all my dresses that reminded me of special occasions with my husband, and b) anything I just really didn't want to wear anymore.

2. The Revamping of My Undergarment Collection
A good day can become a great day when you know your bra and panties match. I'll leave it at that. Oh wait, actually I won't. During my underwear exploration, I happened to purchase some amazing lacy panties that make me think "Man, my butt looks great in these!" every time I wear them. Whether or not my posterior is embellished by these undergarments that - as of right now - no one else has ever seen, is inconsequential. The fact is, it totally gives me a bit of a self-esteem boost on a fairly regular basis (I bought three pairs). And so, I recommend to all women all over the world to find a pair of panties that makes them feel great. For themselves. This is about feeling good in your skin, not about what the rest of the world thinks. If granny panties work for you, go with that. (I, in fact, have a fairly large collection of granny panties. I exercise a lot - wedgies mid-jogging are the worst.)

3. Skincare Products
I spent a fair amount of money on good quality skincare products, which was quite the deviation from my regular routine of Spetro Jel only. For a while, I enjoyed the at-home spa moments with my clay masks and emu oil moisturizers. Eventually, I realized my new products were drying out my skin, and I went back to the Spectro Jel. That said, I still have no regrets about the whole project because it was so key at that time to feel a little pampered. I am now having a lot of fun exploring making my own skincare products.

4. Books
My collection has grown to include titles like Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are and other wellness books. I have also been reading inspirational titles like Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J. Stepanek and Bloom (Bloom was actually an incredibly thoughtful gift from a dear friend). I am trying to become more mindful in my day-to-day life. More indulgent have been my two new raw food uncookbooks, which brings us to....

5. Food
For someone of very average height and build, I spend an awful lot of money on food. Nutrition has been a huge focus of my self-care initiative, and healthy eating comes at a price. That said, I notice profound changes in my general sense of wellbeing when my diet is altered. Currently, I am on a bit of a raw food kick (just finished week 2). I feel that after everything I have been through over the last year, my body is in desperate need of rest and high-quality fuel to repair itself. So, I plan to continue eating copious quantities of fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds for now (and likely eventually reincorporate some animal protein in the not so distance future).

6. And I'm not done...
There are a few more indulgences planned on the horizon once my finances stabilize again:
- Food dehydrator
- Juicer
- Gym membership
- Girls' trip to Las Vegas
- Medicinal plant workshop

And so, I close this post by saying that although I do not recommend spending with reckless abandon, separation is a time when perhaps that splurge you have been debating is especially appropriate. It's a time to take care of yourself and a time to heal.

*For the record, months later, you will realize that you really are hot stuff, and that your now ex-husband is an idiot. The transition to this epiphany is a little rocky though.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Music as Medicine

I am a music lover.

My first piano lesson was twenty years ago. It was love at first lesson. I eventually became a piano teacher before moving away to go to school. My days of dedicated practice and classical training are behind me (well, let's say on the back burner at the very least), but it seems that it is during times of chaos that I spend the most time on the piano bench. I have practiced a lot in recent months. My fingers remember old classical favourites, and I can sightread proficiently enough to get through most popular songbooks.

Music has a way of not just evoking memories, but feelings. I find sometimes I'll latch onto a song that seems to match my mood of the moment and play it over and over. Somehow, it makes me feel better. Since separating from my husband, I have moved through the following chronology:

1. Stronger (Kelly Clarkson) & Gotta Be (Des'Ree) This was my "suck it up and get through this" phase shortly after separating.

2. The Glory of Love (Peter Cetera) & God Gave Me You (Blake Shelton) I'm going to call this my "self-inflicted, salt-in-wound" phase. It made me cry to be reminded of the tremendous loss in my life -- somehow, this didn't stop me from playing these songs multiple times per day. People mourn in funny ways, I guess. 

3. Turning Tables (Adele) & Should've Said No (Taylor Swift) Current, apparently somewhat "angry" phase. (As an aside to all the piano players in the crowd, the sheet music book for Adele's 21 album is excellent.)

Anyone else out there use music as medicine?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Single Girl Snippet: Happy First Un-Anniversary to Me

Today, I invite you to share stories of how you spent your first un-anniversary post separation/divorce/bad breakup (there is an 'anonymous' posting option in the comments toggle menu, if you so wish). Here, I'll go first:

I spent most of the day with a good friend who was visiting from out of town. She didn't know that today was the day. This was on purpose. I'm trying to transition from today being super special to this date being just another summer day. Not making a big deal of things seemed like a good plan. After dropping off my friend at the train station, I ended up going bikini shopping. This was not planned. A store window had a sale sign; I need a new bathing suit.

Three bathing suit stores later and nothing to show for it, I found myself trying on formal dresses on a whim. I gave away all my dresses that reminded me of milestones with my husband, so I thought it would be nice to have something tucked in my closet should a formal occasion arise. I found one little peach number that I just loved. It was very short. I am not. This did not perturb me. This dress was not only super cute, it was on sale. How could I resist? I sat down in the change room facing a mirror. This was when I realized I would have to remember to tug on the dress before sitting down so as not to be indecent. This, for some reason, didn't strike me as especially problematic. Keep in mind, I'm actually a fairly boring, fashion-challenged individual in real life. You know, the type of person who finds jokes like the one below just hilarious:
 Also the kind of person who has probably never stepped out of the house in an outfit that could not also double over for visiting her grandmother. The advantage to this style (if you can call it that) is that when I do dress up, I usually get great reactions because the gap is so big from my day-to-day makeup-free jeans and t-shirt look. Anyhow, back to the peach dress. It was strapless, and ended below my bum but substantially before my knee. Quite fitted. It accentuated the results of my latest workout regime and my new tan. I already had visions of wearing this dress to go sign the divorce papers when the time comes. I had even picked out accessories and shoes (hanging pearl earrings, a cute little white elbow-length sweater, and matching white heels). I would wear makeup and put my hair up (that'll show him).
A longer, looser version of what I tried on

In the midst of my daydreaming about me and the little peach dress living happily ever after together, I dropped something in the change room. As I bent over to pick it up, I noticed my bum was immediately about 5 degrees cooler than it had been. I quickly pieced together (I mean, I am an intellectual badass, after all) that the dress coverage was not sufficient in the bent over position. Obvious solution: wear the dress only to standing cocktail parties and the like, then outright refuse to pick up anything off the ground. I am embarrassed to say it was at least another 20 minutes before the more rational side of me took over, and forced me to put the dress back on the rack and leave the store. I still smile fondly when I remember the little peach dress. I hope it finds a good home.

By the time I got back home, it was evening. I had a quick dinner and then set up for my pity party: computer streaming love songs (I don't own a radio yet), strawberry smoothie (in retrospect, this was probably an occasion where opening the bottle of wine in my cupboard would have been entirely appropriate), and spa products (a wonderful gift from my mother, who very correctly assumed I would enjoy them but would not splurge on myself). So, there I was, by myself in my dimly lit apartment, soaking my feet and reflecting on the perfect summer day not that many years ago when I got married. I vividly remember looking up at my husband during our first dance, immensely grateful that I would never again be alone - here was the man who would be the father of my children, the man I would grow old with, the man I loved with all I had in me. It was precisely at this moment that I noticed my little pity party station did not include Kleenex. Some creative stretching so as not to spill my foot bath on the floor, and that situation was quickly fixed. I continued my jaunt down memory lane. The Kleenexes continued to pile up. It was cathartic. Somehow, the videos in my head of my life with my husband began to sting a little less. Watching the story of our life together unfold from this vantage point, I could begin to see that the end was inevitable -- not that this somehow diminished the heartache, sadly, it just helped with accepting things couldn't be otherwise.

And so, marching forward, my goal is to keep my chin up and accept that my new life is what it is, and that the past was what it was.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Girls' Night

Snacks & sangria at girls' night.

It had been more than six years since the last time I had hosted a girls' night. I was due.
Lucky for me, it just so happens that a number of my closest friends have all moved to the same city in recent months/years. And, they were all free on the same night as another friend was visiting from out of town. So, I had a wonderful group of ladies to invite over. None of them had met each other before mind you, but they had each heard stories about how special they all are to me.

It was a great evening. I had forgotten how much I enjoy girls' nights. It's so easy to get caught up in work, household chores, relationships, etc. While I was married, I got kind of lazy in the social organization department. I really regret not investing more time into my relationships with my girl friends during that time sans husband in tow.  I think I lost of a bit of myself by not socializing very much as an individual.

I plan to make a point of organizing more girls' nights over the next year.

Image from here.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Exercise is a key component of self-care. This is the story of how I became a runner.

Growing up, I was not exactly the most athletic kid. Throwing, catching, hitting a ball – not my thing. I didn’t fare much better in gymnastics; I still can’t do a cartwheel. I failed the last level of swimming lessons I was registered in… twice. My parents were very supportive of me trying various sports, but alas, no hidden talent emerged. I hated gym class because it showcased my lack of coordination and speed. The last time I played volleyball, which was in 9th grade, I distinctly remember a player of the opposite team yelling at me to “just get the ball OVER the net!!!”

I joined a gym toward the end of high school. This worked out well because you don’t need lightning-fast reflexes to lift weights. I eventually tried an aerobics class, which, remarkably, was not a total disaster. And then, one summer in college, I decided that someday I would run a half marathon. The idea of becoming a runner felt like the craziest concept I could dream up. Becoming an astrophysicist seemed much more plausible (and, to be frank, probably was). Initially, I persisted more out of sheer stubbornness than any real enjoyment. I liked the idea of being a runner. And, many of my friends at school ran. I didn’t want to be left out when we all discussed routes and times over lunch at the cafeteria.

Gradually, running went from being a painful chore to something more like a moving meditation. I finally understood what people meant by the “runner’s high,” or feeling like they could “run forever.” Slowly, I built my mileage up to distances that had previously seemed utterly insane. The first time I ran ten kilometres, I was by myself at the univeristy track in the evening. I remember digging deep to continue putting one foot in front of the other, telling myself I could complete just one more loop. Finishing ten kilometres felt like conquering the world. I was walking on clouds for weeks. Now, ten kilometres is a casual Sunday run. In recent years, I have completed three half-marathons and a number of 10K and 5K races. Most races, I tend to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The biggest gift running has given me, beyond a more robust cardiovascular system, is the realization that so much of what we accomplish and how we see ourselves is a choice. There are so many things that make me think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly…” or “That is SO not me…” Spontaneous dancing in public, putting together a well-accessorized outfit, and public speaking all quickly come to mind. Over the course of the upcoming year, I plan to challenge these and many other assumptions I have about myself. Running topped the list for a long time,. Now, it brings such richness to my life. Who knows what else there is out there for me if I just stay open to trying new things.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Yoga on the Cheap

David Swenson - my yoga hero.

Yoga and I have enjoyed an on again, off again relationship for the last 15 years. Getting divorced seemed like as good a season as any to get reacquainted with this old friend. The biggest barrier to attending classes regularly, for me, is cost. The yoga studio down the street, for example, charges $17 for a 90-minute drop-in session. You can get a bit of a discount with bulk passes, but it's still upwards of $12/class unless you sign up for a monthly unlimited membership. I had thought of splurging and doing just that, but when I crunched the numbers, I realized that the $90/mt price tag is just too steep for my budget.

So, I went on a quest to find yoga on the cheap. These are my finds:

1. Special new student offers

Many yoga studios will offer a significant discount on your first class. Others offer an inexpensive rate for your first week or month. The studio down the street for me has a $20 for 1 week unlimited yoga package. I recently took advantage of this offer, and managed to fit in 5 hatha yoga classes, 1 yoga nidra class, and 1 meditation class.

2. Passport to Prana

Passport to Prana (~$30, depending on your city) allows you to access one trial yoga class at numerous studios across the city. It's a great way to try out many new studios without needing to make a big financial commitment. The passport expires one year after purchase.

3. Check out your local gym

Many mainstream gyms (e.g. GoodLife, YMCA) offer yoga classes as part of their regular membership package. Often, the monthly gym fees are about half of what you would pay for membership at a yoga studio.

4. Community centres

Yoga is quite popular right now, and the demand means more and more community centres are offering affordable classes for the general public.

5. Yoga DVD’s

Yoga DVD’s can be a nice way to fit in an at-home workout at a convenient time. For a little variety, check out your local library's collection. My favourite yoga DVD is David Swenson’s Ashtanga Primary Series (completing the entire series is on my bucket list).

A word of caution: The primary concern with yoga videos is that the absence of a teacher can lead to potentially injurious posturing. If you are a beginner, it is worth signing up for an introductory class to learn the basics.

6. MyYogaOnline.com

Two-week free trial advertised here. Members can stream unlimited classes while in the comfort of their living room. What I love about this idea is that it fits in very nicely with my chaotic work schedule. I haven't tried it yet, but a close friend subscribed a while back and just adores the program.

7. Richard Hittleman's Yoga: 28 DayExercise Plan

I bought my copy about fifteen years ago when I was a high school student who couldn’t touch her toes. For $11 and a time investment of less than 30 mins/day, it’s not a bad deal.
(And, yes, now I can touch my toes. In fact, I have become flexible to the point that people make comments while I stretch at the gym. Thank you, Mr. Hittleman.)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Relaxation Routines

This is the first image that comes up when you Google 'Relaxation'

My relaxation moments keep getting squeezed out of my schedule. Starting today, I am hoping to recommit to the process. And so, I solicit your tips on how to relax and what types of relaxation routines help you maintain your inner zen. I've shared a few of the things I enjoy below:

- Yoga magazine + bubble bath
- Good book + blanket + couch + chai tea (Tazo brand, made with soy milk and honey)
- Piano + darkened room
- Long nature hike

Friday, 20 July 2012

Spa Product Course

One of my classmates' creations

 While visiting with a friend recently, I attended a do-it-yourself spa product course. I'm generally not one to use tons of spa-like products, but I figure that since it is self-care month, I should make a bit of an effort. I love the idea of only using edible products on my skin. A recent experiment with rubbing garlic on my feet (in the cadre of a culinary pharmacy workshop) demonstrated to what point I absorb things through my skin (I had terrible garlic breath the next morning).

Over the course of three hours, we were introduced to the properties and smells of various essential oils and had the opportunity to create our own products.

This is what I made:
Massage oil: super easy - just add your favourite essential oil to an almond oil carrier (this is the little bottle in the photo). I chose lemongrass + basil + cypress. Based on my class notes, this combination should help tone my skin and reduce cellulitis.

For the next three products, our teacher had to change the recipe that was in our handout on the fly because of product shortages, so I am including recipes from other websites that are similar.

Massage bar: cypress + pine + wintergreen (to soothe muscles)

1/3 butter (cocoa, shea, mango, kokum, etc.)
1/3 oil (sweet almond, jojoba, any light oils are nice)
1/3 wax (beeswax, soy wax)

Melt the above contents (in a double boiler) and pour into a jar or a mold (candy molds work well) and once hardened pop it out of the mold and you have a massage bar.

Exfoliating scrub: lemongrass + lavender (to calm)
1/2 cup oil. Use sweet almond, grapeseed or another light-textured
1 cup fine sea salt
5-15 drops high quality essential oils
Put the salt (or sugar) in a small bowl.

Add the oil, mixing well with a spoon or wooden stick. The texture should be moist enough to hold together, but not overly oily. You can adjust the amount of oil to achieve that texture.
Gently tap in the drops of essential oil and combine well.

Body mask: tea tree (chosen to mask the scent of the seaweed, not for aromatherapy reasons)
Add a small amount of cold-pressed organic oil to hydrated clay, and mix well.
Grind finely a good macrobiotic sea salt and kelp (in a food processor or coffee grinder).
Mix the salt and kelp in with the clay and oil.

Learning points from the DIY spa experience
- Making high quality, all-natural cosmetic products is actually pretty easy. It's also way cheaper than buying commerically made equivalents.
- When I have products around that I love, I actually use them. Since the class, I have been having a weekly solo spa night in my apartment. It feels great.
- I have a new respect for essential oils. I used to just think they smelled nice. Now that I have experienced a zen-like feeling post exfoliation and had my muscles soothed after using my massage butter post-long run, I realize that there is more to aromatherapy than just nice smells. In fact, I'm actually quite keen to learn more.

Anyone else have any experience with DIY cosmetics or aromatherapy? Any tips?

Thursday, 19 July 2012


Story of my life.

I have known this post was coming up for weeks and weeks. I knew sleep was an area I really needed to target. I even looked up 'Sleep Hygiene' (see below). These tips all seemed very sensible. I had big plans.

I tried. I failed. Even when I managed to get into bed at a reasonable time, I would stare at the ceiling for a couple hours then get out of bed anyways.

So, I toss out the question to you: what are your tips to getting a good night sleep consistently?

How to get a good night sleep (also known as 'Sleep Hygiene')
1.       Fixed bedtime and awakening time.

2.       No napping.

3.       No alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime.

4.       No caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime.

5.       No heavy, spicy, or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bedtime.

6.       Exercise regularly, but not within 2 hours of bedtime.

7.       Use comfortable bedding.

8.       Find a comfortable temperature for sleeping (cool, not cold, is best).

9.       Block distracting noise.

10.   Reserve the bed for sleep and sex.

11.   Try a light snack before bed. (They suggest warm milk and foods high in tryptophan like bananas.)

12.   Practice relaxation techniques before bed (e.g. yoga, deep breathing).

13.   Don’t take your worries to bed.

14.   Establish a pre-sleep ritual.

15.   Get into your favourite sleeping positing. If you are not sleeping 15-30 minutes later, go to another room to read until you are sleepy.

16.   If you wake up in the middle of the night, get out of your bed if you are not sleeping within 15-
20 mins. Leave the bedroom; go read, have a snack, or do something else that is quiet. No screen time. No office work or housework.

17.   Minimize screen time before bed. Listening to the radio is ok.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Nutrition Wrap-Up

The is the last day of the 'official' nutrition component of this one-year project, though I am sure there will be other posts sneaking in over the coming months since I am a bit of a foodie and enjoy these types of things.

There are so many wonderful nutrional resources out there, and it's always so much fun to discover new recipes and little nuggets of wisdom.

I invite you to share your go-to cookbooks and nutrional websites below. I've included a short list of my current favourites.

One Bite at a Time (Rebecca Katz)
The Cancer Fighting Kitchen (Rebecca Katz)
Crudessence (Mathieu Gallant & David Côté)
Raw (Juliano)
Everyday Paleo (Sarah Fragoso)
Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free (Amy Green)

Everyday Paleo
Simple and Tasty Nutrition
Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free
The Spunky Coconut
The Rawtarian

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Recipe Rescue

The following is a concept that dramatically changed how I cook. I used to be terrified of ruining things. Now, I realize that most culinary cooking errors are salvageable.

The basic premise is that there are five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. I am going to include the concept of "acid" under the umbrella of sour, and lump in "fat" with umami (umami is generally understood to mean meaty). Unofficially you could add a sixth taste, "spicy."
You can think of these five/six tastes as the colours on your palette. To paint your picture, or season your meal, you need to find a pretty combination. The key is to remember that it is all about the relative strength of each component with respect to the others.

Examples of ingredients that represent the various tastes
Sweet: honey, maple syrup, agave, dates, fruit
Salty: sea salt, nama shoyu, nori
Sour/Acid: vinegar, lemon juice
Bitter: some greens, herbs, cocoa
Umami/Fat: olive oil, cheese
Spicy: cayenne, pepper, ginger, red pepper flakes
Things like onions and garlic fit under many categories.

Now, when you have a recipe that doesn't taste quite right, ask yourself: Is it missing sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, or spicy? You can then choose one of the options from that category to boost the taste. Most of the time I am missing sour. I use a lot of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. The lemon juice, particularly, is like liquid sunshine -- it'll brighten a taste that has become too dense.

Just like in painting, beauty in the culinary arts is in the eye of the beholder. So, be brave, dare to try new flavour combinations! Your tastebuds will thank you.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Nutrition Challenge #3: No Processed Foods

Eliminating processed foods from my diet (including preservatives, colourings, artificial flavours, refined sugar) seemed like a good idea, so I gave it a one-week trial. Quickly, I discovered how virtually anything that comes in a labeled container was now on the no-no list. Some surprises were things like red wine vinegar and dijon mustard.

My diet is pretty simple. I cook from scratch the majority of the time. I didn't think this change would make much of a difference. I was surprised by the results. No headaches (unusual for me). I felt more relaxed and slept really well. Food cravings disappeared. I would get hungry, but not desperately ravenous like I often do. Plain things like fresh produce tasted so much better (and when the trial ended, processed foods did not taste nearly as good as I remembered them).

Moving forward, I think I am going to try to keep my diet at home super clean to continue enjoying all the benefits listed above. However, I plan to indulge on occasion when visiting with family and friends. Navigating a social life in a food-centric culture while gluten-free is tough enough.

Have any of you tried reducing or removing processed foods from your diet? How did it affect you?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Brownies - Gluten-Free Baking

I happened to bump into my neighbour the other day just as I was expecting guests to show up. The married couple across from me and I share a common landing and stairwell to the doors of our apartments. Feeling neighbourly, I explained that I had just taken some brownies out of the oven for the friends arriving imminently -- would she like one? She said she would. I ducked into my apartment to grab the plate, and extended it towards her so she could take a brownie. She reached out and grabbed the entire plate with both hands very firmly, then turned to go into her apartment. I was so stunned that I didn't know how to clarify that I was really just offering her a brownie, not the entire batch (or half the batch, really, thankfully they didn't all fit on the same plate). This was why I had told her guests were coming. Her apartment door was then closed. Apparently my communication skills need some work. Then again, those brownies were really good. The aroma had probably been wafting into my neighbour's apartment for the last hour, and maybe she just couldn't help herself when she saw the whole platter.

What made these brownies special was that they were gluten-free, and I had dramatically reduced the fat content. Instead of butter, I substituted a roughly equal amount of homemade applesauce (unsweetened) plus a tablespoon or so of freshly ground flax. My non-celiac guests all reported the brownies had a 'normal' taste and texture - no leftovers.

A lot of people find the idea of gluten-free baking very intimidating. It can be somewhat tedious initially, but like anything practice makes perfect. I've included below my 'lessons learned' from the many kitchen disasters I created while learning to bake without gluten (a rock-hard loaf of "bread" that looked like the surface of the moon comes to mind). I've also listed a few recommendations for gluten-free baking cookbooks.

The brownies were a hit over here, and hopefully my neighbour enjoyed them too!

Gluten-Free Baking Tips
1. Use eggs that are at room temperature, and beat them well. This results in a lighter texture.
2. Measure everything exactly. GF baking is not especially forgiving.
3. Sifting the flours helps.
4. Find a flour mixture that suits your tastes, and then make it in bulk for convenient access (the cookbooks recommended below have a number of good combinations, and I'm sure there are lots of recipes on the internet).
5. You can interchange flours with the same texture. For example, I've used tapioca starch when I was out of potato starch. But, you wouldn't swap rice flour for tapioca starch.
6. Expect everything to take way longer to cook than the regular gluten-containing equivalent.
7. If your breadmaker does not have a gluten-free setting, don't bother trying to make gluten-free bread.
8. There is no shame in using a mix. The brownies I lost to my neighbour were made with a mix from The Gluten-Free Pantry (that's what was on sale this week).
The Mix Company and Judy's Magic Mixes are two family-owned Canadian companies that produce Gluten-Free mixes.

Cookbook recommendations
1000 Gluten-Free Recipes by Carol Fenster
This is a good book for anyone who wants the gluten-free equivalent of a longtime favourite (e.g. strawberry shortcake, etc). This is not really a book that emphasizes healthy substitutions. However, anyone new to the gluten-free diet will tell you that re-experiencing something they thought they had lost forever is pretty exciting. Everything I have made from the cookbook over the years has turned out well (admittedly, I have not tried all 1000 recipes). There is an excellent coffeecake recipe that I used to bring to potlucks and brunches all the time.

Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking by Kelli and Peter Bronski.
Tasty recipes, nice variety of classics (e.g. chocolate chip cookies) and some newbies (e.g. Indian pudding). I remember the cinnamon rolls being especially delicious. They also wrote a cupcake cookbook.  This would probably be a more appropriate recommendation here given we are talking about baking, except that I have not tried it myself. I would expect though based on the Gluten-Free Cookbook, that their Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes would also be really good.

Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free by Amy Green
I first started using Amy Green's recipes when I discovered her blog years ago. I ordered the cookbook as soon as it was published, and it's still one of my favourites. Sometimes, the advertised "20 minutes" is not quite enough prep time for me, but the recipes are all relatively quick and simple. This is the gluten-free book for the person who is of a more health-conscious persuasion.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Wheatgrass: the Closet Hippie Breaks Out

I've often joked that I am a bit of a closet hippie. You know, the kind of person that wears Birkenstocks (sometimes with socks), does yoga, and can be spotted shopping at farmer's markets. I've been told that my latest antics have crossed the line:

Those are grown-up sunflower sprouts and chia sprouts. I'm working on some wheatgrass, too. And apparently, once you start growing your own wheatgrass, this makes you a full-fledged hippie (I don't know if the sunflower sprouts or the chia cross the line, but I've been told in no incertain terms that the wheatgrass most certainly does.)  

It all started with the raw foods class I took a little while back. That was my first exposure to wheatgrass. Before that, I always thought wheatgrass had gluten in it (I can't eat gluten). Turns out it doesn't. We were told wheatgrass has all kinds of wonderful healing properties. Curious, I decided to give it a one-week try by purchasing frozen portions (which allegedly have 40-50% less oomph than the freshly juiced stuff). We were warned not to take it at night, but I thought Seriously - just how energizing can a bunch of ground up grass really be? I drank 1 oz of wheatgrass juice at 9 o'clock... and was still awake at 2am. So, for the rest of the week, I made sure to take the wheatgrass in the morning.

My wheatgrass experiment was a success. I found it gave me a little more zip in the morning. I also found I was more focused during the day, and my skin was clearer. Because of all of this, I signed up for a sprouting class to learn how to grow my own wheatgrass at home. At my old house, I had a garden and a number of mature house plants that I loved dearly. I'm hoping that this whole wheatgrass thing will help fill that void while simultaneously serving a very practical purpose.

So, we'll see.

Anyone else have any experience sprouting or growing wheatgrass? Any advice?

Single Girl Snippet: The Maintenance Guy

While preparing lunch today, a middle-aged man suddenly appeared at the back door of my apartment.
Excerpt from the conversation between this unexpected arrival (U) and me (M):

U: Hi!
This guy was clearly out of breath. I live on the third floor of a walk-up. People don't normally show up at my back door.
M: Hello.
He was looking at me expectantly, like I was somehow terribly rude for not throwing open the screen door that separated us. Meanwhile, I was making a mental note to always lock said screen door in the future for moments like these. I gave him my best "who are you and what are you doing here?" look.
U: I'm Pierre.
Yeah, ok, so now that I know your first name I'm supposed to let you in? He didn't volunteer any further information that would explain his presence. I racked my brain trying to think of plausible reasons strange men in their 50s might show up at my door feeling entitled to enter my space. I could only come up with one:
M: Are you the maintenance guy?
U: Yeah.
My landlord had told me that some guy named Pierre would be by eventually to look at the sink in my bathroom, but that was two weeks ago and I hadn't heard anything since. I wasn't expecting the visit to be a midday surprise.
I let him in.
M: I forgot to mention to the landlord that the doorbell and the clothesline are also both broken. It's not an emergency, but any chance they could be fixed?
U: Of course.
He smiled a lot and was running around my apartment on warp speed.
M: Thanks.
U: Ok, so just so you know, I have a key to your back door. If you are not home when I come back, I will just let myself in if that is alright with you.
M: I guess that would be fine.
U: Would you like me to call first?
M: Yes, that would be great actually.
U: Oh, and don't bother locking the screen door. If the thieves around here are intent on getting in, they're just gonna break the window. You're not gonna stop them by locking the screen door.

And with that, he was back out the door. His entire visit lasted all of 3 minutes.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Mystery Ingredient #3: Coconut

One of my very favourite hostess gifts looked like this:
For your blog my friend had said when she handed it to me.

I had never opened a coconut before. Frankly, the process kind of intimidated me. But, now that there was a real life coconut sitting in my kitchen, and I was going to figure it out. I started by asking Google.

There are actually a surprising number of 'How to open a coconut' tutorials out there. Apparently, this is a very common problem (either that, or people just like writing about it and creating YouTube videos).  I attempted the 'Tap and rotate' method recommended by wikihow. It sounds really simple and straightforward, but I ended up sticking the coconut in a plastic bag and hitting it with a hammer. Finally, the coconut cracked:

This is the coconut water:

 A lot of the natural food types I've rubbed shoulder with recently have advocated the use of coconut water as a fantastic workout fuel. I just can't get past the taste... If such things as coconut water controversy interest you, I recommend reading pharmacist Scott Gavura's blog post. Like so many controversial topics, the comments are as interesting as the post.

Anyhow, back to the coconut odyssey.
After finally getting the coconut to crack open, you need to pry the white flesh out. Youtube videos will make this look easy peasy. It wasn't (hence all those small pieces in the bowl).

The brown coating on the fleshy pieces needs to be removed. I used my dollar store carrot peeler. I'm sure there is a more efficient way of getting the job done.

Next, the (all white) pieces need to be grated. I'm lazy, so I used my food processor.

Finally, I decided to toast the coconut in a pan.

When I started the project, I had all kinds of great ideas for what I was going to do with my sugar-free, preservative-free fresh coconut. By the time I actually had the coconut in hand, I was pooped.
So, I tossed it into the blender with some frozen strawberries and a touch of agave to make something along the lines of faux ice cream. It was delicious.

Anyone else have any experience with opening coconuts? Any words of wisdom to offer? What are your favourite coconut recipes?

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Best Tips from My Running-est Friends

Wanting to learn more about sports nutrition, I decided to pick the brains of my running-est friends. Michelle and her husband have completed numerous marathons, an ultra marathon, and the Goofy Challenge (half marathon on Saturday, then marathon on Sunday in Disney World). Michelle was actually my pace group leader when I trained for my first half marathon. She has gone on to instruct a number of other running clinics. Below are her best tips.
Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your words of wisdom!

When I was first asked to do a guest post on sports nutrition, I have to admit my first thought was “What do I know about that?” After careful reflection, I realized that over time by running several marathons (and even a 50K Ultra Marathon!), being a running instructor and pacing runners that yes, I did know a bit about sports nutrition!

Here are some tips that I have picked up over time that I hope you find helpful as well:
1. Take note of what works and doesn't work for you to help you develop an exercise food routine. By developing a nutritional plan well before an event you will be better prepared and be reassured that you won’t have any unexpected reactions. I learned this the hard way by eating way too much before an event and was concentrating on where the closest porta potty instead of on the race!

2. Once you have established what works for you, don't deviate from your established plan. That means nothing new! If you trained eating bananas during a run keep eating them during your event! Knowing what works for you during exercise comes with trying things out well BEFORE your event. This way you won't have any unexpected gastro-intestinal issues that are likely to slow you down.

3. Another washroom avoiding tip: Too much fiber before a workout will make you have to go to the washroom so beware of how much you consume!

4. Use a sports type drink that will replenish your electrolytes. In running, my rule of thumb is to start using these after 10kms. But, test it out and see what works best for you. You'll know if you should have used them if you feel especially tired or sluggish post-run. To avoid this be especially conscious of the temperature outside. If it's hot out, you'll need to replenish your electrolytes at a faster rate due to sweating. Taking them ahead of schedule is a good way to avoid the negative effects that can come with the loss of electrolytes.

5. After approximately 15km’s (running), you will want to add a source of nutrition while doing exercise. This can come in many forms, including, but not limited to: sports beans, shot blok’s, energy balls ect...There are many to choose from and again the idea is to test them well before an event so that you can avoid any surprises (see above tip).

6. Have some sort of protein within 30 mins of a workout. It will help you rebuild your muscles. Chocolate milk is an excellent option. There are post run drinks available but keep in mind they are often loaded with non-essential chemicals and additives. They also cost a lot!

7. Nuts, raisins and oatmeal are great pre-workout foods as they include complex carbs. If you can, try to get steel cut oats (they are often in the health food section of the grocery aisle). They are the best kind as they contain the whole grain and will break down at a slower rate and will give you more energy as you workout.

8. Keep in mind that caffeine and alcohol will dehydrate you. While it's fine to enjoy these on oaccasion, it is especially important to limit or eliminate these before an event. A good rule of thumb is to limit alcohol a week before an event and caffeine a few days before. Drinking additional water before an event will also help you avoid dehydration.

9. Find a go-to-website for learning more about nutrition and exercise. I like Heather Moxley’s site as she includes many articles about nutrition and many healthy recipes (including one for energy balls).

What sites do you enjoy to gain more nutritional information?
What are your nutritional tips for when you exercise?

Sports Nutrition

Though very recreational, I exercise enough that electrolyte drinks and sports gels are a part of my weekly routine. I always cringe when I think of the sugar content, preservatives, artificial dyes, and artificial flavours associated with many of these products. It just seems counterintuitive to go for a long run while fueling your body with things that are arguably not really food. But, I haven't really found a practical and economical way around the issue.

Recently, I rediscovered my copy of The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier. I bought it at a race expo a few years ago, likely during one of my numerous failed attempts at becoming vegetarian. I quite enjoy Brendan's line of  Vega products (all-natural vegan sports nutrition, among other things), but the associated price tag is not especially compatible with my new grad budget. The recipes in the book, I hoped, would be just as good as the commercially available Vega but at a fraction of the cost.

For my little experiment, I prepared the lemon-lime sport drink and the lemon-lime sport gel.

Lemon-Lime Sport Drink (from The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Juice 1/4 lime
3 dates
2 cups water
1 tbsp agave
1 tsp coconut oil
Sea salt to taste

Filter out lemon and lime pulp from the juice if so desired. In a blender, combine all ingredients; process until smooth.

Lemon-Lime Gel (from The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier) [pictured below]
4 dates
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 tbsp lime zest
2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp dulse
Sea salt to taste

In a blender, combine all ingredients. Process until blend reaches a gel-like consistency.

Lemon-lime sport gel
Lessons learned from the process:
1. Soak the dates first.
2. If you forget to add salt to the gel, don't add a little extra to the electrolyte drink. Baaaaaad move.
3. Making your own sports gel/drink means it'll take you an extra 20 minutes to get out the door for your run. Bonus, you have a kitchen mess to clean when you get home.
4. Strain the pulp from the citrus if you use a fuel belt with those little bottles. The pulp jams up in the red caps.
5. By the time you buy all the ingredients, I'm not sure how ahead of the game you really are. I like to use organic citrus for zesting. Worth doing the math.
6. In terms of taste and texture, the commercial Vega is better. I found this stuff awfully sweet.

All in all, I'll likely give this project another whirl. It would be nice to be able to make big batches. The book says the sports drink can be kept up to 2 weeks, but the gels only a few days.

Anyone else out there make their own sports nutrition products? Any recommended recipes?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Single Girl Snippet: Sprouts on a Bus

Excerpt from a conversation between me (M) and my mother (O):

O: You're not taking them with you?!
M: I have to.
O: No, seriously.
M: There's no one else to take care of them.
O: It's just a couple days.
M: They'll die. Look at them. They need some love. I can't abandon them now.

The 'they' we were talking about were the two little pots of seeds I had been given at my sprouting class. That morning, the seeds had just begun to sprout. My teacher had stressed the importance of TLC during this window. My mom had spent the week at my apartment, and I was heading back to her house for the weekend.

O: What are you going to do with them?
M: Carry them. I don't see what the big deal is. I'm just taking some sprouts on a bus.
O: I'll get you a twin stroller.
M: Are you laughing at me? It's not funny. I don't need a twin stroller; they're not babies. However, I am going to bring my misting bottle. They're too delicate to pour water on them at this stage.Why are you still laughing? It's not that funny. Seriously, Mom, it's just sprouts.

Baby sprouts ready to board the bus.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Nutrition Challenge #2: Hydration

According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended daily intake of water is 2.2L for women and 3L for men. These values do not include adjustments for hot weather or exercise, but the article did indicate that up to ~20% of the daily water intake can be from food (ie. your fruits and veggies).

More often than not, I am running a net water deficit. I don't really drink more water than usual when it is hot out. And, the days I actually drink the requisite 2.2L are the days I do an hour or more of cardio.

So, I tried to trick myself into meeting the 1.76L target (I gave myself the 20% from food credit):

1. Starting the day with 2 cups of water
I tried Danielle's suggestion of starting the day with 2 cups (~500 mL) water. This is a great tip. I found I didn't get as thirsty during the day, and generally just felt better. After a couple weeks, my bad hydration habits got the best of me and I fell off the bandwagon.

2. Keeping a waterbottle filled
My hope was that by making the water more accessible, I would drink more. Then I noticed my waterbottle had remained untouched for two days.

3. Herbal tea
The idea of herbal tea seemed like a really clever way to mask the water. I made big batches, drank some hot and refrigerated the rest to use as iced tea (unsweetened). This seemed to work well. Then, I discovered that the tea I was using included a plant that is a diuretic -- so essentially I was just digging the trench of my dehydration deeper.

4. Desperate times, desperate measures
I'm a little embarrased that this is what it took to finally get me to drink more water consistently:

Cups of water Workout/Heat Extra
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3

 Yup, taped to my kitchen cupboard. I even put smiling shooting star clipart in "8" column in the original version -- sadly the shooting stars could not be pasted into this post (the program translated the images as being the word "bitmap"). They really do make the table more jazzy.

Anyhow, I soon realized I was grossly overestimating how much water I drink. Being a bit of a Type-A personality, the empty checkboxes annoyed me enough that I broke down and just drank the water.
That's how I noticed my fully hydrated brain is better focused. And, I have more energy when I am not volume depleted. Hopefully, this checklist motivation lasts. Maybe I'll have to step it up with a bribe eventually: If I drink 8 cups of water daily for two months, then I get a day at the spa...