Feeding Yourself (and Your Family) Seasonally and Sanely

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Are you trying to eat mindfully, eat seasonally, and enjoy the pleasures of eating, but you just don’t have a lot of time to be creative in the kitchen? If so, I hear you... I love to cook, but I’m a single working mom and the reality is that I often have a half-hour to prepare dinner for myself and my family. Making nourishing, health-giving meals is important to me, but the realities of life mean that I’m not exactly able to ride the slow food train as much as I’d like to.

Over the years, I’ve collected some ideas for seasonal meals that work in my kitchen and the kitchens of my clients. When I say “seasonal” in November, I’m thinking autumnally, using fall harvest ingredients. Seasonal eating for us here in New England means warming our bodies with soups, stews, squashes, greens, warm grains, root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. Curling up on the couch with a bowl of warm soup and a soft blanket provides a sensory environment that feeds both our bodies and souls during the shorter, darker days of autumn and winter.

I don’t have true recipes to offer you with measurements and clear instructions (sorry to folks who like standard recipes) because I rarely cook with recipes when I’m busy... which is... uh, like, almost always! It’s wonderful to cook and enjoy the process of cooking. That in itself can be an act of mindfully caring for ourselves. But when you have a family to both feed and interact with -- and a small time in which to do that -- keeping it simple leaves room for the meal to be more relaxing, connective, and fun. Even if you are feeding just yourself, keeping food preparation simple and easy may just give you more time to eat slowly -- and to savor the downtime that meals provide with good, health-giving food.

Let’s start by exploring some of my favorite time-saving kitchen devices...

First, the pressure cooker. OMG, I can’t say enough about how I depend on this pot! I think every house should have at least one. In Switzerland, I believe that the average house has three. A pressure cooker allows you to cook brown rice in 20 minutes, white rice in 5 minutes, dried beans/legumes (previously soaked) in 10 minutes, squashes in 10 minutes, potatoes in 15 minutes. Need I say more...? If you want to make a stew, you can place raw ingredients and soup broth into the pot and cut your cooking time down considerably. I can’t say enough about how helpful this pot is. Well worth the expense of a good one that will last...

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Second, the slow cooker. I’m not a crock pot whiz like some of my mama friends. I tend to use this for two things: first, to cook whole chickens -- and then boil down the bones to make soup broth. The bones contain beneficial minerals, and studies have shown that good old-fashioned chicken soup is better for soothing and improving the symptoms of the common cold than any herbal remedy. The second thing I use the slow cooker for is to make oatmeal . Put in one cup of rolled oats (not the quick kind) to 4 cups of water in the evening before you go to bed. Add nuts, fruit (I like chopped apples), flaxseed, and other add-ins at night or in the morning -- depending on what floats your oats -- and you wake up with a warm, delicious breakfast all ready to eat. How wonderful is that?! I also know many busy working parents who toss ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, head out the door, and have a warm home-cooked meal ready when the workday is done. Feel free to share some of your favorite recipes in the comments section below this post...

Now let’s talk about my Easy-To-Make Soup Template. You can make hundreds of different kinds of soup with a fairly simple formula and different ingredients.  If you’ve made some bone broth (see above) or have some prepared broth of any type in your kitchen, you can make a quick, delicious soup in no time. The key is having fresh, colorful ingredients around.

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Start by sauteeing some garlic and onions in a large soup pot with an oil of your choosing (I like olive oil for soup), add chopped carrots, parsnips, and/or celery and sautee further. I’m not going to tell you how much oil or onions or garlic to add, since part of the fun of cooking is figuring out just how much interests you. Depending on how much soup you want to make, dump in some broth and add a protein source to round out the meal: beans/legumes, tofu, pieces of cooked meat (which you have cooked in the slow cooker during the day or another time and have all ready in the fridge). Next, add any seasonal vegetables of your choosing and/or a can of diced tomatoes. I like to keep a bit of cooked squash and potatoes in the fridge so that I can use them during the week quickly. If you want to put uncooked squash or potatoes into your soup, then you will need to cut them up in small cubes and boil them in the soup for a bit. Greens like kale, chard, or collards, however, can be put in for a very short time, just prior to serving your soup. Don’t forget to add fresh or dried herbs and spices to your taste. (I like using curry and ginger and pepper in my soups.) Experiment and find out what works for you.

So many clients say that making soup feels too complicated. Once you try the “formula” above, make a mental note of what you liked and didn’t like about your soup. When you are pressed for time, a vegetable or two and a protein might be enough; when you have more food prep time or you are in the cooking “zone,” play around with different ingredients. Because I never use a recipe, my soups never come out the same twice. That keeps it interesting for my family and me. One of my favorite simple soups involves simply cooking French green lentils with onions, carrots, celery, coconut milk, curry and broth. Yum!

And don’t forget the grounding food with all that protein and vegetable. Serve soups with a cooked grain like rice or quinoa -- or add noodles, pour on top of a baked potato, or serve with a sweet potato or crusty bread. Now you have a yummy, warm, balanced meal. If you have the ingredients on hand, and you get the hang of it, you can make this meal up in about a half-hour.

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And how can I talk about autumn food without mentioning my favorite lesser-known secret about squash? Did you ever look at that big butternut squash and just not have the heart to take an ax to it? Well, you can cook any squash whole! Just poke a few holes in the squash with a sharp knife. Then, bake it whole at 375 degrees for about an hour, depending on the size of the squash. This is actually the best way to maintain all the nutrients in the squash as it cooks. Just cut through the soft cooked squash when it’s done (test it first with a skewer to make sure it’s really soft and cooked) and scoop out the seeds. Voila! Another easy meal can be made by stuffing squashes, once cooked and cut into halves, with whatever you have in your kitchen that can be warmed up and mixed together. Use cooked rice, cooked quinoa, chickpeas, walnuts or pecans, pieces of cooked chicken or turkey, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, or other seasonal vegetables. If you have children, they generally will like eating these “squash boats.” My daughters like getting down to the sweet acorn squash at the bottom of our boats.

I hope this gives you some seasonal inspiration for those short, dark, busy days of autumn and winter. Many of my clients are on the road to recovery from challenges with food. Creating nourishing, delicious meals helps all of us take good care of our bodies and souls. This doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated or fancy. Warmth, seasonal produce, and a little dose of self-love go a very long way...

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Comfort and Joy

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Today both of my daughters were home sick from school. I cancelled my work for the day, slowed down, focused on comforting, and tried to dodge the bug that zoomed around the second grade as much as possible. One of my girls was sicker and needed to rest and the other was a bit activated; she was not well enough to go to school, but still with a fair amount of energy. So, she and I started the holiday granola gift production (after adequate hand-washing, of course). Her sister even joined in the fun eventually, sitting on the floor and shelling pistachios. The house soon smelled like cinnamon, maple, nutmeg, and orange zest. My girls were so delightfully invested in their shelling and measuring. The look on my daughter’s face when she used her hands to mix the warm sunflower oil and maple syrup with the oat and rye flakes was just delightful. “It’s soooo warm… This feels awesome.”

I thought about what a sensory experience it was to create food together like that. I thought about how blessed I was to have this break in my work schedule so that we could have moments together that reinforce the work that I do. Creating positive food memories and traditions like this one – and allowing the food to truly feed our senses (before we even take a bite of it) – makes me feel like I am actually practicing what I preach. I’ll admit to eating mindlessly sometimes, lunching while I check my email so that I barely taste my food. But today, in the kitchen with my sweet helpers, I experienced food the way I want to experience food, with all of my senses and with a sense of creativity and giving.

I have a feeling that this tradition will continue for years to come, and I plan to make time for it so that it can happen without needing a major illness to slow us down. My now-seven-year-old daughters may not want to help me in the kitchen with such gusto in the future, but I hope that the familiar smell of cinnamon, maple, nutmeg, and orange zest will bring a warm, sensory reminder that winter is here.

Here is the recipe, adapted from Shannon’s Kitchen, the blog of Farmers to You, a Vermont-based company that brings food from local farms to the greater Boston area. Just promise me that you will allow yourself to use your hands to mix the warm cinnamon-oil-maple-syrup mixture with the oats. My daughter was right; it really does feel awesome.

May all of your senses be fed this holiday season…

Recipe for Holiday Granola

4 cups rye flakes

3 cups rolled oats

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/3 cup sunflower oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

zest of one large orange

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup raw almonds

½ cup walnuts

½ cup shelled pistachios

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

½ cup pecans

½ cup sunflower seeds

1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Wash the orange and zest the entire rind.

Put the sunflower oil and maple syrup on low heat. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange zest.

When all the ingredients are well-combined, pour over the rye flakes, rolled oats, and shredded coconut. Stir well.

Put rye/oats mixture on 2 baking sheets and bake for 15-20 minutes. Open the oven, stir well and bake for another 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Time varies depending on your oven.

While the rye/oats are baking, roughly chop (or choose to leave whole) the nuts, seeds, and cranberries. Combine them all in a large bowl.

Once the oats/rye have cooled, combine with the rest of the ingredients and enjoy!

The green pistachios, green pepitas, and red cranberries look particularly festive for a holiday gift, but play with whatever ingredients you have at home. Ask yourself what yourfavorite granola would contain... Nourish yourself and the people you love. Serve over milk-of-choice or yogurt or just eat right out of the jar.