Coconut to the Rescue!

I promise I have not forgotten about this blog.  It’s just been a little hectic around here the past few weeks.  You see, the Hubs and I just moved into a new place, and we decided that within the span of two weekends we should paint a majority of the new place in addition to all the standard packing, moving, and unpacking!  Whew!  Well, now we’re here, and I’m back to share a nutrition tip with you.

I was a little sad to be leaving our old place simply because I had established so many running routes from our prior location.  Within minutes I could be at the local state park staring at the mountains, watching deer and coyotes, and away from the traffic.  However, this past Friday I found myself particularly excited to go “exploring” around my new location.

As you may recall, I am currently training for my first triathlon (or perhaps, my first triathlon season…), so instead of running six days each week, I am divvying up my training between all three disciplines: biking, swimming, and running.  This past Friday happened to be a running day, and I was planning on a long run.  My schedule on Friday happened to be a bit more open than I had planned, so I spent the morning taking care of odds and ends at home before heading out for my run around 12:30.

As soon as I stepped outside, I realized that this run might be a little bit rough.  However, once I get my mind made up about something, I have to finish it.  So, I headed out on the roads.  Sure enough, after only a half mile or so, I started getting stomach cramps and feeling cold.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I believe it was about 95 on Friday.  It’s just that it’s so dry here in Colorado that I often don’t notice how hot it actually is.

Needless to say, I was not moving as fast as I had hoped, and it was all I could do to figure out how to finish the loop I started and get home.  About 2 1/2 or 3 miles in, I was much less focused on my “long” run and just ready to finish.  It turned out that my run was only about five miles or so (as opposed to the seven or eight I planned on), which was really good because I found myself feeling terrible, still sick to my stomach, and breathing much harder than my less-than-stellar pace called for.  It was pretty clear.  I was dehydrated.

Dehydration can just sort of creep up on you, especially here in Denver.  You have to drink more water than at sea level due to the extreme dryness.  Since the air is so dry, you may be sweating much more than you realize because you’re drying off so quickly.  I had only had coffee that morning while I was doing things at home since I had planned to head out for my run much earlier.  (Big mistake…)  So, needless to say, I hadn’t helped myself out at all.

Now mind you, this sort of dehydration is not really the end of the world.  I made it back home just fine.  I felt a little sick, but all in all, I was okay.  However, I knew I needed to get some electrolytes into my system.  My legs were really cramping near the end of this run.  I thought about pouring a big glass of water, adding some sea salt and some fresh squeezed lemon, but I decided to run over to Walgreens to see what they had.

I perused the shelves and aisles of less-than-healthy fair to no avail.  Tons of snack food, but no real food.  I looked at the Gatorade, but just couldn’t bring myself to down all those sugary calories just for a few electrolytes.  Finally I spied this in the refrigerated section:

Now this was what I was after!  I had forgotten all about coconut water as a natural electrolyte replacement drink!  I knew nature had something better than Gatorade!  680 mg of potassium (more than one whole banana!), a good source of iron, and five essential electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, sodium, calcium, and phosphorus)–this is what I needed!  Plus, coconut water is much lower in calories than Gatorade.  In fact, this 14 ounce bottle had just 110 calories and zero artificial sweeteners!

Now I’ll be honest, I’ve tried coconut water before, and, despite the glories of its health benefits, I could not get it down.  For a person who loves coconut, this stuff did not taste as good as I had hoped.  So, when  I spotted this brand that had a bit of chocolate in it, I was sold.  I’d really like to wean myself off of the flavored kinds of coconut milk and get used to drinking the real thing, but this did the trick on Friday.

Thankfully, my little tale of woe has a happy, coconutty ending.  Now that drinks like Zico are being sold even at convenience stores, we’ll never have an excuse for reaching for sugary electrolyte replacements again!

Drink to your health!

Healthy Eating Tips from Tina Haupert

I recently finished a book recommended to me by my client. It’s called Carrots ‘n’ Cake: Healthy Living One Carrot and One Cupcake at a Time.. It was a very quick and enjoyable read about the life and fitness journey of Tina Haupert. Tina has a blog by the same name and has enjoyed tremendous success in the “blogosphere” with her daily posts and pictures of her eats. I’ve enjoyed a few of her recipes as well. Right now as I write this I’m enjoying her 3-minute Oatmeal Raisin Cookie. I’ve already posted the recipe for Banana Breakfast Cookies that I adapted from her Banana Oatmeal Chip Cookies as well as the recipe I pulled off her site for her protein pancakes. So far I’ve been a fan of everything I’ve tried.

I may not agree with Tina on everything in her diet, but I definitely think she’s got so many things right I couldn’t help but share a few things I gleaned from her book.

1. Cookie Friday. Tina celebrates Cookie Friday each week. On Friday, she allows herself a special treat. Note, it’s just Friday, and it’s just one treat. This concept really works for me. In fact, in preparation for my upcoming triathlon, I’ve developed “2 Treats a Week.” This concept really helps me know when I really want a treat and when I’m just eating it because it’s there or I’m tired or something else along those lines. Since, like Tina, Friday is my favorite day of the week, I like to save a treat for Friday night. Usually, that includes a mini-pint (an actual 1/2 cup serving) of Hagen Daas while watching a movie with my Hubby. By planning for my treat, I don’t feel the least bit of guilt for eating it, and I savor every bite!

2. Plan for Indulgences. Nobody wants to be the person drinking water and eating celery sticks at a party. It attracts undue attention for one thing, and for another, it’s just plain not fun! If you know you’re going to be in a position where you’ll be around less than optimal food choices, plan the rest of your day around it. Going out for dinner? Have a salad or soup for lunch. You’ll be hungry for your special meal out, and you’ll have saved some extra calories for a little indulgence later. Read again: no guilt with a little splurge means you probably won’t overdo it!

3. Eat Whole Foods. This is such a simple thing, but often it’s where people really miss the boat! Eat foods with pronounceable ingredients…and only pronounceable ingredients! Shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid those inward aisles of food in boxes and cans. You’ll feel more satisfied when you eat real food than processed foods. Avoid the scam of diet foods! They don’t make you slimmer, and you’re body just doesn’t know what to do with all those chemicals.

4. Find Accountability. One of the reasons Tina started her blog was to help keep her accountable to make healthy eating choices every day. Find someone you trust to help keep you accountable to your fitness and nutritional goals every week. My husband holds me (with love, of course) to my 2 Treats a Week plan, and that works great for me. Remember, this is also the job of your personal trainer. 🙂

Here’s to improved nutrition and better health as a result. What small thing can you change today? What about this week? Here’s my goal for the week: to drink a glass of water and stretch upon rising every day. Join me in my sane and sensible approach to health!

What I Wish I Had Known as a Collegiate Athlete

My journey in health and fitness started at a really young age.  I can still remember what I was wearing on those first few runs with my dad and sister.  My sister had joined the Middle School track team, and was running the 800 Meters.  My dad thought she should go on at least a couple of runs in order to train for the event.  Of course, I wanted to come along, so the three of us went out and did a loop together.  I know it now as the mile and a half loop.  I don’t remember being tired or thinking it was hard, I just remember thinking about how cool I was that I was running with my dad.  After all, even at the age of four or five I had seen him leave for a run in the evening.  I’d mix up a glass of gatorade for him and watch for him to get home.  Then I’d sit next to him and think something along the lines of, “Wow, he’s really sweaty!”

Then in middle school, it was my turn to join the track team.  Again, I have vivid memories of my first race.  Unfortunately, all those years of people telling me I was fast had me thinking I was a sprinter.  I think I was second to last in my 100 Meter race.  And I cried.

After that tragic day, I decided I should join the rest of my friends on the field hockey team.  I had heard that the conditioning portion of the practices were really, really tough, so I thought I better show up at the end of the summer prepared for the worst.  So I started running 3 miles every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. around the cemetery down the street from my house.  I still kind of shock myself at how disciplined I was with my training regimen.  I just got up and got it done every morning.  Needless to say, the conditioning portion of field hockey practice turned out to be a bit of a joke for me.  I was more than prepared.  During that first summer of running, I ran a one mile road race.  I remember loving that experience, and finished in 6:28 for my first timed mile ever.  I didn’t have anything to compare it to until the following track season where I took second in our one and only track meet of the season with a 6:08 this time.  After that, I was hooked.  Track was my “thing,” and I loved it.

I remember going to the library and checking out Runner’s World magazine and just pouring over it even in eighth or ninth grade trying to engage myself in this really “cool” new community that I was quickly becoming a part of.  Finally, my dad said he’d just pay for me to have a subscription if I liked it so much (read: my dad is awesome).  As I got older, I loved to read any fitness magazine I could get my hands on.  I loved being an athlete.  I loved seeing my body develop in high school as I ran more and more.  I loved being competitive.  Heck, I just loved winning!

Enter the college years.  I had been recruited by a small, NAIA school to run cross country and track.  I was beyond excited to actually be part of a team as I had run cross country somewhat independently in high school and was typically the only girl distance runner on the track team.  Unfortunately, my collegiate career didn’t end up quite the way I had hoped.  I couldn’t really tell you why at the time, but looking back now it seems crystal clear for several reasons.

1.  I was overtraining.  This was really no one’s fault but my own.  I had really excellent coaches who did not believe in pushing their athletes to their literal breaking points (i.e. stress fractures, etc.).  They put together excellent programs and then tweaked them to each runner’s abilities.  None of this ridiculous “Here’s our star.  Let’s write a really fantastic training program for her, and then just have all the other girls do the same thing so they can help push her a little bit.”  My coaches saw a bigger picture than that, thank goodness!

However, now I think back to those days, and I had all of the classic symptoms of overtraining: constant, nagging injuries (imagine not being able to squat down for four years or jump off of anything because your shins are always hurting); fatigue; not much improvement most seasons over my best times; even weight gain.  As much as I loved this sport, I was pushing myself too hard.  My competitive streak told me that I had to do all the same training as my teammates, even if it was truly too much for me.  However, popping Motrin before practice just to make it through without hurting too badly is not healthy!  I had a stress fracture, and a near stress fracture.  After my freshman track season, I limped for at least a month before going to physical therapy.  I was just so worried that if I took a day off when I felt a nagging twinge or pain, that I would get out of shape while my teammates were getting in better shape.  Silly me…I should have listened to my body so that it would listen to my mind come race day.  Sigh…

2.  Running was my definition of true exercise.  Oh boy…how far I’ve come on this one.  In college, I couldn’t really call anything “exercise” in my mind, if I wasn’t running or if it didn’t supplement my running.  If I didn’t run, I couldn’t say that I had worked out that day.  I was sure that running was the only true exercise, and nothing else could give you quite the same workout.  This was probably one of the reasons that I was constantly injured.  I was always stressing my body in the exact same way.  Not to mention the fact that my body was completely adapted to running, even hard, high intensity speed workouts.  I have since learned that weight training that includes a good bit of plyometric and cardio intervals are where I really see results in my appearance because they are hard for me!  I’m not naturally strong, so I am really challenged by strength training.

3.  Adequate sleep is crucial to recovery.  I absolutely loved college.  I loved running.  I loved my major.  I loved my friends, coaches, and professors.  There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be than at school.  That being said, I was very, very serious about everything in which I was involved–especially my grades.  My sister graduated college with a 4.0 cumulative GPA.  I wanted to do the same.  So I worked and worked and worked, and, while I really did love it, I wore myself quite thin.  If it came down to getting a good night’s rest or studying hard to ensure I knew everything that could possibly be on the exam, I never once questioned that I’d be up studying.  I was involved in two performing groups in addition to the weekend traveling of the track team.  I knew that if I just managed my time, well, perfectly, I could have it all–the grades, the voice, the times on the track.  However, I was extremely exhausted.  I could not consistently maintain a schedule of five to six hours of sleep a night while running forty or fifty miles a week without reaping the consequences.

I occasionally brag to my husband, who doesn’t sleep very well, that I wrote the book on sleeping, and particularly napping.  In fact, one time in college I had three minutes before I had to leave for track practice.  So, I set my watch to go off in three minutes, laid down on my bed, and in that amount of time, I actually woke up from a dream.  How on earth did that not tell me how extremely sleep deprived I must have been?  A dream–in three minutes!  

4.  I had really poor nutrition.  This is actually the factor that I want to hone in on the most.  My nutrition was horrendous, but I thought it was actually pretty good.  I had always been careful about eating too many sweets during the season.  In high school, I wouldn’t touch dessert during the whole season.  My motto was “garbage in, garbage out.”  However, in college, I was racing about eight months out of the year, and it just seemed too restrictive to never have a treat.  Plus, my teammates weren’t quite as obsessive about no desserts, so I thought it was okay to indulge.  Unfortunately, there were other areas of my nutrition that were much worse.  For example, one of the ways in which I made my hectic schedule work was by skipping lunch.  I realized that I could get an extra hour of practicing in (read: singing; I was a Vocal Performance major) if I skipped lunch.  That was when all of the other music majors took a full hour to do nothing but socialize.  I felt superior eating my Clif Bar quickly and then putting in a solid hour of practice.  However, this led me to be really lightheaded during my afternoon classes, and I usually had trouble focusing.  By dinner, after practice, I was starving, and I know I ate way too much for dinner and after dinner snacks to more than make up for the calories I had missed during the day.

Additionally, I snacked on really unhealthy foods that I thought were healthy.  Animal crackers and pretzels were my staple snacks, and I truly thought these were at least nutritionally neutral choices, if not actually positive choices.  The thing is, all that white flour has zero nutritional benefits to my body.  White flour is really just one step away from white sugar (the evil thing I thought I was avoiding with no or few sweets).  I was pumping my body full of empty carbohydrates.  Sometimes to keep myself awake while I was up late studying, I would also eat.  However, even if it was a bunch of raisins I was eating, I was still consuming way too many calories.  

So what happened?  I lost all that muscle tone that was so apparent in high school.  I gained a few pounds, but not a lot.  Remember, I was still working out a lot!  However, my body fat percentage increased significantly (about 5%).  Combine all of these factors together, and you’ve got an athlete who never actually reached her potential.

When it all came together.  It took me a long time to realize all of these things that had gone wrong for me in college.  One day, though, it really started to come together.  After college, I worked for a year, then got married and moved to Denver.  I hadn’t raced at all since college, so after about a year and a half of just easy running (and recovery from my myriad of injuries), I decided I would run a half-marathon.  Naturally, this meant increasing my mileage a little bit (not a lot) and adding in some speed workouts.  I decided to do one of my easiest track workouts to get me started with my speed workouts–some 200s and 400s.  Dear goodness was I nervous to start that workout, but then I got started, and you know what?  On about half the training, but with plenty of rest and some markedly improved nutrition, I was hitting the exact same times I ran in college!  The workout felt easy!  For one, my body just remembered that pace pretty well, but there was no straining to hit the times.  I stayed relaxed, didn’t even push that hard, and hit those times without a problem.  

It’s been almost exactly three years since my last race of college track, and I am amazed at the difference in my body.  My pants from college are all too big.  My body looks toned and tight again.  The number on the scale is a little bit lower (not a lot), but my body fat percentage is definitely dropping.  Even my husband has repeatedly told me in the past several weeks, how toned I look.  I finally have those abs that I knew had to be there…they were just hiding under a layer of overtraining and white flour laden fat!  My workout routine now includes a mix of swimming, cycling, running, and weight training as I prepare for my first triathlon, and I am excited about how great I feel!  If only I had known in college what I know now–listen to your body, switch up your routine, get some rest, and eat whole, unprocessed foods, and you will be truly healthy and able to train consistently and enjoyably.

Here’s to a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle!

Fish Out of Water and Banana Breakfast Cookies

I mentioned in a previous post that I do have a few New Year’s Resolutions for 2012.  One of those is to read the entire Bible chronologically. I’ve missed a few days so far, but I quickly catch up in the next few days and am still right on track!  Another New Year’s resolution is to do a set of pull-ups.  Unless you count getting a jumping head start, I’ve never really been able to do one.  I really like any strength training that involves my body weight (TRX is a good example), so doing a pull-up just seems like a “must do” to me.

My third and final New Year’s resolution is to complete a triathlon.  I’ve chosen an Olympic distance Tri late in July as my capstone race.  It’s a 1500 Meter swim (just shy of a mile), 40K bike ride (just shy of 25 miles), wrapped up with a 10K run (6.2 miles).  I decided to do an Olympic distance because the sprint triathlon just seemed a little short to me.  I’m guessing somewhere in the middle of this race, I’ll ask myself why I didn’t just stick with a sprint, but the difficulty level of an Olympic distance race is certainly keeping me motivated to train right now!  My favorite bike ride with my Hubs is right around the 40K mark, and with nearly 14 years of competitive running under my belt, a 10K is no problem.  Here’s the thing.  I’ve never, ever swum.

Oh sure, I went to the pool almost every summer day as a kid.  I took the mandatory week of swim lessons each summer (Maybe that’s why I’m not a swimmer!  The pool is COLD at 7 in the morning at the beginning of June!!).  I can tread water forever probably because I tend to float.  But, ask me to do a single stroke, and I’m like a fish out of water…or maybe more like a cat IN water?  You get the idea…

I’ve had several overuse injuries in my years as a runner.  (Not anymore though.  That’s another story for another day.)  So, what’s a girl to do when she’s got the accountability of a team depending on her to train even when she can’t put any real weight on a stress fractured foot or some really bad shin splints?  She gets in the pool.  But don’t get the idea that I’m swimming here.  I’m talking about pool running.  Yep.  Strap on the Aqua Jogger and run away.  See?  I’m not a swimmer!  Even in the water I’m still running!

So now I’ve got to figure out how in the world I’m going to be able to manage swimming nearly a mile.  I’ve started taking some swim lessons at a nearby pool.  Let me tell you.  I’m not sure I’ve ever felt less athletic.  For a person who could go run ten miles at any given moment, I am gasping for air at the end of one lap!  Then it hits me. I’ve got to swim the equivalent of 30 LAPS in this race.  Suddenly I think, “Is my goal unattainable?  Can I really do this?”  I haven’t even started thinking about the greater challenge of open water swimming with other people all around me, kicking me in the face and swimming up my back.  Oh dear…

Then I realize that this is exactly how a lot of my clients feel starting out at the gym.  Some have athletic backgrounds and want to get back in shape.  Others just know they need to take care of their bodies, so they force themselves to come learn how to use the gym.

I realize a few things as I am doing a short swim this morning.  First, I realize how incredibly self-aware I am.  I feel like the whole world is watching me–critiquing my form, noticing how I’m gasping for air after every lap (or half lap), etc.  I know a lot of my clients can feel this way, and I’m constantly reminding them that nobody’s really watching, and if they are, they should probably be more focused on their own form and workout!  I have to share a lane with a rather accomplished swimmer this morning.  Instantly, I feel like he is irritated by my presence and that I’m everywhere but out of his way.  Oh well, I’ve got to swim, too, so I just get to it and ignore him.

I also realize how very hard it is to learn something new.  Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love to learn anything!  I’m always reading several books and practicing something.  When it comes to athletics though, it is really hard to learn something entirely new.  My muscles haven’t ever really worked in this way.  I feel sort of awkward.  I notice how tense I am.  My face is tight.  Even five laps feel like a huge deal.

However, I think back to last year at this time.  My husband had just bought me a beautiful road bike.  Once again, I had ridden a bike as a kid, but never really for exercise or as a sport unless, once again, I was injured.  So, feeling myself hovering above what seemed like the teeniest tiniest wheel was a bit disconcerting.  Throw in a heavy stream of traffic, and I’m feeling tense and nervous.  I adapted though.  Before I knew it, I couldn’t wait for our weekend bike rides.  I was feeling stronger and stronger.  I stopped gripping my handle bars for all they were worth.  Now there are days when I pick biking over running for my cardio exercise.  In the winter I take spinning classes and dream about when I’ll be able to get back out on my bike.  (I guess I’m still a bit of a fair weather biker.  I’ll work on that…)

That was just one year ago.  I know swimming will get there, too, and then I’ll be thankful that I put so much work into it, even if I felt a little uncomfortable and uncoordinated in the process.  So hopefully this comes as encouragement to you.  There are even days when personal trainers feel very uncomfortable even in athletic pursuits!  Hang in there, and don’t quit!  The results you’ll find will make it all worth it!

Okay, and now onto today’s recipe.  As I was writing this post, I was eating this:

As I mentioned, I went for a short swim around 5:30 this morning.  When I got back, I had a bowl of oats, an apple, and some black coffee.  Then I trained a client before heading out for a bike ride.  Needless to say, by the time I got back, I was ready for my mid-morning snack!  I blended up a protein shake with 6 ounces of unsweetened vanilla almond milk, some frozen mango, peaches, and pineapple, and one scoop of vanilla protein powder (I use Designer Whey since it has pronounceable ingredients and only about 100 calories per scoop with 18 grams of protein.)  This will be a great recovery drink and keep me full until lunch.  Then I grabbed a banana breakfast cookie out of the fridge to munch on. I made these on Saturday night when I felt like baking something.  I adapted this recipe from Tina Haupert’s book “Carrots ‘n’ Cake.”  Tina has a blog by the same name, and I like her realistic, moderate take on nutrition.  She also has some really great tips on cravings, overeating, etc.

Anyway, Tina’s recipe is entitled “Banana Oatmeal Chip Cookies,” and I think these cookies are meant to be a healthy dessert option.  However, I love breakfast cookies, so I simply substituted raisins for the chocolate chips, and I was ready to go.  I also subbed in some pecans for the walnuts, almond milk for the soy milk, and honey rather than agave nectar, since that’s what I had on hand.  These cookies would be really easy to make gluten-free as well.  Just sub out the whole wheat flour for almond flour or something like that.

Hope you enjoy this great grab-n-go breakfast!

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed meal
1/4 cup agave nectar (or honey)
1/4 cup soy milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 ripe banana
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease a large baking sheet.  Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix well until dough is blended evenly.

Using a tablespoon, portion the dough onto the baking sheet, spacing cookies about 1 to 2 inches apart.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove cookies from baking sheet and allow to cool on wire rack.  Enjoy!

Late Night Dinners and Moroccan Tagine

I’ve had a couple of clients come to me with questions about eating dinner late at night.  Due to various, crazy schedules or busy evenings with kids, they don’t get a chance to eat dinner until 8 or 9:00 at night.  Some have sworn off eating at that time of night.  Others find themselves famished by that point, but then feel guilty about the size or contents of their meal.

I find myself in the “late night dinner” boat several times a week as well.  Often, I’m not finished teaching music lessons until 8:00, then wrap up my notes before heading home.  What’s a person to do when they haven’t had dinner?

One of my first suggestions is to not let yourself get too hungry.  I know I will almost always overeat if I’m starving.  I’ll reach for carbohydrates or fattening foods for their satiety.  So, I try to keep a snack on hand for the late afternoon/early evening (i.e. some almonds or a protein bar or Larabar).  I don’t always get a chance to eat it, but usually I can squeeze in a minute or two for it.

Another suggestion that goes along with the first is to have your dinner for lunch.  Often times, dinner is our biggest meal of the day.  If we don’t have it, we miss it.  For me, I tend to have more time for lunch than dinner since I’m in between jobs at this point in the day.  If I was planning on having some leftovers or some soup for dinner, I’ll grab that for lunch instead.

If it does get to be pretty late before I’ve had anything substantial, I try to stick with a protein rich dinner.  In my opinion, there may be something to the whole concept of carb cycling (basically, eating more carbs first thing in the morning and transitioning to protein through the day).  Think about it, we need energy for all the activities of our day upon rising in the morning.  Where can we get lots of “energy?”  Carbohydrates.  Then, as we head closer and closer to bed time, we need to think about rebuilding and repairing our bodies (particularly, if you are exercising).  What do our bodies use for rebuilding?  Protein.

Sometimes, I’ll just have a protein shake for dinner if it’s late by the time I get around to it.  Other times, something like an egg white omelet makes a good choice or some chicken with vegetables.  I’m not saying you need to swear off any carbohydrates after 5:00 p.m., but try to emphasize protein as you head closer to bed.  Then, once you’ve had your dinner, stop worry about it!  If you are truly hungry, there is certainly nothing wrong with eating.

Here’s an example of a good, protein concentrated dinner.  I made this last night with intentions of eating lots of leftovers this week.  Notice, my meal is not completely devoid of carbs.  After all, even vegetables are technically carbohydrates, and, well, I just like carbs.  Meals feel more like meals if they include them.  However, these are good, complex carbohydrates which my body will break down slowly into nutrients I need.

This recipe is entitled “Chicken Tagine” and is taken from Cooking Light’s Fresh Food Fast cookbook.  I made several changes to the recipe.  It is very forgiving.  I think somewhere along the way I started thinking Mediterranean rather than Moroccan, so I diverged from the recipe a little bit.  All in all, it was delicious, nutritious, and a snap to prepare.  Welcome, Tuesday through Thursday, you busiest days of my week.  I’ve got fuel ready to reheat!

Ingredients

8 (3-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt-free Moroccan spice blend (such as The Spice Hunter)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with garlic and onion, undrained
3/4 cup uncooked couscous
Plain fat-free yogurt (optional)
Chopped fresh mint (optional)

A note about the ingredient list.  First of all, I couldn’t find that moroccan spice blend in my grocery store.  I didn’t feel like hunting around at different stores for it, so I just used a salt-free garlic and herb spice blend I had in my pantry.  It worked just fine.  Maybe my recipe turned out less Moroccan-y, but it was still tasty.  Also, I never both to measure out the salt and pepper.  I just give the chicken a light coating and move on (the same with the spice blend as well).  I have great blood pressure, I sweat a lot in my workouts, and I’m not a huge salt on my food kind of person, so I don’t worry about it.  If you need to watch your sodium intake, by all means, measure the salt to make sure you’re not overdoing it!

My pack of chicken thighs only had six thighs in it (not eight).  Don’t bother buying two packs unless you’ve simply got that many mouths to feed.  The recipe works great with six.  Also, I used plain diced tomatoes instead of the garlic and onion variety.  I thought about substituting with another variety of diced tomatoes, but I noticed all of those kinds included ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients.  My recipe wasn’t lacking any flavor with the plain jane tomatoes, and the recipe was healthier as a result. Since I was thinking more Mediterranean the more I cooked, I through in some capers as well.  Yum!  I love anything olive-esque.

Additionally, don’t skip the yogurt or the mint!  The mint adds another fantastic (and healthy!) dimension of flavor to the dish (Thank you, fresh herbs, for all your flavor with all the health benefits and none of the calories!).  I used nonfat, plain greek yogurt.  It is so rich and creamy, you’ll think it’s sour cream!

Here is the box of couscous I used:

 This stuff looks so good for you!  I mean, organic brown rice, gluten free, mediterranean curry!  Wow!  But is it really?  Remember, even if you buy something in the health food aisle, the front side of any box is all marketing.  The back of the box is where we find all the nutritional information.  Let’s take a look:
Yep, I can pronounce all those things!  Note, dried cane syrup is sugar, and it is the fourth ingredient.  Not the best thing to see on the back of the box, but there’s only one total gram in a serving.  Not too bad at all.  Citric acid and natural flavor aren’t what you want to see on the back of the box, but they are pretty far down on the ingredient list, and something I’ve chosen not to worry about for the time being.

Okay, moving on from ingredients.  Let’s get cooking.

1.  Sprinkle both sides of the chicken evenly with spice blend, salt, and pepper.  Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; add chicken.  Cook 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until browned.  Add chickpeas and tomatoes; bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or until chicken is done.
2.  While chicken simmers, cook couscous according to package directions, omitting salt and fat.  Serve chicken thighs and vegetable mixture over couscous.  Top with yogurt and mint, if desired.  Yield: 4 servings (2 chicken thighs, 2/3 cup vegetables, and about 3/4 cup couscous).

Here are my chicken thighs, prepped and ready for cooking.  I pulled off some of the fat from the meal before cooking, but I leave a lot of it on for some extra flavor (read: satiety!) in the dish.

And here are the little guys cooking away after I added the chickpeas and tomatoes.  Note, don’t keep flipping them over and over while they cook.  After they’ve browned on one side, flip them and leave them until they’re done.

While everything’s cooking, I made (and ate!) a big salad.  This is definitely a great way to control your eating if you’re particularly hungry.  That big salad is low on calories and fills you up.  I think mine had spinach, red onion, tomatoes, red pepper, cucumbers, and feta cheese.  Yes, I put cheese on my salad.  Feta is very low in calories as far as cheeses go, and I absolutely love it.  A little bit of that stuff on top, and I will eat lots and lots of salad!

When the chicken is cooked, plate it and serve.  I always try to make an attractive looking plate.  You will be more satisfied by your meal if it satisfies your eyes as well as your taste buds.  Enjoy!

Lunch Lift?

After two posts about breakfast, I got a special request from my dear ol’ sister for some lunchtime suggestions!  I am up for the challenge!  (May this be a reminder to all of my readers that if you’d like me to cover something specifically, all you have to do is let me know.)

Alright, on to lunches…  I have to admit that I find lunch much less endearing than breakfast.  In fact, in college, I skipped lunch throughout the week just so I could squeeze in more practice time.  (We music majors tend to obsess about practicing.  I don’t recommend this bad habit!  It means I just overate at dinner to compensate for the feeling like I was going to fall over throughout the day!)

Nowadays I like to stick with about five small meals per day.  While this isn’t, in my opinion, the only way to lose or maintain weight, it certainly helps most people.  Right now as I write this, I’m eating a quick lunch.  I’ve been working all morning from Starbucks and find myself hungry for an early lunch.  Starbucks’ protein bistro box is a go-to lunch for me–a hard boiled egg, two slices of cheese, peanut butter, a small piece of multi-grain muesli bread, and a few grapes and apple slices.  Chase that with a bit bottle of water, and I’m good to go for another several hours.  At 380 calories and 14 grams of protein, this is the perfect and satisfying lunch for me.

You could certainly recreate this bistro box at home.  Watch your portions of cheese and peanut butter.  While they do provide satiety and satisfaction to your lunch, their calories count up quickly.  Make up a big batch of hard-boiled eggs over the weekend, so that you’re set for grab-n-go breakfasts or lunches for the week.  Justin’s Nut Butters makes these handy packets of peanut butter that are the perfect size.  I’m not sure if you can get them on the east coast yet though.  Justin is from Colorado, I believe.  In fact, according to my husband, he was in Ernst & Young’s competition for Entrepreneur of the Year.  Okay, end up fun-fact-of-the-blog-post.

Grocery store rotisserie chicken also makes for an easy lunch idea.  Throw together a quick salad the night before with some bagged spinach, your favorite veggies, a bit of feta cheese, light salad dressing (packed separately), and chicken.  Throw in a piece of fruit and some almonds, and you’re all set.

Canned tuna also makes a great, quick lunch.  Just keep it well contained, so your co-workers don’t have to smell tuna for the rest of the day!  Mix a 3 oz. can with a spoonful of plain greek yogurt, salt, and pepper, and dip into it with celery or cucumbers.

Ezekiel wraps also come in handy at lunchtime.  These are sprouted grain wraps that you can probably find in your natural foods store (For you Denver locals, I buy mine at Sunflower Farmer’s Market.).  Spread it with natural, no sugar peanut butter and sliced bananas, roll it up, and enjoy!

You’ll notice none of these suggestions include your standard sandwich.  Certainly, that’s always an option.  I find that eating too much gluten at lunch time makes me sleepy in the afternoon.  (Seriously, try eating a low gluten or gluten free lunch for a week straight, and see if your afternoon slump is reduced or goes away completely.)  You’ll also notice that these lunches are on the small side.  That’s because I usually eat a big breakfast, mid-morning snack, and a mid-afternoon snack.  I don’t really need a big lunch because I’m eating more frequently.  Obviously, you’ll need a bigger meal if your next one doesn’t come again for a while or you haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.  My schedule usually allows me a good bit of flexibility, so this isn’t a problem like it is for some people.

I’ve included a recipe below for “Easy Penne and Tuna Salad.”  This is a great recipe to make over the weekend and eat the leftovers throughout the week.  Again, if you’re watching your gluten, consider subbing in brown rice penne instead of regular or even whole wheat.  Also, don’t be afraid of the tuna packed in oil.  Fat is not the enemy in your diet.  Sugar is.  Enjoy!

Easy Penne and Tuna Salad
taken from Cooking Light, May 2010 issue

1 large red bell pepper

4 quarts of water

2 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

6 ounces uncooked penne pasta

2 cups coarsely chopped arugula

1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon capers, drained

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 (7.8 ounce) jar premium tuna packed in oil (such as Ortiz), drained and flaked

1.  Preheat broiler.

2.  Cut bell pepper in half lengthwise; discard seeds and membranes.  Place pepper halves, skin sides up, on a foil-lined baking sheet; flatten with hand.  Broil 15 minutes or until blackened.  Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal.  Let stand 15 minutes.  Peal and chop.

3.  Bring 4 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting additional salt and fat.  Drain and rinse with cold water; drain well.

4.  Combine bell pepper, pasta, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, arugula, and remaining ingredients in a large bowl; toss well.  Yield: 4 servings (serving size: 2 cups).

Protein Pancakes & Protein Treats!

Today I wanted to share with you a few of my recent internet recipe finds.  

First off, breakfast!  I LOVE breakfast!  Have I mentioned that before?  Deja vu anyone?  Well, I’ve got a particular soft spot for pancakes.  Maybe it’s because they tend to be pure carbs and simple sugar…who can resist?  I also have very fond memories of Sunday mornings as a kid when my dad would come wake me up singing this “It’s time to be pine” silly wake up song and then go make us all pancakes.  It still makes me smile.

At any rate, I love pancakes, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that they’re not the best nutritional choice for my morning.  No wonder I used to get so sleepy in church and then be famished by the time I got home…  Anyway, I have good news for my fellow pancake lovers!  I’ve found a few recipes for healthy, protein pancakes!  They are filling, delicious, and a perfect substitute for their fluffy, powdered sugar friends.  They will keep you fueled and energized all morning!

Here’s the one that I tried last night.  (Yes, I even love pancakes for dinner…especially when my Hubs is not home).  I would try making these without the water next time, and I might just stir it all up instead of blending it all together.  The batter was a little to thin.  Also, I don’t love the taste of Stevia, so I substituted that with maybe a tablespoon of raw honey.  All in all, they were very good.  Here’s the link: http://oxygenmag.com/Cover-Girls/Cover-Girl-Insider/Alicia-Harris-March-2012.aspx

This second recipe I tried this past Saturday morning.  Fantastic!  Loved this one.  I’m thinking of exchanging the banana for some plain, canned pumpkin simply because I love pumpkin pancakes.  This recipe was a bit more pancake-like than the first recipe.  Here’s the link: http://carrotsncake.com/2011/07/protein-pancakes.html

Finally, I love a little treat in the mid-afternoon.  Unfortunately, this is when I tend to reach for something less than healthy.  I found this recipe which has been a perfect little snack when I’m craving something sweet.  The chocolate chips make me feel like I’m really indulging, when really there are just a few in there!  Here’s the link to my mid-afternoon protein balls: http://oxygenmag.com/Nutrition/Articles/Peanut-Butter-Protein-Balls.aspx

One note about cooking with protein powder: not all protein powders are created equal when it comes to baking with them.  I tried to make pudding with my husband’s protein powder once and ended up throwing it all away.  Some of them are just loaded with artificial sweeteners, and that’s all you taste when you bite into anything made with them.  I’ve found my protein powder that I use for my shakes also bakes very well.  I use Designer Whey.  The back of the can has ingredients I can pronounce, and while it’s not loaded with flavor, you really don’t want something too flavorful if you’re going to be baking with the product and combining it with other ingredients.  I like to keep vanilla and chocolate varieties on hand for my various recipes.

Keep it clean, and enjoy!