healthy snacks.

Our two-month gluten and dairy-free experiment went well. We noticed some positive changes in health and behavior. However, a negative is that we discovered we were eating a ton more processed food: crackers, cereal, energy bars, gluten free cookies.

So this month we’re trying to move back toward what I’ve decided to call a “sane diet.” Not one hundred percent gluten-free or dairy-free (although I have to be totally gluten free), but instead focusing on eating real food. Food we make from scratch. Food whose ingredients we can pronounce. Food without lots of added sugar. The kids can have bread sometimes, but right now it’s David’s homemade sourdough bread.

Then when we’re out we let them out whatever is served. We’re going to try this method for a couple months and evaluate.

My focus for now is on healthy snacks. Snacks are hard: not just for my kids, but for me. I’ll be the first to say I’d way rather reach for a rice cake with peanut butter or a Pamela’s Whenever bar than veggies or fruit. David and I both know snacks are our weak spot, so we’re trying to work on keeping them out of the house. And if I want something sweet I can pick a recipe from one of our grain-free cookbooks.

There’s no magic way I’m going about this except for telling the kids that when we have snacks at home, they’re healthy snacks. Yes they hate it. Yes they complain. But in the end, if they get hungry enough, they eat it.

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I found this snack tray idea somewhere online, and so far it has worked great. Okay, not great in that Judah and Amie eat everything in here, but great in that this is their morning snack option. I make up a batch of hummus at the beginning of the week, then chop veggies for the snack tray around 9:00 a.m. and keep it in the fridge. There’s no arguing, no requests for me to make a snack; this is it.

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Afternoon snack has been great fun. I got this sliced apple idea from Against All Grain, and the kids love it (so do I). Amie and I like crunchy almond butter spread on apples and Judah prefers peanut butter (just make sure your nut butters don’t have corn syrup or added sugar). They add their own raisins. And yes, sometimes I’m definitely too lazy to make fancy slices and the apples still taste great.

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Here’s today’s snack tray with grapes and almonds. I always wondered why my stomach hurt after eating almonds, but then learned about soaking them to remove the phytic acid. Now I feel great and since they’re a little softer, Amie gobbles them up by the handful. The other positive side of snack trays is that David and I end up munching on whatever’s left over at the end of the day instead of picking up chips and salsa.

dinosaur

A friend sent us this cookbook: Eat Like a Dinosaur, and Judah especially has latched onto it. There’s a story you can read to kids about why it’s important to eat healthy (or to “eat like a dinosaur”) and somehow it just clicked with him. He still asks for treats, but is much more positive about eating veggies and fruit than before. Lots of great ideas in the book too: it has transformed our lunch habits. But more on that another time!

I hope all this isn’t overwhelming. I’m just trying to take baby steps, but take them consistently. A friend told me she made the goal of making afternoon snack a healthy snack for her kids. That’s perfect. Just start somewhere, one thing at a time and don’t feel bad about not overhauling everything at once. It’s way better to make a small, lasting change.

Happy snacking!



quick and easy hummus.

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Happy Friday! Thanks so much for your kind words about our diet experiment and especially thanks to two wonderful friends who volunteered to cook for my kids this week in order to give me a break. We’ve had a much better week, and I continue to be so proud of Judah and Amie.

Some of you have been asking me to post recipes, so I’m going to. I’ll admit that the thing that’s held me back is how self-conscious I am about my food photography. But if you can overlook my less-than-creative photos, I’m happy to post some of our family favorites, especially dinner recipes.

Today I’ll start with something really simple: homemade hummus. I never attempted this until we lived in South Asia and I was just dying for hummus. I made it a couple times but could never get excited about it.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned about cooking: you have to practice. Novel idea, right? Why do I understand that about other areas of life, and yet if a recipe turns out not great I feel like I should just toss it? I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past couple years: if I don’t love something I cook, I need to make it again. And again. And again. And tweak it every time, until it’s good.

In her book An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler says that a recipe is truly ready when you taste it and feel yourself compelled to take another bite. I’ve begun to apply that principle to everything from my daily salad to spaghetti sauce to hummus, and my food is starting to taste good!

I’ll never forget the day I simmered a big pot of black beans on the stove and tasted them a couple hours later, then immediately served myself a big bowl — at 3:00 in the afternoon. Of just beans. I have never, ever wanted to eat beans by themselves, but my beans were that good. Tamar Adler is right.

All of that to say, try this hummus. It’s so easy. And if you don’t love it, experiment. Add more lemon juice, more cumin, more salt. Or get online and find a recipe that’s totally different than mine. Don’t settle for just average hummus when it can be great. Most of all, have fun making it.

Quick and Easy Hummus

1 clove garlic
2 cans garbanzo beans, one fully drained, one with about half a can of liquid reserved (for your first couple times maybe reserve a whole can of liquid to make sure your hummus isn’t dried out)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp sesame seed oil (this is an economical way to replace tahini, and prevents a jar of tahini from expiring in your fridge)
Juice from 1/2 lemon, or around 1 TBSP lemon juice
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Several TBSP extra virgin olive oil (it will help the flavor if this is good-quality olive oil, but isn’t absolutely necessary)

I put my garlic through the food processor first or use a garlic press, then add the beans with their liquid, spices and lemon juice, and process. I would start with just a couple drops of sesame seed oil because it’s very strong and add more if you want. Taste to see if the seasoning is right. The hummus should be thick but not overly dried out; if it is add more of the garbanzo bean liquid. Then turn on the food processor (you could use a blender instead), and add olive oil in a thin drizzle until the hummus is as creamy as you want it.

This is a great appetizer to make for a party or picnic or your kids’ school lunch. You could get fancy and roast your garlic beforehand or add roasted red peppers for a more complex flavor. We like our hummus with carrots, tortilla chips, or spread on crunchy gluten free toast with kalamata olives and David’s fresh-from-the-garden lettuce (micro-greens are amazing too).

If you’ve learned any improvements on this basic recipe, leave them in the comments for us all to enjoy!



gluten/dairy free kids.

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Right on the heels of my recent food posts, comes a new trial: gluten and dairy-free kids.

We have a couple health issues with the kids these days and a doctor recently suggested experimenting with a diet change. Don’t worry, they are relatively mild things at this point, but we feel like it’s worth a try now to see if symptoms improve and possibly prevent them worsening.

So today we are two weeks into a two-month gluten and dairy-free trial. The doctor recommended starting with eliminating these two foods because they’re most known to trigger allergy/emotional/behavioral struggles.

The first week went amazingly well. I had a talk with both kids about our experiment and why we were doing it, and they were very positive. I planned out literally every single meal and snack of the week and did a big Whole Foods shop before it started. We spent lots of time at home because I was doing things like making vegan Nutella and trying to keep us all away from temptation.

The second week was when reality set in for Judah and Amie and lots of melt-downs ensued. We had a field trip, a birthday party, and were basically out in public at some point every single day. It sounds funny to say “out in public” but you have no idea until you’re avoiding certain foods how much temptation is present in just about every single situation. It’s one thing for me as an adult, but much harder for my kids. It’s given me a huge amount of respect for kids and families who have severe food allergies.

And then yesterday was when I had my melt-down. I think reality finally hit me too: This is really hard, and I cried the whole 20 minute ride home from Whole Foods. I also realized it’s been two solid weeks since our family has eaten out — which means two solid weeks of me cooking and preparing every. single. meal.

I’d been trying to stay positive, but I finally admitted this feels like a full-time job. A lonely job. I feel like during this season I’m the only person who can feed my kids at any given time because I’m the only one who knows how to read the labels or knows which foods are off-limits. I have to be two steps ahead of any situation — from the church pot-luck to their school end-of-the-year presentation — and have a purse full of Pamela’s granola bars and vegan chocolate chips and organic lollipops to ward off any melt-downs.

It’s been an exhausting two weeks.

I know some of you may be thinking I’m crazy: Why add this to your already full plate? Why make your kids go through something so hard?

Believe me, I get that. I’ve been so slow to make any sort of changes to Judah and Amie’s diet in general because I want them to have a normal American childhood, have all the fun of birthday parties and field trips and Friday pizza night. I hate to deny them these simple pleasures because of some fad.

David and I go around and around about experimenting with diet. I know he worries about me. Because obviously the food responsibility in our home falls on my shoulders. And with already full lives, any change creates a lot more work.

But last night I told him, “Yes, this two-month trial is hard. And it may not end up being the answer for our kids. But if there’s any way I can do something now to help them avoid some of the physical and emotional health issues I’ve had over the years (and the hundreds-if-not-thousands of dollars we’ve spent), I have to do it.”

So we press on.

Another benefit of our little experiment is that it’s calling attention to my ever-present struggle of over-busying myself and my kids. Even with homeschooling — without daily school drop-offs and pick-ups — I still often find a way to schedule the heck out of our week, doing “good things.” Fun things. Things that bless other people. Things I don’t want to miss out on.

But just because something is good and helpful doesn’t mean I should do it. When will I learn that I can’t do it all? Not only can I not do it all, but I shouldn’t do it all.

And so while it seems like going gluten and dairy-free is adding another thing to my plate, I’m starting to see it as a freedom. It’s forcing me once again to slow down, to say “no” more, to really see my kids and how they’re handling the pace of life. It’s making me to stop multi-tasking every second of the day and give them my undivided attention as they process this change to their little lives. I’m remembering that when I have time and inspiring ingredients, being in my kitchen is fun and energizing. I’d forgotten that.

I’m unbelievably proud of Judah and Amie, who have truly risen to the occasion and on the whole have way, way better attitudes than I imagined. They are already eating better than they were just two weeks ago. Amie now downs her morning smoothie without complaint, and will stand at the kitchen island where I’m chopping vegetables for dinner, snacking on some from each pile. Judah reaches for the bag of baby carrots in the fridge, “Because I want to be healthy and strong.” They both amaze me.

I’ll be sure to let you know the results of our little experiment. We’re a quarter of the way there!



kids and food.

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A couple weeks ago I told you about my first year gluten-free.

Then last week I shared some of the things that David and I eat on a daily basis.

A question I get a lot is: “What do you feed your kids?” So that’s what I’ll talk about today.

And this is where you begin to see that I don’t by any stretch have it all together in the food department. It’s been one thing to make really big changes to my diet, and quite another to ask my kids to do the same.

At first when I sat down to write this post, all I could think of were the negatives of how I’ve failed in this area. But thinking through the details I do see some progress. For our family though, it’s felt very much like a one-step-forward-two-steps back kind of thing.

I’ve tried many different approaches to more healthful eating. I’ve done all of my own baking from scratch (bread,etc). I’ve made a homemade sourdough starter and used it in my baking. I’ve completely eliminated boxed cereal from our home and made the kids’ home-cooked breakfast each morning. I’ve taken Judah completely off dairy after his two asthma attacks.

I’m here to tell you in all honesty that I didn’t stick with any of those plans.

It’s hard, you guys. Food seems to be a constant battle in our house. Judah is a very picky eater and while I don’t think Amelie naturally is, she’s definitely influenced by comments her brother makes (what sibling isn’t??). Let’s just say dinner is not the finest hour in the Gentino household.

All of this to say, I’m still in the learning process. Here are a very few things that do seem to work,  more or less, for us right now.

1. Fruit, veggies, or nuts for snacks. The only way this has worked is to literally make it the only option. I stopped buying snack foods for the kids. So if they want a snack, they’ve learned it’s got to be a healthy snack. This has gotten Judah eating fruit when he’d formerly only eat bananas. Neither kid even fights me on this anymore (although we may possibly have the most boring food house of all their friends). I don’t let them have any grains for snacks when we’re at home because they usually get those for breakfast and lunch already.

2. Reduce dairy. I haven’t completely eliminated it, although Judah solely uses almond milk on his cereal now. I did this the same way as above; just stopped buying yogurt, lots of cheese and milk. We do still have cheese from time to time — on tacos, as an occasional accompaniment to lunch, the occasional Sonic milkshake. But not every day.

I don’t make cheesy or milk-based casseroles anymore, and if I do I use a dairy-substitute. And neither child drinks cups of milk anymore. I know you’re thinking, What about calcium? But from my research it’s much better to get calcium from broccoli and leafy greens than from processed dairy, which leads me to my next point:

3. Drink greens in smoothies. We finally bit the bullet and bought a reconditioned Vitamix blender last week. We’ve talked about it for two years now. We tried a used Champion juicer instead. We burned out the motor on our $30 Oster blender from using it so much. So we finally decided: Yes, it’s super expensive. But this is an investment for our health that we are just going to make.

So far, it’s been amazing. I promise you, there’s a big difference. Judah drank two green smoothies for breakfast this morning (with almond milk, chia seeds, frozen strawberries, banana, and cocoa powder to make it a “chocolate smoothie”). David made the kids and their cousins orange sherbet last week for an afternoon snack with two whole oranges, ice, and a little sugar. All four kids devoured it.

Oddly enough we can’t get Amelie into smoothies yet but I think that will change as she keeps tasting our Vitamix concoctions. My current goal is to have the kids eating smoothies and scrambled eggs for week day breakfasts.

You definitely don’t need to buy a Vitamix: Judah would drink smoothies before and lots of my friends’ kids do. But I can see already how it’s going to be much easier to hide healthy stuff in our smoothies and soup now because of the smoother consistency. My friend Tarah sells homemade raw goats’ milk kefir that I used for awhile and I’m going to start buying again. The kids think it’s yogurt in their smoothies and I want them to have the probiotics.

4. Talk about being healthy and strong. We have conversations with our kids about what kinds of foods make them “healthy and strong” and what don’t. It’s okay to eat some foods that don’t make us healthy and strong, but we need to eat more of the foods that do. That’s why we make them eat veggies every night at dinner. That’s why we do smoothies and healthy snacks. It’s neat to see them slowly (okay very slowly) begin using this line of thinking themselves as they taste foods.

So these are just a few tactics we’re using at the moment. One of my biggest fantasies at the moment is leisurely cooking a delicious and healthful dinner with a glass of wine, then sitting and eating it with no complaints. One day, maybe, we’ll get there.

Any advice from your house on getting the kids to eat healthier? I always welcome suggestions!



one year gluten free, part two.

IMG_2450In part one I described my first year gluten free. I’ll keep this post practical and tell you generally how I eat these days.

The two single best food decisions I’ve made (possible even better than eliminating gluten) are:

1. Making a green smoothie or vegetable juice for breakfast

and

2. Eating a salad for lunch (read my daily salad post here)

In my humble opinion we as Americans way over-do it on eating grains and starches in general. Think about the typical American day: cereal or toast for breakfast, a granola bar for a snack, sandwich for lunch, pasta or rice or bread with our dinner. Then maybe dessert.

That’s a lot of grains. And by grains I mean flour (wheat or gluten free), oats, rice, quinoa, casseroles, fried foods. I’m not a nutritionist, but I’ve learned that our bodies convert grains to sugar, which causes our blood sugar to spike, then drop. They can result in that dragginess we feel mid-morning and around 1:00 pm. They cause weight gain, bloated-ness, other stomach issues.

I’m not saying grains are evil. Just that the Standard American Diet is way too grain-dependant and since most of us aren’t milling our own wheat, it’s processed grains we’re consuming which are even worse for us. They’re stripped of their nutrients and filled with more sugar (check the package of your loaf of sandwich bread) and preservatives.

I think this is the reason so many people struggle with gluten. Gluten is in everything. Everything processed, that is, because it’s not just used in bread flour, it’s used as a preservative. So some of our digestive systems are rebelling (maybe more of us than we think).

So. I’m not saying I’ve given up grains. But I started to become aware of how much of my diet is grain-dependant, and began making some substitutes. Once I did that I started noticing how dairy-dependant the American diet is, but that’s a post for another time.

Cereal with milk is my absolute favorite breakfast. David teases me because my favorite cereals are in his opinion the super boring ones: plain Cheerios. Wheaties. Rice Chex. I love cereal. The more boring the better.

But back in South Asia when I started becoming aware of my diet, I realized I was feeling sick every day right after breakfast. That’s when I started connecting the foods I was eating to my daily health (it sounds cheesy, but keeping a food journal for a couple weeks really does help show you what makes you feel good and what doesn’t).

So one of the best changes I’ve made is to start my day with fruit and vegetables instead of cereal or toast or oatmeal. I make a green smoothie with almond milk. Or juice vegetables. If I’m in a time crunch and can’t make a smoothie, I eat an apple with almond butter. I typically follow my smoothie breakfast with a handful of almonds to fill my stomach.

I’ve felt so much better since starting this breakfast habit, and every time I travel and let it slide, I notice a difference in my digestion and energy-level. David is not gluten free but he feels the same way and now starts his day with a smoothie.

I try to keep my morning snack grain-free too. I have some fruit or veggies dipped in hummus. Or a handful of nuts.

Then I eat a salad for lunch.

By following this regimen, I can eat a relatively normal dinner with rice or gluten-free pasta, sometimes dessert, a glass of wine, and feel fine. Our dinners include a large portion of veggies and a small portion of meat and are gluten and dairy free for the most part.

I definitely have a sweet tooth, but I’ve taken to eating a few squares of dark chocolate (60% or higher) instead of cookies or ice cream (thanks to my father-in-law for that idea).

Don’t get me wrong, I have my treats. I love brown rice cakes with natural (no sugar added) peanut butter. I almost always keep a loaf of gluten free bread in the freezer because I love extra-crispy slices of toast with eggs fried over-medium, or toast topped with avocado, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice.

But I try not to let those snacks be all of what I eat.

I love the way I eat now and really don’t miss the food I used to crave before — the constant stream of cereal and cookies and crackers. Your taste buds really do change and you begin to crave food that both tastes good and makes your body feel good.

I feel inspired to try new things, but I also don’t beat myself up for backsliding every now and then. That’s the most helpful thing I learned from my nutritionist: “Don’t focus on cutting things out of your diet; instead put your energy into adding healthful foods.” David and I keep coming back to that principle when our diet starts to slide.

It all comes down to this: when we eat well, we feel well. It’s worth it.

I’ll be back next week to talk about how my kids like our whole foods diet (spoiler alert: they don’t).



one year gluten free, part one.

IMG_4889First gluten free donut, Charleston Market

At the beginning of March one year ago I became completely gluten free. I celebrated the occasion with bronchitis and two rounds of antibiotics. Well maybe it wasn’t a celebration so much as motivation for finally removing gluten from my diet. It was a low point for me, low enough that I needed a big change.

So I made the change.

I’m not going to say it was easy. Especially since my family continued to eat gluten. I’d say there were several months of feeling generally bummed out about food and adjusting to spending a lot more time in the kitchen.

However. What made it all worth it was how instantly my health improved. Headaches cleared up. Congestion went away. My general feelings of achiness and sluggishness improved.

And I promise, gluten freedom did get easier. Over time your body loses its cravings for glutinous food (the hardest things for me to give up were homemade bread, pizza, cookies, and cupcakes). The more faithfully I stayed with my diet and felt my health improve, the less I minded not eating gluten.

I’ve learned tricks too, like to eat a meal right before I go to a party or dinner, and always carry snacks in my purse (almonds are a big favorite with me). I can honestly say I no longer feel sad at a birthday party when I’m the only person not eating cake.

I do let myself cheat sometimes. If there’s something I’m just dying to taste, I taste it. I’m not trying to win any awards here. But when I cheat, I always experience some sort of reaction. If I eat food with gluten in moderation it may only be a headache the following day. Several times I’ve gotten a migraine.

But here’s the shocking part, people. I’ve been a year gluten free and I’ve also gone an entire year without taking antibiotics. When I realized that I was so full of disbelief that I had to go back and check my calendar.

Do you know the last time I’ve gone a year without antibiotics? Not since high school at least. Maybe middle school. I’ve had chronic allergies and two to three sinus infections a year for as long as I can remember (and I do have to credit my mom for clipping an article about Celiac disease for me in college. You tried, Mom!).

I have a wonderful allergist in downtown Columbia, and I’m an anomaly in her office because I simply don’t need to come in anymore. Not only do I not get upper-respiratory infections anymore, but my daily, chronic allergies have all but disappeared. I almost never need to take Claritin. I’m able to keep my dust allergy under control without medication.

I’ve faithfully followed her directions and the directions of my nutritionist: replaced as many household chemicals as possible with natural alternatives (bleach was a big culprit), removed gluten from my diet, reduced packaged foods, began to eat more plants, reduced caffeine.

At each visit my doctor brings her office staff in to talk to me. She said, “Do you realize how rare it is in the United States for someone to radically change their diet for their health? At the very least people get defensive when I suggest it, some downright angry.”

I say, “I can believe that; I used to be one of those people.”

My health was in a bad place after we lived overseas. Even with big diet changes in South Asia the environmental allergies and antibiotic cycles pretty much wiped out my immune system. I felt a lot of relief just moving back to the States, but then I reverted back to most of my old eating habits.

After two rounds of bronchitis a year ago I knew I needed to change something again. This past year has been a process of making changes, figuring out what makes me feel better and beginning to feel healthier than I’ve ever felt.

I haven’t been to the doctor for an illness in a year. I’ve gotten two viruses and my body has fought them both on its own. For someone like me, who has struggled with a poor immune system for years, that feels like a miracle.

Part Two of this post will tell you the nuts and bolts of what I eat now, because I firmly believe the reason my health has improved so much isn’t just replacing everything that contains gluten with the “gluten free” version.  Instead it’s been moving toward a whole foods diet filled with fruits and vegetables.

I’m excited about my diet now because I feel like it’s tasty, its sustainable (meaning it’s not so strict I get burned out and revert to my former diet), and it’s constantly evolving as I learn more.

I’ve done a little informal survey of my friends and family who have gone gluten free. I asked them what changes in their health they’ve experienced as a result, and if you knew some of the folks I asked you’d know they’re not the type of people to jump on the “food trend band wagon.”

Most of them experimented with a diet change with skepticism but also in desperation to feel better and were surprised with the results. I’m not saying this to convince you to go gluten free; but if you struggle with any of these symptoms you may be inspired to give it a try.

People I asked have reported big improvements in:

Allergies

Acid reflux in adults and in children (able stop taking prescription medication)

Migraines

IBS, GI problems

Behavioral struggles in elementary-aged son (agitation, sensory issues)

Less joint pain/inflammation/puffiness, both in under 50 and over 50 year olds

Skin break-outs (acne, rash, Rosacea)

Depression

Rheumatoid Arthritis

High cholesterol

Weight

Low energy/sluggishness

I’ll add this because it comes up a lot: dairy intolerances are also a big cause of allergies, upper respiratory infections, including ear infections, skin break outs, and stomach issues because dairy is mucus-producing. This is true for adults and children and I’ve had several friends who didn’t struggle with gluten but healed their allergies and ear infections by eliminating dairy. I’ve found the most success eliminating both.

Judah struggles with allergies and asthma and both are under control without medication by greatly reducing dairy in his diet (I haven’t had to eliminate it completely yet).

I’ll be back next week with a little more about what my gluten free diet looks like and some food changes our whole family has made.



the daily salad.

IMG_1536I used to eat salads because I felt like I should. Now I eat salads because I love them.

I thought I’d tell you why.

I’m pretty sure I first started craving salads in South Asia — when actually creating something like the photo above was an all-morning affair. We were supposed to avoid raw vegetables that hadn’t been treated with some sort of disinfecting rinse. So every vegetable purchased at the market had to be soaked for 15 minutes and rinsed for 15 minutes and dried.

Sound simple? Try doing this with every component of your salad: lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers. Then do it with all your fruit. But you can’t use your tap water – so be sure to fill up big plastic bins with the impossibly slow drip of your water filter. Every time you come home from shopping (which, in and of itself, is an exhausting process).

Very soon you lose the will to make that salad.

When we moved back home my nutritionist urged me to get as many raw fruits and vegetables into my diet as possible since we were focusing on rebuilding my immune system, and she suggested a daily salad for lunch as a great habit.

Over the last year and a half of practicing this habit, I’ve begun to sing its praises for two reasons: 1. My daily salad tastes great, and 2. I feel great afterward.

Here’s what I suggest: start with your greens. Please, please do not ever buy Iceberg lettuce again. It is a sure guarantee to make you hate your salad (unless you slather it with tons of Ranch dressing, in which case you are eating Ranch dressing and not a salad). I like Romaine, but prefer Red Leaf or Bibb lettuce. Or a combination. I also add spinach as often as possible (or just use spinach as the whole base as shown above).

Side note: I’ve learned to chop and wash my greens in a salad spinner when I get home, dry on cloth or paper towels on the counter, then roll up in the damp towel and store in the fridge in a ziplock bag. My lettuce has kept for up to two weeks this way.

Next, chop your veggies: Carrots and radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes in the summer. Raw broccoli. Grated beets. Grated sweet potatoes or cabbage.

And now, here’s where it gets fun. Leftover roasted veggies from last night’s dinner in the fridge? Go ahead and throw them on there (roasted sweet potatoes. yum.). Leftover brown rice or quinoa? Yup.

I always like a handful of something crunchy: chopped nuts or sunflower seeds.

Definitely, definitely olives if you have them (but please not canned, please buy the nice jarred olives or the package in the Publix cold imports section). It’s okay if you don’t like olives though.

Want to know something weird about me? I hated olives my entire life. As in, they made me shudder. David’s family always served them for appetizers with cheese and crackers and I never touched the things. Then, in South Asia I was diagnosed with low blood pressure and told to consume more salt. And at about exactly this time I began to adore and crave olives. And ever since I can’t get enough of them. Now at Gentino family gatherings I’m always looking for the olives.

Anyway, back to our salad.

Cheese is optional. I try to limit dairy, but I seem to be fine with it in moderation — especially with hard cheese like Parmesan, or goat cheese. Get a really good-quality Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and add a couple shavings to your salad (or soup. or scrambled eggs. or anything really). I learned this from Mark Bittman and it’s been a revelation. It’s more expensive of course. But because it’s so much more flavorful you only need a tiny bit.

At this point I usually chop a hard-boiled egg to sprinkle on top because for me the extra protein helps the salad to last longer in the afternoon (although I always need a snack before dinner).

Another revelation: learning from my friend Erika how to properly cook an egg (submerge in a pan of water, heat to boil, turn heat off and set timer for 9 minutes, immediately drain and rinse in very cold water to stop the egg from cooking). Your egg will taste soft and flavorful — rather than like something you could drop on the floor and watch bounce.

Once everything is assembled it’s time to season and dress your salad. How did I make it almost 32 years of life without learning to put salt and pepper on my salad? I don’t know, but fresh-ground sea salt and black pepper make all the difference.

Finally, I’m going to suggest something that may be hard for you to hear: I want you to try to stop using store-bought salad dressing. I know. That’s shocking. Maybe going too far. Once my friend Josh said his wife Sarah refused to ever eat bottled salad dressing and I thought she was crazy (sorry, Sarah!).

Alas. Now I’m converted.

In my opinion (and I’m sure Sarah’s too), you never get to enjoy the actual taste of your salad with those dressings. I should know: the only way you could get me to eat a salad before was to cover it with Ranch. I loved the stuff. But now I realize what I said before: it kind of just makes everything on your plate taste like Ranch.

I had to give up almost all bottled salad dressings when I went gluten-free (which should be your first hint: Why do you need wheat in something like a salad dressing? Because it’s a preservative, that’s why. It’s what makes your dressing last for months weeks in the fridge).

It was hard at first. But my nutritionist gave me some great suggestions: extra virgin olive oil is wonderful (again, for salads you really need to buy nice olive oil in the dark green bottle). With a drizzle of good-quality Balsamic vinegar. Or, my personal favorite: a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

I’ve looked up lots of recipes and made homemade salad dressings several times. They were always simple and delicious. And don’t get me wrong: a made-in-house Caesar salad dressing is one of my all-time favorite things. But I think creamy, heavy dressings like that are better saved for special occasions. You just don’t need them to make your daily salad good.

The velvety smoothness of extra virgin olive oil and the bright tang of lemon juice are the perfect accompaniment to a salad. David and I like this combination so much we rarely use anything else.

And there you have it. Your daily salad. I never get tired of it, because you can always switch things up here and there, based on what’s in season or what you have in your fridge.

And like I said, the very best part about my salad is the way I feel afterward — light, energized. Rather than sluggish and sleepy like if I eat a big, heavy lunch.

I know, I know, you may be thinking: That’s all well and good for you, Julie. But you stay home. You get to make your lunch every day. But I have to go to work.

I hear you. However, my mom has been taking salads to work for years and certainly way before I ever considered salad as something I’d want to eat. I pack my and the kids’ lunches for Classical Conversations each Monday and find a salad is a great portable lunch (it just takes a tad more foresight. but it’s worth it, i promise!).

Okay, enough from me. Now it’s your turn: what, in your opinion, makes a good salad?



pasta night.

My brother Danny recently moved back to Columbia and last night we got together to cook.  He’s been working in the food industry for years and years, so he’s the real deal when it comes to all things food.  It was his idea to make pasta (believe it or not, I’m not so good at branching out and trying new things, and the very idea of homemade pasta terrified me).

Danny did the research and found a gluten free pasta recipe he felt was authentic, then I went to Whole Foods and assembled the ingredients.  We put the kids down, poured a glass of wine, and got to work.  Pretty soon our minuscule kitchen counter was covered in flour and we were laughing at my sorry attempts to separate egg whites with my bare hands (Danny assured me this is the way to do it and made me practice until I got it down).

We measured and whisked and mixed it all together in the Kitchenaid, added another egg yolk and a splash of olive oil, and the Gluten Free Girl’s secret ingredient: a pinch of nutmeg, until the whole kitchen was fragrant with it.  Once the consistency was right, we wrapped our little mound tight in plastic wrap and let it rest while we enjoyed the evening June breeze on the front porch.

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I love the rich golden hue of the pasta dough, which comes from the garbanzo fava flour and the sprinkle of nutmeg.  Danny showed me how to cut the dough into sections, then roll it thin enough that you could just see the counter underneath.  I sliced wide pappardelle strips while Danny whipped up a simple sauce of butter, chopped garlic, and fresh basil.

In addition to separating eggs, I learned how to chiffonade basil, and that the pasta rolls more evenly if I place my hands on the actual rolling pin rather than its handles.  I also learned that properly salted pasta water should taste like the sea.

Fresh made pasta needs only a couple of minutes to cook.  Danny tossed the first handful of cooked pasta quickly in the sauce, then spooned it onto a kid’s Ikea plastic plate and we stood there and devoured it in about thirty seconds.  It was piping hot and salty and creamy and oh. so. delicious.  I could’ve cried with the joy of tasting really good pasta again.

Before I knew it, Danny had grabbed a hunk of Romano cheese out of the fridge and was grating it for ravioli.  He rolled the pasta dough and cut squares, then showed me how to drop a lump of filling in the center–Romano and fresh basil held together by a drop of sour cream–cover it with another square, then press the edges together without tearing them.

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David came in just in time for a bite of ravioli fresh from the pot, and we swooned over it.

We never ended up sitting down to dinner, because no batch of pasta lasted long enough to make it to a dinner plate.  Danny cooked and tossed and served me handfuls of pasta, and I filled my belly as I rolled and cut the rest of the dough.  We ended up with another meal’s worth of pappardelle that I stuck in the freezer for later this week.

What a night.  My brother is good for me because he senses my innate caution and fear of failure which tells me that he should cook and I should stand back and watch.  He doesn’t stand for this, and instead makes me try each of the steps.  By the end of the night I wondered who this thirty-one-year-old woman was who deftly rolled and sliced pasta as if she knew what she were doing.

I can make homemade pasta!

It was an adventure.  It was fun.  But the best gift of all that Danny gave me was this: inspiration.

I’ve been having a big old pity party since I went gluten-free, feeling left out, feeling like I’m drudging away in my kitchen in order to be healthy.  But Danny showed me that my new diet doesn’t exclude me from marvelous food–and it certainly isn’t an excuse to sit and mope.  Instead, we find alternative recipes.  We learn new skills, together.  I learn to laugh when I make mistakes and I try again.  I keep working at it until I feel the joy of cooking come flooding back.  I felt a big ray of it last night.

Thanks, D!

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gluten-free take two, and a moment of truth.

I’ve been gluten-free for over a month now, and wow, do I feel so much better.  It makes me wonder why it took me so long, but oh well.  We had a few things going on.

The last time I went gluten-free was in South Asia, in a desperate attempt to get to the bottom of my illness, and I blogged about it here.  I can’t even describe how much easier it is to follow a gluten-free diet in the U.S.  It’s not just the access to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, with their glorious gluten-free aisles, but it’s also having several friends around me who follow a similar diet, with whom I can regularly debrief, commiserate, and get inspired with.

But I will never, ever forget my girl friends in South Asia: Keli and Maggie and Asha and Alison and Priya and Amanda.  Those amazing ladies cheered me on and cooked for me and scoured our city for gluten-free products.  And I’ll never forget my friends and family back home, who encouraged me and spent their hard-earned money to send me gluten-free care packages.  I still get a little teary when I think about how well-loved I was in those hard, hard days.

So anyway.

I feel great.  While my headaches and my stomach feel much better, the biggest difference is a little hard to describe: it’s this clearness in my whole body.  I guess the opposite would be feeling like I was achey and in a fog before.  I’m gaining more and more energy, and when I go jogging I have so much more stamina.  It feels wonderful.

I’ve cheated several times, at least once a week probably (it nearly always happens when we’re eating out).  But I feel so crummy afterward (usually a bad headache the next day), that the temptations to cheat are losing their power.

I’m also for the most part dairy-free.  For some reason that’s the hard one this time around.  Mostly because English Breakfast tea had replaced my morning cup of coffee and I must have milk in my English Breakfast tea.  I haven’t found a coffee-replacement I just love, and that’s hard.  I treat myself to decaf sometimes when I’m out, but there’s still a low point every single morning when I wake up and face the lack of coffee.  Pathetic, I know.

Are you ready for the moment of truth?

I’m tired.

I love feeling so great, I love our journey toward a whole foods diet.  But, friends, it’s hard.

I wish I could write a post that tells you it’s every bit as easy to cook from scratch and eat a healthful diet.

But I can’t.  It’s a lot more work.  The latest thing I did away with is breakfast cereal.  Just went ahead and stopped buying it.  So now I wake up and my day starts with cooking–a full breakfast for my kids (usually fruit and eggs and homemade bread).  I’m not asking my family to eat gluten-free this time around, so often mealtimes involve cooking separate things for them and myself.  And although there are endless gluten-free options in the supermarket, most don’t fit the definition of “whole food” (single ingredient), or “minimally processed” (five ingredients or less, no preservatives).

We have no dishwasher.  So between the cooking and the washing dishes, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

I realize that I sound so whiny right now, or like I’m trying impress you with my domesticity.  I’m not at all.  Just trying to keep it real.  It’s a lot of work and some days I bitterly resent the work.  Some days I bitterly resent pulling a loaf of piping hot whole wheat bread from the oven and not even getting to taste it.

There.

But you know what?

Somehow, even with all the work, I feel more committed than ever to our food journey.  I’m seeing the results in our family, and I like what I see.  Not only am I feeling way better on my diet, but taking away packaged/processed foods is slowly but surely changing the kids.

They are willing to try new things more readily.  Both have become huge fruit fans.  It’s a slow process, mind you, filled with lots of complaining.  But I really, really do see a difference in them.  I love having conversations about why it’s important to eat whole foods regularly and save others just for fun treats, how it fuels their body and helps them grow big and strong.

And, underneath all the tiredness and complaining, I find I’m enjoying food more than ever now.  I’ve come alive to the taste of all the fruits and vegetables we’re eating, I’m enjoying trying new recipes.  Cooking becomes simpler with quality ingredients.  Food genuinely inspires me in a way it never did before.

So why am I telling you all this?  I guess just to say: I’m a real person.  I love our new lifestyle, but I also get exhausted by it.  To those of you who beat yourselves up for not making more changes to your family’s eating habits: don’t.  To my friends who are working full-time or preggo or nursing a baby or running around after a toddler, I say, “Give yourself a break.  You have your hands full as it is!”  You can make these changes when the time is right.  Or very slowly.

David regularly brings me back to reality by saying, “Remember, let’s focus on the positive–let’s still enjoy that Five Guys burger and also keep trying to slowly add good foods to our home.”  And he also brings me back by saying, “I think it’s a boxed cereal kinda week.”  I’m so thankful for him.



everyday granola.

My in-laws’ house is the comforting smell of granola, baking golden in the oven.  It’s Mom Gentino’s floppy aluminum pans that I think she’s re-used years past the point any normal person would and that I’ve scrubbed my share of times.  It’s a snack of the nutty-crumbly goodness in a tiny china bowl with milk, or tucked in plain yogurt with a drizzle of honey.

His mom’s everyday granola is one of the things my husband most anticipates about returning home, and something I’ve promised myself to get in the habit of making for the past eight years.

One day, one day I’ll do it.  In the meantime, David took matters into his own hands this week, and when the kids and I returned from the zoo yesterday, the house was full of that familiar, happy smell, the smell that says all is right in the world.

Shari and David and I crunched on it by the hand-full straight from the pan yesterday evening.  David and I poured ourselves a bowl as an 10:00 snack while watching Chopped last night.  And all four of us gobbled it up with yogurt first thing this morning.

Yum.

Mom’s Maple Granola
(original recipe from King Arthur Flour, with lots of modifications)

8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (if you’re avoiding gluten, buy gluten-free oats to be safe)
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup almonds, whole or sliced
1 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped
1 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Combine dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl whisk the wet ingredients.  Pour syrup mix over dry mix, stirring and tossing till everything is very well combined.

Spread the granola over 2 large bakings sheets with rims and lined with parchment paper.

Bake one hour.  Turn off oven.  Stir and return to oven for another hour or overnight.