Monday, September 28, 2009

Simply Filling Foods

Weight Watchers has a food plan where you don't have to count points for everything you eat. You eat from the Filling Foods list, follow a few rules, and only count points if you eat foods that aren't on the list. Sounds easy, but the key to having that plan work is to stop eating when you've had enough. Well, knowing how much is "enough" is my biggest problem. However, I'm planning to try it, anyway.

My reasoning is that following that plan will force me to be more aware of how hungry I am and when I'm done eating. I can't just rely on the point count to tell me when to stop eating. And I won't end up eating more than I want "because I have to eat all of my points". Plus, I'd rather not have to calculate the points for everything I eat.

It seems restrictive because of the rules. I don't like food restrictions, except that when I look at what I eat, most of what I eat is from the Filling Foods list. I'm already choosing to eat mostly from that list because it's mostly whole foods. There are some foods that I'll have to count points for, mainly bread and full-fat dairy. I really don't like nonfat dairy products. They're not very satisfying.

One thing that could be a problem is the way they handle starchy foods. No breads, not even whole grain breads, are considered to be a Filling Food. Baking bread is my specialty. So, I'll do what I do now and use my weekly point allowance to cover my homemade bread. Most days I only eat one slice with breakfast, anyway. Whole wheat pasta or potatoes or brown rice can only be eaten once a day, although you can have other types of grains, like polenta or quinoa, at other meals. It makes it kind of hard when you eat out or at pot lucks and so on, since so many pot luck main dishes are based around pasta or potatoes. I'll have to plan in advance for those times.

It will be really interesting creating recipes using this food plan. I can see that there will be some challenges, but I also see that it will be easier in some ways. A lot of my favorite recipes will fit right in. Others will need a bit of tweaking, but it will be fun to figure out how to make them work.

Tomorrow I'm cooking some meals for a friend who's pregnant. She can't stand the smells of cooking, but when it's prepared for her, she can eat a lot more types of foods without getting nauseous. So we worked out some things and she or her husband will be picking them up tomorrow evening. And I have to bake bread. My sourdough starter needs refreshing and we're almost out of the bread I baked a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

20# Gone

My total weight loss is 20# since last June. That's an average of about 5 pounds per month. That's a nice, steady pace.

I think quick weight loss is an awful goal for many reasons. If you're losing weight to improve your overall health, then trying to lose weight in a unhealthy way seems counterproductive. Then there's all the research that says if you lose it too fast, first it's excess water. Then instead of burning fat, you lose your own muscle tissue. That's also counterproductive to good health.

But that's not why I prefer to lose slowly. I prefer to lose slowly because it gives me time to build (or rebuild) habits that will help me keep it off. Some of what I do is based on things that worked in the past. But a lot of what I'm doing now is in response to living in a culture that promotes weight gain.

It's easier to lose weight if you stay home and make your own food. But that's not a realistic lifestyle for the average person. Although we're not eating out these days, I discovered a couple of new strategies for dealing with restaurant food before Paul was laid off. The problems with restaurant food are mainly the amount of fat they use and the enormous portions they serve. I deal with the fat by eating small amounts of the higher calorie items and getting all dressings, sauces, etc. on the side. Then I get to pick how much of them I eat.

I deal with the portion sizes by getting a separate, small plate. Then I take about a third of what's on the serving-size plate they've given me. I eat that. Usually, it's plenty of food, especially if I've eaten a salad or soup to start with. The rest goes home and I get two or three more meals from it. The other strategy for dealing with portion sizes is to share. Even with sharing, we usually have food to take home.

Another strategy is to use my overall food philosophy--go for the veggies. I always order a salad or vegetable soup. It fills me up and makes it easier to eat smaller portions of the main course. Sometimes I substitute veggies for French fries, depending on what's available. There's no point if the vegetable dishes are all drenched in a butter sauce.

The traditional advice is to order plain steamed vegetables. But they usually aren't cooked properly and are unappetizing. They make me feel like I'm "on a diet". That "on a diet" feeling is hard for me because it makes me feel like I'm being punished for having a body that tends toward fatness. That's a killer for me, psychologically. It makes me want to pig out on high-calorie foods. So, I lose weight better if I eat reasonable-sized portions of foods I like (which includes properly-cooked steamed vegetables).

I'm learning to eat differently if I want dessert, too. If I'm just wanting a taste, a bite or two, I don't worry about it. But if I want a reasonable serving, I don't order a high-calorie main course. I'll have soup and salad and eat lightly the rest of the day (or the next day, if the meal out wasn't planned in advance.)

What's interesting about all of the above is that so much of it is traditional advice I never could figure out how to follow before. I don't want to eat so differently from the people around me that I'm advertising, "I'm trying to lose weight". It's that "punishment feeling" again. I much prefer that it appear that I'm eating the same as everyone else and I stopped eating because I got full.

That's probably why the current Weight Watcher program works so well for me, as well as so many other people. If you plan carefully and make good choices, you can eat like everyone else, just not as much food as the big people. I'm an average height woman with a medium build. I don't need as much food as a woman who's 6' tall and big boned. The problem is learning how much food is the amount my particular body needs. I'm working on it and feel like I finally have some good guidelines.

Friday, September 11, 2009

So Much for the Cooking Project

Well, it looks like I'm going to have to give up on doing anything like my Cute Cooking or Cooking in Miniature idea for now. Or any other project that's just playing because I can't afford to experiment. My cooking project will have to be eating fresh food on a super tight budget.

So, today's cooking will be to do something with the food I bought before I fell this past week and bruised my ribs. One of the biggest issues with cooking for two people is that there is a lot of food that doesn't come in packages sized for two people. The cheapest stuff is usually sized in huge quantities, which was great when I had growing boys living with me. Planning carefully helps because I can make multiple recipes that use the same ingredients.

That dilemma kind of inspired my cute cooking idea. The biggest problem I have is lack of freezer space. If I can buy ingredients for two servings and cook that much, I don't have leftovers to take up space in my freezer. I can then cook and freeze things like rice and beans blanch produce that comes in bunches and oatmeal and bread and stock--ingredients or meals that can be thawed and used when I have less time to cook a whole meal from scratch. That was the theory, anyway.

Experimenting with recipes and food will have to be put off for a time when I have the budget. It's disappointing because I was getting excited about having some fun in my kitchen. I'd been putting a lot of things off that I wanted to try because I wasn't sure about Paul's employment situation. Then he got his benefits and everything was set up for the long haul and I was thinking about doing fun stuff. But with yet another layoff, that's not happening. Time to move back into super frugal budget mode. We're being way more frugal at this point because whether he gets unemployment is really iffy and we may need to have as much as possible to move somewhere else. Who knows where? Our options are pretty limited at this point, but we're always open to workable ideas.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Weight Loss Lessons


I've lost about 20 pounds since I started taking the train to work. I first lost a few pounds from just walking to and from the train. When I exercise, even a moderate amount, my appetite goes down. This happened back a few years ago when Paul and I started walking the track near my mom's house. I lost between 20 and 30 pounds. Then I stayed the same until we moved. I had to stop walking because there was nowhere except sidewalk and I was getting muscle cramps on the fronts of my legs. I gained most of the weight back.

So, when I started losing again, I decided to do more than just adding exercise to my life. I rejoined Weight Watchers, using their online tools. I get my support from online groups and friends and family. I don't find the meetings help me, personally, very much. I tend to tune it all out because I've been there, done that.

Also, I get tired of people's games to make the scale as low as possible each week. People wear special clothes. Take off their shoes. Even make sure they use the toilet right before they weigh in. Some people don't eat before a meeting. It's crazy!! I don't want to get sucked into compulsive, crazy behavior. If that's what it takes, I'd rather stay fat.

Plus, I get frustrated with recipes and food advice because that's another kind of game. You win the game by getting the most food for the fewest points regardless of the nutritional value of your meal. The fact is that what people are really trying to do is to lose weight without making any real changes. The diet food industry is rife with fake foods that mimic the foods people don't want to give up in order to lose weight.

Weight Watchers sell food that's not as high in nutritional value as the fresh food they promote as being healthier. Yet, despite their healthy eating advice, they don't really want you to eat only fresh food because they make a lot of money from selling you their food products. The last time I attended meethings, part of the meeting time was spent promoting Weight Watchers products and I'd prefer to skip that. I ignore the ads when I'm online.

Lessons Learned So Far

The main thing I've learned is that a lot of the advice the professionals give you is true, but until you experience it for yourself, you don't really believe it. And I learned that a lot of research needs to be done into the effect of female hormones on weight.


1. When I was growing up, my mom decided how much food went on the plate and we were expected to eat it all. If there were leftovers, but not enough to save or the leftovers would tempt her too much, she'd beg everyone else to eat them whether we were hungry or not. Consequently, I have no idea how to know when I'm full. I'm used to eating to overfull.

I decided to try an experiment and not put a bite in my mouth until I've swallowed the previous bite. I still forget. Old habits die hard. But I'm getting more consistent with this. The result: I feel full and more satisfied on less food because I'm eating more slowly. This is especially beneficial when eating higher-calorie foods because they require eating super small portions. A side benefit is that I'm more aware of the flavors in my food and that helps me become a better cook.

2. When I grew up and discovered that canned vegetables were not the only way to get vegetables, I discovered that I love vegetables. So, now I go for the fruits and veggies. I'm starting to base my meals more around the veggies and fruits, adding whole grains, protein, and some fat to them. I'm not a vegetarian, but when I make a meat-based main dish, I keep the portion small so I can have a lot of vegetable dishes, too. This strategy allows me to eat a reasonable volume of food and still lose weight. However, I'm discovering that the total volume of food I'm eating is a lot less. I get full faster when I eat this way, especially when I use whole grains.

3. Whole grains are amazing. When I put one serving of white rice or regular pasta or white bread on my plate and eat it, I feel neither full nor satisfied. I need two or three portions for that. But, when I put one serving of whole grain bread, whole grain rice, or whole wheat pasta on my plate, not only am I both full and satisfied, sometimes I can't finish it because it's too much food.

I think one of the main problems people have with whole grains is unfamiliarity with them combined with the poor quality of a lot of the whole grain products, particularly breads, in the markets. You have to keep trying different types and brands to find what you like. When I first tried whole wheat pastas, they were horrible. But now I prefer them because the quality has improved since then. I solve the whole grain bread issue by making my own. Baking bread is one of the pleasures in my life, so that's a no-brainer for me.

4. Beans are one of my favorite foods. I've always liked them and I've been trying out new varieties lately. They really fill you up. I love to add them to pureed vegetable soups because they also thicken the soup. What I've discovered is that when you buy beans at Whole Foods or any store that has a lot of vegetarian customers, they're fresher and take less time to cook. When I eat beans several times a week, I tend to lose more weight than when I don't. I'm not saying that beans cause weight loss, but they probably keep the total calories lower because they're so filling.

5. I'm eating a lot more vegetarian meals these days because it's cheaper. This will be an especially crucial issue as Paul and I deal with yet one more time he's been laid off. I don't want this to derail my weight loss efforts, so I'm going to have to plan meals carefully, keeping the budget in mind.

Time magazine had a disturbing article recently called Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. They were talking about how difficult it is to eat a standard American diet and not gain weight. And how the agriculture and industry's subsidies allow them to make cheap, but unhealthy food. I haven't figured out how I'm going to continue to eat high-quality, healthful food on my now super-limited budget, but I'm not giving up on it, at least not while I still have a kitchen of my own to cook in.

6. The food thing is really all about portion control and balancing high-calorie and low-calorie foods. Weight Watchers says that you don't have to give up foods you love in order to lose weight. But when people talk about the program, they talk about OP foods. OP stands for On Program. That implies that there are foods that are off program. They usually mean the foods that have been pounded into our brain as being bad. But Weight Watchers is right. You can eat whatever you want, but you have to be willing to change the portion size and what you eat with it. You have to balance your food over time and you have to learn what balance works best for you.

An example: You can eat real macaroni and cheese, just not a huge bowl full. If you make it with whole wheat pasta, which is how I like it, and add some vegetables, you can eat a nice-sized portion. If you just want the comfort food, without adding veggies to the dish itself, you eat a smaller serving. Then, fill the meal out with a vegetable soup or a vegetable side dish and a salad. That's plenty of food.

The problem is that we don't think of macaroni and cheese as the main course. We eat it with high-calorie hot dogs or hamburgers and buns. If I want a hot dog or hamburger and bun, I pair it with grilled corn and watermelon, plus a salad. And I've discovered that one slider-sized hamburger is plenty, especially if I make the buns myself.

My point is that I've been rethinking what constitutes a healthy, satisfying menu and coming up with a very different combination of foods from what I grew up with. It more closely resembles the types of foods recommended by professional nutritionists, with one major exception--I eat mostly whole fat dairy products. I don't like low-fat dairy. I don't substitute cup for cup, though. When I eat whole milk yogurt, I eat a quarter of a cup with fruit and granola. I couldn't eat a whole cup of it. It's too filling.

7. As for the hormone thing, before I stopped having the monthly hormone swings, I lost about 50 pounds, twice. But then I got stuck gaining and losing the same 5 pounds every month. I gave up and gradually regained some of that weight back. I never got back up to my highest weight ever. I managed to permanently keep off about 20-25 pounds. Back then it was all or nothing. You were a failure if you didn't get to the goal they set, and those goals were unrealistically low. Now, you're encouraged to set more reasonable goals and you don't feel like a failure if you've lost a significant amount of weight, but not every pound the experts say someone of your height and gender ought to lose.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the hormone thing--now that I don't have those monthly food cravings, anxiety, etc., my weight loss has been steady, as has my ability to adhere to the program. If I were a researcher working in the field of obesity, that's an area I'd love to examine. One of the things everyone knows about weight loss is that it's harder after menopause. I'm not so sure that's true for everyone. Thus far, it's not been true for me.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Easy Chicken Recipe

I made this last night. It's super good and super easy. This isn't the kind of recipe that needs to be exact, so adjust it for however many people you're cooking for. I baked it in the oven, but it would be a perfect grilled chicken dish for a Labor Day weekend barbecue because it's not very labor-intensive.

Lemon Chicken


Note: The amounts given are for about 2 pounds of chicken pieces, which is about 4 whole chicken legs. Adjust the ingredient amounts up or down according to your tastes and how much chicken you're cooking.

1. 4 whole chicken legs, or 2 pounds chicken pieces.
2. Approximately 2 cloves of garlic. How much garlic you use depends on how big the cloves are and how much you like garlic.
3. Salt and pepper
4. About 1/2 cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped.
5. 3 lemons, juiced, for about 2 pounds of chicken. If you're feeding a crowd, add more lemon juice, as needed, to marinate the chicken. Juice it through a sieve so you can catch the pits. Don't throw out the rinds.


1. Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Put in a large bowl. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Rub it into the chicken. Make sure the garlic is rubbed over all the chicken pieces.

2. Pour the lemon juice into the bowl and turn the chicken pieces to make sure they're all coated with the juice. Add the lemon rinds to the bowl. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour, two is better. Every half hour or so, pull the bowl out and turn and rub the chicken pieces with the marinade.

You could marinate the chicken overnight, but it doesn't need that long and rubbing the marinade into the chicken periodically gives it deeper flavor. But, if you want to cook it after you get home from work, do the marinade in the morning. Give the chicken a good rub before you leave. Again, when you get home, give it a good rub and let it sit a bit longer while you heat the oven and prep whatever you're eating with the dish.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

4. Take the chicken out of the marinade. Throw out the marinade and lemon rinds. Coat the chicken lightly with olive oil. I don't waste extra virgin olive oil on this type of recipe because it doesn't really add anything to the dish. I use a light olive oil and spray it with my Misto. Then I use my hands to rub the sprayed oil evenly over the chicken. You only need enough oil to keep the chicken from sticking to the rack and promote browning.

5. Put skin side down on the rack. Bake 20-30 minutes, depending on how big the chicken pieces are. Turn over and bake another 20-30 minutes, until done. Check the chicken about 10 minutes before they're done. If it's not browning enough, turn the heat up to 400°F for the last 10 minutes.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Julia Child's Book

Here's another post I started before concert week:

I'm not even trying to cook this week. It's concert week and I'm in charge of the box office. I'm working a lot of hours. So, we're baking potatoes on the grill. We're grilling steak and chicken. We're going to use the cooked meat and potatoes as the basis for quick meals. Tonight, though, it's the traditional steak, salad, and baked potato meal. It's yummy and simple. We both got home after 5, so we didn't want to fuss a lot.

I've been really glad to see Mastering the Art of French Cooking get the attention it deserves. She wrote something special. It's headed for the top of the NYT bestseller list this week, 40-some years after it was first published. I hope people don't buy it, leaf through it, and put it on their shelves to cook from "when they have more time". Her recipes are indeed time-consuming. I bet she'd have loved the slow food movement. Here's a link to Slow Food USA, in case you're interested in the American version or want to find a chapter you could participate in.

Back to the book. If you cook from it, you will learn so much about good cooking techniques. And, if you study the recipe variations, you can learn a lot about creating your own food. People are often intimidated by the idea of not following a recipe exactly. If you look at the types of changes she makes in the variations, you can start to get a feel for what changes will work and what won't.

I've noticed two interesting things about what she wrote. First, her recipes are supposed to serve six people, assuming a three-course meal that was standard in America when she was writing. She says that in France, they'd have six courses and the portions would be half as large. The six courses are hors d'oeuvre, soup, salad, main course, cheese and dessert. As you go through the book, she mentions what recipes would be good hors d'oeuvres for a dinner and they're pretty much vegetable dishes. The cheese and dessert courses are at the end of the meal, so you would most likely be too full to eat too much of them. By dividing the meal up into courses, you take longer to eat, so you're more aware of being full before you've eaten too much.

I think the French paradox thing makes perfect sense when you look at that eating pattern. (The French paradox=eating more saturated fat, whole fat cheeses and dairy and so on, but not getting fat or having a lot of heart attacks. Small portions that include a lot of vegetables and taking a long time to eat mean you're less likely to overeat. But I digress, and that could easily be another post.

I wonder if even the French today cook that many courses for dinner. You'd have to spend all day cooking. That would be fun, but most people have to work. I like small portions of a variety of tastes. So, my personal preference is to do soup, salad, main course/sides and fresh fruit. That's really hard to find the time to do, even with doing some advance cooking, so I don't often get my preference. The Tables for Eight group from my church gets the benefit of my love of multi-course meals. I usually substitute a dessert for the fruit and add some pre-dinner munchies, since it's a dinner party.

Second, she has such a reputation for loving butter and cream that everyone thinks she cooks super-high-fat, unhealthy food. But when you read the recipes, she doesn't add fat willy-nilly. She uses the right amount to get the results she wants. She carefully pours off or removes extra fat because she doesn't want greasy food. Her philosophy was that we shouldn't be afraid of our food. That's a philosophy I agree with, but have struggled with most of my life due to an upbringing that was drenched in being afraid of food.

I very much enjoyed reading the book. Yeah, I'm one of those weird people who reads through cookbooks the way I read novels. I'm definitely going to be cooking from it. I'm thinking about having a fall dinner party with Boeuf Bourguignon as the centerpiece. After going to see Julie and Julia, Paul asked me if I'd ever cooked it. I had, but not Julia Child's version because I didn't have the cookbook at that time. It was a gift from my son who worked in a used bookstore for a few years. Someone gave it to the store and no one wanted it. He gave it a good home.

Local Eating

One of the things I'm doing today is catching up on things that were put aside while I worked a ton of extra hours. The concerts were amazing! So, here's one post I started around mid-August.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life which tells of her family's attempts to eat only food they've grown themselves on a farm they bought in Virginia. The locavore movement refers to eating locally grown food, but the definition of "locally grown food" seems to be up to the individual. If you scroll down the page, you come across the definition of "locavore" and the radius seems to be 50, 100, or 150 miles from where you live. I'd heard 100 miles was kind of the standard.

Paul had talked about eating meals centered around locally grown vegetables. We had an interesting conversation about eating only locally produced food. He said he didn't mean to eat only local foods, but rather to use local foods, specifically vegetables, as the center of the menu. I started thinking about the 100-mile thing and wondered what foods are available from within a 100-mile radius of here. I decided to research it, just because I'm a curious person.

So, I got a cardboard wheel from Amazon that shows what's local to the San Francisco Bay Area and when it's in season. It's called The Local Foods Wheel and it's by Maggie Gosselin, Sarah Klein, and Jessica Prentice. Their website: Local Foods Wheel. It's pretty amazing to see that I could, theoretically, get almost anything I want to eat from somewhere local to this area. Tropical fruits like bananas, pineapple, etc. are, as I expected, not on the wheel. There are some things I've never heard of, like burdock root and cardoons. Did you know there's a plant called jujube? And you thought it was just a candy.

I doubt I'll be eating exclusively locally produced food. It would be an interesting exercise to try it for a year, hitting every season, but I don't have the resources to do this. I'd need a car and the time to go to the farmer's markets, farms themselves, and other sources to purchase locally grown food. What I do now is to choose locally grown and produced food whenever possible. It helps that they post signs saying where your food comes from.

In my quest for the best ingredients, because the best ingredients make the best food, I also try to use organic whenever I can. I've noticed that organic is fresher and more flavorful. And local organic is often the best. It's more expensive, but my strategy is to eat more vegetarian meals and to cook from scratch. I don't spend my money or calories on junk food very often. Organic junk food is still junk food. But that's an issue for another post, another time, if I feel like ranting.

I've had some time to think about this whole idea and what I want to do is to use the wheel to help me plan meals that are in season. That can be tough. I subscribe to several food magazines and they send the October issue in late August, so the magazines hitting my mailbox now are full of fall braises and stews. But it's still summer, with late-summer food in the markets.

I'm thinking of storing magazines away by month and pulling them out when that season gets here, so I'm not tempted to cook food that's not yet in season. That's more expensive, as well as not as good because the ingredients aren't at their peak. It's not yet time for braised short ribs and root vegetables. Right now is the time to enjoy tomatoes, peaches, and corn, before they go out of season.