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There’s No Place Like Home Ec

girl stirringFor those of us lucky (or old) enough to have a school with a broad curriculum, home economics was a class unlike any other.  I remember it vividly as a strange combination of sewing animal shaped pillows and mixing chocolate chip cookie batter.  Although it was arguably the most applicable to “real life” class we took our freshman year in high school, it was regarded with disdain, disgust, and annoyance by the study body as a whole.  Especially among the boys.  But at least cookies were served.

As a kid, I learned both sewing and cooking from my mom.  I enjoyed them in their own ways and saw my class experience as a dumbed down version of both.  I never felt the annoyance that the other kids felt, but I was also never inspired by the little old woman holding up the owl pattern in front of my desk.  Like most things when you’re 15, it was unclear to any of us why it mattered.  Yet, by the end of the semester, even the boys held up their pillows proudly and donned aprons to avoid getting flour on their jeans.  For some, who had never even turned on an oven, it was an awakening.

Today, most schools have removed these programs in favor of something, anything “more important”.  Apparently cookies and pillows don’t support a college resume like Chemistry or French.  But, as this article in Cooking Light explains, “we’re so focused on getting kids ready for college, but we’re not preparing them for life.”  In “Bring Back Home Ec!” Hillari Dowdle cites the belief that this absence in education may contribute to the tripling of childhood obesity rate since 1980.  “Prevention is more powerful than treatment,” it goes on to warn us.  Until nutrition and education are reunited, it’s up to us, as parents to teach our kids the life skills that will help them grow up to be healthy, capable adults.

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Ahhh for Aloe – Nature’s Healing Secret (Inside and Out)

aloeI remember heading over to my grandmother’s house when I was a kid and the first thing I encountered upon walking through her door was this giant aloe plant.  It’s broad, spiky leaves overarched and poured out of its pot looking like a botanical giant with welcoming arms (or ones to suck me into some unknown world).  I was always fascinated by this creature my grandmother kept as one of her prized possessions –namely because she would  cut open a leaf and spread it’s gelatinous contents over whatever came in her path…and many times, that was me or one of my many cousins.  Cut knee?  Aloe smear.  Burned arm from touching the stove when told not to 5,000 times?  Aloe smear.  Stomach ache?  Eat a snack with aloe mixed in with it.  Taking a bath?  Smear aloe all over your hair and let it sit for 10 minutes.  Feeling OK?  Eat some aloe anyway.  This got a little confusing when I thought I could smear on me or eat the contents of any plant I came across (and believe me, I ran the gamut from acorn and petunia soup to poison ivy tissues).  At the time, I never really appreciated how awesome natural remedies are.  My grandmother would try and explain to us that her Native American grandmother used aloe all of the time and how wonderful it was for anything, which is why she had her aloe plant.  She said her grandmother would use the aloe gel on her skin and hair to keep it looking young and vibrant. Who knows if that was really true, but since I wanted to be cool like my Cherokee Indian ancestors, I went along with the gig and walked around most of the time at my grandmother’s looking like I was attacked by a swamp slug.  Truth be told, aloe vera is a superfood gift from the ancient Egyptians who first discovered the magic of this food and bred into most of the plants we see today.  Cleopatra’s rumored beauty and youth is tied directly to her application of aloe vera to her skin.  Knowing what I know now about health and nutrition, I fully appreciate the incredible healing powers aloe has.  PLEASE NOTE THAT DUE TO ITS STRONG EFFECTS IN CLEANSING THE LIVER, PREGANNT WOMEN AND YOUNG CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 2 SHOULD NOT TAKE ALOE VERA INTERNALLY (BUT THEY ARE FINE IN USING IT AS A TOPICAL HEALER) If your kids are too young to eat aloe, don’t fret – wait until they are older than two and gradually add a little to their foods.  They can still benefit from using it on their skin and seeing you be a healthy adult by eating it.

We use aloe on a daily basis in my house and here are some reasons why (SOURCE: “Superfoods”):

  • Aloe is one of the most nutritious vegetables on the planet.  Each leaf of fresh aloe vera contains a mucous-like gel which is a potent source of polysaccharides (long-chain sugars).
  • The gel of raw aloe vera contains vitamins A,C, and E, the minerals sulfur, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and chromium, as well as antioxidants, fiber, amino acids, enzymes, sterols, lignins, and most importantly, polysaccharides.
  • Aloe’s polysaccharides not only provide steady energy over time, but have a special lubricating effect on several important parts of the human body – the joints, brain and nervous system, and skin.
  • The polysaccharides in aloe vera also have very effective immune-enhancing effects – they allow the human immune system to fight back chronic viral, nanobacteria, and fungal infections.
  • When ingested, aloe vera helps you gain lean muscle mass.
  • Boost your digestive health with the power of aloe vera – it can help with all types of digestive problems and can aid in the recovery from digestive illnesses like colitis, ulcers, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).  Research suggests that the polysaccharides in aloe vera are responsible for the calming effects on digestion.
    • Aloe helps regenerate healthy epithelial cells that line our inner digestive system.
    • Aloe cuts and dissolves mucous in the intestines, which helps increase nutrient absorption.
    • Aloe’s mannose polysaccharide is effective at killing yeast (candida), which can help normalize pH levels in the body and help prevent recurring problems affiliated with this condition.
    • Aloe acts as a prebiotic – meaning it helps the effectiveness of probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidus.
  • Scientific studies show that aloe vera has the ability to help prevent arthritis, edema (swelling), and inflammation throughout the body.
  • Scientific studies also show that aloe vera helps stimulate the healing of damaged tissue in the body, which is extremely important for chronic disease prevention and aiding in autoimmune and allergic responses – perfect for kids with allergies!
  • The raw gel of fresh aloe vera has been shown to help stabilize blood sugar and help lessen the symptoms of diabetes.
  • Aloe’s claim to fame is hydration – just think how it survives so well in desert environments.  Aloe contains hydrogen and sulfur, which are effective at hydrating dried-out, leathery tissue (collagen damage, wrinkles, hardening of the organs, etc.).
  • Antioxidant powerhouse! Aloe vera is super awesome at activating the liver to produce glutiathione, an antioxidant that is critical to the production of white blood cells (which as we know fight off illness, disease, and destruction of the body’s healthy cells).
  • Aloe helps keep our kidneys healthy – which helps take some burden off of those special organs that work so hard at cleaning out your body.
  • Healing of the Skin – The best application is to let aloe sit on the  skin as long as possible, as just rubbing a little here and there on the skin will not be effective.  I remember my grandmother would cut open a leaf and slap the whole leaf on our skin and tell us not to take it off for as long as we could hold it on.

Aloe has been used topically to treat the following:

  • Cuts and abrasions
  • Acne
  • Athlete’s foot
  • Blemishes and brown spots
  • Burns
  • Eczema
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Jellyfish stings
  • Poison ivy and oak
  • Psoriasis
  • Rashes
  • Scarring
  • Skin allergies and infections
  • Stretch marks
  • Sunburn
  • Varicose veins
  • Wounds

Now that I hopefully convinced you to cover your body in aloe vera leaves and chew on aloe vera gel like a crazed lunatic, you’re probably wondering what’s the best way to acquire this ancient marvel of natural magic.  Aloe vera leaves are usually a 1-2 feet in length and dull-green in color.  They are “squishy”, as they are comprised of gel inside their leaves.  Aloe gel can taste bitter or it can be tasteless.  If you choose not to have a looming aloe plant at your home like my grandmother (they are actually beautiful plants), you can buy individual leaves or the gel or juice from the plant.  Try to follow these suggestions:

  • Purchase organic aloe vera
  • Select fresh leaves in preference to bottled aloe vera.  Only fresh aloe vera maintains the strong antifungal properties that aloe contains.
  • If choosing a bottled aloe vera product, try to select one that has been minimally processed, as processing damages the healing polysaccharides.
  • Select aloe leaves that are thick with gel and free of white speckles (although if the leaf does have speckles, that does not mean it’s bad).
  • You can even buy aloe vera powder (which is a great product to fight chronic bladder infections).
  • Aloe vera lotions that are minimally processed are great for the skin.

If you chose to go with the aloe vera leaf option, great choice!  Here are some things to know about how to use it –

Don’t chew on the leaf like a dinosaur (and kids may be tempted to do this).  Aside from the thorny sides, aloe is best when cut open and filleted.  Cut the portion you want to use or eat from the aloe leaf and remove the thorns on either side.  Separate the gel from the inside of the leaf skin using a knife, scraping the two apart.  Once the gel is removed from the aloe leaf, it can be eaten as is (might not taste so awesome), or you can mix it in with other foods without it being detected (I promise).  Try aloe in:

  • Smoothies
  • Salads
  • Fruit salads
  • Juices
  • Wraps

(I personally like aloe best mixed in with a smoothie)

Once the gel has been removed and filleted from the outer leaf, the thin gel remaining on the inner surface of the leaf can be applied to the skin as a lotion or soothing pack from burns.

*Aloe vera keeps best when left in a bowl in indirect light
at room temperature (NOT in the refrigerator).

I buy a decent-sized jug of aloe vera juice from Trader Joe’s that I incorporate daily into our smoothies.  I know other health food stores have different types of bottled aloe vera juice, and some products are pretty pricey, so read the label carefully to make sure you are not buying overly-processed aloe juice that ultimately will be ineffective (and a waste of money).  Some come with pulp, some don’t, some come flavored, some come tasting pretty harsh…. You have to research the labels to see if what you are buying notes that it is minimally processed (which is why buying the whole aloe vera leaf is your best bet).

Here are 2 tasty recipes to try if you’re curious:

“Avo’s Lemonade”

  • Fill a blender ¾ full of filtered or spring water
  • ½ prepared aloe leaf (remove skin, keep the gel)
  • 1 whole lemon with only the outer rind removed (keep the white pith)
  • 1 whole lime with only the outer rind removed (keep the white pith)
  • 5 pinches of sea salt
  • 2 tbsp. agave syrup OR ½ tsp stevia
  • Blend and strain; serve on ice

Strawberry Orange Aloe Drink

  • In a blender, put prepared aloe gel or about ½ – 1 cup of aloe juice
  • Add fresh orange juice (about 2-3 cups)
  • Add 1 cup organic strawberries
  • Add ½ cup goji berries
  • Blend, strain, and serve cold.  Very refreshing!

 

If ingesting aloe vera isn’t your thing or you’re not ready to try it (or your kids are not old enough yet to taste), then hopefully utilizing this natural healing powerhouse topically will bring oohs and ahs.  I love using aloe every day and I can attest to its healing properties, as I healed a pretty disturbed digestive system by adding aloe to my smoothies every day.  Besides, how cool is it for a kid to scrape gel out of a plant and be able to use it “as is” instead of some fancy cream or lotion that comes out a bottle?

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Challenge Meal #5 – White Pizza with Arugula

After cooking with only the ingredients I purchased on my shopping trip this week (minus a few exceptions, of course), I’ve realized how much I usually rely on my pantry.  There were many times I thought something from my pantry or freezer (like artichoke hearts or black beans) would’ve been a nice addition to a dish, but I had to follow the rules.  I really think the secret to making cost effective, creative meals is making (and sticking to) a meal plan and keeping a well-stocked pantry.  Shop for big-ticket items like meat and cheese and keep quick additions like beans, frozen spinach, and grains on hand at all times.

After a long week of cooking I decided to take it easy for my last meal by making pizza.  My oldest son helped out too, which was fun.  We made white pizza, but for all I know our white pizza was lacking some key ingredient that traditional white pizzas use.  We didn’t use sauce, so that’s means it’s white pizza, right?  Makes sense to me!

This meal was the cheapest by far, especially since I already had all the cheese in my refrigerator.  The dough, arugula, and lemon for the salad cost around $5.  Can’t beat that!    Read the rest of this entry »

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Challenge Meal #4 – Cilantro Lime Sweet Potato Hash with Eggs

Somehow it’s Friday again, which means another week has gone by without me catching up on laundry or getting enough packing done.  But hey, at least I’ve been cooking!  I’m usually ready to crawl into bed by the time Friday afternoon rolls around, so dinner needs to be something quick and easy.  Preferably with little clean up too, especially since our dishwasher just died.  We’re moving in three weeks and our dishwasher died.  Great timing, huh?

This cilantro lime sweet potato hash came together in about 20 minutes, which is faster than you can get pizza delivered to your door.  I was going to bake the eggs, which would have truly made this a one-pot meal, but decided it was worth cleaning another pan to save some time by pan-frying them. If your kids aren’t fans of eggs, simply serve the hash as a side dish.

Altogether this dish cost me less than $10.  Cheaper than pizza delivery too!   Read the rest of this entry »

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Challenge Meal #3 – Pasta with Garlicky Shrimp & Arugula

So Challenge Meal #1 and Meal #2 were good, but Meal #3 has been my favorite so far. It’s so simple (you’re really only cooking the shrimp and the pasta – everything else gets thrown in the pot before you serve it), it doesn’t require a lot of ingredients (but you would never guess), and it’s super light despite being a pasta dish. In fact, the pasta almost isn’t even necessary in this dish because everything else is just so delicious – the garlicky shrimp, the peppers, the creamy feta, and the wilted baby arugula. And guess how much this meal cost me? Guess! About $19! You would pay more than that in a fancy Italian restaurant for just one portion. Again, I’m amazed what a little planning can do for my wallet.

I’ve mentioned before that I like a meal to look pretty in addition to tasting good, and I happen to think that this dish is pretty easy on the eyes. Dare I say it even looks a little fancy? I think your guests would totally be impressed if you served this meal at a dinner party, and you wouldn’t even have to spend hours prepping in the kitchen.

Definitely a dinner trifecta: easy, beautiful, and delicious.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Challenge Meal #2 – Lemony Spring Vegetable Risotto

Another thing I’ve realized from this challenge is that even though you may not feel like cooking dinner one night you do it anyway because your meal plan is set and you’ve already purchased the ingredients to make those meals. Tonight was one of those nights. It was an exhausting day, but I powered through because I knew I had risotto to make. And really, what better way to end an exhausting day than with a comforting bowl of creamy risotto?   Read the rest of this entry »

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Challenge Meal #1 – Roasted Salmon with Lime Butter & Corn Salad

Thank goodness the shopping part of my challenge is over. The stress of watching the total go up, up, and up on the computer screen at Whole Foods with the beep of each item passing over the scanner was almost too much for me to handle. Now for the fun part – cooking!   Read the rest of this entry »

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5 Dinners for $50 Challenge – UPDATE!

Drum roll please! I spent a total of $75.55.   Read the rest of this entry »

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5 Dinners for $50 Challenge – Bring It On!

money

I’ve accepted a challenge to cook five dinners for $50. Sounds crazy, right? An article in Cooking Light wherein Robin Bashinsky, who works in their Test Kitchen, cooks four meals for four people for $50 inspired this seemingly impossible challenge. His rules:

• Serve four people five meals for $50
• Can’t use anything in your pantry/refrigerator except for salt, pepper, flour, sugar, and canola oil
• Keep the meals interesting

Okay, okay. I know you’re probably thinking there is nooooo way I’ll be able to do this, especially since I’ll walk into a grocery store expecting to buy avocado and milk and walk out having spent $120. I’m also a self-professed non-meal planner, so I’m really interested to see if this will help focus my shopping and budget. I’m doubtful too, believe me, but I’m always up for a challenge.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Go, Go Gadget Garden

Lucas GardenI sometimes take for granted that I live in Florida and can garden year-round, so when we moved into our new house this February and the first thing I did was build my garden, it didn’t seem odd to me that the rest of the country was gardening snow and frozen dirt. Since I was about 3 years old, I have been obsessed with gardening. It started with my great Uncle John who had this incredible vegetable garden next to my grandmother’s house. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, peppers, and lettuce. I was amazed at that age that something could grow out of the ground, be picked, and then eaten (and taste pretty darn good). Helping him with the garden was my favorite thing to do and I got the green thumb bug while most kids were still drooling on their shirts. Whether it was plodding around barefoot in the dirt for hours pulling weeds, picking fruits and vegetables or using the hose to water, I always felt like I tired myself out and really worked to help something grow.   Read the rest of this entry »

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