Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fruity Icing Recipe

Since I avoid any artificial food coloring or dyes in our foods, I have had to get creative when it comes to birthday cake. Last year, we did pink cakes for both my girls. I came up with an icing concoction that tasted really good and also turned out a very pretty pink. 

A few weeks ago, my youngest turned the big 2 years old! Since The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of her favorite books, we decided on that theme. Which meant needing green and red cupcakes…without food dye. 

 The basic concept behind this icing is butter, powdered sugar, and the juice or puree from fruit as your coloring and liquid for the frosting. Pink is a pretty easy color to achieve because you could use fruits like raspberries, cherries, or strawberries, to name a few. I haven’t tried purple yet but blueberries or blackberries would be perfect I think. But green? What do you use for green?! I’m sure at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s they have a dye free food coloring but I could find nothing of the sort at our one and only health food store or at Kroger. I thought about a mint paste or mint jelly but didn't find that either. I ended up trying lime zest and mashed kiwi for the green.

For the red color, I used organic frozen mixed berries (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry mix). I like the flecks of color you get by using the fruit pureed or mashed but in retrospect, I don't care for raspberry or blackberry seeds in my icing. So I would recommend just squeezing the juice out of these fruits (by using a strainer, cheesecloth, or coffee filter). In the end, the green was not as "green" as I was picturing and this is what our hungry little birthday caterpillar looked like:
Not exactly what I had envisioned BUT they were delicious, {semi} healthier, and the kids were happy. Ok, now that you have the background info, here is the good stuff - how you actually make the icing. 

Begin with:
2/3 cup room temperature butter
2-3 cups confectioners sugar, plus more as needed for desired thickness
Fruit in desired colors (Ideas: pink - see above; red - was thinking I should have tried cherry juice or fresh cherries, beet puree or juice; purple/lavendar - blueberries, blackberries; orange or yellow - pureed sweet potato or pumpkin). A few fruits like banana and avocado turn brown unless tossed with something acidic like lemon juice. Acidic foods curdle when mixed with dairy products so you have to be careful when mixing certain fruit combinations with butter or milk. 

Cream butter, add sugar and beat until smooth. Add fruit puree or juice, mix well, and add confectioner's sugar as needed to achieve the desired thickness of icing. This made about 2 cups of icing.

Both flavors of icing were delicious and the cupcakes themselves were very good and moist. I think my big, grown-up 2 year old liked them.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

All the colors of the rainbow

I like things to be colorful (even though I always end up buying a white shirt on the rare occasion I go shopping for new clothes...seriously, I can't stop buying them). It makes our homes look bright, flowers to be beautiful, and keeps things from looking blah. Isn't there a saying, "we eat with our eyes first," about having a colorful plate of food? A glance down the rows of produce and it is literally a rainbow of colors. But so is a bowl full of Fruit Loops. Take note: NOT all colorful foods are created equally!

(Can you see the world's shortest rainbow? We spotted this the other morning in front of our house.)

FDA approved food dyes: Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3,
Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6. 

Artificial food dye/coloring has seen a huge jump in use in the United States. Hardly surprising since our culture places so much value on the appearance of things. You can look at a bag of Skittles and obviously determine there is some food coloring involved. Did you know there is also food coloring in varieties of pickles, marshmallows, crackers/bread, oatmeals, canned beans, and many other unexpected foods? My first thought when I see food coloring being used in something as basic as beans is, "what did this look like before to require the use of dye???" I find it a bit sketchy...

What does it matter about food coloring and dyes? Dyes are derived from petroleum (yum!) and some colors contain cancer causing contaminates. Don't worry though, the FDA has set legal limits to the amounts that can be in the dye. Whew, that's a relief.... The bigger and more well known health concern with dyes has been the link to hyperactivity. I read an article once talking about the negative effects of dye and it said if you were wondering if your child was sensitive to dye, put 3 drops of red food coloring (like you use for baking) under your child's tongue and see if they experience any behavioral changes. I was never bored enough to try such an experiment but if anyone out there feels so inclined to do so, please do share how it goes :-) If you do have a child that is sensitive to food dyes, this website has more info, a place to file a report of their sensitivity, and to petition the government to ban food dyes.

Other than hyperactivity, cancer in animal studies (in a few of the dyes such as Yellow No. 5), and allergies to, there is not much else that poses huge, harmful affects from eating foods with dye. For me, I like to avoid foods that contain dyes if at all possible because they have become SO common in foods today and it is just one other chemical I would like to keep out of our family's systems. I have to come clean though and admit I can put down a bag of peanut butter M&Ms (or almond...or pretzel...or pretty much any variety M&Ms come in), which is why I only buy them occasionally :-). It is pretty easy to find food products that use natural coloring from things such as carrots and beets. The one thing I have to hunt for is vitamins! Almost every brand of chewable vitamins contains dye. I have found a brand of Disney vitamins (in princess shapes no less) and a Kroger brand that did not contain dye.

There really is no purpose or benefit to food dyes. It is used to make foods look more appealing or as a cover up. For instance, have you ever looked at the strawberry flavored instant oatmeal? Those bits of red "strawberries" are actually dried apple bits colored red (doesn't that Quaker guy know lying is wrong!?). Another reason I prefer dye-free is just to follow the concept of eating real food, the way God created it. You can't get much more bright and colorful than a juicy red watermelon, bright green kiwi, white and orange pumpkins, colorful peppers, or that yellow funny looking fruit with the spikes on idea what that is but one day I am going to try it.

So there are my thoughts on food coloring. Stay tuned for the next post on my recipes for colored icing that don't use any food coloring. You can not have little girls and not give them pretty pink birthday cakes now can you?

For more information and an in-depth study on the health effects of food dye, see Food dyes: A rainbow of risks.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Organic veggies the cheap way

Every summer when I was growing up, my dad always put in a huge garden. I loved helping plan, plant, harvest, and eat the tons of fresh vegetables that grew every summer. When my husband and I bought our first house, I was so excited to put in our own small garden in the back yard. My Miami-born and raised hubby thought this labeled him as a "farmer". Whatever you think, dear.

That was 6 years ago and between moving, kids, job, and the business of life, I haven't done a big garden since. Last year, I hated to pay so much at the farmer's market for fresh vegetables that I could have grown for a few cents! So this year, I decided to really do it and plant a garden.

Now, there are several hesitations I have about trying the gardening project this year:
1} We live out in a wooded/farmland area so the deer may eat up everything
2} Our yard has a lot of clay in the dirt and there are lots of trees
3} Baby #3 is due June 16
All of these factors, especially the 3rd one, might cause a bit of a hiccup in my vegetable producing plan but I'm going to give it a go anyway.

I am no expert on gardening and there is much about growing things that I don't know about. Thankfully, it doesn't take a lot of skill to grow a tomato plant...or 5. Even if you only grew one type of vegetable, that's one less vegetable you have to buy AND you would know it is healthy and organic because you grew it yourself! So even if you know nothing about gardening, don't be afraid to give it a try this summer. Like I said, I barely know what I am doing but here is my method this year - I'll keep you posted on how well this works...

In the past, I have bought my plants as seedlings at places like Lowes or Home Depot. I decided this time, however, to start my own plants out as seeds because it is cheaper, the plants are hardier, and this really ensures my vegetables will be organically grown. But starting your vegetables from seedlings is certainly still a great option. I made a list of what I wanted to grow and used this site to tell me when to start seeds indoors and when to plant them outside.

A few weeks ago, I started my tomato plants. They are looking good so far!

They needed to be started a few weeks before the other indoor starter plants. A couple days ago, I got everything else together and planted the rest of my indoor seeds: cucumber, pumpkin, marigolds, and squash.

A side note about the seeds. I only bought 5 or 6 seed packets. The rest of the seeds I got from several friends when we did a "seed exchange" (like doing a cookie exchange at Christmas, only with seeds). Even though seed packets are cheap, this still helped to save money. I will plant directly outside in the ground, my corn, spinach, carrots, and maybe some onion sets (these I will go ahead and get pre-started from the store) in a few weeks. I also want zucchini so one of my friends is growing those and I am growing squash. On Sundays, we are going to trade squash and zucchini with each other. These are 2 types of vegetables that grow like crazy so its a great veggie to share or trade with someone else.

Gardening is fun, and educational of course, to do with kids. I opted to do this project with my 4 year old while Miss I'm-almost-two-and-can-do-everything-all-by-myself was napping. No sense in inflicting unnecessary disaster on myself. 

I re-used clean, empty food containers as my seedling pots. The back of each seed packet (or Google) has directions on how deep to plant each type of seed. 

Cover with the amount of soil specified on the seed packet, water, and put in a sunny spot. That's it for now! I had such a cute gardening helper. ;-)

Be sure to clearly label and date each container:

Here is our little inside garden spot:

It didn't take me long to realize some of the plants would have to be moved (remember the 2 year old?). But so far, no plants have been lost! For now, we are just keeping the soil moist (I covered them with a little plastic wrap to keep the moisture a little greenhouse) and watching for little plants to emerge. 

Stay tuned!

Anyone else gardening this year?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The green clean

This has been quite the week. And by that, I don't mean, "Wow, everything went just as planned and I got so much accomplished!" Not quite. So in light of wanting start this next week off clean and fresh, I thought I would share my favorite all-natural cleaning regime.

Do you know what is one of the best, cheapest, and all natural cleaners?

Baking Soda. It's pretty amazing stuff. Otherwise known as sodium bicarbinate, it is an alkaline type of substance that reverses acidity. As a nurse, I have given many patients the liquid form of Sodium Bicarb through an IV to reverse the build up of acid in the body from life-threatening problems like inadequate breathing, or not breathing at all, diabetic acidosis, and all sorts of other problems. It is fascinating how it works in the body and how it can reverse serious conditions. That's only one spectrum of use - you can also use it for cleaning, hygiene uses, and, of course, the well known use as an air freshener. Thus baking soda can literally be used to save your life, then you can proceed to use it to brush your teeth, wash your clothes, and scrub your toilet! How great, huh?

If you are not into science stuff and stopped reading the above at the word "alkaline," you can start reading again...My best friend, Jay, {friends since we were 8 which is so hard to believe!} shared with me this concoction for making your own soft scrub. I use this to scrub out my sinks, tub, and toilets.

Here is how I make it and what you will need:

~ Empty bottle {my fav to use is empty ketchup bottles. They provide the perfect "squirtability" factor. You don't want to use any empty cleaner bottles though because of the chemicals that absorb into the plastic and can then leach out to what is put in them.}
~ Baking soda {super cheap! These were 79 cents at Kroger.}
~ Salt
~ Liquid soap
~ Funnel {I have one just for this purpose so I don't have to wash it}

I usually mix up several bottles of this at a time and keep one in each bathroom for easy access. Now, you are not making a cake or anything so there is NO exact measurements to this! You can't exactly mess this up and the worst that can happen is it can be too soapy {which I have done before}.

First, I use the funnel to fill the bottle about 2/3 full with baking soda:

Next is the salt - about 1-2 tablespoons.
Take the funnel off and squeeze in about 1-2 tsp of liquid soap. I have used Dawn, 7th Generation, Palmolive, or whatever is on hand. You just don't want to add too much because this is the part that can make it too soapy. Lastly, you add water. I prefer mine on the thin side so adjust the amount of water to how "pasty" you would like it. 
Here is how much I add:

Give it a good shake and you have some mega cheap cleaner! And, if your curious child decides to take a swig, it will only serve to reduce any stomach acid he might have and probably tastes disgusting and salty. I was going to show you the before and after of using this to clean my porcelain kitchen sink but it was already sparkling clean.

Ok, that was a total lie. I actually just didn't feel like scrubbing out the pot soaking from dinner first to get to the dirty sink to then scrub it clean. Just take my word for it; this cleaner works really well. :-)

With my homemade scrub, this is all I use to clean my bathroom & kitchen:

As you can see, my old ketchup bottle has been well used for this purpose. To clean mirrors and glass, I use white vinegar, either straight or slightly watered down. I like to use coffee filters to wipe with because they don't leave all the lint that paper towels do. I keep meaning to try one of those lint free cloths I have seen at the store but I don't think about it until I'm in the midst of house cleaning. To sanitize counter tops, faucets, & toilet seats, I really like the seventh generation multi-surface or bathroom cleaner. It uses natural oils like those from thyme to kill bacteria. This is also not too costly at less than $3 or so a bottle. For really dirty surfaces, I will squirt some scrub, spray with vinegar, and let it sit and foam for a little while before scrubbing. The scrub mixture will settle in between uses {some weeks mine gets a little extra settling time...if you know what I mean} so just be sure to give it a good shake before cleaning again. 

Speaking of which, I'm going to go do some cleaning myself before my kiddo's wake up and give new purpose to why I clean in the first place! :-) 
Happy cleaning this week!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My most favorite food product!

Here is another organic food favorite I have to share with you. This one is pretty popular and widely sold in grocery stores so you have probably seen, tried, and already eaten this. But since this is the most consumed (aside from milk) organic food item in our house, I have to add my own raves. It is:

Stonyfield Organic Yogurt

Aside from it being healthy and organic, I love this product for many reasons. 
~ It is delicious; especially my personal favorite, low-fat strawberry. Seriously, you have to try it. It tastes so good, I can never go back to eating that other kind (you know, the one that starts with "Yo" and ends with "plait").
~ It costs around $3.59 for a large, 32oz container, which is the most economic choice. It also comes in 6oz cups, 4-pack small cups for babies and toddlers, and squeezable sticks. They really have a large variety of yogurts (and other dairy products but I haven't tried all of them yet). 
~ If you go to their website and register, you can print off TONS of 0.50 off coupons. Which means if you shop at Kroger (or other stores that double coupons), you can get $1 off!
~ There are codes on the lids which you can put in under the "Stonyfield rewards" section of their website:
These points can be redeemed for all kinds of free things. I have gotten free yogurt, milk, cereal, granola bars, and magazine subscriptions. I am a fan of free things. :-)
~ This is a pretty neat company also. They are very pro-health and knowing what is in your food, anti-GMO food, and work with family farms. Their website always makes me kinda want a cow (yes, I want chickens AND a cow).

There are also many ways I use yogurt! These are my favs:
~ My girls love a bowl of yogurt for a snack, sometimes by itself or with fruit, crackers, or pretzels. 
~ In the summer time, I fill popsicle molds with 1 or 2 different flavors of yogurt and freeze them. My kids think they are the BEST popsicle treats ever! It is a healthier and cheaper option than store bought popsicles, not to mention very quick and easy.
~ I substitute yogurt for part of the milk portion called for in recipes of things like pancakes, waffles, muffins, and even biscuits. Plain yogurt and milk is a great substitute for buttermilk. 
~ It makes for really yummy smoothies. I blend up 1 banana, a couple scoops of any flavor yogurt (plain is good to keep the sugar level down), about 3/4 cup orange juice, and then about 1-2 cups of frozen fruit. This is also a favorite treat for my kids and is often a special dessert treat after dinner. 

The one negative I have to say for the low-fat flavored yogurts like strawberry or French vanilla, is the sugar content. The strawberry has 34 grams of sugar and vanilla has 28 grams but this is because they use real sugar and not artificial sweeteners. However, this is for a 1 cup serving portion, which my kids usually don't eat that much in one sitting. Also, I will mix half plain and half flavored in their snack bowls which decreases the sugar amount and they don't even notice.

There are soooo many health benefits to yogurt! Hope you and your family like to eat it and will try this organic version if you haven't done so already!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A good egg

If you thought choosing a healthy juice was tough, have you been down the egg aisle? There are so many varieties that eggs come in: white, brown, cage free, organic, free range, grain fed, vegetarian fed, extra omega 3, green eggs & ham (sorry, these are only available at Dr. Seuss' grocery store).

What is the healthiest & safest type to eat?!

First of all, let me clarify that a whole, real, out-of-the-shell egg is very healthy. Eggs are full of vitamins, proteins, and antioxidants. They do have cholesterol in them, however, the ones with higher amounts of omega 3's reportedly have lesser amounts of cholesterol. As always though, moderation and common sense are key. Finding a reputable, informative source on eggs and chickens turned out to be more difficult than boiling the perfect hard boiled egg (confession: I am completely lacking in this cooking skill). So that is why there is not my usual collection of links in this post; this is a summary of the wide variety of articles I came across. You may want to visit Mr. Google if there is a particular type of egg you want to know more about.

Color: Brown or white eggs just mean they come from white or red chickens; there is no nutritional difference. Even though "brown" foods are usually the better choice - brown rice, wheat bread, wheat pasta, chocolate (I said "better" not "healthier" ;) - this is not the case with eggs!

Standard: Your regular, plain eggs are just that; nothing extra or special to them. From what I have gathered, these chickens are in very tight quarters with less than a square foot of space per chicken. Unless they are caged, (see below section on cage-free and link to Eggland's Best) this is concerning because the closely packed chickens are more likely to catch illnesses and diseases. 

Cage Free & Free Range: While these labels are regulated for chicken, it is not regulated by the FDA for eggs. So the terms can mean that there is an open door in the chicken coop for the chickens to go outside only if they can get to the door. Some companies do specify what type of environment the chickens are in (such as Kroger's Simple Truth brand or Eggland's Best cage free varieties) so you have to read the packaging if this is an important egg quality to you. Eggland's Best also has some good information on their site with more about caged vs. cage free. It was interesting to read.

Organic: These chickens are fed only USDA organic certified feed and it has to follow all of the regulations set forth. Most of the articles I have come across state that there is no nutritional difference in these eggs but is the more environmentally friendly option. I found it interesting that it was mentioned several places about there not being any evidence of pesticides and such crossing into eggs (or there being any harm in this...supposedly) but that chickens fed the high omega 3 content produced eggs with high levels of this good nutrient. How do pesticides and preservatives not cross into eggs but omega 3's are able to? Not sure about that but I am no eggspert. 

Grain & Vegetarian Fed: I think this type of egg can fall into the same "health myth" as brown eggs. It sounds like it would be healthier, right? The problem is, chickens are omnivores and eat vegetables, grains, and meat. They really shouldn't be vegetarians because that is not how chickens were made. Also, these chickens are fed a lot of soy feeds and soy is a very common GMO food.

High in Omega 3: I mentioned this a little above but these chickens are fed a diet high in this important nutrient and it boosts this component of the eggs. These eggs are the most nutrient dense. I am thinking about switching to this type for our family as the most cost saving and healthy option. We might splurge on organic or the next type of egg occasionally though.  

Pasture raised: This would be my personal first choice of eggs. These chickens are allowed to roam around on a farm or field environment and fed healthy chicken diets. I picture these chickens being like the ones from Babe or the scene in Cinderella where she is out singing and happy little chickens come running to her. Happy chickens must lay happy eggs, right? Actually, I did read  that these did have the best nutritional content. Unfortunately, these are not always the most readily available or cheapest (our farmer's market sold them for about $3.50-$4/dozen during the summer).

That concludes the egg carton vocabulary lesson! 
Now, anyone want to go into farming with me to raise some egg laying chickens?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Just for fun: scrap paper artwork

This has nothing to do with all natural or organic food. There is nothing about pesticides or preservatives either. But this was fun {and cheap} so I thought I'd share.

I wanted something new to put over our fireplace. But I have really expensive Pottery Barn~Land of Nod~Restoration Hardware kind of expensive so finding something I would like AND could afford was highly unlikely. So I used some things I had around and came up with this:

I think I like how it turned out ~ very clean & simple:

 Although, I kinda think it needs a pretty wooden frame but that defeats the whole cheap artwork plan. It was super easy and cheap to make. Here is what you need:
~ Canvas {this one is 16x20, purchased in a package of two from Michael's on sale and with a 40% off coupon. I think it ended up being around $2 for each canvas}
~ Mod Podge
~ Paper {such as scrapbook or wrapping paper, pretty paper bags or note cards, old book pages, etc}
~ Pencil, scissors, pattern, and printed words, name or verse

I didn't take pictures as I made it because it was one of those make-it-up-as-you-go projects and I wasn't so sure how it would turn out. Basically, I just decided my design and cut bits of paper out to make the branches, then the leaves, and then the little birds. I had seen something on Pinterest with this shape bird and thought it was cute. 

Once I had laid out the cut-outs how I wanted, I secured all the pieces to the canvas with a dab of mod podge to the backs using a small paint brush.

The letters were the most time consuming. I typed up the verse in a font I liked and printed this out on a sheet of paper. 

 I followed this tutorial (scroll down towards the end of the page to get to the tracing part) to trace the letters. So the back of my sheet of paper looked like this from the pencil rubbings: 

I ended up using a pencil for the letters and to make the beaks & eyes for the birds. I liked that look but a colored pen to fill in the letters would be pretty too if you want it colorful. 
The last step is to "paint" the entire canvas over with the mod podge. It makes it shiny and seals all the paper down.

I am thinking about making some more of these canvas pictures for each of my kid's names and maybe something with old book pages. There are so many variations you could do. Technically, this could have something to do with organic living I guess...if you save money by making your own artwork, you can buy more healthy food? Okay, maybe that's a bit stretching the connection...

Stay tuned next week...I think we'll talk about chickens ~ the ones that lay eggs, not the fried and crispy kind :)