Mindful Label Reading

So many people I know are better than I am at this whole healthy eating thing, but other friends of mine are admittedly operating at a novice level in the food awareness department.  They get lost in the “organic only-vegan-raw-gluten free-paleo-tojuiceornottojuice-dairy free” constant stream of information.  Some people have an epiphany and literally overnight go into a flurry of pantry purging and start from scratch.  For others (me) it takes years to arrive at a level of label reading at which they can feel 90% comfortable with the purchases they make (the problem is not knowing things farther up the chain that are not explicitly labeled).

I personally have always looked for trans fat.  My father (who knows something about just about everything) somehow ingrained into my 10 year old mind the fact that hydrogenated oils in snack cookies were bad.  He definitely still ate many cookies, but he was fairly stubborn about avoiding that one ingredient.  So I would dutifully keep an eye out for it too.

Then, about 10 years go, my (boyfriend, not yet) husband and I had put on the 60+hr work week equivalent of the “Freshman 15” that accompanies the life of consultants due to the ’round the clock ordering in (and perhaps a few beers when you finally emerge at 9 pm into the warm Chicago evening after 17 straight hours of staring at spreadsheets in roughly 45 degree, recycled skyscraper air).   We had a vacation planned and wanted to slim down.  As a result,  I must give credit to the South Beach fad of the early 2000s for getting me in the habit of looking at the back of the box, not the front, in making my food decisions, and to shop the perimeter.

We just felt much better in our bathing suits!

The irony here, of course, being that the “South Beach” label then proceeded to be licensed out and placed on the boxes of highly processed fake sugar containing diet foods  of the store … boo! hiss!

Once you’re in the habit of reading labels, you can make educated decisions about what you’re eating.  In my case, I know what sorts of things are complete deal breakers (in my book, HFCS and trans fats because they are just plain insulting to their sugar, butter, and lard counterparts … and food dyes because they are unnatural, and neither add any meaningful flavor nor are good for you).  Likewise, I can decide what foods are middle ground that can go on the 20% side of my 80/20 lifestyle.  Yes, this includes the occasional Panera chocolate chip bagel for breakfast, because I really enjoy it.  The good news here is that I have to plan it into my morning and go out of my way to get one … and buying more than one never makes sense because they just aren’t as good the next day (similar strategy = putting my chocolate bar in the freezer so it has to thaw before it’s edible).

I have no willpower when it comes to chocolate
I have no willpower when it comes to chocolate

Perhaps you already are the equivalent of a Label Reading Black Belt.  Maybe you are just starting out.  If you are the latter, and want today to be the day you get your white belt, and start practicing better shopping, your homework is twofold.

  1. Turn your boxes around and start reading the ingredients.  Not the labels with health claims on the front.  Not the nutrition box with the somewhat meaningless stats, but the ingredients list.  Just read.  Extra credit for actually using that information, plus your gut feelings, to steer your purchases.
  2. Start keeping track of what you buy the most of “down the aisles”…  not only is this often the least healthy, but it’s often the biggest suck on the budget.  You definitely are benefiting from economies of scale on the ingredient procurement, but packaged goods require not only the ingredients, but also the labor, packaging, shipping, warehousing, marketing, and transportation …  So I will explore over time how to weigh your options here (sometimes it’s as easy as just choosing private label).

You know how in yoga or meditation the teacher will ask you to scan your body, and bring awareness to any area that feels discomfort?  This homework is sort of the grocery shopping equivalent.  Just be mindful.

Now, knowing what REALLY is behind each ingredient, and its impact on your health is way more complicated.  But for now, keep it simple and stick to the  great-grandma test.   I like to think about whether a family in the early 1900s would have been able to somehow recreate it.

I truly am very grateful that, due to our country’s fantastic infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities, I don’t have to make everything from scratch (it allows me time to do so many other things I enjoy).  Here is one example of an easy supermarket find.  Scratch made pasta is delish and may be a fun kitchen experiment.  But for a regular weeknight, you could easily buy a pasta from someone that has done the work for you, with just one ingredient.   There are tons that fit the bill.  Here are a few:

One ingredient pastas courtesy of my pantry hoard. Some are “Whole durum wheat flour”, others are “Durum wheat semolina.” Purchased from (clockwise from top) Costco, Roundy’s, Trader Joe’s, and Peapod.com. That’s an ingredient list even I can memorize.

(I know, I know … there are some things that not only might be easy to make, but also taste better, are cheaper, AND are healthier.  In this case I say do it.  Win. Win. Win.)

Part of my motivation to co-create GNP was the desire to help my friends who wanted to eat cleaner food but didn’t know where to begin.   If you are a “make a change overnight” type person, ready to more drastically dive in, that’s awesome!  The homework above won’t even scratch the surface of ways you can shop smarter.  Lisa over at 100 Days of Real Food is about as perfect as it comes in the Real Food department, and has some awesome rules to follow.  She also has a 14 week mini-pledge approach that helps break it down into steps.  If you’re slower to change, then still read it … bookmark it, and it can be a great goal to set for yourself … eventually.

Each person is different, and each has different tastes, different budgets, and different priorities.  No matter what, if it is a priority to you to eat in a more healthful way, then it is very possible.  Just start increasing your awareness, and the rest will follow.

What is something in an ingredient list that surprised you?

Laura Sig

What’s for dinner?

A successful dinner.  Dinner isn't always this good.
A successful dinner. Dinner isn’t always this good.

Have you ever had that 5:29 pm conversation with your significant other where someone asks, “What’s for dinner?”  Then the response, “I don’t know.  What do you feel like?”  This is followed by hemming and hawing and harrumphing.  For us, it’s also followed by someone picking up take-out.  We can’t even easily decide on what to get for take-out!   I blame decision fatigue, and if you haven’t heard of this concept, you need to check it out.

My day involves hundreds (probably more) of decisions.  These are typically small at home and big decisions at work, but my days at home have so much more variability and options that the small decisions wear me out (Decision fatigue, my friends!!).  “Cereal or pancakes for breakfast?”  “Apple or blueberries for snack?” “Go for a run or take the dog for a walk?” “Take the baby to the library or the pool”  And what to wear and which chores to tackle, etc, etc.  By the time I get around to dealing with dinner, my brain has shut down.  My poor husband – this is the point in the day that we get to spend time together.  I have so much respect for the full-time Work-At-Home-Mothers who are able to do this job gracefully.

At any rate, I’m in search of a sustainable dinner solution.  Right now, I try to make a weekly menu, and then I try to buy all the ingredients (I consistently forget something.  Usually it’s something minor.  Every now and then it’s the main ingredient).  If I’m really lucky, dinner can be made in a crockpot, started before work, and is ready when we get home.   What’s a busy mom to do?  I’ve drooled over Once a Month Mom.


via Once a Month Mom

Their collection of recipes looks yummy and the concept is tempting.  I’m just not convinced I can secure an entire day to prep or that I have the freezer space necessary.   I’ve also been clued into Fresh 20.    Bless these people and their organized, healthy meal plans.  What I need is an organized approach to my own recipes.  We are a family of fairly picky eaters.  (I’m talking about the two adults, not the toddler.)

A not-uncommon site at dinnertime
A not-uncommon site at dinnertime

A possible solution is to compose my own list of family recipes, put it in excel and do a “Once a Month Mom” approach to our own menu.  Except maybe “Once a Week” and cut back on the prep time and freezer space needed.  Oh, bother.  I can’t decide what to do.  It is the end of the day, after all.  :)

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions!   Laura, what do you do for dinner that keeps your sanity?

Emily sig

What’s with all the kale salads, Mom?!

Thai Inspired Kale Salad | Good Not Perfect

That’s a direct quote from my 4 year old last week at dinner.   Well, I’m glad she asked.

Honestly, a year ago I wouldn’t have known what to do with kale.  I don’t know exactly what prompted it … but it had something to do with a combination of hearing this story on Chicago Public Radio over my lunch break, trying to incorporate some recipes from the Mediterranean Diet book (<-affiliate link) I had downloaded on my Kindle, and a new babysitter who likes to cook for us sometimes and made me a kale salad one night (I’m spoiled).  Whatever it was, all of a sudden it became important to me to eat kale.

Thai Inspired Kale Salad | Good Not Perfect

I quickly noticed I wasn’t the only one who discovered kale this year … I might actually be kind of late to the bandwagon.  See this article in Well+Good NYC, or one of the roughly 19 bazillion Pinterest pins dedicated to this leafy green (including some beautiful looking recipes, like this or this from a few food bloggers who could definitely teach me a thing or two).

It’s surprisingly versatile.  Plus, if you want your efforts in the kitchen to last beyond one meal, it’s such a durable green that you can keep the leftovers for the next meal (with the dressing on) and it doesn’t turn into mush.  Oh, and p.s. it’s a “superfood.”

So here’s where most kale salad recipes seem to start.

Kale Salad Base | Good Not Perfect

In a large mixing bowl, add the above ingredients.  I measure kale as 4 cups after I press it down a bit (equates to almost a full bunch the way mine comes packaged).  Massage well with your hands for several minutes.  Let sit for awhile.  The more you massage, the softer the kale.

If you think standard kale is too tough, turns out Red Russian kale is thinner and sweeter.  I (sort of) grew some in my little mini garden this year (direct result of hearing that Ecomyths story on the radio about what you can actually grow in Chicago through November), not because I knew any better … just because it was the only type of kale plant they had at the only nursery I set foot in this year.


Unfortunately the aphids and caterpillars also really liked it so I have not exactly ended up with much.  But on the bright side, I discovered I am very good at farming caterpillars.  Maybe the kale plants will flourish this fall (wishful thinking?).

So, for most of my salads I’m working with an approximate ratio of 2 leaves of my delicious sweet Red Russian kale to roughly 3.5 cups of standard grocery store kale.  Today it’s all grocery store kale.

From this point you can go almost any direction with your kale salad (so I imagine).   I, to this point, have kept it to approximately two variations (which, come to think of it, may be why my 4 year old is complaining).  Here is one of them, originally inspired by this but then substantially modified to be more Thai like.  It reminds me of a lettuce wrap appetizer at the little Thai restaurant back in Bloomington.

Thai Inspired Kale Salad | Good Not Perfect


Thai Inspired Kale Salad
Author: Laura
Crowd pleasing kale salad – great “intro to kale” for the non-believers.
  • Laura’s Kale Base (see above)
  • 2 TB orange juice
  • 1 TB lemon juice or lime juice
  • 1 TB balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 4 shredded carrots
  • 3 TB minced red onion
  • 3/4 cup sunflower seeds (we have PN/TN allergy)
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 2/3 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 TB soy sauce (optional for soy free)
  1. Massage kale with salt and olive oil, toss all other ingredients in. Best (but not necessary) if prepared a few hours in advance to let the flavors soak in.

Peanuts would give its more authentic flavor if your house isn’t peanut free like ours.  You could add dried pineapple, shrimp, or any other Thai inspired element as well.

The picture above shows the entire recipe, it serves 2 generous entree sized salads or a perfect size side for a larger group.

The best part is that there is not a bunch of chopping involved.  And carrots, raisins, sunflower seeds … well, actually almost everything in the recipe has a long shelf life so it is not something you have to remember to shop for.  Just leave the cilantro out if you don’t have it.  It is still quite good.  And that, my friends, is precisely why I keep coming back to this same recipe.   Almost.  Every.  Week.

I hope my coworker likes it, because she may also get to eat it once a week for the next two months.

So, drum roll please … how much did I save by bringing my lunch?  I did the math based on my grocery store’s prices with no fancy shopping, price comparing, coupons, or buying in bulk (I am rarely very diligent about this with small-ticket grocery items), and the entire salad costs $7.30 (all organic ingredients) or $5.93 (conventional).  Interestingly, the largest price difference for organic vs. non organic was the raisins (37% more for organic).  Raisin pricing is actually quite interesting, so who knows what other dynamics are at play.  But I digress.  Bottom line, it appears I fed two of us an organic kale salad for the price of one (very reasonable, non-organic) restaurant salad.  That’s good in my book.

Here it is, ready for the coworker lunch share:


Are you already on the kale bandwagon?  I’m going to be up to my waist in kale once my mini-garden takes off in October (right?), so in the meantime, send any good recipes my way.  Just no kale chip recipes, because that is soooo 2012.

Laura Sig

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