recent finds for your lunch

I wanted to briefly share a few spectacular products that have been really helping me start off the new year in a great direction. One of my small goals for 2014 was to not only get my budget more in check, but to eat healthier during the work hours. We have an incredible cafeteria where I work, so it’s quite tempting (and very easy) to wander over and pick up a fresh salad or grilled item. However, this adds up quickly — as do quick stops in the morning for a latte or spiced chai (because I’m one of those people who never really enjoys coffee she makes herself).

20 oz Lunch Crock-Pot Food Warmer
(Buy at Amazon)

This little contraption has been an absolute delight for me. I’ve made this cabbage soup recipe (+ black beans for protein) and this Asian vegetable soup recipe (+ tofu) countless times and froze portions in 2 cup containers. A quick thaw in the refrigerator overnight and, ta-da, I’m ready for lunch! Simply plug it in at your desk in the morning and, in 3 or 4 hours, your food has been gradually warmed up vs. an unappetizing zap from a microwave. I bring the inner compartment home every night and leave the actual crock-pot on my desk, but it does come with a carrying handle for easy transport. Keep in mind that this is only for reheating food, not cooking it — no raw products can be added. It’s wonderful for leftovers and saves you from waiting in line for the microwave at the office (plus, things just taste better in it). I’ve found a new love for canned soups, as well, thanks to this little thing — Progresso’s Light Zesty Southwestern-Style Vegetable is a particular favorite (just make sure to add your own spices to zap it up!). It comes in a variety of colors and can be found on Amazon for quite cheap. Several various colors are usually less expensive, as well — I scored mine in pink for $19.00 at one point. Keep an eye out on it at Amazon and you could likely find it even cheaper. Replaceable inner-tins and lids can be found at Crock-Pot’s official site. Be prepared to answer questions when people are intrigued by it sitting on your desk!

BUILT Neoprene Gourmet Getaway Lunch Tote
(Buy at Amazon)

While this seems like quite the silly addition as it’s “just a lunch bag,” I wanted to list it as I’ve definitely found more use out of this neoprene lunch tote than any other bag I’ve used. First and foremost, it stores a ton. It can stretch around frozen meal containers and its zipper will easily zip if stuffed to the very top. It is lightweight and durable — which is so important for everyday use. It comes in a variety of patterns, which make it very easy to find a jam-packed office refrigerator. It comes in different sizes, but I’d recommend the gourmet size if you carry both breakfast and lunch with you frequently — it is not too big and, most importantly, not too small.

FOR LIFE Tall Tea Mug with Infuser/Lid
(Buy at Amazon)

A friend of mine had such a sweet smelling drink at her desk — loose-leaf tea! “Yuck,” I thought. I’d never been able to get on the tea train, particularly because the bagged tea-bags that I tried from various stores always lacked flavor. I’d find myself using 2-3 tea bags and still not be satisfied with the taste. After a visit to a local tea shop, I picked up two varieties of loose-leaf tea and this handy mug, which makes steeping  your loose-leaf tea very easy and also allows you to do so without using a million tea bags. It was a bit more expensive locally, but Amazon has a ton of colors to choose from (if you have no preference on color, I’d suggest browsing through the colors as they all have different prices — may snag a great deal!). You can also invert the top of the lid to rest the infuser on, as well, which makes things even more convenient. The only suggestion I would have is, if you’re planning to drink black tea, to avoid the white color (which is what I chose) as it stains very easily.

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fresh finds for your taste-buds

I’ve been searching for summer-friendly recipes that don’t require me to fire up my oven and heat up the house. Once 70 degrees rolls around (and I should note — when it actually stays, unlike the freak May snowfall we had this year), I crave cool fruits, spiced up salads, and grilled favorites at all hours of the day. Below are some of my recent favorite discoveries. Enjoy!

  • Easy Sesame Noodles from Let’s Dish: Adapted from The Pioneer Woman’s Simple Sesame Noodles, Danelle offers a few suggestions for those of us who may not have hot chili oil or canola oil in our cupboards: substitute olive oil and hot water, along with red pepper flakes. I also added a dash of sriracha sauce — a delicious hot sauce that I discovered during a trip to Noodles and Company. I love it and even put it on pizza!
  • Healthy No Bake Granola Bars from Minimalist Baker: 5 ingredients. Yes, you’re reading correctly: 5! I had never worked with dates before, but found them by the dried fruit in our produce area at our local Hy-Vee. My boyfriend works at another Hy-Vee and commented that they’re located in the baking aisle in his, so be sure to check both locations. These were incredibly easy.  I didn’t have salted peanut butter on hand, so I just added some sea salt to the top before popping them in the freezer. I also added a few pinches of cinnamon as I’ve been trying to get rid of the 78 cinnamon containers on my spice rack (I seem to forget that I already have cinnamon on hand when a recipe calls for it). They’ve definitely changed my breakfast life. I’m not a fan of breakfast food, but it’s important to eat a little something to avoid the embarrassing stomach grrrrowling at your desk. I’ll never buy store-bought granola bars again. Really.
  • Healthy Peanut Butter, Banana, and Honey Milkshake from An Edible Mosaic: If I could eat ice cream every minute of my life, I would. This is a delicious chilled treat that has the consistency of ice cream, but is much better for you. I added a few chocolate chips to the top and, bingo, my Game of Thrones viewing just became that much better. The serving amount is plenty, too.
  • Grilled (or roasted!) Cabbage from Green Lite Bites: My mom makes stove-top fried cabbage with vinegar and this is the next best thing! I often forget about cabbage being a grilling vegetable, so this was a wonderful reminder.
  • Raspberry Tiramisu from Sophistimom: A great no-bake dessert for summer! This would be perfect for a 4th of July celebration (you could use raspberries and blueberries to fashion an edible flag — ugh, I’ve looked at Pinterest too much recently), a pot-luck, or just forever at home within your refrigerator.

Let’s not forget liquid recipes! I purchased a new Infuser Water Bottle (note: at time of purchase, it was cheaper to order on manufacture’s web site vs. Amazon) a few days ago and am looking forward to trying raspberry, mint, kiwi, and strawberries in my water. Goodbye, Propel Grape Water! I will not miss you. Find over 50 ideas of what to flavor your water with on over at 52 Kitchen Adventures.

new finds from trader joe’s

Unfortunately, I live a little more than twenty minutes away from a Trader Joe’s. Coupled with my often lazy approach to weekend grocery shopping, this means that Trader Joe’s isn’t a constant in my life. However, today’s trip made me want to make a rapid change to my shopping routine.

My favorite thing about the store has got to be their produce section. Prior to visiting, I always had this stereotype in my mind: Trader Joe’s is organic. Trader Joe’s is funky. There’s no way that Sarah can afford Trader Joe’s on her budget. She’ll stick to clipping coupons, thank you very much. However, I couldn’t be more wrong! If you’ve never been to a Trader Joe’s, you would be surprised at the prices and freshness of their produce.

First of all, I love things that have their own package that allows the product to retain quality without dirtying a tupperware container. Trader Joe’s Healthy 8 Chopped Veggie Mix is perfect for my weekly salads — diced slices of broccoli, carrots, green cabbage, red cabbage, jicama, green bell pepper, radish, and celery. This rang in under $3 for me. No longer do I need to spend more than that on individual vegetables nor do I need to mess with chopping them on my cutting board. This was perfect! Add this mix with some crisp romaine lettuce for under $1.50 and a packaged box of “Pearl Tomatoes” (think cute little mini on-the-vine tomatoes) for $2 and you’re set. Oh, and one more thing: their Reduced Fat Cilantro Dressing is to die for. Honestly, I even want to marinade with it. Try it!

The freezer section in this store is daunting and quite large. There’s so many different types of products — some that make you think “hmm,” but I managed to find our guilty pleasures (Garlic Fries, Mac and Cheese Bites) and a few new items, too: Tofu Edamame Nuggets, Shells with Brie and Asparagus, and their version of Veggie Sticks (50 sticks per serving – yowza! – and, I swear, they taste similar to McDonald’s french fries). Their Shells with Brie and Asparagus might look like your average microwaveable meal, but it is anything but. Cook it in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes and it comes out piping hot and bubbly. When I studied abroad in Scotland, they had so many interesting cheeses available at small shops like our Subway or Quizno’s. Brie was available at no extra charge! Now, whenever I see brie cheese, I always think of how delightful (and dangerous!) that must be to be able to pick anything your heart desires each time… on a baguette. Oh, the horror!

Something that I always, always forget until the last minute when I’m at the cash register and have to awkwardly excuse myself for half a second while my items are being scanned is their lovely flower section. My living room table is now home to a little succulent.

What products have you found at Trader Joe’s that have now become a staple in your home?

the healthy substitute for pasta salad

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the archenemy to those creamy pasta salads that you find conveniently between every other dish at potlucks. I’ve loathed Mr. Pasta Salad for years. He’s always creeping in and tempting me to oblivion (in which case, I most always give in). Today’s recipe comes courtesy of Weight Watchers and, beware, it’s something radically different — or, at least it was to me: Summer Vegetable and Farro Salad.

Summer Vegetable and Farro Salad
(Click here for cooking directions and nutritional information)

  • 3/4 cup(s) uncooked farro
  • 1/4 tsp table salt, for cooking farro
  • 2 cup(s) water
  • 2 medium corn on the cob, kernels removed (about 1 cup) – if not available, use frozen
  • 3/4 cup(s) uncooked zucchini, diced
  • 1/4 cup(s) fat-free plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup(s) reduced-calorie mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup(s) dill, fresh, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp uncooked shallot(s), minced
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp table salt – for dressing
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper, freshly ground – for dressing
  • 2 medium plum tomato(es), diced (or about 1 cup diced ripe tomato)

First and foremost, let’s address the obvious: what in the world is Farro? Farro, to me, is reason that pasta is shaking in its boots due to this recipe. While it’s more of a grain and most would consider it more of a cousin to rice or couscous, I’m not going to swing that way. I really think it tastes like firmer pieces of pasta and was quite surprised by the result.

If you’re looking for something much lighter that definitely celebrates the freshness that is summer, do give this recipe a try! The farro may be a bit difficult to find in your supermarket; for me, it was located in the health food section on the bottom shelf, hanging out below the rice. It was very reasonably priced and I felt completely comfortable purchasing it, unlike with recipes that call for “gourmet-type” ingredients that make me cringe at the price. I hope that you find success with your farro, too!

Note that the recipe calls for uncooked zucchini and corn. I rebelled and cooked the corn, but left the zucchini raw. I’m also impatient, so I didn’t let the farro cool off for very long. In doing so, I believe it cooked the zucchini a tiny bit, which was nice. It was crisp, but not soggy. I nearly substituted the zucchini for cucumber while purchasing my ingredients, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would have made the salad far too soggy. As always, as shown above, I tend to randomly roughly chop vs. finely dice. Rest assured, you’re fine quickly whipping this up and throwing it in the fridge. No amount of precision required!

the itch to bake

I woke up several times throughout the night to a thunderstorm — much-needed rain! However, this Sunday afternoon clearly has “lazy” written all over it: damp ground, surprisingly cool weather, and wide-open windows. This type of weather always stirs that naughty beast inside me — the one who wants to make Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cake with about six times the amount of chocolate the recipe calls for.

Having recently started another bout of Weight Watchers to shed the additional ten pounds that I’d like to see evaporate before a tropical vacation this fall, I went on an online scavenger hunt for healthy-minded baked goodies. After several detours (Caramel Corn Bars or Red Velvet Brownies, anyone?), I settled on making some type of muffin. Originally, I planned to make Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Muffins, but then I stared at my checking account and realized that, despite the ease of the multi-purpose ingredients, there’s no way I was adding buttermilk or buying yogurt that I wouldn’t finish throughout the week. Sure, there were different varieties out there, but they all called for several ingredients that I didn’t readily have. Somewhere between “Hmm, I bet buttermilk would taste really great!” and “Ugh, chocolate chips!,” I settled on Gina’s Low Fat Peanut Butter Banana Muffins that I’m now affectionately referring to Skinny Elvis Muffins.

Note: the recipe calls for Better’n Peanut Butter. I had never heard of this product before, so after a quick look around, the common consensus was that I’d have to drive 25 minutes to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods to find it. Wrong! I found this at my local Target for just under $6. Yes, yes… I know what you’re thinking! $6 for peanut butter that isn’t even real peanut butter and is just a giant faker? There’s no way that tastes remotely good. Wrong again! While it doesn’t taste exactly like the peanut butter I’ve grown to love, it’s surprisingly close with a lot less fat per serving. When baked, I couldn’t tell the difference at all.

They started out looking a bit sad, so I quickly dashed (clearly, I should have sprinkled) cinnamon to half of the batch. Ignore the silly store-bought muffin tins. I haven’t bothered to buy more than one muffin tin after I threw away the 157 year-old tins that my grandmother gave me and I wanted these puppies to bake at the same time.

They came out moist and delicious — I love the little bit of peanut butter in the middle, too. It feels like a treat but, at 161 calories per muffin with a great source of protein, they’re good for you, too. I’ll likely be eating one for breakfast each day this week.

Peanut Butter Banana Muffins (Skinny Elvis Muffins!) from Skinny Taste
(Click here for cooking directions and nutritional information)

Ingredients:

  • 3 ripe medium bananas
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened apple sauce
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 10 tbsp Better’n peanut butter (divided into 8 tablespoons and 2 tablespoons)
  • Cinnamon (optional)

lunching it, frozen-style

I’m always on the lookout for lunch ideas for the office that are easy and nutritious. Unfortunately, in the past, those convenient microwave meals that are all the rage haven’t been an option for me. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve always been weird about meat in such mass-produced products. How do I know it’s really quality chicken? No offense to anyone who works in the food industry or at such companies, but I just can’t trust it. It’s not appetizing to me. Something in the back of my mind whispers to me as the culprit dangles from my fork: “There’s no way that’s chicken, Sarah.”

Fortunately, the Freeze-and-Serve Meal Giants have come up with some wonderful options that don’t just consist of plain macaroni and cheese or alfredo and broccoli (although they’re still available, too). Kudos to them as, let’s be frank: the vegetarian consumer isn’t exactly their most prominent customer and experimenting with any sort of unique flavor has to have some guy in a pinstripe tuxedo vehemently shaking his head. So, thanks to the executive who has my back.

LeanCuisine has created a new line of products under their VeggieCuisine line featuring Gardenin chick’n stripes. My absolute favorite is their Indian-Style Masala. I cannot tell you how many eyebrows are raised at me in the break room when I pull this out from the depths of the freezer. Tofu-type bits in a frozen meal? Ew. Their opinion changes after they smell the final product, though. The consistency of the chick’n is nothing like tofu to me, either.

I’ll be the first to admit that it might not initially sound appetizing to a carnivore but, at 290 calories, I can easily pair this with a side of grapes and I’m set to conquer the day. It’s definitely not too spicy, either. Try finding a manufacturer’s coupon in the 4-for-$ variety that are consistently available on the Internet. Be brave and you just might be surprised!

Recently, I wandered into the vegetarian aisle in the faaaar back of our local Target. In fact, had I not been so daring, I would have never discovered LightLife’s Amaz’n Asian Sesame Chik’n. It was tucked away on a frozen entrée shelf far above everything else; I had to stand on the edges of my toes to even see it. I’m sure I looked ridiculous.

What surprised me the most about this meal was, not only the taste, but the portion. For an average diet, a slop of noodles the size of a deck of cards on a plastic tray isn’t enough to satisfy until dinner. In this meal, veggie chik’n pieces are combined with water chestnuts, carrots, and snap peas in a sweet sesame sauce over a bunch of Asian-style noodles. I’m not one for snacking, so I always try to find something that will calm my appetite until after I’m home from work because it’s embarrassing to be the girl in the office whose stomach is grrrowling so loudly at her computer that her neighbor can hear it over their iPod. I honestly felt as if I didn’t need any side of fruit with this meal. It was impressive… particularly at 260 calories! For my taste buds, it needed some salt and pepper to spice it up a bit, but it was impressive… particularly at 260 calories!

Finally, something that came as a bit of a surprise to me was MorningStar Farms’ Spicy Black Bean Burger. I know what you’re thinking. Why in the world would I eat a meatless burger that pretends to taste like meat if I don’t have to? I think this is a fair question to ask, particularly if you’re not a vegetarian. Why would you try this product if you have no problem consuming hamburger?

Well, for one, they’re extremely convenient to prepare without worrying about raw meat. Sure, you could buy a pre-cooked hamburger or turkey patty and get similar results, but I’ve found that most do not have such a wide array of flavors. I actually enjoy the taste of these over meat when it comes to topping them on lunch salads or heating one up and eating it plain with a bit of salsa on it (tip: the 120 calorie a pop Spicy Black Bean flavor is already a firecracker on its own). With several different flavors to choose from (asian, turkey-inspired, tomato and basil, etc), my “kitchen sink” salads have certainly seen refreshed days. I should mention that do not easily fall prey to freezer burn… you know, if you actually leave the package wide open in the freezer for several days. Just saying.

These are my own opinions and I wasn’t compensated in any way to sing the praises of these products. They’re just that tasty to me and, hopefully, you’ll not absent-mindedly walk past them the next time you come across the frozen food aisle if you’re interested in jazzing up your lunch routine.

the big w: weight

I spent the better part of my adolescence overweight. I can vividly recall the moment when I was sitting on armrest of my grandmother’s recliner with her when I was roughly 8 or 9 and she leaned over to me with a frustrated look on her face as I was obviously making her (or the chair) uncomfortable: “Just how much do you weigh?,” she asked with her nose crinkled up. To her credit, I’m sure she didn’t think that I’d remember her comment the day after, let alone 18 years after. I love my grandmother more than words can express, but comments such as hers would repeat themselves in my mind for years after-the-fact. Throughout high school, I spent every moment wondering how I looked to others; I’d nervously tug on my shirt, fearing it was too tight. I didn’t wear a shirt that went below the neckline until after I graduated high school. Part of me could blame it on my horrid fashion sense, but most of it amounts to insecurity (and a serious lack of fashion definition from my parents — thanks, mom!).

University started off differently. My freshman year was as adventurous as most: I wore black stilettos to class, skipped far too much class, and pierced my nose against my parents’ wishes. I majored in English Literature, eagerly clinging to topics to write about, often making half-hearted blogs revolving around “Dear Abby” topics in where I analyzed my life to a far too serious degree. Between sophomore and senior year, for reasons that felt out of my control, a mild dose of Lexapro became my new best friend. Within those three years, I gained 50 pounds. As I look back, it was as if I stepped on the scale as a size 10 and found myself as a size 16. I honestly cannot recall a transition period.

After graduation, I, like countless others, failed to find a successful job within 6 months. Within the span of the summer and a few months, I dropped 40 pounds due to becoming more active during a store opening at my college job in doing nothing more than moving boxes, stuffing my face less, and walking, walking, walking.

In March of 2010, I relocated to Iowa without a job (a leap of faith that is not recommended to everyone). I moved into a tiny apartment with my boyfriend and spent the summer wasting my paychecks on trying out nearly every restaurant within a 30 mile radius of Des Moines. Iowa has wonderful food! Not to mention, I finally had my “own” kitchen and began experimenting with recipes that included copious amounts of butter. Mmm, butter.

In July of 2011, I was 10 pounds heavier and finding it difficult to rid myself of my excess weight.  After a successful bout with Weight Watchers, I shed the 10 pounds and am currently still attempting to drop a few more as my body fluctuates back and forth. You’re probably thinking: oh, great, another blog about a skinny girl attempting to maintain. Pleeeease. Trust me, I’ve had the same thought and have tired of the same type of writing in the past. But, I feel it’s important to be embarrassingly honest: when push comes to shove, I’ll grab that mini cupcake sitting on the ledge of my desk whispering “eaaat me, eaaaaaaat me” when a co-worker brings their latest baking adventure to sample at work. After all, there’s no way I’ll be sprawled across my death-bed thinking: “Damn, I wish I ate less ice cream.” What I’m coming to realize is that food is pleasure, not a controlling force. It’s something I’m trying to remember every day.

Inspirational/helpful/quirky reads devoted to all things food and lifestyle:

P.S. My most recent enemy is The Food Network. All of their scrumptious shows are addictive and, once I see a dish on The Best Thing I’ve Ever Made or flip to an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins,and Dives, I’m left with an intense desire to cook, bake, or run to my local Dairy Queen and snab some ice cream because a contestant on Chopped decided to be overly ambitious and make a sorbet.