JenPlans Pro Interview Series: Professional Chef

I am so excited to kick off my Pro Interview Series! I have always been curious about what other people’s lives are like and what they’ve learned from their career path that can help others, whether it’s the culinary world, personal finance, health and fitness, mental health, business, crafting, music, home design, or anything else.

A while back, I asked my Instagram followers what they’d ask a professional chef if they had the chance, and I brought all of those questions (and more!) to the wonderful woman behind the blog, Cooking In Pearls, Lindsay Callaway.
Cooking In Pearls

Lindsay is a classically trained chef working for a corporate catering company by day and blogging by night. Between working, decorating a new house, enjoying newlywed life, Lindsay keeps busy creating new recipes and mastering old ones! Her favorite food is pizza and she considers candy a food group. Lindsay loves spending time with her family and her perfect night is spent at home with her husband and a glass of wine.

Get comfortable, grab a cup of coffee (or glass of wine!) and join us for her interview below!

What equipment/cooking tools do you think everyone should have in their kitchen and why?
Tongs, spoonula, cast iron/dutch oven, foil. Random tools but I couldn’t cook without them! Tongs are so versatile and I use them almost every time I cook. A silicone spoonula is my version of a wooden spoon. I rarely use wooden spoons because I feel like so many aromas get absorbed by the wood and I never feel like they get “clean” enough. Spoonulas are great on non-stick surfaces because they don’t scratch but they also don’t melt so you can use them for anything like stirring hot sauces and soups. I love a pan or pot that can go from stovetop to oven. Searing on the stovetop and finishing in the oven is what pro’s do, and you can do it too! Foil is amazing when it comes to clean up-anything that sticks to it just gets thrown away. I use it every chance I can!

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets and what kind of cooking pan is your go-to?
A wine opener. I couldn’t live without one! Also, a regular nonstick sauté pan is my favorite for everyday cooking. Cleanup is a breeze and cooking over-easy eggs couldn’t be easier. In addition to that, there’s nothing quite like the crust of a steak seared in a cast iron skillet. I split my time evenly between the two pans.

What foods should be in everyones fridge and pantry?
There are several things I always have on hand and those are: chicken broth, garlic, onions, pasta/rice, fresh herbs. These ingredients always come in handy for those last minute meals. The thing I love most is not knowing where I’m going to take any dish…these ingredients can be used in any cuisine type and for any day part. Of course I also always have cheese, eggs, greens, and meat…my husband wouldn’t think it’s a meal without some meat.

What skills should every home chef have?
Basic knife skills! The first thing I learned in culinary school was how to hold a knife and the proper way to use one. This simple skill will give home cooks more confidence and lower the chances of an injury!

How would you suggest improving knife skills?
At most culinary stores like a Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table there’s a knife specialist you can ask! There are also some great demos on YouTube…but I’ll post one on my blog in the near future. It’s not hard but once you can hold a knife, the rest is easy peasy!

How do you meal plan?
I find it very difficult to meal plan because I get a craving for something and have to satisfy it then and there…it’s hard to plan for cravings! I like to grocery shop on Sunday and prep anything I can so that the week starts off on an organized note. I often freeze my meat for the week and pull it the night before to thaw, that way it won’t go bad if I don’t use it within the first couple days of the week. I’d love to shop every day if I could but busy weeks don’t always allot time for that. Also, writing my weekly menu out on a chalkboard or piece of paper somehow feels more official for me which helps me stick to my planned meals but of course the last minute frozen pizza or take-out happens.

Do you ever get in a same-dinner rut? What do you do to break out?
Absolutely, it’s so easy to fall in a rut! I look through food magazines or peruse Pinterest for what looks good and I’ll put a spin on it. I also keep a running note on my phone for what sounds good so when I’m in a serious rut I look through that growing list for inspiration!

What advice would you give someone who wants to learn to cook but doesnt have any experience?
You don’t need any experience! So many great cooks don’t have any formal training but learned by observing family members cook. Grab a fun food magazine or start reading blogs. There’s great stuff out there! One thing to note is what kind of cook you are. There’s the “baker type” that want exact measurements and weights, and likes to follow a recipe to a T. I consider that group the “methodical” cook. The other side (my side) is a bit more relaxed going by a pinch here, an eyeball of a “cup” there. If you don’t have an ingredient don’t panic, just sub it out. There’s no right or wrong way but knowing what you prefer can help by finding like-minded cooks to learn from.

What would you make for a small dinner party with a few friends?
Something super easy! There’s nothing worse than slaving away in the kitchen while your guests are in another room catching up. I like to have a few snacks around, like a cheese platter, a bowl of nuts, and maybe a dip or an easy room-temperature appetizer that you can make ahead of time. The entree would depend on the season but for summer, I would say veggie and meat kabobs with some rice pilaf, and a salad. You can cook the pilaf before your guests come and hold it warm, skewer the kebobs in advance and cook them off after your guests arrive, and a salad because you can layer it in the morning and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. I would also have it outside, in a cozy setting near the grill so you don’t have to miss a thing!

Whats your favorite restaurant and menu item?
There’s a ramen spot in San Diego just down the street from the airport called Underbelly that I absolutely can’t stop thinking about. I discovered it while traveling for work several years ago and every time I travel to San Diego I have to stop there immediately after landing and go once again on my way to the airport. It’s just so good and the atmosphere is cool but I think it’s nostalgic eating out of a huge bowl with chopsticks and drinking the broth from the side of the bowl, especially since I don’t make ramen like that at home!

Whats your favorite thing to cook?
I honestly cook pretty healthy for the most part and to me, I cook quick boring stuff throughout the week! I love to cook with bright colors and vary the textures, like turkey lettuce wraps with toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced bell peppers. There’s nothing better than having a quiet weekend spent at home cooking up something delicious like hearty slow braised short ribs with risotto. Clearly, I don’t have a favorite but love any time spent in the kitchen!

What is your go-to quick and easy meal?
I think I make Mexican food at least once a week. I love tacos and fajitas and for a quick weeknight meals, these are certainly my go-to. I love roasting a whole chicken on a Sunday and shredding the meat for a quick versatile protein throughout the week. Taking the chicken and adding taco seasoning, a little chicken broth (or beer) and warming it through makes delicious tacos! I also love grilling throughout the week because it takes less than 15 minutes with almost no cleanup. BBQ chicken, burgers, flank steak, port tenderloin, the possibilities are endless!

Do you ever eat any instant food or frozen pre-cooked meals?
Of course! Frozen pizza is plentiful in my home and there’s nothing wrong with a frozen dinner. I used to look forward to nights my parents left us with a babysitter because we always got to have a TV dinner (if you don’t know what those are, shame on you!). I’ve got a sweet spot for hot pockets, toaster strudels, and bagel bites. I have no shame.

Whats your best tip for knowing when meat is done?
Thermometers aren’t always accurate depending on whether it’s calibrated or not. (What does calibrated mean? Check out my blog post on calibration to learn more!)  I like the palm method. A quick press is a good indicator. If you lightly make your hand into a fist and touch your thumb to the tip of your pinky and feel your palm near the thumb…that’s what a fully cooked piece of meat should feel like. It’s firm and bounces back when you press it. Now take your thumb to your ring finger and press your palm again, a little softer, not as tight. That’s about what medium-well feels like. Thumb to the tip of your middle finger would be about medium, and finally, your pointer finger and thumb would be about medium rare. Leave your hand limp and feel that same area, that’s what rare feels like.

Can you share any tips for grilling vegetables?
I like to get a nice char on the outside and cook it quickly so the inside is still tender with a bit of a bite. I always drizzle my veggies with a little bit of oil whether that be olive oil or coconut oil. Toss to combine and season simply with salt and pepper. This helps keep the veggies from drying out and also prevents sticking. I always cook my veggies separately than meat because they cook at different times. This is true for kebobs too, skewer meat separately from the veggies!

What kind of cooking would you recommend for someone who lives in a college dorm room with limited access to equipment?
A slow cooker. These things are amazing in so many ways! Truly a game changer. You can literally put anything in it and walk away…for hours! All you need is a cutting board, a knife, and an outlet. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and appetizers can all be made in this amazing appliance.

What knife would you recommend for a child who wants to learn to cut (supervised, of course)?
A butter spreader with a flat edge, it can cut soft items without any sharp edges. Always be around to watch little ones but it’s a great way to start them early! Have them tear lettuce, wash produce, or help stir batters. Any time they are helping you cook will get them to at least try it, since they helped make it!

If you could only keep one spice on hand (besides salt and pepper), what would it be?
Besides salt and pepper, I’d say red pepper flakes. They add just a touch of heat that I love, and adds a depth of flavor without adding sodium or fat.

What is your favorite seasoning?
Hmm…salt is a no brainer but I’m also torn between herbs de Provence and Montreal steak seasoning. I use each on just about everything. I also love cumin…a spice that seems to be very hit or miss with people’s palates.

Can you recommend an affordable knife set?
It honestly doesn’t matter what brand the knives are, it’s all about how it feels in your hand. Hold it and feel the weight, is it a comfortable grip? Is the weight manageable without feeling like it’s weighing your arm down? As long as the knives are sharp, any will do. I suggest taking them to get sharpened at least twice a year and regularly correct the blade with a honing/sharpening steel.

Big thanks to Lindsay for allowing us to peek into her life as a chef! To follow Lindsay’s cooking adventures, be sure to visit her blog, Cooking In Pearls, and follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter!

 

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I finished the Whole30! My Whole30 Results

I finished Whole30

I can’t believe I made it. I am not the kind of person who does stuff like this. (Maybe I am now?) Friends, if I can do this, anyone can.

First, I have to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who inspired me by sharing their experiences and most of all, pictures, my sweet Instagram followers for encouraging me, my wonderful husband who volunteered to do Whole30 with me so that I would have support at home, and last but not least, my brother, for challenging me to do this in the first place and giving me ideas and support along the way.

THE BACKGROUND
I wrote a little here about starting Whole30, but I want to share a bit more because I’ve had some questions since that post. (I did a full Q&A here, and shared about my first week here). Lately a lot of people have been asking why I picked Whole30 over the other popular programs out there today (the 21 Day Fix, for example). Many of you know it was my younger brother who challenged me to do it alongside him. He has done several rounds of Whole30, and in between, lives a Paleo lifestyle. He’s been asking me for almost a year to do a Whole30. I spent most of my time reading up on Whole30 and didn’t really learn much about other programs until after I started. I still would have picked Whole30.

The two programs are completely different – most notably in their purpose. Whole30 designed to teach you how foods are affecting your body and mind through food category elimination. Though weight loss is a very common side effect, it is not the goal. The 21 day fix is designed for weight loss through primarily portion control, Shakeology shakes and workouts. It’s really apples and oranges to try and compare the two. There are so many foods you’re allowed to have on the 21 day fix (dairy, soy, legumes, gluten) that are strictly off-limits during the Whole30. Both programs are helpful in their own way. Both serve a purpose. They’re just TOTALLY incomparable. I have been feeling tired, bloated, crabby, irritable, and foggy for a long time and I wanted to see if it was my diet. And that question was answered loud and clear during my Whole30.

MY EXPERIENCE
First, my starting point was near goal-weight, already eating a relatively low-calorie diet (not the best diet, but I wasn’t over-eating) and lightly exercising. I did not have a lot of weight to lose, and I didn’t experience the dramatic results on the scale as a lot of other people. My dramatic results were non-scale-related. People ask me ALL THE TIME how much weight I’ve lost, and I really didn’t lose that much – but that wasn’t the goal to begin with. I also added strength training in the last week, and I can feel that I’m retaining water as my muscles are adjusting. So, to anyone who is looking at Whole30 JUST for weight loss, yes, you will probably lose weight, and probably a lot more than I did, but you’d be missing the whole point.

PHYSICAL CHANGES     I will use all caps to tell you that I FEEL LIKE A DIFFERENT PERSON. I noticed within the first few days that I didn’t have that uncomfortable bloat that you get after a meal or the morning after having a crappy dinner. I didn’t have that 2pm exhaustion every day. For the first time EVER IN MY WHOLE LIFE, I wake up around 6/6:30 in the morning and don’t feel like crawling back into bed for the whole day. My mind is not foggy. I have so much more focus. I feel more motivated. I’m not irritable. My skin is more clear and consistent. My blood sugar doesn’t dip and spike throughout the day. I feel smaller and healthier. I have far more energy. Although I didn’t lose a significant amount of weight, I lost a lot of inches which I think I can attribute mostly to the reduction in bloat. Which is so gross to think about. I feel leaner, especially around my midsection. I feel like I lost more than the scale said I lost. Here are my changes (and for reference, I’m 5’2”):

Whole30 Before and After

Weight -2.0 lbs
Waist: -1.0”
Arm: -0.25”
Bust: -1.25”
Hips: -1.5” (this is my belly-that-carried-three-babies pooch zone. SO surprised at how much this went down.)
Butt: -0.75”
Thigh: -0.25”

For those wondering, my husband lost 7.6 lbs and all of his pants are loose! My husband is 6’1 and already pretty slender and fit, so this was a HUGE change. He had all of the other physical improvements I experienced.

MENTAL CHANGES     I crammed donuts into my face the day before Whole30 started. I thought of all the junk food I wasn’t going to be able to have and carefully planned July 1 to be a smorgasbord of crappy and delicious food. As the days passed, the crappy food started to sound gross. I felt so good that I didn’t want to screw my body up.  I went to a few parties and didn’t think about the food how I usually do. I stopped looking forward to chocolate and salty carb-loaded snacks at night and started thinking about what else I could be doing. I stopped thinking about my favorite places and where I could drive through when my kids were asleep.  I broke my addiction to bad food. <—THAT by itself was totally worth it.

Have you ever spent a lot of time reading labels? WOW. There is so much junk in what we consume. Sugar, gluten, sugar, oil, sugar…Sugar in everything. Sugar in processed meat. Sugar in nut butters. Oil in bags of nuts and seeds. Vegetable oil in my old coffee creamer. (“Here, have some coffee with vegetable oil. Yum.” Not.) I know that it’s extraordinarily difficult to read every label of everything all the time (If you’re one of my food allergy or sensitivity friends, then this is your way of life and you understand), but it’s a new habit of mine that I’ll gladly keep. I don’t want vegetable oil in my coffee. I don’t want sugar in my meat. It makes a difference in how I feel, and I’ve learned that I like feeling better more than I like that stuff (and most of the time, it doesn’t even make a difference in the flavor! So not worth it).

I think of food differently now. Food is fuel. It’s not a friend, it’s not comfort, it’s not a cure to boredom, it doesn’t make me feel better about myself, and it’s not a coping mechanism. There are so many healthy foods I skimped on or skipped on Weight Watchers (which I’m not knocking, I really overall do still love WW), because they were too high in points even though they were healthy – avocados, nut butters, nuts, olive oil, salmon) that I LOVED having without guilt. My fat intake has increased but it’s HEALTHY fat. My body needs that. By the end, I was eating SO MUCH food every day. I loved not ever having to worry about what it would do to my body. I tracked a few days just to see what the Points Plus Values would be of my days and I was EASILY 10-20 over my recommended daily intake. When you’re eating good food, though, you don’t really have to think twice about the amount. I am so thankful that I got to experience this process because I truly learned what healthy food is and how it makes me feel. I get it now. I understand why people make what seems like a HUGE sacrifice. Eating gluten-free crackers isn’t going to make you feel different. Removing gluten entirely from your diet will. Eating low-fat dairy isn’t going to make you feel different. Removing dairy entirely from your diet will. I’m not saying everyone should, I just encourage everyone who is feeling crappy to look at your diet and consider that you might be the one making yourself feel this way. I know that I absolutely was.

THE DOWNSIDES
I did not have the “perfect” Whole30. I did not cheat, but I was not perfect. I spent the first few weeks snacking (on compliant foods), which is a no-no during Whole30, because it took me a long time learn what a truly full, complete meal is for my body. I had more fruit than what is typically recommended (not that fruit is bad, but filling up on vegetables sustains you more, so it’s discouraged to fulfill hunger with a lot of fruit because it won’t satisfy your body the way that vegetables and protein and fat will). I also let an almond butter label slip by me for a week before I realized it had cane sugar in it. I only had a very small amount a few times, but I was so disappointed. I switched as soon as I realized. ALWAYS READ YOUR LABELS! Lastly, we ate at Chipotle and I got chicken and fajita veggies (with lettuce, guac and pico de gallo) before reading that they cook the chicken and vegetables in soybean oil (the carnitas are the only whole30-friendly meat option there at this time). It was my fault for not researching ahead of time. Whole30 tells you to start completely over when this happens. I chose not to.

This program takes a TREMENDOUS amount of planning and discipline. You have to be willing to say “no.” You’ll go to parties, go out to dinner, travel for work, – and you’ll have to say no to things you want. We went to several get-togethers during Whole30 and just had to eat beforehand and only pick at the things that were compliant. It was hard, but it’s only 30 days. Our friends were more than understanding. My husband travels for work frequently and he was able to stay on program the whole time. He had a lot of eggs, fruit, salads with chicken, or steak with steamed vegetables and baked potatoes. It was hard, but there is always a way if you’re determined.

Reading every label, carefully planning meals ahead of time, prepping food to have it ready when it’s time to eat because you can’t just grab a pizza or pour a bowl of cereal, – the time investment is significant in the beginning. IT IS SO WORTH IT, but it is significant. If you choose to do a Whole30, be sure to allow yourself time to learn and plan and prepare. The discipline part, well, you just have to decide whether this is worth it for you. If you’ve felt any of those things I mentioned above, I would encourage you to at least try. I was not ready to do this until last month. I was not mentally there. I wouldn’t have made it. When I finally did commit to it, I knew I was ready. If you’re already making excuses about why you’ll fail, it is not the right time to start. You need to be ready. That said, don’t stand in your own way.

WHAT NEXT?
I am doing a reintroduction (reintroducing food groups and taking note of how they make you feel in terms of bloat, headaches, stomach distress, etc) to determine exactly what foods make me feel certain ways. I will probably do the full reintroduction and then go to an 80-90% Paleo (less strict but same food groups) lifestyle afterward. I feel so much better that I can’t go back to the way I was. I want to be mostly healthy but have the freedom to splurge on special occasions. I do plan to add back coffee and creamer (I tried drinking it black but just couldn’t, so I skipped coffee for the 30 days), but I’ll be switching to a natural creamer and not the chemical/vegetable oil creamer I used before. I’ll also be cutting down to one cup a day as opposed to my typical 4-6. I had a tall nonfat caramel latte this morning from Starbucks, and my stomach was in knots, so I’m pretty positive I’m going to be cutting dairy almost entirely with the exception of a little creamer some mornings.  I’m adding tea sweetened with raw honey into the mix some days, too. I really, really missed my warm cups in the morning. I’ll also be adding back certain condiments (ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, etc) in very limited quantities. I doubt I’ll be adding gluten back in anytime soon. Maybe a donut on a special occasion 😉 And of course, I’ll add back sushi.

MEAL IDEAS
Another big question people ask is where I got meal ideas. I’m a picky eater and as a mom of three kids 5 and under, I just don’t have a lot of time to make complicated meals. I listed out some meals just based on things I liked from the food list, I searched #whole30 and #whole30 recipes on Instagram and I searched the accounts of the Whole30 people I follow. Since I didn’t eat eggs, I had fruit with either nuts, almond butter or meat (compliant bacon or prosciutto) for breakfast. Lunches were usually chicken with raw vegetables and fruit, sometimes with sweet potato rounds. I had BLTA lettuce cups a few times and Buffalo Chicken lettuce wraps with celery and green onions, too (just toss shredded chicken with a little hot sauce mixed with a little melted ghee). Dinners were either grilled, roasted or sautéed proteins (chicken, pork, steak) with roasted vegetables and potatoes. I just toss with a cooking fat (ghee, extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil), season with salt and pepper and then add any other flavors or seasonings I felt like (lime, garlic, herbs, paprika). I would say I had potatoes about half the time with dinners. We had “Addictive and Healthy Paleo Nachos” from paleogrubs.com a few times, I made meatballs and spaghetti squash with homemade pasta sauce a few times (meatballs were made with grass-fed beef, almond flour onions, one egg, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and parsley, mush together, form into golf ball sized balls and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, sauce was just a can of peeled tomatoes, onions and garlic that I softened in olive oil before adding the tomatoes, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and parsley that I simmered together then puréed) and steak-stuffed peppers (recipe at the bottom of this post). If you want to see more details and other things I ate, browse #jenplanscooks on Instagram!

IN CLOSING
I am so grateful for this experience. I never thought I could do such a restrictive program, but I found that the purpose of learning more about my body was valuable enough that it was worth it. It was only a month. I can do anything for one month!

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments! Thanks so much for reading about my experience, and I wish you the best of luck on yours!

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Breakfast Birthday Party

Donuts

It feels like yesterday that I was holding our brand new baby for the first time. Five years flew by, and it was time for another birthday party for our sweet girl. I had a few friends in Chicago do breakfast-themed birthday parties for their kids and they went over so well that I knew that was an idea I wanted to borrow. I am not a terribly creative person, so I love finding what worked for other people and then recreating it in a way that works best for my family. Summer birthday parties for kids are tough because everyone is traveling and busy, so I figured a party at 10am on a Saturday would work well for a few reasons; Everyone can come to the party and still have the rest of their weekend, breakfast food generally goes over really well with kids, and a breakfast birthday party is relatively easy to pull off. WIN!

I went really simple for this one. A few balloons on the mailbox, a few indoor decorations and low-maintenance food and drinks. Always consider how much time you have to prep when you’re planning a party!

THE FAVORS
I generally don’t give food away as favors, but I couldn’t help it this time (always be mindful of allergies or special dietary restrictions). I found these sippy cereal bowls, ribbon and spoons at Dollar Tree, the individual bags of cereal at Publix, and I made the labels with my silhouette cameo and sticker paper.

Breakfast Party Favor Materials

So easy. Just pop the cereal bag in the bowl, wrap up with ribbon, slip a spoon in there and stick your sticker on top. (“We are cereal-sly glad you could make it!”)

Breakfast Party Favors

THE DECORATIONS
The birthday girl just wanted a pink and purple theme, so we got a happy birthday banner, some table decorations and a few balloons for the mailbox (all from Dollar Tree for under $10 total).

Birthday Banner

Unfortunately, we wanted to do the party outside and have the kiddos run around in the sprinkler and play on the swingset, but we had storms all morning. Got a break in the rain just long enough to tie the balloons to the mailbox.

Balloons on mailbox

THE PREP
I do as much as I possibly can the night before (or even earlier) the party. Think of what food you’re serving, what you’re going to serve them in (again, nothing fancy, I used colorful dollar tree trays and bowls and buckets!), and how many serving pieces you need. Estimate food based on attendance so you don’t end up with too much (or too little), and prep all your food and trays the day before the party. Write out a timeline for the day of the party (8am, everyone dressed, 8:30am, wash and cut fruit, 9am, balloons on mailbox and pour ice over drinks, etc).  I enlisted the guest of honor to help do some of the prep work. She was SO excited to help!

Helping set upHelping set up

THE FOOD
I wanted a menu that would appeal to the kids and adults, was easy to prepare, and was fun. I love to cook, but I didn’t want to spend the whole party in the kitchen. I wanted to prep everything and then enjoy the party. For drinks, we had bottled water, juice boxes and coffee. For food, we served donuts from Dunkin Donuts, fresh fruit (bananas, clementines, and a bowl of strawberries and blueberries), applesauce, yogurt tubes, and bacon. Of all the food we made, the bacon was the first to go! Not surprised.

Food for Breakfast Party

Food for Breakfast Party

Food for Breakfast Party

Food for Breakfast Party

THE BIRTHDAY GIRL
She was so happy to celebrate turning five with her friends. This was our first party away from friends and family back in Chicago and it meant so much to us that neighbors and friends and classmates could be there! One happy girl: mission accomplished.

Birthday Girl

Macy's Birthday

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8 Ways to Save Time in the Kitchen

Frozen Lime Juice

Last week, I posted about freezer meals, which are a GREAT way to save time in the kitchen. I have a few more tips I’ve learned over the years that I want to share in case you aren’t already doing them! These are great for everyone, but particularly helpful for those of you who don’t have a lot of time to devote to food prep but still want to cook frequently and have a clean kitchen.

  1. Prep your veggies and meat when you get home from the store
    If you know you’re going to be making a soup, stir-fry and a roast later in the week, wash, peel and cut all of your vegetables ahead of time. Trim and divide all of your meat right away. Prepping ahead of time can cut your cooking time in half when it comes time to make the meal. When my kids are running around like crazy at 5pm when I’m trying to get dinner started, being able to pull everything out of the fridge already cut up is a HUGE time-saver and saves you a lot of clean-up time on cooking nights, too.
  1. Make a double batch when you’re cooking
    Whether you’ll use an extra batch for leftovers the next day (that’s usually what happens around here!) or freeze them for a future meal, making a double batch of whatever you’re cooking will give you an easy second meal for no extra work!
  1. Plan to make “take two” meals
    I try to make one meal a week that can be turned into a second meal (and not as leftovers). For example, when we make crock pot chicken tacos (4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, one large jar of your favorite salsa and a ½ cup of water on low all day, then shred), I use the leftover chicken in quesadillas, salads or soups at least one more time over the next few days. Great way to stretch your dollar.
  1. Buy limes and lemons and freeze the juice in covered ice cube trays
    A GREAT tip from A Bowl Full of Lemons (have you read her blog? You should!) on Instagram @abowlfulloflemons. Her example used lemons, but we cook with lime juice a lot so I used limes first. So many great recipes call for lemon or lime juice (guacamole, garlic-lime fajitas) but we don’t always have limes on-hand. Until now! Buy 10-12 lemons or limes on sale, juice them into a bowl, and pour into a covered ice cube tray (most are about 1oz, or 2 tbsp) and pop into the freezer. Once frozen, pop the cubes out and drop them into a zip-top bag and return to the freezer. Pull a few out any time you need lime or lemon juice! I’ve heard this works well too with olive oil and herbs but haven’t tried that one yet. Next on my list!
  1. Bake extra potatoes to keep in the fridge or freezer
    If you’re baking or grilling potatoes, you might as well throw another few in because they take a long time to cook and they’re cheap, so they’re a GREAT candidate for bulk cooking. What can you do with extra baked potatoes? Baked potato soup, hash browns for a weekend breakfast skillet (we’ve been LOVING this lately!), potato skins, potato salad…or any recipe that calls for already cooked potatoes. This will save you so much time later. Baked potatoes will last 5-7 days in the fridge and 6-8 months in the freezer. Just store them in zip-top bags and pull them out whenever you need them!
  1. Freeze cookie dough if you don’t want the whole batch at once
    My kids LOVE to bake cookies, but I don’t like having a bunch of cookies calling my name all week from the counter. Over the last year, I’ve started to freeze the batch in thirds (bake a third, split the other 2/3 and freeze in cling wrap). When they want fresh baked cookies (they especially love to cut out sugar cookies and decorate), I just pull some out of the freezer and pop it into the fridge the night before and we can make cookies the next day. Alternatively, you can also bake the whole batch and freeze the baked cookies to pull out six one at a time for yourself. If you have more self-control than I do. 😉
  1. Run your dishwasher each night
    This tip is for everyone with a dishwasher!  When I had my first baby five years ago, I was so overwhelmed with dishes. BOTTLES EVERYWHERE. Then sippy cups everywhere. Since then, I fill and run my dishwasher every night and then empty it first thing in the morning. When you have an empty dishes throughout the day, just put them directly in the dishwasher. This will totally stop all accumulation of dishes on the counter (or couch, or floor) throughout the day.
  1. Clean up as you go
    I hate sitting down to a meal and looking into a big messy kitchen because then all I can think about is having to clean it up. Instead of letting dishes accumulate on the counter or in the sink while you’re cooking, clean up as you go. Discard of scraps right away, put cutting boards and prep bowls directly into the dishwasher (or if you don’t have a dishwasher, into the sink to be washed), and wipe down your counters. It truly only takes a minute but saves you so much time after a meal.

Know someone who could use these tips? Feel free to pin, post or share! What are your favorite tips in the kitchen? Feel free to share below in the comments!

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Whole30 Q & A

Whole30 Q&A

I am no expert on Whole30, but I posted a call for questions on my Instagram account because I’ve been getting a lot of questions here and there, and thought I might be able to help others who are considering it by sharing my experience. I’ve compiled a list below and did my best to answer everything!

Q: What is Whole30?
A: Whole30 was designed by Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig and is a 30-day nutritional reset. It’s designed to remove processed, inflammatory, allergenic, and otherwise potentially harmful foods from your diet entirely so you can fuel your body with foods that won’t interfere with the way it’s designed to work. You can read more here: www.whole30.com

Q: Is Whole30 the same as Paleo?
A: No. Paleo has no defined rules and everyone interprets Paleo eating differently. Whole30 also excludes some things that are generally allowed on most people’s interpretation of Paleo. Whole30 has very clear restrictions.

Q: Why did you decide to do this?
A: See my post here.

Q: Do you have to pay for this program?
A: There is a book they suggest you read, “It Starts With Food” but I haven’t read it, and I found everything I needed on their website for free (steps, rules and shopping list).

Q: Is snacking allowed on Whole30?
A: The answer is no. There’s a great section of their website which addresses snacking and the message there is that if you’re going to snack (on compliant foods), you should be reflecting on why you need the snack (not eating enough at mealtime? Not eating enough vegetables? Not drinking enough water?) so that you don’t snack in the future. I still struggle with this part, personally. I’m trying to craft my meals in a way that stays with me until the next one, but if I’m hungry, I eat (but only compliant foods).

Q: What results have you been noticing?
A: SO MANY. I’m on day 12 now. I can feel a difference EVERYWHERE. I’m sleeping better, my blood sugar levels don’t spike and dip, my energy levels are better, I no longer have stomach issues, I don’t feel bloated after meals, my clothes are fitting better, I’m thinking more clearly, the list goes on. I also don’t feel that emotional attachment to food which is HUGE for me. Food is just fuel now. It’s not a friend, it’s not a time-killer, and it’s not a reward. It’s fuel. I will be forever grateful to have learned that feeling. In terms of weight and measurements, I will report back at the end of the Whole30. But my husband says he can see a difference!

Q: Is your husband/family doing Whole30 with you?
A: My husband was such a great sport and said if I was going to do it, he wanted to do it along with me for support. For the most part, we’re eating the same stuff. He and I do like some different foods (he doesn’t like sweet potatoes, I do. He loves eggs, I don’t.), so I’ve just tried my best to make sure we have enough around of what we both like if it’s a meal we both aren’t in love with. If he has eggs over hash browns for dinner, I’ll make myself some bacon, slice up some avocado and have some of the hash browns on the side. So, our meals are similar but not identical. For the most part, our kids are eating some of what we do and some of their own foods. We did not cut any food group from their diet, but we have removed a lot of the processed foods they were eating and swapped them with more fruit, veggies, raisins and cashews. I do make some different foods for them at mealtimes. (I should note that my daughter has some sensory issues and her diet is always a bit different from ours). My little brother is also doing this with us long-distance from Houston, and he’s the one who asked me to start. He’s done this before and checks in with me every day to see what I’m eating and how I’m feeling, and he’s giving me the encouragement I need when I need it. He eats crazy healthy and I’m so grateful for his help!

Q: Did you have headaches when you started? If so, how long did they last?
A: Oh my gosh YES. The first day was absolutely awful. I couldn’t believe how awful I felt. The combination of skipping caffeine and sugar sent me down fast – but it was an incredible moment of clarity for me. I realized how much my body depended on crap and I HATED that and wanted to stick with the program even more. By day two I was a little groggy but ok! Day three on I’ve been great!

Q: Do you get cheat meals or is it super strict?
A: No cheat meals or snacks! Not even a bite or lick of anything. You aren’t doing Whole30 if you’re cheating!

Q: What are some red flags on labels?
A: The last time I read labels this much was when I first joined weight watchers and they had a little cardboard slider card to determine points values and you had to calculate EVERYTHING (anyone remember that?). Now, I have to avoid anything with added sugar (often listed as dextrose), most oils, MSG or alcohol. You wouldn’t BELIEVE how much of those things are in EVERYTHING we eat.

Q: Where do you find sugar-free bacon?
A: I found mine at Sprouts, but I’ve heard Whole Foods and Trader Joes carries it as well! Read the labels VERY carefully! It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.

Q: Have you had any cravings for non-compliant foods and how do you deal with that?
A: Occasionally, yes! I’m an extremely competitive person and once I know something is off-limits, I block it out of my mind. If I don’t, I get so fixated on it I want to cave. I will not cave in these 30 days so I just stop thinking about it and distract myself. If I want something salty, I go for cashews or almonds. If I want something sweet, I reach for some fruit. It’s not the same as a donut but I feel a lot better afterwards!

Q: Do you follow a specific workout regimen or program on Whole30?
A: No. Whole30 is totally focused on food. I’m just doing me regular routine at the gym.

Q: Other than water, what have you been drinking on Whole30?
A: Nothing. I tried coffee black and decided I’d rather drink water. Ha! A lot of people drink tea or sparkling water (as long as it’s naturally sweetened with fruit juice and not sugar).

Q: Can you have smoothies?
A: Nope. Even with compliant ingredients – the point of this program is to eat the actual whole foods. Ice cream made by blending whole frozen bananas is also off-limits. The way you eat the food is just as important as the food, according to this program.

Q: How did you get started?
A: I only took a few days to prep. I thought a lot about why I wanted to do this. I think getting mentally ready is just as important as being prepared on paper. I read the Whole30 website and then printed off the shopping list from their site. I scoured Pinterest and Instagram (search #whole30) for meal inspiration and made a list of things I thought my family and I would like. I got rid of everything that was part of my old diet (coffee creamer, dark chocolate, cheese). Then I went grocery shopping!

Q: Where do you get your meal inspiration?
A: Mostly Instagram! I’m a visual person and need to see a picture of something before I try to make it. If you go to my account (@jen_plans), you can click on who I’m following (upper right corner) and I have a bunch there that I love! You can also search #whole30 for pictures too! There are a TON of blogs out there posting Whole30-compliant meals so don’t be afraid to search Whole30 + your favorite foods. And don’t be afraid to try new foods.

Q: How long does meal prep take?
A: Honestly, less than before. Less ingredients, more grilling and roasting and more foods in their natural form make prep really easy overall. I probably spend 30-60 minutes on shopping day to prep food so that it’s ready when I need to cook it, but I’ve always done that so it’s no time added. If I have cut up broccoli in a big zip-top bag in the fridge, it’s easier to dump some in to steam than if I have to get out the cutting board each time. Anything I can do to make meal time faster or easier, I do ahead of time.

Q: Do you miss any non-approved foods?
A: Of course not! YES. My coffee creamer. See you July 1! For everything else, as each day goes by there’s less I miss, truly. I like the way I’m feeling. I like that I don’t have to worry about portions. I like that I’m fueling my body and not making it groggy, slow or bloated.

Thanks so much for reading! I hope I was able to answer all of your questions!

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First week of Whole30

This first week of Whole30 has been such a valuable learning process for me!

Some history: My brother has been encouraging me to do this program for a while now. I always said no because I was scared I’d fail and honestly because I didn’t want to give up the food I love. I love food. I love eating. I love events that revolve around food. When I know I’m going out to eat, I look up the menu online ahead of time to read every single thing and decide what I’m getting then drool until I go. That’s how much I love food. A few weeks ago, he came in town and stayed with me for a few days and finally convinced me to try it (and said he’d do it too, long-distance). I also roped my always-a-good-sport husband into the program.

Whole30 Image

Why’d I say yes? A few reasons. I’ve been a lifetime member of Weight Watchers for 13 years. I joined in college to lose the freshman 15, went back after each of my three children were born to lose the baby weight (successfully), and have maintained pretty close to my goal weight. I love Weight Watchers and will always recommend it, but I was ready for something that was solely focused on healthy foods. I’ve been feeling sluggish lately and the scale was stuck despite “eating mostly well” and exercising. I want to break my love affair with food. Not because I don’t want to keep loving what I eat, but because I don’t want to love things that are bad for me. I need to retrain myself. I’m also a very competitive person (with myself) and really don’t like feeling like I can’t do something. Because I can. I can do anything. And so can everyone.

Fast forward: So after I clutched my coffee with crack-creamer and shoveled donuts in my mouth, I logged on to www.whole30.com and started reading. These are the things that stuck with me: “Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it . . . so how do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you? Strip them from your diet completely. Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days.” Ummm. LIGHT BULB. “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.” LIGHT BULB. “there may be other foods that you find are not psychologically healthy for your Whole30. Use your best judgment with those foods that aren’t on this list, but that you suspect are not helping you change your habits or break those cravings.” LIGHT BULB.

Noticing a theme? The PSYCHOLOGICAL relationship with food is also being addressed. I love this. This is not about creating your favorite junk foods with Whole30 ingredients and pretending it’s healthy. It’s about really, truly, eating clean. And feeling good about it.

The food: I printed off the grocery list and started thinking about meals. You don’t have to get fancy or eat a bunch of stuff you’ve never tried (though it’s been GREAT trying new foods). I looked at Instagram pictures tagged with #Whole30. I made a list of easy dinners I know I could make. I went to Sprouts (comparable to a Trader Joe’s or small version of Whole Foods) and stocked up on produce and healthy proteins. More on meals in a bit.

The first week: The first day was awful. I was SO excited to start and stayed compliant, but I skipped coffee because I didn’t want to drink it black, and if you go from drinking four to six cups of coffee each morning to zero, I will tell you a secret. It hurts. Also, when you completely cut processed sugar out of your diet, that doesn’t feel great either. So around 2 p.m. I started getting dizzy and feeling nauseated. I’ll spare you the details but basically I was literally sick to my stomach from about 4 p.m. on, and for the first time in 10 years, had to call my husband home from work because I physically couldn’t care for the kids. WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS TO THEMSELVES? Then I realized . . . huh. These things I was putting in my body were so significant that it made me physically sick to remove them. I was literally dependent on crap. Our bodies were not made to depend on crap. They were made to depend on real food. Food is fuel. That was a big eye-opener and one of the things I’m happy to have learned right away.

Photo Jun 07, 12 00 42 PMBreakfast: I have a weird texture issue and cannot eat eggs unless they’re on toast. Like in the same bite. (Weird, I know). So eggs are out for me. I also am/was not a breakfast eater, but without my morning coffee (wasn’t ready to try it black), I decided fruit and some cashews or almonds (or almond butter) were good.

Today I made a big brunch for the family and had fruit and compliant bacon (not cured, no sugar added. Did you know most bacon contains sugar? I didn’t.

Photo Jun 03, 5 32 33 PMLunch: These have been the hardest for me. I’m by myself with the kids all day and it’s so easy to make a sandwich and I can’t eat a salad every day. I bought a big container of shredded rotisserie chicken from Sprouts and kept it in the fridge all week. (Lasted three to four days, then I bought a second container). My lunches were pretty much the same every day: Chicken, half an avocado, some fruit, almonds or cashews, and sometimes raw carrots. You can eat compliant lunchmeat (check the ingredients!) on Whole30, but it’s fairly expensive, so I skipped it this week. All in all, it was repetitive but good.

Photo Jun 04, 11 48 44 AMPhoto Jun 04, 5 07 12 PMPhoto Jun 04, 1 16 44 PMPhoto Jun 05, 7 57 00 AM

Snacks: Mostly fruit, cashews, almonds, avocado with a little sea salt and roasted sweet potatoes.

Photo Jun 05, 6 43 03 PMDinners: The first night, I was too sick to eat. Two of the nights, I had lunch repeats. The other dinners this week included Philly cheesesteak-stuffed peppers (minus the cheese), grilled steak and zucchini with baked potatoes, grilled boneless pork chops with roasted vegetables, and a chipotle salad (lettuce, chicken, pico de gallo and guacamole). See end of post for recipes!

 

Whole30 Dinner

Overall reflection: I’m so glad I’m doing this. It’s SO HARD, but I am breaking my dependence on crap food, eating SO MUCH MORE healthy food (especially fruit and veggies) than I ever have,drinking more water, being more thoughtful (am I hungry or just bored?), and really fueling my body. I’m setting a good example for my kids. My blood sugar is so much more stabilized – I don’t feel that up and down and food coma you feel after eating. That part is crazy to me. It’s going to be hard to stick with this for another 23 days, but mentally I’m just taking it one day at a time. I can do one day. I can do that 23 more times.

Do you have any questions for me? I’d love to answer them! Comment below and I’ll answer them in my next Whole30 post!

RECIPES:

Philly Cheesesteak-Stuffed Peppers (minus the cheese):Whole30Food

Ingredients: 4 green bell peppers, two yellow onions, half a pound of compliant roast beef sliced thinly, a splash of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), salt and pepper.

To Prepare: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut peppers in half from top to bottom and remove stem and seeds. Drizzle with EVOO and season with salt and pepper and pop in the oven. Caramelize onions in a little EVOO (this will take about half an hour). Remove onions from pan and crank heat to high. Tear up roast beef and toss in the pan to sear. When all the meat is seared (will only take a minute or two), add the onions back in and mix everything up. Pull your peppers out of the oven and fill each one with the roast beef/onion mixture. Serve!

Roasted Veggies:

Ingredients: 1lb carrots, 4 red potatoes, 2 onions, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), herbs de provence herb mixture

To Prepare: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season and sear all vegetables on high heat in a little EVOO and put on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pop into the oven for an hour, flipping everything halfway through. Serve with grilled pork chops or meat of your choice!

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Picky eater tries Whole30

I’m writing this the night before I start Whole30, which is a 30 day commitment to only eating whole, unprocessed foods. (To learn more about Whole30, click here.)

Whole30Sheet

I decided to do try Whole30 for two reasons. I’ve been following Weight Watchers for 13 years (of which I’m a HUGE fan and which has helped me lose the baby weight successfully three times), but over the last few years, I’ve felt a major decline in energy. After blood tests came out normal, my doctor said my fatigue is likely from my environment (mom of three kids age four and under), and to try to improve my exercise and diet. I like the structure of Weight Watchers but want to try something more rigid that didn’t include shakes or supplements (not knocking them, they’re just not for me). I’m going to try Whole30 and then gradually reintroduce certain food groups to see how my body responds (I’m guessing dairy will be a difficult one). The other reason is that I’ve become much more of an emotional eater recently and I really need to get a grip. I love food, it’s the part of my life I feel like I can indulge in that doesn’t require a lot of time or effort, it’s the focus of most family celebrations and it’s fun and relaxing to prepare. I don’t want to stop enjoying indulgent food – but I want to stop making that food the center of things that bring me joy.

I don’t doubt my willpower or my ability to meal plan. My biggest challenge is that I’m extremely picky (actually, I’m fairly certain I have some sensory/texture issues), and that limits what I will be eating from the Whole30-compliant foods. I won’t be eating eggs as part of my Whole30 experience, which are a HUGE part of what I see when I look at Whole30 meals. I’m nervous to give up coffee for a month (or at least to try and drink it black) because I have about 47 cups every morning. I love cheese. Enough said.

Whole30ShoppingListMy prep work included reading about the program on whole30.com and then printing out the shopping list, grabbing a pen and meal planning. I searched #whole30 on Instagram for meal ideas because I’m a very visual person and that helps me feel like there are a lot of options. If I can see what other people are eating, it makes me feel a lot better.

I’m looking forward to cleaning up what I put into my body and seeing if it makes a difference in how I feel! For good measure (and possibly because he knows me well enough to know that I need a buddy), my brother is doing this with me (long-distance from Houston), and I’ve dragged my always-a-good-sport husband along for the ride, too. I’ll report back soon on how things are going. 🙂

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Stocking the freezer

The cycle is pretty much the same two to three nights a week in our house. I have an ambitious plan to make a nice, home-cooked meal and have it on the table when my husband gets home from work. Four or five o’clock rolls around and it’s time to start prepping, but with three unpredictable small kiddos, I just can’t always step away to get started. One of two things happens; either I make nothing and we do a fend-for-yourself night, or I start cooking after he gets home and we eat super late. Both of those scenarios stress me out.

I’ve pinned a bunch of freezer meal ideas on Pinterest, but I’ve never tried them, and I’m always worried I’ll make something in bulk and then not like it. I decided to jump into the freezer meal world and just start easy and simple. The older I get, the less fancy I try to be (should it be the other way around? Oops). I decided to pick three meals we already make and like, and start there.

Stocking the Freezer

Here are the things you need to think about when you plan to cook in bulk for the freezer:

  1. Space available to store food
  2. Containers/food storage items
  3. Time available to prep and make food
  4. Cost

Once you’ve determined what you have to work with, pick a few meals you already cook and like. I have learned that starting small and easy makes new things less intimidating. I picked Beef Stew, Chicken Fried Rice and Chicken Pot Pie for my three meals. I think they freeze well and they also have a lot of crossover ingredients that make prep really easy (carrots, onions, etc). You save time and money when you can stretch ingredients over several meals.

First up, making a shopping list. Inventory what you already have and then create a list of what you need, including quantities.
I recommend prepping everything the day before you actually cook/assemble so that it doesn’t take up one big block of time. I cooked the chicken in the crock pot with chicken broth or water all day, then removed and shred for the chicken fried rice and chicken pot pie. I peeled and cut the carrots and onions, diced the celery and made rice in my rice cooker. I put everything in airtight containers in the fridge so that it was all ready to use the next day.
Containers FreezingBeef Stew

Once it was time to make the meals, I started with the one that would take the longest – the beef stew. I always sear my stew meat before throwing it in the crock pot. It gives the meat more flavor and locks everything in. I might become more adventurous in the future (and feel free to use your own recipe!) but I just took a beef stew seasoning packet from the store, threw the beef, carrots, onions and potatoes in the crock pot, mixed the seasoning packet with 3-4 cups of beef broth and poured over the food. I cook 8-10 hours on low to make sure the meat breaks down properly.

Once it was done, I ladled into 32oz freezer containers, label with the expiration date and put them in the freezer. Easy! When it’s time to call on this freezer meal, just pull it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before you want to eat it, then about half an hour before dinner time, throw it in a pot on the stove with about ½ cup of water and cook until heated through. If you want to cook directly from the freezer, just give yourself more time on the stove.
Chicken Fried Rice
Next up was the chicken fried rice. After years of watching hibachi chefs make this one, I just tried to replicate what they did. Cold rice, diced carrots and onions, a scrambled egg and some of that shredded chicken are all ready to go. I cook the vegetables on a hot griddle in a little butter first, then add the rice, chicken and egg right right in, mix everything together, sprinkle with garlic salt and a little pepper and then pour soy sauce over the mixture. Once it’s all done, I put them into those same 32oz containers and label with an expiration date. Done! Thaw in the fridge the day before and just heat up in a frying pan to kind of re-fry the rice.
Chicken pot pie is last. I use this recipe (link), pour them into disposable single serving foil bowls or mini meatloaf tins and cover with unbaked pie crust, cutting slits along the top for steam to escape. I cover them with foil and pop them into the freezer, again with the expiration date (for these, I also write “Bake for one hour at 400 degrees” so I don’t forget).

If you’re unsure how long food will last in the freezer, use this guide: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
I always label with expiration dates instead of “made on” dates because it’s easier for me to know how long I can use food.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with recipes you love or try new recipes! Ask friends and family if they have any recommendations, too. You’ll be happy you have a full freezer on nights you don’t have the time to cook but want a home-cooked meal. Bon appetit!

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