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Apparently no one really knows the answer to that question. And therein lies the rub, if you ask me. When I first read Robyn O’Brien’s book, The Unhealthy Truth — which convincingly argues that eating GM foods can be linked to all kinds of health issues, including cancer and the rise of childhood allergies and autism — I immediately decided that GMOs (genetically modified organisms, including animals, crops, and milk) are the worst example of corporate greed and malevolence in recorded history and vowed never to put another morsel of GM food into my or my family’s mouths. So there, Monsanto.

For those of you who don’t follow the GMO controversy, here’s a little primer on the subject: A genetically modified organism (GMO) is one who’s genes have been altered in a lab using genetic engineering — essentially the DNA molecules from different sources are combined to create a new set of genes, which is then inserted into another organism such as a plant seed or animal. This can be done for a variety of reasons, for instance to create a breed of corn that is resistant to chemical herbicides or higher-yielding wheat crops. The US company Monsanto creates “Roundup-Ready” seeds that are resistant to the chemicals in Roundup herbicide, which allows farmers to grow more corn using more pesticides (and the company even patents these seeds). Today the USDA says that over 81% of all corn and over 88% of all soybeans grown in the US are GM. This is controversial for several reasons, including concerns that GM foods are unsafe and growing them threatens biodiversity and the environment. If you read studies like this one, you’ll get a feel for the arguments against GMOs. GMOs have been banned in 27 countries, including all of Europe, by the way.

But then I read Nina Federoff’s Op-ed in The New York Times extolling the benefits and safety of GM crops while explaining why the world truly needs more, not less, of them — which kinda made me mad but also made me think. What if GMO crops really can eliminate world hunger? What if scientists really could create more nutritious wheat? Hmmm, that’s not so bad, right? Except, it’s not clear that those GMO promises are panning out. And there’s alarmingly little non-biased research and information out there about GMOs. Many non-GMO activists feel that the seed companies like Monsanto thwart efforts to conduct truly independent research. This article explains how the corporations basically have veto power over which tests get conducted and also which data gets reported. It’s pretty icky. And, well, you gotta wonder what they’ve got to hide, right?

Which I guess brings me back to the beginning. I don’t know if eating GMOs will give you cancer, alter your kid’s brain chemistry, or make hair grow on your tongue (like it apparently did to some hamsters in Russia). And neither does anybody else. So, for now I’m sticking with my non-GMO stance. Which goes something like this: Whenever possible and reasonable, avoid foods that have been genetically altered in any way.

In case you’re wondering how to do that, it’s simple:
1. Buy organic. Foods that are certified organic cannot by law (knowingly) contain GM ingredients.
2. Buy local. You’re pretty safe buying from farmer’s markets because most GM crops are grown by large, industrial farms not your local mom-and-pop.
3. Avoid the four top GM crops: corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed. If you do buy these, buy organic. This is one very good reason to avoid processed, packaged foods; if you read the label on a typical box of cookies, you’ll find several corn derivatives and probably soy and canola, too.
4. Look for the Non-GMO Project label. This is not widely used yet, but it’s worth knowing about and supporting. Here’s what it looks like:

So, what we’re left with is…real food. Hey, what a concept.

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Coming home from a trip is when I most appreciate having a well-stocked pantry. Sunday night, after a brutal 4 a.m. (lucky us, we got to “spring forward” twice this year) wake-up call and a long day of security lines and heavy turbulence, it was nice to be able to cook a bowl of pasta with white beans, garlic, and a little lemon. Nothing fancy, but with a shaving of Parmesan on top, tasty and comforting — and a nice change from ceviche.

If you google “pantry staples,” you’ll get over 2 million results, the first several thousand of which are very handy lists of the items the efficient and well-prepared cook should always have on hand. Most of the lists are essentially the same: olive oil, vinegar, rice, pasta, garlic, onions, butter, potatoes, lemons, canned beans, canned tomatoes, tuna, soy, Parmesan, Dijon, etc. Which makes sense, since almost every savory recipe in the world has at least a few of these items on its ingredients list. A well-stocked pantry is obviously super helpful for everyday dinner making, but it’s also a life-saver when you’ve been out of town for a week and need to feed your family.

So, I am all for covering your bases with the pantry staples. I’ll even add a few more — some basic (shallots, bacon, vegetable stock) and a few not-so-basic items that have become staples around here:

Farro: This is an ancient grain, very similar to spelt, that is mostly grown in Italy. I only recently discovered farro and absolutely love it. When cooked, farro is somewhat firm, chewy, and incredibly filling. You can do just about anything with it, too. It’s great as a breakfast cereal and cooks much quicker than steel-cut oats, it makes a great side dish like pilaf, it’s great in soups like barley, and it’s fabulous slow-cooked like risotto. It’s relatively high in protein for a grain, so it’s a great option for vegetarians or meatless Mondays (or Lent). The only reason I even slightly hesitated to put farro on this list is that it’s kinda difficult to find. I ended up getting it at Costco of all places. You can also order it from amazon.com.

Seeds of Change Jalfrezi Simmer Sauce: This stuff is crazy good. It turns cooked chicken or potatoes into a luscious curry, which, served with a steaming pile of brown rice (or farro!) makes a tasty, satisfying, and ridiculously easy meal almost instantly. Maybe it’s kind of cheating, but delicious and easy — and it’s even organic — can never be bad.

Sherry Vinegar: I don’t know about you, but I’m a little sick of how expensive good balsamic vinegar is — and of how crappy inexpensive balsamic is. So, about once a year I invest in a bottle of thick, syrupy aged balsamic, which is mostly just for drizzling over asparagus or strawberries. And for most everything else, I use sherry vinegar (don’t get me wrong, I have a quite extensive vinegar collection including homemade red wine vinegar and some fancy cherry balsamic, but this is a list of staples), which is still slightly sweet but more acidic than balsamic. Its flavor works with everything from mint to lemon to straight extra virgin olive oil, and this versatility makes it a pantry — well, actually a counter-top — staple.

Frozen bread: When bread starts to get stale, put it in the freezer. Right now I have several slices of whole wheat sandwich bread, a half a baguette, and some pieces of ciabatta in my freezer. It makes me happy knowing it’s there because a hunk of frozen bread can be so many things: a filling side dish for picky kids, croutons, bread crumbs, crostini, breakfast. It’s also great for thickening sauces and is the key ingredient to several fantastic soups. You’ll be amazed at how useful — and comforting — a hunk of frozen bread can be. You don’t even need to defrost it before you use it.

White wine: Make it a decent white wine, preferably on the dry side, and you’ve got a pantry staple, key ingredient, and secret weapon all in one. The alcohol cooks off during cooking, so don’t worry about feeding your kids something that will make them drunk. Pour a little chardonnay or pinot grigio in your pasta sauce, add some to your simmering lentils, and of course enjoy a glass while you’re cooking. It really does make everything taste better.

What’s your can’t-live-without-it pantry staple?

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My mom likes to tell the story of how, when I was a toddler and we lived in France, she would buy a baguette at the market and I would pull it out of the shopping bag and eat a good third of it before we even made it it home. I think the point of this story might be to show that as a child I was a bit of a pig. (I like to point out that this probably could have been avoided had I been strapped into a carseat, or at least wearing a seat belt.) Apparently I’ve always loved French bread. Which can be a little tough to reconcile with my belief in the benefits of eating a healthy diet and especially whole grains.

Of course I am a huge advocate of eating whole grains, and especially of feeding them to your children. There is a ton of evidence that whole grains (whole wheat pasta and bread, unprocessed oats, brown rice, etc.) are much better for you than their processed (and usually white) counterparts. In fact, one recent study even links whole grain fiber to longer life, claiming eating it lowers your risk of dying from respiratory and infectious diseases — as well as heart disease — and by as much as 50%.

While I mostly avoid refined, white flour — and for years successfully hid from my kids the fact that white bread existed — I do think there is a place in a healthy, balanced diet for the occasional baguette. Okay, maybe more than occasional. Okay, I buy one several times a week. The food lover (and unabashed Francophile) in me just can’t quite give up the crunchy and chewy deliciousness of French bread. And while I know they’re generally made from white flour (I’ve tried many whole wheat versions by the way, and they just don’t cut it.), I can still defend eating baguettes because in my book, eating something real is always going to be better than eating something processed.

Besides, baguettes are very useful. They make great after-school snacks topped with peanut butter or sliced turkey. I’ll often leave one sitting out on the counter while I’m making dinner, and the kids will occasionally come and tear off hunks, which keeps them from whining about how hungry they are. And if dinner isn’t coming together, I can always make a perfectly satisfying meal of soup and salad and a couple slices of French bread. French people eat baguettes with jam or butter for breakfast almost every day, and aren’t we all supposed to want to emulate French people? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate forsaking whole wheat toast or steel cut oats for French bread every day, but once in a while, it’s a fine breakfast option.

Have I mentioned that my kids love French bread? I let them have it for breakfast on Fridays — okay and sometimes Mondays. My recommendation is, unless you’re gluten intolerant or trying to lose weight, don’t be afraid of the occasional baguette. If you buy one and it doesn’t get eaten within a day (highly unlikely), just slice it and put it in the freezer in a plastic bag. You can use the slices for toast, croutons, or of course this killer roasted chicken. You don’t even need to let it thaw before putting under the broiler.

I do have one caveat though: French baguettes should be made from four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. If you pick up a loaf in the grocery store and it contains other, possibly unpronounceable, stuff in it, then it’s not the real thing and definitely not worth the — refined, white — calories.

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This topic falls into the “why didn’t I think of that?” category big time. Seriously, after feeling itchy about plastic bags (and especially about “baggies”) for years, why it never occurred to me to create and sell reusable sandwich and snack bags — cute ones at that! — is beyond beyond. But, luckily for the world, someone else’s synapses were firing, and adorable reusable bags exist.

Plastic bags take about 1,000 years to degrade and contaminate soil and water in the process, plus it takes a heck of a lot of non-renewable resources (i.e oil) to make the millions of bags we’re throwing away every day, so I’m thrilled to support the businesses that make a product I can (re)use instead. Granted, many reusables are plastic; still, at least we use them more than once before they hit the landfill. I really don’t want to get preachy, but if you’re not already using them, may I ask why?

  • Is it because you think they’re too expensive? Granted, some, like my favorites, LunchSkins, can run you about $9 each, there are others that come in at less than $5 — about the price of a box of Glad bags, right? And while LunchSkins seem pricey, I can personally vouch that they last longer than several boxes of Glad bags. My daughter’s bag has been in pretty much constant use since she started pre-K (so over a year now), including lots of camp and picnic lunches this summer, and it still works and (almost) looks like new.

I love that it’s cute and completely devoid of princesses or unicorns.

  • Is it because you think your kid will accidentally throw it away or not bring it home? That is a reasonable concern, and it took some time for my son to get the concept when we first switched to reusable bags. I have to admit, we did have some shrinkage of our bag inventory, which totally defeats the purpose I know. At first, I tried some Fresh Pack bags, which work great but do look kinda like something a kid might throw away.

It's understandable how a first grader might accidentally toss this one, right? Okay, maybe it's just my kid...

So I switched and got him a snackTaxi bag. It’s blue and red with baseballs and footballs on it — pretty tough to miss. He’s been using the same bag for over a year now.

More options from snackTAXI.

  • Is it because you think they’ll get nasty and you’ll end up throwing them away anyway? Again, legitimate issue. But all of the bags I’ve seen are dishwasher safe, and the all-cloth ones can even be thrown in the laundry. Often, the bags just need a thorough rinsing after school; otherwise I wash them with a dish brush and soap and hang upside down (on the handle of a cutting board) to dry overnight. Clean and simple. Really.

Washable cotton bags from Graze Organic; gotta love the “surprise” bag.

  • Is it because you don’t know where to buy them? That’s easy. Check out one of my favorite websites, reuseit.com. Not only does it sell several different types of reusable sandwich and snack bags (all the ones I’ve mentioned here plus lots more), but you can find nifty reusable lunch sacks, Bento boxes, shopping bags, coffee filters, and water bottles there as well. I don’t necessarily want to recommend shopping for more stuff, but once that box of baggies is empty, please consider not buying any more.

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Despite the fact that my husband says, “kids who bring Bento boxes to school are 300% more likely to get beat up,” I think the Bento craze is here to stay. In case you’re unfamiliar, the word “Bento” means lunch box in Japanese, where a home-packed meal is called “o-bento.” These neatly packed lunches, usually in divided containers wrapped in cloth and tied with chopsticks, traditionally include rice, fish, and some type of pickled vegetable — the goal being to achieve balance, of both foods and colors. Of course, I immediately fell for their compact cuteness (hmmm, maybe there is something to the bullying thing after all?), but now that they’re gaining popularity in the U.S., I see so many more advantages beyond visual appeal.

Japanese-style Bento boxes are great because they keep foods separated without the need for plastic sandwich bags or containers, which means they reduce waste. Foods must be packed fairly compactly to keep from sloshing around, so they’re plenty big for most kids’ lunches, but they also offer automatic portion control. If you get into the spirit of Bento packing and aim for an attractive mix of food colors, you will almost certainly have the added bonus of sending a healthy, balanced lunch in the bargain. And did I mention they’re just so nifty-looking?

There are a zillion Bentos out there to choose from, but I thought finding one that is the right size and not overly precious (Helly Kitty was adorable, but will we still love it next year?) was a bit of a challenge. Some can seem pricey, but keep in mind your savings on Glad bags and hot lunch (most cost less than two weeks of Lunchables, by the way). Here are a few Bento-style items worth checking out:

  • Easy LunchBoxes are affordable and easy to use. They’re not really Bentos, but they do the trick. So do Ziploc divided containers, for that matter. They now say “BPA Free,” but I still wouldn’t put them in the dishwasher or microwave. If you use this type of container for perishable foods, definitely pack it inside a regular, insulated lunch sack with ice packs.

Easy LunchBoxes come in sets of four.

  • I like Go Green Lunch Boxes because they come with cool outer lunch bags and water bottles. The lid fits very snugly with a silicone seal, so there’s very little chance of things like yogurt squishing between the compartments (I’m skeptical but will try sending soup in one of these and report back). Plus, the company offers these products as part of a school fund-raising program, so definitely worth a look.

Go Green Lunch Box system.

  • I bought this cute little bento for my daughter. It’s from Japan and looked kinda small when I first got it. But it’s actually the perfect size for a kindergartner’s turkey-avocado wrap, eight grape tomatoes, and cheese stick. I put it inside her regular, insulated lunch bag, and there’s still enough space for a small water bottle. Maybe my favorite thing about this Bento is the awesome inscription on the lid: “It is so wonderful to be able to maintain your dreams.”

It's called "Leaflet Tight"; who knows.

  • Laptop Lunches have been popular for a while, probably because they are more utilitarian (and slightly less cute) than typical Bentos; heck, even adult men are known to use them (not my spouse, alas). They’re slightly larger than traditional Japanese-style Bentos, which makes them ideal for big American kids’ appetites. One thing to consider is that Laptop Lunches come with several individual containers (each with its own lid, called Laptop Buddies) inside a larger, laptop-style box (which is available as a set with an outer insulated lunch bag). This is a great feature because there’s no spilling or sloshing of foods such as sauces or soups; however, I found that for smaller children (i.e. my daughter), it takes too much time and effort to open all those containers, and I actually prefer the single-lid box for her.

Laptop Lunches complete kit.

So, now that we’ve had a little fun shopping for fun Bentos (aren’t they easier to get excited about than regular lunch sacks and thermoses?), it’s time to fill them. I am still working on transitioning my lunch-making into a true Bento style. In the meantime, I found a woman who packs crazy-amazing Bento lunches for her lucky child every single morning — and blogs about it. Granted, she spent years in Japan and her kid attends a Japanese-immersion school where Bentos are practically required. Still, it’s awesome. Check out her blog for inspiration and ideas.

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Lunch Lady

My youngest child started kindergarten yesterday. This long-anticipated event — almost nine years in the making! —  has filled me with all kinds of mixed emotions including relief, sadness, joy, loneliness, and mostly a mild panic about having “no more excuses” for everything from dirty windows to skipping yoga to not writing a novel. It also put a very fine point on the whole school lunch issue. No more cute, leisurely lunches at home with my preschooler, no more picnics in the park (sob), no more packing just one lunch in the morning… And no more half-baked lunch routines.

Most moms I know dread the whole school lunch issue; either they pay good money for the convenience of hot lunch (which at our small parochial school, is fairly nasty and relatively pricey), pay even more good money for Lunchables (irritating because they are so bad for so many reasons, but I do get that they are super easy and kids LOVE them), or, if they’re like me, toil over making healthy, varied lunches that are reasonably environmentally friendly (no plastic baggies, no Capri Sun) and won’t make their kids sulk in embarrassment (apparently the Lightning McQueen thermos is not as cool in 3rd grade as it was in kindergarten). I know I am not alone in saying it can create more than a little angst.

There's a new lunch lady in town.

So this year, with two kids needing a lunch made by 7:30 every morning, I’ve decided to take a new approach and really get into the whole lunchbox thing. It’s going to be my new hobby! You know how some people get into scrapbooking and spend hours at Michael’s picking out cute stickers and fancy paper to decorate their “ballet recital” and “first Halloween” pages and have whole rooms in their house devoted to storing scrapbooking supplies? Well, I’m not going to be like that, (even though I think scrapbooking is totally worthwhile and a great hobby). But I do plan to have more fun with lunch-making. And hopefully I will create some awesome lunches for my darling children in the process.

So, because I have a very legitimate new hobby, I get to go shopping (!). Not only do my kids need new lunchboxes (last year’s model barely made it to May), but I need more lunch-making supplies. While I love the whole Bento Box lunch idea in theory, I’m not sure my eight-year-old son will go for mini compartments containing eggs molded in the shape of bunnies. Might go that direction for my daughter though; she really doesn’t like her foods to mix. So, in addition to looking for the actual lunchboxes, I will be searching for BPA-free reusable containers, snack bags, and bottles. Next week I will post my finds. Then, armed with all those nifty new gizmos, I will be ready to start Project Lunchbox.

One adorable option, hmmm.

In the meantime, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Wraps are for some reason more appealing to my son than sandwiches. Yesterday’s was a whole wheat tortilla with hummus, smoked turkey, spinach leaves, sliced Swiss cheese, and tomatoes. He loved it.
  • For my daughter, I bought some whole wheat mini-bagels and make cute little sandwiches out of them. Today she got cream cheese & turkey with sliced black olives, plus some sliced peaches in a little Pyrex bowl, and a mini Stonyfield yogurt.
  • A few years ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to make and market a healthier alternative to Lunchables. Well, I never did it (see “excuses” above), and now it looks like someone beat me to the punch. For days when you’re totally in a bind, or when you want to reward your kids for being good at Target, check out new GoPicnic meals.
  • Not earth shattering, I know. I never said this was going to be perfect, and I am not above sending the odd stack of Pringles here and there. But I will post at least one new, healthy, and hopefully interesting lunch every week. Please send me your ideas, too!

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There’s nothing like a road trip through the great state of Wyoming to make me think about guilty pleasures. Not to pick on Wyoming — actually one of my favorite states; there’s something truly soul-stirring about a place where you can drive for hours through vast emptiness with the Wind River mountains in the distance — but, Jackson’s high-end-cowboy-slash-pricey-ski-town restaurants aside, Wyoming is not exactly known for its culinary scene. Aside from Obo’s Market in Pinedale, which offers a fairly wide variety of medium-healthy deli-type food, our options consisted mainly of gas stations and the dodgy-looking establishments that line the intersection of highway 191 and I-80 in Rock Springs.

So, when your choices are all kinda bad, I guess I think you should go with the best, right? Keeping in mind that this is NOT an everyday occurrence, I decided to get into the true spirit of a road trip and eat a sampling of the really good bad things I am ashamed to say I love. Various roadside stops yielded everything from Coconut M&M’s to chicken enchiladas and of course David’s Pumpkin Seeds, which have always been my road trip secret weapon.

Whether it’s the Lays potato chips or other junk food you grew up eating or the Dr. Peppers you drank at junior high camp-outs, there’s something about guilty food pleasures that can make one (i.e. me) feel young and slightly reckless. That said, I do think a big part of the pleasure I get from eating these illicit (by which I mean highly processed, artificially flavored, and/or full of sugar, chemicals, and bad fats) items comes from the fact that I don’t do it very often. As Michael Pollan says in his book Food Rules, “treat treats as treats.” If I ate Nutter Butters every day, I might not think they were so FANTASTIC. And my kids might not get quite such a charge from Nacho Cheese Doritos if they were allowed to have them for lunch at school (okay, maybe they would).

No caption needed.

So, here my personal choices for when I want to eat bad:

  • David’s Pumpkin Seeds (the ultimate salty road trip snack)
  • Nutter Butters (on this trip I discovered Nutter Butter bites, which you can eat like popcorn, oh dear)
  • Smartfood (My husband loves to point out that it’s a total misnomer and really should be called Dumbfood; whatever, it’s delish.)
  • Coca-Cola (not diet and preferably from Mexico, where it’s still made with old fashioned sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup)
  • Cool Ranch Doritos (here’s a funny tidbit: in Iceland they’re called “Cool American” — how awesome is that?)
  • Good Humor Ice Cream Sandwiches (any brand will do I guess)
  • Oreos (still looking for the best trans-fat free alt-Oreo; haven’t found it yet, but you can bet I will blog about it when I do!)
  • Taco Bell crunchy tacos (they are SO bad but oh-so good)
  • And of course candy (my personal favorites are Almond Joy, Swedish Fish, and Bit-o-Honey).

Just so you guys aren’t too horrified by this post, I want you to know that when we got home (at 8 p.m. after driving since 7 a.m.), I promptly went to Whole Foods and stocked the house with abundant, healthy foods and reminded the family that we’re going sugar- and junk free for the foreseeable future. My kids were so sick of Twizzlers and beef jerky that they happily dove into my impromptu, no-cook supper of Sonoran-style (i.e. with avocado) Gazpacho, green salad, and whole wheat tortillas.

Okay, so I came clean. Now, what bad foods (if you can call them that) do you secretly crave?

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