Reaping Your Rewards

Picture this: You've committed yourself to a healthy lifestyle change, and it's started to show significantly on the scale. You're ecstatic, and you justifiably think you deserve a reward for your hard work. You hop in the car, drive to your favorite restaurant, and . . .

What's wrong here?

Most of us have associated food with rewards since the first time we were give a cookie for being good as children. It's a bad practice that's ingrained early, and if your goal is to have a healthy attitude toward food, it's time to drop that habit like a buttery hot potato.

Instead, look for rewards that don't involve indulging in rich foods; preferably ones that won't break the bank, either. For inspiration, consider the goal you achieved. What have you really earned the right to by what you've accomplished?

Reaching a goal weight. Congratulations! You have a newly trim body to show off. So show it off! Reward yourself with a sexy new outfit in a smaller size. Buying any article of clothing in your new size is doubly rewarding, as you'll get both the item and the satisfaction of seeing yourself in flattering duds.

Receiving good grades or a promotion. Awesome! Bet you had to work hard to earn those high marks. The logical reward, then, is giving yourself permission to relax for a while. Set aside at least a few hours to dig into a novel or watch a DVD. Let yourself forget work for a while and relish the perks of a job well done.

Finished a marathon or met a fitness goal. Terrific! You pushed your body, and it rose to the occasion. Now, reward those tired muscles with a professional (or amateur, if you have a willing partner) massage or spa visit. Your soreness will melt away as you bask in the glow of your accomplishment.

Other rewards. A few more alternatives to the big slice of cheesecake:
  • Go see a movie on the big screen (and sneak in your own healthier popcorn).
  • Take a day off from work and engage in the activities you love.
  • Have a game night with friends and family.
  • Take yourself out to the ball game.
  • Plan a fun weekend getaway.
  • Buy yourself a small gift.

Remember, food can be a treat. There's nothing wrong with indulging in a handful of chips every now and then as long as you're prepared to balance it out with healthier food later. But when you're looking for a reward, not a treat, try looking beyond the fridge.

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Sneaking in Some Beans


My first post over at Fit Fare is live!

Beans and I have been friends for years. The likable legumes are firm yet yield readily to the teeth, releasing a creamy mess of comforting flavor. They can be spiced up, sweetened up, or tarted up however you like. They easily take a meal from skimpy to satisfying.

But when I learned about all the health benefits of bean consumption, mere like turned to outright love. Where else can you find such a nutritional powerhouse in cheap, tiny package?

For more, including tips on how to fit more beans into your cooking routine, click on over Fit Fare to read the whole article.

Photo: Colleen Fischer

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Templates for Meal Planning

Update: I've fixed the links for downloading these meal-planning templates. They are now available through Google Docs. Please remember that they are free for noncommercial use only and are copyrighted. Enjoy!

As promised, here are four meal-planning worksheets to help you get started with making a serious dent in your food budget and a big step toward a healthier diet. All of the files are PDFs; control-click or right-click the links and choose whatever looks closest to "Save As" to download the templates to your computer. To learn more about meal planning, check out the previous posts Setting Up Your Meal Planner and Discover Meal Planning.

fullday.pngFull Day Meal Planner. That note pad I found in the discount bin at the store inspired this template. It offers a chart for planning a week's worth of dinners, plus boxes for jotting down ideas for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.

Structured Meal Planner. This template resembles my spreadsheet system for meal planning. It offers space for a week's worth of meals, with rows for the main dish, a side vegetable, a side starch, a salad, and notes.

visual.pngVisual Meal Planner. I had some fun with this one. It's basically the same as the Structured Meal Planner, but instead of rows you fill in cafeteria trays. I bought a stash of those trays for my own kitchen a while back out of elementary-school nostalgia. This worksheet also has room for a week's worth of meals.

Monthly Planner. If you prefer to think far ahead, or if you just want to have last week's meals close at hand for easy reference, try this monthly planner. It's a calendar page with spaces for you to fill in the month and the dates, and each day box has lines marked off for the components of your meal.

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Meal Planning Basics: Setting Up Your Meal Planner

Welcome to Pennies & Pounds! I post meal-planning tips here regularly, along with other daily content about healthy, budget-minded eating. Subscribe to our RSS feed or our daily e-mail updates to be notified about new posts that might interest you!
To learn more about the benefits of meal planning, check out the post Discover Meal Planning.
You're excited about meal planning, and you've started gathering your recipe resources and jotting down ideas. You're ready to get started -- but how should you do it? Here are a few possible tools for organizing your weekly meal plans.  

Spreadsheet. Use Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, or whatever program you already have on your computer. Create a layout like a calendar, with rows set aside for your main dishes and sides. As the illustration above shows, I set up my spreadsheet with rows for the date, the main dish, the side dish, the salad, bread, and the meal status. The rows remind me to aim for well-rounded meals, though I don't always need to fill in each one (for example, if I'm making pasta with chicken and veggies mixed in, I don't need an extra side). Use a new worksheet or table for each month but don't delete old planners as they're a great reference for future planning. I like the flexibility of being able to see and plan up to a month at a time combined with the row structure. I can add future meal ideas as I think of them, then move them around as necessary later. Spreadsheets are my preferred planning tools, but home-oriented database program, such as FileMaker Bento, also allow you to create a custom structure for planning your meals while keeping a running record of what hits the table.  

Calendar. You could use either a paper calendar or planner, or you could use a digital calendar program such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple iCal. Make an entry each day for your planned meal. Paper works well, but I find that calendar programs don't offer a lot of flexibility for entering data -- meals aren't appointments, and calendar programs are designed for entering appointments.  

Meal-planning software and web sites. Search the web and you'll find plenty of options, including free web-based planners like I only have experience with MacGourmet Deluxe (or regular MacGourmet with the Mealplan plugin). Meal planning is a new feature in my favorite recipe storage program, and in my testing I've found it's not as smooth and flexible as I'd like. There's a lot of menus and clicking involved, especially when you want to make a text entry in your plan, and you are limited to a one-week view. On the plus side, you can drag and drop recipes from your database right into your planner, press a link in the planner to bring the recipe back up on screen, and export your plans to Apple iCal. MacGourmet Deluxe also can print fancy menus if you're a budding Martha Stewart.  

Text document. The simplest method. I used to plan meals this way in college. I created a text document on my laptop, listed the days of the week, and wrote what I planned to cook under each day. When the week was over, I'd erase those meals and insert new ones. I wouldn't recommend erasing old meals now, as I find it useful to be able to look back on what I've cooked recently for inspiration or to avoid ruts. A note-taking program that lets you create separate pages within the same document might accommodate archiving better. Similar alternatives include a plain old paper notebook or a personal-information manager (I like Yojimbo). Plain text allows lots of flexibility but lacks the structure of a customized spreadsheet or meal-planning program.  

Worksheets. Or templates, if you're a teacher or student who can't think of worksheets without thinking of lessons. The web offers a variety of structured meal-planning worksheets for you to print out and fill in, perhaps as you're perusing the weekly grocery ad and making the shopping list. You might find some tucked into your word-processing program's templates collection, too. Or, look around at a kitchen store: I found a retro-looking meal-planning pad in a discount bin once. I wish I had used it more often! I will create and post some meal-planning templates, including one based on that notepad, soon. For more inspiration, check out some web sites that post meal plans weekly. CityMama usually posts her weekly plan on Mondays, and Epicurious and Every Day with Rachael Ray post weekly menus as well.   

Edit: I've posted several templates for meal planning you can download! Visit these pages for more info: Templates for Meal Planning Numbers Template for Meal Planning Excel Template for Meal Planning Know of any more resources? Please share them in the comments!

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Slick Oil Trick

oliveoilspray.jpgHere's some fat to chew over the weekend: Do you really need to take a recipe's instructions to use "1 tablespoon oil" for stovetop cooking literally?

Watch television cooking shows for any amount of time and you'll notice that the chefs never measure anything. Some, like Rachael Ray, even take the time to teach you that measuring slows you down in the kitchen.

What's this tell us? That standard one tablespoon of oil thrown in the pan before your meats and veggies is nothing but a recipe writer's fudge. In fact, not every recipe needs nearly so much oil to succeed.

Chefs add oil to the pan to promote browning, even cooking, and flavor. It also keeps food from sticking to stainless-steel pans; for that reason, use these techniques only with nonstick or seasoned cast-iron pans. Otherwise, when deciding your approach to oil, consider what your food needs:

Fighting the stick factor. If you're only worried about your eggs or fish cementing themselves to your skillet, switch to a quick spritz of nonstick spray or aerosolized oil. Alternatively, moisten a paper towel with a little oil and rub it all over the pan bottom.

Even cooking and flavor. I usually slash the tablespoon of oil down to a mere teaspoon when I sauté. That's enough help the pieces soften evenly without burning in spots, and even a little fat adds plenty of flavor to a finished dish.

Even browning for large items. Vary your pour based on what you're cooking. I find one teaspoon is enough for one cutlet. Basically, you need enough to cover the meat with a thin coat. Pour each teaspoon directly into the pan or rub it on the cutlet directly as you prep.

Frying. Counterintuitively, the more oil you use to fry, the less your food will take in. Fill a deep pan with a few inches of oil and heat it to temperature (use a deep-fat thermometer) before adding any food. Ample oil ensures that the fat will return to the correct temperature quickly after the food is added, minimizing the cooking time and the amount of oil the food will absorb as it cooks. Still, avoid frying frequently as it's hard to tell how much oil you'll be consuming.

By the way, the chefs are right: Measuring will slow you down. Use the teaspoon measure the first few times you cook with less oil, and you'll soon learn to eyeball it as well as you might now eyeball a tablespoon.

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Spend or Save? And Other Hot Links

garlic.jpgSometimes Real Simple magazine runs features on whether consumers should spend more or save money on products like makeup or cleansers. They instruct you to shell out extra for almost everything on their lists, which either says something about the readership or the sources they choose to consult when making these lists. As for myself, I get scores of compliments on my long, shiny hair, even though it never sees salon-quality products outside of my irregular visits to SuperCuts.

I survive just as well with generic food products instead of fancy brands. But is it ever necessary to shop up from rock bottom?

Featured Link

Cheap Healthy Good - 10 Foods You Should Always Splurge On
A couple of things here I don't think of as splurges but as choosing quality over convenience: whole garlic instead of minced and lemons instead of bottled juice. I do use bottled juice, or preferably True Lemon powder, for flavoring water, but I always cook with the real stuff. I do splurge on vegetables, shunning most cheap canned varieties in favor of fresh or frozen. Right now, I have a can of cut green beans sitting in the kitchen that I dread cracking open. It will be wonderful to have a normal refrigerator again next week.

Hot Topics

New York Times - Health 'Facts' You Only Thought You Knew
It's true -- eight glasses of water a day is an old wives' tale.

Fast Food Maven - Grocery prices jump 8.5 percent compared to last year
Is it a recession yet? All the more reason to learn how to meal plan.

SF Gate - Marion Nestle: Global food crisis comes back to calories
Continuing with our current careless attitude toward food here in the rich world could have ever-worsening consequences elsewhere. (Via Diner's Journal.)

Time - Which Are Worse: Calories from Carbs or Fat?
In the end, calories are calories when it comes to weight gain and loss. Fat packs in more per gram than protein and carbs do, but you need at least some fat in your diet.
(Via Diner's Journal.)

CNN/Cooking Light - Fast facts on fats: What to eat, what to avoid
This article defines all the different types of fat, including telling how they affect your body, with studies cited as evidence.

CNN - CDC survey: South leads nation in obesity
Don't get excited, North and West. Turns out your pretty chubby, too.

Poked and Prodded - When We’re All Fat, What Does the Ranking Matter?
Southerner fights back!

CNN - Salmonella found on pepper; FDA strengthens warning
Tomatoes get exonerated, but fresh salsa remains verboten.

Slashfood - Fruit juice: An invitation to diabetes?
Perhaps it's not such a great idea to let your excitement about the water myth lead you to replace those eight glasses a day with apple juice. Water is still calorie free.

Caught in the Web

Reader's Digest - Eat Smart When Dining Out: 20 Tips
I doubt anyone's going to take to dressing up for every meal out, and asking for a box at the beginning of the meal just shouts to the table, "I'm on a diet!" Learn the other rules, though, and you'll be prepared to make smart choices. (Via Consumerist.)

Hungry Girl - HG's List of Tasty Travel Treats (Pack & Chew!)
Foods that won't melt or rot when packed along for your summer travels.

Mayo Clinic - Healthy diet: Do you know what to eat?
Simple and well-organized walkthrough of the average person's daily nutritional needs.

Health - Healthy Eating: Diet Guide
I kind of have a morbid fascination with reading about crazy fad diets. Not that all these are nutty: Weight Watchers and South Beach are reviewed here, too.

Health - Inside Crunch Taste-Test Results
Visit if you're looking for honest reviews of (mostly) junk foods trying to project healthier images.

Photo: Colleen Fischer

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Five Healthy Snacks

snacking.jpgFeeling peckish? I can't make it through the afternoon without a stop to nosh myself. A snack keeps my energy up, quells the noisy rumbling in my stomach, and prevents the onset of insanity when dinnertime rolls around, allowing me to follow through with my cooking plans rather than caving to cravings.

Here are five of my favorite snacking options for when hunger strikes:

Whole-Grain Cereal: Fiber is both nutritious and filling. Cereal, being on the sweet side, can stop a dessert craving in its tracks. Use a kitchen scale to ensure that you are pouring a correct serving size, and use a small bowl so that the portion looks especially satisfying. Top it off with some fat-free milk or yogurt.

Nuts: Nuts are packed with vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. A small handful of walnuts provides more than 90 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids you need daily, and almonds (my favorite!) are a great source of vitamin E. Nuts do have a lot of calories, but small servings pack a satisfying punch.

Cucumber: My mom puts out a bowl of sliced cucumbers for munching with every dinner she serves. Their mild flavor is kid-pleasing, and their high water content helped us fill up without eating too many French fries. A whole cucumber has less than 50 calories, and sliced up, with a little low-fat vinaigrette for dipping, it makes a tasty and big snack.

Popcorn: Did you know that popcorn is a whole grain? It also provides decent doses of fiber and protein. Three tablespoons of kernels pops up into four whole cups of the white, fluffy stuff, and without oil, it will only cost you 120 calories. Just pour the kernels and some salt into a paper bag folded tightly shut or into a large, covered, microwave-safe bowl, then heat until you hear two or three seconds between pops.

Large, Whole Fruits: I couldn't make a snack list without mentioning fruit! Fruits such as apples, oranges, and bananas are naturally snack-sized, and their tough skins make them easily portable. Whole fruit packs more fiber than juice, and thus more satisfaction.

Mmm . . . this list has me salivating! Luckily, snacking, when it involves reasonable amounts of healthy foods eaten when you're actually hungry, won't derail your weight-loss or -maintenance plan.

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Healthy Choice Frozen Meals

This post is part of a series on low-cal packaged meals. For more, check out previous entries on South Beach Living and Lean Cuisine.

Reviewing the Healthy Choice brand provides me with the opportunity to discuss one particular nutrition claim made on food packages: "healthy." Unlike with many terms slapped onto boxes and bags, a company's product has to meet a set of standards to merit the tag "healthy."

When a company claims this accolade, it's declaring that the food in the package is low in fat, cholesterol, and, significantly for processed foods, sodium. "Healthy" foods also must contain certain levels of essential nutrients, according to the FDA.

From HealthyChoice.comHealthy Choice meals are all relatively low in sodium because of these regulations. For example, Healthy Choice's mac and cheese with veggies has 600 mg of sodium per 9.1-oz serving, which is about 25 percent of the typical daily limit. On the other hand, Stouffer's cheesy mac has 1,395 mg of sodium for an equivalent portion. Good bye, 60 percent of your daily intake!

I like Healthy Choice's creative entrée selections. Like many low-cal brands, they don't stick to fried chicken and Salisbury steak. Healthy Choice also has come up with a new method of heating some meals using steam from the sauce, but I never tried any of those later meals. Nonetheless, it's evidence that this brand aims to innovate, like Lean Cuisine.

Healthy Choice

From HealthyChoice.comCountry Breaded Chicken
I know I knocked fried-chicken meals above, but I have to say, this particular meal became my favorite choice for weekday lunches after I discovered it midway through my second school year. How decadent it feels to eat two fried chicken breast portions (bigger than mere tenders), mashed potatoes, mixed veggies, and a delectable cherry crumble, all in one sitting! The chicken tastes so yummy that you'll wonder how on earth the meal could have only 370 calories and nine grams of fat. One guess: It's not at all greasy.

From HealthyChoice.comChicken Margherita
I may have just said that I've never tried Café Steamers, but I have tasted this particular meal. Healthy Choice has converted several of its old regular-tray offerings into Steamers, so if you want to try the tangy Chicken Margherita, you'll have to plunge into this brave new world. Good luck! The meal features a flavorful balsamic sauce over noodles and chicken with sweet tomatoes and garlic. Mmm! This meal has only 340 calories, though it does not come with a sweet treat.

From HealthyChoice.comPremium Fudge Bars
Fudge Bars definitely don't qualify as a meal, but I love these 80-calorie fudge bars! They taste deliciously chocolate-y in a way most chocolate ice creams can only dream of.

Alas, I can't pinpoint any other meals as particularly good enough to merit recommendation. The others aren't terrible; they're either ordinary or untested. Healthy Choice meals usually cost more than the other brands' offerings, so I bought them less frequently.

Next week, we'll check out meals from Weight Watchers' Smart Ones line!

Photos: Healthy Choice

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Unequal Portions

My husband is a weight-loss star. Both of us have been working on losing weight since we returned from our honeymoon, but whereas I only have managed just about 20 pounds, he's officially down by 50. (By the way: Congratulations, honey!)

"Whoa!" you might say. "It's true! Men lose weight like that [snapping fingers], but women can't do it! I'm doomed!"

Stop, stop! Go no further down that path. Remember, on this site, we don't believe weight loss is impossible or too difficult to achieve for anyone. If I had lost 50 pounds as well, I'd be verging on underweight now. No, there are reasons men oftentimes seem to lose weight faster or more easily than us women.

The short explanation is that men and women have different nutritional needs. Think about it: Men are generally taller and larger than women. Men usually also have lower body-fat percentages than women, as women need a good deal of fat tissue to accommodate the reproductive system. The high end of what's acceptable for a man's body-fat percentage is considered the low end for women in the same category. Bigger, more muscular bodies need more calories, which means men can consume more food without gaining weight than women can.

What's this all mean in terms of Healthy Habits? Unfortunately, a lot of women -- even women who keep the kitchen in regular use -- gain weight after marriage. They start eating with hubby every night and thus start serving themselves portions equal to their husband's. Oops! A quick and simple way for women to rein in their consumption and bring themselves down to eating correct portions is to start serving themselves less food than their partners.

How can you combat the post-wedding bulge?

Eyeball the platters. Mentally divvy up what's in the pan before you dig in. Eliminate anything you plan to save as leftovers before you even get to the table, then mark off roughly one-third or two-fifths of the main dish and any starches for yourself (assuming you're serving just the two of you). Use the serving spoon to draw lines if it helps.

Vary your plate sizes. If eyeballing isn't cutting it for you, a more direct method is giving the significant other and yourself different plates. Give the spouse a normal, oversized dinner plate but stick with a smaller, old-fashioned-sized plate for yourself. You'll end up taking less food because the smaller dish can't handle huge servings, yet your plate will look just as "full" as the one across the table.

When all else fails, measure. Not seeing a difference? Determine the approximate number of calories you should consume at dinner (say, 600 if you're on a 1,500-calorie weight-loss plan). Next, whip out the calculator and the kitchen scale, and carefully measure out your own portions before sitting at the table. Let your husband load his plate, too, then leave the leftovers behind in the kitchen.

Don't sweat the veggies. This tip is more about combating the mental struggle of reducing your portions while your husband continues to chow down. With rare exception, vegetables are extremely low in calories. Always prepare a huge veggie side dish (salad, steamed broccoli or green beans, whatever) and give yourself permission to eat as much of it as you want while laying off the higher-calories items.

In some areas, men and women simply have different needs. There's nothing evil about it. As a woman, you don't need as much food as a man. It's not about appearances or social pressure to eat like a bird, it's just a fact of biology. Don't starve yourself, but don't stuff yourself, either!

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Diets Don't Work, Teens Don't Move, and Links Don't Stop

Photo: Colleen Fischer

Two big studies hit the press this week offering us little we couldn't guess on our own, but hey, who couldn't use a refresher course in common sense every once in a while?

In the News

New York Times - Healthy Diets Shown to Have Benefit Despite Modest Weight Losses
Check it out, as surely everyone will be talking about this study's implications. I prefer the Times' spin to the AP's, as that reporter does little but give a pat on the back to the Atkins Foundation, which helped sponsor the study. The study's low-carb program produced a greater improvement in cholesterol readings than either the Mediterranean or low-fat (if you consider up to 30 percent low) diets. The Times, however, points out that after two whole years of dieting, the subjects lost no more than an average of six to 10 pounds. What can we take away? Weight loss requires a more serious commitment than the study's authors say they demanded, for one thing. Aside from that, we have some definite good news: Even small weight loss resulting from a permanent change in eating patterns can make you significantly healthier.

New York Times - As Children Grow, Activity Quickly Slows
Who wouldn't have guessed the findings of this study? If you've been a teenager, then you know how awesome sitting and sleeping seemed back then. Once I hit junior high, active play just didn't hold a candle to books, television, and computer activities. The article notes that physical education and sport activities are less available to teens than kids as well.

Yahoo! News - Obesity ups a woman's pancreatic cancer risk: study
Another vote for the waist-measurement method of assessing weight-related health risk. It's not just heart problems or diabetes that a wide waist can set you up for. Obese men are at risk for pancreatic cancer, too, but doctors already had established that link.

New York Times - Prevention: A New Way to Gauge Heart Disease Risk
Don't feel surprised if your doctor measures your blood pressure around your ankle at the next visit!

New York Times - Too Fat and Pregnant
That's blunt. Of course, the image of pregnant women needing the loading-dock scale to measure their weight is pretty stark, too. Definitely consult your obstetrician before even considering losing weight while pregnant, even if you do have some pounds to drop.

The Guardian - Waste not . . .
Twenty tips for reducing food waste and, therefore, food spending. The only one I question is the advice to spend more on food items just so that you'll waste less of them. It's best to not buy any yogurt if you're not going to use before it rots. Still, props for mentioning meal planning, actually cooking, and packing a lunch. (Via Consumerist.)

Caught in the Web - Lose the Blogger 15: 25+ Web Apps for Dieting & Getting in Shape
Great collection of online tools to help you get in shape! I used as my food diary before I bought a standalone program. Not every choice is a winner, though: I did not like eDiets at all when I tried it last year. (Via Serious Eats.)

Hungry Girl on Yahoo! Food - Hot Tips to Cut Calories at Your Next BBQ
A barbecue survival guide, with tips you might expect: Avoid the mayo-laden sides, stick with lean grilled items, and so on. Also, she offers a few product picks that can slim down the pickin's at your next picnic, including my favorite Hebrew National reduced-fat hot dogs.

Divine Caroline - The 20 Healthiest Foods for Under $1
Under $1 for a serving, that is. Some, such as nuts and eggs, will cost more upfront for several servings but save you money in the long run. (Via Consumerist.)

Bite of the Best - A Truism Proven: Eat Slowly to Help Lose Weight
You'll feel full before polishing off multiple servings if you take your time with your food. Plus, you'll have the time to actually, you know, taste it.

The Simple Dollar - Ten Ways to Find Bargains on Fresh Food
Mostly based on the eat-local trend. You know, I miss the days when eating locally simply meant getting nice, ripe tomatoes and strawberries rather than joining a movement. Anyway, check the list for creative ideas in that vein along with a few bonuses (like the tip to try new fruits and veggies).

Good Housekeeping - 8 Exercises to Lose Weight
You won't lose weight by exercise alone, but moving more will make you look and feel better. Building muscle will also boost your resting metabolic rate, making it easier to drop pounds. (Via That's Fit.) - Dinner Rush: Week of July 21
Another meal planning resource. Epicurious' recipes are more elegant than those on many sites, what with having Gourmet and Bon Appétit as sources. You even get wine-pairing suggestions. Just remember to double-check how much wine is in one serving before you fill your glass to the brim.

That's it for this week! Thanks for stopping by. Check back next week for information on portion sizes, reviews of select Healthy Choice frozen meals, and more!

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The Hunger Haze

A3BB78CE-D2FB-4E0F-ACAC-BDD533C1BC79.jpgI've heard before that if you're thirsty, it's too late -- you're already dehydrated. While my own history of dehydration problems clearly disqualifies me from mounting a criticism of that statement, more trusted sources do say that unless you're an elite athlete, that's a myth. However, here's one truism that's definitely not a fairy tale: If you're hungry, it's too late -- you're already crazy!

Research backs it up:

"Our study demonstrates that ghrelin [a hormone that 'acts on the brain to tell the body when to eat in an attempt to keep a constant body weight'] actually activates certain regions of the brain to be more responsive to visual food cues, thereby enhancing the hedonic and incentive responses to food-related cues," says Dr. Alain Dagher, neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University and principal investigator in the study. “Ghrelin is a hormone that triggers hunger, and is secreted by the stomach [when it is empty]."

Translation? When those hunger juices start flowing, your inhibitions start tumbling. As the good doctor says:

"An easy analogy would be to think about when you go shopping on an empty stomach, you tend to buy more food and products higher in calories. The reason is that your brain views the food as more appealing, largely due to the action of ghrelin on the brain.”

So what can you do to head off the evil, evil cravings?

Learn when you get hungry. Start taking notice of the time when your hunger pangs strike. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sure, but what about mid-morning? Mid-afternoon? Late at night? A food diary can help here if you record when you eat as well as what you eat. If you know you have a tendency to scarf down a pint of Ben & Jerry's at around 9 p.m. every night, you'll be able to prepare yourself to fight the urge.

Watch for early hunger signs. Here you'll need to pay attention to your body rather than the clock. Be alert for any minor signs: a feeling of emptiness, a slight rumble, that bag of Doritos looking awfully good, whatever. Learn to recognize when you're about to plunge off the starvation cliff.

Keep healthy snacks at the ready. Remember how great fruit is to snack on, with all that fiber and built-in portion control? Keep plenty of fruit, as well as other healthy, convenient snacks such as pre-portioned nuts and cut veggies, at the ready at all times to head off the pangs. Promise yourself -- no, force yourself -- to eat one of your healthy snacks first when you feel hungry and visions of cheeseburgers are dancing through your head. Wait a few minutes then before diving into the chips or cookies. Odds are that satisfying the urge to eat will reign in the hormones enough to make you less desperate.

Your own hunger -- not Twinkies, not Chex Mix -- is the enemy when you're trying to lose or maintain weight. Don't let it sneak up on you! Be aware of your needs and bring in the preemptive snacks so that for you, it will never be too late.


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South Beach Living Packaged Meals (and More from Kraft)

This post is part of a series on low-cal packaged meals. For more, check out last week's entry on Lean Cuisine.

Not long ago, Kraft changed the name for its line of packaged foods based on the popular South Beach Diet to "South Beach Living." The change reflects the growing awareness among Americans that weight loss and better health require a permanent lifestyle change, not a quick-fix "diet." For example, Weight Watchers (another brand we'll check out in this series) is trumpeting their anti-diet approach to weight loss in their latest advertising campaign. Additionally, Jenny Craig has expanded its message to include an emphasis on learning healthy eating habits through hiring Queen Latifah, a famously curvy celebrity, to shed pounds to reduce her diabetes risk. The idea of the diet, thankfully, is on the way out.

So here's to South Beach Living. This brand reaches way beyond the freezer case. It's a lucky thing, as the few South Beach frozen meals I tried back in my teaching days were abysmal. Having checked the latest product listings, I imagine I wasn't alone in that opinion, as a lot of those frozen dinners have changed or disappeared. I won't condemn the new varieties outright, but still, I'd taste-test that funky chicken before heavily investing.

Regardless, South Beach's products outside the deep chill have much tasty goodness to offer. Regrettably, the portions for their refrigerated meals are as small as with other low-cal lines. Plan on bringing along some fruit or other healthy supplement.

South Beach Living

From Sesame Chicken Wrap Sandwich Kit
How good is this refrigerated meal kit? I was so obsessed that I actually bought the ingredients separately and started making these wraps myself. I had to resort to desperate measures considering my supermarket's perpetual shortage. I'd approach the cooler case, note the label on the shelf, and stare into the gaping hole where my Asian-inspired goodness should be. Then I'd stick my hand back there, just in case.

These Lunchable-like kits contain two whole-wheat mini tortillas, cooked (and non-funky) chicken pieces, whole-wheat crunchy noodles, and yummy mandarin orange and sesame dressing, alongside an itty-bitty cup of sugar-free gelatin for dessert.

Incidentally, that dressing introduced me to the low-calorie wonders of soy sauce-based vinaigrettes. Check out the wide variety of bottled versions in the salad-dressing aisle should you ever want to make a homemade version of this lunch. I fill a whole-wheat tortilla with cooked chicken, mandarin orange wedges, brown rice, and a sprinkling of chow mein noodles, drizzled with an Asian-style dressing.

On the downside, this 220-calorie pack almost absurdly paltry. You get two wraps, true, but they are tiny. Without that supplemental food I mentioned before, you honestly will faint before you leave work. Even when my mom would pack me those old-school cheese-and-cracker Lunchables as a kid, she supplemented them with other healthy foods.

Speaking of Lunchables . . .

Kraft produces Oscar Mayer's Lunchables line as well. I suppose they're where the idea for refrigerated South Beach meals came from. Today's Lunchables are far heftier than in years past, and when approached correctly, they can provide a decent lunch (or lunch inspiration) for an adult.

An advantage to brown-bagging a refrigerated lunch kit is reduced prep time. Some frozen meals require 10 minutes or more in the microwave, forcing you to shovel food into your mouth in what little time remains for your break. Worse, some schools and workplaces (gasp!) don't even offer a microwave.

From Lunchables Maxed Out Chicken Strips
Though I find Lunchables' packaging somewhat obnoxious these days, the food selection has evolved in ways both good and bad since your options were either perfectly round turkey or ham with your cheese and crackers.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed cold chicken fingers. If convenience isn't your priority when choosing a healthy lunch, I'd strongly recommend making your own baked nuggets for your brown bag.

Unfortunately, as you might expect from fried chicken, this box weighs in at substantial 490 calories. Still, if you ditch the sugary Kool-Aid packet and the candy, it's probably not so bad. Again -- bring a healthy supplement to ward off hunger pangs.

From Kraftfoods.comLunchables Mini Tacos
You might have let me slide on the cold chicken fingers thing but . . . cold beef taco filling?!

Give it a chance, that's all I can say. It might look like dog food, but the beefy paste has a yummy, spicy flavor. And hey, they're cute!

If you can't stomach the thought of cold, processed beef that squirts out of a pouch but somehow still are intrigued at the thought of chilled burritos, check out this promising recipe. These homemade burritos, which can be stockpiled in advance, only pack in about 204 calories each.

The same can't be said for our Lunchable. Kraft labels this box as a "Sensible Solution." I think it would be more sensible if you pawned the candy off on a little kid to knock off a few of those 410 calories, but it beats a Taco Bell run. Finally, should you still need reminding, remember that these mini tacos. As in not filling on their own.

Lest We Be Forgetting the Adults in the Room

Kraft doesn't market the last two products in this roundup as suitable for healthy eaters, but we're living, not dieting, now, right?

From Kraftfoods.comOscar Mayer Deli Creations Steakhouse Cheddar
Kraft rewarded me for taking surveys with a coupon good for a free Deli Creations sandwich. Take that disclosure as you will.

I chose to try the Steakhouse Cheddar. Oscar Mayer also offers ham and turkey variations, but here's my dirty little secret: I don't like lunchmeat. I find cold cuts slimy and gross. Roast beef, though, I can deal with as I can tell myself it's just like leftovers. Likely, you will not share my issues and might enjoy a nice turkey sandwich.

Onward. The sandwich provides a much more satisfying portion than any of the other meals on this page, as it ought to be for 430 calories. I'd recommend leaving off the mayonnaise to slim it down. Much as I love mayo, it's not needed here; the box comes with a packet of tangy steak sauce that provides more than enough flavor.

Obviously, you could easily replicate this sandwich on your own with some deli meat, a slice of cheddar, and Heinz 57 sauce. Whichever way you go, it's worth tasting.

From Kraftfoods.comOscar Mayer Beef Fast Franks
Oscar Mayer has figured out how to microwave bread without it turning into a rock, as shown by both the Deli Creations sandwiches and these Fast Franks.

This one's just a hot dog on a bun. That's it. Honestly, you could accomplish the same thing by packing any hot dog and bun in your lunchbox. Still, if you can't bear any prep work, Fast Franks a hot, convenient, and satisfying meal for only 300 calories.

I always top mine with low-cal brown mustard, relish, a dill pickle wedge, and chopped onions. Mmm . . . By the way, if you prefer regular Oscar Mayer wieners, you can also get these in the usual mishmash of chicken, turkey, and pork. You won't save more than 10 calories, though.

That ends our whirlwind tour of the Kraft brands. Coming up, we'll check out ready-made meals from other labels, including Michelina's Lean Gourmet and Gardenburger. Happy lunching!

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Discover Meal Planning

Meal planning rocks.

The end.

OK, that conclusion is premature, but you are bound to agree with me once you try meal planning. I started down the path as a response to the tiny, tiny refrigerators and pantries I found in our apartments in Europe. Until the end of July, we're stuck with an icebox that's less roomy than my old dorm fridge and a "pantry" is a shelf, a rickety rolling cart, and, well, the floor. In our dollhouse kitchen, stocking up on food we might eat sometime is out of the question, and leftovers cause a serious space crunch.

When you're faced with tight spaces and tight budgets (that cursed dollar!), meal planning can ride to your rescue. Your kitchen will be less cluttered, your wallet will grow fatter, your sanity will remain intact, and you'll have more time to relish all the benefits.

Meal planning benefits your budget both by lowering your initial outlay for food and by reducing food waste. When you stop buying on impulse, you'll end up buying fewer items and, thus, spending less. Also, if you take in less and if you know how you will use just about every item you buy within a reasonable timeframe, you'll end up throwing out less.

I learned the hard way. When I lived in Las Vegas, I filled to bursting my old pantry and fridge with groceries that looked tasty at the store, that I bought when I mistakenly thought I was out, or that I kept around just in case I had the urge to cook with them some night. My purchasing was out of control, and my costs were through the roof. Worse, I had to throw out tons of rotten or expired food that just never had its day on my plate. Wasted food equals wasted money.

Another advantage to meal planning is that it eliminates the nightly stress of figuring out what's for dinner. I used to come home from work absolutely starving but with no idea what I could eat. I'd squander lots of time sprawled on the sofa trying to talk my hungry, cranky self into pulling together a meal from the pantry, only to end up scarfing down a comforting bag of chips. The evening flows so much more smoothly if you have an action plan in place and know that you've already gathered all the ingredients necessary.

Not to mention a meal plan will keep your overall diet healthier. That junk-food binge I mentioned above? That happened a lot, but what's even worse is that just as often I decided to avoid the no-plan problem by getting fast food on the way home. Fast food, and restaurant food in general, is high in fat, salt, and calories, and a regular diet of the stuff will lead you, like me, to pack on the pounds That puts you at risk for weight-related health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

With a meal plan in place, you'll waste no time cruising through the drive-thru. You'll also avoid nightly grocery runs (and all the impulse purchasing that happens when you shop hungry). Even better, plans mean no sitting around, useless and starving, while you mull over what meal might satisfy you, with your energy steadily sapping away. Meal planning may require an upfront time investment, but that small sacrifice will pay dividends in minutes saved throughout the week.

Still, a lot of people, even presented with all these benefits, will refuse to plan meals. "It's just not my thing!" they cry. "I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants cook! I like creativity and spontaneity! I can't be pinned down by plans!"

Guess what? Meal planning offers more flexibility than you think. You don't have to decide a month in advance on every molecule that will pass your lips! I plan week to week myself. However, while I shop based on my plan, I don't limit myself to strict adherence to the schedule. For example, I shuffle meals within the week occasionally to satisfy cravings. You also can delay meals if you decide at the last minute to eat out with friends. What's the worst that will happen? You'll just have one meal already planned for the next week, and you won't need as much from the store.

As for creativity, I have found meal planning fosters it far more than it hampers it. I keep a running list of meal ideas or recipes I want to try, simply recording them in my planner as the notion strikes me. Later, when I sit down to make out my dinner schedule, I drop those ideas into the coming week's plan rather than completely forgetting the brilliant cooking ideas that struck me at breakfast. I still have the inspirations, and I still act on them, but I do it in a way that's less stressful and less expensive. Besides, be honest: Finding a way to make a meal out of the pasta and jelly in your pantry may pull on your creativity, but is the end result worth the effort? How creative can you be without key ingredients or when you're exhausted?

Reconsider meal planning. It keeps you healthy and sane, it saves you money and time, and it allows you flexibility and fuller creative expression. Coming soon, the site will offer up instructions on setting up a meal planning system, advice on choosing recipes and balancing your meals, and lots more helpful ideas. Until then, why not start jotting down what you'd like to eat, so you can think about how to make that happen?

Gumming Up the Works

Mentos Gum with Xylitol, photo by ColleenFolks trying to quit smoking and to lose weight have something in common (besides an unhealthy relationship with food, but that's a story for another time): gum.

Gum with nicotine added is promoted as a stop-smoking aid to the legions of addicts who, studies show, are unlikely to succeed in their efforts to quit without assistance. Ex-smokers chew the gum, and they get that nicotine buzz without the nasty tar in their lungs. They gradually step down the dosage as their brains become less reliant on nicotine, but the gum is always available in case they ever feel overwhelmed with a craving.

Gum can help those of us with pounds to drop to stick to our plans, too! Many people (myself included) tend to eat not out of hunger but boredom. Our mouths (and, naturally then, our brains) are craving not nourishment but entertainment. We keep putting hand to mouth to keep our minds occupied with tasting and chewing, often during lounge sessions or tedious work activities. How many of you could find Cheetos crumbs in your keyboard right now?

Gum keeps your jaws and tastebuds occupied so you can avoid mindless snacking. If weight loss is your goal, you should go for sugarless gums. Sugarless gum has fewer calories than the regular kind, plus it won't rot your teeth. In fact, sugar-free gums can clean out the bad breath and germs from your mouth through stimulating saliva production when you chew it for about 20 minutes after a meal.

If you're interested in dental health as well as weight loss, buy gums sweetened with xylitol. This sugar alcohol is famed for its germ-killing properties. You can find it in several gum brands (just check the ingredients), including my frugal favorite, Trident.

Beware, though: Excessive consumption of sugar alcohols, such xylitol and other common gum sweeteners, can lead to some . . . unpleasant . . . bathroom visits. I've never encountered such a side effect in my years of heavy gum chewing, but it's worth noting if you're a frequent consumer of sugar-free candies. Also, gum chewing is not for you if you have dental work or are especially susceptible to heartburn.

Otherwise, though, gum's a safe, nearly calorie-free way to make your mouth happy. As a bonus, it's possible the energy you expend chewing your gum will exceed the few calories it contains! When used as part of an overall healthy eating plan, gum can reduce the number of calories you consume out of boredom, helping you lose weight and break a food addiction.

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Food Diaries, Risky Chiles, and the Elusive Obesity Gene

And I thought finding enough links to post each week would be hard.

ABC News - Keeping Food Diary Doubles Weight Loss
A study proves what for me was the biggest takeaway lesson in my own weight-loss journey. Writing down what's in every bite that passes your lips may sound like a chore, but it's a huge motivator for success and a significant educational tool. You'll finally understand why you "just couldn't" lose weight before. And hey, you'll have a record to check should you contract that dreaded salmonella . . .

Fast Food Maven - Salmonella outbreak probe turns to jalapeños & salsa
How frustrating is it when someone pulls the rug out from under you like that? All across the country, people and businesses discard millions of tomatoes, and it may have been all for nothing. There's a thousand confirmed cases of salmonella now, and no one even knows what produce we should avoid.

Yahoo! News - Hardwired for fat: scientists identify obesity gene
Don't see it as a wall, but merely as another obstacle you can overcome on your way to better health. It will require more work and more vigilance, no doubt, but it's a worthwhile fight. Genes are not destiny, too. Just because you have additional risk for any given disease written into your makeup doesn't mean you will end up that illness (DNA is highly complex) and doesn't mean you can't work to prevent or alleviate the problem.

Weight Watchers - The Secret to Hungry Girl's Success
I subscribe to Hungry Girl's daily newsletter myself. I find her gung-ho spirit inspiring and the writing cute. The food reviews are a guilty pleasure, although I know I could never let myself indulge in most of the carb-heavy items mentioned in the e-mails without bingeing. The rest of the content is useful for anyone looking to maintain a healthy weight without shunning all the fun of food.

Hungry Girl - HG's Holy Moly Guacamole
Hungry Girl posts all of her e-mails online. Check out this guacamole revision that cleverly cuts down on the calories (by subbing in peas) without pulling out all the avocado. What's guacamole without avocado, anyway? Thankfully, too, the recipe calls only for "safe" grape tomatoes and canned chiles.

Well - Cholesterol Drugs for Kids
Wow. When doctors start recommending statins for eight-year-olds, something must be out of whack. The sad thing is, while American kids are suffering from the effects of obesity, kids on the other side of the world are facing starvation. Nobody wins here.

New York Times - 8-Year-Olds on Statins? A New Plan Quickly Bites Back

The backlash emerged awfully quickly for that new treatment recommendation. Certainly, diet and exercise should always be the first line of defense, no matter what your age. It's trickier than you might think with kids' diets, though, and I'm not talking about the inevitable picky eaters. Plenty of kids who, say, only eat white foods are at least slim. Instead, either you have parents who don't model the healthy diet these kids need to follow, or you have grocery gatekeepers who like to indulge as an expression of love. There's no need to be judgmental. Parents are not trying to hurt their kids, but they may not realize what's happening or may feel powerless to change, just like overweight adults.

Good Housekeeping - The Limits of Thin: Losing Weight Doesn't Fix Everything
Losing weight will make you feel better about many things. Your body will feel renewed and reenergized, and your mind may feel less stress about your health and more confidence about your appearance. But it's important to keep perspective: Weight loss does not make all your problems evaporate and it most definitely does not cure depression. (Via That's Fit.)

Well - Should Doctors Lecture Patients About Their Weight?
Here's a refreshing view on how to approach health-oriented weight loss in a doctor's own words. More doctors should consider an overall-health approach to encouraging patients to lose weight. For many people, emotional problems need to be overcome before other health issues can be addressed. It's just like in education: Students need to have basic needs, such as food, shelter, and social acceptance, met before they can strive for academic achievement.

New York Times - Not a Moment Too Soon, I Thought of Tim Russert
It's scary that heart attacks can have such subtle symptoms. Like the guy says, he would be dead now if the recent passing of Tim Russert hadn't led him to research his mild symptoms. Also, the article reminds us again that even if you exercise and try to eat right, you still have significant cardiac risk if you, like Russert and the author, carry a bit too much around the middle. - Meal Planning Saved My Marriage
CityMama writes about how meal planning allows her to feed her family whole, nutritious foods without busting the budget. (Via CityMama.)

Every Day with Rachael Ray - Menu Planner
One link to help you start thinking about meal planning before we get to the big meal-planning basics article here. Not all of the recipes look particularly healthy, but meals cooked at home, by you are going to beat fast food any day.

EatingWell - Ten Pounds in 10 Days?
Reasonable weight loss is one or two pounds per week. Really.

Divine Caroline - The Top Ten Most Ridiculous Diets
None of them will honestly help you lose 10 pounds in 10 days, either! I have to say, the Russian Air Force Diet is my favorite. Is that a hoax?! (Via That's Fit.)

Whew, I think it's the link list that needs to go on a crash diet for next week! Don't forget to check back Monday for one of my personal secrets for curbing mindless snacking. Enjoy clicking around, and have a great weekend!

Lean Cuisine Frozen Meals

I sampled dozens of packaged meals during my two years of teaching, as they were my (and many others') go-to choice for lunch at school. Back then, my meal-planning efforts were miniscule, so I didn't often have lunch-ready leftovers or sandwich supplies.

True, I could have picked up a government-approved meal from the school cafeteria. However, I'd like to see government officials subsist on mush-meat burritos (cooked and served in their plastic bags) served with iceberg lettuce piles and cupcakes the way my low-income students had to! Aiming to avoid the styrofoam surprise, I kept my fridge and freezer stocked with heat-and-eat platters.

In the course of this series, I'm going to recommend several packaged meals based on their flavor and reasonable calorie counts, but I have to warn anyone interested in picking these up that none will keep you full and satisfied the way a home-cooked meal would. They might be briefly satisfying, but I invariably ended up ravenous by the time I left school. Packaged meals aim to please American palates, which love fat, salt, and protein. If "diet" meals were largely vegetable-based, they could offer truly satisfying portions for few calories, but let's be honest: No one outside of the Whole Foods crowd would buy them.

Since between-meals hunger can lead to serious junk-food binges or poor dinner choices (all those drive-thrus on the commute!), it's best to either supplement or pack a healthy, filling snack to consume a few hours later. Think ready-to-go, high-fiber fruit such as apples or bananas; protein-rich snacks such as string cheese or nuts; or even low-cal meal-replacement bars. Alternatively, a big, vegetables-only salad, whether home chopped or store prepared, can fill out your meal for few calories.

Lean Cuisine

Lean Cuisine is likely the first brand that pops to mind when anyone thinks of low-cal frozen meals. Stouffer's packs these meals with delicious flavors unusual for the freezer case. They're innovators in the field, introducing choices most people wouldn't expect to find in the freezer case, such as crunchy panini sandwiches and chewy flatbreads.

Lean Cuisine's offerings seem endless based on their web site. No wonder they take over such a large chunk of the supermarket freezer. On the downside, most of the meals are paltry in size and lack a significant amount of vegetables. Don't expect a huge emphasis on whole grains, either.

On to the best of the bunch!

From LeanCuisine.comAsian-Style Pot Stickers
How fun is it to get to eat something that looks like naughty Chinese take-out and yet know that it has minimal waist impact? The sauce gives the cute (and generously sized) dumplings a lip-smacking Asian-food flavor, all for only 260 calories a box. The rice accompaniment isn't a showstopper, but stir-fry some frozen veggies to add on top and it's like you're getting an appetizer and an entrée, making it a full dinner. These pot stickers are part of the "One-Dish Favorites" line, as is the similar Vegetable Eggroll meal. That one, though, comes with only one eggroll and thus seems eminently less satisfying.

From LeanCuisine.comSesame Chicken
Sesame Chicken is my all-time favorite Lean Cuisine frozen meal. I stocked up on it whenever it went on sale, and it was one of the few frozen meals I actually craved enough to eat for dinner. I always guiltily wished they would make a bigger-sized portion (like those skillet-meal bags) so I could have more of those fried nuggets. Mostly I liked this meal because of its resemblance to a takeout favorite, sweet and sour chicken. Sure, Lean Cuisine offers another meal dubbed Sweet and Sour Chicken, but it features roasted meat rather than fried. It's just not the same. The noodles on the side are OK -- nothing special -- but don't expect the big pile in the box picture. Sesame Chicken belongs to the "Café Classics" line and contains 330 calories.

From LeanCuisine.comLemongrass Chicken
The "Spa Cuisine" line features the meals that taste the most like "real" food, as in something you might prepare yourself or get at a decent restaurant. This Lemongrass Chicken wins you over not with assertive flavors or mouthwatering saltiness but with a subtle yet distinctive taste. How can I describe it? It's if they actually cooked up this one to nourish you rather than to addict you. The sauce featured on the chicken is delectable, and there's even some whole grains and vegetables involved. The meal weighs in at a spa-worthy 250 calories.

From LeanCuisine.comChicken Club
I felt like I must be doing something wrong biting into a crispy sandwich stuffed with melty cheese, ranch dressing, and bacon. Yet this sandwich only sets you back 320 calories, which is a perfectly reasonable lunch, with ample room for a piece of fruit alongside. It somehow feels extra satisfying as a lunch, too, being a traditional sandwich. You might be able to save some calories by discarding the bread topper and eating this open-faced -- the frozen and microwave-"grilled" bread isn't much to write home about. Those pictured grill marks added before the sandwich leaves the factory; the little silver microwaving tray in the box does not produce them.

Lean Cuisine may dominate the freezer case, but it's not the only brand in town. Later, we'll discuss meals offered by Weight Watchers, Healthy Choice, and other weight loss-oriented brands.

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Weighty Matters

I've long had a minor obsession with weights and measures. As a kid, I loved fussing with the balances in science class. I also found the those manual scales in the doctor's office fascinating. In fact, I thrilled inside when I finally got to take one for a spin at the gym years later. In the kitchen, I've fallen for the digital food scale. I weigh portions to match nutrition labels when I'm counting calories, and I park my work bowl on the thing for measuring ingredients when I'm baking -- it saves on dishes!

It's in the bathroom, though, that I have tucked away the most important scale in the house. Every morning, I step on it to see how I'm doing at losing or maintaining my weight. Why? A firm grasp of where the scale points is one of the best tools in your weight-loss arsenal. To keep that toolbox stocked, you must weigh yourself regularly.

Periodic weigh-ins, with the results tracked over time, keeps you focused on your goals, reminding you to stick to your plan so you can continue to see progress. Plus, your weight is a key factor in determining your level of health risk. Once you have your stats, you can calculate your body-mass index, a number that's used to estimate your likelihood of suffering weight-related problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Know your height and weight already? Visit the CDC's web site to calculate your BMI now. If you want to learn more about this measurement and how it's calculated, check out their About BMI for Adults section. The BMI is not a perfect measure of your cardiac risk, so you should definitely also pay attention to your waist size. Still, it is an easy stat to measure and track, which is what's important for keeping yourself on track toward a healthy weight.

One question most people new to regular weight checks have is, "How often should I step on the scale?" A daily weight measure is the best option for people focused on losing weight and keeping it off. Checking so often reminds you every day of your goal. Plus, you'll learn to recognize what a normal weight fluctuation is for you when you start seeing yourself go down and up a little from day to day, which will come in handy when you reach the maintenance phase of your plan. Finally, studies have found that people who have lost weight and kept it off successfully tend to be daily weight-checkers.

It's true that the conventional wisdom on measuring weight is to do so only once a week. Everyone is different, so I won't argue if you say it works for you. The advantage of a weekly system is that you'll be able to note an overall trend upward or downward with each weigh in. However, I find I worry way too much about what the scale will say if I put off the task more than a day, to the point where it will either cause me undue stress (bad for an emotional eater) or make me avoid the check. It's counterproductive to be afraid of the scale.

Once you start your regular weigh-ins, you also should start tracking your stats. You need progress you can see to keep your spirits up and your determination to change your lifestyle strong. Also, tracking will keep you honest, making plateaus -- and your need to re-evaluate how you've been eating lately -- obvious.

Your system could be as simple as keeping a notebook near your scale for jotting down the date and weight right away. If you're a creative type and want a big motivator, then design a big graph on chart paper to mark up, something that will provide a lovely visual of your downward trend. The geekier among us (hello, friends!) might make use of spreadsheets, calorie-counting software, or weight-loss web sites to track progress. If you're conscientious, figure out and note your BMI at least once a week as well.

Here are a couple of tips for getting the best results from weigh-ins, now that you're dying to get started: First, invest in a digital scale for your home. Dial-based scales certainly are cheaper and have a certain kitsch value, but you'll find their annoyance factor far . . . outweighs . . . their merits. They're both hard to calibrate and to read from a distance since that needle seems to move depending on how you hold your head. Such imprecision is no good for someone trying to measure a change of only a pound or two per week.

Second, always weigh yourself at the same time each day. Your weight not only displays minor fluctuations from day to day but also from hour to hour. Your numbers will vary depending on how much eating you've done, what sort of clothes you're wearing, and so on. To maintain consistency, pick one time of day and stick with it. Doing so also helps you remember to weigh in by associating the check with a daily routine. I always weigh myself right after getting out of bed, but hopping on the scale right before bed or shower time could work, too.

It might not be fun to weigh yourself at first (unless you share my secret passion for statistics), but eventually your weigh-in just might become your favorite routine of the day when you start to see encouraging results!

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Fruitful Snacking

Afternoon rolls around, and lunch seems like it was an eternity ago. Stomach rumbling, you reach for a snack to quell your hunger. But what should you choose?

Pick fruit! It's an easy, pleasurable, and nutritious way to aid your efforts to improve your health and lose weight.

Unlike most "snack foods," fruit is good for you! It offers vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients, in a tidy, plant-based package. That bit's important: After all, we need more plant-based foods in our diets for not only health but environmental and budgetary reasons.

Fruit offers you great bang for your calorie buck, too. Fruits like most vegetables, are made mostly of calorie-free water. Not only will that water infusion keep you hydrated, it will help fill you up before you consume too many calories. Even better, fruits such as peaches and pears come in tidy little packages, doing the portion-control work for you.

Here's a neat trick: Next time you're starving, with visions of nachos and chili-cheese fries dancing in your head, try grabbing some fruit. It may not sound as satisfying to your desperate tummy, but give it a chance. Silencing the growls will relieve your temporary nutritional insanity, allowing you to consider more sensibly whether to indulge. You might find you don't need anything more. Keep choosing fruit first, and you might find your cravings for junk fading over time!

Fruit's just as convenient as "snack foods," too. If you can open a bag of chips, you can peel a banana. Many fruits require no prep beyond a quick wash. Moreover, a lot of fruits can be stored at room temperature for long periods without spoiling, making it simple to throw a snack or two in your car to take to work each day.

Maybe your tastebuds don't tingle at the thought of an apple, though. True, if you have a sweet tooth, most fruits will satisfy it and then some, but not every fruit is bound to make your less-than-sweet teeth ache. Citrus fruits and green apples come with sometimes biting levels of acidity, great for those of us reared on sour candies. Grapefruit, a particular favorite of mine, balances its acidity and mild sweetness with a bitter kick.

It doesn't stop there! Bananas can satisfy a desire for a rich, creamy texture. If savory is more your thing, try approaching your fruit the way they do south of the border, adding seasonings such as chile. Looking to cool off? Freeze! Grapes and bananas can be eaten straight up when frozen, and other fruits can be puréed into ice pops and smoothies.

By the way, should you desire a healthier alternative to sports drinks for yourself or the kids on a hot day, try orange wedges sprinkled with salt. You'll get nutrients and protection from dehydration, without all those sugary, empty calories.

Give fruit a try! Introduce more into your diet, and you might just see both your junk consumption and your weight go down.

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Articles of Independence (Day)!

I'm polishing up the first couple of posts for the site still. Look for more soon on weigh-ins and fruity deliciousness! In the mean time, check out this week's articles of interest:

New York Times - The Claim: Mayonnaise Can Increase Risk of Food Poisoning
I'm glad to see they've finally taken on this old saw, and just in time for July 4th picnics. I discovered mayo had been given a bad rap years ago on the wonderful Good Eats. I'd like to present Rachael Ray with this article particularly. She's always going on about how her mayo-free slaw and salad recipes are designed to be great for picnics, but in truth, she just doesn't like the taste of mayonnaise. Admit it on the show already!

WebMD - Top 10 Healthy Summer Foods for Children
Last I checked, though, it wasn't just kids who loved hamburgers and nachos! Find suggestions for lightening up beloved junk staples here. (Via That's Fit.)

Vegan Lunch Box - Summer Veg Out Part III: EASY & EATEN
A cute and simple idea for making vegetables more appealing to kids. Take away the emotional blackmail; add the ability to sample at their own pace what they're curious about.

Fad - Cheaters Tips
It's a humorous list with perhaps a bit more truth to it than dieters might like. Have a laugh while the voice in the back of the head asks, "But isn't that true?!" (Via That's Fit.)

Epicurious - Budget Boosters
Everyone's chiming in with tips for saving money at the supermarket these days. Most this article is the same old advice about shopping around and using coupons, but there's a few more innovative hints buried in there: How about simply asking the deli worker to slice your cold cuts a little thinner to stretch them over more sandwiches?

Well - The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating
This post is taking the web by storm (as many entries in Tara Parker-Pope's blog do -- she's really tapping the zeitgeist), so you may have already seen it. If not, go learn about the glories of cabbage (coleslaw today, anyone?) and turmeric.

New York Times - Solution, or Mess? A Milk Jug for a Green Earth
I've been dying to weigh in on this one! Read the article before lashing out at the new, more cubical milk jugs. They may be difficult to pour, but they're working wonders for production efficiency (milk from the cow to the store in the same day!) and environmental conservation. Not to mention that they've caused one of the few drops in food prices. To the people who can't stand the jugs, I ask: Why not just pour the milk into your own spout-bearing reusable container at home? In Europe, milk comes in aseptic boxes that can't be sealed after opening, yet there's been no crying here. Besides, I don't see how much has changed. The old gallon jugs spill milk all over when they're full, too.

New York Times - Diabetes: Underrated, Insidious and Deadly
More from Tara Parker-Pope, this time her regular weekly column. Diabetes is soaring with so many Americans overweight and obese, and unfortunately, it seems, people either don't know or don't take seriously the very real and debilitating complications of the disease. If you need a reason to get down to a healthy weight, look here. It is possible to prevent type-2 diabetes and its accompanying problems!

New York Times - Aging: Good Cholesterol, Good Memory
Check this article out for motivation to add more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, into your diet.

A Mighty Appetite - Kind-Hearted Cake
Kim O'Donnel bakes a vegan cake, free of unhealthy solid fats, for a sweet-toothed friend returned to work after a coronary bypass operation. A good reminder that we can still treat friends and family with heart problems without unfairly tempting them away from their artery-friendly diets.

Well - Lying About Your Vegetables
Studies often show Americans eating far more vegetables than they really do. The big survey studies certainly are flawed -- I myself can't remember what I ate two days ago without checking my food diary. But let's not forget the takeaway: Eat more vegetables! Lying about your consumption only hurts you.

MSNBC - Cleveland Clinic pairs with Weight Watchers
Wow, talk about practicing what you preach! (Via That's Fit.)

CNN - Get more flavor, nutrition from produce with the right prep
I find that information on the best way to prepare produce changes a lot (boiling? steaming? microwaving?), but for the most part, eating veggies prepared any way beats not eating them. The bit about cooking tomatoes to increase the amount of lycopene you can get from them seems pretty consistent across articles, though.

And that's it! Have a great holiday weekend!

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