New Cooking Show Coming to Lifetime

Posted now on Edible TV:

E71CAF73-437E-48B4-84DB-039685980E4A.jpgSoon Lifetime will start offering suggestions for menus to fuel that body that looks good naked with the introduction of a cooking show.

“Mom’s Cooking” is part of the network for women’s first-ever set of original, unscripted daytime shows, according to Reuters and the Hollywood Reporter. On the show, moms will teach their daughters how to cook their special dishes, the ones that engender all those warm and fuzzy childhood memories.

Check out the rest over at the original site. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt any of the recipes from a show about mom cooking will offer much health value. But then, who can resist a taste of the classics from time to time?

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Bawk, Bawk, Bawking Hot Links

The Simple Dollar: The Frugal Whole Chicken (or, Waste Not, Want Not)
I've been looking forward to roasting chickens again anyway (a year without an oven, remember?), and seeing again what a great budget option it is just makes me want one more!

New York Times - Better to Be Fat and Fit Than Skinny and Unfit
What concerns me about articles like this is that they don't sufficiently emphasize what it means to be "fit." Unless you read carefully and think about what it means, you could get the impression that being obese is not a problem and so you shouldn't take any action. In fact, the obese and overweight were more likely to show cardiac risk factors than the normal-weight subjects, and those who weren't at risk in all groups were people with a high level of fitness -- that is, people who exercise. This data isn't an excuse to sit on the couch with the Cheetos.

Poked and Prodded - In Weight Loss, Accountability Is Essential
It's true. I tend to plateau myself if I am not at least loosely tracking my calories.

Poked and Prodded - Alabama Slaps a Tax on Fat People
More signs that obesity is becoming the new smoking. I don't think it's a terrible idea to add accountability when we're talking something so clearly related to the obesity problem like health insurance. Doctor conversations don't do the trick for people, so maybe taking the same approach as to smokers will make a difference in the same way. Maybe.

Food TV Flashback: Cooking Live

New post today on Edible TV:

cooking_live.jpgI have loved cooking ever since I was a kid demanding a turn with the spoon in the brownie batter, but it was my discovery of Food Network when I finally got cable TV in my bedroom (and stopped having to fight for control of the remote with seven other people) that turned my casual interest into a passion. Suddenly, I had a window into the secrets of the kitchen, and I soaked it in at every opportunity.

So many new foods! Shallots, avocados, extra virgin olive oil … and who knew how many different kinds of bacon there were in the world? So many foods I knew showed up in nearly unrecognizable forms: There was sausage that wasn’t Italian or Polish; garlic that didn’t come out of a jar; and herbs that weren’t papery flakes. And even more: Food didn’t have to emerge from strict recipes — with just a few basic techniques, you could improvise to taste!

Maybe it all sounds commonplace now, but it was a revelation to me at the time. And so I want to pay tribute to the shows that started me on the path to culinary creativity.

Check out the rest to learn more about former Weight Watchers member Sara Moulton's classic call-in cooking show.

Some extra tidbits: Sara M. always uses light mayonnaise in her cooking. She says she prefers the taste of it, plus she does try to be health- and weight-conscious after her Weight Watchers days. She does cook rich foods occasionally, but treats in moderation are part of a normal healthy diet. She offers lighter options for meals, such as baked (not fried) chicken wings and vegetarian entrées.

In fact, she followed a vegetarian diet for a while in college, something she often mentions as a great budget tip. After all, a pound of beans or vegetables almost always costs a lot less than a pound of meat, and on top of that, you'll save money in the long run as your health improves!


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South Beach Living Dark Chocolate Fudge Covered Wafer Sticks

I received some free samples of Kraft South Beach Living wafer sticks from a PR rep for the company, along with those chocolate pudding cups I reviewed last week.

Kraft definitely seems to be targeting the typical American woman with these products from the South Beach Living line. They're doused with chocolate fudge, they're conveniently packaged as a grab-and-go snack, they require no prep, and each individual pack contains two bars for only 100 calories, adding a sense of bang for the buck.

Each two-bar pack also has six grams of fat (three grams saturated in the Hazelnut Crème, two in the Peanut Butter), five grams of protein, one gram of sugar, and three grams of fiber. Despite the relatively healthy stats, I'd consider these more of a dessert treat, like a cookie, than a hearty snack, like a granola bar. They're too light and airy to satisfy hunger.

This package boasts many easily recognizable baking ingredients: Dutch-processed cocoa, sugar, vanilla, milk, baking soda, and so on. Since the bars are South Beach-branded products, whole-wheat flour outranks regular flour on the ingredient list, and that may explain the high fiber content for a cookie.

The sticks' protein level is boosted with wheat gluten. The nutty ingredients rank pretty low on the list, which might be why the nut taste is overwhelmed by a wheaty taste. The wafers taste sweet, but they taste sweeter after swallowing. Maybe that's due in part to the maltitol (a sugar alcohol) and sucralose (Splenda).

Scott did not care at all for the Hazelnut Crème wafer sticks. I quote: "I'd rather eat two pudding cups than one of these" for about the same calories.

I have to go with Scott on this one. The cookies have an initially bitter taste from the dark-chocolate coating that, instead of being balanced by a creamy, sweet interior like other wafer sticks, is turned up by a somewhat bitter whole-wheat flavor. As I mentioned, the flavor does sweeten up as it sits in your mouth, but that's not really what I'm looking for in wafer sticks.

The nut flavor in the Hazelnut Crème seems nearly imperceptible compared to the chocolate and crispy wafers. What's there isn't pleasant enough to carry the bar. The Peanut Butter, though, has a strong peanutty flavor that should gladden lovers of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I just am not a peanut butter cup fan myself.

Another problem I had with these is that they seemed to dry my mouth as I chewed them up, like saltine crackers. Dessert should make your mouth water!

Also, be careful with that chocolate fudge coating. Unlike M&M's, it will melt in your hand. Bring a napkin!

In the end, I'd recommend sticking with the tasty chocolate pudding cups if you're looking for a low-cal treat. Those are sweet, rich, and satisfying, whereas these wafer sticks . . . aren't. Still, if you love peanut butter cups and want a crispy alternative, the Peanut Butter flavor might be your ticket.

For more South Beach Living reviews:
South Beach Living Packaged Meals
South Beach Living Pudding Cups

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Gardenburger Frozen Meals

This post is part of a series on low-cal packaged meals. For more, check out previous entries on Michelina's Lean Gourmet, Weight Watchers Smart Ones, Healthy Choice, South Beach Living, and Lean Cuisine.

It's not just a veggie patty anymore.

The Gardenburger brand has expanded its line significantly beyond the famed burger substitute. Not only do they offer wide array of patty choices in the freezer case, but now they produce pretend riblets, wraps, and "chicken" products as well.

Naturally, some of these newer items make a tasty, convenient lunch.


C7512EFC-A8E2-42E8-B33F-9BCB5FC5E90E.jpgBlack Bean Chipotle Wrap
The photo on the box is a poor representation of this product. It looks like some kind of wacky fake chicken parmesan in a tortilla. I almost didn't buy it, which would have been a shame, as this wrap is delicious. It's Gardenburger's already yummy black bean patty coated in a spicy sauce, sprinkled with rich cheese, and stuffed into a whole-wheat tortilla. You get two individually packaged, 240-calorie wraps per box, and they're tastier and more filling (six grams of fiber!) than Lean Pockets.

That's all I have on frozen and prepackaged meals! Being back in the States now, I may have opportunity to sample more in the future. I will keep you apprised!


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Homemade Versus Store-Bought

macandcheesedinner.jpgRecently, making the rounds in my newsreader, I stumbled on a post to the Baker's Banter blog about making your own granola bars. P.J. Hamel often blogs about the cost-savings inherent in baking yourself, and here she brought up the conflict found in many households over whether that truly makes for the superior product.

For many people, apparently especially those who grew up in the golden age of packaged foods, store-bought convenience items are the sign of success. If you can afford to buy squishy loaves of Wonder bread regularly, then you've made it. Homemade bread, no matter what it's taste or texture, becomes ultimately inferior because of its association with pinching pennies.

It's true that today home baking is still associated with frugality. Personal-finance blog The Simple Dollar outlines the process for making homemade sandwich bread, and the Hillbilly Housewife site shows you how to save through making tortillas from scratch, without even a fancy press.

And no doubt having someone else prepare your food for you, whether it's the Campbell Soup Company canning chicken noodle or a classy restaurant offering consommé, smacks of elegance and prosperity. When you can shell out for Whole Foods takeout every night, it must make you feel like you've reached a comfortable perch in life.

At the same time, I do think there's been a generational shift at work in the perception of homemade foods. Thanks to food television, glossy cooking magazines, and food blogs, the homemade has taken on a new, high-class sheen. Suddenly, homemade is not only cheap and wholesome, it's trendy, eco-conscious, and the choice of the (relatively) wealthy.

Even people who can't cook or bake seem to favor whatever prepared foods hew closest to homemade these days, opting for local bakers and vendors who claim to make their products from scratch (or near to it) on site.

Why has homemade become hot, then? How did it shake off its embarrassing connotations for so many people for whom Pepperidge Farm and Tastykake set the standard?

You could argue health-consciousness turned the tide. Certainly, the buzz in the media and blogosphere has tended toward promoting the wholesome over the high-fructose corn syrup. Organics have grown in popularity, as has the addition of fiber to processed foods. Still, obesity and poor exercise habits remain epidemic despite the rise of the from-scratch crowd.

Homemade perhaps has lost its dowdiness instead because it's now perceived as a time-based luxury. Most of us feel like we have no free time these days, and thus an activity that requires a time investment, such as baking your own bread, looks indulgent compared to tearing into a slice straight from the pricier Sara Lee bag. Time, not money, has grown in value since the heyday of convenience foods.

I've learned this past year while in Europe, though, that homemade doesn't have to mean lots of time investment. Meal planning helps me keep the time I have to devote to making dinners from scratch to a minimum. When you consider the time necessary to heat up a prepared meal (some microwave dinners require 14 minutes of cook time!) or to get food at a restaurant (consider how long you sit waiting for service!), those "convenient" options don't offer a huge savings.

Meal planning, on the other hand, saves money and time while helping keep you on the now-popular "from-scratch" path. Because it expedites getting that homemade food on the table, you and your family can feel like you're indulging in the luxury of time well spent or like you're relishing the frugality of money saved as you please!

Photo: Colleen Fischer

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South Beach Living Pudding Cups


I received some free samples of Kraft South Beach Living pudding cups from a PR rep for the company. As I have an interest in low-cal products that I share here on this site, I'll share my take on this new product.

The packaging makes a boatload of claims: 60 calories! Sugar free! Good source of fiber!

Fiber? In pudding?

Both puddings I tried came infused with inulin, a fiber plentiful in plants such as chicory and jicama. Wikipedia says it's a soluble fiber that may lower cholesterol, but recent reports suggest the isolated fibers added to processed foods may not carry the same benefits as those in whole foods. However, inulin, being indigestible, doesn't add to the calorie count, and the only possible problem that might stem from its consumption (in large amounts) is a little indigestion.

Speaking of indigestion, these treats manage to achieve sugar-free status through the use of the sugar alcohols xylitol and maltitol, in addition to sucralose (Splenda) and acesulfame potassium (Ace K). Taking in too many grams of sugar alcohols also can lead to digestive upset, so take care not to binge should you indulge in sugar-free products. On the upside, xylitol helps prevent tooth decay.

Fiber, fake sugar, and plenty of water explain each cup's svelte 60 calories. Starch, rather than fat, provides the thickness and silkiness; the Dark Chocolate Vanilla Marble has 1.5 grams of fat, and the Milk Chocolate Truffle has 1 gram. The fat is saturated, likely because of the cream listed in the ingredients.

That cream, along with the Dutch-processed cocoa and salt, are the only ingredients in this pudding that you could buy yourself at the supermarket. If you're looking for all-natural foods . . . well, by now you've probably already looked elsewhere.

Taste? These cups taste much like other pudding cups I've tasted from the grocery store. They're creamy and rich-tasting, despite the lack of sugar and fat. The size and texture make for a satisfying dessert for me, though my husband, Scott, opted for two. The cups come four to a package.

Scott's favorite was the Dark Chocolate Vanilla Marble, which he enjoyed for the contrast in flavor between the chocolate layers and the center vanilla layer. I found the vanilla layer unassertive; it mostly tasted of milk, not vanilla, and the dark chocolate dominated this subtle flavor. It provided some relief from the chocolate, but don't choose this looking for a vanilla hit. It tastes a lot like chocolate chips.

I preferred the Milk Chocolate Truffle. I guess I'm just a sucker for that buttery, chocolaty flavor I associate with those creamy Lindt truffles. There's no contrasting flavor or subtlety here, just straight-up richness. I moaned a little.

Should you buy these cups? If you don't mind all the additives and fake sugars, sure. They're tasty and, at 60 calories, a perfectly reasonable dessert. If you balk at the idea of ingredients you can't pronounce, go with my longtime favorite prepared pudding, Kozy Shack, in moderation. Nothing beats some tasty tapioca.

More on South Beach Living:
South Beach Living Packaged Meals

Photo: Colleen Fischer

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Changing My Diet for the Better

New post today over at Fit Fare:

beforeafter.jpgMy husband and I are seeing our families for the first time in about a year right now, and one comment we get right after each greeting goes something like, “Wow, you’ve really lost a lot of weight!”

The two of us devoted the last year to making serious changes in our eating habits in order to lose weight and reduce our risk for problems like diabetes and heart disease. We’ve seen many people struggle with these conditions, and that strongly motivates us to follow a healthy lifestyle to prevent their onset as much as we can.

Of course, that “Wow!” comment is eventually followed up by an almost timid question some time later: “How did you do it?”

It's only a summary of what's helped us, but it might help point you in the right direction if you're looking for some weight-loss inspiration. Come on back here to view the archives if you want more info!

Eggscellent Facts and Other Hot Links

frittata.jpgYou know what would be good now? A nice egg in the hole, with whole-wheat bread and a touch of olive oil subbed in for the butter. Mmm . . .

Good Housekeeping - Eggs Explained: Facts About Eggs
Basics from the significance of color to info about how to store these cheap protein powerhouses. And did you know that a little blood spot in your egg doesn't mean it's bad?

Well - For Health, Body Size Can Be Misleading
Showing us again the importance of making healthy food choices and getting plenty of exercise, even if you're not seeing your weight plummet because of it.

Good Housekeeping - 30 Ideas for School Lunches: Sandwiches and Munchies
It's getting to be that time again! The recipes here aren't all for sandwiches, either.

Cheap, Healthy, Good - If I Had Known Then: Food and Financial Advice for the College-Bound (Also, a Story)
I wish I had known a bit more about food when I was in college, too -- like about the importance of choosing healthy foods and eating more vegetables. I ate a lot of mac and cheese and pizza. Also, when I tried to cook back then, I was always adding tons of ingredients to recipes trying to "perfect" them. Only later did I learn that you don't need a lot of extra spices and such when you use good ingredients with the right techniques.

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Smokin' Willies

DCF4E2D4-01E9-4159-B37F-FC500B5C963E.jpgAt some point in the past couple of years, I visited a food trade show with Scott and his mom on a trip to California. We'd never been to such a thing before and did not know what to expect, but oh, we found great things.

The show was jam-packed with vendors hawking all sorts of high-end sauces, juices, and other delectable goodies, as well as a few hucksters trying to convince us we wanted their crummy pots or whatever. But mostly, we were having a grand old time sampling some of the freshest and most delicious tasting packaged products available on the market.

I remember we loved some fancy (and pricey) pasta sauce that was mostly chunks of cheese in good oil, and Scott's mom was crazy over a line of pesto-like fresh herb sauces, including one made with Scott's dad's favorite herb, cilantro.

However, the most prevalent product at the show was barbecue sauce. We sampled dozens of varieties, and when we left the show that day, we were laden down with several bottles from a company called Smokin' Willie's.

This sauce is fabulous. It beats the pants off any other barbecue sauce I've ever tried. It's light-years beyond any of those Kraft or KC Masterpiece bottles crowding the supermarket shelves in terms of flavor.

I admit to having had a certain fondness for Sweet Baby Ray's sauce for dipping chicken nuggets in over the years, but Smokin' Willie's is way more flavorful than the typical sweet and tangy barbecue slop.

It's spicy without an overwhelming heat, it has sweetness without being overly thick and gloppy, and it has a good hint of barbecue smokiness without knocking you out when using it for dipping.

Even better, Smokin' Willie's sauce manages to keep its flavor fresh and punchy without resorting to a ton of weird ingredients. It's the real deal, the kind of sauce you might make yourself if, you know, you actually made barbecue sauce from scratch.

I love the original, but I also enjoy the two other varieties of sauce the company makes. The Fiesta with Chipotle sauce has some real kick to it if you like your barbecue spicy, and the Shanghai-Style sauce has that sort of lip-smacking Korean-barbecue flavor I am always trying to capture on my own.

Another great thing about Smokin' Willie's original sauce is that it's less sugary than typical supermarket sauces (and there's no high-fructose corn syrup!), so it's not ruinous to your diet. It's thinner and saucier without all the sugar turning it gooey.

I've found Smokin' Willie's sauce at Whole Foods, and if you check the web site the company lists additional stores where you can find it. I (and Scott) highly recommend giving it a try. And if you're coming to Slovakia in the next four months . . .

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Reducing the Fat in Meats


Many of the tastiest meats -- bacon, salami, ground beef -- pack a hefty fat punch. Worse, the fats are the nasty saturated kind that raise your bad cholesterol. What can you do to continue to enjoy these flavorful meats without sending your calorie count soaring?

First, always consider buying leaner versions of traditionally fat-laden meats. Chicken and turkey sausages, turkey bacon, turkey pepperoni, ground poultry, super-lean ground beef, and vegetarian "meats" all offer easy alternatives that are lower in fat and calories.

But what if cost is a concern for you? Unfortunately, buying leaner meats often means paying more. For some reason, fat is less expensive than protein . . . a contributor to the obesity crisis, perhaps?

You can use a few simple techniques to render fat out of your meats before consuming them. You'll also concentrate the flavor of cured meats by eliminating the excess fat, and your recipes will turn out less greasy. No more pools of oil to blot off the pizza!

For regular bacon, start by choosing normal, thin slices over trendy thick-cut strips. Next, try cooking the bacon in a 350-degree oven on a rack set over a foil-covered baking sheet. It will take about 10 to 15 minutes to crisp up, and the fat will drain away into the foil as the meat cooks. Additionally, Alton Brown of Good Eats recommends starting the bacon in a cold oven to encourage more fat to render out. Finally, pat the bacon with paper towels to absorb any additional grease.

For pepperoni and salami, follow the advice of America's Test Kitchen: Arrange the slices or strips on a plate lined with paper towels. Microwave the meat for 30 to 90 seconds (depending on the thickness and number of pieces) to render the fat onto the towels. Alternatively, put the meat in a cold, dry skillet, and then apply medium-low heat until most of the fat renders out. Pat the pieces dry with paper towel and use the pepperoni or salami as planned in your recipe.

The Hillbilly Housewife offers a clever technique for reducing the fat content in that cheapest of the cheap meats, 70-percent-fat ground beef: Cook the ground beef in a skillet to render out the fat, drain it, and then rinse it. Rinsing off the meat with hot water eliminates the fat still clinging to the meat, leaving you with super-lean protein.

If you're interested in seeing some evidence of your fat savings, consider draining your meats over a fat jar. Not only will you save your pipes from greasy buildup, you'll have a visual reminder of how much fat is not circulating in your arteries.

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Excel Template for Meal Planning

Update: Please remember these meal-planning templates are free for noncommercial use only. Thanks!

Here it is, the promised Excel meal-planning template, only about a week after I posted the last one! Not bad, not bad. This spreadsheet should work in any post-1997 version of Microsoft Excel, part of the Office suite. It might also work in other spreadsheet programs, as the Excel format is pretty standard. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of my Numbers version, but it's still simple to use and will help keep you organized. You'll have space for all the parts of a balanced meal, as well as rows for evaluating and making notes on your meals. Each month is a worksheet within the document. The first worksheet provides space for you to collect a list of your favorite recipes for reference.

Download the Excel meal-planning template.

Download the original Excel document (not saved as a template).

To learn more about meal planning, check out the previous posts Numbers Template for Meal Planning, Templates for Meal Planning, Setting Up Your Meal Planner, and Discover Meal Planning.

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Michelina's Lean Gourmet Frozen Meals

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

Michelina's meals may be positioned at the low end of the frozen-food market, but give them credit for innovative efficiency. Their cardboard packaging may sometimes impart a papery flavor to the food, but it's more likely to break down in the landfill than all those plastic trays and cellophane wrappers tossed in the trash after America's lunch break.

My mom used to stock the freezer with these for kids to heat up on the days we didn't feel like a sandwich for lunch or had to fend for ourselves for dinner. Actually, these mostly ended up as lunch fare -- for dinner, the Marie Callendar's stocks would more likely get tapped. However, those meals have nutritional stats that make you wonder why you're not just picking up takeout from Olive Garden.

Anyway, onward to the review.

Michelina's Lean Gourmet

From Michelinas.comMacaroni & Cheese
I realize the convenience factor here is small, as it's not so difficult to whip up boxed mac and cheese and stuff it in Tupperware. However, when I was a kid, back in the pre-Easy Mac dark ages and less than confident at the stove, Michelina's mac was definitely a freezer favorite. I don't find any of the more expensive frozen mac and cheese dinners to taste at all superior, so if I felt a desire to pack myself a plate for lunch, I bought this. The serving is definitely tiny, but it's only 270 calories and, really, should you be eating more when it's only mac and cheese?

I don't recall ever eating most of the other meals listed on the Lean Gourmet home page. Some look promising, such as this 220-calorie Vegetable Rice Pilaf that looks chock-full of colorful veggies, if the picture is to be believed.

Next week: A frozen delight from the folks at Gardenburger.

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The Slow Chew and Other Hot Links

Happy Friday! I'm in a dash with a wedding to attend today, so excuse the disorganization. Enjoy today's links!

Heart & Stroke Foundation - Chewing food slowly lowers calorie intake, ups satisfaction
I find this to be true for myself. When I take my time eating dinner rather than shoveling food into my mouth, I feel full before devouring everything in sight. It helps to avoid reaching "starving" levels of hunger before hitting the dinner table if you want to prevent the shoveling.
(Via Hungry Girl.)

Vegan Lunch Box - Fruit Cozies
How cute! If you're into knitting and snacking on fruit, check these out. Includes a pattern for a banana sleeve.

Well - Rethinking Diets, Weight Loss and Health
A reminder of the importance of self-esteem in successfully making yourself into a healthier person.

Does Fructose Make You Fatter?
Continuing the controversy over high-fructose corn syrup. Incidentally, not all versions are particularly "high" in fructose compared to table sugar, which is 50 percent fructose. On the other hand, there's no arguing with the fact that HFCS is a highly processed food that sneaks its way into tons of innocuous-seeming "natural" products.

Fast Food Critic - Long John Silver’s Super Sampler
I wouldn't tell you to avoid fast-food completely, as you can make some decent choices at most places if you are picking up a meal on the run. But this? Ho-ly fish.

Hungry Girl - Cut Calories in HALF
Suggestions for lightening dishes based on the ideas that inspired the Volumetrics diet.

Poked and Prodded - Can Fruit Juice Be Worse Than Soda?
Apparently, it might up your type 2 diabetes risk. But don't go subbing in soda!

Poked and Prodded - Exercise an Hour a Day? Here’s How to Make It Painless
Your hour of exercise can be cumulative throughout the day.

Well - The Sunny Side of Eggs
I love eggs, so I'm all for reports that their benefits outweigh their risks. I've started eating more egg yolks with my whites lately because I've been hearing they're packed with nutrients.

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Eating on a Jet Plane

New post today over at Fit Fare:

As I type this, I’m cruising thousands of feet over continental Europe, finally on my way home after a long stay abroad. Or at least almost home — we’re plunging straight from Europe into a series of whirlwind family visits that will take my husband and me through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, and Washington in the next month and a half.

Naturally, I have travel on the brain. And I can’t think of travel without pondering travel snacks! When I was a kid, the one thing that made eight to 14 hours in the car with my parents and five brothers bearable was the variety of snack foods and beverages my mom let us stock the van with before leaving. My mom didn’t usually allow us unlimited access to junk food as kids, making what was clearly a keep-quiet bribe an extra-special treat.

Click over and check it out!

morguefile-airplane.jpgHonestly, I did draft this one while up in the air. I started it over the Atlantic, continued through Greenland, and finished it up over Canada, I believe. I was also working on a post for Edible TV at the time, thought that one isn't quite finished yet. I did post recently about an upcoming Food Network casting call, if that interests you.

Speaking of Food Network, when will we see someone on Next Food Network Star with a focus on the big trends sweeping the food blog world, like local, organic, and health-minded eating?

Photo: MorgueFile

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Five More Healthy Snacks

Coming home sure has tested my resolve to eat better. In fact, I would say I've failed miserably these past few days after we transitioned from "visit" to official "vacation." As the vacation portion of our visit won't be over for a few days yet, it seems appropriate to remind myself of some of the many healthy-snack possibilities out there. For more tasty but nutritious snacks, check out the previous Five Healthy Snacks post.

Yogurt: My husband particularly loves this one now that the new season of Burn Notice is airing. Still, you don't have to be a former spy to appreciate the low-fat protein, calcium, and tangy flavor available in yogurt. Buy a brand with live and active cultures for possible immune- and digestive-system benefits.

Vinaigrette-Based Slaw: I made a big tub of slaw flavored with Asian-sesame dressing earlier this week that I at least incorporated into lunches, if not snacks. However, slaws, which can last several days in the fridge, make terrific, highly flavorful snacking fodder. Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, and it's packed with filling fiber and nutrients. If you flavor your shredded cabbage and veggies with a light dressing rather than mayo, it won't weigh you down with excess calories.

Whole-Wheat Bread with Light Soft Cheese: A slice of whole-wheat bread gets you one of those three daily servings of whole grains, and spreading the bread with soft cheese (think Laughing Cow Light or light cream cheese) nets you some protein and calcium. Butter and jam, on the other hand, add only empty calories. Bonus: Being back home means I can finally toast bread again! Toasting makes bread taste better without adding calories.

Cherry or Grape Tomatoes: August is tomato season! Check out your local markets for tomatoes grown in your neck of the woods, which will certainly taste sweeter and more aromatic for not having been picked days in advance to allow time for travel. Luckily, cherry and grape tomatoes, besides being small and poppable, usually taste delicious year round.

Jerky: I've been thinking about trying this snack again all through my year abroad, and now opportunity knocks! Jerky is surprisingly low in fat yet plenty high in protein. Check nutrition labels for jerky (which is available not only in beef but also turkey and soy) that is lower in sodium.

Are there any healthy snacks you particularly enjoy?

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Weight Watchers Smart Ones Frozen Meals

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

"Diets don't work," Weight Watchers' promotional material claims. Hard to argue with that sentiment -- but do their products work for the taste buds?

Weight Watchers offers a self-branded line in grocery stores, which includes cheeses and snack cakes, alongside their Smart Ones frozen products and the additional foods they sell at meeting locations. But why stop there? The company also endorses Progresso's light soups, which boast as few as zero "points" a serving.

Points, you say? Having never participated in Weight Watchers, I'm no expert on the subject, but Wikipedia provides the formula used to calculate a food's points value. Basically, it seems that you count one point for every 50 calories, but you can subtract a point for high-fiber foods. Weight Watchers assigns its clients on the Flex Plan a weekly points budget, and if you stay within your allocation, you will, slowly but surely, lose weight. It's basically calorie counting with more math and an emphasis on increasing fiber intake.

Weight Watchers-endorsed products come labeled with the points per serving, making them convenient for people "on plan." However, buying the food does not buy you the trademark group support. Don't expect miracles from eating these meals.

I never tried many Smart Ones frozen meals. My usual supermarket didn't carry the full line in the freezer case, so I'm afraid I might have missed out on the tastier selections. Here, then, are the best of what I could find.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones

B6BC257D-D96B-4FDA-9D14-20D620AE8F18.jpg Santa Fe Style Rice & Beans
This rice and beans plate resembles enchiladas deconstructed. You'll find a pile, made mostly of rice, doused in a light but creamy sauce and sprinkled with cheese. The sauce is kind of odd -- I couldn't quite figure out what it was made of -- but it tasted satisfyingly rich. A good choice, though, as always with light frozen meals, too small. It'll cost you 310 calories, or six Weight Watchers points, if you're counting. The meal also boasts a full four grams of filling fiber.

I remember a few other Smart Ones selection, but they were merely satisfactory (or bad). Check out the ice cream selection next time you're at the market, though. They offer a nice variety of portion-controlled treats.

Next week, we'll check out Michelina's Lean Gourmet, an option that helps you cut both your waistline and your budget.

Numbers Template for Meal Planning

Update: FYI, these files are now offered as in the ZIP format so that they will download without incident. Just decompress them when you finish the download. Please remember that these files are free for noncommercial use only.

A spreadsheet-based meal planner designed in Apple Numbers.

Sorry for Friday's missing post! I spent most of the night before in the Atlanta airport waiting for my massively delayed flight, and I then spent Friday running around preparing for a nine-hour car trip on Saturday. I meant to get ahead, but even the best of intentions . . .

Today, I have a spreadsheet template for meal planning. This template works with Apple Numbers, part of the iWork suite. I've been using Numbers primarily for meal planning since September 2007, and it offers plenty of organizing power and flexibility for my needs.

I've created a new template that, in my opinion, improves on what I'd been using before (for a picture of that, see the entry Setting Up Your Meal Planner). Here, you have rows for each part of a balanced meal, as well as space for notes and meal reviews.

Each month is a separate worksheet within the same document. I also threw in one worksheet with tables for collecting names and sources for your favorite recipes. Lists help when you need a little extra inspiration on planning day.

I tried exporting the document to the standard Excel format, but unfortunately it's causing Numbers to crash with each attempt. I will have to build from scratch for Excel, it seems. Look for that version soon.

I'll be using this workbook myself once I start cooking again in September, after all the family visits are over. I'm looking forward to test-driving the new system myself.

Download the Numbers meal-planning template.

Download the original Numbers document (not saved as a template).

To learn more about meal planning, check out the previous posts Templates for Meal Planning, Setting Up Your Meal Planner, and Discover Meal Planning.

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