Roasted Garlic Black Bean Dip

We used to eat a lot of hummus. I'd always make a huge batch and we'd eat it for many days in a row. Then we got sick of it.

After a several month hiatus, I thought, hey, how about bean dips made from other beans?! Duh! There are endless possibilities for type of bean (or other legume), seasonings, consistency, and even what you dip in it or spread it on. So here's one of those variations. I was inspired by this recipe, but altered it slightly. I know it seems like a lot of steps, but most of it is hands-off time. It's actually quite simple!

Roasted Garlic Black Bean Dip
1 head of garlic (you won't use the whole thing)
1 1/2 c. dry black beans (or about 4 cups cooked/canned and drained)
apple cider vinegar
1 t. (or so) unrefined sea salt
1 t. (or more) cumin
1 T. nutritional yeast (optional)
a few dashes cayenne pepper
fresh cilantro to taste (optional but tasty)
drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (a few tablespoons)
splash of water to achieve desired consistency
lemon or lime juice to taste

(note: this cooking method for the black beans works for any type of bean.)

1) Soak the beans. The day before you want to make this, soak your beans in about three times the amount of water as beans (so, 4 1/2 cups water for 1 1/2 c beans, or cook extra beans to freeze for a future meal!). You can do this in a crock pot or large saucepan/dutch oven. Add a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and stir. On the stovetop: heat to a simmer, then turn off and let soak 7-24 hours (the longer the better). In the crock pot: heat on high for 1/2 hour or as long as it takes to heat the mixture. Then turn off and let soak 7-24 hours.

2) Cook the beans. After they've had a nice long soak, drain and rinse them, and put back in the pot with about double the amount of water as beans. On stove: bring to boil, skim off the foam with a slotted spoon, and lower heat slightly - you want them to keep boiling, so don't lower it too much. Cover partially (put the lid on the pot slightly askew so it's not sealed tight. Skim the foam whenever you see it. Keep you eye on them to make sure they are not boiling dry, and add more water as needed. If you add more water, bring them back up to a boil. Simmer until tender, 1-2 hours (or longer if the beans are older). In crock pot: cook on high, covered, for one hour, then turn down to low. Skim foam if you see any. Cook until tender, which will take several hours. (sometimes I do this overnight.)

3) Roast your garlic. Sometime during steps 1 and 2, if your oven is on anyway for something else use the opportunity to roast your garlic. Preheat the oven to 400 F, or if it's at a different temperature adjust the time accordingly. Peel away outer layers of the head of garlic, and cut off the top 1/4 inch or so, exposing individual cloves. Place on a square of foil, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly, place in oven, and roast for about 1/2 an hour, until cloves are slightly soft. Let cool enough to handle, and then squeeze them out if their skin. You will only need a few cloves for this recipe, so use the rest however you want to. Spread on toast, or just eat them with a fork. Yum!

4) Make the dip. Now, let your beans cool slightly, drain them, and place in food processor along with salt, cumin, nutritional yeast (if using), cayenne, and cilantro. Add a few of your roasted garlic cloves (start with 2 or 3, add more to taste), a drizzle of olive oil, and a splash of water. Process until pureed but slightly chunky (or longer if you want it extra smooth). Taste, and add more seasonings or garlic or oil or water...depending on what you think it needs. If you want it to have a little more "zing", add some fresh lemon or lime juice. Process again to incorporate.

Now decide how you want to eat it. Spread it on crackers, or use as a dip for fresh vegetables or tortilla chips. Or spread it in half of a tortilla, add cheese, fold in half and cook on a skillet until cheese is melted. Or, do what we did. Toast some bread. Butter it. Spread it with the bean dip, add sliced cheese, and cook under the broiler to melt the cheese. Add sliced avocado, and sprinkle extra cumin on top. Be creative. Enjoy!


Easy Change #3: Start Reading Ingredient Labels

This is part 3 of my Easy Changes series. Check out previous posts, and let me know what changes you would like to make so I can help you do it!

As a dance teacher I am constantly telling my students that in order to improve their dancing, they need to develop body awareness so that can know what their bodies are doing in the first place. It's pretty hard to hold your arms in a slightly different way if you don't know what you're doing with your arms now.

It's the same way with food. If you don't know what you're eating now, then how will you know what to change? You can easily say, "I had cereal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and a hamburger and fries for dinner," but you might not be aware of what those foods are made up of.

The first step is reading the ingredients.

A huge part of learning to eat real foods for our family has been not buying as many processed foods: cereal, snacks, store-bought bread, condiments, or anything with a lot of added ingredients. I try to make as much from scratch as I can...which might be overwhelming to some of you! Keep in mind that it took me a few years to get to that point! So instead of telling you "stop buying all processed foods and make everything from scratch," I'm telling you, "Read the labels of the foods you already buy and think about if there might be a better option."

That's it. Just read them. Find out what is in your food! If you come across an ingredient that you can't identify (or pronounce!), look it up and find out what it is. If you find an ingredient that you are pretty sure is best to avoid, try to find a product that doesn't contain that ingredient.

If after doing so, you feel inclined to try your hand at homemade crackers or broth or mayonnaise, or substituting lunch meat with homemade tuna or chicken salad, by all means, go for it! (And if you need help doing so, let me know!) But no pressure. If it's stressing you out, take a step back. Any change is better than no change, and it all starts with an awareness of what you're eating.

What should you be looking for when reading these labels? Well first let's clarify. I'm not talking about reading the part of the label where it says how many calories and grams of sugar and fat. Granted, sometimes that's helpful (like if you're trying to choose the product with the least sugar), but focusing too much on that part, and not enough on the actual ingredients, can be misleading. If you are a calorie counter and choose a product based on number of calories, you might be missing the fact that the lower number of calories is due to artificial sweeteners, which are definitely on my list of ingredients to avoid! And if you choose the product based on fewest number of fat grams, well, then, we need to have a conversation about fat. It's the TYPE of fat that is important, and you need plenty of it to thrive! (Did you know your brain is made of mostly fat?)

So, don't dwell on those details. Instead, read the ingredients. There are all kind of things that I recommend you steer clear of, but I'm gonna start with the top three.

1. Partially hydrogenated oils. These "trans fats" lurk in your peanut butter, crackers, cakes, doughnuts, frosting, soups, tortillas, and more. They are vegetable oils (rancid and deodorized, to begin with) that have been chemically re-processed to be more shelf stable and solid at room temperature. Though saturated fats have gotten a bad rap in recent decades, the studies used to "prove" that saturated fats cause heart disease actually didn't differentiate between hydrogenated oils and saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil. Minor details (not!). Hydrogenated oils are the number one fat to avoid! They also hide under the name "shortening." Also note: just because something says "zero grams trans fat" does not mean it doesn't contain any. If a product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving they can write zero, but it's not true! (Want to learn more about fats? watch a very amusing documentary called "FatHead" for free on hulu.com!)

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup. AKA how to fill the entire population up with sugar on the cheap. The biggest culprit here is pop (or is it soda? or soda pop? or coke?), but this is also found in everything from bread to yogurt to hummus to ketchup. A very complicated process of chemical reactions has to take place to give you HFCS, which sets off warning bells for me right away. This stuff does not exist in nature (much like hydrogenated oils, above), so that makes me think maybe we weren't made to eat it. It's made from genetically modified corn and enzymes (also scary). Your liver doesn't like all that fructose, and HFCS depletes your body of nutrients and can cause weight gain. Bad news, friends. :(

This next one is a little more overwhelming, so if you're not ready for step three, just stick to one and two, and come back to this one later!

3. Excitotoxins. Excitotoxins are substances that make your brain say "more, more, more!" but they also cause a whole gamut of health problems, such as holes in the lobes of your brain (according to a former customer of my dad's who worked for Nutrisweet - this guy wouldn't touch the stuff), migraines (ever get a headache after eating chinese food?), learning disabilities, and hormonal imbalances. (See this article and the corresponding book for more info.) The three excitotoxins to look out for are MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and aspartame. The trouble is, they aren't always labeled. According to the previously cited article, MSG only needs to be labeled if it's 100% MSG, but if a food contains spice mixture that includes MSG plus other ingredients, it does not need to be labeled. Stinky! So, look out for these ingredients that very likely also contain MSG:

sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed flour, malt extract, malt flavoring, bouillon, broth, stock, "flavoring," "natural flavoring," "seasoning," "spices," carrageenan, enzymes, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. (source)

:( The seasoning and spices are what get me the most. And of course it's easy to think that natural flavoring is, well, natural. (Did you see any of those on my ketchup label in the photo up there? Oops!)

Sad day, huh? But cheer up! Go make your family a delicious home cooked meal and say to yourself, "I'm doing the best I can!"

I remember in college when I first learned that high fructose corn syrup was bad news. I had just bought a couple big boxes of Rice Crispies on sale at Meijer, buy one, get one free. I tossed them right into the trash. I was pretty hard core about it.

I'm not sure I would do the same thing today. Food is still food, and it fills up our bellies and keeps us from starving. Wasted food is not cool, but I guess what's even more uncool is food that shouldn't exist in the first place. So you'll have to decide for yourself whether you toss out food you've already bought, or simply eat it up and try to make a better choice next time.

Happy label reading! Leave comments with your questions about ingredients, and let me know if you need advice for finding healthier alternatives!

This post is part of Monday Mania and Real Food Wednesday.


Be Inspired to Eat More Vegetables

I'm not sure if we can call this an easy change. So it's not a part of the Easy Changes You Can Make Today series. But you should check that out, anyway, if you haven't yet. This is more of a lifelong shift in your thinking and lifestyle, and it won't happen overnight. But it is so worthwhile!

This is about vegetables. And eating more of them. And liking it.

Some people just don't like vegetables. And of course it's not as simple as just EATING them, you have to buy them and prepare them and convince your family to eat them, too.

Here's my vegetable story.

I don't think of myself as being super picky as a child, but I didn't like onions, peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, beets, mushrooms, or summer squash, and I don't think I ever tasted artichokes, avocados, brussels sprouts, kale, swiss chard, bok choi, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, sunchokes...or who knows what else (and many of those I didn't taste until last year! I was missin' out!). Once or twice my beet-loving father paid me a quarter to taste a beet. I thought it tasted like dirt. (To my delight, Caedmon LOVES beets. But they make his diapers scary for a few days.) I also had issues with fruit for awhile, so much that my brother would tease me by calling me "Joanna Banana Strawberry Kiwi Fruitbowl Dancer and a Half." (thanks, bro.) I did love bananas and cantaloupe, but that was about it until a friend convinced me to try her orange in third grade. :) I eventually conquered my fear of berries, too.

But it wasn't until I was in college and heard a speaker talking about nutrition that I started liking more vegetables. She told us how nutritious vegetables are for us, and I guess I believed her enough that my mental taste buds changed. This is why I think it is so important to talk to your families about food and nutrition! I'm living proof that your thinking can change your perception of taste! (The speaker was set against animal products, however, so I started drinking soy milk and stopped buying meat...which I wouldn't recommend doing. Now it's raw milk and grass-fed meat for us, and we're sticking with it.)

A friend was visiting a few days ago and as I was cooking lunch she asked, "So, do you have as much trouble eating vegetables as I do?" And I had to think about it. No, I guess I don't have trouble eating vegetables. And here's why: vegetables inspire me.


No, not the vegetables at Meijer, though Meijer does have a pretty good produce section. Not a side of canned peas (sorry, dad) or a "vegetable medley" where the carrots are...spongey? The vegetables that inspire me are the ones that fill the tables at the Holland Farmer's Market. The ones my parents grow in their garden (I dream of being a real gardener like them!). The ones that I load into my reusable shopping bags week after week from the CSA I belong to.

Real people, working in connection with the earth, help these vegetables to grow and produce food that nourishes our bodies. Isn't that amazing?

Oh my. So much to say. Please, if you never have, read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Learn about Polyface Farms (also featured in Food, Inc), where farmer Joel Salatin (he's a little crazy, but he'd tell you that himself) has been an instrument in the process of the land being transformed from desolate to abundantly fertile. It taught me that the hands-off approach that is a part of the green movement (all we humans can do is bad, so just keep your hands off of the earth and we'll all be better off) is seriously not the answer. No, it is God's design that we serve the earth, and if we are responsible and loving, the earth will be better off than it would be if we just left it alone. And think about it: we can't leave it alone! We are utterly dependent on it! But the crazy thing is that it is dependent on us, too! We can help to increase its fertility and diversity, and in return it will give us food to nourish our bodies and minds and families and friendships and economies. Praise God!

Now do you see why vegetables inspire me?

And of course this goes beyond vegetables. This applies to all our food. (At least all our REAL food. Chemically processed food is not inspiring.) But most people don't need to be inspired to eat more cheese or meat or fruit or grains. For some reason, vegetables are the toughest. But I'm fairly convinced that if we are more involved in our vegetables, we will want to eat them. If we realize that there is a miracle involved in a tiny seed growing into a huge plant that bears fruit and feeds us, we might start appreciating their unique flavors and textures a little more.

So here is what I suggest: This summer, find local vegetables. Go to localharvest.org and enter your zipcode. Chances are, someone grows food somewhere nearby. Of course organic is best, but any vegetables are better than no vegetables, and if you read The Omnivore's Dilemma you'll learn that Industrial Organic (the organic produce you get at the grocery store) is not exactly good for the earth (though it is certainly better than "conventionally" grown food). [disclaimer: we DO buy some produce from the grocery store, and I'm okay with that. We just try to get MOST of our fruit and veggies locally and in season.]

If you want to take a leap of faith, join a CSA. WHAT'S A CSA??? It stands for Community Supported Agriculture. You pay a farm a set fee up front and receive a share of what they produce throughout the growing season. You are committing to supporting the people growing your food, and you are also saying, "Even if the weather sucks and some of your crops fail, I still want to support you because I'm grateful that you are growing good food." One thing I like about CSA's is that you are forced to bring home and eat vegetables. Even for a vegetable lover like me, it's kind of overwhelming to go to the market and try to figure out which vegetables to buy for the week. I guess I enjoy having some fixed factors in my meal planning (which is also why I use meal "themes"). Also, many CSAs provide recipes to help people figure out what to do with the vegetables.

And that leads me to my next suggestion to help you on your vegetable-eating journey: Keep reading my blog! This summer, to my utter delight, I have the honor of being a "chef" for our CSA. Each week I'm going to bring a dish for people to taste and an accompanying recipe. I will also be posting the recipes on my blog to benefit anyone who reads it! They will be simple, do-able, yummy recipes to help you learn how to use vegetables that you've never encountered, or help you know what to do when zucchini is coming out your ears. :)

There are also several cookbooks out there that are arranged seasonally to help you make the most of your local vegetables. The one I have the most experience with is Simply In Season, which I definitely recommend. Go to your local library and see what they have! Find one with simple recipes and beautiful pictures. Bring it home and be inspired. And if you end up feeling overwhelmed instead of inspired, keep tuning in to my Easy Changes You Can Make Today series. Any change is better than no change, and you don't have to do it all at once!

What is keeping you from eating more vegetables? What have you enjoyed about eating locally and in season? How have vegetables - or any real food - inspired you?

This post is part of Monday Mania and Real Food Wednesday.


Easy Change #2: Make Your Own Salad Dressing

This is the second installment of my new series, Easy Changes You Can Make Today. Read about it here (and tell me in the comments what you'd like to see in this series!).

Change #1 was making your own macaroni and cheese. Did you try it yet? Yesterday I made a tuna-mac version by adding 12 oz. of chunk light tuna with no additives (chunk light is lower in mercury than solid white) and a generous handful of frozen peas. It was a hit all around!

Change #2 is something we use almost every day. It saves us money, nourishes our bodies, and might be responsible for my husband becoming a salad lover!

Homemade salad dressing first entered my life in the form of my Aunt Catherine's balsamic vinaigrette. We had it when we were visiting family in California several years ago, and we were hooked immediately. My mom started making it all the time, and bottled salad dressing just kind of got phased out of our house. Her recipe is the one I've stuck with as my "go to" salad dressing, but now I've made it so many times that it's more of a rough guide for proportions than an actual recipe. It has infinite variations and is SO easy to put together.

Besides saving money and being delicious, here are a two more reasons to start making your own salad dressing:

1. Industrial oils.
When I say "industrial oils" I mean soy, canola, cottonseed, etc. This is what commercial salad dressings are made of. These oils are most often genetically modified, are processed at insanely high temperatures that have caused them to become rancid, and then they are deodorized so we can't smell or taste that they are rancid. When you make homemade salad dressing, you can use pure extra-virgin olive oil, and be confident that the fat you are consuming is good for you!

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Don't believe the propaganda of the corn industry: high fructose corn syrup IS harmful to your health. :( Most salad dressings contain this highly processed sweetener; those that don't surely contain more sugar than necessary, which isn't beneficial either. But when you make your own, you can use honey or pure maple syrup to lightly sweeten it. Those sweeteners actually contain some good stuff, instead of being stripped of anything that night be considered a nutrient.

Convinced yet? I could also mention preservatives, artificial flavors, and MSG (which tricks your brain into wanting more!)...but let's move on to the good stuff.

Some of you are thinking that this is going to involve strange ingredients and/or a time consuming method. Nope and nope. Here is what you need:

extra virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
dijon mustard
honey or pure maple syrup
salt and pepper

Nothing too weird, right? There are several optional ingredients, as well, but none of them are weird either. :)

And as for the method, all you do is put everything in a container with a tight-fitting lid (I use a small canning jar) and shake shake shake! Really, you can do this.

Become a Salad Lover Balsamic Vinaigrette
Method: Place all but olive oil in a jar and shake to blend. Add oil and shake again.

Basic recipe:
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
1-3 t. dijon mustard
1 t. or more honey/pure maple syrup (to taste)
a few pinches salt
a few grinds pepper
2/3-3/4 c. extra virgin olive oil

--Aunt Catherine's Original: Add 1 t. crushed thyme, 1 t. crushed rosemary, 1 clove pressed garlic, and fresh lemon juice to taste.
--Joanna's cheater version of Catherine's Original: Add 1 t. crushed thyme, 1 t. crushed rosemary, and few shakes of garlic powder (for when I don't want to crush garlic or juice a lemon).
--Creamy Honey Balsamic: Add more honey to taste and a couple T. plain yogurt.

Other options:
--Use red/white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar instead of balsamic.
--Add a tablespoon of cold-pressed flaxseed oil to boost your omega-3's.
--Try other spices such as nutmeg, basil, parsley, or ginger. Fresh basil is divine.

But what if you don't have time?
Now, if you're anything like me, there will be times when you are ready to eat dinner and you think, "Oh crap, we don't have any salad dressing!" The toddler's squealing and your stomach's growling and someone is in danger of being late for something. In this case you have a couple options:

1. Put out the balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It's not quite as tasty as the real thing, but it's better than plain lettuce!

2. Eyeball it and make the basic recipe with no extras. You'll get better at it with practice. I can do this in about a minute now if I don't measure anything. When you pour vinegar into your jar make note of how high it comes up and estimate about 2 to 3 times as much oil as vinegar (depending on how tangy you like it: more oil=less tang). A squirt of mustard, a squirt of honey, salt and pepper and you're good to go!

3. Keep in mind that it keeps for several days in the fridge, so you don't have to make it every day. But you may want to take it out of the fridge a little while before dinner, because olive oil sometimes solidifies in the fridge. If you have a big family, double or triple the recipe as needed, especially if you eat a lot of salad. If you don't eat a lot of salad, stay tuned for upcoming posts about how to eat more vegetables!

Bonus: This recipe is also delicious for dipping bread, marinating meat, dressing up bruschetta, or in pasta salad.

Have you made homemade salad dressing? What's your favorite recipe? Will it be hard for you to give up the store-bought stuff?

This is part of Fight Back Friday.


Easy Change #1: Ditch the Kraft Mac & Cheese

We have all had those days when you realize you or someone in your family is starving and you have no idea what to make for dinner. That's when you might be tempted to pull out the Kraft Mac & Cheese from the pantry. It's so easy...it's right there...you have the directions memorized and it takes no thought whatsoever.

But the problem is...it doesn't exactly fit into our goal of eating "real" food. Check out these ingredients, from kraft's website:


My fav's are the yellow 5 and yellow 6. Perhaps you've heard of the probable link that food dyes have to behavioral disorders? The effects tend to be stronger in children, and food marketed toward children is more likely to contain artificial coloring. Eek!

I could go on about other issues I have with that ingredient list, but since I try to keep Plus Other Good Stuff a happy place (that's why it's not called Plus Other Bad and Angry Stuff), instead of dwelling on the bad, let's focus on a delicious, easy, fast, healthy alternative!

Get this: it is JUST AS EASY to make delicious homemade macaroni and cheese as it is to make the boxed stuff.

Just as easy, you say?? Yes. Look at this:

Steps involved in making Kraft Mac & Cheese
1. Make sure to have it in your pantry, as well as butter and milk in the fridge.
2. Bring water to a boil.
3. Cook the macaroni.
4. Drain the macaroni.
5. Add butter.
6. Add milk.
7. Add cheese sauce packet.
8. Eat.

And this:

Steps involved in making healthy homemade Mac & Cheese:
1. Make sure to have pasta in your pantry, and cheese, butter, and milk in the fridge.
2. Bring water to a boil.
3. Cook the macaroni.
4. Drain the macaroni.
5. Add butter.
6. Add milk.
7. Add shredded cheese.
8. Eat.

Ohmagoodness. You're gonna love it. Now here's the recipe, if you can call it that. It's so easy, you don't even need a recipe, but just in case you're feeling like you need someone to hold your hand, I'll give you one.

Easy Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients (alter amounts according to your preference):
1 lb. brown rice pasta (we like rotini, macaroni, or penne)
4 T. butter
1/2-3/4 c. whole milk, cream, or a combination
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese
unrefined sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
optional add-ins: kale, swiss chard, or other cooking greens; frozen peas; nutritional yeast; cut up nitrate-free hot dogs/sausages

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt liberally (a couple tablespoons), add pasta and cook according to package directions. If using hot dogs, cut into bite-sized pieces and cook them with the pasta. If using kale or swiss chard, add in the last several minutes of cooking (about 5 minutes for kale, 3 minutes for chard). If using peas, add in the last minute or so.

Drain the pasta and add-ins. Return to the pot and turn the heat on low. Add butter and stir to melt. Add milk and cheese, as much as you think looks good, and stir to melt. Salt and pepper it to taste, sprinkle with nutritional yeast if desired, serve, and eat! Your body will thank you.

Want to know more about choosing the best ingredients for your homemade mac & cheese? Here are some ingredient notes:

Pasta: Use any shape you want! We choose to use brown rice pasta that we get at Trader Joe's for an awesome price. Otherwise, our pasta standard is whole wheat, but since pasta is not soaked or fermented and whole grains are kinda hard to digest, we opt for brown rice, which is a bit easier to digest unfermented than wheat. Even if you don't think you have a sensitivity to wheat products, it's a good thing to switch up your grains sometimes so you don't develop one.

Butter: Raw, grass-fed butter is best, but that's hard to find unless you make it yourself with raw cream that you get from a farm. Pasteurized grass-fed butter is second best, and the best price I've found on this is Kerrygold butter, which you can find at, guess where, Trader Joe's. (We don't have one near us but when we visit our parents' in the chicago suburbs we stock up!). The third best choice is organic butter, which I get for the best price at Meijer. The fourth best choice is just regular real butter with no additives.

Cheese: Any cheese is better than a super processed powdered cheese sauce. I'd go with sharp cheddar, organic and grass-fed if you can find it, raw is best. (More on where we get cheese in an upcoming post!)

Milk/cream: Raw, grass-fed, local milk is best. I'm sure I'll being doing a post in the future about finding good milk, but for now, at least try to buy a kind that says it doesn't use growth hormones. Before we had raw milk we often bought Country Dairy milk from our local Meijer. It is produced in Michigan with minimal pesticides and no hormones or antibiotics. Go for the full fat stuff, and make sure it's not "ultra-pasteurized." Most organic brands are, ironically enough, but that process uses super high heat and makes the milk totally indigestible. (You can't even use it to make yogurt or other types of cultured milk because it's totally dead. Yuck.)

Add-ins: For a real crowd pleaser and extra protein, add some cut up hot dogs or sausages (nitrate free and preferably from a local, reputable source that raises their animals outside). For a super healthy yet super delicious version, add some kale or swiss chard or other type of hearty green. Greens+cheese=yum, even if you think you don't really like them. Start with just a few leaves, if you're scared, and gradually increase the amount. If you're not going to add greens, at least throw a handful of frozen peas in there, that way you're getting something green. [My mother-in-law used to put frozen peas in the mac and cheese when my husband was growing up. He and his brother were so used to it that when they went to a friend's house and there were no peas in the mac & cheese, they thought it was gross. :) ] For even more added nutrition, sprinkle in some nutritional yeast - it has a slightly cheesy, nutty flavor.


introducing: Easy Changes You Can Make Today, a series

Golly, why does it matter what I eat?

I used to think that a healthy diet was one that kept me at a healthy weight. I had no idea that the foods we eat can cause or prevent health problems other than weight gain. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who thought that. Often, if I'm talking to someone and they say something about “getting healthy” they mean cutting back their calories enough to lose a little weight and fit back into their skinny jeans.

The real deal is that the way you eat is responsible for SO much of your health! Of course a healthy weight is important, but if you are achieving it simply by counting calories while eating processed junk food, you might be "solving" one problem while causing several more. I am not trying to say that you can completely control what happens to you by eating a certain way. I am not saying that if you eat well you will definitely avoid cancer or heart disease or diabetes or infertility. Ultimately, I trust God to take care of me no matter what happens - whether I am sick or well. But, if certain foods are known to cause health problems and I know that I just plain feel better when I eat a certain way, then I'm going to try to do it. (For more thoughts on why to eat real food, check out this post by Kimi of the Nourishing Gourmet. She posted that after I started writing this post, but I totally agree with her philosophy.)

Beyond physical health, I also want to eat real food because it's how God intended for us to eat. If I eat a hot pocket, I have no idea where it came from (except the freezer section at Meijer) and it in no way draws me to praise God for the goodness he has made. But when I go to the farmer's market and buy hierloom tomatoes from a real live farmer, I connect my food to a person and I see that I have a relationship with the earth. My food comes from somewhere, and I want to care about that place and the people who tend it.

So, why not?

You might have an answer to that question. Maybe you don’t know where to start. Maybe cooking from scratch intimidates you. Maybe you think it’s going to be prohibitively expensive to eat healthy food.

I want to help you re-imagine food. So I’m starting a new series here at Plus Other Good Stuff, called “Easy Changes You Can Make Today.” Each week I’ll tell you about an ingredient, technique, or recipe that will help you take a tiny step towards better health.

But first, I need your feedback! Tell me in the comments: What intimidates you about real food cooking? What barriers have you run into in your attempts to nourish yourself and your family? What is something you wish you knew how to cook, but you’re afraid to try? What “unhealthy” recipe do you wish you had a real food version of? Do you wonder whether a certain food is good for you or not?

I make no promises to be able to fulfill all your requests, and I’m not a chef. :) But I’d love to help you with the things you need help with, as much as I can!

So tell me, what is stopping you from eating healthier?

This is part of Fight Back Friday.