Spinach Caprese Salad with Sweet Vinaigrette

I've been doing quite well maintaining my healthier lifestyle the past few months—I've even managed to lose a little weight, or at least I had until cookie baking season rolled around. Having cookies in the house is more temptation than I can resist, so I've tried to make eating healthy as simple as possible. My current go-to meal comes in the form of these festive looking salads. I love that they can be made several days in advance and the ingredients kept on hand for those times when I'd rather stand over the kitchen sink and devour my most recent batch of cookies (and lets be honest, we've all been there.) With these salads on hand, no matter how busy I am with holiday preparations I have a healthy lunch at my fingertips and I can't make excuses for eating an entire tray full of cookies during a fit of hunger (or insanity.)  

Spinach Caprese Salad w/ Sweet Vinaigrette

Spinach Caprese Salad with Sweet Vinaigrette
makes 4 servings + extra vinaigrette

Ingredients

for the salad

6oz baby spinach
8oz fresh mozzarella pearls
10oz grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
fresh ground pepper, to taste

for the vinaigrette

¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon minced garlic, dried
¼ teaspoon parsley, dried
⅛ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 pinch red pepper flakes, crushed
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil or other oil of your choice

Directions

for the salad

  • Layer baby spinach with fresh mozzarella pearls and sliced grape tomatoes. Top with sweet vinaigrette and black pepper.

for the vinaigrette

  • In a small saucepan combine the cider vinegar and sugar, turn the heat to high and cook until the sugar has dissolved, about 2 - 3 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool slightly before continuing.
  • Add sea salt, dried minced garlic, parsley, fresh ground pepper, and red pepper flakes to the still-warm vinegar. Slowly add oil, then stir or shake until well combined. 
  • Vinaigrette can be stored in a covered container for approximately 2 weeks (I use a half-pint mason jar.) The ingredients will separate, so you'll need to shake the jar to combine the ingredients before serving.

Notes

If you want to turn this into a mason jar salad to-go, wash and completely dry your jar. Put a tablespoon or more of vinaigrette in the bottom of the jar. Add enough tomatoes to completely cover the vinaigrette, add a layer of mozzarella, and finally spinach. Don't let your mozzarella sit in the vinaigrette, it will start to form a hard skin and turns somewhat rubbery.

Place a small square of paper towel at the top of the jar to soak up any condensation. This will work wonders to prolong the life of your salad. Seal the jar and refrigerate until you're ready to eat. Mason jar salads are best when consumed in 2-3 days, although a large batch of vinaigrette will stay fresh for at least two weeks.

Ruby Red Smoothie

My habit of skipping breakfast has been years in the making. Even when I was younger I'd rush off to school having eaten nothing, only to be starving before the first bell rang. This habit didn't change much as I got older, although I did wise up and start carrying granola bars in my backpack after one of my classmates commented on the fact that the jolt cola I was chugging down like my life depended on it was doing nothing to quiet my grumbling stomach. By college my classes had fewer than 15 people in them, so the whole room knew I'd rolled out of bed just in time to drive to class.

Now that I have a child of my own my eating habits have changed for the better. I've been trying to lead by example (and so far it's working.) If he sees me eating a healthy breakfast, then he's more inclined to eat breakfast as well. And if breakfast happens to include something brightly colored with a fun straw, it doesn't really matter than I've hidden beets and spinach in it, it looks like fun therefore it gets consumed quickly.

If you're not entirely sold on the idea of beets, try adding a little bit more each time you make your smoothie. After a few days you won't even notice that you've been slipping something healthy into your drink. I'll admit, it took me a little while to adjust to their earthy taste, I've never been a fan of beets, but I've been drinking these several times a week for months now and have really come to enjoy them. Hopefully you will too, but if not feel free to leave me a comment below. I love to hear feedback, both good and bad.

Ruby Red Smoothie

Ruby Red Smoothie
makes 1 serving

Ingredients

1 handful fresh spinach
4 - 6 beet slices, frozen (see notes)
4 - 6 whole strawberries, frozen
1 over ripe banana

Directions

  • Combine all of the ingredients and blend until smooth. Serve immediately.

Notes

I've been buying bags of frozen beets from Whole Foods, they run about $2 for 10 ounces of non-gmo beets. I find that I'm more likely to add them to my smoothie if I don't have to worry about slicing them up myself. 

October #Unprocessed - Week 4 Update

Week 4 Update

It's the end of the month, which means that October #Unprocessed is almost over. While I wasn't able to eat unprocessed the entire month, I did manage to keep my diet unprocessed about 90% of the time. This was much better than I expected considering we were traveling at the beginning of the month and had several outings towards the end of the month that would involve eating out. It took a lot of advance prep work to stay on track, but I'm glad I decided to take the challenge. I've learned a lot this month. I was able to focus on issues I had never given any thought to and make some of the changes to our diet that I had been putting off. Many of the changes I've made will be sticking around permanently, although I will be bringing back taco night ASAP. I gave it up during the challenge because I wasn't able to find pre-made tortillas or taco shells that passed the kitchen test. Both of those items are on the list of foods I want to learn how to make, but until then I'll be sticking to a processed version. I've really missed taco night.

What Did I Hope to Accomplish This Month?

First and foremost I wanted to better educate myself about the food I feed my family. I learned an incredible amount about the preservatives and non-food ingredients that are added to our food to increase shelf-life and cut costs. I still have a lot to learn, but I've made a lot of progress in this area and worked to eliminate some of the more troubling ingredients from our life.

By the end of the month I wanted to reorganize my pantry and separate any foods containing processed ingredients. Some of the items were donated to a friend, but most we will consume slowly and not purchase again. During the reorganization I made a list of any items that will not be allowed back in our pantry after the challenge and another of unprocessed alternatives. I like to keep a few convenience items on hand for busy days so I'm not tempted to pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store instead of cook. For now I'll be focusing on replacing my favorite convenience items with healthier alternatives.

Budget was another item I wanted to consider during the challenge. For the last three years our food budget has been roughly $250 a month. In the past I've had no trouble sticking to that, but I've noticed a huge increase in food prices this year and we're no longer able to keep our food costs that low. With my husbands recent raise we were finally able to increase our budget to $350 for our family of 3. I still need to do some grocery shopping tonight, but we should come in right at budget this month even with the items I need to purchase for my son's Halloween party.

Since I have a horrible sweet tooth I wanted to determine how much added sugar I consumed in a week (which I found nearly impossible to do) and work to decrease the overall amount of sugar in my diet. To help me with this goal I experimented with home made condiments. I replaced my favorite jams and jellies with fruit butter because it uses significantly less sugar. This Pumpkin Pie Spiced Apple Buttermade with turbinado sugar was a huge hit, both in our house and with readers. I also tried my hand at home made ketchup so I could avoid one of the few items in our house containing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). It was an incredibly time consuming project and one I'm not likely to repeat, but the flavor of the ketchup was better than anything you can buy in a store.

Above all else I wanted to learn from my mistakes and I won't lie, I made quite a few. Sometimes I forgot to read a label, or thought I had and missed an unacceptable ingredient. Other times I was suffering from food cravings I couldn't ignore. In these cases I focused on consuming processed items in moderation and tried to pay more attention the next time I was in the kitchen. Even a mistake can become a teachable moment, so rather than beat myself up over something I've done wrong I choose to learn from it.

Deliberate Exceptions to the Challenge 

Before the challenge started I outlined my goals and any exceptions to the kitchen rule I was willing to make. I decided to allow baking powder, citric acid, enriched pasta in limited amounts, extremely limited amounts of cane sugar, and soy lecithin (but only in chocolate.) Most of these exceptions were made so I could bake my own bread without having to change the recipe I use or to consume foods I've canned myself (I occasionally use citric acid to prevent browning.) It also seemed silly for me to ban enriched pasta when I take a multi-vitamin containing many of the same ingredients, but I did limit the amount of pasta I consumed during the challenge. Soy lecithin was something I would have loved to completely eliminate, but I couldn't see myself going without chocolate for an entire month. This exception was purely to maintain my sanity, trust me, there are certain times of the month when I need chocolate. Ladies, I'm sure you understand.

As I said before, I intended to not make changes to this list, but I ran into a problem on day 1 of the challenge. I went to 3 or 4 different stores in the attempt to find canned diced tomatoes that didn't contain Calcium Chloride. I wasn't able to find them, even organic varieties use it to keep the tomatoes firm. If tomato season hadn't already been over I would have canned some myself, but I couldn't find good quality tomatoes and decided to allow one last exception to my list since this is an important staple in our diet. We allowed Calcium Chloride, but only in canned tomatoes and no more than once a week.

Once I had my exception list in place I focused on menu planning to help me with the challenge. I made a 2-week menu plan and reused it for the second portion of the month. To make things even more simple I added meals to the menu that only needed small changes to become unprocessed. Becoming unprocessed wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be and many of the changes I made didn't noticeably affect the flavor of our meals. The biggest exception to this was when I tried to use something other than corn starch to thicken my beef gravy. 

Health Issues and Weight Loss

I don't have a lot of health issues, but for the last year I have been suffering from severe migraines and joint swelling. Numerous visits with doctors and specialists haven't managed to narrow down what is causing either of my problems. The doctors have attributed it to my seizure medication and have encouraged me to switch to something different or take pain killers. I've made it clear that I'd rather focus on what is causing the problem rather than treating the symptoms with more medication since I've already had one disastrous experience trying to change my seizure medication (I ended up in the hospital three times in less than two months.)

Early on in the challenge I realized that I hadn't had any pain in my ankles or knees, which were causing me the most trouble. The rest of my joints were slowly showing improvement over time and I've not been suffering from migraines recently. This leads me to believe that my diet may have been contributing to the problem in some way. I have a list of the items and ingredients I've removed from my diet this month so I'll be working in reverse to slowly reintroduce them until I notice a problem. My new goal is to find out which ingredient or ingredients are causing me a problem and avoid them at all costs. It could be that I'm sensitive to a particular preservative or perhaps have an allergy to an ingredient that I'm unaware of. Hopefully this slow reintroduction helps me determine what was really causing my problem so I can work to avoid it in the future. I'm just going to cross my fingers and hope that it isn't a new food allergy, I have enough of those already.

Another thing I've noticed during the course of the month is that I'm slowly losing weight. I keep a close eye on what I eat and usually track it with MyFitnessPal. The number of calories I've consumed this month hasn't changed, yet I've managed to lose nearly 7lbs. The only noticeable change in my stats is that I'm consuming less sugar and more fiber. Everything else has stayed the relatively the same. While weight loss wasn't one of my goals for the month, I'm glad to see I'm on a downward trend again.

Future Goals

I have several new goals for after the challenge, one of which is decreasing the number of commercially canned foods I rely on. I've been focusing on canning my own foods so I can reduce our amount of household waste, eat locally year around, and reduce my sodium intake. I'd also like to continue learning about GMOs. I don't feel like I'm informed enough at this point in time to determine whether they should be completely eliminate from my diet or not. Wading through the conflicting data available is taking more time than I had anticipated, so for now, I'll continue learning and remove them when it is affordable to do so. Hopefully by the time October #Unprocessed rolls around next year I will have learned enough to determine wether or not it is something I should focus on during the challenge.

October #Unprocessed - Week 3 Update

Week 3 Update:

This week was less of a struggle and I attribute that largely to having a good menu plan in place for all of our meals and snacks. Having our menu planned out in advance gave me more time to experiment in the kitchen since I wasn't standing at the fridge wondering what I was going to fix for our meal. I used that extra time to try a few things, one of which was substituting plain Greek yogurt for mayo in some of our condiments. I wasn't really a fan of using Greek yogurt in my tuna salad sandwich, but I thought it was a great way to lighten up my buttermilk ranch recipe. I used the lightened up ranch dressing on a salad for lunch and with cut up veggies for snack. Before I knew it we were out of ranch dressing again so I'll have to buy some more spices and make it again for next week.

I also had the opportunity to try a few more recipes using the white whole wheat flour I bought during week 2. I found that in my pizza crust and pita recipes I could use it as a substitute for all-purpose flour without any problems. In fact, my husband didn't even realize I had made a change to the recipe and he's normally the first one to notice when I've messed with his favorite dishes. This goes down as a win in my book and I'll likely be making the switch permanently. 

It's Not Easy Staying Unprocessed

There were a few times this week were I didn't stick to eating unprocessed. My husband decided he didn't like the flavor of yogurt cups I bought him for work. They're getting to the point where we need to eat them or throw them away, but we have a rule in this house in regards to food waste. We don't waste food... period. Even during the challenge I wanted to stick to this rule, it's very important to me, because every time I have to throw food away I know I'm throwing away money. It may have been the healthier option to throw them away, but that would have been $2 I had wasted. That may seem like a small amount, but over time it really adds up. As a compromise I decided to split one of the yogurt cups with my son for a snack, but it was so sweet I couldn't finish more than a bite. This tells me that my tastes have readjusted themselves this month, which was something I had been hoping for. I've worked very hard to limit sugar during the challenge and the hard work has paid off. I decided to dilute the remaining yogurt cups with what was left of the vanilla yogurt I bought last week for my breakfast. While my snack won't be entirely unprocessed, I will be consuming less sugar. As I've said before sometimes less processed is the best you can do and I'm ok with that.

There were a couple of other instances of not eating unprocessed this week, one of which was our yearly trip to the fall festival. We spent the afternoon at one of the local farms picking pumpkins and going on hay rides. One of the highlights of this trip is always stopping in for a treat, picking pumpkins is hard work! Besides, they have the best apple cider doughnuts I've ever had. While I was tempted to pick up a box to take home I limited myself to one (and let me tell you, that was really hard.) It was delicious and I knew I didn't need to feel guilty about this once a year treat, because it was just that, a treat. We ended the day with a trip out for Chinese food and while I didn't make a healthy decision about what I ate, I did decide to eat a smaller portion and bring the rest home to split with my son for lunch the next day.

Fighting Food Cravings

I was really fighting food cravings this week and I contribute that largely to stress and lack of sleep. I'm stressed out over the price-tag for my upcoming dental work and the pain is keeping me from getting a good night sleep. When it comes to food cravings I'm a firm believer ignoring them is not a good idea; that typically leads me to binge eating unhealthy food. I decided to go out and buy a loaf of bread to feed my carb cravings. I could have made a loaf, but sometimes I want the convenience of not having to make it myself. I was able to track down a loaf of bread that was unprocessed and I was surprised to find out it wasn't any more expensive than a regular loaf of bread. I ended up eating PB&J sandwiches for breakfast all week, slathered with my home made pumpkin pie spiced apple butter. 

Budget Impact

I didn't see an impact to our budget this week. My only extra expenditures were for a loaf of bread and a jar of natural peanut butter. This little splurge cost me under $6 and is something I may have bought anyway. Now apples being on sale for $0.68 per pound, that had a huge impact.  I bought nearly 30lbs so I could make caramel apples, apple pie filling, and more applesauce. That, however, wasn't related to October #Unprocessed... it was one of those deals you just can't pass up since we seldom see apples under $0.99 per pound.

Next Week:

We'll be having a Halloween party so I want to come up with several more #unprocessed party foods. I'll be making Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with pita chips and serving a cheese platter, but I want to try and unprocess my Caramelized Onion Dip recipe. All I need to do is make mayo from scratch, but that is something I've never done before. I'll also need to decide what I want to serve for dinner, we should probably be responsible adults and eat something other than the candy the kids bring home.