How Do You Bring Gratitude To Life?

When I was growing up, we always said grace before eating.  Faster or slower, with more intent or more appetite, we said:

“Lord, bless this food to our use and us to thy service,
And make us ever-mindful of the needs of others. Amen.”

Liz and I preserve the idea of grace, but make it our own.  Each night, when we sit down to dinner, we share gratitudes.  It’s a catalog of things we’re grateful for on that day – everything from the meal to getting a good night’s rest to the view out the window.  In addition to the rotating set of things we appreciate, Liz always ends with “And I’m grateful for the puppy” – at which point we look over to see Reese patiently sitting on the rug, mindful that he can’t enter the dining room while we’re eating.  Then we tuck into the meal and start up some everyday conversation about life.

These nightly gratitudes are daily, private, and modest.  On the other hand, the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving is annual, in community, and over-the-top.  Thanksgiving asks us to not only reflect on gratitude but to celebrate it.  We cook it, share it with others, Instagram it, and gorge ourselves on it.  Both are lovely ways to engage with gratitude.

When we sit down for an overabundance of food this year, our annual ritual of Thanksgiving and daily ritual of gratitudes will merge.  While pouring far too much gravy over my entire plate, I’ll share with everyone that I’m grateful for:

  • My wife Liz; our equal dedication to making our new marriage great
  • The health of our families and the medical practitioners who have supported us in pursuing well-being
  • A community that we’re increasing rooted in within the Bay Area
  • A home keeps in the heat and keeps out the rain
  • Space to write, time to cook, and motivation to work out
  • Jobs that we enjoy and find meaning in
  • Financial comfort and security
  • People who are willing to engage in open-minded, open-hearted dialogue; everyone who is standing up for love, inclusion, and charity, particularly in our challenges around diversity in this country and our call to take in refugees globally
  • All of you – the anonymous page counts that I see in my dashboard – and the moments when, in casual conversation, you reveal who you are
  • And, of course, the puppy dog

If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, what will you share?

And, beyond that, how do you bring gratitude into your life?  What are your annual rituals of gratitude?  What are your daily rituals of gratitude?

Thinking of you all on the eve of the holiday,

That Time I Was Uptrend: My Obsession With Kale

In between leaving work and starting graduate school I lived in Port Huron with my parents for a summer. In exchange for reinhabiting my bedroom, I offered to cook up a storm: an authentic Indian feast, homemade baba ghanoush, all sorts of Iron Chef-ed surprises. Among the dishes I tried was a beautiful minestrone recipe, complete with parmesan rind and bunches of kale. I remember lingering over the deep green curls in a rarely-visited corner of the Kroger produce section; with its chlorophyll coloring, sturdy stalks, and abundant foliage, it was the liveliest food I had ever seen.

I didn’t know what to do with it at the time, so I followed the instructions closely and chopped it into the soup. While my grandfather found this all a bit strange, I fell in love with it. I started putting it in everything: soups, stews, salads. I wrote a short cookbook of original kale recipes and published it online (you can find it here). I even started avoiding traditional salad bars that used kale as a garnish; I had become such a devotee that I could not stand to see all that kale wasted.

I am rarely stylish, but on this singular dimension, I am going to brag: It was 2007 and I was up-trend on kale.

In the early days, one of my favorite uses of kale was oven-baked kale chips. My approach was pure; I added only olive oil, salt, and a dash of red pepper flakes before sticking them in the oven to crisp up. Unfortunately, however, cooking kale chips in the oven was always a gamble. I lived in fear of my kale staying in a minute too long and becoming mildly blackened and far less appealing.

Now I am exploring new horizons of kale. Following the inspiration of many store-bought kale chips (which taste delicious but cost fistfuls of money), I came up with my own recipe for dehydrated kale chips. I’ve come a long way since the early days of experimentation in my parents’ oven; the below recipe requires strange equipment like a dehydrator. Further, seven years later, the California influences are apparent; I make use of strange yet delicious ingredients like nutritional yeast and almond milk. If you can get over the rampant hippie-ness of the recipe, however, it’s one of the best ways I’ve ever had kale: cheesy and crunchy but still full of green goodness.

With love (and health),

Cheesy, Way-Too-Easy Kale Chips
Vegan, raw, gluten-free

Ingredients (someday I’ll actually measure the quantities):
A couple of bunches of dino kale (also known as Tuscan or lacinato kale)
Almond milk
Apple cider vinegar
Lemon juice
Hummus (optional)
Almond meal
Nutritional yeast
Smoked paprika
Garlic salt

Prep the kale:  Wash and dry your dino kale (two bunches?). Rip into chip-like pieces (approximately two inches by two inches).

Prep wet ingredients:  Combine wet ingredients together in a large, shallow container. I typically include some combination of a lot of almond milk and water (maybe one cup each?) with a bit of lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to flavor (maybe two tablespoons each?). This time I also raided the fridge and found some leftover hummus which I mixed in as well. You’re looking for liquid to coat all your kale – and a bit extra that will soak into the leaves.

Add spices:  Add the spices to the wet ingredients. Start with garlic salt and pepper to taste (maybe ¼ to ½ teaspoon?). And then hold onto your seats for the real secret: smoked paprika. Put in a lot of smoked paprika (two or three tablespoons?).

Prep dry ingredients:  Create a mix of dry ingredients. I throw together almond meal and nutritional yeast in the ratio of about 2:1 (maybe a cup of meal and ½ cup yeast?). Again, you’ll want enough to lightly coat all your kale.

Coat the kale:  Soak the kale in the wet ingredients, massaging the kale lightly as if you were creating a kale salad. Then sprinkle with the dry ingredients. [You can take other approaches as well; it doesn’t really matter as long as the kale is covered with whatever deliciousness you want on it. I’ve also just mixed the kale, wet, and dry ingredients all together in a big bowl; it works fine, though the almond meal can distribute unevenly, especially if the surface your kale is particularly bumpy.]

Dehydrate:  Lay the kale out on your dehydrator racks (I use an Excalibur and love it).
IMG_2247Dehydrate at approximate 110 degrees. You can certainly use a higher temperature, but keeping it under 120 degrees will qualify it as ‘raw’ food and keep the enzymes in your food alive (at least, that’s what the hippies say). Check periodically and rotate the trays. It should take approximately twelve hours for the chips to be crisp and delicious.

Your much-loved kale recipes?  Share in the comments below. 

Does This Dehydrator Make Me Look Cheap?

I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about intentionality, this idea of mindfully and choicefully directing one’s life.  The thinking goes something like this:  Our thoughts and our actions – and indeed our entire impact on the world – reflect our underlying beliefs and values, both conscious and unconscious.  And yet, many people (myself included) do not always bring mindful awareness and conscious choice to these things.

While I celebrate the idea of intentionality, I (like everyone) can be completely caught off-guard by the ways I unconsciously act and the values they reflect.  This week I surprised myself again.  My realization?

I am way more frugal than I ever knew.

Case in point is the first twelve hours after returning home from this week’s work trip to London.  I came home, caught up with Liz, spent time with the puppy, ate some Goat Hill pizza (our favorite local pizza joint), and then…started sorting through the refrigerator.  It’s not that I was particularly hungry or even particularly bored and looking for something to do.  Instead, I knew that there was a lot of food in the house when I left and I wanted to make sure we weren’t letting much of it go to waste.

To Liz’s credit, she is easily as frugal as me.  Once, when in charge of organizing date night, Liz signed us up for a class on running a “zero-waste kitchen.”  They taught pickling for extra vegetables, cheese-making to address your nearly-expired milk, and broth-making for everything else.  Whereas others may have thought this would be a slightly strange romatnic interlude, I absolutely loved it.  We even got to make our own sauerkraut.

This past week, she had focused on eating up leftovers from last week’s camping adventure and working through the freezer.  So, to her credit, there wasn’t much to do.  Nonetheless, I pulled out my favorite new fruaglity enabler:  our new dehydrator.

Not yet twenty-four hours later, my dehydrating adventures have been prolific:

Leftover camping potatoes turned into crunchy parmesan potato bites:


Previously pickled okra, jalapenos, and leftover corn have become “Liz Mix”:liz mixAnd more on the way:  peppers and garlic, mushrooms, jalapenos, carrots, and Brussels sprouts:
trayDespite all the time I spend thinking about how I want to consciously embody my chosen values, every so often something creeps up upon me.  And this fit of kitchen management proves exactly that.  Surveying my piles of dehydrated food, I thought:  “Wow, this whole thing has made me really happy.  I am way more frugal than I ever thought.  And I embody that without really ever thinking about it.”

I’ll be reflecting about the values I live while munching on my potato bites.

The Values You Eat

Between the Wedding Diet and my more recent approach to counting calories, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about food.  Part of the point of The Wedding Diet was bringing consciousness to certain foods and figuring out how I reacted to cutting each one out.  But as I’ve moved past that approach, I’ve started to think less narrowly (i.e., what happens when this one thing goes away?) and more broadly (i.e., what happens when I eat anything?).  Physically, emotionally, and otherwise, what life do I create as I ingest each bite?

A good friend told me that “food is the place where we develop and exert our integrity.”  This is not just integrity in the sense of following through on our commitments – our ability to stick to a diet or maintain our veganism over time.  Beyond that, our food choices also reflect our integrity of living in alignment with who we are and what we value.  I, for example, variously value health, convenience, appearance, social connection, cultural experience, tradition, sustainability, and frugality when I decide what to eat.  Not all of those values are reflected in this morning’s espresso or my mid-day fried rice (real-life menu choices for today), but my choices are the more-or-less successful reflection of a constellation of values I strive to honor.

I am what I eat – from the molecules that make up my food to the values which my food reflects.

And you are too.  You can imagine that we all eat from a veritable pu pu platter of values every day.

values we eat
But here’s the thing about values.  You can’t honor all of them all the time.  It’s tough to find the afternoon snack which is at the same time frugal, healthy, and communicates your sense of adventure.  So we make trade-offs.  We give up some things to accommodate others.

I know that I won’t always be the perfect reflection of my values.  But my hope is that I can keep on consciously choosing what I eat.  I’ve learned over the past months that I don’t live better by excluding sugar or including dairy.  I’ve learned that I eat best when I eat consciously – conscious of not only the basic gastronomical dimensions of what and how much, but also the why and the how.

And with that, I am finishing defrosting the ratatouille – the most tangible manifestation of my values of health, appearance, and frugality you’ll see from me all day.

What values do you aspire to eat?  What values did you eat today?

With love,

The Month Without Sugar is. . . Proof I’m Not in Control (Part Two of Two)

. . . by week two, the wheels had fallen off my August resolution.  So why was I eating that wedding cake and all those s’mores?  [from Part One of Two]

What happened when those desserts kept coming?  There were, of course, the voices in my head that said:  “No, Meredith, you can’t have this ice cream!” and “Bad Meredith, why are you eating a donut?”  And worse:  “Meredith, you are disappointing not only yourself with this brownie, but everyone who reads your writing!”  It felt like exactly the way you screw up a blog:  by making grand pronouncements about what you’re going to do and why it’ll be oh-so-interesting – and then changing your mind along the way.  Due to my Wedding Diet commitment, the voices came up stronger and louder than I’ve ever heard a chorus of self-blaming, dessert-shunning voices sound.

I set forth the goal of trying a new limitation each month and reporting back on how it went.  It was going to be a beautiful little lifestyle project.  I thought that whatever I chose for the month, it would be reasonable to control just that one thing:  not eating sugar, or dairy, or whatever.  It’s not that I didn’t have the willpower; I’ve been doing P90X every day and eating better than I ever have.  In fact, I lost seven pounds this last month.  And it’s not that I didn’t have the mindfulness; I’ve been increasingly conscious of what I eat and when I eat it.  But beyond the challenges I cited last week, the reality is that life didn’t fit into my perfectly symmetrical plan.  Life happened, it happened differently from what I expected, and I couldn’t control it.

While I was supposed to focus on eliminating sugar, I suddenly felt myself drawn to counting calories.  I don’t know why.  I’ve never done it before.  I just resonated with exercising discipline around food in a different way; I went from focusing on limitation to playing with allocation.

Being open to shifting my approach was freeing in many ways.  Limitation – the central idea behind the Wedding Diet – put me in a place of saying a categorical ‘no’ to some foods while giving others a weak ‘sure, but I’ll probably give it up next month.’  The result was that there was a halo of ‘no’ around most foods.  This created a collectively negative way of seeing food.  Playing an allocation game, on the other hand, was much more positive.  I could eat all sorts of things, but there were bounds to what moderation meant.

I expected that I would achieve greater awareness of my body and a sustainable approach to eating by following The Wedding Diet For The Rest Of Your Life.  So much of me wants to shoehorn my life back into that perfect project plan that I made for it.  But when I take a broader view, I see that I’m achieving the outcome I wanted, just via a different path.  If thinking about allocation instead of limitation works for me, why would I deny that insight?  I feel great, and I’ve been able to do that while eating cake at weddings.

And so the month without sugar has also became the month without control.  I can set ambitions, but I don’t always have perfect control over how I get there.  But if I can live with that human messiness, maybe what I realized in this month without sugar can also push me in the direction of greater self-love and growing connection to my body – what I searching for all along.


The Month Without Sugar is. . . Exhausting (Part One of Two)

Note:  The is the August installment (aka, The Month Without Sugar) of The Wedding Diet (For the Rest of Your Life).

Ahh, the month without sugar.  Unlike the month without dairy, I frankly didn’t expect much of a challenge this month.  I’ve never had a sweet tooth, and I would always choose a bag of chips over a candy bar.  That said, August was plenty tough and highly insightful.  In fact, there’s so much to say at the end of this month that I’m cutting it into two posts.  My realizations after swearing off sugar:

First, sugar is elusive – and pervasive.  I fielded a lot of hard-to-answer questions as I started this month:  “Are you giving up sweets, fruit, or both?”  “What about sugar as an additive?”  “Do you count agave?”  “What about corn syrup?”  “Are you ready to spend a third of your life reading labels?”  At the beginning I’ll admit that I didn’t have a sophisticated plan of attack; I thought I’d simply take sugar out as I had done with dairy.  But as I started down that path, I realized how near impossible that would be.  It’s not only white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, demerara sugar, and the other straight-forward sugars that are in question.  No, in just my first trip to the grocery store, I realized the many other names that sugar takes.  Not only does sugar masquerade as high fructose corn syrup (made from corn instead of cane, but with similar effects), it goes by evaporated cane juice as well.  “Organic evaporated cane juice?” you say?  “Isn’t that essentially organic…juice?  It sounds so good for you!”  But alas, whether they evaporate it, centrifuge it, or crystallize it, it is indeed sugar.  And that culprit is in basically every organic processed food product lining the Whole Foods shelves.  While I set high ambitions, I ended up scaling them back to the easiest of all possible paths (avoiding sugar-focused items, but allowing added sugar and fruits) within only the first few days.  Even though I took the least rigorous path, it would still get tougher because…

Second, sugar helps us share meaningful experiences with others.  Do you want a slice of my birthday cake?  Will you commiserate with me over a bowl of ice cream?  Will you have a cookie that my aunt made?  If alcohol is a social lubricant that eases awkwardness, sugar is the ingredient that punctuates the highs and lows of life.  Every time something is particularly celebratory, there’s sugar (birthday cake!  wedding cake!  every other type of cake!).  Every time something is particularly sad, there’s sugar (the proverbial pint of ice cream at a break-up).  We make and share sweets to show our love, affection, or friendship, as symbolized by the cupcakes offered me by a friend at work.  We find solace in sweets when the day is done.  Whatever the occasion, avoiding sugar felt tantamount to denying the most meaningful moments of life.  This month alone I faced multiple wedding cakes, a birthday ice cream social, and ritualistic Labor Day s’mores around the campfire.  For someone who is not only an extrovert (ENTP for those of you playing along with Myers-Briggs at home), but also so focused on meaning, this was a crushing challenge.  It wasn’t the sugar itself, but instead what the sugar meant that ruined it.  It’s near impossible to celebrate with equal fervor (or have other people see you as sincerely participating) when they’re all eating cake and you’re munching on kale.

So, my overall conclusion?  Due to both the practical difficulty of avoiding its many incarnations and the social tax of giving it up, avoiding sugar is exhausting for me.

But let’s be honest.  Those weren’t the big insights this time around.  I had figured out both of these realities by the end of week one.  And by week two, the inherent difficulty of giving up sugar and the social implications of limiting it were not the only things that made the wheels fall off this resolution.  Aside from both of these, something else was going on as well.

To be continued in Part Two (coming later this week).



Dairy is a Gateway Drug (aka: The Wedding Diet, July Edition)

[For background on The Wedding Diet for the Rest of Your Life, go here.]

San Francisco, CA

So July, also known as:  The Month Without Dairy, is wrapping up.

Dairy was an interesting first item to put on the chopping block.  In some ways it was easy.  I don’t drink milk.  I rarely eat yogurt.  I don’t keep ice cream around the house.  But when I started this month, I knew that giving up cheese was going to tear me up inside.

To be clear, I’m the person who serves a five-cheese plate with accompaniments at every house party.  At our engagement party, for example, I put together a cheese tray that told our collective story based on the origin of the cheese (while balancing flavors across milk type and flavor, of course):

  • an Iowa Maytag blue to represent Liz’s home state
  • a good Midwestern cheddar to represent my origins (it can be tough to find Michigan cheese, so I substituted a Wisconsin variety)
  • an Irish gubbeen to represent Liz’s Callahan roots
  • a double cream from the Northeast as a shout-out to my time in Connecticut and Boston (again, this was another ‘regional cheat’ from Vermont), and
  • a California Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk to symbolize where we came together

cheese story pic
We entitled it ‘our cheesy story’ (her idea)  – and it was delicious.

Despite this love of cheese, I knew the payoffs would be big if I could tackle dairy:  I remembered when I lived in Singapore a few years back and, in keeping with local food customs, I ended up eating very little dairy.  I felt fantastic.  Now this could have been the result of just being twenty-four and working out a lot, but it seemed like at least a directional indicator that there might be some traction to this no-dairy thing.

One month later, here’s what I noticed about life without dairy:

First, the biggest challenge of the month was not cheese.  (What?!)  Instead, my biggest test came when my good friend Jes (a once-and-future Californian) came to visit San Francisco and requested “California-style frozen yogurt.”  (Ahh, frozen yoghurt!  I had forgotten about you!)  Here in California we do such a good job pretending that frozen yogurt is healthy; between the tart flavor of the froyo and the fresh fruit toppings it feels like you could eat it for breakfast.  Some shops even offer to replace your frozen yogurt with Greek yogurt.  (Let’s be honest; no one gets the Greek yogurt.)  So it was not cheese, but the request for froyo that brought pain to my heart.  I will testify, however, that a bowl of fresh strawberries, mango, raspberries and blueberries with some graham crackers is not a bad substitute.  Frozen yogurt shops are just fruit shops in disguise.

My bigger realization, however, was that dairy is the ultimate accompaniment.  There are a lot of unhealthy foods that end up being unbalanced without dairy to cut the taste.  For example, my sweet potato fries were not half as awesome without the ranch dressing on the side, so I ate fewer fries.  Similarly, when they broke out the sundae bar at my friend’s wedding, I created a big ice cream-free bowl of toppings for myself.  But, quite honestly, you can only eat so many brownie bites covered in caramel before the sugar overwhelms you.  The fried, the fat, the sugar – they all end up being too much if you can’t pair it with dairy.  Thus, when I cut out dairy, I eat less of the rest of the crap.  It’s an unexpected halo effect if you can give up the dairy.  But if you cave to dairy, the rest of the unhealthy food comes piling in.  In that sense, dairy is the gateway drug.

But on the whole:
Overall feeling:  Relatively light and easy, definitely better than before
Weight change:  +/- 0 pounds
Difficulty to sustain:  Easier than expected, particularly if I could give myself a once-a-month exemption for some sort of frozen yogurt or cheese.  Or maybe I can start a rule like “The Dairy Stands Alone” so that I can eat low-fat dairy like string cheese, but not have the gateway drug effect.
Verdict:  I’m keeping this one on the list for on-going lifestyle consideration.  And I’m going to eat it only sparingly as we continue the experiment

And with that, welcome to:  August, The Month Without Sugar.


The Wedding Diet (For the Rest of Your Life)

Barcelona, Spain

The Wedding Diet (For the Rest of Your Life)
When Liz and I got engaged, our thoughts flew ahead to the day of the wedding.  Within days of “yes”, we started speculating about what we would do, who we would invite, and (because vanity strikes even the best of us) how we would look.

Now hypothetical wedding planning has never been an idle pleasure of mine, so thinking about the wedding feels quite new.  I don’t have a Pinterest board entitled “One day” filled with white dresses.  I don’t have preconceived notions about flowers, bridesmaid dresses, or the veil I want to wear.  But as I’ve started to reflect, there is one expectation of my wedding that I have harbored all these years.  And it’s an ambition that, after watching a cavalcade of wedding photos parade down my newsfeed, I’m confident I share with many other stunning brides-to-be:  Whatever outfit I buy, whatever hairstyle I pick out, and whatever shoes I find, I want to look fit, skinny, and frankly, freaking amazing for my wedding.

There, I said it.  It’s the definition of vanity (which I find embarrassing), but it’s true.

While fessing up to the ambition of looking ridiculously good on my wedding day, I’ll also admit that it feels strange to limit my ambition to one day and one dress.  It’s curious to crash diet to fit into a beautiful dress and then spend the rest of your life on what seems to be an inevitable march to gaining it all back (and more).  I have so much dietary motivation driven by this pending event.  More than I’ve ever had or likely will again.  Can’t I use that to create something better than just a handful of compliments and some fantastic wedding photos?  I want to harness this primordial force – this bride-to-be ambition – to create something that lasts.  Quite simply, I want a wedding diet not just for the benefit of one day, but one that will support me as I tackle the rest of my married life.  I want to use this energy to fight against the dietary challenges that will come with age, childbirth, life with children, and, frankly, the complacency of getting hitched.

Ahh, the wedding diet

Enter my lifestyle experiment:  “The Wedding Diet (For The Rest Of Your Life)”  The idea is to use the months between my engagement and my wedding to figure out what works for my body long-term.  My goal is no longer dieting in order to show off an enviable figure for one, glorious day.  Instead, my more ambitious goal is to use this in-between time to reset my eating patterns for the rest of my life.

Each month until my wedding I’ll give up a different food selected from the category of “things-that-are-incredibly-delicious-yet-alleged-to-do-something-horrible-to-your-body.”  Yes, you know what I mean:  dairy, meat, carbs, sugar, processed foods, alcohol, ya da, ya da, ya da.  Basically all the good stuff.  I’ll cut that category out for the first twenty-five days, then slowly reintroduce for the tail-end of the month, evaluating how it makes me feel.  Do I feel lighter or heavier?  Do I gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same?  I’ll admit now that this won’t be the world’s perfect lifestyle experiment.  I’m not going to control for every variable and I’m not going to live in a vacuum for the sake of blog-worthy science.  But I am going to do a sincere investigation while still living like a normal human being.  I’ll attempt to eat, sleep and exercise ‘normally.’  And on the honeymoon, I’ll put it all together into a diet that’s tailored to me.

The whole idea here is that a diet should be individual.  As a Californian, I’ve variously heard friends praising the virtues of vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, high fructose corn syrup-free, raw, and everything else possible.  Do I believe they have seen results?  Absolutely.  And do I believe that they would work for me?  I frankly have no idea.  Since our bodies look different, act different, and feel different, it seems curious to think that the same diet would make sense for all of us.  Instead of subscribing to someone else’s formula for health, I’m going to find my own.

And with that, welcome to July, hereby dubbed “The Month Without Dairy.”  I look forward to keeping you posted; in the meantime, feel free to leave comments about what you suggest giving  up – from your personal experience and/or the scientific/pseudo-scientific diet reading you’ve done.

With love (and, from here through August, always without cheese),