Saturday, January 29, 2011

Family Food Challenge #1: Dairy-Free

The last remaining dairy products in our house: yogurt starter, Parmesan cheese, a bit of cream cheese, and malted milk mix (bought in a moment of weakness from a begging child). All have been thrown out except the yogurt starter. Someone around here will want it.

Well, it is almost February and we promised ourselves that we would start off 2011 with a monthly family food challenge. Of course, things got crazy in January so we are not off to a good start. But now I am back and ready to go! So, the Prager household is going dairy-free this month. As it is, we probably eat less dairy than the average, but we do eat it. The timing is perfect as I just finished reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. I have found the book to be very informative without being too technical. It is full of interesting statistics and studies on the effects of an animal vs. plant diet on the human body. Of course, in additional to health reasons, there are ethical reasons to do this as well.

The Why

As a non-meat eater for most of my adult life, I am often asked questions about how I get enough protein and iron in my diet. My response is that I get plenty via soy and vegetables and that the American diet contains too much protein. I also have annual blood work done and my iron levels have always been normal. With this decision, no doubt there will be additional questions about adequate calcium and vitamin D. From all that I have read, I am certain that dairy is overrated in terms of health benefits. Yes, dairy products provide calcium and vitamin D. However, these nutrients come at a high price. We are eating animal products that contain a lot of saturated fats and too much protein. The China Study is full of evidence that eating a much lower protein diet (e.g. a plant-based diet) decreases rates of heart disease, other vascular diseases, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and many kinds of cancer. The bottom line is that dairy is not essential to the human diet. We are simply accustomed to eating it in Western cultures. There are plenty of all essential nutrients (except for vitamin B-12) from plant food. For more detailed information, I really encourage you to read The China Study. Another couple of decent books on nutrition are Ultra-Metabolism and The Ultra Mind Solution by Mark Hyman.

Although my cholesterol tests have always come back within normal range, I now see there is room for improvement. My total cholesterol when eating dairy and eggs is 187. My LDLs (bad cholesterol) are 82; HDLs (good cholesterol) are 87, and triglycerides are 92. Again, these are all within a “healthy” range. After discovering that a total cholesterol level below 150 virtually eliminates the risk of cardiovascular diseases, I decided to aim for a number closer to 150 than 200. I am hoping that a few simple tweaks of my diet will get me there.

In addition to the health issues, there are plenty of ethical reasons to question dairy. The dairy industry doses cows up with plenty of hormones and antibiotics, all of which end up in our dairy products. The extra hormones contribute to kids entering puberty earlier. The widespread use of antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance in treating humans. On the moral front, baby cows are taken away from their mothers just days after they were born so the mothers can be milked. Female calves are kept to breed and the males turn into veal in a few short months after being fed a high fat diet or used for low-grade hamburger meat served at your friendly fast food joint. And many of these animals are not treated nicely either while they are alive or, unfortunately, during death. You can read book after book of accounts of how animals are raised and slaughtered. There is no other conclusion that can be reached except that animals suffer. So while I do not eat cows, my consumption of dairy contributes to this suffering. There are countless books on the subject. Some of my favorites include In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (it's worth noting that both of these authors are advocates of thoughtful eating over any one "diet").

What Are We Giving Up?

Before I give you the list, let me say that I have cheated a bit. We knew we were going to do this in December so our transition has actually been made. We have been trying some alternative cheeses for the kids this last month, most of it unsuccessful. On the other hand, the soy-based sour cream has turned out to be just fine.

Cheese: Up until December, the kids had been eating a cheese sandwich for lunch at school most days. It is definitely challenging to find a substitute as the kids do not love PB & J or hummus sandwiches and school does not have a microwave. I will save you some time in experimenting with alternative cheese products. Soy cheese is not very tasty (we already knew that). The best alternative that I have found is Daiya, which is made from arrowroot. But it comes in only two flavors: cheddar and mozzarella – not very exciting and it still has a lot of fat. Lily likes the Daiya somewhat while Semira absolutely hates it. For Steve and me, our cheese fetishes greatly diminished upon moving to Laramie. The selection of the cheeses we typically liked (very aged cheddars and blue cheeses) is so limited that here wasn’t any real temptation to indulge as much. Seven years ago, I said that I could never be vegan because I couldn’t give up cheese. Now I am coming around on this. That said, the Daiya is starting to grow on us a bit. And for the record, we probably won't be vegan - more like 95% animal free.

Sour Cream: I like it, but the kids love it. We are going to use Tofutti sour cream for a while, although I hate the ingredient list. Like the Daiya, it is still a processed food product. While it satisfies my ethical issues with dairy, it falls short on the health front. Hopefully we can wean the kids off of this and onto just salsa and guacamole in the near future.

Butter: This is not really a biggie. The kids eat butter on pancakes and we occasionally cook with it (I am obviously not much of a baker). These are very easy workarounds. Our current choice is Earth Balance. Earth Balance actually tastes pretty good and isn't half bad for cooking.

Milk: We don’t drink cow milk. Our kids never have other than the occasional Horizon organic milk boxes for school lunch (and only Lily liked them). At home we drink soy milk. Lily and Steve will drink a glass of soy milk while Semira and I only use it on oatmeal and cereal. Last year, we were making homemade yogurt. After much experimenting, it did turn out better with cow milk compared to soy milk. The texture with soy is pretty runny. The bigger issue is that the yogurt starter has powdered milk, casein, and other dairy ingredients in it. So if we want to make even soy yogurt, we will need an alternative. It is really not that big of a deal. Yogurt is not a significant food item for any of us. Other than eating it in Israel and Costa Rica on vacation, we haven’t had yogurt in the house for months now.

Ice Cream: I had been buying a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream a treat each week. I have also bought soy ice cream before. It isn’t half bad. But again, it is not a great food choice as it is pretty processed. Sorbet will be a good substitute. It is not as exciting, but the kids will get over it.

Other prepackaged food with milk products (whey, casein, etc.): Really, I read labels already so this is just a matter of making smart choices. The biggest issue is going to be cookies for school snacks. Our choices of vegan cookies in Laramie are quite limited. I may need to start baking, which is not something that excites me.


We have two exceptions to our challenge. My kids eat school lunch a handful of days a month when the yummy dining choice is a lacto-vegetarian option like cheese pizza, mac and cheese, bean burrito, etc. I am not going to restrict them from eating their garbage lunches on these days. I struggle with being too restrictive on them and the crap called school lunch is a big treat. So for now, they can enjoy their treat. (School lunches and chemical food are topics for other discussions).

Finally, our friends know we don’t eat meat, but the dairy restriction is new. If we get invited out and dinner involves dairy that we can’t avoid, we will eat it. I am not into being rude.

Well, that’s it. Wish us luck! How hard can it be, right?

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Really Matters

My mom, dad, sister, and me at my cousin Ingrid's wedding in 2008

For the last five days, I have been in Iowa with my mom. She had a stroke last week just before leaving for North Carolina for the winter. Luckily it happened before she and my dad left and not while on the road. All things considered, she is doing well. She has been out of the hospital for a few days now and is recovering at home. Recovery includes a host of new doctors as well as ongoing speech therapy. My mother’s stroke is actually a bit of a shock. I never imagined that she would have a major health issue at 65 years old. Generally speaking, she takes care of herself pretty well. I have no idea how long it will take her to get back to a new form of normal, but I would venture to say many months. And normal life will be different. It will include even more vigilance about health-related matters and living life at a slower, more relaxed pace. Perhaps of all the lifestyle changes, the slowdown part of the equation will be the most difficult. After all, we all say we will slow down then life gets in the way. Soon the “to do” list is a mile long. My mom definitely has a long list and tends to be very busy.

When someone close to you suffers through a traumatic health event, it generally triggers many thoughts. It definitely forces that long pause so badly needed to reflect about how you are living your own life. After all, life is finite to begin with and none of us know how our current life might change along the way. For some people, something like this is a wake-up call or a call for dramatic change. For others, it is more of a gentle reminder to live each day to the fullest. For me, it is somewhere in between. In reality I think about how I want to live my life frequently, but day-to-day realities and choices I make are sometimes counter to this long-term vision. So today is a new day and with recent events, I have a renewed commitment to improve things moving forward. In the meantime, here are some related things I have been thinking about.

  • No one cares more about your health than you do. Never take your health for granted.Your life can change drastically at any time due to a major health issue. While there are some things you can’t control, so much of our health and well-being is directly related to the choices we make every day. I now have a higher risk for having a stroke. You better believe I will be paying even more attention to my own blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Your life is not defined by your stuff, what you check off on your list of things to do, or your job. The quality of your relationships is much more important as is the impact you have on other people. For me, it is also discovering what I am passionate about and trying to leave this world knowing my actions made something better along the way.
  • Don’t put off doing what matters to you. Too many people are counting on retirement to provide the opportunity to do all those things they have always wanted to do, but never did. This strategy is a big gamble. While planning for tomorrow is a good thing, you still need to live for today.
  • The impact of chronic stress on our bodies is understated. I know; I spent much of last year addressing medical issues (now resolved) that I have come to realize were related to stress. Being busy all the time has become almost a badge of honor in our society. If you actually have down time or try to relax, you feel guilty about it. It is a huge challenge to try to stop and smell the roses for a few seconds. It is all pretty darn sad!

It’s a lot to think about. In the meantime, I am planning on a nice, relaxing weekend. I could use a break.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Annual Birthday Party Showdown

Semira celebrating her 5th birthday last February

At the risk of ticking off half or more of my friends, I apologize in advance. But I have to get my ongoing issues with children’s birthday parties off my chest. It is something I just can’t escape especially with two kids being invited to endless birthday parties (already three in January)! And it is very timely as we begin planning for Semira’s 6th birthday.

Let me say that I am not a scrooge and I don’t hate the concept of having a birthday party for your child. I have problems with what comes with these parties, namely presents and loot bags. Here’s a recap of a recent conversation in the Prager Household.

Me: Semira, have thought about what you want to do for your birthday this year?

Semira: I want a gymnastics party.

Me: Like last year? That’s great. Gymnastics is fun for both boys and girls.

Semira: Mom, can I get presents this year?

Me: Nope.

Semira: Ugh! (Followed by grumps, snorts, and crossing of the arms, etc.)

Me: Semira, it's too many presents. You do not need 20 new things, half of which will be junk and the other half you won't play with much. We will still buy you a nice present. We can look online later for something you might like.

We search and search online for something. It is obvious Semira has no idea what she wants (except for a DS which is a big fat NO). She can’t even think of anything (probably because she doesn’t watch TV). So I do a Google search to find out what toys were the hot items for girls her age this Christmas. What do we find? Nothing she is all that interested in or anything I am willing to buy. Sorry, I won’t be spending $200 on a giant plastic toy. I just can’t do it and sleep at night. We finally come up with a dog that barks, pants, walks, etc. I think it is silly, but whatever…it was the lesser of many evils.

Later that same night, all four of us are in the upstairs bathroom getting ready for bed and brushing teeth. I give Steve a quick recap of what we settled on for a present.

Me: So Semira would like this dog that barks, pants, and walks for her birthday. We looked a lot and so much of what we found was S-H-I-T (I spell it out).

Lily: Ooooohhhh Poppy, Mommy said a bad word! I know what she said. Can I say it? Can I say what she said?

Me: Sure, go ahead.

Lily: Mommy said SHIT!

Me: Yes Lily, I did say that most of the toys we found were shit.

The moral to the story…Lily can spell! (I am still working on losing the sailor talk). But the other point is that my kids are trained to expect A LOT of presents on their birthday and that they never leave a party empty handed. Birthday parties go something like this: Invite the entire class plus some other friends you know, have an activity (swimming, gymnastics, games, etc.), eat cake, open presents, and give everyone a loot bag on the way out the door. I can’t count how many birthdays like this we have been to since my kids have been about three years old.

Well, guess what? My kids don’t receive a boat load of presents because Steve and I banned presents after Lily turned three years old. The amount of presents she received was too much for us. That was it! We decided no more. In my excitement, I thought I would mention my new idea to a circle of girlfriends. My assumption was that most others would agree and want to do the same thing. What a win, win…we all reduce the number of gifts our kids get and the number we have to buy. The feedback I received was just the opposite. Let’s just say the response was lukewarm at best. I was stunned.

When I was growing up, all of my toys as well as my sister’s toys fit into one wooden toy box that was kept in our basement. There were a few exceptions like bicycles, miniature dollhouses, and the Barbie dream house. Today, all I see is home after home swimming in toys (including my own). Toys are like everything else. Kids play with 20 percent of them 80 percent of the time. It seems like the rest are just sitting around or getting in my way. They really don’t care about them (until you attempt to give them away)!

I feel an immense sense of guilt from all this. It is such an incredible waste of resources. Everything is crappy plastic full of chemicals made in developing countries by poor adults and children working under terrible conditions. Half of it breaks within the first few weeks. The rest collects dust. You can no longer give toys away either these days with all the toxic chemicals. Many charities no longer take them. So off they go to the landfill! Let’s pollute the earth some more. The thrill for my kids lasted all of 15 minutes and now I am stuck with the lasting effects of the stuff. Besides the social and environmental issues I help create, I now have more stuff in my house causing me mental angst because I hate clutter and I hate fighting with my kids over clutter.

So what do I do? Well, we will be having another round of present-free birthdays this year. And they will be loot bag free as well. I think we will have a piƱata and kids can take a few pieces of candy home with them. Next, I am telling the world what I really think. A handful of my closest friends and family know how I really feel. But really in my quest for maintaining peace, I usually just shut my mouth and go with it (yes, I buy gifts for other kids, although I try to keep them small and non-plastic). But in my heart, I can’t believe other parents don’t feel the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if birthday parties were simply about the gathering itself? Only good can come from this: less stuff to buy, less stuff to receive, and less stress associated with stuff. Happiness comes from the celebration, mainly the gathering of friends and the fun, not the stuff you give or receive. At the end of the day, this is the message I want my kids to hear loud and clear.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Costa Rica Adventures - Manuel Antonio

After we left Monteverde, we traveled to the central Pacific coast to Manuel Antonio. We picked it because in addition to the beach, we read about the highly visible animals at Manuel Antonio National Park. Plus, the beaches are pretty calm in this area so the kids could swim without being knocked down by big waves. We split our time between two places: La Posada, a small joint right on the edge of the national park and Si Como No, the fairly swanky eco-lodge perched on the hill with great views of the Pacific. They were both fabulous for different reasons. At La Posada, we stayed in a thatched roof bungalow (there were only six) and were visited by troops of monkeys and iguanas. At Si Como No, we enjoyed a spectacular view, the big pool with a slide, and the most comfortable bed on the entire trip.

Our jungle bungalow at La Posada.

The kids loved the hammock.

The neighbor monkeys and lizards.

The kids enjoying the beach. This was the first time Semira has experienced the ocean. Needless to say, the waves were a big hit!

Coconut milk and snow cones Costa Rica style.

Our place at Si Como No.

More amazing flowers.

This was the most relaxing part of the trip because we mostly rotated between the beach and pool. We did hire a guide one day to take us into Manuel Antonio National Park to view the animals. It was well worth it. We would have missed a lot of things without his knowledge and spotting scope. We also explored the butterfly garden and reptile center operated by Si Como No. In addition to being an official eco-lodge, they run a wild life sanctuary across the street. The chance to see two toed sloths, three toed sloths, squirrel monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and many types of iguanas, lizards, birds, crabs, frogs, butterflies, etc. was spectacular!

Here we are back at the airport and ready to head home. Lily conned me into buying her a travel pillow at the airport. They look sort of cheerful, but Steve and I don't. I have to say that even after two weeks away, we dreaded going home. We knew we would be walking into cold, wind, and snow...which was exactly what happened! Costa Rica was everything we thought it would be and more. We will be going back!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Costa Rica - Coffee Adventures and More!

This is Part 2 of our recent Costa Rica adventures. After leaving La Fortuna, we headed to Monteverde (the Cloud Forest). We stayed in a town called Santa Elena, which is right next to Monteverde. Both towns are small and tucked away on tiny dirt roads. We heard the latter part of the road getting to Monteverde was difficult and slow going. Long story short, even with our GPS and map, we ended up on the wrong dirt road. After 8 km of driving that was getting worse (e.g. not sure if our little SUV was going to be able to crawl over the rocks), we ran into a Tico farmer who confirmed we were going the wrong way. So it was back into town to find the correct road. After our mishap, the new gravel road was a complete joy to drive on. Still it took us 2.5 hours to go 34 km!

This was the wrong road.

This was the correct road. Looks a little better?

The Monteverde area was charming. It is in a different climate zone (small Costa Rica has 12 distinct climate zones). It was windy and a lot colder. We actually had on jeans and jackets the entire time. Good thing we had some with us! It was nice to stay at a little rustic cabin too so we had a few days off of restaurant meals. A trip to the local grocery store to stock up on some basic food was all that was needed.

The highlight from this part of our trip was definately the coffee tour. There were many tours to pick from, but we chose to go with the Monteverde Coffee Co-op. What a great decision! We got picked up in a van in the morning. It was just the four of us and our driver and guide. The coffee co-op is comprised of 42 small coffee growers in the region. They produce mostly organic coffee and it is all fair-trade. Our guide took us to one of the smaller coffee plantations (2 hectares) where we met with the owner, Don Juan (yes, that is his name!). We ended up spending two plus hours touring his property, picking coffee beans, and learning how coffee beans are processed. It was coffee bean picking season so the timing was right.

Semira and Lily picking coffee beans.

We learned that Costa Rica passed a law a some years back requiring that farmers only produce Arabica beans (the highest quality beans). While farmers can sell the bean itself, they receive far more money if they do the processing themselves. Coffee beans are inside a green fruit. The fruit turns red when it is ripe. At this point, it is picked. The beans are run through a machine that removes the outside fruit. The beans are then washed to remove a slimy layer of skin then laid out to dry in the sun. They dry out in about a week or so. Coffee beans are a tan color at this point. The farmer then takes the dried beans to the co-op where they go through a final cleaning and roasting. Because the Monteverde Coffee Co-op is fair trade, farmers are guaranteed a minimal price regardless of what the world coffee market does.

Our guide and coffee grower.

Starting new coffee plants.

Mature coffee plants.

Coffee beans from start to finish.

Coffee bean skins.

Drying beans.

After learning about coffee beans, we toured Don Juan's property. In addition to coffee, he has a variety of fruit trees. Then we walked to his house where we sat on his porch drinking coffee he produced and eating pastries his wife baked. How cool is that? It was such an intimate experience. This is the type of tour I love. Getting to know real people in the real world!

Coffee from Don Juan's front porch.

The other highlight from the Monteverde area was our evening frog tour. Lily and Semira received a book about Costa Rica a few months ago from Grandma Bev. They read it while I was in Israel in November. Leave it to Lily, the studious one, to know plenty about Costa Rican frog species. She was up front with our tour guide touting her knowledge as we shined flashights on various noctoral frogs. The big highlight was the red eye tree frog. During the day, it is all green. At night, it is seven different colors. Amazing!

We very much enjoyed our time in Monteverde. Besides the colder weather, it was a charming, quaint place. Now onto the beach!