5 Ways to Make Pandemic Cooking a Little Easier

Looking for ways to make pandemic cooking a little easier? You’ve come to the right place!

Happy new year! I hope your 2021 is off to a good start…or at least a not-too-bad start or…yeah…

I personally didn’t have any expectations of reality making a dramatic turnaround with the change of the calendar. Although I do have hope for this new year, I think we’re all going to be living in some pretty stressful conditions for quite some time, between what my friend Sally calls the “P and Ps”: the pandemic and politics.

So raise your hand if you’re still struggling. Yeah, me too. After the 10 months we’ve all been through, it can be hard to muster motivation for work, parenting, and keeping your house from looking like a tornado blew through–let alone making a healthy dinner every night.

I’m right there with you, but as a nutritionist and long-time mom/chef, I have some tips for getting a home-cooked meal on the table, even when you’d really rather drink wine and watch Ted Lasso. (Or is that just me?)

Here are my top suggestions.

5 Ways to Make Pandemic Cooking a Little Easier

1. Give yourself built-in breaks

These days, I try to pencil in at least one really, really easy dinner a week. Maybe that means a three-ingredient salmon, a fix-and-forget “dump” meal in the Crock Pot, or a healthier Trader Joe’s meal. I especially like TJ’s chili-lime chicken burgers and their lentil soup with ancient grains. These go-to products save my bacon on those evenings when I just don’t have the energy for a more impressive meal (and the dish washing that comes afterward). Give yourself planned breaks with super-simple meals.

2. Go for almost-homemade

There’s no shame in getting a little boost from meal-starters that take some of the work out of prep. I personally draw the line at high-sodium boxed meals like Hamburger Helper, but almost-homemade is better than not homemade at all. Consider shortcutting your way to a more convenient meal using ingredients like pre-made pizza crust, pre-sliced veggies, or rotisserie chicken.

3. Meal plan (always!)

I will beat the meal planning drum until the day I die, but I find it especially important during the pandemic. Going into the week without a plan for (at least) your weeknight dinners is just asking for stress. So set aside an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon–or any time that works for you–and hammer out a plan for the week ahead. An ounce of meal planning prevention is worth a pound of fast food cure. (Or something like that.)

Check out my semi-vegetarian monthly meal plans here and here!

4. Double up

Here’s another tip I’ll happily advocate all day long. Doubling up on entire meals or sides makes life soooo much easier. Use a large pot of rice as a side dish for chicken, then as the base of fried rice later in the week. Make a batch of pulled pork for tacos, then put the rest on a pizza. Or straight-up make two casseroles, soups, or pasta dishes. and save half for another evening. In the words of my husband’s favorite bizarro TV personality Dr. Steve Brule:

 

5. Get the whole family involved

News flash: Even if you’re a mom, you’re not the only person in your household who can take part in meal-making. I know…

The fact is, any able-bodied person in your home can–and should–help out with cooking. Getting kids to join you in the kitchen doesn’t just help you; it sets them up for a lifetime of healthy home cooking. (Check out my article on Verywell Family that will get you started on age-appropriate cooking tasks for kids!)

So get those kids and husbands and grandmas and anyone else you can grab to help with slicing, dicing, sautéing, and more. The family that cooks together weathers the pandemic together–with some healthy, homemade meals on the table.

Need recipes for healthy, easy meals? Here are some of my faves:

Easy Canned Tuna Poke Bowl

Soba Salad with Chicken and Cabbage

Salmon Kale Caesar Wraps

Lemon Dill Orzo with Chickpeas and Artichokes

 

I Tried the Vitamix FC-50 FoodCycler Countertop Composter

Check out my honest review of the Vitamix FC-50 “FoodCycler” Countertop Composter!

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but as a food and nutrition writer, I often get offers to try out up-and-coming foods and food-related products. Sometimes these products are totally random, like keto-friendly Fruity Pebbles-like cereals or a skirt that somehow reduces muscle soreness after you work out. Sometimes they’re freebies that might be useful to someone else but that I don’t really use. (So. Many. Aprons.) And sometimes they’re just downright awesome.

Not long ago, I received an offer to try out the Vitamix FC-50 “FoodCycler”–a countertop composter that takes your kitchen scraps and turns them into usable fertilizer in just hours. I love having a garden, but since I have a black thumb and I more or less live on the surface of the sun (aka the Sonoran desert), my outdoor plants have been looking pretty sad for quite some time.

Exhibit A: Seems like some extra fertilizer could only do them good!

On the other hand, keeping up with traditional composting is, frankly, a hassle. You’ve got the smell of nasty old banana peels and slimy spinach wafting through your kitchen. And then there’s the issue of those intractable fruit flies. Gross. Although we have a compost bin in our backyard, the truth is, we hardly use it because of all the work it takes.

Enter this handy-dandy countertop appliance! Vitamix’s FC-50 FoodCycler purports to take some of the work out of doing your part for the planet (and your lovely garden). So how does it work, and is it worth the $400 price tag?

First up, a few specs: the FoodCycler is somewhat large, at about 14 inches tall by 12 deep by 10.5 wide. Yes, it should fit on your countertop, but it’s a pretty sizable box. It didn’t take long to set up, though, with just a few instructions for installing filters. After that, the little beast was ready to go.

Inside the black box, the setup is simple. A small bucket slides in and out of the box so you can set it nearby as you chop veggies for dinner, take the peel off an orange, or perform any other kitchen tasks that leave you with compostable odds and ends. Lately, when I’ve made salad or salsa, it’s been super handy to slide scraps into the bucket instead of into the trash.


Once the bucket is full, starting the FoodCycler’s composting magic couldn’t be easier. Place the bucket back into the box, close the lid in the “lock” position, and–ready for it?–hit the power button.

Lock position at bottom left, power button at bottom right

Now all you have to do is wait. The FoodCycler takes three to eight hours to dry and churn your refuse into a pulverized, broken-down organic matter you can spread in your garden.  It’s literally like having a machine digest the food you’re not going to eat. (Or maybe I just think of it that way because I’m a nutritionist…)

For a visual, in a few hours, the machine turns this:

into this:

Literally this is what that batch of scraps turned into.

A few things to know about the FoodCycler

  • As the FoodCycler does its work, it’s a bit loud. I’d compare it to an unusually boisterous dishwasher.
  • There are certain foods you’re not supposed to put in the FoodCycler: high-sugar fruits, large animal bones, sauces (obviously), and a few other things.
  • The FoodCycler won’t turn your food scraps directly into soil, so don’t expect to open the lid and see lush brown dirt. Rather, you’ll get a dried mixture that should be ready to get sprinkled onto or mixed into soil.

Overall, even though the FoodCycler probably isn’t something I would have invested in on my own, I’ve totally enjoyed it! It’s great to know that our family’s unusable foodstuffs can be repurposed to grow the herbs and tomatoes in our backyard, rather than just get tossed out. If you’re into gardening, or if you find traditional composting as labor-intensive as I do, you’ll probably be very pleased with a FoodCycler.

Hope you enjoyed my Vitamix FC-50 FoodCycler Countertop Composter review! Let me know if you end up purchasing this unique little appliance, and what you think of it if you do.

Quarantine Exercise Playlist

Going stir-crazy during Covid-19? Here’s a fun Quarantine Exercise Playlist to get you moving and smiling.

Since my last post, it seems like the world has become a very different place. The onset of the coronavirus has changed so many aspects of everyday life–and, for some, even put life at risk.

How are you hanging in there?

For me, the last month has felt surreal. If I’m honest, I have NOT been at my best. Suddenly having to homeschool my kids and scale way back on my writing career has not only been a major challenge, but a blow to my ego and sense of self. Besides which, I miss my church community terribly, desperately want to see my friends in person, AND–the kicker–I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s in a month. (I jest…kind of.) Then of course there are all the worries about the economic impact of this disaster.

One thing I can still enjoy, though, is my semi-weekly run. Getting outdoors with my heart pumping certainly helps lift my spirits and put things in perspective. So, even though it’s not about food, I thought I’d share a Quarantine Exercise Playlist. (I’ve shared favorite workout songs a few times in the past, if you’d like to check out my other exercise playlists!)

These songs, for one reason or another, seem appropriate to our current situation. Some are uplifting, some are funny, some seem like they were written just for social distancing. I hope you’ll add them to your playlist for running, cycling, elliptical-ing, or whatever it is you do to get active.

Quarantine Exercise Playlist

1. “Higher Love” by Whitney Houston & Kygo

This ain’t your momma’s “Higher Love” from ’80s soft rock radio. Norwegian DJ/producer Kygo has taken a little-known recording of the song by Whitney Houston and tweaked it into something infectiously danceable–and surprisingly timely.

I definitely resonate with lyrics like:

Things look so bad everywhere / In this whole world, what is fair? and Worlds are turnin’ and we’re just hangin’ on / facing our fear and standing out there alone

But I love the resolution that there’s a Higher Love who’s got our back through all of this.

2. “I’ll Be Waiting” by Adele

“I’ll Be Waiting” is all about the chance to do things differently. I know there are things I’d change if I could go back to the time before this pandemic–and I definitely plan to do some things differently when it’s over, like appreciate my in-person friendships all the more.

3. “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug” by Ra Ra Riot

This song is so upbeat and happy, you’d never know it’s about trying to hug someone…and not being able to. (Story of our lives right now, right?) Give indie rock band Ra Ra Riot a listen in this zippy little tune.

4. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” by Sparks

I swear, some people are taking social distancing so seriously, you’re practically not allowed to be in the same town with them…hence this hit by ’70s brother duo Sparks.

5. “Stand By You” by Rachel Platten

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you / Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you

Okay, cue the tears. For anyone who misses spending time with friends and family right now, this one may be a tear-jerker. But for me, it’s a reminder that friendship is stronger than physical distance and we’re all in this together.

6. “Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol

I mean, for obvious reasons…

7. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift

Some days in the last month since the coronavirus hijacked normal life, I’ve just needed to shake off the problems of the world. They’re not mine to solve. A little of T-Swift’s “Shake It Off” definitely helps.

8. “A Change Would Do You Good” by Sheryl Crow

This one’s here for a little irony. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the confinement of quarantine. It’d be so nice to travel or see something besides the small radius of walks in my neighborhood. A change would definitely do me good. Ya know, in another couple of months or next year or whenever…

9. “Never Give Up” by Sia

Is coronavirus awful and miserable? Yes. Are we as a society going to get through it? YES!

The lyrics in “Never Give Up” are a near-guaranteed injection of hope: I won’t let you get me down / I’ll keep gettin’ up when I hit the ground / Oh, never give up, no never give up, no, no

10. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police

Who says social distancing can’t rock? Someone needs to do a coronavirus cover of this Police song and change the words “so close” to “within six feet.”

11. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor

There’s a reason Gloria Gaynor’s disco smash is still a go-to song for everyone from cancer fighters to discarded wives. It’s totally an anthem of the human spirit. Crank it up for a head-clearing run or dance.

12. “Virus Alert” by Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al’s “Virus Alert” (which, incidentally, is a parody of the aforementioned ’70s band Sparks’ signature style) is so catchy and funny, I think you’ll find it the perfect accompaniment to your virus-quarantined workout…even though it’s about a computer virus, not an ACTUAL virus.

What’s your favorite uplifting song for quarantine exercise? Tell me in the comments!

11 Weird Facts About Fruit

My kids have these books–if you have kids, you’ve probably seen them, too–that are all about strange and interesting facts. 1,001 Facts About the Human Body That’ll Blow Your Mind2,002 Weird and Wacky Facts About Natural Disasters3,003 Star Wars Facts You Won’t Learn From Watching the Movies. These are, of course, always complete with pictures of volcanoes gurgling over and half-costumed Wookies. (Aside: No, autocorrect, for once in my life I do NOT want to write “cookies,” but thank you for understanding my inner monologue so well.)

Last week I was chaperoning my 8-year-old daughter’s field trip to the natural history museum when a kid in my little student-herd kept getting on my nerves with his endless recitation of facts. Actually, he would pipe up, the longest whale on Earth was blah blah feet long. ACTUALLY, the oldest trilobite ever discovered was blah blah billion years old. No doubt, he had gotten these from the same books my kids pore over. (That or he has a lot of internet access for a third grader.)

I really had to grit my teeth to keep from opening up an ACTUAL can of chaperone whoop-ass on this kid, but then I realized…I’m a collector of weird facts, too. I just like different kinds of weird facts, usually about food. After all, fun facts are such delightful little nuggets of intellectual enjoyment, especially when they pertain to something that already interests us. Learning something new or strange must light up a particular part of our brains connected to pleasure. See, kids? Learning IS fun.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for surprising tidbits about any category of comestible, so for your reading pleasure (or, more likely, my own) I’ve assembled several about one of my favorite categories of food: fruit! Fruit is such a commonplace thing in our edible lexicon, but ACTUALLY it holds a ton of strange secrets. Therefore, I give you..

11 Weird Facts About Fruit

1. Kiwi isn’t originally from New Zealand or Australia. This fruit was originally grown in China and was known as the Chinese gooseberry until 1959.

2. Many people assume jackfruit is the world’s largest fruit. After all, these giant, spiky beasts have been known to kill people when they fall off trees–and they are the largest tree fruit on the planet. But the biggest fruit ever recorded was an Atlantic Giant pumpkin, which weighed in at over a ton. (Though if you ask me, it’s debatable that a pumpkin is a fruit.)

3. What we think of as seeds on the outside of strawberries are actually called achenes. The actual seeds are inside the achenes.

4. While we’re on the subject of strawberries, did you know that, ounce for ounce, they contain more vitamin C than oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes?

5. Passionfruit contains the most fiber of all fruits, with 98% of your daily value in a cup.

6. Tried Sumo oranges yet? If not, get thee to a Whole Foods and load up on these amazingly delicious mandarin oranges! But don’t be shocked when you see their price tag; the reason these oranges are so expensive is that they take up to four years to grow. Plus, in the U.S. they ship from only one facility in California.

7. While bananas get credit for containing lots of potassium, several other fruits actually boast more of this micronutrient. Watermelon, dried apricots, and avocados all have more potassium than bananas.

8. Why does one bad apple spoil the bunch? When apples (and some other fruits) start to rot, they release a gas called ethylene, which can reach–and begin to degrade–other fruits close by.

9. If you’ve ever been warned against eating grapefruit while on certain medications, you should probably listen. Grapefruit can block the action of certain enzymes responsible for metabolizing medication. The result: you end up with more of the medication in your bloodstream (and possibly adverse side effects).

10. Maybe almonds should be classified as fruits! They come from the prunus genus of trees and shrubs, which includes peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots. (Almonds are most closely related to peaches–which could be why the two taste so good together.)

11. Finally, my favorite weird fact about fruit–or is it about a vegetable? In the 1893 case Nix vs. Hedden, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are vegetables, at least for tax purposes. So there you have it, if you ever need to settle the age-old debate.

Why Freelance Nutrition Writing Is Such a Great Career

Are you considering a career in freelance nutrition writing? Check out my post on how to get started, or like A Love Letter to Food on Facebook for more tips!

Need a professional health and wellness writer? Contact me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com.

If you don’t know me personally, you might not know that the writing I do here on A Love Letter to Food isn’t my only writing. Not by a long shot, actually. I’m a freelance writer–and not in the sense of one-off articles published here or there. Writing is my main gig, my bread and butter, my livelihood. I spend anywhere from 15 to 30 hours a week cranking out content for a number of publications and private clients (and probably would do more if I weren’t also a wife and mom to three school-aged kids).

As a licensed nutritionist, I primarily focus on nutrition, health, and wellness writing. I’ve been fortunate enough to land articles (and sometimes recurring work) with respected sites like Eat This, Not That!, Healthline, Verywell Fit, Greatist, and–coming soon!–Eating Well and Prevention. I also do quite a bit of parenting and spirituality writing for publications like Today’s Parent, Busted Halo, Aleteia, and Amendo…because I’m more than just a nutrition professional. I’m a mom and a Catholic Christian. I figure my writing can reflect all of these facets of my identity. And so far, I absolutely love this career path.

Quite honestly, before now, I’d never had a career I really liked. I’ve been an adjunct German professor, children’s museum tour guide, a secretary, a YMCA customer service rep, a substitute teacher, and–a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away–an ice cream scooper at Cold Stone Creamery. In each of these positions, I was always seeking more: more opportunity, more money, more ice cream (Ha! But seriously.). But now, with my freelance writing career, I find there’s no limit on my achievement or how far I can go.

I’ve written on this blog before about how this nutrition freelance writing journey began. In fact, it’s one of my most popular posts! Check it out for practical tips on getting started. But now I wanted to share some of the reasons this is such a rewarding career. Whether you’re considering dipping a toe or taking the plunge into freelance health and wellness writing, I hope this list offers some encouragement that propels you forward. (Or, if you’re looking for a writer, visit my Work With Me page.)

Here are five things that make freelance nutrition writing an awesome career.

1. Flexibility

Let’s say I want to meet a friend for lunch or need to pick up my kids on an unexpected early release day at school. No problem! The freelance career means that I make my own schedule and can roll with the punches of unexpected schedule changes. (Which we all know happens often, especially with kids.) If need be, I can get my work done at night or on weekends. Heck, as long as I have my laptop and internet access, I could even leave the country. I sure wouldn’t mind tapping away at a window overlooking the Eiffel Tower!

2. Recognition and Purpose

One of the saddest things I ever heard from colleagues when I was interning as a diet tech at a local hospital was, “We don’t actually know if the doctors read our notes.” Wait, what? You don’t even know if all the work you’re doing charting on patients actually does anything for their care? Major NOPE moment for me. (In addition to the fact that the dietetics office adjacent to the cafeteria that smelled like dirty mop water and overcooked tater tots.)

Personally, I want a job that I know actually makes a difference to someone, somewhere. Even though I might not know my readers’ names or how my writing impacts their lives, I believe that creating trustworthy nutrition and health information has a certain nobility and purpose. That means a lot to me.

3. Money

Raise your hand if you like making money. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The nutrition industry is notorious for grossly underpaying its professionals. I happen to know that several employers in my area start their NDTRs at under $15/hour. And when I worked for a health and wellness non-profit–one with a top-notch national reputation, mind you!–I literally made minimum wage. For most of us trying to make an actual living, this is not sustainable. And as nutrition professionals, our knowledge isn’t worth such low compensation!

That’s why I love freelance writing. In a given month as a writer, I make anywhere from four to seven times what I made for around the same number of hours at a non-profit. Yes, skills and experience matter for scoring higher pay, but I don’t have to attend seminars or trainings or even necessarily obtain my RDN. I just have to research well and communicate well.

4. Independence

I’ll be honest…I never had a boss I loved. Several companies I worked for were oozing with hierarchy, which, when you’re at the bottom, can be pretty discouraging. (Or, to be more blunt: It sucks.) Plus, I’m not crazy about getting micromanaged. (True story: I once had a manager write me a note that said, “Write a note that says…” and then wrote the entire thing herself.) But I really don’t mind working for myself!

As a freelancer, I can pitch whatever publications I have the guts to approach, set my own hours (see #1, Flexibility), and go after as much or as little work as I like. I work in tandem with clients and editors, but I’m in charge of my own career.

5. Minimal Hassle

Long commute? Mandatory meetings? Dress code? Nope, nope, and nope. There are definitely some things I miss about working in an office setting with fellow co-workers, but I sure do love not having to deal with a lot of the hassle.

If you’re a dietitian or diet tech, I’d be willing to bet you face another hassle: wondering whether your patients or clients actually listen to you. Your training qualifies you to be an expert on all things diet-related, but is that high-cholesterol patient really going to take your advice and stop eating burgers and fries five days a week? Maybe, maybe not.

The beauty of putting your writing out into the universe is knowing that, very likely, you won’t get pushback about it. You won’t have to hound anyone about counting their carbs or cutting back on sodium. You’re simply creating solid health information–and you can feel good about that. Rest assured that plenty of eyeballs will see your work. Whether or not the owners of those eyeballs take your good advice and translate it into practical change isn’t up to you. For me, that’s a relief. People change on their own timeline, not mine.

Convinced yet that freelance nutrition writing is a great career? I wish you all the best! Don’t forget to check out my post on how to get started with freelance health and wellness writing, or like A Love Letter to Food on Facebook for more tips!

If you need a freelance nutrition, health, wellness, or parenting writer, I’d love to work with you! Email me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com.