Dutch Oven Cooking Class

Helloooooo again! It’s been far too long since I’ve posted! Things have been pretty crazy around here, and I don’t just mean run-of-the-mill busyness. If you don’t follow A Love Letter to Food on Facebook or Twitter (and if not, I’d love it if you would!) let me fill you in:

Last week I went to New York City to be featured on the Today Show! Their producers invited me to be on the show for a segment about a crime I was the victim of several years ago. You can watch my appearance here. After my stint on the show, my husband and I stuck around for a few days to catch the best of NYC. (And, in addition to all that, yes, some run-of-the-mill busyness has also been keeping me occupied.)

With anchors Craig, Sheinelle, and Dylan (and my husband Anthony)

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about one other interesting event I recently experienced. With some of my girlfriends, I attended the Becoming an Outdoorswoman weekend in Prescott, AZ. This unique program, 25 years running, is 48 hours of classes (plus socializing and other fun stuff) devoted to teaching women useful skills for the outdoors. I’ll be honest, as someone with basically zero camping experience, a whole lot of it was outside my comfort zone. Examples: putting up a tent, eating javelina stew, sharing a bathroom with four other women…

One thing that was TOTALLY up my alley, however, was my class on outdoor Dutch oven cooking, aka cowboy cooking. I have a totally romantic notion of living in the American West a hundred-plus years ago, harbor a (probably completely unrealistic) fantasy of homesteading, and have always wondered how cooking over a campfire differs from cooking in a kitchen.

Here’s what I learned!

First, explained our lovely instructor Barb of Cowgirls Forever (pictured here in all her Western glory), you have to build your fire.

Once we had laid a nice bed of kindling, Barb added mesquite charcoal. She lighted the coals and allowed them to burn until large chunks were gray.

Meanwhile, we got to work on preparing our ingredients.

Barb had brought a literal truckful of food and said it was up to us to decide what to make! Here are just a few of the ingredients we had available.

Among the dozen or so women in the class, we decided on the following:

  • Roasted vegetables
  • Green chili with ground pork and hominy
  • Elk stew
  • Biscuit breakfast casserole with sausage
  • Bon bons (rolled around a Hershey’s hug)
  • Cinnamon rolls
  • Peach cobbler

Yeah, it was a lot of food. And let me tell you, this lady did NOT fear butter. Although none of our recipes were scripted (more “a can of this plus a stick of this and a shake of this”) if I were to guess, I’d say we went through five pounds of butter. NOT KIDDING.

When enough mesquite coals were suitably gray, it was time get cookin’. Barb grabbed her tongs and pulled several coals aside to sit underneath our first Dutch oven. Then, since she instructed us to never cook in an uncreased pan, we set the Dutch oven on top of the coals and poured in some oil (or butter. Lots of butter). Once this was shimmering, we started on our green chili by browning ground pork–the idea being that chili can simmer a long time while everything else cooks. We then moved on to our other savory dishes.

Each time we added a new ingredient, we’d top it with the lid of the Dutch oven, then cover the lid with coals. The ideal ratio of top coals to bottom coals is apparently 1/3 on bottom and 2/3 on the top. And, as a rule of thumb, you can take the number of the Dutch oven’s size (they come in sizes like 12, 14, and 16) and double it to get the appropriate number of coals to use in total. By this metric, the interior of the oven should stay at around 350 to 375 degrees.

Amazingly, according to Barb, you can stack up to five Dutch ovens for space-saving. Alternately, you can make groupings of coals for individual ovens, especially if you frequently need to access the inside to add ingredients or stir. For handling the extremely hot pot lids, Barb came equipped with special lid lifters suited to the task.

By the end of our three-hour class, our feast was complete! Since it was far too much food for our group, a number of ladies from other classes wandered over (drawn by the enticing smells, I’m sure) and enjoyed the various dishes with us.

Everything was decadent and delicious–and truly had that warm-you-from-the-inside-out feel that you only get eating campfire food on a chilly day. I absolutely loved this class and would 100% take it again!

I highly recommend looking into the Becoming an Outdoorswoman program in your area (they’re in over 40 states), and if you live in AZ like I do, Barb from Cowgirls Forever does catering and private classes–check her out!

My Takeaways From the 2019 Today’s Dietitian Symposium

This past week I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Today’s Dietitian Symposium just a quick drive away from home in Scottsdale, AZ. If you aren’t familiar with Today’s Dietitian, it’s a top-notch print magazine and online publication nutrition professionals look to for reliable, evidence-based health and nutrition information. In addition to their publications, the brand offers an annual roaming conference in May. This was my first time attending, and I learned a ton!

Although I’m not a dietitian (and I was literally the only dietetic technician I saw at the conference–ha!) I didn’t feel out of place. As a health and wellness freelance writer, I try to stay pretty hip to the latest research and trends. The sessions felt digestible, and, for the most part, very helpful.

Looking out at the room during a session

I shared a bit on my social media channels about what I learned at the symposium, but wanted to go more in-depth here on the blog. Here are four of my top takeaways from the two-and-a-half days:

1. Now is a great (but also super challenging) time to be a nutrition professional

Nutrition is sexy! People care so much these days about what they do and don’t eat. The public is seeking diet advice under every rock and behind every tree (and definitely on every shiny website and image-conscious Instagram post). Because of this uptick in interest, now is an awesome time to work in nutrition. As I’ve found in my own brief career, there are innumerable opportunities for credentialed professionals. The conference displayed the immense variety of the nutrition working world.

On the other hand, it also highlighted some of the ways being a dietitian (or NDTR like me) is more difficult now than ever. At the moment, there’s a MAJOR emotional component to people’s beliefs about food… so although, as scientifically trained nutrition professionals, we might emphasize our credibility by pointing to our degrees and the hard evidence behind our advice, this isn’t necessarily what the public wants. We’re living in an era of hashtags and sound bytes, not deep analysis or thoughtful reflection. It can be really tough to make the truth about nutrition compelling to the average consumer.

Secondly, in this age of social connectedness, with a million platforms to join and products to promote, it can feel like we have to be all things to all people. Be an influencer! Build your Twitter following! Secure brand deals! All while keeping up with the studies, determining your audience, and figuring out how much to charge for your services (oh, and maintaining your own svelte figure, because who wants to listen to an overweight dietitian?). Anybody stressed yet?

2. Networking is worth it — and it’s a pretty small world

One of my biggest goals for attending the conference was to meet and mingle with fellow nutritionistas. Mission accomplished! Despite my natural introversion, I went bold with introducing myself to strangers–and often found the person I had just said hello to was a mover and shaker I’d heard of before (hashtag #starstruck). I assembled a dozen business cards from other RDs over the course of the conference and was not shy about putting my own out there, either, like…

Not only was it cool to rub shoulders with some big names in the industry, it was also just great to sit down and chat with like-minded nutrition professionals. We’re not that big a club, so we get pretty excited when we meet.

3. Nutrition science has come a long way — but we still have further to go

Justified or not, nutrition science gets a bad rap for constantly changing. “First they said eggs were bad, then they were good, now they’re bad again! What can you even believe?” goes the common criticism. (As Michael Pollan famously said, “Nutrition science is where surgery was in about 1650–you know, really interesting and promising, but would you want to have them operate on you yet?”) But I felt impressed at the TD Symposium with how cohesive most of the messaging from dietitians actually is.

We know a lot of things for sure: Overconsumption is a problem in this country. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be emphasized, no matter who you are (almost). Fad diets are usually a bad idea. Gluten and dairy are not the enemy. Overall, I think we’re getting a handle on a lot of tricky topics.

I will tell you, though–no joke–I sat in on concurrent sessions that appeared to give conflicting advice about carbohydrates and fats. The first presenter seemed to be saying we should embrace low-carb diets to treat obesity and heart disease. The second said we still need to focus on limiting fat (especially saturated fat). In the presenters’ defense, they both said a lot had to do with the quality of carbs and fats…but still.

4. Nutrition professionals need to be kind, flexible, open-minded, and show our love of food!

Dietitians and NDTRs are competing with a lot of other (sometimes very loud) voices when it comes to giving the public sound, evidence-based nutrition counsel. To stay relevant, we have our work cut out for us. Some of the best advice I heard at the Today’s Dietitian Symposium was about the soft skills side of being a nutrition professional.

Gone are the days of beating people over the head about diet changes. It doesn’t work (and it’s really not fun for anyone). We have to approach clients/patients/friends/readers with kindness, flexibility, and open-mindedness. For eating, one size definitely does NOT fit all. How can we help people to enjoy their food while making positive changes? How can we “liberalize” instead of restrict? I think these are extremely important questions everyone working in nutrition should consider.

Finally, the best approach to food and diet is FUN! I absolutely love the concept emphasized at the conference that dietitians and DTRs need to show people how much we freaking love to eat. (I mean, I hope for me it’s obvious, given the name of this website…) Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s our job to help others as a cheerleader and fellow lover of food.

So thanks, Today’s Dietitian 2019 for an informative, interesting conference! Hope I can make it next year in Savannah, GA!

Snack Review: Fishpeople Salmon Jerky

If you had told me a few weeks ago that my new go-to snack would be dried Alaskan salmon, I would have thought the idea was…well…pretty fishy. I don’t usually think of seafood as snack food. (I did, however, just learn that whale milk ice cream is gaining popularity. Apparently it’s almost 50% fat and tastes like “a mixture of fish, liver, milk of magnesia, and castor oil,” so…maybe this is a thing now?)

Here’s the deal, though: As a freelance health and nutrition writer, I often get, ahem, interesting emails from PR people for various companies, asking me to try out their products so I can write about them. I’ve been offered all sorts of intriguing and off-the-wall stuff, from athletic wear to “designer” turmeric to plant-based sports drinks. I got a free tote bag and water bottle from Morton’s salt. (Yes, featuring the iconic umbrella-carrying salt girl.) I’ve been offered free online yoga subscriptions and services to cure headaches. And I was recently given a pre-screening of a new movie made by the guy who played Toby on The Office, and asked to interview him. Sometimes it’s a pretty sweet deal!

It’s hard to know when to say yes and when to say I’ll pass on these many products. But sometimes something comes along that sounds genuinely compelling, and this salmon jerky by Fishpeople was one of them.

First, let me just say that I dig the name “Fishpeople” and the company’s rather eccentric, stuff-of-Grimms-fairytales logo (pictured above) of a man/fish creature carrying a fork–or is it a trident? Is he a person? Or a fish? Is he going to eat people? Or fish? The world may never know.

When I tore into my first bag of jerky, I was excited, since I love salmon, but wan’t sure what to expect. I mean, I’ve had plenty of smoked salmon (which I also adore) and lots of beef jerky (I went through a jerky phase in high school, I confess), but what does fish look and taste like when you put it through the drying process?

I had my choice between Original flavor, Ancho Chili + Lime, Rainbow Peppercorn, and Lemon Zest + Herb. I decided to start with Original. Admittedly, the smell upon first opening the bag was a bit overpowering, even for someone who really likes salmon, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I tried the bits of dried fish and was pleased to discover they were extremely tasty! Chewy, certainly, but not nearly as tough as beef jerky, and with a slightly sweetness that complements the fish’s natural flavor.

I’ve now worked my way through the various bags of jerky and enjoyed them all. (Rainbow Peppercorn is by far and away my favorite.) I’ve sprinkled them on salad for an easy protein topping and snacked on them before bedtime. I even think you wouldn’t be remiss adding them to a sandwich, perhaps to make a salmon BLT.

Although–as mentioned–I wouldn’t normally think of eating dried fish for a snack, I’m really coming around to the idea. I mean, who says we have to eat any certain type of food at any meal? My 9-year-old likes to eat meatball sandwiches for breakfast, and sometimes I think he’s better off with that than a bowl of super sugary cereal in the mornings. So maybe salmon as my bedtime snack isn’t such a bad idea (as long as I brush my teeth before snuggling in next to my husband).

I say this especially because so many packaged snacks are high-calorie and packed with garbage. Dried salmon, on the other hand, is extremely low-calorie (each Fishpeople bag contains two 90-calorie servings), full of omega-3 fats (the kind with evidence-based links to brain health), and high protein (not that we need a TON of protein, but 12 grams per serving is a nice boost). Plus, they contain far less sugar than the average granola bar or yogurt I’d usually reach for.

Though the PR person I’d emailed with had emphasized portability as one of salmon jerky’s main selling points, I just don’t think I’m quite hipster enough to, you know, stash a bag of dried salmon to munch on during my flight to Coachella. But for an at-home snack my future self will thank me for? One that’s good for me and is actually really tasty? Yes, I’ll gladly grab some salmon jerky any day.

You can find Fishpeople’s products on their website, or on Amazon.

Blueberry Picking at Bartlett’s Blueberry Farm

When our family decided to stay at a farm in rural New Hampshire as part of our New England vacation, I immediately took to the internet to research the area around Newport, NH where we’d be staying. Among the historic buildings and covered bridges, one listing caught my attention: Blueberry picking! Whatever else we did, I knew this topped my list of options for a family activity. Blueberries are my all-time favorite fruit. In fact, at my former job at the American Heart Association’s Children’s Museum, every employee’s name tag stated their favorite fruit or vegetable under their name, so mine said “Sarah Blueberries”–which always led kids on my tours to ask if “Blueberries” was my last name. I wish! Wouldn’t that be perfect for a nutritionist? Maybe I can convince my husband we should consider a name change.

As fruits (and foods in general) go, you can’t get much healthier than blueberries. They’re packed with antioxidants, vitamins K and C, and contain a surprisingly high amount of fiber. (Check out this post of mine over on Brit + Co to read more about berry health benefits!) I also find them super versatile and delicious–as you may have realized from the many blueberry recipes on this blog!

Bartlett’s Blueberry Farm came highly recommended by the owners of the farm where we were staying, and it happened to be the closest place to pick blueberries, so we set off on our outing on a beautiful sunny day. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the lovely lady who runs the farm at a tented stand featuring tons of blueberry-based products.

The owner explained that we had access to the farm’s enormous swath of blueberry bushes, with our choice of picking to fill either a large bucket or smaller buckets. Since our stay in New Hampshire would be brief, we chose the smaller buckets, which adorably (and conveniently) hung on strings around our necks while picking.

With that, we were off to picking!

Embarrassingly, before this experience, I couldn’t have told you what a blueberry bush even looked like. They’re not exactly springing up on every corner in Phoenix, where I’ve lived almost my entire life. Actually, I’ve only ever known one person who succeeded in making them grow in the desert, and he was a horticulturist. So I was pleased to learn that blueberries grow in bunches on pretty, thorn-less, eye-level bushes.

Bartlett’s Farm boasted several varieties of blueberries. At the end of each row was a marker designating its variety, such as Duke, Nelson, and Earlibue. We tasted several and did notice a difference–some were sweeter, some tarter. To me, blueberries have always just been blueberries, so it was interesting to learn that there are subtle differences between different plants.

Picking the blueberries proved to be a very simple task (not nearly as arduous as apple picking, with all the reaching and pulling and spiky lacrosse stick-like plucking tools). With plenty of ripe berries in easy reach and no thorns to poke us, the berries practically fell off the branches into our buckets. We all just kept our eyes peeled for the bluest fruits, knowing they’d be sweetest, and avoided any green or magenta-colored ones.

Sometimes they even popped off in perfect little clusters, like this..

All in all, we probably spent 45 minutes picking before we got our fill (well, more than our fill) of blueberries. I don’t actually recall the price per pound, but I do know that for the amount pictured–I’m guessing at least two pounds–we paid only $6.60. A pretty stellar deal for fresh, local blueberries, even if we picked them ourselves.

If you’re ever in western New Hampshire, check out Bartlett’s Blueberry Farm!

And for more blueberry inspiration, check out these recipes:

Red, White, and Blueberry French Toast Casserole

Fresh Blueberry Ice Cream

Easy Blueberry Jam

Whole Grain Blueberry Orange Muffins

Lighter Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars

Blueberry Scones

How I Started Freelance Nutrition Writing (And So Can You)

Need a health and wellness writer with plenty of experience? Contact me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com!

Are you considering a getting started with freelance nutrition writing? Check out my post on why it’s such a great career.

You may have noticed that things have slowed down a bit here on the blog over the last several months. The reason behind this actually has to do with something really good–and something, in a sense, blog-related. See, I’ve been doing freelance nutrition writing, and a lot of it. Since I’d rather post quality than quantity on the blog, that means my posts here have gotten fewer and further between. Here’s a little bit about how it all came about, along with some tips for other nutrition professionals interested in getting into the world of freelance writing. (And to my handful of regular readers: Don’t worry, I’m still keeping the blog going with recipes and down-to-earth nutrition info!)

Some backstory:

Last August, our family spent almost three months in Germany. During this time, I wasn’t working (unless you count steadily “working” my way through innumerable varieties of German beer–oh, and I was also looking after my kids). Being very new in my career as a nutrition professional, I still hadn’t really determined what path I wanted to take. When you go through any traditional dietetics education, the party line from your program of study is that you have three options for employment: clinical, food service, or community nutrition. (Can I get an amen, RDs and DTRs?) While I knew I didn’t want to work in the clinical or food service settings, I wasn’t exactly sure what my career in “community” (aka public health) nutrition would look like. I did know, however, that my first position out of school would be temporary, that I wanted something part-time, and that I had always loved to write. My English minor back in college meant I had at least some education in doing so reasonably well.

Returning home from Germany, I decided to take a stab at freelance writing to see how it went. Initially, it barely even crossed my mind to start writing nutrition content. Instead, I began with something even closer to my heart: my own journey as a Catholic Christian. My cousin, who is a freelance writer in New Mexico, had turned me on to a couple of websites primarily aimed at Millennial Catholics, Busted Halo and Amendo. Armed with my backlog of blog content and one lonely article I wrote for my church’s Women’s Ministry page, I pitched Busted Halo’s editor, calling myself a freelance writer. I asked if they’d like to publish the story of a foolish decision I made as a young adult. I didn’t really expect to hear anything back–I mean, who was I kidding with this whole “I’m a freelance writer” pose?–but much to my surprise, the editor emailed me back with an acceptance!

And how I got to now…

After the success of my first pitch (and the thrill of seeing my first article in print), I craved more. Here and there, I’d send off a pitch, often into the echoing void of a general submissions inbox, never to hear anything again, but sometimes to a “yes” from a real human being. Pretty soon I made a pact with myself: Every day I wasn’t working–which was one to two days a week–I would pitch a new publication. I read a quick e-book called Make Money as a Freelance Writer, which encouraged new writers to make a list of all the topics you’re an expert in, as well as topics you merely have an interest in. I decided I could comfortably focus on nutrition, general health and wellness, parenting, and spirituality…and maybe some other random topics I just find fascinating, like forensic investigation and 19th century German poets. But, you know, less often.

Over the next few months, I pitched like a mo-fo. Setting aside my deep distaste for unsolicited social interaction, I rattled off cold pitches to dozens of magazines and websites. I emailed local dietitians to see if I could write their newsletters or other content for patients, and I sent out an ad for my services on my local Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics chapter’s email listserv. The mornings I didn’t work, I’d go for a walk or a bike ride to clear my head and generate story ideas, then sit down to research a good publication to send to, and off my pitches would go. From September of 2017 to the end of that year, I sent out 40 pitches and received 8 rejections, 14 no-reponses, and 18 acceptances that turned into publications. When I read somewhere that new writers often have around a 10-20% acceptance rate, I felt my hard work had paid off (but those 8 rejections still definitely stung!).

How I get my gigs

At the end of 2017 came what I think of as my big breakthrough: Paid regular work. That December I was offered a weekly contributor position for the women’s lifestyle website Brit + Co’s Health section. Shortly thereafter, a dietitian hired me at a respectable rate to write her monthly newsletter. And in May of 2018 I was hired on to contribute regularly to fitness guru Chalene Johnson’s blog on her 131 Method website. Between these ongoing projects, a monthly kids’ cooking class I teach, and a few other articles every month or so, I was able to quit my in-person job–and am now making double to triple the hourly rate my job paid, while working fewer hours.

So how did all that happen?

Once again, I really have to give my cousin credit. She referred me to numerous Facebook groups where editors post calls for pitches–which I often answered and sometimes ultimately landed. (I also asked others in these groups for editor contacts when I couldn’t track them down). Then a couple of dietitians told me about even more Facebook groups where I found work. For awhile, I also regularly searched through Craigslist and Upwork for writing gigs–getting one decent food-related copywriting assignment–but have since decided pitching my own content is the better route for the type of work I’m looking for.

If YOU want to get into freelance nutrition writing

Maybe you’re a dietitian or DTR interested in getting started with writing, like I was less than a year ago. Judging from the responses I got when chatting with other nutrition professionals at a conference just last week, I believe many RDs and DTRs are drawn to this relatively obscure area of dietetics practice. After all, why shouldn’t we be the ones to give the public reliable health information? Journalists may have great skill in reporting on food and nutrition, but they don’t have the kind of in-depth knowledge a licensed nutrition professional can offer.

Here are my top pieces of advice if you’re looking to start freelance nutrition writing:

  • If you don’t have a blog, create one–even a lil’ dinky one–so you have a landing place for editors to see your writing.
  • Create social media pages for your blog and invite friends to like them. Post often, whether it’s your own blog articles or anything you find intriguing in the realm of food and nutrition. If you post interesting stuff, your following will grow.
  • If you’re in private practice, write your own monthly newsletter. Or offer to write one for a dietetics practice to build up experience and content.
  • Offer to blog for free (for awhile) for local food, nutrition, or restaurant websites.
  • Get into Facebook groups about general and nutrition-specific freelance writing (email me for examples!) These are where you’ll find editors issuing calls for pitches.
  • Search Craigslist and Upwork for nutrition-related writing gigs.
  • Pitch like a pitchin’ fool! And, if possible, don’t pitch to the general submissions email address you find on a publication’s website. Do a little more digging to get the email of an actual editor. (Try Twitter, LinkedIn, or ask in Facebook groups.) You’re much more likely to get a response from a real person.

The work is out there. And with your experience as a nutrition professional, YOU can be the one most qualified to get it. I can tell you, it’s a pretty sweet deal when you do!

Enjoyed this article? Have a project that could use some health and wellness writing? Contact me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com!