As long as there's chocolate, there's hope

A few years ago, I had to stop eating everything that tastes good. One after another, food groups dropped like flies until all that was left was chicken, white rice and avocado. It was decidedly less than fun.

In retrospect, it’s possible I shouldn’t have taken everything out all at once. But I was desperate and, really, if you’re going to eliminate foods to figure out what’s causing you problems, you kind of need to go all in. Or all out, as the case may be.

I had a doctor, a naturopath and a chiropractor all recommend different diets, none of which overlapped, other than the elimination of gluten, dairy, caffeine and alcohol. Also known as the four horsemen of the digestive apocalypse. It was all in an effort to get my body back to some level of functionality after too many months of post-baby sleep deprivation, possible postpartum and likely also a gut infection. Like I said, fun times.

At the peak of my elimination frenzy, I was avoiding gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, corn, yeast, sugar, coffee and alcohol. I feel like there was something else. Oh right, joy. I eliminated joy. I was also trying to do FODMAPs, which instructs you to avoid things like onions, apples, kale, blueberries and a host of other random, seemingly unrelated ingredients. I challenge you to find a product out there that doesn’t have at least one FODMAP no-no on the ingredient list. Lord knows, I tried.

The whole experience has given me a lot of empathy for people who can’t just eat whatever they want. It makes you crazy, sometimes, having to contemplate every morsel that passes your lips. You can’t just stop at Starbucks to grab a muffin if you’re hungry. There’s no getting an easy pass on dinner by grabbing pizza or burgers on the way home. And sometimes all you want is a freakin’ latte to get through the afternoon with some of your sanity left intact. But you make it through, because there’s an inkling of hope that you might feel human again someday.

I’m happy to say, that someday has come. I wouldn’t say I’m all the way back, but back enough that I can go to restaurants and attend dinner parties without having to tell the hosts to just feed me a rice cake. I have learned to savour decaf americanos blended with coconut oil. I have learned to enjoy a burger wrapped in lettuce. I have learned to eat chicken for breakfast.

One thing I didn’t have to learn was how to survive without baked goodies, thanks to the commitment of lot of smarter and more resourceful people than I. You could be down to five items on your dietary okay list and I’m sure someone will have found a way to make them into brownies.

Speaking of brownies, I decided to make some for a friend who’s just starting an auto-immune/paleo diet. I don’t know a whole lot about these diets other than what I googled, so hopefully these treats will fit into her protocol. If not, it's possible other people in her house will eat them, although brownies with pumpkin and tapioca can be a tough sell with people who can still pop a Timbit without a second thought. 

Instead of writing it out, I’m being lazy and linking to the recipe. These Dense and Fudgey Chocolate Brownies were exactly as advertised. I had the boy taste a sliver and he threw a fit that I wouldn’t give him more, so I’m assuming that means they’re acceptable to a normal palate. I used cacao paste instead of unsweetened chocolate and used canned coconut milk instead of the kind she recommends. I will definitely be making them both again, just not tomorrow because it’s going to be above 30˚C and I don’t want to turn on the oven. Score one for the summer waistline.

Cookies transcend what it is to be cool

We had a nine-year-old over for a play date today and something traumatic dawned on me: I am so not cool.

The glory of having kids who are still relatively little is that they have no idea how out of touch we are. They don’t really care about being cool or hip or whatever it is. They just care about the possibility of eating candy before lunch and knowing when Daddy is coming home. I’ve been breezing by on this free ride with a vague understanding of Paw Patrol and Littlest Pet Shop without having to worry about whatever’s currently flowing through the zeitgeist of the pre-teen world. 

Case in point, I just asked my husband, “What are kids into these days?”

“I dunno. Minecraft?”

“What about Snapchat?”

“I think that’s more university age kids… but maybe younger kids use it? I have no idea.”

Luke, the husband, always said he would know when he was out of touch when he stopped recognizing the people in the supermarket tabloids. That happened for me when the Kardashians came onto the scene. I’m still not entirely sure what their deal is. They’re famous because they’re famous? Or is it because one of them is handy with a video camera? Are they still even famous or have we moved on?

I’ve only just recently started feeling microscopically cool within my own age group, let alone trying to figure out what’s socially current to a kid who's been alive for less than a decade. I've owned my espresso maker for longer than that. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, or understand what the new wheel is, we did what the three-year-old wanted to do: bake shortbread cookies. 

This makes me sound like a wonderfully wholesome mother. Trust me, it was not my first choice. It’s messy and fraught with technical difficulties. Everyone’s dough was rolled out to a different thickness, meaning everyone’s cookies baked at different speeds, and the three-year-old kept cutting out shapes on the same patch of dough then freaking out that his cookies looked like shredded cheese. It also results in children eating copious amounts of sugar while dropping copious amounts of crap on the floor. But, it keeps everyone occupied and in one place for an hour. You take the good with the bad.

The nine-year-old seemed to enjoy baking and left quite happily with her box of cookies, but not before taking over the Apple Music playlist and introducing us to some Katy Perry songs we hadn’t heard and Adele. Yes, I am likely the only woman over 40 who has never listened to an entire Adele album. I will refer you back to the part about me only recently coming out from underneath a rock.

I used a Betty Crocker recipe for the cookies. It was well-received, as any half pound of butter mixed with icing sugar should be. Despite the article that came out the other day about cookie dough being bad for you, I let my kids taste a bit. Judah then questioned the need for baking it at all and demanded the right to embrace the raw food movement on his batch of dough. His request was denied.

Shortbread Cookies, according to Betty Crocker

1.5 cups powdered sugar 1 cup butter 1 egg 1 tsp vanilla 1 tsp almond extract  (I didn’t have any. Oh well.) 2.5 cups flour 1 tsp baking soda 1 tsp cream of tartar

Mix the first five ingredients together on medium speed until well blended. Add the rest until mixed. Cover the dough and put it in the fridge for two hours. Prepare to answer the question, “Is the dough ready yet” every two minutes for the next two hours. Steel yourself.

Roll out dough to a quarter inch thick and cut out shapes. Bake at 375˚F for 8 or 9 minutes or until the edges are brown. Or bake some for 6 minutes and others for 10, depending on how well your bakers use a rolling pin.

For the icing, mix two cups of powdered sugar with a splash of vanilla and a few tablespoons of water until you have something resembling icing. We added some purple food dye (horrors) and I put it in ziplock bags (more horrors) with the corner cut out so they could squeeze it onto their cookies or, in Judah’s case, directly into his mouth.

Drink your greens but make them purple

Until recently, I had never really seen food as a means to an end. The world has so many delicious food combinations to enjoy. I couldn't imagine throwing away the chance for a fabulous meal from this cornucopia just for the purpose of sustenance (says the woman who used to eat popcorn for dinner). Enter motherhood and the tune changes. All of a sudden, meals become more of prerequisite for basic function rather than an enjoyable taste experience.

Take breakfast, for example. They say people are inclined to eat the same thing for breakfast every day, in part because it means reserving brain power for things like walking upright and being civil to your partner. For me, it also used to be incentive to get out of bed. What better reason to shower and get dressed than for the reward of peanut butter oozing all over a toasted english muffin?

Surprisingly, the promise of liquid salad has never offered the level of motivation. But time, reality, and countless elimination diets have a funny way of shifting your perspective. As I was weighing the desire for fitness, convenience, and the ability to survive a day with children, the green smoothie weaselled its way into my routine.

According to my research, there are at least a million recipes for green smoothies. About 999,992 of them start with an entire banana. In my mind, there’s a 20 second window during which a banana is suitably edible and by the time you’re done peeling it, those 20 seconds are up. Other options included tofu (don't get me started) or recipes that aim to include an army of powders, seeds and potions. I don’t have the patience to open that many containers before 7am. Grass-fed collagen be damned.

So I made up my own. It remains quite simple and remarkably tasty. The almond milk adds some creaminess to the mix. The beet crystals give it a hint of sweetness and a beautiful colour. My three-year-old asked to taste it—the guy who picks vegetables out of vegetable soup—and he actually liked it. He is my litmus test for palatability. If he will eat it, it has to be good. Mind you, he also likes mustard on macaroni and cheese, so maybe I'm off on my assessment of his sophisticated palate. 

I've been drinking this for a few weeks, and now find myself waking up favourably to the idea of a liquid breakfast. The other bonus is that it forces me to drink at least some water, something I have been known to eschew.

The Not-Green Green Smoothie 2 cups of kale (off the stem - no one’s body needs to fight that demon) 1/3 cup frozen sliced strawberries 1/4 cup frozen raspberries 1 tbsp chia seeds 1 tbsp beet crystals 1.5 tbsp pumpkin seed protein powder* Splash of vanilla Shake of cinnamon Almond milk** Water, depending on desired thickness and the willingness of your blender

Do I need to tell you to put all this stuff in a a Vitamix? I tried putting it in the Magic Bullet and all I got was a watery mess of chopped kale. I didn’t think I had issues with texture until that vile concoction landed on my tongue.

*This is the simplest of protein powders. It doesn’t have much of an imposing flavour and it delivers 9.5 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat in a 55 calorie serving.

**I like Califia and I just noticed they have a Toasted Coconut Almond Milk flavour that I might just have to go crazy over. I just have to find a store that stocks it since they don’t ship to Canada. Sad face.

Muffins for the masses

Back when I used to eat gluten, these glorious goodies could be seen making the trip to my mouth on a regular basis. My good friend, Christine, brought me a batch not long after we got home from the hospital with our first burrito. They have been a staple in our house ever since.

They smell so good coming out of the oven, I am often tempted to throw caution to the wind and inhale one on the spot. Then I remember how nice it is to not look five months pregnant (since I'm not) and I walk away. 

The original recipe had things like white sugar, white flour and canola oil. True to form, Chris gave them a nutritional makeover with no resulting impact on their popularity. Not only are they healthy, they are dead easy to make—so much so that I’ve been able to get over myself and let the kids help.

In keeping with that, they are also forgiving (the muffins, not the kids). Today, for example, we added an extra egg because heaven forbid one child gets to crack and egg and the other does not. Then I accidentally governed the addition of an extra half-cup of flour. No tantrums were thrown upon consumption so I’m assuming everything worked out fine.

Branana Chocolate Chip Muffins 1 cup mashed ripe banana (about three medium) 1 egg 1/2 cup apple sauce 1/2 cup wheat bran 1 tsp vanilla 1 tsp baking powder 1 tsp baking soda 1 tsp salt 1 cup whole wheat flour 1/2 cup chocolate chips

We just add all the ingredients into one bowl—in this order—then bake at 350˚F until a pokey thing comes out clean. I think it’s around 15 minutes. I usually forget to set a timer then remember I’m baking muffins right around the time they’re done. This is my version of living on the edge.

These can easily be made gluten-free by omitting the bran (or replacing it with a gluten-free oat bran) and substituting an all-purpose gluten-free flour. If you go ahead without the bran, add an extra quarter-cup of flour. I find gluten-free flours need extra moisture so you may need to add an extra egg (perfect if you are baking with two kids) or more apple sauce.

I will say, they don't keep as nicely when they lack gluten. This is rarely a problem since having muffins around that I can eat usually results in me eating most of the muffins. Hence why I usually make them with gluten. It's my willpower's safety net.

Lastly, if you don’t have a silicone muffin tin, go get one post haste. They are glorious. Since getting ours, we no longer leave the muffin tin soaking in the sink waiting to see which one of us will stop pretending it doesn’t exist.

Defiance of the self-defeating sort


According to new conventional wisdom, menu planning is the key to modern domestic bliss. In the absence of cloning machines that would allow us to successfully cook, clean, entertain children and be good partners all while making good coin, this one little task is a supposed godsend. After all, staring into the refrigerator has never resulted in a roast chicken jumping into my hands, and if it did, I’d probably throw the chicken out.

I have read many an article that would lead me to believe this parent/partner thing is dead easy for people who have their shit together. It should only take 20 minutes to come up with seven well-balanced meals that everyone will enjoy. Then we’re off and back from the store before our precious bundles have realized it’s time to wreck havoc. We've probably even managed to teach them about macroeconomics while we were gone.

In my experience, this is complete bullshit.

I have been known to go on menu planning kicks. I sit on the floor of the pantry, amongst the vacuum-immune cracker crumbs, and dive into my glorious cookbooks. I sift through recipes looking for meals that speak to my seasonal palate all while imploring my husband to manage the children while I solve our dietary dilemmas.

I don’t just plan a week, I plan a whole month. I don’t just plan dinners, I plan meals that can be repurposed for something totally different the next day or made into beautiful scenes on a melamine plate. I cross-reference what’s in the pantry and the freezer and make side notes for the produce I’ll need to purchase at the beginning of each week. Most importantly, I make sure there is no repetition, other than Fridays when the kids eat pizza and we have our post-bedtime take-out date.

Yes, I realize this means I need to get out more. But it is a work of art, I tell you. I could probably sell these puppies if I had nicer handwriting or any skills in graphic design. At least then I would know someone would use them. I, on the other hand, seem unable to take direction, even from myself. As soon as I’m done, I look to see what’s on for that night and immediately think, "Screw you, menu! I’ll cook whatever I damn well please.”

It makes me wonder whether housewives in the 1950’s faced the same issues while sipping bourbon and dropping cigarette ashes into hideous globs of blown glass. I have this notion that life was easier back then. People didn’t worry about expanding their children’s palates or making sure they ate kale and quinoa. They worried about getting the kids fed and off to bed so they could sip more bourbon and play Yahtzee with the neighbours.

“Let’s see, should we have meat and potatoes, tuna casserole or something encased in Jello?”

A wiser soul once suggested that instead of planning meals for each day, I should make a list of meals that are easily achieved. That way, I can maintain my strange, the-dude-does-not-abide mentality without having to search the entire Internet for an acceptably enticing way to prepare chicken and rice.

Again, the notion failed. For, along with my distaste for authority, I also eschew predictability. Food is the culinary version of music. There are only so many notes in the scale and yet somehow people continually compose music we’ve never heard. Remaking food we’ve already tried would be like putting the same album on repeat from now until acid wash is back in style (please tell me it isn’t back in style).

Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you I’ve come to a fabulous solution but sadly, I have not. I generally start thinking about dinner when the chill of the toilet seat brings me into consciousness every morning, then procrastinate throughout the day until it’s too late to do much more than mezze (fancy word for veggies, hummus, olives and whatever else looks promising). Perhaps one of these days I’ll get my shit together and realize how easy this gig really is. Until then, I have a well-planned and blatantly ignored menu ready for anyone willing to show it some love.