The NEW My Nourish Mentor is LIVE!

Oh my goodness. I am so excited to post this I can’t even stand it. Y’all probably know that I launched the pilot of a small group coaching program called My Nourish Mentor about a year ago. And it’s been incredible. Nearly everyone who has gone through it has achieved their goals, 90% lost weight, and most improved their overall “relationship” with food by roughly 20% (yep, we track that).

But as gratifying as it’s been to walk with peeps on this journey, it’s been disheartening to have so many others say no to such a life-changing opportunity. So I decided that, gosh darn it, I’d ask and ask and ask every time I got a “no” so I could reshape My Nourish Mentor into a program that didn’t just get a yes … but a YES. And, I’m getting a little verklempt, I think we’ve got it.

My Nourish Mentor is now:

  • 12 weeks long (start with Level I, move on to Level II if you’re inclined)
  • entirely online (be as involved or as quiet as you want to be on the member forum area)
  • $49/month!

Approachable, affordable, doable. It’s 12 weeks that will transform the way you look at food, the way you eat, the way you feel, and the way you feed your family and connect with your community. Yes, you’ll likely end up losing weight. Yes, you’ll end up healthier. But My Nourish Mentor goes far beyond a traditional weight loss program or nutrition class.

So if you find yourself having conversations like these:

  • “I am so OVER not being able to eat what I want! I can’t do diets any more!”
  • “Do I really need to buy these (organic) carrots?”
  • “When I lose these last 20 pounds, life will be …”
  • “What kind of fish was on the green list?”
  • “My kids absolutely will not eat vegetables.”
  • “I don’t know what to believe about ‘nutrition’ … what’s good for me one day is doom the next.”
  • “Great that my doctor just told me I need to eat a healthier diet or go on medication forever … now how the heck do I do that?”

Know that, 12 weeks from now, you’ll be enjoying peace of mind as much as you will what’s on your plate.

Here’s what you’ll learn in My Nourish Mentor:

Week 1: One key practice that will change everything … the way you think about food, the way you buy food, the way you eat food and more

Week 2: Get the tools in your kitchen to where they’re working for you–without spending as much as you think

Week 3: How to stack the odds towards eating healthy by stocking a healthy pantry

Week 4: How to get more pleasure … while eating less

Week 5: How to prioritize what matters most to you

Week 6: Techniques to make veggies so irresistible your kids will snap them off the plate

Week 7: How to shrink your “foodshed” and find foods grown, raised and produced near you

Week 8: All about the great big world of whole grains (there’s so much more than brown rice!)

Week 9: Which fats our bodies need; what kinds of oils to buy and how to use them in the kitchen

Week 10: How to balance the budget when you’re spending more on healthy, sustainable food

Week 11: How to foolproof your week against take-out and microwave meals

Week 12: How to make the big leap into enjoying what you eat

Each week, the carefully-crafted curriculum solidifies learnings through experience, so you internalize it as part of you. My Nourish Mentor gradually shifts your paradigms and empowers you to make smart choices–and enjoy making them–rather than dictating what to do. The result? Profound. You’ll feel better about your body–and the food you eat–than you’ve ever felt before … and the transformation will last a lifetime.

Are you ready?

I hope to see you in My Nourish Mentor!

PS — If you’re not ready, shoot me an e-mail and let me know why. Lia (at) nourishnetwork (dot) com. I’d love to hear!

GE and Organic: Is Coexistence Possible?

The first two months of 2011 have been busy for the USDA when it comes to approving genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified organisms or GMO) crops. At the end of January, the agency deregulated GE Roundup Ready alfalfa, followed a week later by the partial deregulation of GE sugar beets and deregulation of GE ethanol corn a week after that. Approval of GE alfalfa, in particular, created a firestorm of controversy in the organic community.

ge-gmo-organic-coexistIn December, when the USDA was considering deregulating GE alfalfa, the agency organized a “coexistence forum” for the various stakeholders to discuss measures to safeguard organic and non-GE conventional alfalfa while at the same time allowing farmers to grow the GE stuff. Attendees included representatives from the USDA, members of NGOs (among them, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety and the Cornucopia Institute), industry groups (such as the Biotech Industry Organization and the Organic Trade Association) and industry members (Monsanto, alongside Stonyfield Farm, Whole Foods and others).

At the time, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made it clear that biotech crops are here to stay. “We see biotechnology as a key component of U.S. ag production, and a powerful means to increase agricultural productivity, as well as sustainability and resilience to climate,” he told attendees. “At the same time, there must be a recognition that the organic sector is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Participation of some of the organic industry’s biggest players led Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, to label them “Monsanto’s Minions.” Stonyfield’s CEO Gary Hirshberg countered that since the USDA was going to deregulate GE alfalfa anyway, it was crucial for organic interests to be represented as the USDA considers coexistence. That didn’t stop Hirshberg and others who were at the USDA meeting from later signing the “We Stand United in Opposition of GE Alfalfa” petition, which calls the USDA “a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops.”

When the USDA approved GE alfalfa, it released its plans to foster “constructive coexistence.” Measures include steps to preserve the purity of non-GE alfalfa seed, developing stewardship practices to prevent contamination and “assisting cooperation” among GE and non-GE alfalfa producers. There’s no timeline attached to these measures, and it’s unclear what kind of role the USDA might play in monitoring and enforcing any policies beyond research, advice and voluntary audits–or how those policies might apply to other crops. In the meantime millions of acres are being planted with GE crops. For example, the USDA is allowing GE sugar beets to be planted even though the final Environmental Impact Statement isn’t due until next year.

One question that stands out is whether such coexistence is practical.

“That depends on what you mean by ‘coexistence,’” says Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a member of the board of directors for the Organic Seed Alliance. He also participated in the USDA’s December meeting on GE alfalfa. “If one means that both varieties (GMO and organic) can exist on the same planet without any cross-contamination, then the answer is clearly is ‘no.’ One cannot isolate a living organism in nature.

“Proposing coexistence based on no contamination isn’t feasible, since that genie is already out of the bottle.”

Kirschenmann says that leaves “coexistence” based on planting crops far enough apart to minimize contamination, compensating organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by GMOs and, of course, the cooperation of all the concerned parties. But just the idea of planting GE crops far enough apart is daunting.

“There would need to be strict distance between crops,” says Kirschenmann. “Such distances would need to be established for each crop–insect- and wind-pollinated crops would need much greater distances.” (That would certainly be the case for alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees, as well as corn–another common GE crop–which is wind-pollinated.) Farm equipment, as well as processing, manufacturing and seed facilities, would also need to be strictly segregated, he adds.

The recent deregulation of GE ethanol corn raises additional concerns. That corn is approved for industrial use for biofuel, but it could easily contaminate food corn crops. “There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn,” says Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program. “Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip. In this case, there are no required precautions.”

Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, knows firsthand how easily organic crops can be tainted. In a statement protesting the deregulation of GE alfalfa, he noted that “because bees routinely fly up to five miles from their hives to pollinate plants, it is impossible for farmers to prevent contamination of organic or conventional alfalfa crops from genetically modified pollen.” And because alfalfa is the key feed for organic dairy cows, that threatens the integrity of all organic dairy products.

Straus Family Creamery began voluntarily testing organic cattle feed for GMOs in 2006 after discovering it had purchased some organic feed that had been inadvertently contaminated.

GE crops come with serious environmental and potential health concerns. But ultimately, says Kirschenbaum, the issue boils down to property law. “Property rights work two ways: In this case, farmers have the right to use their property to grow GMO crops. On the other hand, organic and non-GMO farmers have the right to grow crops without being interfered with by GMO crops. Courts have waxed and waned on such issues, so it’s difficult to tell how the Supreme Court would rule.”

What You Can Do

Oppose GE crops? Here are some steps you can take:

  • Buy certified-organic food. According to the USDA’s standards, certified organic food cannot contain GMOs.
  • Look for products with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. These have been tested and vetted by a third party to be GMO-free. (This is the verification program used by Straus Family Creamery.)
  • Support the Center for Food Safety’s legal fund to challenge GE crops in the courts.They’re suing the USDA for deregulating alfalfa.
  • Lodge your protest with the White House through Food & Water Watch.
  • Contact your representatives in the House and Senate to voice your opposition to GMOs. It’s working in the case of GE salmon–in recent weeks, bills to block the fish have been introduced in the House and Senate. [UPDATE: As of October 2013, it looks like the FDA is set to approve sale of the GE fish.]
  • Let your favorite retailers know that you prefer GMO-free food. Consumer activism may go a long way toward keeping GMOs off store shelves, as in the case of Friends of the Earth’s Campaign for GE-Free Seafood.

Community Supported … Pasture?

It’s inevitable. As people learn more about where their food comes from and start to shift their buying habits from whatever’s on the shelf to more deliberate, sustainable choices, they run up against a wall. Where do I find the foods I can feel good about? Happily, in many communities, local food now offers pasture-raised chicken, grass-fed beef, and sustainably raised pork.


Farmers’ markets, CSAs and even community gardens abound these days, offering an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce. From December, 2001 to July, 2005, the number of reported CSA farms rose from 761 to 1,144, an increase of roughly 50 percent. And here’s some more good news: There’s a burgeoning movement on the meat front too.

A growing number of CSA farms are expanding beyond produce to offer meat, poultry and eggs from the pasture. Part of the reason is just smart business; farmers are diversifying their product mix. Another driver for many farmers is the desire to create the closed-loop system that agriculture was meant to be.

What do I mean by that? To explain, I’ll borrow an illustration that Wes Jackson of The Land Institute used when I saw him speak at a conference a couple of years back. He popped a slide of Norman Rockwell’s “Visit From a County Agent” illustration up on screen and then articulated how it encapsulated all the elements that make agriculture work.

Right off the bat, you can see that there are a variety of animals in the photo, and each has its purpose. The cats catch the mice. The dogs ward off predators. The chickens lay eggs and produce poultry. The cows produce milk and meat.

But that’s just the surface. Jackson also pointed out that the chicken and cows were essential for more than just their eggs, milk and meat. Their manure was the gold the land needed to grow the crops that fed the livestock and the family.

There’s your closed loop. Waste from the animals to fertilize the fields to grow the crops to feed the livestock and the family … and on back around again. Compare that to monoculture crops and feedlot cattle—the two ends of the spectrum in a ruptured farming system—where synthetic fertilizer must be purchased to grow the crops, and excess waste from cattle creates toxic cesspools.

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma or watched FRESH or Food, Inc., the concept of a closed-loop farming system isn’t new to you (nowadays we call it polyculture). What is new, to bring us back around to the topic of this post, is the fact that it’s inspiring more and more small farmers to expand beyond just crops.

Some, like Dearing Country Farms in Illinois, have expanded their CSA produce offerings ($330 for roughly five months of produce) to eggs and chickens ($700 for produce plus a chicken and a dozen eggs each week). Others, like Oregon’s Inspiration Plantation’s “CSP” (Community Supported Pasture), focus strictly on meat; in this case, chicken, turkey, lamb and pork.

As rosy at it may seem to jump into a meat CSA, there are challenges for both farmer and consumer. The first is the added complication and cost of processing; in order to be sold commercially, meat must be processed in a USDA-certified facility. Second is the fact that meat is highly perishable and must be stored—and sold—frozen. Third is a matter of scale: A cow is a lot larger than a head of cauliflower. What’s easiest for the farmer, to sell a side of beef, for instance, is not the most convenient for the customer … unless you happen to have a very large, empty freezer and a penchant for cooking nose to toes. But I’ve found that that’s changing. Most of the meat CSA options I run across nowadays focus on primal cuts and sausages.

So where, you ask—you plead—can you find a meat CSA? The best source I’ve found for direct-to-consumer meat is You have to cull through the listings in each state to find those near you, but it’s worth it for the range it offers. Other resources are and

Don’t forget one of the major benefits of joining any CSA … to get to know the people who grow, or in this case raise, your food. Who knows, maybe they’re fans of Norman Rockwell.

Seasonality Out of Season

It’s all fine and dandy to talk about seasonality in the peak of summer, when tomatoes and eggplant and such are bursting on the vine. It’s another thing entirely to talk about seasonality when your landscape has been white for over a month. What you do when foods you love are out of season?

It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that “seasonal” and “local” go hand in hand. Seasonal climates are dictated by local geography. If you’re striving to eat seasonally and are buying strawberries in January, for instance, then you’d better be living in Baja California. But there are more options to choose from than you might think, no matter where you live. Here’s how to stay seasonal even during the most challenging times of the year.

Seasonability out of season

Cold-Weather Crops

The first, most obvious step, of eating seasonally is knowing which fresh crops grow when where you live. Leeks, Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower, for instance, grow in cold weather around the country, along with root vegetables like parsnips, celery root and potatoes. In warmer climes, like California and Florida, citrus are in full force (our neighbor’s orange tree tempts me all day long!). And I just found out, surprise surprise, that kiwi grow abundantly well here where I live.

From kale to spinach, get yo’ greens>

Stored Crops

Long before there were refrigerators, there were root cellars; cool, dark subterranean rooms where families stored their late fall and early winter harvest to use throughout the winter. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, late-harvest apples, winter squash and onions store for months, as do root vegetables like carrots, rutabaga, beets and turnips.

Not sure what the heck do with those turnips? Here are 10 ways to cook with root vegetables>

Indoor Crops

Some crops, like tomatoes, need a lot of artificial heat and light to grow during the winter. Others, like lettuce, arugula, mustard and mushrooms, will thrive with a bit of protection and amplified sunlight (which the glass of a greenhouse provides). So a head of butter lettuce might well be locally grown in winter even in upstate New York.

Preserved Crops

You may not think of preserved crops as “seasonal,” but I would argue that they are. In the past, preserves played an important role of spreading the abundance of a bountiful season across a sparser one. Crops preserved in fall and summer are meant to be enjoyed during the cold winter months. Look for locally made sauerkraut, pickles and preserves, as well as dried peppers, beans and mushrooms.

Frozen Crops

The same principle that applies to preserved crops extends to your freezer, if you grow your own fruits and vegetables (or if you buy a boatload at the farmers market). We love using our No Work Slow Roasted Tomatoes (I just made a killer crostini topping with them the other night) clear up until there are fresh ones on the vine again. Corn, peas, cauliflower and berries (like blueberries, blackberries and cranberries) also freeze beautifully.

It’s worth noting that just because a fruit or vegetable is in season near you doesn’t mean that what’s on the grocery store shelves was actually grown nearby. Check labels or, better yet, join a winter CSA. Enterprising farms (yes, even in places like Vermont and Minnesota) combine a mix of all the above to offer an inspiring selection during even the coldest months.

Not sure if a CSA is right for you? Check out our CSA 101 guide>

Waste Not: 5 Steps to Skip Food Waste

The first day of the new year found me cleaning out the refrigerator, evaluating produce, sniffing the last of a bottle of cream, examining cheese. After a busy holiday season of cooking, things had piled up. Some of it could be used. Much of it couldn’t. Let’s just say it was an object lesson in food waste.waste-not-food-waste

I’m not alone in this, as food waste expert and blogger Jonathan Bloom details in his new book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (DaCapo Press). Collectively, we toss an estimated 40% of our food, including a third of our vegetables. Food scraps are our second largest source of waste–and a significant source of greenhouse gasses.

Such food waste is as hard on your wallet, too. The USDA estimates that the average family of four throws away $2,275 worth of the food every year (or, more accurately, sends it down the drain since 75% of wasted food disappears down America’s garbage disposers).

Waste occurs throughout the food system, of course, from the farm (where less-than-perfect-looking produce is left behind in the field) to supermarkets (which dump tons of food past its sell-by date) to restaurants. But your own kitchen is the best place to start addressing the issue of food waste. As with so many goals, small steps yield powerful results.

“The most important step we can take to trim our home food waste is to shop smarter,” says Bloom. “Most of us buy too many fresh foods, making it difficult to use everything before it goes bad. Planning meals, writing detailed shopping lists and making smaller, more frequent shopping trips can all go a long way toward minimizing this problem.”

With that in mind, here are 5 strategies drawn from Bloom’s book:

Plan ahead. We’ve talked about the beauty of planning meals for a healthier diet. It’s also a key strategy to reduce kitchen waste, says Bloom. Start by planning meals to use up what you already have on hand in the fridge and pantry. If you need to buy ingredients for a specific recipe–especially items you’re not in the habit of using regularly–consider how you can use them up. Extra herbs can go into pesto, leftover buttermilk is great in baked goods or salad dressing, day-old bread is delicious in bread pudding and so forth. As always, make a list and stick to it.

Avoid impulse purchases. From special end-of-aisle promotions to deep discounts on items approaching their sell-by dates, stores are cunningly designed to encourage you to buy more food. True, such promotions can be real money-savers–if you actually use them. Otherwise, it’s money down the drain.

Know your dates. These days, all kinds of food is stamped with a “sell by” or “best by” date (sometimes both), which confuse retailers and consumers alike, says Bloom, and lead to unnecessary waste. “Infant formula and some baby foods are the only items required by federal regulations to carry a ‘best-before’ date,” he notes. Otherwise, dates on food lead many consumers to toss tons–literally, tons–of perfectly good food. Properly stored perishables should be fine for at least a week after their sell-by date; nonperishables have an even longer shelf life. Best-by dates are nothing more than a suggestion from the manufacturer. Don’t be afraid to use your senses–if it looks and smells fine, you’re good to go.

Buy whole food. Supermarket produce departments are filled with chopped, grated and otherwise prepped fresh ingredients, which can be welcome time-savers for busy cooks. But prepping ingredients also hastens  deterioration, which shortens their shelf life and leads to waste. Unless you plan to use that whole bag of grated carrots or cubed butternut squash promptly, buy the whole version instead.

Avoid food packaged in bulk. From shrink-wrapped vegetables to prebagged fruit to “value” packs of poultry, the growing trend of prepackaged fresh foods annoys Bloom for two good reasons. 1) When one item in a package goes bad, the whole thing is tossed (stores rarely break up and repackage fresh goods). 2) Shoppers are forced buy more than they want and often end up throwing away the extra.

Instead, shop at venues that allow you to buy only as much you need, whether it’s a farmers’ market that sells loose produce or a store with a full-service butcher and bulk bins so you can buy smaller amounts of dry goods.

Also in this series:
Nourishing Resolutions: Fruit of the Day
Nourishing Resolutions: Plan Ahead in 4 Steps!

Nourishing Issues 2011: The Evolution of Local

This is part 2 in our Nourishing Issues 2011 series, in which we’re spotlighting a few key topics: food safety, local food and nutrition. The list could be much longer, of course, but these are three biggies that we’re sure to revisit throughout the year.

At NOURISH Evolution, we’re all about enjoying local food. It’s fresh, seasonal, inspiring fare that supports farmers in your community and a safe, sustainable food system. But over the last few months, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the local-food movement.

There are certainly many signs of local food going mainstream. Overall, that’s a good thing, because it encourages continued growth of local production. It’s a top trend among chefs, according to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2011” chef survey in which locally sourced meat, seafood and produce topped the list (closely followed by sustainability). That’s hardly surprising when you consider a Penn State University study that found diners are willing to pay almost 20% more for dishes made with local fare.

Local food has become such a hot-button issue that large corporations are looking for ways to jump on the bandwagon. Last year, McDonalds worked with the Italian government to create the “McItaly” burger made with 100% beef sourced from within Italy. Italian critics were not impressed–hardly a surprising reaction in the country that birthed the Slow Food Movement when McDonalds opened in the heart of Rome 20 years ago. Here at home, the fast-food giant launched its From Here microsite to show Washington State patrons how much of their Happy Meals are sourced within the state, including potatoes, apples, milk and fish. But it doesn’t address questions like whether that 43 million pounds of Pacific Northwest fish is sustainably sourced, which prompted accusations of localwashing.

Last fall, America’s mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced a global initiative to source more produce from small- and medium-size farmers, pledging to double sales of locally sourced crops in the U.S. alone. How this will play out for farmers and consumers remains to be seen. One question that comes to my mind is whether farmers will get fair prices for their goods. Wal-Mart is known for driving hard bargains with its vendors in order to ensure rock-bottom prices for patrons.

We’ve also seen outright abuses of the local-food trend. A few months ago, we reported on Los Angeles-area farmers’ market vendors caught selling wholesale warehouse-sourced produce (from as far away as Mexico) as “local.” Stunts like these make consumers confused and wary, and could undermine reputable local growers.

Of course, “local” is a loosely defined term when it comes to food. The Locavore movement, which launched in San Francisco in 2005, defined it as food that was grown and harvested within a 100-mile radius of where you live. But the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act adopted by Congress is much broader, defining “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as being sold within less than 400 miles from its origin or within the state in which it is produced. In large states like Texas or California, that means your food can come from much farther than 400 miles and still be considered local or regional. Hmm, by that definition, the Los Angeles farmers’ market vendors selling produce from Mexico might, technically, have been selling regional food, even if shoppers didn’t agree.

But the expansion of “local” to embrace regional isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Barry Estabrook noted in his Politics of the Plate blog, a strong regional food system may be the most realistic and sustainable solution. And, really, when it comes down to it, we support anything that brings safe, sustainable, affordable food to America’s tables, whether it’s as local as your own back garden or sustainably produced fare from your region.

Also in this series:

What Will It Take to Make Our Food Safe?

What’s Food Safety Really About?

Back in 2011, President Obama signed the long-awaited–and much-needed–Food Safety Modernization Act into law. The act updated America’s food safety system for the first time since the Great Depression and “represents a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention,” noted Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of food and drugs at the Food and Drug Administration.


Now the FDA has the authority to enforce food safety measures domestically and internationally, including mandating food recalls (before, recalls were voluntary) and blocking food imported from countries or producers who refuse FDA inspections. As Hamburg notes, half of our fresh fruit, 20% of of our vegetables and 80% of our seafood is imported. However, lack of funding has made implementing measures in the act slow at best.

An avalanche of high-profile food recalls in 2010 may have encouraged lawmakers to pass the act. From the nationwide recall that reclaimed more than a half-billion eggs through a recall of potentially tainted baked goods sold at Whole Foods, 2010 may go down as the year of the food recall. As Kurt noted in his commentary about the egg recall, large-scale industrially cultivated food that’s distributed nationwide can create nationwide food-safety problems.

The real fight is just beginning, says Marion Nestle, author of Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press), because Republican lawmakers have repeatedly balked at appropriating the estimated $1.4 billion needed to implement the law’s measures. Without the money, the law won’t have teeth. That’s bad news for the 1 in 6 Americans who are sickened by food-borne illnesses every year (not to mention the 3,000 killed by tainted food), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the meantime, Bill Marler, an attorney who has devoted his career to litigating foodborne illness cases (starting with the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993), predicts that despite the new law “2011 may well look like many of the years before to me – more outbreaks, more suffering and more lawsuits.”

A Perfect Table Setting, Made Easy

I fashioned elf boots out of napkins today. That’s them, in the picture below. Ain’t they cute? I’m not the handicraft-y type (despite Lia’s insistence last spring that I decorate Easter eggs and write about it), so these adorable elf boot napkins really are examples of if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you.

The only person in the world who could get me excited about performing the oragami to fold a napkin into a bootie is Denise Vivaldo, author of Perfect Table Settings: Hundreds of Easy Ideas for Napkin Folds and Table Arrangements (Robert Rose). She’s a top-notch food stylist–meaning her job is to make food look mouthwatering, and a big part of that is creating gorgeous table settings to showcase that food. Prior to food styling, Vivaldo ran a successful catering business in Los Angeles, where she created stylish events for celebrity clients. But, she points out, big-name clients didn’t always have big-time budgets.

“When we had low-budget parties, sometimes all we had for decor on the table was the napkin folds,” Vivaldo chuckles. “The cheapest way is to set a nice table is to have a set of cloth napkins and change the fold.”

Everything in Perfect Table Settings, from the 100 napkin folds (ranging from the super-easy Simple Upright to the advanced Elf Boot) is designed to offer affordable, real-world solutions to balance the often unrealistic expectations created by the many cooking and home style shows on TV. As a behind-the-scenes stylist, Vivaldo confesses to helping create some of those “simple” projects, and to some degree, this book helps atone for that. Unlike many of the crazy crafts she was charged with styling for some of the best-known personalities on TV, the strategies in this book are “supposed to be achievable for people.”

And they are, as evidenced by the fact that even I could turn a plain red napkin into the Elf Boot, thanks to the clear instructions and step-by-step photos in Vivaldo’s book. As I twisted and folded and flipped napkins, I couldn’t help thinking that if she tires of food styling Vivaldo should write instructions for assembling Ikea furniture (after, of course, penning a tell-all book about the many crazy characters with whom she’s worked over the years).

Since many of us want to set a festive table with panache this time of year, here are 5 tips from Vivaldo to create a gorgeous table for the holidays and everyday.

Opt for cloth. “There’s nothing easier or greener than investing in two sets of cloth napkins for your family,” says Vivaldo. If you want to experiment with different folds, 20-inch square napkins are your best bet. The fabric depends on your preference–100% cotton is great for everyday use, though a cotton-polyester blend tends to hold its color better and won’t need ironing.

Use napkin rings. These add style and sparkle to a table, but they originated with a practical purpose. “Napkin rings were meant to identify a napkin as yours so it  didn’t have to laundered every day,” says Vivaldo. Her suggestion: Buy a set of animal-theme napkin rings and assign a different critter for each family member to use for his or her napkin.

Go monochromatic. Pick a hue you love and stick with it. “Mixing colors is much harder than staying with one color,” says Vivaldo. One of her favorite themes is an all-white brunch. “It’s beautiful, because the food really pops on those inexpensive white dishes.”

Decorate with what you have. “You don’t have to buy an expensive flower arrangement to have a good-looking table,” she says. Instead, she’ll scavenge her yard for interesting and seasonal greenery–magnolia leaves are a favorite (“I use the gold side up, and with a few gold ornaments, they couldn’t be more beautiful”). She also suggests creating a simple, low-profile centerpiece with pillar candles and scattering seasonal fruit down the center of the table as a runner. Clove-studded oranges are lovely this time of year; so are pears.

Get out the fine china–but don’t worry if everything doesn’t match. If you’re missing a few pieces from Grandma’s china set, so what? Round it out with clear glass or simple white dishes. “They’ll work with everything on your table and won’t become dated. Any kind of glass adds some sparkle and pizzazz.” She’s also a fan of silver or gold chargers. “They’re not expensive and they totally dress up the table.”

Ultimately, Vivaldo’s recipe for a pretty table is simple: Mix some of your best china with some newer pieces and nicely folded napkins. Garnish with a few natural, seasonal touches. This time of year, she says, “Setting a table is as much of a tradition as the food you’re serving.”


Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts

Considering Bison, the Other Red Meat

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when I started reducing my red meat consumption, but I know it happened sometime between the 1970s and yesterday. A lifelong meat eater, I simply realized that I’d been choosing red meat almost as a default, but when I stopped to think about it, my enthusiasm for cooking, eating and serving vegetables, fruits, whole grains, leaner meats and fish outpaced my desire for red meat.

I still eat red meat, for sure, but far less of it, and I purchase it much more thoughtfully. This has led me to grass-fed bison, a red meat source touted for its nutritional, environmental and historical distinctiveness.

Research into bison invariably leads to some confusion over naming conventions: Some ranchers refer to their animals as bison and their meat as buffalo. Others do the reverse.  “The terminology on the Native American reservations next to us is ‘bison’ on the hoof, ‘buffalo’ on the plate,” says Jill Maguire of Wild Idea Buffalo Co. in South Dakota. Many retailers and consumers use the two terms interchangeably.

Exploitation and conservation

Up to 60 million bison once thrived in the Great Plains. By the late 19th century, however, Europeans and Americans had so exploited the species that their numbers dropped precipitously, and by the 1890s, there were only hundreds left. Conservationist and governmental efforts to save the animals then kicked in, and by the early 20th century, the numbers began to recover, albeit slowly.

Environmental advantage

With a species’ very survival in question, an argument to save the animals by raising them for food may seem counterintuitive. But Maguire offers a convincing explanation for how grass-fed cultivation can help: “Our lands are constantly under threat from the plow to plant corn and soybeans as food for cows, and for buffalo. But they’re not supposed to eat corn; they’re supposed to eat grass, and when you start eliminating their habitat, they become crowded out.”

If not for the grass-fed bison industry, the theory goes, more of the heartland would be turned over to subsidized crop production – crops that, in turn, would be used to support industrial feedlots.

If not for the grass-fed bison industry, the theory goes, more of the heartland would be turned over to subsidized crop production – crops that, in turn, would be used to support industrial feedlots. (The vast majority of the nation’s cattle and buffalo are raised in the feedlot model, Maguire says.) When ranchers instead use this land to graze wild buffalo, they produce a meat source that’s more sustainable and environmentally sound than the industrially produced alternatives. (Wild Idea also slaughters its buffalo in the field and has earned an American Humane Association certification. Because the animals suffer less trauma and release fewer stress hormones when field harvested, the theory goes, their meat tastes sweeter.)

Nutritional benefits

Nutritionally speaking, grass-fed bison has a bit of edge over beef. Grass-fed ground bison has roughly 25 percent fewer calories and half the saturated fat of grass-fed ground beef.

Grass-fed meats, whether beef or buffalo, are also good sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, thanks to the natural composition of the wild grasses on which they graze. Keep in mind that, like beef, bison can be either grass-fed, grass-fed and grain-finished, or grain-fed. Depending where you shop, you’re more likely to come across industrially raised, grain-fed buffalo. If you want the health and environmental benefits of grass-fed bison, be sure to verify how the meat was raised before you pull out your wallet.

In general, you’ll probably pay about the same, or slightly more, for bison than for beef, though it’s not always a straight comparison. Some markets, like Whole Foods in Northern California, sell grass-fed beef, while their buffalo is grass-fed but grain-finished. Prices are roughly comparable, though many more beef cuts are available.

Smart Cooking Tips

Chef Forrest Waldo of Colorado-based High Plains Bison offers the following tips on bison cookery:

  1. Due to its leanness and relative lack of intramuscular fat, bison steaks and roasts require “one-third less heat and one-third less cook-time” than beef. In braises and stews, cook time may be more comparable.
  2. For best results, serve bison medium or medium-rare, rather than well done.
  3. As with other large cuts of meat, always let bison rest before slicing.  This will ensure that the juices properly redistribute throughout the meat so it’s moist, tender and delicious.

Feel free to swap bison for beef in your favorite recipes, whether burgers, chili, burritos, stews or steaks. As demand increases, more cuts are likely to become available, but for now, you may be able to find ground bison, New York steaks, tri-tips, bottom rounds, top rounds, sirloins, stew meat and more, depending on your location and the size of your market.  If you don’t see what you want, ask for it.

Buffalo Carbonnade
Buffalo Blue Burgers with Celery Slaw

Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.

Alphabet Soup: The Lastest News on BPA

I recently found myself in the grocery store dithering over one of my favorite pantry staples: Canned tomatoes. I knew the canned versions come with a sidecar of bisphenol A (BPA), a substance with some serious health risks. Lia touched on those concerns when she wrote about the challenges of finding BPA-free containers for Noemi’s school lunch. And in recent months, there has been some news on the BPA front.

bpa-bisphenol-a-canWidespread use, widespread risk

BPA is an organic compound used to harden plastics for water bottles, baby bottles, the lining of canned goods and all manner of plastic goods. It leaches into water and food, and it has been used in food cans for more than 50 years. BPA is detectable in the urine of 93% of the population, according to some estimates.

The problem? BPA mimics estrogen in the body and is thought to disrupt hormone function. The President’s Cancer Panel’s recent Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk report notes that a broad range of studies have linked BPA to breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and early puberty (which is why parents are particularly concerned about exposing their kids to the stuff). A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that adults with higher urinary levels of BPA also have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and liver problems. Some studies even suggest it interferes with cancer treatment. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has named BPA among the “dirty dozen” endocrine disruptors to avoid.

The latest news

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration re-evaluated BPA (after declaring it safe in 2008). The agency agreed there’s “reason for some concern” about BPA, but declared the research (most of which has been done on animals) too limited to call for an outright ban on BPA. The FDA and National Institutes of Health are funding $30 million in new research into BPA’s safety–or lack of it.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to add BPA to its Concern List of hazardous chemicals. While the EPA doesn’t have jurisdiction over BPA in food packaging, an EPA ruling would cover, for example, BPA in thermal cash register receipts that you get at the store. [UPDATE: The EPA has since declined to initiate regulatory action regarding BPA, though the agency will continue to monitor research on the effects of BPA on human health.]

While government agencies investigate BPA’s hazards, can manufacturers continue to stand by it. In April, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) issued this statement: “CMI continues strongly to support the use of BPA epoxy coatings and believes our coatings are essential to food safety … Human exposure to BPA from can coatings is minute and poses no health risk that has been recognized by any governmental authority.”

Well, perhaps no American government agency has said outright that BPA is unsafe. But last month, Environment Canada, the Canadian version of the EPA, declared BPA toxic and is considering regulatory action that could be announced by the end of this year.

Consumer demand trumps regulation

In the meantime concerned American shoppers and consumer advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group have prompted food manufacturers and retailers to get BPA out of our food supply. Last month, As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes corporate social responsibility, and Green Century Capital Management, an investment advisory firm that advocates environmentally responsible investing, released their Seeking Safer Packaging 2010 report, which grades companies on their efforts to remove BPA from food packaging.

Hain Celestial, ConAgra and Heinz receive top marks for developing and testing BPA alternatives and starting to remove BPA from can liners;  they also have time lines for eliminating BPA use entirely. General Mills gets a B+ for transitioning BPA out of its Muir Glen canned tomato products, starting with this fall’s tomato pack.

Among retailers’ private-label canned goods evaluated in the report, Whole Foods got the top grade: D+, because although Whole Foods is transparent on its stance regarding BPA–it opposes the stuff, obviously–it’s not actively developing alternatives, according to the report. (The natural foods giant, though, does “strongly encourage” suppliers to transition to BPA-free packaging where possible.)

But using BPA-free cans isn’t new, says Sonya Ludner, senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group. She notes that Eden Organic has used BPA-free cans in the late 1990s for all its canned bean products. Eden simply asked its supplier–Ball Corp.–to use the enamel liners made from vegetable resins that it was using before the introduction of BPA. It’s a solution that works for nonacidic ingredients, but not for acidic items like tomatoes. Manufacturers also are using alternative forms of BPA-free packaging. For instance, you can buy POMI’s tomato products in aseptic boxes or Lucini’s tomatoes packed in glass jars.

As the report’ s authors note, eliminating BPA is a good business move in response to growing consumer concern. “Companies are actually moving faster than regulators in phasing out BPA,” says Emily Stone of Green Century Capital Management.

Amy Galland, As You Sow’s research director, notes that this year 32% of companies have time lines to phase out BPA from packaging, up from just 7% last year.

Ludner says consumer demand, spurred by advocacy efforts by groups like the EWG, is driving this change. “I see a ton of momentum behind this, and I’m thrilled to see some action.”