Heatwave: You’ve Got to Cool It Now…

Variety of popsicles in shop

The heat. The heat. I’m melting.

Welcome to the Heat Dome. What is a heat dome? It’s some meteorological term. But frankly I don’t care. Just make it go away.

We are in Day Three (it’s like a hostage crisis) with heat indexes over 100 degrees, and maybe Texans and Floridians can handle this. But us Midwesterners are about to lose it.

Since I’m holed up in my air-conditioned office, I thought I would provide a community service and list some of my favorite summer survival gear.

There’s a little something for everyone.

Hit the Beach, with frozen Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, grapes (all better frozen IMHO), and some icy cold beverages, toted in these totally cute insulated bags from Ban.do priced at $32-$34.

thenthethreebecomeone

Need something a little bigger for your crew? Maybe everyone can chip in on this little piece of paradise, a cooler with a cool breeze. YASSSSSSS, please. The Icybreez cooler from Wayfair.

shopping

After work last night, I emerged from our sublimely temperature-controlled office, into a blast furnace. The temperature inside my car, which had been baking in the sun all day, was up to a toasty 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Lovely. If I’d planned ahead, I might have thought of one of those old-school reflective shades that roll across your windshield. Instead, I sat down on my black leather seats, and scalded the backs of my thighs. In any event, a hand-held mini-fan, powered by AAA batteries or a USB Cable, really would have come in handy.  They’re available for about $12.00 from Rakuten.

Mini-Cooli-Portable-Air-Conditioner

When I got home, I wasn’t the only one who was feeling the heat. The puppies were feeling it, too. Hopefully, I don’t need to tell anyone how important it is to make sure your pets have access to plenty of fresh water, and that they shouldn’t be left outside for more than 15 minutes, or alone in a car, even with the windows open, at all in this weather. There are several ways to keep your dog cool, with a cooling vest, from Dr.s Smith & Foster or a Pet Cooling Mat for just $19.99 at Target.

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I also found some fabulous coolers for infants and toddlers, Meeno Babies “Cool Mee” Car Seat and Stroller liners with a 3-ply mesh that keeps baby comfy and safe from the heat. At Bed, Bath and Beyond.

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Finally, any time the heat index or real temperature climbs above 100 degrees, it’s no laughing matter. Here are some tips from the Red Cross to make sure you and your loved ones stay safe, when you have to be outdoors.

As for me…I’ll be the one cannon-balling into pool, in 5…4…3…2…

poolfloat

 

 

Smart Perks blogger Melanie Bisson is old enough to have LOVED the song Cool It Now, by the The New Edition back in the day. For you youngsters, that’s a boy band featuring Bobby Brown from the 80s.

 

 

The Perfect Mother’s Day Meal

spring veggies

Was your mother always begging you to “Eat your vegetables!” like mine was? As a kid, I had no interest. Boiled Brussels sprouts and canned green beans? Blegh, no thank you. But between growing up and developing a more nuanced palate and finding new ways to cook vegetables in the current veggie-centric food world, I’ve become a veggie (and fruit!) fiend.

So mama, this one’s for you – here’s your Mother’s Day menu chockfull of those greens and things that abound in spring.

Though technically spring started in March, let’s get real: if you live anywhere in the northern or eastern states, you’re only now getting to really experience this awesome season. The beautiful greenery, fresh flowers, spring vacations, those warm but not hot days, and my favorite part of spring – the produce!

Asparagus, apricots, artichokes, fava beans, leeks, radishes, rhubarb, peas, carrots…  it truly is the best time of year for a fruit and veggie lover like me.

There are so many different options for how to use the spring crop bounty, but where to begin? It feels like for every time I see a new recipe I’m dying to try, the next day I find three new ones, and then they all just get lost in the bookmarks and I never end up making them!

But fear not. You don’t have to suffer the same sad fate as me, where I’ve followed the instructions to a t only to be left with starchy asparagus or smushy peas. Here is a menu collection of my favorite spring recipes – starting with an appetizer, ending with a dessert – that are as tried and true as can be. You won’t be wasting your precious spring veggies and fruits on disastrous recipes…just the absolute best ones.

Appetizer: Cauliflower-Leek Soup

leek soup

Photo from AllRecipes.com

I like this recipe for two reasons: 1) it switches out starchy potatoes for cauliflower, lowering the carb count, and 2) it’s pretty much as simple as sautéing a few ingredients and tossing them in the blender. Although this recipe calls for a warm soup, I actually have preferred serving it chilled, but both work.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 leeks, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large head cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream (optional)

Directions:

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the leeks, cauliflower, and garlic for about 10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable broth, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes.

Remove the soup from heat. Blend the soup with an immersion blender or hand mixer. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in the heavy cream, and continue blending until smooth.

 

Entrée: Crispy Catfish Sandwiches with Quick Cabbage Slaw, Plus Simple Spring Salad

sandwich

Yes, there is a bite taken out of the sandwich. Don’t judge me!

This is a personal recipe I based on a dish I had at a restaurant, and I’ve tweaked it over and over just to my liking. What’s great about it is you could totally substitute another flaky fish if you’d like, or even thin chicken cutlets, and although it is fried, the batter is so light it feels just indulgent enough without being heavy.

Plus, the salad is more than flexible – I’ve swapped radicchio for romaine, fresh French beans for radish, and tried a variety of dressings, though I’m partial to this vinaigrette.

Ingredients:

  • 1-3 whole French baguettes, or individual sub rolls per person depending on size of party
  • 1 catfish fillet per person
  • 1 cup shredded red cabbage
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon creamy Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon each cayenne, garlic powder, onion salt, paprika, and cumin
  • 2 hearts of Romaine (or lettuce of your choice)
  • 4-5 thinly sliced radishes
  • Handful of multicolored halved cherry tomatoes
  • Simple lemon vinaigrette dressing
  • Note: will use extra mayonnaise from side dish in this dish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, 5 tablespoons of water, and half of the spice mixture, plus salt and pepper. In another bowl, mix shredded cabbage, the juice of the lime, the apple cider vinegar and the mustard, stirring well. Then place in fridge. On a dry plate pat the catfish dry. In a nonstick skillet, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan on medium heat. Test the temp of the oil by adding a tiny drop of water; if it sizzles, you’re good to go.

Dredge the catfish in the flour mixture, then add to the nonstick skillet. Cook the catfish 4-7 minutes on each side, checking that it’s not burning or sticking but just turning golden brown and crispy. Once cooked, place on clean, paper towel-lined plate, and season with salt and pepper again.

Cut the bread of your choice, and toast in preheated oven gently, just until edges are turning a warm brown. Add the cleaned romaine (or other lettuce), thinly sliced radishes, and the tomatoes to the plate. Drizzle vinaigrette on top; add a grind or two of fresh black pepper. I like to garnish with finely chopped herbs, such as oregano, chives, or basil, but feel free to leave out.

Spread mayonnaise on toasted bread, add catfish fillet, topping with the quick cabbage slaw and serve warm with the side salad.

Side Dish: A Cozy Kitchen’s Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus_2

Photo from A Cozy Kitchen.

This is an easy to make side that truly stuns (if you like asparagus, that is). Here, we’re doubling the recipe for the hazelnut mayo, adding half to the catfish sandwich. Trust me, it works, but if you have nut allergy concerns, just omit the hazelnuts. Also note: she calls for white asparagus, but I made it with only green and it works wonderfully; though she uses an immersion blender, I’ve used a regular blender and everything turned out fine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole large eggs
  • *1 cup sunflower or grape seed oil (a clean, mild-tasting oil)
  • *1/4 cup hazelnut oil (optional – if not using, then add 3/4 cup sunflower or grape seed oil)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • Salt
  • 3/4 pound green asparagus, washed and ends trimmed
  • 1/4 pound white asparagus, washed, ends trimmed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place hazelnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven to toast for 10 to 15 minutes. Immediately transfer warm hazelnuts to the center of a clean kitchen towel. Wrap the kitchen towel around the hazelnuts and rub them vigorously until all of the skins have fallen off. (A little bit of skin staying on is normal and totally fine.) Set nuts aside to cool.

Meanwhile, add the large eggs, sunflower or grape seed oil, hazelnut oil (if using), juice from lemon, mustard and a few pinches of salt to a tall plastic cylinder (note: most hand immersion blenders come with a tall plastic cylinder for blending). Allow the egg yolk to settle to the bottom. Using a hand immersion blender, stick the blade to the very bottom and blend on high for about 30 seconds; you’ll immediately see the mayonnaise begin to form. Slowly raise the immersion blender near the surface to incorporate all of the oil and until very thick. Salt to taste. In a food processor or using a knife, pulse the hazelnuts until they resemble a coarse meal, about 30 seconds. Add the aioli to the food processor and blend until completely incorporated and smooth(ish).

Preheat the broiler. On a baking sheet (you can use the same one you toasted the hazelnuts on), add the green asparagus in an even layer. Rub the asparagus with the olive oil, lemon juice and a few pinches of salt. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and roast for 5 minutes. At the 5-minute mark, add the white asparagus to the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet back under the broiler and roast for an additional 10 minutes. Serve the asparagus alongside the hazelnut mayonnaise.

Dessert: Smitten Kitchen’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

rhubarb pie

Photo from Smitten Kitchen.

You just have to end your meal on a sweet note. I tend to like more delicate little bits and pieces of treats, but my mom is a pie fanatic. This one perfectly walks the line between sweet and tart. Plus, it can be made up to 3 days in advance and left at room temperature, so you don’t have to worry about dessert the day of.

Ingredients:

  • 1 recipe All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough or double-crust pie dough of your choice
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds, untrimmed) rhubarb, in 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) strawberries, hulled and sliced if big, halved if tiny
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured counter, roll half of pie dough into a 12-inch circle and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. (I like to fold my gently into quarters, to transfer it more easily, then unfold it in the pie plate.)

Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, lemon, salt and tapioca in a large bowl. Mound filling inside bottom pie crust and dot with bits of unsalted butter. Roll second half of pie dough into an 11-inch circle and cut decorative slits in it. Transfer it to center over the pie filling. Trim top and bottom pie dough so that their overhang beyond the pie plate lip is only 1/2-inch. Tuck rim of dough underneath itself and crimp it decoratively.

Transfer pie to a baking sheet and brush egg yolk mixture over dough. Bake for 20 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until the pie is golden and the juices bubble visibly.

Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When full cool (several hours later) the juices gel.

So, just to recap: This menu has cauliflower, leek, cabbage, lettuce, radish, tomatoes, asparagus, lemon, strawberries AND rhubarb. Is that enough veggies (and two fruits!) for you, Mom?

Whether you make this full meal or just some of the recipes, you’re sure to host a home-run Mother’s Day luncheon. Just don’t forget the wine and spritzers!

wine and flowers

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, wishes all mothers a wonderful Mother’s Day.

 

I’m Dreaming of a Good Night’s Sleep

gsleep better concept

Last night I managed to get six hours of sleep, which is pretty good considering most nights I’m lucky to get four hours of shuteye. Health experts recommend eight hours, but unless I’m in a drug-induced coma that’s not going to happen.

For one thing, I’m a light sleeper, so the slightest movement on my husband’s side of the bed can roust me from a deep slumber. It doesn’t help that he sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and Chewbacca when he snores either!

Schnarchen beim Schlafen

Need to find a way to keep Mr. Snorelax from disturbing my slumber!

Sometimes I wake up thirsty so I’ll down a big glass of water and end up making several trips to the bathroom. Then there are the hot flashes (or in this case, night sweats). One moment I feel like I’m lying on a bed of coals, so I kick off my blankets to cool off. The next thing I know I’m shivering like a featherless bird. So, I hang one leg out of the covers and hope for the best. All I can say is, these sleepless nights are making me grumpy and groggy and I’m tired of being tired.

Turns out chronic sleep deprivation is a common problem for a lot of people (especially older adults) and according to Web MD  it can eventually affect your health, weight, mental capacity, work performance, and safety. I’m doomed!

So, I decided to do a little research to find causes and solutions for insomnia. Here are some things we can all do to get a better night’s sleep:

Set a regular bedtime schedule. Go to bed and set your alarm at the same time every day. Dang! I guess that means no more sleeping in on weekends!

Exercise. Even though most experts don’t recommend a strenuous workout right before bed, moderate exercise up to an hour before bedtime helps relax your body and clear your head.

Checking the phone

No smartphones in the bedroom!

Power down your electronic devices. Glowing screens from your smartphone, tablet, laptop, computer, and TV increase brain activity, making you more alert and less likely to fall asleep. They also screw up your body’s ability to produce melatonin (the hormone that induces sleep). So, no texting, Facebooking, or watching the news in bed!  Better yet, banish your mobile devices from the bedroom while you sleep.

Watch what you eat and drink. Stay away from foods that cause heartburn (e.g., tomato-based sauces) and carbs like cookies and chips (they raise your blood sugar level) in the evening. If caffeine affects your sleep, switch to decaf or don’t have any caffeine after noon. I know if I have a Diet Coke or a piece of chocolate after 1:00 p.m., I’m wired all night. Avoid alcohol a few hours before bed too. It may make you sleepy at first, but it also acts like a stimulant, causing you to wake up frequently during the night. Also, no heavy meals or binge-eating at night as it can cause indigestion. If you’re hungry, have a light snack like a small bowl of cereal with milk, a dab of peanut butter on a cracker, or a handful of almonds.

Don’t bring your troubles to bed with you. I admit I’m a worrywart and if I have something on my mind, I tend to toss and turn all night. You, too? Then you need to write down what’s bothering you before you hit the hay and deal with it the next day.

Create a relaxing environment. Block out noise with ear plugs and use shades or blinds to shut out bright lights (or wear a sleep mask). Play soft music or nature sounds to help lull you to sleep (think of it as a lullaby for grown-ups) and try meditating to reduce stress and calm your mind. Click here for meditation techniques you can use to unwind before bed.

Lower your thermostat. Per Sleep.org, the ideal room temp for optimal sleep is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  Make sure your bedroom is well ventilated and insulated too. After all, a room that’s hot and stuffy or cold and drafty is not exactly snooze-worthy.

Check your bedding. If you have trouble getting comfortable in bed or wake up with a sore neck, your pillow may be the problem. If that’s the case, I would suggest a MyPillow®. It’s amazing! Also, make sure your mattress has adequate support and isn’t too hard or soft for your back.

Try natural sleep aids like these:

Chamomile – warm herbal tea is known to relieve anxiety and promote relaxation.

cherryjuice cherryshareTart Cherry Juice – research shows that consuming two glasses a day helps improve the quality of your sleep.

Lavender – the scent has a soothing effect so you fall asleep faster. Make a lavender sachet and place it under your pillow.

Melatonin Supplement – I’ve tried this remedy and it seems to work for the most part, but it’s meant for short-term use. Be sure to read the label before using.

Find more natural sleep aids at everydayroots.com

Now it’s time to catch some zzzzz’s!  Sweet dreams!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. may not get much sleep, but she does have some fascinating dreams. If only she could figure out what they mean.

Which Wearable Works Best for You?

fitbit

Fitbits, FuelBands, Jawbones: We’ve all heard of them, but do you really know how to use them? Or even what they are?

All of the above are just a few examples of different types of wearables, or technology pieces that serve a variety of functions, ranging from monitoring heart rate to playing music. In this case, these are all activity trackers, which are watches that track, well, your activity.

This can be useful for monitoring how many calories you burn, steps you take, and  what your heart rate is. They are especially useful if you’re trying to get in better shape, because you get information on your progress right there on your wrist! You can even wear some of them to sleep and wake up with a little report on what your night was like – how often you were restless, when you were in deep sleep, when exactly you woke up.

Basically, activity trackers are simply a great way to give you feedback on your own body.  Sounds good, right? If you need some help deciding which of the main fitness wearables is best for you, have no fear: here is a roundup of the top performers and why they might be the watch for you!

Fitbit:

fitbit

Probably the most popular of the activity trackers, there are 8 different models to choose from in a range of prices and functions.

Actually, their website has a test you can take to see which one matches your needs most. I have the Charge HR, which is primarily different from some of the others because it monitors your heart rate (hence the HR part), and I absolutely love it.

While I don’t always remember to charge it and sometimes forget to put it on in the morning, whenever I do wear it I love looking at the data. With just a quick push of a button, I’m reminded that I’ve only taken 2,000 steps today – a full 8,000 under the recommended 10,000 to take a day. When I’m exercising, it’s a great motivator to be able to look down and see how many calories you’re burning.

Though some spring for the pricey Fitbit Blaze ($250), for people on a tighter budget, the Charge is just as good and definitely less costly. Plus, it now comes in pink – a great gift for Mother’s Day.

Price: $59.95 – $249.95

Tip: This applies to all activity trackers, not just the Fitbit, but the prices vary significantly from store to store. Definitely shop around before purchasing one!

FuelBand:

fuelband

This sleek device, just like a Fitbit, is worn on your wrist and tracks your activity. How it differs: Whereas the Fitbit is great for even the most sedentary of people, the Nike+ FuelBand really kicks it up a notch.

First you determine your daily goal for what you want to accomplish that day, and then the FuelBand tracks your progress – whether it’s running, playing basketball, or walking – and changes colors from red to green throughout the day, giving you an idea of what your progress has been.

From what I’ve heard from people who have them, one of the biggest draws to the FuelBand is this very visual reminder of your activity levels. Because of the way the Nike+ Fuel app is set up, every day seems like a competition with yourself – but in the most positive way possible! Just note that you will need a smartphone in order to most effectively use a Fuelband, as it works in tandem with an app.

Price: $149.99

Jawbone:

up2

The fitness tracker Jawbone Up has 4 different options, of which the most acclaimed is the Jawbone UP2. Though it first came out awhile ago, this activity wearable is still very popular.

Why? Because at just under $100, it’s cheaper than some of the others on the market, but without losing any of the quality. It tracks both sleep and steps, as well as monitoring calories burned. It’s also unobtrusive and easy to use; it doesn’t have any buttons or a screen, so you switch between active or sleep mode with just a tap.

Although it doesn’t monitor heart rate, one advantage it does have is a “smart” alarm. This can be set before you go to bed so that the Jawbone UP2 wakes you up during a lighter stage of your rest in the morning, which is helpful for waking up feeling refreshed rather than restless.

Like with all of these fitness trackers, it’s unfortunately not waterproof, but it is considered water resistant: a definite plus for those of us (I’m not pointing fingers!) who may sweat a lot.

Price: $49.99 – $199.99

There are plenty of other options out there on the market, but these are the basics of the major three activity trackers. If you’re interested in others, this article is a really useful tool to help you decide.

Whichever one you choose, know that you’re one step closer to reaching your 10,000 step goal. And if you need any advice on how to take all of those steps, hope this helps!

Blogger Katie U., a SmartPerks employee, all too often forgets to charge her Charge HR. Don’t let it happen to you!

 

 

Healing and Dealing with Allergies at Home

Preventing Allergy

This isn’t me, but it basically is how I feel.

There’s no nice way of putting this – allergies stink! Or rather, they might stink; I wouldn’t know because MY NOSE IS COMPLETELY CLOGGED. Yup, thanks to allergies.

But have you ever realized how expensive allergy meds are? Of course, I still begrudgingly buy my $20 bottle of Zyrtec because it’s so far helped me the most, but I still have itchy eyes, a scratchy throat and a runny nose. Not a good look, I’ll tell you that!

However, over-the-counter meds aren’t the only way to alleviate your symptoms – of both allergies and also the common cold. With the growing popularity of homeopathic treatments, there are plenty of ways to help boost your immune system and provide a little relief from the springtime season. And even if you’re not an allergy sufferer, the best part is all of these suggestions are perfectly helpful just in maintaining your everyday health! Call it a win-win.

  1. Tea Time!

Yes, I’m sure you’ve drank tea for a sore throat before. But herbal tea has many, many uses besides just for a caffeine boost or to sooth an itchy throat. There are certain kinds of teas that specifically help allergy symptoms. For example, rooibos contains ingredients that can serve as an antihistamine – the active component of allergy meds like Claritin!

blog_tea.jpg

Firstly – when choosing what kind of tea to drink, think about what you need it to do for you that day. I like green tea in the morning for the caffeine and antioxidant boost, and herbal tea such as Mandarin orange or chamomile in the afternoon to de-stress and warm up my throat.

Bonus: adding locally sourced honey can have an effect on your allergies. The idea is that it helps build your immunity to the pollen found in your area. Not all scientists agree, but why not give it a shot? It’s just honey, honey.

So, another use for tea that you might not have heard about – specifically, using the tea bags themselves. Don’t chuck a brewed bag when you’re done making a cup!

If you’re experiencing the common allergy symptom of dry, itchy eyes, placing a moderately warm (test on the back of your hand first), damp tea bag over your eyes does wonders for relieving the irritation. You could also put them in the fridge until they’re cold; either works, it’s just about your preference. Both black and green tea work, but most herbal teas will do, too. Just don’t use peppermint – it stings!

Or, if you prefer more traditional eye relief, I have found these eye drops to be the best for allergies.

home-remedies-for-itchy-eyes-tea-bags

Just trust me: it works very well and feels so good!

  1. Neti Pot to Get Rid of Gunk

Yeah, I know that’s a little gross, but if you don’t own a neti pot, I highly recommend them because that’s exactly what they do. Essentially, neti pots (or other products like bulb syringes or squeeze bottles) irrigate your nasal cavity and sinuses with a warm saltwater solution, clearing out all of the allergens like dust and pollen that can be making your allergies worse. They also break down the stuff stuck in your sinuses, helping it to drain better and allowing you to breathe well again.

I know this might seem a little shocking method to some, but if you read and follow the instructions, it’s really quite simple, and the results are amazing. Whenever I use my neti pot the relief is amazing – aside from clearing my nose, all of that terrible sinus pressure is gone, and miraculously so too is my headache!

neti pot.png

Sure, you look kinda silly. So what?

Really, there are only two things to keep in mind for safety. This one should be obvious, but it’s imperative you keep the neti pot clean, which only requires hot water and mild soap, so as not to allow bacteria to grow, but some kinds are dishwasher safe. The other is to make sure you use sterile water in the saline solution.

This is the neti pot I have, because I find that glass is easier to clean. As you can see, for the cost of the neti pot and the saline mixture, you’re looking at about $25 for months and months of relief. They’re a cost-effective solution for the thrifty sinus problem sufferer. You’re worth that! Kick those allergies to the curb – or at least to the tissue.

  1. Vitamins, Get Your Vitamins!

I’m a huge proponent of vitamins already. I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables as a large part of a well-balanced diet, but there are plenty of reasons why vitamins and supplements might be right for you. For instance, I take a complex B vitamin every day for energy, fish oil for heart health and my hair (it’s not all about health, people; sometimes a girl just wants shiny hair) and an eye health vitamin for, well, my eye health. Like I did, be sure to check with your doctor before adding any supplements to your daily routine.

New Vita

Here are a few vitamins tied to allergy alleviation you might want to run by doc:

Vitamin C – Ah, the Superman of the Vitamin world. Though this one is pretty easy to get from diet alone (a glass of lemon water here, a spinach salad there), studies show American adults still don’t get the daily recommended dose. But why? Vitamin C can help with tissue and bone repair, immune system building, and reduce histamine (the hormone produced by allergic reactions that makes you feel yucky). Again, if nothing else, does eating an extra orange a day really hurt anything?

Unless of course you’re allergic to oranges… anyway, moving on….

Butterbur– Unfortunately, no, I’m not telling you to eat a bunch of butter. Butterbur helps to combat inflammation and headaches, and also helps mitigate the nasal congestion and itchy eyes and nose we all suffer from during seasonal allergy time.

Probiotics – Probiotics are great for a bunch of different health issues, because they help to maintain and culture the good kinds of bacteria found in your digestive tract. This can help everything from upset tummies to improving your immune system, and can help with your allergies, too.

Hopefully, if you take some of these tips to heart, your seasonal allergies will go away and you can start to actually enjoy this glorious season!

Blogger Katie U., SmartPerks employee, never goes anywhere without her antihistamine eye drops and a packet of tissues for a solid three months of the year. But at least she can stop to smell the roses without sneezing up a storm!

BYOL: Bring Your Own Lunch

 

dual salads

I called this salad two ways. Because there’s nothing worse than a boring salad lunch.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier? Or to save money? Well, I might not know how to curb your appetite or shopping habit, but I do know that bringing your own lunch to work every day can help you cut calories and cash flow.

I bring my lunch to work every day. Mostly, it’s leftovers from the dinner the night before; sometimes, it’s just a mishmash of ingredients I have in my fridge. Though I genuinely love everything about cooking – from the grocery shopping (I often say a well-stocked grocery store is my happy place) to the time I plate a nice, warm meal for my boyfriend and me, I enjoy every step in between. But even if you don’t love cooking, there are many different ways to make yourself a lunch that take less than 10 minutes…5 minutes, even! One really easy way to have a nice balanced lunch is to cut up a bunch of different fruits and veggies you have lying around, and then add some protein and a treat or two. Here, I had strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and oranges, white cheddar cheese slices and peanut butter on the celery, plus some treats (in this case, a slice of prosciutto and 2 squares of dark chocolate!)

fruit plate

Healthy lunch options

As many people are quick to point out, all too often prepackaged meals contain weird ingredients you don’t necessarily want to eat. Even if not, they also may be way too high in sodium or sugar. Because I like to know every bit of what’s going into my own body, I’m not a big fan.

 

I wasn’t always this way, though. One Friday night a month when I was a kid, my parents would go out on a special dinner date, leaving my younger sister and me behind with our babysitter Stephanie. I looked forward to it the whole month. Steph would paint my nails, do my hair in funny styles, and let me stay up late reading, warning me just before my parents got home so I could pretend to be asleep. The best part, though, was that I was allowed to choose my own dinner, and almost without fail I chose Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese

The stuff of my childhood dreams.

In my now six years of cooking post-childhood, I have become very resourceful, learning to create meals with my limited stash of groceries and even more limited amounts of free time. Typically, they’re fairly healthy, utilizing fresh ingredients and with a good macronutrient ratio. That said, it still cracks me up that it wasn’t my mom’s amazing meatloaf or chicken parmesan that I most looked forward to, but a dinky black box of frosted-over cheesy carbs.

Nothing sounds worse to me nowadays. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good mac and cheese meal, and I totally understand the convenience of transferring one item from freezer to microwave to mouth in under five minutes. However, those frozen meals come at a pretty big price, on both your budget and your waistline. There are so many delicious options you can make yourself using mostly fresh ingredients that are more filling, with feel-good vitamins and more texture than mush.

Again, I recognize that sometimes throwing a frozen meal into your bag or heading out for a $5 bowl of soup is easy and can be cheaper. But let me help make your meal decision-making easier: there are 3 kinds of perfect make-your-own lunch options, made simpler by making some ingredients ahead. For example, on Sundays, I like to roast a big batch of vegetables (my favorites are bell pepper, any kind of squash, potatoes, turnips and red onion) and make a large pot of soup, typically lentil or curry. That way, throughout the week, there is far less planning you have to do. You can blend the roasted vegetables with a bit of chicken stock and some spices, and have an easy and delicious soup, or the curry over rice for a filling but nutritious meal.

The Sturdy Salad, Super Soups and The Bold Bowl

1) The Sturdy Salad

Ever heard of this thing called kale? No? Hmm, that’s weird, because it’s everywhere these days! I truly love it, finding its fibrous bite much more satisfying than the wateriness of iceberg or limp romaine. Plus, it’s considered a superfood, with 134% of your daily Vitamin A and C requirements. It also has the added benefit of being able to stay dressed for hours without getting soggy, making it an amazing candidate for the make-ahead lunch.

One of my favorites is the Kale Caesar, with added veggies and a lighter dressing to keep the health factor high.

Greek Yogurt Caesar Salad Dressing

This dressing is so delicious, you truly won’t miss the oil, cream and egg-laden original. Promise!

  • ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (Note: you can use nonfat here if you want)
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons anchovy paste or 5-6 rinsed and dried tinned anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of freshly grated black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients but the lemon juice, either in a blender on low setting or in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Once smooth, slowly add in lemon juice, mixing it in, until you’re happy with the flavor.

Of course, you could make a regular Caesar with romaine, cherry tomatoes, croutons and extra parm, reserving the salad dressing for right before you eat lunch, and call it a day. Or you could try my version: toss torn kale leaves with some dressing, add cherry tomatoes, freshly trimmed green beans, radish slices, grilled squash, and any roasted veggies, like carrots or squash, I have lying around. Instead of croutons, I opt for toasted chickpeas for added protein and more flavor, but still the satisfying crunch.

tuna salad

This updated tuna salad from Eating Well is incredibly light but filling. Just wish I had that plate, too!

Other ideas for the perfect lunchtime salad include Tuna and White Bean Salad on top of mixed greens, BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad (I use this Avocado Greek Yogurt Ranch instead) and Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. There are so many varieties of salad (have you heard of the Italian bread salad panzanella, or its Middle Eastern counterpart fattoush?) that you should never settle for something dull. When it comes to salad – especially during these harsh winter months! – you want something hearty enough that you don’t feel hungry after an hour, so look for protein add-ons (cheese, beans, tofu, lean meats like turkey and chicken, or fish) to spice things up.

2) Super Soups

I can think of only three things I like more than soup: cats, dogs, and soup. Wait a second…

Point is, I really like soup. Cold and spicy, hot and creamy, vegetable- or meat-based, I’ll never say no to a bowl of soup. The best part? It makes an incredibly easy (and often healthy) lunch, it can keep for up to 5 days in the fridge and 5 months in the freezer, and if you’re the one making it, you can size up or down depending on how many people are in your family.

Turkey ramen

Leftover turkey ramen, with a substantial portion of chili paste.

They’re also a great use of leftover meat; after Thanksgiving, I made ramen with the turkey carcass and topped with chopped up pieces of dark meat.

There are so many different soups to choose from, but right now, in the middle of winter, the height of cold season, and post-holiday excess recovery, nothing sounds better to me than a nice, bracing bowl of chicken soup. There’s a reason they say chicken soup is for the soul, and it’s an amazing mid-day pick-me-up during the workday.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

This is not an authentic Mexican soup, but rather my interpretation of a Latin American classic. You could make your own stock (fresh, with a chicken carcass), but here I used ground chicken and previously made chicken stock (though store-bought would work, too!) Also, this recipe is all made in one pot, saving you dishes and time.

  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bell peppers, diced (I used one red and one green)
  • 2 carrots, diced or sliced
  • 2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatoes (really, any would work; I used diced with oregano)
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 8 oz. of corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • 2 minced garlic cloves (I used 2 tablespoons minced garlic from a jar for ease)
  • A pinch each paprika, cumin, chili powder, dried oregano, black pepper, salt
  • For garnishes: cilantro, tortilla strips, cheddar or cotija cheese, scallions, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

In large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat, adding in ground chicken and spices. Once cooked halfway through (about 4 minutes), add in all of the vegetables, stirring until combined and meat is cooked throughout and the vegetables have softened (in total, about 10 minutes). Add tomatoes, black beans, and stock, bringing the heat up to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes (or up until 1 hour). Serve hot, with an assortment of the garnishes.

Mexican Chicken Soup

The finished product, topped with grated white cheddar.

When I make this ahead of time for work lunches, I let the soup cool down, portion it out in individual Tupperware containers, and use these awesome little containers for the garnishes. Even if you don’t have a microwave at work, this soup is surprisingly delicious cold during summer.

3) The Bold Bowl

Arguably the simplest of the three, the “bowl” has really picked up steam in the past year or so. The concept is easy as pie: grains + greens + veggies + proteins. Add-ons are plentiful, such as different sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds, and combinations are endless.

Although you can certainly plan out the bowl ahead of time, like this fancy brisket bowl or Latin vegan bowl, but an even easier way of going about it is to make a big batch of grains (I prefer quinoa, for the protein content, or brown rice, for the heft) on Sunday and then add leftovers on top of it.

For example, are you making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli on the side for dinner? Make a couple extra meatballs and pieces of broccoli, reserve some of the tomato sauce, and get out your grains (brown rice would work really well here). Layer rice, meatballs, sauce, broccoli, add some grated parmesan and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and boom! Tomorrow’s lunch in no time at all.

Another favorite is to make a chimichurri sauce by putting different herbs, like cilantro and parsley, in a food processor with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a clove of garlic with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pulse until it’s fairly smooth. Then all you need to do is take some of the quinoa and roasted veggies from Sunday, and you’ve got a lunch bowl. Add beans or leftover meat such as chicken to really make it well-rounded, but it’s plenty tasty on its own.

I know in the short term it might just seem easier to run out and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, but that is costly in both time and money. With just a little planning, you can save so much in the long term. Plus, you’re showing yourself you’re worth more than an unsatisfying, premade egg salad sandwich. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, really does care this much about BYOL and hopes you will, too.

 

Wine a Little, You’ll Feel Better!

“Wine is bottled poetry.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m an honest-to-goodness wine-o. No, I don’t drink a bottle out of a paper bag. Let’s just say wine is a passion of mine. I enjoy sharing a bottle of Merlot or Malbec with my husband on the weekend or unwinding with a glass of rosé or Pinot Grigio after a long day. At book club we always have a little vino with pizza as we discuss our latest reads (actually, we could skip the books and just call it “I think I’ll have another glass of wine club”). And, once a month I join my friend Kathy for wine and wings at our favorite bar & grill.

Wine RackEven my kitchen décor revolves around wine. I have two cork holders – one shaped like a guitar that I bought at a winery in Sonoma (the owner is the manager of the Doobie Brothers) – and another in the shape of a wine barrel that’s crammed full of corks. I also have lighted wine bottles, wine signs, as well as a clock, dish towels and rugs with some kind of wine motif. But, nothing compares to the big wine rack/display I got for a steal at an antique shop. It even came with a grapevine and grape lights! Isn’t it awesome?!

You may think I’m a little obsessed with this whole wine culture thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. With more and more wineries popping up all over the country, I’d say there are quite a few wine enthusiasts out there.

Of course, we all know California is the wine capital of the U.S. and if you’re planning a trip to Northern California I highly recommend a visit to Anderson Valley. My husband and I toured some vineyards there last year and they were incredible! The wines were some of the best we’ve ever tasted. A local told me this area is a lot like Napa Valley in the early days, before it became “snooty and expensive” (his words, not mine). We also checked out a few wineries in Sonoma Valley. and spent a few hours in downtown Sonoma – what a charming place! (We may have to hit Napa Valley on another trip to see if it lives up to its reputation.)Wine

More proof that I’m not alone in this… just look at all the websites devoted exclusively to wine! Besides hundreds of online merchants selling every variety of red and white imaginable, there’s a whole slew of sites peddling things like coasters, plaques, towels, and t-shirts with catchy phrases like “Save Water, Drink Wine,” “Wine Flies When You’re Having Fun,” and “You had me at Merlot.” Of course, I have four or five such tees myself!

“Wine Flies When You’re Having Fun”

My girlfriends share my infatuation with wine and we always make a point to stop at two or three (or four or five) wineries on our annual getaways. We love the whole experience ― sampling assorted wines in intimate tasting rooms, chatting with fellow tasters and listening to the owners expound on the various grapes used to create their own unique blends. So far, we’ve been to wineries in Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin and our home state of Minnesota. (The University of Minnesota developed heartier grapes that can withstand colder climates so vintners in this region are able to grow their own.)

WineryOne of the most memorable places we’ve been to is PromiseLand Winery in northern Iowa. We thought the outside was impressive until we walked through the door. The event room resembles a quaint Italian village, complete with old fashioned lamp posts and charming boutiques and the tasting area has two fireplaces and lounge chairs to create a cozy atmosphere. There are also outdoor patios surrounded by beautiful gardens. I should probably mention that we were quite impressed with their wine too!

Some wineries charge a small fee for the tastings, while others waive the fee if you purchase their wine. Hint: if you plan on visiting more than one winery in a day, you’ll want to pace yourself and pick a designated driver beforehand.

The best way to discover wines from around the world is to join a wine club. It allows you to try different types of wine you won’t find at your local liquor store and your selections are delivered right to your door! My recommendation ― Club W.

For more on this scintillating subject, visit www.winemag.com. This site is considered the world’s number one source for wine information, education, merchandise, events and travel.

After all this talk about wine, I think I’ll uncork a Cabernet and enjoy a glass right now!

Cheers!

Besides wine, Catherine B. enjoys traveling, mysteries, hunky superheroes, and gossiping (as long as it’s not about her).

Check out these websites for cool wine-related gifts, apparel and paraphernalia:
giftedgrape.com
thetipsygrape.com
www.zazzle.com