Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seeking Peace and Simplicity During the Holidays

Holiday Craziness
Let’s face it: the holidays are extremely busy, and for many, it can be a very stressful time.  The intentions of the holiday season are supposed to include sentiments of gratitude, love, family, and faith, but with the push for shopping and a list of almost endless activities, it can end up as anything but those things. 

Peace and Simplicity Begins with a Thankful Heart
For those like myself, we are seeking a path toward greater peace and simplicity during the holiday season.  What I have been learning a lot about lately is that we must begin with gratitude in our hearts and minds if we are ever to truly achieve that peace and simplicity.

For the majority of us in the developed world, we have been very blessed to have much more than our basic needs met.  We have a bed to sleep in, a roof over our heads, often more than sufficient food to eat, and enough clean water to drink and even bathe in.  We have sufficient transportation, and can even indulge a bit in a little entertainment every now and then.  Sadly, for far too many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, this is not true for them.  While for many of us, our lives are far from what we would consider to be perfect, we can still take a step back and humbly acknowledge that we are blessed in a number of ways, and that we should be thankful for what we do have.

Once we start to cultivate gratitude in our hearts and lives, we can begin to examine our values and then prioritize them.  To have any sort of balance in life, it is important to decide what is most important, and then decide if what you are spending your time and energy on is really that important.  If whatever you are doing is not ultimately supporting your values, then you must let it go.  This will free you to focus on those things that truly are the most important things to you- your family, friends, loved ones, your faith, your passions, etc.

Simpler Holidays
I’d be willing to bet that on the whole, what people remember most during a particular holiday season is not all of the gifts that they received, but the memories that were made and the times that were spent together with those they care about.  My advice is to keep it simple, cut out what isn’t most important, and instead focus on what matters most. 

So, what can a simpler holiday with fewer gifts look like?  Perhaps you could decide as a family or a group to limit the spending on gifts this year and focus more on making memories together.  Perhaps as an alternative, you might focus more on doing something special, such as Christmas caroling, sledding, or holding a holiday movie marathon where each person picks out their favorite holiday film and everyone watches them together while drinking hot chocolate and enjoying homemade holiday goodies.  You could pop some popcorn and make treats for the birds in your neighborhood, or bake and decorate some cookies and give them as gifts to some of your neighbors.  You could participate in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, share a special meal together at your favorite locally-owned restaurant or cafe, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or make some homemade Christmas cards and then take them to your local retirement home and visit with some of the residents.  Other options are to see a holiday presentation by your local high school, or attend a concert by your local orchestra or string quartet.  There are so many things that you could do as an alternative to focusing on gifts.  Be creative, start a new tradition, and make some memories together!

A Homemade Holiday
While it is not for everyone, homemade treasures made from crafts that you make yourself, or from items harvested from your garden can also make excellent gifts and can help to simplify gift giving during the holidays.  For example, this year I am going to give as gifts some basil seeds that I collected from my basil plants, some homemade dairy-free pesto sauce made from my garden-grown basil, some lacto-fermented pickles made from cucumbers that I grew, and some tomatillo salsa that I made from tomatillos that I also grew in my garden.   I will also be baking some homemade goodies and giving them as gifts in reusable decorative holiday tins.

The Season of Our Hearts
Memory making and gift giving aside, the most important thing during the holiday season is to remember why we are celebrating in the first place.  For myself and many others, this process of remembering centers on our spirits and God’s gift of His son to us.  For others, family matters most, and for others still, showing love to our fellow human beings and cultivating peace and kindness for a better world are very important. 

From my favorite holiday movie, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,”* I really appreciate a song entitled, “It feels like Christmas.”  There is a line in it that I really I love which says, “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.”  As a later line in the song says, I believe that such a sentiment applies not only to this time of the year, but ideally should last all year long.  Love is what everyone needs deep down within their very soul, and it is what we all crave- genuine relationships where people are truly loved for who they are.  To me, that’s ultimately what life is all about- showing love to others now and always.  Taking the time during this season of the year to remember what it means can be a refreshing way to make the holidays more meaningful in our lives, and can serve as a valuable reminder of what’s most important.  I encourage you to make that your holiday focus this year, and where I believe true peace and simplicity in the season can be found.  

 Video of "It Feels Like Christmas" from the film, the "Muppet Christmas Carol."

May you and yours be truly blessed this holiday season!  

*If you’ve never seen it, I recommend that you rent it and enjoy the humor and the Muppets’ heart-warming portrayal of the classic story, A Christmas Carol.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Eating Gluten-Free and Navigating the Holidays

The gluten-free pumpkin pie that I made and brought 
to my family's Thanksgiving gathering.

My Gluten-Free Journey
I have been eating a gluten-free, as well as a mostly milk-free diet (I cannot tolerate any milk products except butter) for about seven years now.  The digestive issues and brainfog that I experienced about an hour after eating revealed that something wasn’t quite right.  Although I was tested for Celiac Disease and the results were negative, I just knew that my body didn’t do well whenever I would eat anything with gluten in it.    

After discovering that I was intolerant to gluten, I eliminated it from my diet and a number of my health issues cleared up.  While some of my health issues still persist, eliminating it has been a major positive step along the path of my health journey.  Although avoiding gluten has been good for my body, making the transition to being gluten-free was not easy for me.  It can take a lot of learning and will power to change your eating habits, although my experiences with digestive difficulties from eating particular foods were a major motivational factor for me to stay on track.  In my former eating life, I loved to eat bread, pasta, cookies, pizza…, you name it. 

How I Eat Now
These days, I cook a lot from scratch at home, I eat primarily whole foods including meat, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and I include a lot of traditional nourishing fats in my diet like coconut oil, organic & grassfed butter & ghee, and cod liver oil.  I also enjoy making fruit and veggie smoothies with lots of healthy greens like kale and adding super foods like raw cacao powder, chaga mushroom tea, chlorella powder, and hemp and chia seeds.  

I don’t eat a lot of snacks and desserts, and I generally don’t crave them anymore because I’m eating nutrient-dense foods and eating according to my protein nutritional type.  Having a garden has been a huge blessing, and being able to harvest fresh greens and herbs for dinner or for adding to my smoothies from right outside my back door is awesome.  I have learned to eat and love a much wider variety of foods than I ever did when I was eating a gluten-dominated diet, and today I am much more at peace with the food that I eat.  I know that most of what I eat is nourishing my body, and I am investing in my long-term vitality and longevity.

Treats Happen
Every now and then, occasions do happen when I make the occasional gluten-free treat.  The Holidays are one of those times when I believe it’s okay to treat yourself and be a little indulgent, as long as it doesn’t get too out of balance and doesn’t continue as an everyday habit.  There are so many resources out there for those of us with food sensitivities now, and I’m so very grateful that if I must live with food sensitivities, we live in a time when there are many options to choose from, even at most major chain grocery stores.  

For both the food-allergic and non-food allergic, my best advice is to cook from scratch as much as possible, since you then have complete control over what goes in your food.  Chances are that the taste of your homemade goodness will outshine most items from the store just about every single time, and will likely be much less expensive as well. 

Gluten-free apple crisp, also brought to Thanksgiving.

Making Gluten-Free Goodies
As I have learned, gluten-free baking is somewhat of an art form.  My advice if you are new to the gluten-free baking scene is to start out with some pre-made baking mixes to gain some confidence, and then branch out and find a good gluten-free cookbook or online recipe source such as Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which is one of my favorite resources for gluten-free cooking, recipes, and advice.

There are a few tips that that you should know if you are a newbie to gluten-free baking:  
  • Exact measurements matter!  Gluten-free baking success is very dependent upon the ratios of your various ingredients.  
  • Be aware that the texture of your dough may be much stickier and more difficult to handle than when baking with gluten-based flour.  You may need to do more scooping and spreading than kneading and handling than you may be used to.  Do not freak out about this; accept that it can be a part of the process and make peace with it.  Sometimes adding a little bit of rice flour or other gluten-free flour to the dough that you are handling can be helpful, and using these to “flour” your working surface can also help.   
  • In most cases, you cannot simply replace your wheat-based flour with a single type of gluten-free flour and be good.  Most commonly, you'll need a mixture of several different gluten-free flours plus a binding agent, such as xanthan gum or guar gum to help the gluten-free flours “stick” together and stretch like the gluten does in wheat-based flour.  There are many great gluten-free cookbooks out there that can help you to navigate through the different types of gluten-free flours and on how to make your own flour mixes for baking.  After my copy of Nourishing Traditions written by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, two of my favorite cookbooks that I own are 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes by Carol Fenster and Gluten-Free Baking Classics by Annalise G. Roberts. 
I have found that with good gluten-free recipes, and the gluten-free flours or flour mixes that exist, you can often make goodies that taste delicious and rival just about anything made with wheat flour.  In fact, I prefer my own gluten-free pumpkin pie to any gluten-based pie.  Due to my milk sensitivity, I use canned coconut milk instead of the sweetened condensed milk that pumpkin pies generally call for, and I think that my pies turn out even tastier than the original.

My homemade cranberry sauce

Being Social
One of the most challenging issues with my diet has been attending social gatherings.   However, I have found that many of the traditional holiday favorites can easily be converted to be more friendly for those with food sensitivities.  In fact, as I write this, I am visiting family for Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving meal with mashed potatoes, lots of veggies, organic turkey, corn, homemade cranberry sauce, and gluten-free pumpkin pie and gluten-free apple crisp that I made and brought to the family function.  Others in the family seemed to really enjoy these treats as well.  I did not feel deprived in the least, and I fully (and thankfully) enjoyed my meal.

Sometimes, having dietary restrictions can feel quite lonely and socially isolating.  The following steps can go a long way in helping you to approach eating in social situations and can help you to feel more included:

  • Plan, plan, plan!  Eat before you arrive, bring your own tasty food that you can enjoy while you’re there, or bring yummy pre-tested food that you can eat and share with others.  
  • Many foods such as fruits, veggies, and nuts are naturally gluten-free, so they are a good place to start and are healthier for everyone anyway.  
  • Cook from time-tested recipes that you know are good.  Don’t try out new recipes when bringing food to share at social occasions (just be sure to get some before everyone else gobbles up your goodies!).  
  • Bring snacks with you in case you can’t find suitable foods.  

You can also offer to prepare some of the foods for the feast when you get there.  For example, in my husband’s family, I have become the official Mashed Potato Maker.  Due to my dairy-related issues, I started preparing mashed potatoes in the way that I could tolerate them by replacing the traditional milk with a natural, gluten-free chicken broth.  The family has requested that I make the mashed potatoes for many of the family dinner gatherings where mashed potatoes will be served because the way that I make them is so flavorful and yummy.  They actually prefer my potatoes to the regular kind.  You never know what might happen when you step outside of the gluten- and allergen-filled boxes!

Do you or someone you care about have a food intolerance of some kind?  How have you approached social eating?