A balanced and easy approach to healthy living.

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Is Your Child’s Nap Mat Toxic?

Cute boy sleeping with toy in kindergarten

Last year, I was looking to buy my daughter a nap mat for pre-school and was rudely awakened to the fact that many nap mats contain toxic flame retardant chemicals, which studies have repeatedly linked to various health hazards in animals. I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter’s face laying on this nap mat, breathing in these chemicals on a daily basis. I can’t say I was surprised by this finding–unfortunately, many baby products, clothes, and furniture contain harmful chemicals that can be leached into the air and absorbed into the skin by direct contact. But, many parents probably don’t think of nap mats as a potential hazard for their children. I wanted to share with my readers the science behind the concerns about nap mats (specifically those made of soft foam and plastic materials)…and offer relatively easy solutions to the problem.

First of all, how do we know for sure that nap mats contain flame retardants? In 2013, The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) commissioned a study of 24 nap mats containing polyurethane foam purchased from major retailers like Target and Amazon. These nap mats were sent off to a Duke University lab for analysis. All but two of the nap mats were found to contain flame retardants. These mats contained 10 different flame retardant chemicals (or chemical mixtures) and 19 of the nap mats contain more than one chemical. Only 11 of the nap mats were specifically advertised as flame resistant. The most common flame retardant was triphenyl phosphate (TPP), in 18 nap mats, followed by chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) in nine mats. Eight mats contained a mixture equivalent to Firemaster 550 (which contains TPP), and eight contained the “Tert-butyl mixture.” The Washington Toxics Coalition did its own study of 14 nap mats bought in retailers in that state and found that 12 of the 14 mats contained TDCPP and Firemaster 550.

In sum, most foam nap mats on the market contain flame retardants.

So what’s so bad about these chemicals? Here’s what we know about flame retardant chemicals commonly found in nap maps:

  • TPP (triphenyl phosphate): Animal studies have linked TPP exposure to endocrine, metabolic, and reproductive system disruptions, including obesity, early puberty, and thyroid dysfunction (you can find two such studies here and here). The former of these two studies suggests that if TPP and similar chemicals are indeed endocrine disruptive, “this could have broad human health ramifications because they have been used for decades as plasticizers and in many other commercial and industrial applications.”  A 2010 study suggests that the exposure to TDCPP or TPP might be associated with reduced sperm concentrations among human adult males. A government document published by the CDC states that TPP “is a neurotoxin in animals. When injected in cats it caused delayed paralysis” (Page 1). By the way, I’ve only mentioned a few studies here; many more have been done on TPP and Firemaster 550, which contacts TPP, and found potential harmful effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists other such studies here.
  • Firemaster 550 has also been associated with harmful endocrine and reproductive effects.  Some critics may argue that these studies expose animals to unusually high doses of toxins, much higher than what humans might experience in daily life. Average people are exposed to flame retardants not only from direct contact with products that contain these toxins, but also via household dust–flame retardants are leached into the air or shed by products and furniture, and they then settle as dust, which we breather in and touch. Well, a 2012 study exposed rats to Firemaster 550 “at human-relevant exposure levels,” i.e. an amount that can realistically be found in household dust. Guess what? After administering Firemaster 550 to dams (pregnant raps), the researchers found thyroid disruption in the dams and pups. It also identified “FM 550 as a potential obesogen and contributor to metabolic syndrome, a collective term for a set of comorbid risk factors (including obesity, elevated fasting glucose, and impaired glucose tolerance) that together increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”
  • TDCPP (chlorinated Tris): Recent animal studies have suggested that TDCPP causes neurotoxicity, is an endocrine disruptor and a reproductive toxicant (e.g. see here and here), and is potentially carcinogenic (see here). The WHO and National Research Council have reported TDCPP to be linked to cancer in rats (NRC report here; I could not find the 1998 WHO report on the web). TDCPP is also on California’s Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer, and this report issued by the California Protective Agency lists a bunch of studies that show TDCPP to be carcinogenic and toxic in other ways. Chlorinated Tris was banned from children’s pajamas in the mid-1970s, yet it still widely used in children’s products today.

So, what is a parent to do?

First of all, the dangers I have listed above are connected with nap mats made of foam. If your child’s pre-school has cots for the children to sleep on, you are in luck, as there are no known issues with these. However, other schools provide or require parents to buy foam nap mats, as my daughter’s former and current pre-schools do. The kind of nap mat (usually the thickness) is regulated by state law (e.g. my state requires mats to be at least 1 inch thick). In this situation, here is what parents can do:

Option 1: There is at least one nap mat company that has discontinued the use of flame retardants, and parents can buy from this company or otherwise do their own research to identify a safe option. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) worked out a deal with a leading manufacturer of nap mats, Peerless Plastics, to discontinue using flame retardants. I called and verified this with the CEO back in August, 2014–he said that any nap mat manufactured as of Jan 1, 2014 will not contain any flame retardants. There is so much turnover of their product that any major retailer carrying their mats will have the flame-retardant-free stock by now. **By the way, I am not in any way affiliated with this company, and they didn’t even know I was writing this article. I am sharing this information because I think it is very useful and I believe that companies that respond to consumers’ concerns should be rewarded with business. I bought my daughter’s mat over a year ago on Amazon.

Peerless Plastic Kindermat (Click here to buy on Amazon)        

You can find the Peerless Plastics Kindermat for under $18 (as of this writing) on Amazon  (as well as in other major retailers). If you can convince your school to order these mats in bulk from a wholesaler and then sell them to parents at this discounted price, you can save money. This is what I did with my daughter’s old pre-school, which now carries only Peerless Plastics Kindermats and sells them to parents. Her current school has their own stock of nap mats and doesn’t require parents to buy their own–but I checked the label and saw that it was not Peerless Plastics. I asked if I could provide my own nap mat and they have no problem with this. I encourage parents to be their own advocates and work out a mutually beneficial solution with their pre-school.

Option 2: Avoid foam altogether, and if the school permits it, you can opt for other materials that are not usually treated with flame retardants include polyester fiberfill, cotton, and wool.

I love that there is somewhat of a happy ending to this story. The CEH and other organizations are working to get Congress to outlaw the use of flame retardents and other toxins in children’s and other consumer products. In the meantime, parents have the few options I’ve reviewed above.

*If you happen to know of other manufacturers of foam nap mats that have pledged to discontinue the use of flame retardants, please let me know in your comments and I will happily update my post with this information once I’ve verified it. Thank you 🙂

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How to Make your Own (Natural) Swiffer WetJet Solution

I bought my Swiffer many years ago when I got married, used it a bunch, and then stopped. Why? Although it’s a really convenient and easy way to clean floors, I became bothered by Swiffer’s chemical-laden solution, which, by the way, also has a very strong scent that lingers for a long time after cleaning.

Then, it finally dawned on me: why not make my own solution and pour it into an empty Swiffer bottle?! Finally, the answer to my problem–if only all of life could be this easy! 🙂 And, there’s a double bonus to doing it yourself: not only is it healthier to make your own cleaning solution, but you save a lot of money!

Here’s how you can do it, in just a few minutes of your time:

1. Remove the cap: I had a years-old empty Swiffer solution bottle still in my WetJet. I removed the empty bottle and tried to pry the cap off, which was a bit difficult. I used plyers to do it, and it worked! Another alternative I’ve read about is submerging the cap under hot water for 30-60 seconds and twisting it off with a towel. Either way, you will be able to remove it! Clearly, the executives at Proctor & Gamble do NOT want you making your own solution!

Swiffer Wetjet Spray Mop Floor Cleaner Open Window Fresh Scent Multi-Purpose Solution, 42.2 OZ, 2 Bottles

2. Make your own solution: There are so many ways to make homemade cleaning solution! I do it very simply for my floors: I used only distilled white vinegar and water. Easy-Peasy! Proportion-wise: I pour about 25% vinegar and then fill up the rest of the bottle with water. The proportions are not an exact science,and I’ve seen floor cleaner recipes vary from just about 1/4 cup vinegar to a bucket of water to about a 50/50 split. Experiment and see what works for you, but I like to go a little heavier on the vinegar for a more powerful solution.

Done, that’s it! Some people like to add a few drops of essential oil (like lavender or orange) to create a nice scent. When you mop with this solution, it will smell like vinegar for a few minutes. But rest assured–the smell quickly dissipates, and the solution dries quickly, making your floors ready-to-use within minutes of cleaning!!

Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, by the way, and I use it to clean almost all surfaces and floors. Warning: avoid using on marble (apparently, it can eat at the stone, though I haven’t witnessed this personally after using it on my marble counter tops) and hardwood floors (it can strip them). For these surfaces, you may consider just using water and a few drops of dish soap.

Happy cleaning!

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How to Take Your Smoothie On-the-Go

Cute little boy drinking a green smoothe

Readers of my blog may recall how enthusiastic I was when I finally found the RIGHT water bottle to fit all my daily needs (I schlep one with my everywhere!). Well, the search has been on for finding the right on-the-go smoothie container, and I’ve just found it, so I thought I’d share!

I like to keep my water bottles for just water, so I don’t have to worry about washing out sticky fruity stuff. For smoothies, I need something that will not spill, will fit in my cup holder in the car, keep my drink cool, and hold a nice-sized portion of smoothie along with a straw (the best way to sip!).

So, when I walked into an organic juice bar recently and they served me my smoothie in a mason jar with a straw coming through the lid, I had my smoothie AHA moment! This was it: since mason jars are made of glass, there’s no leaching from plastic. Also, no more spilling my smoothie when drinking it from a cup! And it’s super on-the-go, as it fits into my car’s cup holder and even the one in my stroller (though you will have to check yours). Plus, glass is super super easy to clean in the dishwasher, and you can throw out the straw (though I often use a re-usable straw to reduce waste). If you want to keep it nice and cool, throw in some ice cubes!

Here’s a photo of my smoothie in a mason jar (in front of my car because I am, as usual, on-the-go!):

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Want one??? They are cheap and easy to make. You can buy a pack of mason jars from Amazon, Target, or other stores. (Share a pack with a friend and/or make enough containers for the whole family!) Mine is a 24 oz. Ball Wide Mouth Mason Jar–it’s the perfect size and fits into my car’s cup holder. Then, all you have to do is use a single-hole puncher or drill to make a hole in the lid and voila–instant smoothie vessel!! These cute jars are also great for other iced drinks and for entertaining!

Or, if you want to just buy on that is ready-made, here are two options you can buy on Amazon for less than $15:

If you prefer, you can also buy mason jars with a handle, like the boy is holding the photo, above, but these may not fit in your car’s cup holder. And, mini-disclaimer: these smoothie jars are for adults and bigger kids, since they are made of glass. Use your judgement when giving them to younger kids. My littles are sipping smoothies out of their plastic or stainless steel cups for the time being.


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How *Not* to be Fooled By Nutrition Labels

Nutrition Labels

If you’re used to judging how healthy a food is simply by reading its nutrition label you may be surprised by what you find. Some highly processed breads and cereals, for example, appear to be healthy for you because they have lots of vitamins and minerals. As an example, let’s compare the nutrition label of Lucky Charms–a highly processed and synthetically enhanced cereal–to the label of a much less processed breakfast food, such as Bob’s Steel Cut Oats. Look at the images below–which looks more impressive?

Lots of vitamins and minerals in these Lucky Charms!

Bob’s Red Mill Steal Cut Oats…no vitamins, some minerals, but minimally processed. Steel cut oats still have their hull (outermost layer intact) and are not steamed and rolled.

Naturally,you may say to yourself, “the Lucky Charms are healthier and taste better, so it’s a no brainer—I’m buying them!” Right?

Not really. Highly processed foods aren’t always as impressive as the label may suggest–especially when compared to whole foods. “Processing destroys nutrients, and the more processing there is, the more destruction you get,” says Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Lucky Charms and its counterpart cereals (Fruit Pebbles, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch…you know, all the ones your kids love) are fortified, which means that micro-nutrients are synthetically added. “Fortification adds back some nutrients, so overall you’re better off with a processed fortified food than a processed unfortified one. But a whole food is always going to be superior.” (I highly recommend you read this Wall Street Journal Article on fortified foods.)

Naturally occurring nutrients are always better for us than the synthetic version. They are better absorbed by our bodies, they include a whole variety of micronutrients that are not reflected on the nutrition label, and they will tend to have more protein and fiber. Just as food companies have never been able to re-create breast milk with sythentic formulas, so, too, can we not create fake foods that are as beneficial as the real thing.

So, next time you are comparing products side-by-side, take a look at the whole picture. If you don’t want to be fooled by the packaging, be sure to read the ingredients label along with the nutrition facts label, and consider the following:

  1. Does the ingredients list include colors, letters, and numbers? These are a sign that the product contains artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, monosodium glutamate, and other synthentic substances, that are designed by food companies to make us enjoy and crave their foods, but have questionable effects on our health, and certainly tend us toward obesity. If you want a more complete list, take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives“–the list includes ingredients that have been associated with serious health concerns. Print it out for your next shopping trip.
  2. What is the fiber and protein content? Whole grains will always have more fiber and protein than processed versions. In addition to being essential for body function, these nutrients are heart, gut, and brain-friendly, are filling, and stabilize our blood sugar–which means, less mood swings and less cravings. Ideally, you want products that contain at least 3g of fiber and protein (each), per serving.
  3. Do the words “fortified” or “enriched” appear in the ingredients list? Then you know the food is so processed, that the food company is trying to sell you a nutritionally empty food by adding in synthetic nutrients.
  4. Do you see the word “whole” next to the grains listed in the ingredients list? Whole grains are better than refined ones because they provide lasting energy and stabilize blood sugar. Ideally, you want to see “whole [name of grain]” or “brown rice” when you read the label. If the label says “wheat” or “multigrain,” some parts of the grain may be missing. “100% whole [grain]” is the best. Check out this handy chart for determining whether the grains in the product are really whole or processed.
  5. Are there hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the ingredients? HFSC is an unhealthy sugar that causes weight gain and has little nutritional value. Check the ingredients label for high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar and sucrose, and try to limit the serving amount of sugars to 6g per serving on the nutrition label. Hydrogenated oils are trans fats that clog our arteries and can raise our risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Check the ingredients list for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.”

Going back to our Lucky Charms vs. Steel Cut Oats comparison, we can used this checklist to draw the following conclusions for why the Oats are a better choice: They have more than twice the amount of fiber and over three times the amount of protein per serving. They are made of whole, unprocessed grains. Lucky Charms may have some whole grains in them, but they are full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and probably all of the micronutrients are synthetically added. Bob’s has 10% Daily Value of  iron and 2% of calcium, naturally. These numbers may seem low, but in the whole, original form, nutrients are better absorbed and produce a better effect in our bodies than do the fake ones.

This may seem like a long check list, but after some time it will become second nature. You will find that ten seconds is enough to scan both the nutrition and ingredients labels to make a good choice for you and your family.

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The Best Water Bottle…& Free Giveaway!

For me, finding the right water bottle is like finding the right car–it’s a life-changing decision! I carry my water bottle around with me everywhere I go, even around my own house, because it’s a spill-proof way to keep water nearby. H20 is crucial to proper body function and feeling thirsty means that the body is already dehydrated. (I also get headaches when I’m dehydrated, so drinking often is the difference between a good day and a terrible one!) I find that when I am constantly sipping I don’t need to worry about measuring my water intake to ensure I get my “eight glasses” for the day–so it’s one less thing to worry about.

I took me years of trying different brands and water bottles to find the right match, and I finally had my “AHA” moment when I stumbled upon ZULU One-Touch bottles at Target. Here’s my review and why I them love them so much.

NOTE: this is an unbiased review and I am not getting paid or otherwise rewarded to write it. I just happen to love this water bottle and wanted to share it with my readers, because, like I said, it changed my life!

  1. The bottle (and spout) are made of GLASS: I ditched plastic bottles years ago when there were concerns about BPA, and, more recently, concerns that chemical substitutes for BPA may also be dangerous. I tried stainless steel, but I didn’t like the metallic taste, and I also like to “see” my water–I drink it more often when I can see it, perhaps because it looks so clean and pure. Glass is safe, doesn’t leach or leave a residue, and doesn’t change the taste of water, so it’s my material of choice for drink and food storage. Zulu’s glass is “Certified BPA, Pthalates, PVC and lead free.” And you drink directly from the glass bottle rather than a plastic spout (as with many other water bottles), which is also important to some people.Zulu Atlas Beverage Bottle - Teal ( 20 oz )
  2. DURABILITY: almost all glass water bottles on the market are covered in silicone sleeves that prevent that from shattering when dropped. Of course, these sleeves are not 100% foolproof–if you drop a bottle with a certain amount of force (or throw it, as happened during one of my kids’ outbursts) it breaks. My Zulu bottles–my family has been through a few, so we’ve owned a bunch over the years–withstand a bunch of drops. This may be a result of their “extra thick” glass and “extra thick silicone bottom.” I found the Lifefactory and Ello water bottles to shatter more quickly–I did not do an official test, but this was my experience over repeated use. Zulu’s lids/spouts are more durable, as well. My Ello’s flip lid started to come apart within a week of use. Zulu’s lids are very sturdy.
  3. Virtually SPILL-PROOF: Though Zulu bottles come with the different tops, my favorite lid–the One-Touch–has the ability to “lock” closed, so it won’t pop open in your bag (as happened to me many times!). This locking function is so smart and I don’t know why other brands haven’t copied it yet!
  4. The One-Touch top is SUPER FUNCTIONAL: I need to be able to open the bottle with one hand, so I can drink water while I am driving or holding a kid (or anything else). You just squeeze the large “button” on the top and it flips open. Ello has a similar top–but it doesn’t lock to prevent spills and it breaks easily (see #2 above). There’s also a loop attached to the lid, which I use to hang on my stroller hooks.
  5. GREAT PRICE: Ranging $12.99-14.99 (depending on the lid type), they are cheaper than many other options on the market. Find them at Target stores and target.com (they’re much more expensive on Amazon!).
  6. They LOOK GOOD: They come in a range of cool colors.

Try them our and let me know what you think! You can read more about the bottles on Zulu’s site.


I contacted Zulu and they offered to do a FREE GIVEAWAY! Two readers will get a free Zulu water bottle in their choice of color and with their choice of top. See my Facebook page for details! Giveaway period ends on 3/20/15 @ 11:59pm.

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How to Avoid Arsenic in Gluten-Free Foods


In my previous post, I discussed Consumer Reports’ studies that have found “worrisome levels” of arsenic in rice products, including many baby foods and almost all gluten-free foods. Given these findings, it may be best to limit rice intake as much as reasonably possible. It’s hard to find rice-free baby and GF foods, so I’ve compiled this helpful list with a bunch of rice-free alternatives for every meal!

1. Breakfast Foods: Almost every GF cereal contains rice. Luckily, there are some non-rice alternatives, like plain corn flakes (I buy Whole Foods’ 365 brand) and some other corn-based cereals (make sure to read the ingredients list). I also like Udi’s Gluten-free Granola. For a hot breakfast, try oatmeal, like Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Steal Cut Oats. You can also use corn grits (polenta) to make a hot cereal (add nuts and fruit for a super delicious treat, like in this recipe), or cut it into squares and serve with butter and honey, yum. I haven’t found any GF waffles without rice. But, you can make homemade waffles and pancakes using buckwheat, coconut, and other flours, including Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Baking Flour, which doesn’t have any rice in it! I recently made these amazing oven pancakes using the Bob’s mix.

2. Bread: Sadly, I have yet to find a packaged GF bread that doesn’t contain rice, but you can make your own, and there are lots of recipes out there like this one or this one. If you do no have celiac and you can tolerate spelt, then whole spelt bread is an option for you–I buy it at Whole Foods and the health food aisle of my local supermarket.

Spelt3. Pasta: The good new is that there are many new pasta varieties sprouting up with no rice, but you have to read the ingredients carefully. Even when the packages advertises corn, buckwheat, or quinoa as a main ingredient, rice is usually the first or second item on the ingredients list. But I’ve read a bunch of labels and here are some great options:

2015-01-27 13.27.19

In photo: Eden Organics 100% Buckwheat Soba Noodle; Tolerant Organic Red Lentil Penne; Ancient Harvest Quinoa pasta (contains corn); Explore Asian Black Bean Spaghetti and Edamame Fettucini; Miracle Noodle Spinach Shirtataki Pasta. Each of these brands has different styles and flavors of pasta, so there is a lot to explore! SUPER SAVINGS: the Explore Asian Black Bean Spaghetti can be found in Costco in a money-saving 2lbs box!

4. Mains and Side dishes: Quinoa is an obvious choice, and switch up the colors–white, red, black–to get a variety of flavors. Polenta, which you can buy ready-made logs in supermarkets or in corn-grit form, is another alternative. I like to buy the logs, and slice them to make mini polenta pizzas (cover with sauce and cheese) or I dice them and saute them with sun dried tomatoes and garlic–yum! You can also make buckwheat as a side dish–saute with some garlic and spices, and I love all sorts of squashes as a starchy side dish that doesn’t include rice or pasta–think spaghetti pasta (just saute in some olive and garlic or add marinara) or butternut squash.


5. Infant cereals and snacks: Babies don’t need to start their solids-eating career with cereals. Of course, you can buy the non-rice varieties, but even better: skip the cereals and go straight to avocados, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Dr. Sears and many pediatricians support these soft, nutritious foods as great first solids for kids, and skip the cereal altogether! When it comes to snacks, like puffs, biscuits, crackers and other baby treats, so many are made with rice that it’s best to limit these altogether. One crunchy non-rice option is these coconut-based treats (they have yogurt-based ones, too).

6. Rice cakes: The best substitute are these awesome Real Foods Corn Thins–they’re crispy and satisfying, you may even like these better than the rice version!

Product Details

I hope this gets you off to an arsenic-free start! I’d love to hear about your favorite rice-free GF foods in the comments section.

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Why You and Your Kids Should Eat Less Rice

riso bianco chicco lungo

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on the relatively high levels of arsenic found in rice. Consumer Reports had just published a study that found “worrisome levels” of this carcinogenic toxin in rice products, including many baby foods. I was shocked to learn that many foods contain a higher quantity of arsenic than is legally permitted in drinking water. Children are disproportionately vulnerable to exposure–because of their low body weight, a particular quantity of arsenic impacts them much more than it would an adult. Gluten-avoiders, too, are at risk, since so many gluten-free products contain rice.

Though state and federal agencies regulate the amount of arsenic in water, there are no set limits for foods. According to Consumer Reports, the FDA claims that an “ongoing assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority for the agency.”

Consumer Reports has now issued an updated report based on data (provided by the FDA) concerning the inorganic arsenic content of 656 processed rice-containing products. The great thing about this new report: it contains a point system that can help you determine how many servings of rice and rice products are safe to consume on a weekly basis. Even better, the recommendations are made separately for children and adults.

Below are the “New Rice Rules,” which assign a point value to different rice-based foods. Consumer Reports recommends no more than 7 points per week, and the “risk analysis is based on weight, so a serving of any food will give children more points than adults.” I highly recommend reading the entire updated report here, and watching their brief video summarizing the issues.

In addition to following these guidelines, there are a few ways to further minimize your exposure to arsenic when eating rice:

  • Wash and cook rice in lots of water! Wash and pre-soak rice in water, use extra water when cooking (Consumer Reports recommends 6 cups water per one cup rice), and drain excess water at the end. Unfortunately, this process washes out some of the nutrients from the rice, but it reduces about 30% of the arsenic.
  • Origin matters; Organic does not. Rice grown in CA has the least arsenic; rice from Texas has the most. Try buying imported jasmine and basmati rice from India and Pakistan, as these tend to have lower levels or arsenic. The 2012 Consumer Reports study listed the origins of the rice samples it tested, so you can use this table as a guide when purchasing rice.
  • White rice, thought not as healthy, tends to have less arsenic than brown or wild because arsenic accumulates in the outer layers. These layers are removed when making white rice.

Given these findings, its best to limit rice intake as much as reasonably possible. In my next post, I’ll provide lots of great alternatives to rice and rice products. These are especially relevant for gluten avoiders, since most gluten-free products contain rice.

Stay tuned!

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How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (Part 2)

saving money as a family piggy banks

This is part two in a series on saving money while eating healthy. You can check out Part 1 and the first two tips here.

Money-Saving Tip #3: Avoid Health Food Stores…Shop Discount Stores and your Supermarket

Whole Foods and other health food stores typically offer the highest prices. So, unless there is a good sale, I only go to these stores for special items I can’t find anywhere else. Instead, I take advantage of the increasing number of affordable healthy and organic options that are now available in discount and big box stores.

For instance, when I shop at Target, I get a bunch of organic grocery items that are cheaper than almost anywhere else: pasta sauce (they have many great varieties), pasta (gluten-free and regular), apple sauce snacks for kids, organic spices, fruit leather snacks, Navitas Naturals Hemp Seeds, and frozen wild salmon. Target also offers a limited selection of organic fruits and veggies. If you prefer to buy in bulk, Costco, Sam’s Club, and other big-box stores have great values, too. These stores sell organic mixed greens, spinach, baby carrots, quinoa, eggs, hummus, frozen organic fruit and veggies, and more, all at great prices. Trader Joe’s, if you’re lucky to have one nearby, has some of the best prices around for produce (organic and conventional). I also shop my local supermarket’s organic produce section, and save money by choosing grocery items made by the store brand’s “natural” line.

Amazon offers low prices on some pantry items, but you usually have to buy in large quantities. “Add-on” items can offer a deal on buying one, but I still tend to get the best value by visiting brick and mortar stores.

Money-Saving Tip #4: Shop In-Season

We are used to being able to eat whatever we want, when we want it, but you’ll always save money buying produce when it’s in season—not only are the base prices lower, but these foods often go on sale during their peak growing months. For instance, at my local supermarket and even at Whole Foods, organic berries of all kinds are on sale throughout the summer, so I save $1-2 for each box I buy. Not surprisingly, we eat lots of berries during warm months! In the fall and winter, you can get deals on organic apples, oranges, and bunches of clementines.

Money-Saving Tip #5: Stock Up During Sales

When there are sales at Whole Foods and elsewhere, I buy as much as I can.  (By the way, you can check out Whole Foods’ circular here). If it’s fresh produce, then it’s on the menu for the week. Otherwise, I stock up on sale items and store it in my pantry or freeze for later. Here are some tips on how best to freeze your low-priced goodies:

  • Organic Fruit: cut up and freeze in chunks; use for smoothies, baking, and baby food!
  • Organic Veggies: Frozen veggies are great for baking and roasting. Broccoli, zucchini, peas, and green beans are some examples of veggies that can be frozen and used in tasty stir fries.
  • Organic Herbs: freeze minced herbs in ice-cube trays in olive oil, then pop cubes into the pan when you are ready to cook.
  • Free-range meat and wild fish: divide into family-friendly portion sizes, then freeze portions in air-tight Ziploc freezer bags

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My frozen stock of wild Alaskan salmon. Normally about $18.99/lb, I got these on sale at Whole Foods for $12.99/lb! I divided the fish into dinner-size portions, and voila! Ready to go any time.

Stay tuned for part 3, with more money-saving tips!

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Eating Healthy on a Budget: Easy Ways to Save (Part 1)

Piggy bank on green grass with flowers background

A lot of people tell me they want to eat healthier, but it’s too expensive. I relate. A diet based on whole, natural, and organic foods is pricier than the alternative. Even a recent Harvard study has shown that a healthy diet is more costly than an unhealthy one, though not by that much.

So, how do we buy the most nutritious food without breaking the bank?

Here is the bottom line to eating healthy on a budget: shopping for nutritious food is all about making the right trade-offs. Sometimes it makes sense to splurge, and sometimes it doesn’t. Once you’re aware of the trade-offs, you are empowered to make decisions that are good for your budget and your health.  In this post, we will explore two ways to save money.

Money-Saving Tip #1: You Don’t Always Have to Buy Organic

Organic produce and products made from them are better for your health than conventionally grown crops. A recent review of 343 studies found that, on average, organic crops and organic-crop-based foods contained higher concentrations of antioxidants, less cadmium (a toxic chemical found in cigarette smoke), and, unsurprisingly, less pesticide residues than conventionally-grown foods. If money weren’t an issue, I’d suggest buying everything organic.

In real life, that can get pretty pricey. Luckily, there is a wonderful tool that can help you prioritize your organic purchases and determine when it’s ok to save with the cheaper, conventional options. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list tells you which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and are the most important to buy organic, while the Clean Fifteen list tells you which produce is least contaminated, so you can buy the conventional version and save money.  These lists are based on scientific analyses of pesticide content in foods and are updated every year or so. To keep track in the grocery store, download the EWG’s free app, “Dirty Dozen,” for your iPhone or Android smartphone.

The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Lists for 2014

Money-Saving Tip #2: Buy Frozen

Frozen fruits and veggies are often cheaper than buying fresh, and, luckily, they may have as much or more nutritional content as the fresh version found in supermarkets. This is because produce chosen for freezing are usually processed at their peak ripeness, a time when they are most nutrient-packed. By contrast, produce destined to be sold fresh are picked before they are fully ripe, which gives them less time to develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. (EatingWell has a really great overview of the pros and cons of frozen vs. fresh).

I still try to buy fresh when I can, particularly, local and in-season produce, as these are hands-down the most nutritious options (more on that in my next post). But, frozen can be a great way to cheaply add healthy fruits and veggies to your family’s diet, particularly organic berries and other fruits (which can get pretty pricey), as well as organic broccoli, green beans, and peas. Frozen veggies are amazing in stir-fries and baked dishes, while frozen fruits are perfect for breakfast smoothies the whole family can enjoy.

Frozen wild fish is also cheaper than buying fresh. I buy wild instead of farmed fish because the latter tend to have higher levels of certain toxic chemicals and are sometimes fed antibiotics. In addition, wild fish contain more protein and omega-3 fatty acids. But wild fish can be very expensive. Wild salmon, for instance, can sometimes cost $19/lb. So, unless there’s a good sale on fresh wild fish, I buy it frozen. It’s not only cheaper, but easy to find lots of varieties of frozen fish, including in your local supermarket, Target, Walmart or Costco. By buying frozen, I save 50% or more of what I would spending buying fresh.

Simply Balanced Alaskan Keta Salmon Skinless Fillets 24 oz

Target’s Frozen Wild Salmon Fillets

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will discuss more money-saving tips. How do you save money when buying healthy foods? I’d love to hear your strategies.

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Let your Kids have their Candy and Eat it, too

Cute dog Trick-or-treating

It’s hard to separate Halloween from the experience of trick or treating and collecting loads of candy. That’s why I say: let your kids eat their candy, with some minimal limits. Yes, in my ideal world, my kids would never be exposed to that junk, especially in those quantities, but this is the real world, so I adjust my expectations.

The healthy-living approach I’ve advocated on this blog, is one of balance. I keep my kids as healthy as possible in the house, so that when we indulge, we can go all out and enjoy! Halloween is one of the hardest days on the calendar to wage the good fight against food coloring, refined sugars, corn syrup, GMOs, and all those other lovely ingredients–if I don’t let my kids eat treats, they are going to feel deprived, and feeling deprived is exactly what my healthy-living philosophy is meant to avoid. So on holidays like Halloween–when highly processed and colored chemicals, I mean, food, are central to the celebration, I let my kids enjoy (almost) like everyone else.

But, I do set some boundaries and follow some sneaky strategies to ensuring that when they indulge, they won’t indulge too much:

  • Depending on the time you go trick or treating, make sure to feed your kids a healthy early dinner or filling snack beforehand. If they get full before trick or treating, they are bound to eat less. And, as the parent, you’ll feel better knowing they actually consumed some nutrients before shoving pretend food into their bodies. Be strict about this early dinner/snack: give your kids the healthiest thing they are willing to eat (veggies, anyone?) and tell them, “we’ll only head out once you’ve finished your meal/snack.”
  • Avoid grazing while trick or treating. If your kids are noshing on their goodies while walking from house to house, they’re bound to eat a lot of it, without even realizing or feeling satisfied. When we eat distractedly, our bodies don’t register satisfaction. So tell your kids, “Let’s hold off eating our candy until we get home…and then we will have a candy party!”
  • Once home, have your kids pick out X number of candies to eat that evening. Choose the number that works for you. If it’s 1 or 2, they’re bound to be upset. I’d allow between 3 and 5, which is plenty of candy to eat in one sitting. The point is to let them indulge, but set a limit. The truth is, that many kids will stop eating on their own after that amount, anyway.
  • What to do with the remaining piles of candy? Get it out of the house–out of sight, out of mind–and pander to your kids’ do-gooder instincts (they do have those, right?). Tell your child that it’s important to share their goodies with kids who are less fortunate, and that you will be taking the rest of the candy to kids in hospitals or shelters (or name your favorite kids’ charity). Seriously, if you don’t have time to drop the candy off at a local institution that helps kids, then just bring it to work and share around the office: by taking that crap out of the house, you’re donating to your own charity: mykidshealth.org.
  • If you face too much resistance, let them choose 5 to 10 candies that they are allowed to eat, one per day, over the following weeks as a reward for doing a chore or eating a healthy meal. Let your candy work for you! In my house, special treats are given out freely only on rare occasions. Usually, I use dessert to my advantage by giving it to my kids only after they’ve finished a healthy meal, cleaned up, or completed another task that I want done.

So, there you have it: done and done! Let your kids enjoy their candy within very reasonable limits, no one feels deprived, and you just helped your kids do a good deed. Does life get any better than a win-win for all?

Let me know how it goes!

P.S. By the way, this approach can be followed if your kids collect candy after birthday parties and other holidays, Purim and Easter!