Oct 22, 2014

Why Nitrates Aren't Evil

Go to just about any cancer organization's website and you'll find information claiming nitrates - which are found in cured bacon, lunch meat, hot dogs, and many other meats - cause cancer. Go to any grocery store and you'll find products bragging about being nitrate-free. But, truth be told, the healthier you eat, the more likely it is you have nitrates in your diet.

What Are Nitrates?

Potassium nitrate (often shortened to "nitrate") has been used to preserve food since the Middle Ages. In the old days they called it saltpeter (Latin for "rock salt"). In the early 20th century, scientists discovered what made saltpeter an effective preservative, and it no longer became necessary to use saltpeter - a pure dose of nitrate was now known to do the trick.

Nitrates work by causing a reaction in the meat that creates nitric oxide. This, in turn, binds to the iron atom in the myoglobin in the meat (the stuff that makes raw meat look bloody even though all the blood has been drained off). This keeps the iron from causing the fat in the meat to oxidize - and it happens to cause cured meat to look pinkish-red. In addition, nitrates give meat a sharper taste and keeps certain pathogens, like botulism, at bay.

Why Nitrates in Meat Aren't Scary

Nitrates, my friends, are everywhere. You can't avoid them. Your very saliva makes up "93% of the total daily ingestion of nitrate" in your diet (your saliva reacts with bacteria in your mouth, creating nitrates), and "foods account for a very small portion of the overall daily nitrite intake."

When it comes to food, you can't avoid nitrates even by eating vegetarian. Vegetables actually make up the largest part of our dietary intake of nitrates (about 87%). The highest offenders are the very same foods health experts tell us to eat more of: spinach, beets, broccoli, leeks, radishes, lettuce, celery, cabbage, fennel, and cucumbers. In fact, one serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs.*
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"One serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs."
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Are Nitrate-Free Foods Really Free From Nitrates?

Read the label. It usually says something like "No nitrates added." The food itself may naturally have nitrates - and the manufacturers of the food probably have substituted pure nitrate with celery powder or celery juice. Since celery is high in nitrates, food made this way certainly isn't nitrate free.

As an example, a recent look at hot dogs found that "natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite than conventional hot dogs contained. Natural bacon had from about a third as much nitrite as a conventional brand to more than twice as much."

So Why Are Nitrates Supposedly Bad?

In huge amounts, nitrates are toxic. But to get enough nitrates to poison you, you'd need to eat thousands of hotdogs in one day.

In 1971, one study concluded that nitrate-preserved meats could cause cancer - "only under special conditions amines are present, nitrite is available to react, near neutral pH is found, and product temperatures reach greater than 130°C, such as during the frying of bacon." In reaction to the study, new laws were passed, lowering the amount of nitrates allowed in foods. Today, ascordbic acid (vitamin C) is used to inhibit the chemical reaction that could lead to nitrosamines. For bacon, regulations are tighter, and inhibitors for preventing nitrosamines during frying must be present. This resulted in an 80% reduction in nitrate levels - and since the 1980s, every decent scientific study (at least 80 of them) has found no link between nitrates in food and cancer.

So Are Nitrates GOOD?

Maybe. They do keep dangerous bacteria out of our food - and scientists are now looking into the idea that nitrates are beneficial to humans' immune system - and maybe even our cardiovascular systems.

Does That Mean Preserved Meats are Healthy?

All this isn't to say we should gorge ourselves on cured meat. There are indications that preserved meats cooked at high temperatures may lead to higher levels of colon cancer, for example. And there is (very flimsy) evidence that nitrates may react with natural amines found in some foods, forming a carcinogen called nitrosamine in the stomach. But, despite what you may hear, nitrates are not to blame.


So while it's probably smart to limit your intake of cure meat, at least now you know not to waste your money on supposedly "nitrate free" foods that aren't really free from nitrates at all.

Oct 20, 2014

When You Just Want to Quit

It's no secret that being a stay at home mom is not for wimps. In fact, very probably, it's the toughest job ever. I'm the first one to admit that some days I just want to quit - run away from home and let someone else deal with the children and the housework. I'm sure you've been there, too. But a Proverbs 31 Woman knows she can't just give up. So what should she do when she just can't take it any more?

1. Pray. Stop everything and go find a quiet place to pray. I know that's easier said than done (!), but as the Nike ads used to say, "Just do it." If the kids are likely to hurt each other or themselves, separate them in their own rooms, or put some safely outside in the yard and some in their rooms. Or, stand in the midst of the chaos and pray aloud. You need Jesus. Right. Now. Pray for help, certainly. Pray for a new perspective, too. But also just dwell in God's presence and focus on the blessings he's given you.

2. Examine your self talk. Our thoughts about our situation and ourselves are often downright mean.Our self talk can also be accusing, which means it's directly from Satan, not God. But when we're stressed and exhausted and the kids are making us crazy, we need to stop and THINK about what we're thinking. Acknowledge parts of your self talk that aren't from God, drop them, and meditate on what God really says about your situation.

3. Focus on others. If we're feeling sorry for ourselves, we are too self focused. If we are mad at others, we are probably too self focused, too. The Bible tells us to have the heart of a servant. This isn't easy, but we can train ourselves - with God's help - to think of others before ourselves.

4. Focus on serving God. This is the ultimate goal of a Proverbs 31 Woman - and, thank goodness, God doesn't expect perfection.

5. Immerse yourself in God's word. This can be really tough if your children are little, but it's vital to being a good mommy, wife, and daughter of God.  Click here for tips on finding time to read the Bible; also be sure to read this post about a Proverb 31 Woman's priorities.

6. Ask for help. If you're like me, it's really, really hard to ask other people to help you. But it's just flat a myth than women can "do it all." Lean on your friends; that is part of why they are in your life. Ask your parents or in-laws for help. Ask the church for help. Ask for a few hours of alone time to sleep, pray, have peace. Ask for help cleaning your house. Ask for help because you are depressed. Help. Is. Out. There. Take advantage of it.

What do YOU do when you just want to quit?


Oct 17, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: George Seurat

George Seurat's most famous painting is Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.
George Seurat: b. December 2, 1859 in Paris, France (find it on the globe) d. March 29, 1891 (age 31) in Paris, France

Style: Pointillism, Neoimpressionist

See some of George Seurat's most famous paintings here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask:  What's the first thing you notice about George Seurat's paintings? Do you see all the little dots he used? Look at them up close. Now look at the painting from far away. What do you notice about the dots? How is Seurat's work different from other artists' we've studied? How is it similar? What do you think the artist was thinking and feeling while he painted? How do his paintings make you feel? Be sure to take an especially good look at Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte; there are many details in this picture. Can you find the monkey? The solider? How many dogs and boats are there? Who looks relaxed? Who doesn't? What do you think the artist is trying to say about the many different people in the painting?

* Biography of George Seurat
* Longer bio of Seurat
* Coloring page: Sunday Afternoon detail
* Coloring page: Sunday Afternoon (see also; this, too)
* Coloring page: Bathers
* Video: Artregeous with Nate: George Seurat
* Great art is often mimicked; see this muppet version of Sunday Afternoon
* Activity: Easy pointillism for kids
* Activity: Q-tip pointillism
* Activity: Sticker pointillism
* Activity: George Seurat online jig saw puzzle


Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.



Oct 15, 2014

Improving Crock Pot Food: Making Better Recipes

As a busy mommy, you better bet I use my crock pot. But both my husband and I agree: Meals from the slow cooker are not our favorite. They tend to have a certain sameness about them - and often the flavor is a bit more on the bland side. Still, the crock pot really saves the day when I know I won't have time in the evenings to cook dinner, so I've been researching and experimenting with ways to make our slow cooker meals taste better.

* Saute! A lot of crock pot recipes call for throwing onions, garlic, and bell peppers into the crock pot raw. For much better flavor, saute them first: Melt some butter in a skillet. (If you prefer, use olive or coconut oil.) Once it's melted, add the onions and saute until transparent. (Or, for even more flavor, saute until they are caramelized and brown.) If the recipe calls for bell peppers, add them to the skillet and saute a minute or two. Finally, if the recipe calls for minced garlic, add it and saute until it's golden. Then and only then should you add these vegetables to the crock pot.

* Brown first. Most meats should be well browned before putting them in the crock pot. (An exception is poultry.) This adds flavor, and it gives the meat a better texture.

* Go bold with seasonings. With crock pots, your finished meal will come out much more tasty if you use at least double the seasonings. For example, if you have a stove top meal you've converted for the crock pot and it calls for 1 teaspoon of chili powder, use 2 teaspoons when you cook it in the slow cooker. And if you try a crock pot recipe that seems bland to you, go ahead and double the measurements for all the seasonings.

* Go last minute. Last minute additions to the crock pot can add a lot of flavor. For instance, if a recipe calls for cilantro, don't add it until a few minutes before you're ready to serve the meal.

* Garnish. Using fresh garnishes can also add punch to crock pot meals. For example, try using a few fresh herbs, just chopped, on top of each serving. Or use fresh salsa, just-chopped green onions, or just-grated cheese.

* Go for crispness. If you're using root veggies like carrots, cut them into large pieces. For other vegetables, try adding them about a half an hour before the crock pot meal is done cooking. These tricks keep the veggies from getting mushy and bland.

Do you have any tips for making crock pot meals better? Tell us about them in a comment!



Oct 13, 2014

How to Make Small Batch, Fermented Sauerkraut

Earlier this year, I read that fermented foods contain 100 times more probiotics (substances that stimulate the growth of microorganisms that have great health benefits once consumed) than probiotic supplements. I knew then I really needed to try my hand at making sauerkraut. The happy news is, making fermented sauerkraut is really, really easy. Even though fermented foods may seem strange and new to us today, the fact is that people have been making and eating fermented foods for thousands of years - and without a bunch of fancy gadgets!
I considered buying a fermenting crock for this project - but frankly, they are pricey. And no one in my family had ever eaten fermented sauerkraut before (the stuff you buy in the store is heated and canned, and therefore all the probiotics are dead). If it turned out no one would eat my sauerkraut, I didn't want to spend much money on it. So I decided to use what I already have on hand - canning (mason) jars. (Don't have canning jars? You can use any clean glass jar - for example, an empty mayo jar.) A bonus to using mason jars is that the kraut ferments more quickly - so you can have ready-to-eat food within just a few days.

The results were terrific. Everyone in my family - including the kids! - loved the sauerkraut. I'll definitely be making more.


What You Need to Make Small Batch, Fermented Sauerkraut

Cutting board
Knife
Large bowl
Wide mouth quart mason (canning) jar
8 oz. jelly jar
Marbles or clean pebbles
Cloth (I used cheesecloth, but a clean dishtowel or large fabric scrap works, too)
Rubber band or string

1 cabbage head, any type, approximately 3 lbs., hard outer leaves removed and set aside (If you buy your cabbage without the harder, outer leaves - which is common if you're shopping at a grocery store - that's fine.)
1 tablespoon canning or kosher salt


How to Make Small Batch Sauerkraut in a Mason Jar

1. Make sure everything you use - from the Mason jar to the cutting board - has just been cleaned in hot, soapy water. Or, you can run all your tools through the dishwasher.

2. Cut the cabbage head in half, then cut each half in half again. Cut away the core, then slice the quarters thinly. (You can use a mandolin or cabbage slicer for this job - but from experience I can tell you that mandolins with plastic spikes in the handle don't work well with cabbage; they simply don't hold the cabbage firmly enough to make using the mandolin safe.)

The cabbage after slicing.
3. Place the cabbage slices into a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top. Use your hands to massage and squeeze the cabbage. Within 5 - 10 minutes, the cabbage will look limp and there will be liquid in the bowl. The contents of the bowl should look something like coleslaw.
The massaged coleslaw will produce liquid in the bowl.
At this point, you may add seasonings, if you desire. I added 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds; next time I'll reduce that amount by about half. Other common sauerkraut seasonings include mustard seeds, bay leaves, and coriander. But remember, seasonings are totally optional.

4. Pack the cabbage into the mason jar. I found it was easiest to pick up about a tablespoon of sliced cabbage at a time, then drop it in the jar. Occasionally, press down firmly on the cabbage in the jar. You want to get as much as possible in there - without making the juices (or the cabbage) overflow the jar. My cabbage head was a bit larger (about 4 lbs.), so I had a little too much for one mason jar. If you have this problem, simply use an additional jar for the excess.
The sliced cabbage, packed in jars.
5. Pour the liquid in the bowl over the cabbage in the jar. Press down on the cabbage again.

6. If you have the harder, outer leaves of the cabbage, place part of one over the top of the sliced cabbage in the mason jar. This step is optional, but does help keep the sliced cabbage under the liquid in the jar - the key to getting fermented sauerkraut and not moldy cabbage.
Covering the sliced cabbage with a hard, outer cabbage leaf. (An optional step.)
7. Fill the jelly jar with marbles and place the jar inside the larger mason jar, on top of the cabbage. This jelly jar will weigh down the sliced cabbage, keeping it under the liquid in the mason jar.
Jelly jars filled with marbles or clean rocks keep the cabbage under the liquid.
8. Cover both jars with a cloth, secured in place with a rubber band or string. This keeps bugs, dust, and so forth, out of the sauerkraut.
Keep the jars covered.
9. For the next 24 hours, check on the sauerkraut occasionally and press down on the jelly jar. This helps release more liquid from the cabbage. I used a just-harvested cabbage, and had plenty of liquid in my jars. But if, after 24 hours, liquid does not cover the cabbage in the jar, make your own liquid: Dissolve 1 teaspoon of canning or kosher salt in 1 cup of warm water and add it to the mason jar. Again, keeping the cabbage under liquid makes sure it's fermenting, not rotting.

10. Ferment. When the sauerkraut is done is mostly a matter of personal taste. Because you're fermenting in a small jar, your kraut might be done in as little as three days. Mine took a little over a month before I was satisfied with it.
During fermenting, keep the sauerkraut out of direct sunlight and at a cool temperature - about 65 - 75 degrees F. Check the jar every day to ensure the cabbage is under the liquid. (If it's not, press down on the jelly jar until the liquid rises, or add more liquid, as in step 9.) It is normal - in fact, a sign that the cabbage is fermenting - to see bubbles in the jar and white scum on top of the cabbage. You should not see mold, however. (If you do, scoop it out right away and discard the cabbage that touched it. The rest of the kraut is fine.)

11. Refrigerate. When the sauerkraut tastes good to you, remove the jelly jar, put a lid on the mason jar, and refrigerate it. The sauerkraut will stay good in the refrigerator for at least a couple of months.

You can also make larger batches of sauerkraut - with more mason jars, or with a fermenting crock. Just be sure to keep the proportion of cabbage and salt the same.

What about Canning Sauerkraut? Kraut can be canned - but canning it kills all those good-for-you bugs. And since sauerkraut lasts a long time in the fridge (and since cabbage keeps for many months in the fridge or a cool location), I prefer not to can it.



Oct 10, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Michelangelo

Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarotti): b. March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Italy (find it on the globe) d. February 18, 1564 in Rome, Italy (find it on the globe)
Michelangelo is most famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This part of that painting, known as The Creation of Adam, is probably the most recognized work of Michelangelo.
Style: Renaissance

See some of Michelangelo's famous paintings here; click here to view some of his other art.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: Does Michelangelo's work remind you of any other artist we've studied? Why or why not? What kinds of stories does Michelangelo's art tell? Are they realistic or not? What kinds of colors and brush strokes and shapes does he use? How do his paintings make you feel? See if you can find out how big some of Michelangelo's paintings were.

* Biography of Michelangelo
* Longer bio of Michelangelo
* Fun facts about Michelangelo
* Coloring page: The Creation of Adam (also here)
* Coloring page: Delphes Sylphide
* Coloring page: Misc. Sistine Chapel images 
* Coloring page: head of David
* Video: Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (from Book of Virtues)
* Video: Dropping in on Renaissance Artists
* Video: The Sistine Chapel
* Activity: Paint on the "ceiling" like Michelangelo (see also)
* Activity: Make a sculpture from soap
* Activity: Make a fresco, like Michelangelo


Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Oct 8, 2014

10 Ways to Make Doing Dishes Less Miserable

Dishes. Ugh. It just always seems the sink is full of them. So much so, I've developed a real dislike of dish washing. But that attitude only makes the job harder, so lately I've been focusing on a few little tricks that make doing dishes a lot less miserable:


1. If you have a dishwasher, develop thankfulness! Remind yourself how much less you'd like washing dishes if you had to do them by hand. Remind yourself that many women throughout the world wash all dishes by hand. Every. Single. Day. (If you don't have a dishwasher, take heart, and read on.)

2. Envision dish washing as a time for prayer. Or as prime time for contemplating Bible passages or memorizing Bible verses. Busying your brain with something else - especially something that's spiritually enriching - makes dish washing time fly by.

3. Try to reduce the number of dishes you use. For example, when you're cooking, instead of using a bowl, then tossing it in the sink, hand wash it and reuse it later in the cooking process. You might also consider how your family uses cups and glasses. At our house, I encourage my children to put their cups on the kitchen table (at their assigned seating spots) and re-use them throughout the day. You might even assign each family member a different color cup so they can more easily keep track of what's theirs. (Because if they can't find their cup - you guessed it! They are gonna go grab a fresh one from the cupboard. And yep, that means more dishes to wash.)

4. Don't put off doing the dishes. It only makes the job harder and longer. Instead, do dishes after every meal.
Be thankful. You could be doing dishes by hand. On the street. With no running water. Courtesy Steve Evan, Wikipedia.
5. Hand wash what's left over. If you have a dishwasher, but not all the dishes fit into it, don't let the dishes sit in the sink. This just means the next time you run the dishwasher, you probably won't have room for them again. Hand washing those few dishes doesn't take long, and it's much more encouraging to see a clean sink.

6. Remove clean dishes from the dishwasher as soon as they are clean. It really takes very little time, and it makes the next point possible.

7. As you dirty dishes, put them in the dishwasher. This keeps the kitchen looking cleaner and breaks down the job of dish washing into shorter periods.

8. And if the dishwasher if full of clean dishes, by all means use those dishes, rather than dishes from the cupboard. It saves a step!

9. Time yourself. If you hate doing dishes, chances are you have an inflated idea of how long it takes to do them. If you time yourself and discover it only takes 8 minutes (for example) to do them, you're more likely to tackle washing dishes instead of putting them off.

10. Start teaching your children to do dishes as soon as possible. No, a five year old can't do dishes all by himself. But you can start teaching him how to put glasses and plates in the dishwasher, or how to dry and put away utensils. Eventually, your children will know an important life skill - and will be able to take over the chore of washing dishes. (Yay!)

Courtesy Granny Enchanted, Wikipedia.
Top image courtesy Mysid, Wikipedia.


Oct 7, 2014

Walmart Savings Catcher: How to Double Your Money

Last month, I posted about using Walmart's "Savings Catcher," a program that checks your grocery bill against sales flyers from other stores, giving you money back if it catches any better prices. As I typed then, I haven't been too thrilled with the results. But I just learned about a special "Savings Catcher" feature that's definitely worth sharing: You can double the amount of money Walmart offers you back - quickly and easily.

When you log into your "Savings Catcher" account, click on "My Reward Card," then "choose redemption method." From there you will see you can either get a Walmart gift card OR you can double the amount of money you'd get back by having the money put on a Bluebird account.

Bluebird is a program offered by American Express and Walmart - but it's not a credit card. It's an online only bank. There are no monthly/yearly fees, no minimum balance, no fees for being inactive, and no overdraft charges. They don't even check your credit in order for you to open an account. You can read more about Bluebird on their website.

The only down side, as far as I can see, is that you must enter your social security number when you set up your account. This is required by Federal law, but it's enough to make me not participate in this program. (I don't want that information available online - even on a secure site.) BUT for those of you who aren't concerned about this, the Bluebird program is an excellent way to double your "Savings Catcher" money.

What do you think? Have you tried Walmart's "Savings Catcher" program yet?