Celebrate Your Independence with Cookout Leftovers

After the fireworks have faded and the charcoal in the grill gone cold, you know what comes next at your 4th of July cookout: the annual distribution of the leftovers.  If you're a guest, you're eying that bowl of potato salad shyly, waiting to see if the host wants it.  Maybe you sneak a few cupcakes out on a paper plate, alongside a stack of hot dogs.  Or you're the hostess, and you're desperately trying to push off baked beans, seven layer dip, and bratwursts on overfed guests, while secretly nurturing fantasies of waking up on the 5th and having a breakfast of cold grilled meat and tortilla chips.

Whichever side of the grill you were on, you know that 4th of July is one of the great underrated holidays for leftovers.  Thanksgiving and Christmas, with their turkey, ham, and buckets of mashed potatoes, get all the glory, but Independence Day's mid-summer smorgasbord of backyard delicacies is not to be sneezed at.  But, of course, that leaves you with the same conundrum that characterizes the more famous holidays for leftovers; how does a health-conscious person reconcile the desire to eat all those leftovers with the need to stick somewhere close to the dietary high road?

First step--let yourself off the hook for what you ate at the actual cookout.  If you're eating well most of the time, there are worse things than indulging in some beloved treats on a national holiday.  The morning of July 5th is, literally, a new day.  So step forward with your head held high, secure in the promises of our Founding Fathers and confident in your own good choices as you try some options like those below.

- Wrap your reheated hot dogs in big leafs of Romaine lettuce instead of white hot dog buns.  Feeling ambitious?  Top your dog with some chopped tomato, fresh garlic, pepper, and sea salt.

- Take the fish and veggies off the skewers you grilled them on, and stir fry with some rice, coconut oil, any other available veggies, an egg, and some curry paste for an impromptu kedgeree.

- Replace your breakfast bagel with some of that potato salad, cooked carefully in a skillet for the potatoes to get crispy, and serve alongside a boiled egg and some freshly sliced tomato.

- Crumble your cooked burgers and add to some gluten-free or whole-grain pasta, along with some olive oil, fresh tomatoes or tomato sauce, and sautéed onions, garlic, and crushed red pepper.

- Just eat the baked beans already.  That's not the healthiest way to eat your legumes, but there are plenty of worse options and very few ways to clean up the cookout's relatively healthy stalwart.  If you have had enough meat for awhile, try serving the beans with some of summer's ripest, freshest veggies: pan-fried green beans, sautéed and seasoned squash or zucchini, and some roasted onions, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes.

Make Your Meal Kit Work For You

To whomever dreamed up the concept of home-delivery meal kits, I salute you.  Blue Apron has not only fed me when my refrigerator was otherwise bare--a common occurrence, given my long-standing challenges with planning ahead--but it has also, amazingly, taught me to cook.  Thanks to the good people behind my weekly delivery, I can now make pasta sauces, fancy salads, and all kinds of cool fish dishes from scratch, no recipe needed.  I've tried veggies and flavors I never would have otherwise.  I've even impressed my mom a time or two.

For those of you unfamiliar with the meal kit concept, here's a quick overview: you get all the ingredients you need, in exactly the right quantities, in a nicely-packaged box delivered to your doorstep, complete with highly photogenic recipe cards and typically a few tips on cooking technique and wine pairings.  Then you play home chef, and within 30-60 minutes--depending on your skills with a knife--you have a colorful, flavorful, and typically unfamiliar meal on the table.  

Meal kit services generally tout the quality of their ingredients.  You may not be eating fully organic, but your meat will typically be sustainably raised and hormone and antibiotic free and your produce grown with equivalent care.  You'll feel good about what you're eating, and rightfully so.  But that doesn't mean if will necessarily help with weight loss or other health concerns.  So if you want to explore the meal kit world--and I highly recommend that you do--here are a few tips for how to diversify your menu and fine. tune your culinary skills while still pursuing your diet goals.

Just a note: the options for meal kit services seem to grow by the day, and I should mention here that I haven't tried any others.  This isn't meant to be a comparison of options or a recommendation of Blue Apron above its competitors.  The recommendations below are based on my experiences with Blue Apron, because that's what I know, and can generally be applied to other services as well.

Plan Ahead - Check your menu options before they ship, and pick the options that work best for you.  Most services will clearly note which recipes are vegetarian or vegan, and some may also indicate which fit with common dietary preferences, like paleo, Mediterranean, or ketogenic.

Pay Attention to Serving Sizes - Most meals will make either two or four servings.  At the risk of redundancy, that means those meals should serve either two or four people, or one person two or four times.  This isn't always easy to adhere to.  I know that if Blue Apron sends me gnocchi, that's one meal, no matter what the recipe card says.  But be aware, and try to follow the guidelines on this one.  If needed, serve yourself half the final product and pack the other half safely away for leftovers before you even start eating.

Go Easy on the Oil  - Olive oil is a healthy fat, but that doesn't mean quantity doesn't count.  If you're a culinary newbie, you will probably be tempted to err on the abundant side when using your olive oil or other cooking fat.  Restrain yourself, and start small.  You can always add more.  You can't take away what's already there, though, and you risk making a good meal unnecessarily greasy, plus adding unnecessary calories to your dinner.  While we're on the subject, treat salt the same way.  Adding salt and pepper at every step can easily lead to too much.  Give your heart and your kidneys a break, and maybe use less than you think, adding more as you need bit,

Stretches for When Your Neck Hurts That Bad

We really do ask a lot of our necks, every single day.  We don't rest them enough, we slouch, we force them to bend forward and look at our phones way too much.  We carry all the stress of our daily lives up there.  And to top it all off, we ask them to hold up our heads our day.  

We can't really blame them for getting extra stiff and sore sometimes.  The next time your neck starts fighting back, try a few deep breaths and a couple of these stretches for some relief.  Plus remember to drink plenty of water and maybe use some ice or heat for extra help.  

- Drop your chin to your chest and slowly roll your neck to either side.  Breathing through the motion, go to your point of comfort and pause for an extra slow breath at any point of resistance or discomfort.  If your neck will allow, slowly and carefully roll it in a complete circle, looking up to your point of comfort at the 180 degree mark.  Repeat series in the other direction.

- Reach your left hand up over your head to lightly press your fingers against your right temple. Gently press your head over toward your left shoulder until your point of comfort.  When you reach a stopping point, pause, breathe, and gently tip your chin down toward your collarbone and back up toward the sky.  Repeat on the other side.

- Lying flat on your back, withheels, hips, and shoulders on a yoga mat, carefully shimmy your heels and shoulders to the left, keeping all three sets of joints facing the ceiling until you feel a stretch up the right side of your body.  Reach your right arm over your head, lying flat with your shoulder relaxed, and turn your head to look left.  Breathing slowly and deeply, scan your body for points of tension or resistance, and focus on relaxing them.  Remain in that position for up to 5 minutes or until your point of comfort.  Slowly return to a neutral position, lifting your right arm with your left hand before returning both arms to your sides.  Pause for a few seconds before repeating on the other side.

- Find child's pose, kneeling on your shins and folded forward at the hips so that your forehead approaches or finds the floor and your arms are extended and relaxed in front of you.  Spread your knees apart so that your upper body can soften and relax, letting your spine extend and more of your chest rest on the floor with each breath.  Let your neck muscles relax, with the rest of your body and head fully supported,.  After several breaths, slowly turn your head to the right so your left temple lies on the floor; take a few deep breaths before slowly returning your forehead to the floor and slowly all the way through to the left.  Spending several breaths in each position, remain in child's pose for up to 5-6 minutes or your point of comfort.

Note: These stretches are only appropriate for those in good health.  If you have an injury or other medical condition, consult a doctor first.  If you feel pain, discontinue stretching immediately.

Ten Tips for a More Energetic Day

Keeping your forward momentum through a long day can be hard, even when you've gotten a good night's sleep and are busy with things you enjoy.  Work, life, family, and home are a lot for anyone to handle, and if you're like me, with a sky-high caffeine tolerance, you may be reaching for that afternoon coffee fix out of habit instead of hope.  The next time you find yourself sleepy and sluggish, try one of these options for a pick-me-up that costs less than a latte.  For more of a boost, try incorporating several of them into your day.  Got other ideas for getting a little more go?  Let us know!

1) Start Your Morning with Some Nice Easy Stretches - A minute or two of a forward fold, rag doll, and a couple side bends will get your energy moving and muscles alert, plus help get the kinks out so you can move with more enthusiasm and freedom all day.

2) Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate - Even mild dehydration can make your cells' performance sub-optimum.  Give your body the water it needs to be the finely-tuned machine you need.  Try 8 ounces first thing in the morning.  Feeling really brave?  A few drops of a chlorophyll supplement mixed in can amplify the results of good clean water.

3) Get Outside. More Than Once. - Tons of bodily processes depend on lighting and other environmental cues to work correctly.  Spending your whole day inside, moving from one artificial light source to another, can screw that up in lots of unpleasant ways.  Try getting outside for a few minutes of early morning sunlight, take a walk outside after lunch, throw a ball for your dog before dinner.  Give your body and brain some natural light and fresh air and see how you long the positive effects last.

4) Move. Seriously, Move. - Your body was built to do things, not just carry you from bed to couch to car to desk as a vessel for your brain and your mouth.  Give your body what it needs and take it out for a spin every now and then.  It doesn't take 30 minutes of interval training at the gym; just look for more opportunities to move.  Take the stairs, hand wash your dishes, walk to the grocery down the street.

5) Do What Your Alarm Tells You - Ever wake up 30 minutes before your alarm goes off and think to yourself that if you feel pretty good now, you're going to feel even better with another half-hour of rest when you have to actually get out of bed?  It never works that way, though.  You go back to bed, sleep through your alarm, and wake up an hour late feeling like your cat's been walking on your face all night: puffy-eyed and exhausted.  For complex reasons involving sleep cycles and psychology, that extra bit of not-quite-sleep does your energy more harm than good.  The same thing goes for the snooze button; pushing it every nine minutes until the last possible second before you're late for work doesn't get you more rest.  It just gets you more grumpy.

6) Go Easy On Your Blood Sugar - Every parent knows what birthday cake does to their kids.  It makes them tired, cranky, and totally unpleasant.  It does the same thing to you.  So go easy on your blood sugar.  Avoid simple carbohydrates--including your morning donut fix--and after you make it through a couple days of cravings, enjoy the extra energy you get from stepping off the blood sugar rollercoaster.

7) Talk to a Real Live Adult Human - Our brains respond differently to the stimulation provided by face-to-face interactions than to virtual conversations.  Give yours some new input and see how a good conversation or even just a friendly exchange with a stranger can liven up your day and freshen up your perspective.

8) Have Some Fun - True story: laughter burns more calories than no laughter.  Just a few minutes of fun can refresh your brain and revitalize your body.  So the next time your boss catches you watching a video about funny pygmy goats, tell her you're doing essential prep for that big client meeting this afternoon.

9) Schedule Some Wins, and Remember to Notice Them - You know that little boost you get when you check something off your to-do list or accomplish a long-delayed task?  Make that feeling work in your favor by pre-planning some satisfying wins every day and take a second to notice the things that you otherwise do without thinking.  Whether it's putting away all the laundry, sending that email you've been putting off, or getting to bed on time, take the time to acknowledge your accomplishment and appreciate the pep it puts in your next few steps.

10) Try Some Strategic Scents - Aromatherapy is officially a Very Big Deal.  And while everyone responds differently, try experimenting with some of the many scents widely reported to help wake you up and keep you going.  Try a candle or some essential oil in peppermint, a citrus like lemon or orange, or a bracing dose of eucalyptus.  Almost any fragrance could help you get that energy boost, based on your biology and background, but you'll probably want to try your floral options last.  After all, there's a reason so many relaxation products smell like lavender.

Do You Really Need a Fitness Tracker?

Short answer: No.

Real answer: It's complicated.

People have been getting and staying fit for much longer than they've been wearing high-tech gadgets that promise to help things along.  But as the rise of smart phone technology has fueled the proliferation of electronic devices that can count steps, calories, and heart rate--along with countless other features--it's only natural to wonder whether these trackers are the secret to reaching your fitness and weight loss goals.  In this case, though, that little bit of assistance doesn't come cheap, so before you drop a few hundred dollars on a tiny piece of digital dream fulfillment, it's worth thinking through whether this is something that will actually work for you.

Fitness trackers, like most accessories of the quantified self movement, will only be as helpful as you ask them to be.  Depending on your personality, getting a daily stream of detail about what your body has been up to will fall somewhere between mildly interesting and profoundly intriguing.  Just getting some numbers isn't going to get you fit, though.  You have to know how to use those numbers to set goals and take the right steps to make progress.  This is where a doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer, or health. coach can really come in handy.  They will help you set and reach targets that are appropriate for you, and your fitness tracker can give you the information you need to take those steps.

But notice the order of primacy in that sentence; setting goals and taking action come first, and collecting feedback from your fitness tracker is only a way to make that a little easier.  No fitness tracker on the market will overcome misplaced goals or an inappropriate process.  So if you're a person who likes seeing the actual data, or you're generally curious about how things are going in your body, or you're either new to the wellness game or have hit a plateau and need some assistance understanding your body's cues, go forth and track.  On the other hand, if you want to try things the analog way first, here are some tips:

- Use alarms and calendars to add structure to your day - Keep your overall activity level up by planning five minutes of stretching or walking every hour.

- Make activity your default - You always park at the back of the lot.  You never take the elevator for fewer than three floors.  You pull your own grocery cart and walk to that store that's just a short drive away.

- Do a post-meal body scan - Take a few minutes after eating to sit quietly and mentally scan your body.  Are you holding tension?  Do you have heartburn?  Did you overeat?   Does your breathing feel different?  Tune in to your body at this time of heightened internal activity and learn to notice how the outside world affects your insides.