A Year Of No Sugar: Post 50

May 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

I find myself writing things like “once again, we realize that sugar is in absolutely everything including your sneakers,” and “as I mentioned before, my kids are happily eating their carob chip cookies, and plotting their eventual revenge.”

I feel like I am, how shall I say this? Repeating myself. There are two reasons for this: one, because of the blog format, I can never be sure what the reader reading this sentence right now already knows, so I reiterate a bit to make sure they’re with me to a reasonable extent. The second reason is due to the very nature of eating. I mean, what else do we do as often as eating? Three times per day plus snacks… It’s really a wonder we get anything else done. When traveling it often seems to me as if, for the Europeans, work is just a brief respite between the real business of the day- coffee, lunch, and dinner.

I think often too, about the Little-House-on-the-Prairie days, when it was a full-time job just to get those three meals on the table, day after day after day… The stomach does not take a day off- and neither did Ma.

Which brings up the notion of monotony. In a diet which has added sugar entirely absent from it, variety equals morale; and we need morale or we risk mutiny on the bounty. Whereas in the past I’d relied upon the health food section of the cereal aisle to provide me with variety, nowadays I work a whole lot harder than that. Breakfast is the hardest meal in the no-sugar day as David Gillespie concurs in Sweet Poison. In fact, one of Gillespie’s five “rules” for living fructose-free is: “Be careful at breakfast.” Oooooo! Sounds like a good title for a new diabetic horror movie. SOOOO many breakfast foods are laden with an obscene amount of sugar that it’s no wonder we sometimes get confused: “Hey Mom, is this blueberry buckle for breakfast, or dessert?”

As if this weren’t bad enough, people delight in celebrating with “Sadie Hawkins”-style sugar too- sugar when you weren’t expecting it, such as having “breakfast for dinner”- pancakes with maple syrup- or “pie for breakfast”- which they do as an annual fundraiser in a nearby town. I’m all for fun and variety, but even before our Year of No Sugar began, the thought of having a nice piece of lemon meringue pie for breakfast makes me a little queasy.

But somehow, all this breakfast sugar isn’t supposed to count. No one thinks of having chocolate cake with ice cream for breakfast- ew!- but what is the difference between that and french toast with syrup or- if you’re at IHOP- chocolate chips and whipped cream?

So I work hard at breakfast. In the case of my youngest daughter- who is six and has been clinically diagnosed as “always hungry”- I’m actively competing with the school breakfast which features nifty things like Frosted Flakes and Goldfish Grahams with crystalline fructose (Better than just fructose! It’s like sugar heroin!) If I’m going to get her at least reasonably full before she encounters that sugar buffet, I’m going to have to be creative.

Therefore, whereas I used to sleepily throw three or four boxes on the table with some bowls, now I actively plan a loose breakfast rotation: soft boiled eggs and toast, yogurt with strawberries, oatmeal with bananas, toast with cheese and cantaloupe, bagels and cream cheese with slices of orange… occasionally I brew some peppermint tea, or my husband makes a frothy milk drink we call a “steamer,” (which we grew to love back when we used to make it with maple syrup.) This morning I sprang European “Ovaltine” on them (American Ovaltine has sugar in it) and the results were mixed: they loved it, but … the drink was so good it got them reminiscing about other delicious drinks they only distantly recall at this point: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, juice.

“I really miss having sugar,” Greta, our oldest, said with feeling, “It’s so hard.”

“Me too.” Ilsa agreed, lightly.

Then Greta had a thought which she hadn’t before.

“Hey- what will we do about Halloween? And Thanksgiving? And Christmas?” she was wide-eyed, preparing to panic.

Oh boy. “Well, we’ll have to be creative,” I began, “we’ll…”

“I love Halloween,” Ilsa broke in. Oh boy. Here we go, I thought, melt-down time. Where’s the Kleenex…?

“But,” Ilsa added, “what should I be? Should I be a monkey?”

And just like that, the conversation shifted and panic was averted. For now. I was amazed at Ilsa’s simple, unconscious reminder to me: sure, food is really, really important. But it isn’t everything.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 49

May 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

The other morning I asked if my younger daughter would like some bananas on her oatmeal. It was the kind of question we ask that is a total formality, in the vein of “Would you like to have an after school snack?” or “Would you like to go on that roller coaster?”

But Ilsa stopped me in my tracks. “No.” she said.

!

I was pretty sure I had misunderstood, so I asked her again.

“No,” she repeated. “Sometimes I like to have it without.”

!!

Oatmeal with Extras

Instead of asking her “who are you and what have you done with my six-year-old” I watched her eat an entire bowl of oatmeal with milk. Plain. And then, as if the forces of the universe hadn’t toyed with my sense of the proper order of things quite enough, my eleven year old came in and proceeded to do the very same thing.

This brings me back to the thought that I had a few months ago when we began our Year of No Sugar, namely, that contrary to our assumptions, perhaps children may have an easier time with the omission of sugar in their foods, since they haven’t had as many years to get addicted as us tall people.

However, if that isn’t sufficient evidence, I hereby present exhibit B: the popsicle experiment. Both kids have been mentioning that not having ice cream this summer is going to be one of the hardest parts of the project. Therefore, when I saw some plastic make-your-own-popsicle molds I jumped at the chance to replicate an ice-cream-ish-experience in our own no-sugar universe.

Our oldest, Greta, was especially excited and asked to make them… repeatedly. Folks, this child has the determination of a jack hammer. After a few days of not making popsicles I, in desperation, ran out and bought the ingredient we had been lacking: yogurt. We raced home and mixed up a batch of banana yogurt popsicles that were- hooray!- frozen by dinner.

You know where I’m going with this: they love them. The kit makes six popsicles, so we were set for a satisfying “dessert” for the next three nights. Next time around I tried to be a bit more creative, adding in fresh strawberries so they turned pink in the blender, (turning anything pink is always a good move in a house with two girls) and then adding some frozen berries to float randomly about like little prizes. Again- super big hit. Huge.

But here’s the kicker: the other night I tried one and- don’t tell the kids, but- I’m not as impressed as they are. They’re good, but… very icy. Like sucking on a milk icicle. And not… forgive me… sweet enough. Gasp!

So there you have it. I have officially become fussier than my kids. Which is a relief, because at least for the moment I can relax that I’m not ruining their lives… in this way. Of course, I plan to continue my groundbreaking popsicle research in the interest of making zingier cold treats, but basically that’s for my benefit. The kids are perfectly happy. Go figure.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 35

March 29, 2011 § 6 Comments

“Children today are increasingly dependent on junk food, fast food, and microwave meals, and they are disconnected from growing, preparing, and appreciating food. The family meal, once an important social ritual, is now endangered.”

-Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy

Getting our two kids on board for a year of no sugar hasn’t been exactly easy. Several months ago we were all driving somewhere when Steve and I first proposed the idea to the girls. They both promptly burst into tears.

“Well, that went well,” Steve said to me over the hysterics coming from the backseat.

Which is why I’m so delighted that our older daughter Greta has become somewhat more favorably inclined toward the No Sugar Project since we began on January first. Part of this has to do with her mercurial personality (“I love it!! I hate it!! What are we talking about!?!”), and part of it has to do with my attempt to give her more of an personal investment in the whole idea. She’s interested in writing, since it’s something her mom seems to do an awful lot, so when I proposed she keep a journal of her thoughts about our No-Sugar year her face lit up; I began to see a glimmer of hope for a perhaps-not-too-totally-awful year after all.

Since then she’s made three journal entries, which impresses me endlessly- totally unbiased parent that I am- and she’s given me permission to share some of the highlights with you.

“Today we ofishily started the ‘NO! Eat sugar Project.’” she writes in her first entry. “I’m so worryed about this. I know my firends already think I’m kind of weird… you need to know my family eats really healthy and so my friends think thats some what crazy. I mean. We don’t eat dorieados nor at fast food Places. Like for instance. I’ve never been to mcDonals & I’ve also never been to sub way”

The second entry is slightly less subtle: “I hate this project! I hate it! It’s know fair. Mom is taking all the sweets in the house and giving them away… And she’s giving away the caramel popcorn that Grandpa just gave us a week or two ago. I DON’T THINK IT’S FAIR!!”

My family is kind of weird: check. My parents are totally unfair: check. So far I think we’re doing fine in our preparation for the teenage years.

Then one night, as I was making dinner she asked me “Mom? What’s that word when you can’t figure out how you feel about something? Like when you feel more than one way about it?”

“Ambivalent?”

“Yes- ambivalent.”

Later on I realized she was writing another journal entry which began like this: “I feel more and more ambivalent about this project every day… I mean me and my family can only eat 4 kinds of cereal now.”

Be honest with me: does that scream “future therapy candidate” to you? Probably not… but that doesn’t mean I don’t obsess about possible future ramifications of our No Sugar Year for our children: who are the participants in this endeavor without a veto vote. Yesterday someone told me the project would be something “she’ll laugh about” when she’s twenty-five… which is a nice way to think about it: at worst, fodder for future stories about what her crazy-ass mom decided to do when she was ten. That I’m okay with. As my Mom used to say, “Tell your friends it’s my fault. I don’t mind. Blame it on me.” What a mom thing to say, to feel. I recall being endlessly impressed by her willingness to be uncool, to be the fall-guy for me. It isn’t until you get to be a mom that you realize there are so many things way worse than being weird, or uncool.

I must admit, however, that the end of Greta’s last journal entry is my favorite part, giving me a few hopeful glimmers to hold onto for now as we continue on our year-long journey: “We had pancakes this morning and boy were they good!! Even if we can’t put on maple surup.”

A Year of No Sugar: Post 33

March 22, 2011 § 4 Comments

After the harshest, wettest, and snowiest Vermont winter in recent memory, everyone I know is ravenously ready for Spring. It’s to the point that the sixty degree high on Sunday made us all delirious with hope, and conversely, made Monday morning’s rather ordinary snowfall seem much more ominous and depressing than it really ought to have been.

“It’s just a ‘sugar snow’,” my husband Steve announced. Apparently that was the word at Mach’s, our local general store, that morning. It’s a funny term I hadn’t heard before, and I wasn’t sure to what it referred: the fact that it literally looked like a sprinkling of sugar across the transitional brown and green mess of a landscape, or the fact that it’s “sugaring time,” when the rising and falling temperatures wreak havoc with the tree sap, allowing for the hallowed practice of maple syrup production to take place on scales large and small throughout the state.

It is hard to underestimate the impact that maple syrup, and it’s related products— maple (“Indian”) sugar, maple sugar candy, maple cream, maple “creemies” (soft ice cream), maple cotton candy, maple roasted nuts, and so on— have on the culture, economy, and collective unconscious of Vermont. Just look at our state quarter: a guy straight out of Vermont-stereotype casting, sporting a plaid jacket and sugaring with buckets the old fashioned way. (Although metal sap buckets are still used here and there, the preferred modern method for serious producers involves a much less bucolic plastic sap line which runs from tree to tree.)

If you’ve never had maple syrup fresh, by which I mean straight out of the boiling-down process, this is an experience you must try to have in your lifetime, because there is no other taste in the world like it. There is some sort of magic that is happening just then, as the water is evaporated out of the sap slowly, hovered over for hours in the warmth of the sugarhouse, that you can actually taste at no other time than right then. Likely, you will have wind burned cheeks and be stamping your muddy feet, when someone hands you a Dixie cup containing a tablespoon or two of warm, pure gold. Warning: your taste buds may very well be spoiled forever.

Every year our family looks forward to the best maple-themed event we’ve encountered yet: the Merck Forest annual maple sugaring breakfast. A fundraiser for this non-profit “working landscape” of cabins, trails, hunting, livestock and farming, the event featured their first warm syrup of the season poured liberally over some very good pancakes and sausage (which used to be from their own farmed hogs, but sadly is now brought in from elsewhere.) On this day, the large, recently-built sugarhouse is crammed with chairs and long tables, coats and mittens splayed everywhere, the air redolent with smells of sweet syrup, pork fat, and hot black coffee. The line always, always extends out the warm door and into the whiteness outside. Folks are arriving in their snow boots, on snowshoes, on skis or by horse-drawn cart. In the corner of the busy room are displays and dioramas explaining the sugaring process, as well as usually some young and fuzzy Vermont man strumming a guitar. Every so often a volunteer will take groups of kids outside to let them take turns tapping a tree.

When I saw the banner for the event this year hanging from Dorr’s red barn in Manchester, I was sad. Although there’s a lot I love about this project— trying an experiment, doing something differently and then writing about it, finding interesting new ways to eat, feeling healthier and more informed, bonding together as a family— I can’t say there isn’t a loss involved too. And because we are here in Vermont, that loss is inextricably intertwined with the sap of the maple tree. It would probably be going too far to say that we are alienated from our culture or our neighbors or our other family by our decision to shun sugar for a year, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that where there is gain, there must also be loss.

“It’s only for a year,” I say to myself, a little anxiously, hoping that for all the effort and denial involved that we will have found this experiment to be worth it in the end. “I mean, come on,” I think, “it’s only sugar, right?” Meanwhile the “sugar snow” lays delicately outside my window, waiting to melt.

—-

PS- At least we can still have great pancakes: this weekend Steve innovated his own version of a Joy of Cooking pancake recipe, omitting the sugar and adding in banana, blueberries and unsweetened coconut. You will truly not believe how good these are until you try them- they really are so good as to make the syrup issue superfluous.

Steve’s Heresy Pancakes*

Whisk together in a large bowl:

  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 bananas mashed with a fork
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • .5 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup unsweetened grated coconut
  • 1 cup blueberries, frozen is perfect.

Whisk together in another bowl:

  • 1.5 cups whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 large fresh eggs
  • .5 teaspoon vanilla

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and gently whisk them together. Heat pan to medium low and cook till both sides are nice and golden!!

(*what, no Vermont maple syrup? Heresy!)

A Year of No Sugar: Post 28

March 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

I had Walleye for lunch and dinner yesterday- a first for me. Apparently Walleye is very big out here in Minnesota.

But wait, you say, Minnesota? What happened to Philly? What, for that matter, happened to Vermont? Well, life moves pretty fast out here in No-Sugar Land…

So yes, Minnesota. Turns out my Dad’s back problems have reached epic proportions and it’s time for the experts to be superseded by the experts. So he and I have come to Mayo Clinic. I have been told that the Mayo Clinic employs 56,000 people in the city of Rochester, Minnesota, which leaves me speechless. (remember: I live in a thriving Vermont metropolis of around 1,000 people.)

And this also, of course, means more travel: the No Sugar Lifestyle’s no-so-best-friend. But I’m slightly better prepared this time: for one thing I had the foresight to leave the kids at home, with my husband. I have a much easier time with the concept of going hungry myself, than I do with imposing hunger on my children- especially when actual, viable food is staring them right in the face.

Also very helpful is the box of Kashi cereal I packed in my suitcase. One of the biggest lessons I learned on our trip to Philadelphia last week was that the hardest meal of the day for no-sugar is breakfast… hands down. Just take a look at it and you’ll see what I mean: there’s cereal (added sugar), toast or bagels (added sugar), juice (is sugar), waffles (added sugar, and that’s even before the syrup), muffins and danishes (oh, come on!),… Pretty much black coffee and eggs without toast and without bacon are what you get left with. Ew.

Which leads me to a confession to make on this account. Last week on our PA. trip the breakfast situation got so dire that I had to enact the “Philadelphia Breakfast Exemption” which read as follows: Don’t ask about the bread. Just don’t.

Evidently our hotel has never heard of the “complimentary breakfast” phenomenon that is sweeping the rest of the western world, so we ate almost every day at a small diner around the corner that felt very “retro”… two formica u-shaped counters were lined with swiveling chrome stools. Honestly, for the first time in our project I was too intimidated to ask about the sugar content of the menu items… I’m not sure if it was the Russian waitress with three stars tattooed behind her right ear, the two local guys who came in every morning and ordered coke with their French Toast, or the fact that there would simply be nothing left for us to eat but eggs with eggs and eggs on the side, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Instead, we stuck to the things we knew were safe: bland unsweetened oatmeal, grapefruit, and of course eggs. Okay, we had whole wheat toast and we had bagels. Judging by my experience at sugar-hunting to date, I’d say there was a really, really good chance there was some amount of sugar in those bread products. Which was why the “Philadelphia Breakfast Exemption” was key to our sanity. I was determined, however, not to let it happen again.

Having already learned my lesson the hard way, this week I felt prepared. I proudly smuggled my cereal into the complimentary breakfast bar this morning, brazenly making use of their styrofoam bowls, plastic spoons and paper napkins (evidently our hotel has never heard of the “catastrophic environmental meltdown” that’s sweeping the rest of the western world) as well as a heap of raisins which were originally betrothed to some instant sugar-containing oatmeal, before being abducted and eloping with 7 Whole Grain Nuggets at the last minute.

So I’m guilty of a shotgun wedding, I’m afraid. Well, at least they didn’t end up with the Walleye.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 19

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hooray! One month down; a mere eleven more to go. I thought this might be a good moment to pause and reflect on some of the things that are working for our family so far:

-Popcorn! We’re big on snacks around here, so in addition to the ever-present bowl of apples (local) and clementines (decidedly not), I’ve found popcorn to be a reliable no-sugar option. Whereas we used to buy a box of microwave bag popcorn at the supermarket fortified with about four-thousand mysterious ingredients, now we buy popcorn kernels by the pound from Ryan- a vendor at the Dorset Farmer’s market. We pop it with a little canola oil, add olive oil or butter and salt and voila! I never used to be a huge popcorn fan, but now I’m a new convert.

-Hummus!! The kids are big fans of this chick pea and tahini dip which never tastes right when we buy it from the store- I make it myself in the Cuisinart from a can of chick peas, some garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon juice and tahini. Paired with corn chips or crackers it goes so fast around here that I have yet to put any away in the fridge for later.

-Oatmeal made with milk and topped with fruit has become a breakfast staple. Sure, it’s a pain having to turn the stove on and actually cook before I’m even fully awake, but I’m getting used to it. In the last month we’ve tried oatmeal with fresh cut-up strawberries, blueberries and frozen organic raspberries on top. Raspberries seem to lend the best juicy sweetness to the oatmeal.

-Steve’s famous banana ice cream has been a lifesaver when we’re feeling deprived and in need of a dessert option. In the last month we’ve had it at least three or four times. We’ve lucky to have the Champion Juicer in our appliance arsenal, because I’m not sure how else one would achieve that soft-serve texture that it creates from the frozen banana flesh. We’re SO excited about it that we tried to make some for a friend and her kids a few nights ago even though we didn’t quite have enough banana-freezing time, and thus ended up with more of a banana pudding- which actually I thought was almost as good. (Our friend and her kids however- who aren’t as sugar-starved as we are apparently- seemed less than impressed.)

-Raisin cookies! In my mostly-fruitless search for some genuine no-sugar dessert recipes online, I found this recipe for cookies made with raisins and apples. You have to work a little harder than with most cookie recipes- the fruit gets cooked before being added to the dry ingredients, and the mixed batter must then chill in the fridge overnight… but it really does result in a cookie! Without sugar! Okay, this might be the banana pudding effect at work again; I probably wouldn’t try to stack these up against Nestle Tollhouse or anything, but for a no-sugar dessert these are sweet and chewy and definitely cookies. I wasn’t sure how I’d make a whole year without cookies!

Anything to not feel deprived. One pivotal thing I’ve learned over the last month is that so much of our battle is psychological: we’re often fine eating at home, but when we are surrounded by friends at school or skating or movie night at the school, all having snacks or treats we aren’t, suddenly things get exponentially harder. Therefore, when we’re at skating I make it a point to let the kids buy an apple or banana from the snack bar. No, the fruit isn’t organic, in fact it doesn’t even look very good, and yes, it is ridiculously expensive ($1.50 for an apple, anyone?) but when I suggested to my six-year-old that we could bring better fruit from home she objected immediately. “It’s more fun to buy it here, Mommy.” Okay. We aren’t buying the soft pretzels or hot cocoa or french fries or gatorade that everyone else is- but at least we can buy something from the concession stand too. And sometimes that can make all the difference.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 10

January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

“People will eat what’s cheapest and most available, and what’s cheapest and most available right now is food that makes people fat and unhealthy.”

-Dr. Andrew Weil

(from interview in The Sun issue 421)

After topping off at the gas station the other day the digital screen graciously effused: “Thanks for using.”

“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Like I have a choice.” And I was struck by the thought that sugar in our culture works very much the same way. Like it or not; we’re all “using” as they say.

To live in our culture, shop in our supermarkets, and eat in our restaurants is to buy into our national, yet utterly silent addiction to sugar. Exhibit A: the Health Food store/aisle (dum dum dum DUMMMMM!)

Look closely folks, is this really an alternative? Well, yes, in some ways it certainly is. Want organic, non-genetically modified marinara sauce or wild-caught, dolphin-free canned tuna (to the tune of $7 a tin)? Want breakfast cereal that educates your kids about the rainforest or biodegradable toilet paper? Free-range chicken and growth-hormone-free milk? Even if these products aren’t local, their commitment to a world that is more responsible in terms of our environment, animal welfare and our bodies is laudible.

But don’t assume that this is a free ride, no matter how much that can of tuna costs you. Better isn’t perfect, I’m afraid, and in more cases that you can possible imagine we’ve apparently traded sugar and high-fructose corn syrup for things which just sound a lot nicer: unsulphured molasses. Dehydrated cane juice. Apple-juice concentrate. Brown rice syrup. Even in “hard core” brands that health food aisle veterans know and trust like Mothers and Barbara’s… seek and ye shall find, I’m afraid. I spent freaking forever in the health food cereal aisle yesterday and out of several dozen boxes came up with two- TWO- that had no sugar of any kind in them. Undaunted, (okay, maybe a little daunted) I pressed on to the regular cereal aisle, composed of perhaps a hundred different choices and found one more (hooray for good ol’ shredded wheat!)

I know that as we go on in our project it will get easier- I’ll know the items to go directly to, and my shopping will occur with laser-like precision and speed. In the meantime, though, going to the grocery store takes fifty percent longer, is twelve times more frustrating, and leaves me sorely needing a nap.

••••

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