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Survive the Holidays by Starting New Traditions

One of my favorite Christmas memories involves food, naturally.

My grandparents–my dad’s parents–baked stellar cookies. Hundreds of them, it seemed. Cut-out cookies, freezer cookies (a sort of cinnamon snap) and lebkuchen (a traditional German molasses and spice cookie) were their specialties. Their cut-outs were exquisite. The cookie itself was quite tasty, but then each star, tree, reindeer, santa, snowman, angel, sleigh was slathered with a thick confectioner’s icing and decorated with all manner of non-pareils, jimmies and sugars. I don’t recall ever watching them bake and decorate, but I certainly remember enjoying the bounty.

Since their passing, I have attempted to replicate their cookies…even following their recipes. The results have been mixed, to say the least. My lebkuchen has come close, my effort to make freezer cookies was a tasteless failure and I don’t have the patience for cut-out cookies. My gingerbread men inevitably look like characters who wandered out of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

I love to bake, in part because of my grandparents’ example. And I really like to bake for others.

(DISCLAIMERS: Let me state clearly that I love to share food with others. I am not an adherent to the philosophy that food is love–as in, you show me love by cooking for me and I show you love by eating what you’ve cooked. Food is, in fact, food. I enjoy cooking it, eating it and sharing it. Let me also add that while I’ve written a lot about strategies for healthy eating, fitness goals and the like, I didn’t get fat eating a few cookies here and there. I got fat eating a lot of junk over a long period of time. A little–emphasis on little–splurge is okay, and actually a healthy strategy in itself.)

For the second year in a row, I devoted several dates of my Christmas vacation to baking. This bake-a-thon is a process I share with the lovely Sarah. She chooses the recipes, I bake them. Almost all of this year’s recipes came from the December 2010  issue of Good Housekeeping magazine featuring recipes from Ina Garten, Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart.  Each celebrity chef contributed three recipes.  I baked six of them: Ina Garten’s palmiers (Elephant Ears, a long-time personal favorite of mine) and coconut macaroons, Martha Stewart’s Vienna tarts, and Bobby’s Flay’s Mexican chocolate thumbprints, cranberry-organge streusel bars, and cherry pistachio blue corn biscotti. OK, Flay’s recipes all sounded outstanding. At the request of my sister-in-law, Cheri, I also baked cinnamon chip cookies.

The intent of the three-day bake-a-thon, and where the new tradition comes in, is that I bake the cookies to share with some of our closest friends. Last year was the first year of the bake-a-thon and I surprised our friends by leaving a box of treats on their front porches, along with a Christmas card from us. It was a lot of fun, so it was definitely something I wanted to do again.

Baking is like therapy for me. I admit to not being the most precise person alive, but because baking involves chemistry precision is required. Because I was baking by myself I could get totally lost in the recipes and the process of creating beautiful cookies. And, in all humility, they turned out beautifully. Here, courtesy of my friend Lola Alapo, is a photo of one of the tins loaded with tasties:

We prepared seven tins this year. We’ll take the extras to Sarah’s family this weekend and mind when I travel to Wisconsin next week. Given the response from Facebook and Twitter friends to my posts about the bake-a-thon, I’ll need to add to the list of cookie recipients next year–and start baking in October.

The bake-a-thon is a great experience…quality time preparing delicious food to share with people I care about is a gift for them and for me. There’s still time to find a new tradition before this holiday season is over, or to think about a new tradition for next year. Do something new. Whatever that something new is, the experience will make your holidays all the richer.

Merry Christmas!

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Survive the Holidays by Taking a Walk in a Festive Place

Many of us will be traveling this holiday season, and travel can often challenge our resolve to stick to a fitness or weight loss goal. My recommendation: wherever you are, go for a walk somewhere festive.

As I write this, I’m in Washington, D.C., and this city is seriously decked out for the holidays. Just yesterday, the First Family threw the switch on the lights for the National Christmas Tree. Although I didn’t want to get out in the crowds attending the lighting ceremony, I did want to see the tree, so last night I went for a walk to check it out:

One of the most beautiful spots to check out Christmas decor is The Willard Hotel, just a couple short blocks from the White House. Check out these pics:

Walking through the lobby of The Willard definitely put me in a holiday mood, but you don’t have to be in D.C. to go for a walk in a festive place. Downtown Knoxville’s Krutch Park, Gay Street, City-County Building, First Baptist Church and more are all decked out. And I defy you to keep your eyes off the rooftop trees all over downtown.

I’ll be traveling to my hometown of Racine, Wis., after Christmas and I’m looking forward to check out the Kiwanis Holiday Lights Spectacular at the Racine Zoo. The lights have been a Christmas tradition in Racine for over 25 years, and many of the displays once decked the yard of industrialist George Wheary. The zoo is a couple miles from my mom’s house, and my hope is to get out and walk down to the display and back.

Wherever you are, I guarantee you can find a festive spot to go for a walk, even if it’s a shopping mall.

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Survive the Holidays By Pausing to Reflect

Christmas requires a lot from us, doesn’t it? Decking the halls, cooking, baking, shopping, wrapping, sending cards, attending parties, going to church, shopping some more, making a list, checking it twice, and heading back to the mall. Buying the right gifts, cooking the food everyone likes, and fervently hoping this Christmas is the perfect Norman Rockwell moment we’ve always hoped for can be incredibly stressful.

What if we all stopped for a few moments each day and reflected, truly reflected, on the meaning of this season?

I reconnected with the concept of Advent a couple of years ago as a regular attender of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Knoxville. I knew vaguely of Advent from my upbringing in a semi-practicing Catholic home, but beyond making construction paper Advent wreaths I don’t recall really observing the season.

Advent is the four-week period of expectant waiting and preparation for the birth of Christ. The abiding emotion is anticipation, of both Christ’s birth and His second coming. Messiah is coming, and will bring with Him hope, peace, love and joy. Hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are sung. Scripture readings focus on the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, for example. 

I love Advent. To step away from the hustle and bustle of the holidays. To tune out favorite carols, turn off favorite movies and holiday specials, and, for just a moment remember what it’s all about makes Christmas all the more special to me.

While Advent is already underway, it’s not too late to grow your own sense of anticipation. A great devotional called In My Heart I Carry a Star, by Derek Maul, offers daily readings for the whole family. Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Preparing for Jesus provides readings from December 1 through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (which in some traditions marks the arrival of the Three Kings to Bethlehem). John Blase’s Touching Wonder is more of a 12-days-of Christmas approach to reflecting on the season.  For a challenge, try Phyllis Tickle’s Christmastide, which is a manual for praying the Divine Hours during Advent. I’ve been using Tickle’s manual and it’s definitely a challenge to stop and pray five times a day.

I don’t do it perfectly, but that’s not the point of the manual, any of the other tools I’ve talked about or of observing Advent at all. It’s okay not to be perfect (or legalistic, as some might say). It’s about intent, and heart. 

Put up an Advent wreath–or don’t. Use blue candles (Lutheran tradition), purple and pink candles (Catholic) or the color of your choice, frankly. Our wreath, which is porcelain, has green candles in it. It’s beautiful.

That’s the point. This season is beautiful, and it will be over before we know it. Savor it where you can.

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Survive the Holidays by Making Some Food Substitutions, Part 1

Thanksgiving is just over a week away and is the big kick-off for the season of food indulgence. I’m hoping to keep off the extra pounds during the season of gluttony by making some well-considered food substitutions.

One of my all-time favorite holiday foods is egg nog, but it’s so bad for the waist line. A cup of the average commercially prepared egg nog packs on 343 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 149.9 milligrams of cholesterol. All of that BEFORE you add the alcohol.

For your consideration, I offer up a worthy substitute in Silk Soy Egg Nog.

It’s still frothy and delicious, and a cup has just 180 calories, 4 grams of fat, and zero cholesterol.

In the coming days, I’ll offer up additional suggestions for less-fattening versions of my favorite holiday foods, as well as a recipe or two. We’re all in this together, right?

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Survive the Holidays By Setting a Fitness Goal

The holiday season is upon us, which means we’ll all be caught up in the food, family and fun this time of year brings. I’d like to add another “F” to that list: Fitness.

Avoid the pitfalls of holiday weight gain by setting a fitness goal. Nothing long-term or impossible here. I’m not talking “look like a cover model”-type goals. Rather, set a goal for something achievable that will keep you focused, healthy and a little less stressed this holiday season.  

  • Take an exercise class. Whether it’s yoga, spinning or any other form of group fitness two or three times a week, setting aside a couple of hours for working out can help you meet the food challenges that lie ahead this season. Don’t blow the classes off because “something came up.” Even the busiest of us can set aside time to take care of ourselves. If you can’t get to a class, workout to a favorite DVD or Exercise TV.
  • Walk or run with a friend. If you schedule an appointment to walk or run with someone you know, chances are high you’re going to show up. You don’t want to let your friend down, right? So, walk in the neighborhood, on a greenway or at a park. Added bonus: you can check out your neighbors’ Christmas decorations.
  • Train to walk or run a New Year’s Day 5K. Communities across the country are helping every day folks get the year off to a good start by offering run/walk events. Plan to participate, and then create a plan to train for the event. Web sites like www.active.com and www.coolrunning.com offer online training schedules for people at a variety of fitness levels. Here in Knoxville the KTC Walking Program meets every Tuesday and Thursday night at 6 p.m. The week after Thanksgiving we’ll begin training for the New Year’s Day race. For more information, visit www.ktc.org.
  • Train for a marathon or half marathon scheduled in early 2011. Like the run/walk events, there are marathons all over the country and it’s not just elite athletes who participate. Ordinary people do them too. The Knoxville Track Club begins training for the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon & Half Marathon on Saturday morning, November 20. The marathon itself is Sunday, April 3, 2011. Also, The Wellness Center at Dowell Springs will begin training on December 1 for folks participating in the Country Music Marathon  & Half Marathon on behalf of the American Cancer Society. That race is Saturday, April 30, 2011.

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Recipe: Comfort Food That’s Easy on the Waistline

Colder weather and the return of Standard Time with its earlier nightfall ushers our retreat indoors, and the return of comfort food classics like chilis, soups and casseroles.

Kornwolf Kasserole is a beloved recipe in my family. Over the years I’ve tinkered with my Aunt Donna’s original recipe, and it’s morphed into a healthier version of Shepherd’s Pie. And, it’s pretty easy to make. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

2 pounds lean (93/7) ground beef. You can also use ground turkey or chicken

3 14.5-ounce cans low-sodium mixed vegetables.

3 cans low-fat, low-calorie cream of mushroom soup

2 packages instant mashed potatoes (Betty Crocker makes a version of “Buttery” potatoes with just 80 calories per serving.)

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

In a large skillet, brown ground meat.

Drain vegetables and place in a large baking dish. Add soup and stir together.

When meat is browned, add salt and ground pepper to taste. Then add meat to to vegetable mixture. Stir together.

Prepare instant mashed potatoes according to package directions, then spread across top of meat and vegetable mixture. Place baking dish in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until juices start bubbling up around the edges of the potatoes. For a golden brown crust, place under broiler for five minutes.

This dish makes 12 servings. Each serving has 275 calories, 11 grams of fat and 4 grams of fiber. For Weight Watchers members, Kornwolf Kasserole has a Points value of 6.

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The Tale of the Bridge

Hard to believe it’s been three days since I crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps. Marathon.

Honestly, it’s hard to forget. In addition to earning a gleaming new finisher medal and a most excellent race shirt, I got a painfully large blister on the bottom of my foot. If you’ve seen Simon Pegg in “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” it’s kinda like that.

I’d post a picture but that would be nasty. Besides, this post isn’t really about the blister. It’s about perseverance.

There are two things to know about the marathon. It started promptly at 8 a.m. and all prospective finishers had to “Beat the Bridge” and reach mile 20 by 1:15 p.m., whereupon the 14th Street Bridge would be reopened to traffic. This would pose a challenge for someone walking the race as I was.

There were 31,000 runners. Getting all of us over the starting line took a long time–30 minutes for me. That meant I had 4 hours and 45 minutes to walk 20 miles. In training, I did 20 miles in 4:40. It was going to be close and I had to haul!

Going up the first incline (some people called it a hill, but this was no hill) I spied the National Cathedral in the distance. The cathedral is my absolute favorite place in DC. I took it as a sign from God that all would work out.

Still, I moved as quickly as I possibly could. I blew through the first half of the race, and tried to enjoy Georgetown, the National Mall and all the other great sights of this spectacular city.

The lovely Sarah surprised me at mile 14. She had never been to DC so i didn’t expect to see her. She told me my pace was strong, consistently a 13:30 mile. (She was getting text messages as I crossed every 5K mark. I love technology!)

Then, the mind games started.

At mile 15 one of the Marines (there were thousands of Marines on the course) warned all of us as we passed that we needed to be running if we were going to beat the bridge. We had about 75 minutes to travel five miles.

I could feel myself slowing down. My legs were stiffening. I wanted to stop and stretch, but I worried my legs would cramp up and I’d be toast.

I kept going.

The straggler wagons, school buses that would ferry runners off the course, showed up at mile 17, accompanied by a car with signs on it that warned athletes they needed to be in front of it.

I started freaking. I wasn’t in front of the car. I wasn’t going to make it.

I passed that car. Half a mile later, it pulled in front of me again. I was hacked off. I realized it was just a mind game. At 18.5 I learned I had 25 minutes to beat the bridge. But, my legs were still feeling tight.

Still, I kept moving. Someone on the sidelines shouted: “The bridge is around the next corner, you’re gonna beat the bridge.” In front of me, athletes began pumping their fists in the air and shouting.

We were going to beat the bridge! My friend Alissa met me at the bridge to walk with me to the finish line.

As we started over the bridge, I cried.

“I’ve trained specifically for this moment,” I said, my voice catching. “I don’t care how long it takes to walk the rest of this.”

Alissa didn’t care either. She was there until the end.

I let my pace slow so my legs could relax a bit. The stress was over and I could enjoy cruising to the finish with my fellow athletes. I could enjoy the crowds on the sidelines–the strangers offering candy, guys dressed like Cookie Monster and Elmo, people holding signs like “Marathons put the FU in FUN.”

I high-fived Marines, lots of them. I laughed with people in their funny hats.

Six and a half hours after starting the marathon, I crossed the finish line. My face was lit up like the Kool-Aid Man when one of the Marines draped my finisher medal around my neck.

It was an incredible day.