Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Vegan Spaghetti Squash Bread

When I had an office job, I used to delight in baking things to share with my coworkers.

It was win for everyone. I got to bake yummy food, which always made me happy. My husband got to sample said yummy foods (to make sure nothing was poisonous, of course), so he was happy. We didn't end up with an excess of yummy foods sitting in the fridge, making us hungry and tempting us to binge, which made both of us happy. My coworkers got to eat yummy food, which made them happy. And office morale improved, which made my bosses happy.

Many of my coworkers had religious restrictions against eggs on certain days, so I got into the habit of making nearly all of my treats vegan. It actually wasn't difficult to adjust to at all, and it made my life easier too; no eggs in the fridge = no problem! (And I hardly ever had eggs on hand; we just didn't eat them very often. So this was a good thing.)

Eventually, I kind of got into the habit of baking things that had fruits and veggies in them. It started with banana bread, no doubt; you can't go wrong with banana bread, since everyone loves it. Next came zucchini bread; everyone loved it, and I was hooked. Pumpkins, apples, carrots, pineapple, coconut, and even green tomatoes found their way into the things I baked. It got to the point where I'd bring food in, and people would ask me "So what's in it this time?"

It was fun. Really, really fun. And I still have not gotten tired of adding as many fruits and veggies as possible to things I bake.

And so last week, Bug and I baked up some spaghetti squash bread.

The best part of baking vegan? Absolutely no worries about eating the batter!

Hear me out here. I know it sounds weird. But pumpkin bread is a fall favorite. Butternut squash and other hard winter squashes can be made into muffins and pies and all kinds of yummy things. People don't even bat an eye at chocolate zucchini cake. (Or maybe that's just the people *I* know.) So why not turn spaghetti squash into a delicious baked treat? Don't leave spaghetti squash out in the cold just because it's got a weird texture.

I swear, the stuff just melts right into bread; it doesn't taste funny, and if you chop the cooked squash up before mixing it in, you can't find any little strands anywhere. This bread is delicious, and received full approval from my husband, my friends, and, perhaps most importantly, from Bug.

Bug wanted to get in on the picture taking action.

Spaghetti Squash Bread

1 cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ripe banana
¼ cup applesauce (unsweetened)
¼ cup canola or coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground flax seed
1 cup spaghetti squash

Note: Spaghetti squash needs to be cooked. You can microwave it whole for 10 minutes or until fork tender, or you can chop in half and bake at 350° F for 30-45 minutes. Remove seeds and use a fork to separate it into strands. You may want to chop it up some before using it to bake, if you think the long strands might weird you out. Or you could probably puree it.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

In a large bowl, mix together all dry ingredients (flours, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg).

In a smaller bowl, cream together banana, applesauce, oil, vanilla, sugar, and flax seed. (I used an immersion blender for this, although a fork should suffice, especially if the banana is good and ripe.) Dump into the dry ingredients, along with the spaghetti squash, and mix until just incorporated; some lumps are definitely okay, and as this is a quick bread, overmixing is bad. (Mine, however, did get a little overmixed, as Bug was the one doing the mixing. And it still came out just fine!) Fold in walnuts, if using.

Pour into prepared loaf pan and bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden on top and done all the way through (poke with a knife to make sure). Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Let cool for as long as you can stand to before slicing. Enjoy!

 This post is shared at the Healthy, Happy, Green, & Natural Party Hop on 1/27/2015 and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop on 1/28/2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What Do You Call It When...?

Or: 8 Pregnancy/Birth Things You've Heard About But Don't Know the Name For

The birth world definitely has its own lexicon. Some words you may have heard before you got pregnant: placenta, trimester, contraction. Some words have been given new or expanded meanings: presentation, heartburn, induction. Other words may have become familiar friends as you worked your way through books or your childbirth class: doula, perineum, fundus.

And then there are those words you can't quite remember, or maybe you never really knew in the first place. Words for things that came up during your pregnancy or a friend's, things you've read about, things that you know about from somewhere but that you just don't know what they're called. Want to expand your vocabulary a bit? Read on for a few of those words.

1.  Amniotomy.  This is an easy one. An amniotomy is the technical term for artificial rupture of membranes, otherwise known as when your caregiver breaks your bag of waters for you (as opposed to letting it break on its own).

2.  Chloasma.  Some women develop darkened patches of skin on their face while they are pregnant, a result of the extra hormones circulating in their body. This is generally known as the "mask of pregnancy," and is a common enough occurence to merit a mention in most pregnancy books, although I do not know many women who have ever experienced it. The technical term for this is chloasma, or sometimes melasma. And thankfully, it almost always disappears once baby has been born.

3.  Supine Hypotension.  You know how your caregivers tell you not to lie on your back starting at some point around the end of your second trimester? That's because the weight of your growing uterus will put pressure on your inferior vena cava, the vein that carries blood from your legs to your heart. This could cause a drop in blood pressure, reduce the blood flow to your placenta, and ultimately restrict oxygen to your baby. This blood pressure drop is known as supine hypotension. It *could.* But you don't need to worry if you flip onto your back while sleeping; chances are good that you won't actually harm your baby.

4.  Nil Per Os.  Most hospitals in the US have a policy of not allowing women in labor to eat or drink. This dates back to the 1940s, when it was discovered that aspirating food particles while under general anesthesia was a very real risk, and when general anesthesia was more common during labor for various reasons. It was believed that by withholding food and liquids, a woman who unexpectedly had to go under was at less risk. Nowadays, general anesthesia is much less common, and most anesthesiologists are much more skilled and use better techniques that minimize that risk. In recent years, there has been much research done that proves that NPO, which stands for nil per os (which is Latin for "nothing by mouth"), is no longer an evidence-based practice. Regardless, it is still standard of care in most hospitals.

5.  Valsalva Maneuver.  When you see people giving birth on television or in the movies, the pushing stage usually involves the woman being told to hold her breath and push as hard as she can for as long as possible. Right? There are various terms for this, such as "directed pushing" or "purple pushing," but this is technically known as the Valsalva Maneuver or Valsalva pushing. Well, if you really want to get technical, the Valsalva Maneuver is actually attempting to exhale against a closed airway and it has a few medical applications, not to mention being useful for "clearing" one's ears. But in the birth field, this style of pushing, which usually inadvertently produces the Valsalva Maneuver, is described using the same name.

6.  Nuchal Cord.  This is another straight-forward one. A baby born with a nuchal cord simply means that the umbilical cord was wrapped one or more times around baby's neck at birth. About a third of all babies are born with a nuchal cord. Contrary to popular belief, however, nuchal cords generally do not cause problems.

7.  Placentophagy.  During one of the childbirth classes I took when I was pregnant, I remember one of the other mamas blurting out something about crazy women who eat their placentas. My husband quickly grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly, silently warning me to keep my mouth shut. (There were a lot of instances in that class where I kept my mouth shut. That was definitely not the right class for me. But I digress.) Placentophagy is simply the act of consuming one's placenta after birth. The most common form in our society is encapsulation, where the placenta is dehydrated and turned into pills. (That's what I did. Yes, in case you were wondering, I totally ate my placenta.) Some people eat it raw, or cook it in some way. I'm not going to get too deeply into the why here, since there are plenty of perfectly good articles out there explaining it. (Try this one at Placenta Benefits.)  Nor am I going to go into whether or not it's effective. I just wanted to make sure you knew the practice has a name.

8.  Vascular Underfill.  One of the classic symptoms of early pregnancy is fatigue. Newly pregnant women want to sleep. All. The. Time. It makes sense though. You're growing a person, right? That's got to be taxing to the body! There's a little more to it than that, though. While a lot of things undoubtedly contribute to this tiredness, here's one cause that you have likely never thought of, or even heard of: vascular underfill. The gist of it is this: the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG; it's what a basic pregnancy test detects in your urine) causes your round muscles, including your blood vessels, to relax and dilate. Your blood vessels are actually bigger, but your body hasn't made the extra blood to fill them up all the way yet. Because your circulatory system is suddenly less efficient due to an underfill of blood, it has to work harder to get oxygen to different parts of your body. This results in you being more tired, feeling weaker, getting dizzy on occasion. This issue will resolve itself, sometime near the end of your first trimester or during the second, and then you'll feel much better. But isn't it nice to better understand part of the reason why you feel so fatigued all the time?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Of Toddlers & Housework

Welcome to the January 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Household Chores
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and tricks on tackling household chores. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.
My Little Bug loves to help with everything. All toddlers do. I think it must be hardwired into their brains.
Sometimes it seems like I can't do anything without my son offering his assistance. Putting away clean dishes: "I can help!" Folding laundry: "I fold too!" Taking out garbage: "I can carry." Feeding the cat: "I want to do it all by myself!"

And it's great. Really, it is. Except when it's not. Because honestly, Bug's desire to help creates a serious conflict in my head sometimes.

On one side is the desire to let him help. To help him to learn life skills firsthand, so that he will be able to do things for himself as he gets older, and so that he is not functionally useless when he moves out on his own someday (taking the long view here, I guess). To make him happy (because helping makes him practically giddy sometimes). To encourage him to do his part around the house. And also because I know that in ten years, there's a good chance he'll resist helping every time I ask.

On the other side is the urge to tell him to just go play instead. To get him out from underfoot. Because everything takes two or three times as long with a toddler "helping," and sometimes I just want to get things done in a timely fashion.

While I freely admit that sometimes the "go play" side wins, most of the time I try to find ways to let Bug help. There's a lot of household things I do that I definitely don't want my son having any part in just yet (the cat box is kept in the second bathroom, which he doesn't even have access to), but there are also a lot of things that he can help with, if I let him.

Tidying Up.  When it comes to decluttering, I definitely try to get my toddler involved. For one thing, most of the clutter lying around is due to him: a pair of socks carelessly abandoned in the bathroom, a little shoe in the kitchen, an empty cup on the bookshelf, toys everywhere. One can't expect to just tell a toddler to "clean up" and have him actually do any productive cleaning (it's too overwhelming of a concept), but you can offer little tasks one at a time. Put this in the kitchen. Now take this to the laundry hamper. Put this shoe by the door. Throw this wrapper away. Put all of your books on the shelf. Do you remember where your jacket goes? Can you put all of your Lincoln logs back in the bin? Let's put all of your Hot Wheels into the big truck.

Done this way, tidying up definitely takes a lot longer, but it also breaks down a task that can seem insurmountable to a toddler into steps that are manageable. And I keep hoping that one day he'll start to internalize some of the steps and clean up occasionally on his own. I can dream, right?

Laundry.  My current apartment does not have in-unit washers & dryers, which kind of sucks. But we manage. Bug likes helping me gather any dirty clothes that did not make it quite into the laundry hamper. We walk to the laundry room together, and then he helps me put the clothes into the washer, and then push the button to start the machine. He also helps me to move the clothes into the dryer, and he pushes the start button there too.

He likes trying to help me fold, although this is, admittedly, a task I usually still do myself when he's distracted with something else. Eventually, though, I plan on working with him more in this area, walking him through the steps for folding clothes properly and showing him how to put his own clothes away. But that will probably wait for awhile longer; at not-quite-3, he still has a hard time actually, you know, folding the clothes (rather than just crumpling them into a ball).

Dishes.  I always let Bug help put away dishes when possible, even though he has to ask where every single thing goes because he can never seem to remember on his own. What's harder to let him help with is actual dish washing. I do most dish washing by hand, and he really wants to help, but so far I've resisted. That's going to change soon; I recently bought Bug his very own sponge (technically a set of sponges; he chose ones that are green and pink and purple), and I plan to let him help with dishes every once in awhile. I figure I will have to make the water not quite as hot as I use when I'm washing dishes by myself, and I will have to supervise him closely (and, of course, not give him sharp knives or easily breakable things like glasses) to make sure the things he washes actually get clean.

Taking Out Trash/Recyclables.  Since we live in an apartment, we have to walk our garbage and recyclables out to the big dumpsters scattered around the complex. This is a task that Bug loves to help with. Well, when the bag is light enough for him to carry, anyway. I let him help whenever possible!

Feeding the Cat.  As mentioned earlier, I keep the cat box in our second bathroom, which is not accessible to Bug. The cat's food and water dishes are kept back there too, so it's normally out of his reach. But sometimes I will bring him back there with me so that he can fill up the cat's food bowl. I keep the cat food in a closed container, with a scoop inside for easy serving. Bug knows how to open the container, fill the scoop, dump it in the cat's bowl, put the scoop back, and close the container again. Someday, when I can trust him not to eat cat food or to play in the water bowl if left unattended, I will move the cat's bowls back to the kitchen and put Bug in charge of keeping them full.

Vacuuming & Sweeping.  Bug has always loved to "help" me vacuum. Actually, I know several other toddlers  who think the vacuum cleaner is pretty neat. Some days, I do let my son help me vacuum the carpets, but only on days when I am feeling very patient; his arms aren't nearly as long as mine, so it takes a long time to cover an entire room. I would love to someday get him his own kid-sized vacuum cleaner, preferably one that actually works. (Because what's the point if it's just a toy?)

Bug also loves to help me sweep, and I have been known to sweep the kitchen, use the dustbin to collect everything, and then hand the broom over to him so that he can "finish" the job for me. Thankfully this usually satisfies him... for now. Someday he'll figure it out, and then I'll have to change tactics. I want to find a kid-sized broom, too, since the full-sized broom is just a bit unwieldy for an almost-3-year-old to handle.

Cleaning Surfaces.  To be clear, I don't let my son handle any kind of store-bought cleaning sprays. (I'm planning to transition away from those eventually anyway.) For now, I stick to cleaning the bathrooms and I certainly would never let Bug near the oven. But, when using a homemade cleaner that consists of safe ingredients, I have no problem with letting my son wield a microfiber cloth to actually wipe a surface down (I still do the spraying). The main surface I let him help me clean (for now) is the table, but we will eventually be branching out; maybe I'll eventually let him help clean the cabinets, or the outside of appliances, or the glass doors on our bookcase.

What am I missing? How do you let your little ones help around the house? I'm always open to suggestions!
Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting! Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • Seven Tips for Decluttering with Your Clutterbug — Do you have a child with hoarder tendencies? Help them declutter before the Legos and stuffed animals take over your home. Charlie of Three Blind Wives, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, offers some expert advice.
  • Chores, Chores, ChoresLife Breath Present talks about how her family divides chores, and how Baby Boy joins in to keep their home clean and running smoothly.
  • Of Toddlers & Housework — Holly at Leaves of Lavender talks about some of the ways she lets her not-quite-3-year-old son help out around the house.
  • Whistling While We Work: On Kids and Chores — Dionna at Code Name: Mama realized recently that she often feel resentful when she carries more than her share of the household load. And so several weeks ago, she brought a laundry basket upstairs and had the kids start folding. Thus began a regular series of household responsibilities for her kids.
  • The 4-Day Laundry Plan — Becca at The Earthling's Handbook line-dries all of her laundry, including cloth diapers, and stays sane while also working full-time outside the home. She's sharing her tips!
  • Chores Don't Have To Be Drudgery — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses how she gets the whole family motivated in the daily care and maintenance of maintaining a home. After all, chores do not have to be drudgery.
  • Morning Chores and Weekly Chores — Kellie at Our Mindful Life can get anything done, so long as she gets her morning chores - and her weekly chores - done!
  • A place for everything and everything in its place — Make it easy to tidy up by having just enough stuff for the space you have. Lauren at Hobo Mama talks about this goal in her own home and gives tips on how to achieve it in yours.
  • Cleaning With Essential Oils — What essential oils could add a boost to your cleaning routine? That Mama Gretchen has a round up of what you might like to consider!
  • Montessori-Inspired Sweeping Activities — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells how her children helped keep their house clean and shares ideas for Montessori-inspired sweeping activities.
  • 9 Natural Cleaning Recipes for New Mamas — Dionna of Code Name: Mama, guest posting at Mama & Baby Love, shares recipes for safer, natural homemade cleaners that parents can make with ingredients they trust. Leave a comment on the post for a chance to win a copy of Homemade Cleaners - a book packed with tons of natural cleaner recipes!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

6 Tips for Happiness on a Plant-Based Diet

I stopped eating meat over eleven years ago, and my diet has undergone some dramatic changes in that time. In a relatively short period of time, I went from full-on carnivore to no pork to no pork/red meat to no meat at all. And while I am not strictly vegan right now, I do tend to lean in that direction; I don't drink animal milk (although until fairly recently I enjoyed the occasional glass of raw cow or goat milk) and I have a love/hate relationship with eggs (meaning I usually hate them, but am okay with them in some foods). These days, I think of my diet as whole foods, plant-based. Not quite vegan, but focusing on real foods and trying to eat for the best me.

It was a long journey to get here. Before I went vegetarian, I spent very little time in the kitchen, aside from Foods class in high school and cookie baking marathons with my best friends. Eschewing meat forced me to start cooking, because eating pasta with jarred sauce or frozen vegetarian meals got very old very fast. What was harder was figuring out just how to make a plant-based diet work for me. I had no idea how to structure my meals, or what kinds of foods I should be cooking. I actually was pretty bad at cooking in general.

I had a lot to learn.

But never one to shrink from a task, I set about figuring out how to make a vegetarian diet work for me. Here are some ideas that might help make the transition easier for you!

Tomato pumpkin soup.

1.  Stop trying to "replace" meat...

We're all very indoctrinated in the standard American meal of meat + side dishes. So it's not surprising that a lot of people who have little or no experience with meatless eating have a hard time actually putting together a meal; if there's no meat, than what's the central part of the meal? This dilemma causes a lot of new vegetarians, especially those of the lacto-ovo variety, to simply form their meals around non-meat sources of protein: eggs, cheese, soy-based fake meats, slabs of baked tofu.

I don't want to bash that idea too much; goodness knows I went that route myself when I first stopped eating meat. It's hard to break free from our cultural idea of what a meal should look like. I ate plenty of "breakfast for dinner" meals and pasta dishes loaded with cheese. I don't really want to admit how often we ate frozen veggie burgers, chick'n nuggets, soy riblets, spaghetti with fake meatballs, and other meat substitutes. Baked tofu is still a common meal in my home, with veggies and grains on the side.

Honestly, we all probably have inflated ideas of how much protein we need in our lives anyway. Most people probably eat way too much, and there is a lot of solid science that shows that a lower protein diet is actually much healthier. (Read The China Study if you're interested in learning more about that!)

So while I don't want to say you can't just replace the meat, I also encourage you to look outside the box, as it were. Your meals don't have to look like that typical American meal at all. Your meals, whether vegan or vegetarian or omnivore, do not have to be centered around a source of protein. Consider making a stir fry for dinner, with a wide variety of vegetables, some added beans or cashews or tofu for protein if you desire, and served over a bed of whole grains. When you make pasta, don't feel like you have to add crumbled tofu or beans or cheese or any dedicated protein source; chances are that a good, hearty sauce with whole grain pasta will be a balanced meal on its own, especially if you eat a salad on the side. Make a giant pot of soup and load it with veggies, beans or lentils, and some kind of grain; I usually add a scoop of quinoa to my soup, and I always have barley in my cupboard too. Serve cooked and seasoned beans or lentils over cooked greens, with a fruit salad on the side.

These are all well-balanced meals containing a wide variety of nutrients, and not a single one of them is centered around protein (although each one still definitely contains it!). Expand your horizons, and broaden your idea of what a meal "should" look like. You'll probably be happier once you get rid of preconceived notions of what makes a proper dinner.

2.  ...And stop expecting your food to mimic meat.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to make meals that are similar to the non-vegetarian favorites you used to eat. The problem comes when you expect to be able to eat something that looks, feels, and tastes like it contains meat (or eggs, or cheese) without it actually containing said ingredient. Because if that's what you're looking for, you're bound to be disappointed.

Sure, there are meat substitutes that have a texture that is shockingly similar to meat, and even probably taste pretty close too. (I honestly can't remember what meat actually tastes like, since it's been so long, so I can't give my opinion on that!) The problem is that those kind of faux meat products are super processed, so not only are they expensive, they probably aren't particularly good for you either.

With some good recipes, you can make some decent substitutions at home. A basic bean-based veggie burger tastes nothing like a hamburger, but it is tasty in its own right and satisfies that craving while giving you something to eat at the family BBQ. It's easy to make a creamy pasta sauce using silken tofu, nutritional yeast, soaked/blended cashews, or other non-dairy ingredients; it might not taste like macaroni and cheese, but it will be tasty and healthy and cruelty-free. Nobody will confuse a lentil-based veggie loaf for grandma's meatloaf, but the lentil loaf is delicious in its own way.

Don't expect your homemade substitutions to taste like the foods you remember fondly from childhood. The sooner you acknowledge and accept that, the happier you will be.

"We have to change our expectations when preparing plant-based recipes intended to remind us of familiar animal-based foods--not lower them, mind you, simply change them. It would be unreasonable to expect cashews to have the same taste or texture as dairy cream. Let these types of recipes be defined by their own qualities so that you can genuinely enjoy the results. They are delicious in their own right!"  ~Mielle Chenier-Cowan Rose, Veganish

3.  Try new types of cuisine.

I think one of the reasons going meatless can be daunting is because so many meals in the standard American diet are so completely centered around meat. And as mentioned in the above point, it can be hard to envision what a meal should look like without meat when it was a central part of most every meal you ate growing up.

In other parts of the world, however, meat is not always the central attraction.

So branch out! Indian food, for example is full of dishes centered around lentils, chickpeas, and other beans/legumes. There are many excellent Chinese options that use tofu. Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian... there are so many delicious options out there that are perfectly suited to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Try some new restaurants, pick up some new cookbooks (Happy Herbivore Abroad is my favorite for easy recipes inspired by foreign cuisine), or check out some food blogs and eat up!

Thai curry with pineapple, bell pepper, peas, and tofu.

4.  Find a few "staple" recipes that you love and always keep the ingredients on hand...

I make meal plans most weeks, and use them to dictate the food I buy and what I cook. But some nights, I just want something easy. Or we get to the end of the week and I find myself not wanting to make whatever recipe is left on the list.

So what's a busy mama to do?

On nights like those, the temptation to get on GrubHub is strong. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that every now and then, but eating out is expensive and usually much less healthy than the food I prepare at home. (And if you're new to being meatless, being in a restaurant or ordering take out may make you tempted to "cheat" on your diet, regardless of what your reasons are for going meatless in the first place.)

My solution is my list of staple recipes. These are meals that my entire family loves and is always interested in eating, and for which I almost always have the ingredients stocked in my pantry. So when I don't want to make something on my meal plan, I always have an option to fall back on. For example, I always have cans of beans in the cupboard and burger buns in the freezer, so Quick Burgers are one of my go-to meals; just add extra veggies on the side and dinner is ready! Other staple meals are pasta with marinara sauce, Chana Saag (a recipe from Everyday Happy Herbivore, which is probably one of my favorite cookbooks ever; it uses chickpeas, plain tomato sauce, and spinach, all things I almost always have), stir fry (tofu and frozen stir fry mix are always on hand), and baked tofu with veggies (I usually use the recipe for Savory Baked Tofu from Vegan Eats World).

While I love experimenting with new recipes, there's something to be said for old favorites. And old favorites that are always an option? Some nights, those are simply the best.

5.  ...But don't let yourself get stuck in a rut.

Sure, it's great to build a repertoire of recipes that are easy to make and you know your entire family will willingly eat. But what's bad is finding yourself relying on that repertoire so often that you are cooking the same meals week after week. Then you'll just get bored of your food, bored of cooking, and you'll likely be tempted to eat out more or start buying intriguing (but expensive, and probably less healthy) packaged meals.

So the solution, for me anyway, is to keep trying new things. If you try a recipe from a food blog and love it, follow that blog (by email or the social media of your choice) in hopes that they will inspire future dinners in your home. Pull recipes from magazines that sound appealing. Check out new cookbooks from the library on occasion, and if you find one that's a real winner for you go pick up a copy for your own bookshelf. Page through the cookbooks you already have with regularity, and remind yourself of recipes you've tried before and enjoyed, or find some new ones you've overlooked in the past.

As an aside, cookbooks are the only books I own that I am comfortable writing in. When I try a new recipe, I note the date, I rate how much everyone in my family enjoys them, note any substitutions I may have made, and add suggestions for ways it might be made more to my taste in the future. This prevents me from re-making anything my husband thought was awful or that my son wouldn't touch, and often sparks memories of "I loved that dish! I should make it again!"

Butternut squash bread.

6.  Read up on plant-based nutrition!

I firmly believe that a well-balanced diet will also be a nutritious diet, and that you will most likely be getting everything you need from your food so long as you're eating a wide variety of different things (with the possible exception of vitamin B12, depending on what exactly you do or do not eat).

But I also firmly believe that knowledge is power, and it never hurts to be knowledgeable about the nutrients in your food. Plus, you have no idea how many times you are going to get asked by friends, family, and well-meaning strangers about where you get your protein, or your iron, or any number of other nutrients. (Chances are also good that you'll be told over and over again that you need to combine proteins carefully during your meals, which is a myth. A good book on plant-based nutrition will help you separate facts from fiction and figure out how to make your diet healthy.)

Consider picking up a few good books on plant-based nutrition, both to educate yourself and to arm yourself against the naysayers. Some of my favorites are Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina, Becoming Vegetarian by Vesanto Melina & Brenda Davis, and Your Vegetarian Pregnancy by Holly Roberts (honestly, this book has a lot of fantastic nutrition information even for non-pregnant women). (I'm always interested in other suggestions, too; if you know any great books on plant-based nutrition, please suggest them in the comments!) Reading is always a good use of your time, and the time you spend on learning about nutrition will be valuable indeed.