Saturday, April 28, 2018

Rethinking Fast Food: Top 5 Healthiest Bargains

I think we can all now agree that junk food is not always fast and cheap….although it often is.

And that fast, cheap food is not always junk, although it often is.

Case in point, in my part of California you can get a taco made with shredded fresh chicken, fresh tortillas, fresh cilantro and chopped onions for a song. And it is made in less time than it took to read that sentence.  Add a few avocado slices to make it fancy. So it’s a fast food that isn’t high (bad) fat, high salt, high sugar, highly processed or any of that junky stuff.
The fun comes in finding those fast, cheap and healthy foods.

Maybe the data geeks will help us.
Priceonomics, a data research studio with a cool point of view, crunched the numbers to come up with the most nutritious meals per dollar. In other words, the healthiest fast food you can find. And on the flip side, what is the least nutritious meal for the dollar.
First, guess what they would be. 

Okay, now here are the answers.

Start with junkiest for the money. From really bad to pretty bad.

1.     Mac and cheese

2.     Cheeseburger

3.     Meatloaf

4.     Corndog

5.     Hot Wings
Since most of these are fun to eat, in my case, especially the corn dogs at the County Fair, this list is kind of a bummer. But it also suggests these fun foods are kind of a rip-off. They cost too much for the little nutrition that you get. Other cheap, unhealthy foods that are a slightly better deal, nutrition-wise, include fried chicken and Sloppy Joes.  So be advised.

Now let’s look at the smart side of the food list.
The biggest nutritional bargains are these. (and yes, I’m sorry about the kale)
1.     Kale salad
2.     Falafel
3.     Lettuce wraps
4.     Chinese chicken salad
5.     Cobb salad

The winner here, hands down in my view, is falafel, which is like a sandwich with fried “meatballs” made with ground garbanzo beans in pita bread—with greens and yogurt sauce. 

The on-the-go salads are also nice to know about, but we sort of expected that.
The surprise is that some fast, healthy meals are not really a great deal, such as veggie burgers and black bean burgers. Go figure.
By the way, my tacos made the list, but Priceonomics only counted fish (not chicken) tacos, and they came in at number 6. 
The lesson:  Mac and cheese is basically a rip.  Falafels and Cobb salads (even with the egg, cheese and ham) and are tasty and a heck of a bargain, in every way. 

Falafel Balls

If you can buy falafels at a stand or food truck, buy them.

If not, you can often find the dry mix for falafel balls at your local health food store or favorite food market.

You can make your own from scratch, but it’s actually way too much work, at least for me.

You can order the mix online at 

Walmart  or Ebay

or write in the comments and I'll arrange to get some from my favorite market and sell it to you.

Happy munching!

(Photos via Unsplash: top by Amie Watson; center by Brooke Lark)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Hacking Our Wasteful Food System—for Fun and Profit

I have a couple of friends who always eat about half of whatever they order and leave the rest. It seems like their way of controlling their portions, or they just get bored – because they never take any of it home. It just goes in the trash, like $200 billion worth of wasted food in the U.S. every year. I fantasize introducing them to the team over at Misfit Juicery, who proudly make premium juices with discarded and misshapen fruit and veggies.

Like a bunch of new trendy food startups, Misfit is painting wasteful perfectionists as sadly outdated and out-of-touch, (which would probably be a surprise to my hip friends who like to over-order).  In fact, there is a burgeoning movement in the food world to outsmart the old “leftovers” system, which can be pretty fun once you get into the spirit. For instance, you can see what I posted earlier about beer made with old bread.

Now big business is getting into the act, such as a recipe contest from Quaker Oats that encourages us to make soup stock with rescued food like onion and garlic skins.  Good idea, but not exactly earth-shattering. On the beverage front, AB InBev, which sells Bud Light, is funding the startup that just  launched Canvas barley smoothies, made with the spent grain that breweries used to dump. (For more details, see my article.)  
Most recently, the heirs to the Walmart chain decided to pump money into FoodMaven, a Colorado startup that finds buyers for edible food that has been rejected by stores and restaurants.

As for you and me, we can remember that unwanted food is bad for Mother Earth. It squanders an enormous amount of water and releases a ridiculous volume of unnecessary greenhouse emissions. So it would be a cool idea to mimic what some indie grocery markets are now doing  -- stashing surplus veggies, sauces, noodles, nuts, bread and, yes, even carrot and onion peels in the freezer. Then using them later in dazzling soups and maybe even a grandmotherly pudding.

 Here’s a start—a hearty, healthy recipe for bread and fruit leftovers that I adapted from Decadent Creations, a custom-order bakery in Hillsboro, Oregon.

--> Quick and Fruity Bread Pudding

1/2 lb. bread

3 eggs

1/3 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

1-1/2 cup milk (can be almond or soy milk if you prefer)

1-1/2 cup fruit (frozen or fresh, can be berries, bananas or whatever combination you have)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Chop the bread into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

Mix egg, sugar, milk and vanilla.

Toss the bread cubes in the egg mixture until fully moistened.

Put the bread and egg combination into a baking dish and top with the fruit.

Cover dish with foil. Cook for 25 minutes. Remove foil and cook for additional 25 minutes.

Perfect with coffee or ginger tea 

(photos from Unsplash: Henrique Felix (top), Caroline Attwood)


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Don't Call it Food (or Beer) Waste. Call it Lunch

Chef Massimo Bottura
An Italian chef—one of the best in the worldspent his days around the freshest, most perfect ingredients. But he harbored a secret worry that some of us can deeply relate to. After all the magnificent meals have been served, what about the surplus food, the imperfect, the waste? Where does it go? Does it feed anyone?

The chef, Massimo Bottura, looked at the food that would go to waste at the Milan 2015 World’s Fair and decided it should be used to make meals for the city’s refugees and homeless. Along with 60 of his closest chef-friends, he started a soup kitchen in the poorest part of the city, designed to use the salvaged Fair food in tasty new dishes. That spawned a collection of similar community kitchens, called Refettorios, around Europe and now coming to the US.

On Netflix you’ll find a documentary, “Theater of Life” about the chef, his first kitchen, called Refettorio Ambrosiano, and the street people who eat there. A similar kitchen is planned for the Bronx in New York and then maybe New Orleans and Detroit.
Rich spent grain (courtesy:

That got me to thinking about beer, particularly the spent grain left over from beer making, which used to be dumped in the trash. Lately a lot of it is used in composting and entrepreneurs have begun selling bread, granola and snack bars made from it. Ironically, other startups are using expired bread to make beer. So the virtuous cycle between bread and beer keeps going round and round. Pretty cool.

(For perspective: Toast Ale, brewed in London and New York, uses about 500 pounds of old bread for about 400 cases of beer. A mid-sized bakery produces about 100 pounds of surplus bread every day.)

In that vein, if you can get spent grain from a local brewery, go for it and make this hearty German bread.

But for the rest of this, when you have some beer that’s gone a bit flat, don’t toss it, try this fast, easy bread. My tip: top it with nut butter and slices of fruit.

Quickie Beer Bread
(recipe from King Arthur Flour in Vermont)

3 cups SELF-RISING flour

1-4 Tablespoons sugar, to taste

3 Tablespoons melted butter or 2 Tablespoons olive oil

1.5 cups beer

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Mix all the ingredients and don’t worry about a few small lumps.

Spoon it into greased 9”x5” loaf pan  

Cook 45 -50 minutes, until a toothpick comes out nearly clean.

Wait for it to completely cool before slicing it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Latest Folks to Get Food Envy? Think Meatballs and Salad

Time to share a few food secrets.
One: I obsess more about meatballs and lingonberry jam than I do about shelves and end tables. Two: I’m far more curious about clever ways to grow robust lettuce and veggies than I am about how to make a smartphone.

Now I’ll explain:
On the Ikea front, it turns out that A LOT of Ikea shoppers like the iconic Swedish meatballs at the in-store cafes more than they give a hoot about the white furniture. As a result, there’s a chance we’ll see Ikea restaurants in the near future. Don’t laugh, the company already tried out some pop-up restaurants in London, Paris and Oslo. 

Ikea sold $1.8 billion in food in 2016, (compared to about $36 billion in total sales.) And almost a third of the people who eat there, including me and my Mom, ignor the furniture and traipse through the maze of aisles just to get the café for a fun   meal.  As a result, stand-alone Ikea cafes are officially on the drawing board.

Along with the regular beef meatballs, they added chicken and vegan versions, which boosted meatball sales 30%. My fave are chicken balls: I’ve shared my somewhat Swedish recipe below.

About my second secret: Panasonic, Toshiba and Fujitsu are expanding beyond electronic gadgets and quietly growing vegetables in giant indoor farms. Toshiba, for instance, started cultivating spinach, lettuce and sprouts in an idle factory in Japan this year. They are selling the vegetables to grocery stores and restaurants, and expect to bring 300 million yen a year (about $2.6 million).

Apparently it costs about the same to grow food in high-tech factories as on a farm, with far less water and fewer bugs. We’ll have to see where this goes, but it sure brings greenhouses to a whole new level.

Back in another era —about 30 or so years ago—my family co-founded a startup in Sonoma County that grew snow peas indoors, without regular soil. Boy, oh boy, were those peas tender and sweet. And boy, oh boy, was it a tremendous a lot of work. But it looks like we were waaayyy ahead of our time. Now it’s a thing for tech titans. Who would have guessed?

As promised here’s the meatball recipe. Hope you enjoy.

Swedish-American Chicken Balls

2 lbs. ground chicken

2 large eggs

½ cup bread crumbs

½ cup each: chopped parsley, chopped onion

½ tbsp. each: allspice, nutmeg, garlic powder

1 tbsp. each: salt and fresh ground pepper

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Combine all ingredients and roll in tight, golf-ball size balls and put them on a baking dish that has been oiled. Cook for 20 minutes or until a thermometer says 165 degrees. This makes about 2 dozen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Here's Why Big Food Should Worry About Chobani

We hear a lot about how there are all these extra ingredients in our grocery-market food – to make the food cheaper to package and store in the warehouse. Yeah, yeah. As long as it tastes good and isn’t packed with animal fat, salt and sugar, we’re happy. 

Cruising the natural food aisles, where the organic, healthy pasta, sauces and such cost twice as much, well that’s a luxury saved for that special meal or party. We can’t expect to eat that kind of food every day.

 Welp, I recently talked to a top exec at the massive yogurt maker Chobani and he says: Wrong!

Chobani is that New York company founded by a Turkish fellow who taught America what decent (Greek) yogurt is all about. Its chief marketing officer Peter McGuinness bristles with disdain toward the giant food companies we know so well, like General Mills and Nabisco. His point: food-making shortcuts are BS. Healthy should be affordable, and affordable food should be healthier. Indie startups, he believes, can lead the way.

Here are a few of McGuinness’ uncensored thoughts:

“At Chobani, we want there to be more good food for regular folks as opposed to the kind of crap that everyone can afford but that their bodies don't want. We want startups to be challengers, like us, in their respective categories, to able to go up against the behemoths.”

“The food industry, controlled by a few big entities, lags in both technology and innovation. Big Food uses artificial ingredients and preservatives that were introduced in the 1940s to preserve food for soldiers. But now, that is the lazy and cheap way to make food, and is totally unnecessary. To do without [those additives] you have to clean the factory more often. And if we can do it, with less of a budget than the big companies, then why can't they?”
“When big food companies invest in young food startups for a piece of the action, they are actually wolves in sheep's clothing. It may seem like they are helping the entrepreneurs but in reality, they marginalize the startup companies and often change the trajectory of the startups' growth. By taking equity, they are preying on entrepreneurs.” 

“Keep in mind, the big traditional food companies are in the startup business because their core business isn't growing and they need the startups’ ideas to redirect their product lines. But there are not enough startups in the world to stem the decline that the traditional food companies face.” 

The whole interview is here.
Speaking of thick yogurt, it’s the season for summer fruit and I’m crazy for fresh cherries, almonds and yogurt (including soy, coconut milk or rice milk yogurt for the non-dairy folks). Another favorite is yogurt with mango or papaya along with cashews. Oh and there’s always nice, shapely grapes (of course) with apples, walnuts and yogurt. Just skip the boring granola please—such a cliché.  

So keep an eye out for those upstart healthy foods creeping onto your grocery shelves. Then scout out your favorite summer fruit…and enjoy!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Our Taste Buds (if not our Politics) are Getting More Diverse

I find that a great way to foster a glimmer of understanding across cultures is through our taste buds. Since ethnic food is my passion, a cross-cultural experience for me is a traditional meatloaf and macaroni-and-cheese. (And I still feel compelled to spice those up. I guess I still don’t grasp the concept of mac and cheese.) 
It brings back the memory of one of my early visits to my Irish Catholic in-laws. I offered to concoct a noodle soup and asked offhand where the spice drawer was. The response was silence and a puzzled stare. Oops, no points for me.
But I rounded up some seasoned salt, black pepper and lemon and it all worked out.  For later visits I packed my own seasonings, and over the years we got to be great food-friends (curry in scrambled eggs—revolutionary!)

Now, times have caught up.  Interesting and ethnic foods are popping up all over the country, even at chain joints in shopping strips.  And it looks like we haven’t seen anything yet.

Ironic, really. Politics may have gotten whiter, but our food sure as hell isn’t going that way.

South American flavors will influence U.S. eateries and food companies this year more that they already are, according to experts such as the National Restaurant Association. Flavors and ingredients born in Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil will elbow in on our burger fetish. Ethnic breakfasts, (think breakfast tacos) will get bigger. So will casual and upscale meals inspired by Latin street food. 

In particular, look for these:

Chimichurri: a sauce from Argentina made with garlic, jalapenos, vinegar, cilantro, parley and oregano.

Cuban sandwich: a pressed sandwich made with ham, roasted pork, cheese, mustard and pickles.

Aji peppers: hot, yellow peppers used by Peruvians.

Arepas: Venezuelan cornmeal cakes packed with savory fillings.

Mojo: Cuban sauce made with lemon, orange, garlic, oregano and cumin.

Elote:  Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob brushed with mayo and sprinkled with cheese, cayenne, chili powder and lime juice.

Finally, for dessert, Cajeta: Sweet, tangy caramel sauce from Mexico made from goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk.

Naturally, I can’t wait—here's hoping that eggs and meatloaf will never be the same.

 Sources: National Restaurant Association, Datassential market research, Baum+Whiteman consultants. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Why are Venture Capitalists Feeding Us for Free?

Has anyone regaled you with the details, plus pictures, of their latest Blue Apron meal recently?  No? Wait until tomorrow. It’s just a matter of time.

Startup services like Blue Apron that deliver all the ingredients of a meal, plus recipes, are hot, hot, hot!  Venture capital investors are throwing big money at them. (More on that later.)  And since their main marketing tool is offering free trial meals, the VCs are essentially giving away food to anyone who might later consider spending about $10 a person for the groceries to make a meal.

There are tons of these services beyond Blue Apron and by signing up for the free trials of all of them, you could eat some fancy, full-scale dinners for a pittance. Could be the biggest benefit -- besides Uber -- that you personally ever get from techie VCs.

(Find a list of meal kit services below.)

The meal kit phenomenon reminds me of paint-by-the-numbers projects, or buying a shelving unit from IKEA. They give you the instructions and materials and you put the product together yourself.

Seems like the people who really love meal kits after the trial period are busy non-cooks tired of restaurants, who like the thrill of feeling like a Maker.
I know couples in Santa Barbara and the Sonoma wine country who work a lot and are hooked on the convenience and quality. Also, a pair of retired Northern California friends thoroughly enjoy opening their weekly box of  pretty recipes and groceries, like a big Christmas present.  Their only complaint : “No more catfish!”

However, a well-heeled single Silicon Valley friend, who’s both practical and clever, canceled after a week or so because she says the service was too pricey and cookie-cutter for her. 

In my trial with Blue Apron, I fit into the group that happily opens the big box full of surprises, lining up all the cute containers on the counter. But the novelty soon wore off for me. For the amount of time, packaging and dirty dishes, I ended up with just 2 meals at a time.  Plus, the $10-$12 per person would actually take me take me pretty far at the market (Each box has the makings for three meals. Each meal serves 2. Total cost per box: about $60.) And finally, I LIKE to go to my favorite veggie, fruit, meat and bakery vendors and stock up.

Oh yeah, about that VC money. Last year the top  meal-kit companies attracted $477.6 million, more than triple their 2014 haul.

Some meal kit services that want you.
Blue Apron
Sun Basket
Hello Fresh
Home Chef
Purple Carrot

Lastly, today's Tasty Tidbit:  Drinkable chilled soup is now a thing.  It’s sold under the brand Zupa Noma only on the West Coast so far. It comes from Sonoma Brands, founded by Jon Sebastiani, yes, he's related to the Sebastiani wine family.