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Sunday
Dec062015

Why I Love Bliss Balls

If you're an Instagrammer and search the hashtags #healthysnack or #energysnack, you may be surprised to see photos of little dough-like balls instead of the expected fresh fruit or protein bars. They have various names—bliss balls, energy bites, energy balls. I find them to be truly blissful for two reasons:

Photo credit: Gimme Some Oven. This site first inspired me to make bliss balls. Click on the image for more recipes.1. They're easy to make, quick to prepare and taste good, my main criteria when trialing a new healthful recipe. Bliss balls require about 4-5 ingredients that you probably already have in your kitchen and don't need to be baked or cooked. You start with a binder ingredient, something sticky to hold the ball together, like peanut butter (or almond butter or sunflower seed butter) and/or a sticky fruit like dates or figs. Then add whatever additional ingredients you like. This is the second most awesome thing about bliss balls...

2. They are completely versatile to fit whatever your taste preference or food philosophy. Vegan? Try almond butter, dates, raw cacao powder, diced nuts, wheat germ. Gluten-free? Try peanut butter, chocolate chips, flaxseeds, gluten-free oats. Nut-free? Try sunflower seed butter, honey, oats, coconut. Whether you need high protein or low sugar, there will be a perfect bliss ball for you.

Another reason I love these treats is that they are truly satisfying. How often do you reach for a store bought chocolate chip cookie and eat one, two, three+ servings? It might not be because you lack self-control. Maybe it's because the cookies don't gratify. Many cookies use processed ingredients that strip any real flavor. Sure there are cookies that add a ton of sugar or high fat ingredients to make up for it, but then you get an overly sweet, greasy product. Bliss balls use whole ingredients with distinctive flavors that you'll notice as you savor each bite. And that's the goal with any treat: eat slowly, appreciate the flavors, and experience true enjoyment with a smaller portion. Compare that with gobbling down 10 conventional chocolate cookies, not remembering the taste, and reaching for something else to eat 30 minutes later!

Consider bringing bliss balls to a holiday party this month. You can use festive ingredients of dried cranberries, cherries or nuts and dust with confectioners sugar. You can dip in white or dark chocolate. The options are endless.

Below is an example of a bliss ball recipe. I couldn't remember the exact amounts so I estimated. But feel free to add more or less of whatever you like! Makes about a dozen, depending on how big or small you prefer them.

4-Ingredient Vegan Bliss Balls

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups dates

1 cup raw or roasted cashews

1/2 cup wheat germ

1/2 cup chocolate chips (try Enjoy Life brand if vegan)

Directions

  1. If the dates are hard, place in bowl covered with water and soak for an hour to soften. Using a food processor or blender, blend dates into small bits. Add cashews and blend into small bits. 
  2. Remove mixture from blender and place into bowl. Fold in wheat germ and chocolate chips. 
  3. Roll into balls of desired size and arrange on a plate. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before eating. Store in refrigerator for about one week, although I have stored them longer and they taste fine!

Sunday
Nov152015

Field Trip to Tropical Smoothie Cafe and Kickboxing Class

I feel blessed to live in a time when health and wellness is on people's minds. It has always been my passion and now everyone else seems to agree. Everywhere you look...the successful growth of healthy supermarket chains and restaurants, fitness boutiques specializing in one exercise format, and corporate employee wellness programs are all signs that people are hungry to get fitter and healthier.

Along those lines, a recent field trip took me down to Seekonk, Massachusetts. I went mainly to visit Tropical Smoothie Cafe, who had invited me to taste their healthful fast food menu and just opened this particular branch last Tuesday. Though they have four locations in Massachusetts, the closest to me is 30 miles away in Seekonk. But I didn't mind because I'm very familiar with the locale, having grown up next door in Barrington, Rhode Island. The strip of stores in Seekonk where I often shopped as a teenager has exploded with new businesses, a great thing to see! Serendipitously, my young niece Alexa (who's a contributor to this blog and now a certified personal trainer) informed me that she recently started teaching kickboxing classes at ILoveKickboxing.com located right next to Tropical Smoothie Cafe. So I woke up early one Friday morning and commuted south to take her 9:00 am class and then refresh at the cafe. Perfect!

First off, at the risk of offending both businesses, I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much from either as I thought the names were cheesy. Now having experienced both, I'll explain that the reason I dislike the cafe name is because it suggests a juice and smoothie bar (a dime a dozen nowadays). But their sandwiches, flatbreads and wraps are out of this world! The "ILoveKickboxing.com" name sounds trite and wishy washy, but the class was incredibly intense and hard core. Though all young women attended my session, I'm sure there are plenty of guys who would not last an entire class!

Walking into Tropical Smoothie Cafe for the first time made me smile. Bright, cheerful, sunny, clean and modern with a warm friendly staff. 

Tropical Smoothie Cafe is a popular national chain, now located at 20 Commerce Way in Seekonk, MA.

One half of the menu boasts a nice selection of sandwiches on seeded or ciabatta bread, flatbreads, wraps, tacos and saladsall with very fresh meats and vegetables. Smoothies rule the other half of the menu: "Classics" like their Sunrise Sunset (strawberries, pineapple, mango and orange juice) or "Superfoods" such as the Avocolada (avocado, pineapple, spinach, kale, coconut and lime). There are add-in "supplements" like vitamin C complex, probiotics, vitamin B12, and whey, soy or pea protein...and more natural add-ins like ginger, whole grain oats or ground flaxeed. Smoothies range from $4.69-5.49 for a whopping 24 ounces. The cafe offers full disclosure of their nutrition information, and yes, almost all the smoothies have at least 300 calories (up to 700 calories) so choose your smoothie wisely! Keep in mind that turbinado sugar is added to these drinks, so opting for Splenda instead of sugar reduces calories significantly...or better yet just request no added sweeteners of any kind.

I ordered all vegetarian, starting with the special smoothie of the day Blueberry Bliss (blueberries, strawberries, banana) with an add-in of powdered spinach and kale. Followed by two sandwiches made with Beyond Meat Chicken-Free strips in place of regular chicken: Baja Chicken Flatbread (green/red peppers, red onions, romaine, lowfat mozzarella and light southwest ranch dressing) and the Thai Chicken Wrap (wontons, carrots, sesame seeds, romaine, cilantro, scallions and peanut sauce). Both sandwiches were less than 560 calories. The sodium was not low; I won't go into details as you can view yourself but sodium is not an issue for me especially after that kickboxing class where I sweated out about 3 pounds of fluid and electrolytes!

Blueberry Bliss Classic Smoothie, made darker by the spinach/kale add-in. Notice how it's so thick, the liquid remains in the whole straw.

My second smile came after tasting. Awwwesomme!! The Blueberry Bliss was thick, creamy and full of real berry flavor. One of the best smoothies I've ever had. The flatbread and wrap were lightly toasted, adding a unique crispness. I devoured the warm Baja Chicken Flatbread...it was such easy comfort food. The Chicken-Free strips had the texture and flavor of chicken and the vegetables were fresh. The Thai Wrap with peanutty flavor was also nourishing and authentic. However I ate most of the wrap before noticing that I forgot to look for the wontons. Don't recall seeing them inside the sandwich so I'll have to reorder another time to check. At $4.60-6.99, these sandwiches are filling and nutritious. The wrap came with one side (fresh orange, apple, kettle chips, fruit medley, or kale & apple slaw). I chose the slaw, yummy with slices of freshly cut green apples and chopped kale.

Thai Wrap (above) and Baja Flatbread (below) both made with Beyond Meat Chicken-Free strips at no extra charge.

Check out this place if you can! I can at least vouch for this location that the staff is lovely and the food tastes amazing. It's affordable and the nutritionals are excellent for "fast food." 

As for the kickass kickboxing classes a few doors down, they are having a special offer for new students: $20 for 3 classes and a pair of boxing gloves to keep! There are morning and evening classes Mon-Fri, and morning classes Saturdays. The workout is performed in socks or bare feet on high density foam flooring. Part One is conditioning with jogging, squats, squat jumps, planks, mountain climbers, etc. Part Two is a series of 7 rounds of different combos of punches and kicks using the punching bag. Part Three is partner work that may include abs or other targeted muscle groups. I think of it as a blend of CrossFit, circuit training and HIIT. The energy from the music and motivational instructors is through the roof. Check out this promo video:

Twenty-four hours later (that included a step class I had to teach that night) I could barely walk. I think of my lower half as pretty strong but my quads/hams/gluts were super sore and tight like never before. My upper back and arms ached as well. I'm leery of HIIT because of neck and lower back pain that can act up with certain workouts, but 48 hours later my entire body had recovered. I'd taught a Zumba class the next morning, which actually further helped dispel the soreness.

The boxing floor and bathrooms were immaculate. The fitness room was wiped down and sanitized after class. Keep in mind that this is a chain, so I can't confirm that every branch is the same quality. If you're new to exercise or have injuries, be sure to chat with the instructors before class starts so they can demonstrate modifications during class. ILoveKickboxing.com Seekonk is located at 20 Commerce Way. Call 401-479-0100 for more info. If Seekonk is too far, check out the web link above to find ILoveKickboxing.com classes closer to Boston or across the country. 

Disclosure: I received gift cards from Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which helped facilitate my restaurant review.

Friday
Nov062015

A New Kind of Kale Chip

I love kale chips. They're easy to make and their resulting crispness is unique and satisfying. Because they shrink down when baking, you can eat a whole head of nutrient-packed kale this way! However if you've ever bought a package of prepared kale chips, maybe you've had my experience of looking into the bag and wondering "that's it?" Most brands tend to be expensive for what you get, which seems a fairly small amount of chips.

So I thought it was ingenious for Simply7 Snacks to combine kale with traditional potato to make a heartier, more dense kale chip. Just this week they debuted their line of kale chips, which join their very popular quinoa, hummus and lentil chips. Definitely some of the best tasting chips I've had in a while.

The kale in these chips is processed into a powder and mixed with potato flour but much of the nutrients are retained, as the package lists that each serving provides 80% of the RDA for vitamin K. This is a key nutrient needed for normal clotting of the blood and is abundantly found in leafy greens. Crunch into a chip and you'll taste that distinctive slight bitterness of kale, which pairs well with the lemon or dill pickle flavor options. Calories and fat are a little less than regular potato chips: 130-140 calories, 6-7 grams fat per 1 ounce serving. Keep in mind these aren't low sodium...up to 400 mg per serving in the Dill Pickle version.

Below is my vegan version of "fish and chips" with the Simply7 kale chips, Gardein crabless crabcakes, and carrot chips that I made with a Mastrad food dehydrator. I grew up eating many traditional fried fish and chips meals but I haven't missed the memory once after eating this meal!

Unfortunately for me, I can't really keep any chips in the house because I'll mindlessly munch through a whole bag! But if you've got a shred of self-control I highly recommend checking out these delicious new chips. All flavors are Kosher, non-GMO, vegan and gluten-free.

Disclosure: I received free product samples from Simply7 Snacks, which helped facilitate my review.