Thursday, December 5, 2013

Monday Morning Quarterback - Holiday Edition

Homemade green bean casserole made absolutely from scratch - from the steamed veggies to the homemade cream of mushroom soup - yep, I did that on Thanksgiving.
 It was fabulous! At least, I thought so. Actually, several weight conscious guests - and of course, my picky kids -  didn't even give them a try.
I'm remembering that not-worth-it dish as I begin to write my holiday notes list that I will tuck the list in my holiday planner, to be used next year.

I got the idea for the planner from Kansas City blogger Mara Strom, of Kosher on a Budget. She advises frugalistas to Monday morning quarterback after holidays, in order to save money and time the following year. 

The idea is also perfect for those achy hosts who still love to entertain, and want to be very efficient.

On my list so far:

No fancy green veggies; people look to them as a way to save calories during a holiday meal.

No wrapping paper, ever.  Gift bags are not as cute, but cute enough - and they can be found cheaply these days at places like Target and Michael's. If I am dying to be creative, I'll draw some designs on a colored bag with glitter glue; that's it.

Do not serve seated dinner guests; everyone likes getting up and serving themselves from a nicely appointed, makeshift buffet table in the dining room. It's so much easier.

No last minute cleaning - except for a quick disinfecting of the bathroom.

Buy the crudités tray from Sam's Club - it's pretty good quality and reasonably priced - and then freshen some of the veggies up by slicing the carrots more thinly, trimming the ends of the pea pods, etc. Serve with fat free, spicy bean dip.

Make the cranberry sauce - so idiotically easy and it tastes so much better. Cranberries freeze.

Assign out some of the more labor intensive dishes, the ones that involve a lot of cleaning, paring or chopping produce :)

Always make pecan pie(s) and use light corn syrup, not dark. Don't bother making fancy versions of pumpkin pie. 

Have the phone numbers of guests handy, in case there has to be a very last minute cancellation due to illness. 

Adjust gift giving to what the person really wants. Gift cards are boring to give, but if chosen carefully, the recipient really loves them.

Sentimental favorites to remember each year: hot chocolate with marshmallows for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, heirloom menorah for Hannukah. Even if there is a big Hannukah gift, it's fun to open little ones each night.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Holiday Shopping- Simplified

    Fellow soldiers in the pain wars: We need to plan our gift giving strategies.
Who wants to  circle the mall parking lot, vying for that isolated parking space,  fight crowds in stores then stand in long  checkout lines?
    Me, neither. I  like to shop, but increasingly, I'm looking for shortcuts. Being tired and standing for hours wears on me. Here are some tips.

Shop Casually As You Go About Your Day

   Shopping doesn't have to be an official activity - work it into everyday errands.

  • For instance, most large grocery stores have gourmet and organic food sections - everyone likes food gifts. Actually, it's easier at a grocery store to select products for people on a special diet - and there seems to be an awful lot of those these days. For instance, in my immediate circle, I have Mediterranean, low carb, and vegetarian folks.
  • We pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy, which usually offers a gold mine of stuff for older girls - nail polish, perfume, body washes and the like.
  • The big box office supply stores have a lot of cool gift possibilities, they tend to be less busy than retail stores.

Shop Online 

The ultimate in convenience is to shop online. Have the experience go better by doing the following:

  • Be choosy about which online shops you use. While user reviews aren't perfectly reliable, if a particular site has gotten much criticism about its return policy, quality of merchandise or customer service - that's a warning sign. Be careful not to confuse style with quality: after reading the reviews, I've avoided some online shopping sites advertised in higher end magazines. 

  • Be sure that you know that the recipient will really like the item; it's a chore to repackage the gift and take it to the post office. There's nothing wrong with giving your loved one a gift certificate for the online service; you can buy the certificate online and it will be emailed to the recipient.

  • Establish a separate email address for your online purchases. That makes it easy to locate online receipts or tracking.

  • Put a little extra effort into an online  gift to make it seem more personal - follow the gift with a warm phone call to the recipient.

Some good online sites* 

  • - great customer service; be sure to read product reviews before buying

  • - If you use it a lot, think about joining the Amazon Prime Membership ($75 annually) to get free two day shipping, deeply discounted one day shipping  and free streaming movies.

  • - the online shopping site for the mecca of deli and baked goods in Ann Arbor, MIchigan.  Unbelievable - unbelievable - brownies.

  • - Selection is much larger than in the stores; shipping is efficient. Check to make sure recipient can return the item at their local store if necessary.

*Nope, not paid to list these - I just use them a lot.




Thursday, September 19, 2013

5 Second Chef: BBQ Sandwiches


  Football games = sitting around watching football games and eating.
       Remember our goal: Keep entertaining, despite numerous aches and pains.  You could make easy Sloppy Joes - a real yawner if your crowd is past adolescence. Instead, consider making a more interesting apple barbecue chicken sandwich - it's just as easy, and also healthier.
       Boneless chicken breasts are simmered for hours in a "homemade" barbecue sauce, then shredded and served on buns. For a great fall meal, serve the sandwiches with coleslaw, baby carrots, chips and brownies.

Apple Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches

(serves 4 but  can be doubled, tripled, etc.)


1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks (if you have problems with your hands, put uncut chicken filets in the slow cooker and shred when the chicken is tender; that's easier on joints.)
1/ 1/4 cups barbecue sauce (I use Stubbs)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 apple, sliced
Thinly sliced onion (optional)
Shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)
At least 4 hamburger buns or ciabatta rolls  (gluten free folks can substitute rice)


1. Spray medium size slow cooker with Pam.
2. In a small bowl, mix barbecue and apple sauces. Add apple and onion slices, if using.
3. Put chicken in slow cooker, top with sauce. Sauce should almost cover chicken.
4. Cook chicken for several hours (depends on size of chicken chunks and temperature of cooker; low heat will take about 3-4 hours. 
5. Serve on toasted buns - if you like, top chicken mixture with shredded reduced fat cheddar cheese, then put on top half of bun.

Leftovers  store well.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Joy in the Morning

   Joy: It's as potent as the strongest prescription pain reliever.
  You see, each week  I run a raucous "Reading Club"  at an inner city Ohio school. It's the kind of school that offers both free breakfasts and free lunches because the children come from families that are (choose one or more) very poor/disorganized/ neglectful/in another bad situation. It's depressing to think about what these kids don't have, and uplifting to do a little bit to help.

    I love what I do!

   I read lots of fun stories - ones featuring mischievous characters and animals are the biggest hits - and give out a treat because "reading is sweet." My helper  of the day gets to tear open my gift-wrapped Mystery Word and keep my pile of books straight.

  There are lots of cheers and enthusiasm. The teacher has tipped me off about a couple of children who have especially tough situations; I am able to give them a little TLC with an extra smile, by adapting a book to include a child's situation, etc.

   I get to be creative, to actually do something to help the world instead of just bitching about the world's always growing problems. I also get a TON of little kid hugs, which, as a mom of two teens, is great. In a teeny- tiny way, I also get to help the teacher with her awesome goal of making first grade positive.
   And, there's an amazing perk: total distraction from any pain I may be experiencing. 

                                  If You Don't Have a Source of Joy, You Can Get One.

Think about what you like to do - not what you  should like to do, but what you really like to do. 
Think about your personal values. Do you have a passion for justice? A love of beauty or        
     animals? Again, try think about what you actually value.   Call your local volunteer hotline or center to see what opportunities exist. Sunday newspaper  feature sections also offer volunteer jobs. Apply only for jobs that truly interest you; even if a job stuffing envelopes is for a good cause, if you hate stuffing envelopes, you will focus on your pain.

 Before you sign up for a job, make sure the volunteer director understands you have pain      
     problems that ebb and flow. Don't spend a minute being more uncomfortable than you have to be: 
     It's OK to skip a day now and then - if it won't be, it's not the job for you.




Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Taming Frustration

     Frustration: I know you as well as I do my swollen finger joints.

     I feel you when my life seems like one big "I can't do that anymore."
     When it hurts to walk.
     When I can't lift heavy stuff.
     When it's hard to use a regular mouse or even to use regular keyboard.

     When I feel my body rebelling, my mood-o-meter goes to semi-low. I can pick myself up by remembering a line from one of my favorite self- help books of all time: Coming Back, by Ann Kaiser Sterns, Ph.D., (Ballatine Books, 1989.)

      Stearns writes of real people who faced a variety of crises and learned to cope, to achieve  the best life within reach.  I love that phrase; it both acknowledges the unique limitations of someone's life, but also promotes a sense of optimistic goal setting.

     For example, this morning my knee is killing me. So, I can't briskly walk around the neighborhood for 30 minutes like I want to do.  I can do my knee exercises, work through an exercise video sitting down, plan my visit to a classroom tomorrow,  outline a freelance writing assignment and finish grocery shopping.
   In other words, I can shoot for the best life within reach - for today.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thou Shalt Be Comfortable

Beautiful, but a person with a painful knee will have trouble with those stairs.

      Stand up, sit down. Repeat ad infinitum.
     For a person who has arthritis or other chronic pain, it can be hard to attend religious services with all those ups and downs.
     The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, starts on Thursday.   Among my preparations are stirring some fragrant chicken matzo ball soup and baking sweet smelling honey cake.
     Also, I will scout my  closet to find a dress that will look good - OK, at least not hideous - with flat shoes. And I will figure out how to better deal with the service itself, instead of doing my usual "tough it out" approach.
     After all, it's not like I use a wheelchair or have any other obvious physical limitation.  By not getting up and down, I feel I draw attention to myself, and not in a good way.
     It's time to change, to make a choice.
     I can sit in the regular seating and just not get up very much or I can sit at the back of the room, which has folding chairs. Either way, I will be both self-conscious and much more comfortable. Maybe, by my example, other silent sufferers will be encouraged  to pray without pain.
     I am fortunate that my synagogue is designed to accomodate people with mobility problems. There are ramps and elevators, as well as stairs.
     I am not sure that is the case for all congregations. Research has repeatedly shown that people with disabilities attend religious services less than the able bodied. We can make an educated guess as to why.

     Are you comfortable attending services at your church or synagogue?
     If not, what can you do to make your experience less painful?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Pain takes a holiday

 We're on the  way to Pittsburgh, for a family fun overnight. Pittsburgh is very hilly, and my left knee is throwing a major tantrum.

Planning .....planning.   First off, The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which has marble floors. Hmm....last I heard, marble isn't the most arthritis friendly of walking surfaces.
So, I pack like I am going on an expedition. Packing meds, several kinds of knee supports, Lidoderm patches and a strong antiinflammatory  that I seldom take. Oh, and I also check the website to see if there are loaner wheelchairs - just in case.

Four hours later, as I am walking to the exit of the Carnegie, I realize that my knee does not hurt much.

The next day, I have the same lessening of pain, despite touring the National Aviary (go see it!) and shopping at Ikea.
The only thing I can think of is that I was so totally absorbed in the sights and sounds of my trip, my focus was completely off the pain. 
Lesson learned:  Plan for the worst, but don't cancel plans because of pain. You never know.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Composed Taco Salad

A Composed Taco Plate is more  stylish than plain old tacos - and is so quick to assemble.

     If you like to entertain but live with arthritis or other painful problems, three words should become your new mantra: Lower My Standards. 

     Really, it's OK - even if you have enjoyed a reputation as a terrific cook - to make very simple dishes. Better to cook easy stuff and  still have people over rather than to avoid guests because it takes too much energy to prepare/serve and clean up.
    Instead of spending a lot of time fussing in the kitchen, pay more attention to the presentation of food.    
    For instance, plain old tacos on a plate looks pretty ordinary; arranging the components of taco on a large white plate looks more stylish - like you put a little thought into it.
   The following "recipe" for a Composed Taco Plate is a sure thing to serve for a casual lunch or light dinners. Unlike the traditional taco salads that call for a ton of crushed tortilla chips, this version  is healthier, so suitable for friends who are watching their weight, who avoid gluten or who like to eat lower carb.  Kosher keepers can sub soy crumbles for meat.


  • Lean ground sirloin or turkey, cooked and drained, or soy crumbles ( a pound will serve 4-6)
  • Taco seasoning spices (or use a seasoning packet)
  • Shredded reduced fat Cheddar (from a bag, of course :) )
  • Bagged romaine lettuce
  • Taco Shells (one per person)
  • Optional garnishes: sliced avocado, black olives, reduced fat Catalina or Ranch Dressing


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Put taco shells in loaf pan or regular pan, and bake for 5 minutes.
3. On large plate, scatter Romaine lettuce leaves, leaving a margin of about 2 inches from edge of plate.
4. Put about 1/2 cup meat/meat substitute over center of the leaves.
5. Scatter beans on lettuce and meat. Add halved cherry tomatoes.
4. Top meat-bean-tomato mixture with shredded Cheddar.
5. Add optional toppings of black olives, chopped onions or light sour cream.
6. Break up taco shell into large pieces. Put around edge of plate.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book Review: Treat Your Own Hand and Thumb Arthritis

     I can't stand reading information about arthritis that makes me feel sorry for myself. Yes, it's a chronic, often painfully debilitating condition, but I don't want to dwell on this thought, because if I do, I get in a funk and that only makes the pain worse.

     That's why I love this 80 page book, Treat Your Own Hand and Thumb Arthritis, written by physical therapist Jim Johnson, who is also a clinical instructor of physical therapy at Emory University.
Johnson's message is one of hope: In fact, he titles his first chapter, "Arthritis is Not a Hopeless Cause" and shares research findings supporting his optimism.

     He provides simple exercises that should be performed daily. Since the exercises are shown in large photos, they are easy to follow even for those of us, like me, who have a lot of trouble following diagrams in books.

     Johnson also reviews the basics of joint protection - showing the right way to use your hands to minimize stress on the smallest joints.

    Finally, there are  "tracking pages" so that users can keep a record of exercise routines and frequency. The pages can be photocopied.

    Johnson does not promise miracles; he urges readers to try the exercises consistently for three months to see if improvement is noticed.

    The book is in print; and can be ordered via Better yet - try the library!

Note: I purchased this book and received no money to promote it -  I just like it! And, while I feel comfortable using these exercises without consulting my physician, that doesn't mean you should, too. 
Use your own judgement.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Brownies (When You Have to Bake)

am  that mom who always was eager to bake for school functions and family events. Or, at least I was that mom before I developed chronic pain. Now, when I've promised to make something and some part of me hurts, I'll  doctor up a mix to make my addictive Peanut Butter Cup Brownies.

They are so well-received, I wonder why I used to go to all the fuss of making scratch brownies.

Ghirardelli is THE mix to doctor up,
      The key is to use a very high quality mix: I will only use the Ghiradelli brand. It comes in both Dark Chocolate and Double Chocolate versions. The mix costs a bit more than the usual brands, but it has no "packaged mix" taste,  fewer additives  and no hydrogenated fats.  
      Prep is 10 minutes or less, and the brownies freeze fantastically well.

1 box Ghiradelli's  Brownie mix
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup water
1 egg
About five Reese's peanut butter cups (substitute York Peppermint Patties or Rolos chocolate-filled caramels.)


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees
  2.  Spray 8x8 inch pan with cooking spray, add a lining of parchment paper cut to fit bottom of pan if desired. Unwrap and chop candy into large pieces.
  3. Mix brownie mix according to package directions.
  4. Spread about 1/2 of batter in pan. Add layer of candy over top, spreading evenly. Next, spread remaining brownie batter evenly over top.
  5. Bake at minimum time specified; Do NOT overbake; brownies will look underdone when ready.
  6. Remove from oven, cool pan on rack. Brownies can be sprinkled with a little confectioner's sugar for a more finished look. Cool for several hours; then cut.