Monthly Archives: February 2015

5 Things You Might Be Doing That Aren’t as Healthy as You Think

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

photo credit: SweetOnVeg via photopin cc

If you’re like any of my clients, you have an interest in taking better care of yourself, and this includes making healthy choices in your diet and lifestyle. But what if some of the things you think are healthy really aren’t such a great idea?

If you follow nutrition at all, it can be seriously hard to keep up with what information you should follow! Studies come in all the time with conflicting results and the media reports on it – telling us that something is healthy one day and that it’s not the next! The media likes to report on the most interesting or popular things but they don’t always give the whole story, so we end up hearing a very sensationalized version of the truth. The problem with this is that we only get half the message or become confused by the conflicting info.  We end up making choices that we think are “good” but ultimately might not be the best thing for us. There are many things that I think the media has fudged the message on and I want to clear up some of it.

Part of my job as a coach is to educate and this means helping clients see multiple sides of a situation (in case they only see one) to remove any possible confusion. That way, they can analyze for themselves if something is a smart choice for them.

Today, I’m sharing the top 5 “healthy” things that I hear clients repeat over and over that they are confused by.  If my clients are feeling confused, I’m sure you are too!

This post ended up being longer than I planned it so if you’re short on time just read the bold bulleted number statements and the bold bottom line statement underneath each one!

Here are 5 things you might be doing that aren’t as healthy as you think they are:

1. Automatically assuming that non-dairy “milk” is healthier than dairy.
None of us need “milk” of any kind to survive beyond infancy but the idea that we need to have milk in some form in our diet is a hard one to let go of! And while some people do just fine on dairy, others find that it can be a big cause of health issues (allergies, lactose intolerance, asthma, inflammation).  Giving up dairy when necessary is easier than it was in the past because there are so many non-dairy versions of some of our favorite foods! But just because something is not made from dairy doesn’t automatically make it a good choice.

The most heavily produced non-dairy products are non-dairy milks like almond, hemp, soy, rice etc. And let’s be honest, a bowl of cereal just wouldn’t be the same with water. 🙂  The problem is that many of the store bought versions of non-dairy milks are full of not so great ingredients. They are often heavily sweetened and have additives like carrageenan, guar gum and others that we don’t want to consume in large quantities. These additives are often FDA GRAS (generally regarded as safe) ingredients. GRAS ingredients are only regarded as safe in small quantities. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little store bought non-dairy milk with these additives here but if you formerly drank 3 glasses of milk a day and are trying to replace the calcium that was in that with 3 glasses of non-dairy milk, you’re going to take in a lot more of these additives than is likely good for anyone. We don’t know if they are safe in daily increasing quantities.  To get more calcium without dairy, try adding a couple of servings of collard greens, bok choy, sardines, sesame seeds, broccoli and spinach to your diet.

If you really must use non-dairy milk several times a day, the best kind is one you make at home without any additives!  Check out this great recipe for homemade almond milk from Oh She Glows. It’s great without the sweeteners/flavoring too, believe it or not!

Bottom line: If you need/want to go off dairy milk, use non-dairy store bought milks in moderation and make your own if you will be consuming large quantities.

2. Choosing low fat or fat free foods instead of their regular fat original versions.
If you’re still buying low fat versions of foods you really need to stop. Why? For starters, look at the ingredient lists between a fat free frozen yogurt and full fat ice cream.  A low fat or fat free frozen yogurt will have many more ingredients in it, including several thickeners and additives that give it the texture and mouth feel that we want and expect when eating.  The length of the ingredient list alone is alarming. The longer an ingredient list, the more room for non-foods to be added in (and the often fall on the FDA GRAS list as well).

Another problem with eating the lower or no fat versions of food is that to get the same amount of enjoyment from the food, we often need to eat more of it. Fat is the nutrient for satiety and if you have a strong craving for a fatty food, odds are it’s the fat your body is after. If you choose the low fat or no fat version, you’ll never quite satisfy that craving and you may find you keep looking for something that will.  We think we’re saving calories when actually we’re increasing the chance that we will eat more. While it can be difficult to feel comfortable with the idea of eating more fat (especially if you’ve been a chronic dieter), if you try it for a little while you’ll see that you actually end up eating less when you eat more fat, leading to less cravings and eating less calories overall.

And a final reason to go for full fat versions of food: We actually need fat in our diets.  Vitamins A, D, E and K can’t be used in our bodies without fat in the diet. A few other important roles of fat in the diet:  it helps regulate our sex hormones (so important if you want to conceive, have a regular menstrual cycle or healthy libido), it keeps our hair and skin healthy and nourished and is integral for sharp brain function!

If you’re worried about eating fat and heart health, that’s an important topic and I’d love to talk to you about it but this blog post would be miles long if I did that. We’ll save that for another day (contact me if you want to discuss sooner!).

Bottom line: Eating full fat foods means less junky additives, more satisfaction from our diet, and better nutrient absorption for good health.

3. Eating large quantities of raw kale every single day
Just because every green smoothie, juice or raw salad recipe today has kale as the star ingredient doesn’t mean you should eat huge amounts of it every single day.  Kale is an amazing green full of vitamins A & C, magnesium, iron, calcium and many phytonutrients! But eating it raw in large quantities can be problematic for those with existing thyroid, kidney or gallbladder issues. And in some extreme cases, otherwise healthy folks who took in very large quantities of raw kale have developed hypothyroidism.

Kale is really good for us and in general, most of us do not eat enough leafy green vegetables period and we should absolutely be eating more greens in general.  But while it’s good to eat kale, a better idea is to eat kale and other green vegetables. Rotate through all the greens you can find in your local store and alternate between eating them raw and cooked.  Doing this ensures you get a wide variety of nutrients and don’t end taking in too much of something that could hurt you. You may also find that eating them cooked means less digestive stress (which means we’re more likely to want to still eat them).

Bottom line: Enjoy kale and other green vegetables in both raw and cooked forms but make sure you rotate and don’t eat the same greens all the time.

4. Training “hard” all the time
While the majority of us could probably use more activity in our lives, some folks hear
“exercise is good for you” and assume that means more, harder and faster is always better. Training hard has it’s place (maybe you’re training for a competition or event or have a plateau you’re trying to push past) but it may not be the right thing for you all the time.

Frequent vigorous or very long exercise sessions actually increase our cortisol levels. While increased cortisol is important when we’re in a dangerous situation (such as running for your life!), our stressful lives today mean we have increased cortisol levels most of the time. Chronically high cortisol levels can cause many health problems, including a suppressed immune system (more colds!), decreased libido, increased anxiety and depression, and even weight gain (think belly fat). For the athlete, high cortisol levels can also mean a breakdown of muscle (which is the opposite of what we want!) and reduced speed, strength and endurance.

Another thing that can become problematic with very hard training is that it can actually increase your urge to eat aggressively. One one hand, if you’re training harder or for more duration, it makes sense that you would want (and you need) to eat more to refuel. But in many cases, the hunger response that is created is far greater than the actual fuel need we have. We pat ourselves on the back for our hard exercise and eat more to reward ourselves but most of us underestimate the amount of food we take in.  Done once in awhile, this isn’t a big deal but if you over-train every time you exercise and do it frequently, you can actually undermine your weight loss goals in a big way.

It’s important to listen to your body. It’s good to push hard and feel challenged. It’s important to do activities we enjoy and get a lot out of. It’s important to have an active life. But rather than push yourself to work your hardest and longest every day of the week, think about what might be best for your body on any given day. If your knees are aching from a long run yesterday, maybe you would benefit more from taking a rest day or doing some gentle yoga today instead of trying to run on your already strained legs. If you’ve gotten poor sleep the last several nights and feel like you might be getting sick, it might be a good idea to go for a walk or resting instead of hitting a Crossfit class for the 8th time this week.  I’m not suggesting we stop pushing ourselves or that we don’t work hard – I love tough exercise as much as anyone.  But I think it’s important to listen to the signals our body sends and aim for balance and challenging oneself.   That way you can do the activities you love for a long time!

Bottom line: Challenge yourself physically but know it can sometimes be more beneficial to rest or do more gentle activities if that is what your body is asking for.

5. Making refined grains or grain products the major base of your diet
I’m going to go a little off tangent here but bear with me. The USDA came out with the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 and in those dietary guidelines for Americans was the recommendation that we should be eating 6 – 11 servings of grains per day. Interestingly, it mostly focused on processed versions of grains. The recommendation was that we should consume 6 – 11 servings of breads, cereal, rice & pasta. So we did and often more.

And rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed since. Check out the graph titled “New Cases of Diagnosed Diabetes Among U.S. Adults Aged 18 – 79 Years, 1980 – 2009” in the middle of this page from the CDC. What starts to happen right after 1990? Also check out this text summary of obesity trends among US Adults between 1985 – 2010. What happens around 1994? In both cases, rates started to increase sharply and have continued since.  Now correlation isn’t necessarily causation and I can think of several other reasons for these increases (increasing sedentary lifestyles for one) but I am convinced that the dietary recommendations to make refined grain products the base of our diets have contributed significantly. I’ll explain why.

What are breads, pasta and many popular cereals made from? Highly refined flours.  Refined flours spike blood sugar as badly as pure cane sugar because there is no fiber or hull to slow down digestion.  Eating 6 – 11 servings per day (and probably more since our serving sizes have increased) and not getting much exercise means that our entire society has been working hard to develop insulin resistance.  Another problem is that constant blood sugar spikes lead to blood sugar crashes and what happens when our blood sugar crashes? We get crazy hungry and don’t make the best choices food wise so we end up eating far more than we need and often really unhealthy stuff.

My point is that if you’re still following these outdated recommendations (and many are), you are setting yourself up for health problems if you don’t have them already. Grains can be a part of a healthy diet for many of us (it’s a case by case basis – some do not tolerate them well) but I’m referring to whole grains in their whole form not whole grains in refined pasta or bread. And 6-11 servings is far far too many!

Bottom line: Eat whole grains in moderation if you digest them ok but avoid refined grains. Eat less of them than the recommendations from 1992 suggest!

I encourage you to question any news report or article about nutrition and health. They’re telling you one or two sides of the story – are there more? Do your own research and decide for yourself.  Nutrition and health are relatively young sciences and we still have so much to learn but using your intuition and a little thoughtful questioning you can make some choices you can feel good about.

Are there any health trends that you’ve jumped fully on board with? Is there anything you’re doing that you wonder about the benefits of?  Share with us all below so we can learn from each other.

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5 Tips to Increase Productivity for People Who Are Easily Distracted

photo credit: Crowd Control via photopin (license)

photo credit: Crowd Control via photopin (license)

Being someone who is creative and passionate, but easily distracted has it’s challenges. Completing important tasks is difficult. People often see you as absent minded or spacey. Sometimes there is so much going on in your mind that you have a hard time finishing things that others would consider easy. You may have earned a reputation for showing up late to events or for forgetting to pay bills on time. Goals you have in mind may be forgotten as quickly as they appeared. There’s just so much exciting stuff in this world!

Does any of this sound familiar?

For someone like me, every day there are countless opportunities to lose track of focus. The image above is a great visual example of how it feels – shiny (or brightly colored) object syndrome!

I’ve spent most of my life as an easily distracted person so I understand how going through life like this (with or without an ADD / ADHD diagnosis) can be stressful and frustrating, both for the person going through it and for those closest to them. With a lot of trial and error, I’ve found several things that help me stay on the ball. The obvious payoff is being more productive, but it’s also made me a happier, less stressed person, which is just as valuable.

Here are 5 things you can try to increase your productivity if you’re an easily distracted type:

1. Do the thing you want to do the least, first, then let everything else follow.

We all have long to do lists and these lists can seem even longer if you are easily distracted! Making a list and focusing on getting your least favorite task done before distraction sets in can set a positive tone for the rest of the day. You’ll feel good about being able to check off something that weighed heavily on you and the next thing on your list will feel like a breeze.

2. Schedule important tasks in a calendar for specific times.

If you have 5 things you want to accomplish today, estimate how much time you’ll need for each one and then schedule a specific slot in your calendar for that task. If you aren’t finished with a task when it’s time for the next activity, stop what you are doing anyway and move on but schedule some additional time to complete those tasks later (#3 can help with that).

This seems counterintuitive but after you get into the habit of doing this, you will know how long certain tasks take you to do and you’ll be able to more accurately plan your time and won’t have to rely on scheduling additional time. Knowing what you are planning to work on each day can make a big difference when you do get distracted. When you finally come back and are ready to work again, you’ll know exactly where to put your focus.

3. Schedule in a small amount of “buffer” time towards the end of your work time.

In anticipation of distractions occurring, schedule a “buffer” time each day. If you are someone who knows you’ll get side tracked at some point, having a 30 minute to an hour block to catch up on activities that you lost your focus on can help you finish up. This is great for when you are in the early days of scheduling tasks (as in #2) and need more time to finish when time is up. It’s also helpful for creative types who need to work when inspired. That buffer at the end will ensure you get the less glamorous jobs done.

4. Take a break.

Preferably a technology break! It’s important to give your brain some down time even during the busiest days. I used to think taking a break was a bad idea since it was so difficult to regain focus after I walked away from what I was doing, but sticking to #1-3 has really made it much easier! Those of us who are easily distracted need breaks that are invigorating but not too stimulating. Go for a walk, chat with a friend, meditate. Do something to center your energy before coming back to your work. Even just 10 minutes can make a big difference in your productivity.

5. Be thoughtful about your food and drink choices.

When you have a lot to do, sometimes it seems like caffeine is the only way to get through it, but for those of us who find focus difficult, sipping on coffee or soda can sometimes make it harder to sit still and do what needs to be done. Instead sip on water with lemon or herbal tea. It will refresh you and won’t leave you buzzing. As far as food goes, try to keep sugar to a minimum and eat meals that are balanced with fiber, protein and fat. You want to choose food that will give you sustained energy so that you don’t have the added challenge of being distracted by feelings of hunger or discomfort.

Do you have any tried and true strategies for getting stuff done? What’s been your biggest challenge with productivity? Share in the comments!

Pan Seared Scallops and Corn Salad with Avocado Parsley Sauce

Pan seared scallops with Corn Salad and Avocado Sauce

Pan seared scallops with Corn Salad and Avocado Sauce

I know I posted a scallop recipe not to long ago so forgive me for posting another! I love how quick cooking they are and I think they always make a meal look and feel more elegant than it is.  This is not a very wintry meal but sometimes you want something light, especially after weeks of over indulgence over the holidays.  This is very light, very satisfying and takes less than 20 minutes to make. You’ll likely have leftover avocado sauce afterwards – you can use the remainder like a pesto!

Ingredients

For the Corn Salad
1 tbsp unrefined coconut oil
10 oz bag frozen Organic corn, defrosted
1/2 onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, roughly diced
3 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4 – 1/8 inch coins
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp fresh or 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
sea salt and pepper to taste

For the Scallops
1 tbsp unsalted butter or coconut oil
1 tbsp olive oil
8 sea scallops, trimmed, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels

For the Avocado Parsley Sauce
2 avocados, peeled and pits removed
1/2 organic bunch parsley (stems can be included)
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp lemon juice
sea salt
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp dried or 2 tsp fresh chives
1 tsp dijon mustard

Directions

1. Make the Avocado Parsley Sauce by putting all ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulsing until it’s well blended. You may need to scrape down the sides once and blend again. Set aside while you make the rest of the meal.

Avocado Parsley sauce

Avocado Parsley sauce

2. Make the Corn Salad. Heat the Coconut Oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the onion, defrosted corn and bell peppers and cook for 3 – 4 minutes or just until the onions begin to soften.

Corn, Onion and bell peppers cooking coconut oil.

Corn, Onion and bell peppers cooking coconut oil.

3. While the vegetables are cooking, begin heating a cast iron skillet over medium heat. While it is heating, sprinkle your scallops* generously with sea salt and black pepper.

4. While the cast iron skillet heats, add the cumin, thyme, zucchini rounds, salt and pepper to the corn salad. Cook for just 2 minutes, stirring occasionally and then set aside while you finish the scallops.

Add the zucchini and spices to the corn salad and cook for just 2 minutes.

Add the zucchini and spices to the corn salad and cook for just 2 minutes.

5. When the cast iron pan is very hot, add 1/2 tbsp butter and 1/2 tbsp oil to the pan.  When the butter is melted, add the scallops, placing one of their flat round sides face down in the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, flip and cook for another 2-3 minutes. They should have a nice browning on the outside but still be tender on the inside. If they stick to the pan, they probably need another minutes on. Remove from heat before they get tough.

Sear the scallops for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Sear the scallops for 2-3 minutes on each side.

6. Serve the corn salad topped with the scallops and avocado parsley sauce on the side.

What’s your favorite way to serve scallops?

Makes 2 -3 servings.

*This recipe contains scallops that are not fully cooked.  Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness. 
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Expressing Gratitude Can Increase Your Happiness

Practicing more of this can increase your health and happiness.

Practicing more of this can increase your health and happiness.

Last week I came across this article from the American Heart Association, that shows the relationship between negative emotions and stroke risk.  Negative emotions (such as stress, hostility or depression) increase the risk of stroke in middle aged and older adults. A quick internet search of these key words leads to many other studies showing similar results. Considering how stressed and depressed we are as a country, studies that show results like this are somewhat alarming.

However, I don’t think the idea that our emotions can affect our health is new news. I’m sure we’ve all seen the depiction on TV of the stressed businessman who explodes with rage and then drops on the floor clutching his chest. Or we’ve heard someone say “Calm down before you have a stroke!”

But I think seeing research confirm repeatedly that there is a direct link between our emotions and our health is good news, even if you are someone who finds themselves frequently feeling less than positive emotions? Why? Because you can do something about it. Knowledge is power.

While I’m not saying we can change our natural tendency towards pessimism or optimism (and obviously someone with clinical depression will need additional help), I absolutely think we change our overall experience on a daily basis.

How? For starters, a diet with a broad spectrum of nutrients supports our brains and our bodies, endorphin pumping exercise increases cardiovascular health and improves mood and self care work like massage, meditation, yoga and breathing exercises all dissipate stress when done regularly.

If all that seems like way too much to take on at once, I recommend starting with gratitude exercises.  Research on gratitude is relatively young but the studies that have been done are showing great promise that there is a connection between feeling grateful and our well being. Gratitude has been shown to reduce stress and boost the immune system. Positive emotions may even reduce the risk of sudden death from heart conditions like CHF and CAD. If you’re not convinced you should try some yet, here’s a great article that goes over several gratitude studies and the mental and physical health benefits participants received.

Gratitude exercises are something you can do every day and most take just a few minutes to do.

Here are some of the gratitude exercises I recommend to clients and have practiced myself:

1. Create a daily gratitude list. Keep a notebook by your bed and each night before bed, write a list of the things you are thankful for each day. It can be something that happened that day or something you are grateful for in general.  Try to come up with at least 3 items each night and do this for at least 3 weeks to create a habit. This exercise can even help you get better sleep.

2. Write a gratitude letter. Think of someone in your life who had a positive effect on you (big or small) and write them a letter telling them so. Explain what it was that they did/said and how thankful you are to them because of it. Mail it.

3. Meditate on gratitude. Spend 5 – 10 minutes each day meditating on some of the things you feel thankful for (perhaps it’s your health, your warm home, your children, the food on your table etc). Set a timer and sit comfortably in a quiet place with your eyes closed and begin to focus on your breath.  With every inhale, think to yourself “I offer gratitude for___________”. With every exhale, think  to yourself “Thank you” or “I am blessed.”

4. Start a gratitude journal. Once a week, sit down and write about all the things you are grateful for that week. Go in as much depth as you feel like. Let all the good things come out on paper. Squash the negative thoughts (at least in this journal). Some weeks you may find this hard if things aren’t going so well – but dig deep. You will find something.

5. Schedule a gratitude visit. Maybe you’re not the writing type. No worries! Instead of writing a gratitude letter as outlined in #2, schedule a visit, lunch or coffee with a person you’d like to express your gratitude to. It doesn’t need to be something major. The idea is that it will make you and them feel good (and that’s good – it’s infectious!).

6. Express gratitude before you get out of bed. If you can’t do anything else, before you even get out of bed in the morning, express gratitude out loud or even in your head. Thank you for waking up! Thank you for a good night’s sleep. Thank you for this sunny day. Thank you for the sleepy person laying next to me. You get the idea.

7. Say thank you in a conscious way. How often do we say please, thank you, you’re welcome etc in a robotic, routine way? It’s great that we are polite, it’s not so great that there often isn’t any feeling behind it. When you express gratitude thoughtfully and sincerely on a daily basis, it will have a greater impact on the person you are saying it to (and on you as well).  Continue to say thank you, you’re welcome etc but before you say it, pause and connect the thought of gratitude directly to the person you are saying it to. Thoughtful and conscious acts have an effect on our bodies and our minds.

Have you ever practiced gratitude on a regular basis? Do you think it can be helpful for changing our outlook on life? Share in the comments.
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Spinach, Sunflower Seed and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

Pesto is a great shortcut to many healthy and delicious meals.

Pesto is a great shortcut to many healthy and delicious meals.

I’m a big fan of pesto.

I like to top salmon, steak or chicken with it. It’s great on all kinds of noodles. A big dollop in a bowl of soup completely changes the flavor. You can pretty much use it on anything. It freezes well. And it’s usually made up of good for you ingredients. What’s not to like!? One of the reasons I’m so drawn to making pesto is that when you try to eat a mostly whole foods diet, sauces and condiments that are made with good ingredients in the store are hard to come by. Many store bought pestos use soybean oil or other vegetable oils and I prefer not to eat those when I can help it so having a few things in your cooking repertoire that you can make in just a couple of minutes can make all the difference between eating food that makes you feel good and gives you energy or grabbing some take out that will make you feel crappy an hour after you eat it.

Try it on salmon, chicken or steak, as a sauce for pasta, raw zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash or as a dip for fresh vegetables.

Try it on salmon, chicken or steak, as a sauce for pasta, raw zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash or as a dip for fresh vegetables.

Good basil is hard to come by in the middle of winter here in NH so I like to make pestos with whatever else I have on hand – tonight it was spinach, sunflower seeds and sun dried tomatoes. Yum!  You can literally make this in 2 minutes.

Don’t feel like you have to stick to this recipe exactly. Pesto is a very forgiving sauce! For greens, try spinach, basil, arugula, mizuna parsley or cilantro (or a mix of a couple). Blend them with walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds or cashews.  Add lemon or lime juice, olive oil and salt and you have a pesto! You can jazz it up for flavor with garlic, shallots, olives, capers, sun dried tomatoes, pecorino or parmesan.  Avocado can be used in place of some of the greens and oil and you can also add a tbsp of tomato paste for a different flavor. Go crazy!

Ingredients
2.5 oz baby spinach (I used half of a package of Olivia’s 5oz)
a big handful of fresh parsley
1/2 cup raw unsalted sunflower seeds
6 or 7 sun dried tomatoes in olive oil (dried ones would work too but you’ll need to soak them in hot water first)
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 – 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
1 clove garlic or 1/2 tsp garlic powder

Directions
Pour the sunflower seeds in a food processor and blend them until they are pretty well broken down (about the size of bread crumbs).

Pulse the sunflower seeds until they look like breadcrumbs.

Pulse the sunflower seeds until they look like breadcrumbs.

Add in the tomatoes and blend again (sometimes they can be tough) until the mixture is pretty evenly reddish colored. Scrape down the sides with a spatula and add the spinach, parsley, lemon juice, garlic and salt.  Blend again until well blended.  You may need to scrape down the sides again, especially if you used any parsley stems – they love to wrap around the blade! Pour in the olive oil while pulsing until it’s all blended.  Adjust seasoning if needed.

If you eat dairy, feel free to add some fresh parmesan into this like you would with a regular basil pesto. For storing, cover with a fresh layer of olive oil (it will prevent browning) and it will stay fresh in the fridge for a week. You may also freeze it. I recommend freezing in ice cube trays and then wrapping individually so that you can use a small amount at a time.

What’s your favorite type of pesto or homemade sauce?
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