4-week challenge day #1: updates & tips

Did you start the 4-week pre-summer clean-eating challenge with me today? I know some of you did, which is awesome! Follow along on facebook and instagram (@taylor_beee) for more regular updates :)

I won't be taking pictures of ALL of my meals during this challenge, but I thought I'd share the first day. Here's how it went for me:

Breakfast: whole-grain, high-fiber english muffin with almond butter & cinnamon; blueberries; coffee with all-natural french vanilla coconut creamer (YUM)

Snacks: Banana, strawberries, & almonds
Lunch: Spiced chicken, quinoa, & green beans

Dinner: Sautéed shrimp & peas, cinnamon sweet potato, & sautéed spinach. For the shrimp, just mix raw shrimp with your favorite seasoning/spices; saute in 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes or until almost done; add peas and cook for another minute or so, or until hot. 

And now, green tea for dessert :) All in all, plenty of tasty food eaten today and it was more than enough to keep me full. This isn't really different from my normal way of eating, except that there was no straying (i.e., no chocolate truffle after dinner ;) What's gonna be tough is excluding that english muffin, almond butter, quinoa, and sweet potato once the "17 day diet" part starts in 2 weeks. Agghhh!

Here are 4 tips and things to keep in mind if you're doing the 4-week challenge:

1. Plan ahead.


4-week pre-summer clean-eating challenge

4-week pre-summer clean-eating challenge. That's a lot of hyphenation. But what is it?

It's a challenge that I made up to kick start a healthy summer, and I hope you'll join me! Monday April 29th through Friday May 25th. 26 days. Progressively more challenging. The first two weeks is a pretty basic clean-eating plan. The second 2 weeks? We're following the 17-day diet!

Why? Because it's a great way to begin summer (and swimsuit season) on the right foot. Because you will probably lose a few pounds. Because it will make you feel great. Because it's good for your body. Because it's nice to challenge yourself and your willpower sometimes. Because you can!

Ready to hear the rules?

Weeks 1 and 2: All clean eating. No cheats.

This is essentially how I eat now... except sometimes I don't. Haha. I typically eat "clean" about 80% of the time. But for the other 20%... there's the cookies at work, the chips at a friend's house, the piece of candy (or two) out of the candy jar, the cheat meals on the weekend, the french fries snuck from Ryan, the pita chips late-night snack... you know how it goes. Which is fine! I am happy with my "80% rule" as a general lifestyle. I don't ever want my diet choices to limit my ability to have fun, enjoy delicious food, and celebrate with family and friends -- that's where the 20% comes in. But for a few weeks, I want to challenge myself to bump that 80% up to 100%. It's the perfect way to jump into summer, and it's no coincidence that I'm heading to the beach in exactly 4 weeks! ;)

So what does the diet plan look like for the first 2 weeks?

-Only whole foods. 
-Lots of veggies, lots of lean protein. Some whole grains. Some fruit. Some nuts. Some fats. Some beans. Some dairy. 

-Refined sugar
-Refined carbs (NO white bread, white rice, white potatoes)
-Processed / pre-packaged food (for the most part -- packaged whole grain pasta, for example, is okay)
-Fried food
-Sweets (candy, pastries, cookies, cakes, etc.)

-VEGGIES (any veggies, and as much as you want)
-Meat (plenty of lean meat like chicken; limited beef and pork)
-Whole grains (oatmeal, whole grains, quinoa)
-Olive oil
-Limited butter
-Dairy in moderation (cheese, milk, yogurt)
-Alcohol in moderation (e.g., red wine with dinner, if desired)

So what should you eat? One delicious meal to have for lunch is this arugula salad with quinoa, chicken, avocado, and sautéed veggies topped with goat cheese & light homemade honey mustard dressing (recipe at end of post):

Other recipes that work for the first two weeks:
-Avocado, spinach, mozzarella and sriracha quesadilla (if made with whole grain tortilla)

Got it? So that's the first two weeks. Monday, April 29th through Sunday, May 12th.

Then what?

Weeks 3 and 4: All clean eating. Increased restriction. No cheats. Following the 17 day diet plan. 

Have you ever heard of the 17 day diet? I've done this diet every spring for the past 3 years, and let me tell you... it works. It's hard. But it works. Last year, I lost about 8 or 9 pounds in 17 days and I've kept it off ever since. For real! My mom lost 10 pounds on the diet.

Doing this diet last year actually really changed the way I eat. Even though I added in foods that are restricted on the 17 day diet afterwards, it showed me the benefits of a low-carb, high-protein diet. This time, I don't have 10 pounds to lose. I don't need to lose weight at all, really. That's not my goal -- which is why I will be eating plenty of food, just all 17 day diet-approved food. My goal is just to challenge myself and cleanse my body a bit. It will be the perfect way to go into my Florida vacation that starts on the 25th!

So what is the 17 day diet? We'll be eating pretty similarly to the first two weeks, except cutting out some food groups that will be much-missed. Like dairy, whole grains, and beans. And beef and pork. We'll be limiting our fruit intake. There are even some veggies that are off-limits. No alcohol at all. No butter. No nuts.

Disclaimer: I like this diet for 14 days. Maybe 17 days. I don't think it's a lifestyle diet. In my opinion, fruit shouldn't be limited. No veggies should be off-limits. Nuts and beans are good! Lean beef is fine in moderation. Not eating fruit or yogurt after 2pm is kind of silly and arbitrary. BUT - this is just for the short-term -- a cleanse to kickstart a more moderation-based diet :)

Here are the rules:

Eat unlimited:
-Chicken breasts
-Turkey breast
-Egg whites (limit yolks to about 4/week)
-Ground turkey or ground chicken
-Fish (salmon, flounder, tilapia, canned light tuna, sole, catfish)
-"Cleansing vegetables" which includes:
   -Brussel sprouts
   -Bell peppers

Eat 2 servings of low-sugar fruit daily. Not after 2pm. Options include:
   -Red grapes

Eat 2 servings of probiotics daily. Not after 2pm. Options include:
   -Yogurt, regular or greek, lowfat or nonfat
   -LiveActive cottage cheese

Eat 1-2 tbsp of olive oil daily

   -Green tea
   -Coffee in moderation (and without cream or sugar)

   -Fat free cheeses
   -Low sodium soy sauce
   -Low-carb ketchup
   -Fat free sour cream
   -Sugar-free jam
   -Cooking spray

No alcohol. No bread. No cheese. No packaged foods. No nuts. No sweets. 

This diet is a challenge. I will create some as-delicious-as-possible recipes that work though, I promise! And remember, it's only 2 weeks. If you stick with it 100%, it really works. 

Ready? Are you with me? Do you have questions? This will be much easier with support, so let me know if you're in! If you're questioning whether or not to do it -- DO IT! And do it 100%. Follow me on facebook if you don't already for regular updates and to discuss meals and challenges!

The 100% clean-eating starts tomorrow. I'll be sharing 4-week challenge-approved recipes throughout. Get excited!

Oh, and here's the recipe for the arugula salad - it is SO good, and a great lunch choice for the first 2 weeks:


filet mignon with browned butter red wine sauce

After making this dinner, I decided that there is really no reason to order a $30 steak out at a restaurant. Buy some thick-cut, high-quality, grass-fed filets at the store and you can have the same thing (or better) at home for less than half the price!

These steaks were ridiculously delicious. I honestly thought Ryan might face dive into his plate after he took the first bite.

Delicious crust on the outside, flavorful and tender on the inside, and the browned butter and red wine sauce poured on top... yes. Yes, yes, yes.

You CAN cook a perfect steak at home. This was so simple! The most important thing is starting with high-quality (read: not cheap), thick cut, preferably grass-fed filets. Don't get me wrong -- I buy cheaper cuts of beef on sale all the time, and they can turn out really good... they just need a little more TLC. But this dinner is special... yes, I spent a little more on the steaks, but ohhh man you can TASTE that difference. 

When you start with cuts of beef like this, they don't need much! I only seasoned them with sea salt and course ground black pepper, and they only need a bit of the sauce. So, so good. I served them with roasted red potatoes (see recipe) and roasted asparagus and we ate out on the patio now that the weather has warmed up -- perfect!

Ryan commented that this was in his "top 3 best steaks of all time." I take that as a serious compliment -- we've been to some awesome steakhouses! Check out the recipe:


grilled chicken with goat cheese & thyme roasted grapes

Friday afternoons/evenings are unbeatable, am I right? You're finally done with the long week and the whole stretch of weekend is ahead of you. When I get home on Fridays, I like to turn on some music throughout the house and open the windows if it's nice. Maybe sit on the couch and catch up on blogs (like now), or maybe do a little cleaning. Either way, everything feels so leisurely! Tonight is supposed to be stormy, but Ryan and I have perfect plans (IMO): Indian takeout, red wine, and finally watching Django Unchained. YES! Before I put away the laptop and my phone for the night though (a habit I'm trying to increase), I had to share this FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC recipe for grilled chicken with goat cheese and thyme roasted grapes. I couldn't let you miss out on the opportunity to make it this weekend! It is out of this world. 

I had never roasted grapes before making this. I saw a recipe for a brushetta with ricotta and roasted grapes on Pinterest and the idea for this popped immediately into my head -- replace the bread with chicken and the ricotta with goat cheese! It seemed to be a perfect combination in my head, and the real thing came out even better. 

It's pretty easy to prepare too - ready in under 30 minutes! The chicken is prepared very similarly to my basic spiced chicken. For this recipe, I used thyme, basil, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Rub the spice mixture all over 4 raw chicken breasts. 


Indian-spiced chicken thighs over chana saag

It's easy to fall into cooking ruts. Life gets busy and you end up falling back on tried-and-true dinners (or grabbing something quick) most nights -- much simpler than creating something new and exciting. I get it. But making an effort at least once a week or so to try a new recipe and create something different allows you to discover all that the world of food has to offer (which is  A LOT)...and it really doesn't have to take a ton of time or effort. Just gather some fresh ingredients that you don't normally choose, find a new recipe (or don't follow a recipe at all!), and see what you're capable of!

For me, the inspiration for this new-and-different meal came as I was flipping through a favorite cookbook that I hadn't taken off the shelf in a while, The Best of Clean Eating. While the book has a plethora of fabulous clean eating ideas, it was a random piece of notebook paper laid between the pages with a recipe scribbled on it that I was excited to find.  

It is a recipe for chana saag that I wrote out about 3 years ago when I lived on my own after college and first started cooking. I had no idea where it originated from (although after a little searching it looks like I've found the source!) but I do remember making it way back then and loving it. I immediately wanted to make it again! However, I wanted it to be a little more substantial - why not add a crispy, Indian-spiced chicken thigh on top? Delish!

Chana saag is a wonderfully nutritious and fragrant Indian dish with spinach, chickpeas, tomato, garlic, yogurt, olive oil... how could that be bad?! I cut the amount of chickpeas in half this time so it would be a little more spinach-y and less bean-y since I was serving it with chicken, but using the full can of chickpeas results in a lovely vegetarian meal that is pretty hearty on its own (see that original link). 

To make the chana saag: Saute 8 oz of spinach in 1/2 a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until soft. 


pop-in post: light maryland-style shrimp salad

I had never even heard of shrimp salad before moving to Baltimore. Is that weird? I don't remember seeing it on menus anywhere else?! Since moving here though, I've ordered it at many restaurants and I LOVE it. Eating shrimp salad at a restaurant, however, pretty much comes with a guarantee that your food will be swimming in mayonnaise -- not exactly a healthy option. So, I decided to make a light version and it turned out pretty amazing... you can hardly tell it's the "healthy version." 

I'll definitely be making this throughout the summer and having it on salads, in wraps, in sandwiches... hell, I could eat it straight out of the bowl! 

Just popping in to share the quick-and-easy recipe:


clean, low-carb ham & veggie frittata

This past Saturday night involved great friends, an Orioles game, ballpark food (think fried), big cheap beers, and country music. Yes, THAT'S how you bring in this wonderful warm weather. On Sunday, though, I needed some rejuvenation (and a cure for my pounding headache). This came in the form of a delicious vegan brunch with some friends, a long sunny walk, finally watching Argo (loved it!), and a make-ahead ham and veggie frittata to start the week off on the right foot.

I had never been to an exclusively vegan restaurant before trying Great Sage. If you didn't already pick up on it, I'm kiiind of a meat lover (and let's not even talk about cheese), so vegan isn't exactly my thing. BUT! I can still appreciate vegan food, especially when it's as fresh, healthy, creative, and tasty as it was as Great Sage. I ordered a green juice (made with kale, spinach, apple, carrots, and ginger) and a raw kale and apple salad topped with shaved beet curls. Delish! I've never left a restaurant feeling exponentially healthier than when I arrived. I'd definitely recommend it if you're in the Maryland/DC area.

I then decided to make a frittata to have for breakfasts this week, because 1) I wanted to use up some of the leftover Easter ham I have stockpiled in the freezer, and 2) frittatas are easy, healthy, and so yummy. It saves a lot of time in the morning when I already have breakfast made -- just have to grab a slice of the frittata out of the fridge and pop it in the microwave.

So first, I chopped up all of the fresh veggies I had in the fridge into small pieces. I used red pepper, mushrooms, broccoli, and tomato, which was a great combo. You can use whatever sounds good to you though -- I've also made these with squash and zucchini, onion, spinach, etc.


clean-eating: whole wheat penne with healthy spinach pesto

I'm sharing a quick, tasty, nutritious recipe with you today: whole wheat penne pasta with a ready-in-5-minutes spinach pesto. This is the type of meal I throw together when I'm having dinner alone or need a fast but filling lunch -- in other words, I probably wouldn't prepare it for Ryan, unless it was alongside a piece of chicken or steak. Or maybe if I tossed some shrimp in there as well. He'd eat it, don't get me wrong... it's just what I consider a "me meal." Simple, healthy, light.

I absolutely love pasta...I pretty much wish I could eat it every day. Pasta with pesto sauce is one of my faves, but it can be totally loaded with calories and fat. This version of pesto is light -- much less oil, no nuts, only a little cheese -- it isn't quite the same as the full-fat version, but it hits the spot and is virtually guilt-free. The primary ingredients are spinach, olive oil, and egg (which I added for a bit more protein but can certainly be left out if you're grossed out by the thought of a raw egg -- although I tell myself that mixing it with the steaming pasta kinda cooks it...... I'm still alive), and it's served over whole wheat penne pasta. Just a bit of parmesan to round it out. No nuts in this version, but the addition of pine nuts or almonds would definitely be delicious.

For the pesto, put 3 to 4 cups of baby spinach in your food processor and pulse until it's chopped fine. Then, add in an egg and pulse until combined.

Slowly pour in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil.


mediterranean chicken salad

Get excited: I'm sharing a healthy, delicious power salad with you today that was inspired by the "Mediterranean diet."

Did you hear about the Mediterranean diet study* published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February? I actually first heard about it on the Today Show, which is NOT where I usually first hear about scientific findings. As a researcher, I appreciate it when well-conducted research study results make popular news -- often, people in the "real world" don't know about, care about, or understand research, so interesting and useful findings ending up in the media is pretty rare. But that's the goal of our research, at least in health care, right?! Well, not necessarily ending up on the Today Show, but somehow, some way, influencing and benefiting the population at large. Sometimes it's wishful thinking, but I'm pretty sure all researchers hope for this at some level.

Anyway, this particular study likely reached a larger audience because, 1) it involves a behavioral change that any "normal" person could make to improve their health, and 2) the results are pretty compelling. Basically, the authors conducted a randomized clinical trial and assigned people who were at risk for heart disease to either a Mediterranean diet or a control condition (a low-fat diet). They then followed these people for over 4 years and tracked any cardiovascular events (myocardial infarction, stroke, death from cardiovascular causes). They actually planned to collect data for longer than 4 years, but because the results were clearly indicating strong health benefits for the Mediterranean diet condition, it would have been unethical to continue the study without informing the control group. In the end, cardiovascular events were quite low for both groups (< 5%), and those in the Mediterranean diet group had a 30% reduced risk of a cardiovascular event compared to the control condition. Now, the study wasn't perfect, and additional control groups would have been ideal, but in general these are pretty cool findings. Change what you eat and reduce your risk of having a heart attack!

So, what did the Mediterranean diet entail, as compared to the control group?

As you can see, those assigned to the Mediterranean diet were instructed to have plenty of olive oil, veggies, fresh fruits, lean meats and seafood, nuts, and beans. Oh, and wine with dinner! I knew that habit had some scientific support behind it ;) Sounds like a pretty healthy, balanced meal plan, right? They were not instructed to avoid breads, but they were aso not encouraged to eat it like the control group was. Grains were certainly not an emphasis. And they were told to avoid red meat (*womp womp*). All in all, I am totally on board with this "diet," although I like to enjoy red meat 1-2 times per week, and I would add in some natural whole grains as well.

What do you think? Do you want to eat like you live on the Mediterranean now? I sure do!

Make this salad to get started: