Blueberry Apple Cake

My oldest son asked me to make his favourite lemon cake for dessert today. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough lemons handy to make it, but wanted to offer him an equally yummy alternative.

And I opted for this delicious cake that I often make when we have last minute guests over for dinner or just a weekend treat. I like it because it has a lot of fruit, its ready start to finish is under an hour and I usually have all the ingredients on hand. If you don’t have blueberries, just substitute the blueberries for more apple.

Moist Blueberry Apple Cake

Ingredients:

1 ½ C small/medium diced apples – about 2 medium apples (Gala or Granny Smith)

1 C fresh blueberries

¾ C brown sugar

125g butter (1 stick) melted

2 eggs, beaten

1 ½ C flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

Directions 

Pre-heat oven to 350oC. Line a 20 cm round cake pan with parchment paper.

Place diced apples and blueberries into a medium sized bowl and sprinkle with sugar. Toss to combine and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add beaten eggs, melted butter and apple/blueberry/sugar mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined.

Pour batter into cake pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until tooth pick comes out clean. Cool about 10-15 minutes.

Serve with whipped cream or ice cream – enjoy!

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30 Day Shred – Level 2 – Days 10 to 20

On Friday I finished Level 2 of the 30 Day Shred! Whew, I’ll admit I found it a LOT harder than Level 1. Like, 100% harder. One of the toughest things about this level is that there is a lot of plank-based moves (including the cardio portions!) and I would definitely have to take a second break every now and then because my legs were burning, especially at first. I did manage to do all the exercises at the advanced level but it was a challenge for sure. I also had to get some 3lb weights for the last circuit because there was no way I’d get through some of those lifts with the 8lb weights yet still wanted more challenge than then 1lb ones.

It took me a bit longer to finish this level as I took an extra rest day (I had originally planned to take a day off after finishing the first level and then part way) because I had one day where I was just NOT in the mood to exercise and so didn’t, even though I had taken a rest day two days prior.

Anyway, just as with Level 1, this level also went by very quickly. I liked the second circuit the most (spoiler – there is a lot of lunge work) but really didn’t like the last one, however since it was the last one, it was easy to push through.

One thing that I didn’t like in this level is in general I found that Jillian gave less instruction for proper form or technique as compared to Level 1 and there were a couple exercises that I wasn’t 100% sure I was doing correctly (such as the last ab move). Instead she babbled about random stuff that I found a bit irritating.

I also wanted to add that I’ve been reading a bit of criticism of Jillian Michaels recently and have to say, even I could see that her form was not great in some of the lunge based exercises. Luckily I AM aware of what a proper lunge looks like, but I could see people getting injured if they base their lunge on the way she does it. I also lost a bit of respect for her when I found out that she toutes supplements and weight loss pills (for which she is facing lawsuits claiming dangerous ingredients).

That being said, I am happy with my progress so far – I enjoy the workouts and I am seeing results. I’m now down to 156.5lbs (so another 1.5lbs lost for a total of 3.5lbs since starting) even when considering the fact that I’ve definitely gained a lot of muscle. I do like that the workout is over before I know it and I really think its very doable for pretty much anyone. I usually do the 30 Day Shred in the evenings after I put my youngest son to bed, but sometimes do them earlier in the day if I have an evening event planned.

I’ve also kept on a low carb diet for the most part though I think the reason I’m not losing weight as fast as I’d like is because I’m probably still eating too many calories. I’m not too concerned about this since I’m still losing weight but I think I might adjust them a bit. I want to see those abs, that I KNOW are there, better!

Okay, so here are the before and after photos (the before are from my day 10 photos after completing Level 1). The photo quality isn’t as good and looking at the pictures I don’t see as much change – however, when I look at myself in real life, I definitely can see much more muscle definition everywhere and I feel so much stronger (I can even do proper push-ups now!). But looking at the pictures I see there is still room for improvement (I’m looking at you muffin-top!).

3ds level 2 before & after

But I’m glad to be done Level 2 and that I’m 2/3rd of the way through! I started Level 3 today and am excited because I really liked it much better than Level 2 – definitely kicked my butt yet again, but I like all the exercises. Can’t wait to see what these last 10 days will lead to!

Are you REALLY getting a deal?

best-deal-ever

One thing that you learn when you become a parent is that the cost of “stuff” for babies and kids can add up pretty quickly. As a result, many of us are always trying to get deals on these things to help keep costs in check.

But how do we know we are REALLY getting a good deal? I remember once talking to a mom friend about how much I love Costco because the savings on the diapers alone make the membership worth while. She said “nah, I always just buy the diapers on sale at the grocery store.”

And here was her mistake. I find that stores are always tricking us into thinking that because we are getting something “on sale” that its a deal and that we are saving money or if the price is lower. And what makes it even more confusing is that the package of one brand often doesn’t contain the same amount of product as a comparable product.

This is why you can’t look at how much the price is “on sale” and compare that to the original price or even the price of another brand, but how much the price is PER UNIT at that location as compared to the price PER UNIT at another location or the price PER UNIT of a comparable brand (say, Pampers vs Huggies).

So to really know if you are getting a “deal” or paying the lowest amount is to look at the unit cost. And the kicker is, that many store actually post the unit price on the price label on the shelf! So the diapers that are “on sale” may still be more expensive than a comparable brand at the regular price or the same brand of diapers at the regular price in a different location.

Here is an example of 3 stores selling the same brand and size of diapers (all prices taken from the store websites or store visits).  At first glance, Costco seems the most expensive because the price in total is $48.99. But because there are more diapers in the package they sell, the unit cost (i.e the cost per diaper) is actually the lowest.

Always look at or calculate the unit cost

You may think to yourself, ok but is $0.02 or $0.09 really worth the hassle? Well consider it this way – what is the cost difference per month? Say a 20 month old uses on average 5 diapers a day. That is 150 diapers a month. This is what the difference per month would be:

Diapers cost monthly

So that is almost $15 per month difference for the cost of the exact same product. Imagine doing this with just a handful of products that you buy regularly and the impact on your budget.

That being said, I’m not saying that Costco is the solution. There are things even at Costco that aren’t always the cheapest option. Plus, even if something MAY be cheaper because it is bought in bulk, it doesn’t always make sense – if you only eat quinoa once in a blue moon, there is no point to buying a 2KG bag of it just because you save $0.05 per gram or whatever.

But next time you go shopping, remember, all you do is just take the total price and divide by the number of items/weight (grams/oz) in the package to get your unit cost – and use THAT as your basis for comparison to see if you are REALLY getting a deal and saving the most money.

Happy saving!

30 Day Shred – Level 1 – First 10 Days

2014 was a great year for me. We did a lot of travelling (New Zealand to visit Jordan’s family, Poland for a friend’s wedding and a road-trip to the East Coast of Canada ), my youngest son finally started sleeping (thank you Good Night Sleep Site!), I got a makeover on the Marilyn Denis show (watch it here) and I turned 30.

But 2014 was also the year that I realized that its been awhile since I was really in shape and looked it. Sure, I was fairly active (its hard to be sedentary when your toddler learns how to walk!) and I even did the Toronto 1/2 Marathon in under 2 hours, but I just couldn’t shake that last 15 lbs that stubbornly refused to budge after the birth of my second son.

It was frustrating because after my first son was born, I lost the weight very quickly – within 8 months I was in my best shape ever, even though I gained over 50 lbs during my pregnancy.

I lost almost 50 lbs thanks to Weight Watchers, breastfeeding and running.

Pregnancy #1: I lost almost 50 lbs thanks to Weight Watchers, breastfeeding and running.

I wanted to feel good and look good. But with two kids and a husband that works very long hours, I knew that a gym wouldn’t be a realistic option for me. I’m not a big fan of the gym either. I much prefer the classes, but the ones I actually want to take never seem to be at a convenient time for me. Plus, gyms are EXPENSIVE and I’ve never been able to make them worth the cost (and you know me – things have to make sense financially for me to pursue them, haha).

I needed to figure out a way to do what I needed to do at home. Running was great in the warmer weather, but any fitness expert will tell you that strength training is equally, if not more, important as cardio.

So when I came across Nurse Loves Farmer’s post in December on how she got into shape doing Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, I was inspired – and bonus? I actually already HAD the DVD (I bought it at a discount store a few years ago for something like $5 and promptly forgot about it) and some hand weights, so there would be NO financial outlay!

I decided that I’ll start 2015 with a challenge to complete the 30 Day Shred by early February (I wanted to give myself a couple days buffer for rest days and illness).

30 Day Shred – Overview

The 30 Day Shred is made up of 20 minute exercises that comprise of strength training, cardio and ab work (with a warm up at the beginning and cool-down at the end). However, I’d budget about 30 minutes to factor in getting changed into workout gear, setting up the DVD etc. There are 3 levels, with level 1 being the easiest, so I decided to do 10 days at each level. All I needed were some hand weights (weight is not specified) and a mat.

Level 1

Even though this is the “easiest” level, its still a good work out, even for someone who is in moderately good shape already. I was very sore after my first session and even after the 10th session I was still doing the modified push-ups and sweating a lot.

I used 8 lbs weights, which I think is much heavier than most people use from what I’ve read but its all I had (a relic from a 6AM bootcamp I did a few years ago) so I decided to suck it up. I was able to use them for all the strength exercises except the lateral lunge and arm raise – for that I used these 1 lb ball weights that I got as part of a fitness package at some point (and let me tell you, even by day 10, those light weights were killing my arms!).

I quite liked this first level. The session just wizzes by as Jillian varies the exercises a lot and I always feel like I’m done in no time. It made it that much easier to be motivated to do them. I was able to do this level 10 days in a row but I’ll admit I felt a bit tired on day 7 and probably should have taken that day off. I’ll be taking a day off before starting Level 2 and will definitely take one mid-way through it.

My results so far

At the start of the program I weighed in at 160 lbs on the dot and weighed in at 158 lbs exactly 10 days later. I can feel my muscles developing and can especially see more definition in my arms and abs, though I’m not sure the pictures really reflect that. I still have some muffin top left (that is my #1 thing I want to get rid of!) but have high hopes that this will greatly diminish after the 30 days (in Sarah from Nurse Loves Farmer’s post I mentioned before, the last 5 days made the biggest impact).

I combined this program with a modified version of the Atkins diet (and have lost around 9 lbs since starting it in early December). I haven’t cut carbs completely but have, for now, cut bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and any type of baked good or junk food (well, with the occasional “cheat”). I’m actually eating much healthier over all since am eating way more veggies, some fruit but continue to drink a glass or two of wine 4-5 times a week. I’ll have to figure out how to add back some of those more “carby” carbs once I reach my goal weight, but I’ve realized that there will need to be a LOT more moderation involved than in the past. I just don’t have the metabolism to be able to eat those foods too often.

Anyway, without further a-do (is that how you spell that?), here are my before & after pictures from Day 1, Day 5 and Day 10!

 1/3 of the way there!

1/3 of the way there! I can see a little more definition in the abs – can you?

* I do want to mention that my Day 1 full body profile was taken some time in November when I weighed more than 160 (probably 167 or so). I didn’t think to do a full body pic until Day 5 but found that one which I took prior to starting my lower carb diet in December.

Is organic food worth it?

organic_logo_1328082461745_eng

For most families, food is arguabley one of their most important (and often largest) budget categories. We need to eat to live, yes, but food is also a source of pleasure and has direct links to our health.

Since being on my “extended mat leave” (as I like to call my current stint as a stay-at-home-mom), one of the things that I’ve been reading a LOT about is food. And I’m not the only one – food seems to be a major topic of conversation and focus of a lot of media and social media these days. As a mom and conscientious person, I wanted to find out what kind of food is the best for my family, the environment, the economy. And there is a TON of information, both good and bad, out there.

One of the main food topics out there now is organic food. Now, I’ll admit – I TOTALLY bought into the whole “organic is better” thing for a long time. I would almost always choose the organic option when I could, I had a green basket of organic fruits and veggies delivered to my house…I honestly thought that I was doing the best for my family. I thought – hey, if I can afford it, why wouldn’t I buy organic? Isn’t my family’s health the most important thing? Because one thing that organic food most definitely is, is more expensive.

But when I started to look into it more and learning more about food in general (organic, conventional, GMO, farming methods etc) I started to realize that maybe its not that cut and dry. So I started looking into the reasons that I and others started buying organic to see if they were actually supported by real, scientific evidence.

Reason 1: Organic food doesn’t have pesticides (and we all know that pesticides are bad right? They KILL pests!).

Since I’m Canadian, I went right to the source – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Here is what is considered organic by them: “An organic product is an agricultural product that has been certified as organic. A product can be certified if it is produced using the methods outlined by the Canadian Organic Standards.

Hmm…so what IS permitted for food to still be considered organic? Here is what the CFIA says:

CAN/CGSB-32.311, Organic Production Systems – Permitted Substances Lists, includes the following substances lists:

  • Crop production including fertilizers, plant foods, soil amendments, crop production aids and materials, and weed management
  • Livestock production including feed, feed additives and feed supplements, health care products and production aids
  • Processing and sanitation including organic ingredients, non-organic ingredients and with organic ingredients, processing aids, cleaners, disinfectants and sanitizers, and pest control substances.

Oh – so organic farming also allows for pesticides, fertilizers, feed additives, health care products and disinfectants? How is that any different from conventional farming? The fact that they are organic or natural pesticides doesn’t change the fact that they still kill pests. Natural or organic pesticides aren’t safe by default just because they aren’t synthetic.

From my reading I did learn that conventionally farmed food does have higher pesticide residuals than organic (a large study showed that about 38% of conventional foods had pesticide residue vs 7% of organic foods). However, in most cases for both conventional and organic, the residue was negligible.

That said, I decided to look at is how harmful are pesticides in general to people? Yes, they kill pests, but what affect do they have on humans? I came across this pesticide residue calculator which will show you how much you can safely consume. For example, a child could to consume 154 servings of apple in one day  without any effect even if the apples have the highest pesticide residue recorded for apples by the USDA (I haven’t been able to find anything similar for organic pesticides so I can’t comment on their relative safety). Even still – there is currently no evidence that people who eat conventional foods have a higher risk of diseases like cancer or that organic foods can prevent it.

And lets not forget that organic foods aren’t without risk – like e.coli poisoning (due to use of cow manure as opposed to synthetic fertilizers) which can – and does – cause death (like for the 5 people who died from eating organic spinach). To be fair, you can get e.coli poisoning from conventional foods as well – I just wanted to point out that just because its organic doesn’t mean it is automatically risk free.

Reason 2: Organic food is more nutritious

Now I always had my doubts about this one, though I guess I can see why some people may think this. But while there have been some studies to suggest that some organic fruits and veggies are marginally more nutritious, the main study that supports this has been criticized for being funded by a group that supports the promotion of organic farming and focused on only the positive results (where they found foods that were more nutritious) and not the negative results of the study (where they found foods to be less nutritious). In fact, most studies (such as this one done by researchers at Stanford University) show that there is very little nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce and meat (though studies have shown that organic chickens have higher levels of Omega-3 than conventionally raised ones).

At the end of the day, most experts agree that just eating fruits and veggies is important and that even if some organic foods are a bit more nutritious, their cost doesn’t make up for that tiny benefit.

Reason 3: Organic food tastes better

This is an argument I hear all the time and I was always a bit sceptical because in general fruits and veggies have a high range of tastes. Some seasons a particular fruit or veggie could be amazing and some poor. Plus taste is subjective.

But people certainly seem to think that food tastes better if they are told its organic (in a Swedish study, almost 50% of people given the same coffee, one labelled organic and the other not, said the organic labelled coffee tasted better). However, no study has been able to definitively prove that organic actually tastes better nor can people tell if they are eating organic or non-organic food.

Reason 4: Organic farming is better for the environment

This was one of my main reasons for supporting organic – hey, if there are no fertilizers, no pesticides, then DUH, it MUST be better for the environment, right?

Except we’ve already established that fertilizers and pesticides (even some with non-organic ingredients) ARE allowed. Now, its true that many are more eco-friendly than conventional. However, organic also doesn’t allow for GMO crops – and one of the whole points of GMO is to use less pesticides, fertilizers, water etc.

What made me question the eco-friendliness of organic was this point: organic farms have lower yields (anywhere between 20-50% depending on the type of crop!) and this means more of our forests, nature reserves and rainforests are being mowed down to meet the demand. And to me that is awful (though it was pointed out to me, which I verified, that the main culprit of rainforest destruction is due to palm oil production). Combine that with growing world populations and overall growing food demand, shouldn’t we be trying to make the most of the farm land we already farm? And this is where I think conventional farming is doing its part.

*** One thing I wanted to add to this section is that organic standards prohibit the use of antibiotics and added hormones to their meat. While this remains the most valid reason for me to buy organic meats (especially the antibiotics which are contributing to our current crisis of antibiotic resistant super bugs), its worth mentioning that in Canada, only beef farmers are allowed to use hormones (and many choose not to) and many conventional meat/poultry farmers opt out of using antibiotics. This is usually clearly labelled. So while this is guaranteed with organic meat, its not the only option.

Look, I’m not saying that conventional farming is amazing for the planet – but when I realized that organic is no better for the most part – and can actually be worse – for the environment due to shunning of GM technology and requiring more land to produce the same yield, it lost a lot of its appeal for me.

Reason 5: Organic farmers treat their animals better

This is also a real reason I would choose organic eggs or meat. For example, I  was under the impression that all organic eggs came from free-range chickens (meaning they can run freely inside AND have access to outside), but learned that its actually not a requirement (it really depends on which certification they receive). Yes, some organic eggs come from free-range farms. But most that I’ve seen are only free-run (means they are in one large pen and not locked in cages) and you can buy conventional eggs that are free run or free range anyway. So the only difference is the feed that they get (organic eggs hens are fed organic grains). In general I have found that the whole system of certifying eggs organic, free-range, free-run etc to be very confusing because there are different certifiers and all have different standards. The best advice regarding eggs choice would be to find a brand that meets the criteria you are comfortable with (and can afford) and buy that.

As for meat farming, I think its very unfair to assume that just because an animal comes from a conventional farm they are badly treated. Organic meat requirements are that animals are treated “humanely” – and the requirements are quite strict. However, this doesn’t mean that by default conventional ones don’t treat them that way – their standards are also very strict. Of course there will always be a few “bad apples” and farms exposed for inhumane treatment. With regards to this, the only way to know is by visiting the farms themselves and educating yourself on what humane really means.

Reason 6: Organic food is GMO free

Ok, this wasn’t really a reason for me, but it is a reason I see cited by many people. This is true – organic food is GMO free – but the question is, does it matter? I’ll admit “genetically modified” does sound scary and Frankensteinish, but what does the science say, is it ACTUALLY bad for us to consume?

And the answer is that that there is no documented evidence that genetically modified foods are in anyway harmful to human health. NONE. At most some anti-GMO bloggers (because they are rarely actual scientists, farmers, researchers or doctors – you know, the people who understand and know what they are talking about) make claims that GM foods “might be harmful” or “potentially cause health problems” but aren’t able to show any proof of this. They use the “evil doings” of Monsanto, a company that produces GM seeds and develops the technology, as a reason to avoid GM foods. But whatever their business practices are (and I’m sure they have some questionable/immoral ones) this doesn’t a) mean that the technology behind GM foods is bad nor b) does it in anyway prove that organic is better.

Not only that, but GM technology is helping farmers be more efficient, use less pesticides/herbicides and have their crops less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To me, this is a huge plus for supporting conventional farming.

So WHY?

So WHY are organic foods sales soaring? How is it that is has become a $30+ billion industry in the US alone? The answer: marketing. Here is an excellent breakdown of how good its been. Whole Paycheck, Whole Foods alone made $13 billion in sales in 2013. I think that because people are much more concerned about the environment and their health now then they have been in the past, there is a huge appeal in all things natural and the organic idea definitely caters to that.

Also, I feel like there is a lot of food shaming happening – people, especially moms I think, are guilted into thinking that  they are being selfish for NOT buying organic for their families and that is ridiculous. .

Conclusion

So what do I think (if you can’t tell already)? Since this is a personal finance blog and I try to encourage people to be smart about and mindful of how they spend their money, I think that at the end of the day, for me, organic foods just aren’t worth it. When all things are considered, I still don’t think that the benefits from organic foods or farming methods justify the premium that they cost, especially since in Canada conventional foods are just as healthy and the industry is constantly working to improve its standards of quality and eco-friendliness.

That said, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t buy organic. People should have the right to spend their money on whatever they like. I spend a lot of money on designer shoes and handbags compared to some people – but I budget for them and I can afford them. So I’m not going to judge someone for paying $0.87Ib for organic bananas when the conventional are $0.57lb if they can afford to do so. Nor will I judge someone for choosing organic chicken/beef/pork because they like the certain extra effort made to make the animals comfortable. Everyone has different priorities and they should make the choice that best aligns them with those priorities.

Also, while now I do avoid organic (because why pay more?) as a rule, there are some organic food brands I really like and I will continue to buy them. And I will continue to read and learn about both types of farming and will constantly be re-evaluating my choice.

So I hope that who ever reads this, their guilt about not buying organic will subside and those who have been straining to afford to buy organic realize that they don’t have to and that it doesn’t make them bad parents.

***Updated to discuss a point that I forgot to mention before.

Bon apetit!

 

 

Want to learn more? Here are some fantastic resources!

Canadian Food Inspection Agency –> great for learning about Canadian food standards, what they really are and what they mean.

Nurse Loves Farmer -> excellent blog by a farmer’s wife who explains farming processes and has a ton of knowledge about GMOs, pesticides and general farming issue.

Scientific American article on conventional vs. organic farming

Genetic Literacy Project –> great resource for science based health news and current issues

Science Babe –> a blog by a scientist who busts common science and health myths

BC-SPCA  –> Good document that shows requirements for SPCA certification of animal treatment in British Columbia and is very similar to Canada Organic standards (for all of Canada – BC is has the strictest requirements compared to the other provinces). I couldn’t find a direct link to Canada Organic.

 

 

 

Easy Money Saving Challenge

Is one of your resolutions for the new year to get your finances under control? If so, the first thing I highly recommend doing is starting a budget. And I have a great series especially geared to beginners – but really, its totally applicable for anyone who wants to start a budget and get a control over their money.

Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 2 comes complete with an Excel template to help get you started! Alternatively, I also have a template which is geared towards families for whom childcare is a big expense here.

But for something a bit more tangible, I’ve also created a quick and easy Money Saving Challenge to motivate you to start SAVING!

All you do is save the dollar equivalent of the calendar week we are in. You can set up an automatic transfer OR simply take the money in cash and put into a jar.

Here is what it would look like – check out how much you would have saved by the end of the year!

Easy Money Saving Challenge

Easy Money Saving Challenge

 

Obviously, this isn’t a life changing amount of money. But its still significant enough to do something special with – dropping a sum like that on your mortgage could take months off your amortization. You could use it for a family trip (or romantic getaway for you and your partner) make a big ticket purchases you’ve always wanted. Or you can just keep it for a rainy day and have that peace of mind that comes along with just having it there in case.

Up for a bigger challenge? Here is what it would look life if you doubled the amounts:

Accelerated Money Saving Challenge

So what are you waiting for? This week is super easy – start by saving just $1.