Think Twice About Your Gift Cards: How They Can Help Your Health

My esteemed colleague Karen Collins MS RD CDN owner and founder of the Smart Bytes® Blog has written a great article on how to use healthfully use your gift cards.


If you were fortunate enough to get a gift card over the holidays, STOP and think twice before you use it.  Most of us fail to see the opportunity these cards present. Often we think of a gift card as “mad money” – a chance to make an impulse purchase of something on which we would not have spent “our own” money.

It’s easy to use those gift cards for one more sweater you don’t need, a game you won’t play, a decorative tchotchke that means nothing to you or a book you won’t really read. But once the thrill of the purchase is over, are you really any happier?

How about using those gift cards to help you overcome the obstacles you’ve faced when trying to create a healthier lifestyle? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about what could make a real difference for a healthier 2013….

Reflect First, Spend Later

Money does not resolve all obstacles to a healthy lifestyle, but sometimes a little extra can help surmount a barrier that’s frustrated your efforts to live more healthfully.  What have been the biggest obstacles in the past year for you?  Maybe you want to address the obstacle that’s bothered you most. Or maybe you want to get things rolling by finally nailing down the lifestyle change that would be easiest for you to make.

If you want to eat more healthfully…

Healthy beverage choices can help you cut some significant calories without going hungry.  Instead of sugar-laden soft drinks or sweet teas, are you trying to drink more water?

  • If this is a battle for you, you might enjoy trying a fruit infusion pitcher.  These pitchers have a tube in the middle in which you can put lemon or other citrus fruit, berries or even cucumber.  You can keep refilling the pitcher, simply replacing the fruit every 7 to 10 days.  You can find an infusion pitcher for 20 to 25 dollars in bath and home stores, department stores, and even larger grocery stores.
  • Tea is another healthy drink option, providing antioxidant phytochemicals and zero calories.  Use a lower-value gift card to stock your cabinets or office desk with a variety of teas, and choosing tea more often need never seem boring.   My current favorite for something different, especially in the late afternoon and evening when I’m trying to avoid caffeine, is Gingerbread Spice, an herbal tea that’s part of Celestial Seasonings’ holiday collection. It’s not a source of the polyphenol phytochemicals found in green or black tea, but it’s a delicious zero-calorie treat I enjoy, so I stock up on multiple boxes while it’s still in stores.

Eating more vegetables – a key strategy for weight management and lower risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – adds enjoyment to your meals when they are prepared in ways that enhance their natural flavors.  In addition to steaming and stir-frying, I love the flavor that comes from oven roasting vegetables.  I especially enjoy the flavor roasting adds to onions, Brussels sprouts, winter squash, cauliflower and parsnips.

  • Although vegetables can be oven-roasted on a cookie sheet or any baking pan after tossing with a bit of oil, I prefer to use a baking tray (sometimes labeled a cookie pan) that has a about a one-inch high lip to keep my veggies from sliding off.  And while I love the flavor olive oil adds to roasted vegetables, it’s easy to slip and pour too much.  To get the best texture and avoid excess calories from overdoing, I love the oil misterthat I keep filled with my favorite olive oil, ready to spray on just the right amount of oil.
  • Soups are another strategy that helps me include lots of vegetables in meals that my family and I love.  Soups are also one of my favorite ways to serve beans.  To top it off, research by Barbara Rolls, PhD, of Penn State and others shows that eating a low-calorie soup can help you eat less and feel full on fewer calories.  One of the tricks I’ve learned along the way to create a richly textured soup without turning to cream or oodles of cheese is to add some puréed cannellini or other beans.  Currently I rely on my food processor or blender to puree soup or some of its ingredients; one of the items I’d intended to put on my holiday wish list (and  then forgot) is an immersion blender (also called a hand blender).  My friend and Chicago-area Registered Dietitian colleague, Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD, loves hers.  She notes that blending soups in the same pot they were prepared in is not only safer, it makes for fewer dishes. When I asked another colleague, noted consultant and cookbook author, Roberta Duyff, MS, RD, FADA, CFCS, about immersion blenders, she noted that she likes the fact that they allow you to control the puree, leaving as much or little chunky texture as you choose. Her tip: be sure the blender is completely off before lifting it out — otherwise the mixture will create a mess on the counter and more!

These blenders are not all the same.  If you’re going to use it as I will, for beans and vegetables in soup, and perhaps some smoothies or hummus, you won’t need a model as heavy-duty as if you plan to use it to chop nuts or other more demanding tasks.  Choose based on which characteristics are most important to you, including length of time it can run, power to process frozen fruit or vegetables, length of the shaft (which affects how large a pot of soup it can handle), choice of speeds (it can be useful to be able to slow it down in some circumstances) and type of shaft (stainless steel or plastic).  This evaluation of 15 different models by Good Housekeeping can help you get a feel for the choices available. Cathy Leman says she has a Braun 200 watt power model and loves it.

Including dried beans and peas often is a great way to boost fiber and a wide range of nutrients and protective phytochemicals.  My cupboards always have a stash of black, kidney and garbanzo beans canned with no added salt.

  • Another kitchen tool to make bean soups and stews easy is a pressure cooker.  Here’s a video from Registered Dietitian Jill Nussinow, MS, RD  – known as The Veggie Queen – showing how you can use a pressure cooker to cook dried beans in less than 10 minutes. These devices have come a long way from the versions I remember my mom using when I was young.  Jill says pressure cookers have totally changed what she cooks, because they make everything so fast.Jill Nussinow is a cooking teacher and cookbook author known as an expert on pressure cooking, so I asked for her input on choosing a cooker. She says, “Buy the largest cooker that is best for you. For most people it will be 6 or 8 quarts. Or buy a set. Families of 5 or more might benefit from a 10 quart cooker.” She strongly prefers stainless steel cookers, and notes different advantages of electric versus stovetop models. Some people prefer electric models, which you can set and forget. Jill feels she gets better cooking control with a stovetop model. Jill recommends (and sells) the Fagor Duo, which she says in the 8-quart was rated the best value cooker by Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and the German-made  B/R/K cooker, which is a bigger investment. Expect to pay $75 to $150 for a single cooker, or $140 to $250 for a set.

If you want to amp up the physical activity in your lifestyle… or lose weight…

Please check back for my next Smart Bytes® post, when we’ll look at how gift cards could help you reach those goals.

Read more about Karen and check back on her blog!