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Grocery Shopping for More Calm and Better Immunity

Grocery Shopping for More Calm and Better Immunity

We’ve covered the “why” for putting more whole foods into our grocery bags (more calm and better moods, and increasing immunity); now let’s dig into the how.

Making food changes in the home can be pretty overwhelming, especially in very busy households. I just remind myself that little steps can make a big difference, and every good choice makes a difference. Also, even though healthy habits are so important, I don’t stress over everything my family eats (That wouldn’t be healthy!)

Here are ten simple things that I’ve done that help lead to better moods and healthier immune systems:

  1. Start reading labels. Even if you don’t make any other changes at first, this one can be an eye-opener and can increase your awareness of what’s in your foods. The old adage “If you can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it” is true. If you have to choose between two items, look for the one that has fewer ingredients and additives.Look at the sugar and sodium content in labels. You will be shocked. Be careful to look at how many servings are in an item – nutritional labels are per serving. If there are three servings in a bottle, you have to multiply the sugar and sodium times 3 to know how much is in the bottle. (This is especially important when looking at juice and drinks like teas and lemonade).
  1. Watch out for artificial sweeteners. The brilliant marketing for artificially sweetened drinks calls them “Zero”, but this doesn’t mean zero side effects. Artificial sweeteners not only fuel sugar cravings, they can contribute to neurological issues (for more on this read Russell Blaylock’s eye opening book “Excitotoxins”) and according to one study can increase risk for type 2 diabetes.
  1. Buy more organically grown foods. Organic foods have much fewer chemicals and pesticides which can lead to fewer sensitivities. They are also typically grown with more humane and environmentally friendly practices than commercial foods. Organic food is becoming more affordable and available than ever. Try your local farmers market or even Costco – I get quite a bit of my organic foods from Costco.
  1. Look at the quantity of sugars and carbs in your grocery bags – things like breads, chips, bagels, crackers, muffins, breakfast cereals. Our American diet is supersized with SUGAR. It’s everywhere, even in health foods. Refined flours from wheat and corn are everywhere as well, which are so stripped of nutrients and fibers that they hit our system nearly like sugar does and cause a spike. A diet high in sugars and refined carbohydrates leads to poor emotional balance, cardiovascular issues, poor immunity, higher stress levels, and lots of cravings for more. Sage advice is to buy most of your foods around the perimeter of the grocery store and less of the bags, bottles and cans.
  1. Buy less juice and sodas. Drink more water.
  1. Buy lots of salad makings and veggies. Try eating them with hummus or an olive oil based dressing. One great hack from a friend: She buys a veggie tray every week for her family to snack on. (Remove the dip and replace it with something healthier!) This is a ready-to-go set of veggies, quick to grab from the fridge.
  1. Buy whole wheat and whole grains. If your child is like mine, she LOVES mac n’ cheese, so I buy Annie’s “Ancient Grains” or whole wheat varieties. We also buy whole grain breads and buns.
  1. Stock up on good fats – a low fat diet is one of the worst for mental health. Our brains need healthy fats. Take a high quality fish oil supplement, eat salmon (wild caught is better than farm raised), eat coconut and olive oil, and cut down on fried foods. Your brain will thank you.
  1. Buy healthy forms of protein. For many (including myself) a diet rich in lean, minimally processed meats and lots of vegetables makes me feel best. Look for growth-hormone free, ideally organic beef, chicken, turkey and eggs. Grass-fed / free- range is best. If you do buy processed meats (like pastrami or lunch meat), make sure it is nitrate and nitrite-free.If you buy dairy products, buy hormone-free (BGH-free), preferably organic as well. But do watch out for dairy sensitivities, as dairy can contribute to seasonal allergies, sinus issues, and digestive problems for some.
  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Take a few hours on the weekend to plan and prep meals for the week. Wash and cut-up fruits and vegetables. Make a soup or a meatloaf that you can warm up in 5 minutes during the week. When the week gets going, it can be really hard to squeeze in healthy food prep, and making some things ahead can prevent a desperate stop at a drive-through. (been there, done that many times!)

Buying healthy groceries and making healthy steps takes some extra planning, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Best of all, it pays you back many times by reducing stress, boosting energy and building immunity against illness.

In making my home a haven, providing healthy food is one of the most important things I can do. Health is one of the very most precious things I have. It allows me to have energy to care for and play with my kids. It allows me to function with emotional stability. Loss of health for a period of time can be one of the biggest setbacks a person can experience in life. It’s so very critical for me to take care of my health and to teach my children to care for their health too.

While eating whole foods is just one piece of the puzzle for maintaining health, it is a big piece. The investment of time and energy on health is never wasted, never regretted. Little steps make big wins.

Building Immunity for Fewer Sick Days

Building Immunity for Fewer Sick Days

The relationships between food, mood and CALM are one big reason I make sure I’m bringing home whole foods in my grocery bags (if you missed this post, click here). Another huge reason to buy healthy groceries is to build immunity.

Have you ever been in the middle of work, frantically prepping for an afternoon meeting, or working on a project deadline and had your phone ring with the dreaded call?: “Hi, your child is sick – can you come pick her up?” Few things derail a busy day or week than illness in the family. If you’re lucky enough, just one child will get sick. Unlucky enough, the illness will spread through the family like the black plague.

Not all sickness can be avoided, in fact, to some degree, it builds immunity. But if there is something I can do to help prevent it from happening frequently, it will take a ton of stress off my family (and save tons of dollars on disinfectant wipes!).

One of the worst offenders for tearing down immunity is SUGAR. Research has shown that consumption of sugar depresses white blood cell activity, the fighters against foreign organisms and infectious disease. This the equivalent of having your house on fire and having all the firefighters show up drunk.

According to Kenneth Bock, M.D., an expert in nutritional and environmental health,

Just 24 teaspoons of sugar, or half the sugar the average American consumes everyday, decreases immune system efficiency by 92%.

The average American eats 150 lbs. of sugar per year, or approximately 48 teaspoons per day. How do we accomplish this?

  • One 12 oz. soft drink contains 9 or more teaspoons of sugar.
  • One Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup contains 4.8 teaspoons of sugar.
  • One ounce of Fruit Loops contains 3.3 teaspoons of sugar.
  • One 4.6 ounce serving of pecan pie contains 12 teaspoons of sugar.

Sugar is in everything. When you read labels, you will find it in many savory items like ketchup, pasta sauce, Worcestershire sauce, crackers and chips. One of the best ways to cut down on sugar is to cut out sweetened beverages. And don’t replace them with artificially sweetened beverages – artificial sweeteners come with their own set of problems. More on this later.

Building immunity through controllable factors like diet, stress reduction and exercise is so important to well-being, because there are so many uncontrollable factors that already have our immune systems working overtime. Our bodies weren’t designed to constantly cope with the toxins that fill our environment. Synthetic chemicals are in everything from our cars to our carpets, we have smog in our air, radio frequency energy from our wireless technology, and superbugs that antibiotics can’t fight that we didn’t have even a decade ago. Chemicals and pesticides are in our groundwater. We may never know the full effects of some of these factors in our environment until several years from now.

Now more than ever, we need to keep our immune systems strong by fueling them with health-giving foods, and avoiding the foods that tear them down.

Next up …. Grocery shopping tips for healthy foods.

Is the Key to Calm in Your Grocery Bags?

Is the Key to Calm in Your Grocery Bags?

One of the most important action items to make home a haven is to evaluate what’s coming through the door in our grocery bags.

The food I bring into my kitchen can either provide energy and health, building little healthy bodies and healthy immune systems, or it can work against our biology, resulting in allergies, irritability, hyperactive behavior, fatigue and general moodiness.

I want to talk about a big end-goal for my home and family when I make my grocery lists.

My goal is to have more calm in our home.

If you ever watch a child who is overtired or has just had a very sugary treat, you will see some pretty drastic changes in his/her behavior… all kinds of acting up. This is a great window into how much physiological factors can influence behavior.

So many books have been written about how to manage our children’s and even our own behaviors…. But evaluating physiology is just as important as psychology when it comes to behavior management. Let me explain: in the heat of the moment, I may not realize that my child’s behavior is the result of a physiological response to something I fed her. No amount of the latest child rearing techniques will fix a brain that has been momentarily broken by a food sensitivity. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been in the thick of setting boundaries and implementing time outs with my daughter when I’ve finally realized I let her have too many “treats” – too much sugar – for her to stay within boundaries.

Dr. Disthisyourchildoris Rapp, author of the groundbreaking book “Is this Your Child?” observed that some environmental and food allergies in children caused their behavior to be altered drastically, causing everything from ADHD to tantrums; even violent behaviors for some. But in certain cases, when the allergens were identified and removed, the children were able to behave normally, to focus, and to maintain calm. The brain is just as much a part of our biology as any other organ, and can be greatly impacted by our environment and our foods.

Beyond food sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies can also impact mood. The American diet includes refined starches, caffeine, sugar and sodas, which are nutrient poor. Even though we live in the land of plenty, a diet that is too heavy in processed, refined foods (aka, food out of a package or a can) can be lacking some essential nutrients to nourish the brain. The brain requires B vitamins and healthy fats to function properly (the fats found in nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut and olive oil), nutrients that are devoid in most processed foods.

A nutrient-low diet can lead to low serotonin levels. We have a self-esteem crisis in the youth of our nation. I can’t help but wonder if some of this is linked to the foods our youth is eating. Psychologist Julia Ross in her book “The Mood Cure” noted:

themoodcureLike most psychotherapists, I have spent many long hours struggling to help people with shyness and low self-esteem…. The trouble was that psychotherapy didn’t always help. Self-critical thoughts and feelings often continued to dog my clients, no matter how hard we worked. I couldn’t understand it.

“But when those same clients changed their diets and began using pro-serotonin supplements, something amazing happened – as their serotonin levels rose, so did their self-confidence.” 

The evidence is clear: food can affect the brain and behavior. Where does this leave us as parents? 

It’s important to monitor kids for any patterns that may indicate a food sensitivity. If you notice every time your child eats or drinks a certain food, she starts acting out or gets a tummy ache, that’s a signal to try eliminating that food to see if it makes a difference. We noticed that too much dairy bothers Ellianna’s tummy, so we switched her to almond milk. Too much sugar and food dyes make her start bouncing off the walls (no surprise here). Many parents have found that by avoiding food dyes (as much as possible!) and other foods their children are sensitive to can turn around some behavioral issues.

It’s hard to say “no” sometimes. Kids don’t always understand why everyone else can eat something but they can’t. But the hard truth is that it’s even more unfair for me to allow my child to eat something that impacts her brain and I spend the rest of the day riding her case because she can’t behave.

Beyond eliminating food allergens, including lots of fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds and whole grains is also key. I’ll be the first to say this is tough. Everywhere my daughter goes (school, soccer games, events), sugary and starchy snacks are freely available. On holidays and birthdays, we love to celebrate with special treats. My daughter doesn’t have specific grain allergies, so I go with the 80/20 rule: as long as she is getting nutritious foods the majority of the time – at least 80% of the time- that’s a win. The key here is to pack lunches and eat healthy food at home. – it goes back to looking at what’s in the grocery bags I’m bringing in the door.

A calm household starts with mom and dad as well. The old adage is true: “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I’ve found some things that can trigger undesirable behavior in myself: Too much caffeine in the morning leaves me overanxious during the day and cranky and irritable at night. Too much sugar makes me suddenly more frustrated with smaller things. Not enough sleep or rest leads to anxiety and melancholy. Eating dairy causes chronic stomachaches which leave me short-fused and irritable. Certainly I have filters on my behavior, but filters wear down eventually. One of the best remedies to help me be patient and kind is to take care of myself so my emotional well is filled for my family.

To take good care of my family, I must take good care of myself.

Nourishing myself with whole foods can help my marriage too. Gary Smalleyfoodandlove  wrote a book called “Food and Love” that explores the link between food, mood and marital relationships. He hypothesized that poor health habits can cause irritability and other poor moods, which can then lead to marital dysfunction (and alternately, marital dysfunction can lead to unhealthy eating habits, so it is a continual cycle). Failing to nourish our bodies and thus our brain can lead to a short fuse and irritability, which in turn can starve a marriage of essential affection.

Certainly not all behavioral issues stem from food sensitivies and nutrient deficiency. The subject of behavior is complex, and many sociological, psychological, other physiological, and spiritual elements contribute as well.

I’ve simply seen first-hand the impact of nutrition on mood and behavior and on the emotional tone of our home. It’s such a simple thing to adjust, it should not be missed.

Tomorrow I’ll share another important reason to stock the kitchen with healthy foods, as well as some grocery shopping tips.

Ways to Have Calmer Mornings and Better Breakfasts

Ways to Have Calmer Mornings and Better Breakfasts

Yesterday I talked about the dinner table; today we are moving on to breakfast! The breakfast table can set the tone for the day- Kind words and nutritious foods can launch a busy day in a very positive way.

When I am running up against a deadline, I get snappish, more impatient and more incredulous about how long it can take a child to find her shoes. The key to a less hurried breakfast, and to having time to connect before everyone goes separate ways, is to get up a little earlier. It takes some of the pressure off the morning and helps ease some of the frustrations.

When I get up a little earlier, there is extra time to make a nutritious breakfast, for a hug, to read a quick story, to say a prayer before breakfast, to ask questions about how each other is feeling about the upcoming day. It also gives us a chance to talk about events coming up. We like to give Ellianna things to look forward to, especially if she has a busy day coming up and she’s feeling a little stressed. “Don’t forget, we are going to see Grandma tonight!” or “Only three more sleeps until the weekend and your play date with a friend!” This usually brightens her day in a hurry.

Preparation and organizing the night before can also make for a calmer time at the breakfast table. Packing lunches, organizing Ellianna’s backpack, packing the diaper bag if I have to run out first thing, packing needed items for the day ahead of time (like soccer gear or dancewear and shoes) and setting them by the door. Even having a clean kitchen to prepare meals quickly and clean laundry put away where it can easily be found helps. I’m trying to get better at this, although this morning was a great example of what not to do to prepare for the next day. My husband Andy, Ellianna and I spent a solid hour looking for Ellianna’s soccer shorts before her game. It made our morning stressful and frantic.

The foods we eat can set the tone for the day too. For me, if I start my day by grabbing something quick and stuffing it in my mouth, it sets a tone of hurriedness and feeds a mentality that I don’t have time to take care of myself. Also, I have to avoid sugary or starchy foods like cereal, bagels or even too much fruit for breakfast, otherwise it causes blood sugar level ups and downs (enter mood swings), and opens the door to an onslaught of never-ending munchies and carb cravings. Talk about giving the day a discouraging start!

Eating a protein-filled breabreakfastkfast helps keep my blood sugar levels stable and the cravings away. One of my favorite breakfasts is turkey bacon, scrambled eggs and a frozen organic spinach and kale mix from Costco, sautéed in ghee and salted, or a vegetable from the farmer’s market, like okra. For the most part, I do a Whole 30 / Paleo plan (see more on this here. You can also follow me on Instagram @sarahwestbrooksmith, where I share posts about my Whole 30/Paleo journey).

I’ve found that I it’s a non-negotiable for me to take the time to make myself nutritious meals. I don’t like to take time to prepare meals (unlike my husband, who really enjoys cooking. A lot. Which is a good thing!) I want to grab something quick and move on with my day. But I’ve learned that not fueling my energy with whole foods is a shortcut to nowhere because I end up slogging through my days and don’t feel as well.

For those days that are extra hectic, it really helps to have some prepped foods on hand that are quick to grab, like hardboiled eggs and cut-up fruit or steamed sweet potatoes that can be heated in a skillet within 5 minutes. There are also recipes online for paleo (dairy and grain-free) savory “muffins” with ingredients like eggs, sausage and veggies, which can be heated up quickly. If you eat grains, oatmeal can be put in the crockpot the night before. There are also no-sugar instant oatmeal packets which make another quick breakfast (Add raisins, nuts and fruit).

Taking a few minutes to make a meal doesn’t usually take as long as I think it does. The other day, I needed lunch and thought of making a salad. My first impulse was to think “I don’t have time for that.” The truth was, I just didn’t want to mess with it. So I decided to try something. I timed myself while I made the salad, and do you know how long it took? Ten minutes! Do you know how many times I’ve frittered away ten minutes on social media? On looking at articles online? Or looking at my text messages? Ummm……

It really is a matter of priorities. I DO have time to make myself a healthy breakfast. I can’t afford not to take care of myself. As the wife and mama of the house, I have a lot of power to influence the family’s mood and tone. That means taking care of my body and my health (and inevitably my moods) are essential.

An added bonus I’ve found is that if I’m taking the time to make a healthier meal choice, my whole family benefits. My family is not on a Paleo diet, but if I’m making eggs or turkey bacon or another Paleo recipe for myself, I offer to make extra for the rest of my family, and they are usually willing participants. When I’m on a healthy plan, I’m not as likely to bring home chips and sweets, for the temptation of us all. There are more healthy options in our kitchen, readily available.
Morning and evening routines are very helpful to making more peaceful mornings and better breakfasts. I am not in a spot where I have consistent morning and evening routines that I’m happy with (I still stay up too late, and I’d like to be up before the kids more consistently), so I won’t share any speculative comments about what my routines should be. Instead, I’ll share some podcasts I’ve been loving and finding helpful on the subject:




The Simple Show – Episode 42 “Routines, Golden Hours, & Maker’s Schedules


Sorta Awesome Episode 71 “Finding our Rhythms with the Awesome of Routines”




“Happier with Gretchen Rubin” – I’m not calling out a specific episode – all the shows are full of fun interesting tips for building better habits and rhythms – I’m a huge fan:


Even with the best planning, some morning are just going to be hectic – it’s a fact of life. But if I can make have more peaceful mornings than not, it would make life a little nicer (and home a little more of that haven) for my family.

What are your favorite tips for having a peaceful morning and a better breakfast? I’ll bet you have several of your own to share! (Plus some fun, I-can-laugh-about-it-now crazy morning stories!)


Sharing Life Around the Dinner Table

Sharing Life Around the Dinner Table

What are your memories of the dinner table growing up? Do you have happy memories of time with your family? The dinner table is a place where meals are shared, stories are exchanged, homework is done, milestones and holidays are celebrated and relationships woven. The dinner table may just be the center, the heart of home.

I have bright memories of my family’s dinner table growing up. It was the one time in the day when all of as a family would gather around the table and talk about the day’s events. It wasn’t just a place to eat, it was a forum for debate, a place to laugh and share thoughts and stories. To this day, when my siblings and I gather around the table with my parents, the conversation is spirited, and at times, it’s a lively competition to get airtime to speak.

Growing up, our parents were very committed to putting nutritious food on our table. My mom is a great cook, and some of her staples were chili and cornbread, sloppy Joe’s on homemade whole-wheat buns, or spaghetti sauce with ground beef and spaghetti squash (long before it became a popular, low-carb option!). She always made sure we had a large beautiful salad, accompanied by her homemade poppy seed or honey mustard dressing. One of our favorite meals was her grapefruit and poppy seed salad, made with grapefruit, butter lettuce, fresh avocados, sunflower seeds (which she toasted in a skillet) and her homemade poppy seed salad dressing (Recipes below!). On the side, we would have whole-grain garlic bread, buttery and warm , served from the small electric “bunwarmer” on the sideboard.

We never watched television during dinner, the exception being during the ’92-’93 NBA season. We were huge Phoenix Suns fans at that time and I do remember watching one of the nail-biting playoff games during dinner. If we brought anything to the dinner table, like a book or something we wrote, it was there to share with the family. There wasn’t a spoken rule about it in our home, it was just known that dinner time was family time and we didn’t know anything different.

Once dinner was ready and the table was set, we all gathered around and prayed.  We would take turns saying the dinner prayer each night, usually a short and simple thanks. My parents had a little tradition of kissing (one quick kiss, to clarify) after the prayer, and for the longest time, I thought that’s what all married couples did. After I was first married, I nearly gave my husband a kiss after our dinnertime prayer a few times, which he was not expecting!

During dinner, my parents were great at asking us questions.  They genuinely wanted to engage us in conversation and hear our thoughts and opinions. We talked about the happenings on our little five-acre farm, how the animals and garden were doing, and about the irrigation schedule. We talked about what we were learning and reading, and about politics and world events. My dad, an electrical engineer, would sometimes explain his latest work project, providing illustrations on his napkin with a pen he kept handy in his shirt pocket. We talked about the ephemeral and the eternal, the rising cost of alfalfa hay, God and everything in between. My dad would sometimes recite scripture relevant to the topic from memory, and I loved to hear the sound of it – still do.

Best of all, we laughed a lot. No one shares your sense of humor like the people you got it from! The prize of our uproarious laughter would go to the most clever pun or witticism one of us could muster. There were somber dinners, too, when one or all of us were going through a tough time, but those along with the happier memories all contributed to the grounding theme of my childhood dinner table and set a precedent for me.

My husband had a similar experience growing up in his family, so we both have committed to television-free dinners. We have to work at it (and sometimes I slip here) but we also try to ensure we don’t bring phones to the dinner table. If we play a clip on a laptop, it’s a YouTube to share with everyone else. (Sometimes dinner DOES need to stop for a video of a cat petting a pig’s head as they nap together, right?)  Each family dinner begins with a prayer; sometimes our daughter Ellianna says the prayer now too. We also try to makes sure that what goes on our table is nourishing to our health and well-being. We buy organic (no chemical) foods for the most part, and focus on fruits and vegetables and protein.We also love a good treat and to celebrate special occasions. I’ll never forget when my husband rigged a small chocolate fondue pot using a bowl, two cans and a candle for Valentine’s Day.While schedules don’t always allow us to all sit down to dinner, but we have more dinners together than not.

The memories of my childhood dinner table nudge me to consider my own dinner table and the tone it sets for my family. I want to be present for them, to serve them (and to be served -many times my husband and Ellianna serve me something they’ve made together). I want to come to the table ready to engage with some of the dearest ones in my life and not to miss the opportunity to build memories in these simple, precious and fleeting moments.

The dinner table is a symbol of sharing life together: to celebrate, to take time in the day to pause and thank God for our abundance, and for each other. It is an opportunity to look our loved ones in the eyes and really “see” them, to hear the things that matter to them; to connect, to share stories and laugh heartily. It’s a place where we can nourish our bodies with whole foods and serve one another. To think about the dinner table and what it represents in your home is a simple way to examine the essence of life and how you and your family are experiencing it and will remember it.

Recipes from my Mom’s Dinner Table:

Delightful Poppy Seed Dressing

  • 1 1/2 cups raw honey
  • 4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/3 cup raw, organic apple cider vinegar
  • 4 cups organic safflower oil
  • 1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp poppy seeds
  • 1/4 cup water

Mix honey, vinegar, and water in blender. Slowly add oil, keeping the blender on low. Continue blending until dressing is starting to get thick. Stir in poppy seeds. Refrigerate. Dressing keeps for weeks

Grapefruit Poppy Salad

  • Washed butter lettuce leaves
  • Avocado, cubed
  • Grapefruit (peeled and sectioned, only the membrane)
  • Sunflower seeds, lightly toasted and salted
  • Delightful Poppy Seed Dressing

Place lettuce leaves on individual plates. Top with avocado and grapefruit. Sprinkle on sunflower seeds. Drizzle with poppy seed dressing. Serve with whole grain garlic bread for a delicious and complete meal.


Emotional Health Part III – Heart-Check

Emotional Health Part III – Heart-Check

Yesterday I talked about how important it is to have a healthy, peaceful heart to create a peaceful home, a haven. Today I’m going to dive more into some strategies and thoughts that have helped me.

I’m excited to share this post with you because this is something I’ve had to really lean into and learn.

Earlier this year, I quit my job for a season to be home with my children. My pace of life slowed down and in the quieter moments, I was hit with an absolute onslaught of thoughts, feelings and emotions. My heart was an untended jungle of things I could brush past when my life was faster-paced. I was overwhelmed by all the things I always thought I would be and do, but never have. It has been a process of unraveling from my former lifestyle and resetting and realigning my life with my longer-term goals. In this new season, I’ve had to learn (and am still learning)  how to face my feelings, to process and grow from them, rather than distracting myself with unhealthy habits like emotional eating, getting on social media and just plain busyness.

In our fast-paced lifestyle and culture, it’s so easy to rush past the feelings and worries we don’t want to feel, to stay busy and distracted from the signals (sometimes SOS’s) our hearts are trying to send us. In doing so, we miss opportunities to grow and even miss some critical adjustments we need to make in our lives.

This ancient biblical proverb holds true today:

Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life

Proverbs 4:23, AMP

How do we “watch over” and tend to our hearts? I like to do “Heart-checks” – intentional times to check in to see what’s going on with my heart.

Doing a heart-check may sound silly, “woo-woo” or indulgent- it certainly did to me at first. But in reality, it is a critical tool for emotional well-being and finding freedom from intentional distraction (busyness, social media, emotional eating); from damaging addictive behaviors.

Some people tend to their hearts as an on-going habit. You will hear it in comments they make. “______ (Fill in the blank) really bothered me, but after I thought about it, I realized ______.” For others like me, it has to be an intentional exercise to establish the practice.

Here is what a heart-check looks like:

  • Ask yourself questions:  “What’s going on with my heart? Do I feel anxious, excited, or am I dreading my day? What do I need to help relieve stress? (It may be to make a plan, to get more sleep, to take some kind of action, ask for help with childcare or simply to take 5 minutes to gather your thoughts).
  • Examine Your Thoughts:  Sometimes our naturally occurring thoughts and emotions can be very negative about ourselves or our circumstances, and just plain false. (For example, “I’ll never get this mess cleaned up,” or  “I’ll never make that deadline”). Replace negative thoughts with true, hopeful thoughts.
  • Pray:  Sometimes I don’t know what’s bothering me, or if I do, I don’t know what will help. Praying for wisdom can point me to the answer.
  • Journal: Writing down thoughts on a page with no agenda can help process what’s going on with your heart and emotions.
  • Take a 5 or 10 minute walk – the simple act of physical movement and just changing our immediate physical environment can help process what’s going on in our hearts.
  • Listen to Music: Put on some music that quiets your thoughts. For me, that is acoustic hymns. (Spotify or Pandora is your friend).
  • Get Quiet and Still: Clear out your head for a few minutes and give yourself a break from all the racing thoughts and to-do’s, and just think about your breathing (that’s easy, right?). Keep a pen and paper nearby, and as random thoughts come to you, write them down so your brain is not worried about forgetting them.
  • Find good resources, such as:
    • A trusted friend or family member you can talk to.
    • A good counselor – When you’re going in circles on something day after day and can’t make emotional progress, it can be very helpful to talk to a good counselor. This takes some effort as finding a good counselor is just as important as finding a doctor you like. You have to click with them and be able to trust their counsel. Ask friends for referrals.
    • Books and organizations: As part of my Heart-Check time, I like to read a few pages from a good book, such as:
      • Christa Black Gifford has a wonderful (faith-based) book called “Heart Made Whole” that has questions and practical heart-checking practices and exercises. This one takes a deep dive into trauma and how it impacts our heart, but the same tools are also helpful for processing lesser traumas and the stresses of daily life.
      • Rising Strong” by Brene Brown provides an excellent template for processing through “face-down” moments as she calls them. It’s a story-driven, non-formulaic book that shows you how to process thoughts and feelings in a meaningful, healthy way.
      • As a believer in God, I also turn to the Bible to lead me to truth and set my thoughts on a firm foundation. When I feel anxious and inadequate to my challenges, the Bible reminds me that God is with me, that I am His daughter, and that He has a greater purpose for my life (which is to serve Him). These game-changing truths can fade all too quickly in all the detail and minutia of life, and a reminder lifts my perspective in a way that nothing else can.
      • Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist is also an excellent resource. One of my very favorite quotes comes from this book:”…I ate on the run, slept in my clothes, worshipped at the altar of my to-do list, ignored the crying out of my body and soul like they were nothing more than the buzz of pesky mosquitoes……..”….Now I know that the best thing I can offer to this world is not my force or energy, but a well-tended spirit, a wise and brave soul…”

When to do a Heart Check:

Anytime you start feeling your blood pressure or anxiety rise, a heart check is needed.

  • It can be any time of the day – ten minutes before the kids get up, during a break or over lunch, during a commute.Starting your day with a Heart-Check is always a good idea – it’s a great way to direct your priorities for the day and get yourself tuned up for the day. Use those first precious minutes of a day to read a few pages from one of the books I suggested above, to pray, and journal.
  • It can take as little or as much time as you need it to.  A ten-minute or even five-minute time-out can make a world of difference. Now that I’m home with my children, I do this during naptime, or go to a side room where I can still monitor/ hear my children. Sometimes the best spot is the bathroom! When I was working a job, even in the middle of a crazy day, I would go for a ten-minute walk, find a quiet corner conference room or again, head into the bathroom for a few minutes of quiet.Ten minutes will not fix all my worries, but it can help me acknowledge my heart; that it’s trying to tell me something. It can help me get to the root cause of the issue so I’m not looking to anesthetize the pain with an inappropriate remedy and doing the equivalent of walking on an injury during my day.




Getting to the heart of the issue takes time, patience, and it’s simply uncomfortable. It’s staring into the mirror and seeing my insecurities, my weaknesses. But it is so good, so healing and it puts my knees on the floor and my feet on a solid foundation. And it takes far less time than endless days and years of putting a lid on the pain. Unhealthy coping mechanisms in the long run only add more pain, more brokenness, more endless circles of wandering around the mountain and never climbing and conquering it. I know. I’ve lived it.

shaunaniequistFor me to be that wise, brave soul, cultivating a home and a haven for my husband and my children, building a foundation from which I can achieve my goals and dreams, I must take care of my heart. This is not a destination, a thing that I’ve learned and scratched off my list; it does not come naturally or automatically. It is a daily, sometimes hourly, even minute-by-minute journey filled with real-life ups and downs, stumbles and falls and getting back up again. Every new circumstance in life brings more challenges, sometimes making it ever harder to cultivate a peaceful heart. But you know what? It only makes me more thankful for God’s renewed grace every day. And it is one of my best teachers.

This journey to a healthy, peaceful heart is essential, and so very worth it.

Emotional Health Part II – Get Curious

Emotional Health Part II – Get Curious

Monday morning I had the thought, “I miss chocolate.”.

It’s kind of strange I would be thinking about chocolate on a hectic Monday morning. Really? Who’s got time for that? The temptation is to tackle that thought like a linebacker rushing the opposing team’s quarterback who’s heading for the end zone with the ball. MUST.NOT.THINK.ABOUT.CHOCOLATE. Because I know if I start my day with chocolate or sugar, it’s a downhill slide for the rest of the day, and I’ll lose an opportunity to score on some of my most important goals.

But instead of tackling and squelching that thought, I took a mental step back as I made lunches for the day and asked myself “Why?” One of my favorite encouragements from researcher and author Brene Brown is to “get curious.” Don’t judge, don’t avoid, get curious. Why would I be thinking about chocolate right now? Do I really need, or want chocolate, or do I need something else?

I realized I was stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Monday hit hard after a nice week of Ellianna being on Fall break. All the to-do’s of the coming week and the fatigue from a busy weekend crashed over me like a wave. I was in the pileup with a hundred scattered thoughts about my week. I didn’t need chocolate, I needed to take ten minutes to clear my head, to pray and to make a plan.

As my mom always says, “The problem is not the problem.” I am not a hopeless chocolate addict, instead, my heart is sending me signals that it needs attention. My brain is busily and urgently asking me for a distraction from my heart’s angst.


When I start feeling unsettled and anxious and start craving that treat, I want to hit the “ignore” button because, come on now, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” But as much as I would like it to, the stress, anxiety or pain my heart is holding doesn’t magically disappear. It spills out into unplanned, unhealthy coping mechanisms, whether that’s overeating, getting on social media too much, snapping at my family (cringe), or finding that chocolate fix.

All these short-term fixes undermine my productivity and my goals, and lead to much greater loss than a few minutes of face-time with my heart. I simply can’t create a peaceful home/haven environment for my family when my heart is spilling over with unresolved irritability, stress, anxiety, anger or discouragement.

A sudden impulse to eat chocolate (or potato chips or fill in the blank___________) is usually a signal something else is needed. Maybe I need connection –to call a friend to lift my perspective. Maybe I need to take some time to organize my thoughts and make a list for myself. Maybe a hurtful conversation happened yesterday that I don’t want to think about, and I need to take ten minutes to journal and pray to process my feelings about it. Maybe I need to ensure I get a good night’s sleep, or to look at the calendar and realize it’s that time of the month and give myself extra grace.

Tomorrow I’m going to dive into more strategies for cultivating a peaceful heart. These have been born out of my own experiences and frustrations. I’ll also share some resources that have been very helpful for me.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“The Mothers” was part of the Book of the Month Club selections for October. I was debating whether or not to choose it, but after seeing several Instagram posts with beautiful quotes from the book and also hearing some good reviews on @annebogel ‘s #whatshouldireadnext podcast, I decided it was the one.

The book showed up at my door – a thin volume with a colorful cover. I was so curious to see what I would think of it, I pushed all my other books aside and started reading it. I am still trying to put my finger on why, but I could not put this book down. I finished it in three days, which is flash lightning speed for this mama. (more…)

Haven Making: Emotional Health Part I

Haven Making: Emotional Health Part I

For the past few posts in this series, I’ve been focusing on health as part of making a home a haven. Today and in the next few posts, I will focus on emotional health because it is absolutely foundational to having a peaceful, happy home.

If I am suffering with chronic irritability, melancholy or depression, anxiety, apathy, or exhaustion, it is really hard to be the mom that I want to be and to create a haven for my family. Overcoming these angst-filled emotions and being patient, creative and affectionate becomes an, especially when the days are long.

Anxiety and mild to moderate depression is part of my life story. I’ve been a worrier since I was very young, even though I grew up in a very loving and stable home. I worried about something happening to my parents, I worried about getting a terrible disease. If there was nothing to worry about (which was usually the case), I’d think of something. Managing my emotions led to a long struggle with binge-eating that started in my teens.

Because I’ve struggled so much over the years with anxiety and mild depression, I’ve had to learn ways to manage these symptoms. I’m ever in the process of un-learning the unhealthy patterns I’ve used to manage anxiety and depression in the past (bingeing on carbs and sugars).

Anxiety for me leads to low productivity. When I’m feeling anxious, I tend to think, probe and analyze, as if fixing the problem depends on it. (Picture Winnie the Pooh sitting on a stone wall, scrunching his eyes together, tapping his head saying, “Think, think, think.”) Instead of taking action or working down my to-do list, I sit and ponder, or I talk to others about the problem, or I google or order books to read about the problem. When I’m anxious, I have a hard time focusing on the non-urgent and I feel distracted. Not only do I need to manage my anxiety to be emotionally available to my children, I need it to maintain the productivity level required to stay on top of all the needs of a busy young household.

I’ve found there are two important pieces to managing anxiety: the first is to focus on physical health, the other is to work on the emotional/ spiritual side of health. I’ve tried wholly focusing on one or the other and found that to be emotionally healthy, both are essential, and one is not successful without the other.

Here are some of the things I’ve found I must do for my physical health in order to help manage anxiety levels:

  • Eat a diet high in protein and vegetables, and low in sugars. I’ve found that a Whole 30 / Paleo diet provides a great balance for me. (Paleo is grain-free, sugar-free and dairy-free, and focuses on naturally raised meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds and fruit). A Paleo plan is extremely helpful in balancing blood sugar levels, and balancing hormones – both essential for stable, healthy moods.It also is free of foods that frequently cause inflammation. The typical American diet has many foods that not only cause inflammation to muscles and joints, but also to the brain. Sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy, corn, additives, food colors and dyes and gluten are common agents that can contribute to mental and emotional issues.These foods are also highly addictive. They make you feel better temporarily, but then there is a crash, which makes you want to go back to the well to feel better once again. Being on a Paleo diet helps break and stay away from these addictive cycles.
  • Ensure I have adequate nutrition: I have a wonderful doctor who does blood tests for missing nutrients and coaches me on what supplements to take. For example, a recent test showed I am low in Vitamin D. As the saying goes, we aren’t what we eat, we are what we absorb. Even a highly nutritious diet won’t provide all the needed nutrients if there is low absorption. Low B vitamins and Vitamin D can contribute to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
  • SLEEP. The best diet in the world, best supplements, the best counselors, books, etc. cannot replace adequate sleep. If I consistently get poor sleep, I struggle more with anxiety and general negativity. Getting proper sleep is mission critical for me to avoid emotional eating.
  • Exercise – There is a ton of research out there on the emotional benefits of exercise. It raises endorphins and is a natural happiness booster.
  • Sunlight – inadequate sunlight contributes to low Vitamin D levels and to depression. I personally can tell a difference in my moods when I haven’t been in the sun much.
  • Limited Caffeine – I absolutely love coffee (Putting my nose down in a freshly ground bag of coffee is my aromatherapy!), but I have to be careful not to drink too much caffeine. Without fail, too much caffeine earlier in my day contributes to anxiety and irritability as the day progresses.
  • Rescue Remedy and Chamomile Tea: Bach’s Rescue Remedy is a very helpful natural remedy for stress and mild anxiety. I also like some of the calming herbal teas, such as chamomile, although I typically save these for close to bedtime because they are a little tooo relaxing.

These things all help me to stay balanced and to have the emotional and mental energy I need for my days and to accomplish my goals. Whenever I get a little off-balance in any area, my body reminds me I need to make an adjustment. Recently I’ve shorted myself on sleep (so tempting to do to get quiet time when you have little ones!), but have been quickly reminded this is not an area I can cut corners.

In this way, my struggle with anxiety is a blessing because it pushes me to take care of my health.

One caveat: At times, medication (such as an SSRI) is needed to help manage emotions. I don’t want to negate this fact with the above, only to say that all these factors (sleep, nutritious diet, etc) are critical contributors to mental and emotional health.

If you are like me and have struggled with mood disorders, what have you found that has helped you? Please share in the comments!

Coming up, I will post about the emotional / spiritual side of managing emotions.

My Tips for Sticking with an Energy-Boosting Health Plan

My Tips for Sticking with an Energy-Boosting Health Plan

I’ve been talking about my Whole 30 successes and what a difference it has made in my life, my health and home. Whole 30 has made it possible to have the energy I need to accomplish my goals, including making my home a haven.

Doing an eating plan can be challenging, especially if others in your family are not following it too. Today I’m sharing the things that are essential to my success in staying on a healthy eating plan:

  • img_1893
    My “Why”

    Number one – Write out my “Why”. Why eat a healthy diet and say no to certain foods? My number one “Why” for taking care of my health is my family. I want to have the energy to be able to make our home a haven. I want to be around to see my grandchildren (we didn’t start having kids until our late 30’s). Secondly, I have a lot of goals and dreams I want to pluck off the shelf and DO something about. For this, I need my health and energy.

  • Plan ahead – planning is not one of my strengths, but doing Whole 30/ Paleo pushes me to to it, in a good way. It really helps for me to look at a big calendar of the month on paper (I like the desktop size), and look at all the holidays, birthdays, events, date nights etc. coming up. Then I decide ahead of time what my plan is. Will I make a paleo dessert for a holiday, will I allow myself a day where I go off-plan, or will I stay the course? Deciding ahead of time puts me in the driver’s seat going into the month and helps me avoid last-minute, impulse decisions that may derail my best intentions.
  • Have planned exceptions days – I talked about this a bit on yesterday’s blog. I’ve allowed myself a few days where I can go off-plan. This gives my brain a place to go when I reeallly want something off-plan. I just remind myself I can have it, but I have to wait. But on the other hand………
  • …….Be careful about making exceptions – some exceptions are fine and provide some welcome variety and a treat. Other times, an exception to the plan can be a trigger for a landslide into old habits. It’s really important to know the difference, and this requires some trial and error, and some stumbles and getting back up. For me, I’m coming off a long history of sugar addiction, so I have to be very careful with even natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, as these can very quickly take me back to my raging sugar cravings and bad habits.
  • Communicate with your spouse or significant other– It really helps to keep my husband in the loop on my eating plan. Even though Andy is not on a paleo / Whole 30 plan, he also eats whole foods and loves to grill. Most of the things he makes, with a few exceptions, are on my plan. Bonus, he’s rotated some of my paleo cookbook recipes into his meal plans, so he’s making paleo/ Whole 30 foods for me! The other night, he made me “chocolate” stuffed dates, which was from a paleo recipe made from carob powder, honey and dates. It was a perfect treat.
  • Don’t expect anyone to join you – as Melissa Hartwig, Whole 30 founder said at her recent book signing, “Lead by quiet example.” Don’t proselytize your diet plan. Expecting others to “get religion” about your healthy eating plan is asking for stress and trouble. As Melissa said, “You do you.” Words to live by. I’ve found a surprise benefit is that my family does overall end up eating better because I’m trying new paleo recipes on them (that I think they’ll like), and I’m not bringing home sweets and other things I used to.
  • Don’t bring it in the house. Don’t buy stuff you don’t want to eat for your kids or spouse. Try to find healthy alternatives that they will enjoy. I buy organic mac n’ cheese for my daughter, but I’m not stocking my freezer with ice cream “for her.” It’s too easy, too accessible. Also, if you do end up buying something tempting, put it in the freezer so it’s not as ready to eat. (other than ice cream! J ), or take a portion and take the rest to work and give it away. You think you will be strong, but that weak moment will come.
  • Don’t go to old haunts. I have to avoid driving past a bakery I love that makes fresh pastries on-site. Also, it may be better to try a new restaurant rather than going to an old one where you will feel deprived if you can’t order a favorite stand-bye (or save it for a planned exception day).
  • Try not to think in terms of “all or nothing” – sometimes it’s easy for me to think, “Well, I’ve already eaten something off my plan, so I might as well have ___________________ (fill in the blank). But two wrongs don’t make a right and every bite that you don’t take of sugar or other less-than-healthy foods is a bite your body doesn’t have to process. Every no is a yes to staying on track!!
  • Where possible, get enough sleep and reduce stress. Less sleep and more stress both increase your levels of cortisol, which is called “the hungry hormone”. Stress and little sleep can easily have you ranging like a bear for carbs and foods off your plan.
  • Brush your teeth – I loved this idea from Gretchen Rubin’s book “Better than Before.” Gretchen says she brushes her teeth after dinner to help her get to bed on time and avoid late-night munchies.
  • And on that note – read great books and websites that fuel you toward your goals. The information and resources available for eating a healthy non-inflammatory diet are rich and abundant if you know where to look. Here are some ideas to get you started:
    • img_1038Read Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin – Great book on building habits, including healthy eating habits. See which of the four tendencies you have (are you an obliger, a rebel, a questioner or an upholder?) The answer may steer you to some effective strategies for maintaining your health plan!
    • 51ashuadyxlFood Freedom Forever by Whole 30 founder Melissa Hartwig – this book and the Whole 30 website ( are chockfull of practical tips – like knowing and identifying your triggers for sliding off-plan and how to stay on-plan when traveling.
    • Books and websites by paleo and gluten-free authors: Google and search on instagram for Danielle Walker, “The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook” by Diana Rodgers, Nom Nom Paleo by Michelle Tam.
    • Look at paleo and Whole 30 websites and use Pinterest to save yummy looking recipes. Google and Pinterest are your friends.
  • Find your community – Make new friends online who are also working to eat healthfully. Follow Whole30 and Paleo folks on Instagram. Here are some Instagram accounts I follow for encouragement and recipe ideas:
    • @whole30
    • @whole30recipes
    • @whole30approved
    • @melissa_hartwig
    • @againstallgrain
    • @drkellyannpetrucci
    • @thepaleomom
    • @livinglovingpaleo
    • @sustainabledish
    • @diane.practicalpaleo
    • @revelationwellness (faith-based)
    • @nomnompaleo
    • @paleoomg
  • Accountability is key! Find someone who also wants to do a healthy eating plan and hold each other accountable. I did Whole 30 with my sister and also started an online mini-blog on Instagram to journal through my 30 days on Whole 30. This kept me very accountable – because it’s awkward to report “Day 3” five days after “Day 2”.  It also really helps to be open about what you are trying to do with those around you. For example, explain to coworkers or friends why you are choosing to not eat cake. For the most part, people will absorb this information about you and get to where they won’t offer you things off your plan, even sometimes helping to hold you accountable (e.g., “I thought you didn’t eat donuts.”)

These are some of the ways I stay on my Whole 30/ paleo plan. It really is so fun and rewarding especially with the numerous resources we have available today.

What are some things that help you stay on track?