The Total Money Makeover: The author, Dave Ramsey (who also has a financial radio show) and I have very different political views, but this book’s series of steps to financial peace was central in the process of me and my husband getting out of $17k in consumer debt in one year—after which we began to save 1/4 to 1/3 of our income. Is the set of steps Dave prescribes the perfect or only way to get out of debt and get your financial priorities straight? No. But for those of us who have struggled for many years with taking control of our finances, this set of concrete ‘baby steps’ that work is a godsend.
Your Money or Your Life: My simplicity group discussed our readings from this book on money and lifestyle at a series of our meetings. I don’t think any of us believed the author’s ultimate conclusion is the only correct way to view life, but the series of thought-provoking exercises before the conclusion helped us all understand our views on money and lifestyle—and led many of us to reorganize our lives around our actual priorities.
The Highly Sensitive Person or The Highly Sensitive Child: My friend Jenn suggested The Highly Sensitive Person, and reading it was as much a watershed for me as it was for her. If you or your child are emotionally, psychologically, physically, or otherwise more sensitive than the people around you, or if you or your child get sensory overload more easily than others, you or your child may qualify as being an HSP. (People with allergies are more likely to be an HSP!) Reading this book opened my eyes to a new way of looking at my personality and physical characteristics. It helped me develop empathy for my choices and restrictions and evaluate what the healthiest path for my life would be. (Reading it is one of the things that contributed to me deciding to leave my job and become self-employed!)
Necessary Losses: Sometimes I can be quite naive about the emotional workings of both myself and other people. I can be too demanding of myself, and I seek immediate perfection instead of seeing the various cycles of life as times of growth. Reading Necessary Losses helped open my eyes to the stages of life and how loss and growth are tied together as we develop. (The author, Judith Viorst, gets a little too Jungian for me at times, but most of the book fascinates me.) I wish I had discovered the book when I was 13 or 14 instead of 25, but I’m glad I found it at all! I reread pieces of it when I begin to feel overwhelmed. (I think I’ll go take it off the shelf and put it beside the bed right now. . . .)
Gift certificate for a massage: Touch is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. Some of us are fortunate enough to have people in our lives who lay their hands on our bodies caringly on a regular basis. But I think all of us can benefit from the touch of someone who expects no engagement in return, and that type of touch—for me—comes best through the hands of a massage therapist. When I leave a message therapy appointment, I feel refreshed both physically and emotionally.
Good in Bed: Sometimes you just need a good novel that resonates with what’s in your head and heart. I first read (or actually heard—I listened to the audio version on a very long drive) Jennifer Weiner’s first novel at a time when my life was in flux and my weight was nearly at its peak. I literally laughed and cried in the car as I listened to the book echo many of the thoughts and feelings I had experienced. I felt supported by the echoes of my own experiences in Weiner’s writing about protagonist Cannie’s struggles with weight and self-esteem. (Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Weiner’s other books as highly, but I do love this one!)
What Should I Do with My Life? Author Po Bronson set out to find how people around the U.S. (and a few from around the world) found their life’s purpose. The answers he found are complex, engaging, and comforting. If you are wondering why you’re here and what you can do to find out, I would highly recommend this book. (You might also start thinking you’re falling in love with Po Bronson.)
Donations to worthwhile organizations: One of the best ways we can develop our sense of self-worth is to find ways to give to others. For financial gifts, Heifer International, Habitat for Humanity, and Global Giving all come to mind for me because you can choose where to focus your money through those organizations. Alternately, you could make a donation of food or money to your local food pantry. (Did you know food pantry needs have doubled this year, but donations are down 2/3? Scary when you consider our economy and how desperately some people are in need.) Of course, there are many entirely locally based non-profits that need your support, as well. If your financial chips are down or you have just a bit of free time, there’s a ton of non-profits who could use your assistance in person. I plan to become a Big Sister when Dan and I make our move after he graduates next spring. (It’s a 1- or 2-year commitment, or I’d do it now!)
Healthy Eating & Weight Loss Support
Super Natural Cooking: Heidi Swanson takes mostly healthy ingredients and all whole foods and combines them in ways that make the ingredients sing. The pickiest eaters wouldn’t touch many of the ingredients in these recipes, but even mildly adventurous eaters who are seeking healthy, tasty meals will return to this cookbook again and again. It’s one of the few cookbooks that stays in my kitchen rather than on a bookshelf. (Incidentally, it’s vegetarian, though that’s not the point of the book.)
Great Good Food: Several times a year, you can find me sitting on the couch in our living room paging through this cookbook, enjoying the sketches and notes in the seasonally designed book as much as I enjoy the recipes. Julee Rosso, the author, teaches us how to lighten up many favorites while retaining a focus on whole foods (nutritional info is included), and she includes a variety of cooking lessons and celebration/holiday meal plans along the way. I can’t eat a good number of Rosso’s recipes now that I can’t have dairy, eggs, and gluten, but I alter her recipes to fit my needs pretty regularly, and I cherish the cookbook even with my restrictions. One of my dreams is to visit Rosso’s B&B in Michigan and have her make an allergen-free meal for me!
Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Flavorful Recipes for Healthful Meals: You can’t go wrong with any Moosewood cookbook, but this one focuses on the low-fat, high-taste end of cooking. Another cookbook that includes great sketches, the Moosewood cookbook is a delight to look at and cook from. I can honestly say that a Moosewood recipe has never let me down, which is extremely high praise I can grant only a few cookbooks.
Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think: How do you sabotage your healthy eating intentions without even knowing you’re doing it? The author of this book, Brian Wansink, is a researcher on food habits (with fascinating and hysterical stories of lab experiments) and discusses a variety of actions you can take to set yourself up for greater success with healthy eating. I think I have probably read the majority of books out there about weight loss and thought I had heard it all, but I changed at least five habits after reading the book.
Salad Plates: Yes, salad plates. One of the greatest lessons of Mindless Eating is to switch out your normal dinner plates for salad plates and eat all of your meals on those instead. The smaller plates mean smaller portions that feel just as satisfying. A mental trick? Exactly–that’s the point, and it actually works! My husband and I eat our meals only off salad plates now, and this trick saves us food for leftovers, ingredient money, and calories. It’s one of the small steps to which I attribute my weight loss success.
The Best Life Diet: I read Bob Greene’s book the week before I decided to challenge myself to take weight loss as a gradual, count-nothing, self-care process. I already had in my mind what I wanted to do, but I found great encouragement from Bob saying that you don’t actually have to count anything to lose weight—and that gradual is the way to go. (I wish later he hadn’t marketed so much extra stuff to go with the book—like a weight loss journal—since the idea was you don’t have to track anything, but that doesnt mean the original book is less valuable.) Different books about diet and exercise spur different people on (and many of them are useless), but this one was certainly helpful to me as I began this journey toward better self-care.
Becoming Whole: After bouts of life-threatening breast and bone cancer wore author Meg Wolff down, she healed her body and life by applying the principles of macrobiotics. Meg’s story of her struggles and triumph is forthright, moving, and inspirational. To read Meg’s writing is to be touched by her experiences—and maybe even to be encouraged into action toward a macrobiotic healing diet, as well. (The second part of her book includes recipes and suggestions.)
Spice Set: If variety is the spice of life, a variety of spices are essential for good cooking. Those newly living away from parents, newly learning to cook, newly dealing with food restrictions, or newly engaged in healthy eating all need support in this way—whether it’s you or a friend or family member. One important contribution is to gather spices that the cook will be able to utilize to make tasty meals. Commercial spice sets are common; there are stores and websites that let you buy spices by the teaspoon (good for experimentation, not so good for packaging waste over time); and bulk spice sections at natural foods stores let you get as much or little of each spice as you want. (As long as your spices are less than six months old, you can also share from your overabundance of certain spices!)
One Good Chopping Knife: Preparing food from scratch for yourself is unbelievably easier (and less dangerous) if you are using a sharp, well-designed knife rather than a dull one. I absolutely adore my Henckel knives. If you go buy a full set of them (the double-man kind, my chef boyfriend once warned me—never buy the single-man Henckels because the quality is much lower), they are rather expensive, but if you only own bad knives now, there’s no reason you can’t start with a single good chopping knife. Having a good chef’s knife would be high on my must-have list for you for self-care.
Steps to Sustainability
Clean & green gifts: When you live a more sustainable lifestyle, you help your own body by decreasing your body’s chemical load, and you help others by decreasing the planet’s load of chemical by-products, pesticides, and other forms of pollution. One of the key starter ways to embrace sustainability is to green your home care products. Green cleaning products are available from companies like Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day (love the lavender products!), but you can also make your own ecologically sound laundry soap, glass cleaner, and all sorts of other cleaning products really cheaply—and without requiring the purchase of as much product packaging. I used to have to leave our house for hours after we cleaned the tub or mopped the floors, but now that we use natural products, I feel fine staying at home after a round of cleaning.
The Kindle: If you love books like I do, you can find yourself with a library that expands rapidly over the course of your lifetime (or even the course of a year!) as you grow in knowledge from your finds (even if you use the library for some of them). From an ecological perspective, the use of so much paper and so much shipping to get the books to you can be a downer, though. Enter readers like Amazon’s Kindle, which allow you to download and read books (or blogs, or newspapers) on a screen that is very similar in appearance to paper—no painful eye strain like these pesky computers cause. My husband has an electronic reader, and beyond the positive ecological element, it is extremely handy as a carry-on for long flights. Three books for one flight? No problem—still plenty of room in your bag for your other needs. And if you decide you want a book, you can download it straight to the reader within one minute, which sure beats shipping or shopping time for those of us who are impatient.
Fast Food Nation: Reading in this book about the often horrifying industrial processes of our food system got me to cut out fast food from my diet entirely. Want to live a healthier life with less processed food? Want to feel pushed to do more to take care of your body and the planet at the same time? This book will propel you forward. (I know there was a movie version that came later, but stick with the book to grow your knowledge.)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Written very accessibly in short story form with some research thrown in, Michael Pollan looks at the history of four meals: a McDonald’s meal, an industrial organic (Whole Foods) meal, a local-foods meal, and a meal of food he has grown, caught, or hunted himself. Along the way, he discusses why certain foods and processes are healthy or unhealthy and what we can do to protect ourselves and our land. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of my all-time favorite books for deepening my knowledge about our roles in sustainability and health.
The Not So Big House: Architect Sarah Susanka debunks the myth that what we all want is increasingly larger houses. What we really want, Susanka argues, is houses that feel like home. She talks about the design options where people can create a house that feels just right—cozy, often archetypal—without being overly large. Some of Susanka’s design ideas are quite expensive to implement, but others can be created with limited funds in even home rentals. This book has influenced the way I view houses (and it’s fascinating in that element), but it’s also encouraged me to question the consumerist assumptions that lie so much at the heart of what we think we want versus what we really do.
Passionate Marriage: Our pastor suggested this tome during our premarital counseling, and though it’s a dense read, wrestling through it is entirely worthwhile for anyone in a long-term romantic relationship. At the core of the book—at least in our reading of it—is the concept of how to be both an individual and someone in union at the same time. Not a simple task, but one worth devotion.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: This book was written by Dr. John Gottman, who is perhaps the foremost marriage scholar in the U.S. Cutting through the pop culture concepts of what does or does not make for a happy or disastrous marriage, the author explains (as the title denotes) what seven basic principles couples should adhere to in order to create lasting, satisfying marriages. The lessons of this book have been a cornerstone in how my husband and I have worked to treat each other.
Allergy, Restriction, & Intolerance Assistance
Sophie-Safe Cooking: Those who are new to or frustrated with top-8 allergen-free (wheat-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, peanut-free, tree nut-free, fish-free, and shell-fish free) cooking but who can tolerate gluten-free oats should give Emily Hendrix’s cookbook a try. She developed tasty, simple, kid-friendly recipes for her allergic daughter, Sophie, that would put even the more frightened cooks at ease in the kitchen. I particularly love her various oat-based quick bread/muffin recipes.
The Whole Foods Allergy Cookbook: This reliably good top-8-free cookbook was quite a relief to me when I was first diagnosed and struggling with how to adapt recipes for my restrictions. The author’s focus on whole foods means the dishes are relatively healthy, and her adept use of seasonings means the meals are tasty. She does use spelt flour, which is wheat-free but contains gluten, but she includes substitution recommendations. (This cookbook is not recommended for vegetarians or night-shade avoiders, though—the book is pretty meat- and tomato-heavy.)
Karina’s Cookbook: Okay, I don’t own Karina’s Tastebook cookbook yet, but I’ve never made a recipe from her site that I haven’t loved. She truly is the gluten-free goddess, as well as being free of a huge number of other allergens. Her Tastebook would be an excellent addition to any food-restricted cook’s set.
Bare Escentuals Starter Kit: Makeup made purely from minerals that does not make my nose itch or my skin break out? Sign me up! Many women with allergies have discovered that allergens or chemical sensitivities make many makeup brands a bad choice for them; of those, some have fallen in love with Bare Esenctuals, and I am among them. (I did have to watch the included video to figure out how much of each powder to apply, but using it is easy and quick now.)
Assistance from a Registered Dietitian: Can you manage on your own, without professional support? Most of the time in life, you can get by well on your own. But sometimes, you really need the support of a knowledgeable professional, and your dietary issues are no exception. Whether you are looking to achieve weight loss or gain, deal with food restrictions or the need for food restrictions, or manage diabetes or another medical condition, having the support of a Registered Dietitian can be what you need to help you stay on track with your changes. My mother gave me the gift of a starter meeting with an R.D. after I began dealing with food restrictions due to I.C., and meeting my cheerleader for health, Molly Paulson, added a special component to my work towards self-care. For weight loss or diabetes, I highly recommend Molly. For food restriction issues, I recommend the knowledgeable Cheryl Harris. Of course, there are great R.D.s (and R.N.H.s—Registered Health Nurses) around the world, so if finding someone to meet in person is what you want, that’s a great way to go, too.