The Man in the Mirror

A little over a month ago, I saw a sideview of myself in a mirror and was shocked to see how far my belly stuck out. I knew I had put on some weight – my clothes fit a bit tighter, it was hard to breathe when I would bend down to tie my shoes – but I somehow hadn’t really noticed how fat I had gotten. But I do know how it happened.

IMG_0650During the week-long hospital stay for my son’s birth, I got hooked on soda. There was a soda fountain just down the hall from our room. The general chaos of that whole week, being overly tired and not knowing what day it was, much less what time, I’m sure I drank way more Pepsi and Mt. Dew than I care to know. It is really easy to start drinking pop, but it was really hard to stop.

To make things worse, I have a hard time getting myself to drink water, especially from places other than home. It sometimes tastes weird, or if you have a plastic or styrofoam cup, it tastes like… well, styrofoam or plastic. I’ve gotten water bottles in the past, and after a few times through the dishwasher, the plastic takes on a dishwasher smell and the water tastes like soap. I had a metal water bottle that I liked, but it wasn’t dishwasher safe. That means it ended up sitting on the counter waiting to be hand washed for about a month. Pepsi, however, always tastes like Pepsi.

The cards were stacked against me. Everywhere you go, these’s soda. If I go to Taco John’s for lunch, the meals come with a drink. I don’t want to order the food separately, because it’s only handful of cents more to get it with a drink. I also don’t want to get the drink and then just use the cup for water. If I’m at work and I get thirsty, there’s always soda in the vending machine, along with some weird diet iced tea. If I stop at a convenience store, a bottled water is as much as, if not more than, a bottle of pop. It just doesn’t feel right to pay that much for a bottle of water. So what could I do?

I just quit.

I IMG_0651decided that the next Monday was going to be the day I quit drinking pop. I finally ponied up and bought a nice glass water bottle – making sure it was dishwasher safe. I pushed through a couple days of moderate headaches. When I had a strong craving for something flavorful and bubbly I would drink an Izzy instead of getting soda. I avoided getting fast food for lunch because I knew I’d get it with a soda.

Then something amazing happened. Not even a week in, I could tell my body was working better. I didn’t feel slow or sluggish. It felt like my internal systems had less friction moving nutrients around my body. I felt good and was proud of myself for overcoming the hold that soda had over me, and proving I have more power than a can of sugar water. I still had cravings for pop, but it was much easier to ignore them. It became somewhat of a game, to see how long I could go without having one.

It has now been well over a month since I last had a drink (of soda…). It feels good both mentally and physically to have gained control over such a simple part of my life. A part that is surprisingly easy to loose control of. For me, this is about that control as much as it is about health. I know I have lost some weight since I quit, although I didn’t weigh myself before and I haven’t been since. I’ve decided I’m not going to regularly weigh in, either. If this becomes about numbers, I’m probably not going to win. If I don’t get much change from one day or week to the next, that’s only going to be discouraging. But wether I loose weight or not, it’s still better for me to be drinking water instead of soda.

Did you know that Coke can be used to clean off corrosion around a car battery’s terminals? Or better yet, get blood stains off of a road. I’m sure many other sodas do this, too. We would never allow ourselves to drink other liquids with these properties, so why do we not worry about drinking soda? Plus, besides be pumped full of who knows what kind of chemicals, dyes, and preservatives, it also contains large portions of two highly addictive drugs – caffeine and sugar.

So there’s all kinds of good reasons to quit drinking soda, and I’m sure someday I will have a can of soda again, but being successful at cutting it out of my life has been a huge reward that has lead to other good things (more on this next time).

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I have found that my success came from removing barriers and committing not to the goal, but to the actions needed to accomplish the goal. It’s so easy to just grab a soda, and it felt so hard to just drink water. I tried to take myself out of situations where I would easily get a soda, and prepare ahead to give myself easier alternatives like having an Izzie or a nice glass water bottle. I’m not worrying about loosing weight, but focusing on finding ways to make being healthier easier. I don’t want to end up trapped in an overweight, lazy, and addicted American lifestyle.

The Big Burrito Roundup

The big burrito game in town is really heating up now that Chipotle has joined the mix. For years we only had Panchero’s. Hot Harry’s eventually moved in on their territory (literally, it’s in an old Panchero’s location). Recently, we gained a PepperJax Grill and of course a Chipotle as already mentioned.

All four offer made-to-order burritos, built right in front of your eyes. So when the craving for a big oversized burrito hits, how will you decide where to go? Assuming you are equidistant from each, it could be a tough call. Luckily, I have been to all of them. Hopefully my reviews below will be helpful in your decision.

Note: Although each restaurant offers multiple other items, for purposes of this review, the general product I sampled was a chicken burrito. I don’t eat tomatoes, so all reviews were sans-tomato.

First up, the town’s classic: Panchero’s.

Fresh-pressed tortillas are the highlight here. It’s my favorite thing about their burritos. Generally, the rest of the ingredients seem fairly fresh. Occasionally I have gotten chicken that was a bit dry. You get white rice, beans (I typically have both black and pinto), lettuce, cheese, and sour cream in addition to the meat. Veggies and queso cost extra, so to be fair I didn’t get them.

panchThen there is Bob. I’m not sure why it’s called Bob, but basically they have a tool to mix up the fillings before wrapping it up. It’s beyond me why other places don’t do this. No one wants a burrito with just rice, or mostly beans, or one big blob of sour cream. A good blending goes a long way. They get a bonus point for this.

Generally, the taste is fresh, although a little bland. It is a good quality burrito with a great tortilla, but otherwise not very exciting. However, even with other options around, there are still times when I go for some Panch. They do have punch cards, which is good if you eat lots of burritos.

The original rival: Hot Harry’s.

hotharrysNo one had ever heard of Hot Harry’s when they came to town, although they are a franchise. It was nice to finally have another burrito maker around. Their tortillas are alright. They come from a bag and are warmed up before construction begins. The rice is a Mexican variety, it’s not bad, but not the greatest, either. They have two options for chicken, basically mild or spicy – spicy is my choice. It’s really not very hot, but does have a little extra kick. One thing that should be mentioned, is the chicken can be very watery. They strain it off before it goes in your burrito, but nonetheless it’s always a little drippy when eaten. Beans, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream finish it off. They also offer a wide variety of sauces such as ranch, buffalo, and a number of others I’ve never paid attention to. This affords you some options, such as a chicken bacon ranch or buffalo chicken burrito.

To me, the variety of flavors beyond your basic chicken burrito are what Hot Harry’s adds to the burrito scene. Basic fillings on their own might not be the best, but you get the option to have something a bit different when it’s all put together. The best option in my opinion is the “burritodilla”. Your tortilla starts off on the grill with cheese like a quesadilla before adding the fillings and wrapping it up. This comes close to making up for not being freshly pressed dough.

They have some sort of rewards program, that you sign up with your phone number and email. Right away you get a coupon for free chips and queso, but I’m not really sure what else happens after that.

The new kid in town: PepperJax Grill.

Photo Credit: Ian Williams

Photo Credit: Ian Williams

I hadn’t heard of PepperJax Grill before it came to town, either. They’re more known for their Philly cheesesteaks, but they also have burritos. The main difference here is you pick your meat and if you’d like green peppers, onions or mushrooms. They put all that on a flat top grill before adding it in the burrito with the rest of the usual fillings. It’s a nice touch, as the rest of the places in town are either meat OR veggies, unless you pay extra. They also have ranch you can add in.

I would say the grilled on-the-spot green peppers and onions are the best part. The meat seems a little weird – it’s not a normal chicken breast. It’s more of a patty that is then diced up and feels a bit spongey. The flavors are pretty good, though, and it’s nice to have the fresh veggies included.

Hot stuff: Chipotle

Chipotle seemed to be a big deal when it was announced they were coming to town. Everyone was all excited. Years ago I ate at the Chipotle in Iowa City and remembered being unimpressed. It was dry and despite the store name, not that spicy. I saw no reason to go there over Panchero’s. However, I decided to give it a another try.

chipotleChipotle starts with a pretty good tortilla from a bag, warmed up and then filled with your choice of cilantro-lime white or brown rice. Both are very good, and I would say easily the best burrito rice in town – fresh and flavorful. The chicken is a bit hotter than Hot Harry’s and usually seems very fresh. Beans, lettuce, cheese, sour cream – they’re all there, too. After a few bites you really start to notice the flavors of the cilantro-lime rice and spiced chicken. It actually can get rather spicy, which is a quality I like. If you really don’t like spicy foods, it might be too much.

I do know that Chipotle makes an effort to obtain their ingredients from sources as close to local as possible. Their meats also come from animals that have been raised in a humane way. I think that this does make a difference. On most of my visits to the Chipotle in town, I would say their food is high quality and fresh. You can kind of feel good about eating it, too. If only they had fresh pressed tortillas and mixed the fillings…

The clear winner here?

It’s you.

If it’s about the tortilla, go to Panchero’s. If it’s about the chicken and rice, go to Chipotle. If it’s about getting something different, try Hot Harry’s. If you want the added zest of fresh grilled peppers and onions, well then you’ve got PepperJax Grill.

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DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional food critic, reviewer or journalist. I take no responsibility for any poor decisions you might make based off of my information here. Your choice to overfill yourself and endure the following bowel ache is solely yours. Eat at your own risk. I have no affiliation with any of the reviewed businesses, although I did finally sign up for Hot Harry’s rewards. Numerous burritos and bathrooms were harmed during my research.

My Veggie Tale

FoodincLast year I set a goal for myself to try one new vegetable a month. Leading up to this idea, I had watched enough food/health documentaries on Netflix to convince myself that a plant-based diet is the only way to survive. At that time, the only veggies I ate were pretty much corn, beans and potatoes – not the best selection. My ultimate goal was to expand my palate with some healthier, less life-threatening foods.

I should mention, I would’ve said I didn’t like vegetables. Some I even thought would make me “sick.” I do seem to have troubles digesting tomato foods, so my “fear” is grounded in some bit of rational thinking. I think it all started as a kid getting sick after a Chuck-E-Cheese (or was it Showbiz?) outing. I had noticed the sauce changed and now had lots of tomato chunks. The words “chuck” and “chunks” are both doubly relevant. I also recall mixing a bunch of different flavors of soda that night, so I’ve also been afraid to mix flavors since. While I may have gotten sick for any number of other reasons, that’s what I ended up associating it with.

So, how did it go?

Well, it actually started off pretty easy. I was at my older brother‘s house in Colorado for Christmas and knocked a few out right away. Another brother had made spaghetti squash with dinner one night. I’m not sure it was the best to start with, but I gave it a try. I don’t remember much about the taste, but I didn’t care for the texture.

The next vegetable was artichoke. It was on a Papa Murphy’s chicken-artichoke thin crust pizza. The pizza was already a flavor I would have liked if the artichoke was left off, so it was a pretty easy try. Turns out, I really liked the combination. I’ve started trying other foods with artichoke in it, and for the most part enjoy them.

fajitas.JPGOther successes came later on. We tried a recipe from my sister-in-law for pork roast with red potatoes and zucchini that was very good. I also enjoy making (and eating) fajitas with green and red peppers and onion. I also don’t mind spinach on sandwiches or as part of other things, like pastas or pizza. While I don’t mind the flavor or asparagus, I prefer it to be with something else – like potatoes or in a pasta.

I was introduced to humus a couple years ago, and instantly became a fan. Someplace I read that an idea for a healthy snack was to dip carrots in humus instead of pita chips. I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, I just can not swallow carrots. I don’t know what it is, but it feel like I have to keep chewing and just can’t get them to go down. Carrots that are cooked and soft, like in a stew, I can eat just fine.

fortunePerhaps the biggest breakthrough was stir fry. Now, I have always thought of stir fry as a Chinese food, which I avoide for a couple of reasons. One is that it tends to have lots of vegetables, mushrooms, and weird looking meat. The second is that nobody ever says they feel great after eating a plate full of Kung Pao chicken.

Anyways, my wife’s Grandma was staying with us for a while after Harvey was born and made chicken stir fry for dinner. Instead of soy sauce and white rice, she used olive oil too cook with and long grain and wild rice on the side. It wasn’t like Chinese food at all and to my surprise, I really liked it. The broccoli didn’t smell or taste bad. My impression of broccoli was that it smelled and tasted about like a full garbage bag. Now I could probably eat some form of stir fry a few times a week and be happy.

So, what did I learn from all this?

I’d have to say that first off, vegetables in fact, do not make me sick. Secondly, fresh whole vegetables are much different from frozen bags of chopped veggies. Third, cooking or adding vegetables to other foods goes a long way to getting them into my diet.

While I didn’t stick to the one-a-month plan, I have made quite a bit of progress. My goal for the future is to start replacing processed, prepackaged and frozen foods with more organic fruits and vegetables. Luckily, resources for healthier eating are becoming more convenient, with both the Fresh Market and New Pioneer Co-op both recently opening stores in Cedar Rapids. Eventually, I plan to start cutting back on meat, as well (more on this later). But I still won’t mix pop or eat tomatoes…

New Vegetables Eaten:

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens
  • Red/Green/Yellow peppers
  • Snap peas
  • Spinnach
  • Squash
  • Zucchini