Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sleeping Beauty or Beast - Guest Post by Cyndi Fales

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

At this point, I'm certain Cyndi Fales from LWS needs no introduction. In this post, she explains why sleep is important and how to get a good night's rest. 

Image from
Sleep is an essential requirement for health and wellbeing, just as much as eating a healthy diet and daily exercise. Sleep needs can very across populations, but most adults should aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night to receive its benefits.  And here is the beauty of it—while we sleep our body does the work such as cell repair and maintenance for better concentration, maintaining healthy weight and higher energy levels. Many studies are finding that people who sleep well have better overall heatlh and live longer. Without adequate periods of rest for physical and mental repair, you may not be able to function at your peak.  So, here is the beast of it: insufficient sleep has been associated with  hindering weight loss efforts as well as an increased risk of a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.

Humans have a natural sleep-wake cycle.  Sunlight plays an important role in this cycle. Our “biological clocks” are set to make us feel the sleepiest between midnight and 7am so we can stay awake and alert during the day, although many people have a sleepy period between 1pm and 4pm. Our natural sleep cycle is very hard to break or change; this can increase sleeping troubles for people who work during the night and catch up on sleep during the day or for those traveling between time zones. 

One of the “Sonoma Secrets” the book offers is to “Go to sleep earlier… so you can wake up fifteen minutes earlier and have a few minutes of quiet time to appreciate the quiet morning, to reflect on the day ahead and the choices you will be making.”  Here are some other tips to keep in mind to ensure a good night’s sleep:
  • Daylight is key. Get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day.
  • Don't eat or drink large amounts before bedtime. Eat a light dinner at least two hours before sleeping. Your body requires energy to digest your food which can interfere with sleeping.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine as these inhibit sleep. If you have a television in your bedroom, keep it off at night as it can also be a visual and auditory stimulant. 
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Sticking to a schedule helps reinforce your body's sleep-wake cycle and can help you fall asleep easier.
  • Start a relaxing bedtime routine that tells your body it's time to wind down. This may include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to soothing music.
  • Make your bedroom cool, dark, quiet and comfortable to create an ideal sleeping environment.
  • Choose an ergonomically correct mattress and pillow. Your body moves naturally during the night to promote better sleep; however, movement triggered by unsupportive sleeping conditions, such as a worn-out mattress, may interfere with good rest.
  • If you share your bed, make sure there is adequate room. Children and pets can be disruptive, so you may need to set limits on how often they sleep in bed with you.
  • Don't agonize over falling asleep; the stress will only prevent sleep. If you don't fall asleep within about 20 minutes, get up and do something such as reading to occupy your mind.  Go back to bed when you're tired.
  • Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can help you fall asleep faster and make your sleep more restful. Keep in mind that exercising too close to your bedtime may make it difficult for you to wind down. 
  • Avoid irregular naps and limit naps to before 3pm and less than half an hour in length.
If you are having beast-like symptoms—working on a healthy sleep routine can help decrease or control many chronic conditions.  If you are having difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, experiencing frequent loud snoring, pausing in breathing, or gasping while sleeping, consult with your doctor. Identifying and treating the cause of sleep disturbances can help get you on the path to a good night's sleep. 

Related Reading:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Enjoy Breakfast! -- Guest Post by Kelly Velasquez

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Kelly Velasquez is our Associate Director of Credentialing - Research & Quality Management. (Believe it or not, Kelly is not even in the running for the longest job title in the office.) Kelly has been a big supporter of our wellness efforts and is a long standing member of our wellness advisory team. Kelly is a swimmer and a triathlete. She is married to Eduardo who also works for ASHA and has two beautiful little girls. As you can imagine, what she doesn't have is spare time. Yet she never skips the most important meal of the day.

Like Kelly, I'm a big breakfast fan. On a good day, I might even eat two breakfasts. I can't resist this opportunity to share two of my favorite weekday breakfast recipes. (1) Cottage cheese pancakes -- these are great to make on the weekend, so you can just grab one or two before a morning workout. This is also my go to pre-race breakfast. They're great with some berries. (2) Blueberry-Coconut Baked Steel Cut Oatmeal. My friend Lee Baumgartner shared this recipe with me when I started planning this challenge. Make a 9x13 pan on Sundays and just heat a scoop up in the microwave all week. (I leave out the Stevia, skip the sauce and use plain almond milk. I like to top it with some slivered almonds and chia seeds.)

As an avid breakfast lover, I jumped at the opportunity to write about how you
can adapt your breakfast (or start eating breakfast) the Sonoma/Mediterranean way…whether you love eggs or not.  As it so happens, I love eggs, but the idea of making a frittata, or mini-muffins of eggs and veggies, or following any recipe at all, left me less than enthused. I am not typically a recipe girl, but with this diet I have followed almost all of the recipes in the Sonoma book,
Sonoma Breakfast Day One –
2 scrambled eggs with chives,
4 grape tomatoes, ½ c blueberries,
½ c spinach, 1 slice Ezekiel toast
(yes, I know, it is the one with raisins,
which I since learned we are not
supposed to have in Wave 1 –
so switch to the Sprouted or
whole grain variety)
which means that sometimes we are eating dinner at 9:30pm. Breakfast, on the other hand, has been a breeze, possibly because I plan ahead and make it at work (ideally, after taking ASHA’s Functional Training fitness class or putting in some miles outside or on the treadmill). And, while I know that you should eat something before you work out, I have to admit that years of getting up at 4:30am to swim have left my body trained to NOT eat early in the morning. So I typically wait to eat until after my workout is done, which means my breakfast can be as late as 9:00 or 10:00am – just motivates me to get showered, dressed, and ready faster!

The benefits of starting your day off with a nutritious, well-planned breakfast are well-documented and - while somewhat controversial in their presentation of ‘data’ this is alsoa pretty good read. But what do you do when you are short on time, and just trying to race out of your house to get to work? The morning rush makes it kind of hard to whip up a frittata on the stove prior to dashing out of your house. Here are some of my tips to make sure you eat a Mediterranean breakfast each day.

First off, find what works for you – timing wise, and meal-wise. You may prefer to eat at home vs at work. Or you may be a creature of habit and prefer to have the same breakfast every morning. I tend to find 2-3 breakfasts that I like and alternate them (cereal, some form of eggs, and oatmeal).  I keep a bowl
Sonoma breakfast staple –
Kashi Go Lean Crunch
(Honey Almond Flax) –
9g protein and
8g fiber per serving;
3/4 c skim milk;
½ c blueberries
and spoon in my desk, along with a box of Kashi cereal (I like the Go Lean! Crunch Honey Almond Flax flavor, while my husband prefers the Go Lean! Crisp Cinnamon Crumble one – both appear to meet the Sonoma diet guidelines as they serve up 8g fiber per serving and are whole grain). So at least once per week I only need to bring in a cup of fat-free milk in my travel mug and some fruit. I prefer blueberries which are quite tasty right now, and as you can see in the picture below. My other favorite option is eggs (sometimes I use the egg beaters, just check to see that they have omega-3s). I’ll pack up the leftover veggies from the night before in a Tupperware container (onions, mushrooms, cauliflower, zucchini, asparagus, etc), bring 2 eggs, and scramble them in the microwave at work. Halfway through the cooking time I may add a diced tomato, and then some shredded parmesan at the end. That with a piece of whole grain toast or with some turkey bacon (also microwaveable) makes for a great meal.

Finally – oatmeal. I pour one serving of rolled oats into a Tupperware container, cover it with half skim-milk and half water, and pack it in the fridge.
Sonoma frittata – using leftover
roasted veggies (onion, squash,
cauliflower, asparagus), grape
tomatoes, ½ c blueberries
Next morning at work, I microwave it to warm it up, and add chopped walnuts and dates and a diced apple (I particularly like Gala apples). Sometimes I add cinnamon; other times I may add raisins (but not in Wave 1 of the Sonoma Diet). Then I have 3 go-to meals ready for the week. Also, I make a frittata on Sunday, and have 2 extra servings in Tupperware for the week ahead (the Sonoma book has several frittata variations, all good – and don’t worry if your eggs don’t exactly set, as I think it is almost better tasting when it is messier).  And if all else fails, the Mediterranean Café has breakfast!

NOTE: If you are not much of an egg fan, some other options are here

Enjoy breakfast – truly the most important meal of MY day!

Additional Resources/Recipe Ideas/Articles -

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Infusing Herbs and Spices -- Guest Post by Pam Leppin

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Pam Leppin is ASHA's Advertising Sales Director. She is an avid cook and she produced and sells a really nice herb chart. When I started thinking about spicing up our meals during the challenge, I went straight to Pam and asked her to write a post for us. Pam has her own blog Artistic Feast

Pam and Kurt's wedding on Pink Gin
Beach in Grenada
My husband and I got married on Pink Gin Beach in Grenada, the Island of Spice. The island is one of the largest producers of nutmeg in the world. We had three glorious days to explore this beautiful island while we obtained residency so we could get married there. During our fun-filled days, we visited a nutmeg plantation. We discovered that all parts of the nutmeg are used in cooking. The fruit surrounding the nut, nutmeg apple, is used to make jams and syrup. The nut shell is wrapped in red tendril fingers of the spice Mace and inside the shell is the nutmeg meat itself.

In Grenada, nutmeg is used in practically everything they cook, savory and sweet alike. It's not just for pumpkin pie folks. At breakfast one morning, I asked the server what the eggs were seasoned with, the answer nutmeg. I’ve since become a big fan of nutmeg. It tastes great on spinach, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, a variety of fruits, lamb, pasta, eggs,
The layers of nutmeg. Photo by Joshua Yetman.
raisins, squash, and of course, pumpkin. A word of warning…nutmeg should be used in moderation. It has a strong flavor that can overwhelm your dish and ingesting large quantities can be a health hazard causing hallucinations and even death. You’re not likely to overdose on nutmeg. You’d have to eat one or more whole nuts and by then your food would be so overwhelmed with flavor you probably wouldn’t want to eat it anyway. 

Nutmeg drying. Photo by Pam Leppin.

Speaking of whole nuts, you should always use fresh, whole nutmeg, rather than pre-ground. It only requires a little bit of extra effort and the flavor difference is enormous. Roll the nutmeg with the palm of your hand on the counter top, cracking the hard outer shell and swipe the nut inside across on a mini grater a few times on top of your eggs instead of salt. Amazing. 

I don't want to have to count calories or follow a point plan to lose weight. I believe the Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge is presenting me with the solution I've been seeking. I love that it is about mindful eating, breaking the sugar addiction, and sharing meals with those you love. I'm an avid cook and I love feeding people. Nothing gives me quite the same pleasure as filling my home with friends and family, sharing a bottle of wine (or two) and watching them devourer what I have lovingly made for them. It fills my heart with immense joy. Long before visiting the Island of Spice, I was a big fan of using herbs and spices. I’ve had an herb garden, of one sort or another, at every house I’ve lived in since I was 10. Herbs and spices can add a complex depth of flavor without adding extra salt and butter. It is all in the layering. So many herbs complement one another. Most folks know from classic Italian cuisine that garlic, basil, and oregano blend well together with tomato, but did you know that basil and dill are a wonderful combination as well? Both herbs taste great with one another on carrots, yellow squash, eggs, shellfish, lamb, and cucumber. 

Years ago I was searching for a resource that would easily tell me what herbs tasted good with what food and with what other herbs I could combo together to add depth. I could find a variety of resources to tell me one or the other but not both. So I researched, experimented, ate and ultimately developed a culinary herb chart that would give me a cross reference at a glance. The result hangs inside my spice cabinet door and gets used on a regular basis. The chart covers 13 different herbs, cross referencing which herbs work with each other, and with what foods. If you work at ASHA, you can stop by my desk and pick one up for $10 or visit my website/blog and have one shipped to you for a little bit more. While you're there, check out my blog post on making preserved lemons and chimichurri. Here are some handy online resources for using culinary herbs and spices including The Epicentre's encyclopedia of spices, Spice Advice's online chart,'s herb and spice chart, and Epicurious' visual guide to fresh herbs. 

A few hints I've discovered over the years... 

Dried herbs have a more intense flavor than fresh. So if a recipe calls for dried herbs and you're using fresh, use more. A good rule of thumb for every 1t dried = 1T fresh. 

Some herbs and spices are strong and can overwhelm a dish. A number of these are sage, cumin, nutmeg, rosemary, cardamon, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. They should be used in moderation. 

Don't discount parsley and relegate it to being only a garnish. Parsley combines well with most herbs and foods, as it adds flavor and depth to your dish. Fresh parsley can brighten heavy dishes. It is a must for bouquet garni when making stock or soup. To create your bouquet garni, tie together a bundle of fresh herbs with cotton twine or wrap dried/fresh herbs in cheesecloth and drop into your pot. Most bundles include parsley, bay leaves, thyme, but can also include rosemary, tarragon, chervil, savory, and peppercorns depending on what you're making. Remove the bundle before serving. 

Heat and spices don't get along. If you store your spices over the stove, oven, or dishwasher the rising heat makes them lose their flavor and potency rapidly. Pick a spot away from heat sources and moisture. Store them in air tight containers. Go through your spice cabinet and replace the bottles that have been lingering. The bottle of paprika that you bought for a recipe five years ago, has probably gone over and won't taste like it should. McCormick has some great information on the recommended shelf life including a Fresh Tester tool that allows you to put in the code from the bottom of your McCormick spice bottle and will tell you the age of that spice. Ground spices usually last 2-3 years with dried herbs having a shorter shelf life at 1-3 years. If you think it has been around too long, dump the spice and keep the bottle. 

Many spices travel great distances, from far away exotic places, and can be quite costly. Ever looked at the price per pound when buying the little bottles in the grocery store? Marjoram is $255/lb, bay leaves are a whopping $834/lb. Ouch! Find your local natural market, many like the Common Market in Frederick, that sells bulk herbs and spices at a much cheaper price per pound and you can buy as much or as little as you need. I buy a big bag of marjoram, as it tastes wonderful on most vegetables. A little bottle of marjoram in the grocery store will set me back $6.19 but I can buy in bulk, refill an old, well-washed, spice bottle for pennies comparatively. 

Want fresh herbs? Try your hand at growing them yourself. Many herbs are like weeds, they will grow in the worst of soils, as long as they have plenty of sun and water. So pick a sunny spot and give it whirl. There is nothing quite like running your hand over a rosemary bush and then putting your palm to your face and inhaling. The rich earthly scent fills your nose and according to research, can improve your memory and mood, as well as flavor your dinner. Health Diaries' Eat this! notes 16 health benefits of this wonderful Mediterranean herb. 

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the health benefits of herbs, although there are many and much research to support the benefits. Check out the Huffington Post article on the 25 healthy herbs. ASHA's health care provider, United Healthcare has an article on the healing powers of a handful of herbs as well. On a personal note, I use turmeric to reduce inflammation. To find more information on the benefits of turmeric, try looking at Dr. Weil's website. In an effort to not turn everything I cook bright yellow, I take a 1,000 mg capsule of turmeric every day. If I don't take it for a couple days, I notice a big difference in how my knee joints feel. Being overweight can increase inflammation throughout your body...another good reason to drop the extra pounds and to add turmeric to your diet. 

Want to learn more about using herbs and spices in your cooking adventures? Check out this blog post. It has some great information. 

My husband was and still can be a rather picky eater. When we first met, the only salad green he would consume was iceberg lettuce. On the same weddingmoon trip to the Grenadines, we were having lunch on a secluded beach. They served us shrimp salad on a bed of baby spinach leaves with a mango dressing. After inhaling the entire plate full of food, he asked "what were those green leaves?" I laughed out loud. I’m happy to report that he now eats a wide variety of greens. His mom is amazed at what he'll eat nowadays. I’m still trying to recreate the mango dressing. Now that I think about it, I bet there was nutmeg in it…shrimp, mango, spinach…all yummy with nutmeg. Hmmm, perhaps that has been the missing ingredient all along. 

Happy Cooking...and eating!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passover Mediterranean Style -- Guest Post by Diane Paul

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Diane Paul and I were talking about how you could maintain a Mediterranean diet during Passover. I asked her to share her perspective with all of you.

The 8 day Jewish holiday of Passover starts at sundown on Monday March 25, 2013. The basic kosher laws apply year round--no mixing of milk and meat during a meal, no pork products or shellfish. At Passover, additional restrictions apply--no leavened bread (to commemorate freedom from Egyptian slavery)--no foods made with grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats). There are two main Jewish groups in the world, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. For Ashkenazi Jews, there are more forbidden foods during Passover--rice, millet, corn (including corn syrup), dried beans, lentils, peanuts, peas, soybeans, green beans, sesame and poppy seeds, and mustard. Sephardic Jews may eat these foods at Passover.

So how do you stick to the Mediterranean diet during Passover? It's actually pretty easy; You can have most of the foods across Waves:

Can you guess which of these Passover 
foods is Mediterranean diet friendly?
  • All fruits and most vegetables 
  • Kosher meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products 
  • Unleavened bread--Whole wheat matzah, matzah meal, matzah cake flour (made from flour specially prepared for Passover under rabbinic supervision) 
  • Coffee and tea--and water, of course 
  • Spices, herbs, olive oil, and condiments like horseradish (for gefilte fish) 
  • Nuts and nut butters (except peanuts) (still limited in quantity--keep counting those nuts. On Passover, I have it from a trusted authority that you can have 12 almonds and 8 walnuts) 
  • Quinoa is permitted because it's not a grain--it's a seed 
  • Kosher for Passover wine--if you graduated from Wave 1-sorry, no beer--it's made from grain. 
A similarity between the Mediterranean diet during Passover and at all other times--is that you'll have the same challenges. Passover recipes abound using potatoes, sugar, and matzah and are hard to resist. Like most religious and secular holidays, sweets are abundant. What would Passover be without some of the creative matzah recipes like one of my favorites: caramel, pecan, chocolate-covered matzah--not very Mediterranean though. Imagine Easter without peeps--that's Passover without potato and sweet matzah kugel (like a casserole), carrot tsimmis (carrots are not on the Wave 1 list), chocolate-covered marshmallow sticks, jelly rings, or chewy chocolate almond chews.

Here's a Passover recipe to adapt for the Mediterranean diet. My Dad always made fried matzah for us (called matzah brei)--now I'll make it for him and the rest of our family using whole wheat matzah and olive oil.

Mediterranean Style Fried Matzoh
  • Wet six whole wheat matzahs 
  • Mush them up 
  • Add 5 eggs and stir 
  • Add lots of pepper 
Heat a frying pan and coat with extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil
Fry the mixture like an omelet (When one side is brown, flip over using a plate)
Serve with natural fruit jelly, sugar-free apple sauce, or plain Greek yogurt
I'll be having a Mediterranean Passover--but there's no way I'm missing some of those special Passover treats.

So lift your glass of Kosher for Passover wine and say--To Life! (L'Chaim) and pass the veggies.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Salads that Satisfy -- Guest Post by Laura DeFilippo

Top 12 Sonoma Diet Power Foods
30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Tomato Chickpea and Arugula Salad
is a cinch to throw together for lunch. 
Do you think of iceburg lettuce, carrots, and tomato with ranch dressing when you think of salad? Laura Defilippo wrote the following post to help us think outside the box and see salads as a main course and a platform for enjoying the Top 12 Sonoma Diet Power Foods.  

This ties right into tip #10 from 22 Ways to Eat Like a Greek Islander -- make your own salad dressing! You can whip up something delicious with only four ingredients in about 60 seconds. To get started, check out this video to create a simple vinaigrette and then start experimenting with flavored oils and vinegars. I'm enjoying a bottle of blood orange olive oil that my sister gave me for Christmas. Really all you have to know is the ratio -- 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. And, honestly, I violate that half the time because I love vinegar. 

Salads and dieting have always had a superb relationship, but you don’t have to be dieting to enjoy all the benefits salads have to offer.

At the base of every salad is a plethora of vegetables – whether it be leafy greens as in most salads, spinach, or a variety of other vegetables such as chick peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, avocado . . . the choices are endless.

Nutrient-packed fruits and nuts are a great addition to almost any salad.

Top a salad off with a lean protein (such as chicken, salmon, shrimp, seared tuna or tofu) and/or healthy whole grains, and you have a main-course meal that is as satisfying as it is healthy.

You can create a healthy, satisfying, delicious salad in minutes – hearty enough to serve for dinner – with ingredients you likely already have on hand… the possibilities are endless.

In fact, “THE TOP TWELVE SONOMA DIET POWER FOODS are ALL foods you can use to make delicious healthy salads:

Almonds / Beans / Bell Peppers / Blueberries / Broccoli / Citrus / Grapes / Olive Oil / Spinach / Strawberries / Tomatoes / Whole Grains
. . . pack on some protein, and you leave the table feeling full and satisfied.

Health Magazine features recipes for “8 Salads That Satisfy” packed with protein and fiber to keep you feeling full for hours . . . followed by “The Best Healthy Salads for Every Occasion” . . . take a look!

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

Implementing an Online Benefits Enrollment System


We implemented our first online benefits enrollment system at the end of last year. We were envisioning Turbo Tax for employee benefits. Software that would lead staff logically through a process with well timed prompts and explanations. We started the project early, went through a fairly careful selection process, and pretty much lost our minds trying to get the thing up and running for open enrollment. We recently took a little time to debrief on the whole experience and I thought I'd share the highlights of what we discussed. Maybe this will help someone avoid the pain and aggravation we experienced.  

We used essentially the same structured approach to decision making that we used when we selected UHC as our health insurance carrier. I described that in detail in this post. We considered Benefits Express, Plan Source, and EbixWe selected Ebix.

We already had a relationship with Ebix having used Benergy to house our benefits information for years. Benergy merged with Ebix in February of 2011 and Fortune Magazine named Ebix the 4th fastest growing technology company in in 2011. Our broker, Mark Sager, is with Alliant and they had selected Ebix as a business partner. Maybe their rapid growth should have been a red flag to us. They seem to be struggling with developing their brand and a lot of integration issues. 

During the implementation process with Ebix, we had to provide the same information over and over again until we felt like we were in the movie Groundhog Day. And, we had to request the same information repeatedly. I was worried about the feeds to the carriers and that part of the implementation went smoothly.  I was probably somewhat unreasonably annoyed when we discussed the W2 reports with them and they repeatedly explained how they wouldn't include information that wasn't in the system. Duh! 

Ebix delivered the system late, so we were crunched for testing time. They clearly did little to no testing on their end. Benefits were completely missing when they delivered the system. Links did not work. Benefit labels were wrong. We tested, listed what we found and prioritized all the problems that needed to be addressed. Ebix was supposed to launch the system the day before our staff open enrollment meetings and we couldn't get confirmation that it had actually been done before the meetings. We actually had someone from Ebix in our office and he didn't know and couldn't reach anyone to confirm. 

We should have allowed more time for testing and negotiated penalties for Ebix not delivering the system on time in the contract. Ebix did discount our implementation fee by 25% in the end, but building penalties into the contract may have spurred them to deliver the system on time which is what we really needed. 

We decided to move our flexible spending account (FSA) administration at the same time so that it could be integrated into the benefits system with a single sign-on. Since we selected Ebix, we contracted with Flexcorp for our flexible spending account administration because they're partners and we thought the integration would be seamless. Little did we know.... The FSA implementation broke down early on and wasn't moving forward. Request after request about the status from us went unanswered. Staff did not receive their benefit cards until after January 1. And, the single sign-on was not set up when the system was launched. After it was implemented, we learned that Flexcorp is optimized with Chrome and Ebix uses IE. Seriously! They present this as an integrated system and you have to use two different browsers. 

Our broker, Mark Sager, spent so much time working through this with us you'd have thought we were his only client. Mark escalated our concerns early and got a lot of folks at Ebix to keep an eye on our implementation. John Lamb, VP and Group Head at Ebix, flew in to meet with us and discus the problems we were having on November 27. I'm pretty sure it was this kind of special attention from the management team that shepherded us through.  

On the upside, it's done. The system works. And, all the problems were pretty much invisible to our staff. Prior to the implementation, we outsourced a lot of our administration that we can now do ourselves. So, we also saved about $25,000 a year for all our trouble. 

Hindsight is 20/20 -- Highlights from our Debriefing
  • Things may have gone more smoothly if we'd have hired a benefits system consultant to help us with the implementation.
  • We wish we would have used a more formal RFP process to minimize some of the over promising inherent in the sales process. Also, we should have checked Ebix's references more thoroughly than we did. Other users may have alerted us to potential problems that we could have planned for.
  • We assigned too much value to Alliant's selection of Ebix as a business partner. 
  • We should have asked about the qualifications of the implementation team during the selection process and made sure we would be working with seasoned professionals with a sound knowledge of benefits. (We will forever compare all implementation managers to Michelle Hatmaker at UHC. She set the bar extremely high.)
  • We held weekly status calls during the implementation that helped to keep things on track. Dan Fitzgerald at Ebix put together a spreadsheet to track all the outstanding issues which was also helpful. 
  • We should have confirmed that all of the pieces of the system were compatible with the same browser. 
  • Late in the process, November 13 to be exact, we had a real aha moment when we understood that the Ebix system is built around some very inflexible, single use templates. (They actually forced our individual disability insurance into a parking template.) We don't think this is a smart design, but once this was shared with us, we understood one of the limitations the implementation team at Ebix was working within. We would have saved some time if they explained the parameters they were working within earlier.
  • Focused more on processes that were important to us early on -- implementing a reverse feed from the carriers to consolidate the billing information and converting employees to retirees. 
  • We should have made sure we could control the questions asked of new employees. For example, people are forced to state whether or not their spouse works which is irrelevant to us. When staff add dependents, the relationship options include parents, cousins, etc... This misleads people into thinking these family members are eligible for coverage. 
  • We should have confirmed that some basic formulas were built into the system. As it stands, people can exceed the $5,000 allowable amount when they elect to participate in dependent care flexible spending. And, when you enter your life insurance beneficiaries, the percentage distributions don't have to total 100%. On the benefits summary staff can print, the total cost of the benefits is wrong, yet the correct total appears on the confirmation statement. Ebix said these were all systems limitations or bugs they couldn't fix. 
  • We should have made sure the process for requesting a forgotten log in or password would be easy for our staff to handle independently. 
  • We should have reviewed a training plan before signing a contract. They forced us to go through some training before they would deliver the system, but the training was irrelevant because it was designed for an organization that did not use data feeds. This was just a meaningless hoop for us to jump through at a point where we truly didn't have the time to spare. 
  • Our Learning Facilitator, Terry Harris, did a great job introducing the system to our staff. She held many sessions in our computer lab where we helped people walk through the enrollment process. She also played a key role in the testing and drafting of instructions for staff. You definitely need both a testing and a training plan if you take on a project like this. 
  • Emily Wang, our HR Generalist, took on the brunt of this work. She demonstrated a keen knowledge of all the details of our plans and had a strong systems background to make sense out of all the talk of the feeds and back end stuff. If you don't have the systems expertise on your HR team, recruit someone from your IT team to work with you. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Sonoma Passover -- Guest Post by Leslie Katz

30 Day Mediterranean Challenge

Leslie Katz is ASHA's Brand Marketing Director. She accepted our 30 Day Challenge and found herself thinking about how she would make it work during Passover. She shares her thoughts with us in this post. The recipes Leslie included sound simply delicious. 

Image from Photo by Mike Davis.
The Jewish holiday, Passover, is quickly approaching. For the past few years, the most I have celebrated Passover is by buying a box of Matzo since I am already at the grocery store, and since I am, after all, a Jew. After my children paid their dues at Hebrew school, and after I paid my dues making it through two b’nai mitzvahs, I must admit that I have become less observant. I came to this realization only recently, for I have been more observant during the first 10 days of the Sonoma diet, than I have been with the 8 days of Passover for a number of years. In fact, this is the most religious I have felt in a while. But perhaps participating in the Sonoma Diet is really just my hidden calling to pay more attention to at least one of the many Jewish holidays that I have ‘passed over’ in recent years.

It’s true that I have been dutiful throughout Wave 1 of Sonoma, the most challenging part of the diet. No processed food. No sugar. No wine to wash down the incredible intake of quinoa my body has been put through. I am now a certified chickpea chick. I tell myself Wave 2 will be a breeze, until I remember that Wave 2 and Passover coincide. Suddenly, I am concerned about whether or not I will be able to observe Passover while observing Sonoma, and to reiterate, this is not a sensation I have felt in a while.

Passover is known for its strict dietary rules about what you can and can’t eat. Surely, I think, I will have to take a break from Sonoma, if I want to observe Passover. Leavened whole wheat bread is out of the question and matzo is the staple. Legumes-beans, rice, corn, and peas-a big part of Sonoma, are prohibited during Passover.

My fears are silenced when I remember that Whole Wheat Matzo, the kind that no one buys, actually exists, which is important, because matzo sums up about almost all Passover food. And since Sephardic Jews hail from Spain and Portugal, recipes with olive oil, fresh vegetables, and fish and chicken abound. Even quinoa, my new lifeline, is kosher for Passover. And wine? There’s lots of it, especially during the Seder-4 cups.

I found lots of Mediterranean menus for the holiday featuring delicious-sounding recipes that I could make any day of the year.

My liberation from Wave One’s ten-day wine fast meets up with the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Not quite the same triumph, but almost. I guess I’ll be keeping the Sonoma diet during Passover after all. And it just may be the most memorable, delicious eight days of Passover I’ve ever celebrated.

Roasted Chicken with Oranges, Lemons, and Ginger
Makes 4 to 6 servings

An overnight marinade in lemon and orange juices ensures every bite of this slow-roasted chicken is permeated in bright, pleasantly bitter citrusy flavor and has a downright luscious, juicy texture.

• 1 lemon
• 2 oranges
• 3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
• 1 (5-pound) roasting chicken
• 3 tablespoons honey

Zest and juice the lemon and oranges, saving the rinds. In a small bowl, combine the zest, a few tablespoons of the juice, the ginger and salt. Rub one-third of this paste inside the chicken. Stuff the cavity with the leftover citrus rinds, and cover the bird with a heavy sprinkling of salt. Place the chicken in a covered container or zip-top bag. Add the remaining citrus juice and the honey to what's left of the paste, and pour this marinade over the chicken. Cover or seal the bag and allow to marinate in the refrigerator, overnight, turning a few times to evenly distribute the mixture.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place the chicken breast-side up in a covered Dutch oven, casserole dish or tagine. Place the marinade in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for about 1 minute, then set aside. Roast chicken, covered, for 2 to 3 hours until nearly done (155 degrees at the thigh), basting every 30 minutes with the marinade. When nearly done, remove the cover and increase the heat to 350 degrees. Continue roasting until the skin is brown and the chicken is 160 degrees at the thigh. (The sugars in the marinade might cause the tips of the wings and legs to brown too quickly. If so, cover them in foil.) Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before carving.

-- Adapted from "Cucina Ebraica" by Joyce Goldstein (Chronicle Books, 2005)

Moroccan Roasted Carrot Salad with Chard and Parsley
Makes 8 servings

This warm salad offers a delicious interplay of sweet roasted carrots, warm spices, bright lemony dressing and grassy parsley and chard.

• 3 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch chunks
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon paprika
• Salt
• 1/2 cup olive oil (divided)
• 2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
• 1 bunch Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, washed and roughly chopped
• Zest and juice of 1 lemon
• 1 clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
• 1 teaspoon honey
• Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with cumin, paprika, a generous pinch of salt and 1/4 cup of the olive oil (add more if necessary to coat the carrots well). Toss to coat. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are soft and caramelizing on the edges (about 30 minutes). Remove from the oven and place the carrots on a serving dish.

While the carrots are roasting, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Place a large bowl of ice water in the sink. Add the chard to the boiling water and cook until tender but still bright green, about 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chard to the ice water to stop the cooking (this step is optional, but locks in the bright green color).

Drain the chard and pile it on top of the carrots. Top with the parsley. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic and honey. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over the salad, toss to coat, and let sit at room temperature for a few hours to allow flavors to integrate before serving.

Mediterranean Quinoa with Kalamata olives and dried apricots 
(will be a new and interesting side dish)
Serves 6

 1 ½ cup quinoa

 2 cups pareve or regular chicken stock

 4 ounces dried apricots, about 12, finely diced
 Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

 ¼ cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped (or other type)

 ½ red pepper, chopped

 3 scallions, thinly sliced

Wash the quinoa in cold water. Put the stock in a saucepan, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the quinoa, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 12 minutes. About 6 minutes into cooking, add the apricots and return the cover to the pan. Let the quinoa rest for 5 minutes after cooking. Add the olives, pepper, and scallions.

To serve, season the quinoa with salt and pepper and fluff with a fork. Serve warm or at room temperature.

-Deena Prichep

Flourless Orange-Almond Cake With Ginger 
(the dessert won’t pass the Sonoma test, but there are almonds in the recipe)
Makes 8 to 10 servings

This moist, dense, citrusy cake, adapted from several old recipes, will keep (unfrosted) for days -- perfect for getting a jump-start on a dinner party. If you're avoiding dairy, the cake is delicious with just the marmalade, or on its own. If you don't want to frost the whole cake, just serve slices with a dollop of whipped cream or creme fraiche and a generous spoonful of marmalade on the side.

• 2 large oranges (or 3 smallish oranges)
• 2 cups almond meal
• 1/4 cup candied ginger, minced
• 1 cup granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons (divided)
• 6 large eggs
• 1 cup heavy cream
• Dash vanilla extract (optional)
• 1 cup orange marmalade

Place the oranges in a pot, and cover with water by a few inches (the oranges will bob around, but that's OK). Simmer until the oranges are totally soft, about 1 hour, turning them occasionally so that all sides are simmered (this will not smell as lovely as you'd think it would). Drain, and let cool.

While the oranges are cooling, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan.

Chop the boiled oranges into large pieces, discarding any seeds. Place the oranges, skin and all, into a food processor, and process until the oranges are finely minced. Add the almond meal, candied ginger and 1/2 cup of the sugar; process until combined.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs and 1/2 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and thick enough to form a ribbon when the mixture falls from the beater (this can take up to 10 minutes). Gently fold in the orange mixture until just combined. Pour into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake until a tester comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before removing the ring.

Before serving, whip the cream, vanilla and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to medium-soft peaks. Spread the cream over the top of the cake. Stir the marmalade to loosen it up, then spread it over the cream.

-- Deena Prichep

For more ideas see: A Passover Dinner Gets a Mediterranean Makeover.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Eating Out on a Mediterranean Diet -- Guest Post by Kellie Burkinshaw

30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Kellie Burkinshaw is a senior at the University of Maryland and is majoring in community health. She is currently working at LifeWork Strategies as one of the wellness interns. Her particular interests include fitness and nutrition when it comes to health and wellness. In her free time, she enjoys being active by playing women’s ice hockey, going to the gym, and spending time outdoors. She is super excited about having the opportunity to blog during ASHA's 30 day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge and to hear other people’s stories with the diet. 

Kellie mentions some good options for quick meals out below and links to a recent Zagat article that reviews 5 Mediterranean restaurants in the DC area. And, remember our partners at the Mediterranean Café. They created a special Sonoma Diet menu for us. 

Cava Mezze -- Image from
If you are like most, you probably eat out at least once a week or more and we don’t always pick the best meal options. I am guilty myself of going to fast food restaurants from time to time yet I always try to pick the healthiest meal option while there even though I may get that burger every now and then. When we do go to restaurants we tend to eat more than we intended to and pick high calorie meals. Restaurants often have very calorie dense foods and are cooked in unhealthy oils and fats.

Portion control is key when eating out at restaurants and making sure you limit the amount of food you eat at one sitting since restaurant portions are much bigger than normal size portions.  We usually eat till we feel full and often times we eat too fast to realize our bodies are actually full.

Personally, I like to enjoy my food and eat very slowly! One way that you can control your portions of what you eat is to only eat half of the meal that you order and have the waiter pack up the rest to take home with you for the next day. Typically I can never even finish my food so I usually end up doing this anyways before I even start eating. This will help control how much you eat in one sitting and prevent overeating. Another way to help you control portions is to share a meal with a friend. Restaurants will usually accommodate this by offering to separate the meal into two portions.

Aim to eat home cooked meals at least 5-6 nights a week and limit eating out to 1-2 nights per week when possible.  Cooking meals at home is the healthiest option because you can control how you cook your food and what you put in it vs. eating food that has been cooked and full of hidden and mystery ingredients.

When reviewing restaurant menu options, look for words such as broiled, grilled, steamed, or seared since they often contain lower fat and calories. Avoid meals that contain fried, crispy, buttered, and braised in the description list because these are the ones that contain high calories and fat and are the least healthy!

Try to keep in mind the Sonoma Diet plate sizes while you are out.  The Med Diet isn’t about restricting what you eat—you want to have a variety of food and can eat some items in moderation. You can find more tips and strategies for eating out on pages 149-155 of The New Sonoma Diet book.

The DC area has some great Mediterranean restaurants. Zagat recently published a list of 5 great ones to check out. 

Here are some of my favorite quick healthy Mediterranean food options:  

Panera: Check out their secret menu with some great Med options

  • Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad
  • Power Chicken Hummus Bowl

  • The Med Salad
  • Spinach & Fresh Fruit Salad

Chipotle: Build your meal online to check your calories in advance

  • Vegetarian Fajita Burrito Bowl (w/ Brown Rice) or Salad

Subway: Aim for a grilled chicken sub with lots of veggies on 6” whole wheat roll.