Coconut Oil: It’s not poison, but it’s definitely not a miracle food either

A quick google search of coconut oil will lead you down two paths at the moment:

(1) Harvard professors calling it pure poison

(2) Wellness blogs praising it as the cure to nearly everything

So what’s the deal? Should you throw your container of coconut oil in the garbage or continue to slather it on every food you eat?

The Proposed Hype

The preacher of coconut oil will likely highlight the following:

  • It’s has medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are ~amazing for our health~
  • It has saturated fat, but that is good for us now
  • It increases our good cholesterol (HDL-C)
  • It has a high antioxidant content

So let’s break this down.

The Evidence

Starting with MCTs, small research studies are showing some benefits in it’s use for weight loss and Alzheimer’s. It is proposed that it may be due to the unique way in which your body uses them. They bypass the traditional way fats are absorbed, leading to a quicker uptake by the body and can act as readily available source of energy. This may help in weight loss, as your body may use it for energy versus storing as fat. In Alzheimer’s, the proposed theory is that the brain will utilize the MCTs as an energy source, instead of the typical glucose, which may have a protective effect.

While that all sounds great, there is some problems with this claim. My main concern is that coconut oil does not equal MCTs. Sure, coconut oil contain some MCTs but it is not an 100% source. The above studies are looking at use of an 100% MCT oil supplement. We cannot assume that using coconut oil will translate to the same benefits. Additionally, there is much debate in the nutrition world as to what the actual percentage of MCTs found in coconut oil is, with some arguing it to be quite low.

But if there is a possible benefit of using it, why not?

This has to do with its saturated fat content. Let me get this clear  – I am not against saturated fat in your diet, but let’s review a little nutrition history to get a better understanding of what this all means.

Back in the day of power suits and scrunchies, saturated fat was thought to be the devil incarnate resulting in the low-fat diet trend (“Non-fat Yogurt” Seinfeld episode, anyone?). More recent research has actually shown it may not be as harmful as once thought. What was found was that if you replaced saturated fat with sugar*, you saw an increased cardiovascular risk. But what often gets skipped over is that it also found that choosing unsaturated fats (olive oil) over saturated fats (coconut oil) significantly improved cardiovascular health.  So the harm comes in when you start using coconut oil as your main source of cooking oil. This is likely doing your body more bad then good. Speaking to effect on our cholesterol, coconut oil does raise our good cholesterol, but also our bad ones. 

Now let’s not forget about the antioxidant claims. Unfortunately, these claims are not backed by evidence at this time. A recent study looked to analyze the antioxidant content of coconut oil and found squat. Sadly, no antioxidants in coconut oil. 

Bottom Line

Coconut oil may have some moderate health benefits but it is not a superfood and should not be the main fat source in your diet. I would recommend reaching for extra virgin olive oil first, as this is an oil proven to be a good source of antioxidants and contains those unsaturated fats your heart loves. 

Will you find coconut oil in my pantry? Most definitely. It has a wonderful flavor and is a good oil to cook with especially when using higher heats. When purchasing, aim to grab a cold-pressed virgin coconut oil. This type is less processed and has not been exposed to high heats that can be damaging to the overall nutrition content of fats.

Finally, what also always needs to be remembered is that individual foods have little impact on our health. It is the sum of our dietary habits that matter. A person who eats coconut oil as a main fat source, but has a diet that consists mostly of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits and legumes is making healthier choices than a diet that has olive oil as it’s main cooking oil but contains high amounts of meat, simple sugars and processed foods.

So keep that coconut oil in your diet, just don’t think it’s the the magical ingredient to a healthy lifestyle.

*sugar does not equal carbohydrates FYI.

References

  1. Sacks, F., Litchtenstein, A., Wu, J., Appel, L., Creager, M., Van Horn, L. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 1-23.
  2. De Alzaa, F., Guillaume, C., & Ravetti, L. (2018). Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating. Acta Scientific Nutritional Health, 2-11.
  3. Eyres, L., Eyres, M., Chisholm, A., & Brown, R. (2016). Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews, 267-280.

 


Whole Grain Penne with Roasted Zucchini & Red Pepper

One of my favourite meals my mom would often make at large family gatherings was a  pasta dish packed full of vegetables, sausage and shrimp. I can still remember the large white bowl she would serve it out of. I had asked her a little while back why this was her go to recipe, and it was simply because it was easy to prepare for large groups, while still tasting phenomenal. The following pasta recipe is exactly that, an easy to prepare meal that will quickly become a favourite.

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Recipe

Type: Good for the Body

Time: 1 hour

Serves: 4 large portions (pasta only), 6 smaller portions (bread & salad on the side)

Ingredients

3 large (4 small) hot Italian sausages
1 large red pepper
1 large zucchini
1 cup of cremini mushrooms
1/2 red oninion
1 1/2 cups of your favourite pasta sauce
2 1/2 cups of whole wheat penne
1 tbsp of thyme, dried
Salt & pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°C
  2. Chop zucchini,  red pepper, red onion and mushrooms into large chunks. Mix together in a bowl with 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp dried thyme and salt & pepper to taste
  3. Add 3 sausages in a glass pan so they are not touching, and then add the chopped vegetables
  4. Place in oven and cook for approximately 35 minutes, or until an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F) has been reached
  5. Once sausages are cooked through, remove from oven, let them cool and then cut into 1 cm slices*
  6. Cook your penne pasta according to instructions on box, aiming for an al dente, or firm, texture
  7. Drain pasta and add to sausage and vegetables mixture
  8. Heat pan over medium heat and add above mixture with tomato sauce. Stir over medium heat until heated through
  9. Serve and enjoy

* If wanting to pre-prepare part of this recipe, cook the vegetables and sausage as above and store in refrigerator. I would wait to cook the pasta until right before serving.

 

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– Magical Properties –

Zucchini. A prized vegetable in many gardens, with claims of some as long as 7 feet. This green, yellow, purple or stripped member of the squash family is packed with potassium. Due to it’s mild flavour and high moisture content, it can also be a fabulous addition to your baking.  Zucchini bread & muffins are tasty baked goods that let you sneak in a little vegetable where it’s least expected.

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An Argument Against Meal Prep

Flip open Instagram and you’ll find pages of the most beautiful meal prep you could imagine. Green smoothies, halloumi cheese salads and black bean burgers. All perfectly prepared in reusable containers for the work week.

A dream world where you ensure you eat healthy every day of the week. 

I truly admire the effort that goes into this extensive meal preparation (maybe with a hint of jealously), but a few questions usually come to mind:

  1. Does that salad ACTUALLY still taste fresh on Day 3?
  2. Don’t you get bored when you have the same meals three days in a row?
  3. What happens when your co-workers ask you to check out the new Mexican restaurant after work, but you have you have that black bean burger in the fridge at home?
  4. And most importantly, what about Sunday Funday?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Filling your fridge and pantry with healthy, whole foods is critical in making sure you are putting the right nutrients into your body.

But my argument is this: If we strive to complete this extensive meal preparation in a world that has too many unknowns, is actually attainable for most people? I am the perfect candidate to being able to achieve this: no children, partner who also enjoys cooking and able to afford healthy fresh foods. Yet, I still can’t seem to get it done every week. Sure, I could leave the cottage on Sunday morning a few hours early, or skip out on the afternoon Bocce in the park… Yeah, no thanks.

So I say, drop the dream of completing this crazy meal prep. Enjoy your weekends and evenings. Learn to throw together healthy meals in a hot minute or actually take the time to cook some nights of the week with your friends & family (take leftovers for lunch).

Then, if you do happen to have the time to do a huge meal prep, take advantage! I can guarantee you will eat healthier. On a smaller scale, use that time to make some bulk recipes that might last you the week, such as homemade granola, soups, muffins or banana bread. If you are away for a weekend, you can always stock the fridge/pantry before you head out to make sure a full fridge exists when you get back.

So since I just bashed your meal preparation dream, I will leave you with some recommendations of foods to always have around (that don’t spoil quickly!) to help you make quick healthy meals.

Top Things to Keep in Your Kitchen

Well Stocked Fridge: frozen vegetables, frozen fruit, frozen banana, frozen bag of bread, frozen meat, yogurt, milk, vegetables you enjoy eating raw, eggs, cheese, hummus, mayonnaise, salsa

Well Stocked Pantry: canned beans, oatmeal, your favourite grain, nuts & seeds, peanut butter, whole grain crackers, olive oil, balsamic or red wine vinegar, canned tuna/salmon, potatoes, tomato sauce

How to Use These Ingredients in Healthy Meals

Quick Breakfasts: smoothies, overnight oats, parfait, peanut butter toast w/ bread & fruit, omelette w/ cheese and frozen vegetables, refried beans on toast

Quick Lunches: above omelette, cheese & crackers or two hard boiled eggs with a side of vegetables & hummus, bean pasta salad with oil & vinegar dressing

Quick Dinners: Tuna melt, salmon melt, salmon cakes, bean pasta with frozen vegetables, meat w/ friend potato & vegetable hash, fried eggs over a bed of vegetables & beans with salsa


Chicken & basil rice paper rolls with homemade peanut sauce

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We are all strapped for time, that’s why meals that work well as leftovers can be an absolute blessing. These rice paper rolls will satisfy your taste buds and pack up easily for lunch the next day. The Chinese 5-Spice blend brings together a perfect balance of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and Chinese coriander, while the basil keeps it fresh. Paired with a homemade peanut sauce, you might be tempted to eat all 12 at once.

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Recipe

Type: Good for the Body

Time: 45 minutes

Serves: 4. Makes 12 spring rolls, with 3 per serving.

Ingredients

Rolls
1 package extra lean ground chicken (approximately 600 grams)
1 tbsp canola oil
1 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp of Chinese 5-Spice
1 large carrot
8 radishes
1 english cucumber
1 bunch of basil leaves
1 bunch crisp romaine lettuce or leafy greens

Peanut Sauce
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (or whatever you have on hand)
1 lime, juiced
1/3 cup water
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp fish sauce (optional)

Directions:

Rolls

  1. Add 1 tbsp canola oil to large pan over medium heat. Add package of ground chicken, breaking meat up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Once cooked through, drain excess fat and return to heat.
  2. Mix together chicken stock and Chinese 5-Spice. Add to ground chicken and reduce heat to a simmer. Let mixture simmer uncovered for approximately 10 minutes, or until broth has slightly thickened. Set aside.
  3. Peel and slice carrots into small matchsticks, also known as a julienne cut.
  4. Slice radishes into small matchsticks.
  5. Cut cucumber in half and remove seeded middle. Cut remaining cucumber into small matchsticks. *Side note: You can also add the carrots, cucumber and radishes to a food processes on medium grate. The result still works, but will be slightly more watery vegetable mix.
  6. Wash and tear lettuce into 12 pieces about the size of your hand. You want pieces large enough that the vegetables can be rolled into it.
  7. Add chopped carrots, radishes, cucumber and 1-2 basil leaves to middle of lettuce leaf, rolling to make a lettuce wrap. Complete all 12 and set aside.
  8. Take rice paper and wet under cold water. Place onto flat surface and rub rice paper with fingers until it begins to soften. Once soft, place 1 rolled lettuce leaf with 2 heaping spoonfuls of chicken towards the back of the rice paper.
  9. Bring the back of the rice paper over mixture, and then fold in sides. Continue to roll the mixture forward so that the rice paper wraps around mixture. Repeat until you have 12 rolls.
  10. Serve 3 rolls with a side of peanut sauce as a main. Pair with a salad for a complete meal.

Peanut Sauce

  1. Make while chicken is simmering to save time.
  2. Whisk together peanut butter, lime juice, water, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger and fish sauce in a medium bowl until fully blended.
  3. Cover and place in fridge until serving.

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– Magical Properties –

Winner, winner chicken dinner. There is a reason chicken is often seen as the darling of the animal proteins. Particularly, it is a great source of protein while keeping calories to a minimum. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for vegetarian protein choices. In fact, a minimum of 2-3 vegetarian meals per week is good idea for both your health and the environment. That being said, if weight loss is a goal of yours, chicken might be the kinder option. A serving the size of your palm (100g) provides 175 calories and 30g of protein. In comparison, you would have to eat 2 cups of chickpeas to get the same amount of protein and that would be around 540 calories. Chicken is also a great source of your B vitamins and zinc.

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Peach & strawberry sangria

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Sangria – an almost perfect summer drink. This “not too sweet” peach and strawberry version is best enjoyed outside in the sunshine. Given it is quite boozy, I highly recommend sharing with a few friends.

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Recipe

Type: Good for the Soul

Time: 10 minutes

Serves: 1 pitcher

Ingredients

1 bottle white wine
1 tall can of peach cider (Brickworks is my favourite)
1/4 cup of rye whiskey
1/4 cup triple sec
1 bottle of sparkling water
1 cup frozen peaches and strawberries
12 fresh mint leaves

 

Directions:

  1. Add rye whiskey and triple sec to large pitcher with mint leaves. Muddle mint leaves to release flavour, careful not to break leave apart (this can release bitter tasting chlorophyl).
  2. Add white wine, peach cider and frozen fruit. Top with sparkling water and ice.
  3. Leave in fridge 1 hour before serving (if you can) for a more flavourful drink.
  4. Garnish glasses with frozen fruit and a mint spring.

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– Magical Properties –

Having peaches with alcohol isn’t necessarily the best way to fuel your body, but why not add a nutritious kick when enjoying a drink with some friends. Peaches are a good source of vitamins A & C, while also providing only 60 calories per medium sized fruit. They are also a good source of potassium. Recent studies have shown diets high in potassium may be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and decreasing risk of stroke and osteoporosis.  Enjoy lots of fresh peaches this summer and don’t forget to freeze a few to try out this recipe.

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Roasted sweet potato & barley salad with lemon dressing

Sweet Potato and barley Salad - with lemon and utensils - cropped

Vegetables are one the best thing we can put into our body,  but they can be seen as boring at times. I get it – steamed broccoli and carrots does get old. Enter above salad. The lemon dressing is refreshing while the barley, sweet potatoes and toasted almonds bring an earthy and nutty taste. Finished with some tang from feta cheese for a flavourful bite each time.

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Sweet potato and barley salad - copped side

Recipe

Type: Good for the Body

Time: 45 minutes

Serves: 2 as a main, 4 as a side.

Ingredients

Salad
3 cups leafy greens
2 cups arugula
2 small or 1 large sweet potato
1/4 cup of pearl barley, uncooked
1/2 cup of toasted almonds
feta cheese

Dressing
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375°C.
  2. Wash and cube sweet potatoes. Place in bowl and drizzle with 1 tbsp olive oil and salt & pepper to taste. Spread onto baking sheet.
  3. Add 3/4 of cup of water and 1/4 cup of barley to a pot (Tip – always cook barley at a 1:3 ratio. 1 cup barley to 3 cups water). Bring barley to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, reduce  to a simmer and cover for 30 minutes. Barley is finished when  water has been absorbed and the texture is light and fluffy.
  4. Place sweet potatoes in the oven when you have started to simmer the barley, as these should both be finished at around 30 minutes.
  5. Roughly chop almonds. Toast in frying pan on medium heat for approximately 3 minutes. Set aside.
  6. For the dressing, whisk together lemon, olive oil, pepper and brown sugar until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
  7. When barley and sweet potatoes are finished and slightly cooled, add to leafy greens/arugula with toasted almonds. Whisk lemon dressing and add to salad. Mix until dressing evenly covers salad.
  8.  Once plated, top when a sprinkling of feta cheese .

* Add meat, fish, poultry or tofu for an extra protein boost.

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– Magical Properties –

It’s easy to always reach for the same grain, especially when they can be sensationalized in the media as food that cures all (I’m looking to you, quinoa). The reality is that all grains bring something to table. Barley is fantastic for your health in a few ways, one being its soluble fibre content. Simply put, soluble fibre moves slowly through your GI tract due to its gel-like texture. This is particularly beneficial as it helps to keep you full, reduces cholesterol levels, moderates blood sugar levels and helps keep you regular. Barley is also a source of folate, iron and magnesium.

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Grandma Rice’s ranger cookies

Ranger cookies 5

Hot water, Wendy’s and the old Zeller’s restaurant are just some of the things that remind me of my Great Grandma Rice, but I am most nostalgic when I’m enjoying her ranger cookie recipe. Thankfully kept alive by my mother, these cookies were a favourite childhood treat of mine.  A recent craving led me to wipe up a batch of mine own.

Boy, how I have missed these tasty coconut treats.

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Ranger Cookies

Recipe

Type: Good for the Soul

Time: 25 minutes
Serves: Makes approximately 24 cookies

Ingredients

3/4 cup of butter, softened and cut into small chunks
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup flour
1 cup quick oats
1 cup rice krispies
1/2 cup shredded coconut, sweetened

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°C and set two baking sheets aside.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar until you get a light fluffy mixture. (If you are unsure of this technique, see below). Stir in egg and vanilla.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining dry ingredients and then add to butter mixture.
  4. With a wooden spoon (or hands), mix batter together until fully combined.
  5. Using about 2 tablespoons of batter, form small balls and place on baking sheet 2 inches apart. Flatten dough slightly once on baking sheet.
  6. Bake in oven for approximately 12 minutes, or until cooked through.

 

– How to Cream Butter and Sugar  –

Creaming butter and sugar together will help disperse sugar through the batter while incorporating air to get a light fluffy texture. To do this, combine softened butter and sugar in a large bowl. Using a stand or hand mixer, blend together until you have a light fluffy mixture. This can also be done with a wooden spoon but takes some arm work.

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Homemade pizza sauce

Homemade pizza sauce - cropped 2

Pizza. A staple in most people’s lives. From birthday parties, family parties and post bar munchies, it undoubtedly exists in all of our diets. The beauty of pizza is it’s ability to become a healthy meal by loading on the veggies and skipping the processed toppings. This recipe is a quick way to make homemade pizza sauce with fresh ingredients. Freeze the batch in small containers for healthy pizza sauce in a pinch.

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Recipe

Type: Good for the Body

Time: 20 minutes
Serves: Makes approximately 2 cups.
Use about 1/2 cup for an 8″ pizza.

Ingredients

1 28 oz can of plum tomatoes
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp red pepper flakes
10 fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp tomato paste
drizzle of olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Open and drain half the juice from the can of tomatoes and pour tomatoes into food processor or blender.
  2. Roughly chop basil and garlic. Add with remaining ingredients to tomato mixture.
  3. Blend on high until mixture is smooth.

 

– Magical Properties –

Basil, and many other herbs, claim to fame is something known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients. These are naturally occurring chemicals found in many plants, fruits and vegetables that are thought to have a protective effect on the body. Specifically, basil contains flavonoids which may be beneficial in protecting against inflammation and viral infections. Try and include fresh or dried herbs in all aspects of cooking for a nutritious kick.

Additional notes: Skip the supplements, and aim to include daily in your meals instead. Oh, and chemicals isn’t necessarily a bad word in the nutrition realm.

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French-toasted baguette topped with strawberries & coconut flakes

French Toast

I grew up with my Mom’s homemade french toast made from baguettes and would never switch to the more traditional thick bread slices. What I like about using smaller pieces is that you get a bit more surface area to taste that deliciously crunchy outside, while keeping it light and fluffy inside. Serve with a slice or two of bacon for a perfect Saturday brunch.

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Recipe

Type: Good for the Body

Time: 20 minutes
Serves: 3-4

Ingredients

1 small French baguette
3 eggs
¾ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 quart of strawberries (about 4 cups sliced)
¼ cup of unsweetened coconut flakes
1 tbsp butter
maple syrup, to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°C. Spread coconut flakes evenly on a baking pan. Set aside.
  2. Wash and slice strawberries into quarters. Set aside.
  3. Cut baguette into 12 even slices and arrange in large glass pan.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  5. Pour egg mixture over bread slices. To make sure they are soaked through, leave soaking in egg mixture for approximately 3 minutes, turning over once.
  6. Melt butter over medium heat on a frying pan.
  7. Once bread is soak through, place slices on frying pan without crowding the pan. You may need to cook in two batches.
  8. Cook for about 2 minutes each side, until a dark golden brown.
  9. Once the French toast is cooking, place coconut flakes in oven for approximately 5 minutes, taking care to make sure they don’t burn.
  10. Once French toast is cooked, plate 3-4 pieces per person and top each plate with 1 cup strawberries and 1/3 of toasted coconut flakes.

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– Magical Properties –

It might not be the lowest calorie or highest fiber breakfast, but this recipe can definitely provide you with a nutrient boost on a Saturday morning. Strawberries are they star of the show by providing all of your vitamin C needs in one serving of this recipe. This nutrient is important in collagen formation, strengthening bones and blood vessels,  supporting your immune system and acting as a powerful antioxidant. These bad-ass fruits are also low calorie and contain small amounts of folate, magnesium and manganese for added power.

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The essentials

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Let’s start with the basics – a stocked kitchen and the right tools. These fundamental elements can be crucial for an enjoyable time in the kitchen. Why? It allows you to bring a variety of flavour and texture, while keeping stress to a minimum.  I have created a handy chart, from my own experience, highlighting the key ingredients and gear to keep on hand.

Side note: Kitchen equipment isn’t cheap (I am still dreaming of the day I will own a KitchenAid Mixer). I have had great success from checking out local second hand shops and my Grandma/Mom’s basement. My ceramic cook ware, dutch oven, hand mixer, some knives, glass pan and many cooking utensils are second hand.

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Kitchen Witch Essentials

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Yes, I know, it’s a lot. So start slowly building and you won’t be disappointed in the end.