Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: September 2023

“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” – Irish Proverb

We use food not only to nourish our bodies, but to share and connect with those around us. One of my earliest memories is laughing with my sister while we each wore slices of swiss cheese on our faces and looked through the holes at each other like we were wearing fancy glasses.

I have come to find that preparing and sharing food with others is my love language. Even if the food isn’t the best, good company can make food taste even better. Heck, laughing together over how bad some food turns out can make it taste a little better, too!

Thinking back on other laughing moments throughout my life, I’m reminded of my mom. My mom has always listened to music in the kitchen while cooking. She’ll grab whoever is in close range to whirl them around to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” or to give them a dip to Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House.” These dance moves are always full of laughter as you (gracefully) try to avoid bumping into the kitchen island or a hot pot on the stove.

One of my favorite foods that my mom makes while dancing through the kitchen is macaroni and cheese. It’s been one of my favorites since I was a kid, and always reminds me of those entertaining, laughing moments in my mom’s kitchen. As comforting as her classic mac and cheese is, it’s not the healthiest. The following options can be subbed to up the nutritional value of this cozy dish:

Lower Calorie, Higher Nutrition
Subbing pureed roasted butternut squash for some of the advised cheese amount to lower the fat and caloric density of mac and cheese is a great way to add nutritional value, as well as a lovely silky-smooth texture to the sauce.

Butternut squash can be halved, rubbed in olive oil, and roasted cut side down until tender. The skin can then be peeled off, or the flesh can be scooped out. Alternatively, pre-cut butternut squash is available in most grocery store freezer sections. Frozen butternut squash can be roasted on an olive oil greased sheet pan.

Once the butternut squash is roasted, mash using a potato masher and stir into prepared macaroni and cheese sauce while holding back some of the usual cheese amount.

Traditional pasta can be replaced with a legume pasta. Aside from the gluten-free benefit, this option is higher in both protein and fiber value as well. My favorite brand of gluten-free pasta is Banza. Banza pasta is made using garbanzo beans and packed with twice the amount of protein and three times as much fiber as traditional pasta. Gluten-free pastas can be prone to breaking down quickly, as it does not have the gluten structure to hold it together. A good way to avoid this is to give the dish just a few good stirs once adding the pasta to the sauce, and serving immediately.

Vegan mac and cheese can be made by soaking 1.5 cups cashews (for every 12 oz of pasta) in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then drain and blend with 1 cup of fresh water, 8 oz of vegan shredded cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of the following: nutritional yeast, turmeric, garlic powder, and salt. A good vegan shredded cheddar is Violife Cheese Alternative, Just Like Cheddar Shreds.

Try mixing any or all of the above options for a nutrient-packed bowl of mac and cheese and grab an unsuspecting loved one for a do-si-do around the kitchen while you cook…inciting laughter and creating great memories with those around you.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper

Reflections from the Iris Respite House Healing Gardens September 2023

“The earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Laughter knows no bounds. Like the natural world, it serves to connect. Truth and innocence often carry it. It can serve to link us together when we least expect it, even in the scariest of moments, and the best ones are simply unforgettable. We need good laughs, like we need each other. It’s part of what connects us as humans. And, in today’s market of stress-relieving products, it can ease suffering without costing a cent.

The therapeutic effects of laughter on the mind and body are well documented. It’s a powerful healer. The next time you laugh so hard you pee your pants, think about this: a hearty laugh ripples through the motor cortex, which is involved in muscle control (including the bladder!), the frontal lobe (which helps one understand context), and the limbic system (which modulates positive emotions). It creates social bonds, builds resiliency, facilitates intimacy, increases immune cells and antibodies, relieves tension and stress, and can lower levels of anxiety and depression. As someone who has battled high levels of anxiety, I can vouch for how much genuine laughter can temper it. Even better: you can never overdose!

Like bouquets of flowers, good laughs always leave you wanting more. I discovered that the physiological benefits of laughter actually parallel the ones experienced by people who are enjoying a bouquet of flowers, even more so if they spend any amount of time arranging them. They both can trigger the release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, the “feel better hormones,” as well as reduce levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” They both serve to create social bonds, facilitate an appreciation for life, can lower anxiety, and help lift depression. Looks like Emerson had it right!

This fall, as you enjoy the earth’s autumnal laughter of flowers, see if you can spot some autumn crocuses. They have a chalice shaped flower, like that of the spring blooming crocus, but autumn crocus flowers are a bit larger. My favorite part of this plant is the unique quality of blooming long after the foliage has died back, like resurrection lilies. That’s how autumn crocuses got the common name “naked ladies,” since it’s only the flower that comes up in the fall. To anyone who didn’t know the plant, with such a long stretch of time in between foliage dye back and the “naked” flowers, it could be one of the earth’s more unexpected autumn laughs.

Genuine laughter, like great music, can’t be forced. It has to move through you from the inside out. That’s why, when it’s real, it’s such a gift. And it almost always has a great story behind it. I leave you with this: I’ve been writing this month’s blog from a cabin in the woods where my extended family has gathered for the week to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. After a day of hiking, I had the door shut, my laptop open, and was researching the health benefits of laughter when my cousin came in the room. After chatting calmly with me for a few moments, her facial expression changed drastically when she felt what she was sure was a tick bite her on her rearend. Mind you, she was completely covered from the mid-neck down. I don’t know how any insect would have even gotten beyond her outer layer of clothing. Nevertheless, without wasting a moment, she dropped her pants in a panic right in front of me and had to make sure there were no ticks attached to her in any way. Turns out it had been a piece of plastic that had gotten lodged in her underwear! We both laughed so hard it hurt. When I finally caught my breath, before my oxytocin levels had come down, I marveled at the moment. Innocence and truth had us riding the waves of laughter once again. And my anxiety? Nowhere in sight.

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

Reflections from the Iris Respite House Healing Gardens August 2023

Apple trees are ominous. They’re not just for food. They bear the tempter’s power. Don’t hang out around them. If you do, eat at your own risk. Mythologically speaking, apples have earned the right to be feared. One bite and you lose your innocence. A gateway to darkness.

Nutritionally speaking, though, apples lose that power. Packed with 400 phytochemicals, 10% of the daily recommended dose of vitamin C, high in water and fiber (making them both hydrating and filling), apples are the picture of health. There is data to support them lowering the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; aiding in weight loss; and promoting the growth of good gut bacteria. This is something you want to put in your body, daily! That said, Eve certainly wasn’t tempted by all of the phytonutrients God had been denying her. Instead, it was the knowledge of good and evil, the promise that “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5)

Ever struggle with temptation? A trip to the dark side? A decision you regret, one made out of blindness, pleasure-seeking, or, God forbid, ill will? Who hasn’t? So often, we think it’s a way out of misery, when in the end, it always ends up yielding more turbulence. The struggle is just as real as all those phytochemicals you find in every bite. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s pride, sometimes it’s just pure selfishness. No matter what the reason, falling to temptation has always taught me some higher lesson about how great the disparity actually is between God’s will and my own desires. His ways, I have learned, really are much, much higher than ours. The fallout, loss of wisdom, light, grace, and momentum from any temptation drives that home unforgettably.

Have you ever tried to find yourself? A journey rife with temptation and blind alleys. I used to get too angry, too often. Simmer and boil. However, thanks to a prayer life, and a benevolent and loving God, once I realized an infuriating situation was not just about me, that there were other minds, experiences, and souls involved, whom God also loved very much, I started to get over it more easily. When I’m tempted to get angry about something, it’s often because I’m not seeing the whole picture. And once I do, the fire quells a bit. This doesn’t mean I am without anger, not at all. It just means I can see a little more of reality than I could before. My eyes have been opened.

One of the lessons that the Hope Grows gardens have taught me about temptation is to feed myself. I have always been tempted to blow my body off until I can’t anymore, often prioritizing something else in lieu of stopping to eat so I can get more done. Or, eating something without any merit (unlike raw apples, of course) for pleasure or just to keep moving. During the growing season at Hope Grows, I’ll sometimes find myself with extra cucumbers, peppers, or tomatoes that need to be eaten. If I’m hungry enough, I’ll wash them and eat them on the spot.

I grew up in a city apartment, so aside from an occasional backyard tomato plant, I wasn’t picking fresh veggies. If you’ve never eaten something fresh off the vine, I urge you to volunteer at a local farm. I do believe if everyone had access to fresh picked fruits and vegetables, levels of illness would take a marked downturn. The amount of healing energy that one ingests with a freshly picked vegetable or fruit never fails to stop me in my tracks. It’s still vibrating with the sun’s love and the earth’s energy, leaving me all the more fortified and able to proceed in my work. The physiological return on the investment of time it takes to stop and feed myself, with fresh food, is far higher than not taking the time to eat. Once again, my eyes have been opened.

Growing apple trees requires patience. They take 4-8 years to produce their first fruits. But they are worth the wait. An apple tree in full bloom is one of spring’s most gorgeous sights, sweet smelling and a delight to the pollinators. In the years to come, I would actually love to see apple trees, maintained of course, have a greater presence in our urban landscapes. Not only for the pleasure of their beauty and yummy fruit, but simply to offer abundant natural reminders to seek God’s will in all matters and choose wisely.

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist


E.E. Cummings said, “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” What a great focus for September, along with a fabulous topic for discussion. September for me is all about the change of seasons, students and teachers returning to school, and the beginning of harvest time. My hope is that not only for myself, but for everyone to find the integration of laughter in their daily lives this month.

Laughter is a universal human behavior that involves the rhythmic contraction of muscles, typically resulting in sound and sometimes tears. It plays a significant role in social interactions, communication, and emotional expression. Moreover, laughter has been linked to various health benefits, both physical and psychological. Some ways in which laughter can help with our health:

· Stress reduction

· Pain management

· Immune system boost

· Cardiovascular benefits

· Muscle relaxation

· Social bonding

· Coping mechanisms

· Mood enhancement

· Cognitive benefits

· Enhanced quality of life

Wow! With that many health benefits, who wouldn’t want to laugh?! It’s worth noting that not all laughter is the same. Genuine laughter, often referred to as “real” or “spontaneous” laughter, is more likely to produce these positive effects compared to forced or fake laughter. Additionally, humor is subjective, and what may be funny to one person might not be amusing to another.

While laughter has numerous health benefits, it’s important to remember that it’s not a substitute for professional medical treatment when needed. However, integrating humor and laughter into your daily routine can contribute to a more positive and resilient mindset, which can have a positive impact on your overall health and well-being.

Caregivers often have demanding and challenging roles, and they may find it difficult to prioritize self-care, including laughter. However, we can incorporate a message from Dr. Seuss: “From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.” Incorporating laughter into our lives can have positive effects with the quality of care we provide. Some helpful tips to find moments of joy and laughter include:

· Acknowledge the importance of laughter

· Create opportunities for laughter

· Share laughter

· Connect with others

· Practice mindfulness

· Use humor as a coping strategy

· Stay open to playfulness

· Incorporate laughter into routine

· Practice gratitude

· Lead by example

· Seek support

Remember that laughter doesn’t have to be forced or contrived; however, trying integrative therapies for laughter can be valuable. As a therapeutic tool, laughter as therapy can promote physical, emotional and psychological well-being. These therapies aim to harness the benefits of laughter in a structured and intentional way. Some examples include:

· Laughter yoga

· Humor therapy

· Comedy and improv workshops

· Laughter meditation

· Laughter clubs

· Laughter wellness

· Humor in therapy

· Laughter retreats

· Online laughter sessions

It’s important to note that integrative therapies involving laughter are not a replacement for medical treatment when necessary. These therapies are meant to complement traditional healthcare approaches and promote holistic well-being. Before participating in any integrative therapy, individuals should consult their healthcare providers, especially if they have underlying medical conditions or concerns.

In researching the topic of laughter, I was glad to see so many interesting ways in which laughter can be used and the impact it can have. I will leave you with once last thought: with the concept of nature, “laughing” is often used metaphorically to describe the beauty, vitality, and joyful aspects of the natural world. It is a poetic way to express the idea that nature can evoke feelings of happiness, awe, and wonder. I will save the ways in which the metaphorical “laughter of nature” can be understood for our upcoming Celebrating You! caregiver event being held on November 8, 2023.

Until then, laugh, laugh, and laugh!


The focus for the month of August is Temptation. The focus was chosen due to the apple trees bearing fruit at this time of year, with harvest soon to follow. Autumn season is fast approaching at the Iris Respite House & Healing Gardens, as the squirrels begin to gnaw at the hickory nuts in the tree next to the Hope Grows administrative offices on the property.

What do apples have to do with temptation? Well, for starters, the Victorian era of representation tells us that the apple tree symbolizes temptation. From some religious accounts and beliefs, temptation is heavily rooted in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve, whereby the devil enticed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

According to the story of the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides, the unnamed fruit became the apple. From then on, it became a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, and the fall of man and sin.

Is it not, though, that temptation refers to the desire or inclination to do something that is often seen as wrong, forbidden, or detrimental? It’s a psychological and emotional state where individuals are drawn to actions that might provide immediate pleasure or gratification but can have negative consequences in the long run. Temptation can be linked to various aspects of human behavior, such as personal ethics, self-control, and decision-making.

How does this interconnect with caregiving? We all know that individuals providing care to others contributes to the breakdown of our overall health. There is proven research with this, and the many caregivers for whom Hope Grows provides support share with us that they are struggling with overall wellness. The role of a caregiver is emotionally, physically, and mentally demanding, which, in turn, can lead some to various forms of temptation that can impact their overall health.

The suggestions below have been introduced as things to be mindful about. I am hoping you will consider these as encouragement to pay attention and not ignore, as taking heed can avoid temptations.

Stress and Coping: Caregiving can be stressful due to the constant responsibilities, long hours, and the emotional toll of witnessing a loved one’s or patient’s suffering. In times of high stress, caregivers might be tempted to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption, which can negatively affect their health.

Self-Care Neglect: Caregivers often prioritize the needs of those they care for, neglecting their own well-being in the process. This temptation to put others first and neglect self-care can lead to burnout, fatigue, and declining physical health.

Lack of Time: Caregivers may struggle to find time for their own needs and activities. This lack of time might lead to temptation for unhealthy habits, like skipping meals, not getting enough exercise, or not getting enough sleep, all of which can adversely impact their health.

Emotional Strain: Witnessing the suffering or gradual decline of a loved one can be emotionally challenging. Caregivers might be tempted to suppress their emotions or avoid seeking support, leading to mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

Financial Stress: Caregiving can also lead to financial strain, especially if it affects the caregiver’s ability to work or requires additional expenses for medical care. Financial pressures can lead to temptation for risky financial decisions or unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Social Isolation: Caregivers may become socially isolated as their caregiving duties consume most of their time and energy. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and further temptations for unhealthy behaviors as they lack support and social interactions.

Guilt: Caregivers may feel guilty about taking time for themselves or seeking help from others. This guilt can create temptation to avoid self-care and focus solely on the care receiver, which can have detrimental effects on their health.

It is essential for caregivers to recognize the challenges they face and prioritize their own well-being. Seeking support from friends, family, or support groups can help alleviate some of the emotional burden. Establishing a routine that includes time for self-care, exercise, and relaxation is crucial for maintaining good health. Additionally, seeking professional help, such as counseling or therapy, can be beneficial in managing stress and emotions.

Overall, being aware of the temptations and challenges, and taking proactive steps to address them, is vital for maintaining caregiver health. Consider Hope Grows for your caregiver support. Call us at 412-369-HOPE (4673) extension 101, email, or fill out the Caregiver Sign-Up Form here on our website.


When I think of liberty and all that comes with that word, I think of July 4th, fireworks, and our freedoms in the United States. I also think about the brave men and women who died to give us that right. Our focus for the month of July is liberty. We spent the month talking about ways in which caregivers can have liberty to implement care for self.

By definition, liberty refers to “the freedom to make choices and pursue activities that align with one’s values, goals, and preferences.” When there is no freedom to live our lives according to our own desires, it contributes negatively to our emotional well-being. Having the ability to make choices and have autonomy fosters a sense of control, self-determination, and fulfillment.

George Washington once said, “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.” I can see why George Washington said this; the United States is an example of rapid growth of liberty and freedoms since the founding of our country. Humanity and society were able to foster positive emotional well-being; be all you can be was the result.

Who doesn’t want that kind of liberty and freedom? It is pretty clear the reason so many people are migrating here: to partake in the positive emotional benefits of being able to make choices and have autonomy.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” I recently saw a news channel segment of a New York neighborhood with 100,000 immigrants living in a hotel with overflow onto the streets. How is this liberty? Was the country they came from so awful that living on the street is better? I think about a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” I question who is responsible for denying these immigrants the choice to pursue the liberties in their native country and should it not be the financial responsibility of their native country? To help this situation that is now a responsibility to the communities within our country?

We can argue immigration policies to death, regardless of the political side, but the point remains; the amount of people immigrating here are becoming the responsibility of communities, leaving many members of society without a sense of control.

I digress this month with a tirade of libertarian thoughts and it comes with no apologies as I am merely questioning the responsibility of the recent immigration surge. None the less, liberty and all that it means is relatable to caregiving and care receiving. Communities bearing the responsibility are now being the caregivers of the immigrants receiving support.

By embracing our freedom to engage with nature and recognizing our reciprocal connection, we can experience a greater sense of liberty, find solace and rejuvenation in nature, and contribute to the well-being of the environment and ourselves.

Moving forward with the importance of liberty, managing the caregiver stress in those communities and fostering emotional connections is most likely needed. Hopefully, someone is helping those communities with self-care so they can contribute to improved emotional well-being, because, after all, “liberty is the breath of life to nations.” ~ George Bernard Shaw