Life on the Sweeter Side

Life on the Sweeter Side - Under the Monkey Bars blog

My sweet tooth is fierce, especially when the clock strikes 3 and 8pm. No matter what I do, it will always be there. I’m not one to deprive myself of a treat though. So I’ve found a way to balance the cravings and still enjoy life on the sweeter side.

Do you crave sugar? Most people do because it’s sooooo addictive. It’s seriously like a drug, hidden in most of the food we eat.

Ever wonder why there’s no daily value percentage next to “sugar” on the nutrition facts of an ingredient label? Fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, and fiber all include the daily value percentage on food labels. But sugar does not. Kind of makes you think, right?

Hmmmm. Why doesn’t the government want us to know how much sugar we’re eating? I recently learned that during the low-fat and fat free craze, companies added sugar to improve taste. It seems that big business won and we lost. That’s only one of the reasons food labels don’t make the sugar count more clear. But positive changes are happening!

The latest dietary guidelines have drastically decreased the recommended sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. This translates to 12 teaspoons for a 2,000 calorie diet which I still think is too high. The World Health Organization recommends only 6 teaspoons a day.

What are we currently consuming? The average American eats about 22 teaspoons of sugar each day and — you’re not going to believe this — the average child eats 32 teaspoons of sugar daily. Wow! No wonder why our country has a diabetes epidemic.

So, how do can you cut down on sugar and still satisfy your sweet tooth?

  • Skip the soda, bottled juices, and sports drinks. Drink more water! Add a slice of fruit, cucumber, or fresh mint to your water if you don’t like the taste. You’ll get used to it. Water is way better for you and it’s free. Look, you’re even saving money!
  • Stop buying refined, white sugar. Switch to coconut sugar or date sugar in recipes that call for sugar. Better yet, seek new recipes that use raw honey, agave nectar, or pure maple syrup as sweeteners. You won’t find white sugar in any of the recipes here at Under the Monkey Bars.
  • Bake your own goodies. When you make something from scratch, you know exactly what’s in it. It takes extra time, but it’s totally worth it. We usually bake a minimum of 2 treats a week. Start with once a week and work your way up!
  • Buy plain yogurt. Four years ago, we started buying organic whole milk plain yogurt instead of vanilla. It drastically cut the monkeys sugar intake and it was an easy change to make. We add a drop of vanilla and some raw honey to the plain yogurt. Defrosted berries create their own syrup are a great substitution for “fruit on the bottom” type yogurts.
  • Reduce processed foods. Most of us aren’t sprinkling sugar on our food but believe me, you’re eating it! The less food you eat out of a box, the less sugar you’ll consume. 
  • Eat more vegetables. Sprinkle some cinnamon on a sweet potato with blueberries and pumpkin seeds for your afternoon snack instead of a granola bar. It will satisfy your sweet tooth and provide more nutrition for your body.
  • Everything in moderation. I’m not saying don’t eat anything sweet because that’s just crazy. Aim for balance with organic fruits and dates for treats instead of what you usually grab. We all need one indulgence; mine is dark chocolate, which contains way less sugar than other varieties. I usually eat a piece a day and consider it healthy.

Start a healthier life on the sweeter side today. By reading labels and making a few changes, you’ll look and feel healthier. Promise!

P.S. If you haven’t already, watch Fed Up!

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Homemade Vanilla Extract - Under the Monkey Bars

I just finished making my latest batch of homemade vanilla extract. You won’t believe how easy it is to make it yourself. You don’t need to be at all crafty for this DIY! The taste of homemade vanilla extract is lighter and smoother than the store bought version, and you’ll know exactly what’s in there.

I’ll never forget the first time we made vanilla extract 3 years ago. Sweet Pea and I were on our way to the liquor store to buy vodka when my Mom called. She asked Sweet Pea what we were doing that day. Sweet Pea yelled from the backseat, “We’re going to buy VODKA!” Of course she asked why I was bringing a toddler to the liquor store. I quickly explained through red cheeks that we were picking up supplies to make homemade vanilla. It was that awkward moment though…when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Out of the mouth of babes!

Homemade Vanilla Extract - Under the Monkey Bars

Anyway, vanilla extract is made by transferring the flavor of vanilla beans into alcohol. Vodka is the best type of alcohol for making vanilla extract because of its neutral flavor. I’ve heard that some people use brandy or rum, but keep in mind the flavor will be different. We use vanilla extract almost daily to flavor plain yogurt, bake muffins, make pancakes, and in smoothies. I wouldn’t want these things to taste like rum. Not for monkeys!

Two items to consider when choosing your alcohol: 1) Pay more for glass bottles to minimize BPAs transferred through plastics. Here’s why. 2) Buy gluten free alcohol if you or anyone you bake for follows a gluten free diet. Store bought Nielsen Massey Pure Vanilla Extract is gluten free, but there’s added sugar on the ingredient list. When you make it homemade, your vanilla extract won’t need any sugar. This time I used two 750 ml glass bottles of Luksusowa Potato Vodka. I found some less expensive corn-based vodkas but thought it would be best to avoid corn since vodka isn’t labeled for GMOs.

There are many choices for vanilla beans. I’ve used Tahitian vanilla beans and a few varieties of Madagascar vanilla beans. I recommend buying grade B Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans. These beans are cheaper than grade A beans because they contain less moisture and are not as pretty. The flavor is the same so don’t worry about what they look like. These beans are perfect for a homemade vanilla extract, and will save you some money.

It takes 2-3 months for the vanilla beans to break down in the alcohol. If you get your ingredients asap, you can pull off homemade vanilla gifts for the holidays! Give a beautiful amber bottle of homemade vanilla extract on its own, or add items to make a gift basket. Create a festive gift box with a high end pancake mix, whisk or mixing spoon, pure maple syrup from the farmer’s market, and fun napkins. Homemade vanilla extract makes such a thoughtful holiday gift.

Making homemade vanilla can save you money. I broke even on this batch. Before we went gluten free, I could buy cheaper vodka for less than $10/bottle. If you buy your amber bottles in bulk or reuse them, that will also contribute to your overall savings. To me, homemade always tastes better especially because it’s made with love, and it’s a fun activity for little monkeys.

Got monkeys? They can help! Monkeys can put the halved vanilla beans into the bottles. They can also be in charge of shaking the bottles a few times a week. That’s a fun chore! When the vanilla is ready, ask your monkeys to line up the bottles and hold the funnel while you pour the homemade vanilla extract. Sweet Pea is still my helper whenever we make homemade vanilla. 

I made you a little shopping list of supplies you may not have on hand. Click the links to save you time and minimize trial and error when making your first batch of homemade vanilla:
Stainless steel funnel with detachable strainer
Vanilla beans, package of 25
– Amber glass bottles: 4 oz pack of 12, 8 oz pack of 6, or 8 oz pack of 12 — depending on what size/how much you decide to make
– Handwrite your own dishwasher safe label stickers or order custom “homemade vanilla” labels (I still have a few sheets left from my original order!)
Sharp knife
– Eco-friendly, made in the USA cutting board (I’m replacing all of ours with these)

Like wine, vanilla extract matures with age. You are going to love making your own homemade vanilla extract. Let me know how it comes out!

Homemade Vanilla Extract
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  1. 2 bottles (750 ml) of 80+ proof vodka (40% alcohol)
  2. 24 Madagascar vanilla beans, grade B
  1. Using the funnel, remove approximately 1/4 cup of vodka from each bottle to make room for vanilla beans. You can always pour out a little more after you put the vanilla beans in. If you drink vodka, have a decanter ready to save what you pour out!
  2. Slice each vanilla bean lengthwise along one entire side of the bean. Use your sharpest knife and bare down really hard.
  3. Place the beans in the vodka bottle, replace the lid, and shake.
  4. Write the date you made the vanilla on the vodka bottle with a sharpie (so you don't forget!).
  5. Store the vanilla for 2-3 months in a cool, dark room.
  6. Shake the vanilla once a week to agitate the beans and speed the extraction process.
  7. After 2-3 months, pour your homemade vanilla extract through a funnel into six 8 oz. amber bottles or twelve 4 oz. amber bottles. Add labels and store or give!
Adapted from DIY Natural
Adapted from DIY Natural
Under the Monkey Bars

Black Bean Chia Brownies


You read it right. Yes, I put black beans in our brownies. Crazier things have happened in my kitchen!

When Bean was a toddler (what seems like ages ago), I used to bake with Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook to sneak veggies onto her picky plate. I still think it’s a great idea even without toddlers in the house. Never miss a chance to eat more nutrients and whole foods!

Black Bean Chia Brownies have a fudge consistency, but unlike regular brownies, they are high in protein, folate, iron, and fiber. You can’t taste the black beans at all! These brownies are gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, and paleo friendly with no refined sugar. You don’t need a high speed blender for this recipe. I made these brownies before I got my Vitamix and they came out just as tasty.


If you’ve never had cacao nibs before, I’d recommend adding them to half of the brownies to start. Peeled and crumbled from whole cacao beans, nibs have a pure (not sweet!) chocolate flavor and are crunchy (read: hard), which is why I recommend pressing them into the brownies. Cacao nibs are a rich source of antioxidants, iron, magnesium, and fiber. If you like them, go for the 1/4 cup.

I found this recipe in my grocery store’s monthly magazine (Nature’s Market Basket), and this isn’t the first! So many great health tips and recipes in that little freebie. Definitely ask if your grocery store has a magazine or health flyer.  They seem to be popping up more and more.


Black Bean Chia Brownies
Serves 9
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Cook Time
30 min
Cook Time
30 min
  1. 1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  2. 3 eggs
  3. 1/2 cup coconut sugar
  4. 1/3 cup coconut oil at room temperature
  5. 1/4 cup raw cacao powder
  6. 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  7. 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  8. 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
  9. 1/4 cup raw cacao nibs (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.
  3. In a food processor or high speed blender, combine black beans, eggs, coconut sugar, coconut oil, cacao powder, chia seeds, and vanilla. Process until smooth.
  4. Stir in chocolate chips.
  5. Transfer mixture to prepared pan. Level with a spatula. Sprinkle with cacao nibs (or other topping) and press lightly into mixture.
  6. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Lift brownie out of pan using parchment paper and let cool on baking rack.
  7. Cut and serve!
Adapted from Joyous Health: Eat and Live Well Without Dieting by Joy McCarthy
Under the Monkey Bars
– Buy organic ingredients whenever possible.
– Use raw cacao powder instead of unsweetened cocoa powder.  Raw cacao is a good source of fiber and contains minerals like potassium, iron, and calcium.
– We like Enjoy Life Mini Chips because they are free of the eight most common allergens.
– I buy these black beans. The cans are BPA free and the beans are organic: win-win.
Coconut sugar is unrefined with naturally occurring nutrients like magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and amino acids. Try it 1:1 as a replacement for white sugar.
– I use parchment paper a lot for our gluten free baking. It makes for a much easier clean up too!

Cómelo todo!