Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
What do you have on hand right now, and what do you wish you had? It’s time to take inventory and learn how to repurpose stuff and get creative.
One of the reasons that people go out on panic buying sprees is that they don’t have a solid grasp on what they need or how long their supplies will last. We’ve already seen instances where people went to Costco to buy up everything they could see… then changed their minds, tried to return it, and got sent away. This can be a real problem for people who spend all their liquid cash and still fail to buy things that they would have actually used.
Learning basic inventory standards and practices can help with this.
My first inventory job was at a 7-Eleven. I was assigned the cereal aisle, because there was a big markup on that product category and not much turnover. Once a week I would go down one side and up the other with a clipboard in my hand, tallying how many of each item were in stock. Then I would make an executive decision on what to replace and what not to. If something like Cool Ranch Froot Loops sat on the shelf for eight months, maybe we didn’t need any more.
The basic concepts that I learned, over the two months I spent on that job, could be mastered by any ambitious 8-year-old:
Shelf by category. Put all the matching stuff together. All the beverages go in one section, then divide by alcohol vs. non-alcoholic, then by brand, then by flavor, etc.
Face outward. A big part of our job was to continually move products to the front edge of the shelf and adjust them so that the labels lined up.
Standard Rotation. Put the oldest stuff in the front and use it up first.
Another thing we did all day, every day, was to wipe down the counters. People were constantly spilling everything from nacho cheese to pickle relish to coffee and malt liquor. This is where many of us develop the keen eye for splotches and smears.
When I went on to work with people who live in squalor, it amazed me how quickly everything can turn to chaos without those few constant daily habits. My people don’t generally have daily tidying habits, partly because they don’t see things in categories. This is why they may not notice that they have 55 cans of green beans in the cupboard, five pounds of black bananas on the dining table, but nothing to make for dinner.
Some of my people have a lot of everything. Others have a lot of certain types of things, but none of other categories. As an example, one person might have cases upon cases of canned foods, soda, laundry detergent, etc. stacked up in the garage due to compulsive accumulation. Another might have a lot of books or craft supplies, but very few clothes or groceries, because they are deeply interested in a hobby but absent-minded about self-care. Some people are just low in situational awareness, and their surroundings tend to blur in their mind, so that they don’t really notice what’s around them. That’s called ‘clutter blindness.’
Taking inventory, or trying to do a little bit, is a great way to start to pick up these skills of sorting things into categories.
We can skip entire categories of stuff right now, as we take inventory, because we’re really focused on just a few things:
When we take inventory of the food, we want to start with the stuff that goes bad quickly. Bananas and avocados are top on that list, and canned foods are last.
Start with what is out on counters, the dining table, the top of the fridge, and anywhere else in the house where someone might be storing food. Throw away anything that is too scary to eat, so that any mold or insects don’t spread to the fresh food.
Next, look in the fridge. It’s a good idea to throw away anything that is spoiled in there, too, partly so it doesn’t affect any more of your groceries and partly to make space when you need it.
If the freezer needs to be defrosted, this would be a good time to do that.
There might be stuff in your supplies that was put there by someone else, like a guest or former roommate, and you know you are not going to use it. Throw it away or, if it’s still edible and sealed, pass it on to someone else.
You might have stuff that you bought and didn’t like. Get rid of that, too. Don’t feel guilty. Space is at a premium now and you don’t have to apologize for prioritizing.
Usually there will be containers that only have a tiny amount of something, like a teaspoon of jam. Focus on using up these foods first, so you can get rid of the containers and make room for fresh food. There may also be several open containers of the same thing, like juice or mustard. Check the expiration dates, throw out any that are suspicious, and then use them up one at a time.
After taking inventory of the food we have on hand, we check our supplies of any medications, including prescriptions, pain relievers, ointments, saline solution, or anything else we might need in the next couple of months. We also want to take care to throw out expired medication, because it can undergo chemical changes over time that make it ineffective or dangerous.
Then we check our inventory of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and anything else we need to feel clean. This is the time to look at all those shampoo bottles with only a quarter cup left. Shampoo that nobody likes is still perfectly good for washing hands or cleaning other things, like a muddy bike.
The reason we take inventory is so that we can delay shopping trips, save money, and take note of stuff that nobody in the household will use. We focus on buying only what we need and like, and then using it while it is still fresh.
If we’re confident that we have enough food, soap, and other essentials, we can then focus on taking inventory of other things, like books and hobby supplies, reminding ourselves to spend at least a little time relaxing.
We prepped before we even heard that someone on the West Coast had died from COVID-19. It went like this:
Hubby: I think we should get ready for this thing to spread.
Me: I agree with you.
*five minutes later*
Me: Here’s a kit. If they have it on Amazon it could be here tomorrow.
*ten minutes later*
Risk mitigation is something that, the smarter and/or wealthier someone is, the more they do it. We are already prepped for a number of things, because we have this sort of conversation on a regular basis and also because we have watched a darn lot of zombie movies.
The funny thing about zombies is that almost anything you could do to prepare for a “zombie apocalypse” is also a thing that is smart to do to prepare for earthquakes, flooding, wildfire, any other natural disaster, or, of course, pandemic illness.
The nuances are a bit different, which is why this is worth talking about. The more people who take the time to prepare, the fewer people there are who need serious rescuing - and, more importantly, the more people who are able to do it. When you see yourself as a first responder, the last thing you want is to be a casualty on someone else’s to-do list. Better for both of us to be up and doing, so the responder who would have been helping us is instead off helping someone else.
We have go-bags in case we need to evacuate. This is quite a real issue for people in our region. I have no fewer than five friends who have had to evacuate for wildfire, one of them twice in the same season, and they all live in different cities. We have had smoke visible from our apartment and we sometimes see firefighting helicopters pass over our building.
This is basically the opposite scenario from an epidemic. We can almost think of it as a lever that slides from ‘evacuation’ on one end to ‘quarantine’ on the other.
What if we were advised to stay home for as long as three weeks? What would we do?
On at least two occasions, I have picked up a cold or flu because I went to a pharmacy for an ordinary prescription. One time, I went to get my prescription, got the flu shot, and caught the common cold on the bus the same day. Ugh. If only the flu shot covered every possible airborne illness!
Our first priority is now to avoid going to 1. Pharmacies 2. Hospitals and 3. Grocery stores as much as possible. I would be mad as heck if I ran out of toothpaste and this led me to be exposed to some gnarly virus.
This is why our goal was to stock up in such a way that we could comfortably lock ourselves into our apartment for weeks at a stretch.
We are experienced backpackers, so, weirdly, we are better prepared for extreme situations than we are for hanging out in our own home! We have two separate water purification systems, two types of portable stove, and of course the ability to hike ten miles a day if we need to evacuate on foot. We have training in advanced first aid. We’d be fine living in the bushes, if that were the scenario.
The irony here is that we have no space for a pantry in our apartment. We’ve trained ourselves to deliberately avoid stocking up on anything, because there’s nowhere to put it. We would have had to spend an extra $1000 a month or more to rent a two-bedroom, and even if we had chosen a $250/month storage unit, what good would that do us in this scenario?
We keep all our extra food in the fridge, with the single exception of canned soup. We have half a shelf for that. Let’s face it, half a shelf of canned goods could vanish in two days.
What we elected to do was to buy a kit of freeze-dried backpacking food. Actually, we reconsidered and bought two. While we have a dehydrator, it would take us weeks to prepare this quantity of dried food ourselves. With this thing constantly in the news, this creepy coronavirus, we really wanted results on a faster timeline.
Where this strategy can backfire is that people want to throw money at a problem, rather than thinking their way out of it. We like the idea that we can buy a piece of equipment or a box of supplies and then “check the box.” Okay, good, that’s done, time to sit back and forget about this particular stressor. This makes us sloppy.
The result of sloppy thinking is default behavior. The default of having supplies on hand is that they eventually expire. Usually people do not notice while this is happening.
You know I work with hoarders? One constant among my crowd is that they like to stockpile vast quantities of food, almost all of which winds up being expired. I have seen a lot of rusted-out cans that are unsafe to use. You think zombies are scary; how much do you know about botulism?
The other thing that food hoarders tend to have in common is that we (yeah, recovering food hoarder here) tend to stockpile a completely different kind of food than what we actually like to eat or know how to cook. We’ll buy either what was on sale or what looks like what our family kept on hand. Because there is almost no overlap between Food I Buy and Food I Consume, all these cases of green beans and packets of gravy are just sitting in there getting old and funky.
This is why my husband and I felt fine about buying freeze-dried backpacking food: We actually go backpacking and eat backpacking food. It is useful to us to have lightweight foods like this. We even have a trip planned.
Because we are frugal by nature, the ownership of a small stockpile of backpacking food is going to lead us to think continuously about backpacking. This leads us to two possible outcomes:
The horror movie alternate ending of this is that some lucky survivors find our supplies and it cheers them right up.
We ordered our supplies on Friday. They were supposed to arrive on the following Wednesday. To our surprise, they arrived on Saturday, the day after our order. Hooray!
On Sunday, we had some visitors on their way between the port where they got off a cruise ship, and the airport, where they are heading home to a small semi-rural town. This will be interesting, considering that they just visited no fewer than four countries during their trip. They’ll have a lot to talk about. One topic of conversation will be where exactly he picked up that nasty cough.
Time to go. I need to double-check our inventory of cough medicine.
He looked lost. He asked us, “Do you know this area?”
He almost missed the window of kismet because he wasn’t asking the right question.
“Where are you trying to go?” I asked, assuming GPS could help us figure it out.
Veggie Grill, he said, and he was in luck, because that’s where we were going. Follow us, we’ll show you the way!
The first layer of the story: This nice man is picking up something for dinner for his buddy, who is at work.
Oh, and by the way, he’s never been here before, what should he order?
The second layer of the story: This nice man has just been put on an insulin pump, after less than a year of rapid weight gain. He shows it to us. He’s the kind of workaholic who will go twelve hours on a cup of coffee, and then eat a bag of fast food in the car because he got called in to cover someone else’s shift.
Changing jobs or getting a promotion are fairly common causes of sudden weight gain.
We see it all the time. Someone will beat themselves up for gaining weight, when it’s a natural and predictable result of their punishing schedule. Especially in a caring profession, like nursing, there can be a tendency to see self-care as somehow robbing others. How can I do things like, say, eat meals or sleep, when there are people who need me??
One way to reframe this is that self-care is a way of making sure that you yourself don’t become the patient. How can you help someone if you collapse or wind up in a hospital bed yourself?
Our new friend didn’t seem to think much of his own insulin pump. Meanwhile, if someone *else* got one he would probably be all sympathy, fussing over them and trying to make sure *they* had everything they needed.
Our position is that we must care for ourselves because we consider ourselves first responders. We never want to be someone else’s crisis if we can avoid it. We’ve figured out what we needed to do in order to fit healthy meals into our extremely busy schedules. If others are curious about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we’re happy to answer their questions.
This is how it happened when we met the man with the insulin pump. First he asked us how to find the restaurant. Then he asked what we would recommend. We saw this as an opportunity, and we put our strategy into play.
We take turns, depending on who is asking and how they present their issue. I immediately passed this one on to my husband because he had more credibility in this case than I did.
One big dude to another, two tall and large-framed men of about the same age, both of whom look like they have a background in sports, and most likely impact sports such as football. Check, check, check.
“I used to weigh 305”
Head swivel: YOU DID???
Most people, and by “most” I include health professionals, teachers, parents, and other working adults, most people have no idea how to “eat healthy.” They are absolutely bewildered by competing plans and mutually exclusive directives. They have no idea where to start sifting through reams of information, misinformation, and disinformation.
I believe all of this will have changed dramatically over the next twenty years. A combination of big data, wearable tech, advances in research and medical devices, and snack marketing will make it much simpler and more straightforward for people to eat customized healthy diets. I also think that eventually, gamers will be the fittest athletes, but that’s a futurist article for another time. For today, everyone is as confused as possible. It helps a lot to meet someone who has something in common with you, and to hear them say, This is what worked for us.
We’ve lost a hundred pounds between us, and we’re middle-aged.
They’re surprised because we don’t look like we did fifteen years ago. Nobody believes either of us was formerly obese.
We know a few dozen diabetics. We also know a bunch of people on insulin pumps and/or CPAPs or half a dozen prescriptions, and several with foot-long incisions down their torsos. Sadly, we’ve also lost quite a few friends our age who had some of these health issues, or others, people who should by rights have had decades left ahead of them. We’ll mind our own business when it comes to issues like saving for retirement or estate planning, but here, we’ll share as long as someone keeps asking questions. We like this guy and we want him to have a better outcome than our lost friends.
The basic rundown my husband gave the man with the insulin pump was, yes, eating plant-based helps “guys like us.” We didn’t go into details, but he could have pulled out his phone and shared his recent lab results, including blood pressure, resting heart rate, glucose levels, and the rest. He could have shared that at 52 years of age, he doesn’t need any prescription medication. The question on the table was sustained weight loss, and yes, ten or twelve years of a 95% plant-based diet has successfully done that for my hubby, a man who used to eat a lot of Double-Doubles.
In a roughly ten-minute conversation, this is what he told him, one man to another:
It started with Weight Watchers. I learned how to track points and avoid the foods with the highest points, like cheese. One ounce of cheese was 1/6 of my points for the entire day, and it wasn’t worth it. I memorized the list of zero-point foods, like, you can eat an entire cabbage or a head of broccoli for zero points!
This is what I told him, one fitness coach to one willing listener:
Eat four cups of vegetables a day, and eat soup, any soup that isn’t cream-based. Get one of those four-cup Pyrex measuring cups and fill it full of veggies every day. Make sure you eat something at least every four hours and pack your lunch bag ahead of time, breakfast, lunch, and snacks for the whole day.
We have a lot of practice at this conversation, my husband and I, because it comes up a lot. We’re unusually fit for people of our age. That will most likely be even more true in another ten years than it is today. We found a way to avoid the pitfalls of others around us, like going hungry all day and grabbing fast food every night because we’re too exhausted to do anything else. Even more than that, we’ve found a way to avoid winding up on prescription drugs or medical devices, something that is distressingly common.
“You can get off that thing,” we told the man with the insulin pump, “and it doesn’t even have to take very long.” He has every motivation to listen hard and then try it for himself.
Nobody seems to know how to cook anymore, and that makes meal planning even more complicated when people’s schedules and requirements don’t line up. What if you’re eating different things, at different times, for different reasons, and you have different needs?
The second reason for a trashed, messy kitchen is when there are multiple people sharing it who eat meals at different times. It means the kitchen is almost continually in use, and that means nobody thinks that wiping down counters or scouring the sink is “their job.” (The first reason is that the home is ruled by Not Me).
Bulk cooking is one way around this. People can take turns being the bulk cook, or trading off between shopping, cleanup, and meal prep.
The other way is something that I just figured out.
A lot of families are out of sync because there are multiple adults (or teenagers) working various shifts, going to classes, or fitting in sports and other events. There can also be an issue with people fixing meals and then carrying them off to other parts of the house, leaving dirty dishes, smears, napkins, food packaging, and crumbs all over the place.
Fortunately for us, we don’t have this problem!
We have two problems: one, when his business travel and evening gym classes either do or don’t line up with nights when I have meetings; two, when one of us is cutting calories and the other is trying to bulk up.
Why are our fitness routines always out of sync? Who knows? It just seems to happen that way.
He’s on a diet; I’m training for a marathon.
He’s training for his blue belt; I’m trying to drop fifteen pounds.
One of us is recovering from a sports injury and the other has a full plate in one hand and a smoothie in the other.
We have a deal set up where we take turns cooking throughout the week. My nights are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because those are his gym nights, especially on Friday when he does sparring and class back to back. Then he does Tuesday, Thursday, and whichever weekend night we don’t go to the movies.
The main complicating factor is that I often have a meeting on Wednesday nights, and also a teleconference on Mondays right in the middle of the cooking window.
The other is that I’m in a two-month window of cutting calories.
We have a set of six meal prep containers. Last year, we were bulk cooking and keeping these full. We would plan what we wanted in them, and we would each cook part of it. Maybe he would make five gallons of mashed potatoes and I would chop the vegetables, or he’d chop and I’d make a pan of cornbread. Even with both of us taking turns in our miniature kitchen, because we couldn’t both fit in there at the same time, we could turn it around in under an hour. That means one evening of cooking for four nights’ meals: that night plus the six servings that went into the freezer.
This only works if we’re eating the same things.
Or so I thought.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I could continue to hold my end up, cooking on the nights that are my turn, even if the meal that I’m cooking for someone who just did a two-hour workout is not the meal that I plan to eat.
It goes like this:
Cook two servings of ordinary dinner. Serve one steaming hot. Put the other into the meal prep container with its three neat divisions. Put the lid on it, label it, and put it in the freezer. Eat whatever is on the alternate plan.
The next night, he can make whatever he wants, with the option of freezing half.
Within six to twelve nights, all the meal prep containers are full, labeled, and stacked up in the freezer.
There are huge advantages to this method. On busy nights, you can grab a meal prep box and microwave it, or even bring it with you. If one of you is out of town, the other can enjoy a nice home-cooked meal without having to cook or clean up.
An under-appreciated aspect of rotating meal prep is that the containers are almost always either in the dishwasher or the freezer. That means you don’t need to set aside as much space in the kitchen cabinets to store them.
Another under-appreciated factor is that this method generates much less trash than buying packaged meals. The busier the household, the less likely anyone is to feel like they “have the time” to take out the garbage or sort recycling. Less trash, less squabbling.
Any system that makes sense will reduce chaos. Each system that a household puts into place eliminates a persistent problem, and usually a bunch of them. For instance, an evening routine makes an easier morning routine, and giving each person a get-ready chair makes it easier to find the most important objects. Having a meal prep routine simplifies the one thing that is most likely to happen when people are hangry and tired, which is trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. Last-minute hangry, tired meal planning has about a 99.9% chance of leading to unintended consequences, such as me trying to eat in a car and getting ketchup all over myself.
The single greatest question to ask when you are trying to Get Organized is, will this make life easier for Future Me or harder for Future Me? Often the thing that you do now to make life easier for yourself tomorrow only takes two minutes. Bulk cooking and meal prep take a little bit more planning than that, but they can support the utmost in complicated and busy lives. It’s possible to use this method even for a household of multiple adults who are constantly traveling, taking night classes, working overtime, and doing body transformation - even all at the same time.
Sugar might feel like a love language, but it isn’t one, but dang it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? My relationship with sweets is probably more nuanced and affectionate than my relationships with specific people in my life. It’s the bad-news rebound boyfriend and the great frenemy of my days. I know this, and I set decent boundaries for myself at home. Still working on those boundaries around others, particularly with my cake friend.
My husband and I used to have several food rituals when we first started dating. It felt like romance. One was that we would keep a package of Oreos in his freezer and eat them with the Very Vanilla soy milk. Another was to make root beer floats. That was separate from the giant waffles we might have eaten that morning. Part of how we lost 100 pounds between us was that we had to notice our patterns and agree, together, that we would replace them with something else.
It’s a lot easier when you both agree.
That’s not always as easy to do with more sporadic relationships. When it’s someone you don’t see as often, it doesn’t feel like a pattern - until it does.
Until you catch it in action.
Through a research and investigation process that included astrophysics-level mathematics, I figured out how to break my personal code on weight gain. I reached my goal weight and was able to maintain it almost effortlessly for over five years.
Then two things happened. One, I changed sports and took up martial arts. Two, I made a new friend - my cake friend.
Boxing made me ravenously hungry. My performance improved when I started eating more, and things were great for a while. I put on a bunch of muscle and had fun kicking people across the room. There’s this thing, though, called “dirty bulk.” You can add a certain amount of muscle by eating more, but it tends to bring a certain amount of adipose tissue with it, a.k.a. body fat. For women that tends to be in a ration of 1:1, so every pound of muscle walks in with its arm around a pound of fat.
It was all fine until we moved to a new apartment, downstairs from a family of chaos muppets, and suddenly I could only get half as much sleep as I needed.
I didn’t see it coming because I had been feeling so strong. Since I was doing something new to me, I felt like I had broken my pattern, and I didn’t realize it would happen again even though I’ve been through it half a dozen times in the past twenty years.
All the symptoms that, for me, are correlated with higher body mass came back. All of them! The migraines and the night terrors and the depleted immune system.
Suddenly I was getting sick a lot. That led to missing a bunch of classes. Then I couldn’t keep up. Just as I was in need of more and more recovery time, I was getting less and less sleep. Finally I had to drop out of my gym and try to take some time off to recover.
Did you know that? That working out in the 90%-capacity range too often without enough downtime will affect your immune system? It happens to endurance athletes but it didn't occur to me that it could happen from any sport.
Anyway, there I was, all dirty bulked and back in the same spiraling pattern that drove me to try body transformation in the first place. I knew - I knew through spreadsheets and years of tracking metrics and enlisting an engineer to crunch my data - I knew I needed to drop weight. I needed to be able to sleep, and I needed to corral my dirty-bulk eating habits. Otherwise I didn’t see how I could get back to any kind of fun or interesting workout again.
We moved, I started getting the sleep, I cleaned up my diet. I would drop two pounds and gain it back, drop two pounds and gain it back. Stalling and stalling.
Finally it clicked. I was nailing it in all areas, doing what I needed to take care of myself. Then I would literally lose all my progress because of this one particular loophole.
The cake friend!
I had to tell her. “I’ve gained weight.” “Me too!” “Nearly 20 pounds since we met.” “GASP”
“But we lose it so quickly!”
“*I* don’t! It takes me three times as long to lose a pound as it does to gain it. I can gain two pounds over a weekend and take the rest of the month to burn it off.”
Then we started talking about how much we love our favorite neighborhood restaurant, the one with the gorgeous glass display and eight flavors of vegan cakes. Every time we went out, brunch lunch afternoon tea or dinner, this is where we went, and we always got cake.
We agreed to stay out of there until we were both back on track, and we did. We tried a few new places. I went there with some other friends, all of whom were also doing the whole January thing, and lo and behold, no cake!
Then my cake friend and I went out again. The waitress brought out the dessert menu. I was *completely full* and cursing myself inwardly for not putting half my food in a box. I realized my friend was fluttering her eyelashes and looking completely stymied over the dessert menu.
“Oh! I see. You’re not going to eat dessert in front of me.”
“And I’m definitely not going to share it!”
We both laughed, and the waitress laughed, and then we both got desserts and we both ate them.
I was still full the next morning when I woke up, like Thanksgiving-dinner full. Granted, I ate a pound of Brussels sprouts, but still, it’s not the best feeling.
Why can’t I say no to you, my darling?
There are a bunch of answers to this conundrum. I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to be in this situation, rather than, say, an alcohol or heroin situation. I don’t have to shut down my friendship to save myself. I could invite her over to our place and cook at home. I could (rather easily) make a list of new places to try that don’t have a tempting dessert menu. I could ask to have half my entree boxed up and save it for lunch the next day. I could get a Sharpie marker and write NO! on my hand, since I can’t seem to get it out of my mouth.
Or I could do the more fun version, which is to start distance running again.
My cake friend and I have talked several times about run-walking together. I realize that I am the gatekeeper on this, and I’ll have to be the one to choose the time slot and get us going. We could both be running a 10k together by this fall, no problem, or maybe even this spring.
Then we can eat all the cake we want, which is probably the only situation in which you can really have your cake and eat it, too.
Thinking about going plant-based for the month? Perhaps you’re even a week in and still feeling all wobbly like a young deer? This will be my 23rd January as a vegan, so let me share from my experience.
It is your right as a consumer in a free market to eat or not eat whatever you want, and to buy or not buy whatever you want. Mine too.
It is SO easy now!
There are vegan options almost everywhere now, from the baseball stadium to Hooters to Costco to basically every fast food chain. It’s even easier when you travel to almost anywhere outside the US, including Iceland. You can also find absolutely millions of fully illustrated recipes and cooking videos online. There are even cookbooks devoted to all your favorite comfort foods, junk food, and desserts of every description.
This should be a relatively laid-back and fun experiment for you, not like the bad old days, she said darkly…
I quit eating meat in 1993, and then quit all animal products in 1997. At the time, this led to constant trolling and criticism, and by this I mean physically thrusting meat in my face and wagging it at me. Trying to trick me into eating stuff with meat in it. Outright lying about ingredients through the first round of questions. The peer pressure was endless and it went on like that for years.
Fortunately, my spirit animal is a little critter named Zero Fox.
What enabled me to carry on with my lifestyle was mainly my utter condescension for social pressure. I had been bullied all through school, and this made me despise groupthink. There were no insults I hadn’t already heard, and I’d even had groups of cruel schoolmates trick me into putting horrible things in my mouth. By this time in my life, I had the backbone to do whatever I wanted, no matter what anyone said.
Not everyone does. For those who are vulnerable to peer pressure and social comparison, this might actually be a really excellent area for personal growth!
I haven’t had anyone bother me about my lifestyle in several years now. Not sure exactly why. Somehow, our culture shifted, or at least it did in the beachy SoCal area I call home. Every now and then someone makes a faux pas, like announcing in front of fifty people that “Jessica will just have to pick out the cheese,” and someone other than me will collect them and deal with it. Generally everyone in both my professional and social circles knows I’m vegan, and the only time it comes up is when someone guides me around the snack table.
This is how much things have changed: My husband and I do martial arts, and most of the instructors at our academy are full-on lifestyle vegan. Their potlucks are LIT.
It’s so common now that you probably know a few plant-based people who don’t bother to mention it. It’s much more common in athletic and entrepreneurial circles than among ordinary suburbanites.
On the off chance that you are so unfortunate as to be surrounded by amateur insult comics, you may be starting to realize that you could use a little help in dealing with them. That’s where I come in.
I tell people that I’ll give them a nice flat green American dollar if they can tell me a vegan joke I haven’t already heard. So far many have tried and all have failed. The only real vegan joke is “Vegetarian is Native American for “lousy hunter,”” which is problematic and hasn’t been funny for thirty years. I can recite it along with them.
Actually there are two jokes that you can tell in any audience, one vegetarian and one vegan:
Q: “How many vegetarians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
A: “I don’t know, but where do you get your protein?”
And the other:
Q: “How many vegans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
A: “Two, one to hold it and one to read the ingredients.”
They follow up by stating that plants have feelings. Uh. The animals that you eat, eat more plants than I eat. If you honestly believed that then you would quit eating meat. It only ever comes up when people want to… whatever it is that they want to do. Save me from myself? “Own” me?
I’m a Mensan, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and a practicing standup comic. Bring it.
“It’s so sweet of you to be so concerned about my health! How thoughtful! I didn’t realize you felt that way!”
About that “where do you get your protein” question: it’s based on 1930’s-era concepts of nutrition. I tell people that even iceberg lettuce has protein, and then ask them where they get their magnesium. Almost all Americans are deficient in this vital nutrient and they have no idea what it does for the body or what foods contain it.
See, people do have genuine questions about food, legitimate questions, and they have no clue who they can trust to give them any guidance. Our doctors aren’t taught nutrition in medical school, and it’s not like our teachers or parents were either. We rely on advertisements and marketing campaigns. The idea that what we eat has anything at all to do with our physical wellbeing, emotional or mental health, or longevity is unsettling to say the least.
Attacking someone who is exploring new ways to eat is a lot easier than confronting the boogeyman. Is there a better explanation for why someone in the 95% majority would act so threatened and defensive?
Part of why I have an easier time dealing with haters, trolls, and naysayers is that I’m visibly doing really well. I’ll be 45 this year and I haven’t eaten meat since I was 17. I can pass for 30, I’m on no medications, and I have no issues with such common middle-aged problems as high blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes. I hate to say it, but three or four of the people who used to tease me about my health nut ways have… already died. People my age.
The things that people will say to a teenager or young person in her twenties are along the lines of “You’ll find out one day what you’re doing to your body.” People feel quite free to bother girls about our health and imply that if we eat anything other than the Standard American Diet, we will lose our minds. Once they realize that you’re middle-aged, it changes. My doctor told me, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” which most people my age don’t get to hear too often.
My husband is turning 52. He still eats meat once or twice a month, which is his business, and which I feel gives me added credibility as a non-insane, apolitical non-extremist. He isn’t on any medications either. Apparently that’s some kind of medical miracle. His total cholesterol is 130.
Assume that anyone asking you questions is walking through a set of standard responses, exactly the same as they do in other novel social situations. For instance, I have a parrot, and people always ask 1. If she can talk and 2. How old she is. What people have been taught to say when they meet a vegetarian is “How do you get your protein,” “soy milk is bad for you,” and “plants have feelings.” After that they’re out of ideas. You may be the very first non-standard eater this person has ever met, and you can turn it into a neutral, maybe even positive, experience.
Do this with a good sense of humor and one of the top-three dishes on the potluck table, and eventually whatever you want to eat will be a non-issue. I hope you like hummus.
I was picking up my library holds when the librarian noticed that I had some vegan cookbooks. “I have some vegans and vegetarians coming over for Thanksgiving,” she told me. I didn’t know what to make of her; she had a somewhat dour expression and spoke slowly. “It’s such a relief,” she continued, “I hate having to cook a turkey!” It was the first time I saw her smile.
While there are undoubtedly at least a few relieved cooks and hosts out there, many of us may be alarmed or annoyed that an alternative guest is coming. A refusenik! An ingrate! Like we don’t have enough to do. What a burden, how rude and selfish and unfair.
As if everyone else around the table wasn’t holding out an empty plate, expecting to be fed like so many gaping chicks in a nest.
We tolerate picky eaters as long as they only make horrid faces, call everything ICKY and YUCKY and GROSS, and rant at length about The Texture and every other detail of a perfectly fine meal. It’s fine if you’re merely picky; that’s a personality trait. But if you choose to do it on purpose!
Like from a food sensitivity!
Geez man, just choke it down and go to the hospital later. That’s what I’d do.
We’re alienated by each other’s demands around the table. We don’t see our own needs or preferences in that light, those of us who refuse to eat, let’s see, what have I heard from supposed omnivores?
Any kind of sauce
Anything with a speck in it, like whole-grain pasta
Anything that touches something from another part of the plate
Raw carrots, although cooked are fine
Onions, only raw or only cooked
Soup, any kind, or just chunky soup, or just a bisque
Individually: eggplant, mushrooms, squash, cabbage, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet potato, et cetera
I’ve cooked for groups including all kinds of sensitivities and weird preferences, and weird preferences masked as sensitivities. From my perspective, everyone has at least one food that they absolutely will not eat, under any circumstances. No sense blaming anyone for it. We have a historically unprecedented access to a vast array of foods from every region on the earth, from every culture, with spices that used to cost a king’s ransom.
Salt! Black pepper! Lemons! Oranges! Cinnamon! Saffron even!
The fact that we feel perfectly free to reject food, shove it around the plate, leave it to be scraped into the trash, is an extravagance of abundance. We aren’t fighting each other over the last withered turnip and that is magnificent.
BTW if you’ve never tried turnips, you totally should. They’re fantastic, much nicer than ordinary potatoes, especially baked in the oven.
Anyway. In this year of grace two thousand nineteen, there is no way that any holiday table is going to have a standard set of completely standard diets. Someone is going to have a special need, and those of us who like to cook and play the host are going to have to learn how to accommodate it. Consider it next-level hospitality, an opportunity to experiment.
How do we manage? How do we avoid putting our friends in to anaphylaxis or violating their spiritual principles?
The first thing is that there must be no trickery. We must agree not to lie to anyone about what is or is not in a dish. That is against the concept of free will.
I admit that I did this once, when I was making the pies and everyone else was running errands and the cat jumped on the table and started licking the pie crust. I chased him off, but I couldn’t remember which pie he had his face in, and there was no time to make another one and the store was already closed for the day. I figured the heat of the oven would destroy any cat germs in the pie, shrugged, and carried on like it hadn’t happened. Everyone ate the pie and nobody got ill. It was years before I confessed.
If you don’t think someone should trick you into eating cat-lick pie, then don’t trick other people about their food either.
Second thing: avoid cross-contamination. Each dish gets its own serving utensil. Each pot and pan has its own ladle or its own flipper or whatever.
Next, a lot of dishes can be made in such a way that a taboo ingredient can be left out for one serving, then added in for everyone else. Shredded cheese, butter, or breadcrumbs are a few examples. My mom used to save a raw carrot for me when she made candied carrots, and the same with the yams from the candied yams. (Not raw but not covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, either). It’s a simple yet unforgettable gesture of love, an act of service as well as a gift.
As a cook and a foodie, I love to experiment with new recipes. I tend to favor the exotic, with complicated spice blends and fruity sauces and tons of condiments. I married a man who likes foods to be simple. Why make wasabi mashed potatoes when you can just have regular mashed potatoes? It remains hard for me to fathom, but most people gravitate to the simple and unadorned, the exact foods that I find bland, boring, and sometimes completely inedible. I’ve learned to keep the sauces in a bowl, to leave most of my sides predictable and standard. This is also the way to make it easy for guests with special needs to know what they can and can’t put on their plate.
Interestingly, most standard dishes can easily be made both vegan and gluten-free. (Salads, potatoes, certain grains, all side vegetables, drinks, some desserts). I’ve done plenty of five-course meals that are corn-free, yeast-free, canola-free, or whatever the need is for that day. It’s only hard when we feel martyred, that it is not fair for this person to “refuse” to shut up and eat what everyone else is eating. When we see it as a chance to be magnanimous, to lavish generosity on someone, to show that ours is a welcoming home, well then, it turns out not to be such a big deal.
Ultimately, it can be the most hospitable just to allow our guests with special needs to bring their own food. We can set aside a clean dish and a clean serving utensil. We can lay it out and label it in such a way that it isn’t accidentally consumed by those who can eat everything. We can smooth the process and carry on with the party, making it a non-issue.
The social problem of incompatible diets is not going to go away. If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg. More people are going to get laboratory testing and find out that they shouldn’t be eating certain specific things. Next it might be our own turn. As hosts and cooks, we may as well start adapting now, knowing we are learning vital skills that our own families and closest friends may need. We can show ourselves to be generous and hospitable, our homes warm and welcoming, our tables the places to be. We can laugh it off and everyone can have a good time.
I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
I just met a man who hates mashed potatoes. What, seriously? How could anyone possibly hate mashed potatoes?
He says it’s because he eats really slowly, and mashed potatoes are gross cold. Fair enough. I suggested putting a mug warmer under the serving bowl. It turns out he also dislikes gravy. How about wasabi mashed potatoes, I asked, and he admitted that sounded good. Then we substituted Japanese curry sauce instead, and we were off and running.
Incidentally, the same guy loves stuffing, which I think is the most pointless food in the world. I hate stuffing both wet and dry. Why not a nice cornbread, or wild rice with mushrooms and cranberries?
The truth is that there is no one food that everyone likes to eat, no matter how cherished the holiday tradition. A lot of people take it very personally when someone doesn’t want to eat their favorite food(s), even though it has nothing to do with them.
Why care what anyone else does or does not eat?
Welcome to 2019, when not everyone eats the same things!
I’m not even talking about food sensitivities or alternative dietary lifestyles. I’m just sharing the open secret that even the most dyed-in-the-wool traditional omnivores don’t all like the same foods, and it’s high time to consider mixing things up.
My husband loves every type of pie, but he hates all things pumpkin. Sweet potato pie he will eat, pumpkin pie he won’t.
But they’re the identical color and they have the exact same texture and the exact same spices!
People like what they like. De gustibus non est disputandem. That’s usually translated as “there is no accounting for taste,” but really it’s closer to:
As for taste preference, it is not to be debated.
You can’t talk someone into wanting to eat black olives if they don’t like black olives.
What’s more, not everyone likes turkey and there is nothing you can do about it.
Why try to convince someone to eat something they don’t like, something they don’t want to eat? This has always been a huge mystery to me because whatever I don’t eat, there’s more for you, right? I’m never going to be the one to eat the last slice of bacon. I’m also not going to interfere with your sandwich leftovers.
This is what people have told me:
Not all meat eaters like either turkey, goose, ham, beef, chicken, elk, venison, salmon, or any other animal meat you can name
Most people hate that sweet potato dish with the marshmallows/whipped cream
Likewise the green bean casserole, although I personally think it’s fantastic
Macaroni and cheese - single most disgusting food that humans have ever concocted
You know what else I don’t like? Dinner rolls.
As a child, I got a lot of guilt for resisting my Thanksgiving dinner, particularly because it was expensive and it took a lot of work. Nobody asked me, though! On my plate, I enjoyed the peas, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the canned black olives. Of course I ate pie. We also had a fruit salad with whipped cream that was pretty good.
I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with:
Turkey meat, white but especially not dark, bleah
Stuffing, either wet or dry
Gravy, heck no!
Candied yams, not in this lifetime
I liked rolls back then, although my tastes have since changed.
As an adult, I made some executive decisions the first time I hosted Thanksgiving for my family. I always felt that Thanksgiving needed SOUP and nobody ever made any. There was never any salad, either, and I particularly felt the absence of my good friend cornbread. Furthermore, I was putting my foot down and offering kale, chard, and Brussels sprouts. I rounded out the menu with stuffed mushrooms. There were also a couple of different options for the main course, but most importantly:
There was. To be. Zero stuffing. At my table.
Nobody rioted! Nobody complained. Everyone raved about the soup and I had to give out the recipe. Brussels sprouts and cornbread made the must-have list for holiday dinners from that year onward. And the stuffed mushrooms are mandatory, my most requested offering.
I sort of had this idea that I would try out different recipes every year, but no, now it’s all stuffed mushrooms all the time...
My ex-husband’s family always put on a burrito buffet, which satisfied every dietary preference. I think it started the year everyone went into the kitchen to get pie, and the Basset hound got up on the table and snarfed the turkey.
The no-mashed-potatoes guy I mentioned earlier? His family are doing Indian food, and I hope they have a lot of leftovers because I’m totally climbing in their window on Friday.
Another friend has a Chinese buffet, which I admit also sounds far more appealing than the sad, brown, and lumpy traditional Thanksgiving.
It is a huge amount of work, isn’t it, my fellow home cooks? A huge amount of work for fussy non-cooks who need prodding to offer to clean up or contribute. Do we really want to keep doing it?
As a longtime plant-based person, I’ve often been asked to bring my own entree to Thanksgiving. I prefer this! I’m a great cook, and it takes a lot of anxiety off my mind to know that there will be at least one thing for me to eat. If you go this route, recognize that it’s very untraditional to expect guests to bring their own meal and that you haven't asked this of anyone else. Therefore, your only requirement as host is to protect this guest’s experience in your home.
Do not bully your nontraditional guest. Do not allow anyone else in your home to do so, either. Continue to talk about topics of broad conversational appeal to everyone. You’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want a veggie guest to try to “preach” or “convert” anyone, especially any little kids who might be there, right? So don’t bring it up. You probably don’t want to spend the entire meal discussing the symptoms of nut allergies or gluten intolerance. You probably don’t want to spend the whole meal learning all about ketosis, either. The best food-related comments are along the lines of “This is fantastic” and “Thank you so much for spending your holiday with us.”
Remember, even your few acquaintances who have no food sensitivities still have their preferences. Not everyone likes turkey, not everyone likes any specific thing. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, offer to let them bring their favorite dish, and make sure everyone helps wash up afterward.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies