Times have changed, am I right? At some point twenty years into the future, everyone will have a precision individually calibrated dial-up 3D-printed custom food puck to accommodate every possible food intolerance. Either that, or the food itself will be genetically modified to eliminate allergies, and those who are afraid of GMOs will be reduced to foraging for acorns in the forest. (Acorns, because no strategy will ever stop squirrels from interfering with the propagation process. Except - GMO squirrels?). Today, though, we have the era we have. That’s an era when food isn’t food, it’s a symbol. When nutrition isn’t a science, it’s an ideology. When a menu isn’t a menu, it’s a minefield. Food is the new secular faith, and if you’re doing any kind of holiday meal, you’ve surely become aware of this trend. It’s time to feed your weirdos.
Cards on the table. I’ve been vegan for over twenty years and vegetarian for twenty-five. Back in the early Nineties, there weren’t really any other major dietary trends that reached pop culture awareness. At that time, the only people who had really ever heard the word ‘vegan’ tended to be waiters or cooks. I’d get stuff like, “Oh, you should have told me you were veggie, I would have made you a tuna fish sandwich.” I found myself on the front lines of food trends, because people would ask me if I [ate wheat, read X book, had heard of Dr. So-and-So, knew their auntie]. These days, I can barely keep track of it all, and I’m only one of many.
One year, I had to redo my entire menu because someone in my circle wasn’t eating potatoes.
POTATOES, I am a person of Irish heritage, so I ask of you...
I’ve worked around people who will not or cannot eat:
Gluten, of course
Fruit and sugar together
Naturally, dairy, eggs, fish, other meats
It’s funny when the lightbulb goes on over the head of an otherwise-omnivore who has a serious food allergy to a food that I avoid as a matter of course. Suddenly they realize that if I’m eating it, it’s safe for them. If I brought it, they can trust that it’s dairy-free. (My husband is one of these, someone who is just tired of being brought to his knees by conventional food that makes him ill). I try to build trust with my friends that I get it. I get what it’s like to have to scour every ingredient list, to check the ingredients OF the ingredients. I get what it’s like to feel embattled and alone, pressured by people who truly don’t care what I eat, but simply enjoy teasing and poking and prodding at anyone who stands out for any reason.
There are separate and distinct groups out there. I don’t just mean the Paleo crowd, the gluten-free crowd, that sort of thing. I mean there is a group of people who have been driven to the fringes by mysterious health issues. Then there’s a group of people who are natural optimizers, who like to experiment and collect data. Then there are ideologues like myself and some of the Paleo peeps. We do what we do for different reasons, different internal motivations. What we have in common is that we are done with the societal expectation that everyone should eat the same thing at group meals.
This is rough on everyone else.
It’s rough for a lot of reasons. One, every deviation from a standard group menu takes extra time and concentration. It is an imposition on the host, on the cook, on the resources of the kitchen. I say that with love because I AM that imposition and I am also that cook and that hostess. Two, these diets have complicated guidelines, to the point that it can feel like a graduate-level seminar just to understand the ground rules. Three, every single one of our beloved and cherished alternative diets is more expensive than the standard. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m on the ramen and spotty bananas diet.” Not everyone can afford to cover it! It’s very awkward to bring up. Four, the more of us there are, the more complex it gets.
Another thing that I hesitate to bring up is that we’re on the overlap between food taboos and lifestyle, between purity and preference.
What I mean by that is that all it takes is one individual who is still in the learning or experimental stage, who occasionally takes a bite of something off-plan, to spoil the image of that group’s requirements for everyone.
I’ve (more than once, I tell you I have) put together a complete gluten-free menu, from main course to dessert, for a single guest who has clinical dietary requirements. Off to the side, a separate main course and a loaf of conventional wheat bread for everyone else, because hey, GF is expensive and sometimes not thrilling for the rest of us. Then we sit there and watch as the GF person, who has just eaten a full four-course meal, goes in and starts eating the totally not-okay clearly labeled bread off the other counter. But that makes you sick! Don’t do it! “Oh, sometimes I give in.”
Look, I tried. I’ll continue to try. Because it’s not a matter of personal perfection or religious compliance or scientific consistency. It’s a matter of choice and taste. Even if the person does have a serious health issue, it still falls under the category of “my friend likes it this way.” Why would I not do what I can for someone I like, a guest at my table?
My niece complained that I put onions in the Mexican casserole. Normally I would tell the parent of a whiny six-year-old to make the kid a sandwich and we’ll try again when they’re a year older. That time, I considered her question and made the executive decision to quit putting the onions in that dish. The rest of us can just add chunky salsa. Less work for me.
A pair of squirrels live in the tree outside our front door. They’re habituated, chubby city squirrels and they come up and ask for handouts. They have let us know in no uncertain terms that they appreciate almonds, walnuts, and unsweetened dried cranberries, but they do not care for pumpkin seeds. The nerve of these chubsters, I tell ya. Guess what. I give them the walnuts. I do it because it’s more fun as a host to smile over a satisfied guest who plans to come back.
As a guest, I’m out to make friends. True, I’m not going to have a very strong friendship with someone who mocks my choices, tries to trick or pressure me into eating stuff, or questions my lifestyle. I’m like this every day, you know. I’m not pretending just to annoy you tonight. When I go to a social occasion with people I don’t already know, my goal is to be as low-maintenance as possible. I usually bring an emergency sandwich in my bag, and it’s my job not to be famished or fainting with hunger when I arrive. I will change the subject if it comes up, because a party is not the place to talk about my weird lifestyle. It’s not about me, or if it is, my diet is the very least part of me that I’d want to share with new friends. I hate being remembered as “that person.”
On the other hand, I want my guests to feel, when they come to my home, that they’ve been taken care of. That I paid attention and anticipated their needs. That I take them seriously. That if they want their name spelled out in pine nuts, I tried to use the right font. If someone ever got sick from eating at my table, I’d throw myself off a bridge. With this one lifetime that I have, I aspire to magnanimity as a host, to an elevated level of welcome that might transform a few hours of life for my guests and friends.
Feed your weirdos. If nothing else, it’s a chance to learn something new, an experience that makes for a good story. If I’m right, it’s also the wave of the future.
Panic over routine events such as Thanksgiving is something that Future You can avoid, but only if Today You is willing to help. Do you think you can do that? It’s really pretty simple. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, make a note. Figure out a way to send some kind of reminder to Future You so you don’t find yourself in the same situation next year.
The last time I did this, it was summertime. There’s a weeklong event that my husband and I go to every year, and I notoriously always get myself wound up by overcommitting. I set a reminder on my phone for about a week before I will be packing for that trip. In the notes section, I wrote myself a little letter reminding Future Me of all the entirely predictable things I will inevitably try to do. Some of those things include: trying to do housework on the day we leave for the airport, trying to pack more books than I can read, and getting dehydrated. When I see the note, I’ll be surprised, because every time I do this I’ve forgotten all about it.
Sometimes I leave myself a voicemail, even though Today Me hates voicemail exactly as much as Past Me always has, and presumably Future Us does too. I’ll say, “Hi me, it’s me.” Blah blah blah. For some reason this never fails to crack me up, both while I record it and while I listen to it as a future iteration of myself.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is basically here. The next six weeks are going to be holiday madness. Nothing goes at the same speed, whether that’s traffic, shipping times, travel delays, or any line at any store or facility. Our stress levels go up at the same time that everything takes longer and gets more complicated. It’s the perfect recipe for a total emotional meltdown. That’s before adding in family visits, bad weather, a packed social calendar, and cold and flu season. The only things that can help are patience, better planning, or perhaps chocolate.
I am a bah humbug of the first water. I’ll just say that right now. The only things I enjoy about the winter holidays are eating a fabulous meal with my family, and knowing it’s time to start my New Year’s goal-setting extravaganza. Because I don’t like the color combination of green and red, because Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and because I object to the concept of a one-day holiday being stretched out over a minimum of two months, I tend to see the shady side of the season. My skepticism and many petty annoyances help me to plan like I would plan any other chore, say, a remodel or bathing my dog. Ugh, let’s just get through this the best way we can.
As a result, sometimes my cynicism is brightened by a genuine moment of kindness, friendship, or family togetherness. Aww.
For holiday junkies, though, all the anticipation of the sparkling lights and tinsel streudel or whatever the heck makes people live for December, well, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection. Being stuck in a slow line or getting a tired sales clerk seems not just ordinary but positively unholy. How dare you ruin my snow globe image! This is MY MONTH!
As the song says, The weather outside is frightful... let it go, let it go, let it go.
Anyway. Family are coming, people are going to start putting us on the spot by springing non-reciprocal gifts, materialistic pressures are going to start building, and things are going to get tense. Let that be the expectation. Let that reality sink in. Accept it, and plan around it, and maybe smooth out the rough parts.
Every time I have a less-than-ideal time, it tends to be a result of a poorly planned transition. It’s almost always me who is responsible, because my husband likes to be everywhere half an hour early (at least) and he has never bought into many of my weird guidelines and expectations. Whenever we go on a trip or have anyone come over, and I include the plumber who is here to fix the garbage disposal on this list, I feel this inner need to deep-clean our entire home from top to bottom. A maintenance person was here the other day to test our smoke detector, and I even cleaned out the fridge just in case. I have all these high hopes about entirely handmade dishes and vast, complicated menus. If I extended my food fantasies to interior design, floral arrangements, or gift wrap, I’d go around the bend. You know what isn’t festive? A hostess with bags under her eyes and a flour-coated shirt, trudging down the hall with a migraine, making the guests feel bad they ever came.
If you’re anything like me, or if you spend a lot of time looking at Pinterest, which I don’t because I pressure myself enough already as it is, you can have it one way or the other, but not both. Either lower your expectations and take some pressure off yourself, or extend your planning session further back in time next year. Add at least a day, preferably three, to what you consider “the season.” It might seem that adding time allows for raised standards as well, but it doesn’t, due to the planning fallacy. It’s simply human nature to be poor at guessing how long it takes to do things. Adding one more item multiplies the complexity.
I got rid of most of my holiday jitters by downsizing into a studio apartment. True, I have to travel a significant distance if I want to party with anybody. The advantage to that, though, is that the travel itself counts as a contribution, so anything I do to help cook or set up is a bonus. Because I’m in someone else’s home, I don’t feel responsible for the overall level of cleanliness, planning the menu, or staging the view of every room from every angle. It’s almost like... it’s almost like other people don’t really care that much about whether every single thing gets done?
The metric is joy. Almost all of joy consists of stepping out of the moment and forgetting all the background troubles and worries of daily life. The more of those concerns we can drop or discard, the closer we can get. Whenever we think about whether to take on a holiday project or chore or special dish, we can pause and ask, Is this going to give joy a chance, or is it going to make it less likely? There isn’t a complicated joy. Simple joy is the goal.
I’m vegan and my husband is not. More to the point, my parents are now also vegan and his are... not. As a passionate cook, I have planned menus around a million different food preferences, and it’s all the same to me. I want my friends to be happy and have a great meal. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel this way. They feel threatened or, at best, annoyed when anyone eats differently than they do. Let me share what I’ve learned over the past quarter-century.
First off, I often find that other people’s food preferences are dumb, gross, selfish, unscientific, or expensive. I’m sure other people feel much the same way about mine. Social occasions are about having a good time together and getting to know each other better, and maybe even practicing our skills of patience, compassion, and negotiation. It shouldn’t be about the food, unless we are all chanting YUMMMMMM in unison.
It’s none of my business how other people choose to eat, just as it is none of their business how I do.
Almost everyone has an EWW, YUCK food that they would not eat for a million dollars. That’s fine. I believe in free will. I also believe that people should tactfully avoid what they don’t want to eat without talking about it so much. Can we just avoid expressions of disgust altogether? The worst offenders here are parents who let their kids go on for pages, monologuing about the rancid, putrefying atrocity of an abomination that anyone would dare put in the same room as them. Please, at the bare minimum pay your children off to quit talking about what they think is gross. I. Do. Not. Care.
It always gets me, though, that it’s totally fine and socially acceptable, encouraged even, for people to talk about how much they hate Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes, or cauliflower, or if they ask for their dressing on the side. Yet if I don’t want cheese on my food, I’m evil and I have a militant political agenda. False. It is my right as a consumer to buy and eat what I want, and to not buy and not eat what I do not want. Forcing your guests to eat something is not being a host, it’s being a bully. Hospitality means putting your guests’ comfort first even when they piss you off.
I cook a lot of gluten-free food for my friends, even though I can and do eat wheat at every opportunity. Guess what? I can still eat GF and so can the other guests. (Soup, salad, vegetable and grain sides, maybe cornbread, many desserts). I often know a lot more about deciphering lists of ingredients and avoiding cross-contamination than my guests do, because I may well have been scouring labels since before they were born. Vegans and GF people are natural allies. About 2% of the population is likely gluten-sensitive. About ten times more than that seem to think they are, when really their issue is likely to be yeast or fructan, which they would only find out if they went in and got themselves clinically tested. That, again, is none of my business, but I can only help if I come across as an ally.
How do my husband and I handle our different diets? As it turns out, even though he occasionally eats meat, he is about 90% vegan. Unlike me, he has a serious allergy to dairy foods; he’s gotten violently ill from eating a chocolate chip cookie that had a little butter. It’s a relief to him to know that when he eats with my family, he won’t be sick later. When we eat with my family, my parents always ask around and try to round up some turkey for him, which he finds embarrassing and unnecessary, although believe me, every single house in that zip code would happily donate a plate of turkey for the hostage over there at the vegan house. When we eat with his family, we bring a “holiday roast” that I can sneak into the oven while he is making his justifiably famous mashed potatoes.
We both eat: mashed potatoes, rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, all vegetables, most beverages, pie (if it’s done right), and almost all snacks. The difference is that I like squash and he doesn’t.
There’s a really weird double standard around guesting and hosting as a vegan. As a guest, everyone expects me to EAT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS EATING, because otherwise it would insult my host and I would be rude. YET, as a host, I’m expected to SERVE MY GUESTS WHAT THEY LIKE TO EAT, because as a host I am required to put my guests first. So which is it? If the host should give the guests what they prefer, then I would have to 1. Have meat catered to my guests while I 2. Sit back and enjoy the sumptuous vegan feasts that my hosts put out when I come over. If the guests should eat what is put in front of them, then I would have to 1. Politely hide my portion of carcass under a napkin and 2. Serve my own guests tempeh and kale while laughing maniacally. There can’t be a rule where only I am expected to conform in every situation, because that is a double standard.
Notice that everything I eat is included on the Venn diagram of what everyone else eats. That’s why my meat-eating husband has been able to survive sharing meals with me for thirteen years. I’m an excellent cook. I know how to choose crowd-pleasing dishes and I always laugh quietly when my potluck contribution vanishes. I do have friends who have brought bags of fast food to my table, people who utterly refuse to touch a single bite of what I make, and that’s fine. I expect those same friends to be equally tolerant when I show up at their place with a microwaveable enchilada or pot pie in my bag.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to convert anyone. They’d just screw it up and then complain that there’s something wrong with the lifestyle, rather than their mediocre-to-poor application. About 80% of people who try being vegan eventually quit. Therefore, it’s backward to try to pull anyone over the line to my side. I say, “You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat.” I hate when the topic comes up, because I loathe debates and I refuse to argue. I’ll tell people, “If you can come up with a vegan joke I’ve never heard, I’ll pay you a dollar.” My approach seems to work, because I have indeed converted a few people over the years, including my parents and two ex-boyfriends (years after we split up). It generally takes at least three years of exposure to a radical new idea before people start to feel genuinely curious about it.
My food is expensive and often of a higher culinary order, because I love cooking and I’ve tested hundreds of recipes. I don’t really want to share, especially when my dish (you know, the dinner I had to bring for myself) vanishes and there’s nothing left on the table that meets my guidelines. You’ll see this at every office pizza party, when the veggie pizza goes first and all that’s left is the congealed fright-pie of pepperoni. Thanks for nothing.
Ultimately, the one thing we know does not work is for one person to try to force another person to change their food preferences. We start developing our tastes before we’re even born, as, for example, babies from cultures that eat very spicy food start to build a tolerance before they are weaned. There is nothing harder to change than an eating habit. It’s also a tribal identifier, and that’s why people can be so belligerent and awful about hazing anyone who won’t eat from the communal table. They feel like it makes us untrustworthy, selfish, spoiled, and rude. (Just as I often feel bullied, pressured, ridiculed, or even tricked or lied to). Let’s do what we can to focus on the conversation and group fun, not the mechanical aspects of getting everyone fed.
I’m going to write about body weight, because this year it’s relevant to my interests. If this is triggering for you, I apologize, and hopefully you already know to protect yourself by closing tabs and stopping yourself from reading further, because this isn’t directed at you. I’m writing about my body, which belongs to me, and my body image, which is A+ and also belongs to me. I can’t write about other people, their bodies, or their body image because those are all outside of my expertise. Probably what I write will not reflect the experience of most people who ever lived. I say that because I rarely read anything written by other people about their bodies that fits my feelings or my life. If you’re still reading, then maybe you’re curious what it would feel like to be someone else?
Someone who likes being a person in a body? Someone who experiences this thing called “my body” as cooperative, convenient, and useful?
Okay, so the main way I relate to having a body is that it is the vehicle I use to carry my consciousness from place to place. Another way I use my body is as a test lab for the performing of interesting experiments. There is a huge amount of divergent “health” “information” out there. The way I make sense out of it is by trying it out on myself and seeing how it goes.
The first thing I discovered is that sleep is my main health priority, without which nothing in my life works. Being sleep-deprived makes me moody, lowers my energy, and apparently interferes with my immune system. I sleep as much as I can and I feel totally entitled to it.
The second thing I discovered is that my own personal body weight is strongly correlated with what used to seem like random, unconnected issues. The heavier I am, the more migraines I get. The heavier I am, the more often I get colds and flu, and the longer it takes to recover. There is a certain specific body weight, above which I get headaches and night terrors, and below which I do not. Above that weight, I’m prone to dizzy spells, and below that weight, I’m not. I have lurking suspicions that all of these things are somehow connected to thyroid function, to the endocrine system, or to hormones in general.
These are the reasons why I monitor my body weight. Apparently other people do it because they care what other people think of their appearance? Or they tie it to some kind of performance metric so that they have a stronger sense of autonomy and control? Perfectionism? Self-loathing? I dunno. I don’t even clean my house for those reasons, although I do run a tight ship. I pay attention to how much I weigh because when I don’t, my life sucks and I feel like crud all the time. When I do, it’s straightforward and fades into the background. It’s just the simplest way I’ve found to keep tabs on the most obvious, easily tracked trend line on my physical dashboard.
(I can step on the scale every morning, and I don’t have to use a measuring tape on various parts of my body, draw my own blood, or take other kinds of samples which I lack the laboratory equipment or knowledge to analyze).
I like numbers. They feel like a neutral feature of the world, like... sand. Or pebbles. They’re just there and they only have the meaning that we ascribe to them.
All right, so here’s what happened. I’ve been training hard at martial arts all year, and along the way, I gained a bunch of weight really quickly. Some of it was muscle, and most of it was adipose tissue, also known as excess body fat.
This became a problem because, for the first time in 3-4 years, I started having headaches and scary sleep episodes again. I kept thinking, Oh, that’s just a fluke, until one morning when my husband remembered me doing stuff in my sleep and I did not remember. I HATE THAT. There’s basically nothing more humiliating and dreadful to me than when I... sleepwalk, flail and hit my husband, scream, have conversations... DO THINGS in my sleep and my conscious mind has exited the building. I’d genuinely rather have incontinence than this. It makes me feel like I’m developing dementia. That was the trigger. I absolutely cannot allow myself to continue up that road. My sleep gets shattered, and when that happens I can’t focus during the day, it destroys my productivity, I feel weepy all the time, and I just start getting sick a lot. None of these things are what a fork is for.
Time to slow my roll.
I knew exactly how I’d gained the weight, because I’ve done it so many times and also because it was somewhat intentional. I had this idea that if I added more muscle, everything would be fine. Apparently not. I think what goes on in my body is that whatever blood sugar conversion process is happening when I up my calorie intake and add body weight, whatever it’s composed of, that’s the thing that triggers all my other health issues. I was doing it too quickly.
My goal was to gain 15 pounds of muscle in a year. I put on 4 pounds the first month, maintained for three months, and then put on an additional 5 pounds the fourth month. May 1 I weighed ten pounds more than I did on January 1. By my birthday I’d gained a full-on fifteen pounds. Okay, that would be AMAZING if it all came from muscle! Muscle on a female frame of my size happens at a rate of about a quarter-pound per week. Let’s say I had 8 pounds of muscle which I dearly loved, and 7 pounds of (additional) extra body fat which I did not want or need.
What to do?
Handle it in a competent, businesslike manner, the same way I would pay off a debt or clean out a closet, of course. The same way I tackle most problems.
It was surprisingly simple, again because I know what I’m doing. I had gained the extra weight by adding about a thousand calories a day to my diet, often in the form of French fries and cake. This was on the advice of my husband, who noticed how exhausted I was when I would come home from class, and suggested that I eat more. Once I built my endurance, stamina, and strength from training hard for 8 months, I was ready to switch gears.
This is what I did. I set a deadline: my wedding anniversary trip. I set a goal: two pounds per week. I made guidelines, which I followed: keep a food log every day; avoid desserts, fries, appetizers, and sweet drinks for the duration; add cardio. I was very, very pleased to find that I could handle an hour-long martial arts class and an hour on the elliptical on the same day!
My arms and legs have been getting really strong, and I’ve been seeing muscle definition I never had in my life before. I also had this tubby belly. As far as I can tell, almost all of the 8 pounds I lost over four weeks was sitting right there, right in the stroke-risk, heart-disease sector of my midriff.
During the process of cutting weight, I felt more energetic. I’d really missed my cardio workouts, and it seems like it has helped my overall mood and energy level. I also use that time to read the news and catch up on my email, which is helping me to feel more organized and productive. The result was that not only did I make my goal, I came out on the other side feeling like I had my life more together.
My hubby bought me a new bikini for our anniversary, which, let’s just say they come in every size for a reason. If you want to wear one, wear one. For us, it symbolizes a commitment to spend more time relaxing in the hot tub.
For my next trick, I’m going to work on learning more core exercises. This is the one obvious area of my body where extra muscle and attention would be interesting and useful. I’ve never known what it was like to have a strong core, and I’m determined to find out.
I am a creature of appetite. I always want to max out on experiences, engage in multiple conversations, stay up too late, use three electronic devices at once, read absolutely everything, fill every moment, and, of course, eat all the things. Learning to be an endurance athlete, adventurer, and martial artist has taught me a lot about physical appetite, which I will share with you as soon as I finish licking my fingers.
The main thing to understand is that food is not optional. I mean, duh, it’s not optional for living organisms. For endurance sports, if you don’t eat enough, you bonk. (To be distinguished from ‘boink’ which is not something you generally want to do when your blood sugar crashes). Bonking is what happens when the glycogen stores from your muscles are depleted. It feels really, really bad. Most people are probably acquainted with the feeling of being hangry, which is basically being hungry enough to be irritable and start verbally abusing people. Bonking leads toward total physical collapse. You’re out of gas and you’re stranded at the side of the road until you fill your tank.
The thing about endurance sports is that it gradually conditions your body, training your muscles to store more glycogen. This is handy when you want to walk, bike, run, or hike somewhere while carrying heavy gear. It’s not so convenient when you quit feeling hunger signals in the way that you once did. You have to learn how to eat when you’re not hungry, just like you have to learn to hydrate when you’re not thirsty. If you ever actually feel thirsty, like your mouth is dry, then you’re well into a state of dehydration. It’s the same with food. On a fifteen-mile hike or a twenty-six-mile run, you’re not just traveling on your breakfast, you’re traveling on your dinner from the night before.
This is where ox hunger and wolf hunger come in.
These terms come from Ancient Greece. We talked about it one day while I was studying Classics. Those of us who did not grow up in an agricultural area often have to have these things explained. Ox hunger was considered more desperate than wolf hunger, because a wolf snarfs its food down quickly, while an ox ruminates, grazing and chewing all day long. From a human perspective, the ox can never get enough to eat. It never feels full, even as it reaches a massive size.
This is actually turning into a weird metaphor for me, because I identify with the herbivorous diet of the ox, while still wanting to point to a shift in how I structure my meals.
When I was obese, I felt hungry all the time. I always cleared every last morsel off my plate. I regularly drank 40 ounces of cola or more every day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat an entire can of Pringles while writing a paper. I’m 5’4” and I’ve been known to eat half an extra-large pizza in one sitting. My activity level was basically nil, because I had a lot of issues, from chronic pain to migraines to a full catalog of sleep disorders. I felt like a mess.
Now I’m 15-20 years older. I probably eat about the same amount of total calories, although it would be hard to say because I wouldn’t have kept a food log back then for a thousand dollars. Right now I’m at twenty push-ups and a five-mile running route. Since my top weight, I’ve lost about fifty pounds of fat and I’ve put on about fifteen pounds of muscle. I’m hoping for another fifteen. The difference between being a middle-aged fit person and a young fat person is 90% food and 10% activity, mainly because you can never find the energy to do anything physical until you learn something about appetite.
Everything is upside down and backward, and that’s due to timing.
The typical food pattern of an adult with a full-time job goes like this. Oversleep, rush to work with little to no breakfast, slam some coffee and something sugary. Eat a cruddy lunch over your keyboard or your seatbelt, maybe even something terrible like a bag of microwave popcorn with a diet soda, or a candy bar. Perhaps graze on office snacks like cookies or candy. Run a bunch of errands and wait to figure out dinner until you’re practically faint with hunger. Eat the dinner. Then eat something sweet like a bowl of cereal or ice cream right before bedtime. Add sweetened, caffeinated beverages or energy drinks throughout the day just to make it harder to get any decent rest.
This food pattern is the perfect plan IF you want the maximum emotional volatility, lowest energy levels, most sleep issues, and an eventual case of pre-diabetes.
As an athlete, my biggest annoyance is crashing, which is what I call the stage right before bonking. I get really moody, slow, and dumb. On a hike, for instance, I’ll take my pack off to get my lunch and then forget what I was doing. I’ll start unzipping different compartments of my pack, staring at my blow-up lantern or something, feeling all weepy and pathetic, until I finally remember: FOOD! If I don’t eat enough for breakfast before my kickboxing class, suddenly I can barely do my jump squats, much less kick anything properly. It feels like it shaves off half of my strength, speed, stamina, prowess, mental focus, emotional equanimity... and IQ.
This is how I eat if I want to have a fun day.
Drink a glass of water as soon as I wake up. Eat a big bowl of porridge with oats, quinoa, extra dried fruit, nuts, and coconut marmalade. Also eat a protein bar. Walk two miles to martial arts class and crunch out something like fifty push-ups, fifty sit-ups, fifty jump squats, three minutes of jumping rope, fifteen minutes of circuit training, and round out the hour with a couple of hundred kicks and punches plus some wrestling. Drink more water. Leave class and eat a snack. Walk two miles home. Immediately eat a huge lunch and drink more water. Work. Eat afternoon snack. Work. Eat dinner by 7 PM at the latest so I can go to bed around 10. Stop eating for the day. Drink last water at 8 PM.
Timing is everything. Learning to plan WHEN I eat has helped me to get ahead of the hunger curve, so I’m fueling the next few hours rather than catching up on the last few. It helps that the 500 calories of soda I used to drink every day is now represented by real, solid breakfast food instead.
What I’ve found is that the bigger my breakfast, the stronger and faster I am during my workout. Part of the appetite for this big breakfast comes from closing the kitchen after dinner, which I do because it’s how I manage my parasomnia disorder. I’ve eaten 80% of my calories for the day before dinnertime anyway. I can get a full, restful night of sleep and start over ready to kick butt the next day. I’m no longer the ox, large and slow and stationary, chewing and chewing all day long. Whether I’ll ever be a lean, fast, and scary wolf-girl remains to be seen.
There should totally be “lady size” burritos. It always amazes me that every person gets the same size portion in a restaurant, even people like my husband and myself. He’s ten inches taller than me and weighs twice as much as I do. In what universe would we eat the exact same size of meal?
Same thing with little kids. People are always hovering over them and telling them to finish what’s on their plate, even when they effectively have an adult-size pile of food. Maybe part of why kids will always prioritize snacks and treats is that they come in child sizes?
I’m 5’4” and I have a small build. I usually find that if I try to eat an entire restaurant meal, I’m in physical pain afterward, like a manatee that’s about to go into labor. I will feel ill and too lethargic to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Future Me is already opening the fridge and sadly looking for leftovers that aren’t there. There are several ways that I deal with the absurdity of 21st-century foodways, and one of them is to package up half the meal for the next day’s lunch. Another is simply to make small changes to my order. This is a lot easier than it sounds.
My hubby and I don’t eat out that often, partly because it makes it too hard to keep our weight under control, partly because we’re trying to become financially independent, and partly because... we don’t have a car. The only place within walking distance of us that we like is a local build-your-own burrito bar. (Not the national chain that’s renowned for putting people in the hospital with food poisoning! I wouldn’t touch their doorknob). The fact that we really only have one option we like is another help, because really, how often are you going to pay to eat the same meal at the same place?
The foil-wrapped imitation submarine in the photo is my hubby’s choice, a classic bean burrito. He asks for no rice in his. Just: “No rice, thanks.” The tortilla is plenty.
Mine is a “bowl.” I do like rice, but when they start mine, I just lean over and say “Just half the rice, please.” They give me one ladle instead of two, and it’s just right. Slightly less effort, slightly cheaper for the restaurant. Nobody cares. This way I get the amount of food that I want and I don’t have to throw any of it away.
I’ve tried saving half my Mexican food for lunch the next day, but it’s never really very good. The lettuce gets all wilted. Almost all of my meal is vegetables, because that’s how I roll, and also because I can eat a big meal in one sitting without feeling like I’m going to explode.
What’s in there? Lettuce, red cabbage, grilled onions and peppers, corn, jicama, mango, tofu, guacamole, mild salsa, cilantro, and of course the black beans and brown rice. SO GOOD.
I know what my hubby has under that foil because I keep his regular order on a note in my phone. Flour tortilla, pinto beans, grilled onion, salsa, lettuce, pico de gallo, and cilantro.
What’s most important here is what’s missing, or, where about two-thirds of our calories would have come from ten years ago.
When we were both obese, that amount of food seemed normal. It WAS normal, because everyone at every table around us was eating the same amount.
It also felt normal to feel bloated and sluggish after the meal, too full to do anything but lie around and watch TV.
Most people go out to eat because it’s fun. It’s fun! We like sitting around a table, laughing and talking and enjoying a delicious meal. It’s fun to choose from a menu, it’s fun to get appetizers and desserts and specialty drinks. It’s most fun of all to get up and leave the cleanup to someone else! What isn’t always as fun is making the connections, like we did, to our credit card debt and to our energy level and to our size. There’s also a connection between me wearing a white shirt and us choosing a restaurant with tomato sauce, but that’s for a different day. What we’ve found is that we can keep the fun parts of dining out - the laugher and conversation and the atmosphere - while dropping the bogus parts, like the debt and the tight pants. Just a few tweaks in what and how we order and we’re there.
We still order French fries occasionally. It’s rare, though, and by quantity we eat significantly more broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, and kale. We also skip the fries when we know they’re mediocre, just like onion rings are either awesome or horrible.
We never, ever, never ever never ever never ever order soda. Not anymore.
If we get dessert we usually split something.
Sometimes we split an entree and add a salad or side. When we do this, we tip the same as we would if we had ordered two entrees. This keeps the staff glad to see us when we go back.
Personally, I almost never order a soup, because restaurant soup is usually way too salty.
Neither of us eats any dairy whatsoever. No sour cream, no cheese, no whipped cream, nada. I haven’t touched it in over 20 years, and my husband quit when he started Weight Watchers and realized that even one ounce of cheese used up a huge amount of points. (He then memorized the list of “zero point” foods and gamed the system, or, lost weight and kept it off).
We try to stick to only one starch, either bread OR rice OR pasta OR potatoes OR a tortilla. It feels like combining two or more at the same meal leads straight to a major nap attack.
We almost never eat waffles, pancakes, muffins, or scones. I don’t like croissants or bagels and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen my hubby eat either of those.
We go out to brunch maybe once a year. If we do, it definitely serves as two meals and we’re only eating dinner afterward.
On vacation, we’ve also started having just two meals. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, and then eat an early dinner. Alternately, drink tea for breakfast followed by a proper lunch and a late dinner.
All of this might sound like a list of personal preferences. What could be more boring than that? The reason it’s relevant is that we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us. We started paying attention to what we eat and taking notes on how we felt afterward. Not just that night, but the next morning, and the next month. This is how we’re still able to feel like we’re indulging ourselves, without feeling punished afterward.
The Self-Love Experiment is a story about Shannon Kaiser’s exploration of self-compassion. This is a very raw, immediate, real look at what it’s like to do deep inner work. It will speak to anyone who has body image issues or who struggles with self-loathing. Hence, nearly everybody.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Unfortunately, the first level of defense that comes from toxic shame is to convince the ashamed that they are undeserving of compassion, or anything good in this world. It always boggles my mind when I work with clients who are so convinced that they are terrible people, even though everyone else around them sees them as kind, sensitive, caring friends. Trying to love yourself when you feel unlovable must feel like ripping off your own skin, like a nakedness beyond nakedness.
Shannon Kaiser talks openly about her issues with depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, and body dysmorphia. If she could learn to love herself while fighting all of these demons, then surely there’s something here for everyone.
Something I found really intriguing in The Self-Love Experiment was the differentiation between the “rebellion self,” the “reward self,” the “protection self,” and the “lonely self.” These are aspects of the personality with different drives, and they explain a lot about coping behaviors.
This is a very approachable, yet multi-layered and complex book. There’s enough here that some chapters could keep someone busy for a year. If you’re a Feeler, if you’re dissatisfied with your life, or if you are ever mean to yourself, it would be a self-compassionate act to read this book. Try the Self-Love Experiment for yourself.
It never occurred to me that trying to change my outside world was a desperate attempt to feel better on the inside.
To stop loathing myself is to reduce the negativity and pain in the world.
Despite what you might believe about yourself, you are not broken, you are not your problems, there’s nothing to fix, you’re not off track, there isn’t something wrong with you, your insecurities are not hindering you, and your flaws don’t make you weak, unlovable, or unsuccessful.
How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
Perfectionism is stupid. It’s stupid! Perfectionism keeps you from getting anything done, it annoys other people, it usually leads to zero results, it keeps you from being able to relax, and, did I mention, it annoys other people? I say all this as a recovering perfectionist. (I just totally typed that as ‘perfectionism’ and then I wrote ‘taht’ and it’s all getting marked down in my book of karma to work off in the afterlife). One of the many ways I try to trick myself out of this pernicious character flaw of perfectionism is to focus on output and results: quantity, not quality. Completion, publication, finishing, being on time. Another way is to adhere to my 80/80 rule. Eighty percent right, eighty percent of the time.
Why 80/80? Personally, I think it’s easier to manage than 100/50. 100/100 is foolishly impossible. The only thing I should do to 100%, 100% of the time, is to maintain my integrity. My punctuation and spelling are not a part of that.
80% clean, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for housekeeping. I do one room every weekday, and if that room gets messed up at some point during the next six days, I’m ignoring it. I clean the bathroom on Thursdays. If there are a few specks on the mirror or a few hairs in the bathtub, they can wait until next Thursday. A few specks and a few hairs may take my bathroom down from 100% clean (Thursday afternoon) to 98% clean (Wednesday). It’s not worth my time or attention. Even if we leave town or I get sick, and the bathroom gets skipped for a week, it’s still only going to be down to 80% clean by then. Come to think of it, cleaning the bathroom once a week may mean that it’s usually cleaner than 80% clean, more often than 80% of the time. Since it only takes me 15 minutes to clean my bathroom, I don’t really care to put more thought into it.
That’s the goal of having rules, guidelines, and policies. It means we don’t have to MAKE DECISIONS. Decisions drain mental energy. Decisions draw drama. Decisions make something emotional when it could be purely rational. Always save decision-making bandwidth for the truly major stuff, like whether to relocate, rather than the minor stuff, like whether to have cake for breakfast. Because guess what? If you’re deciding, then you’re going to eat the cake for breakfast. And by “you” I mean “I.” I am going to eat the cake for breakfast.
80% nutritious, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for food. Basically it means that my regular weekday meals need to be nutritious and not include junk or treats, unless we’re on vacation. On the weekends, I’m still eating nutritious main meals, but there’s also a little room for something like popcorn, hot chocolate, or breakfast out. The reason I don’t splurge more often than that is that I know full well what my physical tolerances are. I’d eat way more junk if I could get away with it. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences when I give myself a headache or night terrors from eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong times. Well, me, and anyone within whining range of me, like when I’m curled into a ball after eating too many curly fries at the fair.
The reason I respect my physical limits and plan what I eat is that it makes my life easier. I know I have zero willpower. I know I’m always going to eat one too many cookies. I know I’m going eat the whole portion when I could have saved half, even when I hit two-thirds and tell myself I know I’m full. I know I’m going to let my weight creep up until all my waistbands get tight and I stop being able to button my pants. I know all of this about myself. That’s why I have to set policies to stop myself. It’s like I’m really two people, Past Self, who knows the bitter truth, and Present Self, who has swirly eyes over some pastry case. Present Me always wants to disregard past data. Future Self, however, has some opinions about that.
80% good enough is usually good enough. Most routine things really are not urgent or important. They only start to get that way when conditions slip. For instance, most of the time, it probably doesn’t matter what your home looks like. It becomes urgent when you’re looking for your keys or your glasses and it’s time to leave. It becomes urgent when you get a surprise inspection notice from the landlord, or a maintenance person is coming over. It becomes important when it strains relationships with other people who live with you. It becomes important when it makes your life more difficult in any way. Being late all the time, bungling your commitments, feeling miserable, all are great reasons to start to picture what eighty percent looks like.
We’re only really happy when we’re living up to our own values. Our values are standards we set for ourselves, and if there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior, then we have only ourselves to blame. The way we treat our bodies and our personal living environments are reflective of what we value. Whatever other values we might choose, at the very least, we’re saying, “This matters to me” or “This right here does not matter to me.” If our bodies don’t matter and our personal living spaces don’t matter, then what does?
Comedy abounds in my work with the chronically disorganized, the compulsive accumulators, the hoarders. Each group is somewhat mystified by the problems of the others. The chronically disorganized guy who is always behind schedule can’t understand why other people can’t keep their dining tables cleared off. The compulsive accumulator who carries new stuff through his door every day can’t imagine ever allowing himself to be late to work. There’s a huge amount of opinion and emotion, justification and rationalization. Nowhere is this so true as in the case of food hoarding.
Food hoarders cannot bear to throw away food for any reason. They also can’t bear the thought of running out of anything. The result of these two overwhelming emotional drives is that they are constantly surrounded by vast amounts of food, a certain portion of which is spoiled. The majority of what they eat is pushing the limits of edibility, even though they are constantly bringing in streams of fresh new food. This makes perfect sense to food hoarders, who may be following in the footsteps of entire generations of their family.
To everyone else, it’s gross, sad, and often scary.
The saddest thing of all is that one of the main motivations of food hoarders is...
Accumulators of other types of stuff are also often motivated by hospitality. They buy “gifts” that never manage to get sent to the intended recipients, even when they haven’t seen those people for many years. (Indeed, the lack of connection is the reason for the supposed gift purchase). They stash large amounts of serving platters, bedding, board games, toiletries, and anything else they think a guest might need. Meanwhile, the house becomes so full of stuff that guests are uncomfortable visiting. At some point, people stop coming over, and that tends to be when the heavy-duty hoarding begins in earnest.
Hoarding <——> Isolation
Stuff stands in for feelings. Stuff represents aspirations and intentions. We often reach for physical objects without realizing that they are nothing more than symbols for something deeper.
I buy a workout DVD to represent my intention to take better care of my body. There, I fixed it!
I buy a crock pot to represent my intention to save money. There, I fixed it!
I buy a bunch of tubs, bins, and dividers to represent my intention to get organized. There, I fixed it!
I buy double or triple the groceries I need so that I’ll always be prepared to feed my guests with lavish extravagance. A year goes by. Same food. Hey, money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. I’m glad you’re here but you’d better finish what’s on your plate.
Preserving food is a survival trait. It’s instinctual. We’re descendants of a precarious people, nomads and hunter/gatherers who lived on the brink. Throughout human history, entire villages have been wiped out by famine, a trend that has never yet ceased. We have an innate physical drive to acquire extra calories, particularly sugar and fat, and eat them as fast as we can get them into our mouths. For primitive people such as the Neanderthals, that was the only way to survive droughts or brutal winters.
For modern people, it’s a sure-fire path toward obesity, lifestyle-related diseases of excess, and, in the current consumerist moment, kitchens packed to the rafters with rapidly expiring packaged food.
Oh, and possibly debt.
I left town for Thanksgiving. I wanted to be with my family, and my husband had to work. I dealt with my conflicted emotions by going to the store twice in one day and spending six hours cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal for him to eat while I was gone. I labeled each container with masking tape and a Sharpie marker. It lasted him five days. The detail that should stand out here is that I didn’t draw from our pantry or freezer, other than to use cooking oil and seasonings. I just made up a menu, walked to the store with a shopping list, and walked out with a bag of groceries. When I realized that I was short a few items, I walked back over there and bought the rest. I used up everything while I cooked the meal. My husband ate it all. I could do it again tonight; that’s why they call it a “store.” Because it STORES things!
(What did I buy? Three pounds of sweet potatoes, a fine fat cauliflower, a bag of mushrooms, an onion, a package of cornmeal, a quart of soy milk, a package of bouillon cubes, a bag of green beans, a container of crispy onions, a loaf of bread, and a box of oatmeal).
I myself lean toward food hoarding. Somewhere deep inside me is the firm intention to have one of every item from every grocery store I visit. Why shouldn’t I have one of every single flavor of jam and salad dressing and five kinds of mustard? What, just because it will expire, potentially exposing me and my friends and family to mold, listeria, staph poisoning, botulism, and who knows what else?
My squalor people do not, as a rule, believe in germ theory. They just don’t. They have a deep sense of certainty and okayness that no level of filth or decay can ever cause any kind of problem or health issue. They’ll cheerfully live with vermin, insect infestations, black mold, and of course spoiled, rotten food. This is partly because due to olfactory fatigue, they no longer have much of a sense of smell. They don’t even notice strong odors like spoiled milk or animal waste. If you come over and you have a problem with smells or spores, well, you’re just uptight. Loosen up! Relax! Just scrape off the turquoise part.
I say it’s immoral to trick guests into eating expired food. Withholding information from someone is violating their free will. We can only make real choices when we have full knowledge of a situation. The golden rule says to treat others the way you would wish to be treated, which creates a loophole for people who would shrug off extreme, fringe behaviors like eating moldy food. We aim to treat others the way THEY would wish to be treated, with kindness and dignity. True hospitality comes from abundance and generosity; offering spoiled food is a pretty good definition of miserly stinginess and materialism.
Two easy ways to get around this are to 1. Host a potluck or 2. Meet at a restaurant.
Radical change is a way out. For those of us who are naturally very frugal, an interesting challenge would be to see how long you can live off your existing pantry stores without spending a penny on additional groceries. Then, test your skills by buying the smallest amounts of food and rigorously consuming it before it comes anywhere near expiration. The technical term is “food discipline.” The money you save by not maintaining an overflowing pantry can be used as an emergency slush fund.
I’m working on what I call Fridge Zero right now. I plan to do a full kitchen purge every New Year, emptying my fridge and freezer of anything dubious. Because this makes me feel anxious and wasteful, I plan meals around eating everything up after Thanksgiving. By the end of December, our fridge is gleaming and virtually empty, ready to receive lovely fresh new produce. If we get surprise visitors, I’ll either go straight to the store, or we’ll all go out for burritos. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more.
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.
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