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.
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
Over the lips and through the gums, look out, Stomach, here it comes! It’s the biggest eating marathon of the year. If you’re like me and you completely lack willpower (because it’s a total fairy tale), you’re likely to wind up sprawled on the floor, moaning, “I swear I’ll never eat this much ever again!” Let’s get real about it and plan the debauchery.
There are two pieces of information that really helped me on the path to losing 35 pounds. (That was 23% of my body weight).
These two things were far more helpful to me than anything else I learned about nutrition, keeping a food log, exercise, or weight loss. They’re also why I’m comfortable following the One Plate Rule.
The Hunger Scale is a subjective measurement of how hungry or full you are, on a scale of 1 to 10. A five is ‘just right.’ A one would be fainting from lack of food, while a ten would be like the infamous Mr. Creosote scene in the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. Ideally, we would spend almost all our time between a 4 and a 6.
Me? I would routinely eat to a 7, an 8 at restaurants, a 9 on holidays, and definitely a 10 on Thanksgiving.
Since it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to receive a signal from the stomach, it’s easy to snarf down a huge amount of food before you even realize you’re full. Or too full. Or WAY too full.
Or, in my case, still too full to eat at noon the following day!
I’ve learned that a 7 on the Hunger Scale is physically uncomfortable. That’s already the level where I want to loosen my waistband. That’s the level where I might actually get a headache from overeating.
It’s also the level that Past Me would have taken as a signal to get seconds, and then a slice of pie.
This is where the knowledge about the volume capacity of the stomach comes in.
Thirty-two ounces is like a large drink cup. It’s possible to put more food than that on a single plate, sure. You can game it. The idea here is to do a favor to yourself, to make your own life easier, to enjoy yourself to the max without paying a price later.
The thing is, when there’s a huge amount of food available, there are also going to be leftovers. When I go to a restaurant, I can eat a fantastic dinner AND save half for lunch the next day. That more than doubles my pleasure. Two great meals, AND I don’t have to feel short of breath or leave big red welts around my waist from my tight pants. On Thanksgiving, my family is easily still eating leftovers on the third, maybe the fourth day.
I AM NOT MISSING OUT ON ANYTHING!
My dinner isn’t going to run away. Nobody is going to put all the food into a catapult and launch it over the neighbor’s roof. It’s not going to vanish into the 23rd dimension. It will still be there! Also, I have access to 1. All the recipes and 2. A 24-hour grocery store. If I really want to eat more of this stuff after the leftovers run out, I can make it whenever I want. I eat cranberry sauce all the time.
This is my deal. I can eat whatever I want, in whatever quantity, as long as it all fits on one plate. Then I can push my physical limits by eating a slice of pie about two hours later.
The more dishes there are, the more emotional this can be. Buffets are the worst. There are 47 dishes here and I want to try all of them! But if I only use one plate, I can only have a teaspoon of each one!!! I try to lean toward the vegetables and salads, being more selective about the denser stuff. I’m not fussy about various foods blending and touching each other, but I do think about whether the flavors sort of match. For instance, I probably wouldn’t choose both curry and pizza for the same plate, although I love them both.
First, I fill my plate. If I’m getting any kind of roll or bread, I choose one and stick it on the side. It has to fit on the plate without falling off the edge! In my experience, if I mix starches, it makes me really sleepy after the meal. It messes with my sleep all night, gives me cottonmouth, and tends to add a full pound to my weigh-in the next day. If there are breads, rice, pasta, and potatoes available, I choose just one of them.
Back to how rules work. These rules are my rules. I choose them. I choose them because when I break them, I experience negative side effects. Every time I wake up in the middle of the night because I overate, every time I give myself a headache or a bellyache from overeating, I am reminded of why I structure my eating behaviors.
I’m totally going to go crazy this weekend. I’m going on an epic food bender. I’m going to eat all sorts of stuff that I only eat once a year. I’m also going to plan around it, enjoying myself without making myself ill.
This is my eating-marathon schedule:
For the last several years, I’ve tended to LOSE WEIGHT over Thanksgiving weekend. That’s partly because I deep-clean my house a week in advance and spend three solid days cooking. I don’t eat while I cook because I’m hustling too fast. I also tend to lose weight over the holiday because I’m eating more vegetables and because I’m too full to snack like normal.
I’ve maintained my weight loss for nearly four years now. There’s no reason to scrimp and scrape on holidays or special occasions. There are no rules other than What Works For Me. I enjoy myself more now that I know how to eat everything I want, and I can do it without acting like a human garbage disposal.
Let’s savor the moment, taste at least a bite of everything, and have a great holiday without groaning afterward.
You’ll eat it and you’ll like it! - said nobody in the twenty-first century.
Times have changed. If you’re planning any gathering that includes food, you’re going to hear all about it. Everyone wants or needs to eat something custom-tailored to a highly specific diet. Having been both the beleaguered hostess and the sad, hungry dinner guest, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to plan a party where everyone can have fun, or at least pretend to for a few hours.
First off, what’s your goal for the gathering? People tend to lean toward certain beliefs about hospitality. On one extreme is that it is the host’s duty and pleasure to roll out the red carpet for guests, making them feel like the most splendid people who ever lived. On the other extreme is that guests must earn their keep and sing for their supper, helping clean up and trying to disguise any and all needs or preferences. I remember staying at a friend’s house in my late twenties and battling his mom as we both insisted on washing up after dinner. I couldn’t bear for her to do all the work alone, and she couldn’t bear to allow me to help. The only right answer that night was to defer to my gracious hostess.
So what’s it going to be? Who’s right?
Culturally we’re in a weird place, where individual preferences come before group harmony. That’s because we haven’t figured out a way to reconfigure how food works now. In the Star Trek future, we can each dial up whatever we like on the food replicator. For today, we’re stuck. There are no restaurants where all of us are going to find something to our taste, and we certainly can’t expect any individual home cook to manage it all.
The obvious answer is to have a potluck, where everyone brings a dish. This could work beautifully, except that people will still insist on making snarky remarks about one another’s choices.
As a cook, I enjoy learning my friends’ tastes and preferences. I know who refuses to eat tomato, onion, gluten, canola oil, potatoes, fructose, garlic, eggplant, squash, cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, green pepper, curry, and all sorts of other foods. (Almost 100% vegetables). It truly doesn’t matter to me WHY my friend won’t eat a food. It is a pleasure to me to solve the puzzle and provide something that follows all the rules. Welcome to my table, where nobody walks away hungry.
It can be pretty annoying when someone claims to have a “food allergy” and then, after eating a full meal carefully designed around that issue, goes on to have a helping of any carefully labeled unacceptable dish made for the other guests. Only two percent of the population has an allergy to anything, whether bees or shellfish or whatever. The rest of us have diagnosed ourselves or discovered the secret code to make restaurant kitchens pay attention to our requests. It’s okay, though. My goal is gracious behavior, and if I want my guests to feel like the treasured friends they are, then I’m going to give them what they asked. Who cares why?
As a side note, diagnosing yourself with anything is a wretchedly bad idea. It’s a bad idea because we’re almost always incorrect. I had a friend who delayed seeing a doctor for chronic shoulder pain for several years because she “knew” she would need to go straight to surgery. It turned out she was wrong about the specific problem, and all she needed was an injection. Likewise, none of my friends or clients who have been lab tested for food sensitivities have come away (so far) with a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. They’ve been hearing yeast, fructose, garlic, and other surprises that could masquerade as something else. Go to a doctor and get a printout of your lab work that you can show to people who question you.
Question, they will. Everyone believes in freedom and liberty until it’s time to choose dishes at the buffet. Then suddenly someone is a villain for not eating exactly what everyone else is eating. Ask me how I know.
I’ve been a vegan for over twenty years, and a vegetarian for nearly twenty-five at this point. People have thrust meat in my face, lied to me, and tried to trick me into eating things. They think it’s funny to hassle me. This is the reason why I will always bend over backwards to accommodate my guests’ idiosyncratic food choices. It’s because, when anyone does it for me, I feel cherished. I feel like someone wanted my company enough to go to extravagant lengths. That’s how I want you to feel when you sit at my table: that you’re beloved and most welcome, that the pleasure of your company is worth any amount of my time. Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you.
As a guest, I’d never ask. I simply assume that there won’t be anything for me to eat. If it’s someone I know, and there’s an informal gathering like a game night or book club, I just bring something like a frozen burrito and ask to use the microwave. If it’s someone I don’t know well, I hide an emergency sandwich in my bag. More than once I’ve been met at the door by a hostess who greets me, in front of everyone: “I didn’t make anything for you.” Oh, well thanks for letting me know! I didn’t ask you to. If you’d asked what I wanted, I would have said I’d prefer to keep a low profile. I’d prefer to be treated like everyone else. I’d prefer if you could have pretended you were glad to see me.
So this is how I break it down. If I’m the guest, I take care of myself and try to be as discreet as possible. I do have close friends who cook for me, and I love them and I’d do anything for them. Never, though, would I expect anyone else to cook around my special needs. If I’m the hostess, I go out of my way to learn the preferences of my guests. Even my homemade soup stock and my soy sauce are gluten-free, because it’s such a common issue now. I want to make sure that, whether I’m the guest or the host, my presence is, if not a pure delight, at least not totally obnoxious.
I tell people I’m “hard to feed.” It’s only fair. This is also true for children who are picky eaters (read: almost all of them), adults who have medical issues, and amateur foodies who don’t cook but are nonetheless highly demanding. We should just own our complications and set our expectations realistically.
There are no requirements of hospitality that force the host to do all the cooking. The host is the organizer, the one who gathers everyone together, the one who sets the tone for the conversation. You don’t have to hold a party in your home, you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to hire a caterer. It’s your responsibility simply to make people feel welcome and try to orchestrate a good time for all. If that means a potluck or a non-food-oriented event of some kind, that’s fair. Whatever it takes so that nobody comes away feeling dissatisfaction or resentment - host included.
Thanksgiving is coming, in case you forgot. It’s easy to miss. Where I live, Christmas decorations overlapped with Halloween, a puny pumpkin showing up underneath a fully decorated Christmas tree. Hey! What happened to Thanksgiving? Where’s my pumpkin pie? It’s my personal mission to make sure that we continue to have at least one holiday completely dedicated to the cooking and consumption of food. Sixteen days and it’s on.
Thanksgiving is the holiday of adulting. The better you are at cooking, event planning, logistics, cleaning, ironing, decorating, menu planning, and entertaining, the more fun you can have. Thanksgiving is a time when you can really go all out. It’s sort of like a marathon for domestic demigods, except that I’ve run a marathon and I can tell you that doing Thanksgiving properly actually takes a lot longer.
When my husband and I first got married, I hosted our family’s Thanksgiving for the first time. It felt like being crowned Mrs. America. I just reached out and grabbed the ladle, and everybody let me! My parents, my brother and his girlfriend drove all day to come and stay for the weekend. I spent about three weeks getting ready. It was great, because the more people you have over, the more dishes you can make. Go ahead and try to cook twelve dishes for two people and then find room in the fridge for the leftovers. Better just to invite more friends.
Now, we live in a tiny little shoebox of an apartment. Our ten-top dining table (plus backup table) went away. Now we have a little bistro table that barely fits four chairs, and then only if it’s hauled into the middle of the living room. We don’t host anymore.
That doesn’t mean I’m not cooking! It just means I have to wait to get started until after I get to my parents’ house. In a lot of ways, this means more planning. I’ll have to do all my menu planning in advance but all of my shopping has to happen in one trip. I also have to fit myself into a kitchen where at least three other people will be trying to prep their contributions. Iron Chef, here we come.
These are the things I would start doing now, if I lived in a house and I was hosting and cooking the Thanksgiving meal.
Do a perimeter check of the house and see what needs decluttering and cleaning
Start eating up everything in the fridge to make room for the party food
Start eating up everything in the freezer as well
Clear out the dining room and find homes for everything on the dining table
Clear off the kitchen counters and deep-clean
Wipe down the stovetop, inside of the microwave, and fridge shelves
Plan my menu
Rehearse intervention strategies for awkward conversations and family squabbles
Clean the bathrooms
Track down the tablecloths, themed napkins, serving platters, et cetera
Avoid desserts and snacks, because I know I’m going to gain three pounds anyway
Figure out what I’m going to wear
As a more seasoned hostess, I’ve become more pragmatic in my planning. The truth is that everybody just wants to have an enjoyable day off. Your guests want to feel welcomed and they want an edible meal. While they might feel annoyed by a cluttered, dirty house and burnt food, they’re not going out of their way to look for things to criticize. They won’t notice half of what you do, perhaps not even ten percent.
Guess what? You’re not statutorily required to cook any of the food yourself. A host provides a meal, not necessarily home cooking.
You don’t have to use cloth tablecloths or cloth napkins.
You don’t even have to use real plates or cutlery.
Okay, granted, I do all of that stuff, but that’s because I enjoy it. I do it for myself. I also do it because it feels like race day, like I’m wearing a race bib and keyed up at the starting line, ready to run a marathon. Can I clean my entire house top to bottom and have it all sparkling on the same day? Can I coordinate all the dishes so they’re ready to eat at the same time? Can I get the food on the table on schedule? Can I orchestrate a conversation that has everyone laughing and nobody throwing the gravy boat through a window?
I like planning the Thanksgiving dinner because I want to eat what I want to eat. I hate stuffing, so I never make stuffing. I’ve always thought there should be soup and salad at Thanksgiving, but nobody ever, ever makes soup or salad, so I do it. I like my brother’s cranberry sauce recipe, but I also like mine, and since the whole family eats cranberry sauce we can do both. As a side note, my parents and I are vegan and one brother is vegetarian, so we kind of already do Thanksgiving our way.
I love holidays because they give us a chance to elevate ourselves above the everyday. When else are we going to do special things like use cloth tablecloths or eat by candlelight? Why else do we save and store silly things like massive platters or punch bowls? These are the days with the best photo opportunities. Even if the specific memories might involve some troubled conversations or awkward moments, the pictures can make up for it. Planning ahead helps to make the big day run more smoothly. We still have over two weeks to get ready. Let’s make it something to be thankful for.
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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.