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.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
I have an acquaintance who told me something funny. She said she always tells people that she’d be vegan if I cooked for her. This is funny for several reasons. One, we don’t know each other well at all, so the idea that I’d drop everything and cook all her meals is kind of bananas. I mean, is she planning to come over and walk my dog every day or what? Two, it’s hilarious that my cooking would be such an enticement for a radical lifestyle change, rather than, say, my visible results. Three, it’s funny that anyone would claim to want a chef, because guess what? You can be your own chef! The greatest mystery to me is why anyone would refuse to learn to cook. It’s like willfully denying yourself the magical power of satisfying your taste buds three times a day, every day.
I have another friend who actually just said, “I’d eat healthy if I had a chef.” It’s true. I’m pretty sure she would. One of the major reasons that people eat the Standard American Diet, in spite of its many major flaws, is that they gag on the taste and texture of healthy foods. My friend was cheerfully eating kale with quinoa. She doesn’t have any food dislikes that I know of. If the only thing that’s standing between her and a healthier diet is her refusal to cook, hey! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
Another reason that a lot of people refuse to cook healthy food - or to cook any meals at all - is that their kitchens are cluttered and dirty. They can’t resolve the power struggles with their housemates (spouses, kids, parents, roommates) over who does the dishes. There’s mail all over the counters and the table. The counters are full of appliances and canisters and cookie jars and cookbooks, to the point that there’s no room to cook, even on a good day. All that stuff is out on the counters because the cupboards are chock-full of plastic cups and containers, preposterous amounts of mugs and plates and bowls, and expired canned foods. I wouldn’t want to cook in there either! The thing about chefs is that they do their own washing up. It’s a matter of professional pride.
Let me go over that again. Chefs do their own dishes and wipe down their own counters. Part of this is that they take full mastery of their work area. The kitchen is their professional territory, and they design it how they want it. It’s their happy place. They have a few high-quality implements like a favorite knife. They know how to turn simple ingredients into deliciousness because they’ve spent so much time and focus on building their skills. It’s also true that wiping down an uncluttered kitchen only takes a couple of minutes. A chef is going to wipe down the same area over and over again, because cleaning as you go is the only way to keep the cooking surfaces available for the next plate.
Most of us have kitchens the exact opposite of what a real chef would want. We have tons and tons of unnecessary stuff. We let our excess kitchen hardware encroach on work surfaces. We let those surfaces get greasy and grimy. We leave our sinks constantly full of pots and pans and dishes. We “stock up” on more food than we can eat, so the ingredients are never fresh basically by definition. We look at cooking as an unfair, unrealistic chore. We refuse to put in the time to learn proper knife skills or how to prepare basic ingredients, even though it would pay off immediately in faster prep and better-tasting food.
My friend has a perfectly adequate kitchen. Granted, it’s a bit small, but so is mine. So is the working area of most professional chefs in restaurant kitchens. My friend doesn’t have an issue with food hoarding (like I have had) and she doesn’t have tons of excess dishes or other hardware. If she wanted to learn to cook, she could start today. She could find a new recipe and be sitting down to something surprisingly good half an hour later.
I’m a good cook, but most nights I just make something quick. My husband and I trade nights, and we have a thirty-minute rule. If one of us (okay, me) wants to make something fancier or more time-consuming, then it needs to be on the weekend. Too many times I’ve decided to try a new recipe and we’ve wound up eating dinner at 9:00. If I want to play, I need to start in the afternoon. On an average night, we might well be eating something that takes only ten or fifteen minutes.
What we know that most people don’t know is this: almost all vegetables only take five minutes to cook.
You can do it even faster than that if you eat bagged salad. Just buy a bag and make sure you eat the entire thing that night. If you live alone, you’re totally allowed to eat it all by yourself. Just watch out for the dressing.
We literally will eat a microwaved vegetable with… whatever. The important thing is that we eat our cruciferous vegetables. We’ll have a head of broccoli one night, and we chop the whole thing up, microwave it for four minutes, and eat it. Probably I eat one-third and he eats two-thirds, which makes sense because he’s twice my size. Another night we’ll do the same thing with a head of cauliflower at seven minutes. When we get cabbage, it lasts for two or possibly three nights. Sometimes we’ll just eat it shredded raw as a salad, but usually I sauté it for about four minutes. Bok choy, kale, chard, collard greens, all about four minutes. (It averages out with that naughty seven-minute cauliflower). Almost all the time, whatever vegetable we’re eating cooks faster than whatever we’re eating it with, and that includes pizza pockets.
I hear a lot of people talking about how they’re trying to eat less processed food. Whatever they think that means, it seems to include depressingly long periods of kitchen prep. To my mind, chopping up a cabbage and sautéing it for four minutes is about as unprocessed as you can get. You can even cook it in water if you don’t want to eat oil. The only way to transition into eating healthier is to make that transition gentle and straightforward. Heap up a bunch of expectations of perfection and purity, and it’s simply too hard to keep the commitment.
The main differences between me and my friend who doesn’t cook are that I’m not obese anymore and she still is. We’re both married, we both live in apartments (hers is bigger), and we’re close in age. I like to cook because I like cooking whatever I want to eat exactly how I like it, and then eating it whenever I want. Anyone can quickly learn the skills and find the recipes to give that gift to themselves and others. I like to cook because cooking is its own reward, but I also like that cooking my own meals gives me the body I want to have. Healthy food freed me from the prison of four-day migraines, night terrors, and chronic pain and fatigue. Healthy food gives me the energy level I need to live a happy life. It got me my marathon medal. Sure, yeah, healthy food helped me lose 35 pounds and keep it off. That’s just a side effect.
Being a good cook comes from cooking a lot. Maybe some people who are super-learners could simply observe a chef very closely for a couple of meals, and then walk away with elite cooking skills. Not me. I did find that when I committed to just one hundred hours of deliberate practice, my cooking was already significantly better only ten hours in. That’s a couple of weeks of making thirty-minute dinners. Truly, truly not a big deal. I keep trying to come up with an analogy of something that’s as easy to learn as cooking, with as big a payoff, and I can’t think of one. It’s easier than learning to drive, at any rate. If you agree with the statement that you’d eat healthy if only you had a chef, you could be that chef. Your own personal chef could be yourself.
Food is love. Sugar is love. If you believe this, how old do you want to be when you get your diabetes diagnosis? I just blurted that out, didn’t I. Let me dial back a bit and try to be funnier, okay?
Do you know about this thing called love languages? It’s a concept developed by a man named Gary Chapman, and his book has probably saved more marriages than television and separate bathrooms combined. One of the greatest things about it is that it’s a relationship manual that actually appeals to garden-variety straight guys. The premise is that people can get along better if they understand each other’s love language, trying to appreciate each other’s needs and save our efforts for things that will actually please each other. For instance, my husband’s is words of appreciation, something that is very easy for me to offer, but also something that I find kind of annoying to receive. Words of praise and appreciation make me nervous, thinking that someone is trying to flatter me due to ulterior motives. Don’t try to butter me up! What are you doing with that butter? Put it down!
The five love languages are:
Acts of service
Words of appreciation
Note that ‘food’ is not on there!
When we say that we associate food with love, it’s going to be either because we prepared it for someone or because they prepared it for us. Or, I guess, because we’ve come to a place where food is the only thing that truly, deeply matters in our lives. Pfft. Everyone knows the answer to that should really be OUR PHONES. I mean, duh. Seriously, though. It wouldn’t hurt to look at this a little further, right?
I’m a food pusher. I admit it. I have been known to spend three days cooking before hosting a family holiday dinner. I cooked for eight people for my own birthday dinner last month. I will notice every last molecule of uneaten food on anyone’s plate, and I will not-so-secretly feel proud when anyone takes seconds. Or especially thirds. I’m watching you!
I don’t actually believe that food is love, though. I’m a quality time person. I want to make sure that everyone is having an amazing moment. When my friends and family are with me, I want it to matter to them. I want them to be making good memories. I want photos. Food is one way that I know of to put people in a relaxed and happy mood. A good meal, followed by a good dessert, means laughter and long conversations.
I also cook because my secondary love language is acts of service. I like doing nice things for people. I will try to anticipate your needs, if I can, and do anything that I think might make your life easier. This is part of why I memorize my friends’ food preferences, likes, dislikes, and sensitivities. I know who is allergic to yeast and who hates cooked tomatoes and who avoids canola oil. I’ve spent hours devising menus that accommodate all of those individuals at once. To me, cooking something special for someone with a complicated diet is the ultimate act of friendship. I see you and I am willing to meet you where you are.
These two love languages combine to mean that I try to feed people Health Food. If I care about you, I want you to live a long time so we can pull pranks together in the nursing home.
On the receiving end, I have to say that I am always bowled over by anyone who is willing to cook for me. I’m a vegan and my default expectation is that people will avoid even inviting me to any occasion that involves food. It annoys people and I know it, sadly. So for someone to reach past that social chasm and make something for me will impress me more than anything else. The first time I went to a social event with my husband’s ex-wife, she made me my own batch of vegan cupcakes, with a V on top in icing so I could tell them apart. What. A. Woman. Now that’s what I call noblesse oblige. They were good, too! Then I found out that she even adapted the recipe herself. I’d basically do anything for her now. Well, except for give my husband back. Finders keepers.
The thing is, food is not the only thing that shows love in these situations. We’re genuinely glad to see each other. We care about each other and what happens in each other’s lives. We make eye contact. We listen closely. We laugh in delight and appreciation. We share stories. We tell each other how glad we are to see each other. We tease each other, reminding each other of inside jokes and how well we know one another. We stand up for each other. We show up. Sure, there’s food there, but in the absence of love, it would just be food. The same food you can make in your kitchen or buy at the grocery store 24 hours a day.
I think a lot of the time, we make comfort foods because we’re lonely. We’re searching for those feelings of affection. Confections when we really want connections. So often, we’ve been disappointed by misunderstandings, by reaching out and not getting the responses we were hoping for. Well, it’s not hidden in the bottom of a brownie pan and it doesn’t have frosting on it. The only way to feel love is to feel it, the love you feel inside yourself for others. You can know and understand and believe and appreciate that someone else loves you, but you can’t truly feel it. It’s the love you give and share that fills you up.
Or tater tots. I guess that works too.
Raise your hand if you’re ever confused about what you’re supposed to eat and not eat.
Oh, everybody? Okay then!
I learned what I know about health food as an adult. When I grew up, grocery stores all had a predictable range of stuff, and most people had never heard of stuff like goji berries or hummus or bioflavonoids or whatever. We definitely didn’t have purple potatoes! In fact, when I started learning to cook as a little kid, standard cookbooks didn’t even have pasta recipes. That didn’t start showing up until like 1985.
From my perspective, you can see why learning more about new foods has felt progressively more awesome. More variety, more flavors, better quality, more recipes, even how-to videos! It also helps that I now have better quality kitchen hardware than I did as a young broke bachelorette. Learning to cook and learning more about nutrition has been an adventure, a tasty, tasty adventure.
I started learning about new foods because… because I didn’t have a car. The closest food source to my first apartment happened to be an organic member-owned co-op grocery. It was small, and they only sourced health foods, almost none of which I’d ever heard about before. I would go in there, totally hungry, and wander the aisles like a little ghost. What was all this stuff? How did you cook it? Where were the Froot Loops?
I quickly learned that there was very little overlap between what Food Front had on its shelves and what was available at, say, the convenience store where I worked my first real job. It was also readily apparent that the people shopping at the co-op were pretty different from the people shopping at the convenience store. Nobody was giving soda to a baby, for example. The people at the co-op kind of… looked healthy. Whereas, some of the people at the convenience store were impatiently waiting at 9:55 AM for the alcohol coolers to be unlocked so they could buy malt liquor. And cigarettes. Nobody at the co-op was buying anything with cheese that came out of a pump. Without necessarily even realizing it, I started to identify with the health-food eaters, even though I was an extreme picky eater who refused to eat vegetables.
I had no idea how to cook. I once blew up my stove while boiling water for hot dogs. I’m a legend in my family for burning instant mashed potatoes. I made an oatmeal volcano in the microwave at my work. I made cookies and put in a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon… of baking powder. I made brownies once, and all the salt wound up in a little glob in one brownie, which fortunately I ate, because I’d never wish that on a friend. I have started cooking something on one page of a cookbook, and then the pages got stuck together and I started cooking a completely different recipe. It’s safe to say that I was on the extreme low end of I Have No Idea What I’m Doing.
I just kept trying, though. I kept trying new foods, because I’d be on a date and the boy would suggest it, or because it was the only restaurant available within walking distance, or because I was too hungry to go to a different store. I kept reading through cookbooks at the bookstore and the library. I kept trying stuff, and it wouldn’t be great, but then I’d try something else, which also wouldn’t be great. Little by little, I started recognizing the names of weird new foods and learning what to expect on the menus of various ethnic restaurants and actually developing some taste preferences.
When I really got serious, it was because suddenly I was a mother. Well, a mother of sorts, more specifically a step-mom. All this vestigial tribal memory stuff bubbled up from the primordial ooze. Must Grow Child. I never knew before that deep inside me was this alien image of a Wife and Mother Cooking Proper Meals. Uh, who are you and what have you done with me? I threw myself into the project with about the same energy that I put into learning to write all three Japanese language systems in high school. In other words, an arcane, difficult subject only assimilable by the rare few who were willing to hit the books hard enough. Something totally foreign but possibly interesting.
Then the confirmations started happening. I started making stuff that tasted good. My prep work started going a lot faster. We had appetizing leftovers in the freezer. My new family started asking for more stuff with cabbage. Cabbage! I ask of you.
The food started to look pretty.
Then things got really interesting. I started learning about micronutrients and experimenting with trying to hit all my targets every day.
That was when my migraines and my night terrors “coincidentally” disappeared.
Learning about health food is like learning about anything else, whether that’s music or a language or a new friend. First it’s a total unknown, then you explore it uncertainly, then it gets kinda interesting, then you start to learn that wow, this is really fascinating actually! The more you know, the more familiar something is, the more you’re able to appreciate it. Then you start building up this case for why this new thing (or person) is awesome. Time goes by, and you’re so sold on this thing you formerly knew nothing about that you want to tell everyone else about it! It comes from direct experience, and experience comes from experimentation.
I had every reason to avoid “health food.” I hated vegetables, I was a terrible cook, the health food store seemed to keep putting eggplants where all the good stuff was supposed to be. I had no idea what anything was or what to do with it. Little by little, as I learned more and tried more, everything changed. As my food intake changed, my body changed and my experience of life changed. It started to become obvious that the more I learned about food, the better I felt and the stronger I got. I don’t even miss eating cheese out of a pump.
What is a dessert, exactly?
This probably sounds like a dumb question. It’s something sweet that you eat after a meal, right? Duh.
The reason I mention it is that getting more precise in what, exactly, constitutes a dessert changed my eating habits in a way that nothing else probably would have. That in turn led to the complete physical transformation that I enjoy today.
I have a set of little glass bowls that I use as “ice cream” bowls. (I call it “ice cream” because “frozen non-dairy dessert” is a mouthful, and I’d rather that mouthful be creamy sweet deliciousness, wouldn’t you?). Using these bowls means that we actually get four servings out of a pint, like it says on the label. Before the acquisition of these small bowls, I used a cereal bowl, just like everyone else, and that means that my dessert used to be much larger.
If you sit down and eat a cereal bowl full of ice cream most nights, is it still a treat?
My thought is that anything done on a routine basis is just a routine. It’s not special anymore. Having “treats” so often puts us on the hedonic treadmill, searching farther afield for what used to give us a thrill. In the same way that we always find a way to spend a higher income, we are pretty good at just incorporating extra food into our bodies. I mean, speaking for myself here, if I’ve already eaten a slice of cake at dinner, that’s no reason why I’m not going to eat another slice for breakfast the next morning.
Here’s the thing I figured out about desserts. I was eating what I would now think of as a dessert at least three or four times a day. I would eat a large bowl of cereal for breakfast (or sometimes, if I had it, a slice of cake or pie or a handful of chocolate chip cookies with walnuts). I would have a soda at work (or, in college, at least three cans a day). I might have a bag of candy at my desk. I was “good” at lunch, usually eating dinner leftovers. Then I’d go home and eat dinner, another “healthy” meal, after which I’d have a little container of soy yogurt. And another big bowl of cereal. And possibly also a can of peaches or a bowl of “ice cream.”
It wasn’t until I spent a year writing down everything I ate that I started to see the problem. I was eating a lot more calories than a 5’4” frame can handle. Much of it was from various forms of sugar. I either needed to raise my activity level to match my fuel intake, or I needed to change what I ate to match my affinity for melding into my couch cushions with a book in front of my face.
A couple of years later, I managed to make another connection. I had been driving myself and my husband crazy with my night terrors, and no matter what metrics I tracked, I couldn’t seem to figure out what I was doing wrong. Finally, I realized that the trigger for these terrifying episodes was eating too close to bedtime. Blood sugar fluctuations. As soon as I quit eating three hours before bedtime, the problem went away. I’ve only had two episodes in the past three years.
As a simple guideline, look at the ingredients list of anything you’re eating. Find the section on the label that says Total Carb. If it has more than 30mg, it’s a dessert.
Or at least, that’s what worked for me.
I’m not a low-carb dieter. I’ve tried increasing my protein intake and cutting carbs, and it made me feel horrible, low-energy, headachy, and nauseated. It’s hard to find any endurance athlete who will even bother to try eating low-carb; those are things that don’t go together. Low-carb may work for weight lifters but it doesn’t work for marathon runners. The thing about that 30mg guideline is that some people eat that much carbohydrate in an entire day. I’m talking about consuming that in one single food item.
As far as the “carbs” thing goes, I don’t generally eat white bread, pasta, rice, or anything that comes from a supermarket bakery. I do eat tons of potatoes, I eat whole-grain sandwich bread most days, and I almost always eat oatmeal for breakfast. I eat gluten, I eat wheat, I eat yeast, I eat grains… I’m just not really about white foods. That’s why, when I decide to eat cake or cookies or pie or donuts or more cake, I just go ahead and eat it.
When we were in Iceland, we noted that Icelanders are about three notches leaner than Americans. Yet they have the world’s highest consumption of Coca-Cola and we saw them eating little ice cream cones all the time. It turns out their Coke has 30% less sugar that ours. It also turns out that, due to the price of imported foods, almost everything in their food supply contains only a few ingredients, all of which can be pronounced and understood, and they don’t really do added sweeteners. Most stuff we saw had four ingredients or fewer. Also, their portions were significantly smaller and food was much more expensive. About half the portion for twice the price, with none of the added sugar… and you can start to understand why almost everyone on the entire island had visible muscle definition.
I’m totally in favor of desserts. I happen to think that they should be special occasions. It’s not so special to have something every day, or several times a day. In my case, I guess you could call “running through the house screaming in my sleep” “special” - in a bad way. When I cut my sugar intake in favor of high-fiber, high-micronutrient vegetables and fruits, my sleep problems and chronic migraines resolved themselves. Having a body that functions properly and being pain-free is a major upgrade over any dessert you could put in front of me. When I indulge, I want a dessert, exactly that and no more.
Coming home from a vacation should count as part of the vacation. End on a high note. Coming home late, exhausted, and knowing you have to get up early to go back to work is bad enough. Add the suitcases full of dirty laundry. THEN add the disaster area that was created while you tried to pack. No thank you! Planning in advance prolongs the excitement and anticipation of the trip. Planning meals around using things up can be part of this fun, and it can also help to defray the cost of the trip.
There are two main ways to use up food in advance of a trip. One, just eat the stuff. Two, cook it and put it in the freezer. (You can also ask some friends or roommates if they want it, but chances are that they’ll just wind up throwing it away).
We decide which way to use stuff based on how well it freezes. Once I tried putting a bag of carrots directly into the freezer, and let’s just say that didn’t work out very well! Right before a trip is no time to be experimenting on novel food preservation methods. Let’s just do things that we already know how to do.
Eat it now: Salad greens, leftovers, fresh fruit, anything you can juice
Freeze it: Anything that could go in a soup, pot pie, or stir-fry. Any bread or baked goods.
It took me forever to learn to do this, but I now plan meals over a 3-5 day time period. I buy frozen entrees for more like 1-2 weeks at a time, and canned foods for a few days, but the fresh produce circulates over a much briefer period. There are three reasons for that. Our fridge is small, I have to carry all our groceries over my shoulder while walking half a mile, and, most importantly… there’s no need for me to buy more. They call it a “store” because it “stores” things.
My previous method of shopping involved buying stuff out of curiosity when I didn’t actually know how to cook it, buying stuff I did know how to cook without having a meal plan, buying stuff on sale, and generally feeling like there was a “right amount” of food to buy. The result was more or less chaos. A kitchen full of every possible spice, herb, condiment, shape of pasta, and random item like umeboshi plums or canned chestnuts… but nothing that would actually represent A DINNER. As it turns out, the vast majority of stuff we buy for flavor has few to no calories. That sense of safety and security that comes from stockpiling food is a false sense of security. In crisis conditions, it won’t fuel us for very long. Thus, if we’re saving extra food at the behest of anxiety, we should be making sure that it represents whole meals in the least perishable format possible.
That’s a lesson for a different day.
What we’re focusing on right now is the OPPOSITE of crisis conditions. We’re focusing on being AWAY from home, on NOT having a stockpile of supplies. What we want is to avoid coming home to a bunch of moldy, spoiled food, all of which represents\ both a waste of money and a cleanup hassle.
Once I came home from a trip and I was talking on the phone with the man who is now my husband. Clearly I was not thinking about how long I had been away. (I think it was Thanksgiving weekend). I grabbed a container of soy milk out of the fridge and started to take a swig. Instantly my honey was subjected to a stream of swearing and gagging. The soy milk had gone bad. Approximately a single molecule of it touched my tongue, and I learned that the major function of the taste buds is to protect us against being poisoned. This is some limbic-system, deep survival stuff right here. I was scrubbing my tongue with a toothbrush and gargling with mouthwash. Then I poured out the offending container and everything in it came out in chunks. And that is the story of how I started meal planning before trips away from home.
The steps involved are simple.
Don’t go to the grocery store if you can avoid it. Definitely do not go until after you have taken inventory of the perishables in the fridge.
Try to use up all the perishables. That means “things that go bad.”
If your fridge is empty the day before you leave, great. Just get tacos that night or something.
A lot of typical American households have enough food in the kitchen to last for at least a month. Many frugalites and debt-payoff champions have proven this hypothesis by eating only the food supplies they have on hand until they run out. This can be harder to do when you realize that your stockpile includes three jars of mustard and five separate salad dressings. Also, how does someone wind up with two jars of capers?
One thing I like to do is to make a pot of soup and put it in freezer containers for the night we come home. The soup simmers while we pack our suitcases. Then we don’t have to stress out about what we’re going to eat when we get home, either. We can put off grocery shopping until the next day. We can also splurge on grocery delivery, which we used to do when our grocery store was more than half a mile away.
Travel anxiety is hard. I have found that it really eases my mind to take out the trash before I leave for a trip, and then do a final perimeter check. I can lock the door behind me, carrying the image of my clean and tidy apartment, with clear visuals in my mind that show I haven’t forgotten anything, and we won’t be coming home to a mess. Nothing but fun times ahead!
I brought home a bag of groceries, and I had a thought. I talk a lot about eating healthy food, but I don’t really do it in detail. What if I just went over a typical bag of groceries and how I plan meals?
Then I realized that if I wanted a good picture, I’d have to take everything out of the produce bags and put it back in again before I could finish putting the groceries away. It was tedious. What will I not do to get people to eat cruciferous vegetables??
We don’t have a car anymore, so our groceries all get carried from the Whole Foods Market, our closest store at half a mile away. This means we typically make three trips a week. Two will be mostly produce (basically one for fruit and one for vegetables), and one will be mostly frozen foods. Our kitchen is really small, so even if we still had a car, we can’t really stock up or keep a lot of extra food in the pantry. In a weird way, the lack of these two typical resources - transportation and living space - results in our eating fresher food.
I want to pause to talk about cost. We live in a 680-square-foot apartment with a micro-kitchen and we have no car. Line by line, every vegetable represented on this receipt is in the price range of a bag of chips or a case of soda. (Except the cabbage, but I challenge you to eat a cabbage that size in one meal). I will stand toe to toe with anyone who wants to talk about elitism and social justice with me, because that is my motivation. Everyone has the right to eat vegetables that grow in the ground. It’s not fair that most people don’t know how. I’m not here to judge; I’m here to teach, to teach what I learned over such a long time and with such great difficulty.
This picture represents a produce run. There are a few items in it that are 1. Not produce and 2. Not items a typical American household would buy. I’ve included the receipt (totaling $35.47), but I’m excluding the soy milk, two packages of plant-based cold cuts, and a bag of bulk peanuts from both the total and the discussion. My position on vegetables is that they are relevant to all diets, regardless of philosophy or culture, and whatever entree you want to put them next to is up to your personal preference.
Clockwise from upper left, you’re seeing: the biggest green cabbage we’ve ever had; collard greens; broccoli; chard; dino kale; scallions; carrots; red bell pepper; a bundle of bok choy; cauliflower. Occasionally I get Brussels sprouts, but they’ve been looking too small lately.
The scallions, carrots, and bell pepper are representative of what I call “decorations” or “sprinkles.” They’re there because they’re pretty and fun to eat, not because I think they count for nutrition. Although it’s worth mentioning that bell pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
Our basic plan is to eat cruciferous vegetables every night. Chard is not cruciferous, but it’s a power vegetable nonetheless, and we eat it a lot. The idea is to rotate through these power vegetables, with the entree as something of an afterthought. It’s more like “what goes with collard greens?” rather than “what is a good side vegetable for barbecue?”
Neither of us ate this way when we met. As a matter of cold fact, the first time I got a farm box delivery that included kale, collard greens, and chard, I had to Google all three of them to figure out which was which. I had no idea how to wash or chop this stuff, whether you eat the stems, how to make them not taste bad, or any of that. I had a hundred cookbooks, but very few of them had recipes for these vegetables - especially not cabbage, the poor step-cousin of the veg world. Other uncommon vegetables like kohlrabi? Good luck with that.
One of the biggest surprises of my life has been how awesome cabbage is. I think it has a reputation problem, and part of it is the name. We pronounce it with a spurious French accent: cabauge. I would try out a new recipe, everyone would eat it, and then both my husband and my stepdaughter would mention it weeks later. It turned out that every single one of the favorite recipes included cabbage! I was like WHAT???? That’s why I get excited now when I find a cabbage that’s bigger than my head. We might get two or even three dinners out of it.
The second biggest surprise for me about preparing vegetables is that they all take about 5 minutes to cook.
I can wash and chop half a cabbage for dinner in about one minute, and I sauté it in oil for 4-5 minutes, although often I put it in soup and it doesn’t need the oil. We microwave broccoli for 4 minutes, and cauliflower goes in for 8. (Trying to cook broccoli and cauliflower together for the same length of time is a tragic mistake that results either in bitter, undercooked cauliflower or soggy, tasteless broccoli). Collard greens, kale, chard, and bok choy all take about two minutes to wash and chop and 3-4 minutes to sauté.
My working hypothesis is that standard Americans don’t eat these vegetables for two reasons. Either they gag on unfamiliar textures and bitter tastes, or they simply have no idea how to cook them and feel overwhelmed at the prospect of learning how. My heart absolutely breaks for adult picky eaters, because I used to be one, and it correlates with weight problems and major health issues. I feel pretty terrible at the lack of cultural information available on how to have a real vegetable party. Sure, I can look at a new vegetable-free recipe, figure out exactly which crucifer belongs in it, and adapt on the spot. How are neophytes supposed to learn to do this? How are people going to get over the first speed bumps of poor execution and unfamiliar tastes and textures?
It’s possible, maybe inevitable, that eating more power vegetables will captivate you. It happened to us. We’ve both found ourselves staring at a gleaming vat of steamed kale, transfixed, wondering if it’s possible to just buy it all and eat two gallons at one sitting. Most people never know that such a deep and visceral food craving is possible. How could they, if they’ve never eaten the vegetable in question in their entire lives? How could they, if they’ve had it once or twice and didn’t immediately like it? How could they, when our culture makes such a mockery of this stuff? Cruciferous vegetables are like the earnest, obnoxious door-to-door missionaries of the food world.
Do you have a few moments to talk about kale?
No? I guess I’ll go bother your neighbor then.
I took the picture of these vegetables, and then I bagged up everything except the chard. The chard went into the sink. I washed it, chopped it, cooked it, and we had eaten every bite of it within forty minutes of it coming home from the store. The kale went into our green smoothies. We got into a minor quarrel over which one of us got to cook the broccoli, because we take turns cooking, and we both mentally claimed it as soon as it entered the kitchen. I made the cauliflower with a frozen Indian vindaloo because the sauce is amazing with cauliflower. A week later, all that was left was a few scallions, a couple of carrots, and about two-thirds of the cabbage.
Most of the rest of what we eat is “processed foods.” This is heresy in the healthy eating community. Apparently the only way to reach salvation is to hand-process everything. Okay, I make my own stocks and jam and pickles and sauerkraut. That does not mean I’m going to spend 90 minutes every night cooking from scratch! We eat all sorts of ridiculous processed foods, like frozen sliders and pizza pockets. We just do it off a plate that is filled at least half by these gorgeous, fresh, organic vegetables.
Believe me, I recognize that the way we eat is based on privilege. I know this because I’ve gone hungry. I also know this because I refused to eat broccoli or cauliflower as a child, and I never had the kale or the chard or the collard greens. I don’t think I tasted bok choy until I was 19. I share about the elite way we eat now because I think it’s within reach of many people who would benefit from it if they only knew they could.
What goes with what?
Broccoli usually goes with sliders and potatoes, or in a stir-fry with frozen Szechuan and sundry leftover vegetables
Cauliflower usually goes with frozen Indian food, or just anything because we love it
Cabbage usually goes with something in katsu sauce, peanut sauce, soup, veggie sausage and potatoes, or anything Chinese
Collard greens usually go with anything BBQ, anything Southern like Hoppin’ John, or sautéed with some kind of Gardein
Kale usually goes in smoothies but we’ll eat it with anything
Chard is the fancy one
Bok choy we usually do with Asian food or tofu
Flash of insight: the humble fork is often used to symbolize our eating habits, but it's probably not stuff that we eat with forks that causes the problems. As far as synecdoche, the spoon is a more likely stand-in, because we use spoons to eat all kinds of goodies like cereal, yogurt, ice cream, pudding, and other sweet treats. It's probably what we eat with our hands that gets us into the most trouble. Forks tend to be the utensils we use when we're sitting down to a proper meal. I think fork-based meals are the sort of nourishing, emotionally fulfilling meals that can really help us get straight with our relationship to food.
I sit down for meals because I love it. I love having a table in front of me to hold everything. We have a little bistro table in our tiny apartment, and to me it's the exact size of most restaurant tables built for two. When I sit there, it speaks to my brain. It says, this is going to be a leisurely meal, just like all the times you went out with a friend and talked for an hour, almost forgetting to eat before your food got cold. Usually I eat alone, but I still have that special restaurant feeling when I sit at the table, whether it's my bowl of instant oatmeal, a sandwich, or dinner with my honey.
My least favorite way to eat in all the world is sitting in a car. I always get crumbs all over myself, and inevitably I spill something greasy on my shirt. No matter where we're going or how long the trip is, I step out of the vehicle looking like I slept in my clothes and then spent the day running a preschool. I think cars should have tray tables just like airplanes do. Why is this not a thing? Many of us are eating most of our meals in our vehicles. Cramming down some kind of baked goods or cereal bars while rushing to work or school drop-offs, hitting the drive-thru while running errands, or just feeling too hungry and burnt out at the end of the day to even think about cooking. How many of these meals eaten behind a steering wheel actually come with a fork? How many of them come with cruciferous vegetables or a nutrition label? Do we even really know what we're eating while trying not to drip on our seat belts?
Another area where we may have little or no idea of what we're eating is with snacks. I lost 15 pounds in the year after I quit my office job, I suspect mostly because I don't buy snack food at home. I was no longer subject to the easy availability of all the sodas, chips, nuts, candies, office potlucks, birthday parties, and barbecues lurking in my workplace nearly every day of the week. I knew almost nothing about nutrition or weight loss at that time, and now I realize that I could easily have been eating an extra 500 calories a day without thinking about it. I also would have had no idea what "500 calories" means in context. That's the amount I eat for dinner, or sometimes less if we're eating a very high volume of vegetables that night. Eat an extra dinner every day and yeah, you'll probably gain some weight!
The thing about this "extra dinner" of unintended caloric consequences is that it is not satisfying. A handful of cashews here, a soda there, a slice of lame supermarket bakery birthday cake here... I don't really feel like I've eaten anything. I hardly feel like I've had some kind of peak experience. It just blends into the background, part of the beigeness of the cubicle world. I might not even remember how many times I've mindlessly popped handfuls of this or that into my mouth.
An alternative might be carrying a fork around and insisting on eating everything with it, as a sort of consciousness-raising exercise. Once people see you eating a bagel or a handful of tortilla chips with a fork, their reactions may stop any kind of unconscious, unintended snacking from ever happening again!
We talk a lot about "comfort food" and "emotional eating." I think food should be comforting. It's building our cells and all our body parts and systems, after all. With each bite, I can think, "I have everything I need. There is plenty and there will be plenty more." I wonder about emotional eating, though. Food can be an incredible artistic and creative outlet; sharing meals can be warm and lovely times for connecting and communicating; pausing at least three times a day can give us time to remember who we are in the midst of the daily bustle. Are we using food to manipulate our neurochemistry, though? Is food the highlight of the day in a boring and unfulfilling life? Are we feeling any kind of guilt or shame or disappointment about our lackluster mealtimes or a disconnect between the reality and our ideal? Is emotional eating really providing any kind of comfort in the long term?
I used to hate cooking. I didn't really know what to do. It would take me like twenty minutes to chop an onion. I would start recipes without realizing that I was missing ingredients, or that I should have prepared half a dozen ingredients before I turned the burner on. My cooking was dreadful. Then I decided that if illiterate medieval peasants could cook a decent pot of soup, I could figure it out. Somehow! By the power of the Internet! I would do it, for literacy! It turned out that I was able to turn around the worst of my cooking blunders with one decision, simply to read the recipe from start to finish before trying to prepare anything. I started to make things that actually tasted good. Every now and then, something I would make would be surprisingly awesome. Just a couple of years later, everything I made was good, with a 'blah' exception maybe once every month or two, and we could handle that. Now, we'd usually rather eat at home than go out. I have the Hogwarts-power of being able to make yummy meals on command. If I really did have the ability to cast magical spells or make potions, what else would I use them on other than great dinners?
My husband and I have never ordered pizza delivery in our entire relationship. We've been friends for a dozen years now. Why don't we order pizzas? It's the 30-minute delivery window. By the time we would have decided to get a pizza, chosen what we wanted, called in the order, waited for it, and opened the box, I could have cooked an unusually fancy dinner. Almost everything I make takes under half an hour. Several things take 20 minutes, and a few take fewer than 10 minutes. If we were really that super-tired and neither of us could bear the thought of cooking a "real" dinner, we are perfectly capable of microwaving some soup and making some toast. No pizza could get here that fast. Granted, we wouldn't be using forks for either the soup or the pizza, but with the soup, we're making our considered nutritional decisions in advance.
I think that soups and casseroles and artfully plated dinners are the missing piece in most people's concept of "comfort food." What we really want, deep in our souls, is a real sit-down dinner. This is part of this abstruse concept known as "adulting," though. It seems like too much of an uphill climb. If more of us realized that we can microwave a vegetable in 4 minutes, and how little time it takes to make most simple entrees, maybe more of us would take the ladle into our own hands. We can provide this comfort for ourselves.
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.