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.
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.
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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.