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.
Most days I don't work out. It's true. I don't work out AT ALL. This is the exact kind of thing a thin woman isn't allowed to say. Like I'm going to sit in a restaurant, throwing a giant chimichanga down my gullet and talking very loudly about how I can eat whatever I want, and then they find my body in a back alley because someone in ketosis couldn't bear to listen to another word. Anyway. The entire reason I would talk about something like this is that it touches on so many major fallacies about fitness and weight loss.
First among these is that there are "naturally thin" people. I've even been told that I am one of these fabled creatures, and I laugh because I know differently. The difference between "naturally" thin people and the rest of us is that they acquired habits early in life that the rest of us have to learn as adults. Often, they aren't even fully aware that they do anything different. They eat and move a certain way, as do most or all of their relatives, and they think what is habitual to them is genetic, or a part of their personality. Why should we think differently when even they themselves don't realize the truth?
The answer I most did not want to hear about weight loss is that it's absolutely 100% about what I eat. I had thyroid disease, and I was still able to lose weight by changing my diet, whereas I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. Work out because you love it and you want to be strong, not because you have any illusions about weight loss happening at the gym.
Weight loss doesn't happen at the gym! We go to the gym to LIFT weight, not to lose weight.
Or, of course, we don't go to the gym at all.
Don't get me wrong; I love going to the gym. I have several different workouts that I enjoy, and I'll cheerfully choose one based on whether someone is in my way or hogging equipment that I like. I'm always game for learning a new exercise or training with someone else who can teach me something. It keeps things fun. I go through phases of being at the gym for up to 90 minutes at a time, most nights of the week.
And then, of course, I get into long ruts of not going. Like everyone.
What do I do to continue fitting in the same clothing size then? I claim that it's not genetics, so what's the secret?
The secret is, like I said, that weight maintenance is 100% about food, not exercise. I can eat an extra 500 calories in five minutes - it's called 'cake' - and it would take me at least 90 minutes on the elliptical to burn it off. This is partly unfair, because I am a short person with a small frame, so the standard slice of cake is meaner to me than it is to most people. The inverse way to look at this is that, since distance running is my preferred workout, the more I run, the more cake I can burn off. OR, the more cake I eat, the farther I can run!
What if you didn't have a sweet tooth, so much as that you have a previously undiscovered mutant power of endurance sports? Worked for me. *shrug*
The other thing about not working out is that we don't think of our background activity level as "a workout," although IT IS. It most definitely is. For instance, I spent most of the day I wrote this nursing an eye injury and sitting in a waiting room in urgent care. According to my activity tracker, I walked 4.5 miles and climbed five floors' worth of stairs. I was like, "What stairs? Did I climb stairs?" We got rid of our car, so we just walk everywhere, and I don't think of it as working out. Why? Because it's not hard anymore. I get sweaty pretty easily, so if I don't break a sweat, I don't feel like it counts. It's only "a workout" if I feel like I'm pushing myself.
My background activity level is far, far different than it was when I was fat. How so?
I walk about 50% faster
I walk 4-10x farther every day than I did 10 years ago
Six miles in a day is fairly common for me now
I climb stairs faster and far more often
I "bustle" around the house
My range of motion is much broader: reaching up, crouching down, climbing on stuff
I carry heavier weights more often
I do strenuous tasks myself that I used to ask A Man to do for me
I make a point of avoiding sitting down
I sleep about 50% more
I don't use my activity level as an excuse to "earn" "treats" (if I want to eat something, I just put it in my pie hole and eat it)
I eat basically the same stuff every day, so my intake is predictable while my activities are variable
What I learned the year I ran my marathon was that it takes me 38 miles of running to burn off one pound of fat. It "should" only take 35 miles, which means either I run too slow, or I burn fewer than 100 calories per mile because I'm both slow and small. Either way, it's a moot point. I'm more interested in doing things efficiently because I have a short attention span. Also, once I get curious about what someone else is doing differently than me, I can't let it go; I have to find out.
What is it like to feel strong, fast, and athletic? I wanted to know before I die. I figured I could always change back.
Pushing my physical limits to do an adventure race, go on a multi-day backpacking trek, and run a marathon changed everything I felt about being inside my body. I now know things about my capabilities that I can't un-know. I can eyeball something and know I'm strong enough to pick it up. I look at a map and think of walking somewhere (or running) and I know from experience that I'm quite capable of getting there and back without getting tired. I do things routinely that in the past I wouldn't do under any circumstances.
I used to spend quite a bit of my time nursing a migraine or otherwise experiencing too much fatigue or background pain to do much besides lie in bed trying not to move my forehead. After losing the 35 pounds and learning to eat sufficient micronutrients, suddenly my sleep problems and the migraines just... went away. A certain amount of my background activity level is just reclaimed from former "out of spoons" days. Again, that was 100% dietary.
As a newly athletic person, I now feel that most of my chronic pain and fatigue problems came from chronic sleep deprivation, micronutrient deficiency, and general lack of physical fitness. My body composition included very little muscle. My cardiovascular fitness was very poor. Of course I felt tired and cruddy even on my best days! I get tired just picturing my own posture from that time. I try to send little love messages to Past Me from time to time, but it just annoys her and hurts her feelings. She isn't ready to listen to me yet. I try to tune in more to Future Me, the Elderly Me, and hear what advice she has. It always seems to include getting stronger, building bone density and muscle, and retaining my ability to sit on the floor. Hopefully that won't feel like a workout.
Let's start by saying that obviously, all living creatures need to eat food to survive. Wild animals eat biologically appropriate foods in sufficient quantities; otherwise, they don't live long. Domesticated animals such as ourselves very likely don't eat with the same combinations, quality, quantity, or frequency that we would in a state of nature. One of the reasons that we eat dysfunctionally in our culture is to express our perceived identity.
As an example, many of us have a signature beverage. Go to a cafe or a bar and watch this in action. We often have opinions about what kind of person drinks certain drinks or brands, like they're some kind of personality index. We wear beverage logos on our clothes. Our favorite beverage is probably the first thing we think of when we imagine ourselves with time off.
We have brand loyalties, a 20th-century phenomenon that has carried forward. The industry term "heavy user" refers to a patron who visits a particular restaurant chain several times a week, perhaps more than once a day. We don't just love our favorite brands, we may also scoff at those who prefer a rival brand, to the great delight of advertisers.
Some of us identify as A Good Cook or as never cooking, refusing to cook. That always seems like leaving yourself at the mercy of other people's indifferent or nefariously bad cooking, but hey. There seem to be a lot of people who derive their identity from having a special, secret recipe. Personally, I like sharing great recipes because maybe sometimes someone else will cook it and I can enjoy it without doing the work!
We also tend to define ourselves based on things we refuse to eat. A quick, surefire way to make a new friend is to share about how much you hate eating something and then discuss it with someone else who also hates it. Kale, for example. People absolutely love talking about their most loathed vegetables for some reason.
Food taboos. A common ethnic slur across epochs and cultures is to say that another group of people eats disgusting, inappropriate foods. A classic example is dog meat. Objectively, pigs test as more intelligent than dogs, and from a neutral, space-alien perspective, it's wasteful to euthanize stray dogs rather than using that perfectly edible dogmeat for our caloric requirements. Still, we tend to find the idea pretty horrible, just as we probably wouldn't eat horseflesh or rat meat either. Part of our cultural identity includes eating certain animals for food but not others.
Bacon was such a major food trend for a while there that it got into everything. Bacon maple bars. Candied bacon ice cream topping. Bacon t-shirts. Bacon band-aids. Even bacon underpants. This is weird to me because I have thought bacon was repulsive and smelly since the very first time I tasted it, at age 6 or 7. The thing about bacon is that predominantly Christians (and atheists and Satanists, I guess) eat it. It's a reliable way to weed out Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and various health nuts in one fell swoop. Sort of the opposite of a food taboo - a food gauntlet? Eat Bacon or You Can't Sit With Us.
There's probably a lot of Red State/Blue State stuff in there, too, but I promise not to go there. Gawd do I hate talking politics.
Most of what we eat, most of the time, is probably very similar to what we ate as children. We eat what our family of origin ate. There is a "correct" menu for Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Many of us eat the same dozen dinners over and over again. Why would we change? This is how we roll. We eat the good stuff, not the yucky stuff.
How much of what we eat is based on the deliciousness of it, as distinguished from the habit of it, as opposed to feeling disgust toward other options?
Most social occasions revolve around food. Can it be a birthday without cake? Thanksgiving without turkey? Halloween without candy? Food is the most obvious way we know how to celebrate, followed by booze. Food connects us. Sharing meals brings us closer to our family and friends.
This is one of the reasons why permanent changes in food intake and body image are so hard. Making these changes causes us to separate from our food tribes. Those closest to us feel that our changes are really about them. Eating together validates and legitimizes our food choices. Our peers feel that when we decide to eat differently, we are challenging the way they eat, causing them inconvenience, asking for special treatment and attention, and setting ourselves apart as "better than" or "holier than thou." How selfish!
If you're diabetic or in recovery from an addiction, too bad. That's your problem.
We don't always accommodate others very well when the Standard American Diet isn't working for them. WHY CAN'T EVERYONE JUST EAT WHAT'S ON THEIR PLATE AND SHUT UP?? This is because it's not just about food units but about WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Eating what's in front of you - you'll eat it and you'll like it, or else - can feel like being correct, dutiful, respectful, responsible, frugal, mature, sensible, and simply common sense. Other reasons to eat a certain way might be because we feel that it's fun-loving, "real," and expressive of our independence. Nobody Tells Me What to Whatever. I'm eating this because I'm a free thinker, just like everyone else here at this table. We're authentic! The big thing is to definitely not cross over and start eating like one of Those People.
Those People might include Health Nuts. So extreme. Eating based on nutritional guidelines, especially if it includes more vegetables, is loopy, almost certainly fad-based and unhealthy, probably indicative of an eating disorder. What next, pyramid power or chanting or something?
I'm a Questioner, and I'm naturally drawn to investigate anything with taboo power. Why do people care so much about [whatever topic]? Hmm, how interesting. Why is [whatever] so controversial? Can actual objective facts be determined here, or has any real research been done? This part of my personality can often rub people the wrong way. Sorry! I just have to know. When I realized as a teenager just how much juice there was in people's attitudes toward food, I couldn't leave it alone. It led to basing my own eating habits on research, not exactly a party-friendly trait. My identity includes eating rationally, based on nutrition and dietetics. This is why it surprises me so much that most people seem to deliberately avoid eating healthily, because doing so would violate their self-image as well as group status.
Who am I if I start eating differently? How many meals does it take before I change into someone else? Or do I? Can I still feel like the same person if I eat certain things instead of others? Can I still fit in with my friends and family if I add and subtract certain foods from my plate? What would it be like if I based more of my identity around other values, rather than food items?
Every New Year, someone I know will make a public commitment to start making smoothies every morning. Every time, I would do a facepalm. I always tell people that smoothies are too messy, expensive, and time-consuming to make a Resolution we can keep. Also, the main reason people seem to choose smoothies is that they think drinking juice has magical weight loss powers. Like every other possible habit, juicing works in certain contexts and fails in others. For my purposes, I can now say that green juice does work.
We eat a lot of vegetables in my household. While my husband and I have both always had admirably low cholesterol, we have also had trouble getting the "good" cholesterol known as HDL, or high density lipoproteins, high enough. I just had a standard lipid panel done, and my HDL had gone from 38 mg/dL (too low) to 50 (medium). What changed? The addition of several servings of green juice every week.
I only need one good reason to do something, just as I only need one good reason to quit doing something. I wanted to increase my HDL, and I started drinking green juice, and my HDL went up. Perfection. Now, I just need to get it up to 60.
Does juicing help with weight loss? I think the majority of the time, it definitely does not. The reason for that is that most people do not have any nutritional knowledge, which is not our fault, and thus we don't know how to evaluate our food intake as a whole. By the month or year rather than by the meal or individual item. We tend to believe that adding or subtracting a specific food or category of food is the answer, based on trends and product marketing, when there is no single food that has magical dietary or nutritional powers. Adding more calories to an excess weight issue is going to compound that issue. It's pretty easy to drink hundreds of calories in just a few minutes.
When juicing aids weight loss, it's because the juice replaces an entire meal.
My husband and I did a juicing program for a week, and we did lose weight. That's because we drank juice for breakfast and lunch, and ate only soup or salad or steamed vegetables for dinner. Sure, yes, following a strict meal replacement program like this will induce weight loss. Going back to a Standard American Diet afterward will inevitably lead to regaining that weight.
People think that "diets don't work" due to pop culture. Diets absolutely do work. What doesn't work is the idea that we can eat "normally" the rest of the time. What has to happen is that we have to fundamentally change everything we eat, permanently. We have to reevaluate what we think is normal. There are so many unhealthy, obesogenic aspects to American food culture that any one element is enough to cause steady weight gain all by itself.
Excessively large portions.
Snacking between meals.
High-fructose corn syrup.
Added sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, sugars, syrups).
Drinking our calories.
Catastrophically low proportions of dietary fiber.
Chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
Eating for entertainment, identity, autonomy, and temporary mood repair.*
...and I think a certain portion of the blame goes directly to cheese.
What I've learned through my own weight loss journey is that adding more power vegetables, increasing my micronutrient intake, drinking significantly more water, and getting more sleep have all worked together to reduce my food cravings. Often, foods I used to crave taste bad to me now, especially salty foods like popcorn and corn chips.
How much more water? In my case, like triple. I almost never drank water before.
How much more sleep? In my case, about 50% more. I used to sleep 5-6 hours a night, and now I sleep 8-9.
How many more vegetables? In my case, about quadruple. Now we eat 2-4 cups of power vegetables with dinner every night, in addition to the green juice.
What do I mean by power vegetables? Mostly cruciferous vegetables. That specifically means broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens. We also eat a lot of chard, which is not cruciferous but is high in potassium.
Anything else, I refer to as "sprinkles" or "decorations." Lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, green beans, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, bell peppers... that stuff we just eat for fun. It doesn't "count." Corn is candy.
One of the things about juicing that works for some people is that it can help to disguise the taste and texture of power vegetables. If you gag on certain foods, it's going to be hard work to retrain yourself around flavor and mouthfeel, but it can be done. (I never hear people say that they love eating certain foods like ice cream or chocolate because "it's the texture;" it only comes up as an excuse to avoid eating foods that contain fiber and micronutrients). Anecdotally, all the picky eaters in my acquaintance weigh more than they want to weigh, and I think this is because they lean toward and away from predictable categories of foods. Toward soda, desserts, starches, fried foods, and dairy; away from fruits, vegetables, and all high-fiber whole foods that require real chewing. This hypothesis of mine is objectively testable.
Juicer or blender? We got a Vitamix blender because everything we put in it goes into the juice. That includes the kale stems, apple peels, flax seeds, or whatever else we want to throw in. Juicing spits the pulp out of the back, wasting most of the dietary fiber, creating less volume of juice, costing money, and making a ginormous, hideous mess. Cleaning a juicer is ten times harder than cleaning a blender, especially an expensive blender like the Vitamix that doesn't have a bunch of removable parts.
What goes in our juice?
Five leaves of kale
Two cups of ice cubes
1/2" chunk of ginger root, including peel
2 cups pre-made juice, either green or purple juice
We drink 32 ounces each most afternoons, splitting the pitcher between us. On weekends, that's what we have for lunch. Note that we don't try to fuss with it in the mornings. Too noisy, too messy, too time-consuming, too complicated. Instead it goes into a time slot when we are wide awake as well as hungry.
We'll keep making green juice, as we have done for the last several months, because it's not inconvenient and we've made it into a routine. The Vitamix sits on the counter because it's too tall for any of our kitchen cupboards. We go to the grocery store 2-3 days a week, because we don't have a car, and that makes it easy to keep buying fresh fruit and kale. Making the juice takes less than five minutes, including washing the produce. We can afford it. We like the taste. It has turned out to be a faster way to get an extra serving of a cruciferous vegetable than making a complicated lunch or doubling up at dinner. The fact that green juice has helped to increase our micronutrients and increase our HDL is now automatic to our daily routine. It's not a Resolution anymore, but a habit we can keep.
* I know exactly what I mean by this, but I realize it probably sounds esoteric and merits its own post
Today is a major anniversary for me, and I'm stepping out of my normal schedule of blog topics to share about it. Don't worry, I rarely mention my lifestyle and I'm not planning to make a habit out of it. It turns out that other people generally think it's a bigger deal than I do. After 20 years as a vegan and 24 years as a vegetarian, it's just a part of my life, like a stack of t-shirts or a music playlist.
I eat the same way as everyone else. I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I've traveled to nine countries on four continents, and I ate meals there, too. I go to grocery stores and buy groceries. I put them in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. For some extremely weird reason, I have this pet omnivore who's willing to live with me and eat my cooking every day. (Not my dog, not my parrot, but my big ol' hairy ol' hockey-playing ex-logger of a husband). From my perspective, I'm a very ordinary suburban housewife who likes cooking. I made an extreme choice when I was 17, and now that I'm in my forties, it feels pretty conventional.
I look at it as a basic consumer choice. It's my right under capitalism to buy what I want, consume what I want, and not buy or consume what I don't want. Just like everyone else. Other people don't like kale or tofu, and they don't buy or eat those things. Good for you. Do what you want. I believe that the more groups there are with distinct preferences, the more markets are created for entrepreneurs to create their own brands, restaurants, clothing lines, shoes, hair dyes, tattoo ink, and all the rest. I don't smoke or vape, so that range of products is irrelevant to me, and I imagine vegan specialty products can be that way for non-vegans. Just ignore us and get back to your day.
Since I made the change at age 17, it's gotten easier. The range of clearly labeled plant-based products has expanded far beyond what I could have dreamed two decades ago. There are hundreds of vegan cookbooks, and they get better every year. I can now order food at most restaurants, many menus are marked with symbols, and most waiters are familiar with the ingredients of the dishes they are serving. If not, they're willing to check. The concept of alternative diets (including food sensitivities, Paleo, or whatever) has disrupted the food industry, to the irritation of some and the delight of others. That genie isn't going back in the bottle. Consumers deserve to know what it is that we're buying, and we want what we want. We're going to go where our desires are honored. Nobody is required to adapt to this; I'm perfectly willing to take my business elsewhere - and the party of 16 who are going out with me.
I don't expect people to accommodate me. I expect my friends and acquaintances to skirt the issue. I always bring emergency rations for myself when I go to a gathering. If I'm going to something like a book club where everyone else is eating together, I'll bring a microwave dinner and try to heat and eat it discreetly. Despite this, I am frequently met by a hostess at the door, announcing, "Sorry, I didn't make anything vegan for you." Um, thanks, I didn't expect you to? Whatsoever? Sorry to have completely ruined your evening by forcing you to make a spectacle of me at your doorstep.
On the other hand, I have several friends who have cooked incredible meals for me, bent over backwards to make sure I had something to eat, or even invented new recipes for baked goods and brought them to me. I will do anything for these people, because that, to me, is the most astounding and touching gift. You know who you are.
My husband still eats meat, as he has for his entire life. Now it's maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a meal. He doesn't eat dairy, because it makes him violently ill. It's funny that he and I have the same dietary arrangement - do not eat things with dairy in them - but his reason is accepted, while mine is considered annoying, even though accommodating one of us is just as much an imposition as accommodating the other. People have this firmly entrenched idea that having a nutrition-based or ideology-based diet is selfish, unfair to others, unrealistic, unhealthy, holier-than-thou, vapid, trendy, or whatever. You can demand your dressing on the side, no onions, extra ketchup, only this brand of cola but not that one, or any picky-pickle fussy requirements you may have, and you're fine. It's only allowed if you do it because It's The Texture or you just vehemently dislike the taste of something. Do it for health or ideology, and everyone hates you.
Do I lecture people? Yeah, I did when I was a teenager. I know people think I do now because I get that type of feedback from time to time. My husband is puzzled by this. We've known each other for a dozen years and are more or less inseparable in person and on social media. He's my reality check. What often happens is that someone will lecture me, while I stand there listening in bemusement, and then remember it as me hounding everyone else. A vegan is a symbol of something. What, exactly, I don't fully understand. The truth is that I don't give a flying fudge factory what other people eat. I don't want people jumping in and trying to go vegan for three weeks, with no idea whatsoever about nutrition or cooking or meal planning, and then blame the concept for their unsatisfying experience, rather than their poor execution of it. Don't do it; you'll just mess it up.
There are health aspects to this. An older roommate told me, when I was 18: "You'll find out what you're doing to your body." Mmhmm. I just had a full panel of lab work done a couple of weeks ago. I'll be 42 in July. What the heck, I'll list it off at the end of this post, because perhaps it will seem relevant to any readers in their forties or better.
It cracks me up a bit when a severely obese diabetic takes it upon themselves to lecture me about my health, or query Where Do I Get My Protein. Hey, do you want to compare blood work? Do you want to race for a mile? How about 15 miles? Do you want to make a list of random health complaints and see whose is longer? How many prescriptions are you on? Look at me. I've been taking this massive risk of eating a plant-based diet for 20-24 years (depending on whether you count four years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian or not). Anything it was going to "do to my body" it presumably will have done by now.
I look forward to my old age. I come from a long-lived family, where everyone seems to reach at least age 75. It will start getting fun as I enter my sixties. At that point, I predict that my health and fitness level will speak for themselves. Right now, I'm only beginning to reach a level of implicit credibility, where my age and experience on this path have diverged from the Standard American Lifestyle and the accompanying Standard American Results. In another twenty years, it will be pretty obvious "what I've done to my body."
Here are my latest lab test results, as of 5/2/2017. I'm not on any pharmaceuticals other than birth control.
Fasting glucose: 86 mg/dL
Cholesterol: 134 mg/dL
Triglyceride: 83 mg/dL
HDL: 50 mg/dL
LDL calculated: 67 mg/dL
Cholesterol/high density lipoprotein: 2.7
Cholesterol, non-HDL: 84 mg/dL
Sodium: 141 mEq/L
Potassium: 4.3 mEq/L
Chloride: 106 mEq/L
CO2: 27 mEq/L
Anion gap (NA - (CL + CO2)): 8 mEq/L
Creatinine: 0.80 mg/dL
Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT): 10 U/L
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH): 1.16 mcIU/mL
Free thyroxine (T4): 1.1 ng/dL
Blood pressure: 94/58 mmHg (a bit low, but that's my norm)
Resting pulse: 64
News flash: Not everyone has to eat the same thing. It helps to understand this before anyone in the household sets out to make dietary changes of any kind. Changing what you eat is hard enough. Adding power struggles between household members can only make it harder. When you decide that you want to take ownership of your body and make positive changes, this will immediately change the power dynamic. Others around you will get nervous and try to restore equilibrium by pushing back and trying to making you quit. It is known. Plan around them. This is also true if you're the one who wants snacks and someone else is trying to change. The only rules are the rules that work for everyone concerned.
Power struggles come in every variety. You can have a power struggle about who goes to bed when, who gets to use which bathroom for how long at what time of day, who unloads the dishwasher, who cleans up cat barf, who gets to spend how much money on what, and on and on. You can make every single thing a power struggle every day if you like. If you have children, you can have power struggles with them about whether the left shoe goes on the left or right foot, whether you can wear the same outfit after it technically no longer fits, or how many times to reread the same storybook. A popular child-oriented power struggle is whether one needs to eat any foods that contain insoluble dietary fiber or micronutrients, or whether one can simply get rickets or pellagra instead. Look at the snacks/diet plan spectrum as a non-binary, non-zero-sum choice in the context of power struggles in general.
Non-binary means there are more than two options. Non-zero-sum means there can be multiple winners. For example, if I wear a t-shirt, everyone else can also wear a t-shirt, or a sweater, or a T-Rex costume, or whatever. It only becomes an issue if I'm trying to enforce a dorky dress code on a family photo.
That's the thing about food intake. In our culture, apparently anything other than 24/7 cheese-covered deep-fried super-sized buffet is preachy and body-shaming.
There is food everywhere. If you haven't noticed yet, you're going to. Vending machines! Candy bowls! Free breadsticks and chips and salsa! Ice cream trucks! Restaurant delivery! All-night drive-thru! You can get pizza delivery by drone on two continents already. I anticipate 3D-printed food on demand, just like Star Trek, in only a few years. Before we know it, we're going to be accosted by little R2-D2-type robots trying to give us free samples and take our orders for third breakfast, second lunch, and eighthsnack. Drones can fly through our windows and drop food bundles straight down our funnels, directly into the esophagus. It'll be great.
Things changed for me when I realized how deep my scarcity mindset went around food. I had spent at least four minutes chasing a single pumpkin seed around my plate, trying to get it on my fork. I froze. I asked my husband, "How long have I been doing this?" He said, "As long as I've known you." I had this rule somewhere in my psyche that I had to absorb every single molecule of food that had been served to me. I sat with this feeling. I taught myself that because I have 24-hour access to all foods known, I can relax. I will not starve. In fact, if I got anywhere within 40 pounds of starving, a committee would chase me down, wearing matching hats that read GIRL, EAT A SANDWICH, and would in fact force-feed me sandwiches until I reached the new zaftig ideal. I don't have to have food in my mouth during every waking moment, and it turns out my dentist agrees.
I lost 35 pounds, and I haven't had a migraine in over three years. I'm never going back.
My husband has struggled with his weight all his life. His top weight was 305. He taught me everything I know about weight loss, and the irony of this is that we're never trying to lose weight at the same time. I've learned that to support him when he's on a mission, I simply can't eat certain things in front of him, or store them where he will see them. When I was training for my marathon and he was cutting calories, I had: first and second breakfast, first and second lunch, afternoon snack, Frappy Hour, and of course my fanny pack o' fig bars and trail mix for the run itself. I had a secret container of Birthday Cake Oreos hidden in my office. I bought Nutter Butters because he doesn't like them. (Neither do I, but COOKIES). We ate a sensible dinner together after he got home, and if I wanted late-night snacks, I would just stuff them in my pocket when he wasn't looking and "go for a walk." I do everything I can to be courteous and supportive around his eating plans, just as I would for any of his other plans.
A strategy that was helpful for me, when I was untraining myself from EATING ALL THE THINGS, was to remember the grossness of some former coworkers. People be touching the snacks. There was this one guy my husband referred to as "Mister Poopy Hands" because he had seen him walk out of the restroom many times without ever going near the sinks. I never ate out of communal office bowls ever again. If there's something I want to not eat, I just picture that particular dude scrabbling around in the bowl or working in the kitchen. Bleah.
The truth is that nobody is responsible for what goes into my mouth but me. I just make a decision and then the decision is made. If I'm going to eat cake for breakfast, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I decide to trim the four pounds I gained over Thanksgiving weekend, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I struggle and resist Past Self's policy choices, I can give myself R. Lee Ermey-style coaching or I can wear a thick rubber band around my wrist and snap myself. I can remind myself that I'll be at my goal in a few more days. What I can do for anyone other than myself is significantly more limited.
Good luck ever trying to change anyone else's eating habits. Good luck ever trying to change anything about anyone. The very fact that your intention has become obvious sabotages any chance of a positive result. Assuming the mantle of Nutritional Gatekeeper is nuanced and complicated. It does tend to work on children, though, because they don't have money, they can't drive, and they generally can't cook, either. What your kids eat, if you have children, IS entirely up to you. Just because they demand nutrient-free foods does not mean you have to provide them.
Scarcity mindset will poison your best attempts, whether for yourself or others. Put joy back into your life, there and in other areas. More good stuff. More music, more color, more nature, more laughing, more making of things rather than consuming of things, more hugging, more fascination. If food is the highlight of your day, then you have a devastatingly boring life. Find a way to make your life more interesting and pleasure-filled overall. This may have a ripple effect on the people closest to you, changing the power dynamic, or it may not. What you eat can't really be about what everyone else eats. Do what works for you, and it will work for you.
Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
I bought $20 worth of Thin Mints from some Girl Scouts. It's true. I did it, even though I was a Camp Fire Girl. Then I ate an entire box of the chocolatey minty wafer cookies in a week. I'm not ashamed! It's more than just a cookie; it's a charitable and educational event. Right?? That's why, ounce for ounce, they cost a lot more than store-bought cookies, and a mega-lot more than homemade cookies. I have to remind myself that I'm not literally eating money, I'm only metaphorically eating money.
The first time I successfully lost a bunch of weight, it was because I was flat freaking broke. I mean, so broke I had to go to the Laundromat and ask people if they could spare some lint so at least I would have something in my pocket. My major goal at that time of my life was to convert money into food as quickly as I could. The connection between the two goes a lot farther for me than the realization that so many foods are coin-shaped. (Pizzas, donuts, potato chips, burgers, most cookies, banana slices, OMG MIND BLOWN)
When I was in college, my stated goal was to get a job that paid well enough that I could eat every meal in a restaurant. I basically did that when we were on our honeymoon, and that is why this is no longer a goal for me. I can gain a full clothing size in under two weeks. I've done it at least twice. If there was a TV show about me, it would be called 'Biggest Gainer.' I can basically look at a picture menu and gain three pounds. I sometimes wish I were ten inches taller, so I could eat more, although if that actually worked I'd be a redwood tree by now. The result of my love affair with cookies and restaurant food has been a cost of thousands of dollars in fitness equipment, gym memberships, race fees, gym clothes, running shoes, and a stint with a personal trainer, not to mention the various health issues.
When we're trying to get out of debt and move toward financial stability, much less financial freedom, we can't ignore the issue of what we spend on food. There is an extremely interesting relationship between food and finance that is very reflective of our attitudes toward scarcity and abundance.
I am in a place of financial comfort now where I can afford basically any food I want, anywhere, at any time. I could pick up my phone and have a wide range of steamy goodness at my front door within twenty minutes. What has been instructive to me is that I no longer eat the vast majority of 'comfort foods' I used to love. I lost interest. I used to stand at the vending machine in my office longer than most people stand in front of the Mona Lisa when they visit the Louvre. The beautiful mystery that is food packaging! I calculated recently that I spent at least $300 a year on vending machine snacks at a time when I really could have used that money for other things, like a new winter coat. I also could have had triple the calories for the same price by buying healthier foods at the grocery store, or I could have acknowledged my habits and gotten the same snacks in bulk at Costco. At the time, I was framing this habit as a not-habit, as a one-time splurge multiplied many times, as a "treat."
A "treat" is a band-aid on a disappointing life.
My real issues were an unfulfilling job, an unsuitable relationship, a conflicted relationship with my body image and physical health, an objectionable commute, and a climate that almost never suited me. No bag of vending machine snacks or pro-social cookies was going to help with that.
Health food is expensive. Well, yes and no. I will never stop pointing out that a bunch of organic kale costs the same as a modestly-sized bag of chips from the convenience store. A five-pound bag of potatoes costs the same as a Big Mac. At least some of the cost of healthier groceries can easily be offset by changing our purchasing habits. Vending machines and convenience stores are expensive! I've been to the discount grocery store, the one where they have half-off frozen foods, and discovered that it's still significantly cheaper to buy bulk goods and cook from scratch. That process can feel like such a depressing, exhausted, onerous chore from a position of scarcity, though! Cooking in a tiny, scuzzy, outdated kitchen with dubious pot handles, dull knives, and poor lighting. Bleah. There's a reason why upscale homes always have ginormous foofoo kitchens.
When I was poor, I hated to cook. I was tired, I worked on my feet a lot, I commuted on the bus, and when I got home I was wiped out. I didn't understand the connection between my dietary habits, my energy level, and my quality of sleep. Now that I have nice pans, a vast spice cabinet, and a dishwasher, I love cooking. We can our own produce, soup stock, jam, and pickles. It's really weird that I have probably triple the energy as a middle-aged person than I did in my twenties. This is definitely linked to the optimism that comes with prosperity. I suspect this works both ways, although I can't go back in time to prove it.
It helps to reframe the way we think about treats. Is it really a treat if I feel physically icky the next day, like when I overdo it at a buffet restaurant? Is it really a treat if I've been trying to get off medication? Is it really a treat if I feel like my weight is out of control and I hate the way I look and feel? THIS IS NOT ME is not a treat kind of a feeling. Does what I've been doing lately fit with my vision of Future Me in a thriving career and a super-awesome personal environment? Are my habits leading toward greater abundance and fun, or am I trading my future for momentary pleasure? Would I feed my pets the way I feed myself?
That one tends to stop me in my tracks. I would never let my beautiful fluff-babies eat the amount of sugar that I do. If someone tried to feed my parrot a cookie, I would slap it right out of their hand. Meanwhile [crams stack of cookies in mouth].
What would a happy person do? There is this idea that impulsive decisions and living for the now are the happier choice, but only young people really believe this. Once we pass the age of thirty, we start to feel it more. Yeah, I used to love to party and stay up late, but then I got tired. Domestic contentment is an abiding form of happiness, one that is reliable. When you can be happy on an average day at home, in full acceptance of your current situation, then you've won the game. Part of this domestic happiness includes financial stability and part of it includes the elusive sensation of "loving the skin you're in." It's much easier to appreciate these feelings when you've attained them after years of not feeling either. Believe that these feelings of peace and satisfaction truly exist and that they are possible.
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.