Sure enough, after dropping a little over four pounds in my first week, I’ve plateaued.
Fortunately, I know what this is like. It doesn’t confuse or upset me the way it did when I was first figuring out how to keep a food log and track all my metrics. I mean, it’s annoying, but it’s not going to end me.
I lost a tenth of a pound four days in a row.
With older scales, that change wouldn’t have even registered. It would have just looked like nothing was happening whatsoever.
This type of thing is noticeable when you’re hungry enough that you can smell cold bread from across the room.
What?? Why is this happening? WHY am I not making progress, why??
Calculate it out, though.
A tenth of a pound a day means a pound every ten days. (Lost or gained, mind you).
Three pounds every thirty days. (Again, lost or gained).
Thirty pounds in three hundred days, a little less than a year. (Note, again, either a loss or a gain).
This is how the game is won, in the tiniest of increments.
This is also how the game is lost.
Other people seem to be pretty darn delighted with their shape and size, and good for them. For me, when I put on extra weight, it seems to start a downward spiral that makes it harder and harder to reverse. Like I’m drilling myself into the ground.
I gain weight, I don’t sleep as well, I start being tired all the time, I start getting headaches, my energy level craters, my daily average mood drops from like an 8 or 9 to more like a 5 or 6. It isn’t fun.
I start pulling myself out of the ditch, I start feeling more cheerful, I start having more energy, and after a while I realize it’s been weeks or months since I had a migraine. This is when I feel like the Real Me (TM).
This is why I pay so much attention to this little problem of the tenth of a pound trend line.
For someone like me, someone with a small frame, it doesn’t take much to pull me out of alignment.
As I’ve discovered, it can be a difference of as little as a hundred calories a day one way or the other.
What is very disappointing to discover is that 100 calories is the equivalent of:
Or a 1” square of a brownie
Or a handful of chips
On the other hand, it’s fairly easy to avoid eating that extra hundred calories a day. This is especially true if you’re very busy.
For instance, today I was in back to back meetings for five hours. Ordinarily, I would have gotten up around 3:00 and had an energy bar, which is part of my plan. By the time I had a moment to switch off, it was so close to dinner that I shrugged and skipped it.
This is probably true for a lot of people, but it’s easy to put something in your mouth just because it’s there, or you’re bored, or it’s there, or it’s there.
The other thing I learned, the first time I did this food-logging exercise, is that it is not easy to estimate how different one food is from another. If I saw three bowls of soups, all different flavors, how would I know whether one had double the calories of another?
In my mind, “dinner” was just a category.
I never thought of my various snacks as snacks, either. I just wanted to eat something, and I ate it. It never seemed to amount to much because I never put it all into a pile and observed it.
A food log does that, though.
Before I got married, I would eat dinner, and then go back a couple hours later and eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. I thought of it as “a bowl” but it typically was more like five servings.
I didn’t learn that until I actually got out a measuring cup and looked at it.
I’m grateful for all the work that Past Me put in to learning all these skills. At the same time, I’m annoyed with Past Me for gaining this weight. Obviously I understand that getting coronavirus is a reasonable excuse, and that’s fine.
I’d rather live in what I feel like is my real body than live inside an excuse, though.
This would seem to be a question of self-compassion, and it is. I have to have enough compassion for myself and my situation to reach for something better.
After what I’ve been through, I deserve the time and space to work my way back to something that feels better to me. I’m doing what I need to do, even if it has to happen one tenth of a pound at a time.
Please don’t read this if you have body image issues and you are triggered by concepts around weight loss.
I personally don’t. I like to think that I can choose to follow the same sort of method as any rational-minded person and make changes to my own physical vessel at will. When a male person decides to lose weight, everyone nods. When a female person decides to lose weight, it can launch tens of thousands of concerned or outraged voices. Here lies madness!
The madness of determining your own choices and taking ownership of yourself, asserting bodily autonomy. It’s allowed when someone wants a piercing or a tattoo, so why not this.
*shrug* Oh well, here we go.
I hit my top weight last year, after having COVID-19. The last time I weighed that much, I wore a size 14, so it seems strange that I still fit in a size 4. That’s due to body composition. I put on a bunch of muscle mass when I was taking boxing, and muscle is far slower to lose than cardio capacity.
Let’s keep the muscle and lose the adipose tissue.
Why do I want to lose body fat?
I have a list of specific reasons, any one of which would be enough motivation for me.
The dark secret, though, is that last night I discovered I had worn off a little patch of skin on my belly from wearing tight pants all day. It itches like crazy and looks terrible. The time that you have to slather antibiotic ointment on yourself due to a pants-related injury is the time to reassess.
Would I rather have new pants or a new... middle area? To me that choice is obvious.
Okay, so how am I going about this?
The first thing I did was to tell my husband I’m not messing around, I’m losing weight for the next few months. Since I’m not spending time around literally any single other human being, he is my only treat trap. (Oh yes indeed he is). Note that I’m not using him for an accountability partner - we’re usually out of sync when one of us is trying to drop weight. I’ve just put him on notice that if he wants snacks he has to eat them alone.
The second thing I did was to reinstate my food log. I use MyFitnessPal. It’s pretty easy because a while back, I logged every single thing I ate for a year, so most of my meal choices are already in there. I also use the bar code scanner on my phone. I’ve been spending maybe five minutes a day on the food log.
I already knew that I was eating too much for lunch each day. I have a favorite sandwich that I find irresistible, especially when I’m busy at work. It only really works if I’m working out regularly, and since COVID, I haven’t been. There are several ways to go about this.
I went with 4 and ordered a couple cases of Soylent, because I’ve tried most of the flavors and it does the job. I have used them to tide me over when I have back-to-back meetings and can’t get a meal break when I want one.
What I’m doing is eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, bottle of Soylent for lunch, energy bar for afternoon snack, and then a normal dinner.
So far I’ve dropped 4.1 pounds in the first week.
Now, that is widely considered to be an unsafe rate. Two pounds a week is recommended.
I’m okay with this right now because we’re coming out of the holidays, and I was eating a bunch of large, heavy meals. We had pizza and brownies on New Year’s Eve. It’s highly unlikely that I would continue to drop weight at that rate after this first week.
On the other hand, I have a specific amount of weight I want to drop, after which I will revert to my normal, vegetable-packed, healthy diet. I will check in with updates to show how the plan is working.
If I happened to reach my goal in three weeks instead of six weeks, I would be totally okay with that! It seems unlikely that I would do damage to myself in that short a timespan. For my body type and food-oriented habits, nothing is as easy as gaining back weight.
The main advantage of doing a regimen like this is that it’s only a part of my mental bandwidth for a short period of time, and then it’s done. I’m not the kind of person who likes to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, taking pictures of myself, or fussing around comparing myself to other people. I look fantastic for my age, and especially for someone who almost died this year. My body pulled me through a potentially fatal illness.
I trust my body, I trust my emotions, and above all, I trust my powers of reason and discernment. I set out on this brief process of body transformation with a specific image in mind. That is of a healthy, lively person with a lot more to do than worry about what is going on with my pants.
I came up with a new idea for Thanksgiving, and it worked out so well that I thought I’d share.
Or maybe other people have been doing this forever, and I was just the last to hear about it?
Anyway, it was just my hubby and me this year, after many years of either traveling or hosting large, elaborate parties. We were reciting all the delicious things we wanted to cook, and we realized:
THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD FOR TWO PEOPLE
Suddenly it struck me: What if we cooked all of it, and we just drew it out over the entire four-day weekend?
As soon as I had the idea, it clicked into place. Less cooking each night. Less cleanup. More space in the fridge.
We had already succeeded in eating up most of the contents of our freezer that month, and we had plenty of space. I had the additional idea that if we cooked Thanksgiving foods every night, we could box up some of the leftovers and make full fancy meals to save for later!
The idea sounded almost too good to be true. We could cook a fairly normal-sized dinner each night, just like normal, and we would get at least seven nights’ worth of dinners from cooking for four nights.
I’m here to report that it totally worked!
On Wednesday, my hubby made two berry pies. He’s the pie baker in the family. It is his considered opinion that fruit pies are better when they’ve had a day to rest. Also, it’s less work when the pies are the only thing going on in the kitchen. He was able to roll out the dough on a bare countertop with nothing and no one in his way.
There is something about the presence of home-made pies in the kitchen, waiting to be enjoyed, that makes everything else seem like less work.
On Thursday, we both cooked, and we were able to take turns to an extent. We haven’t had a kitchen that was big enough for both of us to cook at the same time in at least five years. I made cornbread and Brussels sprouts, and he made mashed potatoes and gravy. We also had store-bought cranberry sauce.
On Friday, we both cooked again. This time I made a double batch of green bean casserole and he made biscuits. We had leftovers of everything from Thursday, including plenty of pie.
On Saturday, we had eaten up all the mashed potatoes, so he made mashed sweet potatoes. Neither of us likes the kind with brown sugar or whatever. We still had leftovers of everything else from both Thursday and Friday at this point, including pie, and it was quite the spread!
By the time Sunday rolled around, the fridge and freezer were pretty full and we had at least half a dozen separate dishes to simply heat and eat.
You’re probably curious what were the main entrees, and that is something of a moot point, but we did it all vegan. The first night we made a Gardein holiday roast, and there was plenty for leftovers on Friday and one set of boxed dinners. The third night we made the regular Gardein turkey cutlets with gravy, cooking up a second bag so we could freeze a set of leftovers. The fourth night I made marinated tempeh and we froze our last set of boxed dinners.
We have a set of divided glass containers that I bought a few years ago. They have three sections, one larger and two a bit smaller. That works out to a main and two sides, though we were able to also fit in a little piece of cornbread in each one. We had three separate pairs of meals put away, and one night when we were very busy, we just whipped some out and microwaved them.
Arguably, that is both faster and tastier than ordering a pizza and standing on the sidewalk waiting for it. (We live in a city apartment).
It’s hard to say what the best part was about slow-walking our Thanksgiving. By Saturday we basically had a buffet of leftovers, just like most people do on Thanksgiving Friday. But we didn’t really do any more cooking or cleanup any night all week. We were able to fit everything in the dishwasher each night and easily wipe down the counters.
The only mistake I made is that I waited too long to go shopping, and when I went to buy myself a jar of cornichons, they were completely sold out. FAIL. Never fear, though, I learned from my error and restocked the next time I went in.
We’re definitely repeating our slow holiday feast. The only difference is that I think next time we’ll make cinnamon rolls for breakfast, too.
* Note: I also gave a little extra to the food drive that week.
It’s a week from Thanksgiving. No matter what you’re doing or with whom you are doing it, I’m pretty sure you’re probably planning to eat something. Care to join me in the annual fridge and freezer clear-out?
The reason I do it a week early is to make room for all the leftovers. We have this thing I like to call Fridge Tetris, where all the containers have to fit just so. There is no way I’m going to hang on to some sketchy old jars if they’re going to block my nice pan of cornbread. Out they go!
I used to be terrible about this, because I have food hoarding tendencies. As I resolved to change my ways, I picked up a pro tip from someone else in an organizing article. She said she likes to clear out her entire fridge at the New Year so she knows nothing in there is older than that point.
One thing I can tell you from working with the chronically disorganized is that fridges? Tend to be the most squalid places of all. I have literally found condiments, tahini, salad dressing, etc that are over a decade old.
Halt! If you’re muttering to yourself “so what” then I challenge you to open your fridge, take a picture of it, and post that picture to your social media. No staging no edits.
I say it with love because I have fought that fight with my own self.
Hold onto your old friends, hold onto your memories, but please don’t hold onto your ancient mustards.
There is another thing I picked up from someone else, and that is the concept of the “silly amount.” A silly amount is whatever is left in a container that is smaller than a serving, like a quarter teaspoon of jam or a dribble of milk. It’s silly to let a whole huge container take up space waiting for someone to be disappointed by this sad smidge. The rule with the silly amount, then, is to either finish it off on the spot or throw it out.
My husband caught me doing this once with dry beans. I was saving something like eight dry beans in the bag because I had already measured what I needed. He looked at me, utterly incredulous. What are you doing?? I explained my reasoning and he explained his, that adding the extra few beans wouldn’t be noticeable in my gallon soup pot. Aha. I froze in place, stunned at how much sense that made and wondering how much of my life I had spent dealing with silly amounts of food.
Those silly amounts add up, you see. Maybe the exact same amount is spent on groceries, down to the penny, and in one household the foods are eaten when they are fresh. In another, the silly amounts add up and start to get stale or moldy or runny. Kitchen One is spotless and full of fresh things. Kitchen Two is scary and full of hidden oozes. Both may operate on the edict to Save Money and Don’t Waste Food.
Gives you chills, doesn’t it??
Here’s another thing we do. This is a tradition of my own, and I call it Freezer Surprise. It’s a little running joke. I reached a point in my cooking abilities where the stuff I threw together on a whim started to be better than what I made by strictly following a recipe. The idea is to look at whatever random things in the fridge or freezer Need to Get Eaten Up, and then try to cobble them together into a pleasing meal.
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, my goal is to finish off as many tubs, jars, bottles, or other containers in our kitchen as possible. This doesn’t necessarily include pantry items like canned soup, especially this year, but it definitely includes anything that has been opened. Better to eat it now than to discover it’s full of weevils a year from now.
Usually this has been a more straightforward goal, because we often travel for at least a week in November or December. Coming home from vacation to a fridge full of turquoise leftovers is not my idea of fun. It’s easier to run a little lean for a couple of weeks, eating up what’s on hand and then restocking in January.
This year is going to be different, since we’re staying home for the first time in a long time, and we’re going to be sad to miss out on being with family. On the other hand, since we aren’t traveling, we have more time to focus on things like cleaning out the fridge.
It’s a time to remind ourselves how lucky we are that we have maybe a little too much, rather than too little. We can nudge ourselves with haunting memories from March 2020, when entire aisles were completely empty in every grocery store for two towns in any direction. Yes, we’re keeping more food supplies at hand now, but no, that doesn’t mean that a single smear of something in the back of the fridge is what’s going to save us.
Cleaning out the fridge is a sign of abundance. It’s a way to anticipate nice meals, a way to bring a little peace of mind into a home that could probably use more. It’s also a way to remember, oh yes, I was making my own wild bread yeast earlier this year and maybe I can let that go.
As I clear out our fridge and freezer before Thanksgiving, I plan our meal. I think about what I’m going to cook for my family the next time we’re all together. (Yeah, yeah, the stuffed mushrooms, I gotcha). I also plan my gifts to the food pantry and the soup kitchen. May all be fed.
I’m sharing this as a COVID survivor, so if you insist on finding a way to associate my personal story with body image issues, I guess I can’t stop you, but that is not what this is about.
I started 2020 with the declaration that I was going to “get my body back.” At the time, I meant that I had gained weight and it was getting in my way. I had no idea that just a few months later I’d be fighting for my life, and that “getting my body back” would include the ability to walk across the room without hanging on to anything.
Maybe some people can put on weight, and it’s mostly muscle, and it gives them power and vigor. I’m guessing. That was only ever the case for me for a couple of months out of my life, when I was training hard four days a week, right before I got my orange belts in Muay Thai and Krav Maga. I could do fifty burpees!
Usually, on my body and in my life, extra weight represents fatigue and illness.
One of those unfortunate signs has been respiratory issues. At one point I wound up coughing up blood, had to use an inhaler for months, and the nurses kept asking if I was sure I didn’t have asthma. (If I did, nobody told me). I was at least 30 pounds overweight back then.
I made the connection when I was sick with COVID. I spent a lot of time feeling very low and mopey, very much in the mood to blame myself for everything I ever did wrong in my life, wondering how I had brought this on myself. (By going to stupid brunch, that’s how). It occurred to me to wonder if I would have remained asymptomatic if I hadn’t put this extra weight on in the past year.
What the average healthy person does not feel is the sheer weight of having stuff on top of your lungs. It doesn’t matter what it is - a bag of flour, a book, a hefty cat, a pile of laundry, or an impressive pair of bazongas. When you’re having trouble breathing, you feel it. Your chest muscles start working much harder to get air into your lungs, and *shrug* weight-lifting is weight-lifting.
Same with the throat. The single biggest risk factor for sleep apnea is neck circumference, and that is probably why it is common in professional football players. Big necks.
Nobody ever says, Hey, if you drop some weight, your sleep apnea might go away, your asthma might improve. But they probably should. It makes me angry whenever I find out that a doctor has been withholding information from me that I could have used to make different choices.
Anyway. I’m finally starting to feel well enough post-COVID that I decided to try to drop some of this extra weight again.
I resisted Doing the Obvious, which I usually do because The Obvious is always annoying. Otherwise we’d all do it right away. In this case, I knew that keeping a food log was the only thing that ever helped me reach and stay at my goal weight. I did it for an entire year, and maintaining a steady weight was simple and easy. Then I figured I knew what I was doing, so I quit keeping the food log.
Then I started boxing, and I would need a three-hour nap after training, and my husband said, “You need to eat more, babe, you’re putting on muscle.” Nobody ever needs to tell me twice that I need to eat more! Almost instantly I put on 15 pounds.
Almost instantly, I started having health issues. Even as I was kicking butt (literally) in the mat room, working out harder than I ever had in my life, cranking out pushups like a teenage athlete, I started getting every cold and flu. Whatever I was doing, it was demonstrably not helping my immune system.
What a food log would have revealed at the time was a series of double helpings of oatmeal, two-hander sandwiches, energy bars, oh, and, a lot of pizza and Mexican food and donuts.
I’m not eating that way anymore; haven’t been since I quit the martial arts gym. As the months went by, I was stuck at a plateau and I couldn’t figure out why. Surely I eat sensibly!
I had gained ten pounds since I contracted COVID and I had no idea why. It wasn’t like we were going anywhere. No travel, no restaurants.
This is what I found out. It’s easy when you’ve done it before and you’ve learned the basics. It’s easy when you have a sincere desire to learn the truth and you know you are ready to make a change. That readiness usually comes out of frustration, annoyance, and maybe even a certain level of disgust with the current situation, such as: Why do I keep getting sick??
I was eating too much for breakfast.
I was eating too much for lunch.
I was eating an afternoon snack that I probably shouldn’t have been.
I was eating too much for dinner.
I was snacking too much on the weekend.
There ya have it. Same story as last time. Eat 5% too much at every meal and any mammal will steadily gain weight. Will a hummingbird or an iguana do that? Not sure.
I rolled my eyes, sighed passive-aggressively, and determined that I knew what to do. It’s straightforward when there is consistency across a day and across a week. I learned several years ago that it’s a lot easier to do body transformation if you eat basically the same things for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and beverages every day.
I cut back the double helping at breakfast. I cut the afternoon snack. My hubby and I both agreed, since we take turns making dinner, to add in more greens and cut back a little on anything that is not green. I’m giving a side-eye to our weekend popcorn and what exactly goes into Fancy Breakfast, but I’d rather make adjustments on the five days than on the two days.
Sure enough, I finally broke through the plateau that I’ve basically been stuck at since January.
I was so excited that I jumped off the scale, my mouth hanging open. What, already??
Body transformation projects will be different for different people. Mine is mostly about my lived experience, my mood and my energy level and my health results. It’s somewhat about awareness. It’s also about bodily autonomy. This is my vehicle to do with as I will. When I pay more attention to what I’m doing in default mode, I like my results better.
You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and that is true of so many things. A good night of sound sleep. A quiet neighbor. Gum tissue. Your favorite hair tie. Your keys. Most of all, a general lack of pain.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a hot, throbbing pain directly behind my navel. That was a week and a half ago. I can recall it distinctly because it’s been bothering me off and on ever since.
Nothing else was wrong. Nothing graphic, don’t worry.
I’ve been blessed with a cast-iron stomach all my life. I can eat extremely weird combinations of foods. My kitchen tends to be stocked with dozens of spices, half a dozen vinegars, at least two types of mustard, and exotic things my husband can’t pronounce.
I don’t get motion sickness. I can read in the car, face any direction on the train, and ride in ferries and boats, no problem. I can even do the spinny rides at the amusement park.
I don’t usually even lose it when I get a stomach bug. I’ll just find that I’m tired and have no appetite, to the envy of those around me who are leaning over their buckets, green for two reasons.
All this is to say that days of burning, stabbing pains wandering around my stomach and duodenum were out of character for me.
What the heck was going on?
My life has been a mess since I got COVID-19. It’s really one darn thing after another. While I’m proud of my body for fighting off something that has killed a million people, it feels like the watershed between when I felt fairly young and athletic, and when... well, maybe that will change, but... Now it feels like I’ve turned the corner and I’m walking the straight path toward old age.
I figured it was a virus. Then I thought, what is it really? Aren’t these things usually of the 24-hour variety? But then I remembered the two occasions when I’ve gotten a norovirus, and those lasted more like five days.
Then I thought something that normally occurs to me more quickly. What if there is a nutritional fix for this?
I’m going into detail on my troubleshooting process here, because I know a lot of people have mysterious digestive complaints and they haven’t been able to get answers from their doctors. Just because your doctor can’t figure it out in a 15-minute appointment doesn’t mean there is no solution.
Let me say that again. Just because medical science hasn’t done enough clinical trials or peer review, that does not mean that a health issue is untreatable or permanent.
My basic organizing principle is that different people get different results with their energy level, mood, and overall state of health because they eat differently over the course of a year. In some cases, there may be a genetically-based food tolerance issue. Otherwise, I believe it’s a combination of timing (more than anything), volume, and proportion of cruciferous vegetables to everything else.
The food input regulates the gut flora, and the gut flora help process the nutrients, and the nutrients determine everything else.
Wonk that I am, that’s my working hypothesis.
This is an objectively testable hypothesis. Let me point that out. It’s common for ‘alternative medicine’ to make untestable claims, and that’s fine, because a lot of subjective things like mood are quite real and a major determiner of quality of life. I do think it’s helpful to distinguish when there is something that could be tested in a lab, something that could be the subject of traditional double-blind peer-reviewed studies.
With the will, with the funding, with the time...
I think all of this will happen over the next couple of decades. I think Big Data will provide a lot of answers. This is going to include all the DNA testing that so many people are doing. I also think we’re going to find more and more previously unidentified viruses that cause all sorts of health problems that were previously chalked up to ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety.’
Psst: What if ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ were not root causes, but in fact near-universal symptoms of underlying 100% physical causes, such as viral infections, chronic sleep deprivation, or nutritional deficiencies?
So anyway. Here I was with this haunting, distracting, annoying gut pain that seemed to have no obvious cause. I knew I hadn’t injured myself because I’ve torn an oblique before, and this was definitely chemical. Or was it? I started to wonder if I had an ulcer (something with a bacterial cause) or maybe something way weirder. It went on long enough that my husband told me to call my doctor.
Which never happens.
Then I suddenly remembered the existence of probiotics.
See, I had a deadly viral infection this year, little thing name of coronavirus, and then I had to take courses of antibiotics twice in three months. It seems obvious to me that the balance of helper microbes in my body might have been thrown off by all this.
We went to the store, and I bought a 32-ounce carton of juice with probiotics in it. I proceeded to drink it out of the bottle, since we were on a long walk and I had no way to refrigerate the rest of what was the only form factor of this juice in the store.
I started feeling better literally within minutes.
By the end of the day, the pain was back.
We went to Whole Foods, a store that stocks a much broader range of probiotics. I bought more juice (half the price that it was at the conventional grocer) and some little shot-size containers. The quantity that I proceeded to consume was probably double what was recommended. I didn’t check because I’ve used this stuff before, and it worked, and I was fighting a bigger fight this time.
Over the previous several days, my pain level had been between a 3 to a 5. It woke me up at least once every night and came at me in waves throughout the day.
As soon as I started getting the probiotics down, literally within minutes, the pain would recede.
Three days later, I’m basically fine.
This has been an impressive experience for me. I didn’t have to take more antibiotics. I didn’t have to get palpated or have some kind of body scan. Basically I got to avoid going to the hospital and getting exposed to possibly contagious people, which is my priority right now. I didn’t even take antacids (not an acid problem) or anti-inflammatories or anything.
One day, possibly in the near future, it will be possible for the average person to do a simple, inexpensive test, and find out which specific things make up their personal gut flora. There will be better data and better access to personalized treatments. There will also be better indications that something like probiotics actually aid human health - or don’t. A lot of “treatments” will eventually go the way of the goose, flapping off into the distance while making a great deal of noise.
For today, I’m a person who gets my flu shot, who takes my antibiotics as prescribed, who regards mainstream medicine seriously and obediently. I also think it makes sense that if I eat a thousand meals every year, what goes into my meals matters, and has a lot more to do with my daily state of health than a rattling bottle of pills.
One of the changes we’re making, as we prepare to ride out the next few weird years, is to find a sustainable way to avoid as many outside trips as possible. By ‘sustainable,’ we mean something a little different than what we used to mean, although farm delivery meets those criteria too.
Something we can afford
That fits our default lifestyle
Without a huge drain on mental bandwidth
Or massive time commitments
That we can do without fighting our mutual tendency to pack on weight
That doesn’t create extra trash
Yet also allows other people to earn a decent livelihood
In safe conditions
Including social distancing.
By my calculations, we can continue to get fresh produce delivered to our building every week, indefinitely.
We have been signed up with this service, Farm Fresh to You, a few times over the years. I canceled when we moved out of our newlywed house, not realizing that they keep expanding their service area. It hadn’t crossed my mind that we could sign up again in our new city, hundreds of miles away, until they sent me an email inviting us back.
That’s the sound of an AHA happening in my squirrelly brain.
I had been trying to figure out how to get groceries delivered, while feeling guilty and trying to calculate which risk was greater, my going out and possibly spreading infection myself, or hiring someone else who might have inadequate PPE. In my mind, one obvious solution to this issue is to quit allowing the public to enter the store, and have the grocers pick everything out, which used to be the norm well into the 20th century.
(If you’ve seen any episodes of Little House on the Prairie, that’s what stores were like. You pointed and someone else measured and wrapped everything up for you, in reusable packaging).
I actually think this is a direction that the grocery business will go, because it lowers liability and shrinkage, and a lot of people will be willing to pay for the convenience of not having to shop. The cashless, digital surveillance type will probably also become more common, and of course there’s always room for a more gentrified, boutique experience.
In the meantime, the miracle of the internet allows us to order produce directly from the farm and have it brought to us without the middleman.
There are a lot of CSAs out there. (Community-Supported Agriculture). It’s a way for the farm to guarantee a certain predictable level of income. Every year, an opportunity pops up with our farm to invest money directly for a discount on produce that year. It’s a real lifeline for new farms that might otherwise fail in the first few years.
Most CSAs will pack a bag or box, and you get what you get. That’s the commitment. If the only stuff that really grows well one year is rutabagas, then I hope you like rutabagas ‘cause guess what’s coming for dinner. The produce box comes whether you’re home or not, meaning you’re expected to pay even if you’re away. You’re also usually expected to pick up your produce yourself.
FFTY has been around long enough, as a multi-generational family business, that they’re able to offer a more customized experience. You can cancel weeks, you can cancel certain fruits or vegetables that you know you’ll never eat, and you can order extra of anything you like.
This place was the making of me as a healthy cook.
When I remarried, I took it pretty seriously. “You’re a wife and a mother now,” said this mammalian part of my brain, “so you’d better quit eating cereal for dinner and learn to cook.” I figured I’d get this vegetable subscription and figure out what to do from there.
The first time I got kale, collard greens, and chard in the same box, I had no idea which was which. I had to do an image search so I could tell them apart.
I tried so many vegetable recipes that first year, some that were kinda dreadful and some that were great. It took a long time to find a recipe with collard greens that we actually liked. That was around the time that I figured out how to cook chard stems properly and not just compost them. (Tear off the leaves, chop up the stems like celery, sauté them for an extra 2-3 minutes with garlic and Bragg’s aminos or soy sauce, then add the leaves and give it another couple minutes until emerald green).
Some of the motivation here is our little parrot Noelle, who starts wigging out when she sees the produce box. She lifts her foot in the air and waves: Who has eight thumbs and really really likes greens? She can eat a leaf as big as her entire body.
This whole experience is bringing back such a lot of happy memories from our first years of marriage!
I like the thought that a huge chunk of our groceries is coming directly from a family farm. I pray that everyone is able to stay safe and isolated. The drivers deliver everything overnight, to beat the heat, so they’re able to drop boxes off on people’s porches with no contact. Our spot along the route is around 1:00 AM. As far as I know, this is how they’ve always done it, a win on all sides.
This wouldn’t be a proper spiel without putting in my referral code ($15 coupon for you!). If you live somewhere in California, put in your zip code and see if you’re in the service area. It’s cheaper than you think and it’s a great way to support small-scale local farmers. And, of course, spend less time getting exposed at the grocery store.
Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
What do you have on hand right now, and what do you wish you had? It’s time to take inventory and learn how to repurpose stuff and get creative.
One of the reasons that people go out on panic buying sprees is that they don’t have a solid grasp on what they need or how long their supplies will last. We’ve already seen instances where people went to Costco to buy up everything they could see… then changed their minds, tried to return it, and got sent away. This can be a real problem for people who spend all their liquid cash and still fail to buy things that they would have actually used.
Learning basic inventory standards and practices can help with this.
My first inventory job was at a 7-Eleven. I was assigned the cereal aisle, because there was a big markup on that product category and not much turnover. Once a week I would go down one side and up the other with a clipboard in my hand, tallying how many of each item were in stock. Then I would make an executive decision on what to replace and what not to. If something like Cool Ranch Froot Loops sat on the shelf for eight months, maybe we didn’t need any more.
The basic concepts that I learned, over the two months I spent on that job, could be mastered by any ambitious 8-year-old:
Shelf by category. Put all the matching stuff together. All the beverages go in one section, then divide by alcohol vs. non-alcoholic, then by brand, then by flavor, etc.
Face outward. A big part of our job was to continually move products to the front edge of the shelf and adjust them so that the labels lined up.
Standard Rotation. Put the oldest stuff in the front and use it up first.
Another thing we did all day, every day, was to wipe down the counters. People were constantly spilling everything from nacho cheese to pickle relish to coffee and malt liquor. This is where many of us develop the keen eye for splotches and smears.
When I went on to work with people who live in squalor, it amazed me how quickly everything can turn to chaos without those few constant daily habits. My people don’t generally have daily tidying habits, partly because they don’t see things in categories. This is why they may not notice that they have 55 cans of green beans in the cupboard, five pounds of black bananas on the dining table, but nothing to make for dinner.
Some of my people have a lot of everything. Others have a lot of certain types of things, but none of other categories. As an example, one person might have cases upon cases of canned foods, soda, laundry detergent, etc. stacked up in the garage due to compulsive accumulation. Another might have a lot of books or craft supplies, but very few clothes or groceries, because they are deeply interested in a hobby but absent-minded about self-care. Some people are just low in situational awareness, and their surroundings tend to blur in their mind, so that they don’t really notice what’s around them. That’s called ‘clutter blindness.’
Taking inventory, or trying to do a little bit, is a great way to start to pick up these skills of sorting things into categories.
We can skip entire categories of stuff right now, as we take inventory, because we’re really focused on just a few things:
When we take inventory of the food, we want to start with the stuff that goes bad quickly. Bananas and avocados are top on that list, and canned foods are last.
Start with what is out on counters, the dining table, the top of the fridge, and anywhere else in the house where someone might be storing food. Throw away anything that is too scary to eat, so that any mold or insects don’t spread to the fresh food.
Next, look in the fridge. It’s a good idea to throw away anything that is spoiled in there, too, partly so it doesn’t affect any more of your groceries and partly to make space when you need it.
If the freezer needs to be defrosted, this would be a good time to do that.
There might be stuff in your supplies that was put there by someone else, like a guest or former roommate, and you know you are not going to use it. Throw it away or, if it’s still edible and sealed, pass it on to someone else.
You might have stuff that you bought and didn’t like. Get rid of that, too. Don’t feel guilty. Space is at a premium now and you don’t have to apologize for prioritizing.
Usually there will be containers that only have a tiny amount of something, like a teaspoon of jam. Focus on using up these foods first, so you can get rid of the containers and make room for fresh food. There may also be several open containers of the same thing, like juice or mustard. Check the expiration dates, throw out any that are suspicious, and then use them up one at a time.
After taking inventory of the food we have on hand, we check our supplies of any medications, including prescriptions, pain relievers, ointments, saline solution, or anything else we might need in the next couple of months. We also want to take care to throw out expired medication, because it can undergo chemical changes over time that make it ineffective or dangerous.
Then we check our inventory of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and anything else we need to feel clean. This is the time to look at all those shampoo bottles with only a quarter cup left. Shampoo that nobody likes is still perfectly good for washing hands or cleaning other things, like a muddy bike.
The reason we take inventory is so that we can delay shopping trips, save money, and take note of stuff that nobody in the household will use. We focus on buying only what we need and like, and then using it while it is still fresh.
If we’re confident that we have enough food, soap, and other essentials, we can then focus on taking inventory of other things, like books and hobby supplies, reminding ourselves to spend at least a little time relaxing.
We prepped before we even heard that someone on the West Coast had died from COVID-19. It went like this:
Hubby: I think we should get ready for this thing to spread.
Me: I agree with you.
*five minutes later*
Me: Here’s a kit. If they have it on Amazon it could be here tomorrow.
*ten minutes later*
Risk mitigation is something that, the smarter and/or wealthier someone is, the more they do it. We are already prepped for a number of things, because we have this sort of conversation on a regular basis and also because we have watched a darn lot of zombie movies.
The funny thing about zombies is that almost anything you could do to prepare for a “zombie apocalypse” is also a thing that is smart to do to prepare for earthquakes, flooding, wildfire, any other natural disaster, or, of course, pandemic illness.
The nuances are a bit different, which is why this is worth talking about. The more people who take the time to prepare, the fewer people there are who need serious rescuing - and, more importantly, the more people who are able to do it. When you see yourself as a first responder, the last thing you want is to be a casualty on someone else’s to-do list. Better for both of us to be up and doing, so the responder who would have been helping us is instead off helping someone else.
We have go-bags in case we need to evacuate. This is quite a real issue for people in our region. I have no fewer than five friends who have had to evacuate for wildfire, one of them twice in the same season, and they all live in different cities. We have had smoke visible from our apartment and we sometimes see firefighting helicopters pass over our building.
This is basically the opposite scenario from an epidemic. We can almost think of it as a lever that slides from ‘evacuation’ on one end to ‘quarantine’ on the other.
What if we were advised to stay home for as long as three weeks? What would we do?
On at least two occasions, I have picked up a cold or flu because I went to a pharmacy for an ordinary prescription. One time, I went to get my prescription, got the flu shot, and caught the common cold on the bus the same day. Ugh. If only the flu shot covered every possible airborne illness!
Our first priority is now to avoid going to 1. Pharmacies 2. Hospitals and 3. Grocery stores as much as possible. I would be mad as heck if I ran out of toothpaste and this led me to be exposed to some gnarly virus.
This is why our goal was to stock up in such a way that we could comfortably lock ourselves into our apartment for weeks at a stretch.
We are experienced backpackers, so, weirdly, we are better prepared for extreme situations than we are for hanging out in our own home! We have two separate water purification systems, two types of portable stove, and of course the ability to hike ten miles a day if we need to evacuate on foot. We have training in advanced first aid. We’d be fine living in the bushes, if that were the scenario.
The irony here is that we have no space for a pantry in our apartment. We’ve trained ourselves to deliberately avoid stocking up on anything, because there’s nowhere to put it. We would have had to spend an extra $1000 a month or more to rent a two-bedroom, and even if we had chosen a $250/month storage unit, what good would that do us in this scenario?
We keep all our extra food in the fridge, with the single exception of canned soup. We have half a shelf for that. Let’s face it, half a shelf of canned goods could vanish in two days.
What we elected to do was to buy a kit of freeze-dried backpacking food. Actually, we reconsidered and bought two. While we have a dehydrator, it would take us weeks to prepare this quantity of dried food ourselves. With this thing constantly in the news, this creepy coronavirus, we really wanted results on a faster timeline.
Where this strategy can backfire is that people want to throw money at a problem, rather than thinking their way out of it. We like the idea that we can buy a piece of equipment or a box of supplies and then “check the box.” Okay, good, that’s done, time to sit back and forget about this particular stressor. This makes us sloppy.
The result of sloppy thinking is default behavior. The default of having supplies on hand is that they eventually expire. Usually people do not notice while this is happening.
You know I work with hoarders? One constant among my crowd is that they like to stockpile vast quantities of food, almost all of which winds up being expired. I have seen a lot of rusted-out cans that are unsafe to use. You think zombies are scary; how much do you know about botulism?
The other thing that food hoarders tend to have in common is that we (yeah, recovering food hoarder here) tend to stockpile a completely different kind of food than what we actually like to eat or know how to cook. We’ll buy either what was on sale or what looks like what our family kept on hand. Because there is almost no overlap between Food I Buy and Food I Consume, all these cases of green beans and packets of gravy are just sitting in there getting old and funky.
This is why my husband and I felt fine about buying freeze-dried backpacking food: We actually go backpacking and eat backpacking food. It is useful to us to have lightweight foods like this. We even have a trip planned.
Because we are frugal by nature, the ownership of a small stockpile of backpacking food is going to lead us to think continuously about backpacking. This leads us to two possible outcomes:
The horror movie alternate ending of this is that some lucky survivors find our supplies and it cheers them right up.
We ordered our supplies on Friday. They were supposed to arrive on the following Wednesday. To our surprise, they arrived on Saturday, the day after our order. Hooray!
On Sunday, we had some visitors on their way between the port where they got off a cruise ship, and the airport, where they are heading home to a small semi-rural town. This will be interesting, considering that they just visited no fewer than four countries during their trip. They’ll have a lot to talk about. One topic of conversation will be where exactly he picked up that nasty cough.
Time to go. I need to double-check our inventory of cough medicine.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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