We all have that can of tomatoes that has been in the back of the cupboard for way too long. The one that has seen one too many a day in the back of the cabinet while a few other staples get rotated in and out of use. This has been the case with my cabinets for quite some time. If you’ve read my post on “Building Shelves, Building Community“, you’ll know that when I was cleaning through my parents food pantry, I was throwing away food items that were over half a decade old! Some of it was an issue with ease of access for sure, but there was more to it than not being able to see behind a can of peas or a bag of pasta.
For us, it is food insecurity on some level. We need to feel as though we have enough food to last us a few months in order to feel safe enough. But safe enough for what? For me, it was from roaming around my childhood home, looking for something to eat that was quick easy and loaded with sugar. Not because I was lazy, though I played my fair share of video games. But mostly because I just didn’t have the life skills to be able to provide for myself in ways related to my nutritional needs.
In later years, my cabinets would be filled with foods I could make meals with. Ingredients to have on hand to make something to eat whenever I needed to. I almost never ate vegetables and most of what I did eat was either meat, or some form of starch and fat mixed with a sugary sauce. I was unhealthy, overweight and pretty unhappy overall. Food in general was a mystery to me and something I wasn’t given any direction on how to approach or prepare for myself.
And this was how I ate for years. Save for my later teen years and early twenties where I soley ate takeout in some form or another. My habits were unhealthy, and I had no idea how to take care of my nutritional needs. And that wasn’t including the large amounts of beer I was consuming on a nightly basis. And it’s ironic because I had worked in the food industry for most of my life. This was, I think, a way to feel as though I was always covered when it came to food and feeding myself. I needed the security of being constantly surrounded by it in order to feel as though my needs would be taken care of. But that was the key, I felt as though I needed to be taken care of.
Instead of caring for myself and my nutritional needs, I passed that job onto whomever I was living with at the time. As far as I was concerned, that was someone else’s job. I’ve since come to realize that I was just reliving the patterns of my past by looking for someone else to do the job that I was never taught how to do. And it wasn’t until I went vegan (vegetarian now and am thinking about pescitarian) about five years ago that I really started to learn what it means to take care of myself in regards to nutrition and food. But it all stemmed from a major food insecurity.
And this is an insecurity that still persists even though I’ve wholly changed almost every aspect of my diet. Some of the reason for me changing was due to being called a “human garbage disposal” by my caregivers for the better part of my childhood. But I also did it for the health benefits. I read that if you eat a vegan diet you maintain a certain body fat percentage. And sense I was likened to a garbage disposal for the better part of my youth, I thought this was a perfect solution and path to finally feeling accepted for my physical appearance.
But I was still collecting foods, dried beans, grains and other items such as flours, oils and teas, that were taking up a large amount of space in my cabinets. And they held residency for long stretches of time as well. Without a plan for their ever being used, they sat there to collect dust. It felt like I was holding onto food for the sake of holding onto it. I had no plan or purpose for it other than to look at it every time I opened the cabinets and to feel like my shelves were full of food. I was safe.
It was a strange feeling when I realized what I had been doing. The lack of knowledge of what to do with what I did have, due to the neglect in my early domestic education. There were no family recipes handed down, no helping to cook family meals or the basic understanding of how to grocery shop for myself. No following a list, made from recipes that I was going to cook and only shopping from that list of planned menu items. I was left in a lonely place, without any direction on how to move myself forward.
I remember when I first understood that taking care of my nutritional needs is something that is an important aspect of life. I was living with a woman who I was deeply smitten with, though she was in the same emotional place that I was. We both had no understanding of how to take care of our personal and physical needs. However, I was left a legacy of being shown how to take care of others at the expense of my own needs. So it was only natural that I take care of her as though she were my charge. As unhealthy as it was for me at the time, this was the catalyst for me to learn how to care of my own needs, while caretaking for another.
I drove her and her family to doctors appointments. Ran errands for her, all kinds. Cleaned our apartment weekly which was quite the feat, living with three other people, two cats and a dog. But it was when I was grocery shopping and cooking all our meals for us that I really began to understand what it means to take responsibility for our nutritional needs.
I would buy and roast whole chickens, to eat the night of and also for future meals. I went to the grocery store with a plan and a list and came in under or at budget. I had even thought about opening a brewpub with her, and had gone as far as to start planning what would be on the menu. It was an exciting time, full of possibility for our future. Unfortunately I was mostly focused on how to take care of someone else, not myself. But it was also this time that I spent taking care of another that later gave me the confidence to finally take my own needs into account.
After the woman I was taking care of had left me, I was left alone. This was when I turned my focus inwards on how to care for myself. Unfortunately, this was something I had no experience doing. As I mentioned above, these were not tools and resources that were modeled for me in my youth. But I managed. When it came to my nutritional needs, I looked for and researched recipes to build a small clutch of foods and meals I knew that I liked. And finding out what I liked was definitely a big step toward learning how to take care of myself.
Knowing that I’d enjoy the food I was cooking for myself made meal prep something to look forward to. And the more I cooked these staple recipes, the better I became at it. This had the added benefit of building my confidence in being able to have a sense of mastery over the ways I was taking care of myself.
Also, my self-care sunday meals became a resource for me as well. This was a time where I would select a new recipe, something that looked interesting and branch out a little from my usual go tos. Trying new foods and recipes, being creative in the kitchen and liking what I was making. And later adding these recipes to my meal rotation helped to keep some variety in my diet and meals.
I was also using fresh vegetables from my garden as well. This brought a feeling of each meal being special. Eating the freshest possible produce while cooking meals that I curated specifically for my taste was something that gave me a sense of really being able to take control of my ability to take care of myself and my needs.
While I was learning my new skills in self-care, I was also friends with another woman who had given me a book called, “The China Study”. The premise of the book was that most cancers are linked in some way to the consumption of animal protein and the lack of plant based foods in our modern diets. After I read the book, and after I went to the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival and read that a vegan diet would help to maintain a healthy percentage of body fat to muscle, I went full vegan.
I didn’t try to take meat out of my diet a little at a time and replace it with plant based options. I jumped in with both feet. Looking back now, this wasn’t the best decision. After going full vegan, I was still feeding myself the same ways I was when I was eating meat and many more calories, without replacing them elsewhere in my diet.
I would often skip breakfast and lunch, having only small pieces of whatever was leftover or extra pastries at work that weren’t vegan. I was mainly restricting what I was eating because I was trying to stay true to the vegan ethos, but this was not a sustainable way to live. I still hadn’t gotten to the place where I was cooking and bringing my own breakfasts and lunches with me to work. That is when I was eating some foods that were vegetarian instead of full vegan and not much food at all.
I knew something was wrong with how I was feeding myself when; one day I had woken at 5am for work, worked a full shift in front of an oven, came home and immediately ran three miles all on only a few cups of green tea. When I got out of the shower at 4pm, and stood up after drying my feet, I passed out on the bathroom floor. Luckily I wasn’t hurt too badly, but I realized then that something needed to change.
This was the time that I decided that I needed to really focus on getting not only healthy foods into my body, but that I also needed to get them into my body as a priority! This is what was so dangerous about the legacy of neglect that was handed down to me. Mostly because I didn’t come to this conclusion, that I needed to eat three and not one meal a day, on my own. Those closest to me had to tell me that they were concerned with the ways that I wasn’t taking care of myself and my nutritional needs. It was only then that I realized that, yes, skipping two meals is unhealthy and that I also needed to make and bring my meals with me to work, otherwise I would end up skipping lunch and breakfast.
So this has been my journey thus far in concerns to taking care of my nutritional needs. It’s been a bumpy road and the journey isn’t over yet. I’ve begun making both breakfast and lunch as part of my meal prep routine. I usually make a large batch of dry oats with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and berries to make overnight oats with the nights before I work. And I’ll usually make a large batch of something like chickpea “tuna” salad for quick lunches throughout the week.
But when I was going to the grocery store, and then my pantry, I was realizing that I was buying food I already had. For example, I would buy dried chickpeas to make chickpea “tuna” salad, but would already have a quart container of dried chickpeas sitting on my shelf in my pantry. So as I was buying new ingredients, the food I already had was just sitting on the shelf, waiting for it’s turn to be used, but never came.
About two years ago I started storing my dried goods in quart sized Ball Jars. The idea was to use what was on the shelf in the jars first, then refill with what I had left in storage. Only I was buying more ingredients that I seldom if ever use. And they were taking up storage space on the shelves instead of being put into rotation to be cooked in recipes for the week. So instead of having a jar that was constantly being filled with AP flour, I had two or three jars half filled with flours I never use, like quinoa or chickpea, but got for a recipe I made once.
Looking at the shelf with a fresh pair of eyes, I could see the items I purchased for specific meals and never used again. The jar full of shredded dulse seaweed I used to top a buddha bowl I made, then completely forgot that I had it. Or the cous cous I never got around to making.
Now that I’ve identified the issue, I’m working to resolve it. This is an old bit of wisdom that I’m not sure where I’ve heard, but now when I put a meal plan together for the week, I shop from my pantry first. I go into my stores and see what I have or have had for too long and research recipes around those ingredients. I then build my shopping list from there.
For instance, I had half a jar of dried lima beans that I’m not sure how long I’ve had them in my pantry. So I looked up recipes that use limas, which in this case happened to be succotash. Then I added the ingredients I didn’t have to the shopping list. I did the same for a jar full of great northern white beans and used up a quart of breadcrumbs that have been cooped up for a bit too long.
My new goal is to have a steady rotation of fresh ingredients that I use frequently, so I always have a fresh store of whatever I need to replace what I use. To eat as fresh as possible. This way, I’m more aware of the ingredients I’m using and I have very little waste when it comes to left over items. And it feels good knowing that I’ve used up items that were otherwise sitting around without any intention of being used.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is not an easy task either. It takes a lot of research, planning, budgeting and cooking knowledge to make this come together in a way that’s manageable and effective. So if you run into roadblocks on your path, don’t be discouraged! Or maybe you know someone who takes care of these responsibilities in your life. Ask them if they need a hand. Because they are most likely juggling a lot of responsibilities, trying to get dinner on the table!
It can seem overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to change everything all at once. Start slow. Say you have seven or eight boxes of pasta collecting in a corner of your cabinet. Start here. Find out what you have, and research recipes utilizing these ingredients. If you have lasagna noodles, this is a no-brainer. Look up recipes for lasagna. Once you find one that looks good, check for other ingredients in the recipe, first in your pantry and fridge, then put what you need on your shopping list.
Pick two or three ingredients a week from your pantry. This way you can utilize your old ingredients slowly, while also deciding if it’s an ingredient you want to keep on hand in your pantry, depending on how you feel about what you make. And it’s easy to add new ingredients as you go. Just pick a new recipe and whatever the new addition to your pantry. Just make sure you have a plan for it in future meals.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. I find that the more I take an active role in rotating and using the foods that I already have, the more comfort I feel from knowing that I’m eating as fresh as I’m able using the ingredients consistently while also caring for a part of myself that has been neglected for way too long. And life’s too short to not feel good about what you eat. We literally eat everyday, multiple times a day! If you’re looking for some new recipes to try out, I’m a huge fan of Minimalist Baker. This Rawsome Vegan Life has some good recipes too. Thanks for reading, bon appetit and peace : )