We all have it. 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. If you’ve read my post on “Building Shelves, Building Community“, you’ll know that when I was cleaning 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. So for us, eating fresher means keeping our cabinets and shelves clean and organized to take better care of our nutritional needs.
Nutritional Needs & Food Insecurity
For us, it is food insecurity on some level. We need to feel as though we have enough food to last us 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 and 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. Aka, staples. 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.
Putting the Pieces Together
And this was how I ate for years. 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. Which is 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. If you’ve read last weeks post on “Food & Family”, I go over this in more detail. I needed the security of being constantly surrounded by food 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.
Being Taken Care of & Seeking Approval Instead of Caring For Myself & My Nutritional Needs
Instead of caring for myself and my nutritional needs, I passed that job onto whomever I was living with at the time. Or outsourced the job to greasy takeout places. 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) about five years ago, that I really started to learn what it means to take care of myself in regards to my nutrition. But it all stemmed from my 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 me being called a “human garbage disposal” as a child. But I also did it for the health benefits. Kind of. 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.
Learning to Care for My Nutritional Needs Wasn’t Easy
But I was still collecting foods just to have them. Dried beans, grains and other items such as flours, oils and teas that were taking up space in my cabinets. And they held residency for long stretches of time too. Without a plan for their ever being used, they sat there collecting 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 with cooking family meals. Or even the basic understanding of how to grocery shop for myself. No following a list of ingredients made up 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. One without any direction on how to move myself forward.
Care Taking for Another
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. We both had no understanding of how to take care of our personal and physical health needs. However, I was 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. This was quite the feat, considering we were living with three other people, two cats and a dog. But when I was grocery shopping and cooking all our meals for us, that was when 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. When I went to the grocery store, I had 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. One full of possibility for our future. And it was this time that I spent taking care of another that would later gave me the confidence to finally take my own needs into account.
Finally Focusing on Myself
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. But as I mentioned above, these were not tools and resources that were modeled for me in my youth. So I did some research. When it came to my nutritional needs, I looked for and researched recipes to build a small clutch of foods for meals I knew 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 meals, 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 to meals. Trying new foods and recipes, being creative in the kitchen and liking what I was making made me enjoy the process. And later adding these recipes to my meal rotation helped to keep some variety in my diet as well.
Eating Fresher Means Eating Healthier
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 and nutritional needs, was something that gave me a sense of being able to take control of my ability to take care of myself and my nutritional needs. Also enjoying the process along the way.
While I was learning my new skills in self-care and nutritional needs, I was also friends with a 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 that book and went to the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival and also knowing that a vegan diet would help to maintain a healthy percentage of body fat to muscle, I went full vegan.
Going Vegan Without a Plan
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 I was skipping meals, reducing my caloric intake without replacing them elsewhere in my diet.
I would often miss breakfast and lunch completely. Having only small pieces of whatever was leftover from the morning bake or an 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 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, then did yoga for 45 minutes. 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.
Making a Plan to Eat Healthier & More Frequently
This was the time that I decided that I needed to really focus on getting, not only healthy foods into my body, but I also needed to make it 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 the conclusion that I needed to eat three meals and not one 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 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 continue to skip 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 mixed with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and berries. I make overnight oats with them 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.
Nutritional Needs are Met But Trouble Still in the Pantry
So now that I have my nutritional needs in mind, things should be okay, right? But when I was going to the grocery store and then returning to 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, then would find I already had a quart container full, sitting on the 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.
Organization Helps Only if You Have a Plan
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 my recipes. 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 that I 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. Or the couscous I never got around to making that I bought for a recipe.
Now that I’ve identified the issue, I’m working to resolve it. “I shop from my pantry first”. An old bit of wisdom that I’m not sure where I heard. But now when I put a meal plan together for the next two weeks, I go into my stores and see what I have had for too long and research recipes around those ingredients. I then build my shopping list from there.
Planning to Shop From my Pantry First
For instance, I have half of a jar of dried lima beans that I’m not sure how long they’ve been in my pantry for. So I looked up recipes that use limas, which for this week happens to be succotash. Then I add the ingredients that I don’t have to the shopping list. I did the same for a jar full of great northern white beans while using 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 have on hand and I produce 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.
Using What’s in Your Pantry Means Being Organized
It’s also worth mentioning that taking care of your nutritional needs is no easy task. 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 just 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 (we have 17!), start there. 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 don’t already have on your shopping list.
But Go Slow
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. All depending on how you feel about what you make that week with the ingredient. And it’s easy to add new ingredients and use them as you go. Just pick a new recipe and whatever the new ingredient is and add it to your pantry. Just remember to make sure to add it to your future meals list.
Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Process
And this may seem like a no brainer, but enjoy your meals. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the process of feeling like this is one more area of your life you need to perfect. It isn’t. When in doubt (or panicked or feeling overwhelmed), go slow. Nothing bad will happen if you leave that jar of black beans in the pantry for another week!
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 my ingredients consistently while also caring for a part of myself that has been neglected for far 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 : )