Healthy eating. This was something I struggled with for a long time. I’ve written about my experience in other posts on this blog. The road to healthy eating habits has not been an easy one. It all started when I was very young. I was raised on hamburger, rice and ketchup, with the occasional trip to McDonalds. We also ate at our local pizza shop quite a bit. Fried and fatty foods were mainstays in my diet as a child as well as sugary sodas and drinks. There were few whole foods and leafy greens found on my younger self’s menu.
It’s not as though I was seeking out healthy versions of the foods I was eating either. If I had any money, I would most likely be at the corner store buying candy bars and soda. But I was also too young to be making informed decisions about what my diet should look like. I definitely needed some guidance in that department. And in my caretakers defence, they did the best with what they had. There was always some type of meat at dinner, with a starch and a vegetable. But asides from providing us with the basics at meal time, this was the extent of my nutritional knowledge.
As for meals other than dinner, I was pretty much on my own. There was soda to drink, but I never remember being shown how to make or prepare breakfast or lunch for myself. Or even if there were things to make these meals with. I was clueless when it came to pretty much all things domestic, and the one time I tried to take food from the freezer to make something I was grounded for using something intended for another meal. I didn’t know there was a plan, let alone that I was supposed to adhere to it. These were confusing messages to be surrounded by as a child for sure.
So under these conditions, it’s no surprise that I was never shown how to cook meals for myself. Fast forward to my late teen years and I’m on my own, living in an all but empty apartment, with a fridge whose sole purpose I believed was to hold 40s. There were few if any meals cooked in the first few apartments I lived in, but there was loads of drinking and, surprise surprise, more fatty takeout. The two behaviours that were modeled for me in my youth. I also worked at a Mexican/Asian fusion, takeout place where the head chef was using Northern Indian cooking techniques to prepare the food. This was where I was blessed enough to begin to learn how to cook for myself. Though I didn’t realize it at the time. But more on that later.
Time moved on, I got married and was taking the long way around to getting a degree I would later have no idea what to do with. And I was still almost completely in the dark on how to take care of my nutritional needs. I was still drinking loads of beer, and eating takeout maybe four times a week! We never had any money because we were spending it all on eating out, while our refrigerator was mostly used to keep beer and leftovers cold.
I feel like if you don’t have your food situation down by the time you’re in your early thirties, someone should pull you aside and send you to a special program on the things you should have learned by now! This however, is sadly not the case. I was in my early thirties, married, had been working in the food industry for most of my adult life, and I still had no idea how to cook for myself, or take care of my nutritional needs.
If I stop to think about it too much, it scares me a little. Who knows where I would be had I kept on the same path I was heading down. But luckily for me, things did change. Unfortunately, my marriage ended, and I was jettisoned into a life where I needed to focus on what was most important. And for a while, those were the skills I needed to survive. I began cooking and meal planning for myself, the first time I had ever attempted such a task.
I was still eating meat at the time, and this is when I had started buying and roasting whole chickens and using the meat throughout the week for various meals. This is one of the few things I miss about eating meat on occasion. It’s also surprising how many meals you can get out of a four pound chicken! This is also about the same time I started to really focus on my budget, and how much I was spending on groceries. I learned a lot of life lessons shortly after my divorce. But they were already on their way, and had been coming for some time. I had just been avoiding them for a very long time.
But with these roasts, was the beginning of my meal planning. I remember watching an episode of “Extreme Couponing” and being fascinated by the idea that you could be paid to do something that you needed to do to survive. The organizing and planning part of my brain lighted up, and this is where my organizational skills met my culinary abilities. I have yet to attempt an extreme coupon go, but it’s still on my bucket list : )
I had a dog at the time too, so I was coming up with a plan to not only take care of myself, but also the woman I was with as well as our dog. It was motivating knowing that I was taking care of something more than myself. But when my relationship eventually failed, I was left by myself again, to focus on the relationship I had been neglecting the most, the one with myself.
But now, at least I had some of the basics down. I was cooking for myself now, and doing my own grocery shopping. These were big steps in leaning to take care of my nutritional needs. I was starting from zero too, so any progress was welcome. This was around the time I chose to go vegan. Thinking back on the decision now, I’m glad I chose the meatless route, but I did make the decision almost on an impulse.
Had I to do it over again, I would have done more research on the choice. As I’ve said, I’m happy I made the decision, but I would have taken care to look up how to hit nutritional goals. I went to the Boston Vegetarian Festival and heard Dr. Colin T. Campbell give a talk about how eating meat is most likely linked to many types of cancers, and I went full vegan then. I also read that eating a plant based diet will regulate your body weight due to the nature of eating healthy whole foods with the optimal ratio of fiber to carbs to proteins to fats. Both these seemed like goals I was willing to get behind, and made making the switch that much more focused.
As I said, at first I went full vegan. But as I started living my new lifestyle, I found that it took a great strength of will to adhere to this diet. I slowly started eating dairy again but in moderation. I still mostly cook vegan for myself but will eat vegetarian when I’m at a restaurant or out. Mostly because it’s difficult to find vegan foods when I’m out. And this is how I’ve been eating ever since.
I find that my appetite isn’t as big as it used to be before, when I was eating more unhealthfully. I mostly buy and prepare whole food meals, my weight is in a healthy range, and I eat more frequently. And with all these changes I’ve made to my diet, I feel better about myself. I have more energy and my weight has been as consistent as it has ever been. And coming from where I was, with absolutely no idea how to care for my nutritional needs, this is a complete 180. And it feels good : ) So let’s take a look at how I got there.
I started by changing the ways I was shopping for food. When I used to go food shopping, I would buy what I thought I would make during the week. I didn’t really have a plan, just a list of things I knew I liked, and a few recipes I made when I would cook. Recipes like black bean soup or a chicken curry that I made mostly because I didn’t know what else to eat or make. This left me with cabinets full of food I never used. So, I started using the ingredients I had on hand.
If you’ve read my post on “shopping from your pantry first“, you’ll know I started looking up recipes that utilized the ingredients I already have on hand first. I would just head over to my favorite recipe site, and type in the main ingredient I wanted to use in the search bar. I would do this for a few items in my pantry, and come up with a shopping list based around these recipes I had planned to make for the week. Not only did I save money from using up what was on hand, but I was also planning my shopping trips according to what I needed for the week and staying in budget most of the time. Win win.
My plan for the week usually consists of, looking through my pantry to find items that have been sitting around for a little too long and round up two or three recipes that utilize these ingredients. I also pick a self-care Sunday dinner for the week. This is something that is usually a break from the norm. And something that gives me a chance to explore new flavors and recipes to maybe put into rotation. Speaking of, I also have a list of standby recipes that I make fairly often. So if I’m looking for inspiration I can take a quick look at my list and add them to the meal prep plan.
I also try to utilize as much produce as possible from the garden. If kale is coming in then I make some curried greens as a side that week. This way I’m eating as fresh as possible as well. When all my recipes and groceries are gathered for the weeks meals, I pick a night and cook for the week ahead. I’ve been working in food for a while so meal prepping is something that is second nature. But it is completely doable if you are just starting out on learning how to cook for yourself.
I like to make the setting more comfortable by lighting a scented candle and turning down the lights. This brings a relaxing air to the process, which can be stressful if you aren’t used to spinning so many plates at once. Even if you are, it can still be stressful! The key is to take it slow. I try to cook one recipe at a time, so I’m not piling up too much on myself at once. It may take the entire night, but I’d rather take my time in a relaxed setting with dimmed lights, a scented candle burning and a cup of herbal tea than try to cram three recipes into the space of 45 minutes with all four burners going and something in the oven! Life can be overwhelming enough, no need to put ourselves through that kind of stress ; )
As far as macronutrients go, I don’t count my calories. I know a majority of my protein comes from grains, beans, pasta, nuts, seeds and tofu. My carbs come mostly from, well just about everything I eat since everything that is grown has carbs to some degree. And my fats usually come from oils, nuts, seeds and avos. Here I intuitively eat what I feel is right. I’ll usually have overnight oats for breakfast with maybe a muffin or cheese snail at work (if you haven’t had a cheese snail, do yourself a favor and go get one. The are delicious), beans, avo and rice for lunch and a curry or some type of buddha bowl, which is just a mix of vegetables and grains usually topped with a sauce, for dinner.
All of these meals are super easy to meal prep at the beginning of the week. I usually have the recipes open in tabs on my browser, so when I’m ready to start cooking, I have my recipes at hand and waiting. All I need to do is pack up my breakfast the night before for the morning to come, dish out dinner that night and I’m done. Easy peasy.
But it’s not always easy to find places to eat that are healthy while you’re out. Eating out can be a challenge. I try to get foods that are as close to whole as possible. This means protein bars made mostly from nuts and a little sugar. Maybe a burrito when I’m out with tofu, veges, rice and beans. Once you know what to look for, it gets a little easier to find things to eat.
And that my friends, is how I made the transition from unhealthy eating habits, to healthful ones. And it takes some will power. But once you make the change, the foods you’ll be cooking are so much tastier than their processed, fatty counter parts that you’ll wonder why you ever used to eat them in the first place!
If you’re trying to make the change to a healthier lifestyle by changing your eating habits, know that it is doable. You just need to put the work in. It is not easy at first. There are a lot of adjustments to make and depending on how unhealthy your habits were before, a steep learning curve. But be patient with yourself. The longer you keep after it, the easier and better your food will taste. This is where I leave you amigos. If you’re looking for some inspiration, head over to Minimalist Baker’s site to help get you started. I’m eating this Green Curry and Chickpea recipe right now with some greens. And as always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.