Living Your Life: Nutrition and Your Health

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.

Image Credits: “Nutrition • Vegetables • Peas” by Living Fitness UK is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Self-Care: How We Treat Our Pantry and How It’s Related to the Ways We Nourish Ourselves

As I mentioned in last weeks post about neglecting our needs for clothing, I have been going through a lot of things and areas in my life that have been neglected for far too long. The kitchen pantry is one of those places, and it’s one that is packed with loads of unattended and badly neglected feelings. Food is a tough one for many, seeing how it is so closely connected with our survival instincts. And again, I’m not a professional, these are only my experiences with food.

The environment I grew up in was one filled with many conflicting messages, and food was a source of great confusion. As I’ve said before, my care-giver’s focus on image, and how we were seen was priority number one. So along with wearing the right thing, we also needed to look the part. To my family, this meant being thin. It wasn’t until very recently that I’ve gotten to my “desired weight”, or the one that would be approved of by my care-givers, now that looking thin is no longer a top priority for me. My goals now are to be at a healthy weight through diet and exercise.

But how they went about showing me that being thin was a priority was what was most confusing. One of my care-givers offered me money to lose weight. I believe the arrangement was 40 dollars to get to my ideal weight. I couldn’t have been more than twelve at the time, so I agreed. I wanted the money for sure, but also the opportunity to please them. To feel loved and accepted, whatever the cost, by my care-givers.

What was most confusing about this task was that I was given no direction on how to change my habits, and I was being fed by them as well. I had no idea what to do to lose weight or how to acquire the resources to get me to what seemed like an unachievable goal. So I felt like a failure. This was a huge blow to my confidence and one I’ve carried for a long time.

And to add to the confusion, instead of being shown the resources and support to achieve my goal, I was ridiculed for my weight. I was called a “human garbage disposal” while my entire family laughed at my expense.

Another layer of confusion was when I told my care-givers I was hungry they would almost always reply with, “there’s a fridge full of food in the kitchen”. That wasn’t untrue, but I had no idea how to cook or prepare meals for myself and the extent of my culinary abilities lie in being able to open a box of cereal or bottle of soda. No one was around to show me how to make a meal, or the different parts and techniques that make the sum of the whole.

To make things even more confusing, I once pulled pork chops from the freezer to try and cook a meal for myself. I defrosted the meat and cooked them in a frying pan. Thinking back now that wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but there was no one around to show me how, or to tell me that undercooked pork is potentially dangerous. But I finished cooking them and ate them without getting sick. I was kind of proud of myself for trying to take care of myself and was feeling pretty good. Until my care-givers came home and scolded me for using the pork chops they were saving for later in the week.

So there I stood, not knowing how to take care of my needs for food asides from opening a box of cereal, being told that there was plenty of food in the fridge, only I wasn’t allowed to eat it without the consent of my care-givers, who already thought I was eating too much because I was overweight. And I was overweight because my diet consisted of cereal, soda, and whatever candy I could buy at the local convenience store.

And to add insult to injury, my care-givers were gone from 10am to 2am. So there was nobody awake in the house by the the time I left for school in the morning, and by the time I got home from school, my care-givers were working. I went to bed whenever I wanted and ate whatever was left over in the fridge, sometimes not seeing them for days. So getting consent to make meals for myself or to be shown how to take care of my own needs wasn’t even an option.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and I’m rearranging my cabinets to make room for new purchases when I realize that there are some food items that have been in my cabinets and pantries for about half a decade. That’s a long time for a box of pasta to be sitting around! I was treating my pantry like a museum, curating different “staples”, things I should have to have food. But I only ate a few things, I just started learning how to meal prep and had no idea how to put together a pantry. Speaking of building a functional pantry, Minimalist Baker has a great post on how to set up your own pantry, if you were in the same boat I was.

What I had was cabinets full of foods that I rarely used, if at all, and no intention of ever using them. They were just there. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a feeling it has a lot to do with my upbringing, being told we had plenty of food yet none of it was for me to prepare and just wanting to know I had food.

I’ve been cooking for a long time as a way to make a living. I started in a small but successful mexican takeout place when I was 20, and I’ve been cooking in some form ever since. But when it came to cooking for myself, I just didn’t. For a long time I ate takeout and went to restaurants mostly and seldom cooked meals. It wasn’t until the last few years that I started to meal prep, bring meals to work with me and take an active role in nourishing my body.

One of the first changes I’ve made that has had a positive impact on how I choose to nourish myself is through batch cooking. I make a plan by choosing about three recipes to cook for the week and keep them in the fridge for easy meals I can reheat instead of cooking at the end of a long day. I also batch cook lunch and breakfast to bring to work with me on my cooking day. One of the benefits is that I’m able to organize my shopping list around the recipes I choose for the week so very little food goes to waste.

To batch cook, I simply take the recipes I’m going to cook for the week and multiply them by two or three times the original quantity. So if the recipe yields two servings, if I multiply all the ingredients by three, I have six servings. These I store in the fridge for later and reheat them all week. I usually cook a few recipes and some kind of grain to have some variety, so I’m not eating the same thing day after day. But after realizing that a good portion of my pantry was old enough to start school, I made a plan to use up what I had, to organize my pantry, and hopefully, my relationship to food as well.

I’ve been searching for recipes that use these items that have been taking up cabinet space and am making plans to rotate and keep my stores fresh. For example, instead of buying boxes of pasta, just to have incase, after I use up what I do have I’m going to buy pasta fresh from the pasta shop that is close to home. This way, I’ll be eating fresh foods while freeing up space in my pantry and supporting a local business at the same time.

I was a little worried about the price I would be paying, being a thrifty New Englander, but I’ve found that buying fresh isn’t that much more expensive. A pound of pasta is roughly around 4 dollars fresh. Compared to .79 cents for it’s dried counterpart, yes that’s four times the cost. But if you only eat pasta once or twice a week or less as I do, that’s only 12 dollars a month or 9 meals, roughly 1.50 a meal assuming you get 3 meals from a pound of pasta. So it’s affordable, and the quality is undeniably superior to dried. It’s also a nice way to treat yourself with a special, affordable meal.

I think what sparked this investigation into my relationship with food and how I eat, started with my self-care Sunday dinners. As I’ve talked about in my post on self-care Sundays, I’ve decided to spend one day a week to take special care of myself. I chose my Friday or the last day of my work week, which falls on Sunday (actually it’s Tuesday now:) but a large part of the day involves preparing and eating a special meal. Something I normally wouldn’t make. This act helps me to enjoy being around food and the process of making it. Being creative, and trying something I normally wouldn’t cook for myself. Before these dinners, looking up new recipes was something I seldom did! I would usually eat the same three or four recipes without veering from those few.

In short, I’m teaching myself the healthy habits and boundaries around food I was never given. What used to be a source of fear and anxiety, has now become a resource. I look forward to coming home on my Fridays, knowing that I’ll light a candle, put some music on and cook a meal that I know I’m going to enjoy. It’s a source of pleasure to know I’m able to care for myself in this way. And I’m also eating healthier foods as well! We spend so much of our time relating to food, why spend that time and energy being fearful of it, or uncomfortable around it? Treat your food with love and you will love what you eat. Thanks for reading. Peace :]

Here are a few of my go-to recipes if you’re looking for something new or to start batch cooking for yourself, enjoy! :

Roast Vegetable & Quinoa Harvest Bowl

1-Pot Everyday Lentil Soup

Easy Vegan Ramen

Image Credits: “Early 20th century pantry in Pittock Mansion” by mharrsch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0