Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Way We Eat

As I've often declared, this is my year to learn how to cook, and grocery shop, and eat healthier. It used to be a running joke in my family that my mom can't cook -- she can bake fairly well-- but her cooking is limited to dozen meals and they are all edible but average, predictable, and boring. She's not big on change and these few meals suit her just fine. My dad and brother have always been rough on her since she doesn't have their "elaborate" taste buds. That really just means her taste buds are more delicate and can't tolerate the spices and saltings and firestorms my dad and brother prefer. I can't say I blame her since my food preferences are strongly adverse to spicy foods and the craziness of some of their concoctions. I get my sweet tooth for chocolate from her too.

Our styles of eating all became clear to me earlier this year when we tried to pick a restaurant for Easter brunch. Now that I'm getting into food, food quality, the importance of quality ingredients, and realizing the wealth of talented chefs that surround us in the city, I am more inclined to suggest well-known restaurants that come highly recommended. Maybe that stems from not going out to eat much and wanting it to be really good when we do. In the search for restaurant options my co-worker asked me what type of food my dad prefers and my honest response was "meat and potatoes in large quantities." It then dawned on me that that was how I was raised, and why Rick has had to reprogram my eating habits. My family usually ate together at the table for 5 pm dinner, which consisted of meat and a couple of sides or a casserole dish. Sunday noon was the big meal and typically included a dessert, and always a big chunk of meat. The TV was always on to the news, sitcom or a movie. If you didn't like what was served, there was always peanut butter and jelly in the kitchen and you could help yourself.

My dad has a thing about making sure we never go hungry. Once you take two or three bites, he quickly checks to see how it is and if you want more. It's an insult if you don't have seconds, and the first helping is always large enough to feed two people. He's known for his good cooking and extravagant tailgating spreads. There is always enough food for each of us to bring a friend, but if we did bring a friend, he always worries there won't be enough. Maybe that's a result of the economy when he grew up or just how his parents did things, I'm not sure. But it's something I've been much more conscious of now that I'm in charge of feeding my family.

Another observation I've made is that I tend to eat really fast. I'm almost always the first one finished when I go out with friends. It's been helpful when we've had to take turns eating and feeding Ada when she was a baby. But it has also trained me to eat out of necessity instead of enjoyment. Rick's amazed at how little I care about the various flavors and actual taste of my meals. If they aren't quite right, I don't really care. He on the other hand is constantly wondering how a meal can be improved upon and will point out if foods are over or under done. He can savor it all. I'm working on that.

Rick has been the best observer of my eating habits since we've been together so long and he's that way by nature. It didn't take him long into our marriage to notice that I tend to overeat at each meal. I'm frequently a member of the "clean plate club" but I don't remember that ever being a rule at our house growing up. I'd eat so much at each meal that I'd want to explode for the next two or three hours until I could digest a bit, thereby making me pretty worthless after dinner. We'd both do the cooking, but we stuck to meals that were safe and easy and heavy on the pasta. After awhile, he started plating up my food in smaller portions on smaller plates and, amazingly, I didn't eat as much and still became full, while leaving room for dessert. Surely I'd be obese from all of this eating but I have a high metabolism so it never really affected my size or weight. It just made my energy focus on digestion instead of other fun things I could have been doing.

Seeing that point of view on how I was brought up and my philosophy on eating made me realize I needed to change my ways, learn how to cook, and find a way to break those habits and create new ones to pass on to Ada. Even if we have high metabolisms and tall, thin genes, doesn't mean we shouldn't eat healthy. Late last year, after being married for over seven years, I finally got tired of the "What do you want for dinner?" debate and the subsequent listing of local restaurants. The expense and monotony of that habit were wearing on me. I just wasn't sure how to go about making that change.

At a holiday brunch with friends, our hobby chef/foodie friend Sarah offered to teach me to cook this year. A few lessons later, she's instilled me with the confidence to read recipes, try new things, and be less fearful of the grocery store and weird ingredients. She's taught me how to better stock my pantry, and how to eat healthier. She's pointed out deficiencies in my kitchen supplies--a handheld juicer? Seriously? I don't have one of those?-- and influenced me by sharing what she has learned about eating organic foods and shopping at the local farmers' markets.

The other driving force behind all of this is my book club. Not only are they healthy eaters, but they recommended I read books by Michael Pollan, specifically The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Food Rules. They also suggested I join a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) to get my fruits and veggies delivered straight from local farms as it is in season for some of the best produce available. Another friend suggested the documentary Food Inc which features Michael Pollan and many of the issues covered in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It has all been eye opening.

How has all of this changed me?

Well, my neighbor Kelly just asked me "Since when did you become so domesticated?" after walking through my kitchen. I've got mason jars of rices and grains out on the counter, fruit and vegetables overflowing the counters, and I'm offering her lunch or leftovers from my cooking lessons. She's amazing that I can actually cook now whereas before, she would come down here for a snack and be sorely disappointed. I see her a lot more frequently now. It's been five months and I've spent more money on food and cooked more this year than the last three years combined. I want to eat healthier and instill these new eating habits in Ada. I want to eat smaller portions that are more nutritious. I want to support local farmers and enjoy the flavors in my food. I want to savor my meals instead of inhaling them and waiting for the next meal to do the same.

Is it a lot of work? Yes.

Is it worth it? Heck yeah. It's amazing. So tasty and enjoyable. And I feel better both physically and mentally knowing that the time I invest now to learn how to cook is helping me to eat healthier and provide my family with better food choices, hopefully influencing all of our diets in the long term. I'm still struggling with meal planning, grocery shopping, learning how to read labels, and navigating the farmers' market, but that will come with time and practice and more trial and error. It's almost harder in the city when you can shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Dominicks, Jewel, Straack & Van Til, Treasure Island, the farmers' markets, local delis and cheese stores, meat markets, the spice house, Stanley's fruit market, Costco, and have one of a dozen CSAs, including those for meat and poultry. In the suburbs, they only have a County Market, Jewel, Wal-mart, the butcher, and an occasional specialty store, which creates a different sort of challeges.

Do we still order out from the local restaurants? Yep. But not as often. And I tend to order a much more healthy options and steal bites of Rick's sinful selections -- he hasn't given up fat, greasy burgers and fries or chili dogs even close to the extent of which I have. I'm still indulging in the good old American standbys, but a lot less frequently. And pizza is dead to me--at least until this baby is no longer causing mass amounts of heartburn to my system.

Eventually, I hope to find a balance so we waste less food, consume healthier foods with less chemicals and less processed foods so our children are off to a good start. It is a big investment in both time and money, but one I feel will stay with my kids for life and make a real difference in the world.

Moral of the story: As children, our knowledge is based on our parents' knowledge. It therefore lies on us as parents to give our children a solid foundation on which to grow that knowledge. Challenge yourself to do just that.

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