Healthy Food Unplugged: Thoughts on Cooking

Every few years I get off track with my eating and have to hit the reset button.  This is one of those years.

Somehow I missed out on the Joy of Cooking gene.

I’ve never been a foodie.  I’ve never particularly enjoyed cooking, and for most of my childhood food was something to be picked at and suspicious of.  Eating out was two small packages of french fries. I learned to cook from The New Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook, and the first things I learned to cook were cookies and lasagna.  If it was in the Betty Crocker cookbook, then it had to be healthy food.

Growing up, my mother’s specialties were fried bologna and pinto beans (which I liked), and we ate a lot of Hamburger Helper and Shake and Bake.  My dad loved to cook steak (which I still love) and we also ate a lot of noodles.  Spam sandwiches were not uncommon.  I think most of my friends pretty much ate the same way.

When I grew up and had kids of my own and became a Swiss housewife, it was like being thrown into a deep ocean with no life jacket.  I had to tread a lot of water until I learned how to cook.  There were different vegetables, different meats, and of course, their names were all in German.  There were no days off, no fast food lunches, no take out.  If I wanted pizza, I had to make it myself, crust and all.  Two small children less than two years apart kept me too busy to enjoy cooking.

In essence, cooking was an endless three meal a day chore.

When I came back to the states and returned to college, with two kids in tow and minus the husband, meals were quick and easy.  I was always broke, so we ate a lot of mac ‘n cheese with tuna (still one of my son’s favorites), fish sticks, and noodles.  Between going to classes, studying, writing papers, raising the kids, and waiting tables at night, trying out new recipes wasn’t high on my list of things I had to get done.

Except for baking.  One Christmas Break, a college friend and I went on a homemade chocolate chip cookie binge.  She would come over to my small apartment on campus and we would make a batch of chocolate chip cookies and eat them straight out of the oven.  A few days later, when we had eaten the last cookie, I would call up Jennifer and we’d make another batch.  We must have done this four or five times in a row, until I noticed that my jeans were getting a little snug.  I had just turned 30, and it was the first time in my life I realized I couldn’t eat what I wanted and not gain weight.

I know how lucky I was to make it to 30 before that happened.

When I started teaching, it became all consuming.  Like most American mothers who try to do it all, something has to pay the price, and for me it was cooking.  I hated it.  It was boring.  I didn’t have time.  I still made sure the kids were well-fed, banned soft drinks during the school week, and limited junk food as much as I could, and I even dabbled in vegetarianism off and on.  But cooking was always a chore.  Grocery shopping was even worse.

Besides, there was always something more interesting to do than cook.

Eventually the kids grew up and left home.  One became a near vegetarian and never drinks soft drinks, the other lives for junk food and drinks sodas like a fish.  I take full blame for both.

Without the kids around to feed I took up new interests, like running.  I started to think of food as fuel for my runs and tried to eat healthier.  Running, however, created a carbohydrate junkie.  I craved carbs and sugar, especially after runs over 15 miles, and I constantly worried if I was eating enough carbs.  Even training for a marathon, I couldn’t figure out how I could run 35-40 miles per week and still gain weight.

It was ironic that I could run so much, all in the name of health, but put crap in my body.  I ate whatever I wanted.  I foolishly thought that running would protect me from the ill effects of a poor diet.

Running in the evenings meant even less time to cook for myself.  At the pre-race pasta dinner before my second marathon, I sat across from a new friend who loved to cook.  After talking about the dinners she and her husband loved to cook the most, she turned to me and asked don’t you just LOVE to cook?  When I told her I didn’t, I could see the friendship train roll to a slow stop.

The bottom line is, either I’m completely uninterested in eating, or it’s all I can think about.

Now that I have more time on my hands, I began to wonder, what is the perfect diet?  What exactly is healthy food?  Is meat good or bad?  Are carbs good or bad?  How bad is sugar?  Why do I crave sodas and sweets?  What exactly is healthy food?

I think poor eating, fast food, and processed foods are all symptoms of our too busy lives.  No one has time to cook, or even think about, their health and the choices they make about what they eat.  I was just like everyone else, too busy–and too lazy–to care about what I ate.

As I almost always do when faced with a problem, I started reading.  I discovered that you can find research supporting just about any “healthy” diet that exists.  Low carb, high carb, low protein, high protein, vegan, vegetarian, you name it.  I read In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.   I liked his common sense approach to the issue.  I bought Alton Brown cookbooks.

We started a garden, and grew herbs.

Growing your own food is like an awakening.  For perhaps the first time in your life you discover how vegetables and fruit are supposed to taste.  If you make only one change in your life, I recommend you start a garden.  Grow something, even if it’s nothing more than fresh herbs.  You’ll be amazed at the deliciousness.

Now I make time to actually think about what I put in my body.  It’s all about eating healthier, and it goes beyond eating organically.  We need to eat with thought:  how far did this food travel to get to my kitchen?  How much nutrition was lost on this journey?  How much energy was expended getting it to my plate?

Last fall I was shopping in a small, local grocery store that has a fairly good selection of organic food.  As I walked towards the back of the store to the produce section, I stopped in my tracks.  I could smell the apples.  It was surprising to actually smell something that good.  They were so fragrant, and I couldn’t remember ever having smelled apples like that in a store before.  Ever.  To me, apples are boring, and flavorless, but I bought a few that day.  They were the best apples I’ve ever eaten.

This was a good reminder:  All food should smell good!!!

Along with this new awareness of how food should really taste, there is now a desire to cook.  I’m taking baby steps, and much of the preparation is still tedious, but I’m enjoying the overall pleasure in good, healthy food.  The biggest change I’ve made diet-wise is to cut out almost all sugar.  No more soft drinks, no more deserts, and no junk food.  I eat a lot more whole grains, too.  In essence, I don’t eat processed food, and that means I have to cook.  I keep it simple, and try to use fresh ingredients.  I’ll never be Julia Child in the kitchen, but I’m starting to love the adventure of building a great meal, from scratch, from beginning to end.

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8 comments

  1. Gary Turnage

    I really enjoyed reading your blog today. It brought back memories of the Toll House Cookies you made when we lived on Monssen Dr. They were absolutely the best cookies I’ve ever tasted. Keep up the good work.

    Dad

  2. Hari

    Great read Angela. I really enjoyed it. Now that I am focused on eating vegetables, I have found a new desire on learning how to cook vegetables in ways I have never before. Those chilli peppers from your garden were amazing. I feel so much better, though I would have to say that I almost was tempted to eat a steak the other night when I ran past somebodys house where they were grilling a steak

  3. skippingstones

    I’ve been trying to eat better myself – tried twice and stopped twice. But I haven’t given up on it! I was also cutting down on the processed food – eliminating it when I was doing really good. I found that the more fruits and vegetables I eat, the more I crave them. For me, when I fall off the wagon, it’s because I haven’t shopped or prepared the good food. So I go for the quick and easy (bad) food. I need to buckle down and just do it, maybe plan my week and build in the grocery shopping and food prep time.

    • Mind Margins

      That sounds exactly like my experience. It’s when life gets busy and I haven’t been to the grocery store that I start slacking off and heading for the nearest fast food joint. I try not to beat myself up too much when I slip and eat something I shouldn’t. If I can eat healthy at least 70% of the time, I’m good with that.

  4. A Wanderer

    I love reading about your journey to healthier eating. Thank you for sharing… And the broccoli/tomato/strawberry salad looks absolutely delicious!

    When you talked about running = eating whatever you wanted, I was reminded of a former colleague of mine who (while in her 20s) used to eat two huge donuts every morning and lots of other bad stuff throughout the day while maintaining a size 2. I have to say most of us hated her for that. She would always say that she ran to eat but then she kept running and kept eating into her thirties that size 2 kept expanding….

    I wish I could run enough to eat whatever I want but luckily I usually prefer the fresh apple to the greasy apple fritter almost any day.

    • Mind Margins

      Thank God I don’t like donuts (too sweet)! I know many runners who run for donuts. I can’t really eat everything I want, and I do notice as I get older that eating too many carbs and sweets doesn’t burn off like it used to, even though I’m still running long. Good for you for liking the fresh apple over the fritter! I can’t always resist temptation (especially now that the State Fair’s just opened), but I do love a good, loaded salad.

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