Eat Like a European (or “How to Put the Joy Back” in Your Meals)

Image may contain: food and indoorI stood at the kitchen counter watching the past few minutes of the news as I gobbled down some leftover cold chicken wings I made on the weekend. When this happens to me (being in such a rush that I end up standing as I shove food in my mouth) I chuckle to myself. I am not “practicing what I preach” for sure! That morning I failed to look at the clock as Tuesdays are my later days and I enjoy taking my time. Unfortunately, my needing to rush resulted in a quick meal that was not as enjoyable as the first time I had it (Saturday night with candles lit in a peaceful and relaxing setting).

After my visit to Italy a few years ago I felt like a changed woman with regard to eating and meal preparation. I had an even greater appreciation for how much joy cooking and family meals, or meals with friends brings to one’s life. And yet, here I am a few years later, forgetting all I learned and falling into what I sometimes refer to as “the modern American family” way of eating. I use that phrase often when working with families because I don’t want them to feel judged by me or bad about the fact they rarely have family meals. When I ask a parent to describe what meals look like, this is what I often hear:

“Well, I get home kind of late so the sitter gives a snack to the kids after school”….(think gold fish crackers, shriveled up fruit leather, yogurt in a tube thingee, mini muffins)……….”and I usually pick up something. It could be Chinese or pizza or sometimes burgers and fries. Johnny takes his food to his room because he likes to relax with his video games and Suzy sits on the couch in the living room to watch her shows, and I watch the news in the kitchen.”

Yes, the modern American family has changed since I was little. Of course we didn’t have all the fun electronics, and mom got to stay home and was able to cook a simple meal every night for us. We were not well off and meals were simple (yes, the old meat, potato, vegetable for dinner, or sometimes pasta fagioli). And it was unheard of that all four children would not sit at the table as a family. Now, things are different. Every situation is different of course, but what I see is that things cost so much, usually both parents have to work (or maybe it is a single parent, and this is even harder). Children get involved with sports, homework is getting harder and harder (according to my friends who have young children) and performance matters. Responsibilities at work often spill over to home (now that we have computers and internet, it sometimes feels like we have no excuse to tune out our working world). Before, when we punched out, work was over. Not anymore. And so, we make our priorities, and cooking a five course dinner, spending an hour eating leisurely while we chat is almost a joke to even think about.

And yet, we have an epidemic of people worrying about their weight, their children’s weight, their health, etc. People are not just having an occasional, fleeting thought about weight. They are sometimes spending lots and lots of time and money on products, books, plans, supplements, shakes and mental energy on this stuff. We have a nation of weight watchers and dieters who feel guilty eating sometimes. Lots of energy is spent on trying NOT to eat, not on enjoying food. In fact, food is often treated as “the enemy”. How many times have you heard someone say “get that away from me!” or “don’t leave that here, take it home!” or better yet, “Why did I eat that? I feel so bad”. I promise you, I never heard words like this in Italy (but then again, I don’t speak or understand Italian….). Anyway, food and meals were treated differently. Is there a connection between the way we Americans treat food and our obsession with weight? I think so.

There is not only an emotional/psychological connection, there is a physiological one. We know that eating fast does not give our body enough time to detect fullness. Therefore, running around nibbling or grabbing food and gobbling it down leads to a disconnect from our mind and body. People tell me “I am never hungry” or “I never feel full”. We also know that in order for our brains to release the messenger to make us feel “satisfied” and want to stop eating, we actually do need to look at our food and be aware of the taste, and appreciate the flavor. Researchers have found that one of the roles leptin may play is to gradually increase dopamine (a feel-good chemical). When we are in need of energy and our body detects it, leptin drives us to eat but it also helps us feel satisfied because of the “pleasure” of food. When ample dopamine is available, there’s less need to generate more (in other words, no need to overeat). Important Note: all brains are not the same. Some people truly can’t control eating some foods and it is not their fault. To those of you who struggle with this I always support whatever strategy or coping skill you know works for you. But for those of you who are simply struggling with random mindless eating, working on slowing down and being more cognitive of your enjoyment of food is important if you are one of those people who are always dieting and concerned with weight.

Here is an example: have you ever had a desire for a specific food (say, pizza) but did not feel it was a healthy choice, or maybe you are dieting and it definitely is not on your diet plan……so you do everything in your power to resist giving in. You decide you will make a salad with grilled chicken instead, but after eating it you just don’t feel satisfied (plus, you really weren’t in the mood for chicken and there was absolutely no enjoyment). So you decided to grab a few crackers. That didn’t help. How about some fruit, that’s healthy. Still no satisfaction. Add on rice cakes, yogurt, more fruit. Now, your tummy is feeling a bit full and confused. You finally break down and order some pizza. After a few slices you are definitely too full, and not feeling too good. Instead, wouldn’t it be a better idea if you had originally just ordered pizza? If you sat down and enjoyed a few slices with no distraction, you would definitely have felt better. Yet, people (especially dieters) get it stuck in their heads that they can only eat certain foods and they will surely gain weight if they eat something not considered diet-friendly (in other words, fattening, like pizza, right?) But is pizza really “fattening” if you only eat enough to satisfy your hunger, feel normal fullness (no tummy ache) and get rid of that craving? If you avoid eating all of those “permitted” foods that don’t get rid of your craving anyway? Can you just give yourself permission to choose a food just because you really enjoy it?

If you can start to pay attention to your true preferences, that is a first step. The next step is taking just a few minutes for a reality check. Your schedule is different than mine, and mine is different than my neighbor’s, co-worker’s and my sister’s. I am the only one who knows what I have to do this week. YOU are the only one who knows what YOUR week looks like. What do you HAVE to do and where do you HAVE to be?  I don’t have teenagers to cart around anymore so I don’t have to pick up my son at football practice at 6 pm or drive my daughter to her friend’s house to do a project. Instead, I may have flower beds to weed, and windows to wash, or parties to plan. I like watching The Blacklist, or Designated Survivor but thanks to modern technology, a favorite TV show is not a HAVE TO anymore. But I do know that on Sundays I have to get to that grocery store so I can cook in the late afternoon, usually making something extra (such as grilling or roasting extra chicken that was on sale) so that I can pop into freezer bags to use later in the week when I come how and there is “no food” in the house. I have found you can make a variety of fast meals with grilled chicken (chicken quesadilla, chicken Caesar, chicken and pasta, chicken salad, chicken and rice, etc). The point being, I have learned the only time I can carve out is usually on Sunday afternoon. I arrange visiting my mom, socializing with friends, writing, work stuff, etc. at other times. But I have made it a priority to be sure I have healthy but yummy food available during the week so that I don’t have to spend money ordering out and so my husband and I can easily have time to connect during the week (even for that short dinner time, it still is quality time). When you have kids who are doing things and going places, this is not as easy, but even more important to look ahead and plan. If you are the type of person who kind of “flies by the seat of your pants” then this may not be easy. It means stopping for a minute, finding a calendar and writing things down. Who has what and when? Is there a flexible day or consistent time where you can carve out a time to cook? Freezer bags help. Then, even if it is only one day a week to start (that is how busy families are these days) at least you can plan that one sit-down dinner with your partner or family, or even if it is just yourself. Make it special by lighting a candle. Turn off all electronics. If you are not someone who is ever going to cook, then whatever it is (can of raviolis, frozen dinner or take-out) just practice slowing down. Take it out of the wrapper or whatever, put it on a plate, take the time to look at your meal and then slowly enjoy it in a mindful way. As you practice this slowing down and derive some pleasure with eating a meal, you will find yourself not only enjoying the process but feeling more connected to your body and your fullness. For those of you with families and kids, giving them this experience is a gift they will pass on. It will be a memory they likely will cherish forever. Even if it is only on Sunday.

The bottom line: slow down.

Food is not the enemy. It should be a joyful part of life that adds to your health in more ways than protein, vitamins and minerals. Bon appetit!

3 thoughts on “Eat Like a European (or “How to Put the Joy Back” in Your Meals)

  1. So many good points! My favorite is slow down. SLOW DOWN. When I eat standing up, red flag! I found that in Mexico, meals are often communal, as are party areas. The folks in Mexico know how to socialize and dance and sing and just have fun! I think most days I am a ‘typical American downer’! Where does time go? Where does delight go? Here, in America, it is a thief and I think many times it tries to steal our joy. But I’m not bitter! I am now aware! More and more as I age and travel and experience new things. Excellent post as always. ~Kim

    Liked by 2 people

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