It dawned on me recently that the simple act of eating is anything but that. Something as basic as obtaining and preparing food shouldn’t be that complicated. But it is. It struck me when I witnessed my Italian mother frying burgers this weekend. I had just finished making a few pounds worth of turkey burgers for her which I freeze so she can have them for a few weeks. I add in diced peppers, onions, garlic, grated carrots, cheese and seasonings then fry them in a bit of oil in a non-stick pan. They are yummy and healthy. My mom, however, had a few burgers that she had bought and also needed to cook those. So she proceeds to pull out a heavy fry pan and pour in about an inch of olive oil. She is known for her yummy sauce and eggplant Parmesan, however she rarely cooks much for herself. Except apparently burgers on occasion.Anyway, I was a bit surprised and asked her if she was aware that those beef burgers probably had enough fat and wouldn’t stick so she really didn’t need all that oil (I was thinking about the cost and waste as she would surely have to dump most of it when she was done). Well, she just rolled her eyes. You can check out her reaction for a good smile, Mom frying burgers Needless to say, hot oil splatted everywhere, but she does what she does, cooks the way she likes to, and it’s all good.
This happened after a fun day out. I often take my mom on little adventures on Saturdays since my dad passed to get her out of the house. This burger frying day was one of those days…anyway, the day involved lots of choices about food, meal planning, grocery shopping, restaurants etc. and as much as I do enjoy it all, it hit me that making all these choices and decisions can’t be easy for everyone, especially dieters, people with health issues, or those with disordered eating and body image concerns.
For example, have you ever gone to a restaurant with a 99 page menu, or how about 3 different menus? Do you struggle, like me, to make a decision on what you want to eat? Or, think about planning dinner, or lunches for work, or even a meal for a dinner party with friends. A birthday celebration, holiday, or even a camping trip. Being someone who loves to cook, and on top of that a dietitian who understands food and nutrition a bit more than most people, you would think decisions like this must be easy. Yet, I often find myself struggling and confused. And then I feel like a bit of a hypocrite.
You see, one of the things I also talk about when trying to help people be healthier is the importance of creating a healthier environment. Part of this involves purchasing better foods when you grocery shop, planning meals, and packing healthier lunches so you aren’t forced to buy something from the vending machine or fast food joint just because you are not prepared. I have educated people about choosing the healthier options in restaurants and also how to prepare foods to modify them to be healthier. And yet, there I was, sitting yesterday at the Cheesecake Factory with my mom, staring at this gigantic menu filled with choices (actually, there were a few menus), and all I initially wanted was something hot and soupy and tomatoey. On top of that, the calorie content of most of the items was listed and I wondered how their sales were affected after they started sharing that info. My mom was pretty funny in the way she reacted to it. “That can’t be right!” and I assured her it probably wasn’t. She is not a big eater (unless it’s sweet) and we both settled on chicken chili which came with bread and a salad and was perfect. I was glad there was something hot and tomatoey on the menu, which made it easier since I already had it in mind, however I think we both felt overwhelmed with all the choices. What do other people do? How do they figure out what to order?
And then we went to the grocery store. I wanted to be sure to cook something for my mom to have for the week (we decided on the turkey burgers) but also needed to get something for my “Sunday Cookin'” which I do most Sunday’s. I turn this into a relaxing but productive event as it is a way to relax before work starts again Monday, but I also prepare enough food for lunches for a few days, or even dinners. The problem lies in making a decision on what to make. I usually do some research into different cultural meals (Italian of course, Mexican, Asian, finally tried Indian which was challenging). This time I had no idea and couldn’t decide what to make, so was somewhat dazed and confused in the grocery store. I remembered my mom had an eggplant to give me so impulsively decided to go Italian. I bought Italian turkey sausage, beef for meatballs, tomato paste, I had the rest I was sure. Oh, and I also needed to make something for my nutrition class for our “tasting”. Maybe homemade potato chips using the mandolin I just purchased on my outing with my mom. Potato is a vegetable, so that counts. Plus I was guessing they would love it over my usual green things I push on them.
So we finished our shopping, finished our cooking, cleaned up and it was time for me to head home. On the way home, I remembered I needed to remember to find some ripe avocados to make some guacamole for “green food” tasting as March is National Nutrition Month (FYI) and I was planning another tasting for our school. I would need to go to Costco’s to get what I figured would be enough, about 20 hopefully ripe avocados at a cheaper price. I was definitely not in the mood to go and decided to wait until the middle of the week (I still had time). I was tired of thinking about food and cooking. When I got home and walked into the kitchen, I could tell my husband had been cooking. He was so excited to inform me that he had made his famous “chicken a la king” from the leftover roasted chicken we had. He puts pimentos and mushrooms in it and serves it over rice which he loves and I don’t love. He showed me what looked like 3 quarts of the stuff with additional large tupperware containers full of cooked rice. He ALSO made taco filling, so much so that he already had frozen a container. Apparently, he DID go to Costco’s and bought a gigantic package of beef. Talk about food for the week. I put away my groceries, and did not want to think about meal planning, grocery shopping or cooking anymore.
Even though cooking is one of my passions, the rest of it isn’t. But what if cooking isn’t a passion of yours, then I imagine the rest of it is even less fun. How much easier to spend your time doing all the things you do enjoy doing rather than thinking about food, shopping, cooking, planning. Add on top of this the need to know a bit about nutrition if you care about your health. How do you choose what to buy considering both nutrition and what you enjoy eating? Add onto this the challenge of our abundant food and restaurant environment and you have triggers galore that make most of us want to throw our budgets (and nutrition) to the wind just for some sanity. And relief from thinking about it all. Trying to eat healthier just feels like too much work sometimes. Even for a dietitian who loves cooking.
Do we give up? Or instead, do we pick our battles? Does it really have to be perfect? I think of my mom and her olive oil. At 85 years of age, she walks 4 miles a day, goes to church every day, has a great sense of humor and an active and social life despite all she has gone through. Clearly, frying burgers in an inch of olive oil, or living off of ice cream for a few days hasn’t hurt her. The bigger picture is more important. Nurturing herself in ways that don’t involve food or nutrition clearly helps. Laughing, being active, having faith, reading, crossword puzzles, enjoying her simple life. But most people, especially those with health issues or eating or weight issues can’t ignore the need to deal with food, and it is not simple at all. I think we underestimate how hard it really is to deal with all these decisions and do all the work to create a healthier lifestyle. I see people go gung-ho and then I see them totally give up. I wish instead that everyone just is gentler with themselves, and knows that it is ok not to be perfect at this. It is ok to “just not feel like it” sometimes and to treat yourself because you deserve it (and sanity comes first). I believe in taking advantage of the times you DO feel like cooking or reading about healthy recipes. That is why on Sundays I do my cooking because I find that is the one day I actually do have time and nothing on the agenda and I can take my time and enjoy the process. And that is why I may make a few things, too much food for sure but that is what freezers are for and tupperware and freezer bags. So then, when Thursday rolls around and there is “nothing to cook” for dinner, lo and behold, it’s like a restaurant right in my own freezer! Chicken a La King anyone?
So, don’t give up. Meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, freezing food, etc, is not the easy way. But you don’t have to be perfect. Just start somewhere. And, who knows, this Sunday I may try some deep fried burgers……