The Crazy Confusing World of Food

 

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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……

 

The Gift of Passion

IMG_8442I woke up at 5:10 am today, a Saturday morning, because of it. Lying there in bed telling myself I should just try to sleep in did not work. I figured I might as well just get up and do what I wanted to do. The several random thoughts floating about in my head since about 3:30 am were kind of interesting (or so my sleepy mind thought) and I did not want to lose them. And then it struck me how joyful it felt to be compelled to get out of bed because you want to do something that you enjoy so much. And after THAT I realized, even though it is not specifically about eating, food, weight, health and all that, I wanted to write about it. Because, in a way, it’s all inter-tangled.

I am no expert on “passion”, but I do recognize it in others. And, although I often take it for granted, I know I am blessed with feeling passionate about many things in my life, my work being just one of them. Many of my closest friends know just what I mean (probably why I was drawn to them in the first place). They all work, or have worked in jobs that were much more than a paycheck. A few of them were special ed teachers, now retired. Now that I work in a school with over a hundred special needs kids, I totally get it. Your body can be filled with joy just walking down the hallway, watching the interactions of the dedicated staff and the children who love them. One of my friends who is a retired teacher (and who worked with behaviorally challenged inner city teens) now volunteers in a prison, helping to teach incarcerated men in hopes that they will have a chance at a new life.  After many years of working, you would think she might want to sit around and relax awhile, but no. I am sure the gift of joy she gets when she leaves that prison far outweighs anything else. For some of my friends, caring for elder parents as well as being there for older children fills that need. And almost all of my friends have a passion for connecting and entertaining, sharing the joy of their homes and lives with each other.

Passion for some has nothing to do with their work (let’s face it, most of us tend to take jobs we may like, but also need to make ends meet). But, they find their joy in other ways. It could be creating the most amazing desserts in the world and watching the smiles on everyone’s face when they sink their teeth in. Or maybe it is renovating things, making old things new again. Creating things such as jewelry, playing an instrument, taking up a new sport, all of these things add a dimension to life that has nothing to do with making money. Gardening is a passion for many of my friends, myself included. Even when it is covered in a foot of snow, I still get that feeling when I look out at my garden with it’s angel statues and bird baths, ice covered pond and mini windmill spinning in the cold breeze. I know what’s under there and what will be popping up in just 60 days (but who’s counting?).

What happens when people don’t have a passion? We all know someone who tends to complain about everything. Or, maybe they just never seem too happy. Their lives may appear to be OK by typical standards. They have a good job, good relationship, health, a nice place to live, yet, something is “missing”. There is no feeling of joy present. Their energy does not fill you up, but instead tends to drain you. Of course, some people have big problems in life, and it definitely affect their happiness. That is not what I am talking about. It’s when everything in life is going smoothly, yet joy is still absent. What’s going on?

Could it be the absence of passion? I don’t believe it. I think we all have something we absolutely feel passionate about, but we ignore it. We are kind of brain-washed in our culture to do what it takes to be successful, make money, support yourself (unless that is just my experience or feeling, yours may be different). So we stop giving ourselves permission to act on our passions because they no longer are the priority in life. There’s no time.

Or, maybe we lose our passion because we just can’t accomplish it. We may have something we feel strongly about and want to share it with the world in our writing, or art or music. The reality hits that getting the word out on whatever it is that is so important to you may not go far. It’s easy to give up.

Maybe there is a way to reconnect with passion and add joy to life again. Ask yourself this question: what do I love to do? what makes me happy? Then, be honest about the first thing that comes to mind (“hula-hooping” popped into my mind….may have to go to the garage and drag it out). Or, is there something you have been working on because of your convictions, passion, beliefs? Have you started a novel, a painting, a cookbook, a small company but stopped because things aren’t moving as fast as you thought? Consider the way you feel when you are creating……isn’t it in the process that you feel that passion? Doesn’t that bring joy to life?

Making time for our passion is another story. Life is busy, yes, but if you are recording even one television show, then you have time (Beachfront Bargain, This Is Us, Walking Dead, I get it). Escaping with television, Facebook and YouTube might be relaxing, but making time for your passion, and finding joy in life is worth it.

So back to this morning and my tossing and turning and deciding to just get up. I was mentally working on a presentation I am doing (on a topic I happen to feel passionate about, Motivational Interviewing for Dietitians) specifically, how to use an empathetic counseling approach when it comes to helping children with weight issues. I came up with a few ideas for slides I did not want to forget. The second thing that was mixed up right in there with the slides was how to make a vegetarian lasagna for a gathering at my mom’s today. I literally was going through all of the ingredients I knew I had (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, cauliflower, fresh basil, garlic, black beans, fresh Parmesan) and trying to decide if I need to run out to the store. Yes, cooking is another passion of mine, especially if I can be creative. And, one more thing jumbled up in there was figuring out my tasting for my nutrition class on Monday. Since another storm is brewing for Sunday, do I need to get to the store today? Another passion, making those kids happy.

One article in Psychology Today describes passion as “the last thing you think of before going to bed”, and “the first thing you think of when you wake up”. For some people with eating and body image issues, the obsessive thoughts about restricting, exercising, dieting, etc. do not represent healthy passion, and are anything but joyful. Maybe, getting reconnected with a healthy passion can add something positive to think about. Adding even one small happy thing to life is a step in the right direction. Plant a seed. Paint a picture. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Take your grandmother out for ice cream. Make a new recipe.Sing a song. Jump rope, dance, and yes, hula hoop.

Find your passion. It’s all good.

 

Food: More Than Just Something to Eat

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Wagon Wheel Pasta inside a Rigatoni: How to Maximize Sauce in Every Bite!

This weekend it really struck me what a blessing it is to be a  (somewhat) normal eater. We all know food is more than just fuel, or something to eat. And I am not talking about food as medicine, or food as as (emotional) pain reliever, but rather how complex our relationship to food is merely because of our history with food and eating. I am talking culture, your upbringing, the food you were raised eating. Usually, I learn about a patient’s history with dieting, or body image concerns, or how their parents wanted them to lose weight, and how it affected their eating, etc. It is sad that in our culture what we eat mostly has evolved into what affect it is going to have on our bodies. Yes, we need to care about that (if we want to have energy, feel good, increase our chances of living a long and healthy life). But what about the pure joy of eating, especially based on our (early, hopefully happy) memories of food?

This weekend I was treated to a wonderful birthday trip to Boston, and it was such an interesting experience, especially when it came to food, that I felt the need to share. The first night we stayed in the theater district, and had tickets to see the Blue Man Group (awesome!). We had a short time to find a place to grab a quick dinner, and most of the nice restaurants had long waits. So we took a short off-the-beaten-path side street and found a funky tiny cozy half-empty bar/bistro and grabbed a seat. I got crab cakes which were giant and yummy, my husband got a fish platter (we were in Boston, you gotta get fish!). It was fast and wonderful.

The next two nights were spent in the North end of Boston, which is the Italian section, Boston’s “Little Italy”. My husband had rented an apartment right in the center of it all, right off of Hanover Street (the famous main drag of Little Italy). It felt like we lived there! The second surprise I received was a ticket to a walking “food tour” called “Off the Eaten Path” which was a 3 hour tour of restaurants, hidden bakeries, wine cellar, sweet shop, coffee shop and tiny grocery shops where locals get their meats and cheeses. The tour guide was wonderful and our groups was small (10 people).See Boston Food Tour for more information.

Being Italian, and growing up with some great Italian food, I felt right at home. So many things brought back so many memories. Memories of my grandmother and her sauce, helping my mom grate the Parmesan cheese (nothing but the real stuff, and to this day, I still only use the best). Those giant platters of cookies at weddings, the salami and other meats, the smell of strong coffee, REAL Italian bread. I remember the giant cans of olive oil and the constant aroma of garlic. And of course there was the wine! Even the smell of the gas stove where we stayed brought back memories of both of my grandmother’s who spoke Italian and hated electric stoves because you could not control the heat. They cooked with gas (unless we were on the “farm” on the weekend, where our families gathered just to cook and eat and run around while the older people would play cards and laugh). At the farm they cooked over fire.

Anyway, on this tour, the first stop was for pizza at a place that brought back a giant pizza oven from Naples, Italy which cooked at super high heat and produced the best pizza around. After visiting Italy this past spring, I can tell you the pizza was the same. Very thin crust with spare but wonderful toppings of prosciutto on one and fresh mozzarella and basil on the other. After pizza, we stopped in to a restaurant that perfected pasta to hold the most sauce in every bite (see picture above), then off to the wine cellar (100 years old, in a dark basement, with a tasting of red and rose). We heard about how wine was made and after that I really wished I could always afford the good stuff. Next came a visit to a tiny hidden bakery, down an alley way, then down stairs where they made bread from yeast that was smuggled in from Italy over 300 years ago. After our bread tasting we stopped at a home made chocolate shop, and 2 tiny shops which again brought me back just because of the smells and aromas. Finally, we stopped at a local coffee shop for expresso, cannoli and the only home made gelato in Boston. Here are some pictures:

We walked and talked and sampled, and I was so thankful for my culture, and the way I was brought up when it comes to food and eating.

The next day we spent lots of time walking around the Boston Farmer’s Market. If you have never gone, and you live in the area, you need to go. As you walk among the tents and farmers, you hear so many languages spoken, witness funny interactions and bargaining for fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, and feel like you are in some movie, or in a different country. I love it! To me, that is what food and eating are about. Culture. If you love cooking, you know what I mean. In America we have some good food (all I can think of is cheeseburgers right now, but there is also New England Clam Chowder). There is so much to learn from other cultures about cooking and food and spices and eating that it seems most of us just never think about. This weekend, wandering through the North End, as well as the Farmer’s Market, I was reminded of the beauty and wonderfulness of all of it. Here are some pictures of the market:

All in all, it was a great weekend filled with lots of great meals, lots of walking, lots of laughter, but most of all, an important reminder: don’t go through life forgetting to embrace your culture. When is the last time you had your favorite dish growing up? Is there something your family used to make that is from your culture that you have not had in a long time? Is it because you think it may be unhealthy, or make you gain weight? After this (BIG) birthday, it motivated me even more to “live life to the fullest” Joie de vivre!!! as the French might say……

now off to make my puttanesca sauce!

What I learned about food and eating in Italy

IMG_5635 I recently returned from an almost three week vacation in Italy. It was an amazing trip in many ways, mostly because it truly validated who I am and why I like the foods I do, (and why I love dancing). I felt very connected to my roots. Growing up in an Italian family with a grandfather who spoke broken English and a grandmother who did not speak a work of English created many wonderful memories. Family was the center of our lives and meals and gatherings that centered around cooking and eating were just a part of life. I remember going to my grandmother’s house who did not speak English, and she would take chunks of aged Parmesan cheese and melt them on a gas stove as a snack on the end of a fork. Every Sunday was pasta and meatballs and fresh Italian bread.

In Italy I loved the way everyone was never in a hurry. Meals took a long time! If we went to a restaurant, the bread always came out with the olive oil first. Then the liter of homemade red wine which was cheaper than the water! and tasted better : ) And then the “first course” would come which was your pasta, pesto or sauce or whatever and it was always homemade. Then came the meat or fish, chicken was rare to find on a menu. And salad was last, always simple and always olive oil and vinegar. Dessert was offered but the funny thing was that every single breakfast we had at every hotel or B and B consisted of beautiful homemade cakes and croissants and pastry as well as some type of cheese and ham. We joked at the end of the vacation that we did not want to see another slice of ham or salami for awhile! Italians love their ham and prosciutto and salami! and the olives were out of this world. In fact, if you stopped in anywhere for just a drink you were always given a platter of food that usually consisted of cheese, ham, bread, nuts, olives and/or potato chips….I was in heaven.

What I loved the most was the feeling of never being rushed. Italians will never bring the check until you ask for it. They do not seem to care if you sit for three hours over the same plate…..they understand the importance of savoring a delicious meal and a glass of wine and spending time with friends talking. It was absolutely wonderful. Oh, and I had real gelato for the first time…in a word, YUM! But they have not learned about super-sizing…the cups were tiny….but just enough. It did not strike me that Italians wanted quantity, they were more into quality and deliciousness.

I hope to continue to take the time to enjoy and savor all that meal times represent. It is more than just eating. It is savoring and enjoying and connecting over traditions. Whether you are Italian or Polish or Asian or French or Hispanic, whatever your culture and your food traditions, take the time to learn about them, learn how to prepare them and cherish your heritage.

But it is good to be home!!!

For Herb Lovers

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The snow has finally melted, and already I can see my herb garden coming to life! The creeping thyme is starting to turn green and the oregano is getting ready to invade half the garden as usual. Although I love to use my fresh herbs in cooking or added to olive oil, or maybe in my bouquets, I really want to learn more. Recently I found this website which includes some great information on herbs and their uses, all backed with scientific research. Check it out at http://www.herbs.org/herbnews/

Enjoy!