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 Steps to Eating Mindfully:Which One Are You Neglecting?

My hungry husband at Faneuil Hall, Boston

The other day I found myself standing at the kitchen counter, wolfing down some leftovers. I was in a rush to finish packing for a weekend trip, and I was in one of those “multi-tasking” modes. You know, if you can figure out how to do two things at once, try doing three. So there I stood, with the small TV that is stuck in our kitchen wall closely watching the path of Ermine (or was it Hermine?), the hurricane that was maybe going to hit us as we had our yearly outing with good friends in their boat down the Connecticut River. A hurricane would be bad. So I was standing there shoveling this yummy salad down my throat,and it suddenly struck me that I was not even tasting it. And I LOVED this creation, which was a random modification of a kale goat cheese salad I make often (if you ever go to Bricco’s Restaurant, their kale salad is the one I tried to copy…..I got pretty close!). It is a delicious blend of chopped kale, fried chick peas, garlic, red onion, olive oil, balsamic glaze and crispy bacon bits. Anyway, I kind of combined this salad with another bean salad recipe I make with black beans, corn, carrots, etc. and boy, was it good. I should have enjoyed it, but instead, I was just rushing it into my belly so I could move on.


Ye, I was in a rush, but promised myself when I got back from the weekend trip, I needed to write about this. If felt important to me because mindful eating, and working on having a healthy relationship with food is one of the messages I hope to send. This means enjoying eating. Shoving food down to get it over with is the opposite of mindfulness. I understand not everyone looks at food and eating as something to be enjoyed, and I chat with people every single day who look at food as “the enemy”. It kind of makes me sad, as cooking and creating healthy but yummy dishes is something I greatly enjoy. I just love sharing what I cook with family and friends, and maybe that is part of my Italian heritage, but being a dietitian definitely affects my cooking, too (“how can I make my mom’s sausage and eggplant but not give my husband heartburn?”).

Ermine missed us, and we sailed down the river easily, and as I joyfully floated one day on a gigantic blow up duck (don’t knock it till you try it) I had time to reflect on how I would describe this eating experience and what bothered me by it. It dawned on me that eating involves three simple (yet not always easy) steps. Each step is important to understand if your goal is to eat somewhat healthy and feel good. Especially if you want to have a healthy-ish relationship to food and eating, and most importantly if you are an emotional or binge eater.

Here is what I came up with:

Step 1. You need to have food available to eat. Now before you say “duh…”, let me ask you this: what are you making for dinner tonight? What are you having for lunch at work this week? What snacks can you have, right now, this minute if you get hungry? Like I said, I love to cook, I know a bit about nutrition, and yet, it is after 12:00 noon and I have yet to figure out dinner, although I have successfully defrosted what looks like 2 gigantic boneless chicken breasts. As for lunches for work, it will have to be leftovers. I am not at all in the mood for grocery shopping. Snacks, well, shriveled grapes and frozen fudge….and the bottom of a chip bag.

The point is, having food available is pretty important because it really does affect what you are going to eat. For those with binge eating issues it can be critical. FYI there are 2 kinds of “binge” eaters. The first kind is the “subjective” binge eater who thinks eating a full sandwich and a cookie is a binge (these are the dieters or even those with disordered eating who don’t allow themselves to eat what most of us might consider a normal meal). The second type is an “objective” binge eater which is someone who truly eats an amount of food most people would consider a large amount, such as the whole box of cookies on top of several sandwiches. Lots of guilt follows an eating episode no matter which type. Many binge eaters have certain “trigger” foods, in other words, when these foods are in the house they can’t resist eating “the whole thing”. Not consuming enough food also can trigger binge eating. It is pretty smart to know yourself, and creating a food “environment” that works best for you.

Besides triggering binge eating, eating healthy and feeling good is next to impossible if you don’t have access to healthy food. I know of some people who just would rather not bother. Maybe they are single or live alone, or maybe the kids moved out and so they don’t cook. Eating macaroni and cheese every night with Pop Tarts for breakfast and take out for lunch eventually will affect your health. Having a bowl of jelly beans on your desk may not be the best idea if you are a mindless nibbler, especially if the dentist is not your favorite person. Yes, paying attention to your food environment definitely affects what you eat and your health. What foods do YOU have available….at home and at work?

Step 2. The act of taking a bite, a forkful, a spoonful or otherwise putting that food into your mouth, chewing and swallowing. The first question is, where are you when you eat and what are you doing? Standing in the kitchen like I was while watching the weather is pretty much the exact opposite of how to eat in a mindful way. Digestion actually does begin in your mouth, so chewing fast and swallowing foods whole will interfere with this. Did you know that savoring your food (really seeing it, tasting it, enjoying it, feeling it in your mouth and chewing it thoroughly) actually has been shown to lead to “sensual satisfaction” and helps you to know you are full? In other words, taking the time to look at your food (not the TV or a book), pay attention to the flavor and texture (is it good? need to add something?) and really enjoying it helps you to be more in tune with your body. Savoring your meal or snack instead of rushing through it makes it more likely that you will eat the amount that you need. Even more important, truly taking the time (more than 2 minutes) to enjoy your food can be a part of the joy of life.

Step 3. Stopping eating. You might find it interesting to know that scientists are fascinated in studying what makes us stop eating. How and why do we “feel full”? What factors contribute to satiety? Everybody knows that eating fast usually contributes to overeating (and by this I mean getting too full, not feeling good physically because you ate too much, I don’t mean the guilt and judgement some people put on themselves because they did not follow their “diet”). We now know there are several chemical messengers that our body sends to our brain to tell us we are full and can stop. We are all different, and some people may feel full faster, but most people need time (about 20 minutes or so) for that messenger to get to the brain to signal fullness. Many factors affect this of course, such as the food we eat, how much fat, protein, fiber, etc. But one of the most fascinating things to me is the “sensory satisfaction”, or how much we actually enjoy the particular food that may affect how satisfied and full we are. Yes, some researchers have found connections. This is just one abstract about how  the sensory aspect of food and how it contributes to feelings of satisfaction and makes us stop eating. Yes, other studies have connected good tasting food with overeating, and we all know that when excessive yummy food is available most of us may eat more than we usually do. The key is finding the balance. Do you expect yourself to live on dry toast, cottage cheese and salad? Are you absolutely bored by the food you make? I have seen people become kind of obsessed with foods they normally deny themselves especially when they try to be “good” all the time…I hate that word, but people use it when they define their eating, so I want to be sure you know what I mean. Eating only and I mean only healthy food. Boring, especially if you aren’t into cooking. Instead, jazzing up your meals, even a little bit can greatly add to your satisfaction. Can you throw some avocado onto that grilled chicken wrap? add some crunchy granola to that morning yogurt? How about a little olive oil dressing in that salad? Make it taste good, and you are bound to feel more satisfied, less obsessed with food, and maybe you even may develop a new hobby…..collecting cookbooks?

Besides being sensually satisfied, tuning in to the ole tummy is also a part of learning to be an intuitive eater. I sometimes use a “hunger scale” (many dietitians do) to help people judge how full they are. It typically goes from 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed to the gills, extremely uncomfortable). Check out a typical hunger scale HERE.  If you are a mindless eater who gobbles down meals too fast, you may find yourself with indigestion or an upset tummy after the fact. That is one sign that you could benefit from taking the time to slow down and tune in. Practice sitting quietly somewhere, or at least trying to pay attention to what your stomach has to say about a half hour after eating. Are you barely satisfied or are you feeling sick? Both extremes teach you something.

So there you have it. The thoughts I had while floating down the Connecticut river on a duck. I hope you take the time to “digest” some of this, and realize this is not a skill we learn overnight. If you have trouble, just give yourself time. The important thing is doing the reflecting. The rest comes with trial and error. There is no right or wrong, and if you want to live on mac and cheese and Pop Tarts, who knows, you may live a long and healthy life without the fiber….but if you truly do want to feel your best then do your best to work on creating a healthy but enjoyable food environment. Slow down. Tune in.

By the way, we named the duck…Ermine.

Were You “Bad” Today? And Why is it so Hard to be “Good”?

Chef’s Salad: Good or Bad?

My daughter was visiting yesterday and was telling me about a weird conversation she had with a woman in line at Subway. After going to the gym she had decided to run in to get a grinder (she is like me, we hate spending money on food we can make ourselves) but sometimes saving time is more important. So she ordered her grinder and the woman behind her says “oh you are being so good!” Huh? “you got vegetables on yours!”……”but I like vegetables on mine….”my daughter said.

The woman goes on to say something about the fact that my daughter had on work out clothes from coming from the gym. That made her “really being good” in this woman’s eyes. The discussion led to this stranger sharing that she had been “bad” for almost 3 years, had not exercised but was just starting again. She was going to make herself eat vegetables, too. But not today. Today she would be bad.

I know I have talked about the language of dieters, of the moral judgement (of oneself) depending on if certain foods are consumed, or if food is “burned off ” with self-induced and not-too-fun “exercise”. But this lingo means so much more if you ask me. It is another one of my triggers to shake my head and feel sad, angry, not sure what. This language goes back decades, and is so ingrained in our culture that when you don’t buy into it, YOU are the weird one. YOU don’t get it, don’t fit in, aren’t normal. Of COURSE there are bad foods and good foods, people tell me.

I can debate why any food you can name is “good” if you happen to like it. “Good” is just a word and can mean different things to different people. To the dieting woman at Subway, “good” meant eating vegetables and exercising. To me, good means something very different. If a food tastes good to me, well then it IS “good”! If you want to talk about how different foods contribute to your health, that is a different story. I happen to believe that since all foods have energy (calories) they are good in at least that respect. If you were hiking in the woods with no food or water, and stumbled upon a picnic basket with Twinkies and Koolaid, I’d call that pretty good.

No, the problem is not just in your interpretation of the words, it is how they make you feel. It is the emotional response you get (and often the behaviors that follow) when you have this judgmental belief system. It ruins people’s entire days. Entire weekends. Entire vacations. The word “good” and the word “bad”. It reinforces the belief that we need to restrict ourselves of certain foods if we are to be healthy (meaning thin in many people’s minds). Most people believe that if you eat certain foods then you are likely to gain weight, and if you eat other foods, you will be thin. I can’t tell you the number of comments I have gotten depending on what someone sees me eat. A friend of mine once commented “You must have a good metabolism! You eat so much candy!” when in reality, I happened to buy a bunch of penny candy while on vacation (it brings me back to my childhood, when we had a corner store that really truly sold penny candy….that cost a penny). So when I happen to go to a store that has Mary Janes and squirrel nuts and caramels, I always buy a few. It just struck me funny how a small little candy is supposed to make you “fat”. I don’t have a high metabolism. I just really enjoy that candy and the reality is a piece of that candy has less calories than an apple. But I am sure if I ate 3 apples, nobody would comment.

The other thing that often baffles me is what different people consider “bad”. To some of my patients, rice was bad. To others, rice was “safe”. Potatoes can go either way I have found. Some people think they are “fattening” however some don’t. So depending on who you listen to, potatoes can be good or they can be bad. Same with rice, and bread, and olive oil, and nuts. It is pretty confusing.

I have wondered where this all started, and from the decades of research on binge eating and “disinhibition” I know that it most likely has come from our dieting mind-set. It may have started with the labeling of foods by Weight Watchers of “legal” and “illegal” way back in the day (they don’t do that now, now you have points….still, crazy if you ask me. TOO MUCH THINKING). But probably before that, depending on the fad diet of the year. No wonder everyone is so confused. One year fat is the “bad” food and the next year “carbs” are bad. Why don’t people ever stop and wonder: how is it that bad food keeps changing?

My suggestion is this: have you entertained the thought of thinking about health? If you have, then is the obstacle that you just don’t like “healthy” food? Consider this: you may be so obsessed with unhealthy food mainly because you have been trying to avoid it. If you let yourself have it in moderation when you really truly wanted it, do you think you would want it so much? Or, maybe you truly have never developed a taste for healthy foods. There are so many people who grew up on canned vegetables and Mc Donald’s burgers. I have worked with many families who really have not tried fruits and vegetables because they did not grow up with them. I also have worked with people who just don’t know how to cook, and so spaghettios and Ellio’s Pizza are mainstays. We know that exposure to healthy foods (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) over time really makes you eventually love them. We call it the “Rule of 20” which means that if you keep trying something (say broccoli) that it takes 20 exposures to really know if you like it or not. Research actually has mostly focused on children, and it could take as little as 10-15 tries. The bottom line is, that you just can’t know unless you keep trying. I am on my 7th try of beets, and I still don’t like them. I won’t give up though. Thirteen more tries…over time.

The other problem is, we do get used to certain types of foods, and our bodies actually learn to crave them. For example, eating really high fat, fast foods on a regular basis can actually affect your body in a way that makes you tolerate them more and crave them more. But when you eat lower fat foods, or if you never eat fast foods, you may find you get a stomach ache when you do eat them. I am not saying we should never ever eat fast foods or high fat foods. But I do think it is important to take a look at your overall habits. If you never ever eat fruits and vegetables because you think you don’t like them, then you might want to just consider starting to try them. NOT because they are “good” but because we know eating more of them makes us healthier. You can still have those burger and fries, but learning to also like a salad on the side is a huge step toward being healthier. Experiment with cooking vegetables different ways. Read cookbooks or check out cooking websites for new and interesting ways to make vegetables. Just because a dish is “healthy” or “good” does not mean it does not taste fantastic! My favorite thing to do is experiment with cooking healthy foods and coming up with something amazing. For example, last night I made “ratatouille” which is sauteed garlic, onions, peppers, eggplant, squash and zucchini in diced tomatoes. But added some spicy turkey sausage, shredded carrots, several herbs from my garden, some leftover red wine and grated Italian cheese. I melted some mozzarella on top, we had rice and adobo seasoned grilled chicken. It was heavenly. Good? I’d say! and not because it was healthy, but because it tasted wonderful!

Here is my challenge to you: for one week, can you catch yourself when it comes to talking about food? When you go to eat something “bad” can you re-frame your words? Instead, say “this is yummy”. Try to tune in to your body and hunger and eat an amount that makes your tummy feel content. No need to stuff yourself, because you are not being “bad”. You are enjoying something that tastes good to you. Also, instead of avoiding something that you never eat unless you are “dieting” and being “good”, can you try it anyway? have a yummy salad. Try a new fruit. Don’t miss out on exposing your taste buds to good food just because you are “off” your diet. Who knows… may discover a new favorite. Stop labeling food. All foods are equal.

Well, except beets maybe. But I won’t give up.

Oh, and that chef’s salad in the picture? It was good!