Like most Americans, I eat on the run a lot, which means that I often eat whatever is convenient rather than what is good for me. It’s just more trouble to cook good-for-you food than it is to open up a bag of chips or to grab a hamburger at a fast food joint.
Furthermore, I don’t particularly like to cook. I suppose there are times that I enjoy cooking–when I’m trying my hand at a new recipe or when my kids or grandchildren are coming over–but I am definitely not one of those people who cooks for the joy of it. It’s all about the end goal–eating.
As I wrote in Strategies for Making and Achieving Goals This Year, I am on a mission the first three months of this year to see if I can lower my cholesterol through changing my diet (and without medication). My doctor doesn’t give me much hope in this, as she says it seems to be a genetic predisposition. Still, she and I struck a deal, and I have been reforming my diet–and consequently my cooking (or lack of it), too.
I started off my challenge by checking out some library books on the subject of healthy eating and lifestyle change. As I read, I took particular note of any references to lowering cholesterol through diet. Did you know that one study showed that adding grapefruit to the diet reduced the “bad cholesterol” by 11% in only 16 weeks? And that there appears to be a link between the amount of fiber in your diet and your cholesterol levels (more fiber, lower cholesterol)? And that olive oil not only lowers bad cholesterol (LDL), but it appears to raise the good cholesterol (HDL)?
Aside from the cholesterol info, though, the books inspire me to eat right. And I’ve decided that “eating right” is actually “eating simply.” Meaning lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, mostly fish and white-meat chicken, and limited red meat. Simple eating is fine with me, as I’m not into “complex cooking.”
But this post is not meant to educate on how to eat healthily, but rather to share a surprise I discovered about myself in this process, and then to share some “secrets” that help me to eat right and not feel one bit deprived.
A Secret About Myself
Are you ready? I learned that, under certain circumstances, I actually do like to cook? This revelation came about just a few days into the new year. I was preparing a very healthy salad–chopping three different colors of bell peppers (my fave!), slicing cucumber, tearing lettuce by hand. Then, like an artist, I mixed these vibrant beautiful colors together–the bell peppers, carrot straws, little baby tomatoes all on a bed of bright green lettuce topped with a smattering of feta cheese and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds. I tossed it all with a bit of balsamic vinaigrette and then, for just a moment before devouring it, I beheld with pleasure my masterpiece.
I sat at my dining table and savored the colorful goodness while I observed the birds busily flitting from one birdfeeder to the next just outside my window. As I ate slowly, mindfully, I realized that I had actually enjoyed the process. And I knew that it was because I was doing something good and right for myself rather than just “stuffing my face.”
Secrets About My Food
My secrets are not really “secrets” in the truest sense of the word. They are just further discoveries I have made about what makes me content with limiting my diet and eating more and more fresh foods.
Secret #1: Keep the “Key” Ingredients on Hand
There’s a particular restaurant that Steve and I frequent that has the absolute best salad bar. The food is very fresh–no brown, wilted lettuce there!–and there’s lots of variety. I always leave there satisfied and content. As I considered why I feel perfectly content with that salad bar, I came to the conclusion it was 1) because all the ingredients are fresh and crisp, and 2) because of a few key ingredients that really “make” a salad for me. Those key ingredients, I determined, were key in me being successful in my healthy-eating endeavor.
One of my key ingredients (maybe the main key ingredient) is red, yellow and/or orange bell peppers. Their crunchy goodness tops off a salad for me like nothing else. A lot of restaurant salad bars don’t offer them, I suppose because they are more expensive than most of the other salad fare.
Another key for me is the simple cucumber; it “freshens” a salad to me. And the final one is sunflower seeds. A salad just is not complete for me without topping it with sunflower seeds.
So, acknowledging that if these ingredients are on hand, I am more likely to eat a fresh salad at least once I day, I have been very conscientious to keep them in stock. And it has made a difference. I am regularly eating salad, and it in no way feels like deprivation.
What are your “key” ingredients to ensure that good-for-you food is good-to-you food? Whatever your answer, I suggest you make an effort to keep it on hand so that you actually look forward to eating it rather than feeling obliged. Even if it’s a little trouble to prepare, it will be worth it. Like me, you may discover that the prepping becomes a little moment of culinary escape from the same-ol’, same-ol’ of your day.
Secret #2: Store the Food Correctly
So now that I have started keeping these fresh foods on hand, I have had to go another step and learn how to store them so that they last longer. That has actually been one of the reasons why I didn’t keep fresh food on hand before, because so much goes to waste with just Steve and I. My normal way of storing food is just as I bought it–throw it straight into the refrigerator from the grocery bag and be done with it.
When I got serious about keeping the “key” ingredients on hand, and when I upped my stock from the mundane to more colorful and nutritious (from iceberg lettuce to fresh–not packaged–green leaf lettuce, for example), I became more conscious of making it last a little longer.
I once printed food storage tips from a website and taped it to the inside of one of my kitchen cabinet doors, but I rarely referenced it. When I brought home my first purchase of green leaf lettuce this year, however, I checked that list and read this tip: “Wash, wrap loosely in paper-towels, then bag it… paper towel and all.” I followed the directions precisely and was amazed at the result. Not only did my lettuce stay fresh for a week or so (however long it took for me to use it up), but more importantly was that “crisp” that I so enjoy. I was surprised that the paper towel never dried out, and each day, there were still little water droplets on the lettuce from the original washing. I highly recommend you try this.
I followed the instructions for storing celery, too (wrapping in aluminum foil), and it lasted for over a month and tasted fresh!
I am a believer now. I take the few moments required to check how to store my fresh veggies and fruit for optimal goodness. It makes a definite difference in how I eat.
Secret #3: When cutting back on calories, use strong flavors to satisfy your eating experience
This is somewhat akin to keeping your key ingredients on hand, but it goes beyond that. As I did my research on lowering my cholesterol, I read repeatedly about the link between fiber and lowered cholesterol. One way to introduce fiber into your diet is via whole grains. All the books sang the praises of whole grain pasta (in moderation!), but the thought of eating pasta without a fatty sauce didn’t appeal to me. Still, I am on a mission. So I thought, “What would ‘dress up’ pasta for me to like it–without the sauce?”
The only thing that came to mind was olive oil and garlic. I guess I was in an Italian frame of mind. I simply typed into Google, “recipe for olive oil and garlic pasta” and started looking at the returns. I chose a simple recipe that called for olive oil, garlic and a dash of red pepper flakes. I went a little heavy on the garlic (4 cloves, I think) and a little light on the olive oil. It was delicious! Especially with the roasted squash that I cooked that night, as well. The garlic was not subtle, but it was not overpowering, either. And the dash of red pepper gave it just the right kick.
Had I not been able to taste the garlic, I am certain I would not be writing about this recipe here. It is what gave the dish its zing. It was very satisfying, and I looked forward to eating the leftovers, too.
I replicated this process of dressing up otherwise ho-hum dishes with other strong flavors that I like: picante sauce, cilantro, jalapeno, etc. And speaking of cilantro, did you know the way to store it so that it lasts a week or more is to cut off the ends of the stems, place it in a cup of water (like a bouquet of flowers), cover with a plastic bag (like the one in which you brought it home from the produce section) and store in the refrigerator? Just saying.
Secret #4: Have the right tools on hand
As soon as I started eating fresh, I noticed a serious shortcoming in my kitchen—one that could potentially be used to discourage good eating habits: I didn’t have enough cutting boards. When eating a lot of fresh food, you tend to use cutting boards every meal. I would use the cutting board and then I’d put it in the dishwasher. Until time to prepare the next meal. And then I’d sigh heavily, pull it out of the dishwasher, wash and rinse it, and return it to the dishwasher a few minutes later. I found this process more than a little irritating. And I began to notice a slight resistance to cooking anything that required chopped up vegetables. It was an ever-so-slight reluctance, but I am pretty self-aware, and I knew that that tiny little inconvenience would sabotage my efforts at good eating. I promptly added a new cutting board to my kitchen.
While I was in the housewares section buying the cutting board, I perused the aisle for other tools that might enhance my cooking experience. I will be adding to my kitchen tools throughout the year a little at a time. The cutting board incident showed me how little it can take to derail my good eating (and cooking).
One of the first things I added was a silicone pastry brush. My old one looked like a small paintbrush with a bad hair day, and inwardly I would cringe every time I used it. I mean, can you really thoroughly clean one of those? Now I happily brush olive oil on my chicken or fish before cooking, and there’s no inward cringing going on.
One final “tool” I’ll mention is an apple corer. Inspired by a post I referenced in this Smatterings column, Creativity, Habits, Hacks for Successful Resolutions, I decided to conscientiously focus on changing the way I snacked in the afternoon. Apples are such a good choice–low on the glycemic index, low in calories, high in fiber, etc.–that I decided to train my taste buds to like them. But I was starting from a negative position, really, because I have never much cared for apples.
Two tips from friends helped. First of all, my sister mentioned how much she likes Fuji apples. Since I had never had an affinity for apples to begin with, I thought I would start with Fujis and see how I liked them. The second tip came from my sister-in-law who always has cut-up apples on hand. They are so much easier to eat when they’re quartered and cored. So to begin a new snacking tradition, I followed her example and pulled out the apple corer that was stashed way in the back of my “junk drawer” and used it for the first time. What a difference it has made! I can keep it in a bowl on my desk and snack while I work (much like I used to do with chips) and feel satisfied and guilt-free about it. For me, crunching on a whole apple would not have the same effect. (And by the way, Fujis are awesome!)
Such little tools–an additional cutting board, a silicone pastry brush, an apple corer–that have the power to tip the scales towards me eating and cooking more healthily. As I continue on this journey of wholesome eating and cooking, I will remain aware of those subtle, nagging deficiencies in my kitchen that tempt me to return to my former “fast food” ways, and rectify the deficiency as quickly as I can.
What is your favorite kitchen tool that assists you in eating and cooking healthy foods? Please share in the comments!