For the Love of Pie: 7 Steps Toward Reconnecting With Your Food
When I walk into a regular chain grocery story I can smell the corn syrup in the air. It is no wonder eating healthy is a constant struggle for many. We are bombarded daily with messages about food, overtly and covertly. Our preferences and likes have been quelled by endless reports of what is good for you and what is bad for you, mashed up against mass marketing for blue yogurt for kids, and food in boxes and bags that store nicely in the freezer. Sprinkled on top are the various and sundry different diets you can follow with this, that, and the other food cut out.
Michael Pollan in Omnivore’s Dilemma spends pages talking about the lack of an American food culture and how we’ve lost our connection to the food system. Some people don’t know that a potato grows in the dirt. Walk through that same grocery store and you’ll have no idea what season it is. Writer and life coach Martha Beck asks new clients, “Tell me everything you can remember about the best meal you ever had in your life.” Her goal is to help clients discover (or remember) their preferences, their likes and dislikes.
How would you answer the question about your favorite meal? Do you remember the calories and the breakdown of the nutrients? Do we feel a sense of guilt or shame if it includes a known “bad” food? Do we know why it was our favorite meal? Likely there is something else going on when we think about a favorite meal – other factors played into the experience.
For me, planning for, cooking, and then serving and eating a meal can be almost meditative. Taoist philosophy talks about “doing without doing.” This doesn’t happen with every meal I make, but when it does the food is more satisfying, more memorable, and more nourishing to both mind and body.
Frequently healthy eating is discussed in terms of calories in, calories out; balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats; and if you are a super health geek perhaps words like flavonoids and antioxidants cross your mind. I personally feel very virtuous adding walnuts to my oatmeal, what with their omega-3s and libido enhancing qualities. But just because you eat healthy by the books, doesn’t mean you have a healthy relationship with food.
There is a new disordered eating term I learned about recently - orthorexia – which some use to describe “people who develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.” It seems like a sneaky issue to me. Suddenly when we thought we were doing the right thing we’ve gone overboard. Any time something becomes over controlled we need to examine our behavior. On the other hand the obesity epidemic is nightly news, and it seems like we just can’t get this right. No control and over control might just be two sides of the same coin.
I find at times is that those around me can take my eating habits as a judgment upon theirs. When I’m eating something healthy, it makes others feel self-conscious of their own less than healthy choice. Or conversely I’ll be eating a cookie around someone who has embarked on a new diet and I’ll hear how bad my cookie is for me. Sometimes I want to shout “Can we all just focus on our own plates?”
Perhaps we do need to focus on our own plates, but with a new set of eyes. And a new nose, and new sense of touch and reawakened taste buds. Let’s redefine healthy eating to include a healthy relationship with food - a balanced relationship.
How do we do this? Here are some tips:
- Learn to taste. In the movie Hereafter, Matt Damon’s character attends a cooking class where one of the lessons is to identify tastes. While blindfolded your partner feeds you different foods and spices, and the taster has to identify the taste. Is it green, woodsy, like metal, like a spring day? What is the difference between a tomato in winter and one still warm from the vine? Have you forgotten how to taste?
- Slow down. This is where a little practice in mindful eating goes a long way. Taste, put fork down. Taste, put fork down. In jiu-jitsu practice one method to keep from using too much energy is to keep your breathing at a slower pace than your opponents. I think about this concept now when eating. Am I already two-thirds of the way through my meal and my dinner mates are only one-third? What’s the hurry? Slow down. Look, experience, feel, smell, taste.
- Grow some herbs. The easiest way to become more connected to your food is to grow some herbs. The smell of fresh herbs will fill your soul, which goes a long way to filling your belly. I personally have a love affair with fresh basil, with cilantro as its mistress. Pinch off a few leaves and roll them through your fingers. The color and fresh flavor make the simplest of meals appear gourmet. Inhale a deep breath of fresh herbs. Think about the roots, the soil, the sun, and the water that supported and created this plant. And by breathing this plants scent, you too are connected to this earth, to this full-cycle system.
- Eat something weird. Not only are we a global economy these days, we are a global food system. We have access now to foods we didn’t even know the names of ten to fifteen years ago. But it doesn’t have to be a food from another country. There are the lesser known fruits and vegetables grown locally. Try a purple potato, a funny looking squash, a different green leafy thing. Ask at the farmers market how to cook it.
- So, go to the farmer's market. This spring make a commitment to go at least once a month throughout the growing season. Let the colors, textures, and smells invade your mind. Notice how the offerings change from week to week. Experiment creating a meal solely from your farmer’s market finds. Go in open minded and see what looks good. Farmer’s market meals don’t need to be fussy or complicated. You’ll discover that food at its freshest will have its own taste and pleasure packaged up in its own skin. Fresh herbs, a little salt and pepper, some olive oil and the heat of a grill are all that’s needed to complement the fresh flavors.
- Redefine comfort foods. What is comfort food? It’s warm, non-fussy, solid, fulfilling, and frequently reminds us of a good time in our past. But sometimes comfort foods come from a less happy place, or we feel worse after we eat it. Discovering for your self how and why this happens is key to solving this dilemma. Perhaps you mistook an emotional craving for a food craving and so naturally the food doesn’t solve the feeling. Now’s the time for some introspection. Did that ice cream sandwich remind me of late summer evenings on the back porch? Or was I trying to substitute it for a hug or an apology or missed conversation with someone? Sometimes our body mistakes that hollow feeling from a mismanaged emotion for a physical food desire.
- Food isn’t love (and yet). As I tell my chubby cat, “Food isn’t love” - while she sits at the bowl meowing and I try to distract her with some petting. Perhaps there is another angle here. Too draconian an approach and we cut food out of a healthy balance with events and people in our lives. What if instead we acknowledged food is a part of our history and a part of our future and acknowledged its place? My grandmother’s pie crust is a part of my family history and has been passed down to me. We remember her every Thanksgiving when we dish up the apple pie. We’re not thinking about the fat in the pie crust or the healthy aspect of the apples. It is not a health food. But does the pleasure I derive from the accomplishment of a flaky pie crust and sharing with family outweigh the negatives of fat in the crust? In this instance, isn’t that apple pie an act of love? Perhaps it is healthier to integrate food into our whole lives – balanced lives - rather than singling it out for its negative qualities.
When our relationship with food is in balance with other aspects of our lives, perhaps that is when we can reach “doing without doing” with food. When we are in tune with what pleases our palate, when we provide ourselves the time to cook or chop or shop, when we respect food preparation as something that deserves some time (just like sleep) then perhaps it will be easier to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with food. How is your relationship with food? Is it out of control or over controlled or just about right?