My Food Evolution

20090509-DSC07443There are many food moments from my past that now make me cringe.

My interest in eating healthy foods wasn’t a decision, it was more of an evolution over time, and stemmed from a few different places.

It’s no wonder my husband and son were reluctant passengers on my evangelical health kick, but eventually they managed to buy in to it.

There was this period in middle school when my school lunch choice included Hostess Apple Pies, and milk. That’s it. It’s hard to believe the school let me do this! My mom was a great cook, but to counter all her yummy homemade meals, like lasagna and chili, and chicken every-which-way, I also remember growing up with Eggo waffles, Steak Umms, Campbell’s Soup, and Chef Boy R Dee Ravioli.

And Fast Food.

Yup, that bucket of KFC graced our kitchen table many times.

In high school, I had sense enough to stop drinking soda, thankfully, although I can’t remember why I stopped, and still haven’t to this day gone back to it.

Even as an adult, when I was enlightened enough to experiment in the kitchen, preparing Indian, Japanese and Thai meals from scratch, and considered myself a foodie of sorts, I had moments of food regret.

There was the “low carb” stage, where I banned all my favorites: pasta, rice and breads. Oh, how I loved to make an Indian Lamb Biryani, but no more after that…

And the “Balance and Luna Bar” stage, I liked them both.  I would go to work with a few of those in my purse, and basically that’s all I would eat during the day.

I thought this was healthy.

I thought this was a good way to keep from over-eating during the work day.

This was about 12 years ago?

One day, during this time I was chatting with Brooke, my step-daughter, about foods. As a vegetarian she has to constantly check labels to make sure whatever she is about to eat didn’t include meat. Our conversation turned to the “Bars”, and how the ingredients are so weird, these chemicals couldn’t possibly be something we want to put into our bodies, could they?

Honestly, it never even occurred to me to look at the ingredients. But, that discussion convinced me to stop buying them.

And start paying attention to the label.

Around the same time, as an avid reader of the New York Times Magazine, I discovered some of Michael Pollan’s articles on Food and the Food industry, and started delving into his books, my favorite: the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Soon I loosely based my philosophy on what would eventually become his “Food Rules”:

Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce.

Don’t eat anything with more than a few ingredients.

Eat mostly veggies, sourced locally

Source local meats and buy in bulk.

Buy Organic if possible.

Those were the major ones.

fresh morels foraged from a secret spot in the Vermont woods...

fresh morels foraged from a secret spot in the Vermont woods…

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spring fiddleheads

Also included, forage what you can, as in mushrooms, wild leeks, fiddleheads, berries and other wild edibles, one of the 3-season rituals we are lucky to be able to do because of where we live. On this subject, I was proud to have a heads up on Michael Pollan, because we did this already, and didn’t need to use a guide.

Further complicating my changing views on food, when my son was around 2, while out to eat at one of our favorite Thai restaurants, we innocently ordered Pad Thai and gave some to him for the first time.

Immediately following his taste, he turned red and complained of a burning throat. Thankfully, since we were completely unprepared, he was ok and went back to normal after a few minutes. But that was the first discovery of his severe Peanut Allergy.

After a trip to the allergist, label-reading took on a whole new meaning.

It wasn’t a luxury; it was for Life.

It’s not easy to find safe foods for him to eat, foods that are not processed in the same facility as nuts, so after awhile, I gave up looking and started sourcing safe ingredients and making what we need from scratch. This includes foods like cakes, desserts, breads, granolas, and ice cream.

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The fine print…

It’s kind of interesting how this constant label-reading helped with overall health. Because once you start looking for:

Fewer ingredients.

All natural.

No weird chemicals

No nuts or allergens.

Suddenly you start seeing the other numbers on that label, like how many grams of Sugar. Fiber. How much Sodium.

A few years ago, even though it didn’t fit into my food rules, I allowed myself one favorite processed food for lunch, and had them every day: Morningstar Veggie Burgers. I happened to checked the label—holy moly, the Sodium! Sadly, Veggie Burgers were axed from the shopping list.

And that brings me to today…

When I can, I make foods from scratch and keep trying to add to the list.

My latest big change, as of last fall, is yogurt. I had always heard this was easy to make but never tried it until a friend forwarded a recipe for making it in a crockpot. Hey, I have a crockpot I never use; let’s put it to use! I did, and with a little trial and error, I now make my own Greek yogurt twice a week, and haven’t bought a store brand since. Basically, all you have to do is buy whole milk, set a timer a few times, throw in a little yogurt and wait. then strain it to “Greek” it. I didn’t do this for health reasons, but just love not having to clean out all those yogurt containers before sending them to the recycle bin.

It amazes me how easy making some of this stuff is.

Sometimes it’s easier than having to drive to a store and buy it.

My husband has been great through all of this, and doesn’t mind me being the Food Czar and gatekeeper of the house as long as there are some good things for him to eat like potato chips and chocolate when he wants them. And maybe a little heavy cream to make ice cream.

And, we still eat whatever we want. That’s the amazing part. You get to this point where you only crave the foods that are really worth it. Part of the decision-making process is deciding what needs to stay, along with what should go.

What’s worth it to me?

Dark Chocolate.

Red Wine.

Coffee with cream.

Full fat dairy.

Treats like cookies and brownies and cakes are fine, but they aren’t at the house every day to snack on endlessly.

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Just making sure to read the box, they don’t make a Peanut version do they?

My son? He’s not so happy about having to deal with his allergy, but he has no choice. It’s imperative he starts learning to read labels for himself, for his health and for his safety. I was really proud of him a few weeks ago when he came home from school and told me “The TruMoo Chocolate milk at school has 18 grams of sugar and Hood has 26 grams, so I’m going to choose True-Moo” and then later added “I am only going to choose chocolate milk once or twice a week, because I don’t need so much sugar every day.”

See, you can preach, and they really do listen sometimes!

I love that.

And I love that every time he passes a McDonalds he says “Look, a McEwwww!”

And that he has never tried Soda, and has no desire to try it.

And that it was years before he realized you could actually buy ice cream, you didn’t have to make it.

Awareness isn’t always easy:

There are some challenges.

You can’t just go to the grocery store, get what you need and come home. Sometimes it takes a little time to find all this good stuff, and there are many questions to ask.

Being aware of what you eat sometimes does ruin the desire to eat out, unless it’s really worth it.

Your family and friends may think you are preachy, or a killjoy, when you all get together and suddenly you have some issues with the quality of foods served. My brother Greg is constantly teasing me about all the weird seeds and grains that come with us on the airplane when we fly down for a visit.

Also, it can get overwhelming.  Trying to figure out the balance of where to stop, so I don’t drive myself crazy obsessing over every decision, is a challenge. Where I live in Vermont, there are lots of back-to-basic type people making everything from scratch. Sometimes it’s hard not to get swept up by romanticizing the “idea” behind making everything yourself.

For instance:

I bought a how-to book, and a whole mess of supplies to learn cheese-making. I live in Vermont. We have the best cheeses in this state you could ever ask for. Not necessary, considering the time involved. The book and supplies? Untouched.

I considered getting my own chickens for fresh eggs.  Really, many people in my town do have their own. As of now, I’m thinking no thanks, I can purchase local eggs at the Country Store down the road.

What about Salsa? Hummus? Jelly? Pickles? I have tried making all of these at least once, and determined there are great local sources who can make these better than I can.

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The “Bonus Garden”, where we collect more caterpillars than veggies…

Growing my own veggies? Well, we have enough land, I need to make this happen. But I’m not very good at it yet.  I have been trying over the last few years with some luck (green beans, and kale), but mostly without (everything else, even zucchini!). I call our little garden beds the “Bonus Garden”, because if anything grows, it’s all kind of a “nice surprise”.

I’ll still frequent the farm stands and markets for everything else.

Raising Lambs and Goats for meat and milk? Ok, you city folks probably will not believe this, but the discussion has come up over the years. So far, we have opted out, although my husband has been tempted to bring them in to help him mow the unruly lawn.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law, also Brooke, asked me how I shop, and how I approach healthy foods for my family, because she was struggling over where to begin.

I never answered the question because it’s kind of complicated. But I’ll try now…

The way I look at food and health today accumulated from so much trial and error and experience.

And over time.

And still seems to be evolving.

Every time I read the news or watch a documentary about what’s healthy today, and what isn’t, based on new research, there is even more to evaluate.

Should we eat meat, and if so, how often?

Should we eat dairy?

What’s up with Paleo? Vegan?

Intermittent fasting?

How much Sugar? Sodium? Vitamin D?

Protein, Fats, Carbs? How much of each?

High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Sugar?

Grass Fed Meats vs Not?

Local?

Gluten?

You can go dizzy trying to keep up.

But if you want to start making better choices today, the first step I would take is to start reading labels.

Try cutting out the chemicals and going for the real food.

Pay attention to the added sugar and sodium.

And as you gain success and are more confident in your food choices, don’t be too hard on yourself if you are not able to make 100% of the changes all at once.

Or if you don’t get that buy in from the family from the beginning.

Or if it’s tough to accomplish at every meal.

There is definitely a learning curve, and every small step you take to eat well now, along with your fitness and portion control plan, will take you and your family one step closer to better health.

Fitness and portion control plan? I know, it was bad for me to throw that in at the end. But we all know food is just one part of healthy living, and that’s a whole story in itself.  Perhaps I’ll write about how my thoughts continue to evolve on that topic in a future post…

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14 thoughts on “My Food Evolution

  1. This is precisely the sort of stuff we’ve been talking about in our eat smart, move more, weigh less classes. It is why I use real half and half, rather than fat-free; real butter (most of the time) over some other substitute. Chocolate is always consumed for it’s medicinal value. I am going to share this with the people in our class as it serves as an interesting lesson for all of us.

    • that’s great–thanks for your feedback! I know, the whole “fat doesn’t make you fat” concept just doesn’t seem to sink in for a lot of people, but we are living examples. I’m flattered you’ll share this with the class–hope they like it!

  2. My grandsons have allergies so my Daughter and SIL make mostly natural foods for them. I don’t know if I want to go all the way, but I want to make some changes and you are so right about the protein bars, they are not a meal and they probably make me more hungry. Great job on your changes.

    • thanks so much for the input Carol. I think the best you can do for your Daughter and SIL is to just understand the severity of the allergies, read those labels, ask a lot of questions, and take anything that could cause an allergy attack and put it out of the house when they visit. Just the understanding and respect goes a long way. And of course, learning the right allergen-free brands to stock in the house.

  3. I really liked reading this. I’ve got to find out about making my own yogurt. I’m not a big fan of yogurt but just keep reading about all the benefits so I guess I should try. Thanks for the infomation.

  4. Michael Pollan’s books have influenced me as well. My experience has been similar to yours, evolutionary, baby steps leading to principled eating. First it was whole milk from grass-fed cows to organic raw milk from the same. Making homemade kefir and yogurt has become a daily part of my life. Recently found a source for pasture raised chicken eggs. The many hued eggs are sitting in a basket on my kitchen counter just waiting to be consumed. Hubby now bakes all breads, rolls, pizza crust, etc. from scratch with the best ingredients he can find. The Internet has been useful to locate organic specialty flours and ingredients. I think getting back to unadulterated foods is the way to go. Hopefully more people will follow suit and it will become easier to obtain these items.

    • Christine—ok, so now it’s my turn to learn to make kefir and maybe you and your hubby need to get a lesson in foraging…some wild mushrooms on that homemade pizza??? yum!

  5. Love this Robin! It certainly has been a revolution and as I read your blog, realized I have had the same revolution. I have to admit, I did start as a teenager and at one point in my life owned a health food store. I still have fall backs, but those are over indulgences in things like chocolate, or those homemade brownies (have a similar recipe). But as for the rules – yup, those are the ones I try and follow.

    • Silvana, thanks for your comment! A health food store? Really great. We all need to fall back on the fun foods, I’m a big believer in that too, just like to make sure they are made w/all the good stuff and well worth the splurge!

  6. Lovely read, Robin, you have a great talent for writing!
    I aspire to some of what you’re written and lived some of it too. Given your situation, home location and opportunities, I can’t really think of anything better !

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