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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Master your Mud Season

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Mud Season has come early to Southern Vermont.

Yesterday I didn’t get out much, but was told it snowed in every town surrounding us, but not here in my own.

It’s really strange. Most of the other snowstorms plaguing New England this season have eluded us as well.

What we see?  Just Rain. Cold. Mud. Slush.

To add insult to injury, and adding more to my glum outlook, I managed to injure myself while walking with my lab, Balsam. Heading towards the river by my house, the mud was so squishy and wet, I hurdled unceremoniously down what I thought was a path, but what was actually a mudslide.  I finally came to a stop when my arm got hooked on a peace of rhebar left over from when the forest service came onto our property to do some work last fall.

My coat ripped. My legs covered in mud. My arm vibrating, I thought, note to self:  Bog Boots are not made for wearing in mud. Next time, I’ll remember…

Ego wounded, I slowly made my way back to the house, where my son helped cover my new wounds with a collection of Tow-Mater and Lightning McQueen band-aids.

This time of year?

It’s not the most inspiring.

And I’m guessing it’s like that for you too.

The thought of another few months of this irritates me; so after some thought, I decided it’s time to reposition the role of Mud-Season in my life.

No more sulking.

No more complaining about cabin fever.

And about how fun Vermont is in every other season but this one.

I need to make the most of this down time, and start thinking about setting some personal goals for the rest of the year, so when spring is here, I’m ready.

And for now? At least it’ll give me a positive outlook and something to look forward to.

I only learned about personal goal-setting a few years ago, but I should have started a long time ago, when I first realized I had lost sight of my hobbies and interests.

I moved to Vermont for a new job  when in my 20s and single, and was experiencing my first mud season in early 1996.  I didn’t know too many people yet. One weekend day, bored and with nothing to do, I hopped in my car and drove an hour and a half to Albany, New York.  I thought, well, it’s the closest city, I’m sure there are things to do there. Lots of shops. And lots of people.

But I was wrong.

In Albany, I just walked around for a few minutes. I poked in a few stores. I had lunch. But I really didn’t want to spend much money.

And about a half hour later, realizing my mistake, I made my way on the long, curvy, dull drive back to Vermont.

What I learned? Shopping and going to stores is not a hobby. Eating out is not a hobby. These are just activities to pass the time.

What else could I do, living on my own, when I was bored?

I had no idea.

Before I moved, I primarily spent my time working and commuting. And in my spare time, shopping, going out with friends to eat, or to see a movie or concerts.  But if someone asked me about my hobbies or interests, aside from a little reading and lots of music, I think I would have been stumped to find more to add.

It finally occurred to me “When in Rome, I need to do like the Romans”, right? When in Vermont…?  Skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Mushroom hunting and hiking in spring. More hiking and gardening and bird-watching and river-rock rambling in summer, and leaf-peeping and more hikes in the fall.

Learning about wildflowers and trees and edible plants and all things nature–that’s where I spent my time after that.

Who would have thought someone like me, this product of suburbia, could morph into a nature-girl.

But I made the transition well over time.

Today, the need for personal growth, learning new skills, and finding new hobbies is even more important, because it’s really easy for our sense of self to just slip away. We have way too much responsibility. With the work day no longer 9-5, our attention is constantly diverted away from things that are important to us. Our spouses and kids, of course, are the top priority, and the house upkeep next. And our community and schools need us too.

The list keeps growing and pulling us in every which way, except the one leading to any personal satisfaction, creativity and growth.

To keep progressing over the last few years, I started to set my sights on confronting activities I always thought I would dislike, and vowed to  never, ever, ever do.

And have found when I succeed in turning a “never“, as I call them, into a hobby, it’s amazing for building confidence. And one success turns into another, and another, and another…

My experiment started a few years ago, when my friend Mary dragged me to a Yoga class after I repeatedly told her I wanted nothing to do with group exercise. Well, guess what? I was nervous. I had never done yoga before. But,  I LOVED it. And we continued to go every Saturday throughout the summer until the program ended.

I always said I would never, ever do exercise videos, because I hated those too (although, as with the yoga classes, I had never tried them before). Well, since the day I nervously forced myself to press play on that video a few years ago,  I  continue to challenge myself through some pretty harrowing programs that now, even after the fact, I still can’t believe I ever did.

How’s that for building confidence? I never would have known I was capable of doing a pull-up, and many other scary-looking moves, but hey, now I do!

A non-fitness challenge I tackled a few years ago was learning to fly-fish. My husband is into it. I always said I didn’t want to learn. Why? No reason. I just assumed I wouldn’t like it.  I signed up for a weekend course, with my friend Kiernan for moral support, and loved it, took a second class last summer, and am continuing my education this spring because I still have a ton to learn. I wrote about this experience if you want to check it out later….http://www.orvisnews.com/Women-in-Fly-Fishing/Giving-in-to-fly-fishing.aspx

This year, I forced myself to get back on skis for the first time in about 15 years.  And ice skates too.

But I haven’t been back to an exercise class for 3 or 4 years, so maybe that’s something I need to change this spring.  Since it has been awhile, I went back to being scared of them.

Another goal I have is to step up my vegetable gardening skills. How I’m going to do this, I’m not sure.  But this is a good time to figure it all out.

Think about it.

Do you have abandoned hobbies that you are scared to go back and try?

Is there something else you want to learn?

I’m not talking about things for you to do with your kids, because they like it, what are you personally interested in?

I have been really inspired by some of my friends lately. My friend Susanne started felting as a hobby, and has now made it her business. My friend Lynn took some painting classes last year, and is now a full-time artist. Eve gave snowboarding and strength training a try last year–very brave! And is continually challenging herself with some really cool knitting and textile projects.  Kiernan learned to fly fish with me, and is still working on it, but continues to challenge herself with different workout classes, even after the longest days and at strange times, because they offer her some much-needed time for herself.

I met a very inspiring woman during my second fly fishing class last June. She was in her mid-50s, and a teacher. She told me that during her summer breaks she finds one new activity to learn, and works on it all summer. Most of the other women in that fly fishing class were there because their husbands “sent” them. They were scared to death, and didn’t really want to be there. But this gal, Mary, was there because she thought it would be really cool to learn, and on her own too. And she does something like this for herself every year!

I love that.

And want to be just like that.

So what about you, are you with me?

Take a chance.  Carve out some time.  And start planning…

I can see the clouds-lifting, the mud drying, and the confidence-building already.