Let’s talk about food

summer lunch
summer lunch (Photo credit: lorda)

So I invested in a scale yesterday.  And it was not pretty.  I’ve gained close to 10 pounds since starting my job.  I had gained close to 10 pounds after quitting my previous job, which I wrote off as being at home and having ready access to food as well as sitting most of the day.  That’s 20 pounds in about 5 years.  At that rate, in 20 more years, I’d be 80 pounds heavier than I am now.  And that is truly not acceptable.

While I was away, I logged my food, but did not count my alcohol intake.  Food-wise I did pretty good, staying under my preferred calories (usually by adding in exercise). With the alcohol, though, I’m certain I was way over.  I’m not finding it difficult, really at all.  I even had a scoop of ice-cream or two.  Normally, that would be two scoops a day.  The fact that I only had two all week is a victory.  The alcohol intake is problematic.  While I do go for days without drinking, in the summer, that’s more rare.  But I’m sure that the glass of wine or two or the beer or two a night is a contributing factor to that 10 pounds.  Not to mention the chips and dip.

Exercise is what I really need to work on because I can easily eliminate problem foods, even the alcohol, but it doesn’t matter if I don’t exercise.  But I need to do both.  I don’t think I can eat and drink whatever I want every day even if I exercise and expect to even maintain my weight.  My metabolism just isn’t what it used to be.

I’ve been exercising almost every day.  I at least take a walk every day.  I walk close to 2 miles, which takes about 40 minutes, so it’s a good pace.  But, I’m realizing I need to do a bit more, maybe something more active.  Running is out of the question.  I tried and it killed my back and knee.  I want to be able to walk when I’m 60 even if I am 60 pounds overweight.  I rented a bike at the beach and that worked out well.  I only rode about 10 miles or so at a time but still, that was better exercise (and more fun) than walking.  I do think the exercise thing is becoming a habit.  And that’s a good thing.  Hopefully, I can keep that up.

Yesterday, I read this article in The Atlantic, to which I said, yes, yes, yes.  I love organic and local food, but with a busy schedule and a tight budget, it’s just not possible for me to take the “moral high road” as often as I’d like.  What I’d like to see is processed food that’s better for you and still tastes pretty good and is reasonably priced, which is what the article argues for.  On the road, we resorted to fast food, stopping at a Burger King, a Taco Bell, a Subway, and a Cracker Barrel.  There are healthy, even vegetarian, options at all those places.  Usually only one, maybe two, but still it’s possible to eat healthy fast food.  Cracker Barrel had the most options.  All their meals in the wholesome menu were around 500 calories and low in fat and carbs.  And they cost the same as other menu options. We need more of that: a less fatty burger, side items besides fries, smoothies that don’t have 4 million calories even if they do have some additives.  I cook a lot.  We have vegetables all the time, which I cut and steam, etc.  But things do get busy and I need options that don’t make me feel like I’m poisoning myself or my family.

I will gladly support a fast-food place that’s working to be more sustainable and more healthy and keep costs down. And I will gladly put pressure on them to do so, rather than banning them from my diet altogether. To me, that makes more sense, because I don’t think McDonald’s is going away any time soon and I don’t think it’s going to be replaced by some health food version of it either.  I think having quick and easy and healthy options would help me–and a whole lot of other people.

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Food and its (Dis)Contents

First round of food
First round of food (Photo credit: lorda)
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Laura wrote today about her and her family’s struggles with food.  I feel her pain.  Mr. Geeky and I both would like to lose weight, but we are both too busy and too lazy (in many ways) to make it happen.  A while back I wrote about loving to experience my food fully.  That often involves food that’s not great for me.  Mr. Geeky is less interested in the whole food experience.  For him, food is more about fuel.  There are days he gets so involved in work, he forgets to eat.  Then some colleague will wander by, suggest they go out to eat, and next thing you know, he’s had 2000 calories.

Mr. Geeky doesn’t cook.  He finds it a foreign enterprise.  He will grill, but I have to plan the meal. We’ve compromised by having Mr. Geeky do the grocery shopping, though he’s not as picky about what he’s buying, organic or grass-fed beef, forget it.  We have tried this summer to cut back on carbs, especially sugar and increase our veggies.  It’s hard.  As Laura pointed out, it takes more time to prepare a meal made mostly of veggies.  We’re just not used to it.  I usually throw on some pasta and sauce and call it a day.

Right now, I have the luxury of time to shop, plan, and cook all I want, but once school starts, time will be short, and it’s likely I’ll be back to throwing around pasta.  I had managed to incorporate some exercise into my life before leaving for India, but haven’t gotten back to it.  So, I need to move more and eat less.  And do it in a limited amount of time.  Sigh.

And it sort of takes the joy out of it sometimes.  I love going to the farmer’s market, making meals, and, of course, eating.  But when I have to think about it so much, it makes it slightly less enjoyable.  So, I need to figure out things to do that will not detract from the enjoyment so much.

Food as an experience

Food is important to me. I want my food to taste good, to look good, usually to be ethically grown or raised, and I prefer to share my meals with friends and family. I don’t shun the occasional fast food or quick meal, and certainly, during the school year, I resort to many quick-fix recipes. But if I had my druthers, I’d eat like I had a Food Network show every meal.

It’s the fourth of July and the first thing I focus on is not fireworks, but food. I often turn to traditional opens like hamburgers and hot dogs, but add a twist of something new. I don’t want to just throw food on a plate. And yet, at holiday times, I often find myself in the company of those for whom food is merely fuel for the next activity. I never know quite how to handle myself when faced with few or poor food options. Sometimes the food is fine, but there’s a utilitarian approach to the meal. You eat for 10 seconds and then move on. There’s no lingering over dessert and coffee or the last sip of wine.

It’s one reason I enjoy traveling. Most places I’ve been, food is central to a way of life, and it’s to be savored and appreciated even when the food itself is humble. Meals are occasions to get to know people or reflect on the day. They’re almost never a means to an end. They are an end in themselves.

I guess I want my food to always be an experience or part of a larger experience. When it’s not, the larger experience it might be a part of is lessened.

Today I have plans for seasoned burgers with all the trimmings, and a fresh fruit salad. It’s a simple meals that will be shared. Whether it’s an experience or not . . . We can only hope.

Worry about weight, again

Let’s move on to other important issues, shall we?  Like weight.  I am once again frustrated by my having a few extra pounds.  The sad thing is my frustration stems from pure vanity.  I no longer have my 20-year old metabolism and therefore, no longer have my 20-year old body.  I consoled myself by sitting down with a bag of Fritos and french onion dip.  Aside from that occasional treat, my eating habits are pretty good.  And I don’t think there’d be much to gain just from my cutting a few calories here and there.  Plus, I really like food, and having to count every bit of it depresses me.  But I’m not countering those extra calories with the extra exercise.

I’m just a few days away from the 60-mile walk, which for me was supposed to achieve two goals.  One, it was supposed to contribute to a cause and connect me with my late stepmother.  That goal was mostly achieved, except I do wish my stepmother could have made it to this day.  But two, I thought that having a higher goal like that would motivate me to do more exercise.  But no.  I’m not entirely sure how well prepared I am for the walk.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was walking 7-8 miles a couple of times a week.  But I only managed a 3 mile walk this weekend and I don’t think I’ll have time to walk much more than that before the walk.  I find walking to be pleasant enough–even the longish ones–but I am sooo aware that I’m doing it to “exercise” not because there’s scenery I want to see.  I’m looking forward to this walk being over because I won’t feel like I *have* to walk or feel guilty if I don’t manage to walk.  Which is just a sad sad thing.

Part of me wants to just chalk this up to being 40-something, eat at will, and be done with it.  Another part of me wants to not be squeezing into pants and feeling disgusted when I look in the mirror while trying on clothes.  And still another part worries that if I do eat at will, and don’t exercise, I’ll end up not 10-15 pounds more heavy than I would like, but more like 30 pounds more heavy.  And then, sigh.  I think I need to find a hobby that burns some calories but doesn’t feel like exercise.  And I can’t do it alone.  That’s one thing I’ve realized about walking.  I didn’t like doing it by myself.  I should have reached out to my teammates more and scheduled walking time.  I tried to get the family to join me, but not much luck there.  And of course, winter is upon us, so outdoor activities might be limited.  Suggestions appreciated.  Commiseration welcome.

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On Food

Laura at 11D has a post up about the challenges of having a healthy lifestyle, especially cooking a meal at home every night, when you’re in a family with 2 jobs, 2 or more kids in activities, etc.  My own semi-challenge of cooking randomly through Cooking Light’s Dinner Tonight cookbook, a cookbook full of healthy, but easy meals, has been interesting, and I’ve thought about whether I’d do this if I worked full time.  Here are some thoughts, both on my own cooking, and on Laura’s post.

First, because of the challenge, I plan a whole week’s worth of meals.  Generally I plan on 4-5, knowing that one night we’ll eat out or slap together sandwiches at home.  I include in my grocery list snacks and fruit for lunches and often deli meat for weekend lunches or quick dinners.

Second, because I don’t work, I can shop during the week.  Going to the grocery store on a Monday at 1 is miles better than going any weeknight just before dinner time (which was a common occurrence back when I was working).  If I returned to full-time work, I’d do the shopping on the weekend, likely earlier in the day, and probably make it a family event, taking one kid or the husband to help.  The kids are actually great in the grocery store.  They’re 10 & 14, so I let them loose with half the list and they go hunting and gathering while I’m in the deli line or picking over produce.  I can also go to the farmer’s market when it opens at 3 instead of rushing around to find parking or picking over leftovers at 6, just before it closes.  I could easily send one or both kids with some money and a list.  And they’ve done that before.

Third, I’m not starting my cooking at 5:30 or 6, the minute I step in the door.  When I worked, I would literally throw my stuff down somewhere, grab a glass of wine or beer and start pulling out ingredients and preheating the oven (if I had something planned, which I sometimes didn’t).  If a meal takes a little longer, I can start at 4:30 so that it’s done by 6.  Or whenever I need to.  Today, for example, I need to get some meat into a marinade around 3.  I could never do that if I worked.

So those are good things.  We can eat healthier in part because I have time to plan, shop and cook.  But fourth, my grocery bill is through the roof.  Before, I bought whatever was on sale.  Some months, I could keep my grocery bill for the month around $400-$500.  According to a book I’m reading right now, the USDA recommends $650/month for a family of four.  Currently, with my focus on grass-fed met, organic everything, and buying whatever ingredients I need, I’m spending double what I used to.  Go ahead, gasp.  I did.  Part of the difference is made up from not eating out.  We order pizza once a week or every two weeks, around $30 for all of us.  Mr. Geeky eats lunch out, but I eat at home, so all the money we used to spend on that is going into to groceries.  Can we afford this?  So far, yes, and Mr. Geeky and I agree that buying the food we’re buying is not only good for us, but hopefully good for local farmers, the earth, etc.  But, there are a lot of people, even people with similar incomes to ours, who would never spend what we do on groceries.  They may have higher mortgages or car payments or private school to pay for.

Laura, and many of her readers, raised the issue of picky eaters.  When I was growing up, we pretty much ate whatever was on the table.  And my mom had a rule that even at guest’s houses, we had to take three bites of something we had never tried or thought we didn’t like before declaring we weren’t going to eat it.  My sister was a very picky eater.  She wouldn’t even eat pizza.  She survived most of her childhood on vienna sausages and ketchup.  No extra meal prep for Mom and she was pretty happy.  Mom still tried to get her to eat something, but there was always vienna sausage to fall back on.

When Geeky Girl got to be about 6ish or 7 and Geeky Boy was 10/11, we instituted a rule that if you weren’t eating the prepared meal, you had to make your own, parent-approved dinner, usually a peanut butter sandwich.  You were required to try the meal first before barging off to make a sandwich.  While we’ve had a few situations where one or both kids have ended up making a sandwich, generally the work involved is enough to get them to try whatever’s on the table and most of the time, they like it enough to eat it.  What’s also helped with Geeky Girl, who is by far more picky than Geeky Boy, is that she helps me cook every night.  Geeky Boy has helped on occasion as well.  Once you know what’s in something, you tend to be more inclined to eat it.  We made a soup the other night that had broccoli, spinach and edamame.  It was the greenest thing you’ve ever seen.  If I’d just put that on the table, no way would Geeky Girl have eaten it.  But since she helped make it, she ate a whole bowl.

It’s taken a long while for me to develop any kind of routine about cooking and really getting my head around what it takes to make more than just a piece of meat with heated frozen veggies or pasta and jarred sauce.  I think I could shift the work if I were employed, but it is certainly nice to have the time to make these meals.  I agree with Laura, though, that someone needs to write the book about how to eat the way Pollan, et. al. suggest when both parents get home at 6.  Most cooking shows and books aimed at that audience doctor jarred and canned items, which may be better than fast food, but just barely.

Random Dinners: Ingredients

One thing that cookbook authors don’t usually think about is what the home cook can reasonably find in terms of ingredients.  If chile paste is what the recipe needs, then that’s what they’re going to put in the recipe and often they will offer no substitution.  Chile paste was one ingredient I had difficulty finding for this Asian Beef Noodle Salad recipe.  I also couldn’t find the noodles.  I ended up using rice noodles instead of the bean threads the recipe called for.  Our grocery store used to carry a good collection of asian ingredients, but now they mostly carry those dried meals that you just add water to.  And they do not taste good.  I found both the chile paste and the noodles at another store near one of the kid’s activities.  In my post Thanksgiving post, I lamented the sorry condition of the grocery stores in Mr. Geeky’s hometown, where you could barely find produce.  I wasn’t looking, but I’m sure you couldn’t find fresh herbs much less chile paste.

There are 2 stores where I’d be likely to find all kinds of bizarre ingredients–Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.  The problem with both is parking.  It is impossible to find parking at the Trader Joe’s.  It’s next to the Farmer’s Market and there’s enough parking, I’d guess for maybe 50 cars.  Way not enough.  Whole Foods has even less parking and the way the lot is configured means there’s a traffic jam upon exiting.  I swear my blood pressure goes up whenever I go to either place.  I think the solution for me is to actually write or call the store manager of my current store and tell him or her that I want more asian ingredients.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

There’s also the issue of seasonality.  Technically, I think, nothing is in season here as far as produce goes, so I’m buying red peppers, knowing that they at best come from California and at worst come from South America.  I don’t know which has the worst carbon footprint, but I think about it.  And then there’s the issue of quantity.  Fresh herbs at the grocery store come in huge bunches.  A recipe calls for 2 teaspoons.  You end up with tons of leftover dill or cilantro.  In my house, it gets thrown away eventually.  This has happened with lettuce and other produce that you have to buy in set quantities but of which you’re only using a small amount for a particular meal.  I’ve tried to use some of those ingredients in lunches or other meals and it’s worked to some degree, but still it’s an issue.  My solution for herbs is to plant them this spring.  I had rosemary, basil and mint.  I just need thyme, cilantro, and maybe a couple of others.  At the farmer’s market, produce comes in smaller packaging or no packaging.  I can get a sprig of lavender and not a whole bunch.  Lettuce heads are smaller and most produce can be bought singly (true in the grocery store too of most things).

This week’s recipes include some beef and pork, which I’ve ordered from the farm and I’ll be picking up on Wednesday.  Honestly, it’s not that much more expensive than the grocery store and I just feel a lot better about the product on many levels.  I wonder, once spring rolls around, how much of my shopping I can do from the farmer’s market.  If I organized my recipes by season, perhaps most of it.  Sounds like a good challenge!

A Review of the Random Meals

So far, the RNG meals are going quite well.  As I wrote earlier, the first two meals were a success.  We then had stuffed red peppers, which were quite yummy.  The cabbage on the side was especially and surprisingly good, though I will say that in the future, unless I’m getting it from the farmer’s market, I’ll buy the preshredded cabbage.  It’s just a pain to shred by hand.  Wednesday, we had leftovers.  There was some soup, one pepper, and a meal from before the great experiment.  Geeky Boy and I had a quick sandwich.  This was primarily because I had a PTO meeting and putting together a meal would have been difficult to do before the meeting.

Thursday, we had a chicken salad.  The recipe originally called for shrimp, but Geeky Boy is allergic to shrimp, so I substituted chicken as the recipe suggested.  There are several shrimp recipes in the book.  I may have to substitute or make GB something separate when I make these.  It’s a challenge.  This was a tasty salad, though I’d say that it would be better in the summer since it’s served cold.  I used a store made (organic) roast chicken.  I boiled the carcass afterwards and made a chicken soup out of it for lunch over the weekend.  The salad had plenty leftover as well, and I ate it for lunch. Yum.

Friday, we ordered pizza.  Geeky Boy had a friend over, and it was Friday, good time to break from the routine.

Saturday, I made scallops with Chipotle-orange sauce.  These were really yummy.  Everyone liked them a lot.  Geeky Girl was at a friend’s house, so she didn’t get to try them, but Mr. Geeky and Geeky Boy gave them two thumbs up.

Yesterday, we had sandwiches, which were by far the easiest thing I’ve made.  They’re easy enough to make for lunch.  We skipped the tomatoes on the side, but in summer, fresh tomatoes in a salad would be yummy.

Tonight, we had pork tenderloin.  I think this was my favorite so far, but I’m a sucker for pork tenderloin.  But the pepper crust gave it a nice zing that was cut slightly by the sweet sauce.  It was a nice contrast.  One thing I noticed, though, was that I had to cook the pork almost twice as long as suggested.  It was nowhere near cooked when I checked it at the suggested time.  I cooked it for another 15 minutes and it was perfect except for one especially thick piece, which I left in for another 5 minutes or so.  The sauce, too, took longer to reduce than I expected.  They said five minutes.  It took 15.  Also, I left the shitakes out of the veggie stir fry because I didn’t have time to reconstitute them.  Plus, I don’t think the kids would have liked them.  The veggies were still tasty.

Overall, I’ve been enjoying making different things and the family is enjoying tasting them.  We seem to have food leftover at almost every meal, which can either be eaten for lunch or configured into another meal.  But, we’re not saving a huge amount of money this way, for sure.  I made a trip to the butcher, where the meat was actually quite cheap, but scallops were not.  The pork tenderloin I got from the grocery store this time, but will probably get from the farmer’s market guy next time, which means it will cost me more.  Most of the time, I’m a mess in the kitchen.  These meals are designed to cook fairly quickly, so everything is happening at once.  More than once, Mr. Geeky and the kids (who do the post-meal cleanup) have commented on the state of the kitchen after I have cooked.  I try.  I do, but I need to get better, I guess.

I hope to try to do these one at a time, so that I actually remember the meal better.  It seems like a nice way to end the evening.

Bell Pepper and Mozzarella Couscous

Tonight’s meal was this couscous, along with a salad and the strawberries.  The recipe is for a single serving, so I multiplied it by 5 and had tons leftover.  The kids both tried it and Geeky Boy declared it pretty good, but found the olives too strong for his taste.  Geeky Girl only had a few bites, but loved the strawberries.  I’ll definitely make it again, but it’s probably best eaten in summer, when strawberries and basil are in season.

I know the picture isn’t great.  I’ve been reduced to using my iPhone since my camera got stolen back in June. Sigh.