A few weeks ago, before I left on a blissful trip to the Kushi Institute, I sent out my feelers and asked for some health-related questions to blog about. I like to do this sometimes, and I welcome anyone who has questions to comment on this post, facebook me or otherwise hit me up in whatever way is convenient for you. This time I got several thought-provoking questions, but I am slow and have to chew on them for a while before I actually get to sit down and turn one into a post. The one I’ve been chewing on over the last two weeks came from Merissa Nathan Gerson of Your 28-Year-Old Yenta. She asked,
What about ways to work with time constraints and food preparation and variation in diet? I am bored with what I eat! But it is quick easy food.
I love this question because, well, I am a full-time mom that wakes up at 5 or 6 every morning, hits the pillow at 10-ish if I’m being good, and runs around after a very daring toddler the entire time in between. I have to make do with about 3 hours a day of toddler nap time—and in that, cram food preparation (I make all of my food and Nina’s from scratch) as well as finishing up school. I probably don’t need to tell you that I have had days where my sustenance consisted of bread and butter (with maybe a stalk of celery thrown in for good measure), and other days during which one snack followed the other and there was not a meal to be had all day. That is to say, Merissa’s question pretty much hits my daily food battle right on the nose.
But I have found some tricks that, when I implement them diligently, actually render the battle nonexistent. Once you know these tricks, it’s a matter of adding in a pinch of discipline and a little practice, and you’re well on your way to satisfying, prepared meals on a time crunch. Most of them are practical, but the first is more of a shift in food-attitude, and truth be told, it’s the most important one.
Tip #1: At least half the time, regard food as a functional affair > Probably the most common advertising pitch for people in the health-food industry is that healthy food can also taste delicious. “Good and good for you” is a phrase I’d rather not hear again. And not that healthy food can’t taste great, because it certainly can and does. But expecting every meal to have that pleasure-center-tickling effect distracts us from the real purpose of food—fuel for our mind/body/spirit functions—and is the real enemy of cooking on a time crunch. So half the time, eat food that is simple to prepare and you know is good for you. It will be more rewarding than you think, and you might find that you actually tackle that deep craving because what your body is really asking for, in the guise of dessert or a bag of chips, is some real nutrients.
Tip #2: Pick 2 hours 2 days a week and cook your staples > Twice a week, I fill my fridge with a few large containers of cooked whole grains of two varieties, cooked beans, a soup and maybe some cooked hearty vegetables, like roots, that can afford to sit in the fridge without wilting. This means that when I need to eat, I can heat up a quick bowl of soup (bonus tip: only heat up the amount of soup you need rather than the entire pot, which makes it go bad much quicker) or serve my pre-cooked rice and beans with a steamed veggie that takes five minutes to cook on the spot. If I plan to eat lunch at 1, I start preparing fifteen minutes before and presto: a balanced and satisfying meal in fifteen minutes. Eating real meals is so critical when you are on a time crunch, because thinking about and searching for snacks repetitively is more time consuming than sitting down, having a meal, and being done with it.
Tip #3: Shop as a cook, not a consumer > When I go food shopping on an empty stomach, I know I’m in trouble. But even on a full stomach, if I haven’t shifted gears from my inner child to my inner mom, I am liable to get more snack food that won’t really serve me throughout the eating week. Make sure to hit the produce section first and load up on seasonal veggies, fruits for snack or dessert, and plenty of fresh greens because they are 1. super easy to cook, 2. amazing for you (skin, mood, respiratory system, to name a few) and 3. make you fuller faster. Then hit up the bulk section—or grains section if you don’t have one or bulk freaks you out—and load up on dried grains or beans. Then fill in the grocery items like cooking oils, eggs or meat if you eat them, condiments, etc. And then, lastly, get a few pleasure-center items. Bonus tip: try buying a nice tea instead of a big chocolate bar. The ritual of treating yourself might be more rewarding than the sugar buzz itself. Or, you can get both and see how they compare
Tip #4: Experiment with new foods and flavors > I’m talking the healthy, whole-food ones. Never cooked bok choy before? Plop it in your cart (or your netted farmers market bag, whatever) and throw it in the steamer. Celeriac? Peel it, chop it, and put it in a stew. The fact is, our taste buds change in as short a period of time as a week. That means one week of adding in healthier foods, and you will come to appreciate their flavors. At least, you won’t find them unsavory. And the longer you eat them, and the more you eat them to the exclusion of overly sweet and spiced foods, the more you will crave them and delight in their consumption. It’s a bit of a self-trick at first, but it pays off more generously than you can imagine.
Tip #5: Keep it Simple > Yup, the good old KISS rule applies when it comes to healthy eating, too. Perhaps you already garnered this from the previous tips, but keep your ingredients and cooking method simple. Even if you don’t “know how to cook,” you will get by with a steamer basket and some simple instruction on cooking grain, found on the back of the package or the internet. Beans are just as easy. As you keep going, nuances will present themselves and you’ll add them to your repertoire, making you a better cook even as you don’t realize it. But that’s not really the important thing. The important thing is feeding yourself simple, real food that keeps your mood stable and your body energized and strain-free.
A lot of the foods we eat when we’re in a rush are chosen because they comfort us in the moment, like overly sweet, salty or sour things (think pickles). But behind the scenes they are putting strain on your body to process them and to assimilate the few nutrients they offer. So give yourself the gift of using food functionally and put some or all of these tips into practice! And, let me know how they work for you!