“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer, but wish we didn’t.” –Erica Jong, How To Save Your Own Life
As a nutrition consultant, clients often ask me to dictate their diets, complete with ten-minute menus and annotated grocery lists. They plead time crunches, overwhelm, and nutritional cluelessness. Understandably, many consumers are tired of trying to figure out what matters most when it comes to health and nutrition while the latest “breakthroughs” in nutrition science seem to keep shooting themselves in the foot (Goodbye “Fat Free”, hello “Omega-3”).
Ah, to live in Italy, where “slow food” is a way of life, and one would sooner use a jackhammer bra-less than eat standing up. However, for most working Americans, food is fuel, hopefully flavorful, and ideally not the smoking gun that raises health insurance premiums. Given the pace of modern life and “health fads” that come and go like D-list celebs, one can hardly be blamed for wanting food to be a no-brainer. Well, you’ve got a brain, and you’ve got to use it. Putting things in your body is no time to go on autopilot, unless you want to end up with a suppository in your ear, and a Q-tip in your- well, you get the picture.
The truth is, it all matters, and there’s no substitute for eating as though everything we put in our bodies counts, which is not an argument for counting calories or fat grams. Actually, I wish I could drop a steel crepe pan on the French chemist who invented the calorie, or at least whoever decided that this misunderstood unit should be the arbiter of the value of food. Glass of milk or can of Diet Coke? Lollipop or Avocado? Ridiculous. Calorie-counting implies that we’ve given up on our own ability to decide what we need based on common sense, intuition, and millennia of evolutionary adaptation. That said, food is energy, and this is what the calorie, and all other attempts to break down food “value” attempt to quantify. Just don’t forget that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
Anyone who tells you that eating healthfully, responsibly, and efficiently can be done without an investment of time and forethought probably has a sweet timeshare in the Gaza Strip to sell you. There are few things that can have as much of an impact on your experience of being human as what you put into your body, so the return on your investment is substantial. What you eat and what you do shapes your body and your experience. If you are a Real Housewives marathon couch potato mainlining Red Bull and Hot Pockets, you’re not going to turn into a muscle-bound, hyperactive bovine, but you will likely turn into a doughy blob stuffed with offal.
That said, there is a large segment of the population operating on a chronic time deficit (enter the Hot Pocket). The following tips will recharge your time budget, and get your forays into foraging back on track.
Where Do I Go?
There are many pleasant and sustainable alternatives to Mall of America-sized supermarkets, including co-ops, CSAs (community supported agriculture), local farmer’s markets, and cultivating warm relationships with the green of thumb. Unfortunately, these options are not available to most people in this country. If you have access, make the most of them. You will find fresh, local food with a minimum of packaging and hype, while investing in your local economy. Unless you park yourself by the candied nuts with a gaping maw and a mini-shovel, it’s hard to go wrong at a farmer’s market. Help create the demand that will make these alternatives available to all by voting with your dollar.
I’ve seen a libertarian eat a Spamwich and chase it down with a Yoo-Hoo and felt perplexed. Why not extend the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to our own bodies? Big agriculture and faux food manufacturers won’t wave a bejeweled hand and drawl “let them eat crap” if they know no one’s buying. Organic, local, etc.- these terms are worth getting to know better. They matter for our health, and this blue green marble we live on. In brief, organic is important, especially with the “dirty dozen” (mostly thin-skinned, high residue, heavily sprayed produce) but not always a green light to good eating. Keeping it local is a great way to boost your local economy and eat simply. Still overwhelmed? Just ask yourself if it looks like food, something that would grow nearby, and at this time of year. Better yet, did it?
If you don’t have access to local produce via a farmer’s market, co-op, or CSA, stores like Whole Foods, and some grocery chains frequently carry it. Historically, these yup-scale options have been the territory of the fiscally flush willing to spend a mint on organic fabric softener, but don’t cross them off your itinerary just yet. The world of mood lighting and free chevre samples may yet be yours.
These can be great places to top up your bulk dry goods and save on needless packaging. Do beware of items like granola and “healthy” snacks. You might walk away with more chocolate covered espresso beans than you can eat, while paying the equivalent of a three-course meal for it. Stick with whole grains, legumes, and sometimes the nuts, though unless you can eat your weight in raw cashews, do some price checking first. Also, find things that are worth plunking down extra for, like high quality fats, oils (often available in bulk barrels), protein, and dairy.
Shopping Strategies: Into the Breach
Regardless of your chosen hunting grounds, know that supermarket environments are deliberately crafted to tempt you into staying longer and spending more. In the absence of appealing ambiance, many stores opt for the cheaper alternative of snaring you with “bargain buys” and crafty product placement. But just because economy or logistics keep you shopping with big business doesn’t mean you can’t fight the food giant power.
*Make a list. It’s not novel, and it’s not as sexy as connecting with your inner gourmand in front of a display of artisanal cheeses waiting for one of them to speak to your soul, but when it comes to economy and efficiency, you can’t beat it. Keep a running list during the week, and keep it on you. When you throw the item in the cart, cross it off! Don’t waste time scanning the same items, with no satisfaction of seeing the progress you’re making. I’ll sometimes add “metabolize” to my list, just for that juicy burst of accomplishment.
* The Surgical Strike There are certain places in a grocery store I just don’t go, and I can make quick work of any food outlet because of it. Most markets put essentials like milk and bread to the back and peripheries of a store, to maximize your exposure to items less likely to be on your list. If an aisle doesn’t hold an item on your list, skip it.
*Look Before You Reach Top brands and higher priced items are placed at eye level on the shelves (this includes lower placement for kid-magnet cartoony packaging and junk food). Leave the kids at home if you can, and look out of eye line for better bargains.
*End Craps Avoid end caps- those mini displays at the ends of aisles. They advertise “specials” and group items to make, say, a pasta dinner, at inflated cost. Look away.
*Carts and Bags How much time do you want to spend wrestling a wide body unless you have to? A smaller cart maneuvers better and gets you down the aisle faster, plus less room in the cart means you’re not as likely to take up valuable real estate with non-essential items. Better yet, toss things into your reusable bag, explode it at the register, and repack it. You’ll whiz through the aisles and be on your way. Skip plastic bags for produce. Be kind to the cashier at the register by grouping items on the belt, saving both of you time, and some seagull a gullet full of polyethylene.
*Peak Performance? Off-peak hours are typically between 10am to 4pm, after 10pm or early Sunday mornings. There’s a reason they’re off-peak. This is the best time, though, for the longer grocery lists and minimal hassle. Plan ahead to find an off-peak block that works for you.
*Scan Saver If you’ve loaded up on produce, which I hope you have, the self check out lanes won’t be quicker. You have to scan it twice, to register and weigh, then scan through a menu of items. Plus you miss out on all of those valuable minutes catching up on Paris Hilton’s extensions and the housecat that performed a tracheotomy.
*Big Brother Bonus Most supermarkets offer a variation of the “bonus card”, which gets you automatic discounts at the register. I used to marvel at how cashiers would go out of their way to track one down, so that I could reap the benefits, even without a card. Truth is, these are also used to track your buying behavior so the store can market to you more effectively. If you don’t mind the “1984”-ishness of it all, it’s worth it for the discounts. Just know you’re being watched.
The Variety Paradox
Blame it on that zaftig minx Julia Child, but we are a nation transfixed by the vision of the perfect meal. We want three courses, with all the trimmings, and we want it yesterday. Conversely, we are often baffled by the enormity of choosing what to eat, how much, and when. Why is it so hard? The blessing/curse variety of most supermarkets has more than a little to do with it, leaving us wanting more and less.
Did you know that iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes are the three most commonly consumed vegetables in the U.S.? This is grim for many reasons, including: a) a tomato is a fruit and b) it is no coincidence that all of these “vegetables” are found in a typical McDeath Value Meal.
In the quest for more variety, the sheer volume of possibilities can keep us circling the persimmons and rutabagas for hours. Most people don’t have time to make every meal a celebration of food. Some are lucky to get the last bite past their rear molars before they face plant in the fettuccini. Keep it simple, tasty, and healthy. Get your favorite healthy condiments on board (vinegars, high quality oils, etc.), and save the Michelin rating for weekends.
Experiment with new produce, grains, and legumes. That’s where variety counts, and can make the biggest difference in your diet. It doesn’t take more time to buy (or cook) a parsnip than a carrot, so branch out and be bold. Another trick to ensuring a balance of essential nutrients and flavors is keeping an eye on color. Does your plate look like the Banana Republic winter collection or Carmen Miranda’s headdress? If it’s monochromatic, you need to broaden your palette. Throw in some red bell pepper and summer squash with chard, and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.
If your variety is coming mainly from the three “F’s”: fats; flavoring, and food preparation, know that this can bloat your budget (and your butt), stress your liver, and set you up for more cravings and prep time. If you want a slab of cheesy lasagna, consider having some steamed broccoli with lemon juice or a salad tossed in balsamic vinegar on the side. Your liver’s got all it can handle with the olive oil and two or three cheeses in the lasagna. One carb, one protein, one fat, and a produce extravaganza means having more and less, without the stress.
Equitable eating is another way to refine your food choices. Consider how the rest of the world eats. The majority of people on earth consume three or four grains, a few varieties of legumes, some staple roots and vegetables, and a handful local fruits for their entire lives. The expectation that we all live like subsistence farmers in the Sahel is patently ridiculous, but so is the notion that just because we can access nearly any variety of produce, grain, or protein on the planet, we should do so, despite the costs. There’s solidarity and simplicity in eating a bit lower on the food chain, so that others don’t bear the brunt of our resource-depleting diets.
What Do I Do With It?
Fabulous recipes abound in the age of the Food Network, but as we all know, there’s many a slip betwixt a cup and a lip, and even broccoli can get ugly if it’s battered and fried.
Save time in the kitchen and the doctor’s office by eating closer to nature (e.g. an apple in lieu of apple pie, or a baked potato instead of fries.) The litmus test for “natural”? How did it look when harvested, and how does it look on your plate? If you can’t tell where it came from, your food’s been given an extreme makeover that’s undercutting nutrition.
Go to the largest produce section in the world (Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio, incidentally), and you won’t find one vegetable or fruit that can’t be rendered digestible by fire and water. Fortunately, these happen to be the healthiest ways to prepare food. Steaming, stewing, broiling, boiling, baking, roasting, and light sautéing work wonders, when you don’t feel like keeping it raw. Crockpots are a timesaving way to cook up some staples for the week, like a veggie-laden soup or a mess of brown rice.
How Do I Eat It?
The masseter, a muscle that assists with chewing, is the first in our body to develop. We should be old pros by now, right? Let me paint you a graphic word picture. A client is complaining that she can’t eat corn because it is too hard to digest. I ask how she knows this, and she says it’s because it shows up, whole, in her stool. “Did you chew it?” I ask. Silence. So here’s a refresher:
* Your stomach can healthfully and comfortably hold as much at one time as your two hands cupped together, pinkies touching. Seriously.
*Chew it. Preferably until it’s in a near-liquid state. Digestion begins in the mouth.
*Don’t flood your food. Six ounces of lukewarm liquid with a meal is fine. Anything more dilutes enzymes, hindering digestion.
Bonus Tip: Brush your teeth when you’re done, so your stomach hears the generously proportioned lady sing. You’re less likely to dive back in for round two once you’ve moved on to minty freshness.
Remember, food is elemental, emotional, and highly individual. These strategies can help simplify your life, but there’s no substitute for reconnecting with what you know works best for you. Two million years of evolution can’t be wrong.