Confession: I love good food.
Who doesn’t, right? Something about the celebratory nature of food makes it special beyond the taste: birthday cake, Christmas cookies, Valentine’s chocolates, Thanksgiving turkey, Easter ham, New Year’s champagne… Our culture’s festivity around holiday treats sometimes leaves us hungry for a similar “special treat” in our day-to-day. So we invent other traditions around food: designated pizza night, morning coffee routines, afternoon snacks, happy hour.
Sooner or later, privilege becomes expectation; we deserve this treat. Special becomes habit; the treat brings us comfort. If and when we are asked to give up some of this routine, we feel robbed. Self pity runs rampant, and it’s hard not to think of easing the frustration by reaching for our favorite comfort food. Because it will give us joy, right?
My first hand experience with this came two separate times when I have been placed on a medically restricted diet with the intent to promote nutrient absorption. My instructions went thusly:
- No dairy: So long, cream in my coffee, yogurt, ice cream, and ah–the power of cheese…
- No gluten: This ain’t just sayonara to pizza crust, pasta, bagels and sandwiches, but it also means giving up most condiments, dressings, sauces and other packaged food not specifically marked gluten-free. Woof.
- Low sugar: In other words, limit your intake of naturally occurring sugar foods, and make sure the natural sugar is low while you’re at it. We’re not just talking no cookies, candy or pie, we’re also talking no honey and agave and bananas!
- Low sulfites: Think of your top ten healthy foods, and I can almost guarantee a few of them have sulfites in them. Broccoli, onion, garlic, asparagus, cauliflower, spinach, kale, raspberries, eggs–yeah. Gone.
The detailed list of restrictions went on, but you get the idea. If you’re anything like me, you are left with one question: what food can I eat?
Self pity inevitable follows… Why me? Why can the rest of the world eat pancakes when I can’t? How will I ever be able to eat out? Is eating broccoli really cheating? Don’t mind me as I stare longingly into your caramel macchiato from across the table…as I reach for my peppermint leaf water. Will I ever enjoy eating again? Yep. We’re talking a full on privileged person’s pity party which leads to the consequent worry of having an unhealthy relationship with food.
Now, I do not profess to be an expert on this subject, and I want to acknowledge that the world of struggles around food is one that expands far beyond my limited experience. However, in the two separate year-long stints of the “dreaded diet,” I learned some truths that helped me cook up some joy with what I originally viewed as limited ingredients. I share them here only in my personal, honest pursuit of joy in sustenance.
FIRST — Socializing around food can be done in so many other places outside of a restaurant. Finding people with similar food goals is an immediate bonding experience. Not only do you get new recipe ideas, but you have instant commiseration when things get hard. As an added bonus, you have a cooking buddy if you want one! In just a few weeks, I have a cooking Saturday scheduled where two of my near-and-dears are coming to knock out some massive healthy-food production with me. In this light, food prep is fun, and we all look forward to sharing some new recipes with our families. Additionally, understanding and cooking for other people’s special diets also becomes a skill set and an unexpected joy.
SECOND — The rainbow of flavors hiding in natural food might surprise you. When was the last time you ate a raw carrot with no dip and savored the sweet crunch without additives? To me, if the color orange had a flavor, it would be carrot long before Tropicana’s fruit of the same name. How about blending peaches, blueberries, lemon, lime, apples and mint? Ever tried this weird combo? The explosion of flavor meets the need for sweet with the added benefit of actual nutrition. Give up soda, candy, baked goods and other added sugars for a short time, and you might be surprised at how heavy it feels when you first go back.
THIRD — Getting some guidance from an expert and trying new healthy recipes can be an adventure. The best part? It becomes more about the experience than it does about the food. Personally, I learned a lot from consulting with a nutritionist and buying some new recipe books that got me out of the box of my kitchen and the routines I formed within it.
FOURTH — When you start paying attention to what you’re putting in your body, you don’t rush through eating. How often do we inhale chips or cookies or even dinner (in anticipation of dessert) without actually tasting anything–without enjoying the experience? When I started trying healthy, new recipes and assessing my enjoyment of them, I found that I paid more attention to the flavorful experience that is eating.
Looking back now that I’m not following the diet as strictly, I learn something. No, I do not “live to eat” as they say, but my relationship with food is not solely about “eating to live” either. Good food will always give me joy, and that’s okay. How incredibly blessed we are to have so many options at our fingertips! Food can still be special, indeed. Shifting our focus to gratitude of a sometimes unique approach to diet, however, might be a lot healthier “special” than the expectation of traditional celebratory food.
Not to say I’ll never have pancakes again. But I’ll also more regularly eat a bowl full of veggies and a few chicken meatballs for breakfast, thankful for the balance that moderation can bring. Bon appetit, my friends!