Did you make New Year’s resolutions to improve your health this year? If so, how is it going now that we’re nearly a month into 2018? Are you feeling good about yourself sticking with diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, or other wellness changes? Did those plans include more cooking at home and not eating out so much? Consuming more fruits and veggies?
Or have you already fallen off the proverbial wagon and lapsed back into old habits? And beating yourself up for it with even more self-loathing and all the crashing down of inner confidence that comes with it?
Lighten up. Wagons were meant to be fallen off of. And gotten back on again.
Too often, we think that complete transformations must happen in weeks or even days, where it’s all or nothing or you’re either a winner or loser, with nothing in between. We disappoint ourselves over and over again when we fail to live up to our own impossibly high expectations and goals, not realizing that often the best way to build new, truly sustainable habits is to work on changing one small (but realistic and significant) thing consistently over a finite period of time, then add another small one, practice that for another defined period until it becomes ingrained, and so on. That’s how you cement change, laying down one thin layer at a time.
Our relentlessly commercial culture loves to sell us whole-diet systems, plus all of the cookbooks, meal planners, and even foodstuffs to support them—often at hefty prices. Precisely because they demand—and promise—such huge changes in a short time, many of us can’t even begin to handle that all at once—everything is so different, you have to go shopping to buy all the ingredients for complex and unfamiliar recipes, and then go home and tackle the actual cooking, in itself another barrier. And after all that, the food probably doesn’t taste as good or as quick as what you can get from your nearby fast-food or restaurant haunt.
One solution? Ease off on the notion that you can eat more healthfully only if you cook elaborate recipes. Regardless of whether it’s a simple salad or a complex dish like beef bourguignon, what makes a dish amazing is not how complicated it is, but how good quality its individual ingredients are. Food is only as tasty and nutritious as how fresh it is, its genetic traits that give it its flavors and other unique characteristics, and where and how it’s grown or raised. Chefs and home cooks all over the world know that the best way to showcase really stunning food is to mess with it as little as possible, pairing it up with a few other superior victuals and letting those clear flavors shine through.
It may shock you to know that even though I’ve written two cookbooks, I actually don’t cook very much myself, simply because I adore just assembling unfussy combinations of truly exceptional foods and enjoying them for just what they are. Like any other base animal, I revel in gustatory pleasures that are extremely simple but so satisfying that I never tire of them.
They include the freshest, most succulent, flavorful spinach; crisp broccolini served either raw or lightly steamed or microwaved, dipped in nutty hazelnut oil with a sprinkle of crunchy sea salt; a dripping Hachiya persimmon at the cusp of mushy sugariness; plump canned sardines, salmon, and anchovies sustainably fished; a cut of grass-fed beef or bison, rich in flavor; an unctuous mozzarella with lush basil and freshly ground black pepper; rounds of chewy, dense Italian dry salami with dollops of exquisitely perfumed rose petal jam; and the piquant delicacy of a well-chosen leek or shallot instead of a regular plain onion.
Handfuls of fresh, raw (not dried) herbs add so much unexpected flavor and deliciousness when they are incorporated generously in salads, sandwiches, omelets, and other dishes. And I use the very best oils and vinegars I can find, purchasing them from individual farmers or purveyors rather than the generic grocery store brands that are invariably inferior quality.
Eating in season is an essential part of this equation. I don’t buy fresh tomatoes outside of July or August because they’re simply not worth it, in my opinion. Make it a practice to welcome the seasons by the foods that suddenly appear at your local farmers markets, food stores, and in your CSA boxes—asparagus, rhubarb, fava beans, morel mushrooms, peas, strawberries, peaches, basil, figs, pears, winter squash, parsnips. Gorge on your fill of them for the few weeks they’re at their peak, and then don’t touch them the rest of the year—you’ll appreciate them so much more when their season comes around again. And they’ll taste so much better too—we forget how mediocre out-of-season food tastes, dulling our palate the year around.
Does this sound like it costs a lot? Yes, good-quality food does cost more, unless you grow or raise it yourself. But we’ve been accustomed to such cheap food prices for so long, thanks to government subsidies on commodity crops that make up so much of our mainstream food supply, that we have no idea what it actually costs to raise food in a way that truly supports the farmer. And what we eat profoundly influences our health. Once you’re bogged down by chronic inflammation, disease, and the cost, suffering, and burden on yourself and others that that involves, does anything else really matter? We should treat our bodies as the temples they are. Cut back somewhere else in your lifestyle expenditures—but don’t scrimp on your food.
Even though my cookbook Bounty from the Box contains 360 fantastic recipes, each chapter (which covers a different crop) has two sections called “Serving Suggestions” and “Complementary Herbs, Seasonings, and Foods.” These give you ideas for pairing your vegetables, fruit, and herbs with other foods or otherwise inspiring you to try combinations you might not have thought of. They can also be a godsend for the busy person who needs to put a meal together quickly with what they already have in their fridge or pantry and not have to run out to the store to get ingredients for a recipe.
Cooking, nonetheless, is a great thing to learn and do—to save money, be more healthful, add more dietary variety, and practice self-sufficiency. Many of the recipes in my book and website contain less than 10 ingredients and don’t require oodles of time to prepare. But another great cookbook that really demystifies cooking is The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters. Whereas most cookbooks assume you know the basics and their recipes may call for homemade stock, for instance, this book actually teaches you how to make that stock. And so much more—all in uncomplicated, approachable, nonpreachy ways, using the best seasonal ingredients possible.
Life is meant to be enjoyed—go out and savor it, one bite at a time!