Every health-conscious person I know has their own way of making their diet work for them – Even people on a structured diet plan tend to personalize it. Often, though, these methods are not universal, and may not always comply with general guidelines for healthy eating. But if it works, it works, right? If anything, finding a way to personalize it (within reason, of course!) may keep our interest longer.
I most certainly comply with a handful of “nutrition non-negotiables,” formulated over the years as a result of my personal preferences and experiences – and I’d be willing to bet you do too! Here are a few of my most influential ones, for better or for worse!
Breakfast – no matter what, I eat breakfast. There have been occasions where eating breakfast seemed silly (I got up at 4am to catch a flight, or I’m meeting a friend for brunch) but trial and error has taught me that eating something (even just a handful of dry cereal) can help prevent diet meltdown later in the day. For me, It doesn’t vary much from a cup of whole grain cereal, a banana, and some 1% milk, but honestly, even a slice of pizza would be better than nothing!
Ethnic foods and traveling – my absolute favorite part of traveling is discovering the local cuisine, so dieting is not generally on the itinerary. However, a week of indulgent eating can leave me feeling pretty awful, so I do try to keep my indulgences in check without skipping out on the local fare.
Since traveling is something I try to do often, I’ve come up with a few techniques to make it work for me.
- I Don’t waste time, money or calories on things I can find at home
- I Plan ahead for big meals, by spacing them out and trying to eat a lighter breakfast and lunch to compensate
- I incorporate activity into travel plans – whether it’s a quick workout at the hotel gym, or discovering a city on foot, I make sure I move!
- I’m good at sharing! My boyfriend did not mind splitting a Parisian crepe 75%/25%, believe me! and I get to try it without ruining my appetite or my weight goals. Win/win!
- I carry a snack – this is particularly true for road trips. I try not to put myself in a position where I’m hungry with no healthy choices.
- I always hit up the local market – markets are often a fun way to get to know the cultural vibe of a city, and they’re also usually brimming with fresh fruit and vegetables, a calorie friendly and portable treat!
Diet foods – I’m sure a few dietitians are cringing right now, but I really don’t care for diet foods. I wholeheartedly believe in quality over quantity; I’d rather have 1/8 of a cupcake than a stack of ‘low-fat’ (and, letsbehonest, low-taste) cookies or something. There are a few exceptions – I put equal in my coffee, I keep sugar free gum in my purse, and I crave a diet coke once in a while, for example – most of which are holdovers from a past life, but for the most part, I go for the original. I genuinely believe that diet foods (100 calorie packs, sugar free/fat free foods, etc) do nothing to help change eating habits for the better. Rather, I have seen so many cases of people who give up on impulse control and allow themselves to overdo it on junk food because it has been made ‘healthier.’ (I’ve definitely fallen into that trap in the past). But a cookie is still a cookie; that is, something that should be eaten in moderation. Furthermore, if I’m eating a cookie, I want it to be the best, most delicious cookie I can get my hands on!
which brings me to…
Butter, y’all - High five to Paula Deen on this one for keeping it real – I bet you won’t find “butter flavored spray” in her kitchen! I love the fact that butter is so simple and yet so delicious. Have you ever looked at the ingredients list on butter? Sweet Cream and Salt. TWO ingredients! Comparatively, check out the ingredient list on one of the well known butter wannabes:
“Natural oil blend (soybean, palm fruit, canola and olive oils), water, contains less than 2% of whey, salt, natural and artificial flavor, vegetable monoglycerides and sorbitan ester of fatty acids, soy lecithin, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D, dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, lactic acid, beta-carotene color, and potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA.”
Yes, I know - butter is high in calories, most of which come from fat. Saturated fat, to be exact. But I decided long ago I would rather significantly reduce my portion of butter than eat the processed stuff, hands down.
And finally, fake meat – tofu, tempeh, seitan… I just can’t do it. End of story.
It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I really like to cook, and I’d say it’s true regardless of what I’m making. So, as fun as it is for me to find a fun new recipe and go buy whatever I need to make a specific meal, I also really enjoy the challenge of “I have x, y and z in my fridge, what the heck do I make?” – and I certainly deal with this far more often.
But there’s an additional challenge: my parents. Despite claiming the contrary, my parents are not really big on leftovers, and can be easily skeeved by day-old food. (If you can explain how I was raised by these people, I’m all ears). Thus, in an attempt to minimize waste (of food and money) I’ve gotten pretty good at not only using leftovers, but DISGUISING them. On one hand, this frustrates me, because I know how much food they must waste when I’m not around. But at the same time, I enjoy the challenge – it’s great practice. I mean, leftovers have a bad rap, no question. But people are suckers for good marketing and a pretty package. So it’s no mistake when ‘last night’s steak’ becomes a breakfast hash, or leftover chicken becomes chicken salad- it’s marketing, by taking the ‘old’ and regifting it – in a prettier, more palatable package.
I had a fun experience with this today – I figured walking you through the thought process might be more fun than just telling the story outright. Here’s what I was working with:
Ingredients: low-sodium tomato juice that mom wanted to get rid of, and a half-used container of sour cream
Inspiration: tomato soup, my dad’s favorite – my mom & dad could eat tomato soup with crackers for dinner all the time.
Goal: creamy tomato soup
I was literally walking out the door to dump this for my mom, because I don’t drink vegetable juice and she said it was “awful.” But when I opened it, it smelled really good. I poured a small glass, and it tasted pleasant too – like a gazpacho. I could have stopped here and served it as a soup, I guess, but I was afraid they’d recognize the taste and not be into it. And so the experimenting began.
1. Juice + heat + sour cream – verdict: looks right, but too sour-cream-y
2. Add the universal taste maker (butter!) – verdict: still too sour-cream-y. In black bean soup, that seems appropriate, but it isn’t meshing well. Tastes, I dunno, Mexican?
3. Aha! I decided to play up the Mexican flavors (it is cinco de mayo, after all) & add dried cilantro – verdict: getting there! but it needs something… what other flavors go with the Mexican theme?
I hope we…
4. Add TEQUILA – verdict: Success! This added a really nice dimension to the flavor, and really sold me on the ‘Mexican tomato soup’ idea. I just needed to balance all the savory flavors with a little sweetness.
5. Add… corn syrup? Not one of my favorite ingredients but I didn’t have my first choice (agave nectar) and there was some corn syrup in the pantry leftover from another recipe – verdict: great! (I’m sure brown or white sugar would have worked just as well).
At this point it was basically done. I brought it to a boil to concentrate the flavors a bit, added a bit more butter for mouthfeel (great food-snob word!), and will attempt to serve it for dinner tonight. Hopefully the ‘critics’ like it!
Update: THEY LOVED IT! Served with some guacamole on the side, it was a cinco de mayo success!
I took a cue from Mr. Samberg and Mr. Parnell and treated myself to a glorious lazy Sunday. Normally, being idle makes me antsy, But I think I was fighting off a cold or something – all I wanted to do was rest. So, this weekend, I went home and welcomed the sloth-lifestyle with open arms – I napped, I watched a movie, I slept late, I ate fried food – and I’m looking forward to being able to start my week feeling refreshed.
On the downside, writing went out the window, but a preview of what’s to come: crumbs cupcakes, chicken curry, bucket lists, and a cleaning frenzy!
Heirloom Tomato Salad
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1-2 tablespoons minced shallot
2 ripe heirloom tomatoes
2-3 basil leaves
salt & pepper, to taste
Simmer balsamic vinegar and shallots over medium heat until reduced by at least half, about 5 minutes. If the mixture begins to get syrupy before then, remove from heat. Meanwhile, cut tomatoes into wedges and remove core (if necessary). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cut basil into ribbons or small pieces & sprinkle over tomatoes. Drizzle with shallot vinegar reduction & serve.
I was totally convinced I wanted nothing more for my birthday than a few of my favorite products from Kiehl’s, and for Alex and I to go out to eat somewhere nice. There’s this fancy greek seafood restaurant near Alex’s house that I’ve been dying to go to, but Friday turned out to be all kinds of busy – Alex had two exams in the morning, we both had to go to work, and we had a whole bunch of shopping and other stuff to do for the party on Saturday – and so fancy dinner got pushed back. (We are notorious for things like this, I might add. We have made and broken plans to go to this restaurant about six times. Maybe seven will be the one.)
Since we decided to eat in, I wanted to make sure we had a cooler-than-normal dinner so that it would still feel special. I built dinner around a flank steak recipe I had seen on food network with a garlic & lime marinade that looked delicious and seemed easy…exactly what I was looking for! As a slight departure, I used the marinade on skirt steaks, considering I only had a few hours and didn’t think I could get the tenderness I wanted if I had used the tougher flank steak. I also made a chimichurri sauce to put over the meat, and served roasted sweet potatoes and a salad on the side. It came together fast and Alex and I both loved it! So much so that I used the marinade again, this time on salmon for dinner tonight. Results were less stunning (mostly because the greenish brown coriander, which had been camouflaged against the steak, looked off against the pink salmon) but still tasty!
Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
(adapted from foodnetwork.com)
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 lime, zested and juiced
- Pinch sea salt
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- skirt steak (for two people, I used ~1/2 lb)
Combine the garlic, coriander, cayenne, lime and pinch of salt with enough olive oil to make a loose paste. Coat the skirt steak, cover & let marinate in the refrigerator at least two hours. Do not remove from refrigerator until ready to grill. Cook about 6 minutes per side for medium rare. Let meat rest for 10 minutes, slice & drizzle with chimichurri sauce (below).
- 1 cup cilantro leaves
- 1 cup parsley leaves (recipe called for flat leaf, I used curly with great results)
- 1/2 cup mint leaves
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pulse the herbs and garlic in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Add 3/4 cup oil, 1/4 cup vinegar and salt and pepper, to taste, and pulse to make a soupy vinaigrette — it will look a bit creamy until it settles. If big pieces of herbs are still visible, continue pulsing – the flavors meld best if the herbs are in small, uniform pieces. Add more oil and/or vinegar if too thick.
Since I vetoed dinner plans, and we had already planned to get my Kiehl’s stuff later in the week, I guess Alex was feeling pretty bad that he didn’t have anything for me on my actual birthday, despite me assuring him that it was no problem at all. So while I was at the grocery store, and he was SUPPOSED to be cleaning the basement, he jetted to Louie’s to get me a piece of my FAVORITE chocolate cake (it’s originally from Junior’s in Brooklyn and one piece could probably serve a family of six) and greeted me with it as I pulled into the driveway, birthday candle flickering and illuminating his face in the dark. This cake is heaven on a plate, the type of thing you’d only want on a special day, because you just couldn’t (or could, but SHOULDN’T) eat it more than once or twice a year. Alex totally nailed it – the cake, the moment, the thoughtful surprise – it was exactly what I wanted.
(…But hopefully we’re still going for our fancy dinner!)
I turned 26 this year. I honestly wasn’t very excited, at least not at first; in general, I‘m not the type to get very worked up about my birthdays. My 16th birthday came and went without a big to-do, and the other ‘milestones’ – 18 (I’m a grown up!) 21 (I can drink!) and 25 (I can rent a car!) also passed without much fanfare. To say I assumed 26 would be uneventful is certainly an understatement. I think part of it is that, as I have always been a student, my April 23rd birthday tends to fall at a very busy time of year, making it seem more like a hassle to celebrate. Also, I tend to get nervous about being the center of attention – If I had my choice, I’d spend most of my time one-on-one or in small groups. This year, though, my best friend INSISTED that we have a celebration. True to form, I resisted, asserting that it just couldn’t be done, Alex and I were too busy, nobody would be able to come, blah blah blah. But I was wrong, and it was great. We started with a delicious tapas-style dinner in Astoria at Il Bambino and a party afterwards at Alex’s house, celebrating both my 26th and his upcoming 27th birthday.
I feel like this birthday in particular represents the beginning of a stage of growth and change in my life, and I’m really glad I got to celebrate it properly. This month, I got accepted into a dietetic internship program, handed in my masters’ thesis, and had a pretty serious conversation with my boyfriend about what our relationship and our living situation will be like over the next few months and years. I also received a pretty surprising letter in the mail. In their own right, each of these things is exciting, but more importantly I think they are pretty clear signals of change. To be able to celebrate such an exciting time in my life among friends was such a joy, and I can’t believe I almost let myself miss out.
* * * * *
On a separate but related note, after spending the past year or so going back and forth about whether or not I want to commit to blogging regularly, I am ready. I feel like I have spent so much time waiting, itching for my own independence and a sense of what I want to do with my life, and trying to figure out just who I am and what I want. I can’t say I have a very clear sense of who I am just yet (will I ever?), but I think I have become more self-aware and developed a pretty nice relationship with myself. I want to use this blog as a sounding board, a mirror, a time capsule, and a scrapbook. The idea that I can, in a way, encapsulate who I am today and be able to look back a year from now and see what has changed and what remains the same seems so… I don’t know. Cool? Useful? Therapeutic? Maybe all of these? Either way, I’m giving it a try, as a long-overdue birthday present to myself.
“When it rains it pours, and opens doors
And floods the floors we thought would always keep us safe and dry.” ~Train
I was talking recently with a coworker/friend about her struggles with weight. She has made a comic schtick out of her relationship with food, and calls herself, proudly, ‘fat bitch.’ She has taken her weight – something that might otherwise be a source of much frustration – and made it into her comedic ace-in-the-hole.
It wasn’t until she started to call me ‘skinny bitch’ that I started to understand what was really going on here. I noticed I was starting to live up to the moniker – I wanted to bring in some leftover tortilla chips to supplement my lunch one day, but I decided against it. I started to get decaffeinated tea (black) instead of coffee (with half and half) from the Starbucks next door. I became, for T’s sake, the skinny bitch she thought I was. Appreciating the accountability, I kinda enjoyed it. But if I was living up to skinny bitch, was she living up to her own nickname?
Furthermore, I wondered how many people are operating under the ‘weight’ of a persona. As a nutrition person, I feel I am often under pressure to look the part, which can sometimes give me the boost I need to cook a healthy meal, exercise more, or just generally maintain my weight. However, what about those people who are under pressure to stay fat? I mean, think about it. Comedians, truck drivers, mall Santas, nonnas, Star Jones? We expect them to look a certain way.
So I told T I thought she was pulling a Kevin James. She laughed, of course – the comedienne always appreciates a joke – But whether anything actually changes remains to be seen.
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I hit — and probably killed — a raccoon with my car last night.
It was late, the streets were slick with rain, and I was looking everywhere but where the poor little creature was: at the lines on the road, at the car braking unexpectedly to my right, at the hands of my boyfriend, mid-conversation, as they gestured in my periphery. But then, clearly, a face. It’s the face, I think, that we would all make in the presence of our own impending death, in our last corporeal display of emotions before the eerie silence of the soulless body settles in.
I pulled over and cried harder than I have in a long, long time. I know that part of the burden of adulthood is a deeper understanding of the fragility of life, but seeing first-hand how easy it is to take life from another creature shook me pretty hard. I called on my faith more than I had in a long time, trying to remind myself that I am part of something larger than me or that cute little raccoon, and whether it be karma or fate or destiny or the hand of God leading me, I will find myself in situations I cannot control. After a few minutes, with my boyfriend’s hand in mine, I composed myself enough to pull away from the curb and head home.
But my thoughts wandered back to the raccoon. Was it a he? A she? A parent? Were there others, and were they watching? I couldn’t help but think of a family waiting in the woods for mommy to come, which sent me into a second round of tears. For the animals, yes, but also for me, as it awakened some deep rooted fears of my own. I have always been irrationally afraid of losing my parents. As a child, I would curl up around my dad’s pillow when he was away on business trips, trying to memorize his smell in case he never came back. Today, I curled up next to my mom on the couch as if I was trying to preserve a bit of her by osmosis. It’s strange, because I was raised with the philosophy that death is a comforting end to a life well lived, and not worthy of fear. Yet when faced with the idea of death, I crumbled.
I had a really good day today. I woke up next to my love in 6am blackness, heading to work while the rest of the house slept. Every morning that I kiss him goodbye, I think of my father’s words on love, loosely quoted: “sweetheart, you’ll know you REALLY love someone when you love every little thing about them — the smell of their sweat, the way they talk, the way they walk, and EVEN their stinky morning breath.” Our lips stick together a little, and I am comforted by the fact I could recognize my love even in the blindness of pitch black morning, by smell and by touch.
Work, not normally a bullet point in any summary of a good day, was notable simply because I wasn’t exhausted, everyone was in a good mood, and I had a delicious lox & cream cheese bagel for breakfast! One of my favorite bagel places just opened a new location about 500 feet from work which will certainly mean further dissolving my paycheck in exchange for hazelnut coffee and salad bar salads on Saturdays.
Grocery shopping was a must because… my cooking mojo is back! I’ve been eating a lot of cereal, PB&J sandwiches and whole foods hot bar, for no good reason other than general kitchen malaise. But today, I made pesto from the last of my summer basil crop (loosely adapted from an Alice Waters cookbook, but who really needs a recipe for pesto anyway?), and salmon in a lemon dill cream sauce for mom and dad – is it weird that I was simply in the mood to make a roux? Anyway, it came out great — or at least my parents said so. In what seems to have become characteristic of me, I cooked a full meal and then jetted out to go exercise instead of actually eating it. My mom is always entertained that I put more effort into cooking a meal I’m not even going to eat than most people put into cooking, period. Does anybody else do such a thing without being paid for it? Next on the menu are smittenkitchen.com SNICKERDOODLES! (which I certainly WILL be eating.)
Instead of salmon, I had a great 5.6-mile training run, and I’m feeling really confident about my 10K race next weekend. Also, I got to run with my old running buddy, who was home for the weekend from her new digs in that far-and-away hipster haven known as Brooklyn, NY.
After writing a bit about my fantastic day, I remembered I also got a rejection letter from a job I really wanted. It’s interesting how something could ruin your day if you let it, or it could disappear. A few days ago, for no good reason, I was feeling depressed and alone, and trying (and failing) to connect with people I care about. Today, without really trying, I felt good, connected to the people I love, and light in spirit and mind.
What a gift, having the words to ruminate over the details of a lovely day.
I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about what it is I want. I am back and forth, sure then unsure, about how to move forward. Further, I question what it even means to REALLY want something – I often pursue things that don’t present too much of a challenge, for fear that if I stepped to far out of my comfort zone, I might become too vulnerable. I take comfort in being good at things in the technical sense, which helps to blur the fact that I am not pursuing them with passion.
My dad told me recently that I need to find myself, that he sees me floundering. “You should get lost somewhere,” he says. “Maybe then you’d find yourself.” Speaking with my father one-on-one can often be surprising, as we have the opportunity to talk so infrequently and yet he sees me so clearly and can describe me with chilling accuracy. He was seeing something I had recently been seeing in myself – that it is time to tailor my life around a real, permeating goal that can guide me out from under his wing and into the world on my own. It does not necessarily mean a career choice, or chasing a certain paycheck; for my dad, many moons ago, that goal was finding (and keeping!) a mate, which he did, and they have been happily married for the past 40 years.
Recently, I have begun to finally pursue things that challenge me, with the confidence that if I screw up, so be it – I can brush myself off, and move on. Still, I can’t say I have settled on a specific goal. I’d love to be a better writer, a better runner, a better cook. I’d love to be better at networking within my field. But these things all hinge on a more important goal that needs attention first: to be comfortable with myself. I want to consistently make choices that I feel good about, rather than focusing on making other people happy. Furthermore, I want to make the wrong decisions – lots of them – and prove to myself that wrong turns and brain farts and love handles are all normal. Progress is slow, but writing is a great outlet for my thoughts and ideas and is definitely a big push in the right direction. In writing, you can be what you are not in real life. You can admit fears, you can change your mind, you can be bold, or you can disappear.
And speaking of disappearing, my dad’s idea of getting lost somewhere really resonates with me. I would like to find a way to travel alone. It scares me and yet it excites me, as it would present an opportunity to act confidently without distraction, influenced only by my own thoughts and desires and hindered only by my own limitations.