We all face times of trial, and they can take a serious toll on our minds — and bodies.
After my own period of emotional and physical difficulties — not to mention being a food professional surrounded by temptation — I finally decided to view food as a pleasurable way of caring for myself, rather than a vice to satisfy my exhausted body. I was ready to redefine what normal, healthy eating looked liked for me. By following a few simple steps, you can too.
The turning point to better habits
The other night, my husband and I were going through my daughter's wedding photos, and I was reminded that I'm one of the few people who have maintained a significant weight loss over several years. Older photos showed me in a heavier, less happy time. I was emotionally exhausted, pushing 200 pounds and facing extreme shoulder tendinitis.
Seeing an acupuncturist helped, but even more significant was the mental therapist who taught me that I was making a common mistake: working too hard for other people and neglecting myself. I was using food as a crutch to treat my overworked, exhausted self. Mary helped nudge me into the first step in a permanent lifestyle change: putting my health first. But I knew diets didn't work for me; I needed a larger plan.
Eating more = losing more
I asked myself, "What do I really need to eat to be happy?" I wanted it all, of course, which was okay — just not in the quantities I thought.
I had always resisted nutrition experts' mantra of eating several small meals in a day. Unlike the people who peck at grains and veggies all day, I was a food lover. I didn't eat to live; I lived to eat! Then it finally occurred to me that eating throughout the day meant eating more often! How great was that?
Two breakfasts are better than one
Instead of one large breakfast right after awakening, I now enjoy two breakfasts. In the early morning, I savor a cup of hot herbal tea along with fresh, seasonal fruit. The warm tea gently wakes me and the natural sugar in the fruit energizes me for exercise, which I'll come back to in a moment. After exercise, I sit down to a meal I really enjoy; for example, toast, homemade granola, Greek yogurt and a honey drizzle. Or even a fried egg with a couple strips of good bacon and a big chunk of sourdough. I love variety — cheesy grits, warm oatmeal cooked with a generous handful of dried fruit.
Determination, variation make exercise worthwhile
Exercise is a key ingredient for eating more often. With the healing that came through therapy, I found new energy and I started to walk. A lot! The long walks eventually turned into runs. Now I run four times a week, as well as two yoga classes at the YMCA. I don't easily give myself a pass on exercise. If it's drizzling or a little icy, I still run. If it's dark and cold I still crank up the car for yoga.
After breakfast(s), I'm usually fine until noon. Lunch is usually hearty soup or a substantial salad. Soups are warm, thick and filling. Salads are chock-full of protein and vegetables. I keep a stash of greens with lots of add-ins on hand.
No need for the deprivation sensation
Next come the two most pleasurable eating moments of my day: teatime mid-afternoon followed by an early evening glass of wine and nibbles.
After seven years, I must have teatime. Regardless of where I am — an airport, out shopping, testing recipes — I have my tea. I look forward to the sweet treat for sure, but it's also about taking time to sit quietly for a few minutes with perhaps some Earl Grey and a couple of Gingerbread Straws. A friend and I might even split a muffin or slice of cake — yes, cake. I don't have to deprive myself of anything. I simply set boundaries about when and how much I eat. This has become my new normal.
Before dinner, I enjoy a glass of wine and a little nibble (usually a handful of nuts). This controlled snack is so satisfying I have no reason to pick mindlessly during dinner preparation.
Because I've eaten moderately all day, dinner tends to be light — a simple salad and a small plate of pasta, a couple of thin slices of pizza, a little stew. Since I'm an early-to-bed, early-to-riser, I rarely eat after dinner. I end the day looking forward to tomorrow morning's tea and fruit.
Now, it's your turn
I know I make this all sound simple, but it can be — because you're in charge. So to get started, remember:
Eating to live or living to eat? Now consider what you truly need to eat for pleasure and sustenance. Plan out smaller meals over the day with a variety of items you enjoy.
Get moving: Walk, ride, run, stretch — whatever you can do to move for 30 minutes a day will help burn calories and boost your mental state.
In your new empowered state, you will see food not as the enemy, but as a pleasurable way of taking care of yourself. Unlike me, you may need a mid-morning treat or a bedtime snack instead of teatime. But when you make the rules, you're less likely to break them.
Ask yourself: "What's going on in my life that's causing me to eat more than I should?" Too much idle time with the kids grown and gone? A tight budget? Or something deeper? You may need a therapist's help to get to the bottom of it, which could include...
Some tough stuff: Confronting a spouse, quitting that job you hate, finally saying no to someone (everyone).
We're all different, and what works for one may not work for another. Make 2012 the year to figure out what's right for you.
Great Granola With Pecans, Cranberries and Orange
Makes 1 quart
2 cups old fashioned oats
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons flavorless oil, such as vegetable or canola
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees. Mix oats, wheat germ, salt and pecans in a medium bowl. Heat syrup, oil, 2 tablespoons water and orange zest to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Drizzle over oat mixture and stir to combine.
Pour mixture into a 13-by 9-inch pan coated with vegetable cooking spray. Working a handful at a time, squeeze cereal to form small clumps. Bake for 30 minutes. Stir in dried fruit. Continue to bake until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes longer. Let cool and serve. (Can be stored in an airtight tin for 1 month.)
Black Bean Soup with Cumin and Salsa Verde
2 cans (16 ounces each) black beans, drained
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 cup prepared salsa verde
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves, plus extra sprigs for garnish (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Garnish: 1/4 cup light sour cream, cilantro sprigs
Puree all ingredients except garnish in a blender until smooth. Pour into a large saucepan or Dutch oven and bring to a simmer. Simmer, partially covered and stirring frequently, to blend flavors, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve, garnishing with sour cream and optional cilantro sprigs.
Makes 56 cookies
I love everything about these cookies — their intense ginger flavor, their long slender shape and their impressive calorie count. If you prefer wafers, you can use cookie cutters as well.
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra if necessary
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) softened butter
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, mix molasses and water.
Beat butter and brown sugar with a hand mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses mixture and then dry ingredients, adding additional flour if needed to form stiff dough. Quarter the dough, forming each portion into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, about an hour. (Can be refrigerated up to one week or frozen up to one month.)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Working with one portion of dough at a time on a heavily floured work surface, roll into a 9- by 7-inch rectangle. Sprinkle dough with 1 tablespoon of sugar, and use the rolling pin to press sugar into dough. Use a pastry wheel (preferably with a fluted edge) to cut dough into approximate 9- by 1/2-inch sticks. Place sticks about 1/2-inch apart on a parchment- or silpat-lined cookie sheet.
Bake until fragrant and crisp, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating each sheet from back to front and switching rack positions after 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool to room temperature. (Can be stored in a tin for two weeks.)
Union Square Café Bar Nuts
Makes a heaping 3 cups
I rarely publish other author's recipes, but if I didn't include Union Square Café Bar Nuts, I wouldn't be honest about what I really eat. I've been making these nuts since The Union Square Café Cookbook came out in 1994. I make them very often, and unlike most foods, I never tire of them.
Although I've made a few minor changes in the recipe (I start with easier-to-find roasted salted nuts, cut back on the salt and lower the oven temperature), there's just no improving on this one. The recipe easily halves, but I buy the 2 1/2 pound size of Extra Fancy Mixed Nuts — cashews, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts — at Costco and roast the whole bunch at one time. They can be stored a month or more. I often enjoy these nuts with a glass of wine, but I also chop them and add them to salads.
1 1/4 pounds (a heaping 3 cups) premium roasted salted mixed nuts
1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet or similar size pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Roast until fragrant and very hot, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile microwave butter in a medium bowl until melted. Stir in rosemary, cayenne, sugar and salt. Pour hot nuts in a large bowl. Add rosemary mixture; stir until completely coated. Pour nuts back onto the cookie sheet and cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Can be stored in an airtight container for up to one month.)
Broccoli and Pepper Pasta With Light Creamy Tomato Sauce
1 pound broccoli, cut into small florets, stems trimmed and sliced
1 large yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into short thin strips
12 ounces bite-size pasta: linguini, fettuccini, or spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra grated or shaved for topping
Prepare broccoli and pepper. Meanwhile, bring 2 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to boil in a large soup kettle. Add pasta and, using back-of-the-box times as a guide, cook partially covered and stirring frequently at first, to prevent sticking, until just tender, adding broccoli to the boiling pasta the last 5 or so minutes of cooking. Drain and return to pot.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add peppers; sauté until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and pepper flakes; sauté until fragrant and golden, about a minute. Add wine; bring to a simmer. Add tomatoes; return to a simmer and stir in baking soda. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to simmer until thick, 10 to 12 minutes. Add evaporated milk and simmer another 3 to 4 minutes to blend flavors. Add sauce and cheese to drained pasta; toss to coat. Adjust seasonings. Serve, sprinkling each portion with cheese.