There’s more to life than just food, but if you ask me, food is an especially wonderful part of life.
I enjoy eating and always have. My travel itineraries often focus on discovering exciting food, markets and restaurants (a pleasurable eating experience must happen on any trip or I will probably be disappointed – just ask my boyfriend). Food adventures are no doubt what led me to and kept me in Europe where, based in London, I enjoy perusing the recipe section of the Guardian Weekend magazine and can’t get enough of Rick Stein’s and, before that, Jamie Oliver’s travel and cookery shows. When I first started learning French, I was neutral about grammar, but fascinated by how the French ate (according to my high school textbook, a bar of chocolate on a baguette was considered a nutritious snack – c’est magnifique!) and the films that have made the biggest impression on me over time all seem to have taught me something about social interaction and food: Babette’s Feast, The Secret of the Grain, Chef, Chocolat, The Trip, I am Love, Julie and Julia, Waitress, Like Water for Chocolate, to name some obvious foodie favorites. Likewise, when I taught English in France to young school children I found the fastest way to get kids interested in cultures from abroad was to give them a taste of them, and so I served up American specialities of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, blueberry pancakes and chocolate chip cookies (instantaneous if not lazy crowd-pleasers).
Food is an endless topic to learn about, a pathway to understanding different cultures, and cooking is by far one of my favourite creative outlets. But I didn’t always have such a positive relationship with food. I grew up on a starchy, bland, diet. I was, what you would call, a picky eater. I was afraid of powerful tastes, shy about strange textures and unsure of anything that wasn’t cereal, bread, pizza or a hamburger. I got a little more adventurous during my years at American college (University) when, away from the comfort’s of mom’s kitchen, I tasted my first Japanese food (tempura only please) and Indian food (naan and mango lassis….yum!), but I was still a comfort-eater, reaching for the starchiest, greasiest, most sugary foods while applauding myself for avoiding meat because of the mad cow scare.
But something changed during my junior year abroad when for the first time of my life I lived in Italy and France and was confronted with some major cultural differences in the way Europeans and Americans eat. At the time, I was still vegetarian, which confounded my French host family. Being on my best behaviour as a guest (and less stubborn than I would be with my own family), I agreed to eat mostly everything that was placed in front of me and started developing a taste for new kinds of food. I was unaccustomed to eating late dinners so would buy crackers from the ‘aperitifs’ aisle to snack on, which also confounded my host family. I remember the day my host mom caught me snacking on said crackers in my room and said, ‘Kate – c’est ca qui fait grossir’ – she was right, snacking was indeed what was feeding my poor relationship with food and leading to weight gain (and not snacking was clearly what was keeping them skinny and satisfied in spite of rich, buttery meals). A lightbulb went off. How could I be reaching for processed snacks in a home that was serving me some of the most delicious, lovingly made and balanced meals? Could delicious, nutrient dense meals be what kept them looking and feeling great? I slowly started enjoying the taste of vegetables more, appreciating the flavours of good quality produce and learning the importance of sauces, dressing and spices to bring life to every meal.
When I returned to the States to complete my final year of University, however, the bad habits came back. After a senior year living off pizza, cereal, and whatever else was served to us in the campus food hall (the stress/partying was helping to keep the pounds off but I also fell ill quite frequently), I moved to New York City and started gaining weight again. I went to see a nutritionist and I finally learned how to eat a balanced diet that was low in carbohydrates and sugar to keep my figure lean. I was eating out at all the amazing Thai and Japanese restaurants choosing low-carb dishes (swapping the tempura for sashimi, papaya salad instead of pad thai), and my social life revolved around going to the gym. My tastebuds were evolving and my health awareness was too as I started to practice yoga. But I was still only cooking the plainest of meals (egg whites and orange for breakfast) at home and ‘treating’ myself with Taste-D-Lite ‘ice cream’ in the evenings. I didn’t know how to make foods that excited me in my own kitchen.
Let’s fast forward 12 years to now where I cook everyday in my London apartment, keep a healthy balanced diet (with carbs) and have endless food inspiration not only from cookbooks and food cookery shows, but also blogs, Instagram accounts and Apps. I find it impossible to be bored at home and am often so overwhelmed by cooking inspiration that I’ve collected over the week that I’ll find myself preparing one too many dishes at once on a Sunday. It’s very hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know what to do with myself in front of a cutting board but reflecting back I am reminded that cooking and meal-planning wasn’t always this natural. So despite the choices we have today, I can understand why a lot of people still come up to me and say they have no ideas for dinner or don’t know how to cook healthy. Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean we know how to put our best intentions into practice. One of my favourite food authors, Michael Pollan, writes about this in his latest book ‘Cooked’ on the history of cooking in relationship to the evolution of modern man/woman and points out how we seem to be watching more cooking programmes than ever on TV, but not necessarily getting better ourselves at cooking or healthier. To top it all off, ‘healthy’ eating and cooking are becoming more popular and everyone has a different theory on how/what to eat to feel and look your best. It’s a minefield of advice. So how does one get started?
From a food phobic turned food enthusiast, here’s my simple advice. Learn how to cook but start simple. If there is anything I learned during my time in France and italy, it’s that those cultures that cook everyday and teach their kids how to cook with whole foods ingredients, seem to have a much healthier way of eating, not to mention a joyful life. If you didn’t grow up learning how to cook or if you rely heavily on ready meals or restaurant meals, switch your mindset and make food preparation your responsibility (like brushing your teeth – no one else should do that for you).
Think of just one dish you love or one ingredient that gets you excited and search for a recipe for that you can try by typing it into a google search. Oftentimes I’ll look at what ingredients I have left in the fridge and cupboard and google them together: tahini, carrots, brown rice. These days, you’re likely to find a recipe online that fits the bill precisely. Or go to the cookbook section of any bookstore and have a browse. Whichever book sings to you the most and feels the most accessible, grab it and make it your friend for a month. Think of a part of the world you love for its cuisine – look up some recipes from that area and embed yourself in learning about it. If you’re lacking food curiosity (like ten-year-old me stuck on cereal and bagels), maybe you need to find a way to get out of your routine, away from your comfort zone and in a new culture to start exploring new tastes. If you’re lucky to live in London, you can take a short flight anywhere or even hop on a train to France. But there are so many foodie events these days, markets and restaurants, chances are there is inspiration around the corner. What about a local market? Where you can talk to someone who sells only tomatoes and ask them directly what their favourite dishes are?
You know what really got me cooking? Signing up to an organic delivery box from Riverford. Every two weeks, I get a fresh box of organic veg delivered to me (with recipes) and in order to make the most of the money spent, I gotta get in the kitchen and make some dishes. I also have to carve time out of my schedule to do so and it’s become therapy time now – away from my phone, in the moment, doing something great for my health.
If you never cook, can you take one day a week and try to cook? If you have ‘no time’ to cook, can you have a look at your schedule and see where you might be able to carve out some time to get your hands dirty? Potentially entertaining yourself with a podcast instead of TV? Follow the mantra of cook once, eat twice. You can batch cook on one day of the week and freeze items.
Chances are that once you have one successful cooking experience, it will lead to many others. And you know what? Learning about 5 meals that you can make at home and love is often enough. You don’t need millions of ingredients or an elaborate spice cabinet to begin – you can grow this over time (and it will grow). Start simple and see where it takes you.
I want people to feel the same joy I do when opening their cupboards and thinking about the next meal. That being said, it’s important to also feed yourself in other ways. I have a few days of the week where I eat very simple (but never boring) meals with very few ingredients. If I were to spend every day creating elaborate meals I would probably burn myself out. So I will batch-cook or even throw in a day of fasting to balance things out and on those days I’ll get deeply into my yoga practice or prioritize another hobby of mine. But in order to stay alive, to keep our bodies functioning, we need to eat and we need to make the best food choices we can. Food is a glorious thing. And we appreciate it more when we cook for ourselves. And I truly believe that healthy eating is NOT about depriving yourself or getting unexcited about food. It’s quite the opposite. So grow your passion for food and find other things in life to be passionate about too to keep it balanced.
Here are a few healthy eating blogs that I have visited over the years that have got me excited about my meals to get you started:
I want to know – what you are your major road-blocks when it comes to cooking? Where do you derive inspiration from? What are your current beliefs about healthy eating and food?
I’ll follow up soon with my five favourite simple meals to make at home (the ones I revisit all the time because I can make them in my sleep) and offer you advice on how to make them work for you. Until then, happy exploring!