A Meal by Any Other Name

The other day, someone asked me what my favorite meal to cook is.  I generally hate this question, for a variety of reasons that I won’t bother getting into.  But I’m also generally a trooper, and started with my general answer that I like to cook food people like, leading into that I prefer making salads and sandwiches because they’re endlessly customizable –

And then the person cut me off.  “No,” they insisted, “your favorite meeeaaal.  A full meal.  A salad is more of just a course, you know?”

1 – don’t interrupt me.

2 – what the fuck is a fucking meeeaaal?

Because I thought it was food that you eat when you’re hungry.   And considering how the Standard American Diet (SAD) of meals is treating our bodies, maybe we should rethink it a little.

So yes, a salad can be a meal.  And not just one of those weird, mega salads with fried chicken, and creamsicle dressing, and chips on it.  A salad like greens, and other vegetables, and some fruit or nuts, and maybe some kind of protein.  And you eat it, and you’re full, and it’s a freaking meal.  Maybe you have some bread or something on the side.

Some things that are meals:

  • Eggs and veggies
  • Big pile of veggies
  • Leftovers
  • Fruit and nuts
  • Ice cream

Yeah, ice cream.  You’re a grown ass person, and no one should tell you what makes a meal.

 

Put It In The Pantry With Your Cupcakes

Are cupcakes, cookies, and chips the only things in your pantry?  (It’s that cupboard in your kitchen where you’re supposed to keep food.)  Your pantry is a valuable tool in cooking and eating at home.  A well-stocked cupboard makes your life much easier, and allows you to spend less time thinking about what you’re going to eat, and more time eating it.

Before you stock up, ask yourself a few questions.  What kind of food do you cook most often?  Is there some food you’d like to try?  How much space do you have?  Answer those few questions, and then move on to building up your capacity.

Spices

Spices are the first thing most people think of when they hear “pantry.”  Obviously, you need salt and pepper.  Your other choices will go back to the questions above.  If you make a lot of Italian food (you are making your own sauce, right?) you’ll need basil, oregano, and parsley.  Want to try Indian or Jamaican?  You’ll need some curry powder.  Are you the adventurous type who likes to try new things?  Check out the spices in the bulk section of your local store.  Get just what you need for a new recipe, without spending a ton of money.  Ethnic stores are also a great place to get inexpensive spices.

Grains

Grains can bulk up pretty much any meal, stretching a half pound of hamburger and some random veggies to an awesome risotto for six people.  They’re also delicious.  Make a big batch at the beginning of the week, and your weeknight meals will come together with ease.

Canned stuff

A lot of canned goods are pretty gross.  I recommend frozen veggies over canned.  They have more nutrition, and less sodium.  That being said, canned beans and tomatoes make life much easier, and meals much faster.  Canned fish is also a potential lifesaver.

Fresh stuff

Some long lasting produce shouldn’t go in your refrigerator.  Potatoes and onions are great to have on hand.  Apples and oranges also keep for a long time on the counter.  Keeping them out where they’re visible will help you eat more fruit.

Stuff that’s not technically pantry stuff that you should maybe have all the time

Keep frozen veggies around so you never have an excuse not to eat them.  A bag of mixed veggies added to spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, or ramen improves its nutritional profile and makes it go farther.

Frozen fruits are picked when they’re ripe, and are great for smoothies and cooked stuff.  When it’s hot, you can just eat them out of the bag.  Yum.

Basic Pantry List

Spices

Grains

Canned

Freezer

Produce

Salt Rice Beans Mixed veggies Potatoes
Pepper Oatmeal Tuna Bananas Sweet potatoes
Basil Pasta Salmon Berries Onions
Oregano Fancy grains (farro, millet, etc.) Anchovies (Try them in salads) Whole garlic cloves
Curry powder Grits/polenta Sardines Apples
Chili powder Broth Oranges
Cumin Tomatoes Nuts
Garlic powder Dried fruit
Sugar
Flour
Cinnamon

What do you keep in your pantry?  Leave a comment below!

Lunch Should Be Free

School lunches have a terrible reputation.  Bland, fried, beige foods.  Questionable vegetables.  Over-dependence on cow milk (don’t even get me started on cow’s milk).  At least there was a cookie, right?  School food has made huge strides in the last few years, with more focus on fresh, local produce, and recipe development.  While it’s definitely not restaurant quality, it’s on the upswing.

But for a lot of school kids, quality isn’t the main concern.  Over 13 million American children live in households that don’t have consistent access to enough food.  For these kids, school lunch and breakfast programs can be an invaluable asset.  Hungry children are less able to pay attention and more likely to have behavioral problems in school.  Ever been in a lunchtime meeting full of hangry adults?  Imagine that every day in a classroom.  School lunch helps bridge the gap for some of our most vulnerable children.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides reduced- and no-cost meals to school children throughout the country.  Families who make up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for reduced or free lunch.  A few years ago, the program was expanded so that in schools, districts or areas where 40% of families are eligible, or meet other criteria (like being homeless, children in foster care, or receiving other federal assistance like food stamps) ALL the children receive free lunch.

There are also several cities around the country that have implemented these types of Community Eligibility (CE) standards.  In New York City, where a city-wide free lunch program is being discussed, only one-third of eligible families apply for the NSLP program.  New York already has a program that provides breakfast and lunch in stand-alone middle schools.  The increased number of kids eating breakfast and lunch allows the schools to have more buying power, which leads to more local, fresh options.  It also reduces the administrative burden of collecting and processing applications and fees.

Nationwide, schools with Community Eligibility programs have 5% higher lunch and 9% higher breakfast participation than schools without CE.  Why?  There are probably several reasons, but a big one is stigma.  Especially at the middle and high school levels, students don’t want to be seen as “different” or “poor.”  If everyone can go through the lunch line and receive a tray of food, this is eliminated.  No one is singled out of the crowd simply because they got hot lunch.  Families may also be reluctant to fill out the paperwork, either because of pride, or lack of understanding, or even just because they don’t know they are eligible.

When I posted this Huffington Post article about an expanding free lunch program in Baltimore, I was surprised at the responses I got.

One friend grew up in New Jersey, where his low-income school district offered a culinary apprenticeship program.  High school students learned about both institutional and fine dining cooking, while cutting down on the number of cafeteria workers that were hired.  The students were paid for their time, and graduated high school with the equivalent of a two year culinary certificate.  Though he did (repeatedly) describe the offerings as “prison food” (boxed, canned, and institutionalized), he’s probably the best chef I know, so it must’ve taught him something.

Another friend went to high school outside of Houston.  He said that he felt embarrassed about receiving free lunch.  It didn’t stop him from eating, but I’m sure it stops plenty of kids.

My niece lives in Florida with her husband and three children.  At her daughter’s elementary school breakfast is $2.75 and lunch is $3.50.  Every.  Day.  For one child.  It’s easy to see how a family slightly above the eligible income for the NSLP still wouldn’t be able to afford lunch for their kids.  And research shows that in middle income families, the food budget is among the first things to be cut when financial set-backs come up.  Obviously, not all families will want their children to eat at school, but the choice shouldn’t be financial.

Here are some additional resources:

Child Hunger in America – http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/child-hunger/child-hunger-fact-sheet.html

Facts about the National School Lunch Program – https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp

Shouldn’t the wealthiest country in the world make sure all its kids get to eat during the school day?  What do you think?  Did you eat breakfast or lunch at school as a kid?  Leave a comment below.

 

 

And then they came for me….

There are a lot of things I could talk about here.  It’s been awhile since I wrote, and I owe my loyal readers (all five of you!) a couple of specific posts.  But today I think it’s important to talk about a couple of political things that have the potential to severely impact the most vulnerable among us.

Our newly inaugurated US president has already taken steps to keep employees of the USDA, FDA, and National Parks Service from sharing information with the public.  These are public employees who are not allowed to share information with the people who pay their salaries.  We pay taxes.  The new president does not.  We have a right to real information and facts from the agencies that work for us.

We also know that the current administration and Congress plan to gut the Affordable Care Act, which allowed millions of Americans who previously didn’t have health care coverage to become insured.  Those of us who have insurance through our workplaces also benefit from this legislation because it provides free preventive care and birth control, as well as unlimited lifetime insurance coverage.  While it’s not perfect, the ACA extended to millions the right to quality health care that’s been sorely lacking in America.

And on and on.

The new administration has already shown that it doesn’t care much about the American people, no matter who they voted for.  This type of authoritarian language and behavior is dangerous to our democracy.  Please do what you can, including calling your state and federal congresspeople, and supporting those around you who may be more deeply impacted or have a harder time adapting to these situations.  Let’s look out for each other.  The link below includes action steps and the opportunity to sign up for a weekly newsletter with action steps you can take to be part of the solution.

This is not the time to go about business as usual.

Action Checklist for Americans of Conscience

The Rocky Candy Horror Show

Full disclosure: I am not a Halloween person.  I didn’t really grow up celebrating it.  I don’t like costumes.  I especially don’t like mandatory costumes.  I sometimes get the urge to wear my butterfly wings at random times throughout the year, but I don’t because societal norms.  I don’t like scary movies, and (wait for it) I’m not that into candy.

That being said, I know a lot of people love Halloween, and have a lot of fun celebrating, and sharing that celebration with their kids.  But what do you do when you’re trying to teach your kids good eating habits, and it’s the Day of Dentists’ Mortgage Payments?

The basic answer is: nothing.

Let them eat the candy.  All the candy, if they want to.

Whaaat!  But they’re going to turn into hyperactive candy demons with no self control!

Hmmm, maybe, but only if you’re not feeding them correctly in the first place.  If you regularly offer them a variety of healthy, good-tasting foods, and let them eat until they’re full (and also let them stop eating), they will likely have plenty of internal signals to stop eating candy when they should.

Evidence shows that kids who are told some foods are “bad” or “off-limits” are more likely to binge on those foods when they’re offered.

When we make candy into the super-terrific-awesomely-fun-thing-we-can-never-ever-have, we also make it into the super-terrific-awesomely-fun-thing-we-can’t-stop-thinking-about.

So, let your little monster go wild.  If you thinking he’s wilding out a little too much, check in.  Ask how he feels.  “Are you full?”  “Does your tummy hurt?”  “Does that taste good?”

If you live in a particularly generous neighborhood, or just can’t wrap your mind around the littles eating the whole bag of candy, try these tips:

  1. Talk about it beforehand.  If you are going to limit your kid’s treats, talk about before they’re swimming in the candy sea.  “You can have two pieces tonight, and one after dinner for the rest of the week,” is a much easier concept to grasp before the pillowcase is full.
  2. Provide real food.  Eat before you go out trick-or-treating or to the local block party.  Also, have food available afterward.  It’s easier to make those good decisions on a full stomach.
  3. Pick a few favorites.  Ask what their three favorites are, and separate those out.  The rest can go in the trash, or the Christmas stockings and Easter baskets. (Yes, it’ll last that long.  It’s candy.)
  4. Take time to enjoy.  Research shows that we enjoy treats more when we actually like them (sometimes research shows the obvious.)  When you pick out those few favorite candies, saving the favorite favorite for last increases our perception of enjoyment, and makes us less likely to go dipping back for more dopamine hits.

Lewis Black says everything I believe about Halloween

 

 

 

Cookbook Roundup

As I’ve said, I’m not super fond of recipes, but I love cookbooks.  (And novels, and textbooks, and magazines, and reading shampoo bottles, and CNN Headline News.  Reading is FUNdamental.)  Also, one of the best ways to get to a point where you don’t need recipes is to read recipes.  It helps you get used to flavor combinations, ingredient ratios, and cooking techniques.  I find it pretty hard to buy cookbooks online, unless I’m looking for a particular author or title.  The bargain section of most bookstores is brimming with cookbooks.  Flip through.  Do you like the paper?  The pictures?  Is it a cuisine you’ve been curious about?  Does it just seem delicious?  There’s no reason to spend lots of money (unless you want to).  You’re just going to get food on it anyway.  Read the recipes.  Try them out.  No, your food probably won’t look like the pictures.  That’s okay.  Do it anyway.  Here are a few of my favorite titles to get you started.

Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook

This is my favorite favorite.  Basic vegan cooking that doesn’t always seem vegan.  Looking to add more veggies to your life without feeling like you’re missing out?  This is your book.  Unless you don’t like cussing.  The subtitle is Eat Like You Give a F**k, which you should.  It’s totally worth it to just get a sharpie and redact it yourself.

Anything by Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry’s books are also vegan (you know I love my veggies).  But his emphasis is on the foods of the African diaspora.  The soul food and Caribbean favorites you might be familiar with are transformed, and the vegetables brought to the center of the table.  Terry’s books are also great reads.  He talks about food justice, music, and movies all in the context of delicious, healthy food.

Culinary Artistry

This isn’t a cookbook, exactly.  It has recipes (very good ones from a collection of top chefs), but its focus is on flavors and textures.  There’s a section devoted to simple charts of the representative flavors and ingredients of different types of cuisine.  Want something to taste Armenian?  Parsley and yogurt.  Canadian?  Maple syrup.  You can also look up ingredients and see what they go well with.  What to do with all those plums from the CSA basket?  Walnut Tart of Warmed Plums with Mascarpone Souffle?  Alrighty then.

What’s your favorite cookbook?  My mom likes Betty Crocker.  Leave a comment!

Season Your Food!! (Get out out of Recipe Jail Pt.2)

Okay, I don’t mean to start out yelling at you, but seriously, this is a problem.  It’s probably one of the biggest problems I hear when people start cooking at home or start “eating healthy.”

Friend 1: “Healthy food doesn’t taste good.”

Client 42: “Vegetables don’t taste good.”

Family member 37: “I don’t know what I did to it.”

Me: “What’d you put on it?”

All: <blank stare>

Me: “Salt?  Pepper?”

I might get a nod here.  Often followed by a concern about using too much salt.  Turn over the package of your favorite packaged food, and check out the percent daily value of sodium.  I’ll wait.  Don’t forget to check the serving size.  Are you eating that whole bag of chips?  Do the multiplication.  I’ll wait.  You’ll also find that there’s kind of a shocking amount of sodium in a lot of packaged sweets.  And a crazy amount of sugar in your packaged salty snacks.  But that’s kind of a different post.  My point is, you (almost) can’t put too much salt in your homecooked food.

The food needs to taste good, and that means you have to season it, and that means you need some salt.

So, the basics of seasoning, especially vegetables, are salt, pepper, and fat.  I know that includes two scary words for people trying to be healthier, but trust me, please.

Salt is a flavor enhancer.  It helps to bring out the natural flavors in things.  It also helps draw the water out of “wet” veggies like squash, eggplant, and tomatoes.  Water makes things taste, you know watery, instead of having concentrated flavor.  If you’re making the switch from packaged foods to fresh foods, you might have to use more salt than you feel comfortable with.  It’s okay.  It’s probably still less than the packaged things you’re used to.  Measure the salt (start with 1/2 teaspoon for a regular dish of four servings), taste the food, and add more salt, if you need it.  Make sure to measure for reference.  If you want to reduce the salt in your diet, start out with the amount that makes the food taste good to you, and every week, cut it back a little.  That will help you get used to the reduced sodium without feeling like you’re missing out.

Fat is also a flavor enhancer.  A little goes a long way.  So don’t feel bad cooking in oil or butter, or finishing with a little cream or cheese, if that’s your jam.  Fat also makes you feel full longer, and creates a feeling of satisfaction, which is really important if you’re incorporating more veggies after living a life of fast food.

Honestly, pepper’s mostly habit.  It does what it does, and if you like that, put it in.

Some other good seasonings to play with:

Citrus – the acidic nature of lemon, lime, and orange juice brings out the best in most veggies.  Squeeze a little into sauteed spinach or greens, or over roasted carrots.

Vinegar – a different acidic profile, but much the same thought.  A little apple cider vinegar tones down the bitterness of a pot of braised collard greens or kale.

Sugar – another thing we tend to be scared of, but a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in a pot of peas and carrots, greens, or even beans brings out their natural sweetness.  Your grandma knew what she was doing.

Condiments – soy sauce, hot sauce, Asian hot sauce, salsa, ranch (why the hell not?).  The point is to make the food taste good so you’ll eat it.  Once you get used to eating at home, you can start worrying about “healthy” cooking.  You’re more than halfway there.

Leave a comment.  Are you afraid of seasoning?  Do you have a favorite seasoning, or spice you use for everything?