Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Eating

Hello again my lovely readers. I have missed you. I have some very exciting things to share with you, things that will explain my absence and hopefully inspire your creative side....but I am a mean ol' blogger and you'll need to wait to hear about those things until March.

You see, we have some renewing to tend to.

These last few days filled my heart with fear, anger, and pain. Our political climate is the most volatile I've ever personally seen it and as I sit back and let wave after wave of heartbreaking news crash over me, I find myself feeling extraordinarily powerless. I feel trapped and I feel afraid....and like most animals in my predicament, my first instinct is to bite, snap, and do everything in my power to regain control of the situation. But instead I read....I read everything I can. And instead I march. And instead I sign petitions. And donate money. Instead I have conversations with my daughters. I talk to my friends. I read a little more. And of course, I write.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my hope is that this series develops into a little bag of tricks we can tap into when our soul needs some healing. I started slow a few weeks ago, talking about how to renew our homes and the spaces around us, and will continue to "up the ante" each week and get a little closer to true introspection as time goes by. Today's post, therefore, doesn't come close to addressing the personal turmoil and anarchy that has moved into my soul as of late. Instead, I am staying dedicated to taking it slow...step by step....and maintaining hope that by the end, light will have reached all the dark places.

So today we talk about something simple....something we can control...something that is constant and biological and often times in need of reflection.....


I absolutely adore food, don't you? I love flavors and textures and trying new things. I have a super sensitive "spicy" palate that makes those around me laugh and I can devour an entire pizza all by my lonesome like any true All-American Woman should. I love cooking and testing out new recipes. One of my favorite things of all time is taking something I've grown, making it into a meal, feeding it to others, and watching their faces light up. Food is life and love and opportunity.

But then, on the flip side, there's my reflection in the mirror. I poke, pinch, grip, lift, squeeze, and prod at the areas of my body that don't match up with whatever perfect Jen image I've concocted in my head for the day. I notice dimples and wrinkles and more flesh in my hands and I start to despise food, or rather my disconnection from it, and begin to see food as an enemy. If I eat you, I lose. If I taste you, I've let myself down. It sometimes gets to the point where just an aftertaste of something I've recently eaten triggers feelings of immense guilt and shame. You've failed again, Jen. You weren't supposed to eat anything at all today. Let your body eat all the fat you've got, kay?


My relationship with food is quite two-faced.

It's times like these, when the winter cold and early dusk keep me inside and inactive, that those destructive and cloudy thoughts begin to shake my happiness tree. All the fruits of an active, healthy, happy summer and harvest season come plopping down around me and I start to sink in the mushy, stinky decay of self-loathing. Working out is no longer attractive. Eating good food is no longer attractive. Cooking is no longer attractive. In my head, I am no longer attractive. My entire being - heart, mind, and body - turns into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And that's where this particular page of our renewal comes in. It's at this very moment, these most destructive times, that we need to find the courage to stop ourselves...pause, recognize we're sad, recognize it's ok to be sad, but then also recognize it's time to regain our happiness. Time to realign the power struggle. Time to reconnect to our plates in an intimate and loving way. Time to renew ourselves in the most basic and primal of forms.

Choices, Choices
The buzzwords are, homegrown, GMO, pesticide-free, cage-free, free-range, hormone-free.....I don't need to tell you anymore that reading labels and choosing foods that are as close to nature as possible is by far the very best way to keep good food, and only good food, on your plate. Processed foods are no good. Fast food drive-thrus are no good. Excessive amounts of anything is no good. We know all this.

Contrary to popular belief, I do partake in all those no-good-things I mentioned above. It happens. I'm imperfect and I love to eat garbage, especially when I'm distraught. But I beg you, implore you, if you're looking to renew your eating habits and feel more connected to your food, quit the no-good-things. Quit them cold turkey. Forgive yourself when you mess up and then come back to the green side. I've found my sugar cravings go down when I decrease the amount of candy I eat. I found my cravings for McDonald's cheeseburgers go down when I stop eating McDonald's cheeseburgers. Weird how that works, hmm? Almost like, maybe, the manufacturers are placing addictive additives in those products that cause us to chemically depend on them and therefore want more...and more...and more....dunno, just a theory.

Producers, Producers
I absolutely love pork sausage. I buy pounds of it every month and use it in practically every meal requiring meat. Now I could just go to the store and buy a package of pork sausage made from pigs from all over the world....but instead I order my meat from a farm....with a farmer who comes out, himself, to deliver his product.

Remember that disconnection from our food I mentioned earlier? This is a beautiful way to reconnect. Meet the people who make your food. Listen to their stories, follow them on social media, and regain confidence in what you're eating. Using discretion when buying food reestablishes producer-to-consumer relationships that were long ago buried beneath the wheels of refrigerated trucks. As an added bonus? When you buy from someone you know, that someone is likely nearby. Eating in-season foods that naturally grow around you is incredibly beneficial to your health. And it's not as difficult as you might think...I break down some of my favorite "eating seasonally" tricks in this post.

Choose good things from good places delivered by good people. Such action reforges the broken chains of our food system and helps us connect to our food in very personal, responsible, and cooperative ways.

Grocery Shopping Woes
I don't think we'll ever be rid of grocery stores forever. I'd love to sit here and dream that we'll all one day have our own gardens and everyone will be more self-sufficient and the major food conglomerates will all go out of business...but one look at the McDonald's drive thru on a Saturday morning in 2017 when we all know that stuff ain't good clearly shows me people do not care enough to make my dreamland come to life. And similarly, I don't have the time to drive to a few different farms each week to get everything I need, and the local winters' market doesn't sell it all (yet....fingers crossed the food movement will one day make it so our farmers carry everything we need). Until then, we will always need grocery stores to feed our people.

And people, grocery stores are expensive. All those no-good-things I mentioned earlier? Well in addition to being more readily available and addictive, they're also cheaper. I'm a single mama with a chicken addiction and a big ol house of growing females to feed. I don't have the money to be dropping hundreds each week on food...even when I know the money is supporting organics and local food. I've found myself choosing between organic milk and grassfed butter recently. Eating good food on a budget is not as easy as they say, especially in the off-season when the ground is frozen, and especially if you're looking to get your shopping done at one place instead of 5.

And so I've found myself at Aldi recently. Yes. You heard me. This is not some kinda sponsored-blog-post thing, this is my real-life-learning-experience thing. I went there because I was gifted a gift card. I walked out with my mind blown. They had organic produce. Organic dairy. Organic snack crackers and cereals. They even had sprouted grain bread - sprouted grain bread! And let's face it, if the standards of organic labeling are slipping (which they are), then an organic pepper from Aldi is no lesser of an organic pepper than one from Trader Joes or Whole Foods or any of those other high-priced places. Frankly, if I have to shop at a grocery store, I'm not buying local anyways, so I may as well shop somewhere that allows me to stay within my budget and holds me over until my growing season starts.

Ideally I'd shop during the off-season at a co-op...because food co-ops are way better than any grocery store.....but my local co-op is not open yet. So until then, finding affordable ways to eat the food that makes me feel good is the way I'm heading.

Are you struggling to afford the good-for-you-foods? Get outside your comfort zone and try somewhere new. Maybe your winter farmers markets are better equipped than mine - farmers market prices are comparable or even cheaper than grocery stores, especially when you're buying organic.

You might've caught me mentioning the "off-season" up there in that previous in northern Illinois, food doesn't start popping up till the ground thaws sometime in May, and even then, we are short on the fun stuff (tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, summer squash, cauliflower) until August at the earliest. I've tried my hand at growing things for the past three years and only last year did I produce enough to preserve anything for the winter.

Gardening is by far the most cost-effective, enriching way to connect to our food. I wrote an entire Growing a Garden Series based on my experiences and the tips and tricks I wish I knew in years 1 and 2 of my gardening adventure. It takes time, yes, and money upfront, yes, but once you get into your groove, and start to literally bear the fruits of your labor, there is nothing more satisfying or fulfilling than eating healthy, delicious food from your own backyard. This is my favorite eating renewal tip - grow something!

Meal Planning
It might seem like a no-brainer, meal planning, but it's hard. Meal planning is hard. You've gotta look at what you have, and compare it to what you need, and then compare all that to what you ate last week, and see if you can turn anything into multiple meals, and take your work schedule into consideration, and plan for days when you have the kids or don't have the kids, and keep meals on hand for nights when plans fall through or you're running late.

But it's so, so worth it.

I do not like cooking when I'm in my food funk mood. I don't want to eat healthy, I want to sit and be fed and then sleep. Cooking requires me to get up, take action, think, prepare. I don't like doing any of those things when I'm depressed. I just want to be watching Netflix.

But can I please tell you, once I'm in there, and I toss that garlic into the olive oil, and I add some meat and veggies, and the smell of homemade biscuits hits my nose, I feel something....and it's not the shadowy feeling I felt on the couch while watching's like a high. I get high off productivity. And meal planning forces me to be productive. If I have a menu sitting there I know I've got ingredients, many of which are perishable, sitting around waiting on me to dice them up before they go bad. If I have a menu sitting there I know I've spent time and money selecting a good healthy meal for my family. If I have a menu sitting there I don't need to scramble to throw something together, I just need to get up and cook it.

Meal planning motivates me to cook, keeps me on a nice grocery budget, assures I use everything in my fridge and pantry, and eliminates some of the stress of serving dinner. I feel better when I cook. I feel better about what I eat and I feel joy when others eat what I serve. It's a lovely experience once I get off my butt and get to it...which is what my weekly menu gently nudges me to do.

You might not be good at it. Do it anyways. You might not particularly like it. Do it anyways. If you are looking to renew your relationship with eating, you gotta learn how to create the things you eat. Start small. Have your kids help you cook. Take a weekend and create a bunch of freezer meals and basics like homemade bone broth or pasta sauce so when you're short on time, your meal is just a jar away.

And I challenge you to step away from the microwave. Try making tortillas from scratch. Mix up your own buttermilk. I do this super-amazing thing where I make double the recipe of some of my favorite sauces and then freeze half of them so next time I make that meal, I can be lazy.

Cooking connects you to your food much like purchasing from a farmer connects you to your food - it injects personality and emotion and effort into your eating experience. I feel proud when I serve food I've cooked. I am proud of myself and I want to keep cooking because I feel good about what I've accomplished. I don't get that same satisfaction from microwaved chicken nuggets. Granted, I'll get that's always a win....but there's always something missing from that experience...something that causes me guilt later.

Give cooking a shot. Start small - make macaroni and cheese or chicken and rice or ravioli. It's an experience that leads to a deeper appreciation for what you're putting into your body. 

The Physical Act of Eating
When I lived in Europe one of my favorite culture shocks was the dining experience. No waiters bugging you every five minutes, no time limit on how long you can sit and talk, and absolutely zero pressure to buy anything. Every restaurant I ate at, from Germany to France to Luxembourg, shared this one thing in common: let them eat.

I still notice the difference today in America. Every time I go out to eat, the waiter or waitress will come by my table 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in under an hour to "check" on us. He will ask me if I want to see desserts before I've finished packing up my entree. She will bring the check well ahead of when I've finished sipping my drink. There is a urgency to turn, turn, turn the tables and get more people in, get them fed, get them out. It's sad to me - and in my opinion, completely indicative of the disconnection Americans have with their food and eating experiences.

I loved sitting at the heavily-carved wooden tables and laughing and talking for hours - literally hours - over my half-finished plate of schnitzel and pomme fritz. I loved that I had to wave wildly and flag someone down if I needed something instead of getting interrupted moments before sharing heartbreaking news, or delivering a hilarious punchline, or getting kissed by someone I love. I adored eating in Europe because it was about the experience of breaking bread with others - not about flipping tables as fast as you could.

Eating in America has become a frenzied, frantic action of "squeeze in a quick lunch" or "I gotta get out of there within the hour." We eat on the go - supper in a sack, breakfast in a cup. In the case of green smoothies, this is an entirely acceptable solution to a poorly-planned morning, but everyday? Or on a nice night out? Or for dinner every night? All that time spent cooking....just to get up and walk away from the table 10 minutes later?

I've worked very hard to slow down my try and taste my food, to talk to those around me. A few years ago I implemented a "how was your day" practice around my dinner table. Now my four-year-old initiates it every night. "How was your day today, Mama? What did you do today? Tell me all about it!" Her little voice is like a rolling and bubbling's soothing. And it connects me to my plate, the moment, the people around me. I learn about my kids and what they're thinking and experiencing.

Slow down. Take a breath. Relax. Make it about every bite, not every plate. And enjoy those around you.

Eating is supposed celebration of flavor and life, dear readers. It is intended to be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, a respite from the chores that never seem to leave our side. In a world that is increasingly chaotic, one truth always remains....we all gotta eat. Eating can be transformative in all the right ways - it just needs to be approached with a sense of joy and purpose.

And to all the readers out there who, like me, hate food this time of year, be kind to yourself. Be gentle. Try to renew your relationship with food. And remember, those blessed enough to live a long life rarely look back and say, "I wish I hadn't eaten so much pizza and cake. I wish I hadn't had that second glass of wine. I wish I'd spent less time laughing around the table and more time working out at the gym." We all hope for a happy and healthy life. Let's make it so and start loving the way we eat.

Do you struggle with food this time of year? What are your favorite ways to stay aligned with nature and nourishment during these cold winter months? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!

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