In the course of a year most of us eat about 1100 meals. We pause from our activity (usually) about 1100 times in order to refuel our bodies. And we snack, nibble and sip in between, perhaps to relieve fatigue, anxiety or boredom… or maybe just for the sheer fun of it.
Food not only nourishes, comforts and entertains us, it becomes us, becomes who we are on a cellular level.
It plays a very big part in our lives.
Yet, we are often quite casual about the food that we eat. Our culture provides an overwhelming variety of options, ever-new, like a steady stream of tempting new toys–there for the grabbing. At drive-thrus and restaurants, at diners and delis, at bakeries and health food stores, and at supermarkets, with their 25,000 items we are besieged. Most edible supermarket items are developed in laboratories and produced in factories, where chemists, nutritionists, biologists, researchers and laborers work to develop and produce even more food options. We now have 200 different kinds of breakfast cereals available in this country.
So how do we decide what to eat? Much of the world has no need to ponder such a question. They go to bed hungry. They plead for food. They pray for food – any food.
So surrounded by abundance, in the midst of our hectic lives, how do we decide what we are going to eat?
Many of us share a passionate attachment to certain foods. Like linguine with pesto, or mocha almond fudge, preferences and aversions about food often run VERY strong through our moths and our psyches. For many, the food experience can be one of the highlights of the day, so personal gratification is certainly one factor to consider when choosing what we eat. We notice the feel of the food in our mouth–the taste, the smell, the sight of it and the level of satisfaction when the eating is done. What do we feel like eating? What are we in the mood for? That’s pretty simple and straightforward. Yum. Yes.
Another factor to consider is convenience. What food requires the least time and effort to deal with? The convenience of processed foods is hard to resist. Why soak and cook beans when they are already canned? Tomato sauce is seasoned and sealed, salad dressings are ready to go, and pizza is complete. We deserve a break today. We’ve earned a quick dinner or snack. An easy-to-prepare, low-maintenance meal.
Cost is certainly another issue. What can we afford? Pasta and potatoes may help to stretch our dollars. French wine and caviar send our overdraft protection into overdrive. To varying degrees, many of us try to be mindful of cost.
Our desires and our dollars fight it out.
And nutrition has recently become much more of a consideration. What foods are good for us? As a country we have dramatically raised our awareness of nutritional issues during the last decade. Labels are read, grams are counted, and low-fat products line the shelves. As we sort through the nutritional advice, and struggle with the contradictions, our choices get made, on a daily basis.
Keeping It Simple
My purpose in eating has changed over the last few years. I am now intrigued by the challenge of feeding myself in the most healthy and least harmful way for all involved. This purpose has simplified my life quite a bit. It has minimized my use of processed foods, with all of their salt, sugar, additives and devitalized nutrients. It has eliminated my use of animal products altogether. And it has led me towards whole foods, rather than fragmented, dissected bits and pieces.
And even though my eating is often now directed by health concerns, I have never enjoyed food more. My appreciation for the tastes and variety that nature provides has grown noticeably. Though I recall with no effort at all my heavenly lasagna daze, for example, my experience with a basic barley dish competes quite well. The simple grain of barley, in all its chewiness and delicacy, is exquisite in its own barley-kind-of-a-way and as I eat it I am in touch with and impressed by the gift of grain. With some additions–-like mustard seed, sesame seeds, garlic and Shiitake mushrooms–-barley hits the mark, the new and simple mark. The other issue is that my feelings don’t lead me around the kitchen as much as they used to.
As my purpose becomes more clear, my feelings don’t dominate in the same way. Without purpose, they were my primary guide.
What about convenience? Compared to burger patties, no, this barley dish is not fast food. Barley, for example, takes about an hour to cook, but the stove and the water do most of that work. The remainder of the recipe takes about 15 minutes, tops. I can live with that. And of course the food preparation, once familiar with it, speeds up. The more you do something, the less you stop during the process to ponder and pause and check. Helen Nearing, grandmother of the back-to-the-land movement, wrote a book called Simple Food for the Good Life, An Alternative Cookbook Intended for the Use of People of Moderate Fortune Who Do Not Affect Magnificence in Their Style of Living. Helen spent as little time as possible in the kitchen and she did that by eating much of her diet, raw, and the rest lightly cooked.
Eating simple can be very inexpensive, especially if you buy from the bulk bins as opposed to the shelves. Brown rice at our local co-op stars at $0.89 per pound. When eating low on the food chain, you eliminate altogether many of the most expensive foods. No meat. No fish. No cheese. No Ben & Jerry’s. You can buy a lot of strawberries and bananas with all of that saved money. Make some smoothies. Peel and freeze the bananas first to make it extra luscious.
Nutritionally speaking, a simple diet makes perfect sense. Digestion, for example, requires a tremendous amount of energy. Remember that heavy, exhausted feeling that follows a big Thanksgiving meal? A simple diet, on the other hand, does not demand so much energy. If the body is to remain free of illness, it needs to cleanse and repair cells and tissues on a regular basis. If we eat complex, high-fat, high-protein meals every couple of hours, there is no time (or energy) to do that other work. There’s always another meal that needs to be digested NOW. If high-water-content foods–-fruits and vegetables-–predominate in our diets, digestion is not such an ordeal. In fact these foods help to cleanse our system. They are not burdensome in the way that many other concentrated foods are or devitalized in the way many processed foods are. Most of us don’t think much about the chemistry of digestion. If we can chew it, and swallow it, it must be “food.”
We just assume that our bodies will deal with whatever it is; they always have in the past. And they probably will… but not without a price. Sometimes we assume too much.
Our eating choices impact on the world beyond our bodies. Other people, animals, and plants feel the weight, the sometimes crushing weight of our actions, whether we like that idea or not. For example, half of the earth’s land mass, according the Earth Save Foundation is currently being grazed by livestock. And more than one-third of all raw material consumed are used to support livestock production. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, nearly half the wells and many of the surface streams in this country are contaminated by animal wastes. Each year an estimated 125,000 square miles of rain forest are destroyed in order to develop cattle pasture, and topsoil is eroded at an alarming rate as a result of our practices. Widespread desertification is occurring in many countries. And even global warming is a factor. It is estimated that every steak we eat has the same global warming effect as a 25-mile drive in a typical American car.
So we are not only impacting on the planet itself, but on the millions of humans that go hungry. Half of the world’s grain harvest is fed to livestock. It is estimated that there is enough land, water and energy to feed more than twice the world’s population, but the demand for animal products has created a different reality. For example, in 1984 when Ethiopians were dying daily from famine, Ethiopia continued growing and shipping millions of dollars worth of livestock feed to Europe. In on acre of land, we can yield 250 lbs of beef or 40,000 lbs. of potatoes. By cycling our grain through livestock, we get only 6% as much food. That’s like putting $1000 in the bank, withdrawing $60 and losing $940. Our choices ripple out into the world. Even when we clean our plate, we leave a residue.
Strategies for Simplification
Thoreau believed that a person “is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” That statement captures my experience with simple eating. In the past when I ate anything and everything that I desired, I was still not satisfied. I had more of a gluttonous mind and less of a satisfying experience. Now my shopping is very targeted–fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds, all foods from the soil, rather than from factories or slaughterhouses. Here are some simple ideas about eating these simple foods.
- MONO MEALS. Every once in a while allow yourself to consider new possibilities. For one meal, or even for one day, eat mono meals. No cooking, no mixing, no combining. Just eating apples. Or rice. Or any fruit, vegetable or grain that you like. Eating so simply for even one meal gives your body a little rest, it gives your taste buds a chance to settle down, and it gives your schedule a break. Do something special with all the time you save.
- ONE BOWL MEALS. Create your own concoctions, in soups, stews, casseroles or salads, that encompass whatever you’ve got on hand. Salads can absorb rice, beans, fruit, and pasta; or develop your own simple favorites. My mother has, with these great dishes–-lentils & cabbage, beans & escarole and chickpeas & spaghetti, all flavored with garlic and crushed hot pepper, and dipped with crusty bread. Inexpensive, healthy and very delicious. Thanks, Mom.
- LARGER QUANTITIES. This suggestion is advocated by almost everyone, but it’s worthy of repeating. Make a big batch. If leftovers are served straight, they are great time-savers; if they are the basis for experiments, they can lead to amazing discoveries. Corn chowder, for example, can become a veggie sauce and a veggie sauce can become a honey-mustard dressing.
- UNCOOKED FOODS. Imar Hutchins is a raw-food enthusiast, but his foods do not resemble the salads you’re probably picturing. Instead they include things like goulash, sweet potato pie, banana cake, chili and even brownies. Imar believes in eating foods “the way nature intended.” He is the author of Delights of the Garden, Vegetarian Cuisine Prepared without Heat. Cooking is totally unnecessary. The most nutritious food can be prepared quickly and easily without going through the chore of cooking.” Although Imar uses no animal products of any kind and no heat whatsoever, his dishes are scrumptious. By using his food processor in novel ways, he has broadened the boundaries of our cuisine.
When we eat whole foods as they are presented by nature, a plum from a tree, a tomato from a vine, we are connected in a direct, healthy and important way to our world. But the more that food is tampered with, the less it offers us nutritionally or spiritually. The traditional American diet comes, to a large extent, packaged. We eat from boxes, cans, jars, and bottles, and we eat food that’s been engineered to get us hooked. We eat the flesh of other animals who have eaten the grain, rather than eating the grain itself. And we bake, broil, fry, boil, and we salt, spice and sweeten away. We are bored with the original, natural version, having acquired a taste for fat, sugar and salt, the “new and improved” version of food.
The range of food possibilities available to most Americans is awesome and ever-growing. It is easy to become obsessed or fanatical about food. We are, in fact, the most overweight population in history. If the issue of food becomes our primary concern and dominates our lives, it can overshadow any larger purpose-–we then just eat to live and live to eat. But eating simple food can help us to strike a better balance. It can help us to plant our two feet more firmly on the earth we all share.
Linda Anderson Krech is eating simply and enjoying it in Monkton, Vermont.
Berries Photo by Mark Bonica (CC Flickr)
Pizza Photo by Pizza Masetti Craiova (CC Flickr)
Smoothie Photo by Theo Crazzolara (CC FLickr)
Tomato Plant Photo by Jevgēnijs Šlihto (CC Flickr)
Linda Anderson Krech, LICSW, is Program Director of the ToDo Institute and has been a frequent contributor to Thirty Thousand Days. She is the author of Little Dreams: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Parenting and has been teaching Japanese Psychology for over 20 years.