Toward a Steadying Culture of Food, or How To Feed Yourself If You Are a Highly Sensitive Person
October 21, 2020
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about food and cooking, in part by choice and in part because of how I was raised, i.e., initially as a macrobiotic by a parent who was mentally ill, and then as an omnivore by a parent who was mentally ill in a different way. The odd thing about my conventionally, as opposed to differently, mentally ill parent was that she was always determined that I, unlike she, would learn to cook. As a result, I spent a lot of time as a child cooking with my other parent, who had grown up on a farm and cooked as a girl and then at the convent where she spent her twenties and thirties. She was born in 1929 on a farm in eastern Kentucky and her generation and upbringing both have a lot to do with how she cooked, along with many other things about her, i.e., her love of glamour, drama, and absurdity. Fortunately, she was not an absurd cook!
So I grew up knowing about food and knowing how to cook, but not really knowing very much about how to feed myself. I was fortunate in that I was fed throughout my life primarily with whole grains, lots of vegetables, fresh meat, and homemade baked goods. We cooked with butter instead of shortening and fresh ingredients mattered and processed foods were considered both a waste of money and unhealthy. As an adult, I’ve come to understand just how expensive processed foods are both in terms of their actual monetary cost per calorie and for your health. People quite literally cannot “afford” to eat them. Unfortunately, once you step away from processed foods, you need to dedicate some time to shopping and cooking. You will ultimately save a ton of money, which I think is wonderful, but you will also have to re-train your palate to crave the foods that you know how to make and that are good for you.
You need to eat at least three times a day: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. In many cultures, this is just a given, as it should be in every culture. As a hypersensitive person, I find that consistency in my diet is unbelievably important, as is knowing which foods give me energy, make me feel fed, and make me crazy. Everyone is different so there is not some cookie-cutter plan that will work for everybody. That said, people in general can be put into categories based on how they process carbohydrates and other food groups. Some people process carbohydrates very efficiently and some people don’t. Since I fall into the latter category, I find that my diet has to be protein rich, consist of a mix of animal, dairy, and plant proteins, low-sugar (which means also not eating too much white flour since it is metabolized in the same way as white sugar in my body), and include lots of vegetables and fruits.
For breakfast, I eat either oatmeal prepared with some fruit (half an apple or pear) and almond slices or some eggs and toast/tortillas and sauteed greens. For lunch, I eat a salad and some animal protein, some fat, and some bread or corn tortillas. For dinner, I eat more animal protein, some kind of grain, and lots of steamed vegetables, usually steamed kale, but sometimes instead, a mixed salad or other stemmed or sauteed green vegetables.
I moved to Brooklyn in 1995 and I honestly do not think I would have survived as long as I have in NYC without steamed kale. It is plentiful, easy to prepare, and can be frozen in individual portions for quick re-heating (if you steam a whole bunch of kale at one time, you can just use pieces of aluminum foil to wrap up individual servings that can be put in your freezer. I also freeze individual portions of black beans and chick peas, which are two other things I eat a lot of and which are much better tasting and less expensive when you cook your own instead of buying them prepared in a can.) Of course, it is a good idea to have a few cans of beans around in case you ever need them. You can make a very delicious meal by frying up some garlic and onions in olive oil, adding a can of beans and eating that with brown or white rice and possibly some yogurt or sour cream on the side plus … some steamed kale!
Over the years, I’ve also found that corn meal is a much better flour for me than wheat flour. I still eat wheat flour, but I do so in moderation. I always have a stack of corn tortillas in my refrigerator, which I toast on my stove and use to make tacos, eat with eggs, use in soups, or eat as a snack. Regarding snacks, I find pretzels with peanut butter is a very good one, as are nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews), which I also often use in salads or when making stir fried vegetables. Re: fats, I always have olive oil and butter on hand and I’ve also found that coconut milk and avocado are, in addition to nuts, some of the best vegetable based fats for me. You can use the coconut milk to make vegetable curries or smoothies, both of which can be quite satisfying.
Eating lots and lots of vegetables is really important, both for your digestion and for stabilizing your blood sugar levels. I always have the following vegetables in my house: lettuce, cabbage, carrots, kale, potatoes, garlic, onions. I also try to always have: lemons and limes and whatever fruits are in season, i.e., apples, pears, plums, mangoes, pineapples, strawberries, blueberries. Stewing fruit with just a little bit of turbinado sugar to make a “fruit compote” is a great snack. I also like making pies and cakes with very little sugar, i.e., ¼ c. or less per pie, cake, batch of cookies. In terms of condiments, I keep salt, red wine vinegar, honey, maple syrup, mayonnaise, and ketchup. I am a big believer in making your own salad dressings, which can be fun, but can also be as simple olive oil, red vinegar (store brand is fine), and salt.
In addition to having a list of easy to prepare dishes ready at hand, one other important thing is simply not to get too hungry. There are times when you may not feel hungry or feel like eating, but eating at least every three hours is a good idea. Once my blood sugar gets out of balance, both my moods and my physical well being suffer and it can take quite a while to get things back to a state of balance. As a result, I always carry some food with me at all times, i.e., a handful of almonds, a banana, a piece of toast with cheese or peanut butter on it. This may not sound glamorous, but it has really helped me (or at least it did when I still went places in the outside world on a regular basis ;)). I also tell myself that this is how “French people” live and therefore pretend that it actually is somewhat “glamorous.”
OK, so that is it for now. I guess the last thing I would say is that it is pretty astonishing how few things humans can eat. The list could be as short as the following: fish, pigs, cows, chickens, other fowl, deer; grains; fruits; vegetables and legumes. Pay attention to how specific foods make you feel, i.e., excited, sated, energetic, calm, etc., and make sure to consistently eat the foods that make you feel best and most energetic. I am happiest when I am eating almost zero sugars, and by sugars, I include all sweeteners, not just cane sugar, and white flour. However, I still eat some. Turbinado sugar, maple syrup, and honey are all sweeteners that play less havoc with my blood sugar levels; I eat more rice (both brown and white) than pasta and often eat potatoes instead of either; quinoa is actually a legume, not a grain, so that is a food that gives me lots of energy. Also: eating some roughage with whatever sugars you consume is a good idea. So, if you’re going to eat ice cream, mix some nuts in it; if you’re going to eat cake, eat some fruit and nuts with it; same goes for eating chocolate and pasta.