Category Archives: Food

A Well-Balanced Breakfast


I was frying up some eggs this morning for me and my youngest son. Three of the four were in the pan, and as I tapped the last egg against the side of the pan to crack it, I saw a Huge. Ass. Motherf#@ing. Spider. In the pan. Sizzling in the oil.

I did what any reasonable, smart, well-educated, outdoorsy, nature-loving, competent adult would do: I stood there with the cracked egg dripping into my hand, and screamed.

Andrew ran into the kitchen. “Mom! Are you ok? What’s wrong?”

All I could do was gesture, egg dripping down my arm, to the pan.

He looked. And he did what any reasonable, smart, well-educated, outdoorsy, nature-loving, competent adult would do: he screamed. Well, to be fair, it was less of a scream and more of a really loud “holy shit,” but I’ll count it as a scream for literary purposes.

At this point, the sizzling spider popped loudly. I screamed again. “Do something!”

So my resourceful college sophomore grabbed a couple of spoons and extricated the deep-fried arachnid from the frying pan.

As he dumped the spider in the trashcan, I plopped what was still contained in the open eggshell into the pan.

I tossed the shell into the garbage and washed my hands, as I contemplated the big question: Do we eat the eggs from the spider pan?

Medical analysis: as Andrew pointed out, the pan was full of boiling oil – no spider-trafficked microbes were likely to maintain their pathogenicity.

Human analysis: Ew.

Medical analysis: any potential toxin from semi-exploded spider unlikely to be potent enough in whatever traces might have reached egg to cause any noticeable clinical effect.

Human analysis: Ew.

Practical considerations: out of eggs upstairs, in a bit of a rush, and hungry.

Verdict: Meh.

We ate the eggs. I gave the ones furthest from the spider to Andrew, took the somewhat close one for myself, and tossed out the one that had gone directly onto the spot where the eight-legged creature had actually been. I viewed that as a reasonable approach. You know, from a clinical standpoint.

Anyway, the spider was much worse off for the whole experience than I and my son.

We discussed the situation over breakfast, noting that we all eat plenty of bugs and bug parts all the time, in blissful unawareness.

But seeing it is different.

Our minds are powerful. Our defense mechanisms are powerful. We have the capacity to contemplate our mortality, the vastness of the universe, the complexities of DNA, or the presence of bug parts in our food. But we also have the capacity to put those thoughts aside so that we can get things done and live our lives.

Sometimes something comes along that knocks us out of our blissful, practical-repression-of-stuff state and makes us face our mortality (or a spider). The mortality is always there. We ignore it. The spiders are always there. We ignore them.

Until one drops into our frying pan. At that point, we deal.

Sometimes it’s a little spider. Sometimes it’s a really big one. Sometimes it’s venomous. Sometimes it’s kinda cute. Sometimes we notice its magnificent web. Sometimes it scares the daylights out of us. Sometimes we just brush it away.

And, the vast majority of the time, the spider causes us no harm.

But worrying about the spiders, thinking about the spiders, can be paralyzing.

Some of us live where there are dangerous, potentially lethal spiders. In those areas, it’s wise to take precautions.

We should shake out boots that have been left outside or in the garage before we stick our feet into them.

But worrying about any potential spider in our house? Not practical. Not helpful. And if we’re too meticulous about removing every known spider, who’s going to eat the other bugs?

There’s always a balance. Always a weighing of the pros and cons, the risks and benefits.

The eggs were good. As was the coffee.

We didn’t look too closely in our cups.

The Restaurant With the “Unhealthiest Meal” Does a Lot of Things Right – Go, Red Robin!

In general, mine is a family of food snobs.  My eldest son crossed a school off his college list because “Really, Mom, how can I be in a town for four years that doesn’t even have Indian food?” And those of you who know me (or are at least familiar with me through my writing) know my propensity to push healthy food choices. So it may seem somewhat strange that I’m about to extol the virtues of a burger joint. But it’s actually totally consistent.

As far as general food snobbery, most people like a good burger now and then, and Red Robin makes a good burger.

As far as the healthy food choice thing goes, Red Robin makes it a lot easier than many other places to make nutritionally sound picks.

This past summer, one particular combination of items at Red Robin was called out for adding up to 3540 calories. It included a bacon cheeseburger (with lots of other stuff on it, like battered, fried onions and creamy sauces) with an extra meat patty, “bottomless” fries, and a large milkshake (with an extra refill glass). Anyone could tell you that a meal like that will pack a lot of calories. And fat. And refined carbs.

I am not defending that meal. But I am defending the restaurant.

Red Robin has a full array of meal options, has multiple ways to make your lunch or dinner healthier, and tends not to be financially punitive for healthier choices. Rather than ordering a huge milkshake with a refill included, you may order an unsweetened iced tea. As far as the burgers go, you can substitute a ground turkey burger, a veggie burger, or a grilled chicken breast for no extra charge. You can choose a whole grain bun or even a lettuce wrap for the sandwich (which they do quite well, I must say). If you choose not to have their “bottomless” fries, they do not charge you extra to substitute (also “bottomless”) salad, steamed broccoli, or cut-up fruit. And they have many other meal options, all of which they readily tailor to your specific dietary requests.

I cannot tell you how annoyed I become when a restaurant “punishes” me for trying to choose a healthier modification to their meal. A local trendy breakfast place, when I wanted to skip the large pile of fried potatoes that came with my eggs, charged me $2.50 to instead serve me two completely anemic tomato slices. This was several years ago, and I have not gone back there.

So when a major restaurant chain provides me with choices that include vegetables, fruit, and lower fat proteins, and when they don’t up-charge the healthier options, I say, “Bravo!”

I’m fine with the milkshakes remaining on the menu. It is my choice to avoid them most of the time, and I discourage my kids from indulging regularly in them. But every once in a while, it’s ok if we split a mint chocolate shake. Especially if our preceding dinner had sides of broccoli rather than fries.

The person doing the ordering has the power to determine what they will ingest. Use common sense. Eat veggies. Use olive oil. Drink water or unsweetened iced tea. Save the indulgences for rare occasions, and share them so that there is reasonable portion control. And give props to the establishments that make it easy to do so.


Talking to Tables

Do you ever find yourself talking to inanimate objects? I was grocery shopping today and apologized to the shelf I bumped into. Just an automatic response to a stimulus, but not appropriate.

Kudos to my parents for ingraining basic manners into my behavior: if you bump into someone, say you’re sorry. But the shelf wasn’t a someONE. It was a someTHING. My brain took the paradigm of “apologize when you bump into someone” and generalized it to “apologize when you bump.” It’s interesting how habits form and evolve like that. There’s so much people do on autopilot.

My husband and I moved into our current home just over 17-and-a-half years ago. I drive to my house on autopilot. Of course I respond to brake lights in front of me and obstacles in the road, but I’m not actively thinking about where to turn. These days that’s a bit of a problem, because they’re doing major construction on my street’s access road to our west, and the access road to our east is one-way. This means that getting home actually takes some planning.

The first few weeks of the construction I went the wrong way and had to turn around in a parking lot about 95% of the time. Over the next several weeks my record has greatly improved – I now go the correct way about 98% of the time (just in time for them to re-open the west-side road at the end of this week).

We do so many complex things that a huge proportion of what we do has to be automatic. Can you imagine having to think about taking each step as you walk from one room to another? Or about having to think about each separate word when you read? Or about every detail involved in making a peanut butter sandwich?

But this wonderful ability to make things habitual or automatic can work against us in some circumstances. Do you automatically grab a snack when you watch a movie? You’re probably not even hungry when you sit down on the couch to start watching a film after dinner, but you had a box of buttered popcorn or Junior Mints enough times when watching a flick that grabbing food when you watch a movie is now automatic. Breaking this automaticity requires consciously thinking about whether or not you are actually hungry when you find yourself opening the fridge or the pantry or a bag of chips.

Luckily, we can also make the tendency to form habits work to our advantage. After a week or so of taking a brisk walk each evening or after a few times of responding to stress with deep-breathing techniques, we are well on our way to automatic behaviors that will help us live healthier and more peaceful lives.

Most of us are likely to have a large bowl of candy near our front door now for the trick-or-treaters. There will likely be a bunch left over. Showing restraint with the leftovers by spreading them out so that you only have a few pieces each evening can actually establish a new daily candy-eating habit. You’re better off splurging on whatever you’d like from the bowl on Halloween and then getting rid of the rest of the candy the next morning so that you’re not eating it on multiple days and setting a new pattern. (Of course you should not do this if you have diabetes or any other medical condition requiring careful control of carbohydrate intake.)

Enjoy your Milky Way bars. I’ll be enjoying my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They’ll be out of my house by Friday and I won’t get into a sugar pattern that drags into the November/December holiday season. But I will say I’m sorry if I bump into you. Or if I bump into your table.

How to Keep The Cheesecake Factory a Healthy Option

After millenia of waiting, our metropolitan area has just gotten a Cheesecake Factory. This makes my family quite happy, since up until now we’ve only had the pleasure of going there when visiting out-of-state family.

The Cheesecake Factory is one of those places that has the potential to sabotage healthy eating or to fit right into a nutritionally sound plan. Luckily, the restaurant does a super job of acommodating requests.

One of the potential dietary pitfalls presents itself before you’re even seated: when you wait a long time for a table, you can get really hungry. When you’re really hungry, you tend to order differently than you would if you weren’t quite so ravenous. Before heading to the restaurant, it helps to eat a low-fat cheese stick or a dozen almonds or a tomato or a few slices of apple. In addition to preventing you from super-hungry-ordering, it also helps protect you from the next potential dietary downfall: that bread basket.

Those warm, soft-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside loaves of yumminess are really hard not to plow right through when you’re famished. One of the loaves is whole wheat and the other is sourdough, both reasonalbly healthy choices as far as bread goes, but in moderation. And it’s quite difficult to be moderate when it’s sitting right in front of you. Ask your server to please not bring the bread until your meal arrives.

Order a glass of water or an unsweetened iced tea as you sit down at the table. Their regular iced tea is really good, as are the fruit-flavored ones (I especially like the passionfruit). Ask for a wedge of lemon or orange to go with your drink. The liquid will quench your thirst and make you feel less hungry as you peruse the menu.

And what a menu it is! Not quite as thick as a phone book, but it could use an index or table of contents. Their lower-calorie, lower-fat, higher-vegetable-content options are listed on their “SkinnyLicious” menu. I personally feel kind of like an idiot when I use that word, so I tend to point to the item in the menu as I’m ordering so I don’t actually have to say it. The items on this menu are here because of calorie count – many still contain sugar and refined carbohydrates. They are very good about substituting (regardless of what part of the menu you order from), so you can easily ask them to skip the rice and add extra veggies if you want your carbohydrate splurge to be a piece or two of the bread. By the way, if you haven’t tried it – the Tuscan Chicken is very good.

One of the things I love about The Cheesecake Factory is that they have excellent (and very big) salads. Again, they are very accommodating with requests, so it’s easy to substitute a little extra of one of the vegetables instead of the bacon, and to go light on the cheese, etc. They will also bring you olive oil and vinegar/lemon wedges/lime wedges instead of whatever high-salt, high-sugar dressing normally comes with it. And they’ll add basil, oregano, cilantro, or other herbs or spices if you’d like. Added bonus – since the olive oil is at the table, you can use it to dip your bread in rather than using butter, so you get healthy monounsaturated fats. On non-salad orders, ask for broccoli or mixed vegetables instead of mashed potatoes.

This is one of those restaurants where they definitely don’t skimp on portion size. Ask for a box to be brought to the table as soon as your meal arrives. Separate the portion of food you want to consume at this particular meal and put the rest in the box. This way you will get another meal out of it, you won’t accidentally eat until your stomach hurts, and your dollar will be stretched.

And now we get to the end of the meal and the subject for which the restaurant was named. They have good-tasting desserts, but they’re not really the healthiest choices. If you absolutely must have a piece of cake, order one piece and a fork for everyone at the table, and order some berries to go with it. Cut the cake into several pieces so that everyone can have a taste. If there is only you or one or two other people at the table, ask them to bring a small (half-sized or quarter-sized) piece. If the piece they bring is too big, take a two-or-three-bite sized piece for each person and ask them to take away the rest. Savor the bites. This helps your body stay used to portion control on this type of food.

Savor the tastes and textures of your meal and the voices and company of the people with you. Bon appetite.

Pricey and Priceless

My family and I have recently discovered a ridiculously overpriced but delicious and healthy luxury food enterprise: gourmet olive oil and balsamic vinegar stores.  You walk into these places and see dozens of little tanks filled with different flavors of the oils and vinegars, and stacks of tiny plastic cups to use for tasting.  You can taste each plain, or combine them to test how they pair.

There are some nice, subtle flavors.  There are some knock-your-socks-off bold flavors.  Some that you’d expect (like a garlic olive oil), and some I wouldn’t have thought of (like a chocolate balsamic vinegar – the woman in the store said it works beautifully served over berries).

I’ve discovered a coconut white balsamic vinegar that I now do not ever want to do without in my kitchen.  Cook up chichen breast or ground turkey breast in it with some tomatoes, crushed garlic, and chopped fresh cilantro.  Squeeze some lime over it when it’s done – to die for.  It works on fish.  And in soups.  It’s just amazing.

So today I had a tired afternoon.  I hadn’t slept well last night, and by late afternoon it caught up with me.  I flopped onto my bed and drifted in and out of a light nap state.  Not one of those refreshing naps, but more the kind that saps out of you whatever energy you may have started with.  So when the family started discussing what we’d do for dinner this evening, I suggested either cereal or eating straight out of a packet of tuna.

Son Number 2 said, “Mom, I’ll make dinner.”

About 20 minutes later, I dragged myself into the kitchen, following the lovely scent of chicken simmering in white wine.  The lemons were sliced and ready to squeeze into the pan.  Our son was also mixing up a batch of fresh quacamole and preparing rice.  We sat down soon after to a delightful meal, accompanied by an arugala salad which was topped with walnut oil and black cherry balsamic vinegar – absolutely perfect.  The flavors awoke my senses (and the rest of me).

Dinner was significantly better than my earlier suggestions would have been.

So keep good ingredients on hand, even if a couple of them cost a little more.  And I highly recommend keeping teenage chefs in the house as well.


The Joys and Hazards of a Mediterranean Diet

My family is a family of foodies.  We savor flavors, and love trying new ethnic cuisines.  But as much as we love the adventure of trying new places, we definitely have favorite places or cuisine types that we fall back on time and again when we want to eat out.  All of us love Indian food, but we’re not always all in the mood for it.  We all love Italian, but again, we’re not always all up for it when we want to go out for dinner.  Same with Ethiopian.  But when we want to go out, and nothing’s invoking the same level of enthusiasm in everyone, there’s one thing that never has anyone object: Lebanese.

One of the best things about living in the Metro Detroit area is that we have readily available some of the best Lebanese food in this country (I have not been to Lebanon, but I am assuming the Lebanese food is pretty good there, as well).  It’s simply delicious.  The hummus, the tabbouleh, the fresh, deep green romaine salads with just enough tomatoes, cucumber and red onion to keep it interesting, tossed in salad dressing with lemon, olive oil and mint flavors peeking through – wow!  Fresh smoothies made from strawberries, banana and a little mango juice.  Grilled vegetables.  Chicken shawarma – marinated and grilled shaved pieces of chicken, topped with a little garlic sauce.  Sauteed cauliflower with caramelized onions.  Vegetable ghallaba – julienne peppers, onions, mushrooms, garlic and carrots sauteed with an allspice-infused broth.  Lentil soup, crushed or whole, with a squeeze of lemon over the top.

All of the above happily fits into the category of the “Mediterranean Diet” that is touted for its health benefits.  But not everything in a Mediterranean restaurant fits into that “healthy” category.  The deep-fried potatoes are not tops on the healthy list.  Layers of phyllo dough and butter also do not top the list of good-for-you foods.  The research showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet does not assume an eating pattern heavy on lamb, beef, fried potatoes and baklava.  To keep the it’ll-make-you-live-forever type benefits from what you order, stick to the vegetables and a little chicken or fish.  Choose restaurants where they use olive oil rather than butter (or request that they use olive oil instead of butter when they prepare your meal).

Some of the foods in Lebanese restaurants can have a lot of sodium.  Mediterranean countries are hot.  When it’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and you don’t have air conditioning, most people’s bodies could use some extra salt.  In more temperate climates, and when you are not away from air-conditioning for extended periods during the summer, the excess salt is not necessary, and can cause or exacerbate health issues in many people.  (Note: speak to your doctor about how dietary sodium specifically affects you, considering your individual medical and health situation.)  When in a Labanese or other Mediterranean restaurant (or any restaurant, for that matter), you can request that they make your dishes with less salt.  Also, when you prepare this type of food at home, you have complete control over the salt content, as well as the type of oil, and you can use whole grains rather than white flour.

At our favorite local Lebanese places, there is a major not-necessarily-super-nutritious temptation: the fresh, oven-baked pita bread.  I am well aware that it is not whole-grain, but it is so good that it’s worth an occasional splurge.  As I’ve said before, if I’m going to splurge on something, it’s going to be really good.  The pre-packaged, flat, white-flour pita from a plastic bag does not provide the taste bud tantalization for me to be worth eating, so I skip it.  But a piece of the soft, hot, yeasty, puffy, fresh-baked stuff?  Completely worth it.  And after I have a piece of it, I switch to using pieces of red onion to dip into the rest of the hummus (red onion dipped in hummus is really good – you’ve got to try it).  I have plans to someday try making my own pita with whole grain flour.  It needs a really hot oven, so I think I’ll attempt it using my outdoor grill – I’ll let you know how it goes when I try it.  And if you try it first, please pass along any advice.

So find a great Lebanese restaurant (you may have to try a few), and enjoy!  And enjoy making the stuff at home, too!


The Birth of a Birthday Cake

Made a couple of birthday cakes in the last couple days, since there have been a couple of birthdays in my house.  In the time since I baked my eldest child’s very first birthday cake to now, as we celebrate his 17th birthday, there’s been some change in my approach to cake.

I’ve always made cakes from scratch – I like having control over ingredients, it’s fairly easy to do, and it tends to impress people.  Back then, I hadn’t yet discovered whole wheat pastry flour, which I now use almost all the time.  It’s available at most “health food” stores and many “regular” supermarkets.  Whole wheat pastry flour has a very light, mild flavor.  It bakes up soft and light.  And it has 4 to 5 times more fiber than white flour, and about 25% more protein.  The fiber and protein help keep you feeling full, and help slow your body’s absorption of sugar.

Speaking of sugar, I’ve certainly changed how I use that in my baking.  I used to use as much sugar as a recipe called for.  Now I routinely decrease the amounts of sugar, brown sugar, molasses, etc., and my cakes, while still plenty sweet, are not cloying.  You can cut down by about a quarter of what a recipe calls for without any complaints from the kids (or from grown-ups, for that matter).

In any cake recipe that lists “shortening,” I substitute canola oil.  Works just fine, and avoids hydrogenated fats.  I’ve also found several soft butter substitutes made without hydrogenated oils that work wonderfully in frosting.  I make a basic “butter frosting” with the aforementioned substitute, powdered sugar, and a little low-fat buttermilk.  Or, depending on the type of cake, I’ll sometimes “frost” a cake by putting a layer of mini marshmallows on top and popping it briefly in the oven to get a melted toasted marshmallow topping (watch very closely if you do this, because it can burn very quickly).

I haven’t found a great way to reduce the amount of sugar in frosting, but it’s very easy to simply reduce the amount of frosting I use.  And I reduce the amount of cake I make, as well.  I used to make a full recipe any time I made a cake.  Now, if it’s just going to be the five of us on a birthday night, I don’t make a full double layer cake that’s supposed to feed a dozen people (because those dozen servings would simply over-feed the less-than-half-dozen of us) – I halve the recipe and make a single layer.  And I leave it in the glass baking pan and just put a thin layer of frosting on the top.

There’s certainly plenty for all of us, but not so much that those of us with limited cake will power can go too far overboard.  And when we have birthdays right on top of one another, that’s especially helpful!


Hurry – Toothpaste Food Available for Limited Time Only

My husband and I share a favorite ice cream flavor: mint chocolate chip.  It’s been the favorite of both of us for as long as I can remember.  My parents do not share in this love of mint ice cream.  They explained to me that it reminds them too much of toothpaste.

But most people like toothpaste’s flavor.  Otherwise they’d make toothpaste taste like something different.  So I’m just going to have to put it out there that my parents are wrong on this one.  Mint chocolate chip ice cream tastes really good.  But I will cede the point that too much of a good thing can get kind of icky, and the flavor balance does need to be done well in order to achieve the ideal sweet, refreshing, not-overly-cloying minty thing.

Around this time of year, the quintessential fast-food chain offers a green, toothpaste-flavored milkshake.  According to their website, a small one (12 oz.) contains 530 calories.  It has 73 grams of sugar (no, that’s not a typo) and 15 grams of fat (10 of those grams saturated).  But they’re only available for a brief time each year, so no problem, right?  I don’t know about you, but when I’m told that something is “only available for a limited time,” I get a little panic-y if I happen to like that thing.  Better get ’em while I can!  Even if I normally don’t visit that particular food establishment, the perceived scarcity of that particular milkshake flavor is a fairly effective marketing strategy.  If you absolutely can’t stand the thought of missing out, try to share a small one with two other people – treat it as a dessert, use a spoon, and savor each spoonful.  While savoring, decide whether it’s really that good.  If you really love it, why gulp it down through a straw?  And if it turns out you don’t really love it, don’t bother eating it.

We’re also in the midst of another limited-time-availability minty item .  How can you say no to those sweet little girls sitting at the entrance to your local grocery store?  The money goes to a good cause.  And the boxes are kinda small.  And the cookies are kinda small.  And….. well, they’re Thin Mints, for crying out loud – one box a year won’t kill us.  But the whole “cookie season” idea again creates a mindset of “buy a lot of them because they’ll be gone soon,” with an accompanying “it’s ok if I eat a whole box in one day, since they’re only available in the spring.”  Not a good combination of thoughts.  Buy one box of the cookies.  Eat one cookie slowly, savoring each bite.  Notice anything about the texture and feel in your mouth?  Do you get that hydrogenated-oil-pasty/waxy/tongue-coated feeling?  I do, and for me it’s not worth the calories.  The girls accept cash donations of a couple bucks – makes you feel good, and you don’t have to eat mediocre cookies with a lousy nutrition profile.

My family recently did a side-by-side taste test of Thin Mints and yet another seasonal, get-’em-while-you-can chocolate mint cookie: Candy Cane Joe Joe’s.  We saved a box from this past Christmas season for the express purpose of comparing them to Thin Mints.  Our family was split on which one was better overall.  There was, however, general agreement that the texture and mouth-feel of the Joe Joe’s were far superior (probably because they do not contain hydrogenated oil or much saturated fat), and that the mintiness level of the Thin Mints was better (when directly comparing, the Joe Joe’s actually tasted too much like toothpaste, which none of us had ever really noticed before when eating them without a comparison reference cookie).

If you’re a huge fan of minty flavors, keep in mind that such flavors of ice cream are available year-round.  No time pressure.  You can get a small serving of hard-scoop frozen yogurt at TCBY and savor it any time of year.  And you can use mint yourself in your own cooking and food preparation, and taste the real refreshing flavor of the leaves.

Try growing spearmint on your windowsill or outside your house.  It’s really easy to do (if I can grow it, anyone can).  Chew on a leaf occasionally.  Chop some up and mix with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and crushed garlic for a really delicious salad dressing.  Chop some up with parsley, tomatoes, and a little onion and maybe a little cracked wheat, and toss with some lemon juice and olive oil – voila: fresh tabouli.  Boil up a bunch of leaves for some mint tea.  Experiment.  Enjoy.  Have fun.  And you may come to love the real stuff so much that the green-food-coloring-saturated-fat-filled-seasonal-must-haves lose some of their appeal.

A Matter of Taste

You may have noticed that a fair number of my posts are about food.  This is partially because what we eat plays a large part in our overall health.  And it is mostly because I really love food.  I am passionate about food, and when I am passionate about something, I find that it’s generally easy to write about.  So you are unlikely to read many posts from me about, say, accounting.  But you’ll see plenty about health and medical topics, about my family, about music, about the great outdoors, and about food.

I come from a long line of folks with not-super-fast metabolisms.  I can’t just eat however much I want of whatever I want while maintaining a healthy weight.  And because of my medical training, as well as my special interest in nutrition, even if I did have one of those enviable metabolisms, I would still tailor my choices in a reasonably healthy direction.

Did I mention how much I love food?  My taste has become significantly more refined (read: “picky,” “snobby,” or “obnoxious” as you deem fit) as I’ve aged.  We are programmed to enjoy and crave butter, sugar and salt, but I’ve found that by practicing a few techniques, people can outsmart some of those drives and start to enjoy and crave foods that will have better long-term effects on their bodies.

One of these tricks I mentioned in my post about chili last month: go big with flavors.  Splurge on a wide variety of high-quality spices and dried herbs.   Smell them frequently.  Open jars or bags of different spices, herbs and blends, hold them next to one another, and smell the combinations.  So much of what we describe as taste is actually smell.  Our taste buds can distinguish sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but anything you would describe as fruity, floral, nutty, smokey, or a myriad of other flavors is really related to its fragrance.  Try closing off your nose for the duration of a couple of bites while you’re eating something you really enjoy, and you’ll realize how much of that taste is really due to its smell.

Practice combining herbs and spices.  Have contests with your family to see who can guess the smells of the spices without looking.  Describe the fragrances.  Describe the flavors when you taste them.  Try to discern the flavors when you eat what someone else has prepared, and see if your friends and family can discern which flavors you’ve added to the dishes you prepare.  As the richness and complexity of flavor increases in what you cook, it’s amazing how quickly you discover that you don’t miss things like added salt or sugar.

As you’re really concentrating on the flavors and aromas of what you’re eating, focus also on the texture.  What does the food feel like in your mouth?  Is it crispy?  Crunchy?  Silky?  Spongy?  Smooth?  Gritty?  Chewy?  Flaky?  Tender?  Tough?  I’ve noticed that a lot of processed baked goods (boxed cookies and cakes from the grocery store, for example) actually have a very waxy, pastey texture when you really contemplate how they feel as you chew them.  The hydrogenated oils and saturated fats give them this feel, and when you center your thoughts on it, it really doesn’t feel great.  Contrast that with the feel of a bite of a fresh honeycrisp apple.

“That’s not fair,” you may say.  “That’s comparing apples to oranges.  Well, to cookies, actually.  Not a reasonable comparison.”  Perhaps.  So try this:  take a small spoonful of Jiff or Skippy or another similar standard peanut butter, and take a small spoon of a “natural” peanut butter made with only peanuts (and maybe a very small amount of salt – like 60 mg per two-tablespoon serving).  Try the one just made with peanuts first.  Hold it in your mouth, move it around with your tongue, breathe a few times while it is still in your mouth so that you get the full aroma and flavor.  Notice how it feels in your mouth, and how your mouth feels after you swallow.

Now try doing the same thing with the Jif/Skippy or other standard peanut butter made with a long list of ingredients including hydrogenated oil.  There’s an initial sweet taste (added sugar), and it doesn’t melt quite as easily in your mouth.  There’s a bit of a waxiness or pastiness to the feel.  And after swallowing, there’s a “coated” mouth feeling.  And a bit of a plastic-y aftertaste.

If you’re not consuming frequent or large amounts of peanut butter, switching from one type to another is unlikely to have enormous health effects.  But It helps to really focus on the details of flavor and texture of food in general.  By focusing on these details, I have found that I like and crave far fewer types of foods than I once did.  My pickiness serves me well.  If I’m going to eat a cookie, it’s going to be a really good cookie.  And really good cookies are encountered much less frequently in everyday life than mediocre or bad ones, so instances of temptation are drastically reduced.



Floundering Over Seafood Choices?

Mercury.  PCBs.  Omega 3s.  Heart Healthy.  Industrial pollutants.  Wild caught.  Farmed.  Organic farmed.  Atlantic.  Pacific.  Domestic.  Asian.  South American.  It’ll make you live forever.  It’ll give you cancer.  Eat it at least three times per week.  Don’t have more than one serving per year.  It’s sustainable.  Eating it destroys the ecosystem.

I find the evening news to be a very poor place in general to catch comprehensive advice on whether a food has a net risk or net benefit, and I try not to fall hook, line and sinker for the bait thrown out to enhance tv ratings.  Trolling the internet is overwhelming.  There’s an ocean of information out there, some focused on health effects, some on environmental issues, some on economic or political concerns, and it’s up to the consumer to figure out how the scales tip overall.

Fish, in general, is good for you.  Problem is, fish can swim in polluted water and eat stuff that’s bad for you, hence becoming bad for you.  Certain farming practices with certain species of fish can be healthy and sustainable, and certain farming practices can be unhealthy for humans and cause environmental problems.  Certain wild (non-farmed) fishing practices can likewise have healthy/sustainable results or toxic results.

Unfortunately, there’s no consistent rule-of-thumb as to whether wild-caught or farmed is better. Domestic or imported, Atlantic, Pacific, or other source – each one has good and bad food choices.  Even different types of the same fish can vary significantly in safety and sustainability.

Most of the time, I try to use educated moderation when making food choices (see my recent post about eggs), but some of the seafood warnings are extreme enough for me to moderate my moderation and avoid certain items completely (e.g. I don’t feed my kids swordfish).  The Environmental Defense Fund collaborates with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and compiles data from government databases and scientific studies on seafood contaminants to maintain lists of fish that are relatively safe for humans and for the environment.  I tend to use the list on this page: to judge safety.

Stopping by the local fish market, it used to make me feel like I was up the creek without a paddle if they were out of Alaskan wild-caught salmon, but after consulting the guide in the above link multiple times, I’ve caught on to which fish I can feed my family without having them grow extra arms out of their foreheads.  Tilapia seems to be a healthy choice, and when farmed in the U.S., it seems to be fairly environmentally responsible as well.  Calamari is on the healthy list (it’s like eating a tire, but it’s low in contaminates).  Halibut is currently on the safe list and is delicious, but it’s quite pricey.  Chunk light packaged tuna (low sodium) is on the healthy list, and mixes wonderfully with pesto sauce over pasta.

When in Boston, I will allow myself to indulge in a very occasional meal of grilled bluefish, and I am not worried that this will cause me to grow a third eye or to keel over.  But for now I’ll skip the bluefin tuna and walleye.  And I’ll try to stay hooked into reliable sources of information.