Five things I learned by not eating processed foods for one week.
A wholly unfamiliar shopping cart.
A few months ago, my dear friend Shayna Schmidt, talented actor, passionate cook and yogi, and sometime health expert, decided to more seriously pursue that last description and become a fitness and nutrition coach. One of her first exercises, which I gamely (and slightly naively) agreed to take on, was a weeklong “Clean Eating” challenge. As someone whose weeknight meals consist of Easy Mac and a glass of wine more often than I’d like to admit, this was a challenge met with more than a bit of apprehension. But after all, I’ve seen Shayna convincingly play everything from a young girl to a deranged veteran, so I feel there is little with which I cannot trust her. And so into the world of healthfulness I followed our brave leader.
While the shopping list did little to assuage my fears and confusion (“those gourds on display in the Thanksgiving section are edible?” “What the hell is Flax seed?,” “no SUGAR in my coffee? This was a mistake.” etc., etc.), soon enough I was on my way, and eventually succeeded at lasting an entire week sans bread, cheese, processed food, and alcohol. Temptations were plenty and some minor kitchen chaos ensued, but in the end I felt pretty accomplished. While I could go on about the trials and tribulations of an amateur chef in the brave new world of health-conscious cuisine (quinoa overflows and blender misadventures included), I’ll boil it down to the most surprising things I learned while masquerading as a health nut.
- Spaghetti squash is not spaghetti. “Spaghetti squash” is, shockingly, an actual type of squash! While this phrase once brought to mind images of wrestling a large gourd through an old-timey pasta-maker, I’ve now discovered the surprisingly satisfying feeling of scooping a cooked vegetable (!!) to procure oodles of perfectly shaped noodles.
- Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean you have to eat it. I work in a job that, for better or for worse (usually for better; this week, for my morale, for worse), involves attending nighttime events. These events usually have food. They always have drink. As a young, single, non-investment banker in one of the world’s most expensive cities, it often seems a no-brainer to accept tasty appetizers and exciting cocktails that were offered to me (“if I have three crostini, I can probably get by on a half a pack of Easy Mac for dinner tonight”). Plus, our social mores have instilled some kind of comfort from a drink in hand at a party (better, I’ll admit, than a phone as security blankets go). As difficult as it was to let pigs in a blanket and miniature filets pass untouched, I took a certain pride of accomplishment in knowing I selected, paid for, and cooked my own food.
- Healthy ain’t cheap. Speaking of “paid for”...There’s a reason so many Americans opt for a Happy Meal instead of a kale and arugula salad with roasted almonds and summer squash: it costs about 1/100th the price. As I steered my produced-piled cart to checkout after shopping for the week, I was wary; indeed, the total was one of the highest I’d ever paid for groceries for one. With that said, I’d like to think (if, for nothing else, then to quell the daydream of what other things I could have spent that $120 on) of this shopping trip as a sort of initial investment. A bag of flax seed, chia, and protein powder is certainly more than a week’s supply, and now that I’ve got ideas for those ingredients beyond “sprinkle on pizza,” their cost will motivate me to put them to good use. This attitude fits with the whole “conscious eating” idea: better to have a really good, more expensive meal, than continual snacks with no nutritional value. It’s Forever 21 vs. J. Crew; we all know which sweater is going to be a good investment.
- Quinoa can be edible. I know it’s the darling of the healthy eating world, and hipsters’ favorite thing to pretend they’ve always known about, but try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to like the grain. Besides having a name that’s comically hard to pronounce (a deliberate attempt, I’m sure, by those health-conscious hipsters to weed out the less genuinely nutritious) and being the exact size to get perfectly stuck in the holes of any type of strainer, it just doesn’t taste good! But, with my week nearing a close and tupperwares full of quinoa left, I turned to the joint forces of Shayna and the internet to solve my problem. My eyes were opened. You can make muffins with quinoa. You can make oatmeal with quinoa. YOU CAN MAKE CHOCOLATE DAMN CAKE WITH QUINOA (so then it’s healthy cake, obviously). Shayna also had us put it in a black bean soup, which nicely masked the quinoa-ness of it, much to my delight. Quinoa, you’re not that bad.
- That thing about moderation is true. While I appreciated the chance to prove to myself that cooking and eating healthfully was within the realm of personal possibility, I welcomed by first bite of soft cheese in a week with a near-spiritual reverence. It was delicious, and I regretted nothing. With that said, I may now be more likely to pair that cheese with, say, a kale salad, than...more cheese. True healthy eating isn’t about deprivation, or about substituting all meals for a sickeningly green sludge in a bottle retailing for $17 until you feel faint. As wise Shayna taught, it’s about choosing what goes into your body consciously, prioritizing what is clean and nutritious, but also, when the craving strikes, just eating a damn burger -- and enjoying it.