Batch-Cook Your Veggies: Fast, Easy (Lazy?) Ways to Prepare Cabbage, Eggplant, Peppers, Asparagus and Broccoli

After work, the gym, or driving kids around, you probably don’t feel like washing, chopping and cooking vegetables.

The answer (I think) is batch cooking one or two days a week, after a trip to the grocery store or farmer’s market, or after your box of rescued produce arrives on your doorstep (I get mine from Hungry Harvest ).

I had to master the skill of batch cooking on the food challenge I completed in March and April of this year: living healthily on $10 a day and no more than 30 minutes of food prep time per day. I couldn’t afford convenience foods on my budget, and I had to use the fastest methods to cook my Hungry Harvest haul for the week.

Of course if you don’t mind paying a little extra, it’s great to use pre-washed and cut vegetables to save even more time and work. If these help you get more veggies into your days, go for it! Frozen works too!

I asked on social media which vegetables people would like me to cover here, and the responses included cabbage, eggplant, peppers, asparagus, and broccoli — great lineup!

I use three main easy ways to cook these vegetables. For batch cooking, I’ll have all three going at the same time. (For instance for my Hungry Harvest box shown above, I’d oven roast the eggplant, steam the broccoli and sauté the bok choi all at once.)

  1. Oven roasting. Basically you coat the cut vegetables with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast on a nonstick roasting pan, baking parchment or aluminum foil (at 375-450 degrees depending on the vegetable).
  2. Sautéing. This involves a large skillet with a lid on the stovetop, and again a little olive oil, salt and pepper.
  3. Steaming. This can be done in the microwave or stovetop with a little bit of water and a lid.

What I’m aiming at here is to end up with relatively plain vegetables that I can later combine with different foods and seasonings throughout the week. If you’re looking for more specific, interesting recipes for vegetables, that’s great too, and I recommend the recipe library that Hungry Harvest is assembling here .

But meanwhile, here is my quick and easy guide to batch cooking cabbage, eggplant, peppers, asparagus and broccoli …

I love to sauté a whole head of cabbage and use it all week as a rice/pasta substitute.

Organic whole cabbage from Whole Foods (about as upscale as cabbage gets 🙂 ), 2.12 pounds for $2.10. Or 10 ounces of bagged cabbage for $1.99, more than twice as expensive but still cheap, and super-easy!

You’ll need a large, sharp knife to make quick work of a head of cabbage. I use this vegetable knife from IKEA and I finally learned that I actually have to sharpen my knives regularly 🙂 .

I cut out the toughest part of the stem, and then cut it crossways into shreds

Then it goes into the sauté pan with a few spoonfuls of olive oil and generous shakes of salt and pepper, in my case Szechuan Pepper-Salt from Penzeys Spices. I also add a splash of water. As you may have noticed, I’m not into measuring, like my Lithuanian grandmother — extra time-saving!

I sautéed this batch for 15 minutes, stirring twice during the process. I had the lid on in the beginning and then took it off near the end to get a little more of a browning effect. Done.

On to eggplant. My goal is to oven-roast eggplant slices until they’re tender and creamy on the inside, but have a robust, almost meaty texture on the outside. To achieve this, I follow the advice of a master, Yotam Ottolenghi. (Just ignore the part about the anchovy sauce if you find that scary 🙂 )

I cut up the eggplant with my big IKEA knife in slices at least half an inch thick. I’ve often made the mistake of slicing it too thin, with a rather leathery result (but still tasty when revived with a good sauce).

Coat with sea salt and a little olive oil (you can easily overdo it with the olive oil at 120 calories per tablespoon, since the eggplant will soak it up; you just need to coat the slices). Roast on a nonstick pan or baking parchment at 450 degrees for about 35 minutes.

Some of these are too thin. And because they’re overlapping on my smallish pan, they didn’t cook evenly. But this is easy, fast batch cooking — no perfectionism here, just delicious eggplant for the whole week!

I love these with Rao’s pasta sauces (featuring high-quality whole-foods ingredients) and maybe even a little melted cheese for an eggplant parmigiana without the breading or frying :). I think they’re also amazing with ground lamb, fresh mint and Greek yogurt. Or how about a little hoisin sauce and Thai basil?

Moving quickly on (I’m in fast batch-cooking mode!) to peppers. I generally cut them in half, remove the stems/seeds, and roast them in the oven (or in my little convection/toaster oven), on a nonstick roasting pan or aluminum foil. A very thin coating of olive oil is nice, but not even necessary. They go a lot faster than the eggplant: 15 minutes at 400 degrees should do it. Take them out when they start to smell cooked and you can see a browned spot here and there. With batch cooking in general, err on the side of undercooking because you’ll be heating them up again for meals and you don’t want them to get mushy.

Peppers from last week’s batch cooking session. A little bit overdone, oh well! Still good!

Of course I could also have sautéed the peppers along with the onions here. But keeping them separate makes them more versatile as I vary the flavors of my dishes throughout the week. To serve these peppers I just cut them up as needed, with a knife or even with kitchen scissors!

Now to asparagus. The challenge here is that the stem part is tougher than the tips, and it takes longer to cook. Also, overcooked asparagus can be a stringy, mushy mess.

When I was growing up, my mom steamed asparagus standing up in a little water in what I called “the asparagus pot,” since I had no idea it was actually a stovetop coffeepot . It’s effective because the stems are closer to the heat, so they cook faster. If you have a pot like this, it may be worth a try. But I really love oven-roasted asparagus, so that’s what I always do.

Here’s the great IKEA knife! I rinse and cut up the asparagus with the rubber band still on

I cut off the toughest, woody part of the stem, and then cut up the rest. The trick is to roast the stems for a little while at 400 degrees (maybe 10 minutes) before adding the tips and roasting another 10 minutes or so.

I rolled these in a little olive oil as usual
And here they are with the tips added. I still need to work on getting the lengths more even, but again it’s fast and easy cooking, and the friend who came to lunch (hi Amber!!) didn’t complain

These are already a great side dish on their own, with salt and pepper, and maybe a squeeze of lemon. In my case, this is rarely batch cooking, because I tend to eat them all on the same day 🙂

And finally broccoli. This is another vegetable with a woody-stem problem. I attack the stems with a medium-sized knife in a quick-and-dirty way, cutting off the tough outer coating and leaving chunks of the inner stem to cook along with the florets. Or just throw away the stems, or buy the crowns or florets already cut up.

Broccoli can easily be oven roasted. (But cauliflower is even better for oven roasting, in my opinion!) Just be sure to cut it up in pieces that are roughly the same size, or some will be burned or mushy while some are still crunchy. Toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper as always, then roast at 400 degrees; check it often.

You can also sauté broccoli in a little oil — in this case it’s important to cut it up pretty small, because large chunks will be overcooked where they touch the pan and undercooked on top. Use relatively high heat and stir often or even constantly (stir-fry style).

But I think the most versatile way to batch-cook broccoli is to steam it. This can be done on the stovetop or in a glass dish in the microwave. Either way, cut up your broccoli and add about half an inch of water. Now microwave or boil it (with a lid on the pot) to the level of tenderness you prefer. Watch the pot, or microwave for just a minute or two at a time, because it will only take a few minutes. Notice how it smells, and do a taste test. Stop when it’s slightly less tender than you want it, because it will continue to cook. Or run it quickly under cold water to stop the cooking process.

A steamer basket like this is nice to have but not at all necessary

So now I have a fridge (and freezer) full of batch cooked vegetables, which I can use as foundations or side dishes for meals, throw in salads or soups, or enjoy with fun sauces or dips.

Here are some of the many ways I add great flavor to my batch-cooked vegetables
And here’s my lunch today! Ground bison on a bed of cabbage, with peppers, onions, sweet potato (previously microwaved and scooped out of the skin), grapes, and some great Trader Joe’s sauces. Yum! See you later!

It’s noon, time for lunch! Hope you found this useful — let me know! And see you next week!

It’s Not You, It’s the Food

Put 20 people in a lab, feed them tasty meals that they enjoy, and let them eat until they’re satisfied.

If they’re eating whole, unprocessed foods, they lose weight. If they’re eating highly processed foods, they gain weight. Switch the groups and the same thing happens.

This hilarious but rather disturbing food is a “cake sandwich” with white bread, ham salad, pimento cheese, and cream cheese frosting (Nuevo Laredo, Mexico)

Of course this single, small-scale (although highly controlled) study, which I wrote about last week, can’t provide definitive answers. But I think it points to something important.

As soft drinks, packaged snacks and other processed foods spread around the world, displacing traditional ways of eating, we have seen a steady rise in overweight and obesity across regions (most frighteningly in children and adolescents).

Soft drinks are everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere on Ecuador’s Pacific coast

It’s unlikely that humanity, across cultures and continents, has suddenly experienced a mass failure of self-control or undergone a genetic shift. It’s the environment that has changed, not the people.

Of course many other factors must be involved in this development, such as sedentary lifestyles, more affordable food, more time spent looking at screens, fewer meals cooked at home, larger portion sizes, hormone disruption, and changes in our gut bacteria.

But clearly, something negative happens when people move away from traditional ways of eating, such as the Mediterranean diet, whose health-promoting benefits are consistently shown by research. (Many other ancestral diets surely have similar benefits, it’s just that the Mediterranean diet has been studied more closely.)

Pretty close to traditional food in Ecuador: local fish, beans, fried plantains, fresh salad, small amount of white rice.

Here’s an interactive website showing the dramatic increases in overweight and obesity around the world. You can drag the sliders at the bottom of each graphic and see how the situation has changed since 1975.

Mexico City street cart: sugar, corn flour, vegetable oil and artificial colors
Ice cream, sodas, and me, 2011

I draw three conclusions from all this.

First, we shouldn’t blame or shame individuals (including ourselves) for being overweight. For the first time ever, the world is now seeing significant numbers of obese children, as well as adolescents with type 2 diabetes. Something in our food/cultural/physical environment is making this happen.

Anyway, there is abundant evidence that shame does NOT lead to positive changes in health: quite the opposite. When I was overweight, even well-meaning “reminders” from others just brought up feelings of helplessness, and since food was a stress-management strategy for me at the time, I was even more likely to turn to a bag of jalapeño pretzel bits for comfort.

Second, a key strategy (and the one I followed to get healthier) is to consume more whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods from nature — the foods our bodies evolved to eat. This could be a Mediterranean diet, a “paleo” type plan, or simply adding more of your favorite vegetables and fruits to your current lifestyle, letting them drive out less nutritious foods.

Fresh cactus in the magnificent produce section of the Nuevo Laredo HEB supermarket

Third, “intuitive eating” (a concept which I love and am learning more about) seems best suited to more natural foods. We can eat until we’re satisfied, without counting calories or measuring portions, and we aren’t tempted to overdo it with the salmon or sneak into the kitchen for more cauliflower. However, it seems that many of us, including the randomly selected people in the study I’ve been talking about, have trouble relying on our natural “stop” signals with highly processed foods. (More on this in future blog posts!)

The modern environment is not designed to promote our highest level of well-being. Snack foods and social media are both literally engineered to be “cravable.” And our workplaces and neighborhoods are designed around chairs and cars, not natural movement.

To live healthily, I think we have to push back (without blaming ourselves for how we’ve lived up to now), set boundaries (without becoming overly rigid, which brings its own set of problems) and take on the positive, life-affirming challenge of incorporating more movement, self-care, in-person social time, and delicious natural foods into our lives.

Hmm, that sounds a bit complicated. But I’ve found with myself and others that discovering the right formula — regular physical activity you truly enjoy, natural foods you love, physical/emotional/mental self-care, and the social support you need — brings freedom and joy, as well as health benefits. Certainly not deprivation and drudgery, which is how so many people think about “diet” and “exercise.”

That’s why I’m never going back to my inactive, low-self-esteem, comfort-food lifestyle, and that’s why I’m talking about this to anyone who will listen :). Thanks for reading this, and see you next week!

They Enjoyed the Real-Food Buffet, Ate Until Satisfied, Lost Two Pounds

I was so excited to see this study published earlier this year, because it fits in so well with my own experience, and nothing like it had been done before in such a well-controlled manner.

Hummus with a rainbow of vegetables instead of pita chips, yum!

Most of us suspect that industrial/processed/junk foods lead to unhealthy weight gain. One proposed reason is that they tend to contain more sugar and fat than “natural” foods.

The researchers in this study wanted to test that theory, and they designed a very clever and scientifically rigorous experiment.

They created two menu plans, one built around highly processed foods and the other featuring more natural, minimally processed foods. However, the two plans were carefully matched to have equal proportions of fat, carbohydrates, protein and fiber.

Then they convinced 20 randomly selected adults to move into a National Institutes of Health laboratory for a month (!), eating all of their food there (and exercising 20 minutes three times a day on a stationary bike). They were split into two groups: one ate the highly processed food plan for two weeks, while the other group ate the minimally processed foods. Then the two groups were switched and ate the opposite diet for two weeks.

This excellent summary gives more details about how it worked:

All participants received three daily meals and were free to eat as much or as little as desired within 1 hour. Meals were designed to be well matched across diets for total calories, energy density, macronutrients, fiber, sugars, and sodium, but differed widely in the percentage of calories derived from ultra-processed vs unprocessed foods.

As an example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, whereas the minimally processed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

Becky McCall, Highly Processed Food Intake Leads to Overeating and Weight Gain, Medscape Medical News, May 20, 2019
Today’s “blue plate special”: real food!

So what happened? Fascinating and (I think) very encouraging things:

  • Both groups ate all they wanted of the foods offered to them, and they both reported enjoying the food and feeling satisfied.
  • When people ate as much highly processed food as they wanted, they consumed about 500 more calories per day than the whole-foods group, and they also ate more rapidly.
  • The processed food group gained about 2 pounds in two weeks, and the whole foods group lost about 2 pounds.
  • When the groups were switched to the other kind of food, they had the same results of gaining or losing 2 pounds. Clearly it wasn’t the people, it was the food!

Most headlines about the study emphasized the weight gain with processed foods. But the exciting part for me was the seemingly automatic fat loss among the participants eating minimally processed foods.

When I resolved to get healthier, inspired by the book Younger Next Year, I decided to eat only “real food.” Actually, as my 2014 food diary shows, I made plenty of exceptions, as I’ll explain below. But I didn’t limit the quantity of whole, natural foods; I enjoyed them until I was satisfied — and I consistently lost about a pound of excess body fat, week after week, while feeling healthier and more energetic.

“Mean Green” ingredients ready for my juicer (on the bottom left is fresh turmeric as well as ginger, extra bonus)

News headlines about this study referred to “ultra-processed foods,” so you might imagine a menu packed with Cheese Whiz, Cool Whip and Lucky Charms (yuck!). No … it was basically typically American food, such as Cheerios, muffins, quesadillas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The kinds of foods I used to eat, and then (mostly) stopped.

If you download this document, you can see all of the actual menus, complete with color photos of the meals!

Here’s a sample lunch menu for the processed-food group: Hot dog on bun with ketchup and yellow mustard, baked potato chips, cranberry juice with NutriSource fiber, blueberry yogurt with NutriSource fiber (you can see they were struggling a bit to match the diets on fiber content!).

And here’s an unprocessed lunch: Spinach salad with chicken breast; apple slices; bulgur; sunflower seeds and grapes; vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper and salt (yes, yes, yes!).

If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take the time to download the document and compare the photos of the two types of meals. The beautiful unprocessed meals, featuring a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, start on page 25.

Both groups enjoyed their food, and they ate all they wanted. The researchers found no significant differences in “pleasantness” or “familiarity” between the two diets. Likewise, scores for “hunger, fullness, satisfaction and capacity to eat” were similar. The people eating the unprocessed food felt full and satisfied. And they lost excess body fat.

That’s what happened to me too. And I didn’t even have to be 100% strict, as I can see when I review my 2014 food diary. I regularly used commercial protein shakes as meal replacements or boosters (my favorite was CalNaturale ). At events, I’d eat half a piece of cake or a bite of a donut. I enjoyed a small glass of beer or wine on occasion. But day after day, I mainly focused on enjoying all I wanted of a generous rainbow of vegetables, plenty of fruit, and meat, fish, nuts and seeds.

From my 2014 food diary. I ate on the road at McDonald’s and loaded up on fruits and vegetables at the Wood Grill buffet (visiting my son at college). Rosé wine sample and “1 inch of beer” the day before. Down to 139 pounds on August 10, from 173 in January. Coffee and Zumba kept my energy up 🙂

What I rigorously cut out were flour-based foods, which I realized are often only “carriers” (the bun carrying the hamburger, the pasta carrying the pesto, the pita chips carrying the hummus). Hence the lettuce wraps, the McDonald’s jalapeño double with no bun, and the yummy “not-chos” pictured below:

So delicious, especially with poblano peppers; I’m never going back to chips!

The question remains: if it wasn’t excess sugar and fat, why did the study participants eat more of the processed foods and gain weight? The main difference found by the researchers was that the people consuming highly processed food consistently ate it faster (about 17 calories more per minute). The highly processed food just seemed to go down more easily.

This points to eating slowly, and mindful eating, as an important strategy to avoid taking in more calories than our bodies need. I’ve never worked on this myself … hmm, time to start!

But of course feeding our bodies is not just about calories (or calories per minute). There are many other great reasons to nourish ourselves with a wide variety of the unprocessed whole foods our bodies evolved to enjoy. Whole plant foods are full of substances that researchers are just starting to understand, substances that feed good gut bacteria, help prevent cancer, and so much more. Losing excess body fat is just a wonderful bonus.

$10 and 30 Minutes a Day: My Healthy Food Challenge

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’m still catching up from the spring (!). So here is my report on my healthy food challenge during March and April 2019 …

People often tell me that they would like to eat healthier food, but it’s too expensive and takes too long to prepare. Of course that is generally very true (and a big part of our food/health problem today). But I know there are also cheap, healthy foods that are easy to prepare (beans, oatmeal, canned tuna, frozen peas!), and so I said to myself: I’ll accept the challenge and explore what is possible.

My quest: for two months, March and April, I would eat healthily on a budget of only $70 per week and an average of no more than 30 minutes of prep time a day. (I’m currently living alone in Virginia while my husband works in Brussels, so it was extra easy for me to take on this kind of experiment — only my food in the house!)

My healthy food rules:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day).
  • At least 60 grams of protein per day (1 gram per kg of my bodyweight, which I’ve calculated is a minimum for me as I try to maintain/build my muscle mass as I age).
  • Few or no processed foods/additives.
  • No factory-farmed animal products.

Avoiding factory-farmed animal products while insisting on plenty of protein was a tough challenge on this budget. But besides the obvious ethical issues with factory farming, I think it’s an important health principle to avoid added hormones and antibiotics, and there’s strong evidence that healthy animals provide more nutritious meat (with more omega-3 fats, for instance).

To start, I cleared out my pantry, boxing up longer-lasting items to hide in the basement. (Such a psychological difference simply not to have it in the pantry!) I quickly realized that I would be in awful shape starting from absolutely nothing, so I cheated just a bit, “borrowing back” a couple of key spices along with a little olive oil and apple cider vinegar, reasoning that I could “return” them later on my budget.

Friendly neighbor helping clear out the fridge
This is what I allowed myself to start with 🙂

Rescued-produce boxes delivered to my doorstep once a week from Hungry Harvest were a key part of my plan. In fact, this is what actually gave me the confidence to take on my challenge. (A million thanks to my friend Jan for signing me up!) I got the “Super Harvest” just for me, at $35.00 a week, which I calculated would give me seven fruit or vegetable servings per day if I ate it by myself! So this was the centerpiece of my healthy eating plan, and it didn’t even involve any shopping time (except for logging into my account and sometimes adding on extra items).

Hungry Harvest for the first week of March — the birch water was a free add-on they offered

To plan for the rest of my food needs, I went to Trader Joe’s and Aldi (recently opened near me!) and checked prices. I was very pleased to find grass-fed cheddar cheese at $2.99, a jar of Kalamata olives at $1.99, and Winking Owl wine at $2.89 a bottle!

Aldi shopping cart. Checked the internet before buying: Pacific Whiting is considered a sustainable wild-caught fish, and it’s also cheap, nice!!
Photo from March 8. These were the groceries I stocked up on for the month (in addition to my Hungry Harvest boxes and Polyface Farm order)
Calculating the protein in my breakfast
All of the food in my pantry/fridge/freezer on March 14. The most sorely missing thing here: Tabasco.

I was also searching for local, affordable (?) sources of free-range animal products. I posted this question on Nextdoor.com and discovered to my delight and amazement that Polyface Farm, familiar to me as an example of healthy farming from the documentary Food, Inc., delivers eggs and frozen meats to Northern Virginia once a month (the pickup spot is actually right in my neighborhood!).

My first Polyface order: eggs, ground pork, (beef) soup bones and a whole chicken, $44.48, not cheap, but outstanding quality
Mushroom omelet, avocado toast, mango, wine: I was not suffering!
Calculating, crossing things off (peanut butter, yogurt and oats crossed off then added back)
New delights every week from Hungry Harvest

At my local Giant Food, I discovered dried beans on sale for $1.00 each, definitely the best protein value I found. But don’t dried beans take a lot of time and effort to cook?

These were my keys to minimizing my cooking time:

  • The Instant Pot! Within one hour I could start with dried beans and end up with the fully cooked “Bean of the Week” while batch-cooking other foods at the same time. I also learned to make bone broth and other slow-cooked foods from my cheaper Polyface meat cuts.
  • Oven-roasting. No time for fancy vegetable recipes, but nearly all of my vegetables were excellent roasted in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I also oven-roasted frozen wild-caught whiting from Aldi, with mustard smeared on it for flavor. It was not gourmet fare, but definitely edible.
  • Gloriously messy soups and salads. I tossed whatever I had with some beans and/or greens and seasoned it with olive oil, olives and spices.
  • Batch cooking. On one day of the week, I washed, cut and cooked nearly all of my Hungry Harvest vegetables, made the Bean of the Week, roasted some frozen fish, and made a canned fish salad (with olive oil, mustard and onions). This took a total of about 1.5 hours, but then for several days I could simply microwave and assemble my meals.
My three key batch cooking tools: Instant Pot, oven roasting pan, big sauté pan, all going at once (electric plug arrangement by Homer Simpson 🙂 )
Typical “everything soup” meal
At a conference on April 5. Couldn’t afford to buy lunch or even coffee at the conference. Took my messy to-go containers: salmon, salads and fruit.

Yes I can go out for coffee! (as I spend my last $2.00 on peanut butter)

Early in March, it hit me as I drove through town that I wouldn’t be able to go to a restaurant or get any takeout food until May. I couldn’t even stop for coffee, I thought. But then I realized … actually, I can go out for coffee!

Most of my March funds were rapidly committed to my weekly Hungry Harvest fruit and vegetable boxes, my Polyface Farm order, and some basic supplies from Aldi. So as I walked through Giant and Trader Joe’s to spend my last few dollars (enjoying the free coffee and happily eating whatever samples they offered, including some kind of colorful round kids’ breakfast cereal I would usually never eat!), I knew I couldn’t afford basically anything I saw. Of course this was nothing like truly living with poverty, but it gave me some new insights and additional healthy psychological distance between “that looks good” and “I must have that.”

Batch Cooking Fridge: kind of a good feeling, actually, life simplified!
700 ml in a bottle = 100 ml per day for a week, a nicely moderate serving. And no internal wrestling: “Should I have another glass, or not?”

The most enjoyable meals during my food challenge were those where I invited a friend to my house and had to come up with something tasty, or at least acceptable, from my limited foods with only about 15 minutes of prep time. My friends Melissa, Joanna and Tina and my beloved now-daughter-in-law Lauren were totally game, and Tina even filmed me racing around the kitchen throwing unevenly chopped vegetables into a sauté pan, microwaving batch-cooked lentils and greens, and roasting the usual frozen whiting fillets with mustard. We even got 100 milliliters each of Winking Owl wine! And Hungry Harvest fruit for dessert.

Dinner for me and a friend: red cabbage, lentils and roasted Pacific whiting
Another nice dinner for two! Note fancy fruit parfait in Mexican glasses. And the pink things are watermelon radishes from Hungry Harvest, new and fun!

Of course I was relieved to finish my challenge on May 1 and shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Paycheck Foods for products I’d longed for (like Primal Kitchen chipotle lime mayo, which would have been SO amazing with the cheap fish!).

But I learned something important about myself on this 2-month journey: I actually enjoy restrictive challenges like this, because they feel like a game. Games (of any kind) have rules, and the point is to test your skills within the constraints of those rules.

Can I eat healthy food on $10 and 30 minutes a day? It involves rescued produce, the Bean of the Week and a lot of canned and frozen fish, but yes I can. Clearly I haven’t suddenly found the ideal solution for everyone, but I did uncover some interesting finds that I will continue to write about here.

This is what I bought on May 3 at Trader Joe’s after my challenge ended. Just looking at this again makes me want to eat blister peanuts … excuse me while I run downstairs and get some …

And I will continue setting fun challenges for myself, in a playful spirit. I’ve found that they don’t make me feel restricted or deprived, but creative, empowered and in control. I know that wouldn’t be true for everyone, but I’m glad it is for me. And I appreciate things more after restricting them for a while, like the hummus and mixed nuts I could suddenly afford again.

All the food left over at the end of my challenge! Lauren brought me the delicious organic oats from the UK; I fed her lots of vegetables in exchange 🙂

Body Positivity, Body Neutrality

What if you truly loved your body just as it is right now, celebrating what it can do, like a three-year-old joyfully running through a lawn sprinkler?

What if you had no judgmental thoughts when you looked in a mirror, viewing your own wrinkles (for instance) as you would lovingly gaze at your grandmother’s face, and any excess fat in the same way you would view your beloved cat’s belly which happens to be hanging a bit low?

Would you stop washing your clothes and brushing your teeth, because you “don’t care how you look”?

Or would you be energized and liberated, free of endless cycles of shame and negative thoughts? And might you put some of that new energy and enthusiasm into taking great care of yourself, so you can stay as active and strong as possible for many years to come, regardless of your size, shape or limitations?

I’ve been working on this since 2013, and I’ve come a LONG way.

I know, my case is truly a very mild one, and it’s easy for me to say “I care about being strong and healthy, not how I look in the mirror.” I don’t know what it feels like to have grade 3 obesity or a significant disability (although I was once covered with blistering burns for weeks after foolishly dropping a block of frozen hash browns into hot oil, provoking shocked and horrified reactions from customers at the dry cleaning business where I worked).

These feet have bunions and varicose veins, but they carry me everywhere!

I’m just a flawed person in the average range: I’ve lost most of the excess body fat that plagued me, but I still have loose skin, a big red nose, age spots, scars, bunions, bulging veins and various other imperfections.

But during the past five years, I’ve made great progress in learning to love my amazing body that can dance, jump, ride a bike, swim, run (when my knees don’t hurt), throw big sticks during my Saturday morning forest workout, grasp my elbows behind my back (newly regained skill), carry IKEA furniture into the house, and even keep my wobbly balance on a glowing stand-up paddleboard.

My amazing body didn’t fall in the river, and neither did anyone else in the diverse (age, size, ability) Airbnb Experience group in Austin, Texas

And as a wise client mentioned today, the simple facts of human biology are miraculous. Every day we extract oxygen from the air and nutrients from food and turn them into movement and emotions and thoughts, incredible!

The body-positive philosophy says that we should love and respect our own and each other’s bodies, no matter their shape, size, color, age, or limitations. What a liberating, refreshing idea, although clearly we still have a long way to go. (For a while in the 1990s, it seemed like the internet would be an equal playing field for those of any age/size/gender/ability/species , but today’s proliferation of carefully composed photos may sadly be taking us in the other direction.)

Recently, some thinkers have pointed out that it can seem like asking too much to expect people to “love” their bodies (implying a kind of failure if they don’t). Would it have been fair to expect Stephen Hawking to love his paralyzed body? How about my transgender colleague who described her physical transition to me as “running out of a burning building”? Or a person with agonizing chronic pain?

A suggested alternative is “body neutrality.” The idea is simply to make peace with the fact that our bodies are not perfect — maybe very far from it — and turn our attention to more important things. Our talents, values and relationships. Our brilliant original work in physics and cosmology (if we are Stephen Hawking). Our intrinsic worth as human beings.

But “accepting” our bodies brings up a strong objection for many people, including some of my clients. If we accept ourselves as we are, won’t we lose our motivation to improve?

Shame and self-loathing seem like they should be strong motivators for change, but the evidence shows they are not. My personal experience agrees with this. When I felt shamed for being overweight (by my own internal voice or by other people), I felt discouraged and stuck. This feeling could even make things worse, since I was using food for comfort at the time (these days I resort to Zumba classes, audiobooks, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and streaming restorative yoga from YogaGlo).

“THE CURIOUS PARADOX IS THAT WHEN I ACCEPT MYSELF JUST AS I AM, THEN I CHANGE.”

– Carl Rogers
Aloe vera!

I can “accept” the fact that I have a sunburn, for instance, and not let it affect my self-worth in any way, even though I don’t think having a sunburn is actually a desirable thing. Beating myself up for my carelessness will just make me more miserable. It might even make me less likely to protect my skin more effectively next time, or to take the trouble to cut spiky pieces off the aloe plant in my kitchen and rub my skin with the healing gel.

Accepting some other things, like my cringe-worthy mistakes from the past, rather than futilely raging against them, is an ongoing journey for me. The best kind of acceptance involves taking a clear-eyed, compassionate view of reality, absorbing any lessons to be learned, and taking action to reduce suffering in the future (doing our best while realizing that we will still often make mistakes or be driven off course by circumstances), while staying calm and cheerful. Yes, I’m describing the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Aurelius, and certainly not myself!

So what are some methods that can help us move closer to body positivity, body neutrality, and acceptance in general? Here are three that have helped me:

  1. Loving-kindness meditation. From Buddhist tradition, the idea of this meditation is to help cultivate compassion. Traditionally, meditators repeated blessings for themselves (such as May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain), next for loved ones, then for people more difficult to love, and finally for all beings. If you find yourself/your body difficult to love, you can start with easier targets and work up to yourself. Here’s a guided loving-kindness meditation along with others that help cultivate self-compassion.
  2. Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT). This may seem a little unusual, but it’s simple to try on your own. Basically, you tap your fingers on a specific circuit of positions on your face and upper body, while talking to yourself about an issue in your life. The tapping helps ground you in your body and give you a feeling of safety while you process the difficult topic. For example, you might say to yourself at each tapping point: “Even though I’m carrying excess weight, I love and accept myself.” You can repeat the same statement or vary it based on what comes up in your mind. Here’s a great short introduction by Jessica Ortner.
  3. Stepping back and being a friend to myself. It’s so easy to see beyond the superficial flaws of a friend, family member or someone you admire. Catch yourself at self-critical moments and imagine how you would think and feel instead about someone you love.

Have you been struggling to love or even to accept your body? If so, I hope these ideas will help you find peace and new confidence. May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.

I Tried Keto, Part 2: I Liked It, But …

I’m finally getting back on track with this blog, as I described last week. So although it’s August 13 today, I’m now reporting on my own January challenge, which was to get into ketosis for a week and try it out for myself.

My keto shopping cart at Whole Foods. Olives! European cheeses! And chipotle lime mayonnaise (which can make even sardines taste good)

I wrote (much) earlier on this blog about the trendy “keto diet” here. Basically, ketosis is a backup system when the body runs out of its limited stores of carbohydrates.

Our immensely complex and awesome bodies are a sort of like hybrid cars — we can run either on carbohydrates or fats. (Sometimes we do both at once, for instance during endurance exercise.)

Eating a high-fat, moderate-protein, very low-carb diet causes a shift to the state of ketosis, where the body is burning primarily fat and producing ketones (rather than glucose) to fuel the brain.

This sounds quite exciting, and Google just gave me 95,900,000 results for “keto,” so clearly people are getting on board. Here is my personal report and my conclusions, in case they are of interest …

My groundrules for my keto week were:

  • A daily target of only 20 grams of net carbs (total carbohydrates minus fiber). This is really low (some other keto plans allow 50 grams per day), but I wanted to be sure to truly experience ketosis.
  • Moderate, not high levels of protein. If I consume more protein than my body needs to maintain my muscles etc., my ever-resourceful body can make sugar out of that excess protein.
  • Only healthy fats and proteins: to me, that means grass-fed, pastured or wild-caught animal products, and minimally processed or unprocessed plants such as avocado, nuts and olive oil.
  • Plenty of “vegetables that grow above the ground,” generally a great guideline for a low-carb eating plan. Looking at my food diary for that week, I see arugula, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, basil, parsley, watercress, cilantro, mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, cucumbers, sauerkraut, and bok choy.
Guideline I posted on my fridge, found online at https://ketosizeme.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Printable-List-of-the-Carbs-In-Foods.pdf

I reduced my carb intake a few days before the challenge by strictly avoiding anything made with flour or added sugar (which I try to do in general anyway, but some tends to slip through). My ketosis week started when I stopped eating on Friday evening, burning through my stored sugar during the normal overnight fast.

After having only 19 grams of carbs (by my calculation) on Saturday, I tested my urine on Sunday morning and was positive for ketones. I went to Zumba class at 9:30 a.m. and felt like I could fly through the air. Many people find that they think clearly and have lots of energy in ketosis, which seemed to be the case for me too — I’d say that I felt about 110% of normal.

Fortunately I didn’t have any problematic symptoms, known as “keto flu,” during the transition, likely because my body is already used to switching over to fat-burning, thanks to the experience I’ve built up with longer workouts and intermittent fasting.

On Wednesday I babysat a friend’s daughter at my house, and I served baked salmon with Trader Joe’s yuzu sauce (citrus-vinegar) and lots of vegetables — she loved it and didn’t seem to feel like anything was missing. Fortunately, it looked nicer than the meal pictured below 🙂

Red snapper, avocado, greens, peanuts, Spanish chorizo, avocado oil dressing … and I was pleased to learn that pure tequila has no carbs and I could include it in my week

By Thursday, though, I was starting to rebel against this way of eating. The turning point actually came at lunch on Wednesday, when I realized that I could eat only half a beet, and I still didn’t stay within my carb goal (22.5 grams that day).

Only half a beet allowed on Wednesday; is this really a healthy eating plan?

I was really craving fruit, and I was frustrated to find that even onions are carb-heavy.

I made it through Friday (sort of: 29 grams of carbs) and was relieved to stop, but also glad that I’d succeeded in my one-week challenge.

My observations/conclusions:

  • Of course an experiment of one person for one week does not mean much, if anything, but I did feel good, and I lost about 2 pounds.
  • I realized that extreme low-carb eating requires severely restricting many categories of foods that promote good health and longevity according to research: fruit in general; whole grains such as oats; root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, onions, carrots and beets; all kinds of beans; and legumes such as lentils and peas.
  • I did another keto week from August 1 – 7, with similar results. When I ended it by eating a peach, the sugar from the fruit hit me like a Starbucks nitro coffee 🙂
  • I think a keto week (or a few weeks) can be a good challenge for a healthy person without an eating disorder or any issues with fat metabolism. Learning to count carbs, staying away from starches/sugars, road-testing your alternative fuel system, and burning a little extra fat can all be beneficial.
  • On a high-fat diet like keto, I would recommend paying close attention to the quality of the fats. It just can’t be good to consume large amounts of factory-farmed animal products full of hormones and antibiotics, or highly processed commercial “keto” products.
  • After eating very low-carb for several days, even a food with a tiny bit of natural sugar, like cheese, tasted super-sweet. Once again I found it amazing how quickly my tastes can adapt and change.
  • I felt that my keto week was a good way to crank up my alternative fuel system for a while. Surely we evolved to use both systems, living off sugar and starches at harvest time, and burning fat during lean months or when only meat was available. It’s likely a very good thing to be “fat-adapted” and be able to switch back and forth easily.
  • There is some tantalizing evidence that the keto diet can be used to combat cancer . If I’m ever diagnosed with cancer, I’m definitely giving it a try.
  • But meanwhile, I’m just going to keep it in my repertoire as an occasional tool, like fasting. The research just isn’t there yet to support keto as a long-term beneficial eating plan (except for children with epilepsy, where any drawbacks are balanced by the diet’s ability to control their condition).

Have you tried a keto eating plan? Do you want to take one on as a temporary challenge (if you think it’s a healthy option for you)? Do you have any questions about my personal experiment? Let me know in the comments!

Getting Off Track, and Getting Back On

Hello dear readers! In February/March (!), I suddenly stopped posting on this blog, on Instagram and on my new-and-exciting business Facebook page.

Momentum! And then suddenly nothing :/

My life got a little more complicated than usual, and I let my online presence slide. Although I’m confident that no one here depended on me for entertainment or enlightenment :), simply disappearing was rude and unprofessional, and I apologize. I hope you will bear with me as I catch up and move forward.

It occurs to me that this experience has been very much like other ways of getting off track, like skipping an exercise class for weeks, getting out of the habit of meditating, or like one of my clients, resorting to takeout food day after day after moving and starting a new job.

Unexpected things happen in life … for me it was a time-intensive temporary assignment (translating a book about glaucoma treatment in Latin America into English, nerdy fun for me!), and then, sadly, the illness of our beloved cat Orange, who passed away on May 1.

The heat lamp seemed to help keep him comfortable as he battled cancer.

Yeah, today is August 6. I turned in the book project on April 23.

Hmmm.

The longer I’ve let something slide, the harder it is to jump back in. I have to start all over again building the habit (which feels like an unpleasant climb up a steep cliff). I’m also getting subtle failure-messages from a subconscious voice: “See, you couldn’t do it!” And finally, it’s just plain embarrassing to come back here and admit that I procrastinated for three months (I’ll give myself credit for April, when I truly had reasons to be sidetracked).

Even as I write these words, a little procrastination elf is running wild inside me, waving its arms and shouting. There’s a lot of laundry to do! The car is covered in bird poop! You need to write those thank-you notes that you’ve put off even longer than the blog! (oops)

But here I am. I’m finally doing it. And I’m doing it (rather than the so-tempting laundry) because I keep bringing my wandering mind back to my “why.”

Wash me!!

Blogging right now is worth the discomfort/embarrassment/driving a bird-poopy car for another day, because:

  • I’m excited about the topics I want to share, and I think they will be useful to others. I just counted the list I keep on my phone — 108 potential topics! (one down, 107 to go!)
  • If I provide useful content here, it not only may benefit readers directly, but also help expand my coaching practice, so I can do work I love and serve more people.

Good enough reasons to put my head down and finish this post. And seriously block off time every week to keep it going.

Have you been off track with something? If so, what is the powerful “why” that can bring you back?

With these reflections, something I have heard before makes even more sense to me now:

The best predictor of your success is not which eating plan you choose, or what kind of exercise you do, or how brilliant your business plan is.

It’s what you do when you get off track.

Do you believe the internal voice saying “I knew that wouldn’t work”? Do you procrastinate, like me, because it always seems that resuming will be easier tomorrow, or next week?

Here are some strategies to try (I’ve been off track in many ways over the years, and I find that for me, it takes ALL of them combined):

  • Focus on your positive “why” (get healthy and strong! be able to travel and hike and dance and play! send your ideas out into the world and see if they can have an impact!)
  • Practice self-compassion. Think of the understanding and encouragement you would extend to a friend whose last “weekly” blog post was on February 15 (arggh!). “Don’t worry; you can do it; jump back in; it’s OK; people will understand!”
  • Give yourself permission to start really small. This blog post is not complicated — I can publish it today. For other kinds of goals, maybe eat just one extra vegetable today, or take a 10-minute walk.
  • Make getting back on track as easy as possible. Get off-plan food out of the pantry; put your walking shoes by the door. I cleared out the whole day today for writing.
  • Link your identity to your chosen path. Who we are is not determined by our past — it evolves and changes. I can even become a Person Who Regularly Writes Thank-You Notes! I’m stubbornly clinging to my identity as a blogger. Hey, self-doubting voice: this is who I am, and this is what I do, so even if I have skipped it for longer than I did it in the first place, I have no doubt that I will eventually come back.
  • If a previous strategy just didn’t fit into your life (you didn’t enjoy it, or it didn’t seem to make a difference to your well-being or your progress), keep trying other strategies until something works. I regularly listen to the inspiring words of a certain animated gazelle, who reminds me to “Try Everything” and not give up.

I’m a health coach (fortunately, I did continue coaching wonderful and inspiring clients during all these months!). And I’m (still) a blogger.

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in, ’til I reach the end, then I’ll start again. No, I won’t leave, I wanna try everything, I wanna try even though I could fail.”

See you next week!

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