As I sit and type the Genius Husband and the Boy are making a Death By Chocolate big boy chocolate cake; for the Boy is turning five tomorrow. It smells amazing. This recipe only has 4 Tbsp of flour in it. The rest is eggs and melted dark chocolate, and sugar and cocoa and butter and sour cream. The Genius Husband, who is a phenomenal cook when he finds the time, intends to make several layers of chocolate ganach to put between the cake layers, in different flavors. Why am I telling you this? Well, maybe I just want to make you all jealous, but the truth is you may have the impression that I don’t indulge. While I usually avoid junk food, as in food that isn’t really food, I often enjoy tasty things that some of you may lump together with junk food, like birthday cake.
I grew up a fairly indiscriminate eater. I had my picky moments as a child, but as I approached adulthood I could pretty much choke down anything, irregardless of flavor and texture and I thought that it’s just food and I’m hungry, so I would eat it without thinking much about it. I love reading, I would usually take the precious minutes of lunch at school to catch up on whatever I was reading while I ate my lunch, without tasting it. In university I would eat to deal with boredom and stay awake while studying, and I developed a close relationship with the Pizza Hut Express up the stairs from my practice room. Forgetting everything my dear mother had taught me and abandoning the healthful elements of her cooking expertise, I reasoned that pizza covers all of the food groups, who cares if it’s swimming in grease and nitrates, and I also ate a lot of pasta with cheese. You know where this is going don’t you? I saw a picture of myself in the middle of second year and thought, “Who is that girl, can that really be me? I don’t look like that do I?” I packed it on as I had never done before. (I still have a big soft spot for pizza, sigh. When I was a child my mom would make it at home from scratch, which is a much healthier alternative. Well, I now know that if you soak up all of the grease on top of a slice with a paper towel before you eat it, you can get rid of up to 200 calories per slice. And I make it point to find gourmet pizza places with whole wheat crust options when I do indulge.)
My best friend went to France the year after high school, when she came home she brought French chocolate with her, and French wine, and some recipes that were divine. She was generous with the chocolate that summer, and those little squares were exquisite. Candy and chocolate as a child growing up had always been cheap, inexpensive, and on sale, and I would eat it all, slowly to make it last, because we didn’t get it that often. This was real chocolate. My first taste of a candy bar after her chocolate tasted like wax, not like chocolate. A little part of my brain started to tangle with the question of why that was, and what sort of implications that might have regarding my eating habits. I then started to realize that my extreme mood swings and depressive tendencies seemed to be linked to my diet. (I would feel fine, eat a chocolate egg on an empty stomach while talking on the phone, and find myself lying on the carpet sobbing out of a deep well of sadness that came out of nowhere. Which I thought might be a little bit extreme.) I was finally diagnosed as hypoglycemic and started to learn how to balance my eating to stabilize my blood sugar. It would be many years before this would all come together into the mostly coherent philosophy that I now share with you.
Basically, I won’t eat something unless it’s worth eating. I can only consume so many calories per day without gaining weight. I’m only hungry every so often, and I can only handle so much sugar without going crazy. Now before I put something in my mouth, I ask if it’s worth it, really truly worth it. Is it worth to eat those potato chips, is it worth it to eat those crackers, does that birthday cake really deserve my attention. In essence I’ve become an extremely picky eater, in a good way. For example, yesterday I attended a little boy’s birthday party. First of all it was a morning party, no meal was served, and there was a gigantic sheet cake. Now, to eat the cake breaks several of my personal eating rules, like eating desserts with meals because it changes the way they are digested and the affect they have on my brain, but I considered it anyway because that’s not always a strong motivation for me, though it should be. I accepted a slice, and took a bite, and here is the moment that I am still trying my hardest to remember when it comes to eating, I paid attention to how it tasted, was it good enough to eat a second bite? Some of you may really like white slab cakes with the pudding filling and super sweet colored icing, I don’t. Not really. In the past I would have eaten the whole piece, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied, my brain chemistry would be out of whack for nothing, I would have started craving more sweets, and I’d be at least 200 calories fatter, all for a relatively bland, unexciting, and tasteless piece of birthday cake. Tomorrow I fully intend to eat a small slice of that chocolate cake; it is too rich for anyone to eat a large slice of. I will eat it slowly, after I eat dinner, I will pay attention to each bite, I will savor it. I will fully enjoy every moment of that chocolate cake, and when I am finished, I won’t want anything else, not that I intend to have anything else available.
I am the same with chocolate, with ice cream, with candy, which I just won’t eat anymore because I haven’t found any that is worth it, with cookies, and with breakfast lunch and supper. I later ran into a phrase that some of you might be familiar with, Mindful Eating.
Do you read when you eat? I still do sometimes, though I’m trying to break the habit. Do you eat while watching TV? Do you eat while driving? Do you eat standing up? This is called mindless eating, and most Americans do it. When we eat like this, we tend to overeat, because we are not paying attention to what we are eating, or how much. Have you ever put a lot of time into making yourself something good, some kind of treat, and then sat down to eat it in front of the television, or a book, or your computer? Did you taste it? Did you enjoy it? Did you even notice what was going into your mouth?
When you make an event of eating, when you go to the trouble of preparing something tasty and healthful and then sit down to eat it and the main event is the food, you become a more mindful eater. You eat more slowly, you chew more, you eat less, that is, if you remember to taste those first few bites and not rush through them. I often catch myself, after cooking, getting everything on the table, cutting up food for my children, and jumping up and down a few more times for forgotten items before I eat, frenetically shoveling food into my mouth at the same mad pace as I have been doing everything else. I’ll be halfway through my plate before I stop and think, “Slow down, taste it, you aren’t in a hurry right now.” It’s a little bit lame, but I used to not think of it until I went for seconds to get another taste of whatever I had just mindlessly devoured on my plate. I'm improving. The act of sitting and experiencing food is one of the reasons why family mealtimes are so important to me, and I think contribute to making healthier eaters of our children. This is also why I no longer put my extremely slow and picky eater son in front of a show while he’s eating so that it will distract him from examining every single piece of food before it enters his mouth and he might finish eating today, please. I realized that I don’t want him to become a mindless eater, and knowing that I will be sitting at the table with him for a long time at dinner helps me to slow down as well, though I’m almost always up and loading the dishwasher before he’s finished eating.
When our children get a treat, it’s a real treat. We give them real chocolate; minimum 75% cocoa mass usually single origin organic, I like the beans from Ecuador the best. (Like I said; if you are going to indulge, make it worth it.) You can get the bars at Trader Joe’s, and World Market on occasion. Right now I’m feeding them Double Rainbow Vanilla ice cream. It has only cream, milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla bean in it, and it is the richest, creamiest ice cream. I used to like the original Breyer’s before they started making it “creamier” by adding things that aren’t food to it. It’s still pretty good if you can find the original recipe flavors, and also only has things like cream and eggs and sugar, but it’s a much lighter ice cream, and now it tastes likes I’m eating air, so it’s not worth it, I have to eat too much to be satisfied. We give them small amounts of really tasty stuff, often in the play Ikea dishes so it looks like a full portion. They have never had a regular candy bar, they have had hard candy on a few occasions, but I am hoping that they will learn to be discriminate indulgers as well as I teach them what real tastes like. They also know that sweets are eaten with meals, and not at other times because they need protein to help them to not feel bad after they have eaten them. For the same reason they don’t usually get them after breakfast or lunch because it keeps them from being as alert and cheerful through out the day when they need to be for school, playing together, mommy’s sanity, so it usually happens after dinner, before bed.
The other thing I consider aside from indulgences is the nutrient density of my food. By the same reasoning that I can only eat so much per day, I want to make sure that my body gets what it needs to stay healthy out of the foods I’m eating. If I’m going to eat salad, I’m not going to eat iceberg lettuce, which is mainly water and fiber, I’m going to eat something dark green because it contains much more nutrients. (WITH PRODUCE, THE DARKER THE COLOR, THE GREATER THE AMOUNT OF NUTRIENTS.) If I were going to eat rice, I’d prefer it to be brown rice, because there are more nutrients in it, whole grain pasta and bread instead of white, water or tea instead of soda, etc. This is especially important when feeding little ones because they don’t eat as much. There isn’t room in their diets for empty foods that just fill their tummies without giving them something they need. When I bake cookies, I substitute ground almonds for half of the flour in a rolled cookie recipe, because almonds have more that is good for them than whole-wheat flour. I’ve just upped the calcium protein and healthy essential oil content by 50% by doing that. By avoiding the use of lard and artificial sweeteners, I’ve improved those cookies several more notches, and when my children sit down to drink them with a glass of milk, usually soy or almond, and a piece of fruit, they are getting a snack that they will enjoy, and they are getting nutrients that are essential to their growing bodies. (Credit for the almond idea goes to my friend and former neighbor Queenie, who was a nutritionist before she became a mommy. I learned many things from her that year that we shared a house.)
There are several other very well informed and smart people out there who have written on this subject. I have been reading through French Women Don’t Get Fat recently, because I've been trying to pin down the things about lifestyles and habits that make healthier people for my own benefit. She goes into great detail on the subject of how paying attention to your food and enjoying it leads to healthier bodies and attitudes, and she has several tips on how to do that, as well as a simple weight loss plan for those who are trying to lose. For more on how diet affects children’s brains, eating foods in combinations and glycemic index, subjects I intend to tackle at some future point here, go to Dr. Sears for some great articles. Finally here is an article and book/website about the research behind mindless eating. Mel over at Amazing Shrinking Mom found this first, I’m just following her links.
And with that I say goodnight, I have a kitchen full of chocolate to clean up. Apparently it's my job since the boys did the cooking.