A Voice Like Bacall and the Veggie Challenge

I love food.  A lot.  Always have.  Except vegetables.  I have grown into loving vegetables.  Well, I actually mean groan - a lot of groaning was involved at first.

When I was young, I stealthily avoided veggies, dodging them at every turn as I reached for a burger, with a side of salty, crunchy chips or fries (potatoes, right?) and a giant soda.  I knew I had to eat some, but vegetables were the unpleasant “should” of the food world.  I grew up, like many other Gen Xers, with the primary vegetables in my household being iceberg lettuce salads (bland) and canned green beans (slimy).  Not a lot of variety back then, so I grew up thinking that's what veggies were.  Salad dressing:  Blue Cheese, Ranch, or Thousand Island.  They didn't really help the iceberg go down.  

For the past couple of decades, I have been a semi-vegetarian who scarcely ate vegetables.  That means I ate mostly bread and cheese and didn't prepare meat at home, only eating it as someone's guest, occasionally at a restaurant, or hitting a drive thru.  So basically pretty often.  Vegetables just didn't come up much.  I did appreciate veggies a little more, found a few ways to eat them more regularly.  Like once a day.

When we had kids, I felt a huge responsibility to keep their little bodies as pure as possible with only the best.  Suddenly, I was motivated for change.  It was a big deal that they didn't have any traditional sweets like candy or cake during their first year.  I did what I could to keep their eating "clean" while feeling bombarded by the social pressures and limited options of the Standard American Diet surrounding us.  Eventually, on our way somewhere, we were hitting the drive thru.  Then it became regular, like once a week.  After all, I didn't prepare meat at home, and they needed it for protein - I knew, I'd been trained.  The soda I chose for myself seemed to get me through daily stress and hard times, and I now can see that I started heading to the soda well every day, beyond our weekly drive thru meals.  I was addicted.  But I couldn't just chug down the sugary drink - I had to drink it while eating something salty to counteract it.  Then I needed the sweet to counteract the salt.  Then I needed one every time I got in the car.  It felt good in the moment, then not so much.  But I convinced myself I was being pretty healthy by having soda with the real sugar instead of the artificial kind.  The news was confusing on such matters, but it seemed like real sugar usually won out.  There was a lot of changing info on the chemicals in diet soda; if there was anything on quitting soda in general, I didn't pay attention.  I really felt like I needed it.  

Ironically, during that time I thought we were a rare health-conscious family because I bought organic boxed food at the grocery store before most people I knew did.    My kids didn't hesitate to point out that their snacks and lunches looked suspiciously different from the other kids' and how could I?  A part of me was concerned I might be viewed as Hippie Mom, when I preferred to be thought of as Super Cool, Forward-Thinking Super Mom.  Never mind that our organic diet was mostly white crackers, cookies, mac and cheese, frozen pizza, and at least partially whole wheat bread.   This was radical living.  Out of love, I’d tell them.  I wanted them to have the best, even if it meant a new, radical organic brand.  The problem was, I had trouble putting my finger on what was truly the best.  The news on healthy eating was constantly changing.  The only consistent information I ever heard was to eat more vegetables.  Ugh.  Really?

Meanwhile, for years, my throat was swollen and hoarse and I had stomach pains that would stop me in my tracks whenever I ate anything containing milk, like ice cream, creamy sauces and dips, creamy soups, creamy desserts.  But I liked creamy foods!  It became an act of bravery to choke down a mocha, but I would power through one regularly because they tasted so damn good.  I needed dairy for calcium, after all - I knew, I'd been trained.  Besides, sounding like Lauren Bacall with laryngitis was sexy, wasn’t it?  

I didn’t pay attention to any symptoms until I could no longer deny that my insides were feeling like they were racing when I was in fact standing still.  My ability to cope with daily difficulties was minimal, feeling like snapping at the slightest problem.  And I guess I was a little lightheaded sometimes.  I could ignore the pain and hoarse voice dairy was causing, but I couldn’t deny that these racing insides were negatively affecting my everyday life, and I was feeling like all my stress landed in a particular spot in my abdomen.  I brought these up with my doctor at my next check-up.  After having a scan to see if I had a growth in my abdomen and heart tests to see if I had a heart problem, the results were nothing specific.  

Then she suggested I see a nutritionist.  That didn’t sound like a good solution to me - after all, I already knew what there was to know about food!  I was Super Cool Forward-Thinking Super Mom who Buys Organic!  I was actually offended.  

I reluctantly went to see the nutritionist.  It became clear that I needed to cut back on sodas, so I started trying to do without for a day here and there.  It took awhile.  I drank a lot of seltzer water.  And then I gradually let it go down to once a week, then eventually once a month.  And that hyper feeling on the inside started to go away.  I was no longer lightheaded and I heard my voice calmly coming out of my mouth.  I was motivated to stay away from soda.  Huge change!  Just don't get in between me and my seltzer water.  

I got the message from the nutritionist that I needed more veggies, but how was I going to do that?  Didn't seem realistic.  I mean, c’mon, now that I had kids, I considered the food pyramid in our daily life - but how could we eat more veggies?  I ate baby carrots with my kids almost daily.  We ordered Thai or Chinese food about once a week, and there were vegetables in that.  (I was appalled when someone mentioned that there was a lot of sugar in the dishes.  What do you mean?  They’re veggies!)  Besides, I had recently finally discovered how to make an awesomely tasty salad, as long as I put enough Stilton in it…bring on Lauren Bacall.  I did feel a wakeup call was in order, though.  I needed to eat better somehow.  And come to think of it, I was getting tired of being Bacall.  But what to do?  How could I change in a way that was consistent?  What would I have to give up?  How painful would it be?

And then one sleepless night, I watched Food, Inc.  Tentatively.  From the documentary trailer and photo, it looked like it would show me animals in bad conditions, and I didn’t want to see that.  And it did.  But with the food frustrations I was having, I was curious about what this documentary would say about the food industry.  It opened my eyes.  And it showed me there were real ways to change and make a difference not just to me and my family, but also to the planet.

I was hungry for more information.  I watched Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, about an Australian touring America with his juicer after he changed his life by changing his diet.  Wow.  I could see right there on the screen how our food choices can make a difference.  I could have veggies with fruit by juicing or in a smoothie and it might not taste that bad.  Green juice always scared me, but Joe looks like he enjoys it in the film.

Then,  Forks Over KnivesOverfed and UndernourishedVegucated.  I kept looking for more.

They all led me to...light bulb!  There are real ways to change.  I learned from these documentaries and further research that protein, calcium, iron, and everything else we need (other than B12) are readily available in whole, plant-based foods.  And that processed and sugary foods were making us sick.  OK, so maybe the drive thru wasn't necessary.  I saw that in the film case studies, people were often enjoying the veggie-based foods they had switched to, or at least they didn't seem like they thought they were that bad.  And they were working veggies into their day even if they were busy with kids.  I began wondering how I could really start to make whole foods the center of our plates instead of processed foods - in a practical way.  And if I could figure out how to replace dairy with plant-based foods, my throat might actually go back to it's normal size.  What a concept! 

Working more plants into my diet became my goal, especially veggies since I knew I was really lacking there.  Change has been gradual.  If I had gone about change thinking I’d have to give up all my favorites, I wouldn’t have started.   I knew there were certain things that wouldn’t be compromised.  

The following are my Must-Haves for eating plant-based whole foods:

  • delicious flavor
  • a contented sweet tooth
  • enough fuel to get through busy days
  • texture happiness
  • crunchy and salty satisfaction
  • quick and easy preparation
  • budget keeping
  • freedom from "perfection"
  • the pleasures involved with eating

As the household cook, I've wanted to make sure I'm finding ways to work more whole, plant-based foods into my family's daily life, especially the most resistant:  my young son.  So I'm trying to teach myself to make kid-happy recipes, knowing they will be scrutinized by a serious critic.  If he gives the thumbs up, they are bound to go over well with the general kid population!

My approach has been driven by my Must-Haves.  How could I make veggies more palatable?   Well, see the napa cabbage and peppers up there?  I now think they are gorgeous, because I have learned how to make them taste and feel good.  And I know they exist.  I actually see them.  That's a biggie.  I see them now as something that is for me and my family.  

How can I make sure I maintain the joy of eating as I shift to a higher percentage of veggies on my plate?  How can I achieve great flavor cooking with veggies?  How can I satisfy my desire for creamy sauces and ice cream?  Do I really need to live without that?  What will we have for sweets?  I have discovered that there are pleasing answers to these questions.  

I've also found that the further I get away from sodas and other processed foods, the less I feel the need for salty and sweet extremes.  I'm satisfied much earlier into a meal than I ever have been.  I'm not looking for what's next to counter what I just ate - a big change.  I see our society is slowly changing too, so that it's thankfully easier to be "radical" these days as more people turn toward the produce section as well as organic/natural brands.  

And two things are best of all: 

  • I feel better than ever - better than I could have imagined, with way more energy.  Like, weirdly more energy - it's amazing!
  • I feel like my lifestyle is now filled with real, natural beauty.  I'm able to appreciate my daily life so much more now.

I am a food lover.  Now a lover of real food.  I'm so thankful I've finally discovered it.  I will be using Michael Pollan's simple words as my guide:  "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."  I'm currently in cooking school specializing in plant-based, whole foods and learning so much.  Whether you are looking to add more whole plant-based foods to what you are generally eating now or are interested in going completely plant-based, I welcome you!  I just got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest rolling; links are on the right.  There is also a newsletter sign-up on this page that you can fill out to receive updates.  And if you have already signed up, thank you!  I have a feeling we'll have great fun here.  

I am a designer who is currently designing products for the amazing food blog, Food52 (www.food52.com).  My latest product for their holiday season will be launching by early November.  I wanted to let you know that the Beautiful Ingredient shop here is coming soon too, so stay tuned!  Signing up for the newsletter will make you the first to know when it opens.  My creations are always made using eco-friendly materials. 

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