We talk a lot about food in this house. A makes a living at it – studying the way food and culture have shaped and affected each other throughout history – whereas I just have a voracious appetite, a curious palate, and very little fear or good sense when it comes to trying a recipe. One thing we agree on is how it’s too easy for people to fall into the trap of overthinking meal planning way too much.
I grew up with the four food groups, having that view of nutrition drilled into me; how important it was to have balanced proportions of meat, grains, fruits and vegetables, and dairy – in every meal. Even cold cereal; I remember cereal ads from my childhood crowing that Frosted Flakes or Rice Krispies or whatever were “part of this complete breakfast”, showing a bowl of cereal modestly sitting on a table alongside a plate of bacon and eggs and a big glass of orange juice.
But there are a lot of people, and always have been, who bent over backwards to balance every meal exactly. There must be some kind of meat or protein in every meal. There must be grains, there must be some kind of dairy product. There must be the exact percentage of whole grain fiber foodstuffs in every meal.
And that’s not even taking into account the notion that the four food groups are now in a food pyramid, and that the pyramid has even changed – and we’re not even getting into vegetarianism, or veganism, or pescetarianism or Atkins or Pritikin diets or low-carb eating or clean eating or paleo eating or any one of a hundred panacea diets out there. Not that some people don’t need specialized diets, mind you – A is gluten-free out of medical necessity – but an awful lot of people toy around with their diet based on an incomplete understanding of what it’s going to do to them, out of a vague notion that it’d be “healthy”. These different diets tout all sorts of wonderful things, and many of them do have a grain of truth to them – “clean eating”, for instance, advocates whole, fresh food and shuns overly processed foods, which is advice nearly everyone agrees on. But lots of clean-eating advocates get further caught up in debates about various food additives or nutrients and adds another layer of complexity to it.
I find it makes people anxious about it all. My mother was pretty relaxed about the food pyramid. She’d round out our lunches and dinners with some kind of vegetables and salad – even when we got takeout pizza, she’d make up a simple dish of steamed summer squash or green beans, or make up a big salad – and sometimes would slice some oranges along with breakfasts, but other than that she left things be. She certainly wasn’t making us bacon and eggs alongside our Cheerios in the morning, and would probably rather have spit tacks first. But she was an excellent cook, and treated vegetables with a light hand, so we rarely shied away from them. The only food fussiness I had as a child was about sauces – I’d ask for light amounts of pasta sauce, only faint amounts of salsa on tacos, and I wouldn’t even have dressing on salad. I still often don’t. Lots of people found it strange, but I was just enjoying the natural taste of food, and was protecting it from being covered up in a highly-seasoned goo. Cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, and even iceberg lettuce all have taste, and I liked that taste more than I liked Thousand Island or Ranch or what have you.
And taste has always guided my meal planning, at the end of the day – taste and pleasure. Tonight’s dinner was a spontaneously-thrown-together thing made up of adding One Package Of Sausage Tortellini to Whatever Vegetables Need Using Before They Go Bad – a few leaves of kale, a bell pepper, a generous couple handfuls of grape tomatoes chopped up. I hadn’t even planned on this to begin with – this was a last-minute meal plan born of a late day at work.
But as I was sauteeing up the vegetables in the skillet, the deep green of the kale played so nicely against the paler green of the peper, and the bright red of the tomatoes. I added the grape tomatoes last so they’d hold their shape longer, letting them speckle the dish red rather than giving them a chance to melt into sauce. The kale took on a faintly roasted taste, as did the garlic clove I chopped up and added to the pan; those roasted tastes set off the sweet smokiness of the sausage inside the tortellini. And it all just looked gorgeous too – I didn’t even add my usual sprinkle of grated parmaesan. And ultimately the last-minute dinner turned out to be a delicious meal. And – nutritionally balanced to boot.
Food is supposed to be something we enjoy. A lot of the fad diets forget to emphasize that part.