A brown-tinted photograph of jars of grains and nuts with the article title above.
Embodied Heart

Old-Fashioned Cooking: Building Healthy Habits from Scratch

What is it about being handed a bag of fried food through my car window that sets off my taste buds, only to leave me in a heap of discomfort and disgust afterwards? After binge watching shows about addiction (my TV viewing is an issue for another day!), I started to conceptualize my eating habits as being, in part, location-driven. Specifically, where I choose to obtain food, rather than simply what I choose to eat, influences the quality of my diet. Over the last few years, I slowly began to go to fast food restaurants and convenience food stores on a regular basis, rather than to cook my own food. Last fall, this tipped into what I can only describe as eating junk food, by which I mean ultra-processed foods, as my primary source of nourishment.

This year, I’ve made a commitment to eating only natural, homemade foods as much as I possibly can. Rather than wax poetic about how much cheaper homemade food can be, which may not be the case for everyone, I wanted to share both how I look at homemade food as well as some outcomes of this change that I’m noticing that are affecting me not only physically but also mentally, socially and even spiritually.

Before noting the positive changes cooking from home have brought to me, I want to check in with my privilege in this area. I have the time, money, physical and mental capacity and access to fresh ingredients necessary for these adaptations. Food, diet and, by extension, cooking, have been fraught with disordered eating patterns for me for most of my life. I’ve benefited from both mental health therapy and formal education to a point where I feel more able to set intentions and follow through on them in relation to these topics while managing my guilt and anxiety; not everyone is at that place. So, to whatever extent you read through and consider what I’ve shared below, please hold a lot of space for compassion and care for yourself if you find yourself triggered by my discussion. Feel free to leave it as it is if it doesn’t speak to you and to take only what you find beneficial.

What’s Homemade?

Before I talk about why making homemade food a priority has been valuable to me, I want to share how I define it. This article includes a chart that breaks down the different levels of processing quite effectively. Basically, I am limiting myself to foods that are only unprocessed or minimally processed as much as I possibly can. For several years, almost all the foods I’ve bought at the store had “5 or fewer” ingredients, but I was still purchasing items like dried fruit, canned sauces and breads. I now buy fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat and nuts, eggs, and grains like uncooked rice, whole grain flour and rolled oats. The few moderately processed items on my menu include dairy products, 88% dark chocolate, and almond milk. One of my major goals for the year is to learn how to make my own pasta, right now, I do purchase whole grain versions. The most processed food I am still including is organic marshmallows, which I keep locked in a container that only opens every few days (yes, I have tried to break (unsuccessfully) into it!).*

I am also eating a set amount of foods in each macro category (protein, carbs, etc.) with specific limits on added fats and sugars. This works well because I rarely crave raw sugar or a tablespoon of oil, so the work in which I would have to engage to make a dessert helps me to limit my consumption of these foods. When the number of calories to which I limited myself (2000/day) leaves me hungry, I have an extra serving of fruit or another handful of nuts, instead of a snack made of refined foods.

What I’ve come to view for myself as genuinely addictive are ultra-processed foods, which are foods that have artificial ingredients added and which tend to contain large quantities of fats, salts and/or sugars. I am adopting the idea that I cannot have a small amount of these even occasionally and still maintain healthy eating behaviors, not because they are so horrible for my body in limited amounts, but because I cannot rein myself back in once I start. For instance, I was eating very healthy a few years ago. I started dating someone who ate poorly, copied her behaviors and, almost three years later, still have not been able to “get it together.” I’ve found myself driving past fast food places with a yearning I thought only those who crave substances like alcohol would feel. That’s why the idea that the location from which I procure my food matters just as much as what I eat hits home for me. With this understanding in mind, let’s discuss some positive aspects of traditional homemade meals.

Observed Benefits of Homemade Food

1.     Ability to customize meals for food intolerances/allergies

I have a sensitivity to foods in the allium family (garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, etc). which borders on a full-blown allergy. This means that nearly every savory dish I eat that is commercially prepared, as well as pre-packaged dishes, makes me ill. Preparing my own food from scratch enables me to adjust what I’m eating to my specific dietary needs. If you’ve dealt with any kind of specialized diet, you know how frequently food you are told won’t have any problematic ingredients in it actually ends up causing you issues because the base or sauce contains the triggering item.

2.     Greater variety of foods including fresh ingredients

When I go out to eat often or buy prepared meals, my diet becomes distilled into three food items over time: (fried) chicken, pizza, and nachos. I can go weeks eating a rotation of those three foods. When I’m cooking for myself, I am more able to plan out ingredients and to find new combinations that I enjoy. I also find myself eating more foods in season. Consuming a larger mix of flavors and textures also seems to decrease my food cravings.

3.     Potentially lower exposure to toxins that cause food-born illnesses

As I fell the whole way off any sort of healthy diet last year, I started to have intestinal distress and IBS symptoms on a regular basis. Some of it was due to my food intolerances, but I also suspect that I was getting sick at times from poor sanitation control. Often, when someone says they have the stomach flu, the cause is someone in the food processing chain not washing their hands fully and passing on fecal germs such as E. coli or the Norovirus, or food being contaminated by fecal matter from field or animals, as in the case of Salmonella. These issues aren’t fully corrected by cooking one’s own meals, but I think there could be less opportunity for contamination as long as you follow proper food preparation procedures.

4.     Social connections around shared creations

For me, food is a cultural and social tool that communicates on my behalf to others and which I receive as a gift from them. I get a weird self-consciousness about sharing food I’ve made with others; there is an intimacy established by doing so that it takes me some time to navigate. For example, I tend to bring pre-packaged foods to gatherings until I feel that I’ve built up sufficient trust to share something I’ve made from scratch. In part, this is due to the fact that I cook intuitively and rarely follow a set recipe. This typically works out fine but there have been some “interesting” dishes. On the flip side, it brings me immense joy when my chosen ingredients come together and enable my creativity to shine through. Making all my foods from scratch has forced me out of my comfort zone in this area and helped me be more willing to take culinary risks. In addition, knowing someone else has taken my diet into consideration and created dishes that I can enjoy without hesitation deepens my sense of trust and connection to that person.

5.     Deeper sensory experiences mediated by slow living

Thus far, my greatest source of pride in home-cooking has been that I learned how to bake sourdough grain products, including pancakes, wraps and a variety of breads, using a starter I originally purchased from King Arthur. Nothing smells better, in my opinion, than freshly baked bread, and I feel soothed through this change in my behavior. I’ve managed to slow down my pace of living in a way that compliments my desire to cook my own meals and which has let me appreciate the experience of both eating and cooking on a physical level. Instead of scarfing down meals in my car and spending my time wrangling wasteful food packaging, I enjoy the array of colorful items I get to add to my fridge after a grocery haul and the plating of entrees it may take me an hour or more to create. (Side note: In order to adjust my lifestyle, I’ve been working less and therefore bringing in less money. I am happy to report I’ve saved at least $200/month by making my own foods!).

As I write this reflection, I feel gratitude as much or more than I feel pride. Yes, I’ve made choices that have led me to be able to slow down, but I was also privileged to have this type of lifestyle within my range of options. I’m not trying to convince you to live this way if it is different than your current approach; I am only offering for you to consider, if you are interested, what is realistically within your range of options and to be kind to yourself if your options are limited. We’ve evolved for millions of years as a species to endure both feast and famine. Now most of us in the industrialized world face a different landscape—a feast of addictive junk food is readily in abundance and the fresh and healing foods to which our ancestors grew accustomed are out of reach at times. I don’t pretend to have big answers on how to rectify the situation, but I hope, with deep appreciation for the opportunity to do so, to bring joy to myself and those with whom I interact through my striving to make dishes I create rather than simply consume.

* I’ve linked to a few products in this post that I’ve really enjoyed using; I am not an affiliate of these companies and am not getting paid to promote them.

 

A tree without leaves to the right of a snowy path.
Embodied Heart

On (and Off) the Surface

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

Many trauma survivors are familiar with the concept of grounding. From a psychological perspective, it involves (re)connecting with one’s body and (re)turning to the present moment. As of late, I’ve found myself encountering it in a new and visceral way.

I experienced the coldest weather of my life thus far in recent weeks, with wind chills approaching -50 Fahrenheit. The ground was already coated in several inches of snow, which became “extra” frozen in these temperatures. Every step meant sinking into crunch, almost as if the snow had been freeze-dried. There was no moment to pause as I scuttled along with my dog for his bathroom breaks. My breathing itself had to be filtered through a cloth mask, lest I frostbite my lungs. Earth was there in sharpness and fury, present to me but without comfort. I found myself feeling oxygen-starved as I inhaled parched, brittle air. The ground crystallized itself inaccessible.

In less than a week, the temperatures soared upwards and all the snow melted. I suddenly felt held and met by the soggy grip of the muddy, raw-exposed grass. Air and land poured moisture in abundance. My breath met and melded with the fog that extended in every direction. All was soft and settled in respite. My dog and I meandered slowly, sipping in the warmth and the smells the hints of green engendered.

At the back of my mind, a simple fact lingered. Four feet below the surface, give or take some inches, it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit. All year round. There’s liquid water mixed with soil, clay, rock and sand. Chaotic shifts, heart of winter to mild spring in a week, are happening above, but, at the right depth, there’s balance. In parallel, the sun is always shining if one’s high enough in the sky and over the right location.

I am running to rest and resting to run, but when am I pausing? Where is my depth or height at which stability and brightness come through? To what roots and risings am I entwined? Part of my experience of PTSD has gotten mixed up with the actual meteorological conditions, so my anxiety breaks loose any time there is a major shift or a threat of bad weather. I am not always capable of digging deeply enough or soaring above to meet a moment of simple being amidst the chaos, but I am now fitted with an image of it that I hope will be a returning, a reconnection. Always, somewhere not surface, Earth is sun-kissed rocky warmth.

Embodied Heart

In Flux

I shaved my head! It was an impulsive action spurred on mostly by a need to follow through on the idea once it popped into my head (honestly, this is how I’ve made most of my boldest moves in life). It coincided with a decision to be a bit more public about my abuse story in another forum. Since that time, I’ve found it harder to concentrate and settle myself into deeper reflections in writing. The sharing and the shedding took a lot out of me, and I feel in the in-between of something. What the something is, I’m not quite sure.

Most of the feedback about my new look has been positive and I feel incredibly comfortable, actually more like myself, in how I’m styling my clothing and inhabiting my body. There is a looseness, though, to my sense of self. Something between possibility and loss that moves every time I think I’ve glimpsed it. My sexual orientation has been fluid for many years. I believed that my gender identity was very defined as a woman but now I’m not quite as certain. I don’t know if this is what is bubbling up or if there is another aspect of who I am that is disconnecting from a rigidity I didn’t know I possessed.

My nature is to want answers, to problem-solve, to analyze, and to arrive at an end point from which I can make decisions. Living in the in-between disquiets my energy and drains my spiritual focus. I’ve always been here, really, given that I have dissociative identity disorder, but I come across to most people as a highly driven, consistent and deliberate person. My physical appearance, with a buzzed haircut, is a better representation of the off-from-center way I see myself, but it hasn’t quelled the inner turmoil of struggling to definitively commit to one way of being in the world. Perhaps I don’t need to commit, perhaps being in flux is who I am.

If you care to share, I would be interested in hearing ways in which you’ve felt in-between two or more ways of existing. To what extent do you pressure yourself or yield to pressure from others in order to decide who you are? Have there been specific acts of self-expression, like my shaving my head, that destabilized rather than solidified your sense of self?

Embodied Heart

Visibility as a Trauma Survivor

It has been very difficult for me to write here for several weeks. The reason, ironically, was because of opening up about my trauma experiences. I related parts of my story in a public forum outside of my blog and have been struggling with processing the experience. It was the first time I shared something that might been easily accessed by people/family from my culture of origin. I didn’t name names but I went into enough detail for individuals to identify themselves. I walked one step more fully into the spotlight and have been greeted by increased flashbacks and overwhelming anxiety.

I nearly perfected the art of invisibility when I was younger. I was the sort of girl who no one noticed nor remembered. I barely spoke outside of my house and obeyed adult instruction without question. I play-acted normality. I wasn’t bullied but I also wasn’t included in anyone’s close circle of friends for most of my childhood and adolescence. Through my actions, I hid in plain sight.

Being victimized by abusive parents at a young age meant that the shadows and edges of rooms were the only places I felt safe. The less I was noticed, the less likely I was to be harmed, as I surmised it. The problem with this approach to the world is that it leads to a life lived in isolation, fear and shame.

I elevated hiding to an art form by finding ways to be unseen while being noticed, namely, by dissociating internally. It’s cat and mouse but I so desperately want to be caught—I want someone to prove themselves capable of witnessing and supporting who I am behind the adult personas I’ve crafted to survive in the world. I periodically attempt to show my hidden forms only to collapse mentally under the weight of the fog I conjure daily in order to not spend my time clawing at the walls in sheer terror. I try to fix into a frame but instead kaleidoscope the closer anyone gets to my complexity.

I recently shaved off all my hair. It was a dramatic change and one that people have readily noticed. I absolutely love the result in terms of how it suits my appearance and am getting used to the glances and weird responses of others. I did it for the express purpose of making myself more visible. I’m outwardly singular now, someone likely to be labeled as “that bald woman” rather than forgotten. My physical form feels solidified even if my internal being remains in flux. I’m hoping to coax myself, from the outside in, to welcome being seen and to believe that some eyes hold genuine kindness.

I knew that in writing about my culture of origin, I would be tempted to retreat immediately and to add another layer of adulting in order to conceal myself where I felt exposed. I also recognized that this behavior runs counter to the deeper truth of who I am as a person. I hid out of necessity when I was younger, unconsciously biding my time. As I make myself visible, those whose determination it was to keep me in the perpetual darkness of moonless night will falter. I’m finding my power and, through it, I’m toes first stepping into the dawnlight.

Sunset with a few trees in the lower right-hand corner.
Embodied Heart

What It Looks Like in My Dreams

I wrote recently about my increased depression symptomology. The symptom that is causing me the most distress is anhedonia. I am struggling to desire. Wishing for things to be different is normally the one skill set on which I can rely. In order to cope, I’ve been engaging in a behavior I would typically try to avoid, which is idealizing my future. I am very practical in my approach to life and get frustrated by people who are grasping at “if only” without taking concrete steps to get there. Right now, though, “if only” turns into “who cares” so quickly and flatly in me that I think the place of hope in my soul needs dusted off and aired out.

To that end, I’ve created a description of my “ideal” days and what my life actually looks like. There are glimmers of the ideal in my current life. I can feel tendrils of longing and “it’s too hard to make it come true” and “um, hello, how would you pay for this” pulling at me as I write. Anhedonia blinds hope and desire with flashes of memories of failures and disappointments. I value the part of me that doesn’t want to bring more suffering into my life, image fading to black and red streaks of pain, and I value equally the part of me that looks at the ideals and sees watercolors swirling into form and which dreams of the humble cottage in the forest or grand Victorian on the corner lot that maybe could, in some form, take shape.

An Ideal Day in the Country

Morning

I wake up when my body is ready to wake up, without rushing. I hear the birds chirp and feel the breeze blow through the open window of my house. While sipping my morning tea, I read a book chapter on a deck or porch overlooking a wooded area. I take my dog for a long walk in the woods to our kayak launch. We meander through a lazy area of a nearby lake for some time. I return to my house and spend a few hours writing.

Afternoon

I create a home-crafted meal with local ingredients, some of which I’ve grown myself. I garden and housekeep for a short time. After this, I exercise and walk my dog. The remainder of my afternoon is spent on creative activities such as painting, photography or sewing.

Evening

Dinner involves spending time with a friend or two in deep conversation. We either gather for a potluck or go to a healthy restaurant. Afterwards we take a long walk outdoors with my dog and enjoy the sunset. I curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book and some tea to wind down. I practice self-care (for example, a face mask or stretching) then head to bed at a reasonable hour.

An Ideal Day in Town

Morning

I wake up when my body is ready to wake up, without rushing. I hear the hustle and bustle of my surroundings melding into a pleasant rhythm. I take my dog for a walk to a local park and greet my neighbors on the way. I head to a local café for a healthy breakfast along with a book. I pick up local ingredients at the farmer’s market on my way home. I rest in a nook with lots of sunlight and spend a few hours writing.

Afternoon

I create a home-crafted meal with local ingredients. I housekeep and workout. I take my dog for a walk to dog-friendly shops and enjoy a tea at an outdoor coffee shop. I head to a park or local studio to paint or sculpt or learn something that stokes my creativity.

Evening

Dinner involves spending time with a friend or two in deep conversation. We either gather for a potluck or go to a healthy restaurant. Afterwards we go for a long walk outdoors with my dog and enjoy the sunset. We then head to a local cultural event such as live music or an art show. When I return home, I practice self-care and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

My Actual Life

Morning

I get up unwillingly before I am ready to do so. I make breakfast quickly and head off to work. I notice the sunrise at times. I work the entire morning. If it is the weekend, I engage in housekeeping and errands during this time of day. Some weekend mornings I will write or spend time in nature.

Afternoon

I work into the afternoon. I return home and grab meals where I can, occasionally cooking for myself. I work out and watch TV. I go to therapy. I walk my dog at a park. I sometimes write, and, on the weekends, occasionally paint.

Evening

I spend most evenings alone; I’m with a friend or group a few times a week at most. I watch TV and sit around. I typically take my dog for another walk. I rarely notice the sunset. I occasionally engage in self-care, write or read. As of late, I go to bed very early.

Reflection

I feel ashamed of what I’ve written. My shame is not in relation to what I shared about my actual life. Rather, I hear mocking internally in regards to what I wish my life involved. In part, this connects to a specific experience of bullying in which a college roommate made fun of me for writing her a letter the summer before we moved in and stating that I liked spending time outdoors hiking. Apparently she and all her friends sat around and laughed at the naïve, uncool country girl.

Even now, I don’t always succeed in hiding the excitable parts of who I am, the ones that seem very distant during this depression. I dissociate and appear nonchalant when someone mocks my joyfulness as an adult, but it cuts to the quick and shuts into locked corner even further the young, eager and happy parts of self. And, hard as it is for me to admit, I mock myself with the same or even greater intensity. I feel rage when I think of the jaded-teenager aspects we each hold in us that want to eye-roll and smirk our way past anyone’s genuine joy and enthusiasm and I feel compassion when I consider how we became jaded.

I am very curious to hear about your ideal versus your actual life, but not in a way that limits our perspective to a consideration of the distance between them. Rather, what is it like in your being, if you are able, to dream of your ideal? What holds you back if you can’t go there mentally? What are your experiences of having your ideals or dreams ridiculed, and how do you hold space for the energetic and excitable parts of you who want to rush toward that for which you long?