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How to Love the Food that Loves you Back

When the hand that makes the food has a vested interest in the long-term health of the people consuming that food, the food will almost always end up being higher quality, healthier and, as you get better at it, probably more delicious.

A few years ago, I noticed that one of my school-aged children was getting a little pudgy around the middle. I wasn’t too worried because he was an active kid and I knew that sometimes people his age grow outward in preparation for growing upward, but I noticed it and I was pretty sure he did too. One morning, I caught him looking at his belly in the mirror and my sweet 10 year-old asked me “Do you think I’ll ever have a six-pack?” A good friend once told me that you’re only as happy as your least happy child, so that innocent question – and the look on his face when he asked it – propelled me into protective mama-bear mode. Without making any hard-and-fast decisions about our family’s diet, I found myself doing things a little differently. I held back a bit on the oil or butter in the pan. I cut down on the red meat in our weekly meals and added a few more greens to everyone’s plates. I made an extra effort to turn out some pretty-darn-good-tasting veggie dishes and I served them first when the hunger index was high (pretending the other food wasn’t ready yet). When the kids begged me for chocolate chip cookies, I made them myself, but I cut back on the sugar and used 1/2 of the butter. I avoided stopping for take-outs on days when I was stuck at work longer than usual. I made these changes without consciously having a plan to put my child “on a diet”. In retrospect, I think I reacted like any slightly worried parent would have. But as I made these subtle changes which, by the way, the children hardly noticed, I realized something that has since become the key to my philosophy on food preparation: When the hand that makes the food has a vested interest in the long-term health of the people consuming that food, the food will almost always end up being higher quality, healthier and, as you get better at it, probably more delicious. Processed food companies and fast food chains have a primary, vested interest in keeping their profit margins growing, so they will buy the cheapest starting ingredients they can find and make them appealing to consumers by adding way too much low-quality fat, sugar and salt. Human beings evolved through times of famine, to prefer the taste of things that are sweet, salty and contain fat. In the days when food was short, this preference helped us to survive. Today, this preference threatens our health because we are living in a food environment that tries to capitalize on it. Our love of all things sweet, salty and fatty helps to line the pockets of the processed food industry while we’re left hurting badly in the long term. In contrast, when a human being prepares food for people they love, they will almost always choose the highest quality starting ingredients they can afford, then prepare those foods in a way that maximizes enjoyment without sabotaging health. I don’t want to see my 10 year-old end up obese or struggling with type 2 diabetes, so I am much more likely to watch the portion sizes and use only reasonable amounts of sugar, salt and (healthier) fats the food he eats. Lots of people tell me that they understand this in principle but don’t know how to put it into practice. They say they don’t have time to cook or they don’t know how to cook. My advice? Cook. Simply. Creating simple, delicious meals doesn’t have to be a high wire act. If you can boil water, you can cook. If you have time to peel a carrot, you have time to cook. A small bowl of whole wheat pasta, grated cheese melting on top and some crunchy carrot sticks and sweet apple wedges? That’s a meal. A can of black beans drained and rinsed, tossed in a pan with some brown rice, sautéed onions, garlic and cilantro? That’s a meal. And the best part is that these meals will almost always be healthier (and cheaper) than getting take-outs. If you lower your expectations and start with a few simple experiments, you might soon find your confidence growing. You may end up sprinkling some fresh herbs and chopped nuts on your salads. You might find yourself adding cumin seeds, olive oil and kosher salt to your still-crunchy roasted veggies. You may find yourself visiting a farmer’s market to see what’s in season and particularly delicious. And as this happens, you will start to feel a sense of pride and opportunity in what you eat. You will start to ask yourself “Is this food worthy of me and my beautiful family? Is this food good enough for us? Will this food love us back?”

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