Eating healthy means different things to different people. My wife and I, for example, cook nearly every meal using as many fresh ingredients as possible. For us, this is ideal, but it can't work for everyone. People who travel a great deal, have large families or crazy work schedules have to make choices, and a larger portion of their foods will come from restaurants, processed foods and other quick alternatives.
So many things crowd our schedules that sometimes eating becomes an afterthought. Everybody has their priorities, but food may be the biggest part of our consumption and lifestyle patterns. What and how we eat becomes the support for our bodies, minds and spirits.
To me, fresh food tastes better than pre-cooked foods, organic produce tastes better than standard produce, whole foods taste better than refined foods. But nothing tastes better than something just picked from the garden. But even a foodie like me has to compromise when short of time. We can make time an ally instead of an enemy when it comes to food, but it takes preparation and mindfulness.
Many people eat absentmindedly, not thinking of where their food comes from, how it was prepared, what it contains or even what it tastes like. Even worse, we eat while we are doing other things—driving, watching TV, working or surfing the web. Eating without thinking makes it easy to forget that what we are eating is crap, and we can eat too much if we don't slow down and pay attention.
How do we balance the need for speed with healthy eating habits? How do we find the time to make healthy meals and appreciate eating them? How can we fully savor the flavor? There isn't one simple answer. It is a balance between the practical and the philosophical: We should regard food as something to enjoy instead of something to rush through.
Before you eat, make a point of remembering that many people's labor was necessary to bring you the food you are about to eat. People prepare the soil, plant the seeds, cultivate the fields, harvest, clean, sort, process, pack, transport, store and sell the food you buy. Remember that the food came from the earth, from the soil, the sun and the rain. There is a grace to the bounty of the earth. Eat with humility, knowing that the earth and many people contributed to your meal. Feel your connection to the web of life and the people who support you, and be thankful. As you eat, put the fork down between bites. Try not to pick it up again until you completely chew and swallow your previous bite.
Cooking and eating can be an opportunity for reflection and rejuvenation, even if you don't have a lot of time. Here are some of my work-arounds to maintain a sense of quality food and a pleasant eating experience.
• Add something fresh to your quick meal: A splash of lemon on vegetables; a sprinkling of toasted sunflower or sesame seeds on your take-out fried rice or teriyaki; fresh tomato slices on frozen pizza before baking.
• Start an herb garden and add fresh oregano, thyme, parsley, cilantro, rosemary or basil to your dishes.
• Add fresh garlic, fresh herbs and a splash of red wine to jarred spaghetti sauce.
• Complement spicy or fried take-out food with ice-cold watermelon.
• Have a special beverage for the occasion. It can make the meal, be it fragrant jasmine tea with Asian food or beer with pizza.
• Live a little. Try new foods, recipes, restaurants and ingredients.
• Eat by candlelight.
• Sit quietly by a body of water or under a tree while you eat.
• Put flowers on the table.
• Play relaxing music in the background.
• Eat with people you love.
• Don't rush the meal. Savor every bite.
• Cook ahead on weekends to make foods you can eat throughout the week. In the winter I am mad for homemade soups, and in the summer I love salads made with veggies and grains such as rice, quinoa or couscous.
• Cook enough for leftovers and have something already made when you get home late. Or bring leftovers for lunch and reduce your food costs.
• Plan meals in advance and shop accordingly. You cook faster yet more calmly when you know what you are going to cook and have all of the ingredients.
• Prepare slow-cooking foods like dried beans or brown rice in advance, or use a crock-pot or other slow-cooking technique.
• Have a store of quick-to-prepare foods. Pasta and spaghetti sauce will do in a pinch (Note: Barilla Plus pasta has much more protein, fiber and omega 3 than regular pasta and stays firmer once cooked—excellent for soups). Black beans (canned) and salsa (jarred) heated and ladled over cheese grits (polenta) is yummy and fast. Or heat tasty, ready-to-eat soups from Pacific Foods or Imagine brands.
• Instant foods are handy for very fast meals: Just add hot water. Fantastic Foods make a good instant black bean soup. Look for instant versions of whole-grain hot cereals, and who can forget Ramen noodles? Just watch out for hydrogenated oils.
• Use frozen foods in a pinch. The USDA says that many frozen vegetables are nutritionally equal to fresh. Some frozen meals by companies striving to use natural whole food ingredients (Kashi and Annie's, for example) are tasty enough.
• Some foods are really convenience food in disguise. Couscous is a grain that just needs a few minutes in boiling water before serving. Miso soup? Just add miso to boiling water and drop in scallion slices and a bit of tofu. Warmed bread and a green salad are easy and quick side dishes. Fresh fruit is ready to eat, delicious and good for you. Nuts add quick protein and texture to salads and grains.
• Cook with friends. Many hands make light work.