The other day I was at the grocery store and saw something that made me pause: a table of guys selling "energy" bars. These bars were organic, dairy-free, wheat-free, raw, natural -- all those trendy catch-words you see so often -- but they had the caloric value of a full meal. One of the guys selling them helpfully told me, "This could be your lunch!" And that's when I got worried. Because that bar may be organic, wheat-free and raw, but it isn't food. So here's my suggestion: Let's look past all these trendy, supposed health products and bring back the real trend -- food.
The problem with trendy foods is that they confuse people about what's healthy and what's not -- sometimes they confuse us so badly that we make very irrational choices. For instance, many people are so worried about carbohydrates that they won't eat a potato, but they'll snack on energy bars dressed up in nothing but healthy catch-words. How do we end up so afraid of a thing grown in the ground that we will choose a product made in a factory instead? Or look at another trend -- coconut water. It's hugely popular, but what does the coconut add to hydration? Weren't we hydrated before? All of these factory concoctions are moving us farther away from the most perfect place to be: the kitchen.
In the end, the basis of good health isn't keeping this or that ingredient out of your food; it's building a better relationship with your kitchen. It doesn't matter how wheat- or dairy- or fat-free your meal is if it isn't actually food. Spend some time learning a few dishes and cooking them at home. And I know that no one has any free time -- but if you develop a good relationship with your kitchen you can get a lot done in very little time. Here are a few strategies.
First, don't worry about trying to cook something new or elaborate every day. Instead, find a couple of days of the week when you can commit to prepare some basics. For many people, Sunday afternoon is a great time to shop and then cook up a large pot of grains (rice, beans, lentils) and multiple portions of meat (chicken breasts, a pork tenderloin). Roast a large baking sheet of vegetables -- carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes. These things are the basis of very fast food that you can put together during the rest of the week.
Once you have your basics cooked, you can come home from work and put together a real meal in mere minutes. Slice chicken breasts to put over a salad. Chop up the roasted vegetables and put them with canned tomatoes and chopped garlic to make a pasta sauce. The beans and meat can simmer on the stove with tomatoes and spices, and in half an hour you will have a delicious stew. If you have the basics pre-cooked and waiting in the refrigerator, all you have to do is think of a way to mix them together. This is far easier than starting meals from scratch after a long day, and it will let you use your kitchen rather than food delivery or -- heaven forbid -- some processed energy bar.
What goes for dinner is true of lunch as well. Rather than grabbing some bar that is so processed it might as well be pre-chewed and pre-digested, use your prepared basics to make a lunch. Make salads with the roasted vegetables, the lentils and the chicken breast. Put the rice, pork and beans together in a tortilla to make a burrito. Pack it up, bring it with you, and you will no longer need to spend money and empty calories on artificial food.
Cooking and the kitchen are the best health trend you can possibly embrace. It will take a little bit of planning, and a small amount of time. But you will save money and improve your health. The first step: When you go to the grocery store, plan to shop for food, not for products.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice in San Francisco, Calif. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the founder of Eating Free.
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