I had the world’s greatest dinner arrangement when I was in college. I lived with six other people in an on-campus apartment, where we stuck to a vegetarian food supply and participated in a food co-op that kept our groceries on the cheap. Each of us took responsibility for all of the cooking and all of the cleaning exactly one night a week, which meant we could come home to a fully cooked meal on the other six.
Some of my housemates were vegetarians with conviction, some of us, like me, were vegetarians for the sake of convenience and frugality. I respected my friends’ wishes to not use our pots and pans to cook meat, and if I did eat it, it was outside of the house. Looking back, I think this was one of the healthiest periods for me and food, who have had a rocky relationship.
This year, I made Mark Bittman’s Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating one of my first reads. Without the least bit of preaching, he puts forth a history of U.S. food and FDA politics that made me reconsider why I think certain things are nutritious that may not be, and what a healthier diet might look like. He gives a lot of sensible advice about how to shift towards better choices in a reasonable and sustainable kind of way.
Among the layers of facts that he puts out about the over-consumption that developed nations indulge in are these: over fifty percent of American crops are devoted to growing soy and corn to feed the massive amount of livestock we consume every year. If those fields were used to grow crops suitable for human consumption, they would produce enough to feed the world several times over. That says nothing of the massive amount of land and resources we devote to raising and slaughtering livestock. Bittman does a good job of laying out the environmental impact of that industry without moralizing. He convinced me that the mere act of eating more plant-based foods and fewer refined grains, sugars and animal products is both good for my body and the future of the planet. And he made unintimidating suggestions about ways to do that.
For the past few months I’ve been moving towards eating little meat or dairy during the day (except half and half for my coffee), loading up on snackable produce and generally attacking the vegetables on my plate first when I have dinner, so that if I have meat, I have much less of it than I might have before. If I end up somewhere for lunch with minimal choices (or a meat choice that I really want to try), I try and make dinner my vegetarian meal. I’m experimenting with grains like bulgur and quinoa more often and using olive oil in lieu of butter.
All in all, these changes actually aren’t that radical for me – they are just more conscious decisions than they used to be. I also don’t make myself crazy over them. I worry more about buying local and learning to cook with in-season foods than I do about buying organic (although I do try and make as much of the dairy and meat I buy — especially to feed to my kid — organic and hormone-free as I can). I really can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods and, as Bittman points out, while organic food is a sound choice, elevating the consumption of plant-based foods is no small stride toward a healthier body and planet.
These choices aren’t frying the fat off of my body. And frankly, I’m not coupling them with enough exercise or even avoiding cake during a period that is rife with family birthdays. I feel better, though. My skin is healthier. I feel more energetic and active. A couple of pounds have gone AWOL and I’m enjoying food more. It’s summer in Ohio and the choices from the vine are glorious.