We’re one (full) week into our food resolutions of 2020. Five Food staffers have taken the plunge and dedicated themselves to changing their eating and cooking habits. One is attempting to treat every meal as a chance to connect, nourishing her soul. One is working to make more satisfying breakfasts. One is bringing lunch to work more often, while another deleted food-delivery apps from her phone in an effort to order less takeout. And one has been forgoing meat, not just for his health but for the planet’s, too.
How’d they do to start the new year? Read on.
So far, my better breakfast resolution has held up relatively well, I’m happy to report. Making a concerted effort to kick-start my days with filling, savory and interesting meals has made a notable impact on how I feel, physically and mentally (a good breakfast is a major mood boost).
The struggle has been accepting that I can’t make every meal from scratch — not with a family, work and maybe just a tiny bit of time devoted to stuff like exercising, folding laundry and folding more laundry. Dinners are already almost all cooked by my husband or me, so after that, I have to pick breakfast or lunch. Obviously, I’ve come down on the side of breakfast for now. A hearty breakfast pushes lunch forward and makes it okay to eat a lighter midday meal, even if it’s just yogurt and fruit. Plus, I have the advantage of the Food Lab, where my colleagues and I are cooking something almost every day of the week.
I’m not alone in my devotion to breakfast. Thanks to all the readers — more than 40 by email, plus a substantial number of Instagram messages and online comments — who reached out with ideas. A few common threads:
- Oatmeal. My crutch for a while, but plenty of people encouraged me not to fully abandon it, especially when loaded with fruit or baked.
- Avocados. While my rock-hard avocados that came in my grocery delivery ripened, I polled my Instagram followers for avocado toast toppings and was swamped with suggestions, including seasonings (everything spice mix, sumac, za’atar), veggies (tomatoes, sweet potato) and other creative additions (feta, bacon, chickpeas).
- Eggs. I am trying to move away from these as another default. I still love them and will surely devour many this month. Readers recommended hard-boiled, soft-boiled, frittatas and fried.
I had lots to chew on. What did I actually eat? For my first (partial) week, with New Year’s on a Wednesday, I gave myself an immediate leg up by pulling some British-style beans out of my freezer. These evolved into beans on toast with an egg, then beans on naan with an egg, then … beans on potatoes, no egg.
I pried myself away from eggs the next week with a reader-recommended tofu scramble and fajita-spiced roasted vegetables. Thus commenced several days of tacos. Then life — my toddler — interrupted, and one morning absolutely no cooking was happening. Freezer to the rescue again. Out came two muffins and a leftover mango smoothie from the weekend. Coconut milk, yogurt and mango pulp already made this one thick and creamy, so sending it into cold storage and then defrosting at room temperature did not diminish the texture that much. Things improved the next morning, when I finished the tofu scramble and vegetables with yet another freezer find, one homemade biscuit.
What’s next? Now that those avocados are ripe, it’s time for toast using a no-knead bread I made and stashed in the freezer. After that, I’m still open to your ideas, so keep ’em coming.
Over the past two weeks, I ate with seven journalist colleagues, six kids (one of them mine), five old friends, one new friend and a hibachi chef. I’ve eaten in a bowling alley, at an embassy and in bed with the aforementioned kid when he had a cold, using Volume 2 of “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” as our table for tea and toast.
The constant thread throughout these meals: Everyone wanted to be heard and seen and loved for who they are. As a Post colleague metaphorically noted, we are all plants that need watering. Including me.
So, of course, I failed at one meal. Success is a squiggle, not an incline. But failure is rich ground. The key to changing unwanted behavior is understanding why I do it, so I poked around my failure to understand it better. It had been a busy news day (in an anxiety-producing, 2020 kind of way), I was working on deadline, and I hungrily decided that the only sane option after a long time at work was to go home and collapse solo in front of “The Good Place.”
I made this choice because I wanted to feel safe. Although it worked in the short term, eating alone was a missed opportunity to connect with others at the end of a baffling day. Eating releases endorphins, which promote bonding; that night I bonded only with an image of Jameela Jamil (not a bad second choice, but not my 2020 goal).
The next morning, to motivate myself back on the wagon, I researched eating with others. I found a lot of rules for being hospitable and making people feel comfortable at a meal: Don’t talk about politics, don’t eat anything messy, don’t put too much on your plate. Thanks for the tips, but I’m not in the market for more anxiety. So I broke all those rules in just one lunch with restaurateur Danny Meyer, who promotes “enlightened hospitality.”
Giving and expecting hospitality — receiving someone graciously, whether you’re a host or a guest or a lunch buddy — is key to feeling comfortable around a table. Meyer discussed the state of political division in America, saying that he welcomes people of all political stripes to the table. “Hospitality should be blind to all of your preferences,” Meyer stated, because “the table is the place where things can actually get worked out.”
In “You’re Not Listening,” Kate Murphy writes that when people’s beliefs are challenged, parts of their brains light up as if they were being chased by a bear. Not ideal dining conditions. I had that chased-by-a-bear feeling on the night when I ate alone, so I understand my human reaction to retreat instead of worrying about talking about the right things, eating messily or eating an appropriate amount.
We don’t have to follow any rules to be worthy of eating with and being seen and heard by others. Moving forward, I’m going to loosen up on how things should be and focus on what is. Human connection — especially with those who are different — can be uncomfortable. But it’s also the thing that can save us.
“Bring your lunch three days a week for a month? That’ll be easy.”
It wasn’t exactly a double-dog dare, but when a friend politely scoffed at my published food resolution for this month, it did make me think: Should I aim higher?
A week and a half in, I can proudly say I’m 8 for 8 bringing my lunch from home. And while I’m not ready to commit to a month of total purchased lunch abstinence, I’m game to see how long I can last.
Several kind readers emailed me with encouragement and ideas. Reader Stephen suggested leaving several yogurts in the fridge at the office (“a walk to the fridge is still a walk”), keeping granola handy and making sure I’ve got a spoon at my desk. Yogurt has been on my menu nearly every day, and instead of granola, there’s a big bag of Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels tucked into a desk drawer for emergency snacking. (It may not survive once my colleagues read this.)
As I’ve mentioned, it’s usually about the logistics for me, not the willpower. When would I have time to prepare these lunches (if I want to avoid the sandwich route as much as possible)? How would I schlep my lunch to work in my barely-big-enough-to-hold-my-work-clothes biking backpack? Would I get bored of eating the same thing several days in a row?
So far, so good. Mostly.
I’m not typically one for big-batch cooking — I cook for one or two, and I’m not the biggest leftovers fan — but doubling up recipes has been very helpful in this endeavor. I made an especially large quantity of slow-cooker chicken mole to serve to New Year’s Eve party guests, knowing that I would have plenty of leftovers. Those went into burritos, along with seasoned rice and peppers and onions, which anchored my lunches the first few days of the new year.
One week, I cooked up a modified batch of sesame noodles (with udon and tahini, because I had them in my pantry) and loaded them with chopped carrots, cucumber and red bell pepper. That carried me from Tuesday to Thursday and was extra convenient because it’s best served cold.
My one rough day was one when I’d planned to have enough leftovers from a restaurant meal the night before to bring for lunch — until my friend and I found the Afghan stew too tasty. Fortunately, yogurt, an orange and a couple handfuls of those peanut butter pretzels filled in the gaps around the tiny portion that remained.
I haven’t done as well with the midday walks. I’ve eaten at my desk twice, in our building’s scenic penthouse and in the Food Lab, but I’m not getting much fresh air. But since I haven’t yet settled on a bigger backpack, I’m walking into work more often, so I’m still getting my steps in. I just need to get out the door 20 minutes earlier than usual.
I didn’t think going meatless for a month would be terribly difficult, but I didn’t think it would be easy, either. And I knew I would need three things to be successful: support, accountability and a plan.
Support was pretty easy. When the link to the original resolutions story hit social media, I was inundated with messages of encouragement — some of it in the form of well-intentioned shock — and my inbox overflowed with my friends’ favorite vegetarian recipes. Suddenly, I felt like I had the start of a solid playbook if I ever decided to open an Indian restaurant.
It also helped me start with my plan, which was key. Meal planning isn’t something I normally do, because my typical “plan” is to wait till I’m hungry, then see what’s in the house and throw something together. But the things I throw together always include a piece of chicken or pork from the freezer, or some bacon or sausage, or, at the very least, chicken stock, so I knew that strategy could be my downfall this month.
Breakfast and lunch would be easy. Breakfast is usually yogurt and granola, or a bagel. Lunch is not a big problem, because if I have it, I’m generally happy with a salad or leftovers. So all that I really needed to plot out were dinners (which would lead to those lunch leftovers).
My first list included my Meatless Monday standbys: chana masala, and pasta with Mushroom-Walnut Meatballs, from the WaPoFood recipe database. Putting those two things at the top of my plan exposed a potential weakness: I could easily carb my way through the month. Which, while technically ensuring success, wasn’t really the way I wanted to go.
So I made a list and went to the grocery store, and if anyone was there after me who needed chickpeas … well, sorry about that.
Accountability is the trickiest part. We are only as meatless as we are when no one is watching. I have a friend with whom I have established a weekly text conversation about health matters, and he is someone I have no problem being overly open and honest with, so this is now part of that conversation. And I started posting a photo of my dinner every evening on Instagram. It isn’t unusual for me to post food photos on social media, but the onslaught of veg posts to start 2020 has definitely gotten the attention of my modest following.
So far, I haven’t missed meat. At all, really. I do find myself occasionally thinking about what the first thing I want to eat on Feb. 1 is, but not in any rabid, craving way. It comes up when I read about a dish at a restaurant, and I want to try it, but it’s meat. So I shrug.
In three weeks, that mental list will either be overwhelmingly long, or I will have completely forgotten about everything on it.
My month of takeout-free living almost — almost! — began with a giant fail. It was the first day of the year. My husband and I had drawn up some menus (more on those later) of meals we could pry out of the pantry and freezer in a pinch rather than order up delivery on nights when our plans went awry, or when we plain didn’t feel like (please feel free to read that in a very toddler voice) eating the leftovers we had counted on. So far, so good.
But all of this depended on a big grocery shop, in which we would add to the items we need for regularly scheduled programming an arsenal of ingredients to have at the ready. And … you know what they say about the best-laid plans? Yeah, that.
I spent New Year’s Day with family and friends a few hours from home. I ran a 5k. I saw the new Star Wars movie. I should have left early enough to hit the grocery store on my drive home, but I opted to linger, unwilling to break the warm holiday spell with the intrusion of cold, real life.
At home and hungry, the siren song of Indian takeout called. But I resisted (not today, Satan!), and scrounged: An egg, a can of tomato paste thinned to a sauce, a handful of frozen spinach, and the last of a tub of feta turned into a shakshuka, albeit of the sad-trombone variety.
The next day, it was back to my usual routine, and another chance to get things started properly. After our initial story about our resolutions ran, readers had emailed me with words of encouragement and a few much-appreciated tips. “Why don’t you grocery shop on the way to work?” one suggested. That isn’t feasible, because I take public transport, so I couldn’t lug cases of La Croix, and there isn’t a grocery store on my route, anyway.
But, hey! I could shop for small hauls at lunch — there’s a Whole Foods a short walk away and an office fridge where I could stash the goods. So I made the trek and bought just enough to get us through to the weekend, when we could properly lay in supplies. Whew.
Now, about those break-glass-in-case-of-emergency menus? Eric and I settled on a few dishes we could easily throw together, such as buttery shrimp bathed in garlic and tomato paste served with toast (frozen shrimp and bread are on standby). Quesadillas wouldn’t feel like a fallback with jars of roasted red peppers and fancy salsa to gussy them up. And shakshuka, though this one would incorporate a decent jarred tomato sauce.
We upped our fully-prepared-meal game, too. Into the freezer went a couple Roberta’s frozen pizzas. Orange chicken from Trader Joe’s — and, on a colleague’s recommendation, the tempura chicken and samosas. Frozen greens of a couple varieties for sides. I even scooped up frozen rice, which is something I never thought I would buy, but in the interest of having a fully prepped dinner at hand, I swallowed my pride.
I confidently stuck a list of our takeout-alternative meals on the fridge.
We’re only a week-plus into the year, and we haven’t had to delve into our stockpile yet. But it’s a comforting feeling knowing that it’s there, like having a backup generator in the garage or a spare pair of tights in your desk drawer.
Come to think of it, I actually have neither of these, so maybe that’s a project for next month? 2021? For now, I’m taking it a week at a time. Hit me up if you have a favorite frozen meal: I love how passionate people get about their favorite Trader Joe’s entrees, and I am here for it.