A response to “What’s for dinner?”

Dianne Sylvan asked this question in  a blog post yesterday, and I wanted to take time to do a more extensive response – both ’cause she’s a friend, and bec ause it’s part of my “I should talk about this sustainable priestessing thing here” goal for this year and this blog.

So, here goes: this post has a quickish overview of where my food habits are at the moment, where they’ve been over the past 18 months, and some staple meals that seem to be working pretty well for me, even if I’m tired.

Some food background:

My appetite and my food patterns have been in a huge amount of flux. In January of 2010, I got diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Before that, I went through about 6 weeks of persistent (though thankfully relatively mild) nausea, and I went through another (lengthier) bout while getting used to the medication: when I came out of the second one, some of my food preferences had shifted, and the amount I can comfortably eat at a given meal got a lot smaller. In addition, it’s become clear to me that some kinds of foods help me have a better functioning brain and body than others.

There are some foods that are widely considered to be problematic for people with low thyroid notably unfermented soy products (which leaves out every vegetarian meat alternative and a lot more: soy’s in a lot of processed foods) and uncooked brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, etc – the problematic chemical is mostly destroyed in cooking, but they’re still not great as the core of one’s intake).

Many people with thyroid issues find that a gluten-free diet or a lower-carb one helps. I love the process of baking, so I’ve explored this, and found that 1-2 servings of bread or grains in a given day seems to be fine for me (yay), but more than that increases brain fog in ways I don’t like.

Higher protein proportional to the rest of my diet helps a lot – both because I sometimes end up on the low side of calorie intake if I forget to eat a meal or two (starvation is not good for the body and I can’t just have a larger meal when I remember anymore) and because it helps my brain work better.

One of the good things about being currrently unemployed and job hunting is that I have a lot of flexibility to do that exploration and figure out what works for me, and to figure out how to do some new-to-me skills so they’re sustainable when I go back to work.

Basic dietary preferences:

Omnivore, drawing a lot in practice from the nourishing foods movement, and some modifications.

The nourishing foods movement basically looks at using foods that are less processed, closer to what our grandparents and great-grandparents would have been familiar with, and that retain a much greater proportion of their nutritional value. It looks not just at the foods themselves, but where they come from – grass-fed beef, for example, is both better and more natural for the cow, but also has a different nutritional profile than corn-raised beef. (Same deal with chickens, and fish, and eggs, and milk and butter.) Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook is probably the best known source, and she’s currently president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which was founded to look at restoring traditional, nutrient dense foods to people’s diets.

It’s got a lot of different people interested: there’s a bunch of nutty granola liberal Pagan/Quaker/UU folks talking about it, but there’s also a strong presence from committed Christians looking at sustainable living in keeping with specific Biblical tenets. This sometimes makes reading through my RSS feeds interesting. There’s some science I’m not yet convinced by, but a lot of stuff that does match up with my own experience too, so I mostly look at it for ideas, try things out, and see how it works for me.

I am on a limited budget (hi, unemployment), but I found that nutrition has to be a priority for me: otherwise, my brain goes away, which is both not much fun, and not much good for the job hunting. Fortunately, I also found that if I eat nutrient-dense foods, I eat less of them before I feel full, so the costs actually mostly work out the same. (It might not if you’re a really serious coupon hunter, because the nutrient-dense stuff is not usually particularly coupon friendly.)

I have a smaller apartment-sized fridge and freezer, so I can’t do as much freeze-and-store as I’d ideally like.

What this means in practice:

Basically, I buy foods that I could make in my own kitchen if I had the ingredients and energy at least 80% of the time. I do make some exceptions. (Chocolate!) Some stuff I buy from organic or natural foods brands because making them myself is a pain in the neck. (Annie’s Thai Coconut Soup, for example.)

My current goals include managing to eat breakfast more often (scrambled eggs or yogurt with honey and walnuts are good. Soup also happens surprisingly often), getting more probiotic and fermented foods in my diet (yogurt and sauerkraut have already shown up regularly, and I have plans to explore beet kvass this week.)

I’ve been playing with some things thought to improve metabolism and core body temperature: this includes warming spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, tumeric, etc.) and coconut oil (which I use for popcorn, and stick in other stuff where the flavor works.)

Food patterns:

Right now, I eat most of my meals at home. I have one monthly meeting that’s over a meal (where I eat there), and sometimes a couple of others where I might eat out to join a friend for something or pick up something so I can use my brain on something else that day, but it’s such a hit on the budget I’m deliberate and conscious about it Keeping easy-to-make foods at home helps a lot.

I live by myself, except for the cat, who doesn’t figure into the following except for getting the tail end of tuna cans, and occasional scraps from roast chicken.

Where I shop:

I split my grocery shopping between Trader Joe’s (for the processed stuff I do buy, plus ingredients for other things), and my local co-op (which is excellent, but pricier.)  I spend about $70-80 in a typical week, but I’m still buying somewhat more prepared food than I’d ideally like: as I figure out more options to replace processed foods, it goes down.

I keep an eye on seasonal foods, though there are things I buy out of season too. In the summer, I get to the Farmer’s Markets when I have the energy, aiming particularly for tomatoes, local cheeses, and local honey.

A typical shopping trip includes:

Some combination of veggies, some fresh, some frozen. Recently, I’ve been on a huge green bean kick. (Cook. Apply butter and slivered almonds. Eat.) Carrots are a perennial favorite, and good in soup. I’ve done roast cauliflower and roast cauliflower and cheese soup recently. Lots and lots and lots of tomatoes in the summer, but not in the winter, when they’re lousy or absurdly expensive. Some frozen corn. Other stuff as it catches my eye and sounds good.

I buy onions if I’m planning on stock or other uses which involve starting with whole onions (caramelised onions, for example). Ditto garlic. Otherwise, I use some alternatives described later.

Limes and/or lime juice: I put some (halved lime or a slug of juice) in my water for taste. (And bonus vitamin C and other good stuff content.) so I go through 6-7 limes a week or the equivalent in juice.

Some combination of grass-fed ground beef, organic chicken breasts/tenders, or a whole chicken. Primary protein sources, and I get 2-3 pounds worth of actual meat in a given week. (I don’t always cook all of it that week.) Roast chicken is good because it can then go and become stock, which is an excellent nourishing food and makes amazing soups.

Some amount of frozen fish/seafood: Frozen partly because I’m much less confident with cooking fish from scratch, and more because my interest in eating it is a lot more variable.  (If it comes to me frozen, the latter is not a big deal.) Fish and seafood make my brain work better than when I don’t eat them.

Milk and/or half-and-half: used mostly for cooking, rather than for drinking.

Yogurt for tzatiki sauce, yogurt with honey and walnuts, yogurt cheese, etc. I normally go for Greek-style plain yogurt as the most flexible and least prone to additives.

Cheese – usually some Cheddar (I really like Trader Joe’s English Coastal Cheddar at the moment, but something sharp and tasty), and something else. In the winter, that might be Swiss or Havarti, in the summer, it’s almost always fresh Mozzarella, to go with tomatoes. Cheese is my go-to “I really need to eat something, and argh, I don’t know what to eat” food. (And in tomato season, I can and will eat tomatoes, mozarella, and basil for as many meals as I’ve got the ingredients.)

Eggs: Scrambled, for breakfast. Also good for a quick “Argh, I need to eat” moment.  I want to experiment with making my own mini quiches, but I’m waiting on acquiring more kitchen items for various reasons.

Fruit: I can go through bushels of berries in season, but both price and taste make me avoid them when they’re not. I’m not terribly fond of a lot of other fruits in large amounts: I am as like to ignore them as eat them. To solve some of the nutritional bits of this, I get high-quality fruit juices, and mix one cup of juice with three cups of seltzer water, drink over the course of the morning or afternoon. (Depending on mood, this is Trader Joe’s Dynamo blend, which is a mostly citrus blend, or a berry + veggie mix.)

Selter/fizzy water: I don’t do my juice combo every day, so I buy 2-4 liters at a time, depending on how many I have kicking around at home.

Chocolate: A food staple for me, in at least moderate amounts.

And often jarred olives and/or pickles for snacking.

I can’t always get grass-fed milk (but I do avoid versions with added hormones or that are so highly pasteurised the sell-by date is weeks out. Milk is a food that should be able to go bad.) But I can get free and happy-ranging chickens, eggs, and grass-fed butter regularly. Besides working better for my body, I love the taste.

Things I keep in the house, but don’t necessarily buy every week:

  • flour: default is white all-purpose, but when I know where the job location is going to be, I want to shift into using a wider variety again. (Storage and how much I’ll use mean this is waiting until the job settles, though.)
  • organic popcorn kernels (made in a stove-top cranked popper with coconut oil and some butter and salt on top.)
  • canned tuna fish and/or canned chicken (great for a quick meal with a little mayo, seasoning, and crackers or bread.)
  • boxed crackers and/or oyster crackers for soup.
  • nuts: usually almonds (slivered) and walnuts (whatever is handy).
  • boxed and canned soups of various types: cream of mushroom is a default comfort food soup for me, I like Annie’s brand Thai Coconut a lot, and I usually have something like Butternut Squash, or Carrot Ginger around. I aim at the various organic/natural foods brands, rather than the super highly processed ones.
  • tisanes (I get mine from the Tea Source)
  • beer and/or red wine: I drink socially, but not very often on my own right now. I do use both for cooking from time to time so it’s handy to have in the house.
  • ice cream: I go through stages of wanting it regularly (though it cheerfully sits in the freezer between times) and not eating much. I get a local brand with few additives.
  • rice (I am not a huge rice fan, but it has a useful place.)
  • pasta (pasta and canned tomatoes used to be a default quick dinner for me, but with cutting down on grains, I’ve found other options. I still keep some, though.)
  • potatoes, ditto.
  • chickpeas – I’ve been reducing how much I eat them due to the carb issue, but I adore a good hummus, they make a really great stew, and so on.)
  • wild rice, especially in the winter (when my chicken wild rice stew is a staple. Older version of my current recipe is here: these days I tend toward homemade stock, caramelised onions, and lots of fresh mushrooms.)
  • 2-3 “I need food and don’t want to think about it” foods that are not soup. Trader Joe’s chicken potstickers. Annie’s frozen pizzas. Trader Joe’s frozen quiches.
  • various herbs and spices (mostly from Penzey‘s)
  • local honey from small production beekeepers.

For cooking fats, I use butter, coconut oil, and olive oil, depending on what I’m making. I go through maybe a quarter of a pound of butter most weeks including things like baking bread, and probably 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.  I use coconut oil where I can, which runs 3-5 TBS a week – there’s some things in the nutritional and fat profile that make it a particularly good fit for thyroid issues and improving metabolism.

I use sea salt for most of my cooking – better mineral profile, and I have a small amount of some culinaryily interesting sea salts for special occasions.

I do take a couple of supplements: on top of the prescription meds (thyroid medication, prescription doses of vitamin D), I take a daily multivitamin, a tumeric capsule, and sometimes magnesium (up to my tolerance level: I get weird dreams when I get beyond a certain point of magnesium intake, so I back off on supplementing for a bit when that happens.)

Large amounts of inexpensive sea salt, a variety of culinary herbs, beer, and honey all are handy magical items that I use from time to time, so they’re all things I keep particularly handy.

Stuff I don’t buy:

  • soda (other than an occasional treat of Izze Pomegranate or really good small-batch root beer.) I avoid caffeine mostly unless I need the wake-me-up push, but I have a residual diet Coke habit if I have soda.
  • bread (because I can make my own, and like to)
  • baked goods (ditto)
  • potato chips, etc. (they’re my one snacking downfall still, so I try not to have them around too often.)
  • salad greens (at least not very often: as someone living alone, I either have salad all the time for several days, or some goes bad: neither are particularly good things.)
  • stuff with ingredients I couldn’t find in my kitchen/buy in the grocery store.
  • red or green peppers (I end up with weird aftertaste issues.)
  • bananas (ditto, unless I severely need potassium)

Time and energy saving alternatives:

Living by myself, some foods don’t store well, and others I have a distressing tendency to forget I have. Onions are one of those: I will use them in huge amounts in some dishes, but give me half an onion left over, and I will forget it in the back of the fridge until it is blue and fuzzy. (Even if I have made things involving onions since then.)

My solution to this, and a solution for time and energy crunches in general is that I love Penzey‘s minced toasted dehydrated onions (and their minced dehydrated garlic) Both are inexpensive, even compared to fresh, and I don’t need to worry about storage.

I am also becoming a huge and passionate proponent of my slow cooker. I actually have a lengthy guest post in a friend’s series on cooking coming up, so I won’t duplicate that here, but I use mine heavily for making chicken stock, roasting vegetables, and making long simmered soups. (I do other things, too.) It’s both good for making batches up front (and then freezing and reheating as needed) and for coming home to a meal at the end of a day. I’ve been playing with recipes in part so that when I go back to teaching Craft stuff more regularly, I have pleasant and easy-to-manage tasty foods to feed people.

My favorite slow-cooking blog is Stephanie O’Dea’s A Year of Slow Cooking – she has tons of recipes (she did a new one every day for a year, and continues to add, albeit more slowly) and they avoid the dire things that slow cookers got a bad rep for (highly processed ingredients). Her family eats gluten-free, so she also has stuff that works well for that.

Snapshot of this week’s food:

You’ll see below that I average one fairly cooking-intensive meal for about every two days: that meal usually produces 2-3 additional meals.

Monday: Tzatiki and cottage cheese onion/dill bread for lunch. Made roasted cauliflower soup (and had it for dinner)

Tuesday: Picked up a Jimmy John’s (regional subway chain) for lunch after an appointment, and another for dinner or lunch the next day because I was going to be energy crunched and tired. (This turned out to be a very smart move: I might not have managed dinner otherwise.)

Wednesday: Leftover cauliflower soup and ice cream for lunch. Annie’s frozen pizza (the one with broccoli and spinach and no tomato sauce) for dinner.

Thursday: Doing ritual work in the evening, so something lighter and fairly early for dinner (soup?) Not sure about lunch. I should make more tzatiki. This would be a good scrambled-eggs-for-breakfast day.

Friday: I want to try making beet kvass, and may turn the rest of the beets into roast beet soup. There should be some protein in there too: I have chicken, frozen fish, frozen shrimp, and ground beef.

Saturday: Probably soup for lunch. (There is a theme here.) Dinner out with a friend before going to a play at a local Thai restaurant.

Sunday: Morning brunch meeting, something light for dinner.

(You can presume that I consumed chocolate – usually 1/2 or 1/3 of a small bar – most of these days.)

My general food tastes also run somewhat seasonally: I have just hit my All Dill All The Time season. (This week is actually sort of light on dill. I suspect there might be tuna + dill on crackers in there at the end of the week.) In the late spring, I spend a lot more time with summer salads and soups, and as many tomatoes as I can get. In the fall, stews and soups even more than I usually do. Etc.

I also try to drink herbal infusions: I’ve been bad about that the last few weeks, but normally that’s alternating oatstraw and nettle right now.

Things I’m figuring out how to improve:

I’d like to manage to eat breakfast more often – it’s going in fits and starts right now.

Ideally, I’d love to have frozen partially-cooked homemade pizza crusts in the freezer, so I could pull one out, defrost it, layer it with yummy stuff (I’m partial to pesto, chicken, artichoke hearts, and fresh mozzarella) and cook. I have not had the energy for the prep work for that for a good long while.

I also like having my own home-made pita bread in the freezer, but ditto. (I am back to more regular bread baking, but both the pita bread and pizza dough have two additional steps after my regular bread method, and I’m just not up for all of them on the same day reliably still.)

I want to have a bigger variety of frozen soups and stews in the freezer, and have a better routine for thawing and reheating them. As I add recipes (and especially figure out more crockpot options I like) this gets easier.

I’d like to explore more curries and more southeast Asian cuisines in general, because they include a number of ingredients I’d like to increase in my diet (warming spices, coconut, etc.) However, that’s enough of a shift for me that I need some spare brain and kitchen space before I do much of it to figure out how to make it work well for me.  (I have a weird hot spices tolerance, which is part of the bit I need to figure out how to adapt, plus cooking techniques and tools.)

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