Top 10 Golden Rules
The most fundamental thing you can do is read labels when you’re in the store. If there are words you don’t recognize because they contain
12 syllables, or one of the first three ingredients is corn syrup (in a tomato sauce, no less), or the amount of sodium in a cereal seems like they
must have mixed it up with the corn chips, find another brand.
When you go to the store, try to shop the periphery, where generally the fresh produce, meat, and fish are displayed (as opposed to the preserved foods that are housed in the central aisles). I’m not saying you should never buy the potato chips, but look at how they’re made versus another brand before buying them. Just remember that “cheap food” is often code for “processed food,” so that’s when reading the labels comes in really handy. And if your store offers a decent amount of organic options (like cereals or dairy), shopping just got a lot easier.
Don’t be afraid of fat. Fat is essential to our diet. On good days, we choose good fats like salmon and avocado. On bad days, we could eat deep-fried candy bars. It’s okay to stray—we’re Americans, we go big or go home. But we need to stop sending that message to our butts. Shoot for moderation: don’t keep “tempting, bad foods” in the house all the time, for one. And if we’re going to chew the fat, then at least make it natural fat.
Look at the basic ingredients in Häagen-Dazs ice cream:
- skim milk
- egg yolks
Notice these are ingredients your grandmother would recognize.
Now look at just a portion of the ingredients in a “lighter” product:
- diglycerides (fats that prevents separation, made from corn)
- cellulose gum (thickener)
- polysorbate 65 (more emulsifier)
- tricalcium phosphate (firming agent that also falsely increases the calcium content on the label)
Hello, grandma is growing a second head.
Your body is far better off in the long run ingesting something made from natural ingredients… but with something this decadent, yes, just once in a while! And if you’re a dessert addict who needs a fix every day, at least get in the habit of making your own sweets, maybe with some fruit in there somewhere. (I’m betting you won’t be adding any polydextrose from your home pantry.) Or grab some frozen yogurt (just don’t forget to ask the vendor what’s in it). Compare—maybe half a portion of Häagen-Dazs is equal to a full portion of the fro-yo!
Choose foods that make sense seasonally. There is a reason tomatoes are mealy in winter—they’re a summer fruit and actually have properties meant to cool off your body. By buying the ripest seasonal food, it’s most likely coming from a local purveyor (and not being flown in from South America where people are on the beach in January). Perhaps the number-one rule of Italian cooking is to start with the freshest product—your food tastes better before you even start chopping it. If your recipe calls for asparagus, but you get to the store and it’s brown-flecked and droopy (peak asparagus season is March to July), substitute zucchini or mushrooms, or whatever else looks like it’s in top shape.
Another way to know what’s seasonal is to visit your farmer’s market. I know it can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, this is about making choices. Decide what’s worth splurging on because you know it’s handled with care, and then decide what you prefer to buy at your local store. If you can get grass-fed beef at the farmer’s market, and your store’s butcher just can’t seem to pinpoint where his meat comes from, then your choice is made. Plus, I have never met a farmer’s market egg
I didn’t like. On the flip side, insist on better product from your butcher and fishmonger—ask them when a fish got delivered or who the purveyor of their beef is. Let them know you demand the best quality, and they will most likely get it for you (and give you the best cuts in the future).
We all know how important it is to buy local: you’re supporting the community, the small farmer; your food will taste better because it’s fresher and given more time to mature (not clipped early and left to finish maturing in shipping crates); and you’re minimizing the carbon footprint since food doesn’t have to travel very far to your table. You could also consider joining a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture—boxes of just-picked fruit and vegetables from local farms are delivered to you.
And now you’re thinking: “But going to my big-box store is so convenient.
I don’t want to run around to five different places!” I know everyone leads busy lives, but it’s worth going to more than one store to make sure you have the best array of products. And here’s a tip: buy bulk for certain pantry products when possible so you don’t have to visit multiple stores so often. Buy five jars of tuna or olive oil instead of one—plus, your pantry will be stocked and ready for a last-minute meal.
Keep yourself updated about food so you can make better decisions (and Let There Be Bite can help with that!). Which fish should you avoid for its high mercury levels, and is it really that serious? Which fish should you avoid because of overfishing? Is corn syrup really all that bad for you? How does your state regulate the treatment of farm animals that produce your meat and eggs? Food is changing all the time because of economics and the environment. Take care in your food choices and they will ultimately take care of you.
Don’t feel very confident in the kitchen? Take a “basics” cooking class at a local school.
- Knowing how to use a knife efficiently actually makes prepping food kind of fun and gives you much more confidence in approaching new recipes.
- If you cook more often with fresh ingredients (as opposed to “ready to eat, time-saving, processed” foods), you will likely be ingesting fewer preservatives (and fewer synthetic foods with 12 syllables).
- You could also lose weight! When you cook at home you know what goes into your food, while restaurant chefs don’t hold back on the fat. They’re going for taste, not you in a bathing suit.
The more you cook, the better intuition you will develop.
I recently took a complicated Thomas Keller recipe (of French Laundry and Per Se fame) and eliminated some steps to make it easier while still maintaining the essence of the dish—because I know what the outcome should more or less taste and look like. You can develop an ability to look at a recipe’s ingredients and envision the taste of the end result, and whether is seems like it would be up your alley or not, and that will come with practice. And voila! Suddenly you’re making up your own recipes!