There’s a very strong memory from my first year in university of opening one of the cupboard doors of the common kitchen area I shared with three other girls and peeking inside. Feet firmly planted on the gray speckled linoleum tile floor, a few growing dust balls hiding in those tricky corners between the bottom of the cupboards and the wall. It was my allotted food space, the place to hold the sustenance I dragged from the mega grocery store an LRT ride away. We were seven stories up, perched on the highest floor—you bet I took the elevator when I came home, hands worn raw and red from carrying the achingly heavy green plastic bags.
Inside the cupboard was a cornucopia that would make any doomsday conspiracy theorist or suburban mom proud: box after box and package after package of prepared foods.
To hold off the stomach grumbles during Intro to Poli Sci, where our unintentionally amusing and easily excitable German professor Achim held court, there were little cups of flavoured Mott’s applesauce, no-name sugar-loaded granola bars in every flavour you could imagine, Nutrigrain bars out the wazoo—in strawberry only, you heathens—and at least two packages of chocolate chip cookies, brittle from age but deliciously uniform.
Next to the snacks were the meal ‘enhancers’ like a dozen boxes of mac n’ cheese with vibrant blue packaging, cans of tomato alphabet soup, packages of seasoned microwavable rice and a squat jar of nacho cheese.
The fridge and freezer, only two paces away in our tiny kitchen and common area, held the joys of half a dozen Lean Cuisines, frozen trays of store-brand lasagna and macaroni and cheese, fun mini yogurts in dessert-like flavours and an assortment of half-opened salad dressing bottles.
And apples. Always a few waxy, bruised apples that tasted like beeswax and dryer lint combined, which was quite the impressive feat for something that apparently grew on a tree once.
Those are the foods I ate throughout my first, second and third years at university while living in residence—I know, I know, why I did that still baffles me—filled in with trips to the cafeteria, Tim Hortons, Pizza Pizza and Subway. (Fourth year was better. But just barely.)
Scared yet? Sound familiar? Unless you had a delightfully hippy and/or nutritionally educated upbringing, it might.
You Eat What You Know
Like I mentioned in my previous post, I ate what I knew, like many people out there. My diet wasn’t exotic or really that varied, to be honest. Dinners were based around a meat, usually with some sort of carb like microwave rice or bread and butter—hey, they were carbs and I wasn’t complaining—and a caesar salad or baby carrot sticks on the side. I don’t blame my parents for this, but diverse these meals were not.
For instance, I had no idea that you could eat meals based around vegetables. Mind blown, right? My good friend Rachael, a track star and soon-to-be lawyer, grew up in a house where vegetables weren’t a half-hearted side dish but the main attraction of the meal. She absorbed this as ‘normal’ and it translated into an adult life filled with that same type of cooking and eating.
Some people have all the luck.
Unfortunately, I had to learn this lesson the hard way. The more pre-packaged, sodium-spiked foods you eat, the worse you feel. It’s just a fact. I’m sure you’ve tried this out yourself, gleefully digging into a pile of Americanized Chinese food after you ordered Uber Eats while hangry—never a good idea—and felt like a dried up sponge afterwards, waddling around the house complaining about how you’ll never order bad food again. You swear.
Until I started eating more ‘clean‘—ugh, that word is horrible, sorry—I didn’t realize that you didn’t have to feel bogged down with food after each meal. You could feel full and not regret your eating decisions a minute after the last bite. It was a revolutionary thought.
Parents of small children, please teach your kiddos this. Or else they will turn into potentially disturbed individuals writing blog posts about the mental scarring of microwaveable rice well into their adult years. No one wants that.
Fun Times with Bread
Want to try something fun? Go to your kitchen and read the ingredients on your loaf of store-bought sandwich bread, if you have one lying around.
I’ll make this easier for you. My partner loves bread and his favourite type is Country Harvest’s 12 Grains Sandwich Bread. It sounds great, right? It’s full of 12 grains! So many grains! And it’s brown and toasty-looking. This is obviously healthy bread.
Here’s what’s in it:
Whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ, water, whole grain and seed mix (flax seeds, ground flax seeds, barley flakes, oat flakes, rye flakes, triticale flakes, corn meal, millet, sunflower seeds, brown rice meal, dark buckwheat flour, sesame seeds), sugar/glucose-fructose, wheat gluten, yeast, fancy molasses, salt, soybean and/or canola oil, calcium propionate, diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, vinegar, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, vegetable monoglycerides, sorbic acid. Topping: Rye meal, rolled oats.
Oh, and may contain soy.
They buried the lede there a bit, but did you catch what the fourth ingredient—which means it’s the fourth largest part of what makes up the bread—was? Sugar/glucose-fructose. Three ingredients down from that is fancy molasses, another type of sugar.
Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sugar and molasses—people who sanctimoniously tell you they “choose a sugar-free lifestyle, and you should too” are certifiable in my books—but having that much in a simple ‘healthy’ bread is a bit much. There are lots of places where I want sugar; pie and cake are two. But in bread? Not needed in most cases.
Also, I have no idea what “diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides” are. It sounds like a new dinosaur that Country Harvest discovered. Someone call CBC. I’ll give the Museum of Nature a heads up.
When I make my go-to loaf at home—recipe coming in two weeks!—it has four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. No added sugar.
That’s it. Really. Sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate sounds super fun, but it’s not invited to this bread party.
Taking Baby Steps
The point is that you don’t have to be confused by the ingredient list of the foods you eat. My first step into homemade goodness was through a little 1.5 lb. bread maker my parents bought for me for Christmas in university. It was cheap and did the job well, popping out loaves in less than three hours with absolutely no work on my part except for feeding it ingredients at the beginning.
While I’ve graduated to more hands-on bread making—bread maker loaves are alright, but nothing special—there are so many ways to start small and make healthy changes in your life.
Want a great source of cheap protein ready for you throughout the day? Cook up a dozen hardboiled eggs on Sunday night for the week. If you really want to be awesome, make those free-range and local.
Love fruit, but find yourself letting that watermelon decompose in the fridge because you’re too lazy? Take five minutes to chop it up and put it into a container for easy grab-and-go fruit boosts when you need it. Sure, you can buy a plastic wheel of fruit from the store, but have you ever had pre-cut fruit that tasted good? I haven’t, and it always reminds me of crappy banquets in high school. Pass.
Mixing up your own recipe of pancake batter rather than the just-add-water type is so simple and produces the best, fluffiest pancakes. For Egg McMuffin lovers out there, get a microwavable egg poacher for a few bucks at the dollar store—I swear by mine—cook up some eggs, toast an English muffin or two and you’re set.
And these are just the basics. Once you master a few simple things like this, you can move on to the more complex recipes and kiss that daily trip to your local fast food joint or convenience store goodbye.
The one thing that’s important to keep in mind is this: you will need more time. It takes much less time to buy packaged dinners at the grocery store while picking up your weekly groceries or hitting up the McDonald’s on your way home from work than it takes to make these things from scratch.
If you hate cooking—newsflash, everyone has to do it, get over it—making most things from scratch probably isn’t your jam. Try out the swaps listed above, which take just a few minutes extra and provide healthy snacks and meals in a few simple steps.
If you’re the type of person who finds themselves saying, “I’m so bad at cooking!” then stop right there. I could say I’m so bad at carpentry, which would be true, because I’ve never even held a hand saw. Everyone performs poorly at something in the beginning; don’t let it stop you from eating better.
My favourite cooking-centric phrase is that if you can read, you can cook. Sure, you get a natural feel for baking and cooking the longer you do it, but if you can read a recipe, you can do it. It’s not hard. The cookbook author or blogger who created the recipe is telling you exactly how to do something. There are plenty of things in life that don’t come with an instruction manual, so take advantage of this one.
What’s To Come
You don’t have to go full-on homesteader—frothing at the mouth to tell you about their homemade flax crackers or organic patchouli foot spray—to make healthier swaps. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing easy ‘basics’ recipes that will demystify creating foods like bread, butter, salsa, granola and freezer jam, among others, which will be used in later recipes that are increasingly complex, though never difficult. We’re going to go through everything together, week after week. Don’t worry.
Cooking doesn’t have to be scary. It’s all about practicing the basics until you get more comfortable and can be more creative in the kitchen.
Follow along and let’s get cooking!