Sometimes eating well can seem so complicated. It’s easy to get caught up in diet fads and prescriptive ‘rules’, whether set by ourselves or someone else. We already face so many ‘shoulds’ in life – do we really need to apply this to our eating too?
Many of us have quite literally lost our gut instinct for listening to what our palates and bodies enjoy. Of course, it’s absolutely fine to be inspired by what other people are eating or creating (I’m a huge Instagram fan and love looking at other people’s food), but we also need to get better at paying attention to what works for each of us individually.
One of the best ways to do this is to try different foods and flavours to expand your palate. And this doesn’t need to be with super sexy new so-called superfood ingredients – though of course feel free to try these too if you want to. Even eating a wider range of different vegetables or whole grains is a good way to introduce new tastes and textures.
I’ve found, for example, that by eating more and more bitter foods, including very dark chocolate, I’ve developed a real love for bitter things. Food that previously made my mouth wince, like very bitter salad leaves, is now much more palatable. I’ve also learned how to play around with flavours, like adding a bit of lemon, to soften the bitterness if I need to.
Cooking from scratch is also a great way to get better at understanding how to make food taste good. And this doesn’t need to be hardcore haute cuisine: putting together a delicious seasonal salad counts as cooking in my book.
As with everything, the more you cook and prepare food, the easier and more instinctive it becomes. Your palate is a little different to everyone else’s, but the only way you can get to know what you love is to experiment and try different tastes. There is a real accomplishment in making a dish that you really enjoy.
One of the things I love most in my workshops is seeing people try new flavours or combining ingredients in different ways to discover something they like. It’s so much fun and is a great expression of creativity. Cooking is something that makes me feel good, which is why I’m so passionate about sharing this joy.
And don’t forget to pay attention! Taking the time inhale when you crush up some black pepper, or leaning over the pan to breathe in while some onion and garlic are frying, are simple delights that most people can fit into their week. And did you know that there are even some flavours and aromas that are naturally uplifting? So if you want an extra happy hit, a little feelgood tip is to add some citrus or mint to your food (or chocolate of course!).
But most of all, remember this is food; no more, no less. Food is important and should be nourishing – but it should also be something we enjoy, not something to punish ourselves with or about, or put on some crazy unattainable pedestal.
As part of my ‘feelgood’ February messages, I’d like to share some of my own personal philosophy that’s woven into my workshops. Rather than getting overwhelmed by nutrient density and the latest studies, I think it’s worth just stripping things back and keeping things as simple as possible.
Ultimately, a good rule of thumb is the often repeated Michael Pollan quote from his book In Defense Of Food:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Though I would adjust it slightly to:
Eat food. Not too much. And not too fast. Mostly plants.
1. Start where you are – 1 or 2 small changes will help get you on your way
I know this sounds kind of obvious, but everyone is in a different place with how, and what they eat. This even includes how much you need to eat. When I was training for marathons, what my body needed was very different to what I’m eating at the moment.
If you’re only starting out with cooking or finding it hard to cook a lot from scratch because work is really busy, please don’t be hard on yourself. Even though my work involves food, I still find it difficult to cook meals some nights as I’m tired. Remember, you are a human being, not a cooking machine!
Find out what fits in with your life at the moment and start from there. This might mean taking a pre-packed lunch to work once or twice a week. Maybe you could make a batch of simple soup on the weekend and that’s dinner for a couple of nights. If you don’t eat much in the way of vegetables, why not walk down the vegetable aisle in your supermarket and choose one or two things that look nice?
Just looking at a couple of new recipes on a website is a good way to start thinking about the type of food you might like to try. You could even buy a ready-made salad or a good quality pre-made meal to see what you think about the flavours.
One of the biggest mistakes many of us make is trying to make lots of radical changes in one go. We decide to start training for a marathon, give up smoking and get into hardcore meditation all at the same time. And then get surprised when it gets a bit hard to stick to. Be easy on yourself, and just find a couple of things you’re going to try in the next month or so. Remember this is a lifelong journey, not a short haul trip.
2. Eat ‘real foods’ when you can, with a variety of flavours
This goes back to the Michael Pollan quote. When you can, eating whole foods without a range of funny ingredients and additives is definitely a good thing.
Unfortunately this is a bit more tricky if you’re not cooking much. However, most people can throw together a salad without too many culinary skills. Or chop up some tomatoes and toss them through cooked pasta with a little olive oil and a tin of anchovies. I’m a big fan of simple food with lots of flavour that you can taste through the finished dish.
Once you’ve mastered a dish or two, try to spice things up to stop yourself getting stuck in a cooking rut. Adding some different fresh, frozen (defrosted) or tinned vegetables is probably the easiest way to start experimenting. Then sprinkle in one or two herbs and spices: try chilli flakes one night and then maybe a little some fresh basil another.
Once you start getting to know more of the flavours you like, you can get adventurous with things like sumac and seaweed. I personally love having a big selection of herbs and spices as it means I go a bit wild if I want to – but again this is entirely up to you. Having one or two dried Italian herbs, a couple of Indian-inspired spices (like coriander and curry powder), a good extra virgin olive oil, lemons, and salt and pepper in your cupboard will get you a very long way.
And please don’t beat yourself with a big healthy eating stick if you decide to order a takeaway or buy some ready-made soup from the supermarket. Just go back to my first point: start where you are!
3. Pay a bit more attention when you’re eating i.e. take time to taste
My final suggestion is to give yourself a little more time when you’re eating. In my workshops, we always have a few minutes of eating in silence, tasting something we’ve created together. This incorporates some principles of mindful eating, but it’s also about taking time over the pleasure of tasting, rather than just eating, food.
I’m constantly amazed at how much more delicious food is when I pay attention. And it suddenly becomes so apparent how often we (and I include myself in this at times) hurry through meals.
The pop of cooked rice, the crunch of carrot and the soothing creaminess of yoghurt are all wonderful moments to add into your day. And we can easily forget to pay attention in our busy world and lives.
You don’t need to be in a zen environment to notice these things. If you’re sitting at your desk over lunch, just look away from your computer for a couple of minutes and give a bit of attention to the food you’re putting in your mouth. You may even find it doesn’t taste very good when you do this, so try something else the next day if that is the case.
I don’t particularly subscribe to needing to chew a certain number of times or setting a specific length of time to eat meals; this is something that you’ll need to explore.
However, I’ve found that I now spend a little longer eating and tasting after spending some time observing my own body. I enjoy eating this way and how it makes me feel; it makes me feel good. And that’s what I’d love for you to discover for yourself.
If you’d like to explore a more focussed way of tasting, click here to access to my free 5 minute chocolate tasting meditation exercise.