the appetizer:

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes by Mark Bittman, includes recipes like Layered Salad; Big Beans with Skordalia; and Savory Vegetable and Grain Torta.

Cookbook Profile

Eating Like Food Matters

by Mark Bittman

Food Matters
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The evidence overwhelmingly supports a more traditional diet-what I'm calling sane eating-in place of the modern American diet. Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, French, and most traditional Asian diets all contain far fewer animal products and refined carbohydrates than ours. Base your preferred diet on any traditional eating style you like; the point is that once you get into the habit of eating sanely, it becomes second nature. That isn't surprising, because it's far more natural than eating processed food, junk food, and historically unprecedented amounts of (badly produced) animal products, none of which existed for 99 percent of human history.

Gorge on plants. Literally.

You will do yourself a favor every time you eat a vegetable in place of anything else.

Let's look at the general principles of the style of eating I'm advocating:

Eat fewer animal products than average. Say, an average of 1 pound of meat, or at most 2 pounds, each week, or a small serving daily. (If some of these servings are fish; so much the better.) Eat correspondingly small amounts of eggs and dairy foods, and think of all these things as treats, not staples. Milk in your cereal or cream in your coffee isn't going to make much difference, though alternative milks from plant foods—like soymilk, oat milk, and nut milks—can be decent substitutes. Remember, this is not about deprivation or ironclad rules, but about being sensible.

Eat all the plants you can manage. Literally. Gorge on them. Salads, cooked vegetables, raw vegetables, whole fruits—cooked or raw or even, in moderation, dried. There are hardly any limits here (though you don't want a diet based entirely on starchy vegetables like potatoes). I might say that green, leafy vegetables are probably the most beneficial of all these foods, but you are going to be doing yourself a favor every time you eat a vegetable in place of anything else, so don't worry about it.

Make legumes part of your life. Whenever you eat beans instead of an animal product, everyone wins. Especially if you're concerned about protein (again, I don't think you need be), eat legumes daily.

Whole grains beat refined carbs. You shouldn't eat "unlimited" amounts of grains, as you would other plants, but eating grains several times a day is fine. You might have whole grain cereal or bread at breakfast, whole grain bread or a grain dish at lunch, popcorn for a snack, a grain dish at dinner. In any case, eat far fewer refined carbohydrates; they are all treats, not off limits but to be eaten only occasionally (and with gusto).

Snack on nuts or olives. These are something of a special case, because they're high in calories. But you're going to be eating so many fewer calories that you can afford to eat a couple of handfuls a day. I make my own trail mix and eat it along with some fruit almost every afternoon at work.

When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil. That's where you start. You can use butter when its flavor or luxury is really going to matter to you. Use peanut oil or grape seed oil for stir-frying (or any frying), use dark sesame or nut oil for extra flavor, and you really don't need much else. (I'm not a fan of canola oil, but use it if you must.) Don't worry too much about quantity. Don't start drinking oil, or eating fried food daily; but using oil for dressing or cooking is not a big deal, provided you're not eating many refined carbohydrates or animal products.

Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily. Listen to your body: Are you losing weight, feeling fine, getting results that make you and your doctor happy? Keep it up. Are you not getting the results you want? Cut back on treats, and eat more plants. Treats include alcohol (a lot of useless calories and carbs come in the form of wine and other alcoholic beverages), snack food, refined carbs (including good, crusty, artisanally made bread), and sweets of all kinds.

Within these general guidelines, eating like food matters is extremely flexible. You can try some of the techniques that work for me (see page 73 of the book), or just eat more sanely at every meal, then snack and allow yourself small indulgences throughout the day. If you eat moderately and always try to put as many plants on the plate as possible, you'll be in the ballpark.

You might start by eating 10 percent less meat, less refined carbs, and less junk, and replace that food with plants, but I think 25 percent is probably a better starting place, and one that will show you results more convincingly. (Frankly, I didn't find it very hard to cut junk food out virtually altogether. Meat and carbs are a little more difficult, but remember that you're not going to give them up entirely.

Another strategy is to load up your plate with salad, vegetables, and whole grains, and then put some meat, fish, or poultry on it as well. Better still, eat that big plateful of plants first, then go back for a small piece of meat. This is a very "Italian" style of eating.

In the morning, for example, you might eat a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt with a big bowl of fresh fruit and a sprinkle of real muesli or granola. For lunch, have half a tuna sandwich on real whole grain bread with a big salad or vegetable soup. For dinner you and your friends and family go out and share two entrees and load up on vegetable side dishes and appetizers, then order one dessert with four spoons.

Not everyone responds to making changes the same, somewhat drastic way I've done. You can transition into this slowly, taking baby steps toward whatever goals you set for yourself. Some suggestions follow.

Cut back on animal protein gradually. Rely on meat for its flavor, not its heft, using more vegetables in your favorite meat dishes. Make pork and beans with half the meat (you'd be amazed at the flavoring prowess of just one sausage) and add extra beans or vegetables or both to the pot.

If you're having company, you might roast a chicken (not two), along with a load of root veggies, and a couple of other vegetables dishes or salads. Next time you grill burgers, make the patties smaller, and toss eggplant, onions, potatoes, summer or winter squash, and portobello mushrooms on the grill too. Or try Meat-and-Grain Loaves, Burgers, and Balls on page 278 of the book, which combine ground meat with grains.

It's the same with dairy foods. Add a couple of big slices of tomato and some thinly sliced pickles and onions to your next grilled cheese sandwich and cut back on the cheese. Start a batch of scrambled eggs by sauteing mushrooms or greens in the pan and try adding in one egg instead of two (or check out the frittata recipe on page 170). Blend a smoothie (page 163), using frozen fruit and just enough yogurt or milk to give it some body. And again, give nondairy milks a try; you might like them.

Eat Whole Grains with Other Foods. Experiment with uncommon grains like millet or quinoa by stirring a couple of spoonfuls into a stew or soup as it cooks; toss some cooked grains into a salad or a stir-fry at the last minute. Or just play around with new grains—barley makes a great "risotto"—they're easy enough to like. Try making your own bread (pages 154, 156, and 224).

Depend on Seasonings. Good fruits and vegetables rarely need more than a sprinkle of salt, but if you're feeling hungry for more variety, try different herbs and spices, alone or in blends. Some people find that using seasonings they associate with meat—like soy sauce, pesto, or chili powder—is a good way to make the transition to enjoying plant foods.

Always Carry Snacks. This is important, since fast food is everywhere and taking a couple of minutes before you head out will make impulsive stops for junk food less tempting.

Dried or fresh fruit and nuts are the easiest options, but with a little planning and a small cooler or thermos, you can travel with hummus and crackers, cut-up vegetables, a container of excellent juice, some olives, a peanut butter sandwich, a bag of granola, a cup of soup, or some fresh popcorn.


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This page created May 2009