Although I now specialise in allergies and intolerances, before that I used to cover diet and nutrition. I eventually got a bit disillusioned with writing about this vitamin, that mineral and those antioxidants. Did my readers really need to know all this detail? Was being informed on such complex matters really necessary?
In today’s food culture, I think we can become over-fixated on whether we’re eating the superfood du jour – be it kale or avocado or spirulina – or eliminating the dietary devil of the day – be it gluten or sugar or slightly charred toast – from our larders and tables. Clean eating has been – and mercifully looks as if it will soon be gone, as the evangelists of the so-called pure and ‘paleo’ and ‘toxin free’ are rightly getting a bit of a bashing for their extreme nutritional messages and fad-pushing.
Yet mainstream, fully qualified dietitians aren’t without fault, either. I’ve lost the will with some of them who continue to espouse tired old messages. ‘There are no good or bad foods’ is a particular pet hate. Try telling that to a choice ripe mango or fillet of wild salmon, please. I know it’s an attempt to keep guilt away from eating, and rightly so, but to me it just suggests a soulless absence of any love for food. How can you give advice on food if you can’t find one example to describe as ‘good’?
Maria at the First Draft Cafe blog recently wrote about how to maintain a balanced life as a writer, and my suggestion – to add to the wise recommendations of walking, exercise, hobbies and catnapping – was to cook. Cook for yourself regularly. It’s not about avoiding processed foods – it’s all processed! – or eating so-called real food – it’s all real! It’s just about taking the time out of your writing day to prepare yourself something good to eat, in an act that, yes, physically nourishes the body, but that also psychologically nourishes the soul too – including your writing soul.
It’s a simple message, and the best one-word health advice I know. Cook.
Home-cooked / from-scratch food is the best not because it is more ‘balanced’ or has more nutrition than a ready-meal bought at the supermarket (it might not be and might not have) but because it has been prepared with care. It’s better because you’ve worked up an appetite while cooking it, preparing your body perfectly to receive it, and because you get enormous satisfaction with producing something – creating something – that didn’t exist before. That same feeling when you create an article or a story, but which you now get to consume and enjoy.
If you’re cooking for a partner, you get double the satisfaction – and the brownie points!
And you get to take your mind off the writing for a bit. That tricky sentence which you can’t get quite right. It’ll still be there when you get back to your desk. But it’ll all fall into place with a satisfied belly under your nose. Well … it might.
You do have the time. Tell me that you don’t have the time if you like, but only if you sincerely believe it. And if you’re genuinely time-strapped, remember you can knock up lots of good things in 15 minutes flat, as Jamie Oliver has proven by writing a successful book.
It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ or virtuous it is. It doesn’t have to be low-calorie or 85% organic or free from unseasonal vegetables from South America. Of course there are good foods. Of course there are crap foods. It doesn’t matter if you occasionally eat them. What matters is if you do so to a degree that good food becomes lost to you, that the talent you do have (everyone has it) of being able to prepare yourself something to eat disappears from your skill set, to the extent that you don’t have the option of comforting yourself with it to make you feel better, whenever your writing has taken over your life too much or you’ve just had a really hard day at the keyboard.
It doesn’t matter if you only half-prepare the meal. It can be a 50:50 thing. You can buy some ready-made fishcakes to eat with the stir fried vegetables you are making yourself with fresh ginger and soy sauce.
It doesn’t matter if it goes a bit tits-up. Overseasoning won’t kill you. If it’s too dry, wash it down with more red wine (one modest glass of which is also on the recommended list).
And it doesn’t matter a jot if you smell something burn. The fire alarm will, I promise you, ultimately be a lot more satisfying and heartening than the ping of the microwave.