Healthy body, happy mind

My guess is that almost everyone has heard the expression ‘Organized house (office/classroom/desk), organized mind.’ I certainly find a lot of truth in it, but for me an even larger effect on my mental and emotional well-being comes from maintaining a healthy body.

If I’m not exercising, the world is dark place. I’m not the only one to learn this connection in their life. Nor am I the only one to fall prey to the comfort of sleeping in, the distraction of home life, the siren song of popcorn and a movie marathon. Without regular exercise, I feel poorly about myself and question my place in the world. On an intellectual level, I always know that my worth is not tied to my appearance, physical strength or dress size. But there’s no point pretending. I do feel better about myself when my body is strong, more proud of myself when I’m working towards my next training goal, and extra confident when I’ve reached a new achievement. I enjoy the variety and challenge of triathlon training but getting out the door can still be tough. So I occasionally go through a week-long period (or three) of ignoring the weight room, skipping out on runs, avoiding the pool, and making excuses for not getting on the bike. For some reason, this happens most frequently after I get home from traveling – even if I kept training WHILE traveling – so that cause has lost its trigger for awhile.

Similarly, when I’m also eating well I feel like I’m on top of the world. I have ample energy, my sleep is spot on, my mood regulated, my concentration consistent, my attention extended. I make better decisions in the other aspects of my life too. To top it off, if I’m eating poorly, I can expect to spend a fair bit of time bent over in pain, rethinking all of my life’s decisions. Yet too many times I’ve still gone for an easy, grab-and-go deli option or a high-sugar bakery treat rather than a nutrient-dense, pre-planned meal. My dietary will-power the last couple of years hasn’t gotten near the workout that my quads have, which has lead to poor decisions and some sub-par results down the line. This chain of excuses is now at the end of its line.

Thank you (for your opinion), next

It’s strange, the drive some people have to insist on giving their -hello!- unrequested opinion regarding the decisions that you make for your own personal life. The majority of people upon hearing that we are going to stop eating out next year fall into one of two categories:

  • a) That’s amazing.
  • b) That’s quite the challenge.

And then there’s the minority that start with some version of:

  • You should really consider … instead.
  • It would really be better if you…
  • There’s no way you…/It’s not possible to…/Now, you can’t really…

Why would anyone believe that they have a better idea of what is best for me or our household? How can anyone think that we haven’t given this adequate thought? It makes not sense to believe that it was possible for us to not eat out when we were poor university students or cash-strapped newlyweds, but a thicker wallet somehow now makes us incapable of cooking on a daily basis, making our own coffee, or packing a lunch?

I am so thankful for each and every friend that has embraced this decision, given a verbal pat on the back, said “I’ll come to visit you then” or just wished us the best of luck at tackling this -again, hello! very- conscious decision to live more lightly, inexpensively and thoughtfully the coming year. Each and every one of them has been a welcome light against the Negative Nancys, Disbelieving Dicks and Eye-rolling Earls that we’ve encountered along the way.

Food, the foundation

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Food, oh glorious food. I love eating. Cooking not so much, but eating is one of my favorite things.

Dinner for me growing up was simple, routine and bland. Spaghetti and plain sauce with bread and butter on Mondays. Fried egg and cheese sandwiches on Wednesdays. Frozen pizza on Fridays. Roast chicken in broth in the crockpot with canned veggies on Saturdays. Roast beef, potatoes, onions and carrots with a can of cream of mushroom soup dumped on top in the crockpot was our fancy Sunday dinner. Food that 12 year old me could easily make on days mom was working and that I could have ready by the time she and dad got home. Breakfast and lunches were even simpler: cereal and milk, PB&J on WonderBread. Non-negotiable. The favorite mid-day snack for we kids was white sugar sprinkled over a slice of bread, folded in half and edges crimped to make a sugar pocket. You get the idea; a health and flavor sensation my time in the kitchen was not.

During my teen years, my mom began working full-time for a packaged-goods food broker so things like shrink-wrapped ramen noodles (I started my junior year of university with 5 cases of them!), bagged breakfast cereals, single-serve frozen dinners, and luxury of luxuries boxed lasagna became the routine meal go-to’s. I can’t remember a fresh vegetable entering any of my kitchens from the time I was 16 until I moved in with Jeff when I was 22. Shameful but true.

Jeff was luckier, he had a mom who made relatively healthy (although very Dutch and Midwest bland) meals three times a day, seven days a week. There was a lot of fresh vegetables around a slab of meat at the plate’s center and always fresh fruit on the counter. So he went off to school expecting to make and eat real meals from real food on a daily basis. Alas, as quality home-cooking wasn’t a common part of my life, we agreed early on that Jeff would do the bulk of the cooking and I would do the dishes.

Over time, eating out increased along with Jeff’s wages, to the point that we now eat out 4-5 times a week and nosh on restaurant leftovers at least once or twice a week. No fuss, no muss. Let someone else take the trouble. Let someone else clean up. Everyone gets what they’re in the mood for. Maybe get a drink or two while we’re here. All it takes is a swipe of the blue credit card.

Well, um, it also means that we spent 14% and 13% of our income on eating out in restaurants, bars and cafés in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Can we afford this? Yes, I have always made sure that our budget is always in the black. Is this a good use of our time and money? No, not at all. It’s too easy to fall back on the “well, we can afford it” crutch, to ignore the larger costs to ourselves, the budget, our relationship, and the environment.

Cooking for ourselves day in, day out will clearly line up better with some of the goals I mentioned in the original post. By menu planning, shopping and cooking together, we can increase the nutrition we give our bodies, boost our consumption of grains and vegetables, and reduce the negative health effects that Jeff is now experiencing. Working together and sharing the moments of our day in a more natural and less distracting environment will help to patch some of the holes that have popped up in our relationship over the years as well. Reducing our day-to-day meat and dairy consumption will go a long way to minimizing our meals’ carbon footprint. As for slashing the drain on our bank balance, that’s a given. I know it will vastly improve my existing cooking skills too, while fostering some more taste and seasoning creativity in both of us.

So the cookbooks* are our of the pantry and on the counter, ready to help us find new favorites, learn new techniques, and make new memories.

*the cookbooks that survived the last household purge

The Conversation

Despite a ruthless purging this past spring, the garage still has many things we love and things we ignore – some of which are one and the same. Despite a series of decluttering sessions, the laundry room has a shelf full of all-but-ignored board games, the office is full of expensive, underused drawing materials, we have shelves full of unread books, three cameras that spend far more time sitting than shooting, and more blank or partially used notebooks than I’m willing to admit. You get the idea.

What do we spend our free time actually doing? Well, it depends on the person but for Jeff it’s mostly TV, sports and movies, scrolling timelines, and eating out. I tend to read, go online, take a hot bath, and clean. I also tend to travel for pleasure more than most (a long story), which is expensive, involves a lot of in-between time sitting alone in airports, on public transport and in strange rented rooms. It can be more mundane and disappointing than I ever planned for. There’s nothing like traveling to a far-away place, having an experience you’ve been building up in your brain, and falling asleep in tears feeling pistol-whipped by your shattered expectations or someone else’s bad day.

About a month ago, I asked Jeff to consider a radical change to how we’re living our day-to-day lives. Now radical and change are probably two of Jeff’s least favorite words so I knew I was facing a tough sell but after laying my idea out, I asked him to consider it for a while before deciding. And he did. In the end he agreed, he thought it was a good idea both for us as individuals and for us as a couple. I asked him to give up going out to eat for the next year – his most favorite, comforting and social activity – with the agreement that I wouldn’t travel except for an already planned out trip to help a friend move. Not exactly a pleasure trip, although it is always a pleasure to see her. I asked him to set aside the bulk of his TV time and I promised to set aside the bulk of my evening internet time so that we can spend it together and with friends, to cook delicious meals, to photograph the city and nature areas around us, to cycle and improve our overall fitness, to read more excellent books and to curtail our spending.

If we hold to our plan, we’ll dramatically reduce our carbon footprint (air travel is an environmental disaster), save a large amount of cash (allowing us to make a big dent in our mortgage), and be a stronger, more intentional couple. We have both recognized that we’ve drifted away from each other in some ways, that our formerly rock-solid bond needs a bit of patching, like all relationships do from time to time. We’ve watched several friends’ decades-long marriages split and allowed the myth of others’ perfect lives to wedge itself between our all-too-real, and all-too-imperfect, selves.

In a way, this year will also be a sort of relationship tune-up. Change the filters, put in some fresh oil, and give all the mechanical parts a good going-over to ensure everything’s safe, sound and ready for the coming decades.