A few months ago, I wrote about the value of occasionally eating tempting but unhealthy things we know we “shouldn’t.” I got a flood of positive mail in response, which made me wonder whether a great many of us have become so focused on virtuous eating that we’ve forgotten the importance of indulging ourselves now and then. If we have, let’s reconsider.
Remember the science-fiction fantasy of a whole day’s nutrition packed into a couple of little pills? We have something akin to those options today: We could down a few meal-replacement shakes and, like Jack Bauer in the TV series 24, engage in a life of ceaseless super-productivity. But then we’d probably end up like Bauer — carjacking, punching and torturing people — because we need some emotional sustenance along with nutrients to avoid going crazy.
But are there ways to be emotionally indulgent and mindful when it comes to food? And are there ways to do so when eating out? I think there are, and here’s how.
Stash Healthy Snacks
First, if you want to save your indulgences for those special occasions when they really count, don’t let yourself get so hungry during the course of normal business that you risk losing all control.
It has happened to all of us: Your overscheduled life gets a little nuttier than normal and you end up going straight from a long, food-free workday to a restaurant — where you set upon the breadbasket like Cookie Monster, wolfing down a whole day’s worth of calories in flavorless baguette slices.
Here’s one way to avoid this scenario: Keep some sort of high-protein snack (like nuts) in the places you’re most likely to be when your food day goes horribly wrong. I keep a box of protein bars or Tetra-packed protein drinks at my desk, for example, and I also stash a few in my car’s glove box.
I wouldn’t want to subsist on such tidbits, but when my blood sugar starts to drop, having quick snacks like these on hand can mean the difference between acting like myself or like a ravening lunatic at my next meal.
Research by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, has shown that a brain deprived of food, and located in a body devoid of glucose, has a measurably harder time exercising willpower. When you’re overly hungry, it’s just impossible to make good, mindful decisions.
So find something reasonably healthy and protein-rich that you like to eat, put it in the place you’re most likely to be when you need it most, and feed your body and your brain.
Enjoy Quality Over Quantity
My next piece of counsel: Find at least a few indulgences that aren’t particularly bad for you.
A single glass of real champagne has around 80 calories and represents (in my humble opinion) something close to the apex of humankind’s culinary achievement. I especially enjoy bubbly that comes from single-grower plots, sometimes jokingly called “farmer fizz.”
Last year, I fell in love with a producer called Pehu-Simonet, which makes grand cru champagne from a mere six hectares of vines in the northernmost reaches of France’s Champagne region. Their blanc de noirs, made entirely from pinot noir, is like something straight from the most aching outreaches of romantic poetry: sinewy, with musky tendrils of citrus; fleshy, with shadows of raspberry; lithe, energetic and knee-weakening.
Will you find that sort of bedazzlement in every glass? Nah. But I love champagne hunting for the same reason geode hunters like smashing open rocks: It’s a fairly innocent way to experience something surprising and wonderful.
And speaking of wonder, how astonishing is it that one of the most succulent of all seafoods is environmentally sustainable, packed with protein, full of healthy sea minerals and, depending on size, only 10 to 40 calories a pop? Ah, yes, oysters.
Most oysters today come from farms: various setups of trays, nets or cages that are seeded with pinhead-size baby oysters, called spat, and placed in a bay or harbor and left to grow. They grow by filtering the water — eating the nutrients that might otherwise feed algae and lead to algae blooms and fish die-offs. It’s a win-win, for us and for the oceans.
This is one of the reasons that oysters always top the best-choice lists for those seeking sustainable seafood. And it’s just the green light I need to abandon myself to the slithery, sweet and briny concentration, the lilting trill of minerality that makes oysters such a hedonistic pleasure.
Oysters and champagne is one of those meals that feels a little risqué to enjoy in public, where everyone can see your face making what probably ought to be private expressions of delight. But if you want guilt-free emotional indulgence, a glass of champagne and a dozen oysters at a cute restaurant will beat a pint of ice cream in front of the television any day.
I’m always dismayed by how often the idea of eating healthy leads people to faux food: unappealing options like tofu soymilk stroganoff and other culinary compromises. There are dozens of cuisines around the world that have fine-tuned healthy eating to achieve the heights of indulgence.
Consider a classic Greek meal, which starts with any of a dozen vegetable options, like melitzana (purée of roasted eggplant), patzaria salata (beet salad), horta (seared and seasoned greens), or artichoke hearts, along with grilled octopus or little fish, and richly flavored legumes, like a fava-bean dip.
Add a generous Greek salad, with its bright pops of olive and cheese, an entrée of roast lamb or grilled fish, and a glass of red wine, and you’ll have a meal that’s thoroughly indulgent and yet nothing to feel guilty about.
If you can find a sushi spot that supports sustainable seafood, please sustain them. After reading Paul Greenberg’s riveting Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food (Penguin, 2011), I’m convinced that the best way to make sure the ocean doesn’t become known mainly as a place of unheralded mass extinctions is to support sustainable-seafood suppliers (who can then use their economic power to push for a more sustainable fishing industry).
Once you find that sushi spot, get some, and be sure to pile your table high with lots of good vegetable options: spinach salad, seaweed salad, edamame, warm tofu quivering with wisps of bonito, pickles made of burdock root and, of course, miso soup, that lively, fermented, sensual hunger-killer. But beware of that new breed of sushi rolls with fried tempura middles made gooey with lashings of alternately sweet and spicy mayonnaises. There are better choices, both in terms of healthfulness and sheer joyful eating.
Venture Into Thai Veggies
Anytime you’re eating mostly vegetables, you’re in a good place, and Thai restaurants are an especially easy way to get there. Look for appetizers like nam prik ong, a big platter of veggies served with a spicy dipping sauce that’s halfway between a pork ragu and a salsa. Dip a cucumber slice for a tingly, unctuous way to eat your veggies. Enjoy a big bowl of curry laced with coconut milk and loaded with vegetables, and you’ll feel not just indulged but deeply satisfied.
The best part? Once you’ve mastered the fine art of balancing your blood sugar while also balancing your health with happiness, you can indulge more successfully, more often — without any guilt whatsoever.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.