All it takes for a busy food critic to stay on the healthy-eating path is a little planning — and a few hard-boiled eggs.
How do I handle tricky eating situations? A friend who has yet to have kids recently asked me that, and I was hesitant to answer: Working moms usually don’t tell prechild women what’s really going on behind the curtain. We’re afraid of scaring them or revealing too much. But I’ll tell you.
I have two kids, and they have school, piano, choir, Zumba, photo-graphy, D&D, ballet, math club, soccer, yoga, birthday parties, Girl Scouts. These do not occur simultaneously, of course, but still. I work as a restaurant critic, which is wonderful, but I’m often out at restaurants for lunch and dinner. Healthy eating is a way of life for me, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
On weekdays, I usually rise between 4 and 5 a.m. and drink a big glass of water. Then I pour a cup of coffee and mix it with pastured milk (it has more brain-friendly conjugated linoleic acid than conventional milk) and a couple tablespoons of high-protein, amino-acid-rich collagen hydrolysate. I started taking this supplement after I wrecked my knee squeezing into a restaurant booth — true story — and the collagen made such an enormous difference that I’ve taken it ever since. It turns my morning coffee into a high-protein smoothie. I treasure this early, prekid time for writing. Me, my weird coffee-smoothie, a pen, paper, and the silent house.
An Unconventional Routine
At 6, I wake up my wonderful little people. They like to start the day with a cup of warm milk. (Are we French?) In the sun-starved winter months, they each get a vitamin D tablet and a Brazil nut (for selenium and magnesium).
My children have developed their own healthy-eating breakfast routines, and we’ve probably discussed glycemic loads and fiber more often than is reasonable. Recently, my fifth grader has been favoring pears, something or other made with whole grains, and his signature smoothie — kefir, a half banana, and lemon juice. He says it tastes like lemonade. I let him decide such things for himself.
My third grader has what she calls her corn bowl: one-third frozen corn, one-third frozen peas, and one-third rice-and-lentil pilaf that we make in big batches on the weekend. She likes it warm with butter and presented in thirds like a peace sign. Then she mashes it all together.
Once they’re on the school bus, I eat my own breakfast — usually a Brazil nut and a high-fiber something or other. I learned from Henry Emmons’s The Chemistry of Joy that it’s better to mix up your complex carbohydrates, so my breakfasts range from lentil soup and Indian bean dahl to black beans, salsa, and hot buckwheat groats. I know none of this sounds like breakfast, but I’ve always been more of a savory person.
Then I write for a while before peeling a few hard-boiled eggs and heading for the office.
What does peeling hard-boiled eggs have to do with going to work? Everything.
Here’s what normally happens in my work day: I drive to the office with a vision of a measured and thoughtful me gracefully moving from one insightful moment to the next. Then I arrive and all sorts of things occur — the phone rings, news breaks, coworkers pop by, and five hours vanish.
This sequence of events used to take me by surprise. I’d find myself ravenous at 3 o’clock, ready to eat whatever my hand met on its way to my mouth. It took many years to notice this pattern and adopt a plan. Most people check off certain items on their way out the door in the morning: phone, keys, wallet. My list includes eggs.
If I forget my eggs, all is not lost. My cubicle is stocked with bags of nuts, pop-top cans of tuna, and smoked jerky. If it’s 2 in the afternoon and I realize I packed no eggs, I reach for the tuna and eat it like a cat who happens to have a desk job — straight from the can. This is not remotely acceptable dining behavior, but it’s the kind of self-care I need when I’m in the trenches and ignoring my better intentions.
When I go out to lunch at work, I’m typically looking for something delicious to review, so I won’t dwell on that. If I wasn’t hunting the food trucks and restaurants for “news” in my fashion, I’m sure I’d eat a lot more Greek salads. The combination of fermented kalamata olives, sheep’s-milk feta cheese, tomatoes (antioxidants!), onions (phytochemicals!), and Romaine lettuce (vitamins A and K!) makes it one of the world’s most perfect meals, in my view.
There are two good Greek-salad spots near my office. The better one is both farther away (get those big muscles moving!) and offers a few more nutritious ingredients — shredded red cabbage (extra fiber!) and a second type of onion, this one marinated. How many onions do I eat at lunch? I pack a toothbrush.
Voldemort and Meatballs
Dinner usually has to be on the table less than an hour after my kids and I walk in the door. It’s important that we have some connection time, too, so we often settle on the couch for some reading and a beverage — usually a glass of milk for the kids — as soon as we’re home.
In the last few years, we’ve read the whole Harry Potter series and The Hobbit, and now we’re halfway through The Lord of the Rings. We can get a lot of reading done in 15 minutes or so before dinner, which leads to lively dinnertime conversations about various fictional conundrums, including what happens if you try to appease Voldemort.
These dinners mainly consist of two types of meals: dishes that have been reheated and foods that have been rinsed and cut up. Heated up are the things I make in big batches on the weekends; meatballs with spinach in tomato sauce, bean-and-beef chili, and chicken stew are all popular.
Rinsed and cut-up fare might include peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, snap peas, green beans, blueberries, apples, or nectarines. You get the idea.
Terrifying for a child-free millennial to contemplate? I fear yes. But I believe kids need enough sleep and plenty of whole foods to be healthy. And our straightforward weeknight meals also keep me from burning out on restaurant criticism.
Many food critics eventually grow tired of the circuit of martinis and the inevitable beet salad with lardons. But I’ll always be enchanted to find an oyster or Japanese tamago seafood egg custard on a plate before me. We just don’t eat like that at home.