Just the words bring memories flooding back to us, the smells, the sounds, the pot that spent 8 hours simmering on the stove, the dinner table where you finally got to eat what has had been teasing you all day. The steam rising up and releasing a burst of aroma that unleashed an insatiable craving for whatever was in that pot. Thick and hearty, hot and steamy, aromatic and flavorful…the words to describe whatever meal you are picturing from your childhood are almost as good as the food itself.
Cold. Wet. Lettuce. Prep ahead. Shop it out. Unsatisfying. Rabbit food. The words are almost as bad as the poached chicken and low-fat dressing you’re picturing. This term, health food, almost sounds like a punishment, and to so many people the idea of eating it is exactly that. The idea of comfort food stands as a cherished memory, a smile from the past, basically, you could say we equate one to love, and one to work. Why?
To deconstruct the meals from a chef’s point of view, I can tell you why most people offer a positive label to food that is high in fat and sodium versus such negative connotation to foods with such a high water content and low fat content. But that’s not why we are here, for the more or less, gastronomically correct answer. We are here to discuss how to CHANGE the mind of people who truly can’t look at a salad and see what they see when they look at chicken noodle soup.
Upon thinking long and hard about this topic I came to a conclusion. The few of us who can look at a beautiful salad with grilled chicken, or a seafood meal with braised greens on the side and see “comfort food” in the same place where the term “health food” also applies, are few and far between. Yes, we are living in a world where healthy decisions are gaining a much more positive momentum, self-love, and self-respect is beginning to start with what you put in your body on a daily basis. But so many people can’t look at those healthy choices and be happy about them.
We need to stop differentiating the difference between foods - “comfort food” and “health food.” Why are we even allowing ourselves to cook food that we wouldn’t consider to be “healthy” the first place? And why do we have such a hard time seeing something that is healthy, as comforting also? I’m sure seasonality has something to do with it. It just so happens that we can’t get such a plethora of fresh ingredients in the middle of January, but we can still get frozen vegetables, and kinds of pastas, and butter, and oil, and sugar, and so on… so we wind up making whatever we can make with what we have.
But we can and should still reach for groceries that keep a positive light on healthy choices in the middle of winter. Maybe we can’t get things like fresh local berries, or peaches, or plums, or local grapes, and we even lose most apple varieties in the winter, but so many types of squash are still in abundance, and hearty greens like kale, and Swiss chard, which never really go “out of season.” Reaching for things like beans, and lentils- high in both fiber and protein-quinoa, barley, and nuts of all kinds, just to name a few choices, make cooking in the winter time, hearty, comfy, AND healthy. The simplest trick is finding foods that have a heavy depth of flavor. This term in the food world is called “umami.” This term I would be happy to discuss in my next article.
To cook healthy food for your family doesn’t mean stick broccoli in front of them and watch them suffer. For you, it could mean going to a market just a little bit further away to get better ingredients. Learning how to cook them properly and discovering the options you didn’t think you had in the middle of February, only to go home and stand over that pot for hours and hours cooking a meal that is not only satisfying, and deeply flavored, but made with as much love as you would have put into your high fat, and high carb meal on any other occasion. The addition of some of the things listed above helps incorporate health and comfort into that same singular pot.
Feeding yourself and your family is a necessity, but it can also be a pleasure of preparing good food. Making the conscious effort to feed yourself and your family “healthy” all year long won’t be a chore after a while. So I ask all of you out there who are making grocery lists and gathering recipes, please stop labeling the food you are making as “healthy.” This is only leaving all your other cooking, to be what exactly - “unhealthy food”? We both know that is not what you are feeding your kids, but that is what they take with them through life and into adulthood. “Healthy choices” versus all the other food out there. Let’s just make an effort to cook “healthy” all year long, shall we? At some point, “healthy” cooking will just become cooking. And “healthy choices” just become building blocks to wise choices later in life.