They say that if you learn to cook for yourself, you’ll eat better. I guess I see the logic there: fewer preservatives, fewer chemicals, fresher ingredients. For people whose version of not cooking for themselves involves a lot of drive thrus, absolutely. And most people, when they learn to cook, do not go in for anything too fancy. Grill a piece of chicken, boil some pasta, steam a vegetable. Healthier than a Big Mac, a Hot Pocket, even a Lean Cuisine.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all stopped there? If we only learned to grill our chicken and not make a cream sauce for the top? If the pasta weren’t served alfredo, the vegetables coated in cheese? At least if it’s real cheese it’s better than processed cheese food. But then, for some of us, this culinary acquisition keeps going. We learn to bake. We learn to make candy. We learn to deep fry.
In my house, we are almost never more than ten minutes away from junk food, and I don’t mean we live close to a grocery store. I mean we’ve got ingredients. Sugar, flour, salt, fat. You’d be amazed the variety of things that can come from one bag of sugar. But I said ten minutes: candy and baked goods take time. No matter. I’ve almost always got potatoes lying around, or a bag of corn tortillas. Heat some cooking oil. Before I can think better of it, I’ve got a family size bag’s worth of chips. I’ve done it enough times now, it’s like second nature. I can eat them almost as fast as I can fry them.
Clearly, this is not a healthy habit. Unfortunately, it’s also become clear that I am not just good at making junk food; I am addicted to it. Plus, I’m an emotional eater. And a boredom eater. And a recreational eater. There are times when I reach for some good old carrot sticks or an apple to chew on–at some point it was nearly habitual–but mostly, if I’m going to eat healthy, there’s some arm twisting involved. But junk food? It’s thrilling. It feels like breaking the rules, and in the short term, it feels like you’re getting away with it.
There was a time when, if I was eating fattening food, it was often pretty fancy. When I first learned to cook I got a little snobbish about the things I ate, and tried very hard to produce finicky, fiddly recipes that involved a lot of ingredients like cream and port. I liked to pair things with fancy wines. But over time the wines got cheaper, the food more basic–come to think of it, this was mostly after having kids. I no longer had the time or space to create fancy meals, and simple healthy ones were just boring, both to make and to eat. And what good is food if it’s boring? Because if I am what I eat, boring is probably the last descriptor I’d choose.
Of course, there are some adjectives that apply to gourmet and junk food alike. Fatty. Heavy. Unhealthy. But at least if you’re having a cheese soufflé you’re also delicate and complex, unlike nacho cheese which is more simple and fake. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be smooth than greasy, rare than common, refined than rib-sticking. Even if it does add up to the same number of calories in the end.
A couple years ago, my Achilles’ heel was homemade caramel corn. After a while, I had to swear it off completely. Now, I’m not just swearing off homemade chips but deep frying in general. If I want fried fish or donuts, I can go out for them, where there will be people watching, and where I’ll feel self conscious eating more than a single serving. I should probably swear off deep-fried food all together, but I don’t know that I have the willpower for all that. Plus, while frying oil doesn’t exactly have a place on the “daily plate” and was recommended “sparingly” on the food pyramid, the adjective I’d like more than any other to describe my diet and myself is definitely balanced.