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Archive for March, 2013

The American culture pushes meat as the main course in a meal, almost every meal.  There are very few meals where the meat is considered the side dish, and mostly these are breakfasts (such as pancakes and bacon) but when we talk about what a meal is or what we ate, we almost always list the meat first, as the main dish, and everything else is “with a side of”.

Hamburger and fries.  Steak and potatoes.  Chicken noodle soup.   The meat is almost always listed first, even when it isn’t the majority of the meal!  Pork fried rice.   Clam chowder.  Heck, sometimes it’s even meat with a side of meat!  Steak and eggs, bacon-wrapped pork, steak and prawns.

When was the last time you read that someone had a salad with a side of steak?  Asparagus with salmon?  Vegetable casserole with chicken?

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been learning just how language shapes our thoughts, like how mindsets shaped the language to begin with.  When we think of food as a meat-based affair, we are set up to misrepresent portions on our plate.  While protein is important for the body, it actually shouldn’t be the main course, and it certainly doesn’t have to be animal protein.  I’m not a vegetarian, but I do accept that our society puts far too much weight (ha, pun) on meat not just in every meal, but *as* every meal.

Being tight on money, meat was one of the sacrifices my diet had to make.  I eat eggs regularly, and beans, and sometimes tofu, and occasionally chicken if it’s on sale, but beef and fish are generally beyond my budget.  I have a little extra these days and enjoy spending it on fish more often, but not daily and certainly not several times per day.

It struck me how ingrained this idea of meat being the meal and vegetables the side when someone asked what I had for lunch.

My lunch consisted of half of a red bell pepper, a third of a cucumber – sliced, two stalks of celery, five radishes, two cherry tomatoes, a sprig of parsley, all fresh.  It also consisted of 2 oz of salmon, a piece of pita bread, and a dab of salsa.

The vegetables consisted of about 3 cups total volume.  The salmon was maybe 1/4 cup, with a 5″ round piece of bread.  The vegetables far outweighed and out measured the fish and bread, and yet when I started to reply with what I ate for lunch, I automatically said “Salmon with a side of…” but no, wait, that wasn’t right!  I had a tray of fresh cut vegetables with a side of salmon and pita bread!

At this point you’re probably rolling your eyes and sighing “why are you getting so hung up on semantics?”  Part of trying to change my health and lower my weight is recognizing the way we are meant to eat.  I’ve met people who acknowledge that they should eat more vegetables, but don’t know how to fit them in.  One person noted that after a burger, there isn’t much room left to eat a big salad.

That’s why semantics are important, I think.  We have the mindset that the focus of our meal is the meat, and the rest should be sort of tucked in around the edges, but only if we have room.  Instead, we should be creating our meals around vegetables, using them as the focus and the main course, and using meat more as a seasoning and less as an entree.

Rethinking the way you approach food can be a bit overwhelming, and certainly takes time to retrain your thinking.  When deciding what to have for dinner, think first about what vegetables you have on hand or what’s fresh and available in stores.  Then think of what whole grains and proteins you can mix in.

One trick some cultures use is to take small amounts of meat and slice them very thin or into small pieces.  This distributes them evenly throughout the dish and sometimes you don’t even know you’ve really eaten far less meat.  Stir fry, stew, and casseroles are great way to use this technique, using very thin slices of beef or well chopped chicken, you can get a little bit of meat in most bites without edging out vegetables as the main ingredient.  You can extend ground beef by mixing it with beans for sloppy joes, meatloaf and tacos.

Besides just the benefit of adjusting our ratios of vegetables, grains and meats, we can also help our budgets because meat is more expensive than vegetables.  Less money out at the grocery store means more money for other things.

If we start thinking about vegetables as our main food source, and meat as the side dish and more for flavor, I think we can go a long way in re-imagining how we relate to food and how food relates to our health.  And it starts with small, conscious steps toward changing how we think about and relate to food.

My goal for the next month is consciously ask myself “what did I eat?” and practice answering with “vegetables, and a side of…” instead of “meat, with a side of…” Because that both reflects what I’m actually eating most of the time, and helps keep me oriented towards vegetables as the main source of nutrition in my diet.  As I lessen my automatic response to focus on meat and grains as what I think of first when it comes to what I eat, the actions of preparing vegetables first and meat and grains secondary will follow.  Thought proceeds action, so I’m going to keep healthy eating as part of the conscious thought during meal planning.

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