When I first became aware of how my food choices were affecting my health, my community and the environment, I set out to make changes in my life to reflect my values, my desire to not participate in the exploitation and careless destruction that seemed to be built into our modern food system. I felt really good about this decision and was very enthusiastic…until I actually started putting these things into practice.
I went to the grocery store, armed with my reusable shopping bags, including my new set of reusable produce bags. I was off to a great start! As I made my way down the isles, my enthusiasm turned into frustration, and then to downright discouragement. I picked up foods I would normally just throw in my basket, only this time, I read the labels. Cans of organic chicken broth contained sugar. Fresh, gourmet pastas contained high fructose corn syrup. Organic sandwich bread contained three different kinds of sweeteners. Preservatives, chemicals, food coloring, “natural” flavors, BHT, titanium dioxide, gums, fillers, and so much more. After thirty minutes of shopping, my cart was still empty.
I was more hopeful, and more successful, in the produce section. I was able to find some seasonal fruits and veg that were grown organically. Many labels included the farms and locations where the produce was grown, so I could select local farms over food imported from far away. Still, there were many staple items that were conventionally grown, with no organic option. And forget things like strawberries and cherry tomatoes, which I love but seemed to appear most often in plastic clam shell packaging. Apples were slick to the touch with wax.
This huge market, this shiny, colorful and enticing food paradise, seemed to contain very little I was willing to buy. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, but I was. At that moment, being a mindful shopper meant spending twice as long at the market and leaving with half of what I wanted.
And that was just the market. How about eating out? That was another adventure in what I could no longer eat. Sure, I could find some upscale restaurants that actually had a sustainability policy and noted on the menu how they sourced their ingredients. This is becoming more common, but at the time it was very rare. And how about all my favorite foods, foods we often label as ethnic foods? Where was I to get my Indian curry, Thai food, Mexican, Vietnamese? These kinds of restaurants almost never offer organic or high welfare options. The world was full of food I couldn’t eat.
It’s not attractive to recall, but I felt pretty sorry for myself. I was resentful in that childish way…It’s Not Fair! All those mindless people are slurping down bowls of pho or saag paneer or stuffed arepas, and I can’t have any…ever again! (yes, a mini-tantrum) I’m glad to report that it didn’t last very long. Dinner time rolls around pretty quickly, petulance is overtaken by hunger and the mind turns away from thinking about all the things you can’t eat to what you will eat, right now.
Once I ceased to expend my energy in being dramatic about the limitations I now had to work within, I turned my attention, intention and intelligence to living well and happily within this new paradigm. I found that the hardest part was shifting my attitude, and once I did that the world seemed full of options rather than an endless list of stuff I had to give up.
One of the things I had to redefine, or understand more deeply was the idea of convenience. It’s really convenient to satisfy a desire for Indian food by going to an Indian restaurant. Who doesn’t love instant gratification? It’s less convenient to have to learn to cook Indian food (trial and error, people!), and even less convenient to have to make your own damn coconut milk for the curry because all the brands at the market contain emulsifying gums. It’s not convenient to make sure you always have reusable bags and produce bags when you go shopping, and to remember to wash them after using them. It’s not convenient to always remember your reusable travel mug or to haul reusable containers with you to bring home leftovers when you eat out.
Everything related to food used to be easy for me, I had it dialed. Suddenly everything required an extra step, extra thought, research, finding an alternative, and so on. It really helped to stop expecting my life to be just like it was before. I stopped comparing then to now and that gave me more mental space to just deal with making now as enjoyable and efficient as possible.
It took a little doing, but it wasn’t long before my life was simple again. You learn where and how to buy your produce, dairy, meat, eggs or whatever else you desire. You discover farms, brands, butchers, fish mongers, bakers and even restaurants you trust. You might subscribe to an organic CSA, grow a few potted cherry tomatoes, herbs or strawberries on a sunny deck, schedule the farmers market into your weekly routine, or cook (a lot).
My idea of convenience has changed a lot in this process. I don’t mind that I buy eggs and meat at one store, bread at another and fish at another still. I spend more time in the kitchen, but I’ve learned to love that, and I enjoy solving little food riddles, like how to make coconut yogurt without using any thickening agents or how to make fermented sriracha, or how to clean the kitchen without toxic and environmentally damaging chemicals. When I’m challenged, I don’t think of it as a problem that needs to be solved, but more like a puzzle…finding out what fits where. That lets me remain creative and then life has more puzzles and fewer problems. It may seem like semantics, but I assure you, it feels a lot different. A whole different part of your mind is engaged when you are trying to create something rather than fix something.
It is more convenient to crack open a can of beans, but it’s been ages since I’ve done that. I buy heirloom beans or sometimes even grow them myself. I soak them for a day or two and then cook them for hours at low heat in the oven. I have no can to recycle, and have no concerns about that can being lined with BPA. I choose heirloom beans because they taste great and I want to keep these varieties available in the food chain. I soak them thoroughly which makes them more nutritious while removing enzymes that can inhibit mineral absorption or cause gastric discomfort. And in the end, my beans are creamy and rich in a way that seems almost impossible for such a humble ingredient. The entire process is deeply satisfying. I feel nourished and, when I offer food to friends and family, I know I am nourishing them. There is a lot of gratification in this, but it’s not the instant kind that you get from opening a can. You have to plan it, wait for it.
Many of the most satisfying and worthwhile experiences in life are not convenient.
My cat is not convenient. He sheds his thick black winter coat by the handful in the spring. He’s a messy eater. He cries at my bedroom door in the middle of the night, even though he has his own, specially built cat door on the other side of the house. But I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world.
Pregnancy is not convenient, and for that matter, neither are children. Falling head over heels in love is not convenient. Spiritual awakening, or sudden profound realizations can reorganize your life in ways that are very inconvenient indeed.
Convenience can make life easier, but does it make life better? When these two things line up, then you’ve found a convenience worth having. Some of the conveniences we enjoy in modern life, especially related to food, do make life easier and better. Many do not, when you consider all the factors.