The dilemma of a cook who finally lost weight

I'm eating better after struggling to lose 30 pounds. Can I still serve fatty foods at my job -- and should I?

By Ann Nichols
Published July 29, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

It is the consummate, diet-related cliché: "You can stop drinking, or smoking, but you can't just stop eating." You can, of course, stop eating; Gandhi used that strategy to magnificent effect. As a method of reaching a healthy weight, however, it's frowned upon. What you have to do to lose weight is not to stop eating, but to stop eating the way you used to eat. I'm doing it, and it's working, but it complicates the hell out of my life as a cook.

I've struggled with weight all my life, losing and regaining the same 30+ pounds several times. I established a pathetic pattern worthy of a medieval tapestry: the large woman stops eating (anything, carbs, second helpings and fast food), exercises (incorrectly, so intensely that she gets shin splints, until she abhors the sight of her Nikes) and becomes smaller. She buys tinier clothes, and basks in the admiration of all of the people who want to know her "secret." She gets busy, stressed, cocky and inattentive and starts to eat like she used to, she becomes larger again, and in the final tableau she is folding her smaller clothes and putting them in bags to donate to Goodwill, and then pulling the larger versions from the back of the closet where she saved them for the inevitable.

This time, I used health and moderation as my guides. With the help of my beloved iPhone I make sure I eat the recommended daily servings from all groups (the artist formerly known as the Food Pyramid is now The Plate) and that my grains are whole, my dairy is low in fat, and at least half of my daily protein comes from a non-animal source. Using another app, I enter everything I eat, and it gives me not only a kind of profile of where I'm on and off the nutritional mark, but also a grade. Being the competitive person that I am, I am willing to do almost anything to make the disembodied Calorie Count God give me an "A." If I enter butter and my grade drops to a "B," I put olive oil on my bread instead, and receive an "A" and a star on my chart. Finally, there is a pedometer app that makes me want to park farther and take the stairs just to see the gratifying jump in steps taken. My phone and I have lost a lot of weight in just over 30 days without shin splints or a diet so restricted that I can't eat among normal folk. This is good.

The sticky thing is work, where I am paid to cook fairly standard, American fare for a diverse group at a church. Although I read vegetarian cookbooks in bed at night, and my husband and I are planning a hydroponic vegetable garden so that fresh produce is available in the dead of a Michigan winter, I am not running a health food restaurant. My impulse is to share, to reform, to turn all white flour to wheat and all heavy recipes lighter. I'm not interested in the weight of anyone I feed; I simply burn with the passion of the zealous convert. At home I can easily balance my own eating habits with those of my husband and son -- they eat burgers, I eat a Boca Burger. I make white wheat bread, I add butter and cheese to their noodles after taking my serving, and all of their various snacks are still in the house. To their credit, my boys are both good about trying the lentil-cheddar loaf, or the kale chips (once), and I see small and gratifying changes in their preferences and consciousness.

At work, I wrestle with the increasing disconnect between my own strong convictions about healthy eating, and my actual job. I believe that "all foods fit," and that life without the occasional French fry, Alfredo or bacon would not be worth the living. I am still, after all, a devoted foodie. Mostly, though, I think we run better on healthy stuff. I thought about it last week in my work kitchen as I whipped bowl after bowl of heavy cream for an icebox cake. I had just eaten a modest dinner of grilled chicken, quinoa, salad and melon, and I was making artery-clogging death in a hotel pan for my "customers." The dinner I served at work the next night was grilled brats, coleslaw and icebox cake. It was well-received and apparently delicious, but I ate none of it. A single sausage lowered my daily grade to a "B," and one can only imagine the effect of adding coleslaw dressing and a mound of real whipped cream. I felt odd, sitting down at one of the long tables of diners to eat my leftover salmon, red peppers and sunflower seeds, but I wasn't ready to give up the degree of control that has gotten me to this good place.

It's been my bitter experience that it's those "I can just have a little bit" moments that reverse the positive trajectory and send me plummeting into a morass of Oreos and self-loathing. But I can't cook things without tasting them. I had to make sure the whipped cream had just enough powdered sugar, and that the slaw dressing was not too vinegar-sour. I will have to try biscuits for flakiness, cookies for dryness, mashed potatoes for butteriness and sauces for balance. Good cooks taste and adjust, taste and adjust. I am relatively safe for the rest of the summer since most of what I serve is grilled meat and fresh produce, but I am shaky about the fall and winter when the grill is retired, and I plan menus to please everyone from small children to octogenarians on cold, Midwestern nights. Will I tweak the menus, skewing then toward Cooking Light versions of classics and two kinds of veggies? Will people complain? Am I good enough to make the changes so smoothly that they can't even tell? If I make their old favorites, how will I taste as I cook? Will I have to keep a "bite log" and enter every spoonful of soup, and every square inch of pie in my Calorie Count app? Even if I burn it all off in a brisk walk, how can I justify the addition of full-fat dairy and white flour to my pristine rotation of Greek yogurt and spinach?

If I had an unlimited budget I could plan meals for work around a lean protein deliciously napped with a chimichurri, or a balsamic reduction. Instead, I have a budget that calls for an abundance of cheap, filling pasta, rice or potatoes with small amounts of meat. It is also difficult for a lone cook to serve anything of the "fast, easy, fresh" variety to 100 diners at one time. There can be no stir-fries or sautés; whatever is for dinner has to be prepared in quantity, all at once. It will also become increasingly difficult (and expensive) to source really good, fresh vegetables as we move into fall and winter. At home I might slice a Hubbard squash, embrace it with a little sesame oil and grill it like steak; during my grill-less winter at work that is not an option. I know how to make soup from root vegetables, mashed parsnips, and carrot soufflé, but I am imagining the disappointed faces of small children and the disapprobation of my favorite geriatric gentlemen when they hear that they are having vegetable soup and wheat rolls instead of my beloved (heavy) cream of tomato soup and sweet, white yeast rolls. It is my job to feed them, to show them hospitality and love that fills a plate or a bowl. It may be my personal conviction that it is more loving to reduce their fat and sodium intake, but working at a church does not make me God.

I will make it work. I look with hope at the many slender celebrity chefs in the world, and tell myself that they can prepare highly caloric feasts seven nights a week, taste as needed, and remain camera-ready. I will probably look for lighter versions of the macaroni and cheese, the cream of tomato soup and the chicken and dumplings, and make sure that there are always two "clean" vegetables on the side. I may take the dramatic step of offering a bowl of fresh fruit alongside the chocolate peanut butter cupcakes and pineapple upside down cake. I love my job, and I love wearing pants that are a size smaller. I will make it work.

Ann Nichols

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