Ihave just spent three weeks in the Netherlands eating everything in sight.
And no, I didn’t quite balance this out by cycling everywhere.
After crashing into a heap of parked bikes when I took a loose turn and then getting thrown off when I failed to plan ahead and tried to stop abruptly, my trusty mechanical steed and I needed a break.
A traditional Dutch bike also known as an “omafiets” doesn’t have brakes so you pedal backward to stop. Let’s just say this takes a certain amount of awareness and forward planning the airhead I am hasn’t quite mastered yet.
Thinking that all my Dutch habits and reflexes would still work although I left Amsterdam almost two decades ago was optimistic.
Because I had the luxury of taking things at my own pace, I parked my bike and would go pat its saddle lovingly every now and then to make sure it was OK.
That’s the joy of being able to work from anywhere rather than having to go to a particular place. Work I very much did nonetheless, often with something to snack on, which is completely out of character for me.
As a rule, I eat one meal a day and I do not indulge in anything other than water, tea, or coffee outside of dinner time.
Because my body doesn’t take kindly to sugar, I don’t eat much of it either.
Unless, apparently, I’m in Amsterdam.
Arguably, eating one meal a day is a little extreme for most folks.
But when it is all you can afford and you insist on nourishing foods to try and keep healthy, it becomes a habit. Instead of stuffing myself silly with cheap junk food, I eat a plant-based diet.
With food as with everything else, quality trumps quantity.
But depending on where you live, fresh vegetables aren’t always cheap nor available, at least in the US where there are many food deserts. Then again, canned and frozen veggies can be just as nutritious.
Eating the way I do is an investment in my physical and mental health but one that has often meant going hungry in the past. Then again, I went through extreme poverty during one of Europe’s most brutal economic crises and figured out how long I could go without eating. As a result, I eventually settled on the one daily meal habit.
And because I’m a freelancer without a guaranteed monthly income and currently lead a peripatetic life, frugality is essential for now.
This and my vegan ways don’t make me any less of a foodie; I’m still French, and food is our national religion as well as an art form we’re very attached to.
In Europe, food is something most of us feel strongly about, be in Portugal, Scandinavia, or anywhere in between.
We have daily and weekly farmers’ markets, cooking is a way to relax, and we enjoy gathering around the table for hours on end with friends and family.
Food is an intrinsic part of our culture and many of us take an active interest in where it comes from, too.
When you come across market stall holders who are passionate about what they do, it tastes amazing.
Because my personal preferences lean toward all that is fat and savory, I made a beeline for the nuts stall I had heard so much about.
And of course I fell head over heels in love with many of its offerings, including the best walnut halves I’ve ever eaten anywhere. I’m a little obsessed with walnuts and spent the winter mainlining kilos of them. So much so that the produce guy at my dad’s local supermarket would keep him informed of new deliveries and impending shortages.
For the best part of three weeks, I became a squirrel in human format, chomping away on large quantities of Dutch nuts.
And plant- and nut-based ice-cream, too. The heat wave that stifled Northern Europe was one excuse, my friends being hardcore ice-cream enthusiasts was another.
It didn’t help that it was all very delicious and remarkably free of the weird garbage ingredients the US is so fond of. Many of them are banned in the EU because they’re not regarded as fit for human consumption.
“Urgh, I need to stop eating so much,” I mused to my friends.
Their reaction was quite unexpected: They asked me why I felt compelled to deny myself and urged me to enjoy my meals and treats instead.
This is what my parents do whenever I stay with them in Paris but hearing it from humans my age was far more powerful.
Food isn’t penance or reward; food is nourishment and pleasure.
If restricting our food intake when resources are scarce makes sense, starving or gorging does not.
Because my relationship with food is an unusual one, what I regarded as pigging out was in fact a lot closer to eating normally, i.e. more regularly.
And of course I pushed back as I’m never not anxious about being able to support myself, something that I’m only beginning to do again, albeit modestly.
I lost five years of my life to incapacitating depression. I couldn’t think, which made any kind of journalism and translation work impossible. My focus was gone, and even reading was arduous at times.
As a result, I’ve spent the last year relearning my job and rebuilding a life word by word, which is still very much a work in progress.
Using food as reward is something many of us do.
But until that conversation, I hadn’t understood this was how I operated. It’s not uncommon for me to forgo dinner if I’ve got too much to do, or to skip food altogether when I’m distraught, upset, or sad.
There were many wobbly moments in Amsterdam but none of them lasted very long. If I did cry, most of those tears were born out of laughter, gratitude, and disbelief at life’s ability to be so well worth living.
My appetite for life came back, both figuratively and literally.
In a culture that places a premium on appearances, we’re quick to approach food as a weapon, which leads to unfathomable extremes. We’re either too fat or too skinny, seldom the right shape or size because we still haven’t learned that every human body is different.
And many Americans lack a basic understanding of nutrition. We’re so disconnected from our food that we end up outsourcing cooking and living off ready-made and take out meals while our kitchens remain pristine.
How can we ever take charge of ourselves when we have no clue what to put in our mouths to keep our bodies strong and healthy?
Eat well, live well, and combine agency and curiosity to prepare meals that’ll help you thrive.
You don’t need to be an instinctive or a professional cook. Anyone who can follow instructions can prepare something, even when we’ve never set foot in a kitchen before; food doesn’t have to be lavish, a meal doesn’t need multiple courses.
One dish made with heart from healthful ingredients can be more than enough if we learn how to appreciate it.