Seconds or Courses? – Figuring out Portion Control

I once ate at a restaurant that changed the way I thought about food, and ultimately changed my life.  I am going to write more about this restaurant in upcoming posts, but in this one I just want to talk about what they taught me about portion control.

You can’t read an article on dieting without encountering tips on how to eat less – everything from weighing your food, counting calories, dividing up your plate by food group, eating from a smaller plate, waiting 20 minutes before having seconds.  It goes on and on.  All great advice, some of which works for me and some does not.  When it comes to appetite regulation I will try anything once, and keep doing anything that helps.  These are the “Hunger Games” and I need any possible advantage to tip the odds in my favor!  Of course if the hormones that regulate appetite are working correctly, you know intuitively how much to eat.  But with our western, fast food life style, this precise and beautiful control mechanism has been disrupted for many of us.

I just read an article this morning about how parents still try to coerce their kids into eating all the food on their plate.  In a world where portions size is out of control, this may not be the best life skill. Depending on who is dishing up for you, the food on your plate is not the best guide to how much you should eat!

My whole strategy is about eating more in order to eat (and weigh) less:

  1. Eat more vegetables and fruit.
  2. Eat more for breakfast.
  3. Eat more delicious real food.
  4. Eat more proper meals.
  5. Eat more nutrient dense foods with a high fiber and water content.
  6. Eat a greater variety of food.
  7. Eat more healthy fats and proteins.

Without trying too hard this results in eating less.  You will find that you:

  1. Eat fewer calories overall.
  2. Eat little to no junk or processed food.
  3. Eat no “empty calories”
  4. Don’t succumb to out-of-control binge eating.
  5. Eat fewer snacks.
  6. Eat less carbohydrates in favor of a more balanced ratio of fat, carbohydrate and protein.

This post is about how my favorite restaurant taught me about eating more courses in order to eat less!  I have eaten many multi-course meals at restaurants in my life, some excellent, some not so good.  I once paid a fortune for a meal at a fancy restaurant where each course was one or two tablespoons of food at the most.  It was utterly delicious but I came away famished and feeling very ripped off! I have had a lot more 3 course meals where each individual course is enough for 2 and I stumble out in a food coma with a rather sore tummy vowing “never again!”

And then there was that life changing meal at Tokara after which food would never be the same again.  I know they teach chefs about portion control in culinary school.  But like all students, some apply what they learn in real life and some do not.  Richard Carstens, the Tokara chef, gets it exactly right in my opinion.  His plates are designed so that you can eat a starter, a main course and a dessert and come away comfortably full but not stuffed.  Dinner even includes an amuse-bouche and intermezzo, which add to the experience without adding to the calorie count 🙂 This is my experience every time and I have checked in with friends and family who have gone there on my recommendation and they report the same.  I know that there are many excellent chefs and good restaurants around the world that are getting this aspect of food preparation right, but this was the first time I experienced it quite so magnificently.

Here we come to that “small plate” dieting advice and why I don’t care for it.  The theory is that you will fill your plate regardless of size, so by using a smaller plate you end up eating less.  However, like most fine dining restaurants, at Tokara you get what a friend of mine calls “a lot of plate:”  A big plate, with a modest amount of food.  This can be taken as a symbol of pretentious, over-priced food, but it doesn’t have to be.   I would describe the Tokara portions as generous, without being ridiculous.  The food is as visually appealing as it is delicious and the big plate is the canvas upon which a work of art is created.  It is not a “feeding trough” to binge over.

Reflecting on this approach to eating, I began to compare it with how I eat at home.  The meals I grew up with were buffet-style.  There would be a number of dishes on the table, each person would dish up for themselves and then decide whether or not to have seconds (or thirds!).  If you arrive at the meal as a hungry fat person you tend to pile your plate and eat too fast.  You have already eaten more than enough but fail to realize this, and reach for “seconds”.  Seconds usually consist of cherry picking the foods on the table you find the most appetizing, and for me this usually meant the starch (potatoes, omg, potatoes!).  You then sit back and debate whether you have “room for dessert.”  I will give you a clue – I always had room!  Ice cream slides in beautifully to all the little spaces in your tummy left by the other food.

While eating multiple courses in a restaurant is normal, I would never have thought to eat this way at home.  Unless I was hosting a dinner party.  And I never host dinner parties.  But then I thought why not?  Cooking really opens your mind to changing your eating behavior.  It turns out it is no more effort than cooking buffet-style and a lot more satisfying!  Eating this way has portion control built right in.  As often as possible I have lunch or dinner that involves a starter, a main course and a dessert.  Yes dessert.  I am good at desserts and have a fruit-based, sugar-free, high-fiber dessert about 3 or 4 times a week.  People who think I am “on diet” are horrified and think I have lost the plot.  If the dessert is highly nutritious, doesn’t have sugar, refined flour or excessive fat, what’s the problem?  I guess you may ask – does a dessert that meets all those criteria qualify as dessert?  Come to my house and we can discuss over chocolate raspberry cupcakes 🙂

What I like about this approach is that it primes you to move from one stage of the meal to the next, and end when the meal is over.  Start with soup or salad, progress to a main course consisting of a protein and plenty of fresh vegetables, and end with a dessert as described above.  You can even indulge in a coffee and block of dark chocolate at the end to really finish on a high note.  Notice how vegetable-heavy this meal is?  There is always a single, appropriately sized portion of protein and the fat content comes along as part of the food preparation (eg: coconut oil for sautéing veggies or in the dessert) or adds flavor in the form of a few nuts, a sprinkling of grated cheese or a dab of good butter.  I make the starch component optional.  Some of my meals include a slice of homemade bread, a small portion of quinoa or some buckwheat pasta.  The starch no longer dominates the meal if it even shows up at all.

The part of my brain that runs my appetite goes along with this approach beautifully.  As much as I adore the soup, I don’t go for seconds, because the main course awaits. Because I know what’s for dessert, cause “I dun made it myself,” I am happy to move on from mains without “seconds.”  And then the magic happens. The meal is over and I am full.  The courses force me to pace myself and by the time the dessert is done, the starter has made its way through my digestive track to whatever bit it needs to get to trigger the “satiety signal.”  I have a little moment of panic because it all seems so indulgent and over the top and so I do a little mental review of what I ate, realize it was mostly vegetables and that I am probably ok.  I am done with food until the next meal.

Using this approach I don’t have to throw out my nice big dinner plates and buy new tiny plates.  But I don’t pile my plates either.  I like to see a lot of white space and pretty garnishes on my plate along with a sensible portion of food.  As a cook I find the experience very satisfying because I get to experiment with different styles of cooking and baking.  I also comfort myself with the thought that if one thing flops we can just turn it into a 2 course meal and no one will feel too deprived!

So that’s my tip for the day for learning portion control:  Eat at a great restaurant with an amazing chef if and when you can afford it, or experiment with making multi-course meals at home.  Go heavy on the vegetables and light on everything else and enjoy!

“Checkout Wars” – A survivor’s tale

Yesterday was what has become a typical Sunday for us – early trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh produce, stop in on the way home at a supermarket to top up with key ingredients not available from the market. After getting most of my groceries at the market, I still needed chiles, cilantro, basil and greek yoghurt.  Whenever I brave a supermarket these days I make sure I go in with a plan and come out only with the items on my shopping list and nothing else.  I have come to understand that “impulse buys” are not a quirk of character on my part, they are very carefully orchestrated by the store’s strategy to prompt me to buy items I neither want nor need.  I now know that if I didn’t want it when I arrived, I am not going to miss it after I leave, no matter how much I may feel I want it in the moment.

The supermarket we use is a major chain in South Africa, with some similarities to Whole Foods in the USA.  One of these being that they sell what Michael Pollan calls “Storied food.”   Storied food is delightful – you can pick it up and read a little adventure yarn about where the food was grown, by who and how it came to be in your hands.  For example, the logo on the milk was a heart with a cow inside.  I was charmed to read that the milk had been produced by “happy cows.”  Not a word on whether those cows were grass or grain fed, and given the omission it is safe to assume that it is the latter.  However, at least the cows were happy about it!  Presumably the farmer took a survey and got a high satisfaction rating from the herd.

But the story telling is not confined to the labels on the products. The store had a massive advertisement at the entrance and again at the exit about their “Organic range” claiming that you could buy organic in everything “from t-shirts to tea bags.”  Given the size of the billboards, I wondered if I would suddenly find a vast array of new organic products on the shelves.  Looking into the history of this store’s relationship with organics, I found this fascinating press release from 2004 that explained their insight that organic was going mainstream and how they had updated their marketing to address this rapidly growing customer base.  How exciting!  Not so fast though, for a store that has understood the appeal of organics for such a long time, I was disappointed at how few items I could locate with the organic label in the fresh produce section.  I found some broccoli and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps the massive signs at the entrance and exit are meant to draw an organic “halo” around everything in the store, even if only a handful of products are actually certified organic?  Surely the marketing team would not be that cynical or have such a low opinion of consumer intelligence?

What is interesting is that there are at least 4 active, well supported farmers’ markets within a few kilometers of this particular store.  The one near my home a little further away does not advertise organics nearly as prominently.  Perhaps because they don’t face the same level of competition from the local food movement?  Least you think I am over-stating my case, the competition is real.  The markets were absolutely packed but there were only a handful of people in the supermarket.  Of course trade will pick up when the markets close, but for a few hours a week at least, this store is losing significant patronage to the nearby markets.

I was standing in the checkout line, looking at the massive “organics” advert overhead and reviewing my purchases to ensure that I everything on my shopping list and nothing else, when another reality thrust itself upon my consciousness.  The store has set up their checkout line so that everyone stands in the same queue and is routed to the next available cashier when they reach the front.  A very equitable and efficient system of queuing, which I greatly appreciate.  What I do not appreciate is the blatant attempt to manipulate my buying behavior in the form of the mouth-watering array of sweets and chocolates that flank the line of shoppers on either side.  What is more, once you enter the queue there is no escape.  There are people in front of you and behind you and your only option is to stand there and look at the goodies screaming “buy me!” for as long as it takes to get to the front of the queue.  Or you can shut your eyes and go to your happy place if you prefer. Those eye-catching candies used to be a source of significant temptation to me.  I would almost invariably succumb, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband, who seems immune to advertising of any kind for reasons I do not quite understand. These days I am able to run the gauntlet of the checkout line and emerge unscathed, which is a great relief to me. I now entertain myself by watching the other shoppers to see how many browse the items on display and end up adding a sweet or chocolate to their basket.  I would say it is at least one in 3, although if a young child is involved that likelihood increases dramatically.

It is because of tactics such as this, that I take massive offense at anyone who wants to reduce the diet of children to parental responsibility.  I have witnessed children simply lose it in that situation and have an all-out screaming tantrum.  Glass shatters and eardrums burst and other patrons look on in irritation and disapproval.  I have seen parents just grab a bag of sweets, rip it open and hand it to their hysterical offspring right there in the checkout line! Presumably they plan to pay for it later – in more ways than one!  When this occurs all the onlookers are simultaneously thinking two things: “You are a bad parent for giving in to your child like that – you aren’t teaching them anything!” and “Thank God you just did that and made the yelling stop!” I suspect that the parent is doing their level best and is a pretty good parent in most situations, but they are only human and just want the yelling and the social disapproval to stop.  The kid is freaking out, their head is about to explode, the enemy has them surrounded and all escape routes have been blocked off. Can you blame them?

At least when the harassed parent gets to the checkout they will be asked if they have a “My School” card and if they do a percentage of their purchases will go to support a school of their choice.  Next time you give in and buy that chocolate you had intended to resist, just remember that you are “doing it for the children!”

Would a store that really cares about their customers, the environment, the community and the education of children, deliberately put parents in this untenable situation every time they buy at the store with a child in tow?  If it is all about “consumer choice” and “making healthy choices that are part of a balanced diet” then why is it not good enough to give the sweeties their own aisle just like all the other products? Why do they need to flank the checkout line? Why not place the vegetables there instead?  If someone buys a bunch of carrots on impulse, no harm done, right? I do know that whenever I bought sweets, I would end up not only buying more and more sweets, but more food overall.  Is it possible that the store knows this as well?  As a grown adult I have to make a conscious effort to counteract the store’s strategy and come out with my health and budget in tact. Just watch this marshmallow experiment and you will get an idea of how tough this is on a kid, and the parent responsible for them.

If this video doesn’t tug at your heart-strings you are just dead inside!  Seriously, who would do this to a little kid?  Your local supermarket, that’s who!  Of course the point of the experiment is that ability to resist the marshmallow correlates to greater academic achievement later in life, so perhaps the supermarket exposes kids to an overwhelming selection of sweets in the checkout line to build character and contribute to their education 😛

If you have been paying attention you would know that I was in the supermarket in the first place because I couldn’t get everything I needed at the farmers’ market.  Doesn’t this prove that we still need supermarkets and shouldn’t we be grateful for the array of choices they offer us?  Sort of. I, for one, still need them, but my relationship with them is changing rapidly.  I am hardly ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of health and nutrition.  If I were, I wouldn’t be an obese, diabetic 38 year old!  I used to find people who only ate organic, or shopped at farmers’ markets annoying and thought of them as “alarmist” or “faddish.”  I am now one of those people.  The 2004 press release of my favorite supermarket was prophetic.  In 2013 I finally caught on to a trend they identified almost 10 years ago!  Although I still need the supermarket, I am needing them less and less, because they sell very little of what makes up my daily diet.  At the same time more and more farmers’ markets and co-ops are popping up, they are highly responsive to customer feedback, and every time I visit they seem to supply more of the ingredients I stock up on to ensure that I can continue to offer the menu of my new “home restaurant.”  For the time being I am glad that the supermarket is there although my friendship with them is somewhat strained.  For years I was a willing victim cheerfully guzzling down sodas and salt and vinegar crisps.  Now I only get what I came for, I see through all the marketing and “story telling” and I know not to look directly at the sweets in the checkout line for too long, least they blind me!

I have plans to plant a herb and vegetable garden in the Spring (we are now heading into Autumn) and increase my food independence even more. How long before I am able to end my troubled relationship with the supermarket altogether?  How many more people like me are out there?  Is our food economy changing or is this just a passing trend that will fade  when we return to shopping in the manner to which we have become accustomed?  Time will tell.  However, if the size of the food movement has any correlation to the size of the “Organics” signs in my supermarket then this thing is HUGE, people!

Back to the Kitchen – My declaration of food independence!

This week-end I spent a number of happy hours barefoot and in the kitchen!  My inner feminist was only slightly comforted by the thought that at least I am not pregnant. Yikes!  I am one small mishap away from being a stereotype!

In all seriousness though, I spent years determined not to have my identity reduced to any pre-ordained gender role, and I am still very much of this mindset, but that is a subject for a whole other blog.  When asked if I liked to cook, I would jokingly respond:  “I have a great interest in eating food but none in preparing it.”  Little did I know that I had succinctly summarized the chief cause of my weight problem! The “Don’t Cook, Just Eat” series of adverts are targeted directly at people like me. However, my recent food adventures have led me to realize how much we give up when we give up cooking.  I have reached the conclusion that every household needs a chef.  If you are too wealthy for your own good, you can hire one.  If you are like the rest of us, someone in the home is just going to have to step up!  If you live with others the role can be negotiated and hopefully shared. If you live alone, it looks like you’re it!

When we turn over the task of food preparation to the food industry, we think we are simply exchanging our hard-earned cash for convenience and tasty food.  Not a bad deal. But we are really giving up a lot more along with our money:

  1. Control over what we put in our bodies.
  2. Variety – ever notice how all fast and processed food starts tasting the same after a while?
  3. Health and proper nutrition.
  4. The pleasure of the creative process that precedes and greatly increases the pleasure of eating.
  5. The opportunity to at least expend a few calories in the process of procuring a meal!  We might not be hunter-gatherers anymore, but at least we can graft a little in the kitchen and restore some of the energy balance that is so absent in the way we consume food today!

Let’s face it – the task of cooking is one that many of us would rather outsource, if at all possible. A troubled relationship with food may, in fact, have begun with a troubled relationship with our kitchens!  My early kitchen memories are mixed: on the one hand I get nostalgic when I remember all the peanut butter cookies and crunchies my long-suffering mother allowed me to bake.  On the other I remember being made to do the washing up and vowing that when I grew up I would never wash a dish again. My plan at the time was to have a child of my own who I could instruct to do this for me – clearly I did not think this through!  However, I would still rather have a root canal than wash a sink full of dirty dishes, and one way to avoid this task is to get take aways that come in convenient throw-away containers 🙂

It has been said that people only make significant life changes when the perceived pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.  If I am honest, it is only because my fast food lifestyle ultimately came with sufficiently negative and damaging consequences that I tentatively took my first steps back into the kitchen.  The kitchen used to be the place where I made tea and toast and got stuff out of the fridge.  It is now the place where all my meals are produced.  Yes, it’s messy.  Yes, there are mountains of dirty dishes left in my wake.  All I can say is thank the good Lord for dishwashers.  But it is also way more fun than I would ever have imagined!

Confession time:  I have a thing for celebrity chefs.  I used to treat cooking shows like a spectator sport.  I know, I know, but as easy as our fetish with the celebrity chef craze is to satirize, it has helped make cooking glamorous again and break down any gender stereotypes about who may occupy this role in the home or the work place!  I am currently indulging in Gordon Ramsay’s “The Ultimate Cookery Course”.  The one where he actually stands in his kitchen and shows you how to cook, instead of being a potty mouth and haranguing hapless restaurant owners!  I picked up some really useful techniques and managed to turn out a couple of really decent meals as a result.  Here is photographic evidence of my latest efforts:

Quinoa pancakes with apple and berry toppings.

Quinoa pancakes with apple and berry toppings.

A lovely Sunday breakfast treat.  Got the quinoa pancake recipe online and the berry topping was inspired by Gordon Ramsay.  I used strawberries and blueberries which I cooked in a pan on the stove with the zest and juice of one lemon, a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.  Ramsay starts by caramelizing sugar in the pan, but I skipped that and they still came out absolutely delicious.  Simmer until the liquids reduce down to form a nice syrup and you have an ideal pancake topping!

For lunch we had a vegetable frittata, garden salad and some amaranth crackers with organic tomato sauce and cheese.  It was one of those “use all the veggies in your fridge” meals that worked out rather well:

Sunday lunch

Sunday lunch: Vegetable frittata with garden salad and cheese platter featuring amaranth crackers

It is looking worse and worse for me!  I have just confessed to watching celebrity chefs and I am now forced to admit that I am one of those annoying people who photographs their food.  I couldn’t resist this one because I was so proud that the frittata released from the pan and I was able to present it at the table in one piece!  Again, this is thanks to a technique I learned on Ramsay’s show: loosen the sides with a knife and then bang the pan a few times on the counter before tipping it over onto a cutting board, put a plate on top and flip.  These are the small victories helping to build my confidence and inspire my cooking Renaissance!

Although there is so much about The Biggest Loser that depresses me and represents the exact opposite of my approach to weight loss,  I was impressed to note that the contestants have to prepare their own meals while on the show.  Even better, they are given challenges where they need to make this work in real life.  This is encouraging as they are learning a skill that gives them a shot at sustainable weight management when they are no longer being held accountable by television cameras and public “weigh ins.”  If you are going to take any pointers from the show, that is one of the ones I would recommend.

So where do you stand on the whole kitchen thing?  Are you an occasional visitor, or regular fixture?  Does it take days to fill up your dishwasher, or does the poor thing struggle to keep up with your capacity to dirty every dish and utensil that you own?  If you are concerned with your weight or your health, I suggest you make friends with your kitchen.  Or at least make friends with someone else who knows their way around and doesn’t mind sharing!