I come from a long line of Southern cooks. We take our family recipes, cast iron skillets, and canning jars seriously. A great deal of pride comes with the delivery of a meal, whether it’s slaved over for hours or thrown together at the last minute.
My paternal grandmother, Louise, was a wiz in the kitchen and set a pretty high bar. A typical Sunday dinner at her house included her famous pan-fried chicken, at least six vegetable side dishes, perfectly risen yeast rolls hot out of the oven, and three or more desserts. She could make just about any dessert requested, but her pecan pie, angel food cake, and peach cobbler were the crowd favorites.
All this meticulously crafted food was my grandmother’s way of showing how much she cared for her family. She wasn’t just feeding us, she was loving each and every one of us through her food. We showed our gratitude and reciprocated her love with how many times we refilled our plates and how clean they were at the end of the meal. As her oldest grandchild, I figured out this gig pretty early in life. My clean plate meant I had a direct line to her heart.
My grandmother was a powerful influence on me in the food realm in part because we had so many years together—she lived to 97. But she was not my only influence. My mother grew up in a different sort of southern kitchen—less down home, more adventurous. My mom was always coming up with some twist on traditional southern meals with her willingness to try unusual ingredients.
Even though my childhood occurred in the 1970s, pre-packaged and fast foods did not invade my mother’s or my grandmother’s kitchens. Handmade and homemade may have lost favor in that era, but my mom and grandmother didn’t cave to the fads. I cannot remember ever having Tony the Tiger or a marshmallow wielding leprechaun grace my morning cereal bowl. Nor did Hamburger Helper or Chef Boyardee deliver my dinner. My grandmother’s version of “fast food” was to put her home-cooked meals in conveniently slotted TV dinner trays.
Loving Good Food is in My DNA
From the way my grandmother used food as a love language to the culture of creativity my mom cultivated in the kitchen, nourishing my body has been part of my DNA and a lifelong ambition.
Even when I was teetering on what felt like the poverty line in my first job out of college, I prioritized good food. My roommates at the time joked that I could probably have qualified for food stamps, but I would have used them to buy shiitake mushrooms, not bread and milk. I allowed myself to buy whatever nourished me even when I was counting every penny to make ends meet.
As a result, most of the people in my life consider me an “insanely healthy eater.” My kids would say I’m a “green freak” when it comes to the amount of vegetables I put on their plates. I’ve been known to sneak greens even into brownies (thank you zucchini!). And that was true for me well before my health crisis hit. Ironically, my eating habits were not something that put me in a high risk category for any health concern, which is perhaps one reason we missed the signs of my impending health crisis.
However, with my cancer diagnosis in 2014 came a full evaluation of my diet, and a new level of education on how food could harm or heal my body. Thanks to the education from my alternative medicine doctors, I found many opportunities for improvement. Tests revealed a few bad actors in my diet (e.g., dairy, soy) specific to my body. And cleaning those out has helped heal my gut, which was more out of whack than I realized.
Food as Medicine
But during the time when I was in active treatment, my diet became really restrictive and regimented. So much so that I didn’t feel like eating at all. I lost too much weight and looked like a shadow of my former self (and it wasn’t a good look). I loathed figuring out what I could and could not eat or drink for the sake of my healing body. I abhorred how much time it took to prepare a meal. Nothing was fast or convenient, and it was very hard to let anyone else cook for me. Going out to eat was a nightmare! Even worse was eating at someone else's house!
But luckily my food tradition held strong at my core and through experimentation I slowly found my way to a more sustainable and delightful diet.
Today, “Hunter-gatherer Paleo” is the best way to characterize my eating habits. That means I consume the following:
Organic vegetables (lots of them!),
Organic fruits (mostly low sugar berries),
Nuts and seeds, and
Sustainably produced meat and fish (in small quantities).
This way of eating also means I’ve pulled out the following from my diet:
Most grains (wheat, white rice, corn)
Sugar (my only exceptions are very, very small amounts of raw honey, coconut sugar, and dates).
I cook with coconut oil and ghee, and season with fresh and dried herbs and sea salt. I drink a lot of water and tea (green, white, pu-er, matcha) and have recently started brewing Kombucha—a fermented tea that replaces fizzy drinks and alcohol for me. Dark chocolate (85%) is my rare treat.
A Holistic Approach to Nourishment
But through all of this, I’ve learned eating and drinking are only part of my equation. Nourishing is really the key.
verb (used with object)
1. to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth.
2. to cherish, foster, keep alive, etc.
3. to strengthen, build up, or promote
If you read my post on my Thrive Cycle, you know “nourish” is a key part of my three-part filter along with playing and resting. And how I nourish myself really does represent more than what I eat and drink. It supplies what is necessary for my life, my health, and my growth.
It’s also how my mind fills with creativity,
my heart fills with love,
and my gut fills with courage.
In the 10 months I’ve applied this filter to my life, I’ve made a lot of decisions based on whether an opportunity “nourishes” me or not. This filter certainly takes what I eat and drink to the next level. I’m pretty quick to say no to any food prepared fast unless it’s super high quality (and those rarely go together). And if I can’t pronounce an ingredient or understand how it’s produced, it’s an easy call on whether it qualifies or not as nourishment.
Of course, sometimes I forget to pull out my filter and I fall off my nourishment wagon—mostly when I’m "hangry." I occasionally sip more than my fair share off my husband’s wine glass or indulge in a wood-fired pizza crust (I’m sorry, but gluten free pizza crust sucks! I’d rather not have pizza at all!). And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay because sometimes indulging is a form of nourishment.
With this new balance, I’ve found a new groove in the eating and drinking category. I enjoy being creative in the kitchen and wowing my family with stunning meals again. And my health continues to improve. It’s a slow process to rely on good food instead of medicine to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Patience and presence are required no doubt!
Thoughts to Noodle On
What foods or eating habits feel nourishing to you?
Do you have any foods or eating habits keeping you from thriving?
How can you cultivate a creative mind, a love-filled heart, and a courageous gut?
I’m thankful for the following resources that crossed my path during my quest to nourish and heal my body. They helped me find my way back to loving my food:
Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Juice -- a fellow cancer thriver’s approach to healing her body with food over medicine.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan’s The MicroBiome Solution -- a radical new way to heal the body from the inside out that taught me about the role of healthy bacteria.
Melissa Hartwig’s The Whole 30 -- an elimination diet plan that made it easy to identify and eliminate all potentially inflammatory foods.
Dr. Terry Wahl’s The Wahl’s Protocol -- a mind blowing account of healing multiple sclerosis with a heavy veggie Paleo diet that gave me confidence my food could be a healing force.