Cut the Crap and Save Your Life

by Michael on February 23, 2010 · 4 comments

I found this video recently (it’s an ad for a super-healthy food chain called “The Pump”—next time I’m in Manhattan I’ll have to try it) and it got me thinking:

Everywhere you turn there’s crap.

I watched a special on Coca-Cola recently where a company executive defended his product, declaring “people just want to take a break in their day to feel good.” The fast-food burger joints long ago stopped pretending to be healthy, instead focusing on the “good times” you’ll have while eating unrealistically large and juicy-looking versions of their menu items.

A lot of crap is masquerading as “healthy” food, too. The worst cereals in the world, packed with as much sugar as a soda, declare “10 Vitamins & Minerals!” Protein “workout” bars are filled with hydrogenated oils and corn syrup. A commercial during the Olympics tells you that by choking down Chicken McNuggets you’re “eating like an athlete!” The frozen dinner aisle is packed with the words “lean,” “gourmet,” “smart” and “healthy”—read the long, fine-print ingredient list to see just how much they’re stretching the truth. Even canned fruit is frequently packed with corn syrup.

But you know what? At some point you’ve got to sack up and take responsibility for your own life, for your own health. And there’s only one sure way to make sure you can always eat healthy…

Cook.

I can’t tell you how many single guys I know who boast about their inability to prepare a meal from scratch. Hell, I know a lot of women who seem inordinately proud of that.

Part of this isn’t your fault: since the rise of fast food and “casual dining” restaurants, cooking is a skill that has fallen out of favor in America. By some calculations, we’re on the third generation to not be coached on basic food prep skills. Why, when for a mere $2 you can get a double cheeseburger and a soft drink with 30 grams of sugar? Or buy a prepackaged meal with a list of ingredients you couldn’t pronounce with a gun to your head?

At the point where you consider yourself a smart man, the responsibility for your diet becomes yours.

Look, I’ve written about this before, but I’ve come to believe that there’s nothing more important for a single man to learn than to cook for himself.

Cooking is Easy

There’s no big secret to cooking. It’s not hard. And there are two ways to learn:

  • Take a class. You’ll get some structure, learn some basic recipes you can repeat as often as you like, and maybe even start a cooking group with your classmates. Classes are also a great way to get out and be social—even to meet women.
  • Learn to cook in the comfort of your own home. The steps are easy: You think of what you want to eat, you find a recipe, you buy ingredients, you cook, you taste, you learn.

Everything you could possibly need to know about cooking is at your fingertips. Recipes by the thousands can be had at Food.com and Epicurious. So are instructions for everything—with video. Never heard of “zesting a lemon” in your life? Look it up. What people used to have to attend cooking schools to learn, you can find in minutes. A couple of good books never hurt either: I recommend books by the host of Food Network’s Good Eats, Alton Brown. They’re very practical, and probably the most manly cookbooks in existence.

Buy the ingredients and equipment you need when you need them. There’s no need to outfit a gourmet kitchen until you’ve become a gourmet cook. You can use the links here to stock a basic pantry, adopt a simple system to create a healthy grocery list, and from there it depends on what’s cooking.

Of course, there will be bumps in the road. Anyone who’s cooked much can tell you of their recipes that somehow didn’t work out as planned. (Tip: never make crab-stuffed sole with imitation crab. Yuck.) But by trying things, substituting when you just realized you’re out of a certain ingredient, and using your own taste buds to tell you when you’ve seasoned something just right, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

Just Have Fun

As with everything, there are cooking purists out there. Ignore them for now. Non-organic vegetables may not be as healthy as organic vegetables, but they’re still miles ahead of the dried, reconstituted vegetables in that prepared package. You don’t have to fret over whether your beef is grass-fed or your milk is raw, unless you want to. Eventually you’ll be able to taste the difference in tomatoes from the farmer’s market and the ones from Gigant-O-Mart, but regular fresh (even canned!) tomatoes still taste pretty awesome in a homemade pasta sauce or salsa.

There are some items you don’t want to substitute, like extra virgin olive oil, but even there the point is to first get used to the process, and then start thinking about the quality of your ingredients. Just go crazy. Try any recipe that looks good.

And don’t forget that because tastes are different, you’ll need to taste while you’re cooking—and do it often. Although recipes specify amounts of seasonings, your own taste buds should be the final judge of whether your meal is ready to eat. As you get to know which seasonings go best with which foods, you’ll eventually be able to “freestyle” your own flavor.

Mark Your Progress

As with any new endeavor, you can get a lot more out of cooking if you keep track of what you do. Keep a journal of the recipes you’ve made. Make special note of any modifications so that if that broiled salmon turns out to be the best you ever had, you can duplicate it the next time. When you find a “go-to” recipe, make sure to mark it so that you can find it again. Make a list of the ingredients and equipment you’ll want in the future.

It’s also inspirational to compare creations with friends or online acquaintances. The message boards on the poker site I used to frequent had a “What’s Cooking?” forum where guys would take a picture of what they’d made for dinner and/or offer recipes. Some guys would feel such a spirit of competition that their creations would become more and more elaborate. I think a couple even tried aging their own beef. In a forum like this you can ask questions, see what others who prepared the same dish may have done to improve the flavor or consistency, and of course, brag.

Good Food In, Crap Out

In your personal war against crap, the ability to prepare your own food is your greatest weapon. And if you ever have a family to care for, cooking is of even more critical importance.

Did you know that diet-related disease and illness kills far more people in America than traffic accidents or homicides? I leave you with another video, this one more serious. British TV chef Jamie Oliver (whose new cookbook I can’t recommend highly enough if you’re just getting started in the kitchen) spoke at the TED Conference, where he was awarded a prize to pursue his vision of reversing the trend of obesity in America.

His topic: crap kills.

4 comments… read them below or add one

TikiNYC June 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Nice post. Now NYC has calorie labels, what will the future bring?

Reply

Michael June 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Thanks, Tiki.

Calories alone are of little help, though – this is kind of an example of government having the right idea but the wrong solution. Fat/protein/carb breakdown would be a start. Not that it seems to deter people: McDonalds is still making record profits.

Reply

Brown Meggs June 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm

A while back I had a sandwich from a very famous fast-food chain’s dollar menu, just like I’d done for a long while now. Well, I don’t know what they’ve gone and done to their ingredients, but I felt like a dog’s breakfast for hours afterward. Bottom line – no more Mickey D’s for this boy! The same thing’s happened to me with food from other fast-food chains. Looks like from now on, if I cannot make a meal myself, I’m going to have to rely on actual local *restaurants* (not the chains which are glorified fast-food joints). Not that that’s such a bad thing. It’s interesting to taste food which tastes like real food!

Reply

Michael July 8, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I’ve been there! A real restaurant may not have a dollar menu, but when I look at how that dollar food is made, I understand why.

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