Five principles that helped me overhaul the way I eat

I got the idea of writing this post while having a rather late lunch yesterday.
The red rice on my plate and the increased quantity of dal and vegetables 
is symptomatic of the meals I have these days. The cabbage had fish head 
I admit,  but I chose rohu over kaatla which has comparatively less fat. 
Every little step matters!

The start of a new chapter and of a more focused and conscious diet 

If you have followed my social media feed, no pun intended, for the past few weeks, then you would have noticed my use of the hashtag #LittleJackHornerMeals

I have referred to it earlier too here. As you might know, this is a hashtag that I have created to go with the sort of food that I try to eat these days. My diet has seen a bit of an overhaul of late. This happened after I did my routine medical check ups recently after a (very, very) long interval and the results of which made my doctors tell me that I need to work on countering some of the scores that have become high, through a mix of medication, exercise and change in dietary habits. I was also advised to try to lose weight to help rein these in as well as to help counter the chronic backache that I suffer from. 

I am not going to get into the details of what I have been advised to do and why. There's a reason for that. The diet one needs to follow is a function of where one is in life in terms of age, gender, weight, activity levels, lifestyle, medical history and so on. There is no one size fits all solution and solutions should be given by those qualified to do so.

If you objectively look at what I have done then you might say that the changes are not as drastic as I might be making them out to be. If you know me well, you will agree that they are! 

What I want to share with you here are some of the principles that have helped me on this journey so far.  If you came this post expecting diet or weight loss tips, then I am afraid that I do not have them for you. However, you might find pointers that might help you implement changes that you might need to implement in the way you eat. Assuming you need to.

1. It all starts with ones 'human revolution' or determination to change oneself for the better

This is not the first time that I have been asked to change the way I eat. The issues that came up during the test were not new. I had made changes in the past whenever I had gone to doctors with the test results. I did these primarily because I had been told to do so. I was following instructions. That is not something that I am good at. For me, it has to come from within.

This time around, I wanted to create value out of the situation I found myself in. I wanted to turn 'poison into medicine'. To use the situation to make a positive change to my health. That was my starting point.

2. Aim for happiness because that is what matters the most

When I saw the test results and heard what I had to do, I told myself that this no reason for me to stop eating well because of this. I was determined to eat good food within the boundaries of what I was allowed. 

I am obsessed about eating well as you know. So I took up the challenge to feed myself some good food even in the current circumstances. I can proudly say that I have rarely had a single bad meal since then. As my wife pointed out, the cooking that I have done in this period has a added a completely new dimension to what I create in the kitchen.

The meals that I have after I embarked on this journey sat down to eat brought me 'happiness, joy and fulfilment.' The opposite of eating with fear which I have done under similar situations in the past.

3. Develop an independent self and do not leave things to others

I got back into the kitchen with a regularity that I have not shown after the early years of our marriage. Back then we used to cook at home as we were broke and couldn't afford to eat out. 

I realised that I couldn't afford to eat out once again. Not because of financial constraints thankfully, but because I couldn't afford to subject my body at this stage to most of what one gets outside.

Cooking at home meant that I was in control of what went into my meals in terms of ingredients and ensured that the food was to my taste.

Our cook, Banu, rarely comes in time to cook lunch. She is good at following instructions within a format she is familiar with but doesn't show much ingenuity in the kitchen. So I decided to not depend on her for my meals and use her as a commis instead for things like chopping, and prepping while I cooked the bulk of our meals.

This allowed me to innovate and experiment in the kitchen, and to follow my instincts and past experiences, and cook and produce the happy meals that I sought.

4. Have the consistency of 'flowing water'. 

Breakfast today. Part of the vegetables sauteed for the previous night's pasta.
A homemade hung curd dip made with toasted nuts and seeds. Ragi bread
from The Baker's Doze. Pretty plating

Consistency and sustainability, I believe, are key to anything in life. The best example that I have seen of this is my blog where I have kept blogging continuously over more than a decade. I have done so, because I enjoyed the process and it has been lovely to see the blog grow.

I realised that I needed to bring the same consistency to the changes that I was trying to make in my eating patterns too. That what I ate under the new regime should be be enjoyable and not dreary. This was the only way that they could be sustainable. Big and dramatic changes are hard to maintain and often become mere flash in the pans.

I took many steps to ensure that the new steps were sustainable. From simple things like using cheerful and pretty plates even for simple, everyday food to trying out experiments in the kitchen to make the food work for me. I always try to use a part of what I have cooked for a meal in another too so that the workload on me reduces and so that cooking does not feel like a burden after a while.

Here are some of the other steps I took.

I experimented with hung curd dips and pestos (skipped the Parmesan in the pesto and added walnuts instead of pine nuts) and used these as sandwich fillers for boiled egg white sandwiches. The result was very different from the sadness that boiled egg white sandwiches, that I had made while dieting earlier, added to my life. At times I had wanted to throw up while having them. These new ones, I love.

Having had rice, breads, rotis, pasta and noodles since my childhood, I knew that giving up grains completely would be difficult. Not that I had been asked to do so. However, I had been asked to reduce the amount of carbs I have and to have food with low GI so that I could lose weight and reduce the threat of diabetes in the future.

I tried out red rice which I took to immediately unlike what had happened with my experiments with brown rice in the past. I have substituted the white Basmati that I would have almost entirely with red rice now. Red rice is supposed to have a lower GI and a smaller amount fills me up. I like the novelty of its taste.

I have cooked lau or lauki, a vegetable which I hated since my childhood but is said to be good for one and in season too. I used whatever I have learnt about the philosophy of cooking to make a vegetable I once found inedible, palatable. In the process, I used karela or bitter gourd. Another vegetable that is good for you and which I would rarely eat till now.

My love for simple white bread never allowed me to look at wholewheat bread with good humour in the past. This time around, I experimented with a couple of places in Bandra, where I live. I have fallen in love with array of wholewheat breads available at a place called The Bakers Dozen here. I now alternate between the multigrain wholewheat sliced bread, wholewheat buns, ragi breads with millets and the sourdough pav from there. These have added an amazing variety to my breakfasts.

I have tried wholewheat spaghetti (from Del Monte) and durum aata noodles (from Everest of Gangtok) and these have worked well for me too unlike in the past. I have just ordered a bajra (millets) aata. Banu makes great rotis. I am hoping that she can work her magic with this too. Bajra is lower on GI than wheat which Banu uses for our rotis at the moment. 

The other thing which I do is that the I pack the sandwiches, pastas, noodles or rice that I make with an equal, if not higher proportion of vegetables and nuts to reduce the amount of grains that I consume. I try to snack on fruits like apples and pear when I can and add cucumbers and beet to my meal as I try to reduce the portions of what I eat. Portion control is key after all.

Reducing my dessert intake was not an issue. We do not keep desserts at home. I do have the odd mango nowadays, but try to have a lot more of fruits such as apples, pears, small bananas and watermelon. Nor was alcohol intake an issue for me as I hardly drink these days. Snacking is a weak point so I have tried to move to things like nachni based ones and roasted moong dals which we get in local Gujrati shops here such as Regal Plus over the Kolkata chanachur that I would much on.

I did not try to entirely give up non-vegetarian food. That would be too hard for me and is not necessary either. However, I have tried to stay away from things such as red meat and shell fish till some of my test scores normalise. I do eat chicken but have tried to include pieces beyond the drumsticks and chicken wings that I would have earlier and we buy a whole chicken now. I now have pieces like the breast piece too which I am not fond of but which have a lower fat content. I have fish occasionally. My methods of cooking using curd as a base for chicken curries and cooking fish on high heat on cast iron cookware usually means that I need to use minimal oil while cooking. The use of the air-fryer helps too.

Incidentally, we hardly buy potatoes at home and rarely eat them. Funnily enough, neither of us have missed it much. Though we both love them. I have them when I occasionally come across some served as a side outside and feel good about it. 

5. We live in the real world and need to figure out ways to work within that

Made a home made khichuri with a teaspoon of ghee and an equal amount
of dal and rice to go with the fish roe that a friend sent for lunch today

I recently went to a corporate meeting which stretched on endlessly till way after lunch time and which made me mad with hunger and tempted to eat anything that came my way. I somehow managed to reach home without doing so and then had an apple while our cook finally got my lunch ready at 3.15 pm! The lesson that I learnt was to be prepared the next time something like this happens as such behaviour is endemic to the corporate world and is one of the things I hated about my life in it. Next time I will have a bag of nuts with me or an apple and will take them out and eat if I am hungry regardless of what people think.

I am avoiding eating out these days to the extent possible. Especially hosted restaurant review meals as that there is too much food on offer there. The food in restaurants is aimed to appeal to your senses and has things added in to help this which might not be the best for ones body at this point. This could mean that I might miss writing about new restaurant openings and so on but I guess the advantage of being a freelancer is to be able to chose what to focus on. I would rather indulge on new flavours as and when I get to travel or try something new if at all. Right now my priority is eating well. I also know that I don’t have much control on myself if I come across something I really like so staying away is the best policy for now. If I do go to hosted reviews, then I go to places where I can trust the chef or the host to not force me to eat more than what I want to and I try to stick to more of vegetarian or fish based dishes. If it is a pure meat based place or a dessert place or a drinks do, then I do not go.

It is not everyone who has the opportunity to have home cooked meals to the extent I do at present. I believe that I should make the most of it since I do.

On the rare occasion when I do step out for a meal, I try to look for options that are possibly less sinful. One big discovery here has been the neighbouring south Indian restaurant, Madras Diaries in Bandra, on whose millet based dishes I have been tripping on these days. I also try to eat at old school places like the National Restaurant in Bandra where they use good local ingredients, portions are small and a high turnover means that everything served is fresh. The prices are easier on the pocket too here. Or I go to places such as Kitchen Garden which serve salads but make them tasty.

Ragi idli with non sweet sambar from Madras Diaries. I ordered this
in between writing this post and hence this 'bachelor plating' 

There have been times when I have deviated from the sort of food I try to stick to these days. I had a brilliant  kheema pav the other night at Grand Mama's cafe. When in Kolkata recently, I did eat a few lavish meals in the hotel I was staying at, The ITC Sonar. Though I tried to reduce the amount of rice one would eat normally here too, avoid red meat and chose wholewheat Bengali porotha over my beloved maida luchis for breakfast. Then there was the lip-smacking eggs Benedict that I had at La Follie the other day, using the quota of two yolks a week that my doc said was fine for me. The bacon on the plate would be admittedly hard to negotiate. And the amazing vada pav during a shoot the other day. Today I had the machher deem (fish roe) that my friend had sent across for lunch. I should avoid fish roe at the moment because of its supposedly high impact on cholesterol. I made a homemade khichudi with a teaspoon of ghee and as much dal as rice to go with the fish roe and balance it too.

I relished these meals without a sense of guilt or reproach and savoured the moment when I had them. Life is about living in the present after all.

Then I went back to my corner like Little Jack Horner and returned to my routine.

As they say, every moment is an opportunity to make a fresh start and that's what I plan to do. I know that there is a lot more I can and should do but for now, I am glad that I have made a start.

Relishing the kheema pav at Grand Mama's cafe, Dadar

Note: The concepts of 'turning poison into medicine' and 'faith like flowing water' are taken from the writings of the 14th Century Buddhist monk, Nicherin Daishonin, and which I have come across in publications from the Soka Gakkai International. The phrase 'Human Revolution' is coined by Dr Daisaku Ikeda, writer, philosopher and the hon president of the Soka Gakkai International. The principles referred to here are based on his writings. The adaptions to my diet are mine.

Here are some recent posts referred to here which you might find useful:

1. Madras Diaries and millets
2. Egg whites can be fun
3. Dahi chicken or  a low oil chicken curry
4. Figuring out how to make lauki palatable
5. Using bits from one meal to make another
6. The story of how I first began to cook and then realised that cooking at home makes so much sense

Links to my Instagram handle: @thefinelychopped Look for #LittleJackHornerMeals for ideas. Add them to your healthy meal posts too.