Eventually, to maintain a healthy diet, you must cook. Two years after moving to Mexico part-time, I began writing a cookbook, The Lazy Expat: Healthy Recipes That Translate in Mexico. It’s for travelers, snowbirds and expats trying to cook “their food” in Mexico and Latin America, a compilation of healthy dishes that can be made from the simplest of kitchens with the easiest-to-find ingredients.
The cookbook however has a dark secret: I’m never hungry.
I do, however, wish to stay alive. In a society where so many people have problems controlling their weight, you don’t get much sympathy if you complain about lacking an appetite (Cry me a river! they laugh).
You rarely find anything written on what to do when you’re never hungry, when you have to drag yourself to the kitchen to prepare every meal. (“Why can’t we just have a pill!” I’d whine.)
Not eating leads to consequences just as serious as overeating. At 48, I came a hair’s breadth from colon cancer after months of not eating following a divorce. The mere thought of food made me nauseous. My joy in life came back. Oddly, my appetite never did.
When I moved to Mexico in 2014, the cultural challenges of cooking in a different culture compounded the problem. Obstacles to cooking abounded: language barrier, the metric system, differences in availability and different tastes of staple foods (due to processing).
Many native recipes were designed to appeal to another palate. For the first three months, I lived on bottled pasta sauce and smoothies. It took three months to recognize spinach at the grocery store.
In great part, I developed the cookbook to have a slate of healthy meals I could prepare anywhere. In addition to having great-tasting, reliable dishes to cook, there are other hacks I’ve discovered that can help when you totally lack an interest in food.
Most people hate to throw away food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are fairly expensive. I used to think having easy-to-prepare frozen vegetables would help me eat more. But I needed the guilt. Many a night I cooked rather than throw money away. (Waste is one of the 7 Deadly Sins. Don’t give up your soul.)
Seven p.m. at night is not the time to decide what you’ll make for dinner. Create a weekly menu containing a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Schedule the meals by perishable item. For example, schedule a dish with greens (which don’t keep as well) on a Sunday, one with carrots on Saturday.
Our whole lives we’ve been indoctrinated by the rule of five: 5 fruits and vegetables a day. I find this sounds like an unrealistic goal to achieve day after day if you like to think about things other than your diet.
Instead, think in terms of cups. Two and a half cups a day of fruits and vegetables of a wide variety through the course of the week might play in your head better.
You eat with your eyes first. You will be more likely to reach for oatmeal layered with blueberries in a parfait glass than eat from a ceramic bowl. Another type of dishware I recommend is large shallow bowls for the presentation of pasta dishes and dinner salads. Keep healthy leftovers in clear containers so you don’t forget about them.
For a year or two, the only thing that got me in the kitchen was the reward of a glass of wine, which I permitted myself only after I’d cut, sauteed, and prepped the meal. Many meals have a 15-minute lull toward the end, when a stew is simmering or the dinner salad just needs tossing. And aperitif can stimulate appetite and be a reward for getting yourself to the kitchen.
Avoid monochromic meals. One of the most colorful dishes in my book, Beet and Red Pepper Soup, is bright fuscia in color. I value the dish for both its simplicity and the pop of color it gives to an otherwise pale meal. Even foods that might not be your favorite, like peas, serve an important visual function on a plate.
Acknowledge any lack of enthusiasm by building a library of the simplest healthy dishes you can prepare. If there’s one thing I learned in developing this cookbook it’s that simple dishes can be just as delicious as complex ones. Have fallback dishes. Keep baggies of cut vegetables you can stir-fry to accompany a take-out meal.
My Mexican friends love to come over and try dishes that aren’t common in Mexico. (It’s fun when guests don’t know how to make lasagna.) The pleasure others take in your cooking for them will increase your own pleasure in doing it.
Keep a written list of superfoods and ask yourself, when was the last time I had a sweet potato? Sweet Red Bell Peppers? Walnuts? (Fortunately, a benevolent god created chocolate as a Superfood.) Variety in superfoods is important too.
In The Lazy Expat index, I list superfoods, their properties, and which dishes in the book contain them. Some weeks I simply scroll through the list and cherry-pick recipes that include ingredients I hadn’t used the week before.
Create your own list from your existing cookbooks. You could create an index card for “Sweet Potatoes” on which you list all sweet potato recipes you like. Shuffle the cards and create menu plans that vary from week to week.
I will elaborate on this point in another blog. Basically, the idea is that it’s much easier to put together meals on the fly when you become intimately familiar with the most common healthy ingredients.
You can cook for years and never develop the ability to improvise if you’ve always had the luxury of ivory bell peppers and Kaffir lime leaves. Limited availability of many flavoring ingredients in Mexico (although most of the produce is available) has made me a better, more instinctive cook.
Many cookbooks are written by people who suddenly and urgently needed to fix their eating habits. I freely admit that my cookbook sprang from the need to fix mine. And after four years it’s still a cookbook I use almost every day, no matter where I am.
What is your appetite like? Do you have a tendency to not eat? What triggers your lack of appetite? Do you have any tips to help stimulate appetite? Please share them with the community and let’s help each other!
Tags Healthy Eating