As the evenings grow dark earlier here, dinner is becoming a less festive time of day for me, which is a bit of a bummer, because there’s something about the melancholy of autumn I find quite lovely, and because I feel like mother nature affords us a little respite from the grey via the vibrant changing leaves, and all the lovely new fruit and veg the season proffers. I just miss the sun. But I do appreciate all the afore-mentioned goodies…Around here, it’s all about apples and pears, walnuts and chestnuts, potimarrons, butternuts & pumpkins (though the meatier European variety – awful for jack-o-lanterns but lovely for all sorts of edibles).
Autumn and winter food just feels like dinner food for me, because as an American of Anglo-Germanic traditions, dinner is the most comfort-driven meal of the day. It’s the part of the day when I’m typically most hungry (though this is changing as I get older), and it’s definitely the part of the day when I feel I’ve earned a big, hot sit-down meal that fills my belly.
Thing is – that’s often a terrible idea.
Life in terms of food in the Philippines wasn’t so bad, and it could certainly have been worse. Where we lived, we had good access to a decent array of fruits and vegetables, and we eventually found a couple of places we could buy tofu (as it’s a common foodstuff, but not found in the supermarket) and learned how to make mungo beans. But there were a few things we had to go without. For C, I think the hardest of these was (what we consider good) bread, but he finally bit the bullet and started baking his own, which was awesome for both of us.
Some foods we couldn’t compensate for, though most of these were no big loss: apples, oranges and grapes were on offer but out of the question. The apples were tasteless and powdery, the oranges were juiceless and neither sour nor sweet, and I never got around to sampling the grapes…but I wasn’t bothered – we had mangos and rambutan and lanzones and jackfruit and like 4 kinds of bananas (though I’ve heard there were once hundreds of varieties in Mindanao, but due to monoculture there are only a few now – and there are far worse consequences, but I digress).
Something we absolutely never bought, though – except for that first time out of sheer naivety – was lettuce. The lettuce was awful. It was hard and bitter and dry…the climate just isn’t conducive to growing the stuff. So upon arriving in France, I was ecstatic about salad. The French love salad. Most families serve it with every dinner and sometimes lunch, too. The only problem is that for them, salade is the word they use for “lettuce”. Which is to say that they eat lettuce with their meals, with dressing of course. But rarely anything else, unless the salad is the main dish, which is typically only for eating out. Not having lettuce in the Philippines had forced us to learn to love a whole bunch of other raw vegetables, and lettuce and sauce just didn’t cut it for me anymore.
The diet industry astounds me. Every week there seems to be a new way to get fit fast, until another comes along and blows the last one out of the water…each and every one promising the journey will be that much less painful (lose weight and eat what you want!), and that much more effective (bikini body in 30 days!). I know this stuff sells because A) there are magazines upon magazines at the grocery store, always with the same headlines, and there have been for decades, and B) because we all want to believe in happily-ever-after – we want amazing things to happen to us.
But the truth is that while some amazing things do happen to us, weight loss isn’t one of them. Getting fit and feeling well means actively changing our lives every day, establishing new priorities and letting go of old, destructive patterns. There is so much joy to be found in this process, but it isn’t overnight – it’s long and slow, and sometimes really frustrating. When the going gets tough, we must remember what we love…
And I love lunch. Lovelovelovelovelove. When a day’s going well and I’m flying from one task to another, it’s a welcome opportunity to slow down and breathe. Conversely, when a day is absolute shite and I don’t think I can handle another minute of it, sitting down and eating can be as medicinal as going back to bed to start fresh. But lunch is tricky, because most of us aren’t home at midday. I think that’s a damn shame, because this really should be the time to sit down to a nice, big meal and a siesta, but that’s just not how the world works.
In France, snacking is taken quite seriously. On an average working day, people get up and eat breakfast at the same time as the rest of the world – say 7-ish. They have lunch at roughly the same time as the rest of the world – say between noon and 1:00. And that’s where normal ends, particularly for school-age children, at least for an American kid like me. Because the school day doesn’t end until 6:00 for high schoolers, and 5:00 for middle school. Except on Wednesdays, when it finishes at noon. So dinner gets pushed back a bit, and kids of all ages have what is known as a goûter at 4:00. This isn’t so much a snack as it is a very small meal, usually involving exceptionally sweet things (another breakfast, then) like cookies and/or hot chocolate and/or pastries. Dinner isn’t served until 8-ish, and it tends to be very light by Anglo/American standards, so this is reasonably understandable.
I have to say, though, that one of the things I’m almost certain about is that eating late played a big part in my weight gain. That’s partly because it’s just not good for us to eat late, but it’s also because, as someone raised in the U.S., I am pretty attached to a substantial evening meal. I feel a bit swindled if after a long day’s work, all I get is a small bowl of vegetable soup or a salad and a slice of bread (for the French, there’s almost always charcuterie or cheese involved…maybe that makes up for the lack of carbs…).
This is actually my second draft of this post.* Listen: I never do that. I seriously don’t do drafts. But after writing a lot of words, it occurred to me that I’ve got to find the best way to break this down…if we’re talking about food, what better way to do that than by meal?
So breakfast. As a person who (I know I’ve said it but I’m gonna keep saying it for the newcomers’ sakes) has struggled all her life with her weight, I can tell you, this is one hell of an important meal, and not just for the reasons we’ve been taught, though those are equally important and merit discussion, so I’ll get to that next. But for people like me, who have a tendency to make bad food decisions, breakfast becomes the moment we decide how we’re going to start the day, and some days can truly be a battle against food. I eat emotionally – most often because of stress, but I know lots of people who eat to address depression, too. I am in no position to go into the whys and wherefores of it all, but it is very much a reality for some of us, and I’ve found that what I do at breakfast time can sort of set the standard for my interactions with food for the rest of the day.
Returning to that age-old nugget of wisdom, I do truly believe for all the other reasons that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Even if you eat dinner late and wake up early, your body will have been fasting for at least 8, and sometimes up to 12 or 13 hours. That’s a long time to go without food, not to mention water. This might explain why some people feel slightly sick in the morning and so struggle to have an appetite. But studies have shown that people who eat within the first hour of waking make up 78% of successful dieters, probably because they’re a lot less likely to overeat later in the day.