Why You Should Eat Dessert First

Sometimes we live backwards. I don’t know why.

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I like dessert. Too much, probably. I am probably known at a few restaurants as “the guy that always orders dessert first”. Enjoying dessert before the main course is the logical way to enjoy a meal if you ask me. We spend too much time living backwards and here is one place we can get it right.

Think about this. We work our butts off when we are young, saving money until we retire so we can finally relax and enjoy life when we are old and feeble and can not do any of the things we dreamed about doing with our money. It’s crazy, right? Wouldn’t it be cool if we started with a lump sum of money and nothing but free time to enjoy it until we turned, say, 40, and then we entered the work force to pay our debt? (Many of you know me as a serious thinker… just to be clear, this is not a serious proposition.)

We force kids to spend an entire work-week in school learning to be sedentary, depressed adults. What if, instead, we let them explore the world actively every day and built education into physical exploration and activity?

We live so much of life backwards. Why save the best part until the end? Why eat dessert after we are stuffed and we know we won’t enjoy it as much? Try ordering the good stuff first and savor it while you wait for the meal. Give up the self-punishment. You know you are going to eat the food either way. Why wait for the best part? Why live like all the good stuff can only happen at the end? Who knows? You might not even make it through dinner. I would be pretty upset if I choked to death on a piece of asparagus when I knew I was planning on having a cupcake after that! (If I choked to death on a cupcake, I would still be upset, but… you know, a little less… people would wonder why I died with a pained but satisfied look on my face.)

 

Save the best for first!

 

 

 

How to Eat Like a King!!

Being vegan has its perks. You enjoy the best food at the most unusual places with the highest quality. Ever seen a vegan McDonald’s? Exactly.

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I never thought I would be able to live without meat, cheese, and butter. Being vegan, though, has been one of the best and longest-lasting commitments I have made with myself. It is not always easy to maintain an animal-free diet and lifestyle but I can not imagine going back to feeling sluggish, needing more sleep, thinking slower, being less productive, and generally feeling lost in a malaise of borderline depression all the time. Something that has become common when I sit down to eat or share pictures of my vegan meals on social media is non-vegan friends saying, “Wow, that actually looks good!”

The surprise is genuine. I think most non-vegans (I was one, too) believe vegans eat a bunch of bland, gross, or tasteless cardboard-like “fake” meat… and lettuce. Lots of lettuce.

Prepare to have your non-vegan mind blown. Here is a dirty secret we veggie-lovers have been hiding from the world. Are you ready for this?

You sure?

Okay… here it is:

Dude, vegans eat like freaking KINGS. Kings!

It’s true. The only time vegans have less than amazing meals is when they are out with non-vegan friends and trying to find a compromise where everyone can eat happily (which actually means where everyone but the vegan can eat happily, but whatever… we’re used to it).

Here are three reasons we have it so good (and there are a lot more but I like to keep it simple):

  • Vegans eat crazy creative foods. Without the crutch of meat and cheese, vegans have to be creative about what they eat. Instead of old curdled milk fat and cow pus, we use crazy living healthy food like nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavors. It’s awesome and twice as versatile; we use it in soups and salads, on pizza and macaroni, or on anything, just for fun. Instead of burnt pig flesh, we use a combination of live enzymes and soybeans to make something as dense as steak, called tempeh. We season it the same way and use it in many of the same dishes (there are tempeh burgers, tempeh bacon, and even tempeh steaks) except we enjoy a great deal more nutrition without that gross, heavy feeling at the end… you know, that feeling like you just ate a dead animal?
  •  Vegans enjoy better looking food that is healthier. Think about this: burger and fries. Brown bread, browned potatoes, with a dark brown patty of fat and ground up body parts. Take a look at your vegan friend’s plate. You see green, red, yellow, white, purple, orange, and even a little brown, too. We eat more fruits and vegetables, obviously, but that means we also eat more colors. An easy way to make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals is to be sure you eat lots of colorful food (for example, greens like kale and spinach are great sources of protein, while yellow bananas carry potassium, orange peppers are loaded with vitamin C, white tofu has calcium, and purple cabbage is a killer source of vitamin A). Vegans eat lots of colors practically by default, but also we love finding new flavors. Once you start your vegan journey, you learn about a whole new world of flavors and foods you never imagined! Lychees, tofu, tempeh, seitan, nutritional yeast, kimchi, kumquats… all things that were not only not on my pre-vegan menu but also things I would probably have never heard of until I had a reason to explore outside my comfort zone.
  • Vegans eat the best food available. When you choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle, you can not help but learn about food. Once you gain knowledge on factory farming, how supermarkets work, food marketing, and quality standards while also learning about available local food, farmers markets, and organic farming practices, you can not help but eat better. You become a food connoisseur. If you have not noticed, most vegan food is the highest quality food you can find–GMO-free, usually organic, often locally obtained, cruelty-free (meaning no animals were harmed in the making of it) and produced under strict standards. Think about it. Anything certified vegan has to be treated special because it caters to a specific, food-educated audience. The food is handled on special, segregated equipment. It is made with special, high-quality ingredients. It is even prepared in special, non-harming ways. Imagine the fast-food burger flipper with no idea where the meat was assembled or even what animals it was made from before it arrived in a box of other frozen patties. Imagine the local vegan-friendly restaurant who buys their produce from the farm up the road, prepares the food fresh (because you know vegans don’t like preservatives and weird chemicals in their food!) and makes sure it is good enough for a crowd of picky eaters. You have to deliver the goods when the people you are cooking for know as much about the food as you probably know.

 

So there you have it.

If you have the perception that vegan-life is filled with suffering while grazing on wheat grass and hugging cows… you are missing out big time. When you REALLY want to find and enjoy the best food available and eat like royalty… have your vegan foodie friend take you out for dinner (and be prepared for some crazy delicious foods you never heard of)!

The 5-Ingredient Meal

Use this trick to simplify your at-home meals…

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I enjoy thinking of new ways to embrace minimalism and live a simpler yet more robust life. Something Nicole and I have been trying lately and having some success with is 5-Ingredient meals.

I like to cook but I do not have much patience for the prep work and clean-up. Because I like eating more than I like cooking, I tend to favor eating out and skipping all the leg work of making a meal. I think eating out is a great way to add more diversity to your diet (unless you eat the same meal at the same place every time) but the food is highly processed, usually over-salted for flavor, and often cheap high-carbs and starches to fill you up at less cost and more profit to the restaurant.

In other words, it is good to prepare your own meals more often than not. Since I practice being minimalist and look for ways to simplify, Nicole and I have added a simple rule to our cooking. Our meals can have no more than 5 ingredients (spices not included, but also no more than 5 spices). To clarify, each dish has no more than 5 ingredients and each meal has no more than 5 components (including drinks).

Since a lot of our cooking centers on Mediterranean and Asian food, we have made one notable exception: we count garlic and onion as one ingredient! If they are both chopped fresh, sometimes we will count them separately. We play it pretty loose with those two.

Here is an example of what a simple meal looks like for us…

Tofu Scramble:
1. Smashed tofu (I love squeezing the water out of it with my bare hands and then crumbling it into the pan)
2. Spinach
3. Mushrooms
4. Onion and Garlic
5. Fresh tomatoes (right at the end)

Seasonings: Turmeric (to make the tofu yellow), Cumin, Salt, Pepper, Nutritional Yeast

Salad:
1. Spinach
2. Tomatoes
3. Cucumber
4. Chick Peas
5. Onion

Seasoning / Dressing: Olive oil, Mint, Salt, Pepper, Lemon juice

Normally, a salad and tofu scramble would have about 10 more items added between them, more spices, and definitely longer cooking time and preparation. The funny thing is, since we have started this little experiment, I have found limiting ingredients has actually expanded flavors. Now I notice the individual constituents of each meal and can savor each bite, identifying each flavor within it.

Eating can be super simple and simply delicious! Set limits on ingredients, focus on flavor, and enjoy more time eating and less time chopping, washing, soaking, and waiting…

Eating Out Versus Eating In

I have learned many times that when you are single or a couple, there is not much difference in cost between eating out every night or staying in and making your own meals.

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Eating out is expensive, especially for families. For single people and couples, however, it is sometimes the lesser of two evils.

The problem is, for single people and couples, buying bulk does not provide a great advantage to leverage savings. There is not much point (or freezer room) to buy a 4-pound bag of frozen broccoli, for example, when there are only two people eating it. They will likely not eat it in a reasonable amount of time (before the broccoli suffers freezer burn) and they would not go through it fast enough to keep from running out of room in the freezer or refrigerator if they always bought the family size or bulk items.

What happens instead is couples buy enough for two. Even in doing so, in my experience, Nicole and I end up throwing out a lot of fresh food if we do not get through it in time. It can be frustrating to watch the food you paid for go in the trash, untouched, still in its package. Fresh spinach, for example, only stays fresh a week or so if we are careful to buy the furthest out expiration date. Because we live busy lives, we might plan to use it in 2 or 3 dishes, but end up only using a handful of it once due to Nicole or I running too late to cook a full meal that night. If we do not eat it, there are no kids or transient guests who might, which would at least make it seem like it did not go to waste.

Instead, we end up paying top dollar for smaller amounts of groceries and still eat out a couple of times of week due to unplanned scheduling hiccups, or personal energy that day (too tired to cook), or plain convenience (we could spend 2 hours prepping, cooking, and cleaning, or just head over to Stella’s for amazing nachos).

I do not mind paying for good local food prepared well by ethically run, vegan-friendly restaurants. A decent meal at one of our favorite local spots might cost $30-$40 for both of us and often there is enough food to have leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day, making the actual cost $15-$20 for two meals for two people. Not bad and not far off from what we would spend on groceries over the same period.

The other nice thing about eating out is the diversity of food offered. When we buy groceries and prepare meals at home, they will basically be variations on the same 10 or so ingredients for the week. Visiting our local restaurants, though, exposes us to ingredients we do not normally come across and a wide range of dishes we have neither the time nor the inclination to make (but love to eat!).

I am not defending restaurant-eating as a lifestyle. It has problems, too. The food is usually of poorer quality than what we would make at home. It is produced in large quantities (which can mean lower quality), often loaded with sodium or just over-salted to make up for lack of flavor, and even the cleanest restaurant is a breeding ground for vermin and other unwelcome food visitors.

Still, when you are single or there is only 2 of you, family style-cooking is not always the best way to go and you are unlikely to prepare yourself a five-course meal.

 

Use eating out as a strategy for when it makes sense. When the trade-off is worth the expense and convenience, enjoy a night out, but also avoid the big-box restaurants that are not offering a diverse menu of local goodies and food you would not otherwise make at home.

 

Why You Should Order Dessert First

Keeping in line with yesterday’s post, I never hesitate to order dessert first when I go out to eat.

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I enjoy the reaction of the wait staff, foremost. Sometimes I get a quizzical look, sometimes the server seems annoyed, and sometimes they are totally on-board and will say something like, “You’re my kind of eater!”

I like dessert first because I am usually hungry and want food as quickly as possible (and dessert is often faster than appetizers), I would have ordered an appetizer anyway so it might as well be a tasty one, and dessert is a delicious indulgence to bond over with a friend and begin a meal properly.

Also, if I do not eat all the food, then I would rather have a leftover meal started for tomorrow instead of leftover dessert, which is not always as good the next day.

 

After all, life is short. I don’t want to leave it knowing I missed any of the yummy parts!

 

Dessert Is Not Just For Dessert!

I love sweets and I love having dessert every night. The only problem is, stupid dessert makes me fat!

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What I remembered today is dessert does not have to be an overloaded sugar-bomb. A great way to finish a meal this time of year is with some fresh, sweet corn-on-the-cob. If made right, sweet corn is truly a sweet treat without any butter, salt, or dressing. Delicious!

Thanks to our Vitamix, Nicole and I also enjoy an ice cream treat made entirely out of bananas. Google “Banana Whip”. If you have a powerful blender (like a Vitamix or Blendtec) it is 100% worth your time to try this amazing favorite dessert of mine that is… almost healthy!

In other words, think outside the box if you love sweet treats but are trying to keep your weight in check. A fresh fruit salad, banana whip, sweet corn, or even a green smoothie with some beets thrown in can rock your sweet tooth without wreaking havoc on your belly.

BUT… if vegan cheesecake is available, all bets are off. Just saying.

 

Vegans Are SO Crazy… right?

Nicole and I had dinner at The Mitten, one of our favorite local pizza places in Grand Rapids with amazing vegan options. At one point, our friends became curious about our vegan pizza, so we offered a sample.

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They cautiously tried a few bites before polishing off the last few slices. As they ate, they commented on every texture and flavor, ultimately deciding vegan pizza is not so bad. They would be willing to eat it again, in a pinch.

This happens a lot to vegans (people who consume no animal products). The veggie-curious will go out on a limb and try the crazy vegan food once, usually after explaining how they could never adopt a vegan diet themselves.

Because we are polite, vegans almost never point this out, but the funny thing to us is the food we eat is the same food as everyone else with the exception of 1 or 2 missing ingredients. Vegan pizza is just pizza with soy cheese instead of regular cheese, or tempeh instead of pepperoni. The bread, the sauce, the mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, olives, etc… are not special vegan versions.

You have steak, a baked potato, and green beans. I have a baked potato, green beans, and a side salad. Almost every vegan meal is just a normal meal with 1 or 2 ingredients missing or added. The longer you are vegan, of course, the more curious you become about food and the more exotic food you are willing to try but this, again, is no different from other foodies.

Anyway, if you are out with your vegan friends, I promise they will be excited to share their treats and prove vegan food is safe and just as delicious as other food (because it is pretty much the same food, just missing meat and dairy). If you do try a vegan bite, though, here is a tip to seem gracious and civilized to your veg-friendly friend… don’t act like you’ve never had food before.


(And, just to be clear, we’re never really offended; we all did the same thing the first time we tried our vegan friend’s food, too.)

 

Ruling Your Food

As a minimalist and vegan, I like to keep things simple, so here are my rules for eating right…

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1. Do not eat anything that does not want to be eaten. You could rephrase this as “Don’t eat anything that feels pain” if you like, but the overall point is to avoid causing suffering. Most vegans make this distinction by not eating anything that has a central nervous system (the clearest indicator that something can feel and respond to pain). Put even more simply, “Don’t eat or wear animals”.

2. If it has more than five ingredients, do not eat it. It is an arbitrary number, but once you pass three to five ingredients, you almost certainly are eating junk mass-produced processed “foodstuff”. Bread requires nothing more than “(Whole Wheat) Flour, water, yeast, salt”. Think about that the next time you pick up a popular brand and scan the ingredient list.

3. Do not eat any ingredient you can not pronounce (or is not immediately obvious what it is by name alone). Monodiglyci-what? High Fructose Corn Syrup? Is that different than regular corn syrup? If you know what “high fructose” or other common lab ingredient names mean, it is probably because a scientist explained it to a reporter who wrote an article about it that you read once. There are so many (intentionally) obscure names for ingredients, either because they come from a lab or because marketers know you would never eat something if you knew what it actually was. “Cochineal”, for example, is that nice purple-red dye that colors many candies (like Nerds)… and is derived from the crushed shells of the insect by the same name, also sometimes called “Carmine”. Would you feed your kids a handful of crushed beetles? Would you eat them if you knew what they were?

4. If an ingredient has more than 3 syllables, don’t eat it. Pretty much the same rationale as rules #2 and 3. If it takes longer to read the list of ingredients than it does to eat the food, then this is probably a highly processed nightmare. In fact, you can really break down my rules 2, 3, and 4 into one easy rule: “Eat Simply.”

5. Leave something on the plate. This is the rule I admittedly struggle most with, but I overeat sometimes simply because I was taught to always “clean my plate”. However, if I cook when I am really hungry, or anytime I go to a restaurant, I always have more than I need on my plate. If you are eating at a restaurant, challenge yourself to always take something home. Most single restaurant meals are plenty for two people or two single meals.

 

One of my favorite food-books is Michael Pollan‘s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual“, which offers up many easy rules to help us navigate the complex multitude of food and food-like products in the world. One of my favorite examples is “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete shared his “Rules for Navigating Vegan Life in a Non-Vegan World” which reminded me I have several rules for eating, as well. Hope they help you eat right, feel right, and live right!

 

 

How “Vegan” Is Vegan?

I am sometimes asked if I ever cheat on my vegan diet. Of course I do; it is nearly impossible to be 100% vegan 100% of the time.

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There are animal products in the vast majority of things humans eat and wear. My goal is to be as close to 100% vegan as I reasonably can, but even that is challenging at times.

For example, when I visit a restaurant, I make a reasonable effort to ensure my meal is vegan (“Do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Do you happen to know if the rice was made with chicken stock? Can I have that with no mayo, no cheese, and no sour cream please?”). Often, the servers, and even the cooks, do not know how their food is made (“I’m not sure; it’s pre-cooked and shipped to us; we just heat it up. I think the beans are vegetarian. That bun was toasted with butter before we put the veggie patty on; were you trying to avoid all dairy?”).

Unless I grow the ingredients in my garden and make the meal from scratch myself, I do not assume any meal is 100% vegan.

The important thing is, to as close as possible, live up to my values and reasons for being vegan. For new vegans, I tell them, “If you cut meat and dairy from your diet and stop wearing leather, then you are 99% vegan. Everything else is just arguing over the last inch.”

That last inch can be debatable. Some vegans choose not to eat honey because it is made by bees. Insects are animals, too, and store-bought honey is mass-produced, causing the bees to work beyond exhaustion and suffer terribly. A few vegans refuse to eat broccoli because they believe it has a central nervous system. If it has nerves and a way to transmit the information collected by those nerves, then broccoli can theoretically feel pain. The ability to suffer or feel pain is one way many vegans determine what they will not eat. Ironically, there is no evidence I am aware of to support the claim of broccoli having a nervous system, so apparently, we vegans have our old wives’ tales, too.

On the other hand, oysters definitely do not have a central nervous system (since they are mollusks) and theoretically can not feel pain, yet I have never met a vegan who thinks oysters are not animals.

Another example of the fine line between vegans and omnivores is one of my favorite comfort foods. I love french fries. I avoid places that are known to use beef fat or other cheap, animal-sourced oil to fry their food, like McDonald’s.

Still, I know pretty much anywhere I order fries, they will be fried in the same oil as meaty foods like chicken nuggets, fish, or cheese sticks. It is highly unlikely any fast food or homestyle cooking restaurant can (or will) offer completely vegan french fries. Some places even batter their fries or other foods (like beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings) in animal products before dipping them in oil.

Some restaurants offer veggie burgers but fail to mention the patty is held together with egg or cheese, or that the bun has whey (a milk derivative).

I try to avoid the obvious pitfalls but I am not too hard on myself for ordering french fries when I am out with work friends and there are no better options available, or if I go to a restaurant and stupidly forget to ask the server if the guacamole is made with sour cream. Of course, I am much more strict when I am doing the cooking.

If you are a new vegan, vegan-curious, or a seasoned veteran who struggles with identifying what is or is not vegan and whether you should order a meal or send one back angrily (a HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way–if you choose to be vegan, then you give up your right to be mad when others do not understand exactly what that means or follow your explicit instructions–the solution is to make your own food or keep your mouth shut when you go to a restaurant–literally), keep in mind it is okay to give yourself a little slack.

That does not mean treat yourself to a steak now and then (of course that is an option but I would say it disqualifies you from the vegan club…). I mean it is okay to recognize the world is not built to meet our specifications.

Easy guidelines (even if you are not committed to a vegan lifestyle):

Be the best vegan you can be.
Cause as little suffering (both to yourself and others) as possible.
Live to your potential a little more each day.

If you do that, then you will be fine. You don’t have to give up your life to be vegan; you just have to give up taking others’.

 

How Can We Fight For Real Food?

How can we stand against a genetically modified industrial and political food complex?

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I posted a snarky comment on FaceBook that sparked discussion about how to fight for real food. My friend Sharon was kind enough to ask what I think we can do about the situation. Here is what I think:

There are lots of ways we can take action. The best thing I think we can do is support local Farmers Markets and vegan, organic, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Here is something else: for the past few years, I have curtailed my support of multiple charities in favor of one or two I care deeply about. Shopping local helps me avoid some of the “forced charity” I already rail against (Big Box stores and brands should not dictate how much charity I give to which organizations). Rather than giving a dollar to the Salvation Army cup and a few cents in the cash register change cups for children with cancer or spare change for breast cancer, a quarter for people with MS, etc… I combine all my giving for maximum impact on one or two charities or projects I care deeply about and gave BIG donations to them. Last year, for example, it was to help make one of my favorite stores, Tree Huggers (a local vegan bulk grocery store that promotes zero waste), and Cult Pizza (a local vegan pizza restaurant being pioneered by Ryan Cappelletti who also started Bartertown, another vegan local produce restaurant).

Kickstarter is a great way to find or create local projects to support. You can contribute as little or as much as you want. In my opinion, I have more impact by making one or two large donations to one or two causes I am passionate about rather than donating to many small causes distributed across many venues.

Finally, I focus on living a minimal lifestyle with less consumer goods so more of my money can be used to enjoy organic and locally produced food. I don’t need a huge stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and jewelry. Those are not things that truly enrich my life or my health. Food and experiences shared with friends and family are far more beneficial. I can’t tell you about the video games I played in 2005, and none of them were really important, but I will never forget the trip to Lebanon I took with my father or the meal we ate high up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees. That was a much better return on my investment in both time and money than my X-box was.

So that’s a start, but it is also important to recognize we have a misconception about food. As Michael Pollan has pointed out eloquently in his books, many people wonder why eating organic or buying from Farmers Markets is SO expensive. That is the wrong question. We should be wondering instead, how on earth a burger from McDonald’s can be so cheap. A fast food burger is assembled from meat imported from many countries. A typical McDonald’s burger has more than 40 ingredients in it (follow the link–I counted them), including the bun, pickles, ketchup, mustard, meat, plus assembly, transportation to the restaurant, storage, and the overhead of the restaurant itself–lights, rent, utilities, wages, benefits, etc… How is it possible McDonald’s can afford to charge a DOLLAR for that, and still make a profit? What, exactly, are you eating when you are not eating local, organic, and real food? Yikes.

Maybe Monsanto and similar companies have a place in the world, though it is debatable. They may seem evil from where we are looking but they have an opportunity to create “food” through bio-technology that can end hunger in the world. If we can show Monsanto, Cargill, and others through conversation and action that they do not have a market or profit margin in the U.S. big enough to warrant their mono-culture take-over, then we might be able to persuade them to find other ways to generate revenue with absurdly cheap “sort-of” nutrition in places where it might be considered a boon. Perhaps then we can all win. Technology and Politics are not inherently evil; it is what we do with them that matters.

But, you know… it takes action and conversations with and through our senators and local artisans and farmers to make significant transformation happen. As with any major change–personal, political, local, or global, it can be done.

 

We just have to be willing to do the work.