Right about now, people start ditching their New Year's resolutions -- and I say good riddance to all those diets that turn food into a form of punishment. In case you hadn't noticed, it's winter out, and the weather only looks bleaker after a meal that's all nutrients and no flavor. Think about it: If you are what you eat, who wants to be a cardboard-flavored Lean Cuisine? Whether it's piping hot pho from your local Vietnamese place, a (more and more elusive) home-cooked meal, or a piece of heaven otherwise known as 72% dark chocolate, a tasty morsel can add warmth to a bone-chilling day.
Evolution gave us the gift of having to eat frequently: Let's not treat it as a chore. Sure, we all have to watch our waistlines, especially in an edible landscape littered with trans-fats, high-fructose corn syrup and 39 grams of sugar in a can of Coke (that's over 12 teaspoons, in case you never did the math). But that doesn't mean that we must have in the back of our minds a caloric accountant reproaching us for every tasty bite, three meals a day. In a time when fad diets get debunked as fast as they become popular, all good things in moderation sounds like a much smarter idea. In Italy (as in France), we love our health, but we love our food just as much. We rarely give up something completely; we just balance our diet so that every indulgence is permitted, hopefully on a regular basis.
How much we enjoy our food can actually affect what we absorb from it. In a renowned 1970s study, a group of Thai women and a group of Swedish women were fed Thai food. The Thai women absorbed almost 50% more iron from their food. When the experiment was repeated with the same food pureed, the Thai women absorbed 70% less iron then they had when the food was whole. Researchers concluded that looking forward to what you're about to eat prepared the body to absorb more nutrients, increasing the production of saliva and gastric juices.
In these days of strange weather and stranger news around the world, food can provide a reassuring constant. Eating isn't just a reflex but a conscious effort to reconnect with our humanity, when essentials are remembered, flavors savored, vision refocused. We all deserve to enjoy our food. That's what tastebuds are there for.
Especially in winter, my strategy is to turn meals and preparation into a way of detaching from the demands life imposes, and connect to more basic pleasures. First there's a homemade breakfast with cappuccinos for two and hearty bread (my favorite meal of the day: Bring on the world!), then a sit-down break at midday, then espresso when afternoon energies wane, and finally dinner. If it's a particularly bad day, there's a snack at 10. Each meal gets my full and undivided attention. I believe that when we devote attention to what we do, we feel more satisfied and satiated by it. Choosing the best ingredients from what's in season locally, preparing the dishes from scratch as often as time allows, and keeping in mind who's sharing them -- it's all gastronomical foreplay that creates the emotional build-up released in a delightful meal.
And despite what you may have heard, bigger isn't necessarily better (at least in meals). Binges can be nauseating, especially if you're eating mechanically. It's not about quantity, it's about appreciation. Complexity has nothing to do with it either: Familiarity and fondness bred by time and circumstances is what makes food genuinely heartwarming, not exotic ingredients.
Food is neither a need to be fulfilled, nor something to fear. That's why so many extreme diet resolutions fail -- we don't fail them, they fail us. Energy bars can keep you working, but they'll rarely give you the pleasure of your chosen comfort food when you're down, working late hours, children misbehaving, or just tired of the dark days and cold weather. An extra pound (or three) are not the worst thing that can happen to a person, although millions are spent to convince you otherwise. Just own what you love, and enjoy it. You know all too well how rare these moments of solace can be.