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I haven’t worked in a professional kitchen for many years, but my challenges are similar. I'm a cookbook writer who's written ten books on desserts and chocolate, so it would be easy for me to nibble and taste all day long. In fact, tasting is part of the job: There’s no escaping sugar, fat, and carbs—and dessert and pastry chefs are perfectionists, so we taste and taste again to get things right!
There’s no end to the chocolate in my pantry and on any random day, there might be several versions of a new cookie idea just out of the oven, cake experiments sitting on the cutting board with a knife in front of them, and heaven knows what sweet creamy gooey thing in the fridge. Going to a restaurant can mean more desserts than the number of people in our party—ordered by me or sent out by the pastry chef. You’re probably wondering how anyone can do such a hard job, right?
I didn’t learn to handle all of this until I was in my late 40s.
My life was in turmoil at the time, and I weighed more that I wanted to weigh—by a lot. I started running, which helped enormously, first with stress, and then with weight. I found that I loved feeling stronger and more fit. I joined a gym and began to work out with a truly gifted trainer twice a week as well. (What seemed like an indulgence has become an essential health care practice.) I also joined Weight Watchers, and have stayed because the program is completely flexible, rather than prescriptive, and thus perfect for a chef.
The combination of exercise and a new way to manage food affected my strength, weight, and sanity—and also gave me a sense of power and confidence that enabled me to complete an enormously challenging book. Without realizing it, I had created a very personal routine that keeps me healthy, happy, and productive. I’ve stayed with it for 20 years now—with ebbs and flows, and necessary adaptations.
I stopped running a few years ago when my knees complained, and started walking instead. When I needed to raise that bar, I added 500 to 1000 stair steps on the hidden paths around Berkeley on four- to five-mile walks. This turned out to be even more exhilarating than running had been, complete with stunning sunset views of San Francisco Bay as I wound my way back down the hillside. An excess of enthusiasm (knees again) put an end to extreme staircase climbing last year, but I keep the goal of walking several miles four or five times per week with long uphill stretches. I hope to add a staircase or two again very soon. (I’m aware that swimming may have to replace walking one day, but not damn yet!) I continue to work out with the same trainer and go to Weight Watcher meetings, too.
Everyday eating habits and a few rules are part of my structure, too. Before I get to the specifics, let me stress that I am never perfect and there are exceptions to every rule—I also happen to enjoy cocktails and have a weakness for my own cookies. So you know.
Breakfast is lean and simple: a poached egg or two, or a bowl of plain yogurt with fruit. Honestly, if I loved pancakes, waffles, and breakfast meats, I’d eat them instead of something else later in the day, but I don’t like these things in the morning, so my breakfast is no sacrifice.
I don’t eat junk food or fast food or random (Halloween!) candy, deep-fried anything (unless I know it’s divine), sweetened flavored yogurt, or any dessert I don’t think is worth the calories. I don’t drink sugary soft drinks. Luckily, most of these things don’t attract me, so they are not too hard to avoid.
Other things are far more challenging, so I’m forced to be strategic.
I make choices. I adore artisan bread—and Berkeley is full of superb loaves and I can easily eat a whole one myself—but since I also love wine, beer, and spirits (and get plenty of carbs in desserts and chocolate), I rarely keep bread in the house. I love ice cream, but I don’t keep it around to tempt me. I eat rice only in sushi or in Chinese food, and only small amounts. If I have a cocktail, I might skip dessert. When I eat cheese, I eat fabulous cheese regardless of fat content, but my everyday milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt are low fat or nonfat (I am also very picky, so I choose brands that don’t add starches or gums to replace fat). I love, and use, a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, but not much butter or cream (except in baking).
I try to watch portions. Instead of a second glass of wine, I’ll ask a waiter to sell me a half of a glass. If there is a great (and pricey) glass of wine on a menu, I might order one glass and savor it, instead of two glasses of something lesser. If there are lots of desserts on the table, I try to just taste them.
I’m enormously lucky—actually grateful—that I get pleasure from simple food. I love all kinds of vegetables, and am happy to eat a big salad with protein for dinner. My idea of heaven is a whole cracked Dungeness crab with a bone dry white wine (I don’t even want drawn butter or mayo).
It takes discipline but it’s possible. In fact, it works magnificently when I am loyal—then I feel strong, healthy, and unstoppable (and I look good, too). When life gets busy, my personal rules are so ingrained that my subconscious prevents me from straying too far or for too long. I may walk less and/or eat more for a while, but I never ditch the gym. Then the gym reminds me to walk more and harder, which then curbs the mindless eating and lets me enjoy that extra dessert or cocktail.
Julia Child once famously counseled a first-time cookbook writer, “Just write what works for you, dearie!” For 20 years, all of this has (mostly) worked for me.
Healthy means something different for everyone. What does it look like for you? Share your thoughts with us below.