Sports nutrition: The joy of cooking

It was the most unusual advice I had ever heard a mother bestow upon a daughter, particularly in the 1950s in Lewiston, N.Y. In her memoir, Too Close to the Falls, author Catherine Gildiner wrote:

Mother was convinced that it was important never to learn to cook or type or you’d be requested to do both against your will forever.

The sentiment caught my attention and stayed with me years after having read the book. I understood what her mother meant — if you learned how to do the tasks that kept women pigeon-holed, you would be expected to perform those tasks even if you didn’t want to, even if they were meant only to create your own world. You can’t keep a woman in the kitchen, literally or metaphorically, if she doesn’t know how to use the stove. I get that. And yet, I loved learning how to cook. Because to me it represented freedom. I had control over what I was going to eat, how I was to prepare it and how I was then going to consume it. No one was going to make me cook against my will. Instead, this, in a way, was an expression of my will.

When I started training for endurance sports, I started to move further out of the kitchen. Part of it was the myth of time (more specifically the myth of the lack of time) and the overwhelming amount of information about sports nutrition – what to eat, when to eat, how to eat it. There also seemed a lot of math involved. Food became fuel and a scientific pursuit, a means to an end goal which was a strong, lean body and good performance.

Nutrition for me, whether for sport or life, has always been about balance. And the best way I’ve found to achieve that balance is to embrace the freedom of the kitchen, to relish taking control of my own health (physical, mental and emotional) by taking care of what I was feeding my body. I’ve long held the belief that cooking for myself is healthiest. It’s not just that I control the ingredients and the cooking method, it’s that I’m actively involved in the process. There’s something satisfying about that which goes beyond measuring calories and grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Success: Homemade wheat bread

I took this notion a step further this week by baking my own bread. For the past six months (maybe longer, I’ll admit to that) I’ve had a hand-me-down bread machine taking up space on my kitchen counter. With the spirit of adventure, I cleaned it up, read the instruction manual and went to the store to load up on the fixings for whole wheat bread. I followed the directions. I measured carefully. And my loaf of bread came out … like crap. It didn’t rise. It was heavy. It was undercooked. And it was way over salted.

Hmm. How does one get rid of a medium-sized kitchen appliance? But before I went about researching disposal methods, I decided to try again. This time I researched a recipe online. I followed the directions. I measured carefully. And this time, it turned out pretty darn good. My only problem is not consuming the entire loaf in one or two sittings, something which is totally possible, especially with the jar of Nutella in my pantry and some tough intervals on my training schedule. I’m doing a pretty good job of resisting that urge.

So the great bread machine experiment allowed me to try something new and forced me not to  take the first result as the only result possible. (A nod to Mark for reinforcing this lesson to me.) And it gave me another chance to practice on my belief — that cooking and baking and eating and nutrition can be fun and joyful experiences. The science of eating gives me a place to start, a way to fuel my body for what it needs to do not just in training but in this grand game we call life. But the joy of the kitchen gives me a chance to create for myself, to fuel not just my body but my mind and soul as well.

For the record, I still have convenience foods including cans of soup and frozen meal products. I still use sports nutrition products and would rather buy a box of Nature Valley granola bars than attempt to make my own on a regular basis. But every day, I try to make myself one meal that is filled with real food. Maybe it’s just a salad and a sandwich. Maybe it’s my unprocessed whole oatmeal in the morning with a sliced banana and walnuts. Maybe it’s an omelet with some fresh veggies. Point is, it’s not so much about what I make but that I’m spending time caring about what I feed my body.

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