I’ve spent years copying other people’s snacks and, recently, fending off unsolicited diet advice. Now I’m finally figuring out what I actually want to be eating.
I made oatmeal this morning, and I can’t stop thinking about it. OK, wait, hear me out. It wasn’t even the instant kind. It was old-fashioned. I cooked it in milk, and then added some things I thought would taste good together. And, miraculously, I was right: It was delicious. I realize I have just described the very basic process that is “cooking,” and I realize that oatmeal is not exactly the height of culinary achievement. But you have to understand: I really don’t know how to cook. This is new for me.
You know how people who cook a lot will be like, “Oh, I just threw this together from things I had in my fridge”? I don’t get that. Paralyzed by indifference and my general distaste for doing things I’m not already good at, I have never attempted to explore whatever creative kitchen potential I might have. I’m pretty sure I don’t have much. Only recently, and very cautiously, have I started experimenting with breakfast: my favorite meal, my one shining beacon of hope.
Up until now I have mostly eaten whatever the people nearest me eat. Ever since I first had the opportunity to procure food for myself, I’ve been a food copycat.
On the rare afternoons she didn’t have plans with her boyfriend or her cooler friends, my best friend in middle school invited me over after school to watch movies and make cookies. Her preferred brand was NestlÃ© Tollhouse — jumbo-sized, break-and-bake chocolate chip with little peanut butter cups mixed in. We deliberately undercooked them and often ate them straight off the pan. I asked my own mom, who has baked what must, by now, be hundreds of thousands of delicious homemade cookies for our family, to put the store-bought kind on her grocery list.
Standing in line in my college cafeteria I watched people assemble their food one step of ahead of me: what they put on sandwiches in which order, and especially what they put in a salad bowl. I didn’t want salad, at all, but I had this vague, growing sense that I should start eating it anyway. Once I watched someone put shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and croutons on top of romaine lettuce and douse the whole thing in low-fat ranch dressing. In my head it became a sort of recipe. Salad = lettuce + carrots + cherry tomatoes + eggs + croutons + low-fat ranch. I didn’t put anything else on it because I was afraid I’d only make it taste worse.
These are the two kinds of meal mimicry: the kind you do just because the food looks (and/or tastes) good, and the kind you do because the food matches some idea you’ve formed about what you’re supposed to eat. For a long time I adopted and ate other people’s formulas with guiltless impunity: potato chips and sour cream, peanut butter plus Nutella, sweet cereal with any other kind of sweet cereal. But eventually I realized everybody else had stopped eating like ravenous teenagers, and then the way I copied other people’s eating was no longer by adding things, but by taking them away. This happened somewhat gradually, but I would guess I noticed it around the same time I first heard the words “chia seeds,” which was also around the time I moved to New York.
Never before in my life have I monitored more closely what I eat, or felt like what I eat is more monitored, than I do now, at 28 years old, living in New York. Most women I know have dealt with what we broadly describe as “food issues,” but I hardly gave my body’s width a second thought until I was in my mid-twenties. I was thin, so nobody ever told me to watch what I ate. I am also from the upper Midwest, where “superfoods” and juice cleanses are still fringe interests at best, and where cultural reservedness prevents most non-kin commentary on other people’s plates. Then I moved to New York, and everybody had input. So much input.
Something I’ve had pointed out to me a lot since moving here is that I really like sugar. I’d always thought of my sweet tooth fondly, as a not-that-bad weak spot I shared with my ancestors. (My mom has this story about a time she baked a pie for my dad’s father. When she went to cut it into eight pieces, as is standard, he stopped her: “Six,” he said. “Heaney serving size is one-sixth.”) I’ve since come to struggle with it. In my heart I don’t truly believe it’s wrong to eat sugar, but I’ve started feeling badly about myself when I do. I’ve started eating single pieces of bitter dark chocolate in lieu of other things I used to love much more. I’m told this is better for me.
There was a time in my life when a piece of bread felt like an acceptable, even logical, companion to pasta, but no longer. In line for a catered lunch at work someone told me my plate was “all carbs,” and every time I’ve gotten lunch since I’ve felt like I’m being watched. I used to be good at dismissing comments like these as essentially impersonal projections, not really about me, but after so many “that’s a big piece/that’s a lot of X/how can you eat that”s, I got involved. Other people’s opinions have so infiltrated my own that there remain very few foods I can eat without considering their merits, and, by extension, what they might do to my increasingly suspect body. And that makes me so fucking mad.
This is probably part of the reason I’ve become obsessed with breakfast. Breakfast is the only meal I always eat completely alone. In the early morning, in my tiny apartment’s half-kitchen, before I’ve seen a single other human being, I feel free to decide for myself what is good for me and what I need. I’m a vegetarian, so I like to make sure my breakfast gives me a baseline of protein. I’ve tried various foundations (eggs, toasts, smoothies), but the thing I always come back to eventually is oatmeal.
A few weeks ago, in search of oatmeal inspiration, I found this list of things nutritionists eat for breakfast. All of them are simple, with recognizable ingredients. I was surprised to see that most of them even included some form of carb. I scrolled through until I found one in particular (shout-out to Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN) that seemed like a good foundation for something I could make my own: “steel-cut and old-fashioned oats cooked with 1% milk, mixed with fruit, walnuts, and a scoop of plain Greek yogurt.”
So I went to the grocery store and used it as a guideline, removing the things I don’t like (walnuts) and adding others I do. I have eaten it every day since. It’s so good. I keep thinking about it. I’m already excited to have it again tomorrow.
I don’t know if this is a “good” recipe, and I have *already* been informed that mixing granola with oatmeal is “insane.” This oatmeal is healthy, but, depending on whose unsolicited feedback you get, it could probably be a little bit healthier. That’s OK. To quote Jillian Michaels in her Ripped in 30 workout video, which I like to do as much as possible, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect sucks.”
Katie’s Greek Yogurt Oatmeal
I use a kind of granola from Whole Foods called “simple granola with raisins,” mostly for crunch value. The protein powder (for protein) and maple syrup (for a little extra sweetness) are both optional.
⅔ cup low-fat milk
Â½ cup old-fashioned oats
Â½ cup plain Greek yogurt
⅓ scoop (about 1 Â½ tablespoons) vanilla protein powder (optional)
Small handful of plain granola
Handful of unsalted roasted almonds
Handful of fresh blueberries
In a bowl, mix the protein powder into the Greek yogurt. Heat the milk with a pinch of salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat, just until it’s steaming hot, and then stir in the oats. Cook for five minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the texture is creamy. Add a splash of water while cooking if the oats start to look dry. Pour the oats over the Greek yogurt, add maple syrup if desired, and mix. Top with granola, almonds, blueberries, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.