Why staying at home has radically changed how we think about food

This story is part of a weeklong series about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat, with expert advice for making food choices that help you stay healthy and happy.

Fun fact: Radish greens make greatpesto. Toss them in the blender with some oil and garlic and whatever nuts and/or cheese you can scrounge up and you’ve got yourself a killer sauce.

Three months ago, I thought of “radish greens” as just the leafy top part you throw away. Actually, I didn’t think about them at all. I barely thought about radishes (a garnish, at best), let alone their greens, and now I know a million ways to make them both delicious. Just as this pandemic has taught me the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, and how to turn a tank top into a face mask, it has also taught me to appreciate radishes — and everything else in my fridge — like never before. There’s no such thing as a garnish now, and nothinggets thrown away.

I’ve been a mindful eater for a long time. But it wasn’t until this pandemic that I learned just how deeply I could appreciate — and relish — what I had.

Healthy Eating

I’ve always been a creative cook, and fairly conscientious about food waste. I’ve never experienced true food insecurity, but I know what it’s like to obsess over food: I spent my twenties learning to turn $25 into a week of meals. I also spent my twenties (and my teens, and most of my childhood) trying to lose weight by eating smaller meals, or no-carb meals, or meals with just three Points because that’s all I had left for the day. This would inevitably end in a frenzied binge, wherein I’d spend months eating all the things I wasn’t allowed — not really enjoying it, but simply cramming it in before I came to my senses and started the next plan. It wasn’t until I finally landed on the sofa of an anti-diet dietician that I actually came to my senses and learned the difference between obsessing over food and being mindful of it.

In short, obsession is a fear response. It’s what happens when that primal part of your brain is triggered by a sense of scarcity — whether it’s artificial (say, no-carb diet) or genuine (an aisle of empty pasta shelves). Mindfulness is what happens when you pause and look around the rest of the grocery store, seeing everything that is available: the potatoes, the cold cuts, the humble radishes and their secretly delicious greens. Mindfulness is considering what you really want and need, and what you already have, before impulse buying a giant bag of whatever. I’ve been a mindful eater for a long time. But it wasn’t until this pandemic that I learned just how deeply I could appreciate — and relish — what I had.

Jars, for example. Like most millennial white ladies, I’ve gone through several whimsical-glassware phases, lugging home clanky bags of Ball Mason jars, which I’d use for exactly one cocktail, then stick in a cabinet for seven years. Last week, I was scraping the last inch of salsa onto a defrosted hunk of cod and half an onion — all of which had to be used immediately, before they went bad — when I noticed the raised letters on the glass jar in my hand: “Mason.” I thought of all the $6 Mason jars I’d schlepped home on the subway over the years. I thought of all the $4 jars of salsa I’d thrown away, often with a spoonful of salsa left in them. I screamed across the apartment at my bewildered husband: “THE JARS WERE HERE THE WHOLE TIME.”

I’ll probably go to hell for being such a wasteful asshat, and that’s fair. But at least I now know that a spoonful of salsa can turn old, frozen fish into a truly delicious dinner, especially if you cook it with a little sautéed onion. I also know that Mason jars can be used to freeze vegetable stock, and that vegetable stock can be easily made from onion skins, and pretty much any other produce scrap. And somehow, that knowledge is a balm. Like many others, I find myself staying up late to simmer stock or bake bread, and not just because it’s hard to buy right now, but because it feels really, really good. It’s comfort food — and that’s okay. It’s what we’re supposed to do, in fact. Just ask a dietician.

“This is a really uncertain and anxious time,” says Julie Dillon, RD. “It’s really normal and wonderful that we’re leaning towards food to cope — baking and cooking, maybe trying recipes that have been passed down. I think that’s just a wonderful way for us to connect to our ancestors and different generations and be able to kind of get grounded and calm ourselves.” It’s okay to eat the food too, by the way. Comfort eating is instinctive, not disordered. Just as scarcity triggers fear and hoarding, satisfaction triggers relaxation and ease. “Within a few bites, food sends our mood into a calmer state,” Dillon points out. “It’s really effective. Why is that a bad thing?”

It’s a radical concept, truly. Even after years of therapy and nutritional coaching, I still struggled to really get it. A lot of us entered These Times with the understanding that bread is a bad food and comfort eating is a bad habit, period. We live in a world that bombards us every day with that messaging — or, we used to, anyway. Now, everything is different.

That’s the behavior I’m ashamed of now — the ‘whatever’ attitude, and the audacity of being annoyed at having to choose.

Now, I think of “bad” food as food that has actually gone bad. Now, flour is a precious commodity — especially the plain, white, all-purpose kind. Now I feel like the luckiest duck when eggs are back in stock, though I know how to substitute them if necessary. Before I cooked creatively for fun — and usually only on the odd weekend when nothing else was planned. During the week my husband and I didn’t even eat dinner together, just because our schedules were so different. We’d throw together separate meals when we got home, or we’d order in. Before, choosing takeout felt almost like a chore, with the two of us sending harried texts back and forth at the end of the day, until one of us finally just said, “Yeah sure, sushi, whatever. I’m in the middle of something.”

That’s the behavior I’m ashamed of now — the “whatever” attitude, and the audacity of being annoyed at having to choose. That is the shittiest symptom of privilege. Finding pleasure and comfort in your food isn’t bad. Failing to appreciate food and all the ways it nourishes us — that’s the only bad eating habit in my book.

Now, we get delivery once a week. We get excited discussing our options, like it’s a special occasion (because it is). “Pizza Fridays!” we cheer, to no one but each other. We choose one of favorite local joints, hoping they’re still open and still will be a few months from now. We leave a huge tip — which is the only appropriate amount to tip someone running through the epicenter of a pandemic to deliver you a pizza. We ask them to leave it on the stairs, say thank you a million times, and wait for them to leave before we dash down to grab it. Then we run back up, leave our shoes in the hall, and put the pizza box on the stove. Then we wash our hands like crazy, pour wine into actual wine glasses, and sit down at the actual table. We toast, and we dig in.

Everything has changed, and most of it changed for the worse. But not this. We have fewer options in our lives now, and many more unknowns. But we always know exactly what we do have, and we treasure it: There are six eggs in the fridge, enough flour to make bread tonight, and tomorrow we’ll have leftover radish greens pesto on toast. We have more than enough