Taking Time: Food Prep and the Academic Body

As I wrote in yesterday's blog, my environment and schedule as a master's candidate led to a number of problems. After working my way out of the chronic-pain cloud, I had to deal with the aftershocks of 18 months of bad medicine, no exercise, and daily Velveeta. I ate the Velveeta because 1) it was cheap; 2) its use required little to no culinary knowledge; and 3) okay, fine, it tasted pretty good to me. Master's students at my university made about $650 before taxes (EDIT: that figure is for the first year, the non-teaching year. Stipends bumped up to around $1,000 in the second year), and I was lucky to be married and have a second income to help with the food bills. Still, we were fairly strapped for cash, and neither of  us had the time or energy to think about food prep. It was too easy to catch $1 burrito night at Senor Taco or split a pizza. I anesthetized myself with food during those months, and heavier foods meant that I would sleep fitfully but for a long time. It was also cheaper and less fussy (I thought) than preparing real meals.

My turning point happened in a dressing room in B. Moss at the Knoxville Center Mall. I had to buy a new pair of pants for a reading I was scheduled to give that weekend. Nothing else fit. And, as it happens, I had gotten too big to fit into the biggest of B. Moss pants. I had exceeded their definition of "largest size." What happened next is a blur of ice cream, nachos, and crying.

Here, I'm trying to tease apart two very different kinds of pain: the physical (the injury itself) and the emotional (feeling cumbersome and bloated, and then being "on display" three times a week teaching). 

I had to immediately adjust my home work space (a generous term for the couch) so that I didn't round my back while reading, typing, or grading. I followed what my PT called the 30/30/30 rule: Every 30 minutes, take 30 seconds and focus 30 yards away. A stability ball and pilates mat took up residence in the corner of my (creepy, dusty) office. I scheduled time to prepare food on Sunday nights: six chicken breasts, broccoli, one dozen boiled eggs, and baggies of portioned oatmeal.  And as much as I hate the company, I enrolled as a Sam's Club member. I could buy chicken and vegetables in bulk (and I often took friends with me so they could stock up).

Eating is a biological imperative, which is why I think it's so hard for people like me--people with troubled pasts with food--to reframe it. As I noted in this blog, I tend to be a teetotaler. All or nothing. I'll eat all the food, or I'll eat no food. I had to hedge this tendency, so I mixed two plans: IF (Intermittent Fasting) and grazing, via this plan. I still basically follow variations of both, and I find them to be flexible enough to fit into my life but firm enough to keep me from mindlessly consuming blocks of Velveeta. (Though in the last month, I've moved away from grazing, and I feel much better, so that part's in flux.)

Those who don't tote food or weight baggage are lucky. I do, though, and I had to find a sensible, sustainable way to fit food into my life, when so much of my life is spent sitting. (And with the uneven schedule most academics follow. It's never as clear as Monday-Friday, 9-5.) It sounds counter-intuitive to have a plan for eating, and I'm one of those people Pollan rails against in his books. Americans shouldn't require a plan in order to perform something so basic as eating, but with so many faux foods (and preposterous portions), I think it's an important discussion to have. And when your schedule and/or income seems to preclude fresh and healthy foods, I think it's even more important to talk about the care and feeding of the body.

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