Decision Making

In many ways, we live in a fantastic world. We have access to information, communication, and food that has never been possible before. We can travel from one side of the globe to the other quickly, or we can do it inexpensively. If we need to find a fact, it takes seconds instead of being a potential multi-week project that you give up on before the answer arrives, if it does.

Of course, there is a cost. There is always a cost. Information from all around is constantly bombarding you. Choices for what to eat are nearly limitless. And, it seems, most of those choices are bad for you, the environment, or your wallet. It hardly seems like a day goes by without someone saying there's a new food you can't eat any more for one reason or another, whether it's political, environmental, or health-related.

There's a funny thing that happens to people when they have to make decisions all the time: they lose the ability to make decisions. Decision making ability is like a bucket filled from a slow tap: it holds quite a bit, but when it's gone, you have to wait a while before you can use it again. How this often manifests in our household is that we both return from work tired from making decisions and solving problems all day, and then we have to decide what to do for dinner. This rarely goes well under these circumstances. We both sit around and moo*, and eventually we decide to do whatever's easiest, which might be ordering a pizza or grabbing some barbecue.

Now, I am all for pizza or barbecue, but during heavy work cycles, we got to the point where the pizza place knew it was us just by our order, and that was certainly disturbing. And it's not as though we are lazy, nor are we incapable of making food (hopefully), but the simple process of deciding what to make was not so simple for us, and so we resorted to not making a decision, but going with defaults.

There are two major ways that decision making can cause you troubles as far as food goes. The first is the scenario described above, where "what to eat right now" is causing trouble. This scenario is common to people who try to make lunch decisions in groups, because it's not only about what you are interested in eating, but there's a huge social component as well, where you take into account what other people are interested in, who ate where recently, who can afford what, what sort of transportation you have, what things you remember are available to eat, and the mood everyone is in right now. This is why Food Courts are popular.

This first problem of decision making is relatively easy to solve. You pick a time when you haven't exhausted your decision-making supply, and you plan how you're going to eat. On a weekend, for example, you plan your meals for the week, including how to use leftovers, and you get as much of the work done on the weekend as possible, so you have minimal work to do to cook for the week. For the lunch situation, you make a list of all restaurants so you're ready just to pick something from that list, or you make a schedule ahead of time, when you're not hungry, giving you a variety of places to go, and anyone who isn't in for that day can just plan to do something different. It's easy, but only if you do it at the right time.

The second way the decision making gives you trouble is in what you are and aren't "allowed" to eat. For allergies, it's pretty cut-and-dried, because you can't eat those things. But if you need to get more fish in your diet, how do you do that sustainably? If you want to eat vegetables, do you want them trucked to you from California, ruining the environment? If you go to the farmer's market, are the people selling from the large stands really able to grow all of that within 75 miles of your city, despite the fact that it will be weeks before the smaller growers have tomatoes, for example? Are eggs good for you today or bad for you? Is this meat from a farmer you can trust, or is it from a mega-processing-plant that's ruining the world, or so your cousin tells you?

Some people can make a hard philosophical choice and, if it's properly limited, stay within that choice. Vegans are a simple example of this, or people who start locavore projects. You outline the very few foods or food categories that you can eat within, and you stick with that. Try to ignore any additional food controversies that come out involving your food, or you may have to re-evaluate (e.g. GM soy). You're not constantly making a decision about what to do, you are simply following The Plan. If you do have to re-evaluate, you do it just every so often as a major exercise, rather than with every meal.

However, if you haven't firmed up your philosophy of what you can and cannot eat, or if you have a philosophy but it's complicated, then you're going to have the hardest time of all. This is the situation I find myself in, where I want to eat food that is both good for me and good for the environment and so on, but I haven't really decided entirely what that all means yet.

This is what the appeal of things like Bittman's Vegan Before Dinnertime plan come in, because it's simple, and about balance: eat nothing that is animal or animal derived before dinner, and after that do whatever you want. That way, when you do decide to eat meat, you don't have to fret about if it should be turkey, because that's not as fattening, or the local beef, because it's grass-fed, or whatever.

So you can certainly do something like that. Or you can make a list, just as with the lunch plan, or things that are "approved to eat", quick, available, inexpensive, healthful, or whatever it is you're going for. It will help you with quick decisions when your bucket is dry.

So, do you have an eating strategy? Is it standard, or one that you made up? Please share with us your ideas in the comments.

*- Somewhere along the line, we decided that a moo was the best sound to make to indicate distress. It's very flexible by way of expressiveness and great fun. I highly recommend.

Dealing with living food

One of the interesting things about vegetables and fruits is that they're still alive when you're storing them. In fact, unless you cook them, they're still alive when you eat them. Raw food vegans had better be quite comfortable with their life choices knowing the sheer number of living beings that they consume just to live. I'm not judging, I merely mention because it's just occurred to me. The problem with the plants being alive is that they continue doing whatever it is that they would normally do under the circumstances. In some cases this means turning sugars into starches, in others starches to sugars. Colors may fade, cells might degrade. Life goes on. In some cases, life going on is great. Bananas, for example. Bananas are all well and good as a fresh fruit, but while they're green, they're tasteless, and only as the continue to age do they turn starches into sugars. Take it too far, and they become brown and generally unappealing. Of course, in the specific they become better, because brown and mushy bananas are perfect for banana bread. So it's great for the whole living thing to keep going on. Sometimes you'll slow down the living processes by reducing the molecular activity by slowing down all of the molecules. Though this sounds complex, I'm really just talking about putting something in the refrigerator or freezer. After all, temperature is just the average speed of molecules in any given substance, so to slow down chemical processes, you make it colder. Freezing is much more effective at slowing the processes than cooling, but that doesn't make it a good idea in all cases. After all, freezing will create ice crystals in the cells, and as they expend, it will rip through the membranes and cell walls of your plant, which will cause the cells to leak upon thawing. This is fine in some cases, but not in others, so use caution with the freezing. A general rule is that if you don't see it in the freezer aisle, it probably doesn't freeze well. Another useful rule is for whether to refrigerate a fruit or vegetable. The the plant in question lives in through cold weather, it's fine with the cold. If it's a tropical plant, it would be happier on the counter. Because the plants are still alive, if they hit some weather that they're not ready to deal with, then they don't know what to do and the chemical factories that keep them going will often fail. There are times when you really want to stop whatever's going on within the plant, and that usually means halting enzymatic actions. Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions, and are one of the lower-level functions of a living system. If you can stop the enzymes from doing their thing, then you can stop the aging process. They way to do that is with heat. Of course, heating food is one way to cook it, and there are all sorts of other chemical processes that go on when you cook food. You might just want to stop the enzymatic stuff without seriously damaging the fresh taste or texture of a food. At this point, you're looking at a blanch. Blanching is cooking something for a brief amount of time and then halting the cooking process quickly. Traditionally, this is done by briefly putting it into boiling water, then transferring the food to cold water. If you're French, it would be ice water, but room temperature water will do just about as well. After all, we only need to change the temperature quickly, we don't need to freeze the food, and water's heat transfer ability will work nearly as well at room temperature as it will at the freezing point. If you're cooking a green vegetable, you may also take advantage of the blanching process to reduce the acidity a bit with some baking soda into the boiling water. This brightens up your greens. If it's a purplish vegetable, you would very much not want to do this, unless you want your vegetable to turn bright green. You could enhance the reddish-purple color by adding some acid, however. Another trick blanching is good for is allowing you to use certain tropical fruits in gelatin dishes. Papaya, mango, and pineapple all have enzymes that break down certain connective tissues in meat. Because gelatin is based on a connective tissue, collagen, the enzymes in those fruits will break down the gelatin, thus taking what should be a nice mould and turning it into a sweet, sticky puddle with some fruit at the bottom. As we know that blanching will stop enzymatic processes, though, we know that we could blanch the fruits before putting them into the gelatin, and we should have no troubles with the enzymatic baddies ruining the dessert treat.