College student attempts ditching convenience foods for health-conscious fare
On a recent shopping trip to a local dollar store, I picked up some yellow squash, tomatoes, orange bell peppers, garlic, ginger, mushrooms and other veggies for stir fry—something I’d never made before.
I threw the produce into a pan with extra-virgin olive oil and dashed it with some garlic salt, pepper and a little bit of red chili powder. The result? A mixture of hard asparagus and other veggies burnt in their own juices. Even my rice was a failure: no fluff, no flavor.
As a college student, eating healthfully has been a challenge. I don’t have a lot of time or money, and, obviously, my cooking skills need some work. Still, I’m determined to make a change. Fortunately, not long after my pathetic attempt at a healthful dinner, I decided to check out a free event at Chico State called “Chico on $10 A Day: Learn to Eat Locally.”
Put on by students in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, the event aimed to show people that they could make good food by buying local, fresh and (most important to students like me) cheap ingredients. Participants learned everything from how beer is made to composting techniques to reducing energy and utility bills. The highlight, however, was seeing how just $10 spent at the farmers market can turn into a day’s worth of delicious meals.
The samples—kind of like what you find during a trip to Costco (yet good for you)—seemed to draw people in the most. Recipes included strawberry citrus punch, farmers-market salad, chai oatmeal, croutons, pasta fagioli, and a spinach, carrot and egg scramble.
“We’re really trying to get people to love food again, and to cook it at home and realize that it actually is cheaper to cook at home than buying fast-food,” said Stephanie Bianco-Simeral, an assistant professor of nutrition who teaches food-service production courses at Chico State.
Another catalyst for changing my eating habits has come out of my yoga class at a local gym. Recently, a guest lecturer shared advice on sustaining health through an ancient Eastern healing practice.
Jennifer Andrews, who holds a master’s in nutrition education, said Ayurveda dates back some 5,000 years and is considered to be the nutritional sister of yoga. She explained how this system of alternative medicine is the science of self-healing or rejuvenation. “It’s about taking care of yourself, taking responsibility, so that your body stays healthy through every stage of your life—not just until you’re 20 or 30, but as you get older.”
She said that college students suffer physically from speeding through classes, work, research, driving and keeping up with technology. Aggravation, she said, starts in the stomach and causes constipation. This is because students eat dry foods, such as popcorn, cereals, fast-foods and other cuisine with no fiber.
A sticky, toxic substance called ama results in the stomach and overflows from the gastrointestinal tract into the circulatory system; then on to the weakest parts of the body, eventually the joints. In time, it can manifest as a disease.
“It’s all about prevention. In Ayurveda, we say that 97 percent of all diseases start in the digestive tract, unless they’re from accidents or a genetic problem,” Andrews said.
Staying healthy, she explained, requires eating with the seasons by choosing locally grown foods. Summer is the time of year people should be eating lighter: fruits, salads and other produce that are less taxing on our bodies, Andrews said. Eating locally has the added benefit of helping us adapt to our surroundings, which allows us to handle pollen and other allergens.
Like other students strapped for cash and on the go, I’ve been guilty of speeding through drive-thrus to grab a burger or even stooping to the level of the vending machine. My poor eating habits go back as far as high school, so creating healthful ones has almost seemed to require a change in brain chemistry.
For the Chico State event, the bulk of the food prepared by Bianco-Simeral’s nutrition students came from purchases made at the Saturday farmers market.
Minn Htaik, an international student from Myanmar, created a poster showing how to make stir fry using market ingredients. His concoction sounded a lot better than mine, which was still sitting mostly uneaten in my refrigerator.
Inspired by Htaik, I shopped at the farmers market for the first time after the event. (It’s something I never considered doing before, even though I live within walking distance.) I found the experience much more relaxed than the typical rush of the supermarket or a school cafeteria. Strolling slowly through the aisles helped me think more about home-cooked meals made from scratch, as opposed to the processed foods college students are accustomed to eating.
As I checked out the vendors’ offerings, I saw couples helping each other pick out the ripest selection, taking their time, and even smelling the produce together. I sampled a spicy Spanish olive oil and talked to a man selling organic eggs, who convinced me that his were cheaper than those at the grocery store. That day, I stopped by a stand with a plethora of almonds and sampled some delicious flavors. I went home with a bag of a raspberry-honey variety.
On my most recent outing there, a vendor offered me a cherry sample. Another let me pick out a juicy red strawberry. I went home with a basket, which didn’t last long. It’s going to take me some time to figure out how to turn produce into meals—not just snack food—but I’m determined I can eat healthfully.
Plus, Htaik convinced me that the market offers rewards beyond healthful eating: “The benefits of home cooking are that you save gas; it’s a fun activity you can do with your roommates or family members; you’re helping your community make money instead of buying from the big supermarkets.”