Every now and then I get questions from people living outside the US about the (quote) “rather questionable eating habits of the Americans”. These concerns are legitimate, as the US still carries an image of being a nation that is overweight and unhealthy (as we know other nations are picking up quickly and Germany is clearly one of them).
When I lived in the US for the first time, which is more than 20 years ago and reminds me that I too get older, I would have signed the above statement with my blood immediately. After only six months as an Au-Pair (which btw I hated, but that’s a different story), I returned to Germany as a choppy girl and still have a picture of proof from that disaster hidden somewhere in our Cologne basement.
While I might have wanted to blame the country at the time, in hindsight, I know what went wrong had nothing to do with burgers and fries being listed on the menu more frequently. I was simply too young to know what a healthy nutrition should look like for me, hardly incorporated any workouts into my daily routine and merely ate what was presented to me in my host family’s fridge: spaghetti with meatballs, bagels, ice cream, pop tarts … you name it.
I was surprised how only after a short period of time none of my clothes would fit me anymore. Yet, I did not come to realize how much of a negative impact my eating habits were having on me. I arrived in Germany fat and frustrated (slight exaggeration here), confirming all the prejudices that people had about America.
When ten years ago I was relocating to the US as an expat for one of my previous employers, I focused so much on my food choices, in dire fear of gaining any weight at all, that it was close to becoming an obsession. But I did not gain a single pound.
Now back in the US another ten years later I could not be more relaxed about my diet. In fact, I live a healthier life than ever before for several reasons: 1) I made it one of my goals to be more conscious about how I treat my body, 2) I am a little more educated on what I choose to put in my body, 3) I find the access to healthy and nutritious meals a bit easier than at home and 4) I actually have the time for conscious choices.
It is of course possible to enjoy burgers, hot dogs, tacos, ice cream, donuts, cookies, cakes and whatever else one might be longing for. This stuff just tastes great (way better than at home) and I too give in to my cravings occasionally (Stans Donuts or Jeni’s Ice Cream are just wonderful). It only becomes dangerous if you rely on those food choices for all your meals.
So, what do I eat?
I already shared my passion for porridge in one of my earlier blog posts and do not grow tired in trying to come up with new variations. My current favorite is plain oats with milk (or any milk substitute), fresh and diced apricots, dried and diced dates and a bit of cinnamon. I sometimes add a scoop of Greek yoghurt and unsweetened apple sauce if I feel like it. Even in Summer I prefer a warm breakfast over a cold one, as it sets a great foundation for the day. My recommendation for the weekend: healthy coconut flour blueberry pancakes (recipe).
Depending on where I am for lunch, I either pick up a fresh salad, steamed veggies or sushi at Whole Foods (a big organic supermarket chain). Or I eat at one of my favorite Chicago lunch places, where I know I can get something healthy and nutritious, e.g. at the French-inspired Le Pain Quotidien. I like soups, salads, quiches, bowls and always pay attention to the ingredients and sometimes the amount of calories (which are often displayed on menus).
Dinner is the time for me to get creative, because I am the one who does the cooking. Before we moved to Chicago and when my hubby and I were both working fulltime, there was only little energy left at the end of the working day to worry about what to eat (sounds familiar?). We would frequently eat out, order in, stick with what was left in the fridge after nobody cared to do the shopping, or skip dinner altogether.
Now that I have a lot more time on my hands, I can plan and try new recipes, do the shopping and get something fresh and tasty onto our plates at least on most of the nights. I own a couple cookbooks, follow a few food blogs (Ambitious Kitchen, Eat Yourself Skinny) and sometimes just throw everything into one pan and call it a bowl. For the most part, our dinner is low on carbs (try lentil pasta for a change), high on vegetables, sometimes includes fish, rarely chicken, hardly ever meat, but always loads of love. 😊
We avoid processed foods as much as we can and stay away from artificial flavors and ingredients. If the backside of a product cannot be understood without the help of google or if the item contains sugar or sugar substitutes (unless I go for sugar on purpose), I usually put it back into the shelf. We have also cut down on our bread intake (which is tough for Germans) and find that many other products are just as tasteful and easier to digest.
Chicago is a heaven on earth when it comes to eating out and I have never lived in a city that was so jam-packed with great restaurants. As opposed to Germany where you would mostly pick your place according to your choice of cuisine, e.g. Greek, Italian, Thai, Spanish, etc., in Chicago, you can get all the different tastes in one place. This fusion kitchen is just phenomenal and caters to our taste buds in ways we have never experienced before.
As I cannot live of only breakfast, lunch and dinner, snacking takes on a big part in my day. I would always have nuts and seeds lying around, fresh fruit in the house, a recipe for energy balls and bars at hand and sometimes chocolate if I need some serious sugar. I have come to appreciate dark chocolate over milk chocolate and discovered the great US brand Chocolove (based on European traditions), which satisfies my sweet tooth while being less loaded with fat and sugar.
Paired with my almost daily workout routine, this lifestyle is clearly making me happier, healthier and way more energetic. I also hardly ever worry about my weight and feel I can eat as much as I like, if I stick to the right products. And if there comes one of those days when I need some soul food, this is what it looks like:
I witness that a lot of Americans follow a similar lifestyle, and I also observe a much higher fitness level than in Germany. I have not seen as many flat tummies, six packs and nicely toned legs than in the six months I have been living in Chicago (well done American ladies!). Granted, this might shift as soon as you leave the city or even state, but many of the existing clichés deserve to be revisited.