From Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul

Couch Meets Table

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future; concentrate the mind on the present moment.


You’re probably familiar with the expression “You are what you eat.” For me, it was more like: “You are WHERE you eat.” Either way, the result wasn’t pretty.

My postage stamp-sized kitchen precluded a table or even an eating bar, and the dining room table was covered with books, magazines and files, not to mention two cats basking in the sun from the only south-facing window. Even if I could have cleared a spot on the table, one of my favorite cooking shows aired at suppertime and the TV sat in the living room.

So I ended up eating on the couch.

Although an avid fan of the Food Channel, I spent so much time watching TV I didn’t have time to try out the recipes and techniques. I did most of what passed for cooking during commercials. When you only had two minutes to whip up something remotely edible, you quickly learned to ignore words like flambé, sauté and julienne and substitute microwave or delivery.

My motto was: If it couldn’t be nuked or delivered, I didn’t eat it.

Eating on the couch led to several problems. It was impossible to watch TV, balance a plate on my lap and cut food all at the same time without dropping half the contents on the cushions. Although my cats liked the arrangement and vied for who got to sit next to me while I ate, I was less happy. To cut down on cleaning bills, I gravitated toward finger foods. Pizza, chicken nuggets, chips and cookies were a lot easier to manage than linguini with tomatoes concasse or osso buco.

The combination of food and TV meant I often finished an entire meal without any recollection of having eaten it. Bags of chips and cookies disappeared the same way.

The other day when I struggled yet again to zip up my favorite pants, I discovered a more immediate problem. Eating dinner while watching food shows had not only expanded my culinary vocabulary, it had also broadened my beam.

It was time to take action. For my first step, I turned off the TV. Since I couldn’t enlarge my kitchen, I rolled up my sleeves and cleared off the dining room table. While the cats were not too happy about losing their favorite spots, the dining room looked much more inviting without mounds of papers cluttering up every surface.

Next, I opened a cookbook and started to plan healthy meals. I visited my local grocery store and took a shopping cart for a ride through the produce aisles and the meat and fish departments—hitherto strange and forbidding territory. Then I introduced myself to mixing bowls, pots and pans, and a large appliance in my kitchen called a stove.

Cooking proved more difficult than I had thought. What looks simple on TV seldom turns out that way in real life. I had neither a sous chef nor a clean-up crew to help out.

I made many discoveries on my culinary journey. One, when the recipe says one cup, it means one cup, not half a cup or two cups. Two, substituting ingredients can be a recipe for disaster. And three, four-year-old spices don’t have much flavor left in them. Many a dish I prepared went straight from oven to garbage can.

Along the way, I also learned that simple was best. That flambé means you’d better have the fire department on speed dial. And that if a recipe calls for ingredients you can’t pronounce, turn the page and try one you can actually say.

To be honest, I backslid a few times when my traitorous fingers dialed for pizza. But I persevered.

I started to enjoy cooking. I played around with textures and ate more raw or lightly grilled vegetables instead of relying on that old standby—the potato. I started using herbs and spices instead of salt, fat and sugar to flavor food. I bought a couple of new cookbooks that emphasized healthy cooking and continued experimenting with different recipes.

As a surprising side effect, now that I could actually taste my food, I found myself eating less and enjoying it more. And since I felt funny eating chips or a chocolate bar at the dining room table, which was the only place I now ate, I gradually stopped buying them. Within a couple of months, I lost fifteen pounds without dieting and without feeling deprived or hungry.

As for my favorite cooking show? I tape it and watch it later—after I’ve eaten.

Harriet Cooper

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