Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Mindless Eating

Knitters like to talk about the many benefits of their hobby- knitting keeps your brain active, you can make adorable hats for the babies in your life and it is cheaper than therapy, even if you go in for the pricey yarn. I'll add one more benefit to the list: knitting can help you eat better. I had a long-standing habit of mindlessly eating my way through mountains of chips and chivda while watching TV. Instead, I now knit my way through scarves and sweaters while watching TV, and have to scramble to fit in my chips and chivda consumption during some other time of the day (Don't worry, I somehow manage to do it. I'm talented like that.)

Anyway, this whole thing about how our food consumption is largely controlled not by our hunger, but by habits and hidden factors in our environment is at the heart of a book I just read: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

Image: Goodreads
Wansink has a background in communication research and consumer behavior. He designs clever studies to understand food psychology- many of the studies from his lab and from other research groups are described in Mindless Eating. For instance, think of days-old, stale, rancid popcorn. Not appetizing, right? Not something you would eat even if it was given to you free. In a study, people were offered free (but very stale) popcorn when they went to see a movie right after they had eaten lunch. The movie goers ate it anyway. We are so powerfully conditioned by the smell of popcorn, the sound of others eating popcorn and the association of movie theaters with popcorn-eating that we are compelled to eat even stale popcorn that does not taste good, even when we are not hungry.

Another classic experiment is the bottomless soup bowl, where a bowl of tomato soup is rigged under the table and connected to a large pot which keeps refilling the bowl even as the diner eats from it. We expect that after we've had a bowlful of so of soup, we'll stop eating because we simply won't be hungry any more. Not so. People kept eating as the level of soup in the bowl stayed the same. Our eyes decide how much we eat (I can see that the bowl is empty, so I've obviously eaten enough soup) and not our stomach.

Our expectations of how a food should taste affects the way we feel it tastes. A group of people were told they were tasting strawberry yogurt. Then the lights were turned off and they were give chocolate yogurt to taste. Over half rated it as having a "good strawberry taste". They couldn't see the yogurt, but were expecting strawberry yogurt so that's what they tasted.

This book came out a decade ago. Food psychology findings are of great human interest and they regularly make their way to mainstream media, so I can't say that there was anything in this book that was absolutely novel for me. But Wansink has a friendly, chatty and slightly goofy style which was fun to read. He points out the pitfalls that cause people to eat more than they intend to, and offers suggestions for tweaking our lives to make it easier to eat the way we want to eat.

I love food, enjoy food and am deeply grateful for having food. Under no circumstances do I want to trick my body into starving itself. But if I can set up my environment and build small habits to avoid consuming food that I don't particularly want or need, that would certainly be helpful. And that's where this books gives a few pointers.

Whatever fills the plate/bowl looks like the proper serving size to us. It is well documented that the size of dinnerware has grown over the decades, to the point where we're mindlessly overeating simply when we serve ourselves food for a meal. I remember buying a set of dinnerware from Crate and Barrel some years ago, and the bowls were so huge that I use them as serving bowls and not to eat from! This is a very easy problem to fix. Buy smaller bowls and plates and you'll eat more reasonable portions.

For a while now, I've been serving dessert in stainless steel vatis/katoris (small bowls) that I bought in India. They are perfect for a satisfying sweet finish to the meal, in a dainty portion. I try to be a good host and don't want to trick anyone into eating less. Anyone who wants seconds is welcome to take them but people rarely do. As the book says, the best part of dessert is the first two bites.

There is plenty of other advice in this book that's sensible enough: See how much you're eating- don't eat straight from the package. Aim to eat until you are no longer hungry; not until you're full (there's a big difference between those two). If you don't want to eat something, put it out of sight and inconvenient to reach (no candy dishes on the desk if you're trying to avoid sweets). If you want to eat more of something, make it convenient (cut up veggie sticks front and center in the fridge for snacking).

There's a lot of stuff in this book that's just good fun. Things that seem pretty obvious when you think about it, but are backed by studies and statistics. There's a whole chapter on how food with an alluring name tastes better to us. Traditional Cajun Beans and Rice is more appealing than Beans and Rice. Belgian black forest double chocolate cake sounds dreamier than plain old chocolate cake. Think about this next time you're cooking for company, or naming a recipe on your food blog!

Wansink talks about the Nutritional Gatekeeper of the family, the person who does most of the food shopping and cooking. They are a powerful influence on how each member of the family eats. He does very interesting studies on what he calls "the curse of the warehouse club" which shows that buying supersized containers leads people to over-consume. The bigger the shampoo bottle, the more you pour out, and so on.

There was one or two things in the book that I found jarring, such as when Wansink talks about ideal body weight for women based on a rule of thumb used by modeling and acting coaches. Um, no. That kind of obsession with thinness is unhelpful; healthy people come in all sizes and being thin does not equate being fit.

But this quibble aside, I found Mindless Eating to be a quick, helpful and enjoyable read. If you can better understand where you're over-eating, you can do something to fix it. Next time I'm parked next to the chips and dip at a party, I sure hope the book cover will flash in front of my eyes. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

Soup and sweater weather has arrived in the South East US this week. Tomatoes and sweet onions are giving way to root vegetables- sweet potatoes being a special favorite of mine for the way their sweetness complements savory dishes. We love them roasted as sweet potato fries, and mashed into vegetable cutlets. The combination of sweet potatoes and legumes is wonderful- some of our favorites include black beans and sweet potato quesadillas and burritos, sweet potato and vaal dal and sweet potato hummus.

Yesterday, I was in the mood for soup but not so much in the mood to spend time making it. The oven came to the rescue for hands-free cooking, as it often does. I thought of the roasted onion and garlic soup that I make once in a while. You roast vegetables, then puree them with stock. Ta da. You have soup.

I used the same principle to make this easy sweet potato soup. I was out of vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, bouillon and all such soup basics. A pantry restocking is in order, clearly. Anyway, I went ahead with only milk and water as the base of the soup, with some smoked paprika to add flavor. It worked just fine. You can tell that this is a flexible recipe.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup


1. Pre heat oven to 425F. If you have a convection setting on the oven, you'll want to use it- it will cut roasting time significantly.

2. Peel 3-4 sweet potatoes and chop them into chunks. Peel and chop 1 large onion into chunks. Take a head of garlic, separate into cloves (no need to peel the garlic cloves now).

3. Place all the vegetables together on a sheet pan. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until the vegetables are browned and soft.

4. Pop the garlic cloves out of their peels. Place all roasted veggies in a pot.

5. Add 1 tsp. smoked paprika, 4 cups water and 1/2 cup milk (or cream or a combination) to the vegetables and blend them into a smooth puree. Add more water if required. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

6. Taste and add more seasoning if required. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of yogurt/sour cream and a sprinkle of paprika.

Are you fond of sweet potatoes? What's your favorite way to cook them? 

Oh, and do you have a must-try soup recipe to recommend? 

Monday, October 06, 2014

DIY Instant Oatmeal: My Toddler's Favorite Breakfast

Our friends here were quite alarmed when they heard that our recent travels to India would involve two nearly 10-hour flights each way. How would a toddler handle it, they wondered? We wondered too, with not a little apprehension. It is not a simple trip. Before we left, we had to get Lila a typhoid vaccine and bitter anti-malaria tablets to take every day as a precaution. The air travel is just the first of many parental concerns.

But flying does not seem to bother our girl. During the long haul flights, she was allowed more or less unlimited access to juice and in-flight videos. As a result, she thinks air travel is the greatest thing ever. And bitty thing that she is, she could curl up in her seat and took long naps on the airplane as well. As with many things related to kids, you get what you get. We got a kid who enjoys flights. But who has slept through the night only like 8 times in 3 years. Others may have a child who screams for 8 hours of the 9.5 hour flight but who sleeps 12 hours at a stretch at home. Like I said, you get what you get.

While we were in India, Lila ate whatever we ate. The only food we packed for the trip for her was a container of oat mix for her favorite breakfast of warm oatmeal with apricots and raisins. From the time she could barely walk, she learnt to carry the boxes of oats and dried fruit out of the pantry, pry them open and fling handfuls into a bowl. This will go down in her personal history as the very first food she learned to "cook".

This oat mix has the same just-add-hot-water convenience of that instant oatmeal that you buy in sachets but you get to decide what goes in and what stays out. Oh, and it takes 30 seconds to put together. This is our basic raisin oatmeal recipe, but you can make all different flavors by just changing up dried fruits and nuts and adding spices or flavorings.

DIY Instant Oatmeal


To make instant oatmeal, I simply stir together the following ingredients in a bowl.

Instant oats: 3 cups
Dried apricots, chopped: 1/2 cup
Raisins: 1/2 cup
Cinnamon: 3 tsp.
Salt: 1/2 tsp.
Jaggery powder: 2 tsbp.

Store the instant oatmeal in an air-tight container at room temperature.

How you cook it depends on whether you have access to a microwave oven or a kettle. Measure some oatmeal mix in a bowl, add equal parts water and cook in microwave oven for 30-60 seconds. Alternatively, add boiling hot water to the oat mix, cover it and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. Either way, you have mushy, comforting oatmeal pretty much instantly.

Speaking of water, several friends told me that they only drink bottled water when they visit India. I did buy a case of bottled water when we first got there, to get through the first few days. My heart sank as we collected a pile of empty water bottles, destined to sit in a landfill for most of eternity. I just couldn't deal with it. For the rest of the trip, all three of us drank home-filtered water. Most of our relatives seem to have some UV filter like Aquaguard installed in their kitchens. And it was just fine. None of us had any tummy troubles. Not even the one who (I won't name names) tends to drop food and then nonchalantly eat it off the floor. Bottled water or no bottled water, any travel anywhere can be ruined by infections and illness and I'm so grateful that we got lucky this time.

Lila has turned three and she entertains and exasperates me in roughly equal measures with her toddler antics. This morning, I made her cocoa in a ceramic mug and she wanted me to pour it into a steel tumbler. What's wrong with the mug, I asked. "It's too glassy, mama", she explained.