Before my wedding in 2008, I decided to eat 100% vegan – not because I wanted to save the world, but because I wanted to lose weight and look great in my wedding dress (that’s the honest truth). I thought cutting meat and cheese would be the fastest way to get results (plus workouts – I was super into Turbo Jam back then!). And guess what, it worked. I lost weight, but it didn’t last. On our honeymoon in Italy, I couldn’t say no to prosciutto and cheese (hey, I’m only human). I savored every bite, because I love food, I love cooking, I love Europe, and I love trying authentic, new food. I felt so incredibly guilty about it, as if I’d failed someone, failed myself, who knows. It seemed as though the “vegan police” would jump out any minute and tackle me for having one taste of Pecorino Romano cheese. I felt like I was a bad person.
I got back from my honeymoon and flip flopped in terms of diet. While I fell in love with vegan cooking – the creativity of inventing a recipe with so many limitations was exhilarating to me – I couldn’t commit to the diet, and I still felt guilty about not being able to go “all in”.
Shortly after, I tried an approach called Vegan Before 6, a concept/cookbook created by Mark Bittman. It appealed to me because it limited meat intake, while leaving room for good quality meat and fish (sustainably-sourced, grass-fed, organic – by limiting them, you can pay the extra money to get the best possible quality). I ate vegan for breakfast and lunch (the two meals I usually ate at work, which made it much easier to control). Dinner was my wildcard. I followed this formula for many years. And then, I had kids.
During both pregnancies, I ate mostly vegan for breakfast and lunch, as I had gotten in the habit of doing, with the exception of eggs and whole-milk yogurt. I stumbled on a Chinese medicine book called Chill Out And Get Healthy (cheesy title, solid advice), and it all seemed to click. I still felt the occasional guilt on my shoulders, but I knew I needed to nourish my body as best as I could to create a healthy environment for those beautiful buns in the oven.
When I was pregnant with my son, I had to do one of those glucose tests for gestational diabetes. To take the test, you have to fast from the night before, wait in a waiting room for hours, drink a glucose load that tastes like a cross between Gatorade, Hi-C and IV fluid, and get blood drawn – twice. For the record, I’ve always been a fainter when it comes to losing blood, and I’ve never been good on an empty stomach (#hangry). On my way back to the exam room to get more blood drawn, I blacked out. Luckily, I kneeled down slowly rather than falling like a sack of dirt, as has happened to me in the past when I’ve fainted. My motherly instincts kicked in, and according to my own mom who was there with me at the time, I gingerly crouched down and laid flat on the floor right in the middle of the hallway on the dank doctor’s office carpet, with no recollection of any of this ever happening. I was safe, baby was safe, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. And it was during my pregnancies that I first found out I had an iron deficiency.
My mom blamed my obsession with not eating meat. I realized I had decided to erase entire food groups without truly understanding how to properly nourish my body within the context of whatever diet/lifestyle made the most sense for me. Merely eliminating foods from your diet doesn’t work. There has to be more to it. It has to be coupled with a desire to understand what works for your own individual body and your own individual needs. You can eliminate, but you also have to be willing to listen and adapt as part of the process.
So I hit the books. I researched plant-based sources of iron. I learned dried apricots are an excellent source of iron and kept a stash in my purse to ward off hunger. I looked into supplements. I talked to my doctor. And then, I found Rouxbe. My husband got me the gift of a lifetime membership to Rouxbe for Christmas one year. It’s an online cooking school with classes for home cooks. I dabbled 😉 and learned to make the mother sauces and a few classic techniques here and there, but I never really took it seriously until they offered a professional certification in plant-based cooking. I always debated dropping everything and going to culinary school, but I didn’t want to learn how to butcher a pig or make fancy restaurant dishes. I didn’t even want to work in a restaurant. I wanted to learn how to cook healthy food, how to nourish my body properly, how to weed through the tangled mess of dietary advice online and put a meal together to feed my family without worrying about it so much. I wanted to learn to cook for real life.
I remember when the email popped up in my inbox. I immediately felt butterflies in my stomach. It was almost like the whole world around me stopped turning, and I couldn’t focus on anything else until I signed up. Limited spots were available, and I was literally sweating in fear that I wouldn’t get in. My heart was pounding. I never wanted something so badly. I had no idea what I’d do with this “professional certification”, but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to start.
I was pregnant with my daughter when I got into the course and started the coursework. I’d listen to videos and take notes on my commute to and from work. I’d cook on the weekends, submitting practice recipe photos to get graded. Claire was a newborn when I took my final exam, which entailed cooking a vegan party menu for a crowd. I remember talking to her while I was pregnant – I told her she was the one who would give me the courage to make the changes I’d been so scared of. She was my motivation, my muse. For her, I’d change my life. It was for my kids and for my family. Not just when it comes to diet stuff, but following my heart – finally taking the chance I was always too afraid to take. She was the beginning of a new chapter for me.
After she was born, I quit my job. I took a recipe development class. I discovered live video. I’ve never been happier.
I still flip flop when it comes to my diet, but I don’t feel so guilty about it anymore. I weigh the same as I did when I got married – before 2 kids – and I’ve maintained that weight because I listen to my body, I allow myself to fail, I believe in balance. I’m technically a lacto-ovo pescatarian, whatever that means, which is why it’s not about the labels for me.
I’ve learned that I love to teach others how to cook healthier food for their families – and I’m still learning. I still consider myself a dabbling chef, because there’s always something new and exciting to learn, in the kitchen and in life too. I want to share more of the stories that make food exciting, whether it’s vegan or vegetarian or gluten-free or paleo or whatever. And I want to share more of why it matters for our families, for our health, and for living the best life possible so we can give back, make the most out of every moment and be truly present with the people we care about. Good food is worth celebrating, especially the kind of food that makes us feel good inside and out.
Thank you to my sweet baby boy and baby girl for giving me the strength to follow my dreams. And for my husband for supporting me every step of the way. And for everyone who’s watched my videos, from the very first shaky potato one on Persicope to now.