One of my favourite writers, Ms Sarah Wilson, has been focusing a lot lately on food wastage. It’s scary stuff, especially considering all the people in the world who go hungry everyday. Australians throw away a lot of food. In fact, estimates say that 40 per cent of the average household rubbish bin is discarded food, making food waste the single largest component of our household waste. When food waste is thrown away and sent to landfill, together with other organic materials, it then becomes the main contributor to the generation of methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its impact on climate change.
This is undeniably something that needs to be examined in our habits and in our homes, but there is another side to this issue.
I have forever been someone who eats everything on my plate. Always, without fail. I let the serving size dictate my stomach size. Basically, if it’s in front of me, I’ll polish it off. Hook, line and after-dinner sinker. I do not want to let it go to waste.
And if I don’t finish something off, I experience ridiculous guilt. I have wasted something. I’m being wasteful. There are starving children in Africa who could eat that.*
It is a challenge for me to listen to my stomach and hear when I am full. (On a side-note, it is also a challenge for me to listen to my stomach to hear when I am hungry. My poor boyfriend does not understand how I can all-too-frequently fail to pick up on the warning signs until it is too late and I have crossed over. Welcome to Hangry Town, population: me.) But this particular musing is not about the pre-hunger noises made by Monsieur Tum-Tum, but by the ones during eating that signal that I am full.
Whenever I realise that I am full prior to finishing my mean, it is a means for celebration in and of itself. Seriously. Some of you out there who have never struggled with this will be scratching your brow and saying ‘Huh? What’s she onabout? It’s so eeeeeeeeasy!’.
Then there will be those of you who know far too well that feeling of which I speak. And perhaps also the related feelings of being unable to stop, or not knowing how to stop, or wanting with every fibre of your being to stop. But again, I digress.
Today I sat down for xiocolata con churros, those delightful-looking little crimpy Spanish donuts that you dip into a cup of steaming, thick hot chocolate. I had sampled this dessert on one of my first few days in Barcelona, and hadn’t overly liked it. The churros were almost like raw dough in the middle – soggy and stodgy. And the chocolate was a gelatinous soup. As though a cheap packet of instant chocolate pudding had been stirred with boiling water. It was not very nice.
(Side-note: I finished them.)
When I mentioned to my Spanish host that I hadn’t really liked this national delicacy, she informed me that (1) churros are not Catalan, they are Spanish. The Catalan tradition is to dip sponge finger biscuits into a similar thick hot chocolate; and (2) of course I didn’t like it, I had it at some cheap tourist trap on La Ramblas. If I wanted quality churros, I needed to venture off the main strip, perhaps into the depths of the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) and look for somewhere more artisanal, more traditional, less production-line.
So I did. The Barri Gotic is the most fabulous part of Barcelona to wander in (in my humble opinion). Nooks and crannies paved in cobblestone give way to Churches, Museums and Town Squares. Statues and fountains and street musicians populate every second corner. I often run out of pocket change on these streets, as I constantly want to give coins to the buskers and musicians. (Yes, I am a softy.)
Petritxol is a doll of a little place in one such street. Artisanal chocolate is the name of their game, and I was in a little bit of heaven perusing their shelves. I ordered my xiocolata con churros, as directed, and went to sit in the deserted room out the back – all polished wooden tables and wrought iron chairs and cute little lamps. Decidedly quaint and delightful. The sort of place that a boyfriend might take his girlfriend in order to earn brownie points. (Quite literally – the ones in the window looked amazeballs.)
My sweets arrived at the table. The chocolate was a really nice consistency – thick and rich and glossy, not like the close-relative-of-packet-mix-gravy I had last time. The churros were crispy and light. You dip them into the chocolate mix, and the brown goo sticks in all the furrows and trenches of the churro, and then you gob it all into your mouth.
Sounds awesome, yeah?
Well, it was. For like the first few mouthfuls. I knew it was too sweet for me from the start. Tasty, and obviously of better quality, and I could see why people liked it… But it was not for me. Now, this knowledge started as a mere feeling when I started to eat. It took me a third of my churros before I was able to articulate it in thought form – This is too sweet, you should stop. And then another churro before I actually stopped.
And this, my friends, is a cause for celebration: I realised I didn’t really want it, and I stopped.
But even this caused me guilt. It’s a waste. Your ordered it, so you should finish it. It is a waste of money not to finish it. There are starving people who would kill for this. There’s only a little bit left. It’s wrong to waste things. It’s bad to waste things.
All the above thoughts flashed through my brain, accompanied by the associated feelings that manifested in my gut – guilt, worry, swirly-sinking angst.
But happily – luckily – on this occasion, the other feeling that was manifesting in my gut was stronger: I don’t want this.
And I listened to it, and I stopped, and all was good.
We do ourselves a disservice by not listening to the signals our body is sending us about the food we eat. Hearing those signals can be a challenge in and of itself, so when you actually get that message, to then ignore it is a crime against your stomach. And is disrespectful to your self.
Psychologists might be able to point to the cultural cues that engender these attitudes in us from a young age. The psychology of parents using food as a treat and reward, or a threat and a weapon. Whatever. That doesn’t much interest me now, I just need to keep working out how to move forwards.
On (yet another) side-note, a couple of months back, I was at a cafe in Brisbane, and a mother was sitting with her son, whom I guessed to be about four or five. Very loudly, she kept on berating him for not finishing his cake and his milk shake. The cake was a giant slab (over-sized for an adult) of some chocolate confection, and the milkshake was in one of those big (again, adult-sized) parfait glasses. I remember it distinctly because she kept going on and on at little Johnny (or Jimmy or Bobby) to sit down and finish his ‘shake and cake’. Now, I know nothing of this woman and her son. For all I know, he could have some medical condition that demands that he consume a lot of food (I grew up with a boy who had a medical condition that meant his mum often had to force him to eat lots of fatty food. I used to be envious of the snacks in his lunch box). Or perhaps the mum knew her kid would get cranky in ten minutes time if he didn’t eat more of it. Or perhaps there was some other perfectly good reason why a mum was nagging her kid at the top of her voice to eat his over-sized, sweet foods.
But from where I was sitting, all I saw was a kid who’d made a sizable dent in both items, and had then decided to stop eating, of his own accord. And it made me sad and cross that this mother was trying to override her son’s judgement in this matter. When my parents nagged me about food, it was only ever to finish my vegetables or meat. They would never have forced my consumption of dessert or treats (which we hardly ever had anyway).
So this is a long-winded and windy way of saying that sometimes it’s okay to throw away food. There are so many greater issues here that contribute to our society’s messed-up relationship with food (don’t get me started on serving sizes, or the fact that main meals can come without vegetables, or the fact that McDonalds has the heart foundation tick of approval, or the fact that…) as well as so many massive issues about the inequality of food distribution across the world. But feeling guilt about throwing something away when you don’t want to eat it is not helping anyone.
Least of all yourself.
For me, my next step – as always – is to try to listen to my body better. Particularly my stomach. I swear it knows what to do, sometimes I just find it tricky to hear its whisper-light voice. I hope that if I can listen to it more and honour its requests, perhaps the little voice will, little by little, get stronger. More audible. More clear.
For today, not finishing my Spanish sweets was enough. I had a win. And I’ll keep listening tomorrow.
*Note that I am not using this example lightly, as though it is a joke. It is a massively serious issue that deserves massively serious attention. But in our culture, where lines similar to this were often quoted to us as children at our respective dinner tables, it now has an almost-humourous connotation. It’s lost all meaning as anything other than the baseless threat of a frustrated parent. (And the de-sensitisation inherent in this last point deserves serious attention of its own.)