How I explored my city and made some delicious food on the Whole30 Program
Have you ever seen yourself reflected in a movie in a way so stark, so unflattering, you reevaluate your life en totem? This happened to me while at BAM with some friends watching The Favourite. You might know the scene I’m referring to: Queen Anne is shoveling in a piece of cake, leans into an ornate urn to vomit, and without missing a beat, continues to eat the cake. The audience erupted into laughter and I had an existential crisis.
I had experienced something similar the week prior, when a drunk brunch led to an unfortunate event in a friend’s bathroom, followed immediately by a box of Gulluoglu’s baklava. Somewhere along the way my sense of moderation had flown out the window. It’s probably when I had two Friendsgivings in a row, both a week before Thanksgiving, and had grown newly accustomed to thrice-daily pie. I was otherwise still relatively healthy: active, cooked often, ate veggies. But I began incorporating almond croissants, cannolis, chocolate chip cookies, butter cake ice cream, and stroopwafels into my daily routine. I couldn’t imagine going a day without them even though I was starting to feel terrible. I felt bloated and tired, my face broke out, and at one point the middle button on my button-fly Reformation jeans flew across the room with a hearty exhale. I knew it was time to change.
I don’t really believe in setting resolutions as they tend to be unrealistic and typically result in feelings of failure. But I do believe in setting positive intentions, and what better time to give up my dessert addiction than with a total reset against the backdrop of all of my friends’ Dry Januaries? I wanted to remember how to feed myself in a way that felt nourishing, mindful of my needs and how I wanted to fuel myself through life.
I decided to try the Whole30 Program, which is a 30-day elimination diet wherein you avoid specific food groups that may provide inflammatory responses, and then after 30 days slowly re-incorporate each group to see if anything should be more permanently eliminated or reduced from your diet. You can’t consume added sugars of any kind, gluten, dairy, grains or pseudo-grains (like quinoa), soy, legumes, and alcohol. It sounds worse than it is.
I chose this plan for a few reasons:
- It’s not a weight loss program. Probably by virtue of eating eggs instead of kouign amanns I would lose a couple of pounds, but the point was to reset my body’s expectations for sugar intake and to have knowledge of problematic foods. I have tummy issues, so this was key for long-term happiness/keeping it cute.
- It was for a set amount of time. If we’re talking resolutions or intentions, having an end date is helpful to assure some form of success. Getting through this at all would be a win.
- I was able to immediately see not what was banned, but what I could still eat: all kinds of proteins, fruits, veggies, herbs, spices, oils. And I took this on like a Top Chef-style challenge.
The hardest thing about Whole30 is that you essentially have to cook every single meal you eat for a month because almost everything prepared in the outside world has some form of sugar, soy, or gluten snuck in. It’s a major time management task — you have to grocery shop a ton, read every nutrition label with scrutiny, and then actually make the food. (Plus lug around Tupperware all the time.)
Being in NYC also makes this difficult. We have, arguably, the best food in the world here, plus a major dining out and ordering in culture. And how do we socialize? We go to bars — not ideal for the abstinent. But New York also has some of the best grocers and specialty shops, with the whole world at our fingertips. I already loved to cook but this diet forced me to be creative and use the city’s resources. (Fun fact: while NYC’s food tax is bananas high in restaurants, we aren’t taxed on groceries. So now I’m an awesome cook and I saved a bunch of money!)
How I slayed my Whole30
I started out with a trek to Boerum Hill’s Books Are Magic to pick up a copy of Samin Nosrat’s seminal Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. (Watch her show on Netflix if you want to see someone react to food with the purest joy you could imagine.) This book taught me a lot about food and how to prepare it, down to how to cook onions and dice a carrot. It also explores an improvisational style of cooking instead of religiously sticking to recipes.
The next move was to stock up my pantry. This required a few different stops:
- The Park Slope Food Co-op You’ve got to have a solid base of high-quality ingredients, which can be outlandishly expensive. This Co-op offers markdowns in exchange for volunteer labor. So not only do I spend a few hours a month meditatively packaging garlic powder, but I can afford to eat bougie. Here I get delicious spices, herbs, and dried fruits, and moderately-priced produce. Life is too short for flavorless apples.
- Trader Joe’s: They’ve got inexpensive produce, “health” foods like chia seeds, cocoa powder, hemp hearts, RXbars, coconut oil and ghee, and they happen to have some rare Whole30-approved processed items in their arsenal, like kosher pickles, deli mustard, and pico de gallo. Their teeny-tiny avocados were also a staple.
- Kalustyan’s: Coming to this Murray Hill spice store is a religious experience. It feels blasphemous to even refer to it as just a spice store, because they have everything from jarred and canned goods to liqueurs and bath products to teas and desserts. You can get whole spices, ground spices, powdered spices, spice mixes, and chilis from all over the world. You can get North African chermoula, Malaysian laksa, Korean gochugaru, and a whole wall of Oaxacan chilis. A dizzying hour after my first visit began, I walked out with chana masala spice mix, a fancy Indonesian cinnamon I’ve put on everything, pasilla negro, ancho chilis and chipotle for mole, lemongrass and an amazing Thai red curry spice mix.
- Sahadi’s: I mostly came to this Brooklyn Heights Mediterranean market to make myself happy sniffing coffee beans and looking longingly at dried beans, but I walked out with some phenomenal tahini and dates.
- The Meadow: This one is a luxury, but Samin Nosrat made me think differently about salt, so I treated myself to some Maldon salt to top my salads at this luxury retailer in the West Village. This store is ridiculously niche and New York and I love going in to look at chocolate and lavender salts and try popcorn coated in black truffle salt and cardamom bitters. It’s a bit of happiness on Hudson.
With these ingredients, I’ve made scrummy shredded chicken mole, Thai shrimp red curry, Portuguese bacalhau a gomes sa, and an Indian feast of chicken saag, aloo gobi, and mushroom masala. My breakfasts consist of soft-boiled eggs with roasted sweet potato, sautéed spinach, tahini, and heaps of zaatar. My proudest DIY recipe — that came to me with a jolt in the middle of a Pilates class — was sautéed cauliflower with orange zest, roasted hazelnuts, nutmeg, grilled shrimp, and coarsely chopped mint leaves.
I did have to reconfigure my social life a bit to accommodate all of this. Mainly, I started forcing my friends to meet at coffee shops instead of at bars. I would never adhere to a diet that reduced my coffee intake; the only restriction on Whole30 is that you have to drink your coffee black. I now love black cold brews and Americanos, and I’m saving loads of cash I would’ve spent on oat milk flat whites. My favorite spots included Gorilla Coffee** in Park Slope, Coffee Project NY in Fort Greene, Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Cobble Hill, Intelligentsia Coffee in Chelsea, Golda in Crown Heights, and Banter in Greenwich Village.**
To keep things interesting, I also looked for activities that weren’t solely based on consumption. I went to yoga classes, museums, movies, long walks (on warmer days), communal saunas (on frigid days). When friends wanted to go out to eat, we cooked together instead. I made a delicious shakshuka at a friend’s apartment and then we went to a game night. It was awesome and sober and did not feel lacking.
I actually decided to extend after my 30 days because it was working for me. I have made some of the yummiest food of my life, mostly with recipes I created on my own, and it’s been incredibly empowering to feel like I understand how to create something delicious that also makes me feel good.
In short, I have spent this new year feeling the hell out of myself. It doesn’t hurt that now I’m jumping higher in my kickboxing classes and my breakouts have mostly disappeared. My caffeine addiction is still thriving, but hey, it’s not a problem until I admit it is (wait, is that right?).
This is not a “miracle diet,” it’s not for everyone, and it wasn’t always fun. I cursed the people who told me coconut aminos taste like soy sauce. I still do not understand how to make an edible chia pudding. And honestly, I didn’t lose much weight considering the massive lifestyle change. But I feel accomplished, ready to take on the rest of the year, and excited to cook myself something new every day.
All illustrations by Bailey Meadows.