How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating

How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating

March 1, 2014

This is a previously posted blog from my website: www.mcgill.ca/connectionslab/blog. This is the first of the three wellness entries. The 2nd wellness blog appeared yesterday on this site concerning sleep. The final wellness entry will be about stress management and will appear near the end of April. BTW: All of my students need to develop two wellness goals, in addition to their research and clinical goals, in their annual objectives that we develop each fall. We must take care of our students and encourage them to take care of themselves. 

Graduate school is a phenomenally stressful activity. The hours are long, students are constantly being evaluated, professors can be unreasonable, and the money is terrible. Moreover, friends, significant others, and family try to be helpful; but they rarely understand what graduate students are going through. This is the first of three wellness blogs for this site. Today’s post will be on cooking, next month will focus on sleep, and finally an entry on stress management.

I am shocked at how many of my students cannot cook. Alternately, students who can cook find themselves without time to prepare a meal or are not highly motivated to spend time cooking for one. As result, students often go out to eat, have pre-prepared meals from a box or freezer, and generally spend too much money for food that is not nutritious. In addition, graduate students are high achieving, conscientious, and often anxious people and are at high risk for eating disorders. Cooking well and eating well have a significant influence on stress, health, socialization, and overall well-being. Eating well can help your energy, stamina, and ability to do your best work.

There are a large numbers of websites on diet and nutrition, and there is also no shortage of people who will give you unsolicited advice on what, when, and where to eat. Some diets are radical and extreme. I do not know what to think of these sites. My view is that we should eat in the most stress free, time efficient, inexpensive, socially relevant and sustainable way possible. Rather than give advice, I would rather give five specific simple and cheap recipes for important issues in eating: something for everyday eating, something for when you want to impress someone, something to bring to a potluck dinner, lunch, and a quick snack.

Everyday eating: Mulligatawny

Mulligatawny is a lightly curried vegetable soup that has many variations and makes wonderful leftovers.

Ingredients:

  • Celery (3-4 ribs)
  • Onion (1 medium)
  • Carrots (about 1 cup—15 baby carrots/3-4 medium carrots)
  • Red lentils (1.5 cups)
  • Butter (4 tablespoons) but can replace with olive oil for vegans
  • Vegetable broth (2 litres)
  • Small can of tomato paste
  • Curry powder (1-2 teaspoons)
  • Cayenne pepper (0.5 teaspoons
  • Optional:
    • Heavy cream
    • Boneless chick thighs
    • Coconut milk

Procedures:

Chop your onions, carrots, and celery coarsely (this is not an exact science). Place into a large stock pot and cook at medium heat with the butter for about 15 minutes—until vegetables are soft. Add vegetable broth, tomato paste, and red lentils. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add curry powder and cayenne. Stir. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Use a stick blender (a cheap and valuable tool) or scoop veggies into a blender (that thing you make margaritas with) and blend until there are not veggie lumps. It should be a smooth soup. Simple, cheap, healthful, and flavorful.

Notes: You can add 5-6 saffron stems or bay leafs for extra depth. 0.25 of a cup of coconut milk or heavy cream gives silkiness. Adding cooked boneless chicken thighs makes this a full meal. You can adjust the curry powder and cayenne to taste.

Leftovers: This is great over rice. Add a can of diced tomatoes, shrimp, saffron, and coconut milk for a delicious and different meal.

Impressing someone: Snapper in mustard sauce and asparagus

Ingredients:

  • Red snapper (but any mild light fish works like tilapia, grouper, or haddock)
  • Full fat sour cream
  • White wine
  • Mustard (coarse grain or grey poupon)
  • Thyme
  • Asparagus
  • Onion
  • Olive oil

Procedures:

Put fish fillets in a pan and barely cover the fish with wine. Don’t make the wine too expensive—a generic and cheap pinot grigio is fine. Preheat oven to 350, put the pan with fish and wine in the oven for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, take about ¾ cup of full fat sour cream (fat free sour cream is nasty and light sour cream is barely acceptable) and add a teaspoon of thyme (dry is fine, fresh is best) and a big tablespoon of mustard and mix it up. Chop onions coarsely and put them into a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cook at medium heat, sauté and stir until the onions start to brown. Then add the asparagus until the onions and oil mix in nicely. The onions take about 15 minutes, and the asparagus about 10 minutes more—so time accordingly. You do not want limp and over-cooked asparagus. Back to the fish. After it poaches, cover the fish with the sour cream mixture. It will start to mix with the wine and get yummy. Let it get messy. Return to the oven for 8 minutes. Then take out and serve immediately. You can add a salad or a sweet potato if you need more stuff.

Something to bring to a potluck dinner: Pasta salad

Ingredients:

  • Penne pasta
  • Cherry tomatoes (20 cherry tomatoes)
  • Kalamata olives (25 olives—pitted)
  • Olive oil (4 tablespoons)
  • Balsemic vinegar (1 tablespoon)
  • Feta cheese (8 ounces)
  • Pepper
  • Oregano
  • Leeks or onions
  • Options:
    • Chopped chicken breasts
    • Mint leaves
    • Garlic
    • All sorts of stuff

Procedures:

Simple. Cook the penne pasta until al dente. Not super soft, but a bit of chew to it. Drain the pasta. And place in a very large bowl. Let it cool just a bit—you do not want the pasta to melt the feta. Just add all of the stuff and mix thoroughly. But slice the leeks or onions into narrow strips. Put the leeks or onions into a very hot frying pan. There should be smoke and charring and all sorts of mayhem. That’s okay. Then add the charred or cooked leeks or onions into the salad. And that is it.

Everyday lunch:

I am not one for fancy lunches. I like fruit, veggies, nuts, and cheese. Or fruit, veggies, nuts, and leftover meats (the biggest problem is that letting food spoil is a major waste of money). Hard boiled eggs can also be good. Really, lots of fruit and veggies and a source of protein. That’s it—do not get fancy. You do not have time. But never skip or have to go out (unless there is a social or work reason).

Snacks:

My favorites are roasted nuts. I buy bulk almond, pecans, or walnuts at Costco. I put about 12 ounces of nuts in a large Ziploc bag. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and shake the bag until all nuts are coated (um…don’t forget to seal the bag first). Spread out on a single layer on a cookie sheet. Add salt and pepper. You can also add dried garlic, a little bit of sugar, a little bit of honey, dried orange peel, herbs, or whatever you want. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven off, but leave the nuts in the oven. This dries the nuts out and makes them crunchy. Remove when cooled. Recently I added dried blueberries to roasted pecans—and it was a delicious mix. Nuts are high calorie and high fat—but have a lot of nutrition. When I want something salty or sweet—I reach for nuts, not chips. And don’t eat very many. Ten to fifteen nuts is plenty.

And in sum:

My blog is not a cookbook. But these are some basic, simple and specific things. The big thing is to eat cheap, minimally processed, and nutrition dense foods (more veggies, fruits, nuts, and meat; less grains and sugars). But eat.

A note: I learned to cook for financial reason. I was too poor to go out often and cooking was a great date activity (back when I did the dating thing). When you can cook, you always have friends. My wife married me almost entirely for my cooking. Many of you know that she is quite beautiful and intelligent; and I am significantly less so. My motto–cooking: it helps you marry up.

Another note: I try not to interfer with my students’ personal lives, so long as you are happy then I am good, do not judge, and do not cyber stalk. Frankly, it is not my business. But if I suspect you have an eating disorder, then I will intervene and work with you to get support. All of my students are required to create at least two annual wellness goals. Good eating can be one of them.

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2 thoughts on “How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating

  1. Perhaps there should be a blog :how not to suck at mentoring.
    “Your” grad students do not cook?…so of course, what they “need” is recipes, a dash of “guilt” and with just a “smidgen” more value-laden judgement in the form of a blog post by you: a gatekeeper to their grad school hell.

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