Today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Pamela Salzman, a certified holistic health counselor who shares her approach to nutrition through her natural foods cooking classes. She is also the author of “Kitchen Matters: More than 100 recipes and tips to transform the way you cook and eat — wholesome, nourishing, unforgettable.” I lean heavily on Pamela’s website and cookbook as sources for brain-healthy recipes to cook at home. We talked about family, food, and the simple steps we can take towards more healthful eating. Hope you enjoy our conversation and try out some of her recipes. Some of my favorites are Roasted Cauliflower with Almond Herb Sauce, Sheet Pan Chicken with Artichokes, Zucchini, and Cherry Tomatoes and Cucumber Hummus Turkey Roll-Ups.

Ann Romney: Food has certainly been central to my life, especially in raising a family and bringing everyone to the table. I would love to hear about your childhood experiences with food and cooking.

Pamela Salzman: My father is an immigrant from Italy — he came to the United States with his very large family when he was about 20 years old — and my mother is second-generation Italian-American from a very traditional family. So, much of my childhood revolved around food. Because my father was raised on a farm in Italy, we always had gardens. I grew up helping in the vegetable garden where we grew a lot of our food. Harvesting that food and turning it into a simple meal was an inadvertent education for me at a young age.

Sundays were spent with my extended family — my father was one of eight children and I was one of 30 grandchildren. So we would all get together and have a big Italian Sunday lunch; it was magical. There was a lot of traditional Italian food prepared from scratch. And in the winter, we would use food we had canned during in the summer.

We didn’t really go out to eat and we were definitely prohibited from eating fast food. My father was adamant that we eat things that were fresh. He already understood that pesticides and fertilizers weren’t healthy for us. So this was my normal.

AR: It sounds like you had a wonderful foundation in cooking from scratch with whole foods. How did your cooking and eating style evolve to where it is today?

PS: From my childhood, I had that basic knowledge and foundation in eating whole foods and avoiding things that were processed or laden with pesticides. Of course, while we did not eat a lot of junk food, there was a lot of pasta and bread and cheese.

It was when I was away for college that I first started to make the connection between what I ate and how I felt. I began to eat and drink things I wasn’t used to, like diet soda, for example. We also ate a lot of processed food in the dining hall, and after a while I noticed I didn’t feel awesome. Certainly, some of it was a result of the schedule you keep in college, but I began to realize what I was eating was not serving me well.

Then, years later, I got pregnant with my first child, and that’s when I figured I really needed to think about the foods I was putting into my body and the ramifications. I started to do some research and my clean eating philosophy really began to take shape. So, it has been a journey; it didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t suddenly give up pasta, give up white flour, give up dairy. It has come in little chunks and I’m still learning. There are foods we’re discovering now and getting access to now that we didn’t know about 15 or 20 years ago. I also think that there are reevaluations that have to take place at different stages in life. I’m not the same person I was when I was 30 years old. We have to keep learning and reevaluating.

I also think we need to be our own nutritionist, which is to say we need to be in tune with how we feel and make connections to what we eat. This is something I’m constantly trying to get my students to do. A lot of people ask me what they should eat. While there are some basics about an anti-inflammatory, low glycemic diet that are pretty universally beneficial, when you get down to the refinements of the diet, I think that we have to pay attention to who we are as individuals. It sounds cliché, but there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of eating.

AR: Keeping in mind that changing how you eat is, and should be, a journey, what are some simple changes people can make today to take steps toward healthier cooking and eating?

PS: Before I started teaching full-time, I used to teach people one-on-one and do pantry makeovers. There’s no way you can do an overhaul overnight, especially if you have a family or other people who will be affected. So — and it will come as no surprise — I think that cooking your own food is really the first step to eating more healthfully. When you cook from scratch your ingredients are going to be higher quality than those used in processed food, fast food, and even most restaurants especially with respect to the oils that are used. To me this is the first step: just being committed to cooking more often at home with whole food ingredients.

Then as far as the pantry goes, having a well-stocked pantry that allows you to be able to cook from scratch with ease and flexibility is key. What that means is having things on hand like unrefined oils. In the pantry, the oils are a good place to start. If you are using refined canola oil or vegetable oils, which are basically inflammation in a bottle, you have to remove those immediately and switch to unrefined oils in dark glass bottles. I use unrefined olive oil, ghee, avocado oil, sesame oil, coconut oil.

Another easy change to make is your salt. We use salt in almost every recipe, so having a good quality one is really important. The table salts out there contain so many additives that people aren’t even aware of. They can be really over-processed — they can contain aluminum, dextrose, and even food coloring. Having a good, high-mineral sea salt is important.

Then with pantry staples, have dried or canned legumes that you can prepare, wild canned fish in BPA-free cans — these are very affordable. Then spices — there are so many wonderful spices that can enhance your cooking.

The obvious thing is to start getting rid of as much of that processed food as you can. For example, if you are addicted to soda, which is probably one of the worst things you can put into your body, start by finding a soda that doesn’t have high-fructose corn syrup, and caramel coloring and food coloring, etc. Maybe find one that uses organic cane sugar instead. That’s step one. Then, maybe start to enjoy sparkling water with some juice in it instead the cane sugar soda. Make it gradual; set a goal to be off soda in six months or a year.

The same thing goes for processed food. If you think your family cannot live without corn tortilla chips, well, there are bad tortilla chips with GMO ingredients, and there are better quality chips — some that are even grain-free. There are always choices you can make to upgrade some of the foods already in your pantry.

Something else that is so helpful to me and to my students, which I learned from my mom and was doing even before I had kids, is to come up with a meal plan for the week. This will really help you to be able to cook from scratch, rather than starting to think about dinner at work, at 5:00 p.m. Having a plan and shopping for it ahead of time can be an absolute game changer. There is no way I could do what I do with being organized and having a plan and writing it down. And from what I’ve seen in my own life, and I’ve heard from my students, is that when you have your meal plan and you’ve shopped accordingly on a Saturday or a Sunday, it frees up your brain to really be able to focus on other things rather than being distracted by what you’re going to make for dinner. It takes such a burden off.

Last thing: People need to eat more plant food — and I’m not saying you need to go vegan or vegetarian. I really think you can find a good anti-inflammatory diet within some of the eating styles that are popular today. We need to eat more plants, more vegetables, more foods with color. This is not always easy. I talk to a lot of people who say their husbands will only eat steak and potatoes. That’s not good enough. We need to eat more of these disease-fighting foods.

AR: And I would suggest people buy your cookbook to find some easy ways to incorporate those foods into their diets! Besides healthy eating, what else do you do to take care of yourself?

PS: The eating is just a part of it — I do think it’s the biggest part, but it is just a part. I am physically active. Whether that’s taking a barre class, a yoga class, workout with a personal trainer or walk on the beach with a friend, I strive to do something physically active six days per week.

Something else that I have been doing the last couple of years, which I’m going to admit was not part of my lifestyle before, is going to bed a lot earlier. I am convinced of the power of sleep and rest and restoration. It doesn’t always happen, but I am trying to get to bed by 10:00 p.m. every night. Sometimes it’s hard; I have a teenager at home and he stays up to do homework, so I don’t feel comfortable going to bed before he does. But that physical restoration that happens, as they say in Chinese medicine, between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., is really key. If you miss out on that restoration time, you are really cheating yourself.

Meditation is also something that I’ve done on and off, and right now I’m on again and I love it. I’m trying to not put too much pressure on myself, though. I had a meditation session recently and the meditation guide really put something in perspective for me, which has been a game changer. I’d always thought that when I was meditating I needed to not be thinking about other things, and that I needed to push thoughts out of my head. But I’d have so many thoughts in my head and I would get discouraged and stop meditating. This guide told me that actually you should allow the thoughts to come in and then let them pass by like a leaf on a river. So I’ve been doing a lot more meditation and even if I only get 10 or 15 minutes in, I’m really happy with it.

Oh! And I’ve also pulled off of social media a little bit. I used to post twice per day, seven days per week. Now I’m posting more like once per day, six or seven days per week. Plus, I unplug by 8:00 p.m. every night; even if I’m not finished with something, I’m done. I spend time with my husband and I’m available for my kids. I might not see the same growth in my professional life that I would if I stayed up working until midnight, but my priorities in life are my relationship with my husband, my relationship with my children and my health. Working until midnight and being on Instagram are not supportive of these priorities.

AR: What about your children? Do they buy into your eating philosophy?

PS: My girls were a lot easier than my son. One daughter just graduated from college, and the other is in college. They’ve always been good eaters and they really love homemade food. They do like to go out to eat, but they’ve never really been fast-food-eaters. They also started to make that connection between what they ate and how they looked — they want the clear skin and nice hair and all that. So they bought in pretty early and they cook on their own now and send me pictures of what they make.

My son: not so much. He does love fast food and if it were up to him he would eat fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He has a very limited palate, and while he does eat things that are unusual for a child, he’s sort of finicky. He has been doing way better recently — I don’t know what clicked in with him. He turned 15 recently, and over the summer something happened and he said, “Mom, I eat everything now.” And that’s not exactly true, but he is starting to make those same connections with his eating. Especially with how what he eats affects his performance in sports and his focus in the classroom. So sometimes kids just need to figure it out for themselves.

AR: Last question: Thrive Global’s mission is to end the stress and burnout epidemic by offering readers sustainable, science-based solutions to enhance their well-being. You write and talk about how the Standard American Diet is not sustainable. Tell us a little about your eating and cooking philosophy.

PS: I know that so much chronic disease and inflammation stems from the processed foods that so many Americans eat. It’s not the whole story, but I definitely think it’s the main driver. What I’m trying to do in my classes is to meet people where they are and take it up a notch. It’s not about eating a perfect diet, whatever that means. That, to me, would be very stressful and who needs more stress? I also don’t have hours every single day to cook dinner, so I keep things very simple. I strive for this 90-10 rule, or sometimes it’s 80-20, and 90 percent of the time I do try to eat very clean, and 10 percent of the time I allow myself to eat kind of off my plan. The main gist of the diet that I strive for is, again, this anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic diet. That means I’m limiting processed foods, animal proteins, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and refined carbohydrates. At every meal I try to eat a high-quality protein, high-quality fats, and complex carbohydrates; I eat a lot of low-starch vegetables in a lot of colors. And that’s it, in a nutshell.

However, it’s one thing for me to tell people to do something, but they really need to educate themselves as to why. I think when you start to understand why you should be doing something, you are more apt to commit to it. To me, it’s much easier to eat this way and stay healthy than it is to get sick and get your health back.

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