Before I turned forty, the word “diet” was synonymous with “how to look good in a bathing suit this summer.” Apparently getting (dare I say it) older changes things. I still devour books, articles, and pretty much any other mode of media devoted to diet, but now the focus is not so much on that bikini but on staying healthy. Most of what I read consists of reruns of the same advice: buy seasonal organic produce, shop the perimeter of the grocery store, read labels, “eat clean”, “eat local”. How many times have I read the same or similar advice? But for whatever reason, while skimming my newest healthy-lifestyle magazine, it struck me: I already learned all of this stuff - at camp – when I was 12.
You know the camp in Parent Trap? The one featuring cabins with real beds and window coverings, fencing lessons, and kids in matching camp uniforms flitting from one activity to the next? Yes, well, that was not my camp. My camp was a working ranch. We slept on cots under the stars with tarps tucked under our foam rubber mattresses so that we could quickly make individual shelters in the event of rain. Need to use the facilities? Head to the nearest outhouse, and don’t forget to wash your hands in the metal trough. Showers were taken (where else) outdoors with water heated by a wood fire (note: you didn’t want to be the last in the shower line). Every day presented opportunities for fun - horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, rock climbing. But more important, every camper, of every age, every day had a job to do to contribute to the ranch’s operation. The horses we rode? They needed care, as did the rabbits, chickens, and cows. Did I mention the sustainable garden and the infrastructure of the ranch? They needed maintenance and attention too and, as campers, we were expected (required) to do our part.
Our culture is full of fad advice about cleanses and healthy eating, quick fixes, and microwavable organic meals. Both aging and running cause me to think a lot about the options and recommendations that are out there. The deeper I dig into the category of nutrition, however, the more convinced I am that not only is it all about the basics, it is as simple as the lessons I learned at camp:
1. Eat seasonal produce – bonus points if you grow it yourself
At camp, what grew in the garden is what made its way to the table. I know this because at least once a week, half of my day was spent on my knees in the dirt tending said garden. Produce dominated our plates, and we could tell by taste that what we were eating was fresh and in season, not picked when it was half-ripe and trucked from 2000 miles away. I miss that garden. Unfortunately for me, I have a brown thumb and a small yard. On the other hand, I also have access to a vibrant, local farmers market. That’ll do.
2. If you can pronounce all of the ingredients and make it in your own kitchen, it’s probably better for you (and likely tastes better too …)
The dishes served at camp were “house-made” before that was even a thing. Meals were made with ingredients mostly grown or raised on the ranch. The food was simple, but so delicious – the eggs, the shepherd’s pie, the bread – oh the bread! The baker at camp made the dough from scratch and set it out to rise in the morning. When we came in from our activities in the afternoon, the smell of bread baking in the wood-fired outdoor oven greeted us. The ingredients included “flour,” “water” and “yeast”, noticeably absent from the list were things like “cellulose gum” and “monocalcium phosphate” which, while I am sure they serve some purpose, just sound wrong. Bottom line – the best bread I ever tasted came from that kitchen and those outdoor ovens – baked with care using real, all natural, ingredients.
3. If you choose to eat meat, at least once you need to come face to face with the reality of where it came from …
I am not a hunter, I do not fish, and the sight of blood makes me want to faint. But camp exposed me, literally, to the birth through death life cycle of the animals that fed us. I rode out on horseback to track down a pregnant cow that had broken out of the pasture, and crouched behind bushes from a respectable distance to watch her give birth. I also witnessed a cow being put down, knowing that the meat from the animal would feed the campers and counselors. I saw the compassion and respect the ranch staff had for all of the animals, and it made an impression. Whether to eat meat is a personal decision, but I think it is important to be mindful of how it came to be on our plates and how the animals were treated in the process.
4. Nothing is as sweet as a berry picked straight from the raspberry bush … or the taste of chocolate when you haven’t had it in two weeks
Every footlocker and every care package arriving at camp was given a thorough search to look for contraband: snickers bars, pop rocks, chewing gum, or anything else remotely sweet and/or artificial was strictly banned. We were to go two weeks with no candy, and only occasional “desserts” that featured fruit as the primary ingredient and that, by my definition, hardly qualifies. By week two, desperation set in, and after working in the garden we would ask to pick berries off of the bushes and then cherished their sweetness. By the time our parents picked us up to drive us back down the hill, we were begging to stop at the little mom-and-pop café where they would scoop mounds of ice cream and pour chocolate syrup into a tall metal glass and whip it into a milkshake before passing it to us over the counter. After a two-week-long-chocolate-free-diet, the milkshake tasted like heaven. It taught me that desserts are an occasional treat, and should be savored as such.
Will my grocery cart always look like the picture of healthy-eating perfection? No. Perfection is both overrated and impossible. But will I try to incorporate more of the lessons learned at camp into my daily living? Absolutely. And in this I have total confidence: my meals will be healthier and tastier as a result.