Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'm Starvin, Hit Me Up With A Buffet Punk!

Lunch has been a dangerous meal for me for years. It falls right in the middle of the ‘eat out’ red area and I have traditionally capitalized on this any chance I got. I’m sure that everyone who works around other people can relate here, there is always someone who wants to go out for lunch and there is never a day that no one wants to go out. That’s why I’m dedicating this chapter to lunch, but in a broader sense, making a salad healthy (which I know now is a synonym for ‘un-funly’).

At my office in Houston, my boss and I eat out every day for lunch. Every day. There is a downtown tunnel system here that basically allows you to go from any one part of downtown to any other part without going outside. Kind of a Texan Prairie Dog city. Of course, you don’t just build a tunnel without finding a way to capitalize on it, so there are literally hundreds of restaurants down there (as well as various other oft-used businesses like barber shops, drug stores, dry cleaning, porn shops, and the periodic ‘happy ending’ massage parlor). The food quality varies from Chinese to Greek, BBQ to pasta, cheap to expensive and pretty much anything else in between; however there is no ‘good’ BBQ, that end of the Texas food spectrum simply doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the ‘healthy’ end of the spectrum is pretty light as well, and this is due to the simple fact that it is very difficult to eat out healthily, and if you’re doing it on a daily basis, you have to figure some stuff out.

The front we decided to put up for lunch eating was pretty simple – Saladsville baby. We went around and around trying to find a good salad that we thought was healthy, and in the end we realized that if you let a restaurant make their own salad, they always tend to find a way to make it unhealthy, or at least not as healthy as you would probably like. Some put half a sack of croutons on top, some put sugar-roasted nuts on there, others put some form of deep-fried meat in the mix, and despite the fact that I fit the words sack, nuts and meat into a simple sentence, those vague references to the human body do not a healthy salad make (as Yoda would say).

Eventually, we ended up finding the cheapest salad bar (which is technically a buffet, so I kept my promise) and parking our lard-asses there every day. So now, I’m belly up at a salad bar with all these things in front of me, how do I build my masterpiece? It’s pretty simple, however, probably not all that fun.

A salad can be broken down to four parts (at least I’m saying that it can be broken down that way, there’s nothing official…yet…). The first part is the base layer. This is the key location for adding vitamins and basically consists of the leafy green shit. You often see three or four types of leafy green shit on a salad bar and they can be sorted by increasing healthiness – iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, leafy greens (mixed greens) and spinach. Luckily, even the least healthy thing on here (iceberg lettuce) isn’t unhealthy; it’s more ‘nothing’ than anything. It’s got fiber, but no vitamins to speak of. Romaine lettuce has quite a bit of vitamin A, leafy greens add some additional vitamins, but nature really brings it home when it comes to spinach. Scientifically speaking, spinach is barely even related to lettuce, other than the fact that it’s a veggie and doesn’t resemble chocolate in any way. Spinach is packed with vitamins (particularly vitamins A and C, with a smatterin of many others). I usually do about half and half spinach and romaine. Spinach isn’t really crunchy, so the romaine adds some ‘freshness’ to the mix.

The next layer is the base-layer additions; this is usually represented by the following 5 feet of the salad bar and contains all the stuff that can potentially add flavor to the salad before ruining its health by the third layer. Generally, I try to avoid carby or starchy items, such as beans and corn and load up on other veggies that I don’t hate. Items like celery, cucumbers, green beans, onions, tomatoes, and broccoli (which I personally never eat, I hate that shit) can be used in any amount and are either health-neutral or actually healthy. Remember, compared to how I used to eat, ‘health-neutral’ is considerably better than what I like to refer to as ‘the good ol days’.

The key to the second layer is ‘fresh’. Fresh stuff is always better for you than pickled stuff. I love jalapenos, pickles, cheese and cottage cheese, but they’ve been tainted by processing, which means added sodium (pickles, jalapenos), fat (cottage cheese and other cheeses), calories and carbs (all of the above), which is why they taste so good. Those other items aren’t necessarily bad, but should probably be used in realistic amounts. Another interesting thing, every time you see crab meat on a buffet, it’s not crab. Yet another interesting note, I love pepperoni, but that shit is Badsville for you.

This area often has some various meats (if you’re rolling on the good salad bars, the ghetto ones I frequent don’t give you shit for meat). Any meat that is breaded should be obviously ignored and chicken should probably be used above other meats. All meats are high in sodium, cholesterol and fat, but chicken is kind of the lesser of the evils. If the meat is there, I can’t resist it, but you really shouldn’t put more than a few chunks on the salad.

The third layer of a salad is where you can ruin everything, but it’s also where you can flavor the food to trick your taste buds into thinking that you’re not eating veggies – the Dressing layer. The main thing here is, if you use a reasonable amount of dressing here, you’ll be ok; the problem is the tendency (at least for me) is to put a couple ladles of dressing on the salad, thus turning the salad into a sort of veggie soup. Every dressing is bad in at least one way, and it’s kind of up to you to decide what bullet you want to shoot yourself with (or something witty like that…).

There’s just too many different kinds of dressing to go over them all, but I will say a few things. The best for you are the balsamic vinaigrettes, they’re low in calories and mostly have no carbs, fat, sodium etc. However beware of the signs, many of them are a type of ‘modified’ vinaigrette with added sugar, these are easy to spot because they’re soupy and not in a shaker (they also taste better). Most other dressings are high in calories and sodium, but have little else. Some have a gram or two of carbs, but not too many. Caesar is the worst for you, but it tastes awesome. Italian is low in fat and has no carbs, but is pretty high in sodium. The list goes on, but the best advice is use this shit sparingly because it adds up fast. A typical ‘serving’ is just one tablespoon, which means my normal salad has about 14 servings of dressing, which can add up to 1500 mg of sodium real quick. Fuck that shit.

The fourth layer of the salad provides another location to shoot yourself, but it’s somewhat easier to avoid the bad stuff. These are the various loose canisters of dry goods at the end of the salad bar. Nuts, bacon bits, crackers, croutons, sometimes a dried fruit medley whatever. I avoid the bacon-stuff because they’re generally not even real bacon (and if there is something less healthy than bacon, it would be imitation bacon-bits, and I just don’t want to chance it). I nearly always put a couple of spoons of nuts on my salad. Nuts are high in good-fat, high in protein, low in sodium (none) and low in cholesterol (none), but they’re also high in calories, so they should be used in moderation. Crackers and croutons should be used in extreme moderation or ignored altogether (carbs and whatnot).

There is a sixth part of the salad bar, but technically it’s not part of the salad, so I didn’t put it above, and that’s all the salad-accessories (to MURDER!) reside. Things like pudding, canned fruits, breadsticks and whatnot. These things should just be ignored; they’re nearly all very high in carbs, sugar and calories and will make your cankles swell up like an elephant.

Other maybe-helpful things I do when dealing with salad bar deathtraps is to try to drink a big glass of water before I eat. Water is totally dope for you and should be consumed as much as possible. Before eating it helps to put something in your stomach so you don’t overeat. It also gives you a reason to go to the bathroom every 12 minutes. It’s great for kidney function, lowering blood pressure and makes my toes cold. Used to have minerals and zinc in it, now it’s got lead and stink in it (Mos Def reference). I believe they say you should drink 250 gallons of water a day and I highly recommend it. You should also note the difference between ‘water’ and ‘liquids’. Just because it’s wet doesn’t mean it’s meant for swallowing people.

Also, remember it’s a salad bar, which means you can go back. Don’t try and build the Tower Of Babel Salad. Give it room to breathe, then go back up for seconds. When you finish your salad, wait a couple minutes. I estimate that it takes about 5 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain how hungry it still is. I don’t even know if my stomach (Edward) and my brain (Pierre) really speak to each other, but if you chill for a minute, you probably won’t build another mack-daddy salad. I’ve found that I usually make one trip and then that’s about it, of course it took a while to get to that point, but there is no law requiring you to ‘get your money’s worth’ out of every all you can eat threat in the vicinity.

Well, that’s all there is to it. I really don’t have any ‘funny’ story about a salad bar to end this with or any motivational speech that is way to long-winded and ends up too far out in left field to tie it back to the first three pages, so I’ll leave you with this: Sucks don’t it?

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