After Lev came home from the hospital with doctor’s orders to go on a low-sodium diet, I stood in the aisle at our town’s largest grocery store and wept. I had been there an hour, and I had three items in my cart. Salt—as a preservative and a flavor enhancer—seemed to be in everything.
How do I do this? I cried.
I spent the next Sunday afternoon sitting cross-legged on the floor of Barnes & Noble, reading through every book on heart-healthy diets in the store. I left with three paperback cookbooks and the new knowledge that I could only cook salt-free if I cooked almost everything from scratch.
Basically, Lev was to keep his sodium intake below 1 teaspoon or 2300 mg a day; and that included dairy and meat products, even many vegetables, which naturally have sodium. Quick breads and desserts made with baking soda and baking powder were out. “Low-salt” was an almost meaningless label, for canned soup that regularly contained about 50 percent of a normal daily allowance might be reduced to 30 percent. Unsalted butter replaced margarine.
Lev’s favorite lunch for his entire adult life was a particular challenge: a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and Campbell’s cream of tomato soup. I learned to read every label on every brand, a time-consuming process. Bread, for example, might range from 5 to 15 percent of daily allowable; one condiment might have almost no salt while another was loaded with salt. Cheeses varied widely; but eventually I stumbled upon brands of soup, cheese and deli meat that were acceptable in small quantities.
As I began to cook more soups, stews and sauces from scratch, I discovered that I had to double seasonings—not only spices but also onion, garlic and fresh herbs—when I omitted salt. I added wine, salt-free canned tomato products and lemon to create an illusion of saltiness.
Virtually everything cost more and took more time than what I had cooked for the first 44 years of our marriage. When all else failed, I ordered specialty foods from the Healthy Heart Market online—for a price. I needed skills as a dietician, nutritionist, cook and mathematician.
How does a working mother, with limited education, earning minimum wage, do this? I wondered.
As I surveyed my small pile of fresh produce and other groceries Tuesday—enough to last maybe five days—I asked myself the same question. My $93 bill represented almost 13 hours of minimum-wage work. And that was for one person’s meals. I’m back to reading labels in the grocery store. Prep and clean-up times have increased significantly. During Lev’s last illness and as a new widow, I simply did not have the energy or will power to take the steps necessary to get back in shape. I really did not care about my health.
I can’t make time, but I can take time to cook again. If spending my time and money as I choose is one of God’s compensations for widowhood, cooking what I want without having to satisfy anyone else is another.
Before I had children, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. I worked my way through Julia Child’s cookbooks and tested, tasted and created recipes for Fiesta: Favorite Recipes of South Texas. I am actually enjoying creating recipes and experimenting in the kitchen again. Those skills developed when I was cooking low-salt translate well to the skills needed to cook low-carb and low-fat. I have a new hobby—one that fills empty hours and provides long-term benefits. I just wish it were easy and inexpensive to eat healthy. It should not be a luxury only for those with time and money to spare.