The night I made the pork shoulder pasta was the night I lost the ability to brag about my iron stomach.
I was starving by the time we sat down to eat the rich, meaty dish sprinkled with cheese, finished with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of apple cider vinegar. It was going to be so good!
But I took one bite and then another and realized something was wrong. Not with the dish, which was absolutely delicious, but with my stomach. After barely eating anything, I felt full and uncomfortable, an unrelenting pain in my upper abdomen begging me to turn away from the pork. I popped the contents of the bowl into a Tupperware container and shrugged, the discomfort I'd experienced already diminishing.
I didn't think much of the incident, but as the week went on, and I continued to find myself at odds with many of my favorite foods, I started to worry. Was I going to be one of those people who had all these stomach issues? Was I going to have to give up chicken skins, Sriracha on everything, and fatty cuts of brisket?
Identifying the Problem
When the pain struck again — this time when I wasn't even eating — I knew I had to treat whatever this thing was seriously. After Googling my symptoms and self-diagnosing myself (not recommended), I had my husband drive me to the emergency room.
The medical diagnosis? Undetermined. It's likely I experienced some tearing of my stomach lining owing to being too liberal with over-the-counter meds I popped whenever the slightest period cramp or tension headache bothered me. I'd always heard that taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach and within hours of consuming alcoholic beverages was really bad for your stomach, but I'd largely ignored it. Now, however, that was impossible.
In fact, I was pissed at myself for being such an idiot. How many Advil were you taking? My mom wanted to know when I called to tell her what the deal was.
The Bland Diet Solution
When I left the emergency room, I was referred to a GI specialist and given a whole slew of prescriptions to wipe out any potential bacteria along with the strict instructions not to eat anything rich or spicy or acidic for several days. Also, no alcohol.
"What about lox?" I'd asked, the bagel I'd been craving since the first nurse took my blood pressure some seven hours earlier still on my mind.
"I wouldn't," said the doctor and began to rattle off a list of permissible food items: potatoes, oatmeal, plain pasta.
At home, hungry like someone who literally hadn't eaten all day long, I poked around in the fridge, frustrated that the kinds of food — and flavors — I liked to eat were apparently off limits.
How many Advil were you taking? My mom wanted to know when I called to tell her what the deal was.
I zeroed in on a bag of red potatoes that probably had been sitting in the crisper for some time, but were still fine. I boiled them with the skins on until they were fork-tender. After draining them, I plopped the whole lot into my favorite green bowl. Maybe if it looked appetizing, it would be appetizing?
I'd heard what the doctor had said about fat, but there was no way I was going to eat dry potatoes, so I reached for the olive oil, drizzled that over the top of the lightly mashed potatoes, added a large pinch of flaky sea salt, and I was ready to dig in.
That dish became a staple in the days I was forced to work with limited options. Every other day for about six days, I made those potatoes. As the days went on, and as I continued to feel better, I took to adding more oil and a bit of butter too. One day when my stomach felt particularly strong — no trace of queasiness — I added a dollop of sour cream to the bowl.
Making the Most of It
Rather than get frustrated with my bland food diet, I decided to view it as a challenge. I was a good cook and didn't need bacon to make things taste good.
On the second day, I had the ingenious idea to pick up a container of white rice from the Chinese takeout joint near my apartment. For a dollar, I had a pint of perfectly cooked rice to work with. The hot sauce would have to stay in the fridge, but as I fished around the shelves, I saw that I had quite a bit to work with: basil leaves, good Parmesan cheese, and, as the pièce de résistance, poached eggs. It was divine.
For lunch on the fourth day, I'd had enough eggs and potatoes to hold me over for a while, and moved on to the pantry staples. There must be some bland items I could work with in there.
Aha! Fancy tuna! While I would have preferred my open-face sandwich with twice as much mayo, red onions, and capers, I was forced to lean away from those rich, acidic flavors. However, since the tuna was the extra-special variety packaged in a glass jar, my tuna sandwich modifications in the name of the bland diet somehow worked.
By day six, I was ready for a drink. An adult beverage, to be specific. I allowed myself a cold beer and decided that I might try a little sambal oelek on my toast with poached eggs.
Rather than get frustrated with my bland food diet, I decided to view it as a challenge.
It wasn't an easy week abandoning the items I craved regularly. I had to continually remind myself of the agonizing stomach pains I'd endured only days earlier each time I looked with longing at a piece of pizza or a plate of french fries. (My husband's a good sport, but this was not an exercise in solidarity for us.) It was, however, a good reminder that I am not invincible.
And while I managed on the bland diet, I never got used it. I love eating! I want my food to taste as delicious as possible — every single time. And while most of the bland-diet meals did taste pretty good, I knew I wasn't fooling anyone (least of all myself). There was almost always something missing. Being healthy is important to me, but I'm confident I can eat have my indulgent cake and eat it too. It's called moderation, and I totally get it now.
How do you make the most of a "bland food" diet?