The Life Skills team offers programming and advice from alumni about topics such nutrition, transitioning to life after Hamilton, and much more. 

Life Skills Blog

Ingredients for Healthy Living (and a Successful Career)

By Emily Stein ’96

Emily Stein '96
Emily Stein '96
Tags Life Skills
Healthy Living Nutrition Advice, Quarantine Style: a Q&A with Emily Stein '96
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, most Hamilton students find themselves at home continuing their college life remotely. While temporarily being at home can be a restorative experience, many students feel they are mindlessly snacking now that they are constantly surrounded by food. Do you have advice for students struggling with this?

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Daily routines are suspended, the economy is in freefall, and we are separated from family and friends. In light of this, please be gentle with yourselves. If you gain a few pounds, it’s not the end of the world. That said, your health is top priority, and that means eating nutritious, wholesome foods. Instead of worrying about cutting calories, focus on the quality of your diet. What you eat profoundly affects how you feel both physically and emotionally. Heavily processed food can lead to depression—not only because of the guilt that you’ll feel after inhaling a bag of Doritos, but also because your body is not meant to digest chemicals and additives. Here is my advice for a healthy quarantine:

  1. Eat real food. If you are going to snack, try to limit it to one-ingredient items, like fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, nuts, and cheeses.
  2. Keep a food diary. Record what you eat for one week, and include notes on how you feel afterwards. Look for patterns, and cut out the foods that cause sluggishness, irritability, or tummy bloat.
  3. Keep busy. Give yourself projects if you’re not working or studying from home—whether it’s cleaning, writing to someone, working out, calling a friend, or reading a good book.
  4. Drink water. All day. Hydration is imperative for good health, and sometimes dehydration can be mistaken for hunger. Always keep a glass of water next to you.
  5. Exercise. Run or take a walk every day. Fresh air does wonders for your body and state of mind. If you can’t leave the house, find an exercise video online that you like. Jump rope, do push-ups and sit-ups, dance, or run in place. Just move.
  6. Create a daily food schedule. Setting a schedule may lend a sense of control during this chaotic period. I’m at home with my four-year-old all day (help me) and have been using a schedule to prevent myself from snacking nonstop. Breakfast is fruit and toast. Lunch is a sandwich and fruit, or yogurt, granola, and berries. An afternoon snack is fruit, raisins, or a mug of hot cocoa. Dinner, I eat whatever I want.
  7. No late night snacks, period. You’ll always wake up regretting it. Your body needs to focus on rest and restoration while you’re asleep, and if you eat before bed, it has to use that valuable energy for digestion.
  8. Avoid sugar (as much as possible). Sugar is addictive. Sugar affects your mood. Sugar depletes energy.
  9. Sleep. We all have a lot on our minds right now, but sleep is crucial for your emotional and physical health. Sleep restores the body and regulates appetite.
One of the redeeming qualities about being home is that students can once again appreciate home-cooked meals. What is some basic cooking advice that you have for students looking to cultivate their own culinary skills during this extended time at home?

First and foremost, keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself with complex recipes.

  1. Stock your kitchen with quality tools. Every kitchen should have the basics: a sharp chef’s knife, cutting board, decent sauté pan, large stockpot, rubber heat proof spatula, large metal mixing bowl, measuring cups and spoons, and sheet pan for the oven. Especially for an amateur chef, an instant pot is a good investment for making  one-pot meals and storingleftovers.
  2. Gather and prep. Before you start cooking, collect the kitchen tools and ingredients that you need and measure everything out. This will make the cooking part seamless and organized.
  3. Clean as you go, especially if you are in a small kitchen, like me. You will thank yourself later.  
  4. Easy on the salt and spices to start. You can always add more. That being said, the secret to a good dish is lots of butter (or good olive oil) and salt. Cheese and bacon help, too.
Since you have gone from the culinary field to pursuing a master’s in early childhood education, do you have general life-advice for students who may enter a field that they eventually realize is not where they want to be? 

My first job after graduating from Hamilton was in the insurance industry, which I quickly discovered was the wrong field for me. I spent the next five years cultivating a promising career in publishing, only to realize that I did not belong in an office. So, in 1999, I quit and moved to the Caribbean. Yes, I seriously did that. With a backdrop of palm trees and sailboats, I worked my way from waiting tables to managing and ultimately running my own restaurant. A decade later, after enduring one too many hurricanes, I returned to New York and continued working in the culinary field until 2015, when my son was born. I chose to be a full-time mom for his first few years, and am now working toward becoming a public school teacher. My point is: life changes, and it’s perfectly normal to have more than one career. Every job offers valuable skills and life lessons. Be open, never stop learning, connect with interesting people, and don’t be afraid to leave a job if you’re not inspired. It will all work out. You will always have a network of support at Hamilton to guide you along the way

What are the most useful ingredients to keep in your house?

Going to the grocery store is risky right now, so it’s important to have some wholesome shelf-stable ingredients along with your basic kitchen necessities. Here are some items that I always have on hand:

  1. Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or butter: Oil, butter, or both are essential for both cooking and adding flavor to your dishes. Coconut oil is especially good for cooking at high temperatures, and has a great deal of nutritional value.
  2. Vinegar, honey, and soy sauce: I use the above for dressings, marinades, and for added depth of flavor in soups and stews.
  3. Diced tomatoes and canned beans: These shelf-stable items are ideal for a quick and easy soup, chili, or sauce. Beans are a great source of protein and fiber.
  4. Spices: My favorites include: rosemary, thyme, cumin, curry powder, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and of course, kosher salt and pepper.
  5. Whole grains: Grains are filled with fiber and nutrients and can serve as a main course or side dish. Take your pick: steel cut oats, brown rice, quinoa, polenta, amaranth, buckwheat, farro, and pasta.
  6. Fresh and frozen produce: Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals and keep your metabolism moving. Long lasting options include: onions, garlic, potatoes, kale, carrots, pineapple, apples, pears, and oranges.
Any suggestions for quick and easy but also healthy meals?

Before leaving the restaurant industry, I ran a porridge shop. We offered whole grain porridge bases, and customers could design their own bowl with sweet and savory toppings. A whole grain bowl like rice, oatmeal, or polenta, is a simple way to create a well-balanced meal. After preparing your grain, just add ingredient combinations that you like. Start with simple additions, like peanut butter and banana, cheese and tomato, or bacon and a fried egg (with a drizzle of sriracha). Soon you’ll be roasting vegetables, whipping up a pesto, or caramelizing onions and apples to top your bowl. Versatile, nourishing, and easy-to-make, grain bowls can be your starting point to more adventurous cooking.

The Best Pesto, Ever (serve with pasta or polenta):

Combine and puree in the food processor: 2 fat garlic cloves, ½ cup raw cashews, ? cup parmesan cheese, 1 tsp kosher salt, ½ tsp pepper, 2 cups basil, 4 cups spinach (loosely packed), ? cup olive oil. Done.

Do you have general advice for students interested in entering the food world?

If you had asked me this question before the onslaught of a global pandemic, I would have told you that the restaurant business is not for the faint of heart. Having been in the field for 17 years, I have worked more double shifts than I can count, ran the kitchen line during rush periods, managed packed restaurants, mopped floors, and opened and closed my own businesses. No one gave me a medal and you should see what my hands look like (hint: they are no longer soft and feminine). Despite the exhaustion, sweat, dirt, insane hours, anxiety, and lack of sleep, I loved it. In order to be successful in the restaurant industry, you must be passionate about food and have the fortitude to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. Also, you probably won’t get rich. Still interested?

In light of current events, the food industry is on the cusp of transformation. I fear that we will see a sharp decline in the small businesses that make dining out so deliciously eclectic. Because of the instability of restaurant profitability, we need innovative and fearless pioneers to redefine the landscape. Increased delivery options, farm-to-table dinner clubs, virtual restaurants, catering, and still-to-be-discovered business models will become the future of food. Journalists, farmers, teachers, politicians, scientists, and nonprofit organizations also play a large role. You will be the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders to recreate the culinary trade. Seize this moment.

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