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Ask the Test Cooks

How Do You Stay Fit as a Food Lover?

"I sat down once and plugged everything I ate that day into a calorie counter. Big mistake."

Published Jan. 4, 2017.

No matter the role—test cook, editor, photographer—employees at America’s Test Kitchen do a lot of eating. (Need proof? See the food diaries that test cooks Russell Selander and Lawman Johnson kept during a typical week.) Such insane levels of consumption means we all have to make an extra effort to ensure we’re, you know, staying healthy(ish). We caught up with two test cooks, two editors, and a photographer to see what they had to say about their unique approaches to health and wellness outside the walls (and even inside the walls) of the test kitchen.

Kate Shannon: Associate Editor, Tastings and Testings

For most of the year, I have a pretty great commute: a 2.5-mile bike ride. It takes me through Olmsted Park, one of the gems in Boston's famed Emerald Necklace, and goes around a pond and a little river. My job is also more physical than a standard editing gig. Reviewing equipment involves a lot of lifting and relocating of heavy items. Our longterm storage unit is a few doors down from the office, and I make regular trips there with carts and dollies loaded with equipment. (If you live near Brookline and see a woman in an alley with a cart full of coffee makers and cutting boards, that's probably me!)

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Kevin White: Photographer, Web

It might be a bite of guacamole and chips, an egg on some toast, a few shrimp leftover from a dish of linguine allo scoglio, or a couple slices of brisket, but none of the daytime snacking that I do seems like that much on its own. All together, though, it’s another thing entirely.

I sat down once and plugged everything I ate that day into a calorie counter. Big mistake. I’m not even a cook but since I’m photographing in the kitchen every day, I get first dibs on all the best food as soon as it comes up for grabs. It’s way too easy to gobble up double the recommended intake for my height and weight over the course of the day. And that’s not including dinner at home.

Kevin shoots what is sure to be his next in-kitchen snack.

To be fair, although I’m generally healthy, I could stand to pass on that last piece of fudge, the chocolate financiers that appeared out of nowhere, or the chorizo and potato taco (Ed's note: This is a forthcoming Cook's Illustrated recipe!) that magically appeared in my hand.

Moderation, or at least attempting some semblance of it, goes a long way. Maybe I’ll pass on that chocolate cake, thank you. Biking the 3.8 miles each way to and from the train station helps as well. After gaining five pounds in my first six months at America’s Test Kitchen, adding the daily bike commute to my routine helped me shave off some of the excess weight. I don’t know if getting the blood pumping before setting upon the kitchen helps digestion, but at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

What probably helps more is my actual alternating routine of hitting the gym and going on short bike rides after work. I usually alternate between the two, putting in an hour or so four nights a week, followed by longer rides of up to 50 miles (time and life permitting) on the weekends. But my new secret sauce is running. It’s not really new since I used to run cross country and track in high school, but I haven’t done it consistently in years.

I had forgotten what a good workout it is, and if you can get over the natural resistance to suit up and leave your perfectly comfortable house to subject yourself to some self-inflicted pain, then it really is the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of working out. Lately I’ve added it into the mix. I started with a three-miler once a week, but now I’m up to about seven miles a week. Hopefully I can keep up the momentum through the cold winter months. Either that or I’m just going to have to eat less.

Morgan Bolling: Test Cook, Cook's Country

Morgan gleefully stirs and temps a fresh batch of her recipe for eggnog.

One of my most important health practices is to eat a filling, healthy breakfast. I switch between Greek yogurt, smoothies, or a toasted peanut butter and banana sandwich. But whichever I eat, it makes it much easier to really just have a sample of food during tastings—not eat a whole plate. I can say from experience when you go to a tasting for mashed potatoes or smoked ribs on an empty stomach, it can lead to some regrettable decisions.

Mari Levine: Managing Editor, Web

Test cooks eat all day, but at least they're on their feet and moving around. As someone who takes part in a fair share of official tastings and unofficial kitchen lurking, but spends the rest of her day at a computer, I try my best to balance the eating with exercising. I’d say I’m successful about half the time: I bike to work and I play in a bunch of local sports leagues, but there are certainly stretches of time when my only physical activity is walking up and down the stairs to and from tastings. Fortunately, there are enough stairs in the building to counteract much of the work-related eating.

Russell Selander: Associate Editor, Books

Russell (middle) discusses different types of Greek pasta with books team colleagues Joe Gitter and Elizabeth Carduff.

While it seems like I eat a lot of food, and I do, there are several things I do to help stay fit. First, I'm a big guy with a fast metabolism, so that helps right off the bat. I also walk a lot. I walk at least 2½ miles everyday, sometimes more. I also have a 22-month-old at home, who is very active and keeps me active in the morning, evening, and throughout the day on weekends. I also don't eat a lot at home. Generally, if I do have dinner, that is the only meal I eat at home. The rest of my meals happen when I am "grazing" here at work. This also means that all the food I eat is freshly prepared (for the most part) and not a prepackaged or from-frozen meal that might be loaded with sodium and other less-than-nice ingredients.

Another thing: portion control. For a tasting, I may only have a tiny bowl of soup, hardly a portion one would get in a restaurant or eat for a meal. And despite being known for having a massive sweet tusk (hehe), I try to limit my sugar intake. While there may be recipes, chapters, or books that are devoted to all things sweet, those tend to be few and far between, so I'm more able to control my sugar intake. I drink any tea or coffee black; I don't drink any soda; I avoid most candy. Though that's not to say I don't indulge in a hearty slice of cake or pie now and then.

What are your secrets to staying fit as a food lover? Let us know in the comments!

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