After the introductions, the group leader slaps a deck of playing cards on the table. "That is a serving size of animal protein," she says. "Keep a pack in the kitchen at home to calibrate portions." Sobering. Three or four ounces, less than half the size of a typical restaurant serving. Mary-Catherine asks a few of the chefs to come upstairs so they can get a sense of what they’ll have to do to make meals that are within our caloric budget. "If that’s all the protein we’re allowed to serve, we’re going to have to put lots of vegetables on the plate," one of them says. Exactly. "And no butter, no cream either?" asks another. The challenge is on.
Now comes the fun part: lunch. We eat with gusto, knowing we’re in a diet-friendly place. Instead of a bread basket, there are crudites with a yogurt-dill dipping sauce. Instead of creamy dressings and cheesy toppings, there are bright vegetable purees. I notice that during lunch, although we talk about food and restaurants, none of us talk about diets.
The Needle Starts to Move
We’re pumped for our second meeting. Buoyed by the support of the group, we’ve each lost a little. Both Susan and Blue have lost three pounds. Susan, one of the more disciplined members, has upped her water-aerobics classes from three to four a week and banned Diet Coke from her life (she’s heard that diet drinks increase sugar cravings). Blue, who has a teenage son and a very tall husband, says she’s being careful not to divide family dinners into three equal parts anymore. Others have made smaller adjustments — drinking a glass of water before and after meals and switching from whole-milk lattes to nonfat-milk cappuccinos. My friend Sandra’s secret is eating one small piece of high-quality dark chocolate every day: "If I have one treat, I can cope," she says. Another swears by eating chunks of watermelon for the munchies.
We share tips for buying and cooking foods that make less seem like more: real oatmeal, not instant; huge salads bolstered by crunchy fresh veggies, such as jicama and celery, that provide enough mouth action to make a skimpy meal satisfying. We’re all cooking at home more, making soup or batches of quinoa, barley, and brown rice so there will always be a healthy, high-fiber starch in the house.
At the first Down@Up lunch, the chefs selected a few of the lighter entrees from the regular menu and did the obvious things: shrank the portions, put sauces in ramekins. But this week we have a menu of dishes created just for us: spicy chicken on steamed kale and Swiss chard, lamb tenderloin salad with whole wheat tabouleh, salmon with fennel puree. (Who needs hollandaise when you can have this much flavor and so few calories?) The average price with beverage and tip is $20.
The Group Gels
As the weeks pass, we’re becoming more open about our struggles with weight: We sympathize, empathize, and mostly just listen to one another. One member with a chronically ill adult son says that she always gains after a visit with him. Another says she’s not up to weighing herself, because the night before, after she dropped her high-school-senior daughter off at the train for a college tour, she returned home and ate four thick slices of bread and butter. We know that guilty feeling.
Between meetings, the e-mail circuits sizzle with our ups and downs, plus articles from the New England Journal of Medicine and the New York Times.
Two months into Down@Up, we’re planning active excursions to see the Decorators’ Show House or a new museum exhibit, going for walks, goading one another into joining a seven a.m. exercise group. We’re trading books and dining at one another’s houses — conferring on menus that are fancy but not diet-busting, like a fabulous pesto sauce on top of spaghetti squash instead of pasta, or combining cooked cauliflower with potatoes for mashed potatoes lite.