Dinnertime Dilemma

I’m reading a fantastic book that I highly recommend, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Never would I have imagined that reading about farm subsidies, biomass, ethanol, and high-fructose corn syrup could keep me up at night, turning the pages well past my bedtime. But this book has also left me feeling totally confused when it comes to making my weekly grocery shopping list. Who knew that most organic farms were really industrial farms and that their cows are still force fed corn (albeit organic corn)? I naively bought in to the pictures of the happy cows munching on grass, thinking that my organic milk came straight from that pastoral farm scene on the jug. I also convinced myself that eating organic was better for the environment (and I know that for the most part, this is still true)–but I now realize I have to take this a step further and purchase my produce locally to really be doing my part. I also knew that high-fructose corn syrup was a major ingredient in a number of foods, but now that I’ve started looking more closely, I feel like I need to put my family on a permanent diet of home grown kale and water and avoid everything else. Sorry kiddo’s…no more cereal bars! This book has made me really re-think giving up vegetarianism when I got pregnant with my son (and let me tell you, when I went back on meat, I went back hardcore…hot dogs and North Carolina barbecue were, and still are, high on my request list!). And it has even made me skeptical of Whole Foods and other “Big Organic” players in the food chain.

I’m a meal planner by nature. I love to spend my Sunday afternoons surrounded by cookbooks and my calendar, planning out our dinners for the week so I can shop alone in peace, for an hour or two, and get most of what we need. I’m also a bit of a bargain shopper. I don’t use coupons, but I do tend to look for deals and will take advantage of a buy-one-get-one-free offer when I can. And I love how Whole Foods makes me feel–but I also find that I leave there $100 poorer with enough stuff to make a meal and a half.

Now that I’m reading Pollan’s book, I’m feeling paralyzed by meal planning. I try to “cook” most nights, although I admit to becoming more Rachel Ray-like now that I have two kids…pulling together a few simple ingredients, taking shortcuts where I can (where would I be without rotisserie chicken?), and enjoying a lot of one-pot meals. Pollan has me reading the labels on my “shortcuts” now, and I just can’t stomach the thought of adding that stuff to our food.

We’re fortunate to have an amazing farmer’s market in Carrboro and I’m pledging right now to frequent it this spring/summer/fall. I’ve also started purchasing our milk from our local dairy–at least I know it wasn’t trucked across the country prior to moving in to our fridge. Pollan shares these other recommendations that I’ll include here, just in case you, too, are feeling fretful about food:

“1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number–or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food–measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond)–costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils–whether certified organic or not–will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants–the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s?–but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals–and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.”

(this is taken directly from Pollan’s article in The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, January 28, 2007)

Gotta run get busy planting my garden. Man, so much to worry about, so little time!

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3 Responses to Dinnertime Dilemma

  1. edens says:

    Thanks Perri! This is a wonderful summary and helpful in so many ways. I often give similar advice to patients for their health but I may even steal this word for word from you to hand out. Also, let me sing the praises of the Community Supported Agriculture in our area (CSAs). We subscribed to Timberwood Organics (a farm north of Carrboro) last year for the season which meant we had local, fresh, organic produce delivered to our door once a week from April to October. This was awesome for us – incredibly tasty quality foods. I learned to cook things I never cooked before and we all enjoyed what was ripe and just harvested nearby. In addition to feeling good about what we were doing for the environment, the local economy and ourselves – my fingernails even grew long and strong and they’ve never been that way before. That sold me on it forever! We are definitely reupping every year and I would encourage you to think about it too (and no, I get no kick back).

  2. perr1ker5h says:

    Thanks for that info, Neva. Having it delivered makes it a no brainer. Sometimes I’m just too lazy on Saturday (or running off to soccer or other crazy kid events on weekend mornings) to make it to the farmer’s market. And I hate to throw away food, so I know if they bring it to me, I will eat it, and force the rest of my family to eat it, too. Do you know if Maplewood delivers milk? I just love the image of getting fresh eggs and milk delivered, too. Take me back to the 1950’s, please!

  3. Paul says:

    Hello there,

    Allow me to invite you to visit my site where you can find a lot of new and interesting things about “organic gardening book”.

    Enjoy and have a nice day!

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