A Few More Thoughts on That Home Cooking Story . . .

Before we resume TLT’s fifth annual “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch Series” tomorrow, I just wanted to share a few more thoughts about yesterday’s post regarding an article, The Joy of Cooking?,” which posits that most women generally loathe cooking and that we’ve all been fed an overly romanticized view of the task by writers like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.

First, I learned late yesterday that the Salon XX Factor writer, Andrea Marcotte, the one whose post about “The Joy of Cooking?” went viral, was so deluged with hateful comments as a result that she’s announced she’ll no longer follow her own mentions on Twitter.  Even though all Marcotte did was relay the NC State researchers’ own conclusions about how women feel about home cooking, Marcotte

got slammed on Twitter by extremely hostile conservatives, most of whom didn’t seem to have read the post that riled them up so much. What was unnerving was how the reaction was just so personal.

The most common tactic was to “diagnose” me, arguing that I am crazy and unloved and therefore I hate dinner, families, and perhaps joy itself. The right wing website Twitchy sent most of it my way by calling me a “perpetual victim,” even though I did not mention my own relationship to cooking and the post had nothing at all to do with me. “Is @AmandaMarcotte an oppressed victim when she feeds her cats?”read a typical tweet. “I wonder if @AmandaMarcotte is ever happy about anything,”wrote another. “She’s not snarky, just bitchy and miserable. And you know what they say about misery loving company and all…” wrote a self-appointed Twitter psychologist. . . .

As someone who has dealt with her own share of hostile and often quite personal online comments (maybe more than my share, actually), I feel a lot of empathy for Marcotte and am sorry I’ll now be unable to connect with her on Twitter due to her new policy.

But the heated reaction to Marcotte’s post and, by extension, “The Joy of Cooking?” demonstrates, not for the first time, how discussions of cooking can ignite a powder keg of emotions surrounding gender roles, class, ethnicity and even right/left wing politics.  Many of you asked, for example, why the NC State researchers only talked to “moms?”  Aren’t we just perpetuating the myth that cooking is exclusively a woman’s duty with this sort of study?  And later I wondered if I had exposed my own class/ethnic biases when I implied that a lot of the women interviewed, due to their economic status, might be unaware of the recent “elevation” of family dinner, i.e., the degree to which writers like Bittman and Pollan now view home cooking as a key to improving our health and our food supply, as well as new pressures put on home cooks by media such as Pinterest and the Food Channel.

One reader also informed me that “The Joy of Cooking?” was not, as I had written, a strictly “academic” piece, given that it appeared in Contexts, an outlet intended for a general audience.  I accept that correction but still feel that if authors — hailing from academia or not — are going to make such sweeping conclusions based on “150 interviews,” then we’re entitled to know a bit more about those interviews: how they were conducted and whether the responses were truly as uniform as the writers in this case lead us to believe.  Also, while the use of the 1950s advertising illustrations is a little less jarring to me now that I understand the nature of the publication, my original point still holds:  those pictures were intended to needle “foodies” (Pollan, et. al) who ostensibly urge people to cook without having a clue about the harsh realities of their daily lives.

And though I mentioned this in passing yesterday, I want to reiterate that I fully understand why home cooking can be a dispiriting chore for many.  On my best days, when I’m in the mood to cook and the recipe turns out well and everyone sighs with happiness at the end of the meal, I share Pollan’s view in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation that preparing your own food makes your world “literally more wonderful.”  And on days when I have to drag myself from satisfying writing work to dash into a store to buy groceries, then take even more time to chop and cook that food, only to seethe with barely concealed resentment as my kids half-heartedly poke at the meal (or, worse, offer some choice commentary about it), and then clean the whole mess up (on nights when Mr. TLT brings some work home and is relieved of dish duty), then I regard cooking as just one big pain in the ass.  And I suspect most people who cook on a regular basis, for years on end, feel the same way.

Given that cooking is not an unmitigated joy for many of us, here’s where I’ll offer a plug for a few resources that, in my experience, really do make home cooking easier.  I love Sally Kuzemchak‘s Cooking Light’s Dinnertime Survival Guide, in part because, unlike many family dinner cookbook writers, she’s willing to tackle the obstacles that can feel insurmountable — kids who are on different evening schedules, lack of cooking skills, tight food budgets, or families in which the cook is trying to lose weight.  I’m also a longtime fan of  Aviva Goldfarb’s Six O’Clock Scramble cookbooks as well as Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food recipes, both of which tend to hit my personal sweet spot of complexity of flavor versus ease of preparation on a weeknight.  And though I haven’t yet read it, I’m also eager to check out Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast.

Finally, I just wanted to tell you that yesterday’s post now appears under a slightly different title on HuffPost Food.

Thanks again for the stimulating discussion yesterday on Twitter, Facebook and here on the blog.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Why I’m Ticked Off by (Almost) Everyone in the Latest Family Dinner Debate

I’m interrupting TLT’s “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series to tell you about a debate over family dinner that’s erupted in the blogosphere — and why just about everyone involved is ticking me off.

The scuffle began last week when Amanda Marcotte of Slate‘s XX Factor blog wrote “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” a post that went viral and also prompted a heated rebuttal from Joel Salatin, writing for Mother Earth News.  (Salatin, for those unfamiliar with him, is a farmer, writer and speaker who promotes sustainable farming and was extensively profiled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)  But although Salatin turned his ire on Marcotte, her post did little more than recap a new article by three North Carolina State University sociologists entitled “The Joy of Cooking?”  So let’s go right to the source of the controversy.

The upshot of “The Joy of Cooking?” is that we’ve all been fed an overly-romanticized view of home cooking by people like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, but this “emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist.”  In the real world, according to the authors, mothers who cook family dinner are uniformly beleaguered and exhausted, challenged by lack of time, high food costs, ungrateful family members, picky children and, in some cases, the lack of cooking facilities.

As a five-night-a-week slinger-of-the-family-hash, I can certainly relate to many of the complaints relayed by the women interviewed for the article, and I also agree that sometimes the experts urging us to cook conveniently gloss over some of the drudgery involved.  For example, back in 2011 I was annoyed when Jamie Oliver “demonstrated” to a family on his television show that cooking a meal at home is quicker than going out for fast food.  That’s true, up to a point, but Oliver omitted the considerable time it takes to go through recipes, write up a shopping list, buy all of the groceries (we won’t even count the inevitable second trip to the store for that one forgotten but critical ingredient) and then clean up after the meal.  When you add up all of that time, the allure of a trip to Pizza Hut is far more understandable.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 8.02.16 PMBut even though I thought “The Joy of Cooking?” made some fair points along these lines, it’s abundantly clear that the researchers went into this project with an agenda — and it wasn’t just finding out what home cooking is like for many American women.  Rather, they seem hell-bent on painting people like Pollan and Bittman as snobby, out-of-touch elitists, illustrated by the fact that they snarkily refer to Pollan not as a “journalist” or “writer,” but instead as “America’s most influential ‘foodie-intellectual.”  In fact, “foodie” is used throughout the piece (which is rather jarring in a supposedly academic work) to describe those who promote family dinner, implying that their view stems from self-indulgent “food hobbyism” instead of reasoned analysis about how widespread home cooking might affect our food system.  The article is also illustrated with lots of 1950s homemakers in their gleaming kitchens — a device I, too, once used to poke fun at elitist thinking applied to real world problems.  

But the real evidence of the authors’ agenda is their definition of “family dinner,” which completely stacks the deck in favor of the grim conclusions they reached, conclusions which are then used to supposedly knock experts like Pollan and Bittman off their pedestals.  They write:

“[t]hough the mothers we met were squeezed for time, they were still expected to produce elaborate meals cooked from scratch.” [Emphasis mine.]  

In another instance they write:

“being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal. The ingredients that go into meals considered to be healthy—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats—are expensive.” [Emphasis mine.]

But who says family dinner must be “elaborate,” “from scratch” and/or a “foodie-version of a home-cooked meal?” Are we to believe that when the researchers asked their “150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life” about “family dinner,” all of them  — right down to the woman living with three other people in a flea- and roach-infested, kitchen-less motel room — were thinking “Martha-Stewart-worthy meal,” instead of, say, a humble box of spaghetti and jar of sauce?  Or did the researchers first plant the notions of “from scratch,” “elaborate,” “fresh” and “whole grain” into their conversations, subtly or overtly, and then predictably find that many women find it hard to prepare meals reaching that high bar?  Given that the authors (1) don’t share their questioning methodology; (2) offer us only a few choice anecdotes instead of hard data; and (3) have a clear anti-“foodie” agenda, I have no choice but to be skeptical of their sweeping conclusions about women’s dislike of cooking.

But now let’s turn to Salatin.  After getting so riled up by “The Joy of Cooking?,” I was just itching for his rebuttal — but I wasn’t expecting Salatin to get on such a high horse to deliver it that it’s a miracle we can hear him from up there.

Salatin kicks things off by positing that “the average American” is “probably far more interested and knowledgeable about the latest belly-button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture than what will become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone at 6 p.m.” whereas “In the circles I run in and market to, the home-cooked meal is revered as the ultimate expression of food integrity.”

In the circles I run in, snootily bashing the very people you’re trying to educate is not such a great tactic.  But I digress.

Salatin goes on to weigh down the poor family dinner with such profound significance that it would break the average dinner plate:

The home-cooked meal indicates a reverence for our bodies’ fuel, a respect for biology, and a committed remedial spirit toward all the shenanigans in our industrial, pathogen-laden, nutrient-deficient food-and-farming system.

All kidding aside, I don’t disagree with Salatin here, but if the NC State researchers’ offended me with their anti-elitist bias, it’s almost perfectly mirrored by Salatin’s scathing antipathy for middle America in his piece:

Why doesn’t Marcotte, rather than whining about unappreciated women, write instead about families who seem to think sports leagues and biggest-screen TVs are more important than health? . . . .

Here’s the question I would like to ask these families: “Are you spending time or money on anything unnecessary?” Cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, lottery tickets, PeopleMagazine, TV, cell phone, soccer games, potato chips . . . ?  Show me the household devoid of any of these luxuries, then let’s talk. . . .

Soccer moms driving their kiddos half a day one way to a tournament, stopping at the drive-by for “chicken” nuggets, and then dismissing the kitchen as “too stressful” is an upside-down value system. And how many of the men whining about not liking what they’re being fed spend their Saturdays on the riding mower managing a monoculture, fertilized ecological-dead-zone of a suburban lawn, rather than using their resources to grow something nutritious for their families and wholesome for the planet? When do we start talking about them? Hmmmmm?

Isn’t there a way to say that families short on time or money for cooking might find those resources if they rejiggered their priorities, without letting your obvious contempt for those priorities virtually drip off the page? Meanwhile, someone really needs to tell Salatin that asking Americans to trade in their cell phones for anything is a guaranteed lost cause.

So if the NC State researchers and Salatin both annoyed me in this debate, who comes out smelling like a rose?

That would be Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg opinion columnist who has her own issues with “The Joy of Cooking?” and takes them on with terrific writing, a lot of humor — even a few recipe ideas. I hadn’t heard of McArdle before Michael Pollan tweeted her piece over the weekend, but I might just have a new girl crush.

Check out McArdle’s “Feminism Starts in the Kitchen” and see what you think.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Sometimes a Waffle Is More Than Just a Waffle, Or, Home Cooking as Political Act

Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss’s compelling expose of how the food industry has “hooked” us on highly processed foods, concludes that “only we can save us” from the hazards of the modern American diet.  In other words, while we wait around for Big Food to voluntarily reform itself, or for our government to compel it to do so (developments I’m not sure I’ll see in my lifetime), Moss suggests that our only recourse against the food industry’s influence is to reassert individual control over the food we eat.

Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox, a disturbing investigation of the many untested chemicals in our food supply, ends on the same note.  After concluding the book with a chapter on the need for more home cooking and widespread cooking education, Warner writes:

While there are clearly policy changes that would make the job of cleaning up our food a whole lot easier . . . . the choice of what we feed ourselves and our children is ultimately ours.

After the new documentary Fed Up shows how Big Food and our government have misled the American public about the risks of eating a highly processed, sugar-heavy diet, it, too, ends with a call to action urging Americans to break their dependency on processed food and get back into the kitchen (aided by Fed Up co-producer Laurie David’s new cookbook, The Family Cooks).

And perhaps no one has made a stronger case for home cooking as a political act than Michael Pollan, whose latest book, Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation, argues that “taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable.”

So when I headed into the kitchen with my 11-year-old son to make Sally Kuzemchak’s Zesty Lemon Waffles with Blueberries in honor of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day —  taking place today, all over the world — it had more significance than just spending a fun morning together.  As Jamie Oliver states in this year’s Food Revolution Day message:

I believe that it’s every child’s right to be taught about food, how to cook it and how it affects their bodies. Without this fundamental knowledge, they’ll grow up without the skills or even the desire to eat better.

I hope I’m empowering my kids with that fundamental knowledge when we cook together — and when we all sit down to a home-cooked meal five or so nights a week.  I want them to learn by osmosis that we don’t need Big Food to feed us, and that we can actually do a better job when we take back control of the cooking.

This is normally the point when I’d share the waffle recipe and photos*, but as I mentioned yesterday, Brianne DeRosa of Red, Round or Green has done that job for me (and the other bloggers cooking with their kids today) by creating a fabulous and free digital cookbook for you.  Just click on the photo below to access the book.

flipsnack book food revolution

All I’ll share here is a photo of the finished product and my son’s glowing “review:”

photo 10


And, by the way, here’s what my son avoided eating by making these waffles from scratch, instead of relying on Kellogg’s to do the job for him:

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 9.13.07 AM

Please be sure to visit all the other bloggers (and their kids) sharing Food Revolution Day with me and my son: Grace Freedman of Eat Dinner.org, Brianne DeRosa of Red, Round or Green, Mia Moran of Stay Basic Magazine, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, Caron Gremont of First Bites and Lynn Barendsen of The Family Dinner Project.   And you can follow all the Food Revolution Day activities going on around the world today by following Twitter hashtag FRD2014.

Happy Food Revolution Day, TLTers!

* Unfortunately, my camera-shy preteen only allowed his hands to be photographed for the cookbook, so apologies for that.  I briefly considered hiring a neighbor’s kid to pose as my son, but since someone actually did once accuse me of passing off models as my kids, I figured I’d better drop that plan!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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“The Family Cooks:” Book Review and Giveaway!

Back in 2011, I had the honor of interviewing Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time.  At that time, Laurie was better known for her environmental activism and as the executive producer of the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” but she and her co-author, chef Kirstin Uhrenholdt (whom I also interviewed), had created a terrific resource for busy families trying to eat together more often, replete with recipes, tables games, discussion topics and more.  If you haven’t yet read it, I encourage you to check it out.

Laurie’s again making news, this time with the pending release (May 9th) of a new documentary about the obesity crisis called Fed Up. Co-executive produced by Katie Couric, the film exposes a decades-long campaign by the food industry to confuse and mislead the public about the factors leading to weight gain, resulting in one of the largest health crises in our history.  (I’ve seen a screener of the film, which is excellent, and am honored to be a member of Fed Up‘s advisory board.)

The Family CooksThe film concludes with information on how Americans can fight against the obesity tide, and one of the most important pieces of advice is for families to reduce their reliance on restaurants and processed foods by getting back in the kitchen.  To that end, Laurie and Kristin have banded together again to create a new book, The Family Cooks: 100+ Recipes Guaranteed to Get Your Family Craving Food That’s Simple, Tasty, and Incredibly Good for You.

The Family Cooks is beautifully photographed and engagingly written in a causal, conversational tone.  You feel as though your good friend has dropped over for a glass of wine during dinner prep and is sharing her favorite healthful recipes with you.  The book includes useful tips on creating grocery lists, handling picky eaters and planning meals, and many recipes are so easy they’re marked with a “K” for “kids in charge.”  You’ll find everything from reliable basics like “Weekday Roast Chicken with Lemon and Garlic” to more exotic dishes like “Curried Quinoa ‘Risotto.”  It’s a great new resource for experienced and novice cooks alike, and I can’t wait to start cooking from it!

And now for the giveaway: one lucky reader can win a free copy of The Family Cooks just by leaving a comment below before 7 pm CST on Monday, April  28th.  You can tell me why you’d like to win, your biggest family dinner challenge or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.  I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.  (This offer is open to U.S. residents only.)

Good luck!

 [Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of this book for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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12 Adults, 16 Kids, 8 Years of Family Dinners

[Ed. Note:  This post was written as part of the wonderful Blog for Family Dinner project, where it is cross-posted today. This month’s B4FD theme is “All Kinds of Families.” ]

On TLT I write a lot about the importance of family dinner, but I know all too well that for busy working families, getting everyone fed on a weeknight is often easier said than done.  Sometimes a little out-of-the-box thinking is called for.

That’s why I love this story of twelve adults and sixteen children who’ve been sharing a weekly “family dinner” together for the last eight years.

The 16 youngest members of the Thursday Night Dinner set, ranging in age from 3 to 12.

It all started when two sets of parents met through their children’s public school in Washington, D.C..  Another parent at the school, a Mediterranean chef, offered a “meal of the week” each Thursday as part of her catering business.  The two sets of parents — who happened to live across the street from each other — started buying and sharing the meal together.  Over time, three other families on the same street also bought the meal and joined in the  Thursday communal dinner.

But then the Mediterranean chef moved on.  Writes Sue, one of the original founders of Thursday Night Dinner:

We panicked.  We ordered pizza.  We ordered Chinese.  We ordered pizza again.  We wondered if we’d be able to keep it together.  Somehow, we did.  The food wasn’t as good, the planning wasn’t as seamless, but by this point Thursday Night Dinner was as much a part of our collective vocabulary and routine as school and work.

A replacement chef was hired to cook the Thursday night meal until he, too, moved on:

After two tragic breakups, we were resolved:  we weren’t going on the market again. We didn’t need a (wo)man to make us feel complete;  we had each other!  We had kitchens!  We had passable culinary skills!  We had no choice!

So, here we are, in themed pot-luck mode.  These 8 years have brought with them a few more kids, 1 new family added to the mix, and three moves off Fessenden Street, but we’re hanging in there.  And happily so.

As documented in a new weekly blog, Thursday Night Dinners, the group brings a spirit of quirky fun to the project.  For example, the first meal of 2012 had a Mayan theme, one meal was entirely raw, the next made entirely in Crockpots (including the beverage and dessert!), and there was even an homage to that 1980’s favorite, the Silver Palate Cookbook (entree: Chicken Marbella.  What else?)

Firecracker Chinese Nachos from a "Fusion"-themed dinner.

I asked Sue [full disclosure: a dear friend] about the ground rules for Thursday Night Dinner.  She told me that the families alternate hosting according to a set rotation, with the host family setting the week’s theme, preparing the entree and sometimes also a theme-appropriate cocktail.  The other families bring the rest.  No limits are imposed on spending and Sue acknowledged that the host family has to spend a fair amount to make an entree for 28 people.  On the other hand, she said:

In the long run, it probably saves us money because (1) we’re all cooking in bulk every Thursday, and (2) that’s one day of the week we’re always eating quality, multi-course meals and never, ever giving in to the lure of takeout or a restaurant.    It’s also one day a week with sustained adult conversation at dinner and free (i.e. built-in) babysitting, so maybe there are some hidden savings there.

Logistics aside, this sort of communal weeknight dinner seems like a great way to share the burden of getting a good meal on the table, with the added bonus of socializing with friends.

But whether you decide to partner up or go solo, be sure to check out the Thursday Night Dinners blog, which includes photos and recipes for most of the dishes served, along with amusing commentary.


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 2,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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My Son Learns to Cook, But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?

Lately my nine-year-old son has shown some interest in helping me out in the kitchen, so I recently enrolled him in a five-day cooking class.  On the first day he was reluctant to go but when I picked him up a two hours later he was positively brimming with excitement, eager to tell me (and later my husband) every detail about what he’d cooked that morning.

I assumed his enthusiasm would wane when the class ended, but that hasn’t been the case at all.  Here are just a few of the dishes he’s prepared for us (mostly or entirely by himself) in recent days:

(L-R: brown rice sushi; scratch-cooked tomato soup with homemade croutons; stir-fried chicken with cashews; summer fruit ripple; orange-scented iced cookies)

Meanwhile, while my son has been busily cooking away, a lot has been going on in the blogosphere that has me thinking about the issue of cooking literacy and kids.

When I commented last week on Mark Bittman’s proposal to tax junk food and subsidize healthy foods, I noted that the presence of cheap rice and beans and vegetables in every local convenience store, while great in the abstract, is no guarantee that Americans — long accustomed to fast food and convenience food  — will have the knowledge or desire to prepare those foods. Then, coincidentally, the next day I reported on a new study indicating that kids are getting more of their calories than ever from food cooked outside the home.  I also shared the news that Americans rank dead last among twenty nations surveyed in terms of time spent cooking (a factoid that Mark Bittman retweeted and which got shared all over Twitter that day).  Meanwhile, inspired by my Bittman post, Bri of Red, Round or Green wrote a great post on the decline of home cooking, and then a few days later Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules (one of my new fave blogs) also wrote an excellent piece urging his readers to eat out less and cook more.

It’s not like I’m just waking the importance of home cooking, of course — that’s been a regular topic on The Lunch Tray since its inception.  But the question of cooking illiteracy among America’s kids is really troubling to me.  For those kids not lucky enough to learn cooking by osmosis at home (unlike the kids of most Lunch Tray readers, I’m guessing), who is going to teach them?

Home economics classes have generally gone by the wayside.  And while there are many wonderful organizations around the country giving kids hands-on cooking experience (Purple Asparagus, featured here last week, and Recipe for Success, with which I regularly volunteer here in Houston, are just two), I’m enough of a realist to acknowledge that even these laudable, private efforts can’t possibly reach every child in the country who needs them.

In the winning essay I wrote for Slate’s anti-childhood-obesity Hive, I laid the responsibility for basic cooking instruction at the doorstep of public schools.  I wrote:

. . .  while we’re working to restrain harmful messages from corporate America, we also need a complimentary, wholesale effort to provide every school child in America with a basic course in food literacy.  Just as schools have stepped in to teach hygiene, sex education and driving skills (all “extracurricular” topics once taught only by parents), they can also provide bare-bones information on nutrition and cooking, arming kids with critical information about the effects of their own food choices and how to eat healthfully for life.

But in another context (criticizing Jamie Oliver, not responding to my Slate essay), school food reformer Dana Woldow once left this comment on TLT:

. . . if the people of this country want nutrition education taught in schools, then it needs to be one of the tested subjects, because education in this country has devolved to the point where the ONLY material that gets covered is that which will be on the standardized tests. . . .

I am all for nutrition education; I truly believe we will get nowhere with getting kids to eat better in school just by changing the food – kids need to have some skin in the game, and the best way for them to get it (and JO does do this quite well) is through nutrition education. But seriously, pretending that it is the fault of the schools that the current teach-to-the-test mania doesn’t allow time for frills like nutrition ed, is beyond ridiculous.

As a public school parent of two, I can’t deny the truth of what Dana says here.  With drastic cuts to education budgets and with the current, relentless focus on test scores, asking for widespread cooking education in schools right now seems hopelessly naive.  And putting aside the question of limited time during the instructional day, many schools lack the facilities to even cook their own school meals, let alone teach cooking to students.

So what do you think about all this?  How do we teach kids from non-cooking homes to be able to cook for themselves as adults?  Is it fair to turn to the schools to meet this need?  Are private groups the answer?  Would a public health campaign make any difference?

Whatever your thoughts, it seems to me that the ability to cook our own food is critical to taking responsibility for our health.  When we completely cede the cooking to processed food manufacturers, restaurants and take-out shops, we may get convenience and delicious flavors (read: heavy on the salt, sugar and fat), but the price — as evidenced by our declining national health — is just too high.




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New Study: Children Getting More of Their Calories From Fast Food and Take-Out

In my post yesterday responding to Mark Bittman’s op-ed on food taxes, I cited a 2011 OECD study which ranked America dead last among twenty nations surveyed in terms of time spent cooking — Americans currently devote, on average, only thirty minutes or less each day in food preparation.

So the findings of a new study will come as no surprise:  American children are now getting more and more of their calories from food prepared outside the home.  The study, which will appear in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and can be read in full here, looked at the eating habits of almost 30,000 children between 1977 and 2006, and found that the consumption of food prepared outside the home (fast food and store-prepared food) increased from 23.4% to 33.9% during that time period.  As you might expect, the researchers also found a resulting increase in overall calorie intake.  In addition, researchers found that “the percentage of calories from fast food has increased to surpass intake from schools.”

There’s nothing terribly surprising here (although this seems to be the first study of its kind.)  For convenience and/or economic reasons, Americans are turning the cooking of their food over to others more and more frequently.   But as we all know, the only goal of the food purveyor is to make food taste so good  that you’ll come back for more, and that usually means loading it with far more of the fat and sodium (and sometimes artificial ingredients) that we’d do well to avoid.   (For a great exposé of food industry tactics to manipulate our taste buds, check out The End of Overeating by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.)

Eating out is easy, convenient and can be great fun — my chowhound family lives for Sunday nights when we explore Houston’s seemingly endless array of just about any ethnic food you can imagine.  But when we completely give up home cooking, we cede far too much control to third parties who simply do not have our best interests at heart.

And that brings me back to my Bittman post, which inspired blogger Bri of Red, Round or Green to write her own post on the demise of home cooking.  She offers thoughtful suggestions on how to get Americans cooking again and she makes an impassioned case for “moving backward” — i.e., giving up some convenience foods — so that we can move forward.  Be sure to check it out.

[Hat tip to PEACHSF and Eat Dinner for alerting me to the JADA study.]





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From Barilla Pasta: Feed the Hungry and Get a Free Cookbook!

I was recently contacted by the pasta brand Barilla regarding their “Share the Table” program, which was created to help families come together more often over shared meals.

Between now and October 15th, visit www.ShareTheTable.com and click on the icon that says you “believe in meaningful meals.” When you do, Barilla will donate $1 to Meals On Wheels Association of America, for a total donation of up to $150,000.

Then, after doing that good deed, you can download the free 32-page cookbook which contains pasta recipes from Mario Batali, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and other celebrities.  Both the book and the website also contain lots of useful tips about sharing family meals — everything from menu planning, eliminating distractions, ideas for dinner conversation and more.

I was also particularly interested to read the results of a survey conducted by Barilla about U.S. families’ eating habits.  Amazingly, three out of four families don’t sit down to family meal regularly.  You can read the entire article summarizing the survey findings here.

Thanks, Barilla, for helping families bring back the shared meal!

Am I a Control Freak? — A Reader Pushes Back

Yesterday I expressed some minor disagreement with the goals of a new website, Zisboombah, which claims that it will end “kid friendly meal battles” in your house by allowing “children to take control of meal time, and pick their own chow!”  Kids play a game to come up with menus which are then sent to the parents to prepare.  I questioned the seemingly stringent nutritional analysis used to evaluate the kids’ meals (which are assigned one to five stars) and said that while I’m happy to involve kids in menu planning, I wasn’t quite ready to hand over the keys.

A reader named Jade responded:

I think zisboombah.com is a fabulous idea! I went on and played with it and think it’s awesome!  “Handing kids the keys” is teaching them to make their own decisions when it comes to food. We can’t stand by our kids forever and say “do you want celery or carrots.” Parents need to release some of that control- maybe that’s why we have such a huge problem with child obesity and eating disorders…hello?

I gave this comment a lot of thought.  It’s true that I am currently exercising a fair amount of control over my kids’ diets right now.  Is it too much control?  Here’s what I finally decided to write in response:

I don’t disagree that kids need to eventually assume full control over what they eat.  My ultimate goal is to raise two adults who live a balanced life with respect to food, never fearing any particular food as “bad” or off-limits and understanding the basics of a healthy lifestyle.

But to my mind, reaching that goal is an evolutionary process.  My infants ate only what I fed them.  My toddlers got to pick between two offerings of my choosing.  My school-aged kids request favorite dinners, want to make dessert for our Friday night Shabbat meal, like to search through recipes and experiment with cooking, etc.  That said, I’m still the master Menu Planner, and they still have limits on the amount of sweets they eat at home (and believe me, we do eat plenty) or that they can purchase with their own money.  If I removed those controls, I’m fairly certain that our dinner rotation would consist only of fish tacos and pasta and they’d be eating ice cream and candy seven days a week.

But in just a few years, the ball is going to be entirely in my kids’ court when it comes to making food choices.  I can only hope that by then, following the example my mother set for me, I’ll have trained them to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness signals, to balance indulgences with more healthful food, and to keep relatively active.  Who knows if I’ll succeed, but it seems to me that, as with all the ways in which we hope our children will become self-sufficient, each day’s learning builds on the next.

Turning to Zisboombah specifically, I was actually excited when I first read about Pick Chow!  I like the idea of a game that teaches kids how to put together a balanced meal.  What I didn’t like was (a) a feeling that something was “off” or unrealistic about the nutritional analysis and (b) the message to parents that the solution to healthy-meal battles is simply to cede control to the child.

As noted in my original post, if parents had a rule that a Zisboombah meal had to meet a certain star rating to be served, and if parents felt confident that those ratings reflected a their own nutritional values (as, for example, commenter Anthony did not), then I’d have no problem with a family letting kids feel in control of the menu — some of the time.

But not all of the time.  And that’s because — totally apart from nutrition — one aspect of menu planning (in my opinion) is expanding children’s palates.  The options on Zisboombah are generally what we’d call “kid-friendly,” and that’s fine.  But a lot of the things I serve – ethnic foods like Greek, Morrocan and Indian, for example  – aren’t intuitively kid-friendly, yet  my kids now like them.   Those opportunities to learn new flavors would be lost if we were confined to the roster of foods from the site.

To Jade, please respond if you like and I’ll be happy to post your reply here.

And to everyone else, feel free to chime in.   When you’re trying to raise kids to eat healthfully, there’s always a question of how much control is too much.   I’d love to hear where you draw that line.

Playing With Food at “Zisboombah”

I just learned about an interesting new kid-and-food web site called Zisboombah which is designed to “help parents create kid friendly dinners with the help of their children.”

Kids play a game called Pick Chow! to create a dinner they’d like to eat, and this meal is then sent to their parents.   Kids have to pick foods from different categories and a variety of little meters (showing things like fat, fiber, sugar, etc.) give kids instant feedback on the nutritional quality of the meal they’ve chosen.  The object of the game is to select a “five star” meal which then allows the child to also pick a dessert, and to enter his or her meal into a “Meal of the Week” competition on the site.  The team behind Zisboombah promises that the game will end “kid friendly meal battles” in your house by allowing “children to take control of meal time, and pick their own chow!”

I have a few philosophical issues with Zisboombah, starting with how insanely hard it is to create a “five-star” meal.  Here’s one combo I created that I was certain would earn me five stars:  1% milk (I didn’t see skim offered), a small serving of turkey breast, a small serving of sweet potato, broccoli and a plum.  But for some reason, that only earned two stars.  After much trial and error — maybe five or six tries — I finally earned a perfect rating for the rather odd meal of tofu cubes, baked potato, quinoa, cauliflower, sliced apple and 1% milk.   I’m guessing that some kids would get frustrated and give up long before I did, and I also worry about the message the rating system might send:  if my seemingly healthful meal was only worthy of two-stars, children could easily throw up their hands and say, ack, just give me a Big Mac!

The other thing I’m not totally down with is the whole idea of ceding meal planning to your child.  As an Ellyn Satter devotee, I consider that my job, given that I have far more nutritional knowledge than my children.  And the site doesn’t really answer the question of what I’m  supposed to do if my child sends me a one-star meal of chicken nuggets, chocolate milk and mac-n-cheese. (I suppose you can set ground rules that no meal will be served in your home unless it merits a four-star rating, or something like that.)

But these criticisms aside, the site does have a lot to offer.  It’s fun and dynamic and there’s a lot of nutritional information for both parents and kids, along with recipes for parents to help implement the meals their kids choose.  And I do like the idea of involving my children in the meal-planning process, even if I’m not ready to hand over the keys.

Zisboombah would be a great way to get that conversation going.

Family Dinner Dilemma: “No Take Out”

As part of our Family Dinner Dilemma discussion, Lunch Tray reader (and friend) Donna recently alerted me to “No Take Out,” a free recipe service that provides you with a new dinner menu each night.

There’s a lot to like about No Take Out.  First, cooking steps are divided into “When You Walk in the Door,” “Prep” and “Cooking” so you can get a meal on the table in the least time possible by, for example, putting water on to boil right away.

Second, the entrees are appealing and kid-friendly enough to make dinner go smoothly, but interesting enough to keep adults happy, too.   And there are neat resources under the “Food for Thought” tab, (including a “How Do I Do That?” section on various cooking techniques like peeling fresh ginger or adding pasta cooking water to a sauce).  The site also features guest chefs with a lot of culinary star power – people like Alice Waters and Mario Bitali, to name just two.

The only downside of No Take Out is that, unlike paid menu services, you don’t get complete weekly menus sent to your inbox, nor do you get a complete shopping list for the week.  (You do, however, get a shopping list for each dinner you choose, so it wouldn’t be terribly hard to combine them.)  But for a free service, No Take Out has a lot to offer busy families seeking to answer the eternal question, “What’s for dinner?”

Do you have any sites that help you get dinner on the table?  Let us know!

Family Dinner Dilemma: Tools for Easier Supermarket Shopping

Part of the hassle of getting dinner on the table is, of course, shopping.  Short of having your groceries delivered (and of course, there are lots of ways to do that now), shopping still involves sitting down and making a list and then trying to get in and out of the store in the least amount of time, without managing to forget that one critical item on which an entire recipe depends (something I’ve done too many times to count.)

To streamline this process, I’ve experimented with the various grocery iPhone apps – some free, some costing a few dollars –  that are supposed to make grocery shopping a breeze.   I can’t link you directly to the iTunes store but the most popular such app is “Grocery IQ,” and that one, along with several other leading grocery apps, is reviewed here.  [Ed. Update: Here’s the Grocery IQ link.]  The advantage of the best of these apps is that they contain a vast brand name database, so that you only need to type in a few letters of the item you need, check it off when it appears, and your list is soon complete.  Grocery IQ (and other apps) also have the neat feature of allowing you to organize your list according to the layout of the supermarket you shop at most.  And you can easily check off the items on your phone as you move through the aisles.

It all sounds great, doesn’t it?  And yet, inevitably I always fall back on scribbling needed items on a slip of paper.  For some reason, I’ve just never been able to make the high-tech switch.

So if you’re a Luddite like me and prefer a paper list, there are still ways to simplify your life.  For example, there are literally hundreds of free, downloadable grocery list templates on the web that you can print out and post to your fridge.  To highlight just a few, here’s one from my friends at Meal Makeover Moms which focuses on the healthful ingredients you ought to be buying, and here’s a really simple one that doesn’t list the food categories for you, but has a clean layout that appealed to me.  And here’s a site that let’s you generate and print out a list with just the items you need each week, so there are no unchecked items to clutter up the list.

The other advantage to a paper list is that, unlike your phone or other PDA (which is presumably in your purse or pocket or briefcase most of the time), you can keep the list in a central, visible spot so that you (and the rest of your family) can jot down items as you run out of products or as you think of something you need.

Do you have any tips or tricks to make grocery shopping more efficient?  Let us in on your secrets!

Family Dinner Dilemma: “Peace and Love in the Kitchen”

Just one day before launching my “Family Dinner Dilemma” series about getting weeknight dinners on the table, I got an email out of the blue from Waverly, the parent and writer behind “Peace and Love in the Kitchen.”   I visited Peace and Love and guess what?  It turns out to be a beautiful and well-thought-out site devoted to nothing but weeknight dinner.  It’s enough to make you believe in fate, isn’t it?

Most relevant to our Family Dinner Dilemma discussion is Waverly’s section on How to Feed a Family.  It covers everything from efficient meal planning and shopping, food prep, cooking tips for the beginner, getting kids involved in the cooking, and even a word about table manners (something we’ve been talking about quite a bit here lately).  And I liked her description of four parents and their different methods for getting food on the table, showing that there’s no one right way to accomplish this task.

I was also intrigued by Waverly’s concept of “The Three Bowls,” i.e., always serving along with your dinner a platter of fruit, a platter of cut-up veggies, and a green salad.  Her theory is that:

It is predictable. Everyone knows these items are always on the dinner table. If someone does not like what is being served for dinner, they can eat more from the three bowls.  It also provides more opportunities to eat or at least be given the opportunity to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, a category that is often underplayed.

Of course, in my family, it’s the vegetables and salads that are themselves the subject of pickiness, so they’re not a great “out” for the child who doesn’t like my meal, but I take her point that the more opportunities presented to eat such foods, the better.

As for the recipes on the site, you can tell right away that Waverly is a real cook who appreciates good food.   My only caution is that the majority of these recipes aren’t those 30 minute, dump-and-stir meals you see on many websites for busy parents.   That said, if you follow Waverly’s tips on doing advance prep work, many of these recipes could be made on a weeknight or, at the very least, they could be made on a weekend and frozen for use during the week.

I love it when little surprises like Peace and Love come across my desk.   Especially when they show up just in the nick of time.