Will Rogers used to say, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Here’s something I read the other day.
According to a USA Today report, an expert panel urged Americans to slash calories and increase physical activity, stating that obesity is “the single greatest threat to public health in this century.”
The advisory committee for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a 13-member panel of national nutrition and health experts, cautions that about two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese. The committee highlighted a number of steps it feels should be implemented to combat and reverse this trend. Among those steps was a mandate to improve nutrition literacy and cooking skills, and to motivate people, especially families with children, to prepare healthy foods at home.
Way ahead of the curve, I have written a number of articles over the years on the need for people to learn how to cook. I’ve dedicated copy to teaching children to cook, teaching men to cook, and why everybody should learn how to cook.
I was talking with celebrity chef Bobby Flay not long ago about what direction food is taking and where it needs to go. Bobby commented that we need to move away from processed foods and that we need to get kids to make better dietary choices.
While definitely in line with the goals of the advisory committee, this is a case of easier said than done. The dietary choices of the average five-year old are pretty much dictated by whatever his mom puts in front of him. And processed foods are aggressively marketed to overly busy moms as being quicker and easier than “old-fashioned” cooking. Throw in a few healthy buzz words like “enriched” and “natural” and what stressed out, time-pressed parent could resist?
That’s where the “improve nutrition literacy and cooking skills” part of the equation kicks in.
Let’s say you and I want to fix a nice dinner of macaroni and cheese for our respective families tonight.
You go to the store and, bypassing the dairy section and the pasta section, head straight for the packaged food aisle. There, in the blue box, is the macaroni and cheese. Just like it was when you were a kid and the advertising pitchmen of the ’50s and ’60s had convinced your mom that the stuff in the blue box was as good as homemade and ever-so-much easier to prepare. You take it home, open the box, cook the macaroni, then dump the orange powdered stuff over it with the requisite amount of milk and margarine (so much healthier than butter!) and there you are, ready to serve your family a delicious meal that only took about ten minutes to prepare.
I go to the same store, but I bypass the pre-packaged foods and pick up a box of elbow macaroni. Then I head over to the dairy section and select a package of cheese. We won’t talk varieties and proportions and recipes right now. It’s just cheese. I take it all home, open the box of elbows and dump it in the boiling water. While it’s cooking, I cut up my cheese. When the pasta is ready, I mix my cheese, along with some milk and butter (yes, butter. I’m from a place where the oily substitute stuff used to be illegal) and there I am, ready to serve my family a delicious meal that only took about ten minutes to prepare.
The difference? Well, here’s what we put on the table:
My dinner consists of pasta made from semolina and durum flour, with niacin, iron (in the form of ferrous sulfate), thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid added. (The nutritional additives are required by the US government to replace those lost in the processing of wheat flour.) My cheese contains…..cheese. Pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, and microbial enzymes. Add milk and butter (containing pasteurized cream and salt) to the dish and serve.
In your meal, the pasta is the same. But the cheese! Try: whey, milk protein concentrate, milk, milkfat and cheese culture, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, citric acid, lactic acid and enzymes. Add in milk and margarine to your dish. (Margarine contains liquid soybean oil, partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, water, whey, salt, vegetable mono- and diglycerides and soy lecithin, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, artificial flavor, phosphoric acid, vitamin A palmitate, colored with beta carotene.) Yummy!
Since it kind of came up, in the ongoing battle between butter and margarine, I will fire only one salvo: Butter has cholesterol, yes, but no trans-fat. Margarine has no cholesterol, but contains trans-fat. Pick your artery clogger. And remember, butter has never claimed to taste like margarine.
So whose meal would the advisory committee recommend? Since we’re talking macaroni and cheese, they’d probably cringe either way, but ultimately, I think they’d choose mine. People of a mindset like Bobby Flay’s would definitely choose mine over the processed chemistry experiment you produced.
Both meals took the same amount of time to prepare and both cost about the same. I paid more for my ingredients up front, but I’ll get two or three meals out of what I bought. You’d have to buy two or three boxes of yours, and the cost would be about equal.
Breaking away from quick, convenient processed foods is not easy. The big food companies don’t want it to be. And improving cooking skills can be a time consuming process. But I offer myself as testimony to the fact that it can be done.
I started cooking when I was seven, and one of the first things I learned to “cook” was the blue box variety of macaroni and cheese. It was the ’60s, after all. And I ate the stuff for decades. I also “cooked” a lot of frozen dinners over the years. I did a mean Minute Rice and I was a real whiz at whipping up a batch of instant mashed potatoes. Franco-American spaghetti and various varieties of Campbell soups were frequently on the menu. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there wasn’t much of anything that came in a box or a can that I couldn’t “cook.”
But I was lucky. I had a mother and a grandmother who were superb old-fashioned cooks. Despite my lectures, Mom kind of went down the frozen food highway a lot in her later years. But when she was younger – when I was a kid – there wasn’t much she couldn’t make from scratch, especially baked goods. And I used to watch with an air of pity as my grandmother cranked meat through the old hand-cranked meat grinder or used a funny looking cone-shaped wood thing and a China cap or chinois to produce fresh applesauce. Didn’t she know that meat came already wrapped at the grocery store and you could buy applesauce in jars?
I don’t know what the catalyst was, I don’t know when the epiphany came, but one day it hit me and I decided to start backing away from boxes and cans. Of course, this meant having to ramp up my cooking skills. The ones I had were fairly dormant and I soon realized that I had to acquire a better set. This I accomplished through a lot of study and experimentation.
But then the snowball started rolling downhill. The more “old-fashioned” but advanced techniques I learned, the more I wanted to learn. And the more fresh foods I used and the higher the quality of the homemade dishes I turned out, the farther and farther away I got from “modern” processed foods and “cooking.” As a result, I literally can’t remember the last time I bought a loaf of bread. Various boxed pasta, rice, and potato dishes have been absent from my pantry for years. (I can make a version of “Rice-A-Roni” from scratch that is absolutely indistinguishable from the boxed stuff, and there are no additives in it.) I keep one jar of commercial spaghetti sauce on the shelf in case I get caught short, but usually when I make up a batch of my own, there’s plenty to freeze. And there are still a couple of canned soups, just in case. But I generally make enough chicken soup to take some to the in-laws, and I frequently use my own stock in the preparation.
It just ain’t that hard.
The major thing about home cooking and using fresh ingredients is planning. You can’t just come home and throw something in the microwave. And, believe me, I still do that from time to time. I make killer pizza using fresh-made dough and home made sauce, but I’ve got a Tombstone in the freezer right now. Nobody, the advisory committee included, is advocating burning down your local supermarket and going back to the farm. It’s all about learning, planning, and making better choices. Like the macaroni and cheese example. Fresh-made doesn’t take any longer, it doesn’t cost any more, it’s better tasting and it’s better for you. Why buy the box?
Mashed potatoes? I can make a batch of instant in about six minutes and here’s what I’ve got: a bowlful of dehydrated potato flakes with sodium bisulfite, BHA, citric acid, monoglycerides, partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil, natural flavor, sodium acid pyrophosphate and butteroil, mixed with milk, margarine (or butter), water, and salt. It takes me a few minutes longer to boil a couple of potatoes, but running them through a ricer or food mill, adding milk, butter, and salt and hitting them with a masher takes the same six minutes as the instant, they taste like mashed potatoes and I don’t need a degree in chemistry to figure out what’s in them. Why buy the box?
There’s a million other examples, but I think you get the idea.
Don’t be afraid of words like “braise,” “poach,” “blanch,” “broil,” or “saute.” People were doing those things centuries before “microwave on high” became the only cooking technique you needed to know. If “microwave on high” is the extent of your cooking experience, buy some books. Watch TV. In a 24 hour day, there are cooking shows on for about 22 of them. (The other two are devoted to “paid-programming.”) Ask questions of friends and relatives who can cook. Take a few classes, hang out at culinary stores. You’re not looking for Michelin stars, you just want to learn the basics.
There are numerous online resources available for people wanting to learn how to cook or seeking ways to improve their culinary skills. One that I recently came across and am really impressed with is http://freeculinaryschool.com.
Then re-learn your local grocery store. It may surprise you, but there are aisles and sections devoted to fresh meats and fish and vegetables and fruits and cheeses and all kinds of stuff that doesn’t come in a box or a can and isn’t frozen or microwavable. Wow! And that farmers market you pass on your way to the convenience food store? That’s not a place where farmers hang out and talk about their crops. They actually sell stuff there. Fresh stuff! Good stuff! Stuff that’s grown right there in your area, not shipped in boxes from the other side of the continent. If you’ve always thought that places like Whole Foods and Fresh Market are for granola-eating health nuts, take a look inside one day. You’ll be surprised.
“Oh, but that stuff is so expensive. I can’t afford to eat like that.” You can’t afford not to. Reference the aforementioned obesity rate and the health costs associated with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other diet-related diseases. You can spend a few bucks more for better quality foods now, or you can save on embalming costs later, because you’ll already be full of additives and preservatives that extend shelf life.
Check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans online. They are posted in lots of places, including various USDA sites and www.mypyramid.gov/guidelines/index.html. Just enter “dietary guidelines” into your web browser. The new (2010) guidelines will be out soon. While applying them all to your life and lifestyle may not be possible, try to implement at least a few. Especially the one about improving your nutrition literacy and cooking skills. You -and your appreciative family – will be amazed at the results.