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Shop Right, Cook Often

Author Michael Pollan has taught us a very simple way to eat healthy. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He also cautioned that it is far better to eat food that grows rather than the packaged stuff made of many ingredients processed in a factory.

Healthy eating starts with shopping as few of us grow our own (although family and community gardens are the best way to eat the tastiest and cheapest fresh vegetables.) Browsing through a supermarket today one might conclude we are a nation of sick people whose food must be “free” of something: fat, sugar, gluten, etc. We are a nation with too many sick people but the main cause is eating too much food and buying too many processed foods.

While waiting in line at the market I looked at other carts. My cart held a sweet potato, an eggplant, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, bulk carrots, celery, grapefruit, pears, grapes, and a mango. Plus some packaged food: eggs, milk, cheese, chicken thighs, and crackers. But nothing I bought except the crackers had been precooked or processed. And the crackers only had three ingredients: wheat, soybean oil, and sea salt. (A prepared frozen dinner of pasta and chicken that I did not buy had listed 25 ingredients, many more if you count sub-ingredients like the 18 that constitute “cooked chicken white meat.”

The next cart to mine was filled with brightly colored bags of chips, cereal, cookies, crackers. Guess what? All the carts with children were piled high with processed foodstuffs. Lots of bags and cartons. Very few or no foods rolling around on their own.

I had a revelation. You want to east healthy? Buy naked food! You can pretty much identify food that isn’t good for you by the fact it’s packaged which almost always means it’s processed. And you can identify the healthy stuff rolling around on its own.

Why so many factory-processed and wrapped foods in our shopping carts? Food manufacturers market very successfully to both parents and kids. Many families today cannot afford fresh fruits and vegetables. (My despair over poverty and what is euphemistically called “food insecurity” in children belongs in another column.)

Why do parents buy so many processed foodstuffs? Parents are busy, packaged/processed foods are convenient. Kids won’t eat veggies. I’ve heard and used all these arguments myself.

But I learned from experience that if you don’t have chips in the house but do have cheese, carrots, and apples your kids will eat the healthy stuff. (Household hints: Slice peeled carrots diagonally and store enough for several days in the fridge. Slice apples, sprinkle with orange juice and refrigerate. Leave out a jar of peanut butter and a butter knife so your kids can make apple and PB sandwiches.)

My advice to parents: The next time you shop, buy fewer things sealed in big bags or smartly dressed in colored cardboard and buy more naked or minimally processed food. This small change can be a giant step toward keeping your family healthy.

Pollan’s latest book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” deals with the next step after shopping which is preparing the food. He contends that, “It was the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” I don’t doubt for a minute that those who cook their own food instead of letting it be cooked for them in a corporate factory or restaurant are healthier than those who buy already cooked stuff.

Why don’t we cook? Once again we are too busy, both parents work, Big Food marketing works, and the Food Channel makes cooking look very complicated. Also corporate food marketers have told women since the early days of the women’s movement days that we don’t have to cook anymore. Pollan, bless him, says, “First, we need to bring back home ec, but a gender-neutral home ec.” He adds that we need public health campaigns promoting the health advantages of home cooking, suggests a tax on prepared but not raw food, and hopes Michelle Obama will promote home cooking as well as growing our own veggies.

I don’t cook as much these days as I did when I entertained more Why? Been there, done that. Nowadays I cook very simply (actually I’m a lazy cook) and don’t mind leftovers so that package of chicken thighs in my cart will make four meals.

I am also not fanatic about the food that my children, or yours, eat. Some parents never let their child ever taste a forbidden food. I remember the case of a dentist’s child, only three, who had never tasted anything sweet like cake or candy. After gorging on the sweet stuff when attending his first birthday party he ended up in the hospital.

My advice to parents. Don’t forbid any food (unless your child has a documented allergy). Provide healthy meals (most of which you cook at home), eat together as a family as often as possible, and talk up the virtues of healthy eating.

But, once in awhile, a fast food meal or one you buy from a market is OK. Birthdays mean cake and that’s OK too. Although I suggest junk-free kitchen cabinets in favor of healthy snacks, if you or your child has a craving for some gooey treat, go out and buy one. Just don’t buy a big package of junk to be eaten mindlessly while your son watches his allowed hour of TV…after his homework is done, of course. This son, as well as your daughter, should start helping you cook from an early age.