|Photo courtesy of cravinghomecooked.com|
With childhood obesity on the rise, modern-day food gurus encourage home cooking. Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman both urge parents to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. Magazines such as Good Housekeeping and television personalities like Rachael Ray offer practical cooking advice, publishing recipes for slow cooker meals and 30 minute meals. Michelle Obama emphasizes the role that mothers play in helping children make healthy choices.
The message is that good parents, particularly good mothers, cook for their families.
While Pollan and others idealize a time when people grew their own food and sat around the dinner table eating it, they don't mention the effort that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals. Cooking is certainly important, and can be enjoyable, but it is also filled with time pressures and budget concerns.
In many households, both parents work, sometimes with nonstandard and unpredictable hours. And cooking isn't just about the time it takes to prepare the meal. It also involves planning ahead and purchasing ingredients, and cleaning up afterwards. For some parents, cooking is a chore they dread. After a busy day at work, they don't feel like spending an hour cooking after picking kids up from school.
Contrary to the stereotype that poor families eat mainly fast food, many mothers who struggle to pay the bills cook regularly because it's more economical. I remember my mother complaining about always having to cook, but she continued to do so to save money. I'm sure she often felt frustrated trying to get my siblings and I to eat what she prepared and to help with mealtime chores.
Most people would agree that it's nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal with the whole family. However, we can't ignore the effort and cost involved. How can we make reality look a bit more like our ideals?
Joe Pinsker's recent article in The Atlantic suggests an interesting option:
Limit variety in favor of ease, economy, and health.
Pinsker writes about Vern Loomis, a retired structural draftsman from Michigan, who ate a home-made peanut butter sandwich for lunch nearly every workday for about 25 years.
Is eating the same thing every day boring or brilliant? If you need to save money and time in the grocery store, reduce effort in the kitchen, and maintain a healthy, junk-free diet, a more limited menu might work well for your family.
According to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, eating similar foods every day won't harm you. "If your daily [meals contain] a variety of healthful foods," she says, "relax and enjoy [them]." For example, put that PB&J on whole grain bread. Good accompaniments include baby carrots, raw sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, or some cabbage or broccoli slaw. Switch it up to include apples, bananas, or citrus fruits.
Amanda Respers, a software developer, emphasized the stress-reducing benefits of eating the same thing each day. She eats a home-prepared salad, creating variety by using different greens, proteins, and dressings. She likes the simplicity of the formula, and how much time it saves.
Eating the same thing over and over can also simplify the decisions people make about what they put into their bodies, whether for weight control or other reasons. Currie Lee, who works in retail in Los Angeles, keeps meals unchanged to help manage her food allergies. She has oatmeal and fresh fruit for breakfast every day; her current lunch is a turkey sandwich with hummus, arugula, and cheese on gluten-free bread.
Lee's eating habits don't just control her allergies. She says that eating the same thing makes grocery shopping simpler and brings consistency to her sometimes chaotic schedule.
Nutritionist Nathan Wiebe also urges his readers to limit food choices. "I save my willpower for more important matters," he writes. "Willpower is like a muscle that gets tired the more you use it.... [When] I don't have to think about my meals... [I can] turn down any junk food offers throughout the day." He likes to eat bacon, eggs, and a variety of green vegetables for dinner.
Of course, most people around the world who eat the same thing every day aren't doing so voluntarily. "I would say most people... have little choice in their staple," says Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. "If they live in a rice culture they have rice for every meal; ditto potatoes."
Freedman says that variety comes from "relishes" such as spices, vegetables, and modest amounts of meat. This staple-plus-relish combination "dominated eating in traditional peasant cultures."
Krishnendu Ray, a food studies scholar at NYU, says "Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest. It is recent. It is class-based."
So in the totality of human experience, it is the variety-seekers who are unusual.
Why not eat oatmeal and fruit most mornings, with French toast or pancakes on Saturdays? Why not have peanut butter sandwiches, or salad with different proteins (tuna, curried chickpeas, chicken, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese and nuts) for daily lunches?
Could you simplify home-cooked dinners by eating the same things regularly? Meatloaf Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wild Wednesday (aka leftovers), Thursday Soup Day, Fun Friday (take-out pizza, plus salad and ice cream), Saturday Stir Fry, and Sunday Scramble (egg dishes) could work quite well for family dinners.
You don't have to resort to highly-processed convenience meals, even if you do take advantage of frozen vegetables, canned beans, or the occasional rotisserie chicken. Get your children used to having fresh fruit for dessert. Introduce variety with different "relishes," while paring down the cooking implements you need to have and the pantry items you need to stock. Bring back the joy of home-cooked meals.