Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Michael Pollan's Advice Doesn't Work for Most Families

Which do you want to deal with after an 8-10 hour work day?
Michael Pollan is one of the biggest food gurus today. The journalist has authored several best-selling books on food, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. And like any intellectual guru worth his or her salt, he's given a stirring TED talk.

Pollan has a lot over many others offering advice on how to eat. First, his tone is friendly and casual, which can be refreshing in the face of so many more urgent voices that seem to cry, just follow this diet and you'll save the world and live to be 100. Otherwise we're all doomed! 

Second, he doesn't go to extremes (such as proponents of strict veganism, raw food, or the Paleo diet), so you don't feel like you have to stop going to restaurants or become religious about eating habits.

Third, his advice is simple and easy to remember. Pretty much everything he advocates is encapsulated in this short list of his 7 Rules for Eating on WebMD.

Michael Pollan's advise has even been boiled down to this single suggestion: just cook, as we see in this short animation narrated by Pollan:

Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself. Sounds simple enough. But is it?

I cook for a family of four almost every day. Here's what that involves:

The Shopping: I make a weekly menu, then make a list of ingredients to buy and make sure they fit within the budget. Sounds easy, but it requires usually about an hour of thinking and looking up recipes. If I forget anything, I'll have to return to the grocery store, which takes even more time. Then there's the couple of hours it takes to actually go out and get the stuff. Since I cook with fresh ingredients, I must even consider the order in which I cook meals, because certain foods won't last a week in the fridge.

Organization and Daily Mindfulness: Each day I must be aware what's for dinner, so I know what time to begin preparation. Most food prep must begin at least an hour and a half before dinner so there is time to clean, chop, saute, bake, roast, get interrupted by the kids, etc. Something in the crock pot needs to be started 6-10 hours in advance. A loaf of bread in the bread-maker at least 3.5 hours in a advance.

Mistakes: I can't say how many times I've screwed up the timing and ended up crying along with my hungry kids as dinner slides into the oven 30-45 minutes late. I can't say how many times I've under-cooked dishes because I was in too much of a hurry. I can't say how many time I've burned things because I was distracted by child care while cooking.

I once forgot to turn the oven off on a quiche while I took my daughter to ballet. After dropping her off, I had just enough time to rush back home, then rush back to pick her up. The quiche could not be saved and we ordered a pizza that night.

Large quantities of beans, pasta, and baked goods.
Cleanup: Obviously washing all those pots and pans, mixing bowls, food processors, blenders, mixers takes more time than just throwing out some packaging.

All in all, I spend about 20 hours per week on food prep, cooking, and cleanup. That's all time I don't spend working on my career, playing with my kids, spending quality time with my husband, volunteering, or just relaxing. If I had a full time job outside of the home, I would not cook every day.

To explain the difficulties with Pollan's advise another way, let's break down his 3-phrase mantra from In Defense of Food: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. 

Eat food: By this Pollan means don't eat processed food - that stuff that lasts forever on the shelf, that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, and which has all those unpronounceable ingredients. The problem? Real food generally costs more and takes more time to prepare. Whenever I find myself in a position where I must cut back on the grocery bill or get dinner on the table fast, I inevitably turn to store-bought bread products, cheap sauces, pre-made rotisserie chicken, etc.

Not too much: Life stress combined with easy access to high sugar and high fat foods makes overeating almost inevitable for most Americans. In the video above, Pollan mentions the term "cravability" used in the food industry. Yes, we're up against an entire industry set on making us crave products to which we have easy access. Will power alone isn't going to cut it, especially for busy, stressed-out parents.

I find that I'm most in danger of suddenly bingeing on hotdogs, pizza, ice cream, or gas station cheeseburgers (yeah, I do that, don't judge) if I've been really good about cooking wholesome meals at home for a while. All the cleaning, chopping, mixing, stirring, and timing is so much work (not to mention career duties, other housework, and child care), I feel like I need a break and deserve a treat. And since I haven't been eating that excessively fatty, sugary stuff all week, after the first bite my brain just goes Oh holy fuck that tastes good! And any plans of only eating 500 calories worth go right out the window.
The crock pot is our friend.

Mostly plants:  Here we run into a cost issue again. Plant based foods tend to be lower in calorie, so one has to eat more (and buy more) of them. Plant based foods also tend to be less flavorful on their own. I can add absolutely nothing to a well cooked piece of meat, fish, or an egg, and it's still pretty darn tasty. But beans and rice requires cumin, chili powder, salsa, avocado, and hot sauce to be just as palatable for me, and all those extras cost money.

Despite the title of this blog post, I'm a huge fan of Michael Pollan's advise about food. I probably think about his mantra at least a couple times a week. I do try to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid buying foods that have more than five ingredients.

But actually following Pollan's advice is a daily struggle, and one which has not become easier after years of attempts. The success I have had is possible because of the ample free time afforded to me by my position of economic privilege and as a work-from-home-parent.

Our  household income is almost 300% above poverty, and slightly higher than the 2013 median American household. On a good week we spend $150 per week on groceries. That's about $20 per day. Walking through the processed food isles at the Dollar Store, I know $20 a day can buy a lot more calories that take a lot less time to prepare than what I do spend it on. If I switched my kids to things like instant oatmeal packets for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, and canned ravioli for dinner, I could easily cut our grocery bill by a third. (And as added bonuses, I'd spend a lot less than 20 hours a week in food prep and my kids wouldn't complain as much.)

These are hard choices to live with when there's so much we parents want to do with our limited money and time. But I'm one of the lucky ones, because my family's income and my flexible career affords me a legitimate choice.

Some kids insist on separated foods. This can make cooking
even more difficult. This dinner took almost 2 hours to make.
Two thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck (source.) Over a third of children are raised by single moms, and over 60% of mothers raising kids work. (source.) More than one in five American children live in households under the poverty line. Our problem with food in America isn't education. Even if we know what and how to eat to stay healthy, it simply isn't affordable and practical for most of us.

Our real problems with food in America are poverty, unemployment, under-employment, too long hours and too long commutes for so many working parents, government subsidies for the wrong kinds of food, and an under-regulated food industry that preys on our intrinsic desire for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt.

In the face of all this, knowledge and will power of the individual aren't a solution. Major changes would have to happen in our labor laws, social programs, and food industry regulations before Pollan's advise is really practical for most Americans.

In the meantime, given our current situation, I've come up with a list of tips for parents who want to attempt to follow Pollan's rules for eating:

  • Get a rice cooker and make a habit of cooking up a big pot of rice every other day. 
  • Buy as much fruit on sale as you can afford, and try to start each day eating some. 
  • Frozen veggies last long and are often cheaper than fresh. Plus, some kids will just eat frozen corn and peas as snacks. 
  • Canned veggies aren't as good as frozen, but better than no veggies. Except maybe canned asparagus. That shit is nasty. 
  • Butter and sprinkle Parmesan cheese can go a long way toward getting most kids to eat more vegetables and to making vegetables more satisfying. 
  • Don't buy snack foods. Ever. Saves money and the kids won't drive you nuts begging to eat crackers all the time.
  • Crock pots are awesome - just throw all the stuff in a pot in the morning and turn it on. (Some kids have a hard time with big chunks of different foods mixed together. One fix for that is using a hand mixer and making pureed soups such as potato.) I love this Crock Pot cook book. 
  • Bread makers are also awesome, and I'm always seeing cheap ones for sale in thrift stores. 
  • Buy less milk and cereal. Oatmeal is way cheaper than cereal and milk, and often healthier, too. The dairy industry has hyped the nutritional value of daily milk consumption. 
  • Put all the veggies in the pasta. If the kids complain about chunks of veggies, puree it into sauces. Cauliflower works great in cheese or cream based sauces, and pretty much any veggies will puree well into a tomato sauce.
  • Meat is expensive, full of fat, and lots of kids just want to eat that and then not veggies, so try to use it sparingly in rice or pasta dishes that stretch it further.
  • Use beans more as a protein. They are cheap, are already cooked in the can, and can be prepared a gazillion different ways to suit different tastes. If worried about the salt in canned, you can cook dried beans or just rinse the canned ones. 
  • Make a lot of potatoes. They are cheap and taste good. The easiest thing I've found to do with them is chopping them into wedges, spraying them with veggie oil, sprinkle with salt, and 25 minutes in the oven at 425 degrees. 
  • In general if you have the time to cut up all the veggies or the money to buy them already cut up, roasting veggies is the bomb. Most veggies will roast well at 400 degrees for 40 min-1 hour. Ones I've gotten my kids to eat regularly: butternut squash, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, red peppers, onions, and sweet potatoes.
  • Make refried bean quesadillas on corn tortillas. It's as quick and easy to prepare as a toasted cheese sanwich or box of mac-n-cheese, but healthier. Corn tortillas and refried beans are cheap, and a small amount of melted cheese gets most kids to gobble it up.

Most important tip: If none of the above tips or anything else anyone has suggested works for you, just shrug and do what you gotta do. Food isn't the end-all, be-all of existence. The perfect diet (if such a thing even exists) won't sick-proof your kids or make them grow up to be astrophysicists. A whole generation of working class Americans grew up on things like my Grandma Franny's "Blushing Bunny" (canned tomato soup over white bread) and did just fine.

If your kids are active and engaged with the world, if the pediatrician and dentist aren't freaking out, you've done good.


  1. Something I recently tried and it TRULY DOES WORK.

    Reynold's No Stick Aluminum Foil - me wee spinach soufflé stickith not to it.

  2. Thank you for this! Reality based - guilt free - and seriously good advice. Thanks.

  3. Ugh. I just added up how much time I spend on meal prep/cooking/cleanup. And we're just two adults.

    I am fortunate to have the luxury of skill and time, and to be able afford high quality fresh foods. But, healthy, home cooked meals *should not* be a luxury.

    I agree with you 100% about the cards being stacked against healthy eating. One thing I'd add is that many people do not know how to cook. I'm not talking making gourmet meals-- just not knowing enough to do what you suggest above. I've taught more friends to cook... but anyway... I don't know how to fix that, either. I won't shove off yet another task onto the plates of parents who are just getting by.

    1. Home ec that teaches basics of cooking and planning weekly meals on a budget should be mandatory in high school.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Pollan's way of eating is quite achievable no matter if you are a family or not. If one stops making excuses, in favor of prioritizing nutrition, it is quite easy. Of course, this means that one has to step away from the distractions such as tv and the Internet. (including blogging!)

    1. You are just shaming people by suggesting they are weak and/or have bad values. Nothing more than an ideologue who can't be bothered to empathize with people who have different perspectives and experiences from yours, nor can be bothered to learn that shaming isn't an effective strategy for altering peoples' behaviors, and in fact only does harm to people.