A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

It's How We Eat, Not What We Eat

Changing America's food culture by shifting our focus from "what" to "how"

There’s a new movement afoot in the American food world, and for once, I can get fully behind it. It reflects so many of my bedrock beliefs about food and eating, as well as helping me explain—even to myself—why cooking is such an important part of my life. As a nation, we spend the vast majority of our thoughts on food obsessing over what we eat, with brief flashes of interest in when we eat and why we eat. We’ve always been most receptive to experts and scientists who tell us what and what not to put in our mouths, and occasionally when to do it. But even a brief survey of these dicta reveal so many inconsistencies and conflicts that the whole project begins to feel like a Tower of Babel. Now, at long last, attention is slowly but surely shifting to how we eat, with a new focus on the larger forces determining our consumption patterns, on what foods are available to most Americans, and on what kinds of food experiences we have—for example, meals prepared and/or eaten out versus meals cooked at home. I'm hopeful that this, finally, will shift us away from our collective and unhealthy obsession with so-called “healthy” foods and towards a more productive, less destructive solution to our national food and health woes.

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For the first time in memory, many major players in the food world are uniting behind a specific concept: that the poor state of American eating is a direct result of the ways our country produces and markets our food. Acceptance seems to be growing that the endless cycle of demonizing specific nutrients and components of food—fat, salt, sugar, carbs—is not helping us overcome the sorry state of our national eating habits or the related health and weight issues. Rather, we need to change our eating behavior and our food culture if we stand any chance of improving the way we eat. 

In the last week alone, I’ve read pieces by Jane Brody, Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan all identifying the profit-driven food industry as the true source of America’s food-related problems. Brody, who focuses somewhat obsessively on weight issues, acknowledged this week in the New York Times that perhaps sugar (or any other specific food) isn’t actually the primary villain in Americans’ diet-related health problems. This is a big step for Brody, who has always been a major proponent of diets and (lots of) exercise as the major players in weight loss. She now points instead to restaurants, food manufacturers, and concurrent social changes as some of many culprits in this complex problem. I’m sure that Restaurant Association of America will soon finance some studies to contradict Brody’s assertions and issue heated rebuttals to them: her piece cites some shocking statistics about what restaurant meals have done to change our national eating habits. Larger portions; greater amounts of salt, sugar and fat; and the coopting of “healthy” as a food marketing tool all come under her well-deserved scrutiny. Most surprisingly of all, Brody acknowledges, for the first time I can recall, that “Willpower rarely helps people who struggle with their weight,” which is as heretical statement as you can imagine in this field. If willpower isn’t the answer, as I’ve maintained for a long time, then we need to look beyond our individual food choices to solve the national food problem—towards the how rather than the what.

Mark Bittman, also writing in the Times, epitomizes this shift as well. After all, he's gone from writing weekly recipes to appearing on the op-ed page as the paper of record’s first opinion writer to focus on food policy. He’s gone from publishing cookbooks to books that focus more on the larger issues of eating and how we can change our food culture. His latest book, VB6: Vegan Before Six, which I’ve yet to read, sounds a little close to a diet plan for my taste, but reading his latest online piece, “Why I’m Not a Vegan,” I can see how he’s proposing not merely another (futile) diet, but a shift in patterns of consumption that could help us nationally. Rather than jumping on the food restriction bandwagon, with its juice cleanses and other eating-disorder-encouraging strategies, he’s proposing a return to more plant-based eating, with moderation and flexibility as key components. These last two factors may not sound radical or important, but they are essential: they are the two things most diets ignore, and which lead more often than not to their failure. We need a food culture we can adopt long-term—forever, actually. No diet you can’t adopt for the rest of your life will work; this is a truly revolutionary proposal in our current culture of short-term, often extreme fixes.

The granddaddy of the plant-based, whole food movement is, of course, Michael Pollan. Ironically, he seems to be taking the opposite direction from Bittman in his latest book, Cooked, which is about home cooking. But as much as the book is about making meals, it’s also about the value of cooking at home, not only from a health perspective but also from a societal one. In other words, it’s still about how we eat. We need to change our attitudes about cooking—that it’s too difficult, too precious, too time-consuming—if we are to reverse the trends Brody notes, which are leading us further into the morass of obesity, eating disorders, and other food-related health problems.

When you cook at home, you not only control the portions and ingredients, you reconnect yourself to what you eat and—most important—with what your family eats. When you make time to eat these meals with family and friends, you gain a richer experience of eating: not only do you appreciate the food you make, but you connect your immediate community with a tradition of eating. You also disempower the powerful institutions that have a vested interested in our continuing dependence on processed foods. As a recent blog in Scientific American points out, recent government guidelines suggesting that any food aimed at children provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet”—which meant they must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans”—were withdrawn after protests by the food industry that they would have disqualified 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods in the US. In other words, because our national eating habits have become so dreadful that 88% of what we eat doesn’t meet basic nutrition guidelines, the government is not allowed to issue even guidelines aimed at helping us improve them. Talk about a Catch 22.

As a country, we’ve lost touch with the food traditions that once shaped our eating habits. Thanksgiving is about gorging and football—not even necessarily in that order—and the food associated with other holidays is mostly candy. The traditional Christmas dinner is far less important than the truckloads of gifts people now begin shopping for on Thanksgiving Day itself, in sales so mobbed that people are regularly injured and even killed in stampedes. Arguably, the only true, surviving American food tradition is the wretched cycle of over-eating and restriction that so many people are caught in.

Even more than what we eat, how we eat will determine the future shape of American food culture. Can't we absorb and adopt enough of these new ideas to help our children do better than we have? I encourage you to think more along these lines and think about what changes you could make in how you and your family eat.

What I cooked this last month:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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