A few weeks ago, the Obama administration released its updated dietary guidelines. The guidelines directed Americans to consume more fiber and vegetables and reduce added sugar. I read many articles on the guidelines, and most of the articles concluded that the guidelines were somewhat vague and abstract, and therefore unhelpful and confusing. As usual, it seems most Americans would be better off if they followed Michael Pollan’s dietary maxim: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Food, as Mr. Pollan defines it, is the fresh food you find in the perimeter of the grocery store–vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, fish–the kind of food that eventually rots. Generally speaking, it’s not the food you find in boxes and bags. Eating “mostly plants” means that the majority of your daily food consumption comes from vegetables, pulses, fruits, and whole grains. His advice is more nuanced than that, but the media boils it down to that simple maxim, and its more general, much less useful, counterpart: “avoid processed foods”.
In theory, eating “real” food sounds so …. millennial, chic, healthy, yuppie, organic, upper class. And, in practice, it pretty much is. Look around the internet and you’ll see countless movie stars and world-class athletes espousing fresh, “real” food diets and decrying processed food. Did you see the article on Tom Brady and Giselle?
But do any of these people not employ their own personal chef? How often do you hear organic-food enthusiasts turning up their noses at Safeway and Giant when those stores are often the only practical options for people on a budget? This isn’t coincidental. Eating mainly “real” food isn’t exactly realistic for normal, busy people, who can’t easily afford to pass up stuff like cereal, granola bars, sandwich bread, crackers, chips, yogurt, lunch meats, condiments, pasta, jellies, marinades, canned tomatoes and beans, frozen pizzas, salad dressings, tortillas, or pasta sauces (to name just a few foods that fall into the “processed” category). So why do nutritionists continue to dispense this advice yet fail to discuss its feasibility? And why isn’t there more discussion about what “processed food” actually means?
(As a quick aside, I think a lot of people who claim that they don’t eat processed food forget that a lot of nutritious food–frozen vegetables, olive oil, olives, vinegars, tahini, artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, milk, coconut milk, cheese, etc.–is minimally processed and should absolutely be eaten). The media routinely stresses the importance of following Mr. Pollan’s advice, without discussing whether or not it’s feasible to follow that advice or how to best do so on a daily basis.
For the past two and a half years, we’ve attempted to follow Michael Pollan’s advice. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we eat this way. Our Mediterranean “real” food diet is delicious, cheap, and makes us feel really good. But it’s exhausting. It takes up most our free time, what with the cooking, meal planning, and research on nutrition. Realistically speaking, there’s no question it would be really hard for an upper-class family with kids to routinely eat like this, let alone a poor family with even less time and few cooking tools.
When I say we follow Pollan’s advice, I mean we eat a diet based primarily on plants–vegetables, fruits, pulses, whole wheat flour–and minimally processed foods, and that we try to follow Harvard’s Daily Plate Guidance. We buy fresh or frozen veggies (minimally processed) but not canned (canned food is generally inferior in taste and there are many questions–although nothing conclusive–surrounding BPA and BPA-replacement substances used in canned foods and possible links to cancer). With our pre-prepared foods, we pay very close attention to the ingredients listed on the side of the box or bag. For example, we don’t buy food with added sugar (such as yogurt, pasta sauce, certain salsas, regular peanut butter, jelly) unless it’s food that’s supposed to be sweet (like Costco’s semi-sweet chocolate chips), and we don’t buy bread because most breads sold as whole wheat are very rarely 100% whole wheat, and have all sorts of added ingredients with uncertain health effects (ingredients that are banned in Europe but not in the US) so the bread stays fresh until the end of time.
And we absolutely buy processed foods that are nutritious, tasty, and cost-effective. Our dried, processed pasta, for starters, consists of 100% whole wheat flour, and that’s it. Costco’s Kirkland Organic Salsa is processed, but the ingredients are tomatoes, onions, peppers, jalapenos, water, and spices–nothing too threatening in there. The processed Kirkland “Natural” Peanut Butter consists of peanuts and water. It’s more expensive than regular peanut butter, but regular peanut butter has a ton of added sugar, and there’s no way I’m shelling all the peanuts necessary to make our own peanut butter. We don’t buy jelly because it’s hard to find jelly without added sugar. Dried fruit is, by definition, processed by drying. But as long as it doesn’t have added sugar, why wouldn’t we eat processed dried fruit? It’s delicious and incredibly nutritious. Musselman’s Fruit-Only Applesauce has apples, water, and Vitamin C. Olive oil, olives, artichoke hearts, capers, fire-roasted peppers, balsamic vinegars are all processed foods; they all have minimal ingredients and abundant nutrients. We buy them all in large quantities. Foods that are far more processed and have far more added ingredients, like cereals, granola bars, tortilla chips, bread products, and so on, are out.
But no matter how many artichoke hearts and applesauce containers we purchase, following Pollan’s diet necessitates a great deal of time in the kitchen. Let me explain what I mean with an illustration:
The first night of Snowzilla 2016, several Friday nights ago, we had spaghetti and salad for dinner, a seemingly easy meal. It was delicious. But our preparations for that dinner–a perfectly ordinary meal on a random night in January–started all the way back in August.
One weekend in August this past summer, my mom delivered three bushels of Amish-grown, local, pesticide-free, tomatoes to our doorstep. We knew they were coming; we’d ordered them, after all. But still, our hearts sank when we saw multiple boxes containing a ridiculous amount of tomatoes. We had our work cut out for us.
The first step came later that day. We took half of the fresh tomatoes–maybe 100 tomatoes, all told–and made sundried tomatoes, a process that involved cooking the tomatoes in the oven at an extremely low temperature for 12 hours straight (i.e., overnight). Then we packed the resulting red, crinkled mess into ziploc bags and froze them. The rest of the fresh tomatoes we washed and froze whole. (As an aside, don’t mess with anyone who has frozen whole tomatoes at their disposal–those things are hard as rocks and, if thrown at your head, could give you a concussion.)
Fast forward to last week. As I mentioned, we were planning on spaghetti Friday night. On Thursday morning, we took 11 frozen tomatoes out of the freezer and put them in a bowl on the counter to thaw. Friday morning, we moved them to the refrigerator. (As a quick reminder: We try to avoid canned tomatoes due to the possible link between the BPA found in the can and various cancers, despite the fact that canned tomatoes are minimally processed.)
We started cooking as soon as we got home Friday after (which was around 2; hooray for half a snow day!). First, we spent approximately 45 minutes cleaning and chopping the vegetables for the sauce: onions, carrots, celery, peppers, garlic, spinach, and jalapenos. We sauteed the veggies for 45 minutes and then added the now thawed but extremely mushy tomatoes and a ton of Italian spices to the pot. Italian grandmothers on the internet swear that you have to cook a good spaghetti sauce for 12 hours minimum. We had no time for such shenanigans and compromised, simmering the sauce for only a couple hours the rest of the afternoon
When we were getting hungry, we cooked our dried whole wheat pasta around 7:00 and started eating just after 7:15. After dinner came dishes, so we weren’t out of the kitchen until well past 8. On a Friday night. Like I said, it was delicious. But it took forever, and we’d gotten home from work super early!
The sad and unavoidable fact is that most homemade meals made with “real” and minimally processed foods take a long time to make. It takes a really long time to chop vegetables and saute them and soak and cook dried beans. It’s time-consuming to make your own sauces. It’s a victory if you’re out of the kitchen in two hours. And that’s not even counting the planning time that is required.
Take another example: beans. We eat meat at home only every couple of months, so we try to eat beans in at least one meal per day (protein is important, and pulses are nutritional powerhouses). It would, of course, be far easier to use canned beans, but we use dried beans. Why? Again, there’s the possible BPA cancer link that comes with canning food items. But, really, it’s because there’s no comparison in taste. For beans to effectively and sustainably replace meat, you have to be excited to eat beans. Is anybody excited to eat canned beans every day? Maybe, but not me. But dried beans, once they are soaked, boiled, cooked, and spiced specifically for that night’s recipe, are delicious.
Cooking dried beans, unfortunately, is a planning-intensive endeavor, and you need to start two days in advance of the bean meal. Two days out, before we go to bed, we soak the beans. The next morning, we add more water to the pot and let them continue to soak all day. When we get home, we rinse the beans, and then boil them for ten minutes to remove the toxins that reside in untreated dried beans. Then we rinse them again and pour them into the crock-pot, usually along with chopped jalapenos, onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, and spices. Then we cook them all night long. In the morning, the crock-pot goes in the fridge. That night, we have beans as a ready-to-go ingredient for whatever meal it is we want to make that includes beans. The possibilities are endless. Personally, my favorite bean-related meal is a burrito with sauteed veggies, cheese, and homemade tortillas (another time-consuming endeavor–but well worth it in the end).
Tapas and cheese for dinner? It’s great that we have pre-prepared olives, roasted peppers, and olive oil, but how do you eat tapas without dipping bread? Well, you can’t–it just wouldn’t be proper!–and that means another few hours to devote to baking a fresh loaf. Are there cooked chickpeas for the hummus? Kale for the pesto? No? Well, now you’re really in for it. You wanted to settle in with a book? Ha! Heaven forbid you have kids to take care of, because that’s probably not happening.
There’s a reason our go-to weeknight meal is scrambled eggs mixed with yesterday’s beans, Costco salsa, and microwaved frozen veggies.
We, as a country, need to spend more time talking about what it really means to cook using only fresh, minimally-processed, plant-based ingredients. It means that if you’re not satisfied eating scrambled eggs every night, it’s hard to have other hobbies because dinner is a two to three hour affair. It means on those nights when you had a really busy day at work and you’re tired, take-out pizza isn’t an option. (Homemade pizza is delicious, but the dough takes 24 hours, and the sauce takes as long as pasta sauce.) It means that a surprisingly large amount of brain power–and no small amount of your free time–goes into recipe finding, grocery list assembling, bulk purchasing (based on seasonal produce), and storage of said produce.
We also need to spend more time talking about how long it actually takes to cook those aforementioned ingredients. Chefs, too, need to be more honest about how long it takes to cook their recipes. Rachael Ray gained her fame through her “30 Minute Meals”. I use her recipes from time to time; they never, ever take less than an hour. Never. And it’s the same for every other recipe preparation-time estimate. The most popular cookbooks are those that promise homemade, delicious meals that are “quick and easy” or “ready in under 30 minutes,” but it’s rare that our cooking time comes close to the estimate, because there’s no such thing as a delicious and nutritious, yet quick and easy dinner: all nutritious meals involve fresh ingredients that have to be handled and prepared. It takes a long time to chop onions, peppers, carrots, jalapenos, and tear and massage kale. It takes even longer to saute onions–a key ingredient in countless tasty meals. (Anyone who tells you that you can effectively saute onions in under 25 minutes (not counting the chopping time) is lying. Julia Child recommends sauteing onions for 45 minutes!)
Instead of merely exhorting us to eat a tasty, healthy, nutritious diet, we need to talk about how to efficiently and sustainably do so. More recipes need to be geared toward frozen vegetables. More grocery stores need to sell quality frozen, chopped, and cleaned vegetables (I go to a lot of grocery stores. Costco is the only grocery store I’ve found with frozen fruit and vegetables that taste as good as the fresh ones.) More grocery stores need to sell cost-efficient minimally processed foods. It is absurd that the tastiest, most nutritious bread and tortillas I can find comes from my own kitchen.
We need to reshape how Americans approach food, cooking, and time, and the types of food grocery stores offer. Can cooking become the new socializing? What can we do to prompt grocery stores to do better at selling cost-efficient, minimally-processed foods?
How can Americans best follow Michael Pollan’s advice?
I have no idea what the answers are. But it seems like an important conversation to have if we want Americans to eat nutritious food.