Thursday, 14 May 2015

Things My Mother Taught Me About Food

Hands up if you're a sucker for a Netflix documentary? If A Tree Falls (fascinating), Nim (deeply depressing), Man on Wire - I can't resist. The other night I watched Fed Up, which is about the obesity 'epidemic' and the strong arm of processed food companies - particularly pointing a finger at outrageous levels of added sugar. It wasn't actually news to me, being a bit a a food nerd: the softening of McGovern Report due to industry pressure, the conflicts of interest with the FDA, junk food in schools, advertising to children (a nauseating quote from a McDonalds rep at a hearing: "Ronald McDonald doesn't sell to kids; he informs and inspires through magic and fun"). A fascinating tidbit was the government simultaneously recommending less dairy fat consumption in official literature, while actively peddling all the excess cheese made from the leftovers from skim milk. Depressing, but not surprising. I hadn't really thought about it before, but those of us born in the 80's and 90's were growing up in this unbelievable boom for processed foods, when families were marketed junk from all angles. Low fat! Fun! Convenient! Affordable! My childhood could so easily have been full of Lucky Charms and Spaghetti-O's, but it wasn't, because my parents knew better. I'm so grateful that they valued real food and made us eat it! That's not to say that we never had pizza or soda, but it certainly wasn't the norm.
These are some of the best things my mother taught me about food, that I hope to pass on to my kids:

Cook at home:
I will never believe that cooking from scratch is too expensive. That is simply false, especially if you're eating mostly plants. There is a reason that beans and rice is peasant food the world over - it's both cheap and nutritious! My parents both worked, and both cooked (though my dad was more of a breakfast man, if I recall - he was a short-order chef in a diner once upon a time), and even though they were being sold extra-value-family-meals at every turn, they fed us real food. I would hope that this were a possibility for everyone, but you do hear about these 'food deserts' in the US. I can't imagine not having access to normal foods you can cook at home - it's shameful.
Eat at the table:
Together, as much as possible. If you don't make an effort to eat together, how do you even know what your kid is eating? Not just for nutrition, but for communication! I really believe in this one. We even had breakfast together in the mornings, from my recollection - I remember having cinnamon toast or oatmeal before walking in the fog to my bus stop. I remember my mom's horror at another child being sent out to greet the day with a soda in hand. She was just as busy as other moms, I should note, and isn't a superior holier-than-thou type AT ALL, but she deserves credit for making the effort in an era where it was socially acceptable to just hand your kid a Pop Tart and be done with it.
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store:
This is a good one, especially when you first move out on your own and are trying to make good choices on a limited budget. All the crap is in the middle of the store, and all the normal food is on the perimeter. So my store now, going left to right, I hit veggies, fruit, chilled stuff (hummus, tofu, salsa if I were in the US), beans and grains, bakery (including flour), and frozen (which can actually great for healthy stuff). I still shop this way. As a consequence, I sometimes forget to buy mustard for months at a time, but it's worth it to focus on real food. AND you'll save money by not tempting yourself with cut-price junk. Yeah, ok, some fresh foods are pricey; out-of-season asparagus, exotic fruit ('sultan food', a colleague once quipped), but you can shop smart as well as fresh. That's just common sense.
If you're broke and busy, eat like a kid:
Like in college, for example? When I moved out, I remember my mom telling me that I should just eat like a little kid. She didn't mean pudding and popsicles, she meant simple whole foods like soup, fruit, toast, veggie sticks. Celery and peanut butter, apples and peanut butter - hell, anything with peanut butter. It's cheap, it's fast, it's real food. That's not to suggest that I didn't live for months on end on frozen bean burritos and salsa, I did (though really, you can do worse), but that I wasn't encouraged to live on 'convenience' food, even at a time in life when convenience is important! I also wasn't much of cook yet, on my own anyway, so I needed easy food I could just pick at while pulling those all-nighters.
But avoid 'kid food':
Oh, how we longed for Captain Crunch! We begged for Kix! And store-bought fruit roll-ups (Mom made ours. From fruit. How boring!). But she was right, of course. Not only "empty calories", but you're overpaying for the privilege of being undernourished. Does it have a cartoon character on it? Pass. We'd say to our friends, 'you're so lucky - you get to have Doritos all the time!', but we were the lucky ones. As an adult, I've actually had old friends tell me that they fondly remember the comfort food MY mom would make. Grilled cheese and tomato soup on a rainy day was the example someone mentioned recently. (Interestingly, my husband has heard the same thing from friends about his mom - apparently she made a mean cooked breakfast, even after a night shift! I wonder if this is why he and I are on the same page about this stuff.) This one definitely still holds true in 2015 - just look at the ingredients on children's food and you'll see it's absolutely laden with sugar, half the portion and double the price. Nice try.

Pitch in:
We all helped in the kitchen, including my brothers (none of that sexist crap, thank-you-very-much!). Everybody helps. There was this story I vaguely remember about a mouse making strawberry shortcake or something? Anyway, nobody wanted to help make the cake, so when it came time to eat it, they didn't get to help with that either. The whole family can be involved in one way or another, even if you end up naturally falling into different roles; these days, when we're all together, my younger brother and I tend to help cook and my older brother tends to do the dishes. It works - it's more efficient, more sociable and more fun! With a toddler, obviously it's also more work in the short-term, but you gotta start sometime. 

Indulge now and then, if you want:
My mom makes really good tacos. The secret is to fry the tortillas, so they are rich and filling and satisfying. For some people, that would be enough of a treat in itself, but my mom also happens to think that her tacos go best with Pepsi. Don't know why, but it was a treat for us all, and she used to let us have it on taco night! I'm not fussed about Pepsi, but the principle is this - we're not martyrs. A cupcake is not the end of the world. I've waxed poetic before about dessert, but it can go for other junk foods too. I'm not interested in eating fake food all the time, but neither am I interested in deprivation.

Nothing revolutionary - or at least it shouldn't be! Just normal food, eaten together. To me, this is at the heart of family life, and I only hope I can set such a good example.

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