When I was a kid, we “ate out”…in a real restaurant once a year…on my mother’s birthday. It was her day not to cook. We ate at the same Polynesian restaurant each time as she loved what she considered their exotic food.
Otherwise, she cooked. Or I cooked. Or my Nonna cooked. Or an aunt, uncle or cousin cooked. Regardless, we cooked and ate at home.
Pizza night? They made the dough and the pizzas.
Onion rings or French fries? They made them from scratch.
Cookies? Baked in our kitchen.
Bread and pasta? Yup, homemade.
We ate out for a special occasion, a very special occasion. Maybe it was financial in nature as we certainly weren’t wealthy, but I think there was more to it. My mother knew that eating out was not for every day. She knew the food would be richer, saltier and in bigger portions. She knew it would be different than what she prepared at home.
Make no mistake, we never felt deprived (Okay, sometimes we envied our friends eating out, but as I look back…what did we know?). My mother was a fabulous and creative cook who adored the art of nourishing her family. We also weren’t that different from other families. Back then, as a child of the 1960’s, less than 30% of our food dollars were spent on food prepared in a restaurant. Today, for the record, more than half our food dollars are spent on food prepared outside the home.
That’s a lot.
I think there are many causes contributing to the loss of our collective health from heart disease, diabetes, obesity and any number of other lifestyle illnesses, but there can be little doubt that one of the primary drivers of our scary downward health trends is the frequency with which we consume food prepared outside our homes. Whether a cafeteria, take-out joint or white table cloth restaurant, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that it’s okay not to cook. Marketing has contrived to sell us the idea that you can eat out with frequency and eat healthfully at the same time. We often discover that it’s just not the case (Kale salad at McDonald’s anyone?).
What I find so interesting is that we don’t even think about eating out anymore. It’s what we do. As a culture, we have become attuned to eating outside the home. When I was a kid, it was a decision that was discussed among the adults. We got dressed up. It was special. Now? Not so much.
And yet, we are obsessed with watching cooking on television. As Michael Pollan eloquently states, we spend more time watching Top Chef than we do actually cooking ourselves, spending a mere 17-20 minutes on food preparation in our homes.
Even when we do cook, it’s often not from whole and unprocessed ingredients. Instead, we open jars, nuke packages or boil in bags, assembling a meal from a variety of processed and sometimes fresh ingredients. When we find those meals predictably unsatisfying, we simply return to the order of the day and eat out.
I have been teaching cooking for a long time and one of the most common complaints I hear is that people simply don’t have the time to cook. Each time I hear this, I ask people to bring me their calendars and I will help them find the time. In more than twenty-five years of cooking classes, no one has brought me a calendar. H-h-h-h-m-m-m-m-m-m…
Interestingly, we are all allotted the same number of hours in a day. I have no doubt that some of us face more challenges than others, leading more complicated lives, working longer hours, making ends meet. The difference is that now there are more options available when it comes to eating. There was a time when every family prioritized cooking, regardless of how tough their circumstances because there simply was no choice. You cooked or your family didn’t eat.
I remember my Nonna telling stories about food shopping in New Jersey. She was the youngest of 17 kids in her family (yup, 17…). To shop, they would go with their mother on 2 buses and a trolley car to buy food by the bushel to prepare meals for the family and extended family all of whom ate together. They made this trek daily…each and every day (except on Sunday when everything was closed).
I’m not foolish enough to romanticize these challenging times at all. I love our more convenient lifestyle built on the labor of that generation. I love that I can shop twice a week and store my food in the fridge so it stays fresh. I love that supermarkets are within walking distance for many of us.
I’m also not foolish enough to think my family cooked all healthy meals. We ate enough white sugar and flour to…as my mother would say…choke a horse. But I would argue that although we ate those foods, we also ate a boatload of fresh ingredients, cooked for that meal. I’d also argue that the actual act of cooking, something we did together, was a key ingredient in keeping our family unit as tightly knit as it was. We prepped, cooked, ate and cleaned up together, free of the seductive call of phones pinging with Facebook notifications.
Finally, I’d say that even the sweetest chocolate chip cookies baked by my mother, although jam-packed with sugar, white flour and butter, were far superior in quality to any packaged chocolate chip cookie we could have bought. I’d venture to say that today, even the worst home-cooked meal if made from fresh ingredients is very likely to be lower in calories, fat, salt and sugar than the healthiest-sounding dish in a restaurant.
This is by no means meant to admonish anyone for not cooking (okay…maybe a little), but to wake us up to the fact that cooking is a survival skill, not a darling little craft to be discarded for more “important” life activities. The food we choose to eat the foundation upon which we build our health. The quality of our lives…from our daily work, family relationships, fitness, social lives all have their roots in how we feel. Lucky for us, cooking is sexy, sensual and luscious.
Think about it. When you feel great, truly great, you want to be active and productive. You welcome the chance to hang out with people and interact. When you feel less than your best, you want to curl up on the couch and hope for a better day.
We must wake up to the fact that prioritizing convenience over cooking isn’t working out so well for us. We can’t…no matter how marketing companies try to convince us…glean health and wellness from foods served to us in boxes, Styrofoam packages or boil bags. Simply because packaged fast foods include vegetables (at least in the photos…) doesn’t mean the nutrients we require from fresh food are present. In fact, they aren’t. The equivalent of the nutrients in a whole grain isn’t a whole grain, just as the equivalent of the nutrients in an apple is not the same as eating an apple.
When we look around and pay attention to how we are doing as a collective society, we can see the toll convenience has taken on us. We can see how our health has suffered.
As many experts have said, the inconvenient truth about health is that to maintain it requires some effort.
In my world, the most important thing you can do that would most dramatically change your health for the better would be to prioritize cooking. Sorry kids, but the path to wellness leads to and from your kitchen. And while I understand that we are all busy with over-scheduled lives, we must take a step back and prioritize the one thing that we can surely link to wellness…cooking. It may mean less time building your “following” or posting a photo of your awesome slice of pizza. It may mean teaching your kids to cook so they learn this essential life skill. It may mean having friends over to make pasta or pizza from scratch, taco night or whatever food you love to make. Cooking and eating together creates a party with little effort (outside of some clean up at the end of the feast).
To regain our collective health, we need to channel our inner Julia Child and fall in love with our kitchens. From the simplest fresh ingredient to the most complex of meals; from shopping to clean up, we need to reconnect with the art of nourishing our loved ones and ourselves.
Everyone loves to eat out. We live in abundant times with lots of options. Most of us can enjoy some kind of meal outside the home more than once a year. And we should take advantage of that lovely experience. When you do eat out…choose wisely. Look for a local restaurant run by a local chef who actually sources his or her ingredients, not some corporate chain restaurant or empire built by a “celebrity chef” where the food may be a bit dodgier.
In the end, eating is meant to celebrate life and love. Mother Nature made it sexy so we would do it. Cooking celebrates the sacred art of nourishing. Cooking and eating helps create the life you want. It’s really that simple.