I began my career as chef in the mid 1990’s just as the Food Network was gaining steam and chefs were beginning to be regarded with what only can be compared to rock star status. It was here the world of food began to change significantly. Food took a huge shift from being something that sustains us and gives us energy to thrive, what I like to call everyday food, to almost mythic status. Elaborate dishes that no home chef would ever make because of the multitude of ingredients or the amount of time it would take. A truly unsustainable way of feeding yourself and your family especially if you are subject to things like a busy work schedule, children and of course a budget.
Food and how we feed ourselves has become increasingly complicated, but ironically rather than hosting shows that actually teach people how to cook, the cooking shows now drawing an audience are all competitions, which serves only to make more home cooks feel even more inadequate. The desire for these foods pushed many of us into restaurants and out of our home kitchens. The result has been an enormous increase in obesity and all the diseases associated with it. Even worse we have become a nation of eaters who rarely sit down around the table for a family meal, and eat on the run from fast, casual restaurants in disposable packaging that isn’t just destroying our health, but the health of the planet as well.
I am trying desperately to gauge when exactly we became so disconnected from the food chain that we now simply ignore where our food comes from and how it is prepared. It was not that long ago. I teach cooking classes to seniors quite often, and when I speak to this generation of 70 and 80 somethings, they all distinctly remember milk delivery in glass bottles, going to the butcher to pick up their meat wrapped only in butcher paper and twine, and their kitchen gardens, a must have for all rural dwellers. Even my childhood growing up in the 1970s, grocery stores were a fraction of the size because we simply did not have all these packaged and processed foods and drinks. We drank water out of a tap or a water fountain, not disposable plastic bottles. So my best guess is about 30-35 years ago we had a major shift in how we view food and where it comes from.
Most of the time I tend to fall into the trap that it is America’s addiction to cheap food as the major driver, but a trip to Europe last winter proved me wrong there. Every meal we went out to, was probably ½ or 2/3 of what I would have spent in the U.S. for much lower quality food. So in fact our food isn’t quite as cheap as you think, and when people consistently eat out, it is quite expensive. We could then blame many of the additives and ingredients in packaged food that trigger those same dopamine receptors as heroin, causing us to become actually addicted to those junk foods. While we all talk about how to deal with the opioid epidemic and the growing numbers of deaths related to it, why aren’t we talking about addiction to sugar which kills more people annually through diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer than drug addiction. Perhaps the sugar industry has a better lobbyist than the drug companies.
As I continued to struggle with the idea of when and how we made this shift, my husband who is a bit older and a child of the 60’s, reminded me it was all about convenience. As women made the shift into the workplace, this did not absolve them of their so-called wifely duties, such as cooking and cleaning. However there are only so many hours in the day, so companies designed products to help those busy women. We started with items like Hamburger Helper and Shake and Bake, but in 50 years we have evolved into complete frozen meals and aisles and aisles of packaged foods to help cut your cooking and prep time. All of this created in the name of convenience and making life easier.
Here is a fundamental question, Is all of this convenience food making our lives easier and better?
I don’t have an answer but, I can confidently say as convenient as all this may be it is causing a whole host of environmental and health degradation that are having a significant impact on our communities. It is great to have all this convenience food that makes dinner prep quick and easy, but if the ingredients in those foods can lead to poor health outcomes and chronic illness perhaps we should think twice about purchasing these products. I tell clients all the time that those these foods seem inexpensive and convenient at the time, but you will pay with your health later on.
The conversation could go on and on, but the why’s at this point aren’t that important to me. What is important is how do we change our patterns of behavior and learn to embrace, or should I say re-embrace a simpler way of life, which inevitably includes how we feed ourselves. The task is monumental and when looked at as a whole, rather overwhelming. Like most change, it is hard to do but if you approach it in small reasonable ways, you can successfully change how you do anything.
So here are 3 easy steps to get you on the path towards a better way of feeding yourself and your family. If you get coffee out, which why would you when home brew is a fraction of the cost, use a re-usable thermal mug with a lid and never be without your re-usable canvas shopping bags. 2 small steps which can make a big difference for the planet but the last one is for your health. Aim to eat 1 meal everyday that is from only whole plant based foods, aim for absolutely no plastic films as well. These small steps go a long way to improving your health and the health of the planet.