The challenge was posed just over two years ago, by my then 16 year-old daughter:
Go for an entire year without making oven food.
Hmmm … Oven Food … as in anything cooked in the oven?!
Well, no. You see, at some point, over the years of child-rearing, oven food became our family’s term for any food item that got slid from a box onto a cookie sheet and heated in the oven. In our house, oven food means processed food, specifically processed food of the suppertime entrée variety.
The challenge came following a week in which I apparently — according to my daughter, although my youngest son would strenuously disagree — out-did myself in the kitchen. Although cooking isn’t my favourite thing-to-do, I had just had an unprecedented spate of success: an entire week of made-from-scratch meals — some new recipes, some tried-and-true favourites, and a couple days of some really tasty leftovers.
The fact that I accepted her challenge with an enthusiastic, Sure, I’ll try! illustrates just how far we’ve come …
Here’s a rather sad fact: when I got married, nearly 25 years ago, I didn’t know how to peel and chop an onion. I had never sliced and diced a sweet pepper. And I didn’t know the difference between a bulb of garlic and a clove, let alone how to operate a garlic press.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, with a mother who was an absolute wizard with a needle and thread, but who, unfortunately, hated cooking with an almost equal passion. Although part of the problem lay with the fact that she didn’t really know how to cook, it was also fairly obvious that there was a fair measure of simmering resentment about having to cook. We were, after all, living in the height of the me generation, a time in which women all around her were embarking on careers outside the home. And while women were being liberated from mundane drudgery, food corporations were standing at the ready, poised to take full advantage of a social movement. What better way to free women from the ignoble chore of cooking than by selling them processed foods?
The result of these combined circumstances? A nearly perfect storm of unhealthy eating when I was growing up.
Suppers at our house were a rotating variation of either white rice or boiled potatoes paired with some sort of meat: chicken, which was shake-and-baked; pork chops, also shake-and-baked; or fish, breaded and frozen and slid from the box into the frying pan. Mix into the rotation a few frozen pizzas, some fish sticks and frozen french fries, some canned soup, and the occasional chili cobbled together with hamburger, powdered onion, a can of baked beans and a can of tomato soup. Add in some canned corn or frozen peas, the occasional head of broccoli or a once-a-week salad made from nutritionally-devoid iceberg lettuce (dressed with pickle juice), and you have a pretty good idea of what I ate for the first 23 years of my life.
Although my husband was used to better fare (his parents enjoyed cooking and were quite good at it), we embarked on married life fuelling our bodies with me as the head of the kitchen. While I surreptitiously observed my mother-in-law in her kitchen, and thus began to figure out the basics of onion and pepper chopping, my husband and I were both busy with school and work, and neither of us thought it important to spare much of an effort to escape the ease of processed food. Most meals were slid from a box onto a cookie sheet and thrown into the oven. Sometimes there was spaghetti and a jar of prepared sauce. There were an awful lot of breaded mystery-meat patties that we fried up, and to this day I have no idea what they contained, although I do remember there was a long list of fine print on the packaging, words I never bothered to read.
We were all set to raise the next generation of non-cooks (otherwise known as heaters) when a serendipitous mailing arrived at our house: a free copy of the Nutrition Action Health Letter, a publication put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI’s mandate is two-fold: educating the public on nutrition and health, as well as lobbying government and corporations on issues such as food additives, labeling laws and health claims.
For the first time in my life, I took a hard look at what we were eating, and what I was feeding our young children. And I didn’t like what I saw.
Subscribing to the Nutrition Action Health Letter was the first step in what’s been a 20+ year journey. That initial subscription marked the beginning of my label reading, my recipe cutting (this was pre-internet), my days of checking cookbooks out of the library, and my voracious reading of anything that had to do with nutrition.
But although I started finding recipes, and began to do more cooking, I often still found myself in ruts. It was an effort to try new things, and I found it disheartening when a promising dish turned out to be a dud. Although I was having some success, my kids were still putting up a fair amount of resistance. They were — amazingly! — willing to eat soup containing chick peas, a thing I never once encountered in childhood (and shamefully, I know I would have run the other way if ever offered some), yet they greeted lentils with disgust. I often found myself making the same dishes over and over, and I still clung to the whole heating business, interspersing scratch meals with a liberal selection of convenience slid from a box. I told myself I was choosing healthier options, because, based on the advice of the Nutrition Action Health Letter, I was diligently reading labels, avoiding preservatives such as TBHQ and BHT/BHA, and eschewing anything that contained partially-hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup.
But I noticed something: on days I decided to heat, I felt guilty (I wasn’t doing much better at feeding my family than my mother had!), and on days I had to cook, I resented the time taken from something else I’d rather have been doing. Truth be told, I didn’t really enjoy cooking any more than my mother had. Processed foods were still my crutch. And it wasn’t until I embarked on my daughter’s challenge and threw away the crutch that several things became clear:
- Convenience is a slippery slope
Tell me one person who, after getting an automatic clothes washer, would go back to a washboard. And why on earth would they? An automatic washer cleans clothes just as well, if not better.
But while we of a certain age grew up with the prevailing notion that food is food is food, the trial is now over and the jury’s come back. And unfortunately, the unanimous verdict from all proponents across the full spectrum of diets (vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, paleo), is that a diet high in processed food is a recipe for unhealthiness.
So what about moderation? Surely processed food every now and again isn’t going to kill us?
No, it isn’t. But while I’m usually an everything-in-moderation kind of person, here’s what I’ve discovered about me and moderation, with regards to processed food: every incident of heating that occurs in my kitchen is a teetering on a slippery slope. Because I don’t enjoy day-in and day-out cooking, heating chips away at the hard-fought habit of cooking in exactly the way a day off exercising chips away at the habit of going down to the basement to run on the treadmill. But processed foods aren’t just a slippery slope for me. The bigger problem is that they’re also a slippery slope for my children, most notably my nine year-old.
Here’s a fact about my youngest child: he LOVES processed food!
But maybe it’s not just him; maybe ALL young children do, and perhaps there’s a scientific reason for it.
During my year of no oven food, I read Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Truthfully, it wasn’t an absolutely riveting read; however, it was an eye-opening insight into the processed food industry. Here’s what we’re up against when our child balks at our home-cooked meal and pleads for chicken nuggets: oodles of dollars in research and years of careful tweaking of salt, sugar, fat and numerous other additives, all with the goal of making food sublime and tantalizing and even addictive.
The best way I’ve found to compete against all that? I now know to let it in the door as seldom as possible.
Here’s the second truth I’ve come to:
- Cooking is work
I know. This is a really obvious statement. Of course, cooking is work!
The thing is, a lot of people (that is to say, people who aren’t doing the actual cooking) often don’t really *get* the fact that cooking is work.
There’s finding recipes, meal planning, and grocery shopping. Then comes the chopping and dicing and measuring of ingredients, the time spent standing over the hot stove. There’s setting the table, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that for the vast majority of us, day-in and day-out cooking is not fun; it’s work, deserving of respect.
One way to teach children (or husbands/wives/partners!) to respect the work of cooking is to have them take part in the process. But the other part of the equation comes with setting some simple rules. These rules are what I would refer to as company manners, the etiquette one should be taught to follow when visiting someone’s house and partaking in a meal. But the thing is, if expressions of Yuck! or Ew! are disrespectful and unacceptable at Grandma’s house, then why are they allowed at home? And a thank-you for supper at the end of the meal, some acknowledgement and expression of gratitude that work was performed in getting food onto the table — no matter if the meal was greatly enjoyed or not — should be a basic requirement.
And this leads to my third observation:
- Children will — eventually — learn to eat what is set before them
Suppertime at our house used to be filled with all sorts of unpleasantries: there’s been whining, obstinate refusals to eat, instances of head-on-the-table shedding of tears. It’s a tough thing to go through as a parent. We worry that our kids will starve, that asking them to eat something they don’t like will somehow damage them. We despair that we’ll never be able to take them anywhere.
Parenting is often about picking your battles, making decisions as to which points of contention are worth fighting over, and which ones you’re going to raise the white flag on. Here are some thoughts on making the supper table a place where you stand your ground:
- Children will eventually learn to eat what’s put before them. (Reassurance and tips for this can be found in the book French Kids Eat Everything). While the best time to shape a child’s eating habits is when they’re very young, it is entirely possible to change course when they’re teenagers, and to embark on healthy eating mid-stream, as a family.
- Picky eating can be both nutritionally and socially detrimental. The best way to combat this is by refusing to make secondary meals, and by taking the position that supper is what’s served. In my experience, nonchalance is the best defence to counter-arguments.
- The incidence of many diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are on the rise. They’re also beginning at earlier ages than they did in previous generations. Poor diets and processed foods are largely being held to blame for much of this. The documentary Fed Up provides a stark analysis of this situation and describes a state of affairs that’s both maddening and heartbreaking (although the current desire to point the finger of blame at sugar and processed foods, and to exonerate saturated fat, isn’t correct either. Videos showing why you shouldn’t buy into that new way of thinking can be found here: part one and part two). The brutally hard truth of the matter is that while it’s easy to come up with excuses (I’m too busy to cook, my life is too stressful, I don’t know how…) it’s becoming harder and harder to plead ignorance of the consequences of a poor diet. We as parents — as the adults in the house, as the grocery shoppers and cooks — are responsible for what food items come into the house, and although saying no isn’t the easiest thing to do, the evidence is telling us it’s the right thing to do.
- The ability to cook is, I would argue, an essential piece of adulthood. If it’s our job as parents to raise responsible and competent adults, then continuing along whatever detrimental path we’re currently on is ultimately doing our children a great disservice. According to Jamie Oliver, the British chef who worked wonders in getting real food into school cafeterias in England, many families in Europe and North America are now into their third generation of non-cooks, their health at the mercy of food corporations whose main concern is turning a profit.
- If I can do it — remember where I started? — anyone can do it. And because of the internet, it’s easier than ever before. Google makes the need to embarrass yourself in front of your new mother-in-law entirely unnecessary, and also provides answers to every possible cooking question you could ever think to ask.
Once again, I’ve written a novel of a post; my apologies for my long-windedness.
Unfortunately, I’m not quite finished yet, because I do have to come back to the challenge my daughter set …
Did I make it the whole year?
Here’s what happened: I set out on the year not stressing about it overly much, a fact which is curiously surprising given the fact I stress over a lot of things! Perhaps, because I’m not a buyer-in-bulk and didn’t have a vast store of frozen goods in the freezer waiting to tempt me with convenience, I subconsciously felt I had no choice: the cooking habit simply HAD to take hold right from Day One. I vaguely knew I had to have meal plans in place, and to make sure I had staples on hand. I knew that on busy days I’d better be thinking about supper at breakfast time and planning accordingly, either by pre-chopping vegetables, or choosing easy recipes, or by plugging in the slow cooker, a hitherto little-used appliance which became my best friend. I tried a lot of new recipes over the course of the year. I learned to LOVE days of leftovers and to plan meals of leftovers for the very busiest of days. My nine year-old eventually gave up complaining about the “weird food” we were always eating (I’ll explain more about this in another post), and he stopped asking for hot dogs and Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese to the Americans out there). (I do admit that when he asked for that specific meal for his birthday, I couldn’t say no. And while technically hot dogs do fall under the processed food umbrella, they’re not really oven food, are they?)
So here it is … with the exception of one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (to quote Judith Viorst) in which I headed (in a perfectly foul mood) to the local Foodland at 5pm in order to buy a box of Highliner breaded salmon … I did it!
And when I announced it to my family, somewhere around New Year’s, in a somewhat bemused and unbelieving voice, all the while searching my brain and trying to recall if there actually had been any other very bad day like the aforementioned one, my daughter said, “What?! I don’t remember that! I didn’t really challenge you to do that, did I?!”
(At which point I closed my eyes, speechless … )