In defense of (good enough) food

Michael Pollan has been making the talk show rounds discussing his new book, Food Rules. I’ve been meaning to write about him for a while. I read the brilliant Omnivore’s Dilemma last summer, and then downloaded In Defense of Food to my Kindle while I was in the hospital waiting to be induced (then the Pitocin kicked in and let’s just say I stopped reading for three excruciating hours until Sam was born. But since it was impossible to sleep in the hospital I did wind up reading much of it before my discharge).

Pollan’s books raise the very good point that we, as omnivores, can choose what to eat. But many of us don’t think about this question very much. In the past, we simply ate what our culture (“which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother” writes Pollan) and the seasons and location dictated we eat. But now, with factory farming and a global economy producing more food than we know what to do with, our choices should probably be more judicious. Judging by our growing national girth and the environmental destruction mass-produced food can cause, perhaps we should be a lot more judicious.

Pollan has several guidelines, a key one being to “eat food.” That is, food that your grandmother would recognize as food. There are no bonus points gained for nutrition claims on food-like substances produced by the “Nutritional Industrial Complex”; the fact that Go-Gurt has calcium does not make it healthy. We would probably all benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. With this, I agree.

But Pollan’s messages go beyond that – and here is where I start to worry. He suggests that the grocery store is not a good place to buy groceries, though he recognizes that you need to buy some things there. He just thinks that you should also start visiting farmers’ markets frequently. He waxes eloquent that a great thing about buying CSA produce or from farmers’ markets is it forces you to hunt for new recipes and experiment with them.

All these things take time. Whose time? Historically, food purchasing and preparation have largely been women’s work, which is why “culture” means “mom.” Married moms in dual-income couples who work full time spend about 6.5 hours per week on grocery shopping and food prep and clean-up (their husbands spend 2.73 hours). While this is only about an hour a day, the problem is that it is often a very valuable hour for a working mom – in the morning as you’re packing lunches, or in the evening when the kids are home but you’re trying to get a meal on the table. While there is plenty of time in 168 hours to work full-time and spend massive amounts of time with your family, making the pieces fit means that these valuable hours when you are all home and awake are not a great time to be doing housework.

But Pollan advocates that women should spend more time on these chores, since these choices “have real consequences, for our health and the health of the land and the health of our food culture.”

He is cunningly persuasive in an era in which middle-class motherhood is prone to fundamentalism—to suggestions that if you’ve ever given your baby formula you’ve failed. And so, on some of the email lists I’m on, people fret about how to afford CSA produce and organic food on a budget, or the time they spend hunting for recipes that incorporate ingredients they have, or about how they spend an extra 3 hours each week processing the CSA produce so it won’t go bad. They spend time every morning packing lunches rather than send the kids to school with lunch money, even if brown bag lunches tend to get soggy while the school lunch will be fresh and hot.

The trouble is that these choices have other consequences. While I truly believe that we have more time than we think, time is in the larger sense a non-renewable resource. Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing another. I could spend two hours going to the farmers’ market every weekend and an hour cooking every night. Indeed, I sometimes enjoy cooking elaborate dinners. But I usually don’t do it, for a simple reason: I believe it’s more important to spend that time interacting with my family or doing the professional work I love. I fail to see what would be gained by having women scale back their paid work (thus depriving the larger economy of their talents and insights, which often create opportunities for other people, including men who are supporting their families) in order to spend hours cooking. I fail to see what is gained when women try to do everything and thus feel guilty and stressed for time, or else do their paid work and the cooking but ignore their families. As it is, one reason I believe that fathers in 2-income families wind up playing with the kids more than moms do is that moms spend so much time doing cooking, cleaning and errands that these chores, rather than play, characterize big chunks of their family time. I think this is a mistake—much like in the Gospels, when Martha is obsessed with cooking for Jesus, while Mary actually sits and listens to him.

Jesus noted that Mary had chosen the better option. And so, my husband and I cook very simple preparations of veggies and meats and side dishes like couscous or instant rice from the supermarket. I’m sure the 5-minute couscous has nefarious ingredients, and so do the pre-marinated meats. Since my toddler is in a phase where the only fruit he’ll eat is pineapple, I buy pineapple—in season or not. It beats huge fights over dinner, especially since he’ll move on to a new fruit soon enough. This morning we all sat together eating cereal and talking. I definitely think this was a better use of my time than standing over a pot of steel cut oatmeal stirring, while family life went on without me. It is good to eat together whenever you can. If this means eating good enough food rather than good food, so be it.

7 thoughts on “In defense of (good enough) food

  1. I don’t think it’s an either/or choice anymore. Viewing it that way assumes that most moms today still do all the food-shopping and cooking all by themselves. I know many couples where husband and wife both shop and cook, or where the husband does more of both than the wife, as determined by their schedules and interests, not their gender. When I go to the farmers’ market I see couples with children of all ages from babies in snugglies to toddlers in strollers to kids old enough to participate more actively going food-shopping together as a fun family outing involving fresh air, exercise, and social interaction with the local community–none of which you get by going to the supermarket. The quality of the time is as important to me as the quantity of time I spend food shopping. Going to the supermarket is a lonely and unpleasant chore I dread, because the sensory overload of bright lights, canned music, overcrowded shelves, freezing cold air-conditioning, and cranky strangers in a hurry leaves me stressed out and exhausted. And in city supermarkets–unless you go to high-end specialty stores that cost at least as much as farmers’ markets–the produce isn’t very good or very cheap. Going to the farmers’ market is something I look forward to all week, because it refreshes and relaxes me to get up and out early on Saturday morning, to spend time shopping outdoors in fresh air, to run into friends and neighbors, to trade cooking tips with strangers, to ask farmers questions about unfamiliar ingredients, to pick up free recipes, to taste before I buy, to try new foods I’ve never seen before. I can get local fruit and vegetables, eggs and dairy, meat and poultry and fish, bread, honey and maple syrup, and fresh herbs at the farmers’ market year-round; and buying grains, legumes, nuts, dried fruit, and cereals in bulk at the health food store in my neighborhood is much cheaper than buying them pre-packaged at the supermarket, so as much as possible, I buy only the things I can’t get anywhere else (canned and frozen foods, cleaning products, paper products, etc) at the supermarket, so I can spend that much less of my time in an environment that drags me down. I feel fortunate to live in a city where I can walk to so many different shopping options, rather than in a suburb where a supermarket you have to drive to is the only option. Feeling torn between opposite extremes of pre-packaged prepared foods and elaborate home-cooked dinners is a peculiarly modern mindset arising from the loss of knowledge of how people actually did things before all the convenience foods we rely on nowadays were invented. Not only was grandma much greener than we are, she also knew how to cook more efficiently, and since she learned this from watching and helping her mother and grandmother cook, cooking did not take time away from family time, it was part of family time. My grandmother cooked steel-cut oats (which do not need to be constantly stirred) for tomorrow’s breakfast the night before. She cooked poor man’s rice pudding overnight while she was asleep. She left Sunday dinner roasting in the oven while she went to church. She rarely followed recipes, because she didn’t have a car and couldn’t drive to the store whenever she wanted to pick up exact ingredients, so she adapted basic recipes or invented her own dishes to make use of what she had on hand. Rice and other grains, potatoes, pasta, soups, stews, beans, and casseroles don’t need to be monitored while they cook; they just need to be timed. Mom or dad can set the timer and go play with the kids, or, if they’re old enough, let them help prepare the rest of the meal. Kids want to be with their parents and do whatever they’re doing, especially if it’s messy and hands-on, like cooking is. There are plenty of safe, simple tasks that even little kids can learn to do, like washing vegetables, tearing lettuce, peeling carrots, grinding pepper, measuring dry or liquid ingredients, stirring sauces, kneading or rolling out dough, grating cheese. As a child I felt competent and proud to be trusted to do these things, and I looked forward to my reward of scraping the bowl or licking the beaters. One of my earliest memories is of helping my mom clean squid–which I categorically refused to eat when I saw how it turned out–but I sure had fun playing with it in the sink! The cooking classes I had to take for Home Economics in middle school (5th and 6th grade) bored and disappointed me, because I already knew how to do everything they taught us, so I could and did make much tastier and more complicated dishes all by myself. Not everyone is equally interested in cooking, but it’s still a necessary survival skill. Now that both daughters and sons can learn to cook from their mothers and their fathers, everyone will be better served to the extent that food preparation and food shopping can be pleasurable family activities, rather than isolating and unpleasant burdens that detract from family time.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, yes! Thank you, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

    My way to get the best of both worlds has been to find a local woman who runs a small business making and delivering vegetarian meals using organic, locally grown foods. She makes a week’s worth of different dishes and delivers them in a cooler to my door every Tuesday. All I have to do is stick them in the oven or microwave them! An entrepreneurial venture like that is a win/win for business owner, busy mom and environment!

  3. Interesting points.. But it doesn’t have to be either or. Time spent cooking can be time well spent with the family. If the children are involved in cooking as well, it can be educational. There is also the pleasure factor (my own and my son’s) be be gained from well-prepared food. Yes, he’s pefectly satisfied if I give him a piece of toast and an apple for breakfast. But a batch of pancakes or steel cut oats makes him truly happy. So happy that he’ll sit in the kitchen eagerly waiting until breakfast is ready. That is some of our best quality time.

  4. Hello Laura
    Interesting blog, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wish to respectfully point out the bad assumption you make in this post. You said:

    “But I usually don’t do it, for a simple reason: I believe it’s more important ….. doing the professional work I love.”

    Ah, if you love your work then you are in the exception. Lets be honest, its obvious that most people (men as well as women) are not in love with their jobs.

    “I fail to see what would be gained by having women scale back their paid work”

    What would be gained is that women wouldn’t have to toil at something they don’t love. Also if you are concerned about gender inequality there is no reason men couldn’t cut back either. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Consider the reasons that people put up with toiling long hours at jobs they don’t love, fear, greed, status seeking, herd instinct, boredom, competing with the Jones, lack of meaning in other things, etc. Not exactly the most inspiring aspects of human nature, is it?

    The level of automation and abundance we have could in theory provide enough leisure that the majority of people wouldn’t need to work at all. The amount of wasted effort, resources and corporate/government corruption is incredible and damaging.

    We should all be more aware that the modern economy, more than in the past, uses and exploits people. So the situation we really have is that both parents now have to slave away for wealthy powerful interests and don’t have time for all sorts of more important things including preparing healthy meals. Meanwhile those wealthy powerful interests collude with power in the government, become more corrupt and lobby for policies that further enslave families. The wrong people benefit (those at the top) if you work more instead of cutting back. They get your labor, you don’t have time to prepare healthy meals so by their manufactured food like stuff, and most importantly your too busy to get informed and keep our leaders in check. In a very real sense we live in a slave society.

    Ok, enough ranting ;-). My basic point is that the deeper value that people like Michael Pollan argue for is balance. Our food has gotten out of balance, our society is grossly out of balance and ultimately our lifestyles are out of balance. Pathology results. God Bless.

  5. I have never once read anything by Michael Pollan that suggests that “women” do anything. He suggests that families, food providers, care-takers, eaters, etc., make better choices. Our children have no choice about the food habits they form while they are under our care. Food habits are one of the impact-full habits we form early on. They influence everything from our health to our wallet for the rest of our lives. I would love to encourage some of the women you mention who are struggling with how to afford good food (organic, etc.) with some simple ways to make it work. And frankly, how can you afford NOT to be giving the best you can to your kids. Skimp on the quality of your toilet paper if you have too, but don’t try to justify feeding kids garbage that’s making them sick and skyrocketing our obesity, diabetes, and HEART DISEASE among children, by arguing that your paid professional life is more important.

  6. Not much else to be said because the others have said it well. Eating real foods has indeed become a priority for my family in the past three years. Would I rather be doing something other than sitting in traffic on route to pick up my milk and meat from my co-op drop off? Yes, kind of… In determining our priorities, we can’t just look at the immediate payoff. There is a larger picture at hand. Decisions that are inconvenient for my hours of the day or even week still have a larger pay-off in the grand scheme of things. It’s great to turn our compartmentalized days into larger compartmentalized weeks but we still can’t lose sight of our overall vision for ourselves and our families. Doing the right thing is often, “inconvenient.” In moving from convenient, fake foods to more real foods, one has to sacrifice time in order to readjust. You’ll eventually figure out how to make things like farmers’ markets, co-ops, and making your own bread into your busy schedule. It seems that folks just don’t have the patience to take baby steps and plan for an adjustment period. It was a pain at first to grind grain and make bread (using a breadmaker) for our family almost every day. But, after a certain amount of time, I figured out how to do it efficiently and fit it into our busy schedule. It takes less than 5 minutes. It was inconvenient for about a week, but the payoff is wonderful… and delicious. 🙂

    Think about having a baby. You used to be able to get yourself ready and get out the door quickly. You knew about how much time it would take. Now, you have to make sure you have diapers, wipes, snacks, pacifier, etc. It may have taken you a few weeks to figure out how to get out the door more efficiently. You had to figure out the most convenient place to put the diapers and wipes so that you could quickly restock your diaper bag. I think you get my point. In planning our lives it’s important not to completely disregard something or throw it out just because it’s inconvenient. Sometimes we actually need to factor in an adjustment period that may, indeed, be very inconvenient for a while. But, the payoff in the long run is SO worth it!!! Forgive me, I haven’t had a chance to read your book so maybe you say just that. If you do, then this is redundant and I apologize.

    Be careful not to equate spending extra time in food prep with “women’s work”–making it seem like women have to step back in time a hundred years…bound to the kitchen doing mindless, work. How do you assign value to time spent (yes, even with your kids or spouse) preparing nourishing meals that support your vision and goals for your family as well as support local, sustainable farming that, if it were able to grow could have far-reaching effects on our society and environment? As a woman, wife and mother, I take my responsibility to nourish my family very seriously. It’s no less important than being the CEO of a multimillion-dollar corporation, or a best-selling author, or a medical doctor. I know we know that in theory, but most of society does not truly believe it. Women have a place in every nook and cranny of society. We just need not turn nourishing our families into “woman’s work” which really means, “brainless drudgery that has no value to society.”

  7. Wow! loved the comments. Very worth coming here to read. Sorry, but I agree with them, mostly.
    Like your site too.

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