I look forward to the Food Issue of the New York Times Magazine every year, and this year’s was no exception. Especially since this one was all about feeding children, a subject near and dear to my heart. The photos of what breakfast for kids looks like around the world were fascinating, and Mark Bittman gave some good advice for getting your kids to become competent eaters. But the article that resonated most with me was Virginia Heffernan’s Down With Dinner: The Problem With Cookbooks For Parents.
As I read the article, I found myself agreeing with so much of it, even while firmly believing that eating healthy food, which mostly happens when you cook at home, is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family. Even for those of us who really enjoy cooking, the day-in, day-out grind of getting 3 meals per day on the table and into your family, who probably don’t recognize or appreciate how much effort this takes, is a drag. There is a big difference between cooking a fabulous, special meal when you have plenty of time to prepare and cook, and putting healthy food on the table as a regular part of the day.
Complicating matters is the barrage of advice and misinformation that we are constantly exposed to via social and traditional media. Is the source credible? Who knows? Whether it is good advice or not, the constant exposure to the types of messages Heffernan found in some of these cookbooks, such as “…don’t trust the carb-poisoned food pyramid…don’t trust apples because they’re the dirtiest of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits.” would make anyone second-guess their decisions. I remember when I bought my blender at a nutrition conference, the saleswoman was very excited to show me how you could grind your own grains to make flour in it. This is certainly something that had never before crossed my mind as something that I should be doing. It did make me question if I was being a good nutrition role model because I don’t make my own flour. Which is nuts, because realistically, who has time to do that?
There is so much pressure on parents to do everything just right while constantly feeling like your choices are being judged. Everything from deciding cloth vs. disposable diapers, organic vs. conventional produce and giving your kid treats vs. banning sugar from the home can feel like so much more than just that particular choice, but rather a reflection on the type of person you are and the values you hold. Something as simple as posting a picture of a child holding fruit can generate controversy and judgment. Never before have people been so inundated with so much information about how we should be eating, much of it in direct contradiction with each other, and from sources that appear to be credible, but are not. And when someone who you care about reposts something on social media, even if you don’t believe the information, it can make you have that momentary feeling of guilt or questioning of your choices.
It is no wonder that Heffernan, who doesn’t like to cook in the first place, would feel even less like making dinner when faced with cookbooks that say things like this from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Every meal is a chance to get it right or get it wrong, to approach or withdraw from our ideals. Does anything in our lives matter more than how we set our tables?” Wowie, that is a lot of pressure! I hate to think that every time I feed my children a quick dinner on the run I am either getting it right or wrong. And therein lies the problem. So much of everything having to do with food and nutrition these days is black and white: non-organic fruit is poison, 10 foods you should NEVER eat, etc. This type of thinking can be crazy-making and induce paralysis when it comes to making healthy choices and cooking at home. What the hell are you supposed to eat if you can always find something, somewhere, that tells you how bad whatever it is you are eating or doing is?
How about being Good Enough? I don’t want to grind my own flour or make my own yogurt or bread when I can find perfectly good versions of these in the supermarket. I don’t even want to grow my own vegetables, no matter how good this is for the earth or my health. I hate gardening. I know this is a sacrilege among some who advocate for good nutrition, but there you have it. I decided not to feel guilty when I buy my veggies at the farmers’ market, or let’s be honest, it is more often at the supermarket (gasp!) because I have other things to do and rarely make it to the farmers’ market on the weekends. And this is okay. It is Good Enough. Instead of obsessing over single ingredients that you may or may not enjoy (I’m looking at you chia seeds), how about just trying to eat less processed food? And this change does start with food made at home.
Which brings me back to the point of the article – what if you just don’t like to cook? It can be absolutely daunting to think that every meal, 3 times per day is either “right or wrong”. Are frozen veggies right or wrong? How about rotisserie chicken? Why can’t these things just be what they really are: a quick and easy source of nutrients that are better for you than carryout and a way to get a healthy meal on the table. Why shouldn’t you feel good about that? As Mark Bittman says in his article in the same magazine:”When it comes to cooking, showing up is half the battle.”
Here’s what I say, as both a mom and a nutritionist: You should feel good about that. There is no reason not to use smart convenience foods, and I use lots of them in my Meal Planning Cookbook. Nutrition is all about the big picture. If your meals include a good mix of lean protein, whole grain and some fruits and veggies, you’re on the right track. Stressing about whether that chicken is organic or freerange and whether or not that produce contains GMOs can actually be counterproductive to getting meals on the table day after day.
Because Good Enough is just right.
What do you think? Do you hate to cook? Love to cook? What are your favorite meal planning tips?