It’s a new year – a new decade – in an economic downturn: what better moment is there for improving our eating habits and reevaluating how we spend our food budget? Just in time, comes Michael Pollan’s new book, Food Rules, recently released in paperback and prominently displayed at the checkout counter at Anderson’s bookstore in Larchmont.
Michael Pollan is the nation’s guru, educator, advocate, and activist about our country’s food and our relationship to it. He appears in the hit film Food, Inc. on the American food supply, is a journalism professor at UC Berkley, and writes prolifically.
Food Rules lays out Pollan’s 10 commandments to follow when grocery shopping. The rules make a great jumping off point for exploring possible impacts on teen, young adult, and family eating habits.
RULE NUMBER ONE: Don’t buy anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. While science and industry have invented life-saving processes like pasteurization, they have also worked overtime to shape and package edible ingredients in ways that distance them from the source. Would great grandmother have chosen an orange or a HiC?
RULE NUMBER TWO: Avoid products with ingredients that cannot be found in an ordinary pantry. This is tricky, since many local kids and adults may not have experienced an “ordinary pantry.” Suffice it to say that if the name on the list has hyphens, bi/tri/hexa-anything, the suffix “-ate”, or an alphabet soup of capital letters (e.g. MSG) we should try to do without.
RULE NUMBER THREE: Don’t buy anything that lists sugar in its first three ingredients. This might seem obvious until we actually look at labels. It can be shocking to see how much sugar is in food. Remember to teach young kids (and teens) that ingredients are listed in order of concentration by weight on a product’s package.
RULE NUMBER FOUR: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay away from the middle. I checked out this rule by scanning the products at my favorite local store, Trader Joe’s, to see if the outside circuit made me a better shopper. Indeed, even at a place committed to healthy and environmentally friendlier practices, TJ’s has the junk food in the middle aisles. It also has the essential frozen pizza, the chocolate (dark and full of anti-oxidants to be sure), and the dog food in this location.
RULE NUMBER FIVE: If it came from a plant, buy it. If it was made in a plant, pass it by. I love this play on words but am not sure that living by this rule can be done without a fair amount of education and thought. But we can still get started in our own homes. Just think about the packaging required to ship the romaine from a plant (i.e. factory) rather than asking us to wash the plant (i.e.lettuce) ourselves. Teaching our kids to minimize packaging is a bow to better health for our bodies and our planet.
RULE NUMBER SIX: If it says lite, low-fat, or non-fat on the package, put it down. I am frequently amazed by how my closest, smartest friends are still seduced and convinced by labels with these words. What replaces the fat is often a violation of rules two and three. If we follow the rest of the rules, we won’t need to alter naturally occurring foods by removing (healthy) fats. Yoghurt, for instance, does not need to be “lite” to be tasty and good. And “lite” often adds chemicals that are unnecessary and possibly harmful.
RULE NUMBER SEVEN: Avoid food that is pretending to be something it is not. This includes bacon bits, soy made to look like meat, and cheese food. Choose instead real bacon (every now and then), tofu or real meat, and natural, unprocessed cheese. Pretend foods usually contain ersatz flavors made in an organic chemistry lab and then massaged (literally) to make them the right shape, texture, or consistency to masquerade as something that is actually sold on the periphery of the store (Rule Number 4).
RULE NUMBER EIGHT: Foods making health claims on the package are not foods you want to buy. For starters, health claims change with time and whim. Think about all the wonderful foods-whole grain bread, fresh lemons, fish on ice, bunches of kale—that literally cannot speak for themselves. To have a claim on them requires handling, packaging, shipping, and often artificial additives, coloring and preservatives.
RULE NUMBER NINE: Avoid food that is advertised on television. Marketers don’t even need Psych 101 to know that we associate tastes and foods with memories. So it is easy to be seduced by foods that are peddled during our favorite shows. And of course, advertising adds enormously to the cost of that product.
RULE NUMBER TEN: Get out of the supermarket. Look to farmer’s markets. Alas, the open air Larchmont, New Rochelle, and Rye farmers’ markets are closed for the season. BUT there is an indoor market from January 9 through May 22 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on the Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck. For more information check the Community Markets website.
WINTER EATING TIPS: In addition to the Pollan rules, here are additional hints for local shoppers willing to go the distance for unpackaged, fresh and healthy food.
- After commenting several times, I have given up on one particular local Larchmont fruit and vegetable vendor who wraps each pepper and even coconut in plastic wrap. Choose a store that has minimal packaging such as Village Farm on Mamaroneck Avenue or many others.
- Stop at Fairway on your way into the city (132nd Street; easy off/easy on). Keep a cooler in your car for such forays.
- Shop on Main Street in New Rochelle where mountains of beautiful fresh fruits and veggies can be a third of the price paid elsewhere.
- Mrs. Greene’s in Larchmont carries bountiful healthy greens and produce of all kinds.
- Try to grow your own: even in the dead of winter it is possible to grow sprouts in a sunny window. It gives kids great pleasure to see them pop with the addition of mere water.
- When in the City, check out the Union Square market on weekends where vendors from hundreds of miles around brave the weather and the traffic to bring their wholesome products to us.
- Experiment with roots in winter—parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery root, potatoes, and onions make nutritious, yummy soups. And the cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kales) make marvelous pizza and pasta toppings when cooked with garlic, onions and olive oil.
Or, following Michelle Obama’s example, you can begin to think now about planning a vegetable patch of your own on a sunny spot in the lawn.