Last week Time Magazine featured chef and NY Times Columnist Mark Bittman’s rant regarding “The truth about home cooking.” He wants you to know that cooking is no mystery, but I found his words far more than mysterious. Mostly I found his diatribe condescending, shaming, and contradictory.
As I read his finger shaking admonishments, I wonder if he convinced anyone watching TV food shows to start cooking for themselves. Did anyone stopped eating away from home?
I am mostly disturbed by distortions and disconnects throughout the rant. Mr Bittman trashes the iconic fast food hamburger and ridicules folks for eating too much pizza. Then later in his article he recommends preparing that same hamburger at home or throwing a few vegetables on a pizza so that cooking “feels more accessible”. And the difference is???
People are also ridiculed for eating too many “food like substances”. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as he encouraged everyone to shop at the local market–without the slightest acknowledgement that the grocery store is exactly where most people are buying those “food like substances.” Hmmmm.
THE COST OF EATING POORLY
You would need to be living in a cave to not realize that the increasing incidence of disease in the US is linked to poor food habits. As Mr. Bittman suggests, most of us benefit from eating a good enough balance of whole foods. But I encourage Bittman and anyone one else trying to tackle this challenge to dig much deeper and address core barriers to the task at hand.
1. Most people I know who are not cooking are either too tired, too busy or don’t know how. It is not enough to tell these folks to try harder. They are already exhausted or overwhelmed. In order to help people find the time and energy to prepare food at home from scratch we need to role back our expectations of the work day, of homework, or commute times. We need to re-examine our expectations and how much we are supposed to accomplish. Shopping, preparing and eating good food takes much more time day after day than Bittman admits. Learning how to do it will take even more.
2. We have spent decades ignoring food’s rightful place. Everyone needs to step up in order to change this culture. That means every work place, every school setting, every sports club or venue needs to stop expecting people to work or play right through meal time. Any one individual will struggle to establish healthier boundaries until social expectations change.
3. Ironically eating out was a part of Mark Bittman’s youth, and is probably still a part of his life today. He doesn’t seem to recognize his double standard, enjoying street food as a kid yet criticizing young Millennials enjoying food away from home today. Why is it not possible to both eat out more healthfully and cook at home?
There are more and more opportunities to eat well eating out. Even at fast food establishments. It is time to call out tired euphemisms for what they are: lies. Fast food is not one monolithic pile of junk and eating at home does not automatically translate to good nutrition. Highly refined starch, sugar and fat is abundantly available everywhere food is sold.
Mr Bittman quotes one study which claims eating in restaurants can increase calorie intake an average of 200 calories a day. But averages don’t tell the whole story. Enough 3000 calorie entrees from a sit down restaurant can horribly skews the data.
Ironically many fast food restaurants serve more modest portions. They offer fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein rich foods and increasing sources of whole grains. It is possible to eat better at restaurants–especially when eating at home means polishing off a bag of chips and a bottle of soda in front of the TV. Instead of chastising people for eating away from home, encourage them to make better choices. It’s not where you eat; It’s what you eat when you get there.
4. Poor metabolic health will continue to compromise many consumers. Food is only one piece of the problem. Time and opportunity to be physically active along with more effective time and stress management are key pieces of the puzzle. In addition, we need to acknowledge the increasing impact of pharmaceutical drugs and other environmental chemicals that influence energy metabolism. Cooking is a wonderful idea, but the remedy for most consumers struggling with poor metabolic health may not be as simple as cooking dinner at home.
Overall Mark Bittman wants you to appreciate that cooking at home is something that can be a source of comfort, pride, health, well being, relaxation and socialization. I agree. Let’s figure out a way to focus on the process of helping people develop the skills to prepare food at home. Let’s support a culture shift that allocates enough time and energy to enjoy good food no matter where we are eating.
I’ve yet to witness a successful behavioral shift from a torrent of shame and blame. Next time he gets all fired up, I invite Mark Bittman to use his formidable platform to engage with consumers in the process. When he needs to vent, Mr. Bittman can start by addressing the very real challenges everyday people face when it comes to feeding themselves and their families.