Reversing the Polarity of Convenience Food: Be a junk food locavore

I will make no apologies: I enjoy junk food. Cookies, packaged and laden with sugar and/or salt?  Bring it on.

Just don’t leave it where I can see it. Seriously. An open sleeve of cookies left out on the counter is not just a temptation for me: It’s an invitation–no, it’s an order–to mindlessly stick one in my pie hole every time I walk into the kitchen. One cookie? Pretty harmless. But I work at home. I walk through the kitchen a lot.

I know there’s some gray area in terms of what’s junk and what’s not. But for my purposes, I’m thinking of anything highly processed, laden with chemicals, and labeled with an ingredients list that is as long as the Magna Carta. I had little of it in my house before I had kids; and even when my kids were small, I didn’t keep it in the house. But when we moved to our block, which is full of kids running in and out, some of them complaining that I had nothing for them to eat, I got in the habit of keeping snacks in the house: cookies, bags of sugar water passing as fruit “drink,” boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese that I could toss on the stove and feed a brood on the fly. Boxes, and boxes of junk came into my house every time I headed to the warehouse store: It was easy. It was cheap. It was convenient.

I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say they involved a healthy-seeming husband teetering toward Type 2 diabetes, a mid-lifing self putting on 20 pounds in two years, and a pair of scrawny children who loved ate plenty of junk food and not enough real, actual food. Junk, from purchase to consumption, had just become a habit an our house. I don’t know that banning junk is the answer–sometimes we need something easy, cheap, and convenient (and in any event, I don’t believe in really “banning” anything), but clearly, it was too easy, too cheap,  too convenient.  And since I’m the one tasked with the food shopping, I was the enabler-in-chief.

So I made an executive decision: I stopped buying it. Can they eat it? Sure. But it’s not part of my food budget nor does it have space in my cabinets. If they want something junky, they can walk to the deli and buy it for themselves, or just bake some brownies. The point was not to make junk and sweets completely off limits, it was just to make them a little more difficult, more expensive, less convenient. Here’s how it works out:

  • Want a cookie? Walk to the store and buy some. With your own money.
  • Want a snack? See what’s in the fridge. There’s leftovers. There’s cheese. There’s cold cuts, There’s bread in the drawer, peanut butter in the cupboard.
  • Want dessert tonight? There is brownie mix in the cabinet. Hop to it.
  • Want mac & cheese? We replaced the box o’ crap with a simple variation we invented based on one of their favorite dinners that they’ve learned to make for themselves. It’s just as easy as boxed mac and cheese, and consists of just a real food ingredients that we always have in the house.
  • Soda was never allowed in our house, but they’re allowed to have it when we’re out, and on pizza night.
  • I keep ice cream in the freezer, by the quart. It’s fattening and has sugar, yes, but it’s also relatively wholesome (we avoid anything with weird ingredients) and fixing yourself a bowl requires a bit of effort.

I recognize that this approach makes little economic sense. We are spending more money on each individual snack, after all. But at the same time, what money we spend is being spent at small neighborhood store, rather than at a big warehouse chain several miles away, so at least it’s good for the local economy. We’re junk food locavores!

And of course, it makes great sense on a health metric. I can’t say much about the kids–they’ve never had weight issues and are rarely sick, so I guess they could have gone on eating crap until midlife comes and bites them in the ass. But the two household members for whom that bite has already taken place have certainly seen some benefit. For us, a key has been to make healthy food just as easy to eat as junk. The husband has a yogurt and fruit habit every morning; I’ve learned that I’ll pick just as mindlessly at a bowl of blueberries or carrots or pickled cauliflower that’s been left on the counter as I will at a sleeve of Oreos, and I’ll feel fuller afterward, without the inevitable post-Oreo craving for more Oreos. And don’t even get me started on the joys of the pre-washed, bagged salad, which makes eating a bowl of vegetables (granted, occasionally with some processed dressing, but still) easier than driving through McDonalds.

 

 

Advertisements

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.