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.

 

 

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Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #3: Ten reasons why I love e-books

My husband loves to buy books. He really, really, really loves them. He can read circles around me and almost anyone I know. And he was immensely attached to all the books he’d collected (when he moved to NY from CA in 1997, he arrived with one bag of clothes, and about 18 boxes of books). I had nagged forced inspired him to weed his books periodically over the years, and he hadn’t bought many paper books since we’d invested in the e-reader when the Kindle was first launched, but in the summer of 2012 there were still a shit-ton in the house. When he wanted to upgrade his reader to the Paperwhite (we have a checks-and-balances policy on expenditures over $100), I told him I would only approve the expenditure if he agreed to weed out most of the books. My final, winning argument on this issue was “You have moved these books over 3,000 miles, through at least five apartments, over the past two decades. And you have not dusted them once.” So, that fall, he filled about twenty boxes with books, dropped them at a church flea market, and preordered his Paperwhite.

Two weeks later the books-in-the-house issue was rendered moot when Hurricane Sandy brought 8 feet of water into the basement, where most of the books that remained resided. Most of what was left was mine–all textbooks for work–and believe me: it was doubleplusunfun having to slog an Ikea Billy’s worth of sopping, 1,000-page tomes out of the muck. But the truth is, we don’t miss many of the books we lost or gave away. Most of what he’d intended to save—those that he’d considered “favorites”—he could easily get at the library, and many were classics that he could download for free or maybe 99 cents if he wanted to reread (he’s a notorious re-reader). Our Kindles weren’t in the basement, but even if they had been, everything we had bought since the arrival of our first Kindle was safely stored up in the Amazon cloud. And in one of those hilarious post-Sandy moments, his spanking new Paperwhite arrived right on time just a few days after the storm. There we were, knee deep in the muck out, hungry, exhausted, filthy, with no power, no internet or cell service, not even a working traffic light for miles. The state of the neighborhood could only be described as post-apocalyptic. And here is our friendly UPS guy, with the Husband’s new Kindle.

Anyway, one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker, posed a challenge last week, asking readers to sound off on why they love or hate e-books.  I write too slowly and missed the comment bandwagon, so I’m sounding off here instead. There are solid arguments on both sides, but when I weigh out the pros and cons, I’m decidedly in the pro-ebook camp, for a number of reasons. I’ve done my best to narrow them down to ten, below, but first, a few disclaimers:

  • Yes, I know this is a first world discussion. Lots of people can’t afford to buy any books at all. But libraries can and do fill this void, and ebooks will probably have a bigger role in making more content accessible to more people as technology and access improve (at every level of the economic spectrum, smartphone ownership is increasing).
  • Libraries are still the bomb, and anyone who thinks that they are less relevant than they used to be clearly has never been to a branch of the Queens Library on any given day.
  • Ebooks still have plenty of shortcomings.  Off the top of my head: uninspiring book design; crappy business practices (and I’m not complaining that they’re too expensive here); a complete lack of copyediting/proofreading rigor; and no, it’s not all that easy to highlight, bookmark, or make notations. I am eager for the technology to catch up and for the business model and for production standards to adjust on these.
  • Most of my comments here relate to novels and straight-up non-fiction. I still prefer paper books for reference books,  how-to guides, and anything illustrated. I still like leafing through cookbooks (although I don’t hold on to them anymore). And don’t even get me started on how much I love curling up with a real, printed magazine.
  • The problem with ebooks is more about Amazon (specifically, Amazon’s near monopoly on ebooks and their business practices in dealing with publishers), I think, than about ebooks. That said, I’m firmly in the Amazon camp thus far–they just make it so easy to shop, and I found the Kindle tech and Amazon’s customer service to be far superior to B&Ns (our first e-reader was a Nook). I would be happy to jump ship to another provider if they could match the service and selection and convenience of Amazon, or improve on the overall quality of the ebooks, which seem to be riddled with very distracting proofing errors (I really wish that publishers would take ownership of ebook production and sales). But so far, nothing better has emerged.

With that out of the way, here are ten reasons why I love ebooks. Lots of people still love their hard copies, and more power to them. I suspect they are better about dusting than I could ever be.

  1. Books Are Not Bricks. That’s a quote I read a very long time ago from Henry Holt. It came up in an entirely different context, but the line has always resonated with me. Holt, writing for The Atlantic in 1905, expressed a concern that books were being signed, bought, and sold as “soulless things.” I myself have always felt that the soul of a book lies with its meaning, not in the packaging (they don’t say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” for nothing). Books are not something you own; they’re something you experience. Once you’ve read a book, it is yours forever. You don’t have to own it. Some of them are indeed very beautiful: they have been carefully designed and produced in a way that adds value and meaning, and enhances the reading experience. But for most part—especially when it comes to high volume reading, pulp fiction, and the like—the real value is not the form but the content, and what we ourselves gain from having read them (even if they are pulp). Having books on our shelves doesn’t make us better or smarter; it’s just evidence that we have enough money to spend on books. And, as I told my husband ages ago: You’re not in college any more, and miles of shelving full of things you’ve read is no longer impressing your lady friend.
  2. Ebooks are harder to share, except when they’re not. Many people I know complain that the problem is that they can’t share their ebooks–can’t loan them to friends or give them away when they’re done reading them (and conversely, one cannot borrow an ebook easily, or buy used ebooks on the cheap). But on the flip side, it’s pretty easy to set up a circle of readers on a single account. Since my husband and I buy so many books, I’ve picked up an extra Kindle for my mom and put it on our account; when my sister decided to buy one, I had her log it into my account instead of setting up her own. And: instant book club. Whenever one of us buys a book, we all have access to it. We’re going on a cruise together this fall, and we’ll all be reading the same book while we lounge on deck.
  3. Ebooks are harder to lose. Everyone talks about how they like to pass on books to friends. Most of the time they are just giving books away, but sometimes it’s because they loved a book and want their friend to love it, too. The thing is, if it’s a book you love, you might not get it back to read it again or to share with another friend (In my experience, the expected return on a loaned book is about 1 out of 10). Your ebooks aren’t going anywhere. Even if disaster strikes–a flood, a busted reader, a robbery–you can still access your books from a new device.
  4. Ebooks are easier to move. If you’ve ever moved an avid reader into a walk-up apartment (you know who you are, my friends), you know that the best books are virtual books.
  5. The battle of the indie vs. the big box was over long ago.  Some see Amazon as a heartless conquerer, but many communities were bookstore deserts long before Amazon arrived on the scene. Indies were already few and far between back in the early 1990s, when big box stores like Borders and B&N were systematically putting the them out of business. For those of us who live here on the vestigial tail of New York City, there was never a bookstore nearby: the closest on (now long gone) was a few miles and a bridge toll and a parking fee away, and it was a relatively rinky-dink mall bookstore with limited, very mainstream stock.
  6. Free samples. For so long, it was like  you had to marry a book without having dated it first. I fill my Kindle with samples, try them out, and if I find myself wanting more after those first 3o-odd pages, I click “buy.” Far fewer bad purchases sitting on my bedside table mocking me, and a lot more great books I’ve read because I took a chance.
  7. Ebooks don’t need dusting. Enough said.
  8. Ebooks are kind to the farsighted. I am appreciating this more and more every year.
  9. Sometimes you just need to reread Harry Potter. Many people have noted that they just keep the pulp versions of their favorite books. But I’m more the other way around: I keep my favorite books at my fingertips, in my Kindle and/or on my phone at all times.
  10. Shopping at Amazon is ironically more intimate and personal than shopping in the real world. Amazon launched as a bookseller, and it offered what those bookstores could not: Selection and convenience. But oddly, I was immediately won over by the more intimate nature of the Amazon book buying experience. Despite the efforts of big box bookstores, they’re still a store, and there’s often piped-in music, other crap for sale, and just other people around. And while many of us might wax nostalgic about the Dream of the 1990s and all those magical independent bookstores (and record stores), let us not forget the judgy arched eyebrow of the pretentious Gen-X sales clerk as he rang up your copy of the latest Stephen King. Shopping for books at Amazon, I can read reviews at length without sitting on a dusty floor in my work clothes; I can do it in absolute, utter, 1950s librarian–endorsed silence; I can see what others are buying without spying over their shoulder; and I can read YA or pulp fiction on the subway without anyone rolling their eyes at me.