Serving up healthy meals every night for you and your kids can be tricky – but it doesn’t have to be. Just follow the advice of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and longtime contributor to The New York Times. In his new book Food Rules, Pollan lays out simple, no-nonsense guidelines for eating well and enjoying every bite. Here are a few to share with the whole family. – Andrea Zimmerman
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Imagine your great-grandmother (or grand-mother, depending on your age) at your side as you roll down the aisles of the supermarket. You’re standing together in front of the dairy case. She picks up a package of Go-GURT Portable Yogurt tubes – and hasn’t a clue what this plastic cylinder of colored and flavored gel could possibly be. Is it a food or is it toothpaste? There are now thousands of foodish products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food. The reasons to avoid eating such complicated food products are many, and go beyond the various chemical additives and corn and soy derivatives they contain, or the plastics in which they are typically packaged, some of which are probably toxic. Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat more by pushing our evolutionary buttons – our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These tastes are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us. The great-grandma rule will help keep most of these items out of your cart.
Note: If your great-grandmother was a terrible cook or eater, you can substitute someone else’s grandmother – a Sicilian or French one works particularly well.
Eat your colors.
The idea that a healthy plate of food will feature several different colors is a good example of an old wives’ tale about food that turns out to be good science too. The colors of many vegetables reflect the different antioxidant phytochemicals they contain – anthocyanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids. Many of these chemicals help protect against chronic diseases, but each in a slightly different way, so the best protection comes from a diet containing as many different phytochemicals as possible.
Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
Food marketers are ingenious at turning criticisms of their products – and rules like these – into new ways to sell slightly different versions of the same processed foods: They simply reformulate (to be low-fat, have no HFCS or transfats, or to contain fewer ingredients) and then boast about their implied healthfulness, whether the boast is meaningful or not. The best way to escape these marketing ploys is to tune out the marketing itself, by refusing to buy heavily promoted foods. Only the biggest food manufacturers can afford to advertise their products on television: More than two thirds of food advertising is spent promoting processed foods (and alcohol), so if you avoid products with big ad budgets, you’ll automatically be avoiding edible foodlike substances. As for the 5 percent of food ads that promote whole foods (the prune or walnut growers or the beef ranchers), common sense will, one hopes, keep you from tarring them with the same brush – these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.
This should go without saying. Such cereals are highly processed and full of refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives.
Do all your eating at a table. [Ed note: Unless it’s fruit and veggies!]
No, a desk is not a table. If we eat while we’re working, or while watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly – and as a result eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we’re doing. This phenomenon can be tested (and put to good use): Place a child in front of a television set and place a bowl of fresh vegetables in front of him or her. The child will eat everything in the bowl, often even vegetables that he or she doesn’t ordinarily touch, without noticing what’s going on. Which suggests an exception to the rule: When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and vegetables.
Treat treats as treats.
There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion. This is another case where the outsourcing of our food preparation to corporations has gotten us into trouble. It’s made formerly expensive or time-consuming foods – everything from fried chicken and French fries to pastries and ice cream – easy and readily accessible. Frying chicken is so much trouble that people didn’t use to make it unless they had guests coming over and a lot of time to prepare. The amount of work involved kept the frequency of indulgence in check. These special occasions foods offer some of the great pleasures of life, so we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of them, but the sense of occasion needs to be restored. One way is to start making these foods for yourself; if you bake dessert yourself, you won’t go to that much trouble every day. Another is to limit your consumption of such foods to weekends or social occasions. Some people follow a so-called S policy: “no snacks, no seconds, no sweets – except on days that begin with the letter S.”