I stumbled across this blog today, Mr. Ferguson's Classroom, and I thought it was fascinating. An American man, formerly teacher in the US, is now living in Japan and teaching primary school children English. He began a blog that discusses the differences in food and teaching practices in Japan vs. America, and I was fascinated. Children there are given healthily prepared food that consists primarily of vegetables and fruit with little lean protein and THEY EAT IT ALL. They clean their plates. The food is meticulously prepared just for little hands and mouths. They use real plates and cups and chopsticks.
Once a month, the Japanese parents at his school pack a lunch for the kids so the "cooking teachers" can have a break. (Side note: don't you love that term, cooking teacher? Implying that these people have something to offer these children, beyond just serving them). Even these lunches, prepared by time-crunched parents just like us, are made with love and an eye for detail: food pressed into bear-shapes, dressed with raisin eyes and made to look like cartoon characters, yet extremely healthy.
Then I read this TIME article about school lunches in France. 5 course meals, that include an hors d'oeuvre, salad, main course, cheese and dessert. Eaten in leisurely silence. Prepared with the highest-quality ingredients. And although the food is laden with beef and butter, the obesity rates are amazingly low--and it isn't because the red wine, since even in France, primary-school children aren't sipping Bordeaux with dinner. It is because they are taught that food is to be enjoyed. Savored. Eaten with manners at a well-set table. It isn't something eaten quickly out of a bag or passed from a drive-thru window.
Another blogger, an American teacher, details her school lunches. This is a woman who lives in a district where three-fourths of the students are free or reduced-lunch eligible and eat the majority, if not all, of the food that they will have that day at school. Her blog, Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project, is just scary. Take these two different blogs and the French lunch menu and compare and you will be astounded.
Why is it OK here in America to throw garbage at our children and call it food? How is it acceptable to serve them brown food that is laden with preservatives and salt in disposable containers, pass them some ketchup or ranch dressing in packets they can't open themselves to slather over the tasteless heap on their plates, and then watch them toss most of it in the garbage, along with a pile of landfill-bound plastic? When did this become OK?
I'm looking forward to the new series that Jamie Oliver is starting, Food Revolution USA, that is an attempt to change this trend of feeding our children garbage. Jamie recently won a TED prize, which granted him $100,000 to use towards his mission and the support of all members of the association to assist him in his project. The TV show is just one of the tools in his arsenal that he plans to use. If you agree that American children deserve better food, consider signing his online petition, which will be presented to President Obama at the conclusion of the TV series.
I've done a lot of reading and thinking about this issue lately. Michael Pollan's books, Food Rules and The Omnivore's Dilemma are on my reading list right now. Pollan's ideas, like eating locally-grown produce, growing your own vegetables (even if it is just a tomato plant in a pot on your patio), and that eating junk food is OK--as long as you make it yourself (no more fast-food fries!), are logical, easy-to-follow, and apply to anyone. He makes great arguments for the return to traditional food values and growing processes, and I think his approach is one that makes sense.
If there is one point to all of this, it is this: eating well and being healthy isn't about fad dieting, it isn't about cutting whole food groups out, and it isn't about deprivation. It is about eating real food. Enjoying it. And making mealtime an art, not just a practice in filling our guts. You don't have to be a French gourmet chef--but take the time to make REAL food.
Our family has made a change in this direction over the past couple of years. I won't say we NEVER eat a convenience meal, but it has become a rarity. When we eat out, we eat at restaurants that offer real food that is prepared well, and we are willing to pay handsomely for it. Expensive, sure, but we just choose to eat out less. When we want fast food, we eat at Chipotle, which serves quality antibiotic-free and hormone-free meats and many organic vegetables--we will drive out of our way to go here over other fast food joints (and it tastes SO MUCH BETTER, too!).
I joined a local organic produce co-op last year--which cut my grocery bill significantly and provided my family with a steady stream of locally-grown fruits and vegetables. I stay away from the center of my grocery store and I buy mostly meats and dairy there. When planning meals, I stay away from any recipe that uses canned soup mixes or seasoning packets and comes out of the oven looking beige. And I've found that our favorite meals as a family consist of a grilled meat or fish, fresh salads, and raw fruits cut and put out on a plate--and these meals don't take more time to prepare than most of the garbage you can buy in the frozen food section.
As a result, we're healthier. We're sick less often. And we feel better with more energy. When we travel and fall off the food wagon, eating whatever lands our way, we find that we are dying to get home and "eat something crunchy and fresh." (That exact quote has come out of our mouths more times than I can count!)
I know the arguments most people make about eating healthy, whole foods. I don't have time. We're too busy. Real food is too expensive.
I leave you with this, though--whether you take the time now to prepare the food, or you spend the time later missing work to taking care of sick children who don't have the nutrition to support their immune systems, or worse, are obese and need to see multiple physicians each week to address their failing livers or kidneys or hearts, you will have to spend time. Whether you spend the money on fresh produce, lean meats, and whole grains now, or you choose to wait and spend it on blood-pressure medication and insulin for your 8 year old because of the sodium and fat and sugar in all of those convenience foods you fed them, you will spend the money. It's up to you.
OK, I'll climb back down from my soapbox now....