08222017Headline:

The Home-Cooked Challenge: A Week Without Prepared Foods

My commitment for next week: Our family will give up prepared foods — all of them — in favor of meals and snacks we prepare ourselves. Why? Like Jane E. Brody, personal health columnist for the Well blog, I’m drawn inexorably to the conclusion that we would eat better as a family if we ate less prepackaged food and managed our own portions rather than gobbling up all that appears on the restaurant plate.

“The increase in obesity began nearly half a century ago with a rise in calories consumed daily and a decline in meals prepared and eaten at home,” Ms. Brody wrote, and I quoted in an earlier post. When we look for the causes of obesity and other dietary issues, we can’t just look to fat and sugar. We need to look at the foods we eat and the way we eat them as a whole — the larger portions, the high-calorie packaged foods, the restaurant meals.

The one thing I know for certain about my own diet is that I would eat far fewer tortilla chips if I were frying, or even baking, all of those chips myself instead of just opening the bag. My kids, at 11, 9, 7 and 7, are old enough to understand that we will appreciate what we eat more if we have spent more time on it, and they understand that fresh foods are better choices. They haven’t, I suspect, thought much about the fact that a century ago, if there was food around for immediate snacking it was because a parent or cook had taken the time to create a snack, but I have. There was a time before children were accompanied by a small bag of shaped cheese crackers everywhere they went, and many parents share a nagging sense that that may have been a healthier way of life.

I’m not alone in looking to the kitchen for a healthier lifestyle. From Michael Pollan to Mark Bittman to the glorious abundance of food bloggers like Deb Perelman (Smitten Kitchen) and Jennifer Reese (TipsyBaker.com) — who is, not incidentally, the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” an entire book about which pantry staples you should make at home — plenty of cooks, parents and authors have written, talked and thought more about trying to replace at least some of the seemingly more convenient options with home-cooked foods.

Next week, I’ll blog about how it’s going — which meals are the tough ones? Who’s the holdout? Will we starve when the granola bars are not immediately at hand? But right now, I’m establishing the parameters. What does “home-cooked” mean in the modern age? Am I making bread, or would purchased bread be O.K.? What if it’s purchased at the farmer’s market? Is the goal of the week to see how we eat differently, or to see how much time it takes to prepare all the food for a family of six?

As has been widely discussed, a century ago few women worked outside the home. Baking that bread, and everything else, was “women’s work” in most families. My schedule needs are inherently going to differ from those of, say, Caroline Ingalls — but then, I’m not planning to grind my own flour or make my own butter. I think we can take the time to cook what we actually need to eat once we make it a priority, and choose to dedicate the time to that rather than to other things — but ask me again next Friday.

So we have established that I’m not invoking a return to life on the prairie. I’m really just trying to create more awareness, in myself and in my family, of how much we eat daily just because it’s there. For me, it is only partly about “replacing” the prepared foods. It is also about the things we eat that we wouldn’t eat if they weren’t so easily available.

With that in mind, I say it is the packaged prepared foods and restaurant meals we are avoiding, not the steel-cut oatmeal. Chocolate chips are an acceptable ingredient. Rice Krispie Treats (much as I love them) don’t make the cut.

What do you think? Would you try dropping the prepared foods for a week and see what happens, and what would you cut? What blogs would you read, what authors would you reach for? What does and doesn’t belong in a really healthy — but not abstemious — kitchen?

What Next?

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