I got asked a great question the other day.
Are the lunches I pack healthy? Because they sure seem to contain a lot of meat and cheese, both of which are full of saturated fat. And then there’s all that bacon. Talk about sodium and fat overload, right? And what about produce? Shouldn’t there be more? A lot more?
I’ve always resisted telling people what to eat. First, there are people far more qualified than me to do that. Second, I want this site to be a source of ideas people can feel good about, not a source of guilt about making the “wrong” choices. As parents, we have plenty of sources of guilt; nobody needs me piling on.
Still, it seems only fair that if you are using my ideas, you should know a bit more about the back end, the thinking that goes into them.
We all know it’s important for our kids to eat healthy. We also all know that children can be willful demons hellbent on refusing to do anything we ask, particularly when it involves leafy greens. Combine that with the competing — and often crushing — stress of day-to-day life and suddenly knowing our kids should eat healthy and making that happen seem miles apart.
So I’ll offer my take on what it means to eat healthy in 2013. But first, a few caveats.
My perspective is just that — a perspective. Admittedly, it is informed by reading and talking to people much smarter than me. But it still is just my perspective, filtered through my life. Every family is different. Every body is different. My perspective is what works for me and my family and our bodies and our budget today. That might be different tomorrow. You must decide what works for you and your family and your bodies and your budget. For today. And again for tomorrow. And then again for the day after. And it may be different every time.
I’ll also add that my perspective is informed by a childhood spent obese. Not chubby. Obese. By the time I was in high school, I weighed 231.5 pounds. Yes, I remember the half. Anyone who ever has been overweight knows every fraction of a pound counts. Today I weigh 145 pounds. A battle fought hard and long. And not a day goes by when the battle doesn’t wage on.
So, about those kids…
I’m confident we all can safely agree that the standard American diet isn’t working out so well. The trouble is, the experts seem to change their minds every few years about what part of it isn’t working. Too much salt? Too much fat? Too much meat? Too many refined carbs? Not enough vegetables? The wrong vegetables?
Thing is, all of those questions assume a silver bullet answer. Which would be so convenient. But health and nutrition aren’t so easily reduced. For real answers, we need to think bigger picture. We need to think not just about the micronutrients we consume, but the overall quality (and quantity) of the food we eat.
I firmly believe that the root of unhealthy eating isn’t too much or too little of any particular food, including salt and saturated fats. It is that we don’t eat enough real food. It’s what Michael Pollan sums up as, “Eat food.” Real food. Food that is as minimally processed as possible. Food our great grandparents would recognize.
And I firmly believe that if you let that idea guide you broadly, you can eat most anything you like — including stuff you’re not supposed to — and still have a healthy diet. Our problem isn’t the occasional treat or convenience food or swing through the drive-thru or that we let the kids have juice or even soda and a candy bar. Our problem is when we allow our diets to be monopolized by processed foods.
In my home, we have plenty of treats, including plenty of stuff I would generously describe as junk. We have plenty of cans and jars and even some packages and boxes, all signs of processing. And I will admit to having a problem saying no to diet soda. We also eat a lot of meat. Red meat. And cheese. And eggs. And salt. I eat a ton of veggies, but my son is a work in progress. Our diets are hardly perfect.
Could we be healthier if we gave up most of those things? Perhaps. But I don’t think we need to.
Most of the meals we eat, I cook. I make them mostly from real food. I don’t labor for hours. It still has to be convenient and work with our crazy lives. But I’m in charge of what goes into them, not a corporation. And when that constitutes the bulk of what we eat, I think it’s OK to eat from the middle of the grocery store now and then, too.
We eat a lot of meat, but I try to buy good meat. When I can, I buy local. When I can, I buy meat raised without hormones and antibiotics. I take the same approach with my cheeses, eggs and other dairy products. We also are fond of salt. But most of the salt in the American diet comes from processed foods, not the salt added during cooking or at the table. So I’m not too worried about it.
Because what it really comes down to is this — As long as I control what goes into it, I’d always rather my son eat a fatty burger topped with gobs of cheese than one of those lunch “kits” sold at the grocery store. Even their so-called “healthy” versions. Any. Day.
The lunches I pack Parker pretty accurately reflect how I feed my family overall. And when feeding my family, I try to follow these guidelines.
- Whole grains are where it’s at. That doesn’t mean white flour products don’t make appearances now and again. It just means that as much as possible, I opt for whole grains.
- Lean meats are good, but I don’t get obsessive about it. I’d rather focus on the quality of the meat than on the fat content. Which is why bacon makes such regular appearances in our home. I’d rather Parker eat bacon than processed frozen chicken nuggets.
- Dairy goes the same way as meat. I’d rather have good quality whole-fat yogurts and cheeses than low-fat versions, particularly in the case of yogurt. Often times, the lower the fat, the higher the sugar.
- Produce is always a case of more-is-better. For a few years, my son wouldn’t touch a vegetable. So I made up for it by filling him with as many colors of fruit as possible. Last summer I told him it was time to suck it up. Now he eats whatever veggies I offer. Not gleefully. But he eats them and that’s all I need at the moment.
- Convenience foods have a place at the table, too. I just try to make smart choices about them. I’ll buy deli meats because they are versatile and fast. But I go for organic varieties or those that are free of additives. And Parker couldn’t live without his phyllo pastry cups. Sure they’re white flour, but he doesn’t eat them daily and they make busy mornings bearable.
And bearable really is what it comes down to. Because as soon as any guideline becomes so burdensome, so troublesome, so guilt-inducing that it gets in the way of the rest of your life, it needs to be reevaluated. Or at least temporarily suspended. Last night Parker was in a snit and I was in a bad mood. I didn’t feel like making a nutritious dinner. So I heated up leftover white pasta mac and cheese. Tons of fat on refined carbs. He’ll live. Life will go on. Nothing would have been improved last night by me cooking up something healthier.
One final thought. And this often is one of the most overlooked aspects of a healthy diet. We and our children are best off when we eat broadly. I don’t just mean eating the rainbow, as the slogan to encourage fruit and veggie consumption goes. It means exploring new foods, new ingredients, new cuisines, new cooking techniques. It means trying things even when we don’t know what they are or how they are supposed to be prepared. Because exploring the world through food is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and our children. It is a way to experience other cultures by quite literally bringing them into ourselves.
And a diet rich in such experiences is just about the healthiest I can imagine.