When talk turns to running a household on a budget, people often sum up the effort as “putting food on the table.” After all, aside from air and water, what could possibly be more basic to our survival than food?
But as many a parent can tell you, deciding what food to put on that table poses questions that aren’t so easily answered. Making up a grocery list involves not only a consideration of budget, scheduling, and what little Johnny will eat, but also the latest scientific updates on nutrition. It’s a recipe for confusion, indeed. Michael Pollan tackles this confusion in his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008), in which he investigates processed and organic foods, the food industry, and nutritional science.
Even if you have yet to read either book, you may have heard Pollan’s summary of his work: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This summary serves as a handy guide through the forest of food choices in a grocery store — as long as you remember that by “food” Pollan means something your great-grandmother would recognize as edible. It’s also a good starting point for sharing Pollan’s insights with your children and enlisting them in framing a healthful diet for your family. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Snag Pollan’s own “crib sheets” to his work. Pollan made your job easier by adding two more volumes to his bookshelf in 2009: a young reader’s edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a 64-rule handbook to healthful eating.
- Subtract the additives. Want some dimethyl benxyl carbinyl acetate with your meal? Pollan suggests avoiding food products that contain ingredients “no ordinary human would keep in the pantry” or that a “3rd grader cannot pronounce. He also suggests avoiding packaged foods with more than five ingredients. Ask your kids to examine the ingredients list on packaged foods. Try pronouncing the more intimidating ingredients. Have them count ingredients in a selected product. Can they find similar products with fewer?
- Watch Out for Sugar. Sugar consumption in the United States has risen by more than 24 pounds a year per person during the past 50 years — and not because we’re eating more raspberries. Again, sic your kids on ingredient lists. Can they find the ubiquitous sweetener “high fructose corn syrup”? As for “sugar” itself — if it’s listed in the first three, Pollan cautions, beware.
- Hot Pink Milk — No. “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk,” advises Pollan. Ask your children how their favorite cereals behave in milk. If the white stuff takes on a blue hue or a mint tint, that’s because food coloring is leaking out. Older children might be interested in using this clue as the basis of a science-fair experiment.
- Hot Pink Fruits — Yes! Brightly colored produce is packed with nutrients. See if your kids can design a meal that includes a multitude of naturally derived colors. What’s a good three-color meal? Can they figure out a rainbow-colored one?
- Planting Ideas. “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t,” Pollan quips. He also suggests avoiding foods advertised on TV, pointing out that most fruits and veggies don’t boast ad campaigns. Examine this idea with kids by analyzing the words and pictures in food ads. Have your kids create ads for mock products using buzzwords, health claims, and other attention-grabbers. Or have them create ads for those underserved fruits and veggies!
- Planting Plants. Ask your kids to brainstorm a list of fruits and vegetables. At the grocery store, have them pick out a fruit or vegetable your family doesn’t ordinarily eat and find a way to prepare it. And if you have a yard or even just a window ledge, involve kids in raising their own produce. Growing your own brings home the main message in Pollan’s work: “Eat foods made from ingredients you can picture growing in nature.”
- Meet the Farmer. Take your young farmers to a farmer’s market. It’s a great opportunity not only to meet farmers and see what grows in your part of the world, but also to give kids a sense of what’s in season when.
- Cook It, Then Book It. Dig out some old family recipes, or find new ones based in the cuisine of your family’s heritage. Enlist your kids’ help in buying the ingredients and preparing them. Collect the recipes, add snapshots, ask your kids to illustrate the collection, and you’ve got a family cookbook for the ages. Bon appétit!