Cooking = Salvation

This is the first week of Lent, so I've been at church by night and trying to catch up on school by day.  As food for thought, however, you might be interested in this post I wrote for my current grad course, Child & Adolescent Development, about the childhood obesity crisis:

I blame parents.

Easy to say for one who is not a parent!  But I have heard too many caregivers lament that their child "will only eat" macaroni and cheese or hot dogs.  As one of my classmates points out, when given the choice, any child (or human, if allowed to act on his basest impulses) will gravitate toward the sweeter, more calorie-dense food.  It's our instinct, derived from the days when such foods were very hard to come by -- restricted to finding a patch of berries or a hive of honey.  Today, as others have already stated, such foods are actually cheaper (with externalized costs, of course) than nutritious foods, and they are certainly easier to serve.  But since when do we allow a child's preference to govern his rules for living?  We don't let him choose whether or not to brush his teeth, go to school, or say his prayers.  Why would we let him choose what's on the dinner menu, beyond such reasonable choices as "green beans or broccoli?"

Many of you have indicated causes of childhood obesity with which I can't argue: working parents, busy schedules, child-centered advertising.  I think there is one more vastly important factor: the demise of home cooking.  Statistics show unilaterally that fewer and fewer people cook for themselves -- even when "cooking" is widened to mean putting together a sandwich from purchased ingredients.  Children are not learning how to come home from school, cut up carrot sticks and peel an orange -- and, at a later age, to saute onions and garlic for a sauce or set bread to rise in a warm place.  They certainly are not learning where the carrots and onions come from, when to plant them and how long to wait before pulling them up.  I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who did everything themselves, but I constantly meet people my age and older who say they can't (or just don't) cook, and that number seems to rise exponentially as age decreases.

At this point I'd like to surrender my point of view to two gentlemen who are far more convincing and knowledgeable than I.  One is Michael Pollan, who has already been referenced several times on this board.  Please do read all of his books; they are wonderful.  However, this article (it's long, but worth it) from the New York Times Magazine last year reinforces my argument by illuminating one of the strangest dichotomies in modern times: the huge popularity of cooking shows on television and the dearth of skilled home cooks.  We spend untold amounts of time and money watching Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and Emeril, but we are less and less likely to translate that enthusiasm into our own kitchens and dining rooms, mostly because we haven't seen and modeled that behavior from a young age.

However, on that note, the second reference I want to make is to this excellent lecture (about 20 minutes) by Jamie Oliver.  Yes, Jamie Oliver, the English chef / television personality.  It turns out he's also a compassionate, dedicated humanitarian who is shocked and pained by the current crisis in child obesity, and determined to do all he can to alleviate it.  For me, the most moving moment in the film is when he confronts an obese mother with a dining-room table covered with pizza, corn dogs and sodas -- all the food she typically feeds her two (also obese) children in a week.  "You are killing your children," Oliver says simply.  It cuts like a knife, but it's absolutely true.  This mother, by failing to pass on the skill set she never learned herself -- how to make nutritious, satisfying, diverse meals -- is setting her children up for severe health problems and an early death.  Sobering, but verifiable fact.

But, as Oliver points out, this crisis is entirely preventable.  Children who couldn't identify a beet or a tomato (watch the video, seriously) can be taught to.  Children who will only eat macaroni and cheese can be taught to love spinach (and not only, Mrs. Seinfeld, through trickery.)  They love to help in the garden or in the kitchen, and they are far more likely to try diverse foods (and thus to learn weight-management behavior) when they have participated in the entire process of harvesting and preparing food.  We can fix this, one household at a time.