Food is the single biggest determinant of health. It’s also the foundation of family and community. Food is the number one priority in our house. It’s that important. But life seems to have a habit of getting in the way.
I want my family to eat healthy food all the time. It should be easy. It should be the only way. I shouldn’t have to compromise. But the reality is different. Katie and me spend as much time and effort debating the issues as we do actually getting food on the table. The debate is not about what food we should be eating. We agree on that. It’s about how we should implement our own little family food culture. The strategies. The techniques. The upsides and downsides. And yes, the compromises.
Time and cost are often cited as the main obstacles to eating healthy food. We prioritise food, so time and cost are less of an issue. But we still try to maximise efficiency. We all eat the same food and we all eat together. This not only saves time and money, it means we hang out as a family over food at least twice a day. We focus on simple meals, with just a few ingredients. Eggs for breakfast, meat or fish with greens, roots and fruits for dinner. We keep the house well stocked, plan for the next day, and sometimes prepare meals in advance. When you take all this into account, the takeaways, microwave ready-meals and fish fingers start to seem less convenient. I suspect when people raise the issues of time and cost, what they’re really objecting to is effort. It takes more effort to get healthy food on the table. That’s for sure. But isn’t it worth a bit of effort? Full disclosure here: We often like to spend a little more time creating meals, and a little more money on certain items (like proper olive oil and organic vegetables), because we’re passionate about good food and really try to optimise our nutrition. But this isn’t necessary to be healthy.
Food preferences are a bit more of a challenge. Monty’s preferences, specifically. Gabriel is not yet a year old, so he tries everything. Katie likes all food. And I could get used to eating anything if I thought it was good for me. Monty’s nearly five. He knows what he wants, and what he doesn’t want. I’ll be frank, it drives me mad. The problem is mine, I realise that. Monty is acting, well, like a perfectly normal child. An uncompromising food policy may not be the right answer. Katie has made me see that. I’ve found that we can adhere to our evolutionary diet by focusing on the bits that Monty really likes. By sacrificing some of the variety. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get it, but there you go. I now relish making burgers from all types of meat. Sweet potato wedges most days is fine with me. And Katie loves the homemade ketchup. We even throw some gluten-free pasta or white rice onto Monty’s plate occasionally. Monty loves making his own buckwheat bread and energy balls (dates and nuts!). He doesn’t crave sweets. He doesn’t miss the processed food that used to be part of his world. His favourite pudding is mango. And his treat of choice is 85% cacao chocolate. Obviously, it doesn’t always go to plan. Meal times can be pretty stressful. I’d love it if Monty ate more vegetables, and I wish he didn’t boycott dinner as frequently as he does, but generally it works well. Assuming we never leave the house, that is.
The problem is, we live in the world. And I like living in the world. But our food culture is nothing short of shameful. As a society, we’ve outsourced our food production. It’s been industrialised. And in the process we’ve lost our connection to food and compromised our health. Most people genuinely believe it’s OK to eat highly processed food every day. It has become the norm. Anyone who opts out, by prioritising healthy food, is considered a bit weird. Antisocial. The whole sorry state is back-to-front. Consider how our society views treats. I hear people talk all the time about going to McDonalds – or giving their children a huge bag of Haribo – for a treat. Think about that for a second. Since when has total rubbish been a treat? You don’t treat your spouse to a weekend away by booking into a truck stop.
Bad food is everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from. Gabriel’s nursery serves hotdogs to babies. Monty’s school is no better. Lunches may have moved on since the days of Turkey Twizzlers, but not far enough. Breakfast Club serves up a wide selection of sugary cereals (but it’s OK, because fruit is an option). And Out-of-School Club had “crisp sandwich” on the menu the other week (I’m not kidding). Children’s parties are the usual feast of sugar, refined flour and vegetable oil – a format which hasn’t moved on in decades. The food available at the vast majority of public places these days is shocking. Yet we’ve accepted it as normal. As an integral and necessary part of modern life.
We decided to opt out. We’re now one of those antisocial families. If we can’t access food that meets our standards, we take it with us. Anywhere. If it was left to me, my children would be on lock down, with exposure only to food that I provide. Fortunately, it’s not left to me. Katie is more pragmatic. She says Monty will grow up to be a Jelly Bean munching recluse if we forbid all sweets, because society will treat him like an outcast. Sadly, she’s probably right. He wants to be the same as his friends. He wants to eat the food they eat. Forbidding it in every case is not the right answer. For him or for us. So, once again, I’ve had to compromise (I know, I’m in danger of becoming reasonable!). At home, school and anywhere we can reasonably influence the food choice, he eats our way. At occasions with friends, which are out of our hands, he can go wild. That’s about one meal a week on average. I can live with that. It’s more straightforward with Gabriel (at least for now). The nursery has been given The List. All the foods that Gabriel can have. Hotdogs didn’t make the cut. They’re accommodating but it’s not entirely comfortable for either party. We send him with snacks and homemade formula milk, because the commercial stuff just doesn’t make the grade.
All this, of course, adds to the time, cost and effort involved in feeding our family. Packing lunches and snacks takes more time than I’d like it to, and foregoing Monty’s free school food is a cost I’d rather not have. But it’s manageable. The more serious issue is the tradeoff we’re forced to make between the health of our children and their psychosocial development. It shouldn’t be this way. Unfortunately, our food culture is completely intertwined with our modern way of life. It’s a side effect of capitalism. The system isn’t about to change anytime soon. But we can change our relationship to the system can be changed tomorrow.
I don’t want you to get the impression that I know what I’m doing. The truth is, I go to bed every night questioning our approach. Is health more important than social cohesion? Are we too tough on Monty? Are we creating a positive food environment? I’m sure we get it wrong as much as we get it right. Our approach is certainly not balanced. But perhaps some imbalance is required here. To my mind there are few things as important as preparing nourishing food for the people we love. We should be willing to dedicate time and resources to it. We should embrace and enjoy it. And we should stand firm in the face of opposition from a society that has truly lost its way.
Own your health.