When I was in grade four I felt immensely sorry for Edmund and Lisa, the two fat kids in our class. I remember them as being simply enormous. Recently, though, I had a chance to challenge my recollections. As I was rearranging my photo albums, my old class picture fluttered onto the floor. It was probably the first time I had gazed at it since 1979. And there were Edmund and Lisa, looking exactly the same as most kids do today. They wouldn’t even count as chubby by our current standards. And that’s only in one generation.
Now I know we’re a sedentary society, and we don’t use as much energy as we did in the past. That’s certainly a large—if you’ll pardon the pun—factor in this growing epidemic of obesity. I think an even larger factor, though, is that we have completely changed the way we eat.
When my mother’s generation married, being a good cook meant knowing seven simple recipes that tasted good. No magazine cover gourmet meals, either, just basic food that everybody liked. You would serve spaghetti on Mondays, chicken casserole on Tuesdays, and roast on Sundays. That was it. Menu planning and grocery shopping were remarkably easy. And all meals were cooked from scratch, because that was the cheapest way.
When women started working in large numbers, though, the time to cook these meals became scarce, and food companies responded. I remember when Swanson TV dinners became popular in the 1970s. It was such a treat to have Mom bring two home and let us eat in front of the TV, something we didn’t do very often.
But it wasn’t just working moms who discovered TV dinners. Other families found that frozen food was a lot easier when toddlers were squabbling and babies were crying. And when one child has to be dropped off at gymnastics five minutes before another is due to be picked up at karate, that dinner hour becomes awfully rushed. So the frozen food section is now one of the largest in the supermarket. You don’t have to cook anything anymore. And the less frequently people cook, the more the next generation grows up not knowing how to.
I think that’s our real crisis. My mother-in-law’s family did not eat what we would consider “low-fat” by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t big, either. Part of it was because they actually did physical labour, but I think the other part was that the food was real because it was home-cooked. Sure they drank whole milk and put tons of butter on everything, but at least these were real dairy products. And they went along with all the vegetables they consumed. What they ate, in general, had not been processed. Kids weren’t addicted to pop; they drank milk. They didn’t get carried away with Fruit Roll-Ups (which don’t really contain any nutrients); they ate apples. No chicken nuggets, either, whose chicken content is really very suspect.
For that matter, what is actually in margarine? Or Kraft dinner powder? Or even ice cream? It’s not cream. It’s not even milk. It’s “milk solids”, whatever those are, and apparently most of them are imported from the United States so that our own dairy farmers don’t even benefit. If our grandparents were alive today, I doubt they’d consider much of what we consume as real food in the first place.
Let’s get back to their idea of meal planning. Find seven meals that use fresh ingredients and that are easy to prepare, and then learn to make them really well. That way you never have to wonder what’s for dinner. Your shopping list is always up to date. Give your kids, if they’re old enough, one night of the week to get them cooking, too. Most ten-year-olds can make spaghetti, even from real tomatoes. If you’re frequently rushed, make large batches so you can reheat them. At least you’ll know what you’re eating, and there’s a better chance there will actually be some nutritional value in it.
I know we’re a fast-paced society, but when it comes to food, we need to settle down. Go out and cook something real. Your tastebuds, and your waistline, will thank you.