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Cook Your Way to Good Health
By Kathy Hare

It’s resolution time again. But I’ve noticed the obesity rate in this country never decreases no matter how many individuals start dieting each January. So this year maybe we should try something different. How about a resolution that has nothing to do with deprivation? Here’s one designed to improve your family’s health, create pleasurable tastes, save money, and even help in the battle of the bulge. Try it this year, and it might even become a pleasant lifetime habit.

New Year’s Resolution: This year we will think outside the box, can, frozen food section, and drive-up window. We will create delicious tastes and save money by cooking more meals from scratch using basic ingredients including: whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables and a variety of spices.

Resolutions also seem to be a personal war; we clothe ourselves in the armor of righteousness as we go to battle against our own personal addictions. But each and every year most resolutions become nothing more than faded dreams before January 31. Why? Because humans disdain deprivation, we crave new tastes, interesting textures, and mind-altering pleasures. That’s why the world is stuffed with an abundant variety of food and drugs.

I know that sounds like a nasty assessment of human nature, but it’s true. With the exception of a few religious sects such as the Latter Day Saints, anthropologists say it’s difficult to find a culture on earth that doesn’t embrace a chemical concoction designed to enhance pleasure. People began fermenting a blend of honey and water over 8,000 years ago. The Ancient Greeks called the mixture “ambrosia” – the drink of the gods. Southeastern American Indians brewed the leaves and stems of the Yaupon holly bush to create a “Black Drink” known for its overwhelmingly powerful caffeine kick. Opium derivatives have been the drug of choice in Asia for centuries. Russians love their vodka, and if you want to see a Frenchman fight - insult his wine. But in this country, one look at a typical crowd tells us the American addiction is a harmful waist-altering chemical called FOOD!

We crave calories, massive quantities of calories created from grease, packed with sugar, and topped with a large dose of sodium. So obviously the endless diet resolutions aren’t going to work until we come to grips with this addiction. How did the deadly trio of fat, sugar, and salt seduce us into a state of euphoria, even as the seams on our jeans began to split? The process began early for most of us, with the first jar of Gerber’s Baby Food. Their chemists found adding a little sugar to the applesauce, a little salt to the strained peas, made baby eat more which kept mom buying more of their product. I doubt it was a conspiracy by Gerber to turn generations of people into waddling behemoths, but once hooked as infants it became easy for other food manufacturers to feed our habit. And they are more than happy to do so.

Authentic home cooking takes time, so naturally the practice became passé as more women joined the workforce. Food manufacturers quickly found a niche for “quick meals” and major grocery chains increased floor space to accommodate additional aisles for convenience products. My parents’ shopping cart held lots of milk, bread, cereal, potatoes, meat, and canned fruits and vegetables in the winter. In the summer, local farms provided our produce. But grocery store frozen food sections were growing quickly to accommodate a new type of food that required no preparation.

Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks made their début in 1952, followed by Swanson TV Dinners in 1954. Neither delivered a good tasting or inexpensive meal. A frozen dinner cost $.98, a considerable price when chicken was selling for $.43 a pound. The appeal of this new convenience food was that babysitters could pop it into the oven while mom and dad headed out for a real meal. My siblings and I found the dreaded Mrs. Paul’s on our plates many Friday nights. I know some children actually ate the sticks, but I’m proud to say we did not. Even our dog just stared at the rectangles, probably wondering why we were being so heartless as to pile cardboard into his food dish.

By 1957 margarine, one of the most dreadful and unhealthy concoctions ever invented by man, was out-selling butter, and the first Whopper was introduced at a Burger King in Miami. As more women entered the workforce the fast-food window became a quick answer to “what’s for dinner?” And America was on the fast-track to becoming the land of super-sized people.

But humans are adaptable, so all hope is not lost! However, the obesity epidemic began at the dinner table; and that is the only place it can be cured.  We have to stop sacrificing nutrition for convenience, get the entire family involved, and start cooking.

When more women joined the workforce, cooking should have become a “shared task,” but in many households the woman is still the primary cook. And in a large part, the obesity epidemic is a manifestation of a cultural inability to adjust to new gender roles. With 60 percent of women in the workforce, it’s time to make that adaptation. Because everyone benefits nutritionally from meals made from raw ingredients, everyone, even young children, should assist in the preparation and clean up.

Today’s supermarkets may have a whole aisle devoted to frozen pizza, but each also offers a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables all year long, so meals don’t have to be boring. Head over to the spice aisle and foreign food section to discover new tastes to incorporate into meals. Try a little turmeric in the rice, or some fresh garlic in the potatoes.  Get a good dose of fun too with a friendly competition between cooks to see who can create the best tasting meal for the least amount of money. Furthermore, teenagers should also be encouraged to cook. In fact, it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach their children how to cook for the same reason you teach them how to cross a street – for their health and well being. After teaching them the basics, give them a “meal” budget, let them shop for the ingredients, and cook meals. Don’t worry, the meals will improve over time, and your offspring will learn valuable life skills.

Ironically, the ingredients in frozen or boxed entrées may convince you to give the “cooking resolution” a try. Check the ingredients. Can you pronounce all of them? If not, should your family be eating “whatever it is?” How much sugar and sodium does it contain? That’s important because each substance is addictive; some today means a desire for more tomorrow. Next, check the price on that convenience item. Yes, time is money. So the first thing you should calculate is how many hours of work it takes to pay for all of this convenience. I looked at one basic cooking ingredient – potatoes - and found a 10 lb. bag costs $2.99. That makes about 24 servings of mashed potatoes. Or you can buy a seven serving frozen bag of “Steam & Mash” potatoes for $3.49, with 260 milligrams of sodium per serving included.

So with a little cultural adjustment we can save money, improve our health, and form lasting bonds with our children and partner by cooking more meals at home. Now doesn’t that sound much better than another lonely diet?

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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