Food Revolution Fridays: Rising Above the Deep Fry

One of my favorite bloggers, Scattered Mom of Notes from the Cookie Jar and Chasing Tomatoes, has a very cool feature going on that I’m planning to participate in — starting today.  She’s a fellow Jamie Oliver fan (though, unlike lowly little ol’ me, she’s actually received Jamie’s personal stamp of approval for her efforts), and during his last U.S. “Food Revolution” foray — the infamous Huntington, W. VA stint — she ran a weekly blog theme called Food Revolution Fridays.  Now that Jamie’s in L.A. (meeting with less-than-stellar results, sadly), Scattered Mom is reprising the weekly event.  The idea is that, every Friday for as long as Jamie’s trying to revolutionize L.A., bloggers who are interested in participating will write something about healthy food in schools, or creating a healthier overall food culture, or will post a healthy family recipe, or…you get the idea.

Anyway, I feel a bit like this whole blog is a big Food Revolution Fridays post, but I’m going to try to be intentional about it from here on out, posting on Fridays in particular about things that I think relate to Jamie Oliver’s efforts.  Starting today.  With a quote from reader Jen: “It is possible to rise above the deep fry.”

When I asked you all, the other day, to contribute to a discussion about American food culture to help clarify things for a friend in the Netherlands, I never expected the fervor that was about to hit the comments board.  It’s been an indescribable pleasure to read and respond to your thoughtful comments and links.  It would take me at least a dozen posts to do justice to the information and sentiments that were contained in your responses, but to sum it all up, apparently It’s Not Just Me.

You all agreed on one thing, at least: that American food culture is failing our kids.  And what really frightened me, in a way (though I suspected as much) was that none of you cited the same reasons for the decline in our eating habits.  There were a few things that really stuck with me, though, and I’m pondering them today in the context of this revolution.

One is the idea, posed by reader James, that what used to be the province of our education system — teaching basic life skills, such as in the old-school home ec class — is now no longer, and perhaps parents at large haven’t moved to fill that gap.  I should mention that James and I are actually childhood friends, so when we exchanged comments about the home ec classes in middle school, we were speaking from shared experience.  At our large public school, we were required to spend a semester of 7th grade and a semester of 8th grade taking Home Economics.  It may sound unliberated; it may sound quaintly out-of-date; but as James and I both pointed out, darned if we and our classmates didn’t learn some useful stuff.  We had to learn to cook at least a few basic things, and how to sew on a button, and some other general “domestic” skills.  As I wrote on the comments board, I don’t recall the whole experience in detail, but I know that because of Home Ec, I could make chicken stir-fry, twice-baked potatoes, and morning glory muffins by the age of 13.  Even if my parents hadn’t been the kind of people who expected us to learn how to prepare basic foods for ourselves, I would still have gained some of that knowledge from school.

These days, I have no idea whether or not Home Ec is still a requirement at our old school, but I do know that it’s not included in the basic curriculum at most of the middle and high schools I’ve been to recently.  Sure, some of the high schools have a Culinary Arts program that kids can opt into, but “opt” is the key word here — nobody’s actually sitting in the curriculum planning meetings and saying “You know what?  It is as necessary to our students to learn how to purchase and prepare healthy foods as it is for them to learn about the War of 1812.”  (And though I’m a total geek, love learning, and value knowledge of all kinds, I’ll actually go out on a limb here and say that I think most kids will get more lifelong value out of the cooking classes than the War of 1812 quiz.)  Without getting super-political and into the educational policy fray, I’ll just say this: James made the point that as subject areas like music and art have been slowly squeezed out of many schools to make room for more and more academics, it’s likely that something as generally maligned as Home Economics went to the chopping block first.  Makes sense to me.

But that means that if we want our 13-year-olds to be able to make a stir-fry or a batch of muffins (or even, as my older sister’s class did, a spinach lasagna!), we have to TEACH THEM OURSELVES.  And while parents are probably (I hope) aware that their kids are not taking Home Ec at school, that doesn’t necessarily translate to them thinking that it’s necessary to fill that gap in another way.  There’s a unique thing going on in the American consciousness, I’m noticing, whereby many parents assume that Whatever Is Going On In the Schools Is the Right Answer.  If the schools say that the kids don’t need to learn to cook, then parents logically assume that learning to cook is not a necessary part of growing up.  If the schools serve up junk at lunchtime, then parents assume that the meal on offer is appropriate food for growing kids.  Too many people are not thinking critically anymore, nor are they thinking for themselves (this appears to be a theme of mine this week).

Which leads me back to Jen’s comment.  Jen shared that she’s had to make many conscious decisions, as an adult, to buck the food trends of many of her family and friends.  In a world of processing, she’s had to seek natural choices and stay strong in her resolve, just as so many of us are trying to do.  But “it is possible to rise above the deep fry,” she wrote, and I wholeheartedly agree with her.  The issue is not whether we can rise above the deep fry; as I think about the whole concept of educational and parental responsibility, I’m beginning to wonder if the real issue is whether or not we even WANT to.  Surely Jamie Oliver’s recent experiences in Los Angeles underscore the fact that despite mounting evidence to the contrary, there are still a whole lot of people out there who appear to want to believe that the current nutritional status quo is just fine.

I’m not one of them; I suspect that, if you’re reading this, neither are you.  But if we want to see change, real and substantial, we have to find a way to help everyone who has any influence in the life of a child — parents, extended family members, educators, and community members — understand that this is part of their responsibility.  And that it’s possible to make a difference with just a few simple actions.  A few more family meals every week.  A few minutes spent reading the labels at the store.  One less packaged food per day; one more fresh vegetable per day.  One more conversation with their kids about what they’re putting into their bodies.  All of these are small steps on the road to change, and we should be recognizing that small steps can also be part of a large revolution.  Every baked potato, grilled chicken breast, and steamed vegetable is a rung on the ladder that rises above the deep fry.


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13 Responses to Food Revolution Fridays: Rising Above the Deep Fry

  1. Kim B. says:

    Well said, bravo!

    I have two additional comments. First, T is only 21 months old and while I’ve invited him into the kitchen with me to bang a wooden spoon on a metal mixing bowl or to sample freshly chopped pepper pieces (which he eagerly tries and then promptly spits out), it never occurred to me that I will actually have to teach him how to cook! So thank you for that reminder. I myself am not a confident cook, but I’m trying to get better. (One thing that is helping is a meal plan and Sunday cooking for the week and my inspiration for that, as you know, is the RRG blog.) I want T to grow up confident in his ability to feed himself.

    Second, I think our culture is one of convenience, and this certainly includes the “American food culture” as well. I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me, but I think healthy cooking and healthy eating does not necessarily have to be as inconvenient as perceived by many. For example, fresh vegetables are nutritious and tasty, but if you have to take shortcuts in the kitchen, I’d rather see you use bags of frozen chopped veggies to make a stir fry or sauce than a frozen TV dinner. I’ve read that frozen vegetables are _not_ less nutritious than fresh vegetables and that they can actually be richer in nutrients because they are often flash frozen at the peak of freshness. I’m not sure if this is actually true (perhaps this is a rumor being put forth by the frozen vegetable industry), but if it is, it will make me feel less guilty about relying on them occasionally. Plus, it’s easier to keep them on hand for last-minute dishes. What do you think?

    • Renee says:

      I’ve heard this also about frozen veggies, something I do make use of. I hope it’s true! I’ve always wished that I could buy frozen tomatoes, instead of canned. I freeze some of mine, but they don’t last as long as I need them to. Why aren’t tomatoes in the freezer section?!

      • Kim B. says:

        no worries, I read that it applies to canned fruits & veggies too!

      • Some, not all, I think, but I’d have to do more research on it. (The cooking/heating process for some of the canned veggies can suck out a lot of the nutrients, I’d imagine — I mean, think of the color of a canned green bean…)

      • Don’t stress about the canned ones! We use them all the time. I know lots of people are trying to make the move away from cans and go towards cartons (I haven’t yet), but either way, they’re preserved when they’re at their best, so it’s not a huge trade-off.

    • I say, hear hear! You’ve made a really good distinction here, actually. It does appear — and this comes from really qualified people, so no, not the frozen veg. lobby — that frozen veggies are generally just as nutritious, if not more so, than their fresh counterparts. The main reason, as you say, is because they’re sort of preserved when they’re fresh, not trucked around the country to various supermarkets where they sit for days or weeks, losing valuable nutrients. I do use frozen veggies sometimes and almost ALWAYS use frozen peas for cooking (though I like fresh ones raw, if I can get them). However, I do feel obligated to say (since I yam who I yam!) that buying local produce from a farm or farmer’s market alleviates the freshness concerns and puts those fresh veggies right back on level with the frozen ones, so I keep that in the back of my head when I’m making decisions about which to buy at any given time. You’re absolutely right about the convenience factor, though! Using frozen peas or corn or carrots or whatever is so much easier, and if people feel crunched for time, I’d absolutely rather they use the frozen veg than none at all!
      Also, don’t think of it as having to teach T. to cook. Think of it as showing him a new and different kind of art project that will have great lifelong benefits. 🙂 And you’ve got quite a while yet before you’ll need to worry about the actual “teaching” part, anyway!

  2. Renee says:

    My daughter and I made your waffle recipe yesterday after school, and as she was eating more than I thought she could physically fit in her stomach, I took out the box of frozen Nutrigrain waffles from our freezer and we compared the ingredients in those to the ingredients in ours. It was a good teachable moment –we can actually pronounce all the ingredients in ours 🙂

    • I’m so glad she enjoyed the waffles, and I’m really glad that I was able to provide you guys with a teachable moment! I never used to think about the ingredients in the Nutrigrain ones either, but now that I know how ridiculously simple it is to make our own, I can’t imagine why I would want to give a “pass” to those unpronounceable ingredients on the box instead of committing myself to 15 minutes or so of light kitchen work for my kids’ well-being.

  3. Scatteredmom says:

    I love this post, and quoted you in my Food Revolution Friday post w/ Mr. Linky. Please make sure to link up. 🙂

    It’s funny, I don’t really consider myself fan material. When I think of the word “fan”, I think of girls running after Justin Beiber. I always liked Jamie’s work, but I’ve always believed in healthy eating very strongly. This campaign is something I really believe in, and as a food blogger, mom, and school staffer it only made sense to throw my support behind him. I believe in the cause-although I think maybe I have become a fan over the year, because Jamie is just so darn cool.

    So glad you are playing along! The next few months should be lots of fun.

    • I can’t WAIT to read your post! I’m so thrilled to be able to play along with something that I think is not only going to be a lot of fun, but also very instructive for those of us playing, our audiences, and hopefully for a wider circle of people who may end up reading the work we produce. This is IMPORTANT. And you’ve given a group of very passionate bloggers a platform for writing about all of this. Thanks for doing that!
      It’s funny to hear you talking about fan-dom. 🙂 To me, “fan” has morphed as I’ve grown and always tends to be more about people I find interesting, intellectually stimulating, or people who are doing something amazing for the world — otherwise, I’ll tend to say that I like somebody, but I reserve “fan” for more special occasions. Isn’t it weird how we all attach our own meanings to common words and phrases?

  4. Claire says:

    I’m doing some research on home ec in my school district, but I will say this. My brother the pickest childhood eater around was changed by 2 things, home ec, where he learned to cook a few things for himself and developed an interest in cooking, and working in a restaraunt where he could (and was encouraged to) try new foods. That’s all for now!

    • Claire, I think the heavens have just opened and angels are singing in my office. You’ve just proven my entire point for me! THANK you! Please do let me know what you find out about home ec in your district — I’d be curious to hear from educators all over the country about whether or not it has truly disappeared, or maybe just changed so much that it’s not providing the kind of value it used to.

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