Following Pollan’s Food Rules. Rule 1: Eat Food.

How hard can it be to “Eat Food”, Michael Pollan’s first rule of eating well?

As those of you familiar with his canon, after writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Mr. Pollan synthesized what he had learned into a manifesto to eating well, In Defense of Food, which was then followed by a set of rules or heuristics about how to put what he had learned into practice in his volume, Food Rules. As someone who is an active participant in the eating local, sustainable, organic (fill in the blank with your favorite adjective) movement, I see his writing as a source of wisdom and inspiration.

And, I thought it might be a good time to step back and think about how well we are doing in following the Pollanesque guidelines.  In Defense of Food summarizes his guidance in a wonderful memorable set of phrases:

“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

How, then, is the Family Foodie doing at eating food?

At dinnertime, we usually do well.  This week, for example, our dinner menu included:

Monday. Linguine with pesto sauce – the pesto was from the many batches we stored in the freezer this summer made from basil we grew, olive oil, garlic from our CSA, and parmesan. The linguine was store bought, not organic, but with a short ingredient list. Accompanied by a green salad with homemade balsamic vinegrette, I think it meets the “food” guidelines.

Tuesday.  Frozen pizza and salad. Okay, so this meal isn’t so good at meeting the real food goal. But Tuesday night is grocery shopping night, and sometimes relying on premade food needs to be done.

Wednesday. Homemade shepherd’s pie and garlic-caper kale. Hamburger, potatoes, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, a tablespoon of tomato paste, some chicken broth, and grated cheese for the mashed potato topping.  All is good, except my chicken broth, which although organic is branded as chicken pho base…and has sugar as its second ingredient!! Yikes! But I only needed a cup of it, so the total amount wasn’t too bad.  The kale was from the farmer’s market and is a yummy way to prepare this winter green.

Thursday. Pork chops, white rice, and salad. Nothing complicated here. Pork chops were simply cooked in farmer’s market butter in a cast iron skillet. Rice cooked in the rice cooker (a favorite kitchen applicance), served with low sodium soy sauce, and salad was a spring green mix with some apples and crushed rice crackers on top.

Friday. Spanish potato tortilla or frittata with salad. A favorite go-to meal that meets the food and plants goal. Made with eggs from our South Mountain Creamery delivery, and served with sour cream from the same, this dish is wonderfully filling and quite delicious.

All except the frozen pizza meet Pollan’s rules. But, as I started to think about what we eat for breakfast and lunch during the week, I realized that (a) I have much less control over what my kids eat then, and (b) too much of what is available (and rapidly consumed) in my house for breakfast and lunch moves into the not-as-good-for-you food category.  The main culprits are yogurt, cereal, and snacks – both sweet and salty.  These products routinely violate two of the “Eat Food” rules: Avoid foods that have sugar among the top three ingredients, and Avoid food products that have more than five ingredients. I am an inveterate food label reader, but I am usually looking for sodium content.  I was aghast to realize how much sugar there is in cereals like Cheerios and Multi-Bran Chex, as well as in our favorite yogurts.  And granola bars. And frozen waffles. And let’s not get started on chips and crackers and cookies. With three teens, cereal is a favorite snack, and at the rate yogurt is consumed in my house, I find it hard to keep it in the house (unless it’s perceived of as “healthy” – then it is left for me to enjoy :)!  It is not the case that my kids don’t consume fruits and veggies as snacks, but they live in a world where the category of “snacks” includes many things that are filled with sugar, and long lists on unpronounceable ingredients. I am not entirely sure how I am going to revise my kids’ eating habits to meet the sugar and five ingredient rules – but I will tell you that my reading of food labels has forever been changed by rereading Food Rules.

If anyone has good thoughts about how to tackle the breakfast/snack issue, do let me know!


11 Comments to “Following Pollan’s Food Rules. Rule 1: Eat Food.”

  1. Oh, you are doing SUCH a great job at eating well at home. The snack thing is really tricky! We’re just starting out with kindergarten and already I am sort of overwhelmed by the amount of non-food (according to Pollan, and you and me) that gets presented to my daughter that is beyond my control. As for breakfast/snacks … we always get big tubs of plain yogurt (Seven Stars – they have it at our Whole Foods up here) and we add jam to it. Still sugary but more natural. And we have Ezekiel brand english muffins for breakfast – the kind you find in the freezer section – we get the cinnamon raisin variety – toasted with melted butter. Very yummy. I’d like to get everyone eating oatmeal but so far I’m the only one interested 🙂 I’m trying to get them into snacking on nuts too. But of course they’d rather have granola bars!

  2. Your dinners sound great. Lunches and snacks are tricky, especially when your food prep time is limited. Will your kids eat something like baked oatmeal? It is easy prep (I do it while I am making dinner, first one up in the morning pops it in the oven). Big batches of muffins and granola bars are also fairly easy and can be done in bulk/ frozen (well, at least the muffins). 🙂
    We have just made the transition over to making about half our yogurt (still working on child #2, The Pickiest). It is another one that I can easily do while I am making dinner, and already in the kitchen doing other stuff. Then you get more control over the sugar, etc., (and I find what I make myself is much less tart than the plain yogurt I buy at the store, anyway).

  3. Thanks for the support and suggestions for breakfast, snacks, and lunch. My boys will eat oatmeal – but when it’s in those instant packages – which are filled with sugar!! I like the idea of baked oatmeal – maybe I can prep some with honey that they would eat. I will see if I can’t get the plain yogurt in front of them as an option – part of the challenge is that they are up before we are (middle and high school start much too early for me), and so they reach for the food that requires the least prep. I haven’t seen the Ezekiel brand english muffins (not that I’ve looked…), but that sounds like a possibility. Baking muffins is a great idea – but I’ll need to make huge batches so that I can get some into the freezer! And making my own yogurt sounds just a wee bit intimidating — I’ll need to work myself up to that!

    Keep the good ideas coming!

  4. I wonder if plain yogurt was already in little cups with a big spoonful of no-sugar jam or other fruit added– if it would be a more appealing option? 🙂
    I have used honey or a bit of brown sugar for the baked oats– good either way, and if you use a good quality applesauce, you need less. I should stir some up tonight actually. 🙂 Happy to share our recipe if you’d like.

  5. My kids like plain yogurt with maple syrup…. still sweet, but at least a natural sweet. We also add frozen blueberries.
    Pete makes homemade yogurt all the time — it is super easy. He buys organic milk when it is on sale b/c it is the day of the “sell by” date, and makes a big batch for very little money.
    I am not sure what to do about the granola bar / cereal bar issue. That is a tough one here as well.
    My picky eater eats a soft-boiled egg (with toast cut in strips) for breakfast every school day. (If she has cereal she is hungry by mid-morning.) Once the water boils, it takes 4.5 minutes. She also likes soft-boiled eggs as an after school snack.

  6. Just thought about this again as I put a granola bar in my picky eater’s lunch :)…. I wanted to add that I think your dinners sound wonderful! does your picky eater eat the same things, a subset, or does she have other options?

  7. Sounds delicious! Erewhon makes a brown rice cereal that has no sugar in it. It is like rice crispies but is sweetened with either brown rice syrup (blue box) or barley malt (red box or vice versa). I’ve found it at Whole Paycheck or Giant.

  8. This is my basic formula:
    Combine: 3 c. regular, non-instant oatmeal
    2 t. baking powder
    1/2 t salt

    2 eggs, beaten
    1/2 c. yogurt
    1/2 c. applesauce
    1/2 c. milk
    1/4 c. oil (I sometimes use butter, or use a bit less)
    honey or brown sugar to sweeten to taste (I start with ~1/4 c. honey)
    1 t vanilla

    Mix wet and dry ingredients. Add 1-2 cups fruit (depending on what you have on hand, blueberries are most popular but sometimes I do a combo of apple and dried cranberries). Add cinnamon or other baking spices to taste.

    Pour into a greased 9×13 pan, Refrigerate overnight. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown.

  9. AnneMarie,

    Thanks for the recipe — I will absolutely give it a try tonight!


    My picky eater usually eats a subset of what we prepare — she had linguine with cheese, the pizza, pork chops and rice, as well as salad each night. No go on the shepherd’s pie or the fritatta — cheese quesadillas and apples instead. But since she’s older than your picky eater (:)), I usually ask her to prep her own meal if she’s not going to eat what we’ve made for everyone else. I love the soft-boiled egg idea – the kids are all usually up before the adults are, but I’m pretty sure they could figure out how to do it!


    I don’t know why I didn’t check with you about no-sugar added cereal!!! Thanks for the suggestions.

  10. Grapenuts is another standby no-sugar cereal. It’s great on yogurt with blueberries, but plain?!??!?!

    The oatmeal bake sounds delicious!!! Thanks for sharing, greenishmonkeys!!

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