“Provisioning Your Ark” (or, Kicking the “Healthy Junk Food” Habit)

Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer and freelance writer who blogs about “kids and food, in school and out” five days a week at The Lunch Tray.  You can also find her on Facebook , Twitter, Pinterest and on The Huffington Post.

"Provisioning Your Ark" (or, Kicking the "Healthy Junk Food" Habit)

A few weeks ago I shared on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page an excellent essay from Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity.  Entitled “We’re Not Fat Because We’re Lazy,” Katz’s piece challenges the common belief that today’s obesity epidemic is caused by a collective failure in willpower.  Though he agrees that personal responsibility is important, Katz argues that

Everything that makes modern living modern is, to one degree or another, obesogenic [i.e., a cause of obesity] . . . . Throughout most of human history, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity—called survival—was unavoidable. Today, it’s the reverse: Physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable.

Katz then goes on:

What we’re all up against—in our efforts to find health—may be likened to a flood. A vast, obesogenic flood. A flood of highly processed, energy-dense, nutrient-dilute, hyper-palatable, glow-in-the-dark, betcha’-can’t-eat-just-one kind of foods; a flood of marketing dollars encouraging us to eat ever more of the very foods that propel us toward obesity and chronic disease; a flood of gadgets and gizmos that do all of the things muscles used to do; a flood of agricultural policies that subsidize corn to fatten cows rather than vegetables and fruits to vitalize people; a flood of obligations that leave no time for attention to health.

After making a compelling cause that any external, governmental regulation of this obesogenic environment is going to be a long time coming, Katz says:

Noah showed us the alternative. If you are stuck dealing with an unprecedented flood, you need a vessel to ride it out. . . . Noah needed, in short order, to learn carpentry and sailing. For us to ride out the obesogenic flood, we too need skills: for eating healthfully in spite of it all, and for fitting fitness into your crazy modern routine.

And that Noah/flood analogy really resonated with me.

I’m a parent of two school-aged children and I’ve always prided myself on serving healthy foods to my family.  But while all of our sit-down meals are cooked from scratch (or from ingredients that are themselves minimally processed), lately I’ve realized that I’ve let quite a lot of “healthy junk foods” slip into my pantry and into my kids’ diets.  And I think you know what I mean by “healthy junk foods” — those snack items that have a health halo just because you can find them at Whole Foods, the ones that omit scary chemicals but are still chock full of white flour and sugar and are often lacking in nutritional value.

How has this happened?  I think the answer is that my kids are older and their lives are more hectic, so suddenly convenience has become a bigger priority.  But thanks in large part to the influence of my awesome Lunch Tray readers, I’ve had something of a wake-up call.  I’ve gradually started taking matters back into my own hands — or becoming my own “Noah,” if you will.   Here are some of the ways I’ve been better provisioning my own family’s “ark:”

  • I traded in our store-bought frozen waffles for delicious pumpkin waffles courtesy of the Meal Makeover Moms (and I up the nutritional profile even more by adding wheat germ, flax and/or chia seeds.)  I make huge batches in advance and freeze them for rushed mornings when I can’t cook breakfast.

Pumpkin Waffles

  • I ditched our old cold cereals and started making my own granola.  I had no idea how easy and fun it is to make, and I love varying the recipe each time with new mixtures of nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
  • I got into the habit of making batches of flavored nuts and seeds (like these maple-chipotle pumpkin seeds) that I often leave in a container out on the counter.  I love how hungry kids (and husbands!) mindlessly gravitate toward it for a healthy, nutrient-packed nibble while dinner’s being made.
  • And most importantly, I started planning ahead for snacks, making batches of items like kale chips, healthy fruit- and vegetable-filled mini muffins, or no-bake, dried fruit “brownies” or peanut butter “cookies.”  These foods are just as easy to eat in the car on the way to after-school activities as were the old pouches of Annie’s cheddar bunnies and their ilk, but so much more nutritious.

Does all this cooking take planning, time and effort?  Absolutely.  But in some ways it’s exactly like making your bed in the morning. It’s a bit of a pain but when you come home to a neatly made, inviting bed, you feel like someone else did you a nice favor.  And that’s how it is when everyone’s starving after school and I can reach into my fridge or pantry and find something I feel entirely good about giving my kids.  By then I’ve forgotten the Sunday morning turning my kitchen upside down . . .

and I’m just so grateful for the finished products:

Clockwise: Granola, maple-chipotle pumpkin seeds, no-bake brownies, no-bake peanut butter balls.

Are we now 100% perfect?  Not at all.  My family still indulges in sweets on a regular basis and certain “healthy junk food” still finds its way into our house.  But overall our diet has improved and I like the feeling that I’m taking back the reins from food companies that don’t always have our best interests at heart.

I’d love to hear how the October Unprocessed challenge might have you re-thinking your own reliance on “healthy junk food” and how you’re working to better provision your own ark!   And thanks to Andrew for giving me the opportunity to guest post on Eating Rules today.

Noah’s Ark and Friends” © 2010 Ween Nee, used under the Creative Commons license.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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October 15, 2012 11:46 am

Cindy: I didn’t share the recipe but it’s in a book by the Meal Makeover Moms called “No Whine with Dinner.” That book has lots of recipe ideas for natural homemade snacks including granola bars, “jello,” etc. I recommend it!

October 15, 2012 10:46 am

Is there a direct link to the pumpkin waffles? I am having trouble finding it. Roasting a pumpkin today and now have the seeds recipe and hopefully a waffle recipe to use the “fruits of my labor”. Thank you.

Danica D
October 15, 2012 8:43 am

So you know, the links to the peanut butter balls and the brownies are backwards. Just FYI!! 🙂

Reply to  Andrew
October 15, 2012 11:44 am

Oops! My bad, not Andrew’s! 🙂

October 15, 2012 8:17 am

Love the arc analogy, the article in general…and the links to some sites for great recipes. My 11 kids are very athletic and always hungry. Trying to keep them happy without junk filler is a challenge and I can always use those…

Reply to  Holly Murphy
October 15, 2012 11:44 am

I’m so glad it was helpful! I think it’s great to swap ideas for homemade snacks. My readers on The Lunch Tray have really inspired me and I’m glad to pay it forward.

Reply to  Bettina at The Lunch Tray
October 15, 2012 11:48 am

And I just realized you said “11 kids!” I have no doubt you’re really pressed for time so it’s all the more admirable that you don’t want to take the easy way out with processed snacks. The best tip I can give (which you probably already know, with 11 kids!) is to make large batches of stuff ahead of time and stock up. They way I see it, it’s one morning or day devoted to cooking, then a nice pay-off for the days that follow. Good luck!

Reply to  Bettina at The Lunch Tray
October 15, 2012 8:36 pm

I make granola in my crockpot (base = 14 cups of oatmeal) so you could do something like that for a larger quantity. I suspect that it’s not going to go as far as you’d like though.

Instead of cinnamon swirl bread, how about rolling up nuts & fruit or cheese & spinach then baking it?

Amy P
October 15, 2012 8:16 am

Thanks for the pumpkin seed recipe – I just bought some and had no idea what to do with them!

Reply to  Amy P
October 15, 2012 11:41 am

Amy: I hope you like them! And this is going to sound really weird but I often eat the maple-chipotle pumpkin seeds in my breakfast, mixed with plain yogurt and a little honey. There’s something about the sweet-hot-creamy combo that works for me. 🙂

October 15, 2012 6:39 am

Janice: Your cookbook, No Whine With Dinner, has been so helpful to me and my family in terms of giving us great ideas for more scratch-cooked snacks. I forgot to mention it in the post that we now also make our own granola bars, thanks to you!

October 15, 2012 4:54 am

Great post. Dr. Katz makes a good point about our obesogenic environment, and I agree that it’s easy to fall into the ‘healthy junk food’ rut. It takes effort, but getting back into the kitchen to make healthy food for our families is worth it.
PS, We’re glad you love our pumpkin waffles!