“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.

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