Category Archives: On Eating and Writing

On Lunchboxes.

There’s a story making the rounds right now about a mom in Australia who packed a slice of chocolate cake in her three-year-old’s lunch — and received a firm note back from the teacher: “Please choose healthier options for Kindy.” And while this particular incident is news, the phenomenon is not. Teachers grading lunchboxes make the rounds about once every year or two and that’s probably because it happens way more often than that. See this 2015 story from the Today Show about the Colorado mom who packed Oreos and received a note in response detailing a rather arbitrary set of school food rules. “All children are required to have a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy snack from home, along with a milk.” Okay, fair enough. But there’s also this: ”If they have potatoes, the child will also need bread to go along with it.” What?

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[On Reading]

This week, I’ve been reading Bee Wilson’s First Bite, which is the fairly masterful book everybody asks “have you read…?” when I say I’m writing a book about how we learn to eat. This is actually a reread and I am once again dazzled by how poetically Wilson writes about scientific findings. Anyone who has to read medical journals on a regular basis knows that scientific studies are mostly written in the least exciting language possible, but Wilson has a real talent for turning those dense nuggets of research into accessible stories. She also tracks down some of the most incredible early research, like a 1926 study by Dr. Clara Davis, a pediatrician from Chicago, who “borrowed a number of infants” (mostly orphans) and fed them in controlled laboratory conditions for six years, in order to understand how our appetites and food preferences develop.

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It Cost $2.5 Million to Keep My Child Alive (Slate.com)

I’ve got a new piece up on Slate on how repealing the Affordable Care Act could impact families like mine (yes, even with employer-sponsored insurance). And it will do even more damage to poor families relying on Medicaid to pay for their children’s complex healthcare needs. A little background there: As part of their ACA repeal goals, Republicans want to convert Medicaid and Medicare entitlement funds into block grants, which means that the amount of money a state receives will no longer depend on how many of its citizens need coverage. When that happened to welfare, we saw states tighten up eligibility requirements so much that 74 percent of American families with children living in poverty are now no longer able to get cash assistance when they need it.

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Learning to eat on food stamps.

By now, you may have read about last week’s USDA report on what low-income families buy with their food stamps (officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits). Or more accurately, you may have read the initial media coverage which wrung hands over the amount of soda poor people are buying. (Not actually grocery carts full, as the photo suggested, but 5 percent of their food dollars!)

Hopefully that means you’ve now also read responses from various reputable corners (including the NYT’s own public editor) pointing out how that was a blatant mischaracterization of the report, which found virtually no difference in the soda spending habits of SNAP and non-SNAP households (who put, um, 4 percent of their food dollars towards soda). In both kinds of households, about 40 cents of every food purchase dollar was spent on kitchen staples like meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread. In both households, another 20 cents was spent on soda, juice, candy, salty snacks and sugar. (The rest was frittered away on rice, beans, and other cooking ingredients.) It’s not the sexiest graphic, but I’m including the chart below straight from the USDA’s report summary because I think it’s really worth parsing. (Click the image to enlarge it in your browser.) If you do, you’ll notice the only significant difference in how poor people and rich people buy groceries is that poor people buy a lot more baby food. They do persist in feeding their children.

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What I’m Reading (And Writing. And Eating.)

Work In Progress

First, a little book update: Last week, I reached that stage of research where you (or at least I) start to despair that none of it is making any sense and everything I thought I knew was wrong. I’ve been exploring lots of disparate threads, having conversations with all kinds of eaters, and was not yet seeing the connections I need to find. I sent a panicked email to a wise writer friend, who immediately called me up and said, “Start writing. 500 words. Go.” And she was right. 500 words turned into 1000 words the next day, and 1000 the day after, and now here we are a week later and I have almost 7,000 words, 5,000 of which are maybe okay and the start of a chapter.

That mess on the big board above is my first stab at said chapter’s outline. Don’t zoom in! None of it is ready for primetime. But I promised behind-the-scenes peeks in this newsletter, so welcome to the inside of my brain. I like to map things out visually, so after I do a bunch of writing, I like to print it all out, cut it apart and puzzle piece it back together with Scotch tape and markers. (The metal board is a recent upgrade, to protect our walls from the creative process.) For some reason, my arguments make more sense when I can see them this way. And it’s just satisfying because suddenly it looks like I have a lot of work done.

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New year, not so new diet trends.

A Mighty Girl

Ah, the first week of January. When my inbox overflows with press releases from weight loss companies, fitness experts and diet gurus, and even sober and reputable media outlets, like the New York Times, propose we all go on crash diets. (This year it’s op-ed columnist David Leonhardt telling us to go cold turkey on sugar for 30 days). It always sounds so possible, and even downright sensible, after the weeks of holiday excess. I know at my house, we’ve had a constantly refilling tray of cookies and a bowl of candy on the kitchen counter for much of the past month, and it was with no small relief that I dumped the last six stale cookies in the trash yesterday, after realizing I wasn’t morally obligated to finish them just because they were there.

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Carbs: A Coda

And here’s a quick little coda to my last post on the comfort of carbohydrates. It’s International Week at my daughter’s preschool, which means they’ve been learning little bits about the cultures represented within the student body. And yesterday, we saw this in our daily classroom report (that’s Violet in the background; I’ve cropped her friend’s face to protect that family’s privacy):

Instead of presenting neophobic three-year-olds with lots of unfamiliar foods from different cuisines, these clever teachers used what may be our most universally beloved food to ease them and get them excited about trying new shapes, textures and even flavors in the form of tortillas, pita, naan, croissants, baguettes, bagels, etc. I also like that the lesson offered such a low pressure way to explore new foods, since the kids were empowered to choose for themselves and then talk freely about what they liked or disliked about each (fairly small) piece. Violet’s teacher reported that the bread shop was a smash hit; almost every kid tasted every type and many went back for seconds. And for those who might worry that this would only dig a kid in deeper on an all-carb kick, I was interested to note that at dinner last night, Violet went straight for her chicken and ignored our bread plate entirely. Self-regulation for the win!

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On Carbs, Comfort and Kids

This week, I’ve been interviewing parents of picky eaters, as well as a few adults who are themselves intensely picky. And there’s been an interesting moment in every conversation when I ask, “so, what do they eat?” Because almost every human, as it turns out, eats carbohydrates: Toast, pancakes, waffles, pasta, mac and cheese, bagels, pizza, some cereals, French fries, and maybe a heavily breaded chicken nugget. The most selective eaters may not be able to handle that whole list (one mother told me that the smell of pasta being dropped into a pot of boiling water can make her daughter gag). But they all eat at least a few foods on it, and often, very little else.

This makes a lot of sense. Every cell in our body requires glucose as its primary source of energy, and our brains, especially, depend upon it. (A child’s growing brain, even more.) Plus, carbohydrates, especially the processed kind, are predictable. “Bagels are always round, always the same color, and I know they’re filling,” one adult selective eater told me. “They feel very safe.” No other food group is as reassuringly uniform. The texture of a hamburger is entirely different from a steak or a chicken breast. Fruits and vegetables offer even more variety, as the flavor, color and smell of a single banana can transform completely from the day I bring it home, slightly green, from the store, to when I offer it for breakfast three days later, now covered in alarming black spots. Is it still the same food? Is it still safe to eat? My three-year-old doesn’t have the life experience to navigate these questions and she is understandably suspicious.

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Thinking About Food in Trump’s America

I’m still finding it pretty impossible to concentrate on anything other than the election. To be honest, I woke up on Wednesday morning thinking, “why on earth am I writing a book about learning to eat? It should be about paid family leave! Or rape culture!” Or any of the five million other problems that are about to get even more toxic.

But before my agent and editor get too nervous, let me say that I’m still excited to be writing this book. If we’re going to have a President who refers to women who gain weight as ”eating machines,” then it’s important to keep trying to untangle health and nutrition from misogynistic beauty standards. If we’re going to have a Republican Congress who wants to cut funding for food stamps and decimate school lunch programs, then we also need to understand, more than ever, what it’s like to grow up hungry. The choices we make around food are often our most overt and consistent political statement. Shared meals and food traditions unite our families and cultures, but food is also divisive. Ask any vegetarian — and also ask any overweight person who has had their restaurant order picked apart by “well-meaning” dining companions, or any busy mom who has felt the sanctimonious sneer of liberal judgment after buying her kids a Happy Meal. From where I’m sitting, liberals (myself included) lost this election by not taking the threat of Trump seriously, and worse, by not trying hard enough to understand and address the fears of his supporters, even when we disagree with them.

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On Sugar Fixes (and Fixer Upper)

Ice cream

This week, I’m thinking a lot about sugar. It’s almost Halloween, which means all of the (mostly) moms in the online parenting groups I follow have been despairing about how to manage the coming candy deluge. There’s a lot of pressure to make elaborately healthy treats from scratch, or at least buy organic lollipops in order to tempt kids away from the Mini Snickers. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association recently updated their guidelines to say that children under the age of 2 should consume no added sugar, while kids between the ages of 2 and 18 should consume no more than six teaspoons per day.

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