Monday, December 11, 2017

Teaching Your Kids To Cook Is More Important Than Teaching Them To Play Soccer Or Hockey

Source: USAG-Humphreys' Flickr
So this post, originally published at US News and World Report a few years ago, will be the last of this recent sled of in defence and support of home cooking.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, people ate out for a reason. Maybe it was in celebration of an anniversary, a birthday or a promotion. Maybe it was out of necessity to seal the deal with an important prospective client. Or maybe it was the understandable consequence of travel. But one thing's for sure — we didn't used to eat out simply because we could. Eating out was special.

Growing up in the 1970s, meals out were exceedingly rare for my family. Aside from our every-other-year family vacations, I'd bet we only ate out once every few months or so — and almost always to mark an occasion. I don't think we were atypical in how we spent money on food back then; as a society, the 1970s saw roughly 30 percent of our food dollars spent on food prepared outside of the home. Today North American society is over 50 percent.

Working in my office, I'd venture my average patient is eating out three to four times a week. And yet, it's not laziness that drives their frequent meals out. Regular meals out are simply North America's new normal. And it's a new normal that I think is a huge player in our collectively poor health.

While there is no one singular cause for our societal struggle with diet and weight-related conditions, one of the primary drivers is our unbelievably frequent use of restaurants, cafeterias and take-out food. Sometimes we justify these choices because there's a "low-fat", or "low-carb", option or something that sounds safe and healthful, and sometimes we convince ourselves it's due to a lack of time — that we honestly don't have the five or so minutes it would take each morning to brown-bag a lunch.

But I'd bet that most of the time we don't even think about whether we should or shouldn't be eating out. And we don't think about it, because the regular use of restaurants, or of supermarket take-out, or of nuking a box or assembling a jar of this with a box of that and calling it cooking, is just what we all do. And generally people don't question conventions that simply reflect regular behaviour.

I'd go further and say that families are often looked at with scorn when the vast majority of their meals are transformed from minimally processed and fresh whole ingredients. The "normal" of convenience has people seeing the cooking family as having an "obsession" with health or nutrition beyond what "normal" people consider to be healthy.

At the end of each day, we're all consumers of the exact same amount of time. While no doubt, there are those who have far tougher lives than others, and some work far longer hours, there was a time when each and every last family out there, regardless of how rough their circumstances, was obligated to find the time to prioritize cooking as part of day-to-day requirements, because there simply was no alternative. And while there are definitely people whose life circumstances truly make regular cooking an impossible and unreasonable goal, there are definitely others who have been convinced, or have convinced themselves, that it's not doable.

Now I'm not trying to romanticize the foods we all once cooked. I'm certain many a meal from those days would have turned many a dietitian white with horror. But I'd argue that the simple act of cooking — a health-preserving life skill — is a skill that risks extinction. In some families, regular home cooking is a phenomenon not seen for three generations.

My guess is that even the worst home-cooked-from-fresh-whole-ingredients meals from back then were likely to be lower in calories, sodium, and sugar than many healthy-sounding restaurant choices today. More importantly, those meals were far more likely to involve shared meal preparation and cleanup along with their consumption as a family ritual, around a table free from today's drone of kitchen-based TV sets and the pings and beeps of emails, tweets and Facebook updates from our electronic leashes.

So what have we prioritized in cooking's place? Kids' organized sports? Longer work hours? Our favourite TV shows? Text messaging? Social media?

Boiling it down to its essence, ultimately what we've prioritized as more important than cooking is convenience. Moreover, we go out of our way to convince ourselves (as does the food industry) that convenience can still confer health, that those boxes that claim they contain healthy nutrients and those menu items that include vegetables are in fact good for us. But looking around us — and given the urgency of the problem and the never-ending call to arms to fix it — it sure doesn't seem as though convenience is doing a very good job.

The inconvenient truth of health is that healthy living does require effort. There are no shortcuts.

And if you're looking for the one thing you can do that would most dramatically improve your or your family's health, my money would be on you prioritizing the regular, uninterrupted use of your kitchen. Prioritize it at the expense of your electronic tethers and, yes, even at the expense of your children's after-school sports, as teaching your children the life skill of cooking trumps their need to learn how to play soccer - and if you have time in your life for that, you definitely have time in your life for this.

And please don't misread this as if I'm suggesting that change need be absolute or all at once. Maybe commit to cooking one additional meal a week, and it certainly need not be complex. The goal is to cultivate love affairs with our kitchens, but that doesn't mean you'll be madly in love from day one, and while I don't think we should stop taking advantage of the miraculous times that we live in and should still enjoy and savour some wonderful meals out, we should be aiming at making eating out special again — a rare and exciting treat. In other words, aim to eat out for occasions, and not just because it's Tuesday.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Introducing #15by15, My Wife's Life Skill Challenge For Our (And Your) Family

Our family's current week's meal plan as laid out by our 10 year old on Sunday (it's a magnetic whiteboard that lives on our fridge)
Today's guest post comes from my wonderful wife Stacey who has recently implemented a new challenge for us - she calls it #15by15 - where 15 is the minimum number of meals we want each of our kids to know how to make, entirely by themselves, by the age of 15.
Fifteen by fifteen”. That’s what I told my kids when they recently helped to make our menu plan for the week, and this time were instructed to add in one meal each that they would cook from scratch, with or without my help.

I’m not going to lie, there was some whining. My three kids, now aged eight, ten and thirteen, have been helping to create menu plans that include breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner and even treats for several years now (ht stands for "Halloween Treat" - they generally last them an entire year), as well as cooking with me and/or my husband. The kids take turns doing this from week to week because they recognize that we all have different favourites, and they want to make sure that theirs are included.

Our kids also recognize that for a household to run well, and for their mom to yell less (because, well, life is stressful enough without having to worry about each meal and snack that comes next), we all need to pitch in and help. This includes other household chores, like doing the laundry, loading and unloading the dishwasher, setting and clearing the table, taking care of the cat's food and litter, and taking out the trash, among others. My kids know that while these are not particularly fun activities, they are life skills, and that they aren’t likely to be taught how to do them anywhere but home.

In my mind, perhaps the most important of all of these life skills, is the skill of cooking.

From the time my kids were old enough to provide constructive criticism of mine or my husband’s cooking escapades, they have also been asking that we teach them how to make particular favourites before they move out. And so, with that, came our promise to them,
"When you leave home, you will leave with a cookbook of family favourite recipes, an Instapot (because they’re awesome), and a minimum of fifteen meals that you can make completely on your own from scratch."
And while there may have been whining when first announced (and perhaps even a bit of trepidation from me as I thought about the mess that would be my kitchen on at least a tri-weekly basis (I'm not including the nights my husband cooks, god-bless his mess)), my kids have fully embraced this new goal, reminding us that it is their turn to cook, with my older two kicking us out of the kitchen when they're up – which is beyond awesome, because they know that I have difficulty stepping back and allowing them to do their thing, and clearly they are more than capable.

While I can’t say that there hasn’t been an impact on the cleanliness of my kitchen, I can say that the mess has been worth making in reaching the goal of my kids becoming self-sufficient and capable of cooking with fresh, whole ingredients. They are well on their way to being able to cook fifteen meals by the time that they are fifteen years old, and, at least to date, they continue to be excited in finding and cooking new recipes, and full of pride as our family consumes them.

If you have a young family, perhaps you can consider taking on the #15by15 challenge too.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

You'll Gladly Die for Your Children; Why Won't You Cook for Them?

Today the Heart and Stroke Foundation published a report by Dr. Jean-Claude Moubarac that found Canada's biggest consumers of ultra-processed food are our children. Canadian kids between the ages of 2-18 are consuming over half of their calories from ultra-processed foods, and kids aged 9-13, are closing in on 60%. When I read the report, one which clearly suggests that cooking is a lost art, it reminded me of this article which I first published in USNews and World Report in 2013 (and I'll have more on this subject from my wife on Thursday)..
I'm a parent of three. I hold no illusions that I'm a uniquely dedicated parent or that my love for my kids is greater than anyone else's. And like all parents, should the opportunity arise, I'd gladly, immediately and unquestioningly give my life for their's. And it's my firm belief in the incredible and powerful love of parents for their children that regularly leads me to scratch my head and wonder: Why it is that while most every parent would happily die for their children, it's an increasingly rare parent who will cook for them?

I've heard all of the explanations—time, cost, after-school activities, lack of cooking skills, picky eaters, etc. But ultimately, I think the real reason parents who would die for their children are comfortable feeding them from boxes and drive-thrus isn't due to a lack of love or concern. It's because society has been so firmly and conclusively duped into believing that doing so is both safe and healthful that it has become our new normal.

Remember that the foods we feed our children are, quite literally, their building blocks. Consequently, we are building a nation of children constructed from the food industry's deceptively and, at times, deceitfully marketed salt, sugar and fat offerings of convenience.

But more than that, the manner in which we feed our children is the model from which they're likely to draw upon to feed their futures. If fast and processed food assembly make up the bulk of their childhood "cooking" experiences, where actual cooking is a grumbling rarity relegated to holiday dinners, do you think your children are likely to take the time to cook and look after their nutrition as young adults or as parents themselves?

The statistics are ugly. Nearly half of our food dollars are being spent on restaurant and out-of-the-home convenience foods. In our homes, the percentage of food dollars being spent on processed foods has doubled since just the early 1980s. But again, we're not eating this way because we don't value health or love our children. We're eating this way because the food industry has festooned boxes of salt, sugar, fat and pulverized white flour with claims of added "nutrients" and health benefits; they've also convinced us that mixing, pouring, stirring and adding is "cooking."

The fact the food industry has succeeded in doing this in part may have to do with our species-wide desire for convenience, because, at the end of the day, it's simply not about time. Recent reports put the average American in front of a television for 34 hours a week and on the Internet for another eight–sure sounds like time's something of which we actually have plenty.

Fixing this problem will require more than just trying to make parents feel guilty. At this point, many parents have been led by lax front-of-package labeling and advertising laws to faithfully believe that the boxes they're feeding their children do in fact conveniently and healthfully replace fresh, whole-ingredient cooking. Plus, they themselves may have grown up in homes where actual home cooking was anything but the norm and may not know how to cook.

So what should we do? Here's a start:

• We need to take away the food industry's upper hand in the supermarkets. We need to change labeling laws and hamstring the ability of the food industry to hoodwink harried parents into believing that a sometimes-comfort food like mac and cheese can ever be a smart choice. Why should the onus be on the consumer to turn boxes over to study the nutrition facts panel to ensure that the claims on the front of the package are supported by its actual contents? Moreover, are consumers actually equipped to do this from a nutrition-education perspective?

• We need to bring back home economics. Sadly, there are many families in which regular home cooking was last seen three generations ago. I think children shouldn't be allowed to graduate high school without knowing how to cook 10 simple, healthful, fresh, whole-ingredient meals on their own. As well, we should consider using our schools' abandoned kitchens after hours to help teach basic cooking skills to families as a whole.

• We need to denormalize the reliance on convenience when it comes to feeding our children. As a society, we need to prioritize our kitchens as the healthiest and most important rooms of our homes. And we'll likely need hard-hitting public health campaigns that criticize the food and restaurant industry as well as nutrition education in schools.

The shift from regular home cooking to the mess we're in now didn't happen overnight, and it's going to take time to reverse. We need to rise up and reclaim our kitchens and shift the balance of power from the food industry to loving moms and dads who no doubt would die for their children and, if empowered to do so, I've no doubt would cook for them, too.

We need to champion produce and not products, and we needed to have started yesterday.

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

Saturday Stories: Professor Piffle, Opioids, and Weight Lifting

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brock A. Taylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ira Wells, in The Walrus, with a story more for we Canadians on Jordan Peterson, the Professor of Piffle.

Admiral James Winnefeld, in The Atlantic, on how no family is safe from the opioid epidemic.

Alex Hutchinson, with his new gig in Outside, on how if you want to delay death, you should probably be lifting weights.

[And thanks to the great generosity of friends, family, and readers, this year's Movember fundraising amounted to $4,553. If you'd like to watch my kids shave off my moustache, here's that video]

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Picture Books Shouldn't Teach Toddlers To Be Self-Conscious About Weight

A patient brought in this picture book.

It's apparently from a series of picture books about "Pot Bellied Buddies"

It's about a bunny who as a consequence of eating too many carrots, no longer fits in his bunny hole.

And so what did the bunny do?

Well he decided to "cut back a little, and exercise"

Another patient brought in a Thomas and Friends book.

In it, kids are introduced to, "The Fat Controller"

And when exploring other Thomas and Friends characters I learned there's also a "Thin Controller". There are no other body based descriptors of any other characters. Weight is apparently an important distinction.

In the past I've noted weight biased messaging in:

A beloved and award winning children's author's book
Harry Potter
The Princess Bride
A kid's movie whose entire premise rides on the suggestion that being fat is horrific
The Muppets reboot
Scooby-Doo
Johnny Test
Max and Ruby

and

An attraction at Disney's Epcot Center.

That weight hate and stereotyping is so prevalent in children's books and movies speaks to how deeply ingrained weight bias is in society today. Parents, please be on the lookout for this sort of messaging, and when (not if) you come across it, use it as an opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion with your kids about why it's wrong.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Whether Or Not You Can Outrun A Bad Diet Depends On Your Finish Line

If you're trying to run away from weight, the likelihood of you succeeding without also addressing your diet is pretty darn low.

On the other hand, if you're trying to run towards health, well then my money's on your feet.

Exercise is, second only perhaps to not smoking, the most important health behaviour anyone can cultivate.

Whether you're running to reduce the risk or burden of most chronic diseases, or to preserve and improve your functional independence, or to reduce pain, live longer, improve sleep, bolster mood, gain strength, lengthen endurance etc., increasing and sustaining regular exercise, regardless of weight and independently of diet, is incredibly powerful.

And I'm not aware of there being any credible voices suggesting otherwise.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Saturday Stories: Window Girl, Graffiti Kids, And Iron Lungs

Lane Degregory in Floridian on the girl in the window (apparently an update to this 2008 story is imminent).

Mark McKinnon in The Globe and Mail on the graffiti kids who sparked the Syrian war.

Jennings Brown in Gizmodo on the last few people living in iron lungs.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

10 Easy Non-Junk Food Rewards Teachers Can Dole Out

It happens in my kids' classes too. Teachers use junk food to reward academic accomplishments, good behaviour, fundraising and other social initiatives.

I'm sure the intentions are good. Rewarding desired behaviours reinforces the behaviour. Of course it also reinforces the rewards.

Teachers teaching their students, usually their very young students, that candy and pizza are rewards for every job well done no matter how small, might not be a great lesson for kids.

Moreover, there are so many better rewards that could be metered out.

In no particular order, here are ten (some whole class, some single kid), and please feel free to share this post and list with the your children's teachers. Honestly, they care about your kids, but they may not have thought about the issue much, and they're just doing what's nowadays considered to be normal.

1. An extra period of recess
2. An in class dance party
3. Dress up (or down) days (PJs, costumes, fancy clothes, whatever)
4. Class put in charge of school PA system for the day
5. Painting a hallway or classroom mural
6. Stickers or temporary tattoos
7. Sit wherever you want for a period (teacher's chair, floor, under desk)
8. Get out of one night of homework free card
9. Phone a kid's parents to tell them how terrific their kid is
10. Scrabble/boggle/other sort of educational game competition/hour

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Of Course You Can Be Fit And Fat

Undeniably fit ultra-marathoner Mirna Valerio (from a 2015 Runner's World story (am quoted))
How about I pose a different question.

Can you be fit and have diabetes?

Of course you can. It'd be ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

So why doesn't the question of whether or not a person can be fit and fat sound equally ridiculous?

Why instead do we regularly see articles like this recent one from the New York Times that cover the "controversy" of the fit fat person?

In part it's because these stories conflate fitness with being free from other chronic diseases and/or from the risk of developing other chronic diseases.

But is that the average person's definition of fitness?

I don't think so.

I think most people think of fitness as the thing one gains as a consequence of regular exercise. That's why when it comes to the question of can you be fit and have diabetes, it sounds ridiculous as of course you can exercise and have diabetes.

Well guess what, you can also exercise and have obesity.

And in fact, that same study on which the New York Times based their article, didn't even try to quantify whether or not exercise provided health and/or quality of life benefits to people with obesity (of course exercise does). It simply looked at the heart disease risk of people with obesity, who didn't have other chronic medical conditions.

So basically the study concluded that obesity ups cardiovascular disease risk, not that those with obesity couldn't be fit.

And exercise mitigates, to varying degrees, the risks associated with virtually all chronic diseases, and obesity is no different.

Coming back to why we see stories in even the world's most reputable newspapers framing fitness and fatness as a controversy, well I think it just comes down to weight bias - specifically the trope that assumes that anyone with obesity must be lazy, because without that bias as a backdrop, there really isn't much of a story.

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