Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: Jeannie Marshall's Outside the Box - Why Our Children Need Real Food

[Full disclosure - book sent to me by the author]

I’m a newly minted Jeannie Marshall fan.

I first learned about Jeannie when she sent me a direct message on Twitter asking for my address so that she could send me a copy of her new book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products for review. Being immersed in writing my own book, having 3 young children, running a busy medical office, and working on two new ventures that still aren’t ready to be unveiled, I wrote back thanking her, but that I was likely too busy to read it right now. She rapidly tweeted back not to worry, I didn’t need to read it, I just needed to put a sticky note on it stating, “Brilliant” , and then leave it on my desk. I think I literally laughed out loud.

The book arrived a week or two later, and (sorry Jeannie), without a “Brilliant” post-it, it sat on my desk.

When it came time to pack for my recent 40th birthday trip to Scotland (thanks Dad!) for the Speyside Whiskey Festival (amazing), and having read a beautifully written article by Jeannie in the Globe and Mail, I decided to bring it along.

It didn’t disappoint.

Simply put, in the book Jeannie uses her own personal experiences raising her young son Nico in Italy as a means to frame her thoughts around the role of food in modern culture. Her thesis is one that I wholeheartedly share – that a global loss of cooking and its replacement by “food products” created by profit-driven corporations is one of the primary drivers of malnutrition and chronic disease in society today. It’s an ironic cause given that many of these products are being marketed on the basis of claims of health benefits, claims often splashed on the product packaging and advertising, but really where as Jeannie so aptly puts it,
Science again is being used as a marketing tool to convince parents that these children’s foods are superior to the traditional foods that previous generations have eaten”,
and that in turn that we as consumers,
read the health pages of the newspaper for advice on which nutrients we need, or we read the labels on boxes to find out what to eat instead of following the traditional wisdom of our culture”.
Scarier still that traditional wisdom is often two generations old at this point, and is at risk of disappearing altogether.

Jeannie’s concern is that our tastes and our relationships with food are forged when we’re young - really young, and that our busy lives might be setting up a generation for struggle. In discussing ready-to-eat baby foods she notes,
If we feed babies food like this, even though it might not be bad for their overall health, that’s the taste we are teaching them to like”,
and then in a commentary on food advertising targeting kids and its impact on their relationship with food laments,
I don’t really want Pepsi Co. and Coca-Cola and other food companies giving my child health and nutrition advice. The problem is not only what these companies tell children to eat, but how they depict food as entertainment, and as something to grab on the run.
Jeannie’s writing is a delight. Very easy to read, warm and engaging, and she makes a strong case for a return to home cooking. The bond she’s forming with her young son Nico permeates her work, and more to the point, it's being forged in her kitchen.

Politically Jeannie wonders, as I do, why the multinationals' interests seem to matter more to folks like the World Health Organization than in fact, our health. She interviews a senior nutritionist with the UN who notes that at a recent conference around the challenge of ensuring adequate nutrition that virtually every single one of the hundreds of talks and posters dealt with the fortification of heavily processed foods, and states that,
The food industry acts as though micronutrient deficiencies are a disease that people need to be cured of, rather than something that happens when you don’t have enough to eat.
The one area where I wish Jeannie spent more time were in solutions. While she definitely covers the issue of the time involved well (it doesn’t need to be fancy or take forever), she doesn’t spend much on the dollars involved in procuring fresh food and indeed, this is a very common and regular argument that comes up when discussing home cooking. That said, in part I think it’s about priorities. I’d argue that actual food and cooking are often prioritized far lower on the totem pole of needs than they need to be, where families, including poor ones, are spending as much or more on a fast food dinner than they might have on home cooked meals.  What I think is missing isn't necessarily the direct dollars, but the indirect effect poverty might have on the skill set as a function of lesser access to higher education and greater time demands, and that failing is part and parcel of the problem Jeannie’s described – the industrialization of not just modern day food, but also our modern day relationship with it.

I’d also have loved a few recipes. Whether it was for her pappa, Valencia’s soup and meatballs, fresh pasta, or a pasta madre – her writing is so passionate, it made me want to try them all. I also have to call her on one small paragraph of the book where she suggests whole foods have magic calories that somehow don’t count (they all do, healthy or otherwise), but all told, this was a wonderful read and one I’d recommend to everyone, and especially to families with young children.

Ultimately I think this is Jeannie’s real message,
The one thing I feel I cannot do is abandon my little boy to the food industry. Individuals can do whatever they want. They can microwave frozen dinners or order in Thai food. But parents have to protect and nurture their children, and feeding them is part of that job. Many parents try to do it within the confines set by the food industry, but I don’t think an industry can give us the foods our children really need to eat”,
I have friends who defiantly refuse to cook for themselves and their families: they buy frozen pizza, canned soup, salad in a bad and factory-made cookies. I don’t think that’s the way to go. It seems like refusing to brush your teeth or wash your clothes. Cooking is a life skill. It’s one we should practice and definitely share with our children.
Jeannie, thanks for a great read, and if you’re ever in Ottawa and you’d like to trade an airport pickup and a night in my home for teaching my wife and I a few recipes from Italy, you’ve got a deal (and if you bring me part of an old pasta madre, I'll even share some of the 30 year old Glenfarclas I was drinking while reading parts of your book).

Consider this my "Brilliant" post-it.

(You can follow Jeannie Marshall on Twitter)

[Here's an Amazon Associates link to the Canadian Amazon listing of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products (for some reason, I can't find a US Amazon link, but Amazon Canada does ship books to US as well]

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  1. Alexie8:25 am

    If she lives in Italy, she probably doesn't have to grapple with pricing of food the same way someone in North America does. Here in central Europe, where I live, fast food cost the same or more than whole ingredients. It's cheaper for me to prepare food from fresh ingredients than it is to buy anything out of a box or from a fast food joint. My cooking skills have improved out of sight, because it's the cheap way to eat.

    1. It is cheaper to buy fresh food in Europe. I think this might be the influence of the CAP (common agricultural policy) in Europe, which actually supports small farms somewhat unlike in US agricultural policy that supports agribusiness. I buy vegetables from two farmers at my local market and I often have a hard time spending even 10 euros. They don't get any direct money from CAP and I wonder sometimes how they survive charging so little for their food. I worry about them sometimes. But right now while Italy is suffering this economic crisis, I'm glad that people with little money can at least afford to buy healthy food - if they want it. Jeannie

  2. People are convinced it's harder to cook from scratch rather than prepared food and to some extent it is if you want to replicate the restaurant experience of thick sauces and not locally available foods. I like to use bags of salads, pre-cut meats and purchased bread so I suppose in her eyes I don't really cook. Oh well.

    1. Doubt that. In the book Jeannie recounts some wonderful sounding purchased breads, and I don't think anyone would consider bagged salad or pre-cut meats processed.

    2. I also don't think we need to cook like they do in restaurants every night at home. Once in a while, yes, it's great to do that. But simple food can be delicious and fast. For instance, on Tuesday I bought a whole fish - a spigola, which I think is bass (my son calls it having "fish with eyes for dinner"). The fish monger gutted the fish for me. I took it home and washed it. Then I rubbed olive oil all over it inside and out and stuffed the cavity with sliced lemons, sliced garlic, sprigs of rosemary and coarse grained sea salt. I sprinkled salt on the skin too. I popped it in the oven to bake for 20 minutes along with some new potatoes. Then I took a pre-mixed salad (though mine was made at the market that morning from the same lettuces that I could have bought whole and then watched wilt in my fridge all week), washed it in the salad spinner, added some sweet cherry tomatoes and tossed it with olive oil, lemon and a pinch of salt. Actual hands on prep time was about 15 minutes, and since it's the child's job to set the table, this left me with 5 minutes to stand there staring at the oven while sipping a glass of wine. The ideal is to eat food that is as minimally processed as possible, but to enjoy it and not obsess over it.

  3. Anonymous9:12 am

    I suggest that everyone read Joel Fuhrman's wonderful book, "Eat to Live", for a great discussion of nutrition and the importance of micronutrients. It also contains lots of easy recipes.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful review of Jeannie's book. I'm putting it on my "to read" list. I agree that we need to reverse the "industrialization of our relationship with food." Cooking should be ranked as high as literacy for our kids. We don't need to be turning out cordon bleu chefs - just teach the next generation the basics. Last night I spent 10 minutes with a knife, a cutting board & a pot and turned out a hearty soup from what was on hand in my fridge and pantry (pic's on my FB page!). I've always said that if everyone knew how to make soup we could solve many of the world's problems! I've taught hundreds of students my basic soup philosophy and recipe over the years, including an enthusiastic bunch of elementary kids just last week. Drop by next time you're in Toronto and I'll happily teach you too!

    1. Also, I think children will eat whatever they see other children eating. So if they have opportunities to eat together - communal school lunches, or even out to good restaurants without child menus with friends - it gives them opportunities to see other children eating fresh food. My son eats anchovies because he sees his peers eating them here in Italy. I also love soup, it's a recurring theme in my book. I'm happy to hear that you are doing such creative and wonderful work with Canadian school children.

  5. Yesterday, my family and I sat down to a wonderful, homemade stew that my husband spent considerable time preparing on the weekend. That huge pot of stew will feed four of us at least three times (some has been frozen)and we're sending two frozen portions to a friend who's not well and has trouble cooking for herself.

    Today's supper will consist of homemade pasta sauce, chock full of vegetables, with pasta made by our local pasta maker "extraordinaire", Carlo, who has a pasta emporium about 15 minutes walk from our home. And yes, we always walk there rather than take the car. I'll also make a salad to go with the pasta, topped with my own homemade dressing.

    Yes, it's wonderful to eat home-cooked, real food. I have one question though: Does Jeannie discuss the other side of the North American food coin, in other words, the demonization of wheat, bread and carbs in general as well as the idea that all sugar is poison and therefore that eating even a square of dark chocolate is akin to ingesting arsenic?

    North Americans seem to take an "all or nothing" approach. It's either all processed, all the time or obsessively restrictive. I'd be interested to hear her thoughts on this issue.

    1. So true on the "all or nothing" idea. I like the way Italians incorporate sweets into the meal. Not every meal - usually just on Sundays. They typically eat fruit for dessert. But, they also love gelato. They don't really have the concept of "guilt" with food - though advertisers are trying to introduce it, the idea of guilty indulgences. It's a shame.

  6. Thanks for your post on this book, it sounds like something I'd like to read. But, maybe it's like preaching to the choir.

    It all comes down to the "why" of eating is what I tell them. Not just the act of eating or feeling full. Food is meant to fuel our bodies. And while they understand that treats are fine, it's really important to choose foods that will help them grow and give them "good" energy.

    It's a process of education too. The food industry can shove ridiculous ads in the way of kids, but parents should be there to break it down, even when the response is "I know, I know, Mom. It's not real food. I get it."

    1. I hope I'm not preaching to the choir. Much of the book is about the role of culture. It's something we're not really aware of, but it influences us. And really influences children. We are only one (albeit one powerful) influence in their lives. Their peers and their community are hugely influential, too.

  7. Tanya9:12 am

    I love this! This is exactly how I feel about food companies. I work full time but I cook all of our meals ahead of time on the weekend. Sure it would be easier to eat out or to buy convenience food, but to me it is very important that my children have real food with real ingredients and not a bunch of salt and junk added to it. I will search out this book so I can read it. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I duslike cooking very much, but at the same time value simple, real foods. In our house we do not cook daily. Sometimes I do not cook even weekly. We eat simple things in rae form... An apple, a tomatoes, kale leaves, yogurt, a glass of milk. Ou protein is cooked, but often srtved simply on its own. This allows me to feed my kids well and meet my other goals.

  9. How much for a bar of chocolate?!9:58 am

    I've just moved to France from Australia, and based on personal observations, it can prohibitively expensive to buy packaged foods in Europe, whereas back in Australia, every week the supermarkets have Specials where junk foods are on rotational discounts. (Missed this week's cheap chocolates? No worries, wait three weeks and you'll have them at 3 for $5 again!)

    Another thing is the price of meat, I believe they must be subsidised in Australia to an extent they aren't in France. Sure it's more expensive to consumers here, but if by unit weight my broccoli costs 10% of my meat, instead of 40% like in Australia, you can bet I'd be buying a whole lot more vegetables.