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Renée Loth

Cooking up a healthy lifestyle

By Renée Loth
November 27, 2010

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RECENTLY, New York Times health guru Jane Brody wrote a column lamenting why Americans still eat so poorly after years of admonitions from public health specialists to add more fruits and vegetables to our diets.

She noted disappointing news from the Centers for Disease Control that found barely a quarter of adults eat three or more servings of vegetables a day — and that the numbers had barely budged since 2000. “Given that so many professionals have failed to raise the consumption of vegetables among not-so-health-conscious Americans,’’ she asked, what can possibly still make a difference?

Humbly I offer one solution: Teach Americans how to cook.

There is no lack of information about healthy eating. Food pyramids dance in our heads. We know we should be shopping the perimeter of the supermarket, eschewing the high-fat, high-salt processed foods that lurk in the interior. We have heard all about choosing produce grown locally, and in season. Grants are given to turn vacant city lots into community gardens and urban farms. But I suspect many Americans are undone by patty pan squash. We know it’s healthy, but what do we do with the thing?

The average American spends 27 minutes a day in meal preparation, less than half the time we devoted to cooking 50 years ago. As the writer Michael Pollan has observed, we have traded in actual cooking for watching television shows about it. The Food Network beams into 100 million homes. Americans sit before their televisions, transfixed, eating take-out.

All of this would be just a cultural curiosity if eating food cooked by someone else weren’t so unhealthy. A Harvard study in 2003 concluded that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in the country. The dire nutritional outcomes apply regardless of income; the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that low-income women who cooked their own meals were more likely to eat a healthy diet than wealthy women who did not.

One person who knows the value of cooking is Vivien Morris, director of community initiatives at the Boston Medical Center. A registered dietician, Morris works in the hospital’s Nutrition and Fitness for Life program, where she sees mostly low-income families struggling to stay healthy on limited budgets. “Cooking is crucial on so many levels,’’ she said. “For knowing your food, for utilizing food at its healthiest, for maintaining cultural continuity.’’ She says immigrants often arrive with good cooking skills but quickly succumb to the convenience of processed food.

Morris ticks through the disincentives to cooking fresh vegetables: lack of time, a limited shelf-life for produce, advertising that creates a demand for junk food, especially among children. Although Boston is better than some cities, there are still neighborhood “food deserts,’’ lacking full-service supermarkets. For this reason Boston Medical Center runs a seasonal farmer’s market right in the hospital lobby, and stocks its food pantry with as much fresh produce as possible.

Days before Thanksgiving, Diedra Dexter-Hine is teaching a dozen local residents how to cook healthy holiday meals at the hospital’s test kitchen. She demonstrates a garlic press; offers samples of mashed cauliflower and honey-roasted carrots; plays a blindfold game with the kids to get them to try new foods; slips effortlessly between English and Spanish. “Healthy eating is partly about watching your portion size,’’ she said, handing out individual ramekins for participants to take home.

“This is incredible,’’ said Thelma Moreno, eying her six-year-old, Karina. “She had cooked carrots, and now she’s saying why don’t we have this at home?’’ Moreno, who lives in Dorchester, has internalized the lessons of BMC’s nutrition program. Calorie for calorie, fresh fruits and vegetables can be more expensive, she says. “But being healthy is priceless.’’

We have just entered the cooking season, where most Americans dust off the roasting pans in a brief, nostalgic visit to the kitchen. Keeping that going all year long would be a more rewarding New Year’s resolution than the standard “lose 10 pounds.’’ And more effective, too.

CORRECTION: Last week I listed among silly earmarks $500,000 for a Teapot Museum. Congress appropriated those funds in 2006, though ultimately they weren’t spent.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.