Review: ‘Food Rules’

food rules

Food Rules

by Michael Pollan

  • Date Finished: Jan. 24, 2014
  • Genre: Food Writing
  • Year: 2009
  • Projects: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2013-14
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Sooo, I spontaneously decided to read Michael Pollan’s Food Rules on a whim – surprise! I’m still reading My Antonia, but after I priced this bad boy at work earlier last week, and saw how quick and simple it would be to read, I thought, why not? And it only took me an hour or so to finish, but oh am I glad I did.

I’ve been mildly obsessed with the gospel of Michael Pollan since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2009-10. And when I say obsessed, it’s not him I’m obsessed with (some of his statements regarding women in the kitchen have pissed me off in the past), but instead, it’s his outlook on food. On eating. On thinking about food. The things that Michael Pollan writes aren’t new or revolutionary; his mantra “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much” is pretty much common sense and is what people have been doing for centuries. And yet, when someone frames the argument about food and eating in such a way, and then puts it squarely in front of you, you suddenly realize why this simple statement is so powerful and so necessary. The Western diet has become unbelievably crappy. People don’t even know, or care, what they’re putting into their bodies anymore. Cooking is a skill few young people want to learn. And even among the elite “healthy” set, the trends are baffling; what does “organic” even mean anymore? Should “paleo brownies” exist? What is in that workout shake that’s supposed to make you “fit”? And, your diet includes boxed meals delivered to your door that you re-heat in your microwave? How is all this healthy or good for you?

Since The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve read several books on the fast food industry and what some might call the “industrialized food industry” and it’s disturbing. The conversation over what to eat these days is taken up entirely by commercials and empty promises about “cutting calories” and granola bars full of fiber (question: why does everyone have a fiber deficiency nowadays?). It’s just…maddening. Reading Michael Pollan, on the other hand, is like shutting off the noise and remembering that, oh yeah, food should be simple. It should be cooked by yourself. It should involve whole fruits, vegetables and yes, even meat. It shouldn’t involve fad diets or what Pollan calls “food-like substances.” Why would you want to put such trash into your body anyway?

Now, I say all this but let me clarify: I am not a health nut. I am not a farmers market junkie. I don’t eat “organic”. I’m not a food Nazi either, reading ingredient lists and shopping at Whole Foods. I shop at a regular grocery store. I don’t allow gimmicky labels to influence my food-buying decisions.

What I do, though – and it’s something I’ve done since first reading Pollan oh so many years ago – is let common sense drive my shopping cart. And reading Food Rules was like affirming so many of the things I already do, like sticking to the outside of the grocery stores, buying raw ingredients, cooking several times a week, and avoiding processed foods whenever I can. We’re not necessarily strict – we’re still children of our generation and it’s hard to stave off a craving for sour cream and onion chips, or a Dr. Pepper, or some off-brand Lucky Charms on sale. But we try to make good decisions, we stand up to temptation most of the time, we cook and you know what – I believe we’re in a good place.

I now see that this “review” has turned into a mini manifesto of my own shopping and eating habits, but truly, that is what Pollan represents to me – an important turning point in my life. In 2009, I had just graduated from college and was living on my own with my soon-to-be-husband for the first time. We were living on minimum wage and savings, and could have started our adult lives like so many others of our generation: by buying into the machine and shoving crappy, cheap food into our mouths. But I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and decided I would work to be better. Food Rules didn’t touch me as much as that first book, but it was like revisiting that decision all over again and realizing that it was worth it.

And so, in the spirit of Food Rules, here are some of the rules we follow. Not all of them are from Pollan’s book, but they work for us:

  • Stick to the outside of the grocery store as much as possible. A few months ago, I wrote up a bunch of recipes for my brother who was then moving out into his first apartment. At the end, I left him some general shopping tips and this was the first. Like Pollan says, the crap is in the aisles but if you stick to the outside – vegetables/fruits, dairy, meat, bread – you’ll be good. There’s a lot of good stuff in the aisles as well – dried beans/rice, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, COFFEE, pasta – but we at least try to avoid the cereal and chips aisle at ALL COSTS.
  • When we make a recipe, I avoid shortcuts and prepare the raw ingredients myself. There are several exceptions to this: I just bought my first bag of frozen chopped onions today, and I’m hoping it changes my life. Frozen peas and corn are also the way to go. But raw veggies and fruits are cheap, and putting the work into a dish means you have more control over it and its health qualities.
  • Limiting our meat purchases. It’s easy to plan meals with a different kind of meat everyday, but that kind of life is expensive and silly. When we had less money, we stuck to one meat purchase a week. Now we will allow ourselves a few different kinds a week so that our meals have variety (plus, Joel insists on bacon like every other week), but I try to plan ahead whenever possible. This week, we bought sausage and a pork roast, but I’m hoping that pork will carry over into next week, meaning fewer meat purchases later. I wish we had a good butcher’s shop nearby, and I would prefer for my chicken and beef to be grass-fed and humanely raised (I was spoiled growing up by a grandpa who raised beef cattle), but we do what we can now. We’re not made of money, you know.
  • Don’t buy snack foods during weekly shopping trips. The only exceptions to this are things like popcorn and nuts, but we don’t bring home snack chips or candy. The rule is: if you’re seriously jones-ing for some chips, candy or pop, then you go out and buy it when you want it. That may mean heading to the gas station at 8 pm on a Tuesday, or stopping by the store on your way home from work, but that extra trip means it’s extra work, and there’s the chance you won’t go after all. Plus, doing so makes these foods more a “treat” than a regular addition to the shopping list. Weekly grocery shopping is for basics and meal ingredients – that’s it.
  • One of Pollan’s great tips: if you want treats, make them yourself! We don’t always follow this to the letter, but I think it’s a good idea and we follow it to an extent with certain treats. I hate pre-packaged cookies anyway (except for Oreos…those are holy), so if we want cookies, we have to make them ourselves. If we want waffles for breakfast, we make them ourselves. I think this is also a good rule for any food that would normally be uber-processed; I prefer making my own granola bars, and if I eat oatmeal in the morning, I go for quick cooking oats + brown sugar + honey instead of the packaged kind.
  • COOK. Our lunches are almost entirely made up of leftovers because we cook all the damn time. If we don’t cook, or can’t because of schedules, we eat salad. Our meals aren’t always “healthy” – this week we’re planning on pulled pork in the crock pot, mmmmm – but we’re making it, it tastes better and in general, it’s better for us.
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