More-Me, Meal Assembly and Taking My Palate Back

Posted on January 6, 2012

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I have a dear friend I’ll call More-Me. I am giving her that name because my kids once described her as just like me, only more exciting and less inhibited. She is the “me” deep down I wish I could be. More Me.

Several years ago More-Me and I were talking about food. (Food tops many of our discussions.) She said that she and her husband had very different views regarding what is considered “dinner.”  I thought she was about to lament his predictable love of meat and potatoes and then praise her own vegetable-oriented palate and openness to different food cultures. Instead, she said these words: “He thinks dinner assembly is the same as preparing dinner.”

According to her, Mr. More-Me’s vision of  “home-cooked” often included food from a box, bottle or bag. Macaroni and cheese. Bagged Salad. Manufactured dressing. Sometimes it included a frozen entree or item picked up from the deli department. He loved hotdogs, baloney, American cheese, all things American (and all things that More-Me hated). That’s not to say he didn’t appreciate foods from different cultures. He did. (Also, More-Me had her own love affair with the McDonald’s fish fillet sandwich.) Her point was – for him – dinner preparation wasn’t a priority. It was an exercise in assembly. In most cases, his dinners involved opening packages and then heating a few things up. Presto! Dinner is served! He thought it was cooking.

More-Me went on to say how the U.S. reliance on “assembly” vs. “preparation” had ruined our palates. She said it had most certainly ruined Mr. More-Me’s. And now it was beginning to ruin Mini More-Me (her son).

That conversation was life-changing for me. How many of my meals had been “assembled” vs. “prepared” by hand? (There were a lot of assembled meals in my young adult years on through to my parent-of-young-kids years.) I had finally reached the point where I believed home-prepared meals tasted better than assembled ones. I also believed they were cheaper. But I had come to that conclusion on my own and never thought about the implications. It was the first time I thought about “whole” foods (and thanked my mom for preparing meals as I was growing up). I was doing the right thing but only because it tasted better and was cheaper – to me. It helped that I somewhat enjoyed cooking.

At that moment, I recognized I was in a minority. Most people preferred dinner assembly.

Our food industry has leveraged the majority’s love affair with quick-easy meal making. According to author Michael Pollan, over 17,000 new food items are developed each year.  To cheaply and efficiently make these foods, the industry strips most of the nutrition from the raw ingredients. To make the foods “healthier” they add back in certain nutrients. Then, to make the food taste like anything and survive shipping and shelf life, they add color, salt, fat, sugar and chemical preservatives. Most food today is actually the essence of food. It is deconstructed and then reconstructed. Franken-food.

The side effect of all this is that the food industry now plays a significant role in determining  most people’s palates.

For years I bought into the system. However, once I acquired some of the skill of cooking (thanks to Incredible Insightful Boss I mentioned a few posts back), I learned that much in manufactured food went against the rules of  “real” cooking.  Later, when I took up running, I became interested in how to best “fuel” my body for endurance runs. I learned that optimal nutrition came from “whole” foods. (I know we all learned it in elementary school but I was a kid! Who cared?!)

Unfortunately, I am still some-what wed to the fake food industry. In spite of knowing that whole foods are best and that the food industry cares nothing for my health (but everything about my pocketbook), I love Cheetos and chocolate chips and frozen cookie dough and ice cream and M&Ms and potato chips. I love Franken-food. That’s what makes me Lady Sisyphus who rolls that same stupid stone up that same stupid hill day after day.

The industry still holds my palate hostage.

So it now doesn’t surprise me that most people prefer meal assembly to preparation. I get it. Cheap, quick, easy and tasty are hard to trump, especially if cooking is considered a chore. Whole foods might be more nutritious but they take time and energy to prepare. Plus, manufacturers assure us that purchasing their food means we love our families.

Mr. More-Me loves his family. And now his palate has been conditioned to prefer fake food.  He will continue to buy the boxes, bottles and bags because it makes him and Mini More-Me happy. Thank goodness for More-Me. She will balance that out with her focus on plant-based whole foods and zest for different cultures.

And thank goodness she and I had that conversation years ago. She is a big part of why I’ve been on this journey to better health.  I am currently boycotting meal assembly and Franken food to make room for real food. Real good food. Even if my family won’t thank me, their bodies will!

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