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Posted at 4:32 PM ET, 02/24/2011

Cooking pessimism

By Ezra Klein

weirdmcds.JPGI'm going to make a confession: I never bring my own lunch. For every five days I spend at work, I purchase five prepared meals from a nearby restaurant. It's not that I don't know how to cook, or that I don't like to cook. Cooking is arguably my only real hobby. It's that I like to eat lunch out. It breaks up my day. It's time to read a magazine, interview a source, see a friend. It's 30 minutes of pleasure and a guaranteed change of scene whenever I decide I need it.

So I'm with Ta-Nehisi Coates when he wonders about Mark Bittman's suggestion that the convenience of McDonald's is "nonsense." Bittman is right that cooking isn't hard. Indeed, there's perhaps no one in the country who has done as much as Bittman to make cooking not hard (I think I open "How to Cook Everything" more than I open any other book). But easy isn't the same as effortless. And I think "effort" is the key concept here. What I like about going out to lunch is that it's 20 minutes of my day that's not effort. It's out of my office, out of my hands, with nothing for me to clean.

Writing a food policy column left me with two conclusions that, when taken together, are pretty depressing. First, the best way to eat healthy is to cook your own food. That's not because the food you cook is that much healthier, thought it probably is. It's because the effort involved in cooking reduces how much you eat. Your meals may be large, but you're probably not going to put in the time to make many snacks. And there's pretty good evidence that the rise in obesity is largely the result of the rise in snacking, and that the rise in snacking is the result of the rise in cheap, plentiful, packaged snacks.

Conclusion the second: The spread and allure of packaged food is irreversible. People will not restrict their eating to what they've cooked. We will not get rid of corner stores, potato chips, vending machines, or my terrific editor Kelly, who keeps lots of chocolate in the drawer to the left of her desk. That is to say, snacks will continue to be plentiful, and we will continue to reach for them. Any strategy that relies on people not snacking is a strategy that people won't follow.

That gets to the part of this that I think Bittman is really right about, though. His post is basically an attempt to shame McDonald's into making its "healthy" options, like oatmeal, less unhealthy. And that seems to me to be the key to better eating: better eating out, and better snacking. My lunchtime diet has gotten a lot better since Devon and Blakely opened on 15th and H, as I can now get soup that isn't terrible. I'd eat less of Kelly's chocolate if the other choice wasn't Oreos in the vending machine. My hunch is that a lot of people are willing to opt for a slightly healthier option when they eat out during the day. The success chains like McDonald's have had with faux-healthy foods suggests I'm right. But when they quietly make the seemingly healthy options into unhealthy foods, they're making it very difficult for consumers to make better choices.

Photo credit: Misha Japaridze/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | February 24, 2011; 4:32 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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did you see this though? Its been around since 2008 and I think obesity's leveled off a bit since then but its made the rounds again recently.

scary stuff. 86% obesity rate by 2030 and spending almost a trillion dollars a year on obesity related diseases. Kind of makes you wonder what's in the pre-packaged meals and maybe we'd all better start cooking some more.

What they really need to do is replace the Oreo's in the machine with Snackwells, granola bars or other types of healthier food.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 24, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Klein should open his own health nut restaurant with unionized employees and give them all free health care.

Or he could just continue to whine about wishing he could meddle in everyone else's stuff.

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

It is my experience that people who cook regularly tend to learn about ingredients along the way, and as a result they eat healthier (both at home and when eating out). But I think that in recent generations somehow the knowledge of cooking started to get lost in our culture, possibly in direct connection with the increasing number of families with two wage earners.

My favorite anecdote about this problem is about the college student who looks around in a very well-stocked refrigerator and pantry, and then pronounces that "there is nothing to EAT here, only a bunch of INGREDIENTS."

If you cook, the best gift you can give to someone who does not cook is a copy of your favorite cookbook for making quick but tasty and nutritious meals (my favorite give-away book is Cook This, Not That! - it seems to work with men as well as with women).

I think if we saw a growth in home cooking, then at least some consumers will gradually favor healthier alternatives over McDonalds (and its ilk).

It is not the entire solution, but I think it is a piece of the puzzle.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 24, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Leftovers (of a home-cooked dinner) make an ideal lunch -- maybe not everyday, but 2-3 times/week.

Posted by: Craig643 | February 24, 2011 6:23 PM | Report abuse

This shows the tremendous importance of network externalities in good nutrition.

I follow the Fuhrman diet (eating lifestyle) predominantly (Ezra, if you haven't read Fuhrman's Eat to Live, this is the definitive work on nutrition today, a must read). I have found that this diet (about 90% or more unrefined, or little refined, plant foods, light on the potatos and grains) is not that much of a decrease in taste pleasure purely foodwise. You can learn to cook these foods very well, and your taste buds will adapt (when you eat less salt, your taste buds do become a lot more sensitive to salt, same with fat, etc. -- they re-sensitize). Moreover, you can eat way more quantity, never be hungry, and still be thin, and much healthier, especially over the long run.

But one of the biggest drawbacks is that so few other people eat this way. If everyone ate Fuhrman for the last century, gazillions of man hours would have gone into learning how to cook Fuhrman food well and pre-package it, and provide it in fast food restaurants, and gourmet restaurants, and Starbucks, and it would be served at your relatives and friends houses, and so on.

It would make staying on an extremely healthy diet far easier and more enjoyable. And these are externalities certainly government can help solve.

Anyway, there are still things you can do to eat healthy but get out. I'm actually typing this at a Chicago hot dog joint (in Tucson). I just really like the ambiance. I almost always order the one healthy item, the dinner salad (no cheese) and bring some fruits which I cut up with my swiss army knife, or some other healthy addition from home. I order lots of salads, so the owner is fine with this.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 24, 2011 7:51 PM | Report abuse

My wife's employees make $14/hr. and they buy their lunch everyday, and they're over-weight. How can someone making $14/hr. afford to pay $7/day for a meal, and then expect to save money?

My wife seldom if ever goes out to lunch. Ditto for me. Eating out is for spend- thrifts and obese, loser-Democrat voting constituencies who drive up our healthcare costs.

Ezra, you have very poor excuses. You could read a magazine and hang out with your friends in a conversation at a park or indoor lobby with a brown bag lunch, or an Igloo cooled lunch that you heated in a microwave.

Your pathetic rationalizations are a very revealing peek into your supine, pansy, political philosophy. Please, good benevolent state, take care of us!


Posted by: ElGipper | February 24, 2011 8:45 PM | Report abuse

I did an experiment over 10 years ago- I took a tray of carrot and celery sticks to work and placed it where all the goodies go. No surprise, the carrots and celery disappeared.

I like to keep a bowl of fruit on my desk, it is little effort, and having a bowl of fruit handy is a great way to avoid the other temptations found nearby. (Of course I also keep Dove Dark Chocolates on my desk too.)

Convenience plays a big role in our food choices.

Posted by: punchaxverulam | February 24, 2011 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Hey, msoja, when you look in the mirror, do see some sort of orifice surrounded by a kinda krinkly stuff covered by a brownish effluent that probably smells really, really gross? Thought so.

Posted by: jifster | February 24, 2011 9:58 PM | Report abuse

I used to do the same thing, Ezra, but then a switch just flipped and I started packing my leftovers for lunch. It's not like I became more disciplined -- I'm really not a very disciplined person at all. It's just that I like my cooking. As my cooking got better, I started to like it better than what I was going to get from the lunch restaurants at work.

Posted by: nolo93 | February 24, 2011 10:06 PM | Report abuse

Though, having thought about my post, I realize I missed the point. There is, of course, a social and experiential aspect to eating out that Bittman's not addressing, and it's what you're talking about. And even a McDonald's can serve as that kind of space. There's a tiny donut shop a block away from my house that's a total donut dive. They don't even make their own donuts, afaik. Crappy Bun-O-Matic coffee, display cases older than WWII, two piece o crap tables. I walk past with my dog early every morning, and the same people are in there, every morning. They're not there for the donuts.

Posted by: nolo93 | February 24, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Just found that "123 Get Samples" is promoting a wide variety of major brands by providing free samples. You’ll have to fill in your zip code to see if you can qualify to receive them. You can get all samples from one place. I think it is available for most of the zip codes and it worked for me.

Posted by: ruthanderso | February 25, 2011 5:01 AM | Report abuse

You have a "confession" about not making your own lunch? The horror! Maybe we should just drag you in front of a foodie inquisition. I think it's good for everybody to learn to cook, too, but the specialization of labor--letting pros cook sometimes--frees you up to better research your writing, and the rest of us to do what we specialize in. Do you feel similarly guilty about not building your own house, or sewing your own clothes? I didn't think so. Bittman needs to get over his scolding, and live in the real world, where sometimes, people let others do some of the lifting for us. Food is good, knowing how to fix it is, too, but it's not sacred.

Posted by: ciocia1 | February 25, 2011 5:12 AM | Report abuse

a) Bittman specifically analyses the amount of time it takes to get McDonalds' oatmeal, against making it at home. In that respect, it is actually quicker to make it oneself.
b)Leftovers dude. Bring leftovers. Eat them in a park.

Posted by: albamus | February 25, 2011 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I like your distinction between difficulty and effort. I hate cooking. Cooking dinner is easily the most stressful part of my day, and it's not even close. I simply don't live in the same universe of experience as people who like to cook.

We do cook dinner almost every night, mostly because it's far healthier than even the healthiest choice of carry-out, and also because it's a lot cheaper. But that doesn't mean I like doing it. It's not that it's hard. It that it sucks, and is chaotic, and comes immediately after working for 10 hours when I just want to relax, and because there's a 3 years old who doesn't want to wait for things to be finished on the stove and is acting up because he's hungry, and everything else that makes cooking dinner so completely unpleasant.

I'd imagine I'm not alone in this, so, while there's certainly some that can be convinced by hectoring about how cooking isn't hard, there's a limit to the ability you'll have with that line of argumentation to convince people they should cook their own dinner if they have other options.

Posted by: dt4211 | February 25, 2011 8:28 AM | Report abuse

"Eating out is for spend- thrifts and obese, loser-Democrat voting constituencies who drive up our healthcare costs."

Yeah, right. And the average attendee at a Tea Party rally looks like an Olympic athlete. Grow up, gipper.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 25, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

--*It is not the entire solution, but [...]*--

There is only a problem, Patrick, because people like you and Klein can't mind their own business.

First, the busybodies had to stick their noses in the health care markets, and now that that is spiraling out of control, they're having to concentrate on the seconding factors, like what people smoke, drink, and eat. It won't be long before the food industry is in as bad shape as the health industry.

Then where are you going to stick your nose?

Posted by: msoja | February 25, 2011 9:23 PM | Report abuse

--*I'd eat less of Kelly's chocolate if the other choice wasn't Oreos in the vending machine.*--

That's pretty much the eternal commie's lament, right there, isn't it?

"I'd steal less of your stuff if some nebulous third party would somehow better magically divine my needs and cater to them (ignoring the fact that I could acquire my own stuff and not have to steal it, if I really wanted to."


"We need a welfare state because the free market doesn't provide what the pointy headed elite says it should provide to people who wouldn't choose the healthy alternative anyway."

Take a banana to work, Klein, and quit stealing on that dim pretext. Or talk to the vending machine owner and see about changing the selection. Or better yet, poll your associates and start your own "vending" business, and see what stupid headaches, courtesy of people just like you, that you run into.

Posted by: msoja | February 27, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

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