I'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.
| February 24, 2011; 4:32 PM ET
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