Saturday, May 12, 2012

12 Commandments of Food

About 2 years ago, I was reading a magazine and ran across this little article by Michael Pollan, called "The 12 Commandments of Food".  Immediately, I ripped it out and stuck it on my fridge... and it's there to this day, even after we moved to a new house with a new fridge.  I love the simplicity of these "commandments" - no crazy rules, no "latest and greatest" diet advice, just pure common sense.

If you have never heard of Michael Pollan, I encourage you to consider reading his books.  They are thoughtful, challenging, informative and humorous.  I particularly enjoyed "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food Rules".  He is also featured in the documentaries "Food Inc." and "The Botany of Desire".   Check him out.  It's good stuff. 

Without further ado, here is the list:

12 Commandments of Food
1.  Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

2.  Avoid products containing ingredients you can't pronounce.

3.  Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot.

4.  Avoid food products that carry health claims.

5.  Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.

6.  Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer's market or community supported agriculture.

7.  Pay more, eat less.

8.  Eat a wide variety of species.

9.  Eat food from animals that eat grass.

10.  Cook, and if you can, grow some of your own food.

11.  Eat meals, and eat them only at tables.

12.  Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure. 

I've had two years to read this list countless times and contemplate each "commandment".  Let's go through these rules and discuss them a bit.  What do these rules mean to you and how would you life be different if you followed them???  Here are my abbreviated thoughts...

1. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
-I think this has been the most life-changing rule for us.  My great-grandmother wouldn't recognize a Pringle as food.  Or a Fruit Roll-up or Pop-Tart.  Or Oreos.  Or Cheetos.  Or Go-gurt (notice all these are trademarked foods?  Great-grandma wouldn't recognize a food with a trademark symbol on it).  Pretty much anything you buy in a package is suspect of not being "real" food (besides staple items, such as dry beans, rice, flours, etc.). 

2. Avoid products containing ingredients you can't pronounce.
-My world changed when I started actually reading food labels.  I pretty much ignore the nutrition information - I don't care about calories and fat grams (however I DO care about sugar grams).   If I read a label and can't recognize a word (or even worse, if it has a number, like Yellow #5), then that product is going back on the shelf.  Warning:  Once you start reading labels, you CANNOT stop.  You will annoy your friends and family - I even annoy myself. 
-Along this line, Michael Pollan has also stated that if a packaged food product (box of cereal, crackers, soup, etc.) contains more than about 5 ingredients, then it probably isn't a good choice.  There are always exceptions to the rule (like salsas made with lots of veggies), but overall this is a helpful guide.

3. Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot.
-Twinkies won't rot - at least not in your lifetime.  Lots of the snack foods marketed to kids don't rot.  If they don't rot and break down, then what are they doing in your body?  Do they linger for years in your body? These foods are chuck full of preservatives and other nastiness that you don't want residing in your body.  Ever seen those photos of McDonalds hamburgers that people have kept for years?  They still look the same as they did the day they were made ( a real burger and fries would be nasty in a few days).  This is not normal.  This is not food.   Trust me, you do NOT want this stuff in your body.   Happy Meals are not a good reward or treat for your kids. 

4. Avoid food products that carry health claims.
-This one fills me with righteous fury.  I feel bad for the grocery shopper of the family.  With so many packages and labels touting the "health benefits" of their product, how are you supposed to figure out what is legit and what is crap?  For heavens sake, they are even marketing a cookie right now that is "delicious and nutritious".  I don't care what you say, a cookie is NOT nutritious. Cookies are not health foods.  Don't get me wrong,  I'm not against cookies.  I love cookies.  But call it what it is - it's a dessert, a special treat, junk food.   I get angry when companies are trying to trick shoppers into thinking junk food is a healthy choice.  Another example is yogurt.  Yes, yogurt is a health food - but only the plain yogurt (you can add your own honey and fruit, if desired).  All those other choices are loaded with sugar (or high fructose corn syrup), preservatives, fillers, and artificial colors.  Those are NOT a healthy choice.  Notice there are little to no health claims on plain yogurt.  Argg.  I could rant about this for a long time.  Just follow the rule:  If they feel the need to shout out their health claims, then they are probably trying to hide something else.  Skip it altogether.

5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.
-I'm working on this.  For the most part, we buy very few processed foods.  I do spend a bit of time in the "ethnic" aisle, as I purchase staple items like whole wheat pasta, pasta sauce and supplies for Mexican meals.  The baking aisle is also a heavy hitter for me, as I make all our baked goods from scratch.  But I usually completely skip the cookies, snacks, chips, salad dressings, soups, packaged foods, etc.  Not much good to be found in those aisles. Most of my time is spent in the produce department.

6. Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer's market or community supported agriculture.
-This can be tricky, depending on where you live.  Here in West Michigan, there are no shortages of Farmer's Markets in the summer, but finding local produce year round is work.    West Michigan Coop is a good organization to join if you want access to foods from local farmers year round.  Currently, we purchase our beef from Woodbridge Dairy Farm.  They also have pork and chicken available at times.  I also purchase meat from Byron Center Meats.  As for dairy products, we purchase milk from a small family farm nearby and I use that milk to make our own cream, yogurt and butter.  Yes, it's more work to buy food from different sources (instead of buying everything at the supermarket), but I like supporting local farmers whenever I can.

7. Pay more, eat less.
-Stop complaining about food prices.  Did you know that Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country in the world?  The latest stat I saw showed that Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food - most other countries spend at least 2 or 3 times that amount.  America also has the highest health care costs of any country in the world.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Crappy food = crappy health.  You get what you pay for.  If you can afford cable TV and a cell phone, then you can afford to buy good food.  I know, I know, money is tight.  It is for us too.  Cut out the crap (soda, snacks, junk food, juice, candy, gum, etc.) and you will be amazed how much you can save.  I hold each item in my hand before it goes in my cart and I ask myself "Will this food nourish us?  Is this food worth spending our hard earned money on?"  And for goodness sakes, stop blowing you food budget on beverages.  Juice is a waste of money - try eating real fruit instead.  Soda is terrible - absolutely no redeeming value there.  Your kids don't need to drink milk all day - one cup will suffice.  Try water instead.  Your body and budget will thank you.

8. Eat a wide variety of species.
-Branch out.  Try something new.  There are lots of vegetables out these besides carrots and potatoes.  Try different types of meats and fishes.  Eating a wider variety of foods will also help your body obtain a wider variety of nutrients.

9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.
-I'm not going to go into all the details here about conventional vs. grass-fed meats.  All I'll say is that the conventional way of raising animals is horrific for the animals and potentially dangerous for human health.  America is engaged in a giant experiment right now, something that has never been attempted in human history - pumping animals full of foods they were not designed to consume and drugging them continuously to keep them alive in these inhumane conditions.  These are not healthy animals.  I didn't sign up to be part of this experiment, did you?  Remember, you are what you eat... and what you eat EATS.  Seek out meat from grass-fed animals.  Yes, it will seem more expensive, but in reality they are charging the true price for meat (and if cost is a problem, start cutting back on meat.  Most of us eat too much meat anyway).  Conventional meat is raised on feed that is subsidized by taxpayers, so the cheap cost is simply an illusion. 

10. Cook, and if you can, grow some of your own food.
-I'm sorry to break it to you, but if you want to eat better, you are going to have to learn how to cook.  Nothing fancy, but you will need to learn some basics.  I've been slowly learning how to cook from scratch.  It's not hard.  It just takes time and the willingness to make mistakes.  "But I don't have time to cook!", you say?  Well, if something is important to you, you will find a way to make it happen (thanks for that lesson, Dad).  Maybe you cook double batches of meals and freeze the second meal for a busy night when you need something quick.  Maybe you try the "once a month" cooking method.  Delegate.  Teach your kids to cook and make them responsible for dinner one night a week.  Find a way.  Find the time.  I keep seeing these stats about how much TV Americans watch and it sickens me.  If need be, get a TV in the kitchen so you can do food prep and cook while watching your shows.  As for growing food, I know it's not for everyone, but I think every person should at least TRY growing something.  If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for just how much work it takes to produce food!

11. Eat meals, and eat them only at tables.
-When my husband and I bought our first house, we couldn't afford furniture.  We lived for a year with no couches or living room furniture.  But as soon as we scraped up a bit of cash, my husband went out a bought a used dining room set.  It was extremely important for us to sit down together for meals.  It was how we connected each day.  Fast forward 10 years and I still think the dining room table is the most valuable piece of furniture we own.  This is where we gather as family, where we pray together.  Eating meals in front of the TV just doesn't cut it.

12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.
-Eating should be enjoyable, an experience to share with loved ones.  I love having people over for dinner.  This is something basic and beautiful about breaking bread with others.  Inviting people over for dinner also encourages you to cook a wholesome meal, instead of just mixing up a box of Mac & Cheese.  Even if you don't invite people over for dinner, I feel it is vitally important for families to gather together to eat meals, even if it's only once a day. 

In conclusion, I feel like I should add one more Commandment:
 13.  Every once in a while, ignore the 12 Commandments.
-Don't be so legalistic.  Lighten up a bit.  We try to follow something know as the "80/20 principle", which means we do our best to stick to real, healthy food 80% of the time and the other 20%, we allow ourselves to indulge in some not so great choices.  Like going out to eat.  Eating out is difficult because you don't know where the food came from or how it was prepared.  We try to avoid the worst offenders (no fast food for us) and don't sweat the rest of the places.  We go out for ice cream in the summer, even though I'm positive the ice cream is chuck full of high fructose corn syrup.  We eat candy, cookies and other treats when we're at parties or other people's homes.  By keeping those items out of our house, we end up eating those things truly in moderation. You simply cannot control every food situation.  Stop driving yourself crazy. 
 -There is also something to be said about being a gracious guest -  you can politely decline a food offered to you by a host, but keep your comments, judgements, and thoughts to yourself.  You are the guest and you should be thankful for what they offer you, even if it's not something you would choose.  Don't be a snob. 

Ok, brain dump complete (although I feel like I could go on and on and on...).  What are your thoughts about these Commandments? 


  1. Perhaps a modification should be made to the first commandment: "Don't eat anything SOMEONE'S Great-Grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" I'm quite certain my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize most pastas, salsa, or tortillas as well as some fruits and vegetables. I doubt they had passion fruits or mangos in abundance in the Netherlands.

  2. Ha! You're right! Though I bet my Dutch great-grandmother would have been able to recognize that pasta and tortillas are food, even if she wasn't familiar with them :) I like your modification.