Smart Food Mama

I’m a mother, I’m an academic and I’m a food writer – am I smart enough to call myself “smartfoodmama”? You be the judge of that. What I want is to share what I learn with you. Yes I teach food studies, but it seems I learn much more than I can ever teach. Food is so ordinary, so mundane so everyday that it is something we had taken for granted. Then that all changed.

Two important things happened and they happened during my childhood.  Feminism happened and women gradually began to undo those apron strings and get themselves a life. This happened at the same time as industrial food arrived: convenience food, fast food.

I’m not going to waste time crying over this – I’m not calling for a return to the fifties. However cooking was the loser as so many women struggled to work and to provide good meals for their families. Should the burden fall on women alone? No prizes for guessing my answer to that. I’m simply observing what has taken place.

Now that global fast food has all but eradicated the coffee lounges and burger bars of my youth; we are nostalgic for what we have lost. Hence the return of the “gourmet burger” and the fish and chip shop. The cupcake rage was an example of this. Friands, macarons… thesedays many of us cook to entertain ourselves.

I live in a world of food and not surprisingly my friends and family eat well, too well. And yet we are living in an age of increasing levels of obesity and its consequences. Some of us are eating very well and some of us are eating calorie dense, nutrition-light meals. What are we going to do about it?

Wasting Away

I’ve lost 18 kilos since March; no wonder I’m less averse to climbing stairs. Clearly it’s a good thing but it has provided me with two conundra. The first is how to answer that question: “Aren’t you amazing, how did you do that”? In all honesty I don’t know how, but it leads to another question: if I’m now amazing, what was I before? Lazy? Indulgent and out of control? That is the message I’ve received for years.

However it’s the weight loss itself I’d like to address here. It is something of a mystery. I have lost weight slowly and without the aid of technologies such as gym membership, designer jogging shoes, weight loss programs, a dietician or even a diet. For all I know I may be seriously ill.

I’ve begun to dread that question, but it has made me think about it. There are the usual suspects: stress, overwork etcetera but there are other factors. Most notable amongst these is the fact that I spent most of those months teaching a course in “Food Studies”, an interdisciplinary course that teaches first year Uni students where our food comes from.

So here’s my theory: immersing myself in thinking what went into various foods, how they were grown and by whom, I have simply absorbed these lessons. These days, by the time I read what is in a product and where it comes from, I am increasingly less likely to buy it.

If it is imported I hesitate to buy, if it is a processed product I am unlikely to buy it (except for tea bags and the occasional tim-tam). I buy meat from my local butcher and only eat free-range chicken and eggs (preferably organic). These are more expensive, so I buy less, thus adhering to Michael Pollan’s dictum: Eat food. Not too much, mostly plants. And it appears to be working.

Having grown up a yo-yo dieter who took her first weight loss drugs at thirteen, and survived on a water diet for eight days aged eighteen, I found myself a type-2 diabetic at forty-five. No surprises there or in my determination NEVER to diet again.

And in truth I did not diet, I discovered that small and slow do work. Not every obese person can teach Food Studies, but we can all take small steps. If guidelines now recommend 1 hour of exercise per day but you can only find time for 20 – take those 20 minutes. I have stopped taking the lift. If you can afford to, buy smaller dinner plates. Don’t tell yourself I can never eat chips again, just fewer and not so often.

The other trick to weight loss appears to be to lose some. Once you begin to lose weight and get those comments it gets easier. Forget the Biggest Loser fantasy – slow and steady does win the race.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Slow Shopping

I recently sat on a panel dedicated to the discussion of food sovereignty – a fancy title for a discussion of the ways we Australians might have more say in deciding what we eat, where our food comes from and how it is produced. Yes, it was a slow food event.

What stuck in this member of the chattering class’s mind was a comment from a senior National Party MP on the panel. Though he was a charming and sincere gentleman, we certainly parted ways on a couple of issues. My suggestion that we take responsibility for those less fortunate, that is, those who don’t have enough to eat, being dismissed with the comment that “We’ll always have the haves and have not’s”. Should we accept malnutrition because it has had such a long and distinguished tradition?

Then there’s the role of women. The gentleman referred to a phenomenon I must confess I hadn’t heard of, he talked of the “Wednesday” shop, which he compared with the weekend shop. It went something like this:

“Well it’s been well documented the way in which women do a hasty shop on Wednesdays and then do their ‘proper’ shopping on the weekends”.

He then went on to explain the bleeding obvious – that harassed Mum’s on their way home from work will tend to buy rather more prepared foods than on the weekend, when they are more likely to shop and cook from scratch. Should we overlook his clear understanding that shopping and cooking is the women’s domain – no matter if she also works fulltime? Perhaps we’ll deal with that one later.

I’m more interested in his acknowledgement of the distinction between the fast shopping that takes place on weekdays and the slow shopping we women do on the weekends. While I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m more willing to do the food shopping than my male partner, and better at it, I’m less thrilled with the notion of shopping as leisure.

Shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories, at least for myself, is something I consider to be a leisure activity because I do it during the time which I consider to be leisure time. I’m sure you women know what I mean here, the weekend, that time when we are supposed to enjoy not being at work. This leisure time we spend driving our children everywhere, cleaning our houses, cooking, shopping and doing the laundry.

So what should I do with the remaining hours of the weekend? Would I rather go shopping or sit in the sun reading that weekend paper that takes a week to get through?

It’s quite a simple task, rescuing a few slow moments from my weekend. Slow shopping? Maybe this happens on holidays, but doesn’t that leave an awful lot of slow activity for those two-week breaks? So when did holidays suddenly become so fast?

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University