Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lost in Translation: Can I have an Unsweetened Coffee?

More Family Food Tales from Recent Travels

Scene: a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart
I almost couldn't believe my eyes, but there it was, a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart. I felt like George Bush, Sr. seeing bar-code scanners for the first time in the 1990s.  So if you work up an appetite with your Wal-Mart low price shopping (the place was the size of an airplane hanger, after all), McDonalds is there for you.

I told my daughter that it was too early to get a happy meal (her immediate request when she saw the Golden Arches), but that she could get a small cookie. (It was 11:30am, and I was probably lying about the Happy Meal. ) I decided to try an iced coffee for myself. I was in the South, so I knew to be careful with my beverage order.
Me: Do you have unsweetened iced coffee?

Teenage clerk: Yes, we have no calorie iced coffee.
(In hindsight, this strange construction, should have alerted me.)

Me: Err, OK, I'll have that with half-n-half, no sugar.

I get the coffee, start to walk away and take a sip. Almost gag; so sweet.

Me (thinking): I can't believe this. It is undrinkable, I should just throw it away.
But I decide to say something to the clerk.

Me: I thought you said it was unsweetened? It tastes so sweet.

Clerk 1: Maybe it's the cream?
Clerk 2: Oh, it has no calorie syrup in it.
Clerk 3 (it was a slow day): That's the way all the coffee tastes.

Me: I didn't want any syrup, just coffee and milk. I can't drink this, it's too sweet. Can I just have a refund?

Manager, quickly to fore: What's the problem?

Me: Umm, I just wanted unsweetened coffee, no syrup, Is that possible?

Manager: Sure we can do that.
She gives me the unsweetened iced coffee with half-and-half. It actually tastes like good quality coffee and tastes surprisingly good after all that. Why the need to add sugary syrup, even if it is "no calorie"?

Feeling a little embarrassed now I add (lying): I'm diabetic and I just can't have anything sweet. Thank you so much.

Why did I feel compelled to say I was diabetic? Why do I have to explain that I want something without sugar? Why is wanting no sugar or black coffee "weird"? I think this speaks to the environment where "sweet" is the default and so many processed foods have hidden ingredients, often in the form of more sugar, more fat or more chemicals. You have to bend over backwards to get something un-sweet or natural in any way.

Once home, I tried to search for what McDonalds calls their "no-cal" syrup, so I can avoid it in the future and found a interesting post by Rachel of smallnotebook. No wonder plain coffee is such a foreign concept! I guess the hidden motto here is: no food stuff should be served unaltered; pump up the chemicals and sweetness as much as possible. Buyer beware, indeed!
More reading:
Fixing a World that Fosters Fat, Natasha Singer, NYT 8.22.10

McDonalds Iced Coffee Ingredient Breakdown via smallnotebook.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lost in Translation: Family Food tales from the road

I've been traveling a lot this summer. It has also been an opportunity to see how food environments can be very different away from my Brooklyn homeland. I'll post some observations over the week.

Scene: Wal-Mart, Fruit and Produce Section
My mom, a senior who lives in Florida and on a budget, has been doing more and more grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, the store that most in Brooklyn vehemently oppose. (I am opposed them too, but am open to the potential benefits of better food access.) But this is the first time in her life that she has felt like she could "afford" organic and I have to say the fruit and veggies she bought there were quite fresh and good-tasting.

It kills me that Wal-mart of all places has gotten her to try organics and that they may be the best produce place for her in town. But I also know that "organic" produce in many places is just plain expensive and tends to be older because there is less turn-over of stock. My mom doesn't live in a food desert by any means. You would think, living in a place where fresh produce grows abundantly and is shipped all over the country, it would be easy to eat local. But it's not. I have no idea if there's a farmer's market anywhere in her community. So, she's voting with her dollars to buy fruits and vegetables at place like Wal-Mart that is cheap and convenient.

This same Wal-Mart also had Swiss Miss pudding packs stacked by the produce aisle for the unbeatable price of $1. How many people are just getting the pudding and no fruit or veggies at all? Probably most of them. For a family with kids, especially, it would take a lot of will-power to only buy fruit and skip the cheap snacks altogether. (I actually kept my 4 year old away from the shopping floor because I thought she'd go gaa-gaa over all the sweet snacks to choose from.)

Is Wal-mart too much of a devil's bargain? Are there better ways to improve access to good food without the "help" of retail behemoths? How can we change the dynamics to make it easier to afford the luxury of good food for everyone without a complete sell-out to other vital principles? We need to keep looking for concrete solutions.

Can Wal-Mart Save us from Food Deserts? By Adriana V., The Stir

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Cook: Easy Calzones that Even Kids Can Make

Two Aprons Video

Family Dinner Tip: Get the kids involved. These girls are too cute and aptly demonstrate that kids can cook in the kitchen, especially with some advanced preparations. These calzones would be in the oven in less than 20 minutes, add a salad and you are done.

Store-bought pizza dough, cut into 2 or 4 pieces depending on size of calzone
Grated Mozarella cheese
Any other pizza fillings you like: veggies, pepperoni, etc.
Tomato sauce (optional, but I like it for dipping)

Roll out dough, Add fillings with cheese and pinch closed. Cook for approx. 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Note: The girls don't say oven temp in their video, so I guessed a hot oven. Bittman says to cook calzones at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Pick one and keep a close watch.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Family Dinner Fan Club: Bloggers who care about Family Dinner

Logo from BlogHer

This Friday kicks off BlogHer '10, the annual blogging conference that has reportedly attracted over a thousand attendees in its 5th year show. Though it is usually a West Coast affair, this year it is being held in New York, practically in my backyard. It was sold-out before I realized it was so close. So, I'm disappointed (and kicking myself a bit) that I won't be able to attend.  Instead, I thought I would give a shout-out to my fellow Mommy bloggers out there, (and the cooking Dads and foodie, non-parents too) that are committed to family, good food, good parenting and family dinner.

Daily, I am inspired and educated by the wonderful information and wisdom that you put out there. Real-life stories of the ups and downs of getting our families to eat together and eat well. Protests and petitions about reforms that can help fix our broken food system. Be it recipes with beauty-shots of delicious dinners or details on nutrition, sustainable eating or school lunch, together we are creating an enormous wealth of information for both parents and policymakers.

Some it is is just fun, of course. Peach cobbler and grilled dinners don't exactly change the world, though maybe.... 

Blogging has been called a revolution in publishing, and that it is. It can also be a call to action and an instrument of change.  I believe in the power of family dinner to transform lives; I believe in the power of committed individuals to make changes in their worlds, at home, in their communities, and nationwide. The Social Network (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the like) allow us to share experiences, find common goals, and learn from each other in ways that simply weren't possible a few years ago. Face time is important too. Just as the dinner table should be gadget-free, connections that happen in real-time feel deeper and more true. So enjoy yourself at BlogHer 2010, getting in touch with fellow like-minded women, and a few men. Be inspired, make connections, and come back to the Network to report, teach, share.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wednesday Videos: Menu Planning Reality TV

Mark Bittman posted a column on Babble last week with 5 tough-love tips for parents who want to make family dinner a priority. I agree with his sentiments, but several commentators, rightly, pointed out that his list didn't actually include any helpful tips for how to get dinner on the table quickly, night after night.

Many cooks swear by menu planning as the answer to making sure family dinner happens every night without fuss. The basic instructions are simple: 1) take time on Sunday to plan for the week, 2) use your plan to create a shopping list, 3) stick with the plan through the week. The Menu Plan can help you be organized and maybe even get a jump on prepping for some meals ahead of time. It can also be a platform to get your partner and older kids to help out. If everyone knows what is on the menu, tasks can be assigned beforehand, so that they can chip in. Older kids can be taught to wash vegetables or start the water for pasta when you are on your way home, for instance.

I found two videos on menu planning that were so funny in contrast to each other. The first shows a regular mom who happens to live in New Zealand. She swears by menu planning as a money-saver; that's another bonus. She eschews paying a menu planning service (that are abundant on the internet) and just opts for a simple printed chart tacked to the frig. Low production values, but very honest, real, and practical.

Reality Menu Planning

The second video is pure fantasy.  Put together by Parents magazine with sponsorship (Bertolli says make pasta, pasta, pasta!), the production values are better: nice shots of well-groomed kids and mom (an actress?) in kitchen and grocery store. She, too, is basically describing a piece of paper that becomes a menu plan and a shopping list. The fantasy part is that the kids are so helpful and that there's time to let them help with the shopping, help with the meal prep, and you can even boost their writing skills if they write the list for you! Kids can definitely pitch in: setting the table, clearing the dishes,  and during well-planned and practiced food prep. But having kids help is not really a time- or work-savers as any cooking parent knows! It's teaching them to cook which is valuable, but not often possible in a time-crunch situation. Still, it's a good idea to involve kids in the planning; each kid can recommend a dish for the week and then you plan how they can be of help with actually cooking it. Realistically, this can probably happen once a week, depending on the age of your kids and the time frame you have between getting home and making dinner. (Maybe Friday night or a weekend meal is Kid's Choice night.) Similarly, the trip to the grocery store is cute, but also pretty laughable in reality. Unless it's a trip to the farmer's market or a health store, the kids may sabotage your healthy pantry and your budget!

Fantasy Menu Planning

Do you menu plan? Feel free to write in with your own menu planning tips. also has some great menu planning tips under Menu Plan Monday.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lessons from Research: Who's Working on Family Dinner

The researchers who work on family dinner are a varied sort. They come from nutrition and food science schools, from medical schools, from schools of public health and schools of nursing, and from a wide range of programs in social work, sociology, and psychology. Each of these disciplines come at the research from a different perspective, but findings are surprisingly similar. Family dinner offers a protective effect for kids and teenagers, be it less risk-taking activities, like smoking and underage drinking, more positive actions like improved eating habits and better grades, or just improved general well-being.

The next frontier of research, I think, is to bring the detailed findings of these studies out from inside the ivory tower. Let's figure out how to translate the research into action that goes beyond the occasional pep talk. We need to find out how to both encourage and support families who are trying to create a family dinner routine for their families. Do they need more information about healthy choices at the grocery stores and navigating the choices among prepared foods?  Advice on 20-minute meals cooked at home and menu planning? Do they need help with their family relationships so that everyone chips in? Do they simply need more time? More time might mean flexible and supportive work environments that allow them to go home by 5 or 6pm at night. Probably, all of the above.

Health education campaigns sound so easy, but effective campaigns to change individual health behaviors are notoriously difficult to craft.  It can be also hard to measure their effectiveness or translate what works in one community to another. Nevertheless, the benefits of family dinner are well worth a concerted effort to better promote them.

Select List of Academic Research Centers Working on Family Dinner
The National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), Columbia University,
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Chairman
Founders of National Family Day
Report on The Important of Family Dinner

University of Minnesota, School of Public Health
Project EAT. Principal Investigator: Diane Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD
Other Research Projects

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Eat Healthy New Haven
Other Research Projects

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program Center,  Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., Director

Harvard Pilgrim Heath Care Institute, Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Obesity Prevention Program

International Association of the Study of Obesity (iaso), Europe
The ENERGY Project

Cornell Food Lab
Food Psychology and How, Why, When and How Much We Eat, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Director

Baylor College of Medicine
Children's Nutrition Research Center, Dennis Bier, MD., Director