The New York Times Tells You How To Eat

Every now and then, I take a gander at the New York Times “Health” section, usually with the goal of riling myself up so that I can rant about something here at FWD. There are a lot of things to get riled up about. Today, for me, it’s the conflation of size and health, and the attitudes about food, cooking, and eating which I see in the “Health” section.

The section called “Recipes For Health” is headed:

The easiest and most pleasurable way to eat well is to cook. Recipes for Health offers recipes with an eye towards empowering you to cook healthy meals every day. Produce, seasonal and locally grown when possible, and a well-stocked pantry are the linchpins of a good diet, and accordingly, each week’s recipes will revolve around a particular type of produce or a pantry item. This is food that is vibrant and light, full of nutrients but by no means ascetic, fun to cook and a pleasure to eat.

I think that there are some fascinating assumptions embedded in here. Many of these assumptions reflect widely held social attitudes about food: There’s a “right” way to cook, there’s a “right” way to eat. You’re a good person if you subscribe to these ideals and follow them, and you’re a bad person if you don’t. In the “Health” section that’s taken one step further: You’re an unhealthy person if you don’t follow the dietary recommendations set out by someone else.

So, here’s the thing about cooking and disability. All of the things discussed as “linchpins of a good diet” get a lot more complicated when you have a disability. Setting aside the issue of allergies, let’s talk about the fact that some people with disabilities are extremely sensitive to flavors, textures, and smells. Some people with disabilities can’t do things like standing over a hot stove, lifting heavy pots, or going to a quaint local farmers’ market to pick up some of that fresh, local produce. Some people with disabilities actually have a really hard time coming up with things that they can eat, for a variety of reasons. And some people with disabilities face barriers to cooking.

What are some barriers to cooking? Well, what about the fact that many people with disabilities are of lower income and social status? Don’t you think that makes a difference when you’re considering what you can and cannot eat? It’s hard to get “seasonal and locally grown” produce when you live in a neighborhood which doesn’t really have stores with produce, when going to a different grocery store or a farmers’ market is not an option for you (too far away for you to have time, inaccessible, no safe transit). When CSAs won’t deliver to your neighborhood, how are you going to get produce?

What about the fact that food is expensive, and that some of the things touted in the “recipes for health” section are expensive or hard to obtain? A “well stocked pantry” really is not an option when you are living paycheque to paycheque (or benefits cheque to benefits cheque) and therefore cannot stock up on things. It’s easy to say “well, buy in bulk, it’s cheaper,” except that the initial outlay of cash for bulk foods might not be affordable for someone on a limited income; even though it’s more expensive to buy, say, boxed macaroni and cheese in the long term, it’s sold in a format which includes small, inexpensive packages which people can afford when they only have $15 to spend on groceries for the week.

And, of course, there’s the issue that getting into the kitchen isn’t as easy for some folks with disabilities. Some may live in settings where getting into the kitchen can’t happen because there is no kitchen, and people with a wide range of disabilities may have trouble doing things like standing in the kitchen for an hour to prepare a meal, controlling a knife to chop all that fresh produce, dealing with sensory input like smells while cooking, and so forth. I used to be one of those people who lectured about how “cooking is easy” and “it only takes a bit, it’s really no work at all” and how “you just have to commit” and then I woke up and smelled the beurre blanc.

“Cook healthy meals every day.” It’s an imperative. You must or you’re an unhealthy failure. And you must cook meals which are “vibrant and light.” Don’t cook what you want to eat, now. You need to cook food which is full of nutrients. (All food is full of nutrients.) In this case, “unhealthy” implies “fat,” and that’s an undertone in a lot of lecturing about what/how to eat, but there’s also some disability policing going on here too, some implications about how to live life “right.”

Food policing is an ongoing problem that I’ve been writing about for years, ever since I first started getting interested in the foodie movement and then just as quickly became totally disillusioned. When a prominent food blogger bragged about spending hundreds of dollars on food every week, I checked out of the movement. Because, you know, it’s not possible for me to spend $400 on food every week. I can’t actually be in the kitchen four hours a day. And the same holds true for many people, disabled or not, but being told what/how to eat carries extra baggage for disabled folks because we spend our entire lives being told what to do. “If only you did this, you wouldn’t be so disabled.”

Here’s what I think about food: “Eat what you love, love what you eat.” Our Ouyang Dan said that, and those are some words to live by. You don’t need the New York Times to tell you what to eat; you already know what to eat. The Times should stick to a recipe section, rather than preaching about what people need to/should eat.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

13 thoughts on “The New York Times Tells You How To Eat

  1. The worst part of cooking, for me, is the up-and-down. I cannot stand the entire time required to prepare even a simple meal. But it also takes a lot of initial energy to get myself up from a sitting or reclining position. To do so repeatedly, in short bursts — to turn the meat braising, or stir the pot of rice/soup/pasta/gravy/whatever — is extremely taxing. And to be able to sit while I do it all, I have to bend and reach, which strains my lower back, which can’t take a whole lot of strain before going out of commission.

    It doesn’t matter how easy something is supposed to be. I make myself a boxed pasta once a week. And it takes almost as much out of me as showers do. The only reason I eat somewhat “healthy” is because I have a husband. One who likes to cook, and is good at it. Otherwise I’d be back in the position I was when I lived on my own in SoCal: trying to balance between extremely energy-sapping boxed dinners and frozen dinners, which I couldn’t actually eat much of before my digestive system began rebelling. I bought a lot of smoothies for dinner back then. And we don’t have smoothie shops around here.

  2. YES!!!

    Getting the food to the house is a challenge. Getting everything ready to cook is a challenge. Prepping all that fresh produce is REALLY a challenge, even with a food processor (that involves getting it onto the counter, and cutting that produce into pieces small enough to fit in the fp). Then stirring, waiting, pouring, flipping. Then getting it onto plates to eat, all hot at the same time. Multiply times 4, for the number in my family, and having everyone there to eat at the same time…. ugh.

    By then, if I make all that effort, I don’t want to touch it, due to the fact that all the prep is correlated with pain.

    I really detest the shaming and assumptions about cooking that goes along with eating fresh, healthy food.

  3. In my case, I tend to get a lot of nonperishable foods. There are times I’d really prefer to have perishables, but it’s hard enough for me just to get food in the apartment; the one grocery store that actually was easy to get to from my apartment closed, so now it’s a matter of what I can get home in one or two bus trips (because that’s all I really have time for with my work schedule). And when one can only carry so much home, one tends to stock up on non-perishables to have a sizable food supply.

    And I tend to get stuff that’s fairly easy to prepare, despite wanting something more elaborate, because by mealtime I’m way too fatigued and/or overloaded to make anything that isn’t incredibly simple.

  4. Thank-you for this. I WISH I could prepare healthy meals for myself, but I do not have the money nor the physical energy. Period. I have exactly enough spoons to do one task/outing/activity per day. I wish there were guidelines for healthy eating that could take pwd and low income circumstances into account. Because my only options are prepackaged, processed foods.

  5. Yes, every part of cooking (including acquiring food) is hard, some parts more than others, but even so.
    And we have no money.

    I also have to pick my activities for the day. Not getting any assistance to do much of anything outside the house has the upside that I usually have resources left to cook. But there can always be unforeseen events.

  6. While I do like to read about what’s in our food and am interested in learning about healthy foods, there is only so much I can do and I won’t ever read any “healthy recipes” section. First of all, when I am not on leave, I eat whatever comes out of the institution kitchen, which is typically not all that healthy, in that we get a lot of canned veggies and processed, red meat; the only thing that makes the meals “healthy” really is the relative amounts of veggies to meat and rice/pasta/potatoes and that of course the servings are the minimum standard they have to provide. Budget is obviously more important than going with the latest fashion standards on health foods, and understandably so. When I used to be on leave alone, I don’t cook, so I eat some bread or fruit (or occasionally do cook some pasta without sauce or veggies just to have something in my stomach, and yes I know most pastas are high in “bad carbs”). When I am on leave with my boyfriend, we usually either cook together (or rather he does most of the cooking) or eat out (mostly at cheap chain restaurants). We do usually prepare quite healthy meals when we cook: vegetarian, lots of vegetables (most of which on the WHfoods.com list) with pasta or rice (but white rice and non-wholewheat pasta) and sometimes but not always fresh spices. Never organic/locally-grown unless we stumble upon it though. However, the reason we do this is cause we like these foods. On the other hand, when we’re not at my or his home, we tend to eat out, and most of these foods are not very unhealthy (neither of us likes snacks, McDonald’s or the like), but not particularly healthy either (you don’t know what goes into your restaurant food unless you go to the really expensive places, and at least we know that a lot of MSG/ve-tsin goes into the food at our fav restaurant – there is no scientific evidence that it is bad for your health but the food gurus say it is). Keep in mind that I only cook every once in a while. If I lived on my own, I would likely cook healthier than the foods I get served in the institution. However, it is unlikely that I would be able to cook everyday so I’d still freeze/microwave a lot of it (oh hell I’m destroying vitamins!).

    So, in summary: interesting to learn what foods are healthy and what ingredients are in them, and I do try to keep a relatively healthy diet, but really my preferences and the effort needed for preparation have priority over the organic-local-healthy-food maffia.

  7. I sometimes eat cheese or hummus and rice crackers for dinner because I’m too fatigued to do anything else. Maybe if I’ve gotten to the local shop (which actually has reasonable produce) I might get carrots, I can eat those raw and don’t need to chop them. I have Coeliac disease and so that rules out pretty much every boxed or frozen meal, either they’re made with wheat products or “may contain traces of gluten”. And gluten-free mac and cheese or ramen is four times the price and requires cooking.

  8. And there’s the argument that people can cook at home cheaper than they can get fast food. This only works if you don’t pay the cook. With uncompensated labor (of course it’s presumed that the labor is a woman’s what with this being a sexist society and all) removed from the discount on that so-cheap food that buck hamburger at McDonald’s starts to look real rational. Especially since the cheap stuff–beans rice root vegetables–takes a long time to cook.

    Even before getting to local or organic foods there are basic issues these kinds of shaming attitudes fail to address. They assume you have access to a kitchen at all and the tools to use in one. If you move often you aren’t going to carry around a lot of kitchen gear. Much of it is expensive to acquire in the first place; equipping a kitchen requires a substantial capital outlay. You have to have a refrigerator and freezer big enough to store leftovers in. You have to have the training and experience to follow a recipe in the first place.

    You have to be willing to eat leftovers for days on end.

    Time is a big barrier to cooking. Assume you sleep: there’s seven, eight hours gone. If you work you’ve got eight to twelve more spoken for what with commuting. If you take care of someone else–children pets other adults–there’s more time gone. You need some time to stop and rest; you can’t just be working and sleeping all the time. Cooking can be fun but it’s work.

    Of course the message stripped of all the extraneous crap like the shaming about health and ZOMGFAT is just “everyone should cook like the most privileged people do.” It’s so egalitarian.

    It’s so New York Times.

  9. It seems to me that “eat what you love, love what you eat” is not always feasible for those with disabilities, either. That can be pretty discouraging if the reality is that you’re eating what you can (afford/prepare).

  10. Cooking was always one of the first things I stopped doing when my depression got bad. When it is a struggle to make myself get out of bed at all, it is so much harder to convince myself that the time spent in the kitchen is actually worth the effort. When I have to remind myself that, despite not being hungry at all, I still need to eat, knowing how much work it would be to prepare something myself makes that almost impossible. Add the fact that nothing really tasted all that good anyway and a lack of kitchen skills, and I lived on frozen or boxed food almost exclusively. And you know what really didn’t help? Being told that “If you love yourself, you have to take good care of your health by cooking “good”foods.”

    Because no, I actually didn’t love myself all that much, and the added guilt didn’t make it easier. I hate when people are constantly saying/writing how all you have to do is be motivated and follow through on what you want. Because those can be very, very difficult to do even on the mental level alone.

  11. @Lauren – I understand what you’re saying. Where I’m at a loss is … how can this be addressed? Or can it be addressed?? Should we even be trying to address it? I’m having a lot of frustration with knowing what system(s) can tackle these types of issues. It just seems so basic, but unless the person qualifies for Meals on Wheels or Loaves & Fishes, I don’t know of any other resources.

  12. The first thing I thought of when reading this article is How to Boil Water the Easy Way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fUi1EYq6Rs&feature=channel
    It can be rather challenging to cook if you don’t even remember what you’re doing in the kitchen.

    @ Hatlover: If you’re in the US and have an official Celiac diagnosis, you can get a tax write off for the price difference in gluten-free food. This is, of course, only an option if you can afford to front the money, but it’s worth looking into if you want some semi-processed grain back in your diet.

    When my brother was still alive, my mother did all of his cooking for him. He tried, at first, but his medication caused him to be really out of it and he’d start fires, etc. because he’d forget he was in the kitchen and his wheelchair was really too big for his apartment, so even when he was lucid it was hard for him to respond when there was a problem in the kitchen.

    What I hate most, though, is that the foods being presented in the health section of the NYT are still privileged foods. I think grown people should be able to make their own food choices and don’t owe those choices to anyone but themselves. I also think there is as much room in one’s diet for food that makes one happy as for food that fills as many nutrient and micronutrient requirements as possible. I do, however, care when those choices are made for others due to pricing and availability. The current subsidy structure’s impact upon food is ridiculous. I never expected the most moving scene in Food, Inc. to be when the girl just wanted a pear but at $1.99/pound they were too expensive.

  13. Ah, just found this through your link to it on tumblr the other day, aaand thank you! first of all this is post is awesome, and so true and detailed and well-thought-out and just great. but also, now i know that there’s a whole other section of the NYTimes i can read when i want to lol/cry (usually i stick to Styles).

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