Thursday, January 8, 2009

Family Eating Challenge

Did you know the BK Big Fish sandwich has its own Wikipedia entry?

DD12 proposed a family eating challenge, and we took up the gauntlet. I'm proud of her for having the idea and defending it in discussion.

Background: DH and I grew up with fast food being an occasional, but regular, part of our diets. Visits to the McDonald's to get free hamburgers for A's on my report card. The brand new Arby's in 1970, when employees wore western-themed uniforms. A first date in Pizza Hut. Ordering Domino's in college. I grew up with the taste of fast food. I know exactly what the food in each place tastes like, and that it will taste the same every time. I think the consistent taste is what trains your palette. I will *never* forget what a McDonald's Double Cheeseburger tastes like, just as I will never forget what smoking a cigarette is like - I quit 3 years ago.

Food Habits are Hard to Break: As a young adult, I was seriously addicted to Diet Coke, at least 12 cans a day. I got heartburn that felt like it was killing me. I figured out it was the carbonation and switched to diet iced tea - by the gallon. Eventually, between the all my drinking of Earl Grey and diet iced tea, the caffeine and tannins irritated the hell out of my bladder. I decaffeinated, which seemed harder than quitting smoking, in some ways. I am now addicted to herbal iced teas (Red Zinger with a touch of honey) in summer, and hot decaf Earl Grey (black, no sugar) in winter. God, I hope those don't do anything bad to me. I also drink a lot of water and a good amount of milk.

Kids, Not Terrible: My kids were born to a financially-challenged life. We seldom had fast food (or any other dine-out meal). We did eat pizza. We never had soda at home, just milk, water, and 100% juice in limited amounts. They were allowed to order soda if it came with the kid meal in a restaurant, and they drank it at other people's houses. Soda didn't become a highly-desirable forbidden food for them, and they seldom choose it as a treat. But fast food - when we had a little more money, we indulged. Not all the time, but once a week or so. We had one period where we had "Take Out Friday" and took turns choosing between pizza, fast food, Chinese, or hoagies. Fast food started looking like an affordable treat, something we deserved to have when there was a little spare cash. Coupons and Dollar Menus made it look like a Good Deal.

That Was Then: We knew it was full of fat, but we were not yet aware of the environmental impact of this ultra-industrial food, nor did we think about the quality of the food-like ingredients. It's not like we eat it every day....

This is Now: Today, we are wracked with fast food guilt. We've seen the films and read the books. We still want fast food, but now we feel guilty about it. For the past few years, while DH was finishing his degree, money was very tight and we almost never had fast food. Since May, things loosened up a bit, and we started noticing that nearly every time we ran errands, someone would suggest a "little snack" from the Dollar Menu. We boycotted Burger King during the tomato-picker crisis, but recently went back, and realized with some dismay that we missed the fish sandwich (me) and the Whopper (DH).

We were eating little fast food meals 3-4 times a week - while I ran all over the county buying local organic food in bulk to can and store! I think part of me was thinking, "Better enjoy the last of the fast food, before the industrial food complex falls apart in the world economic collapse."

Plastic Turning Point: But, we all started noticing, and talking about it. I had a key conversation with my kids, in a Chik-Fil-A, just a few weeks ago.

We had gotten hungry while shopping. I looked at our tray and thought of the blog Fake Plastic Fish, which I had recently started reading. I told the kids about the trash in the Pacific Gyre, and how the plastic elements on the tray in front of us had been useful to us for only a few minutes, but would exist in the environment and in the ocean for centuries. DD12 talked about the trash generated in her public school's lunchroom, where 87% of the kids qualify for free lunches, and all of the food comes in plastic and tinfoil. Even the paper milk cartons have become platic bottles. We calculated that 72,000 plastic sporks are thrown away each year, at her school alone.

In that conversation, the kids became more aware, and DD15 is working on an article to post to her hundreds of friends on FaceBook, and we are working together on a youth food workshop. She encountered a little resistance when she could not find a satellite photo of the Trash Vortex - but she is assembling reliable reports from various sources to overcome disbelief. Some sources report the size of the Trash Vortex as "twice the size of the US" and some as "the size of Texas" because there is no good way to measure it and it is generally not visible in satellite photos. That makes it look like an urban legend to some folks.

Anyway, we agreed that when we eat out in the future, we will only buy the parts of meals that don't come in plastic. Sandwiches and fries tend to come in paper. We already have reusable bottles that don't require straws, so we can use them more.

That conversation started something. We already use canvas shopping bags, and stopped buying bottled water. Time for another step. We know that recycling is not the universally-green action it once seemed. Asian children on 60 Minutes harvest heavy metals from shiploads of illegally-traded electronic waste. Recycled materials from municipal programs now pile up in warehouses, since the Chinese stopped buying so much of it to make new plastic crap for us to buy. Even biodegradable plastics and paper from fast food joints does not biodegrade - composting doesn't occur in landfills sealed off from UV rays and oxygen.

So, we stopped taking the plastic lids and straws that come with cups. We started noticing that some bread comes with double plastic wrapping. We bitched about the plastic that packaged our (reduced) Christmas loot. And the youngest of us finally proposed that we seriously limit our fast food intake.

The Family Challenge: DD12, the one that counts French Fries among the most beloved of her picky-eater habits, said, "Mama, I think we should only eat fast food once a week."

We discussed why and came up with 4 major reasons:
  • it's healthier for us
  • it's better for the environment
  • our dining-out dollars should go to local businesses
  • it will save money for real treats
But, we still needed rules. DD15 said, "They say, if you need rules to control your behavior, you have a problem." Of course we have a problem! So, what counts as "fast food?"
  • franchise chains are always fast food
  • anything with a drive-through window is fast food
  • pre-made food is fast food (school lunches!)
  • sit-down restaurants with servers are OK
  • small local food vendors, like stands at the market, are OK
  • pizza and subs are OK if they come from local shops, not chains
  • each person can use their weekly meal independent of the rest of us
  • at an event that limits food choices, do the best you can
  • do more planning to take food with us when we might get hungry
This whole conversation took place in the car on the way to pick up DD15 from work - and then they both used their weekly choice immediately! DD12 got Wendy's nuggets and fries, and DD15 got pizza.

But the biggest hurdle was still to be faced: DH needed to be approached at home. DD12 wanted me to do it, but we coached her through the proposal, and he agreed! She felt very good and I am proud of her.

This will be a good group effort for us, and well-timed. We just added a lot of new classes, meetings, and jobs to our schedule. That would normally tempt us to eat more fast food to save time. But none of us wants to, so we will do the work to avoid it.

Maybe someday we will stop eating fast food altogether, but that feels like a promise we can't keep, yet. Too big a step, too undo-able. Baby steps are easier to think about.

(Edit: DD12 packed her lunch to school this week. No more plastic sporks.)


d.a. said...

Hooray! Go DD12!!!

fullfreezer said...

Congratulations! We rarely eat fast food (except for the kids school lunches- which I never thought about). We will eat at a fast food place maybe 4 or 5 times a year- usually only if we are traveling. But any behavior change is tough. Good luck!

LisaZ said...

You have so perfectly, and soul-baringly, described the schizophrenia of our time. We KNOW what is best to do, but we don't always WANT to do the better thing. I suppose this has always been the case, but never to the extent it is now. We have so many choices it drives me crazy!

BTW, while reading I was feeling hungry for a McDonald's Filet 'O 8:00 in the morning!!! Sad, very sad.

It IS amazing how the tastes are always the same, and how our taste buds never forget. I bet even people who never eat fast food anymore, and who are really really perfect in food matters, still secretly crave a particular fast food at times. Don't ya think?

Michelle said...

Just a what-for - those sporks can be brought home, washed, and reused. I realize it's better not to have them at all, but if you are in a pinch and need a utensil, take one, but bring it home and reuse it until it breaks.

Hurray for DD12!

Anonymous said...

"We were eating little fast food meals 3-4 times a week - while I ran all over the county buying local organic food in bulk to can and store!"

Oh thank goodness, it's not just me! I do find that gardening, canning, cooking, bulk-buying and the like wear me out and the last thing I want to do after a day of it is think about what to have for dinner! Or worse, when I'm on the road, don't have a snack with me, and really need something to eat...and it's so easy to hit a drive-through.

I'm all for swearing it off...but what to do instead? I'm still tired and hungry at the end of the day!

Matriarchy said...

Eatclose, I don't have a lot of answers to that, yet. We've only done a week, so far, without complete success.

Off the top of my head, I suggest having sandwich fixings in the fridge all the time. You might spend $15-20 getting fast food for a family, and you can get a lot of meat, cheese, spreads, and bread for $20. I have to keep that in mind myself. It doesn't take much longer to visit a supermarket deli and buy several days worth of sandwich stuff, than it does to get fast food.

We've done fine the rest of this week, but today was only a partial success. We overslept, and I herded DD12 into the car to get her to school without breakfast, and then we realized she didn't have a lunch. We ended up getting her hotcakes and OJ at McD's so she wouldn't go hungry all day. I sat there and watched her eat, which was odd, but I wanted to stick to the challenge. She mooched milk and fruit from her friends at lunch. At our school, if you have not ordered and prepaid a lunch, you must pack or starve.

I did a lot of food shopping and errands with my mom after our late start. The mid-day stop was the farmer's market, where there are non-fast food choices for us to have a quick lunch. I brought Cajun home for DH and DD15, from a local not-fast food place.

This evening, DD12 and I went to a scrapbooking night. I packed a sandwich. DD12 ate cereal after school, but did not want to bring food. She was starving by the time we drove home, hours later. I guess I should have let her experience the consequences of not bringing food with her, but I didn't. She and I had burgers from a drive-thru on the way home. I used my weekly meal "token" and she had her third fast food meal of the week.

DD12's picky eating really gets in the way of being creative about taking or finding non-fast food on the road. There is so much she won't eat. She is the one that will most have to plan ahead to avoid fast food solutions, but who is least likely to want to do so! This challenge was HER idea. She and I will have to talk about this in the morning.

So, all of us ate take-out or had food on the fly today, but really only DD12 resorted to fast food.

Anonymous said...

I think your family has a good plan, and because you are all on board, it definitely makes it easier. Not only reminding each other, but knowing you all can draw on the others' ideas when sticky situations come up.

I am always amazed at how fast food pervades life for many. Just a recent example, the partner I work with most (I'm an attorney at a mid-sized firm) is always so busy and seriously works very hard, is on the phone putting out fires for clients, etc. But all this means that often lunch is Subway grabbed at 2 or 3pm, deli food wrapped in paper/plastic with chips, a quick yogurt, or VitaWater. Same with others I think, just because in the instant morning, it is easier to dash out the door and then grab a big coffee/bagel for breakfast, etc. Not only is there the financial toll ($5-6 or more a day!) but also the health, environmental toll.

Often, I find myself the odd-ball, as I don't eat out at all. Its always been a thing for me, because I am a lacto-veg and even cheese is out (rennet). Only dairy is milk, homemade cottage cheese/yogurt. And since starting the local living, one more reason. But then, when a co-worker stops by and says "lets grab a (fast-food meal)", it sometimes is awkward to always say I brought my food. People are starting to get used to it though, and I've even heard them say to me "I wish I could get my act together to pack lunch" because they do realize the multiple tolls. But I think society and life-demands stack the deck against it, it's so easy to just go with the convenience. That is why I think you and your family is doing so well, making a plan with tools to get there. As you said at the end of the post, even though you had to eat on the fly, it wasn't fast food!

fullfreezer said...

I stopped back and re-read my comment- I hope I didn't come off sounding self-righteous. I am so glad we never got sucked into the fast food trap. V and I always pack lunches- usually the night before so I don't have to think in the morning. On very rare occasions I will eat in the hospital cafeteria but not often- it's really expensive. One of my co-workers is always complaining about their financial troubles but she buys her lunch everyday- it is so easy to charge it to our ID and it comes out of our paycheck before you ever see the money. It's too easy to not realize how much you spend. I have tried to talk to her about how much less expensive it is to bring your lunch from home (especially the day she bought pre-peeled hard boiled eggs, string cheese and juice!) but she says she isn't organized enough to pack her lunch and get her 2 kids to school. (SIGH)
As for snacks and arriving home tired and hungry- we eat a lot of fruit to tide us over and the kids eat a lot of granola bars. I'm trying to figure out a substitute or if I can make my own but at least they are better than pop tarts which used to make regular appearances in our cabinet- I'm not sure pop tarts can actually be classified as food.
I have found that having our weekly meals planned ahead helps tremendously- again, I don't have to think about what we're having and are much less likely to say- how about a pizza or chinese take-out- those are our downfalls.

Matriarchy said...

FullFreezer, I didn't think you were being self-righteous. You have managed to avoid the evil fast food trap - lucky you!

I don't think it is a bad thing for anyone to have fast food a few times a year, especially when traveling. There are very few foods that are so terrible that you can never eat them at all. (excepting allergies and poison, of source!).

I find, on my own life, that "I can't get organized" is code for "this hasn't become important enough to me for me to figure it out." Something has to rise to a certain level of pain to get attention. The pain could be economic, physical, or even social.

I wonder what could happen in the workplace to encourage more of a culture of "pack your own." It's healthier, cheaper, and produces less trash. I had one idea, but I work at home! People could invite co-workers to "brown bags" where you do something fun. I used to work in a public sector agency where at least some folks packed regularly, because we were under-paid. We played Dictionary at lunch most days, in the conference room. It was a lot of fun, and encouraged me to pack, because the game was half-over by the time you could go get take-out and come back.

You could start an ongoing game of Apples-to-Apples, Uno, cards or any other game that everyone can play. Or take turns leading interesting discussions about hobbies, books, TV, food - whatever appeals to most people. I would avoid religion, politics, sports, and sex as topics, :-)

Verde said...

I grew up the same way - probably the same era. We don't eat a lot of fast food - mostly pinching pennies, but I too am now craving that &*^&* fish sandwitch!

What's up with that?

Matriarchy said...

Aha! See?! It's not just me. I think they put some kind of addictive drug in there.

eunice said...

i've packed my lunch out of necessity, can't afford to eat out, and not having a family to commandeer makes it easier for me to quickly put together lunch, so i would have no excuse for not packing. but on those occasions when i'm doing takeout, i've tried to bring in my own containers for the food. don't get as many strange looks from the asian food places as i use the tiffin tin that some Chinese restaurants use for their delivered meal plans. trying to keep my own chopsticks in my bag because i feel bad about using the disposable ones and you might get splinters in your mouth.

Matriarchy said...

We have 6 pairs of cool stainless steel chopsticks that DH found. They don't break, make me feel like I can really get them clean, and are less likely to be mistaken treated as disposable. You could also use them as emergency skewers, pick things out of a fire with them, or use them as weapons. LOL

eunice said...

"are less likely to be mistaken treated as disposable."

hehe...think we must have lost a few of our spoons like that...or else they've gone the same way of those socks that always seem to get lost in the laundry.

"pick things out of a fire with them, or use them as weapons."

i'll be sure to stay on your good side.

Matriarchy said...

Ever lose something out of frying pan into the gas flame? Steel chopsticks are great for picking it back out. :-)

Let's hope I am never in a position to be required to defend myself with chopsticks! But our self-defense instructor showed us a way to disable someone with a wrist lock you can do with any stout stick - or steel chopstick. We were learning ways for smaller or weaker persons to use leverage to defend themselves from larger or stronger people. Fascinating, and something I like my girls to know. No date rape on my watch!

eunice said...

"something I like my girls to know."

your daughters are lucky to have a mom who encourages self-empowerment.

another thought, if they use their steel chopsticks as fashionable hair accessory, they can just whip it out and stylishly defend themselves.