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
- 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
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.)