The Dangers of the Food Counter

Here is a troubling recent statistic: some experts are now saying that, if current trends continue, 90 percent of Americans will be obese in 20 years.

That means one in 10 people will have a healthy weight. There are obviously many factors that contribute to this horrible situation, but I want to really focus on one major culprit – pre-prepared food.

It's time for us all to remember, or learn for the first time, how to cook for ourselves.

Many people will be familiar with the newest addition to the growing trend of grocery stores selling fewer ingredients and more finished food products. That is, the meal counter.

At Whole Foods, for example, this counter – or counters, because there are various ones specializing in different foods – sells pre-made meals. Mexican! Chinese! Sandwiches! Pizzas! Roasted chickens!

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The display is beautiful, the food almost cinematic in its presentation. Dream of a deliciousness, and there it is. Why not save time by buying dinner pre-made, especially when it looks that appetizing?

Well, for one thing, you don't actually know what ingredients were used in the food's preparation. In all likelihood, it involved much more fat (butter, oil) than a home cook would use. Portions are also large, and you are not always in control of how much they give you.

So it is almost impossible to make educated choices about the two most basic aspects of controlling your nutrition: ingredients and portion size.

Yet these food counters are expanding, and penetrating even further into daily life. Now in San Francisco we have a store that offers nothing but pre-prepared food counters; it is like the bar at grocery stores, but in the form of a corner store, right there in the neighborhood, easily accessible for daily meals.

It makes eating out a matter of urgency, rather than a special occasion. The problem is: there is just no way to be healthy while depending on eating out all the time. But no one is going to be able to resist this kind of easy eating unless we arm ourselves with some real tools.

The answer is simple: Start cooking. But for many people, it doesn't work if I just say that. We are busy, we are stressed, there is so little time… I get that. So here are two real ways you can get control over your nutrition by investing a minimum of additional energy.

First suggestion: Don't try to cook every day. Try to cook once or twice per week, and then use those cooked basics on a daily basis. Plan a grocery list of real ingredients – beans, rice, root vegetables, lean meats. Cook large batches of these on Sunday afternoon, or Wednesday night – whenever you can. Roast two pans of sliced vegetables, lightly drizzled with olive oil. Roast chicken breasts. Steam a large heap of rice. Then, throughout the week, combine these. Chicken plus beans and rice equals burrito. Root vegetables pureed in a blender plus tomatoes equals pasta sauce. Lentils plus tomatoes and vegetables equals satisfying salad. Stew, soup, sandwiches – you have all you need for any of these.

Second suggestion: Take a cooking class. Invest a little bit of time for long-term reward. This should be a class that focuses on basic skills for working people. Fewer and fewer of us learn to cook as children. If that describes you, then it's worth purchasing that knowledge now. Take a class that can teach you some basic knife skills, a bit of knowledge about ingredients, and some easy recipes. Then use those as a basic template to start cooking at least a few days per week.

It's easy to blame the food industry. But the fact is, you keep going to those places that sell prepared food. So start over. Find time. Learn to cook. Plan your meals.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program).  He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online.  Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of two consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.

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