Anatomy of a Grocery Cart

[Photo by  Igor Ovsyannykov  on  Unsplash ]

[Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash]

So we moved my in-laws into assisted living a couple weeks ago, and, besides feeling relieved that there would be people close at hand to assist with things like falls (three, and counting, since they moved in), I was also glad they would be getting three squares a day. It wasn't just that they'd subsisted the past couple years on a rotation of restaurant food that ranged from higher-end (Anthony's) to DQ (lots of DQ), but even when moving day arrived, I found the main foods in the house were Snickers bars and those little boxes of sugary cereal, to which my father-in-law would then add another packet of sugar because that was his habit from when he ate shredded wheat. Yowza. When I freaked out and scolded him for all the added sugar, he smiled and said, "That's what the caregivers say."

Three solid meals, complete with fruits and vegetables. Such a life luxury.

My mother-in-law had always done the cooking, so by the time she could no longer follow recipes, my father-in-law was confused enough that he couldn't cook either. He could sous-chef, no problem, but we didn't seem to get many caregivers interested in bothering with cooking. They came over and just ordered out.

The older I get, the more I think that, not only is access to food a luxury, but the ability to do something with it once you have it. My in-laws had some apples in the fridge, but it was easier to reach for the Snickers until I got one out, washed it, and sliced it up. People generally eat whatever's in front of them, and too often what's in front of them isn't any good.

Delicious, but too much work? [Photo by  Roberta Sorge  on  Unsplash

Delicious, but too much work? [Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

When I was at the store, in line to check out, I happened to see a cart in the neighboring line stacked full with an amazing array of processed foods. There was soda, frozen dinners, pizzas, cereal, even corn dogs. I only knew there weren't a lot of items from the produce section because everything fit so neatly and geometrically in the cart like Lego bricks. With my in-laws fresh in my mind, I couldn't help seeing her younger face and worrying about the future. She was young! She could still get to the store and keep things straight in her head and turn the stove on without forgetting she'd done so. Shouldn't she carpe her kitchen diem? 

At least she wasn't buying Snickers.

And it wasn't like her grocery cart was unique. According to a 2016 USDA study, the number-one item in American carts is soft drinks. Now, I love soft drinks. I'd have one every day, if I hadn't read just about everywhere how terrible they are for you. I love the flavors, the carbonation, the cold. But since I try to limit the One Terrible Food I've allowed myself per day, I use that card on homemade dessert.

The study findings aren't all bad. Folks do buy a few things that are nourishing:

About 40 cents of every food purchase dollar was spent on basic items like meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread.
• Another 20 cents was spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar.
• The remaining 40 cents was spent on a variety of items such as cereal, prepared foods, other dairy products, rice, beans, and other cooking ingredients.

But 20% of your food budget on junk food is a fairly hefty amount. Say you spend $150 per week on groceries. That means you spend $30 per week on junk. Or $1,560 per year. That's a weekend trip for the whole family to a sunny clime being flushed down the toilet with the Snickers wrappers. Not to mention the health costs, the bill for which will arrive later.

While we thought childhood obesity rates might have plateaued or even begun to decline, now they've ticked up again. Despite all the urgings to exercise, people don't want to exercise (and I include myself in that bucket--I hate exercise). Maybe we could tackle it from the other end. What if those old-fashioned "home ec" classes became a state requirement? What if everyone had to learn the basics of cooking and nutrition to graduate high school? Yes, lots of people buy processed food and don't cook because they don't have time, but lots of other people buy processed food and don't cook because they don't know how, or don't know how to fit it into their lives. If you can use a knife, follow instructions, boil water, and turn an oven on and off, you can feed yourself. Healthily and economically.

I've mentioned a local cooking store where my daughter and I learned to make croissants. We also recently took a Thai cooking class. But maybe a better offering would be a "Kitchen Launch" class--one where you learn the above skills and five basic recipes to get food in your mouth and/or freezer. Maybe the most frequently purchased processed meals? Pizza. A pasta dish. A burrito. Kitchen-sink soup. A casserole.

We're smart folks. We can do better. At least until we're all in the assisted-living place and paying someone else to do it for us.

The Science of Mindless Eating


I have a thing for brain books. It might be a form of human vanity. If our (relatively) giant brain sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, reading brain books might be considered the equivalent of always staring in the mirror at your favorite feature. Past favorites include:

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

Well, this week my fascination with our awesome, complex brains and my obsession with food intersected in my reading material. For one, there was the discouraging news that, contrary to earlier reports, obesity in children continues to rise in America, as well as around the world, including rural China. And, in addition to the dual assaults of the Western diet and decreasing physical activity, traditional Chinese still favor their boys, shoveling even more food their way. On the other hand, this Vox article reiterated that decreasing physical activity may be detrimental to our health for many reasons, but weight gain isn't one of them, because exercising doesn't lead to weight loss!

One thing the experts seem to agree on, however, is that mindless eating leads to overeating. We shouldn't plop down in front of the TV with the package of Oreos or bag of potato chips because we might just find, when our show ends, that we've eaten the entire thing! How it happened, we're not exactly sure.

Here's where my latest brain book comes in.

NeuroLogic: The Brain's Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior

Author Sternberg explains that, when we engage in habitual behaviors, those repeated actions lay down tracks in the habit system of our brain, the outer section of the striatum. This is actually a feature of our awesome brains because doing repeated actions on autopilot allows our conscious brain to tackle other things. If you always had to think super hard about brushing your teeth, how could you make a list of what needed to be done before you hit the hay? If you had to think about the process of walking, how could you count your Halloween candy haul while doing so?

But the upside is also the downside of this multitasking-enabling system when it comes to eating. That is, when our habit system is engaged, the conscious mind wanders off to do other things. The habit mind keeps taking a potato chip from the bag and stuffing it in our mouth. The conscious mind wonders, on the other hand, "Is the hero going to be able to survive this situation? Did the actor not re-up his contract for next season?" Show ends. Hero survives (or not). Potato chip bag is empty. Our ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which urges us to eat when we are hungry, usually then sends out signals of discouragement when we are full. But if we're in habit-brain mode, these discouragement signals are muted and the feedback loop broken. We keep eating.

If you clicked on the Vox article above, you'll see their thesis is not to exercise more, if you want to lose weight (hooray!), but rather to eat less (boo). But it would take a lot of the pain out of eating less if we started with cutting out the mindless eating first. After all, that's just habit. We aren't even actually enjoying it! What if dessert were a small portion, savored at the table, and we developed new habits while watching TV? Knitting. Or playing Words with Friends. Or flossing our teeth, for Pete's sake.

Reasonable amounts of home-cooked, whole foods, eaten with our minds engaged. Sounds like a recipe for both health and good community around the table! And, speaking of health and good community, the Market starts next Thursday, May 12. Not a moment too soon. I'll have your shopping list next week!

Hot Off the Skillet - April's Food News


Food news in this post:

  • World obesity rates continue to rise.
  • How much of your daily food intake is "ultra-processed"?
  • Droughts aren't all bad.
  • Eat like it's 1939!
  • Want to lose weight? Here's what you should listen to.


Obesity is no longer just an American phenomenon, or even a Western one. The NCD-Risc, a network of health scientists studying risk factors for non-communicable diseases, has found that one in seven women and one in nine men are now obese. Worldwide. The only places remaining with significant numbers of underweight folks are India and Bangladesh. Astonishing figures, so to speak, and ones that show no signs of slowing.

The team predicted if these global trends continue, by 2025 18% of the world’s men and 21% of women will be obese. Furthermore, the probability of reaching the World Health Organization global obesity target (which aims for no rise in obesity above 2010 levels by 2025) will be close to zero.

As obesity has been linked to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and metabolic syndrome, associated worldwide health costs will soar right along with our weight. Their recommendations? Eating more fruits and vegetables (duh), but also possibly "taxing high sugar and highly processed foods." Wouldn't that be an interesting world, if the good stuff was subsidized and the bad stuff taxed? For more details, here's the longer article.

Speaking of processed foods, Mental Floss reports that almost 60% of the typical American diet is "ultra-processed," including goodies like "sodas, packaged snacks and baked goods, candy and desserts, instant noodles and soups, and frozen meat products like chicken and fish nuggets." The percentage seems high, but I'm betting in our house we at least hit 25%, between breakfast cereal, ice cream, and cold cuts. Yikes.

On the upside, when you do get around to eating those expensive fruits and vegetables, consider finding drought-stunted survivors, for their bigger nutritional punch. (This is why my husband under-waters his tomatoes--to increase their flavor and meat density.) Plants that are fighting for survival pack their fruits with antioxidants. Check out this fascinating article on the topic from KQED (a Bay Area station). We've been so fortunate to hit that Ferry Building farmers market in San Francisco on our summer visits, and they do have good stuff.

Before widespread irrigation, the produce might have had more flavor and nutritional value, but that didn't mean we couldn't still find ways to make weird food. The American History Museum of the Smithsonian has been posting about American cooking in various decades, based on cookbooks of each era. Just look at the pictures from the article on the 1930s! The question isn't "how did 'congealed salads' ever go out of style?' but rather, "and we complain about kale salads?" The series continues into the 1940s, with recipes to stretch wartime rations. The magic bullet? Gelatin. Still gelatin. Good source of protein, after all, if you're not vegetarian.

And finally, if cooking from 1930s and 1940s cookbooks doesn't help you lose weight by diminishing your appetite, a new study shows that listening to chewing sounds makes you eat less. Yep. Sit next to that guy in the theater crunching popcorn or by the vending machine where people crunch potato chips, and your body might be fooled into thinking you're actually taking part. I don't know if I believe this one, but if it's true...goodbye, audiobooks, hello Soundtracks of Crunching, Munching & Chewing?