A few weeks ago, I shared a Shabbat meal with mostly strangers – a last minute invitation, friend-of-a-friend sort of thing. Like so many other Shabbat dinners I’ve attended, the beautiful food on the table inspired conversation as, “Mmm, this is so good,” turned into a larger discussion about foods we eat and don’t eat. I waxed poetic about kale (as I tend to do), and other people around the table compared their own food-preference notes.
Then, one woman from “out of town” (meaning Manhattan to my borough of Brooklyn) mentioned that she and her fiancé were on a diet and had joined Jenny Craig to shed weight before their wedding. “I love it,” she gushed. “They deliver all my meals, and I can just pop them in the microwave and there’s dinner. I don’t even have to clean up afterwards – I just throw away the container.”
Gulp. As she spoke, the progressive-foodie Brooklyn bubble in which I exist deflated with an audible hiss. Was it really possible that someone preferred shrink-wrapped, disposable, industrial food to delicious, lovingly prepared real food? I focused on the meal in front of me and didn’t say anything. Honestly, I didn’t even know where to start.
It wasn’t until later that I was able to unpack why her comments bothered me so much, aside from my own initial knee-jerk food snobbery.
Part of the problem was that she was on a diet in the first place. This girl was beautiful – neither gauntly skinny nor overweight. Jenny Craig has undoubtedly been successful for many people struggling with obesity, but in a society (American) and culture (Jewish) that are both obsessed with being thin to the point of sickness, it saddened me that she felt unnecessary pressure to mold herself to some unrealistic svelte ideal for her wedding.
Another distressing aspect was her reliance on the Jenny Craig system. What happens after her wedding if she stops Jenny Craig and does not have the resources to create her own healthy food? Of course, cooking does not bring joy to everyone. Just as I glibly say I “hate math,” there are people who “hate to cook,” which this woman freely admitted during dinner. But I can’t help but think that part of people’s aversion to cooking is simply due to never being taught how to do it.
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, offers these guidelines to healthy (in all senses of the word) eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The second two pieces of this mantra make immediate sense – don’t overstuff yourself, and eat more vegetables, beans, and grains than meat, eggs, and dairy.
Pollan suggests that we should focus on eating “real,” whole foods as opposed to the pre-made, shrink-wrapped stuff that often comes loaded with preservatives and salt.
Understandably, this woman is a busy law student with an equally busy lawyer fiancé. But learn how to make delicious, nourishing foods like basic grains (wild rice, quinoa, cous cous, millet etc), greens (kale, spinach, broccoli, collards, etc.), and proteins (tofu, salmon, chicken, beans etc.), is neither difficult, time consuming, nor expensive. And once one starts eating these satisfying foods, the pre-packaged stuff quickly becomes less appetizing. In the long run, I think the money my dinner mate and her fiancé spend on Jenny Craig would be better spent on a trip to a nutritionist or a short series of weekend cooking classes to teach her healthy, sustainable eating for life.