From One Frozen Pizza to Another: Changing Eating Habits in a Changing World
Bagel pizzas haven’t been on the menu for years, left off around the time Zebra cakes got 86ed, but only recently did I make the decision to stop buying the similarly unhealthy, generic, rising crust, meaty-supreme, deflated-vegetable, glue-you-to-the-cou
In middle school I stomached through a stage where I consistently craved pepperoni bagel pizzas and marshmallow-laden cereal for dinner. I would come home from soccer practice, microwave a few bagel pizzas, pour some cereal and milk, grab a glass artificially-flavored juice – usually Hi-C or Sunny-D – and sit down to enjoy my delicious repast in the company of my favorite dining companion, the television. Reflecting on this phase in the spectrum of my eating habits, I’m grateful not to be experiencing the direct consequences of my childhood tastes today in the form of obesity or diabetes. However, as the years pass by and I continue to adjust to the demands of the body I inhabit and world I live in, I am realizing how deeply rooted these early eating habits are, how significantly they continue to affect my decision making, and how difficult they are going to be to change.
These days, at the ripened age of 25, I treat myself to frozen pizza about once a week. On those evenings when I don’t have the energy left to leave the house, let alone to cook something remotely appetizing, my body and mind converge on a rare matching solution – frozen pizza: easily meeting the lazy man’s criteria. Bagel pizzas haven’t been on the menu for years, left off around the time Zebra cakes got 86ed, but only recently did I make the decision to stop buying the similarly unhealthy, generic, rising crust, meaty-supreme, deflated-vegetable, glue-you-to-the-couch-for-the-night pizzas and instead focus my appetite on the thin-crusted, natural-ingredient, appealingly-titled (e.g. Amy’s Organic Roasted Vegetable Pizza) take-a-pleasant-stroll-after-diner variety.
Why did I make this decision? Why did it take me so long to make this decision? I wish the reasons were simple and the answers clear, but for a guy who worked at McDonalds in high school – in no small part for the opportunity to eat chicken nuggets wrapped in American cheese ad infinitum – the subject matter runs deep, coating my veins and arteries, and even touching my heart.
Double Cheeseburger with Curry
I grew up in an America full of easy, excessive, fast and cheap food: an America not so very distant from that of today. Throughout my life there’s always been a McDonalds within walking distance; a McDonalds that I would more often than not drive to. And there still is. But now there’s also a growing societal movement towards a more environmentally conscious, health-and-longevity promoting lifestyle. If the components of this lifestyle were to be visually represented by a pyramid on the back of a cereal box, eating habits would probably occupy the large space at the bottom of the pyramid. This recent rise of healthful eating to the bottom of the lifestyle pyramid, coupled with the newly placed emphasis not only on personal health and longevity, but also that of our planet – which adds a lot more gravity to the situation – has given a whole new life to the matter.
As I’ve matured I’ve come to understand certain personal corporeal limits, just as scientists have assessed those of our biosphere. It’s no longer suitable to brush these observations aside as during salad days of the past; in which I rarely ate salad and never worried about the effects of biofuel on third-world economies, or how nearly everything I consume contains reorganized corn molecules, or how I love eating meat but can barely bring myself to kill a cockroach. My body has become a more sensitive, less forgiving system, more aware and more critical of what enters its anatomy – whether it was a salad day or a frozen pizza day for instance. The same could be said of Earth. The sun continues to rise and set, but each new day doesn’t offer a fresh atmosphere – with 6 billion-plus people and recent major industrial and technological advances, the man-made consequences now stay through the night. It’s no longer a question of simply pinching one’s nose and rapidly consuming all the liver on the plate in order to be healthy; or dining on frozen chicken potpie and prepackaged risotto because it’s just so convenient. Instead the questions are many: where the food originated, how it was processed, the quality of the packaging, the shipping method, the conditions of preparation, and then – if it’s still stomachable after all that mental regurgitation – you get to eat it. Followed by recycling and composting the waste. And conserving water while cleaning up. And chewing with your mouth closed. All with the faith that partaking in these actions will bequeath future generations a healthier planet – It’s a lot to swallow, I know.
As far as personal eating habits that need changing in order to preserve the planet, I’m actually in pretty good shape, relative to other Americans well on their way to Wall-E status. Overall I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and my ability to moderate glutinous consumption generally prevails through the elements. Along with these inherent head starts on the race to eating well, a 9-month stint in India last year helped actually propel me from the starting blocks. I realized that in India no one ate fast food, no one ate frozen food, and highly processed food wasn’t readily available. Whether eating in or out, people seemed to consume mostly local, fresh and healthy foods. After a few weeks of necessary adjustments, such as learning to scoop food with my right hand (In India the left hand is reserved the privilege of spritzing water on one’s behind after bowel movements), I began eating a pretty typical, primarily-vegan South Indian diet – and I felt surprisingly good. The only time I got sick from food, and not the bacteria living in the food, occurred when I ate a variation of frozen veggie burgers and vomited outside of a pulled-over car in the middle of the night. As is often the case in India, this regurgitated veggie medley had unanticipated recyclable value, and was slopped up by nearby dogs in seconds. So quickly, and so voraciously, that I couldn’t avoid watching (even at the risk of vomiting again and perpetuating the already distasteful scene).
The upshot being that on my return to the States I felt an unfamiliar and somewhat unexpected aversion to fast and frozen food. I missed the freshly and deliciously prepared meals in India, and so did my digestive tract (with some exceptions – never eat Mexican food in India). I also missed the jaw dropping low cost of eating out in India. I was torn; torn as few American Jews are over issues not involving Israel; I was ethically, physically and financially torn: should I eat healthy and in doing so live a healthier lifestyle for myself and presumably for the planet, or should I save those few dollars for the future; for more important (material) things; for whatever it was I’d been so heavily conditioned to save for my entire life? Could I alter my conscience and my well-worn ways? Would it really make a difference? What were my real convictions?
Ostensibly all these existential ingredients seemed to boil down to a single question: Should I eat well or save more?
The Organic Slaughterhouse
I feel as if just as I am having these personal dietary revelations, the entire food industry, from seed sources to waste disposal, is coming to the fore of America’s greater cultural conscience, creating a perfect storm that will inevitably alter my future food courses. Insightful and enlightening books by food experts like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser are not only becoming Bestsellers, but also widely distributed films. In the recent Food, Inc., featuring both Pollan and Schlosser (along with thousands of chickens, cows and pigs as they are variously prepped for the meat processing assembly line), I learned that Wal-Mart now offers organic food – and once you start hearing the words ‘Wal-Mart’ and ‘organic’ in the same sentence you know times are ‘a changing.
Unfortunately I don’t think this semantic revolution means I’ll be reconciling my frugal and health-conscious selves anytime soon, but rather that industry catchwords such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are starting to hook significant numbers of consumers. Whether this indicates authentic progress yet to be determined. An important aspect of being a flourishing American consumer is spending a large chunk of time in denial. If time were a currency, Americans would probably spend the highest amount per-capita in the world on purchasing denial. I am in denial that I can continue spending a nearly insubstantial amount of my income on groceries and other food-related expenditures and at the same time live the type of sustainable lifestyle I believe necessary; if not for myself then for my grandchildren … but more and more for myself really.
It’s remarkable how instinctively I reach for the sale items at the grocery store, and how I repel from the pricey ones. Those dietary advantages I mentioned I held by not having much of a sweet tooth, count those out when it comes to actually forking over money in exchange for food. I may be slightly healthier than most, but I am far cheaper. I’ll buy the non-organic kidney beans instead of the organic ones to save a dime. I can’t help it. That’s how I’m hardwired. The cheaper the impulse the faster and harder my neurons fire.
It’s time to admit that these proclivities and predispositions, however well-nurtured, amount to a hill of beans next to the growing mountain of reasons I have to shape up and eat right. Justifiable excuses are not in short supply; it’s just that few, if any, of the legitimate ones apply to me. Some people honestly don’t have the resources to eat healthy and conscientiously; whether due to lack of money, time, transportation, or availability, it’s simply not an option on the table. The only way people stuck behind these obstacles will ever be afforded the opportunity to come forward and eat selectively is if people like me, in somewhat advantageous positions, start using our purchasing power to send a message up the production line with enough force that it demands reorganization.
Well, just lay on the guilt why don’t you, and spread it thick. The combination of saturated fats and viscous shame lining my insides might finally force me to a sprint to the organic foods checkout line.
Small Quantities of Fresh Snap Peas and Chiogga Beets
I grew my first vegetable garden this year. After struggling though bouts of cold weather and intense storms, and admittedly some periods of neglect, everything I planted eventually yielded some edible results. Eating fresh snap peas directly off homegrown shoots is certainly satisfying, but until Monsanto develops a seed that matures into an (organic) frozen pizza I don’t think backyard gardens are going to provide much more than an appetizer to the course of change that is needed. A home garden does, however, represent the pillars, or stalks, of eating healthy – fresh, local and organic – and in that sense it’s far more significant than can be measured solely by its added nutritional value.
Enforcing preventative change on an entire society, especially when that change applies to lifestyle – and especially in a society like ours where lifestyle is preeminent – is a daunting proposition. Whether this entails revamping age-old purchasing habits, consuming less meat, vacationing closer to home or any number of other sacrifices, this change starts at the individual level. And making lasting personal lifestyle changes is hard. That’s why I see my vegetable garden and healthier frozen pizza selections as significant steps in the right direction, if only for the fact that I conscientiously undertook them – but perhaps this satisfaction is unwarranted, surreptitiously derived by the consumer-denier still deeply entrenched inside my head in order to moderate any potentially more extreme actions I might take…
Somewhere within I know that preserving my body and planet is going to take more than just getting my hands dirty for a few hours on the weekend. I’m just not quite ready to confront that notion head-on yet.
The essay is approximately 2,000 words long and is divided into 4 sections: Frozen Pizza, Double Cheeseburger with Curry, The Organic Slaughterhouse, and Small Quantities of Fresh Snap Peas and Chiogga Beets.
The piece discusses my struggle to reform my eating habits from fast and cheap to healthy and conscientious.