Eating Less is Good, But How About Eating (and Cooking) at Home?

As the author of vegetable cookbooks, I am certainly happy about at least one aspect of the government's new dietary guidelines: the recommendation that we fill half our plates with vegetables. And in general, I applaud the straightforward advice to "Eat Less" and move more. But something has been bothering me, and I realized what it was this morning as I was reading some of the documents associated with the new guidelines. Nowhere in the guidelines' takeaway points for consumers do I see the suggestion to "cook your own food." The guidelines, in fact, are too cryptic about this one fact: Bad fats, excess sodium, and refined sugars are the darlings of processed food and fast food, not home cooking.

As a cook, this worries me for a few reasons. First, I'm afraid that for the average consumer, the guidelines (though I realize their principal use is for food-service professionals) will be confusing. It's hard to get a quick grasp on some of the suggestions. As Marion Nestle points out, the guidelines "steer clear of actually naming bad-for-you foods, which would be helpful for today's busy consumer, and they use too many euphemisms."

And I am even more worried about the misunderstanding that can result from just getting the sound bites: Less salt! Less fat! I don't want people to think they need to cook with less flavor. Because if people are going to eat better, they're going to have to stop eating out so much -- or grabbing food on the run -- and start eating more food at home, which means cooking for themselves. And cooking good food involves seasoning judiciously with a little salt to bring out the best flavors; it involves cooking with good fats like olive oil, not only to keep vegetables and other foods moist and flavorful and to bring out their best flavor, but also to help access their nutrients.

The simple truth is that there's no way the processed food and restaurant industries can react quickly enough and effectively enough to single-handedly reduce obesity through less fat and salt in their products and by decreasing portion size. I surely wish they would or could, but I don't have a lot of confidence in the speed with which this can happen. Any major shift in our eating habits in this country (and a reduction in the enormous costs associated with poor diets) is going to involve a return to more home cooking, which, by its very nature, emphasizes whole foods, balance, and smaller portions.

Eating better means developing a repertoire of tasty home-cooked dishes (and snacks)--and infusing our home cooking with some of the fun flavors and textures we get from take-out food. I'd love to see more ideas circulated, not just in USDA documents, for replacing store-bought or take-out food with good home cooking. (I've included some thought-starters below.) And on the next round of guideline development, I'd love to see the USDA pair a few cooks with the nutritionists and scientists. Maybe then the guidelines could include more concrete suggestions for ways to implement the ideas in your own kitchen at home, and could more overtly promote home cooking. (There is some acknowledgment in the full document for the need for better cooking skills.) But I'd love even a shift in the repetitive use of the direction to "choose" this or that type of food. How about "cook" this or that type of food, instead. "Eat less," is good. "Eat (and cook) at home," is better.

Replace take-out French Fries with Home-Cooked Oven Fries. Cut unpeeled Yukon Gold potatoes into sticks, toss with olive oil and a little salt, roast at 450° for 25 minutes until golden brown. Try with parsnips and sweet potatoes for yummy root fries, too.

Replace Bottled Salad Dressing with Homemade Vinaigrette. Make an easy vinaigrette with 3 parts olive oil, 1 part wine vinegar, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, a smidge of garlic, and a dab of mustard. Eat salad every night!

Replace Frosted Deli Cupcakes or Snack Cakes with Berries, Greek Yogurt & Honey Parfait. Make the easiest dessert or whole-foods snack ever by layering raspberries or blueberries with Greek yogurt, a drizzle of honey, and a scattering of granola or toasted oats. Assemble ahead and take to work, too.

Replace Take-Out Chinese with Stir Fry at Home. Buy a stir-fry pan, chop lots of veggies and a small amount of meat or tofu in little pieces, get oil hot, stir-fry, add fresh ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. Delicious in 15 minutes. Serve on whole wheat noodles instead of white rice.

Turn No Vegetables into Lots of Vegetables. Roast veggies every night: Cut a combo of carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, turnips, etc. into small dice, toss with a little olive oil and salt and roast at 450° 'til golden and tender. Add greens by wilting baby spinach or very thinly sliced collards or kale in a skillet with a little chopped garlic, red pepper flakes and olive oil. Or use the stir-fry pan to make the quickest ever broccoli, mushroom and bell pepper stir-fry.

Susie Middleton is the author of Fast, Fresh & Green: More than 90 Delicious Recipes for Vegetable Lovers (Chronicle Books, 2010). Her next cookbook is a collection of vegetable main dishes, to be published by Chronicle Books in 2012. Susie blogs weekly about veggies at