As I’m sure most of us are aware, Michelle Obama has staked out her official First Lady cause as the fight against childhood obesity. She’s planted an organic garden, complete with its very own beehive. She’s bought $5 a dozen eggs and certified organic Tuscan kale from a local farmer’s market. She told the world that her pre-adolescent daughters were getting fat.
But there’s one thing she’s not doing. She’s not cooking.
[W]hen The Washington Post asked Mrs. Obama for her favorite recipe, she replied, “You know, cooking isn’t one of my huge things.” And last month, when a boy who was visiting the White House asked her if she liked to cook, she replied: “I don’t miss cooking. I’m just fine with other people cooking.” Though delivered lightheartedly, and by someone with a very busy schedule, the message was unmistakable: everyday cooking is a chore.
Now, it’s perfectly fine for the first lady, this one or any other, not to cook. Unlike most of us, she’s got a full staff who can make whatever she and her family crave on a whim, and they can be directed to keep things as healthy as she desires. And I’m well aware that the mere idea of suggesting that a woman should cook is as fraught with sexist implications as requesting that a woman get you a cup of coffee. So, I’ll be clear: If Hillary Clinton had become president, suddenly adopted a couple of youngsters for some reason, and Bill were taking up the cause of childhood obesity in his spare time, I would be making the exact same argument about what he should do. Here, Ms. Obama has taken up this cause, so she is the one who is accountable for making it more than just a PR stunt.
Gardening, even if it must be organic, is a perfectly fine hobby. It’s healthy and tasty, and it provides a good science lesson for the kids. It’s also expensive, time consuming, seasonally and geographically limited, requires land that many people don’t have access to, and produces very little output for the work required. I keep a small garden myself, and it’s great to have fresh tomatoes and chilies in the summer, but it doesn’t pay the grocery bills by a long shot (and I live 500 miles south of the Obama family). Making a garden pay for itself takes an enormous amount of dedication, talent, and luck.
Exercise, also stressed by Ms. Obama, is also a great thing. But, again, it’s effectiveness is limited. New studies are now showing that exercise does very little to help obesity and can even be counterproductive by causing the exerciser to eat more.
Really making a dent in childhood (and adulthood) obesity requires encouraging healthy eating on an everyday basis for all kinds of people. Restaurant meals are absurdly high in calories, and who doesn’t feel the urge to eat more when going out? Take-out’s no better, unless you spring for limited “healthy” options at inflated prices. In my experiences, processed foods (such as those from a box or can) are less satisfying and encourage overeating. Real, home cooking, with highly flavored, minimally processed ingredients, are the best way to reduce obesity. And, for those of us not living in the White House, that requires doing it ourselves.
And, contrary to stereotype, most cooking is really very simple. Just follow a recipe; they are available, for free, by the hundreds of thousands. Yes, it takes some time, but there are enormous resources devoted to recipes that can easily be completed after a normal workday. I have a solid collection of delicious dishes that can be made with staple ingredients in less time than it takes to detour and wait at the drive-thru. And you can’t tell me that she couldn’t have fun creating something with her kids that they can share.
How about, instead of some elite organic garden that’s unavailable to many Americans and ultra-expensive eggs, Ms. Obama dedicated her advocacy to learning how to cook, and teaching her daughters to do the same? She could invite us to follow her on the journey of a formerly unwilling home cook. She could take a class, or hire a private instructor, and post her experiences and new found knowledge online to encourage families to try. She could learn about, and share with us, wonderfully healthy, easy to use ingredients that don’t cost a lot of money, like whole grains, hardy greens, squash, seasonal produce and frozen vegetables. She’s already appeared on the FoodNetwork twice; certainly they would jump at the chance to devote an hour or so to her quest for healthy, fun, and flavorful foods.
Ms. Obama, please try to become just a little bit of a foodie. Help us convince families to avoid junk food and have fun doing it.