March is Nutrition Month, and you might think that means I'm going to talk about what you should eat. But instead of talking about what we eat, I want to talk about how we eat it. In the late 1970s, just 18 percent of an average individual's daily caloric intake was consumed away from home. By the mid-1990s it was 32 percent. All that food eaten away from home hides calories, salt, sugar, fat, heaven knows what else. It's making us gain weight, and more than that, it's making us feel uprooted, distanced from our origins and our communities. The solution: Let's start cooking.
Last week I met a lady who came to the U.S. from Yemen 10 years ago. Since living here, she has gained 30 pounds. As I was talking to her, I asked myself why everyone who moves here seems to gain weight -- in fact, the same thing happened to me when I first came to this country from Peru. So, I asked her why she thought this had occurred, and she said it was the fast pace of American life. In Yemen, she said, cooking smells often filled the house beginning at breakfast, and meals were enjoyed with family. In the U.S., away from all that family and community, she would just open a box of cereal in the morning. No aromas, no shared meals, no community -- and pretty soon, food was eaten processed, in a hurry, on the run. The pounds packed on.
According to some experts, smells of food cooking are part of creating a sense of satiation, so eating pre-made food can contribute to overeating. But the importance of cooking goes even farther, says Karen Ansel, spokeswoman of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, contributor to Woman's Day magazine and co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month by Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life, "Cooking isn't just about the food or even nutrition, it's the glue that holds families together. Cooking your own meals ingrains a greater connectedness to family and home, something that's so elusive in many of our hectic, fast-paced lives." But what about that fast-paced life that my Yemeni friend, and all the rest of us, deal with? Says Ansel, "Making your own meals doesn't have to mean hours slaving over a hot stove. With a little advance planning you can easily get a healthy, homemade meal on the table in 15 to 20 minutes."
It's the "advanced planning" part that's key. You need to have the right tools (knives and cutting boards, baking or roasting pan, skillet and saucepan), and a bit of Sunday afternoon to pre-cook. Plan to roast a chicken. Cut up a batch of vegetables (peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes), toss them with a little olive oil and roast them in another pan alongside the chicken. Boil a batch of brown rice. Do all of this simultaneously and it takes no more than an hour. What do you have? The makings for Monday's burritos. For Tuesday's stew. For Wednesday's pasta sauce. Each working evening, you only need a quarter of an hour in the kitchen to put it together -- less than you might spend heating up a fat-, salt- and sugar-filled frozen pizza.
March is the month of no excuses. Start cooking!
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Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning weight loss center in San Francisco. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the founder and author of Eating Free.