TIME Diet/Nutrition

3 Mindset Shifts That Help Weight Loss

Broken scale
Tim Robberts—Getty Images

In a recent Facebook thread about weight loss that I was following, one commenter wrote that if she could write a diet book, she’d call it “Eat Less” and then leave all the pages blank. Drop the mic, call it a day, solve our obesity mess with a two-word prescription.

Most of us who have read anything about diets, obesity, and weight loss would nod in agreement. We have too much food, too much sugar, too many processed foods, and too many choices. And the reality is that we could likely engineer a one-size-fits-most diet that would push everybody back to healthy weights. Example: Eggs and berries for breakfast, grilled chicken salad with nuts for lunch, and fish with vegetables and avocado for dinner might get us there if we followed that plan every day (adjusting for variables like vegetarian options and allergies). Most of us who have read anything about diets, obesity and weight loss would also agree that it’s nowhere near that easy.

The diet dilemma has everything to with food. And nothing to do with food.

It really has more to do with adjusting our mindset so that healthy choices feel right—and don’t feel like deprivation, hard work or punishment.

I’ve spent most of my career writing about health, and I’ve spent most of my life in a bleep-off relationship with the scale. I’ve had quite a few lows (almost ballooning to 300 pounds while writing diet books, getting a D in sixth-grade gym class), and I’ve also had some successes. (For what it’s worth, our individual definitions of weight-loss success need to include not just pounds, but also things like bodily satisfaction, life satisfaction, numbers like blood pressure and achievement of other goals not associated with pounds.)

We all have the ability to change our mindsets—not with a tire-squealing hard left, but by simply drifting into a new lane of thinking. These 3 switches will help you start:

Reverse the leadership model. The protocol for people who want to lose weight typically comes in two forms. You have the people who seclude themselves, privately trying to swim upstream against all of the forces that will make them gain weight. And you have the follow-the-leader model, in which the would-be dieter listens to the plan/advice/program of the trainer, the doctor, the nutritionist, the author, the infomercial-machine-seller: the person who, by degree or some other definition, knows more about the subject than anybody else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either model, because either of them can work.

The glitch, however, comes when the follower grows tired of following. And when one grows tired of following, one consumes three pieces of Oreo pie. It’s not that the experts don’t know what they’re doing, because most of the many I’ve worked with and interviewed in my career do. It’s just that we dieters, though most don’t even know it, need a more balanced mix of following and leading. We need to harness some of the power and control back from the people who are telling us what to do. We need to lead, even if we don’t look like we should.

Leadership can come in many forms, whether it’s being the person to arrange the neighborhood walking group, or the person who prepares the family meal and makes kale chips instead of buying chocolate chips, or the person who organizes a work team to run a 5K together. The last couple years, I’ve organized weekly workouts with friends and neighbors. I’m the worst athlete in the bunch, so at first glance, the question would be, Why is blubber boy in charge? Exactly zero percent of my friends have ever given me any inclination that’s what they felt. Instead, the dynamics of the group workout are that we all push and pull each other, no matter our athletic abilities. I know I’m not as good as the others, but I also know that these workouts don’t happen unless I kickstart them.

Dieters can redefine the roles we’re supposed to take, and that’s what drives changes in the way we think and act. This is where sustained energy comes from—what we deliver to others, we get in return.

Steer the fear. In the weight-loss world, fear is almost as bad of a word as pudding. We fear the scale. We fear the doctor. We fear shopping for clothes. We fear the camera. We fear being embarrassed. The more we fear, the more we retreat—and the harder it is to climb out of whatever destructive habits we have.

As someone who once was told I had child-bearing hips, I know that the fear is real, and I know it’s not easy to squash. But instead of letting fear steer us, we need to steer the fear.

Plenty of scholarly and popular writings have addressed the issue of goal-setting, though there is some debate about whether we should set dream-big goals or more attainable goals. My take: Every year, you should set at least one physical and mental challenge that scares you just enough to help you make good choices—because those choices are a means to reaching that goal. What is “just enough”? It’s that spot right in between “of course I can do this” and “no way in the world can I do this.” For me, it was taking on the challenge of trying to complete an Ironman in 2013 (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run in a 17-hour time limit). I’ve found that the canyon in the middle of those two extremes is where the growth lies. Maybe it’s not fear in the traditional sense, but that bubbling angst of uncertainty feels different from and healthier than the kind of fear that dieters tend to have. (Tell us about your new challenge with the hashtag #TIMEtosteerthefear.)

Crank the voltage. As someone who has finished last in a race (maybe two, but who’s counting?), I do subscribe to the turtle-inspired mantra of slow and steady. When it comes to weight loss, that mindset will win the race. The choices we make over time, not one day or one hour, dictate the way that our bodies will look, feel and act.

I do think it’s a mistake to think that slow-and-steady is always the answer. Especially when it comes to exercise, we need high-intensity, those short periods of working as hard as we can. Why? Because that kind of work—the kind where you’re so immersed in the activity because it’s fun and intense—is what feels good, what feels enjoyable, what feels in the moment and what gives us the post-activity high that helps us make healthy decisions, especially when it comes to food choices.

My friend and sports psychologist Doug Newburg, PhD, has taught me a lot about the concept of feel, because he has studied how it works in hundreds of elite performers. It’s different than feelings or emotions. Exercise, like eating, shouldn’t feel like a chore. For it to truly work over the long term, it has to feel more like recess than like detention. Going all in—whether it’s running, dancing, playing tennis or playing tag with your kids—excites you enough to take you out of your own head, and that’s what makes you want to do it again and again. The byproduct of playing hard is that, without thinking, you find what you were after in the first place.

Ted Spiker (@ProfSpiker), the interim chair of the department of journalism at the University of Florida, is the author of DOWN SIZE: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success.

Read next: I Taught Fitness and Failed a Fat Test

TIME

Why Gourmet Food and a Table Full of Kids Don’t Mix

Set dinner table outside on grass lawn
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Please don't take six children to a five-star restaurant, parents. Unless you're prepared to buy everyone around you a stiff drink.

Fine dining with children. It’s a pairing most of us don’t normally like to see together. But the New York Times and Daniel Boulud decided to give it a go by filming six second graders eating a seven-course chef’s tasting menu at Daniel, Boulud’s famed, two-Michelin-starred restaurant. “The basic goal today for the children,” said head chef Boulud, is “to really discover a lot of flavor, a lot of layers, a lot of texture” and to “experience something maybe very unique for them.”

The video is enchanting, as the children take culinary risks, trying out fish eggs and Wagyu steak and adventurously taking bites of new foods while politely exclaiming, “Ooh, this is strange.”

Aspirational parents eager to have a gourmet dining experience with their kids too shared the video all over Facebook.

Since my 7-year-old son is a noted foodie, six different people sent me this video saying something to the effect of “Let’s do this!” But there was one unifying characteristic among the people who enthusiastically sent me the video: None of them had children.

Building a child’s palate, getting him or her ready for a lifetime of culinary education, expanding his horizons beyond organic, gluten-free chicken nuggets and baby carrot sticks are all lofty goals and worthy ambitions in a first-world way. But there was one important part of the video that non-parents may have overlooked: There were no other patrons in the restaurant. It was completely empty aside from the exuberant and loquacious kids and the very attentive wait staff, chef and camera crew. I’m guessing that was no accident.

Why? Because no other person in her right mind wants to shell out $220 per person for a once-in-a-lifetime luxurious meal while listening to a table full of seven and eight-year olds squeal about caviar, “That’s disgusting!” Nor do they want to hear anyone point at her plate and holler, “WHAT IS THAT?!” The most realistic moment of the video came when one little girl nudged her pasta dish and asked, “Why am I eating soap right now?” Even children on their absolute best behavior, like the kids in this video, are still children who are going to get bored, get antsy or get hungry while waiting for the next course.

Here are a few other things notably absent from the video: There were no loud declarations of “Oops!”, no glasses knocked over, no gagging noises heard and no bites taken with the food immediately spit back onto the plate. No one was kicking anyone under the table, nor were any kids sitting sideways in their chairs. No one was whining and no one insisted on washing his hands after each course in order to spend 12 minutes playing with the sink like it was the latest attraction at Dave & Buster’s. It was dining with children in the white-washed bubble of really good editing.

In short: Don’t try this yourselves, fellow parents.

I’m not saying don’t take your children to five-star restaurants. I’m saying don’t take six children (or even two for that matter) to a five-star restaurant, because that’s a recipe for a headache for you, other diners and the wait staff. Remember, there’s no editing in real life and you’re going to be the one Googling how to remove Kobe-beef-in-port-reduction-sauce stains from cashmere when someone’s fork “accidentally” flies across the room.

(I know what kind of table manner horrors my second grader can exhibit. Although, I’m sure your child is a perfect angel, who would never accidentally spill a glass of red wine across four entrees or test out his fork-catapult skills at the table like mine did.)

That said, I’ve taken my son to white table cloth establishments and might even do it again with some parameters detailed below. My son loves food and after his school focused an entire lunch year on “risk taking” at the table, a generous friend invited him to a swanky five-star restaurant for the five-course tasting menu. One kid, one restaurant. That’s doable, right? Well, sort of.

My son was thrilled at the invitation and arrived at the upscale French seafood restaurant’s first seating in a suit and tie, quickly charming the entire staff while ordering a Shirley Temple at the bar and waiting politely for his seat.

He dutifully studied the menu, picking some safe-yet-adventurous variations on the most unobtrusive items such as salmon and steak. The “amuse bouche” was suitably amusing, but as the minutes ticked past, the excitement dimmed. After the first course he was already ogling my phone hoping for a Minecraft fix while waiting for his entree. He lasted a few courses before a few words (read: threats) were necessary to coax him out from under the table where he had retreated after sitting nicely at the table for 90 minutes (roughly a vast eternity of nothingness in 7-year old time.) The arrival of dessert at the two-hour mark got him back on track, but waiting for the check proved too much and he collapsed on the bench seat, exhausted, whining and ready to be carried out of the dining room. I felt exactly the same way.

Would I do it again with one child? Sure, as long as I got the wine pairing and got rid of the whole no-cell-phones-at-the-table rule.

Would I take more than one child to an upscale restaurant? Not for all the wine pairings in the world.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

What McDonald’s New ‘Transparency’ Campaign Is Hiding

mcdonalds-sign
Getty Images

"Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones"

McDonald’s announced today that it’s making a greater effort at transparency and engagement with its new campaign, “Our Food, Your Questions.” McDonald’s has a serious image problem and a sagging bottom line, which might explain its sudden willingness to fling the barn door open as a way to shed its reputation for serving mass-produced, unhealthy food. Showing the public how the sausage is made may win favor with some consumers, but a better strategy for the fast food giant would be to make truly meaningful commitments to sustainability.

McDonald’s realizes people have big questions about the quality and origins of their food. So the company that serves 28 million people daily in the U.S. is now promising straightforward answers. McDonald’s is releasing behind-the scenes web vignettes and infographics, which will apparently illustrate the production process behind its products like Chicken McNuggets and the McRib, and how they go from “farm to restaurant.” It also says it will listen to real customers’ questions online and answer honestly in real time.

McDonald’s has also enlisted professional skeptic and former “MythBusters” co-host Grant Imahara, who is featured in a series of videos addressing consumers’ persistent doubts and questions. “We know some people–both McDonald’s fans and skeptics–continue to have questions about our food from the standpoint of the ingredients or how food is prepared at the restaurant. This is our move to ensure we engage people in a two-way dialogue about our food and answer the questions and address their comments,” Kevin Newell, EVP-chief brand and strategy officer for McDonald’s USA, told BurgerBusiness.com.

Until now, what happened behind the curtain at McDonald’s has been invisible to most of us. But because the company’s supply chain is so long, and it sources raw ingredients from such a wide array of locations and facilities, it would be impossible for any one tour, vignette, or infographic to show more than a sliver of what goes on at the farm, factory, and processing levels.

And while it’s angling for the farm-to-table crowd, as the world’s largest buyer of beef and pork with hamburgers for as low as one dollar, McDonald’s current practices will probably still be considered factory-farm-to-table.

“McDonald’s is making important progress away from gestation crates in its pork supply chain, though nearly all of its eggs in the U.S. still come from birds locked inside battery cages so small they can’t spread their wings,” Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States, told me. “This is in contrast to McDonald’s policies in Europe and U.K., where its eggs are all cage-free.”

Online, McDonald’s answers some questions about its products. So far, I didn’t see any questions (or answers) about antibiotic use or whether its eggs are cage-free, even in its section on “sourcing and sustainability.” Here’s what they do answer. On beef hormones: “Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth.” On feeding animals GMO feed: “Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops.”

And while it says it no longer uses so-called “pink slime” in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also uses azodicarbonamide, AKA “the yoga mat ingredient,” in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: “Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk.” As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? “Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food.”

Most people simply don’t think of McDonald’s as a healthy place to eat, despite its efforts to offer more menu choices. Its insidious marketing of fast foods to kids hasn’t won it any points either. With U.S. sales down, recent food safety scandals in China, and labor issues here, its rivals are eating McDonald’s for lunch and breakfast, too.

The truth is, McDonald’s is facing a marketplace where people increasingly want good food served fast, as opposed to fast food. Millennials are now driving the food bus and they’re heading straight to Chipotle and other establishments that are offering healthier options, including foods without genetically engineered or artificial ingredients and meat from animals raised without antibiotics.

An estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being fed to animals on factory farms for purposes other than treating diseases. McDonald’s producers uses antibiotics to “treat, prevent, and control disease” in its food-producing animals.

Using antibiotics to prevent disease and promote faster growth (the company has phased out the latter since 2003, though some say using them to prevent disease has the same effect)—rather than merely to treat infections—allows producers to raise many animals together in dirty, crowded spaces. And it has contributed to antibiotic resistant bacteria, which the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control now widely regard as an international epidemic.

From food safety scandals to the serious public health impacts of eating fast food, consumers increasingly want truth, trust, and transparency in their food. But transparency demands responsibility and is toothless on its own. Today’s eaters want to see where their food comes from so they can make informed choices and also advocate for change.

If McDonald’s really wants to connect with consumers, it should take a hard look at the practices behind the ingredients it uses and begin to change them incrementally. It could take a real stand for sustainability—including changing to suppliers and producers who raise meat without antibiotics. As the biggest fast food company in the nation, McDonald’s choices are no small potatoes. A change like that could mean a much happier meal.

See more at: How McDonald’s Could Serve Up a Happier Meal

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Case Against Cooking

gas stove
Getty Images

Bill Saporito is an assistant managing editor of TIME and directs the magazine's coverage of business, the economy, personal finance, and sports.

'Not cooking doesn’t have to doom you to a life of junk food'

The guy from Con Edison comes knocking on our apartment door once a month. He’s there to read the gas meter in our kitchen, where the gas meter is located in an apartment building constructed in 1928. He needn’t bother, since that meter hasn’t budged since, oh, 2010, when we shut off the gas.

The reason my wife and I don’t cook our food is the same reason that we don’t hunt our food. These skills are no longer required to sidestep starvation. Cooking now ranks right up there with vacuuming—except that vacuuming removes a mess while cooking creates one. We have more efficient uses of our time and energy.

And it’s not just us. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, (notice, there’s no Department of Cooking) Americans spent 43.1% of our food budgets on food bought away from home in 2012, up from 25.9% in 1970. It’s the highest level ever. One reason is that food costs a lot less now then it did in 1970. We spend less of our total income on food, so we can be a little less fussy about who makes it.

Chef Mark Bittman properly rails about the empty calories Americans consume that have led to our obesity crisis, but not cooking doesn’t have to doom you to a life of junk food. I don’t eat burgers. But there are plenty of other options in my neighborhood. The Chinese takeout joints can offer steamed veggies and tofu over brown rice at a price you couldn’t possibly beat in your own kitchen. (Not that you’d want to.) There’s a vegan place — right next to the steakhouse. Burmese, Persian, Italian, Jewish, French, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, and Thai outlets vie all for my patronage with fresh deliciousness, delivered to your door in under 20 minutes at a reasonable price.

Granted, New York is a dense city that can support 15,000 restaurants, and its crazy ethnic mix yields unmatched variety, but the rest of the country is catching up fast. The growth Hispanic America has been a godsend to better options. Emerging fast-casual, healthier-food chains with names like Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill are getting traction—one reason McDonald’s is struggling. And supermarket chains offer heat-and-eat meals that are freshly made. There’s a name for it: home meal replacement, as in HMR. Bless us, even 7-Eleven is getting into the game. You’re going to be able to buy real food there along with your cigarettes and Slurpees.

When I was a kid, families cooked at home because they were too poor, relatively speaking, to eat at restaurants, and Mom was home to woman the stove. Today, it’s the opposite: many Americans are too poor to cook at home; they’re way too busy trying to scratch out a living. For working parents chasing a couple (or more) jobs and a couple of kids, the act of acquiring and cooking food is a time-consuming luxury.

Where did we get this idea that we must commune with food through the medium of cooking? Why do I have to have a spiritual relationship with produce? (And especially with you, broccoli.) The kitchen as we know it today is a relative newcomer to the American home. Brooklyn is filled with 19th-century Federal-style row houses whose owners often fret about nailing down period details; but all these homes have retrofitted modern kitchens because the kitchen was originally in the basement. Cooking had been kicked out of the hearth and relegated to the remote part of the house.

Not cooking isn’t new, either. Until the Depression, a vast servant class existed in the U.S.—it pops up all over census reports—so that even lower-middle class families could afford hired help who did the menial work, such as cooking—in the basement. The modern-day counterparts of those servants are working at McDonalds.

The American Dream home with mom playing Queen of the Kitchen has always been more myth than reality. It wasn’t until the postwar period that companies like the Generals—Electric and Mills—began to fetishize the kitchen and the happy homemakers who would inhabit them. This is a relatively brief and booming period that began to come apart like a badly made muffin with the deindustrialization of the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the advance of women in the workforce. Even GE is done with cooking: the company just sold its appliance division to concentrate on more complex and profitable stuff, like jet engines. What GE is saying about cooking is that the idea of transforming comestibles into combustibles through the application of heat in a specialized space is a relic of another age.

What I am saying is that if cooking can’t be done on my iPad, is there any point in doing it?

I love a great meal, and I’ve been lucky enough to eat remarkable ones prepared by talented chefs in Europe as well as in the U.S. I also have a friend who is a terrific cook and takes pleasure in sharing the fruits of his hobby. My wife and I are always delighted to indulge him. I can also appreciate that cooking evangelists like Bittman aren’t trying to start a cult, but rather trying to improve our wellbeing. That’s really admirable, but veneration of the stove isn’t the only way to change what Americans eat or their BMI. It’s why Con Ed’s meter reader will continue to come up empty when he reaches our door.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Mark Bittman’s Skillet Pear Crisp

Mark Bittman Skillet Pear Crisp
Grant Cornett for TIME

Skillet Pear Crisp

Makes 4 to 6 servings
Time: 15 to 20 min.

6 tbsp. (3⁄4 stick) butter
1⁄2 cup chopped
walnuts or pecans
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1⁄2 cup rolled oats
1⁄4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1⁄3 cup packed brown sugar
1⁄2 tsp. cinnamon
Salt
2 lb. pears, unpeeled but trimmed, cored and chopped

1. Put 5 tbsp. butter in large skillet over low heat. When butter is melted, add nuts, lemon zest, oats, coconut, packed brown sugar, cinnamon and a pinch of salt; toss to coat. Cook, stirring frequently, until topping is golden and crisp, 6 to 8 min. Remove from the pan; no need to wipe it out. (The topping can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container up to a day or so in advance.)

2. Put 1 tbsp. butter in the skillet over medium heat. When it’s melted, add fruit and cook, stirring occasionally until pears are soft but not mushy, 5 to 6 min. Scatter the topping over the warm fruit and serve. (This recipe can be made with any fruit you like, including berries, apples and mangoes. Adjust cooking time based on firmness of the fruit.)

-Recipe adapted from How to Cook Everything Fast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

TIME

Mark Bittman’s Vegetable Soup

Mark Bittman Vegetable Soup
Grant Cornett for TIME

Vegetable Soup

Makes 4 servings
Time: 20 to 40 min., depending on the desired texture

1⁄4 cup olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 cups any chopped frozen vegetables
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1. Put olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens a bit, 2 to 3 min. Add garlic, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 2 to 3 min.

2. Meanwhile, organize packages of vegetables on your counter from firmest (longest–cooking, like squash or beans) to most tender (like spinach and other greens). Start adding the vegetables, firmest first, stirring occasionally until they thaw and begin to get tender. (Timing will vary by vegetable; test frequently.)

3. Continue adding and stirring, adjusting the heat to prevent burning, until the vegetables in the pot begin to brown in places. Add the stock, raise the heat to high, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the soup comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to a steady bubble and cook until the vegetables are as tender as you like. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then pour the soup into 4 bowls, drizzle with more olive oil and serve.

-Recipe adapted from How to Cook Everything Fast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

TIME Food

Mark Bittman’s Whole Roast Chicken

Mark Bittman Chicken
Grant Cornett for TIME

Whole Roast Chicken

Makes 4 or more servings
Time: about an hour, largely unattended

1 3-to-4-lb. whole chicken
4 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 whole heads garlic (optional)
2 lemons, halved (optional)

1. Heat oven to 450°F. Put a heavy roasting pan with a wire rack (optional) on a low rack in the oven. Trim any excess fat from chicken, rub with 2 tbsp. of olive oil, and sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Slice garlic crosswise to trim off tips and reveal cloves.

2. When oven is hot, put chicken, breast side up, in the middle of the heated pan. Tuck garlic and lemons around the outside and drizzle with remaining oil. Roast, undisturbed, for 40 to 50 min.; the chicken is done when a quick-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 155°F to 165°F or when its juices run clear and there are no traces of pink in the meat.

3. Transfer chicken to a platter and let it rest for at least 5 min. If you’re eating the chicken right away, quarter it or cut it into parts and serve with the garlic, lemon and some of the pan juices. To store in the fridge, let the chicken cool, then cut it into parts. Store it with the garlic and lemon in a freezer bag or tightly sealed container for up to a week.

-Recipe adapted from How to Cook Everything Fast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

TIME society

I Don’t Think My Small-Batch Food Is Elitist

Canned food
Jill Fromer—Getty Images

I wanted to connect, in some small way, to my Nani and to that cultural tradition of preserving food

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

The closest I ever came to canning with my grandmother was nearly twenty years after she died. It was the only time I had ever canned with my mother, and I was clearly the one in charge, despite that my mother had helped my Nani blanch and then skin tomatoes, pack them, steaming, in quart jars, and then transfer them to their own boiling pot, a dozen or more summers in a row.

My mother escaped the yearly canning ritual as soon as she could, and Nani continued to put away a few dozen jars a year — most ended up in her weekly pot of sauce served for Sunday dinner with the extended family — until she grew too weak to stand at the stove.

Years later, I taught myself to can (or preserve food in jars with a heat sealing process) as an adult. That one summer, when I had convinced my mom to join me and she bought a bushel of roma tomatoes, we combined our reusable canning jars, and processed thirty quarts in about four hours of sweaty work, coming in at a cost of around a dollar a jar. We had pots lined up in the basement kitchen — a particularly Italian American set-up that Nani also had — and jars waiting to be filled, with a sprig of basil and a squeeze of lemon in the bottom.

By the time we finished, our t-shirts were soaked in sweat and our matching curly brown hair smelled like marinara. We each had enough jars to last us a winter of dinners, and my mother was pleased with our work. But more so with our time spent together and the knowledge that we could can, if we wanted to. She hasn’t mentioned making this a yearly ritual; she’ll buy her tomatoes from the supermarket, thank you very much.

That summer morning, while my mother recalled how Nani would cut slits in the tomato skins to help them come off easier after their quick dip into the boiling water bath, or when she told me how it had been her job as a child to put her hands in the jars to squish down the whole tomatoes to fit in as many as possible, I realized why I had bothered teaching myself to can in the first place. I wanted to connect, in some small way, to my Nani and the cultural importance of preparing and preserving food through this traditional knowledge, even if cost was no longer a reason with our industrial farms and mass production techniques that make metal cans of tomatoes shipped from Florida cheaper than a bushel of “seconds” grown up the road.

I live in Brooklyn now, hundreds of miles from my Nani’s kitchen, with my musician husband and baby boy. I prefer locally sourced produce and wear skinny jeans. I call myself a writer, a teacher and a scholar, but I also make my own cheese, can my own tomatoes, and ferment my own kraut.

By most people’s assessment, I am part of the gentrifying class of young(ish) people, often called hipsters, who have helped revive the do-it-yourself lifestyle, but from a seeming place of privilege. They — we — can because we can. There has been a recent influx of those (mostly part of the educated social middle class) with financial and social freedom starting new food-based businesses, spending hours a week sourcing and preparing food and drink from scratch to sell to others a handmade a jar, bottle, round, or wedge — often at a price that places these products in the luxury category.

This “artisanal food revolution”, as it has been called, is also seen as being supported by consumers who have the same financial freedom to pay these seemingly inflated prices for products that to varying degrees resemble their mass produced counterpart. While evidence of this change is food culture is apparent anecdotally, according to the National Associate for Specialty Food Trade “specialty food” (that the industry self-defines as “exemplifying quality, innovation and style” derived from such qualities as “originality”, “authenticity”, “ethnic or cultural original”, “limited supply” among other characteristics) grew at a rate of 19.1% in 2011, and within that category 26% of consumers specifically sought out food described as “artisanal” despite there being no definitive definition for the term.

A growing number of people are seeking these foods on some level, I assert, as being a conduit between the traditionally made and preserved foods of their past or their parents’ or grandparents’ past, and the present where this is often no space, time, or knowledge to create these specialty foods themselves.

While it may only cost my mother and me around a dollar a jar to can a quart of tomatoes (with almost no additives), we had already paid for and used the jars, which could run more than a dollar each, and the kitchen space and our collective eight hours of work time was free. Translate a home canning operation to a professional one, and it becomes more clear how a jar of “artisanal” tomatoes would cost upwards of ten dollars in today’s retail market.

And I won’t pretend that there aren’t plenty of people — many of them my peers and neighbors — who don’t hesitate to buy that hand packed jar from the farmer’s market or specialty shop. This food of the poor has become, for many, an indulgence.

Yet my predilections for the homemade come from a place that isn’t financially robust. I am also someone who was brought up in rural Western New York in a county with the third highest poverty rates in the state, about as far from the City as you can get. My father’s mother only had an eighth-grade education, and tended a large garden and froze, canned, fermented and otherwise preserved much of her harvest to feed her family of seven.

My maternal grandmother — my Nani — worked outside of the home to support the family flight school business, both as the office manager at the airport and for outside employers in the evenings. However she still made Sicilian specialties — peach brandy, canned tomatoes and sauce, foraged burdock patties — in part to save money, but also as much to preserve her culinary heritage. The foods she made represented the time she spent in Italy as a child, tasted like her mother’s cooking, and reminded her of how far she had come since she was the preschooler who arrived at the United States via Ellis Island.

The preparation of these foods also connected her to her sisters and daughter who would gather together on a hot summer day to process enough tomatoes for the extended family for the rest of the year. Thus “artisanal” — or traditional, handmade, small-batch food as it is generally understood to mean — of my childhood wasn’t made from a place of privilege, but out of necessity, tradition, and community.

My life is very different from both of my grandmothers’. And in fact, neither taught me to preserve food when I was young because, as my paternal grandmother said, “Why would you have to?” I might have convinced my Nani to show me her recipes had she not died when I was in high school. And today, still, my first thought when I see a mason jar of preserved food — even in certain parts of Brooklyn — I think “economy” and not “luxury.”

For both of my grandmothers, canning made financial sense. They either grew their own produce or bought it in bulk from a nearby farmer and processed many jars at a time, reusing the glass and rings from year to year. For my grandmother who didn’t work outside of the home, the garden and the food preservation was her contribution to the family’s long-tentative bottom line.

But even when both had reached a point where they were financially comfortable, my grandmothers continued to spend hours in their steamy kitchens, producing shelves lined with preserved tomatoes and pickles and fruit. Because they always had. Or they enjoyed the time spent with family during this yearly ritual, or maybe because both women, born in the wake of the great depression, were always putting away for a less prosperous day. Just in case.

There have been a number of critiques of the small-batch food industry as being elitist, privileged, and distracting from the larger issues facing our global and domestic food sourcing today. Many of them are valid — it can appear out of touch to encourage buying local or organic produce, say, when there are numerous food deserts in the United States with limited access to any fresh food. And spending eight dollars on a jar of artisanal pickles is a choice that only a certain percentage of the population has the luxury of considering.

But I also take issue with the wholesale critique of the handmade, small-batch, artisanal, or craft — call it what you will — food industry as catering only to a certain financial class. I interviewed many of these small start-up food entrepreneurs and while some came to their business with strong financial backing, for many it was a leap of faith. Others lost their jobs in the recession and starting their own business, working sixty, eighty hours a week to process, promote, and distribute their product was a labor of love.

Perhaps they were honoring their family’s food culture, as some told me, or wanted to be more intimately involved in food sourcing for environmental or social reasons. For many farmers, the decision to make small-batch farmstead cheese was the difference between bankruptcy and economic sustainability as they could sell the cheese for ten times as much as the milk, with mainly manpower as the additional expense. And even as many of these artisans are selling food to the middle and upper-middle class, most wouldn’t be able to afford their own products as they budgeted for their weekly groceries.

I know the issue of class is more complicated than this — that certain groups of people, while they may be financially insolvent now, are more prepared to weather an economic downturn because of education and access. And that the issue of privilege can be looked at through race, gender, ethnic, and even rural and urban lenses, among others. But I also want to argue that small-batch food is not just food for the privileged, by the privileged.

In the United States, it is food made by those on the verge of losing their farm who see a path toward keeping land that has been in the family for generations; it is food made using recipes passed down from elders, whose flavors and techniques were in danger of being lost forever; it is food made by the young professional who started a small business after she was laid off, and whose huge student loans meant that taking a minimum wage job wasn’t a financially viable option.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, it is food made by twenty-something-year-olds who learned about small-batch foods by visiting family in Brooklyn and were inspired to revive their own cultural heritage using locally sourced foods. In Sicily, it is the embracing of the Arab community, longtime residents who had, until recently, been treated as outsiders, through their cuisine. In Lima, Peru, it is the ceviche masters who are striving to find a sustainable way to source seafood so that their culture’s food can survive into the next generation.

Artisanal food can be elitist. It can exclude people by sheer cost, and the movement to “do-it-yourself” can exclude others who don’t have access to knowledge or who don’t have the time to spend hours in the kitchen. Certainly there are many more pressing issues in our modern world than figuring out how to sustainably source handmade pickles. But small-batch, handmade food is also many more things — as it was for my grandmothers, it can be very inexpensive, it can promote community and it can keep traditions alive. And today, with myriad stresses on our environment, it can promote a more direct connection to the land itself.

Today I may spend hours in a sweltering kitchen boiling jars in the heat of summer to remember my Nani and the sacrifices she made to feed her family and preserve her Sicilian culture, because I have the privilege of time to connect with her in a visceral way. But I also buy small-batch goods when I can afford it to support small businesses who are trying to package this sense of history and tradition for those who don’t have the time or knowledge.

And it is my trust that I am helping to preserve this culture for everyone — rich or poor, educated or not. For if we don’t keep this knowledge and these skills alive with the individuals, we will have no choice about how to source our food.

Suzanne Cope is an author and professor living in Brooklyn.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Fast Food

Drive-Thru Lanes Wait Times Hit Record High

Wait times experienced a record jump in the past year

The drive-thru lane at fast-food restaurants isn’t so quick these days.

The amount of time drivers spend waiting in line is dramatically increasing, according to the 2014 Drive-Thru Performance Study from trade publication QSR Magazine.

In 2013, drivers spent 180.83 seconds on average in line, USA Today reports, but now that average has jumped to 219.97 seconds — a roughly 40-second jump. Though the study increased its sample size in the past year, studying 2,188 trips at 17 fast-food companies instead of last year’s seven chains, those extra 40 seconds make for the longest wait time in the 17 years of its study.

The change is significant for the $200 billion-plus fast food industry, which finds big chains getting more than 60 percent of their business from the drive-thru lane. It’s also significant considering the study found that fewer cars are hitting up the drive-thru line in the first place, signifying a growing preference for accuracy, service and healthier items that are slower to prepare.

[USA Today]

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