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The Truth About My “Whole-Food” Life: Time pressure, tradeoffs, and the burden of pleasing others

Shannon Harvey

The blurb on the recipe book promised it all;

“In the follow-up to her amazing chart-topper… Ella makes it easy to prepare delicious food for you, your friends and family, whatever the occasion.”

The occasion was my son’s third birthday and with 30 guests due to arrive on my doorstep to help us celebrate, Deliciously Ella’s promise of “easy” was enticing bait. The hook was the images of the glowy 28-year-old whole-food blogger sitting casually care-free in her sunlit kitchen, while delighting her effervescent friends with “Roast Carrot Hummus” and “Spiced Potato Cakes With Garlicky Tomato Sauce.” The sinker was my expectation that Ella’s definition of “easy” was the same as mine.

As regular readers know, in January I set myself a challenge to be eating an (almost) entirely whole-food diet by the end of the year. My idea was to learn to cook from scratch and follow the advice of the King of food journalism, Michael Pollan, which is to avoid eating anything my great grandmother wouldn’t recognise.

Although there was a lot to overcome – such as my significant lack of time, my woeful culinary skills, and the monumental resistance from my two small children who generally declare anything unusual or green to be inedible, I felt determined to achieve my whole-food metamorphosis. After all, I had powerful motivating forces on my side including research implicating highly-processed food with my autoimmune disease and a desire to be a "good" mother.

Eight months into my whole-hearted project, and now the proud owner of a truly whole-pantry (resplendent with all the naked essentials including psyllium husk, quinoa and nutritional yeast), things were on track as I faced my biggest challenge of all; hosting a made-from-scratch birthday party. With the addition of Deliciously Ella’s recipes, guaranteed to “make life simple,” how could I possibly fail?

I did.


Fifteen minutes before the party was due to start, my kitchen was a nuclear bomb site. My “Garlicky Tomato Sauce” had turned out like “Watery Tomato Soup.” Four trays of “Spiced Potato Cakes” were actually “Burnt Moosh Patties.” And as for my gourmet trio of dips and crudités? My mother-in-law was now en-route, via our local supermerché.

When the birthday boy and his older brother, who’d been shuffled off to the park all morning, arrived home bursting with excitement, I myself felt like bursting into tears. What did Ella and her friends know that I didn’t?

Having now discovered the work of three radically incontestable American sociologists, I’ve since come to understand that it wasn’t actually me. It was Ella… and Michael… and all the other foodie Kings and Queens who make the made-from-scratch lifestyle seem oh so natural, oh so simple, and oh so achievable – when it actually isn’t, at least not for people like me.

In 2012, Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen from North Carolina State University and their colleague, Joslyn Brenton from Ithaca College, began observing 150 families in North Carolina. Their mission was to gain a clear-sited understanding of the challenges being faced by mothers and grandmothers in a State in which one in three adults is obese and one in 10 has diabetes. For five years they meticulously tracked the women in their natural habitat – in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, on trips to the grocery store and during their kids health check-ups. After over 250 hours of ethnographic observations, this was their conclusion;

“… time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.”

In their book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, the researchers profile nine of the women involved in the study including Ashley Taylor, who is a shift worker, Leanne Armstrong, who’s dealing with a bug-infestation, and Patricia Washington, who doesn’t even have a home. They describe how buying in bulk at the supermarket is impossible if you have no car, how serving healthy meals is unrealistic if the food pantry sends you home with frozen pizza, and how staging a picture-perfect family dinner is impossible if your shift starts at 5 p.m.

Although their research highlights the struggles of women which are far, far greater than my own, I also deeply resonated with women like Greely Jansson who spoke of the dilemma between making meals from scratch at the end of a long day or helping her kids with their homework, and Rosario Garcia, an immigrant who grows her own food and makes Mexican dishes from scratch, but who’s children prefer pizza and American hot dogs.

All this is to say, the work of Elliott, Bowen and Brenton has made me wake up to the realities of my whole-food goal and the misguided message that I, as a well-intentioned health journalist, am reinforcing by trying to achieve it.

In the last eight months, I’ve joined two online cooking platforms, bought six “Whole Food Family” recipe books, and spent seven days on a semi-professional cooking course. I’ve also re-organised my pantry (twice), own a bread maker, a slow cooker and a Thermomix, and I’ve invested days and days developing a colour coded recipe system so that our family favourites are at my finger tips. I thought that I just needed to try harder, plan better, shop smarter and I too could cook the healthy, wholesome way, just like my great grandmother.

And I’m still failing.

If I’m having trouble achieving the Deliciously Ella lifestyle, then what chance does, say, a single mother, working two jobs have? According to Elliott, Bowen and Brenton, the whole "cook-like-great-grandma ideal" is complete BS anyway. As Sinikka Elliott points out in an interview for Vox, “… almost all of these white middle-class families had at least one domestic servant, and many had more.”

It’s not that Deliciously Ella, Michael Pollan and the other members of the back-to-basics foodie choir are selling junk advice. The case against processed food continues to mount and we should eat more fruit and vegetables, avoid processed food, and eat together as a family as often as we can; but the Pressure Cooker research demonstrates that the whole, “whole-food revolution” is unachievable for many of us amid real-world struggles. As researcher Sarah Bowen says, “food is important, but it’s also important to read to your kids, and help them with their homework, and teach them how to be a good citizen.”

So where does all this leave my whole-food project?

I’m still going to avoid packaged food when I can, and I’m still going to work on my culinary skills (trust me, they need work). I’m also going to continue my quiet battle against the cultural normalisation of eating junk and the multi-billion dollar advertising budget of manufactures that dominate the food supply with spectacularly delicious, readily available, energy-dense, but nutrient-poor foods.

But this weekend, instead of spending all morning slaving away in the kitchen, I think I’ll join my husband and kids in park. After all, despite the “failure” of my made-from scratch party, the guests were none-the wiser. Apart from politely leaving some of the burnt moosh patties aside, they seemed to have a great time. And importantly, so did the birthday boy.


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