Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The dark and dirty side of cooking shows

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Oh hi. Sorry for the hiatus. I went on vacation and then I didn’t really feel like blogging. I’m still not sure that I do, to be honest. It kind of feels like an obligation. I’m much more fired-up about the Ontario budget that was released last week and the sense of impending doom accompanying the fall federal election than I am about anything nutrition. However, I have been thinking about a topic for a little while, and that’s food safety.

I was watching the Big Family Cooking Showdown on Netflix – which I highly recommend by the way, especially season two – and was disturbed by some of the lack of hygiene that I saw. There were people with long hair that wasn’t tied back, people fixing their hair and not washing their hands after, people crying and wiping their eyes and noses with their hands and then continuing to cook. Not to mention the few times when foods, including meat, were served not fully cooked. Now, these aren’t professional chefs, they’re just home cooks, but I still feel like the producers should have ensured that safe food handling practices were followed.

On a similar note, a recent study found that there is inadequate food safety information provided in many Canadian cookbooks. Considering that most cookbook authors are not food safety experts this really doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I think that either they themselves lack the food safety knowledge required to impart that information on the readers or they simply assume that these things are common knowledge. Unfortunately, given the lack of food literacy in the general population (consider the recent hullabaloo about people eating undercooked chicken fingers) I don’t think it’s safe to assume that safe food handling practices are common knowledge. To be fair, where do we think people are learning this information? Not in schools where mandatory home economics were cancelled in Ontario (and most other provinces) in the 1990s. Not at home where the majority of parents are no longer cooking meals for the family most nights of the week.

So, what’s the big deal? Why was I grossed out by the behaviours of some of the contestants on the cooking show? Why am I possibly never attending another potluck in my life? It’s because these unsafe food handling practices can make you sick. Health Canada estimates that between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illness each year. The majority of these cases are linked to foods prepared at home, not from restaurants.

While I am not a food safety expert, I have completed food handler training and I regularly teach the basics at cooking classes. Here are a few of the most common unsafe food practices I see:

  • Food is left unrefrigerated for too long. This may be someone grocery shopping and leaving perishables in their car while they run other errands or people leaving leftovers out overnight. Foods that need to be refrigerated (such as meat, fish, poultry, tofu, dairy products, and prepared mixed dishes) should be refrigerated within two hours. Left out in the “danger zone” (i.e. room temperature) for longer than that can allow any bacteria present to multiply to levels that may make you sick.
  • Cross contamination. People use the same cutting board and knife for raw meat and then veggies, meat is stored on the top shelf in the fridge, hands are not washed thoroughly after handling raw meat. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and veg or ensure that you prepare ready-to-eat foods first and cut-up your meat last. As for hand washing…
  • People don’t wash their hands often enough or thoroughly enough. I think everyone knows that they should wash their hands after they use the bathroom and before they begin preparing food. However, I see people touching their cellphones, hair, faces, pets, etc. and then continuing to cook without washing their hands. All of these things (yes, even your face and hair) are covered in bacteria that have the potential to make you sick. Always wash your hands after touching anything other than the food and cooking tools, or after handling raw meat, fish, or poultry. Proper hand washing means wetting your hands first, then lathering for about 20 seconds (make sure you get your thumbs, between your fingers, and around your nails!), rinsing, and drying your hands, and not turning off the tap with your now clean hands (use paper towel or a hand towel for this).
  • Meat is not fully cooked. Did you know that you can’t tell if meat is properly cooked just by looking? Get yourself a probe thermometer and take the temperature to ensure that it’s hot enough all the way through to have killed the bacteria. Some meat is okay to serve a pink inside (like a steak) other meat is not (like chicken or hamburger – don’t @ me).
  • Tasting the food using the stirring spoon and then continuing to use that spoon to cook. Nobody wants your slobber in their food! If you want to taste while you’re cooking (which is definitely a good idea to ensure you’re getting the seasonings right) take a clean spoon, use it to scoop up a taste, then wash that spoon.
  • Not washing raw vegetables and fruit. You don’t know where they’ve been before they made it to your kitchen. There may have been bugs and manure on them at the farm, all of the hands that have handled them from the farm to the distribution centre to the store. Think of how many people you see fondling tomatoes and putting them back, or dropping one on the grocery store floor. Do you think they all washed their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom? You don’t need those fruit and vegetable washes. Just running water and friction; rub them with your hands under the running water. Even if you’re peeling them, if you’re cutting through the peel, you should wash them first. Otherwise, anything that was on the outside will be dragged down through the inside by the knife.

It’s one thing if you want to take the risk of eating unsafe food yourself. Perhaps you won’t follow all of these rules yourself (although you really should). It’s a whole different matter when you’re making food for other people. Please heed safe food handling practices! For more on food safety checkout Fight Bac!


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Another hot take on Canada’s new food guide

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You all know that I can always find something to bitch about. I’m that girl who’s always the one to find a bug in her freshly picked raspberries or the bone in her piece of fish. My mum will attest to that. It was a running joke in my family that if there was anything weird to be found in the food, I would be the one to find it. So, it should come as no surprise that I have lots to say about the new food guide. But… it may come as a surprise that I don’t actually have anything negative to say about it! In fact, I think it’s pretty fucking great.

In no particular order, here are the changes that I’m most excited about:

  • The addition of food skills (and food literacy). This is literally 85% of my job and it feels really good to have Health Canada supporting it as an important part of healthy eating.
  • The removal of juice as a serving of fruit. It’s going to be so nice not to have to deal with that terrible piece of advice anymore.
  • The removal of serving sizes and recommended number of servings. They confused people and it’s impossible to make recommendations that will work for the entire population. I can’t wait to no longer hear “I can’t eat ALL that” again.
  • I’m glad they got rid of the meat and alternatives and milk and alternatives food groups and lumped them into a proteins group from which they encourage plant-based sources of protein.
  • I appreciate the inclusion of Indigenous foods and ways of eating and the acknowledgement that many people in remote communities and on reserves may struggle to meet the recommendations in the food guide.
  • Following from that, I also appreciate the recognition that external factors, in particular, many social determinants of health, can affect the ability of people to follow a healthy diet.
  • I’m glad that water is recommended as the beverage of choice, again bye bye juice and chocolate milk 👋🏻👋🏻👋🏻
  • I like that the emphasis is on promoting health and only once is weight mentioned. As I’ve ranted about in the past, the food guide is not supposed to be a weight loss diet plan.
  • The photos included in the guide are really appealing. They look way more appetizing to me than the old cartoonish images did. Plus, they’re all about full meals and not just random foods.
  • The overall focus is on a healthy pattern of eating, not just individual nutrients. Much more in-line with how we actually eat. Plus it’s advised that we enjoy (wow!) our food.

My one concern (aside from a couple of very minor things) is that apparently Health Canada does not plan on making the resources for the general public available in print. I think this is a huge mistake. Not everyone has ready Internet access. Also, the old food guide was used in schools and other educational settings (including the food literacy classes I teach) as a teaching tool. I work in public health and we get MANY requests from schools, organizations, and individuals for copies of the food guide. I’m not sure how we’re going to educate people and incorporate the food guide into our programs if we don’t have a print resource available. I hope that Health Canada will reconsider this decision so that everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from the new food guide.


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I don’t know why you say Hello (Fresh), I say Goodbye

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One of the items in the swag bags at the conference I attended a few weeks ago was a coupon for Hello Fresh. You know, one of the meal box delivery services that’s a hybrid between home cooking and a ready meal. I figured I may as well give it a try. Considering on my boyfriend’s nights to cook he often says some variation of “what should I make for supper?” I thought it might give him a bit of a break.

Of course, the coupon was tricky and ended up being not quite as good a deal as it first appeared. It was a $50 off coupon but it turned out to work as $25 off two separate weeks. Which, honestly wasn’t all that great a deal. I chose the least expensive option: the pronto box (meals that take about 30 minutes to prepare – more on that later) for two (more on that as well) which still ended up costing me over $50 out of pocket for one week. If you order the box at full price, it’s $11.67 per serving. Less than you would likely spend eating out, but more than you would normally spend for a home cooked meal (and we rarely eat out).

After one week and three meals, I noted many of the things that others have already voiced. Things like: excessive packaging, nutrition, and longer than advertised cooking times. However, I’d like to expand on a couple of them.

The first meal we made was Herby Steak Skewers with Crispy Potato Smash and Feta. This recipe allegedly should have taken 30 minutes to prepare. Perhaps if it had come with the water boiling, skewers soaked, and if I had the recipe memorized it would have. Instead, it took the two of us 50 minutes to prepare. Considering that I’m a pretty confident cook, I can’t help but wonder how long it would take someone who subscribed to this service because they aren’t confident in the kitchen.

The next two meals were a little faster. Partially because I didn’t follow the directions in sequence. Rather, I did them in the way that I knew would be fastest. The Leek and Pea Risotto with Roasted Fennel and Ricotta took me approximately the allotted 35 minutes while the Pan-Seared Chicken Elicoidali (pasta) with Asparagus and Parmesan took about 30 minutes, as promised.

My other major issue as a dietitian, was the nutrition. The portion sizes were all out of wack. We got about four servings out of each meal, and we have appetites. On one hand, this was great, it made the boxes a bit better of a deal and I liked having lunch taken care of the following day. On the other hand, I worry that people believe that these meals are portioned appropriately and thus, may end up eating more food than they need. The other nutrition concern was the vegetable deficiency. The meal with the skewers did not have enough veg. A tiny orange pepper and some bits of red onion are not enough vegetables for a meal. I ended up augmenting the meal with some asparagus from the fridge. The chicken pasta only had a bit of onion and a small quantity of asparagus. Even the vegetarian risotto was a little light on veg (although definitely the best of the three) with a few green peas, pre-sliced leek, and fennel.

Considering that nutrition is one of the major benefits of home cooking, I feel like Hello Fresh may be doing more harm than good but providing meals that don’t have enough vegetables and have excessively large portions.

I also have the impression that many people order these meal kits because they’re short on time and want quick and easy meals. Sure, they save the hassle of going to the store and planning what to make a few nights a week but I don’t think they really save much in the way of cooking time. If I wasn’t already comfortable in the kitchen Hello Fresh would likely have left me with the impression that cooking “healthy” meals is complicated and time-consuming. I mean, if it takes 50 minutes to make a meal that’s already portioned and partially prepared, how long will it take to make a meal with unprepared ingredients? This is not the case. There are many delicious and nutritious meals that can be on the table in under 30 minutes. Rather than encouraging people to cook more at home, I worry that these meal kits may actually discourage people from cooking.


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Is feminism making us fat?

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I know that paying any heed to articles on The Rebel is the same as reading Breitbart or repeatedly lighting myself on fire but I just can’t resist responding to this article purporting that feminism has “fuelled the obesity crisis” because come fucking on. And who knows, maybe there is a small segment of the population who reads my blog and that site and maybe, just maybe, I can get them (you?) to reconsider their opposition to feminism.

Perhaps we should begin with a refresher about what feminism is. Feminism is the “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Feminism is the belief that men and women should receive equal pay for work of equal value. Feminism is not the belief that men are inferior to women. Feminists are not a bunch of man-hating female nationalists. We are men and women who do not believe that people should be denied opportunities on the basis of gender. Feminism is not about putting men down but about lifting women up so that we can all attain our goals.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the connection between feminism and obesity. Supposedly, because women are working at paid jobs more than we did in the glory days of the patriarchy we’re not slaving away in the kitchen to put nourishing meals on the table for our families. Hence, we are reliant on fast food and ready-meals that are making our families fat.

There’s little doubt that we are (as a nation) far too reliant on take-out and highly processed foods. I don’t believe that this is the consequence of feminism though. Nor do I believe that taking away women’s jobs and relegating them to the kitchen is the solution. This suggestion that women are to blame for obesity only serves to make working mums feel guilty and sexists to feel vindicated. Sorry but I’m not buying it. Correlation does not equal causation. Women working more outside the home may correlate with rising obesity rates but so do lots of other things like hydro bill rates, college tuition rates, drug poisoning rates, etc. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that there’s any relationship between the two. Reliance on processed food is likely a factor in developing obesity but it’s not the only factor. Obesity is a complex multi-factoral issue with no single cause.

I might add that men are perfectly capable of cooking as well. You want me to believe that men are superior and yet they can’t manage to boil a pot of water or cut up some vegetables? Come on now. I know I’m only a woman but even I can see the flaw in this logic. Everyone can, and should, get cooking and women should continue to do whatever jobs they damn well please.


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Should feminists stay out of the kitchen?

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I read this article the other day and it made me go back and take a look at the post I wrote a little while back about how we need to stop glorifying the inability to cook.

The article is about how “real women” are still expected to cook and examines the role of women in sitcoms and cooking shows. It made me wonder if my original take was sexist. Did I only talk about women? I was certainly thinking about female characters like Lorelai Gilmore and Olivia Pope. I did also think about the importance of showing men cooking but maybe I didn’t make that very clear. I definitely didn’t think about the possibility that showing women who were incapable of cooking (or at least unwilling to cook) was actually a feminist act. And I really have mixed feelings about it right now.

I do not believe that a woman belongs in the kitchen. I do not think that it’s a woman’s measure of worth to serve the men and children in their lives. I don’t think that we all need to love cooking or spend as much time doing it as I do. However, I wonder if making a refusal to cook is truly a feminist act or more an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It may be levelling the playing field to have both men and women out of the kitchen but I think that’s more bringing everyone down a level rather than lifting everyone up.

As I said in my previous post, cooking is an important life skill. Food literacy is as important as any other form of literacy. What we prepare for ourselves is generally going to be more nutritious and less calorically dense than food we purchase ready-made and from restaurants. It’s better for us and better for our wallets. It doesn’t have to mean hours of slaving over a hot stove. A good home cooked meal can be as quick and simple as a vegetable frittata or stir-fry; ready in under 30 minutes.

We should be encouraging more people to get in the kitchen, not glorifying culinary ineptitude. On television we should be showing both men and women cooking for themselves, for their families, for their friends, and show children helping in the kitchen. In real life, we should be advocating to have mandatory home ec reinstated in schools. We (both women and men) should be taking the effort to prepare nourishing meals for ourselves because we are all worthy of good nutrition.