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Is Tomato Sauce a Vegetable?

by Jane Ulman

August 5, 2004 | 8:00 pm

"I hate this healthy food. It's tasteless and disgusting," says Gabe, my 17-year-old son.

He's protesting the culinary revolution taking place in our kitchen. The white rice that is now brown, the white bread that is now whole wheat and the Cheetos that have morphed into Lite Cheddar Puffs.

But the most egregious of the new foods, in Gabe's view, are the soy meatballs, which, breaking every rule for developing a trustworthy parent-child relationship, I try to pass off as turkey, hiding them under a pile of spaghetti.

He takes a bite and runs to the sink, where he spits out the offending mouthful.

"What is this?" he demands. "Why can't we have normal foods?"

Yes, normal foods. To Gabe, who has never eaten a fruit or vegetable in his life, unless you count tomato sauce and onions, these are french fries, bagels, sodas and pizzas. Foods that have contributed, the surgeon general says, to tripling the number of overweight adolescents over the last two decades to 14 percent of all 13- to 19-year-olds.

My husband Larry and I don't want to add to these statistics. Nor do we want to contribute to the $238 billion already spent annually, according to the American Obesity Association, for weight-related conditions.

It's a tough "re-education" process. But one not unfamiliar to Judaism, which gives us the concept of shmirat haguf, the obligation to guard one's physical health. As Maimonides says, "One must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger." Or, as we used to say in the '60s: "You are what you eat."

The laws of kashrut assist in fulfilling this obligation, not, as some people assume, by ensuring that the foods we consume are hygienically safe but rather by elevating the act of eating to a spiritual realm. And even those of us who don't keep strictly kosher (though we vegetarians are practically there), as Jews, ideally, we have a reverence for life and an awareness of pure and impure foods.

"You shall not eat anything abhorrent," the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:3) tells us. And while the Torah is referring to camels, rabbits, badgers and pigs, I would today include foods that that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Foods that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics or treated with pesticides. Foods with a shelf life longer than the average life span.

"The more you can eat foods in their original state and the less they are messed with, the better," my friend Debby says. "But try telling that to any red-blooded American adolescent."

We get mixed messages in the United States, the land of overabundance and overindulgence, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100 million Americans are overweight. Yet another 32.9 million Americans, including 11.7 million children, live below the poverty line, often facing barren cupboards at the end of the month when paychecks and Food Stamps run dry.

But this is the United States, where the abhorrent has become the obscene; where food is grabbed, gobbled and guzzled on the run; where single servings are super-sized; and where advertisers hawk green and purple ketchup, neon blue "funky" fries and pizza that magically (read chemically) changes colors.

Judaism gives us no mixed messages, however. Judaism teaches us, unequivocally, that the act of eating is holy: that we must be thankful for our food, that we must be reverent toward life, and that we must feed the hungry.

But to complicate matters, Judaism also gives us, save for the fast days, no occasion in which we don't eat. In fact, Judaism practically mandates specific holiday foods. What is Shabbat, for example, without noodle kugel? Or Chanukah without latkes, Purim without hamentashen or Shavuot without blintzes? And try making a low-fat, healthier version of these favorites, as I did with noodle kugel.

"No offense, Mom," says Danny, 13, "but this isn't very good."

Nevertheless, Larry and I continue to battle our kids' propensity for junk food, reinforced by peer pressure and scores of food-related advertisements, all with unhealthy messages, that bombard them on a daily basis. And we receive no shortage of well-intentioned advice.

"Eat more protein," my pediatrician recommends.

"Eat five or six mini meals a day," a nutritionist advises.

"Eat carrots," my grandmother used to say.

But there are no easy answers -- only temptations, good intentions, bad eating days and difficult choices. And those days when drive-though fast food is the best we parents can manage.

And, of course, there is the issue of balance.

"Why does everything have to be healthy, healthy, healthy?" asks Jeremy, 15. "Why don't you ever have a double scoop of ice cream and a caramel Frappuccino? Live it up and be happy."

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

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