Monday, July 26, 2010

A Maddening (and Irresponsible) Meal Plan from Let's Move

In a recent post, I made it clear that while I’m a supporter of the Let’s Move initiative I still view it with a critical eye. Obviously, I believe in its goal and don’t question the motivation behind it; its execution, well, that’s another story.

I criticized the Chefs Move to Schools for its lack of clear goals – something that I believe can be rectified. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same of Let’s Cook.

Unveiled last week, Let’s Cook is a program of the Let’s Move initiative, in which:
“Chefs from across the country visit the White House kitchen to create nutritious and affordable menu plans for busy families. With one shopping list, a little preparation and dinner recipes to take you through the week - Let's Cook makes it easier to eat healthy at home. Print, email and share recipes with friends, tell us about your healthy cooking on Facebook and visit often for new recipes.”

The first installment featured Chef Marvin Woods. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Chef Woods, his bio states:

“Cookbook author and TV chef Marvin Woods is recognized for his inventive take on food rooted in northern Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the Low Country. Woods has developed a wellness program called "Droppin' Knowledge with Chef Marvin Woods" that is designed to teach lifestyles that are healthy for kids and their families.”

Personally, I love meal plans. In this country, despite its obsession with chefs, food literacy isn’t high. Therefore, I think that meal plans – ones that create intersecting recipes that help people understand how they can preserve resources, time and money are awesome. Skipping over the video, I went straight to the recipes. Looking at the first one, I was a little surprised.

The Sunday meal is Spice Roasted Pork Loin, Sweet Potatoes, and Cooked Green Beans, which is interesting because the accompanying picture is of a pork loin, paired with rice and lentil pilaf, and roasted tomatoes. Problem two, nowhere does the recipe indicate how many people it should serve, though it does provide nutrition facts and cost per serving (costs that don’t add up as $3.55 multiplied by 4 does not equal $14.25). The third issue, the pork loin is cooked for 1 hour at 350º F, while the sweet potato is cooked for 40 minutes at 425º F. I don’t know about you, but my kitchen only has one oven and even if I had two I wouldn’t waste the energy to fire up two ovens for two dishes.

With as many boo boos in this first recipe, I was intrigued to see what the rest would yield. The second meal is “Asian Stir of Pork and Vegetables” (I believe the title is missing a word because a stir without a fry is just a salad). I understand the intent is to use a ½ pound of the cooked meat from the previous night’s dinner, but looking back at the first recipe, there’s no indication that anything should be saved, or how it should be stored after it’s cooked. Then this meal and the next two call for barley as the grain, except that instead of cooking it all at once, lessening the time and energy (both personal and natural) required, it suggests cooking a small amount ½ cup each day. Do any of you like plain barley enough to cook and eat it three days straight?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Instead of beating a dead horse, I’ll give you my top 4 criticisms:

1. Far too many of the recipes call for ingredients that are not readily available to most Americans, such as smoked paprika, green Sicilian olives, and fresh or frozen black eyed peas.
2. The costs aren’t a true accounting. For example, one recipe calls for ½ cup ricotta (mind you no other recipes in the plan call for ricotta, though there is one that uses 1/8 pound of mozzarella and feta cheese). I suspect that the costs were calculated by dividing the cost of ½ cup from the total cost of the tub. All of us smart shoppers know that this doesn’t reflect the true cost. The cost is what comes up on the check out register and since you can’t buy a ½ cup of ricotta, it’s the price of the 2 cup tub.
3. The recipes are too complicated. If you make a nice pork loin with a spice rub, there’s nothing wrong with serving a side dish of simple sautéed veggies. There’s no need for all these chef-y flourishes or recipes with multiple steps that lengthen the time needed to prepare and increase the cost. In fact, these flourishes may make the recipes less appealing to the picky eaters in your family. The little locavore is a healthy eater who eats a broad variety of foods, but he would turn his nose up at many of these recipes.
4. Poor copy editing. While I’m the first to admit that I am not the best proofreader. I will personally guarantee that you’ll find errors in this post and maybe just a few others. That being said, if my recipes were being posted on the White House website, I would have everyone I know and a few people that I paid proofread it to ensure it was as close to perfection as it could possibly be. If these typos weren’t frequent, glaring, and often misleading, I might not make this point. But they are and if Chef Woods’ people didn’t catch them, they certainly should have been corrected by someone at the White House.

I found that I’m not alone in my criticism. Allow me to share some comments that I received after posting this on Facebook:

"This recipe plan, while lovely and I'm certain delicious, is a disaster for busy families. Mrs. Obama ought to ask herself whether she, a non-cook, would make this plan when she was working full-time, pre-private chef, before it is presented as part of the Let's Move program. I would doubt it."

My status update inspired a lively discussion, all critical of the plan. Here are a few highlights:

“I'd like to see some start in the morning/eat in the evening crock pot meals. Also, single pan/pot meals would be nice, too. I cringe at three bowls, a cutting board, two pans, and a commercial kitchen - and probably some staff in the background to do all the dishes... sheesh!”

“Oh my! Melissa, you are so right! Not only is it a disaster from a time/busy-ness perspective, but it calls for a variety of specialty ingredients. And then there's my pet peeve: turning on the oven during the summer! If we are supposed to be green, it makes no sense to turn on the oven just to cool down with AC, using up more energy. I think three nights required the oven. Stir fries are great, and pan sautes are great. Such a lost opportunity.”

“Thanks for pointing this out, Melissa... I would call the shopping list prohibitive to start with. s/o who is not yet cooking will not be able to afford all this stuff in one week. True, a lot is pantry items, but I bet people get scared looking at this list. Plus, wondering why the pictures do not show the dish described? That is surely confusing... “

“I edit cookbooks for a living. I was about to defend this since I thought the idea was that you cook pearl barley one day and have leftovers for another. Same thing with pork roast—roast on sunday when you have time, then use leftovers for stir-fry. However, that is certainly NOT clear. And then I saw the chili. Raw ground turkey into the sauce and no cooking of it other than residual heat! I think that's a food safety issue, no? Am I missing something?”

“People will just ignore this in favor of the $1 menu at the local fast food spot. Too expensive, too time consuming, too difficult. Most Americans do not have the cooking skills for this and noncooks are not going to be inspired by it.”

This final comment nails the problem. This meal plan is not just poorly thought out and written, but it is also irresponsible. To restate, food literacy in this country is not high. Recipes on this site should be simple, clearly written, and easy. In addition, they should call for ingredients readily available in an ordinary grocery store. Simply put, these don’t fit the bill and the danger in posting them is that, after seeing the list of ingredients or the list of steps, ordinary non-cooks will be discouraged.

Ultimately, I think that the White House is asking the wrong people to execute a good idea. Menus plans are brilliant. They can be a huge time saver and teaching tool for busy parents. However, I would submit that chefs, at least ones with restaurants who have staff and well-stocked larders at their disposal, may not be the right people to write them. It takes a special talent to not only cook well, and then to explain accurately and entertainingly how to replicate your recipes. If the White House really wanted to create realistic solutions for everyday people, it needs to be more careful in who it selects to highlight. Personally, I think that it shouldn’t limit itself to restaurant chefs, but should instead highlight cookbook authors and bloggers whose specialty is decoding delicious dishes for their readers.

If the White House would be willing to look beyond chefs, who would you like to see create a meal plan for Let’s Move?


  1. I would like to see you create a meal plan, and I say this 100% seriously. You've shown a keen understanding for the issues involved, plus an eye for detail and a broad grasp of what's missing. Did you meet anyone while you were in DC to whom you could offer a resume or present a pitch to clean the site up?

  2. Great article ~ I hadn't seen this new addition to the Let's Move project. I think it would be a great idea for them to have MOMs write up the menus. Professional TV chefs can be so out of touch with what real life cooking is. No one knows better than busy moms what it takes to cook a weeks worth of meals in the middle of a busy life.

    I think if real people wrote the menu plans they would be much more in line with what real people would really use.

  3. Brava!

    I've been lurking a while but this is pulling me out of my shell to praise you. There is so much great energy flailing at the problem of kid's food but it seems more noise and fury than progress. Add in that so many people fear speaking the truth as they see it, choosing unquestioning agreement instead. Makes me crazy!

    My nominees for menu planning would be Michelle Stern (What's Cooking), maybe Tanya Steele (her kid's cookbook seems reasonably healthy), and other authors of healthy cookbooks for kids. (I'd nominate myself but mom taught me better.)

    Thanks for being willing to write about Let's Move honestly. Tough to do at times.

  4. As I'm the one behind that final quotation, you know I agree wholeheartedly. I'd suggest that ideal candidates for putting together appropriate recipes and meal plans include teachers of cooking classes for state Extension Services -- people who both understand nutrition and have a good idea of where Americans, on average, are when it comes to meal preparation.

  5. Great recap of the program and I'm right there with you. I believe in the Let's Move initiative whole-heartedly and want to see them succeed but there's little to love within this particular program.

    If we don't make healthy food and meals accessible, they simply won't happen.

  6. Great post, excellent points...and I nominate Kitchenmage!

    Thanks for making this statement. It needed to be said.

  7. Good point. I think when chefs contribute overly complicated recipes to efforts like this they perpetuate the idea that cooking is 1) hard and 2) something that should be tackled only by professionals.

    They definitely need to "dumb it down." I hate using that phrase, but since many newspapers contain material corresponding to the 8th grade reading level it's important to think about the audience of the Let's Cook campaign.

    How about starting with roasting a chicken with vegetables? And then making stock for a soup and using the leftover chicken for chicken sandwiches? Multiple-step process but easy.

    Actually maybe they should have two meal plans -- one focused on the beginning chef and one focused on a more advanced home cook.

    Food for thought. Thanks!

  8. The International Association of Culinary Professionals sponsors a Chefs Move to Schools listserv. This would be a great place to submit meal plans, shopping lists and recipes for a contest. IACP Cookbook authors could be the judges. The very best entries could be presented to Mrs. Obama and Chef Sam Kass for use by the Let's Cook page of the Let's Move web site.

    By the way, I tried the Let's Cook Pork Stir Fry using left-over chicken and was surprised by the large amount of both garlic and ginger the recipe called for. Nevertheless, the dish was big on flavor and was a hit with my family.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Cheryl, unfortunately, there wasn't much opportunity for networking especially since I wasn't able to attend the Share Our Strength breakfast.

    Mrs. Q, I think you might be right about two plans. But personally, I think even the plan presented is too involved for accomplished home cooks. Too many of these recipes seemed like company food to me. Again, I don't see the problem in suggesting simple steamed or roasted veggies on the side. All the flourishes make things take longer and cost more. All of us who work and still cook for our families know that even when we love to cook spending an hour plus after work just getting a meal on the table (not taking into account cleaning, shopping, etc.) is a bit much for weekday meals.

    Sheila, I guess, but I almost feel like that's too complicated. I just wish, that it was something as simple as (just like Mrs. Q suggested) roast a chicken throw some veggies in the oven at the same time. Save the carcass and make soup. Save some meat and make a burrito or a salad. The more I think about it we need someone like Michael Ruhlman (except maybe a little less judgmental) who encourages people not to be a slave to recipes, but to cook more intuitively through formulas.

  11. Ciao. I'm literally a world away in Italy, but I've been following the Let's Move campaign from the inception and even contributed to the original mission call for ideas. But, I have to agree with you that the execution has been strange to say the least. One of the strangest things I saw was a call for iPad/iPhone app developers. Why on earth do you want a kid to spend even more time with one of these gadgets??
    I don't know if this is being handled as a committee with no one having a clear goal or insight, but it is certainly being mangled. My cooking classes are all about getting people to be more fearless and creative in the kitchen and this sort of mixed and bungled messaging does no one any good.
    Well written post. Brava.

  12. Melissa, So glad you brought this post to my attention. I'm with Mrs. Q & co., start with the basics -- such as some of the recipes many of us have taught in adult cooking classes through our kids' schools. You want recipes that feel "doable" for folks who may be scared off from cooking in their kitchens at the slightest challenge.


blog design by brooksiedesign