Friday, March 26, 2010

What is the Shelf Life of a Happy Meal?

I love food. Of course I love eating food, but I love cooking, shopping, and chopping food. I also like thinking about the ethics, economics, and politics of food. I know a number of authors have pointed to the problems with fast food, if it's food at all, but I always like a visual representation of some of these issues.

Nonna Joann's blog post about buying and keeping a McDonald's Happy Meal is a perfect example. She did her own experiment on how a Happy Meal would decompose over the course of a year. She bravely sets the Meal in her cubicle at work. Fortunately for her, it doesn't really decompose. She claims it doesn't even smell. The latter is difficult for me to believe, though, because I can smell McDonald's food three blocks away -- they like it that way. I was shocked by how good the meal looked after 365 days. It looked good enough for Joann to throw a birthday party for the Happy Meal rather than throw it out. Our food, real food, doesn't last a year in a freezer, let alone a year on a shelf in an office.

What's in a Happy Meal? According to McDonald's own website, the McNuggets alone in a Happy Meal contain the following ingredients:

White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning (autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (canola oil, mono- and diglycerides, extractives of rosemary). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.

Depending on how you count, there are approximately 44 ingredients here. 44. Really. Okay, if I get past the 44 ingredients, which I really can't, I wonder what the hell is an antifoaming agent. When we fry chicken at home, we don't need an antifoaming agent. I've deep fried lots of things and never needed to add Dimethylpolysiloxane, whatever that is.

The barbeque sauce your kid dips those nuggets into has at least another 25 ingredients.

The fries famously have natural beef flavor. (They also have Dimethylpolysiloxane. I think McDonalds should contact my grandmother who doesn't use an antifoaming agent and makes some of the best fried chicken I've ever had.)

I'll stop there. You get the point. Now, I'm not claiming to be a purist; our boys have had fast food (though I don't think they've had Happy Meals), but it sure gives me more than a twinge of guilt. I know our society isn't exactly set up to feed people healthy food; try being out and finding fast healthy food that a hungry, dehydrated, overtired 4-year old will eat. I know why parents, including us, break down and buy quick, toxic food. And I know my boys will have more fast food on my dime in the future, but I know a little piece of me will die inside knowing (or not knowing) what is inside that food. Hopefully my boys' insides will be fine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I love words

Be sure to watch past the half-way point.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I just had spring break last week, though it often didn't feel like it. I made a point to stay home as much as I could to spend time with the family, despite my falling further and further behind on my work. A typical work day for me involves going to work in the morning between 9-10, unless I have an earlier meeting, and coming home around 4 so I can spend time with my boys before they go to bed. After they go to bed, I decompress a little while, watch bad television and then get back to work, often staying up until my bartender/server neighbor returns home.

Somehow it's never enough time. My evening work is inefficient because of the television and my general exhaustion at that time of night. Putting overtired, often screamy, 4-year old twins to bed can be exhausting.

Over the break, I didn't have the 6 or so hours of time at work to try and be productive, so all of my work happened in the evenings. After a full day of exhausting bouts of playing trains or other versions of Calvinball, I put the twins to bed (with eventual help from their mother when she was done putting the 14-month old to bed). Then, television and work.

Unfortunately, everyone in the house except me fell ill with some terrible stomach-turning-bone-aching disease that made sleep impossible and eating inconsistent at best. If you've ever seen a 4-year old boy simply lay around on the floor all day, you've seen a really sick child. At night, when I really needed to work, one of the twins, Tiny, just couldn't sleep. He would start the night in his bed, eventually move to ours, and later still wake up unable to get comfortable until he and I came downstairs to sleep on the couch and in a sleeping bag on the floor. He would only sleep half-way decently pressed up against my body, blasting smelting-pot temperature heat and breath that matched. It was a trying time because no one was getting much sleep, but my wife and I were very sympathetic, despite our sleep deprivation.

The third night of his sleeplessness, it was like he had restless leg syndrome throughout his entire, nutrient deprived body, and his poor little 4-year old mind didn't know what to do. He was up at 9:30 pm calling and moaning. I went up to soothe him, but I quickly saw how uncomfortable he was. He shifted and flopped around. He sat up and twisted and turned. He was not going to be soothed by my laying down with him. I remembered reading that if one can't sleep, one shouldn't simply lay in bed, so I asked him if he wanted to get up. He did. We came downstairs, I turned off the television and all the lights and snuggled him on the couch until he fell asleep -- a matter of minutes, if not seconds. He was exhausted.

Here was my moment of clarity. I hadn't been getting my work done. My "adult" time was infringed upon much earlier than usual in the evening, and I was really feeling the stress of my job. There was no real crisis in our house. There was no need to rush to the hospital or worry about a dangerously high fever. But seeing my son writhe around in his bed, unable to relieve his pain and discomfort or understand why he had it in his sleep-addled 4-year old mind, I knew my evening and work were unimportant. Without hesitation I effectively ended my evening and my wife's by bringing my son downstairs, to the one place he had found some comfort. And he did again.

I've never really had any doubts about the priority of my sons in my life, particularly compared to work. I didn't reflect on this decision in the moment it happened. It just happened. Afterward, now, it is comforting to know that I didn't hesitate in that moment, I didn't act selfishly, and I reminded myself what is important.

Everyone is on the mend, getting some rest and eating better. And for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Creative Cooking

I have small children, and if you've ever been around small children when it's time to eat, you know why parents shove chicken fingers and fries in front their children at meal times. Especially when they are in public. My twins are no different. We regularly get them chicken fingers and fries when we eat out. At home, it's a different story, my wife and I try to provide good food choices and hope that they stop asking for marshmallows in their tacos (though one son ate four tacos that way -- a record for taco eating among my boys).

Our presented food options are regularly met with screams of "I don't want that!", "There are carrots on my plate! Get them off!", and "I want O's!" There are many derivations of the tornado-siren screams, but the bottom line is nearly always: give me something familiar that has lots of sugar in it. Sometimes we can't even get the kids to come to the table, and telling them the menu can be one of the easiest ways to get them to run upstairs to hide in their room and play with wooden trains. So we often simply tell them dinner is ready and they should come see it. This approach usually at least earns a drive-by viewing with the occasional incoherent siren scream. (I must admit to finding a silver lining when the twins refuse to come to dinner -- it tends to be much quieter and calmer when I'm eating.)

Some days are better than others, but the twins typically eat fairly well. So, when I cook, the pressure is on to find something they might eat and not make my eardrums split and tumble down my Eustachian tube into my throat.

Now I don't think I'm a bad cook, but I certainly do not have nearly the culinary talent of my wife or some of my foodie friends. Maybe I have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to cooking, but I get to eat well whenever my wife or foodie friends cook.

So tonight we were having leftover steak and my wife wanted mashed potatoes. I can make those, and I did. Despite needing a little more salt, they turned out pretty well, but that wasn't pinnacle of my culinary work for the evening. No. As I was plating the food for the boys so it could cool, I decided to make snowman mashed potatoes. With some artistic suggestions from the culinary expect of the house, I made a food creation that caught the twins attention. One was so pleased, he squealed like, well, like himself repeatedly making the whole experiment worthwhile. In fact, both twins he a second helping, as long as it was a snowman.

I do feel I can't leave out that the most likely reason they had a second helping was the snowman hat. Still, it made our evening. And yes, they looked more like badly formed Peeps that some granola-loving-thowback-hippied mom might make than snowmen, but they boys knew what they were right away. That's what matters.

Now, what is for breakfast tomorrow?