Do we need Family Food Rules…and which ones do you use?

This week, the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules is being published. For those of you unfamiliar with this gem of a book, it contains 69 fantastic “food rules”, many of which are common-sense ones we’ve all heard before, but seem somehow to have forgotten in this era of fast food and hyper-eating.

The best-known (and one of the most controversial) is what I call Pollan’s Golden Food Rule: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

Here, he means “real food”, as another rule explains: “If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it is made in a plant, don’t.” And eating real food requires, according to Pollan, following another, simple rule: “Cook.” In other words, don’t eat processed foods or, as he puts it, anything that someone needed to be wearing a hairnet and gloves to make.

Now, most of Pollan’s rules are aimed at adults (although he has produced a children’s version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I can’t wait to read with my daughters when they’re a bit older). But some of the rules could apply equally well to kids. Take, for example, some of the new rules he has added to the illustrated edition of the book:

Food Rule #4. If You’re Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You’re Probably Not Hungry.
This is a great rule I use with my kids…and it often works! Either they eat the apple (or whatever fruit I’m offering), or they stop asking.

Food Rule #5. “No Labels on the Table”.
Research shows that food marketing has an enormous impact on children (and can influence them even more than their own parents, as I wrote in a recent blog post on marketing). I read this rule to mean no ads, no commercials, wherever possible. The high degree of influence which marketing has on kids suggests to me that they need Food Rules even more than adults. But, in our culture, parents and teachers are often reluctant to impose these rules.

Food Rule #6. Don’t Become a Short-Order Cook.
Pollan’s explanation of this is so insightful: “When kids learn to think of the dinner table as a restaurant, they’ll eat the way most people do in restaurants: too much. For adults as well as kids, eating whatever is being served is generally a good policy, unless religion or allergy prohibits doing so. The food industry promotes hyperindividualism in eating—giving people exactly what they want exactly when they want it—because doing so helps them to sell more food. It also leads to overeating. When we eat what is served, rather than what we might order or crave, we tend to eat more moderately.” We apply this rule in our house as follows: “No substitutes: Kids eat what adults eat.” Sounds a little harsh, but it works.

Now, I’m not sure Pollan’s rules are always a good idea for families. For starters, there are too many of them (how can a busy parent possibly remember them all?). And I’m not sure they capture some of the key issues that parents face with respect to picky eaters, fussy eaters, peer pressure, etc. But they’re a great start. And they’re also a great way to start a conversation about the need for a more structured approach to eating, within our families and beyond.

So, what do you think of Pollan’s Food Rules? And what ‘Food Rules’ do you use in your family?

7 thoughts on “Do we need Family Food Rules…and which ones do you use?

  1. Ha! So true. I don’t have the time to cook two meals…and I’d rather spend less time cooking and more time sitting calmly at the table enjoying my food and the kids. So we never short order cook. I simply say: ‘this is the nice [insert dish name] I’ve cooked for you tonight.’

    My older daughter is fine with this. My younger daughter (now 4) sometimes asks for other things to eat. I will take her seriously, write it down, post it on the fridge, and promise to incorporate it into my menu planning. Seems to satisfy her…


  2. Yes, that short-order cooking issue is fascinating. It’s something that has become normalized, but I don’t think women of my grandmothers’ generation had time to do more than cook one meal. Between that and boiling the diapers. In a way, it’s partly the ironic outcome of all of our labor-saving devices (microwaves, etc.): we can now tailor meals to individuals in the family…making more work for the cook, who doesn’t end up saving any time in the kitchen! Seriously, I think the idea that everyone eats the same thing does wonders for kids’ palates. My four year old was dipping yellow peppers and broccoli into the Thai curry sauce I made last night. Even my formerly picky eight year old ate some–happily! Dramatic contrast to how things used to be at our house…


  3. You’ve reminded me that I need to read Pollan’s book — I actually had a food rule quoted in his NYT Magazine piece! (Probably the greatest readership I’ll ever enjoy… and it was my grandmother’s rule.)

    The short-order cook rule is mind-blowing, in that I don’t understand why it’s necessary at all. I grew up eating almost nothing. I was very skinny. My entire family was horrified and spent enormous amounts of energy trying to get me to eat. They sought medical advice. I was a walking tragedy, in their eyes. And yet there wasn’t a concept of cooking special meals just for me. There was no concept of “kids’ food,” at least not as far as I know.

    I have to wonder: who has the time to cook two meals for each mealtime? And, the corollary: where is the child who has starved to death because of a dearth of chicken nuggets or spaghetti?


  4. I totally take your point, Kate, about ‘more containers’ meaning more work. I know we would find the ‘now labels on the table’ to be a hard rule to follow for things like yogurt (why transfer it to a serving bowl and then each individual bowl?). My experience in France was that people have fewer processed foods at home, so it’s easier to follow the ‘no labels’ rule. For example, most families make their own salad dressing (vinaigrette), and store it in a glass bottle or jar. Same for mayonnaise, and jam. So, we don’t follow this rule at home.

    At the same time, Elizabeth (‘Lunch in Paris’) makes a good point (see above)…


  5. Great comments!

    I certainly found this to be true in our own family: when you take a little extra time to make the table look nice (which might include putting things in fancy pots, which can then be stored in the fridge), children are more respectful at the table. And that is certainly something my kids need to work on!

    I know, for example, that some French families like to use tablecloths every day because it teaches kids to be tidy. Spilling on a wipe-able placement or tabletop doesn’t have the same effect. If the tablecloth is on the table, then kids are encouraged to be more tidy (and parents are encouraged to remind them).

    All of this sounds like more work, doesn’t it (see Kate’s comment)? I suppose the point is that if it’s part of your routine, you can be more efficient, and then it’s actually not extra work. But implementing a new rule might feel like work in the short term.


  6. My grandmother would say the “no labels on the table” is just good manners. Even when she wasn’t around, we used to put the soda bottle on the floor in her honor. Meals used to be more cerimonial – Why do we keep our silver and wedding china in a closet. My mother taught me to use my beautiful things everyday – it’s one more way to make sure you don’t feel like you’re eating in a fast food restaurant. A tip to make transfering condiments practical and pretty – look for ceramic or porcelain jam pots, honey pots, mustard pots, glass oil and vinegar sets at your local fleamarket…make it a project for the kids to help you look…


  7. I enjoyed reading his The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    As far as rule #5 goes, I’m not sure I totally agree. For one you’d be washing more dishes if you are always transferring something to a separate container/dish. People can do what they like, but I can’t see transferring every condiment to a separate dish during mealtime., plus it seems wasteful. As far as other sorts of marketing/advertising, parents do need to take responsibility for how much media they expose their children to.

    As far as rule #4 goes, I feel this is subjective, but families can certainly make their own rules.


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