Michelle Obama moves into the kitchen to fight obesity

The first lady acted like her latest idea to fight obesity wasn’t anything special — as if asking families to start cooking again wasn’t in the same category as urging Big Food to reformulate products or to stop advertising sugary junk to our children.

Michelle Obama has added a new element to her Let's Move! campaign: home cooking. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Michelle Obama has a new campaign for her Let’s Move! initiative: home cooking. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

“Now, I know this might not seem like an earth-shattering notion, though neither was planting a garden in the White House, I will remind you,” Michelle Obama said to laughter at the Washington Hilton on Friday, where she gave the keynote address at the Building a Healthier Future Summit. “But research clearly shows that home cooking is one of the single most impactful ways for families to improve their health.”

Then, a minute or two later in her address, she offered a short personal history lesson to demonstrate how difficult it might be to get America cooking.

The first lady talked about how both her mother and grandmother had been home cooks, how they had carefully planned out their meals. Dining out was a luxury, she said, not a daily occurrence during her upbringing in Chicago. But after the former Michelle LaVaughn Robinson graduated from Harvard Law School and entered the workforce, she absorbed a cultural message along the way:

“You see, my parents urged me to focus on my studies and career above all else,” she told the audience. “They had worked hard to support my dreams, so they didn’t want me to worry about traditional things like cooking.  They felt like I could always learn to cook later.  And that was all well and good for a while, until I had a family of my own.”

Once their daughters started demanding food that didn’t come from a jar, she and Barack Obama found themselves at a loss — part of a generation that had emphasized career over cooking. But more than that, the first lady noted, both parents worked long hours, often arriving home with little interest in pulling out the pots and pans to prepare a meal.

“We were always exhausted,” she said. “And, over time, we started giving in and popping things into the microwave, or spending way too much of our monthly budget ordering takeout, which, in turn, resulted in less than optimal health outcomes for our kids.”

In other words, Barack and Michelle Obama were part of a generation (or three) that has lost touch with the kitchen. A recent study highlights the problem with America’s declining cooking skills, noting that little more than 50 percent of households prepared food at home from 2007 to 2008. The first lady reiterated this downward trend in her own speech.

So it is into this ever-deepening void that Michelle Obama will wander with her latest Let’s Move! initiative. Michael Pollan, the author and whole-foods activist whose latest book explores home cooking, was thrilled to see the first lady enter the kitchen. He had felt it was the missing piece in her anti-obesity campaign, which has already targeted food manufacturers, public schools, day-care centers, marketing to children, exercise and even home gardening.

“Cooking is one of the simplest ways to improve our health,” Pollan said this afternoon after hearing about Obama’s speech. “It’s wonderful to see the first lady returning to the fundamentals of our relationship to food, which goes beyond negotiating nutrients to reviving everyday activities like cooking and gardening.”

Like her efforts to get food manufacturers to cut back on the salt, sugar and fats in their foods — and in their advertisements to children — Michelle Obama will likely encounter entrenched habits, hardened beliefs and even political opposition (which will no doubt pounce on the first lady’s own admission, from years ago, that she’s “just fine with other people cooking”). The first lady acknowledged hurdles in her speech: Americans think cooking is too expensive. They think they don’t have time. They don’t have the necessary skills.

Despite the potential roadblocks — is asking Americans to cook again the ultimate “nanny state” directive? — Obama said the rewards clearly outweigh the troubles in getting there.

“One study shows that home cooking is actually a better predictor of how well families eat than their income,” she told the audience. “And that’s not surprising, because food prepared at home is lower in saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and calories than food prepared away from home. Because when you cook at home, you’re in control of your nutrition.  You decide the ingredients to use.  You decide the portion sizes.  You decide whether there’s a vegetable on the plate or not.”

“And cooking isn’t just good for our budgets or our physical health,” Obama said later in the address. “It’s also good for our kids’ emotional health. Research shows that when families share meals together, kids actually perform better in school, and they get along better with their peers.  And let’s not forget that cooking together can actually be fun.”

The first lady offered no specifics on how she will tackle this latest initiative, which will be “a key focus of Let’s Move! over the next year.” She hinted at deals with supermarkets to distribute recipes on how to cook or home economics classes to teach kids basic kitchen skills — “both girls and boys,” she emphasized. She even suggested chefs might “offer affordable cooking classes in their restaurants.”

“I mean, the possibilities here are endless,” she added. “And in the coming months, as we continue our existing efforts, we will be announcing some new initiatives along these lines.”

Some resources for beginning home cooks:

The Washington Post cooking class list, 2013-2014

Farmers markets in the Washington area (where farmers often share tips on cooking their produce and chefs offer cooking demos).

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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