Rules to dine by…

January 28, 2010

Dunno about you, but I am a sucker for rules. Love ’em.

Not so much the ones involving denial and effort and sacrifice (ew) but still, a book of rules nonetheless gives me lots of comfort. I used to love how-to-write rules when I first started out in fiction – it feels lovely and safe to be told what to do and when to do it – but now they seem rather limited and dull, and very often incorrect.

Now I’m sure it’s the same with food ‘rules’, but until I discover the flaws in them myself, I am pretty keen on the idea of my mate Michael Pollan‘s new book,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. It sounds like a kind of precis of everything he’s done on food so far, prompted, he says, by doctors who say they wish they had a summary of his earlier books to hand to patients who eat garbage. Pollan writes:

Another doctor, a transplant cardiologist, wrote to say “you can’t imagine what I see on the insides of people these days wrecked by eating food products instead of food.” So rather than leaving his heart patients with yet another prescription or lecture on cholesterol, he gives them a simple recipe for roasting a chicken, and getting three wholesome meals out of it — a very different way of thinking about health.

Nice one, doc.

Anyhoo, I am keen on these rules, possibly partly because Pollan is such an engaging writer and his remarks on food are sensible and witty. We saw him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a while ago, where he invoked one of his very first rules: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” To demonstrate this, he had an array of supermarket ‘food products’ on the table before him, and raised a long, pink, thick, phallus-shaped object up for the audience to view.

“Would your great-grandma,” he asked slyly, “know how to administer this to her body?”

Turns out it was some kind of ‘yoghurt drink’ encased in plastic.

Anyhoo, despite the Empress’s chiding (she thinks we already know all this stuff and don’t need books to tell us), I couldn’t resist and bought Food Rules. It’s a nice slender little mini-paperback, and the Empress is right – we already know this stuff. However, there are still some nice bits and bobs, like this one: “Be the kind of person who takes supplements – then skip the supplements”. Meaning:

..people who take supplements are generally healthier than the rest of us, and we also know that in controlled studies most of the supplements they take don’t appear to be effective. how can this be? Supplement takers are healthy for reasons that have nothing to do with the pills. They’re typically more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent. They’re also more likely to exercise and eat whole grains.

And so on. Lots of stuff like that. And for the gutsers and food-bolters among us (hmm, who could that be?), very good advice: “Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it” and “Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds.” That last is the killer in our house …

Our only real rule in this house is that we don’t eat any processed food (I guess rice crackers are processed, but you know …) but that’s because we love to eat and cook; it’s for reasons of pleasure, not denial.

Anyway – check it out if you can be bothered, or check out the Sydney Morning Herald’s own version by Jill Dupleix apropos of the Pollan book. I like this and lots of the comments too. And if you have any eating rules you live by, do share, won’t you?


  1. We’re lucky enough to live in a place where we have loads of local produce sold at market by the producers themselves- my rule at the market is go for the stallholders with grimy earthy fingernails!

  2. Where do Cheesey Supreme doritos fit in?

  3. They are an essential whole food. Corn. It’s good for you. Same goes for Twisties. And I’m sure that colour is completely natural.

  4. Do not eat anything that comes wrapped in plastic is a fairly good rule of thumb.

    Rice is pretty much the only exception I make to that general rule.

    And yes, twisties are at least four essetnial food groups – I think vitamin B (beer) is the only thing not available in twisties.

  5. Rules for eating meat pies:
    1. They must be topped with tomato sauce.
    2. They taste better when eaten in a gutter and straight out of the paper bag.
    3. If you’ve bought a sausage roll and a pie, the sausage roll must be eaten first.
    4. Pies bought at an average suburban bakery taste better than those from a posh inner-city bakery.
    5. A pie meal is only a success when there’s a tomato sauce stain left on your pants.

  6. I love MP and may indeed succumb to the delights of this book mostly because his writing is so compelling. As for rules – and this one was shared by someone on that herald blog – only eat junk food you make yourself. The fact that it’s pretty hard (for me) to keep a regular supply of cakes and biscuits going inevitably means you don’t eat many. Just never buy them.
    And Charlotte you’ve always been on the money with your aversion to processed food but I’m with you on the rice crackers. I also scoff the occasional vita weet with promite (what is IN that stuff?). And do Ecuador Dark Magnums count as processed food? D’oh!

  7. Ah, Nigel, good for you. I did worry this post could have been a bit po-faced, and there you have it, the perfect antidote. Totally agree about the sausage roll first option.

    Steph, Magnums are not processed. They are whole food like Twisties & Doritos (and snag rolls). Promite, on the other hand – god only knows what’s in there.

    Also we have forgotten WINE – very important, and last time I looked there were all kinds of weird things in it. I just realised recently that proper vegans don’t drink wine, and then looked at a label which says “This wine was made using fining agents which contain egg, milk and or fish products.” FISH products??? WTF?

    But sorry MP, ain’t no “don’t eat any food product with more than five ingredients” rule is going to change the six-o’clock vino hour….

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