Monthly Archives: June 2015

Are Supermarkets the New Take Out Restaurants?

A new supermarket opened a month or so ago in a building that once housed the one and only original Filene’s Basement. In the place of racks of designer clothing reduced to the cost of a cup of Starbuck’s coffee, there were gleaming cases of prepared foods from spareribs to salads, freshly baked breads, rolls and muffins, assorted cookies and pastries, plus an enormous area devoted to cheese. Samples of freshly made mozzarella were being given out by a woman pounding the cheese into submission and having taken one, I wandered around to see if someone was also handing out samples of crackers.

There were, of course, long aisles of packaged goods from dry pasta to an exorbitant display of mustards. And like any conventional supermarket, the produce, dairy, meat and fish sections offered up food items that had to be processed, i.e. cooked, in order to be edible. But what was so entrancing about this supermarket, right in the center of a busy shopping area and near the Financial District, was the accessibility of foods ready to eat. The choices ranged from the banal (fried chicken and mashed potatoes) to the gourmet (freshly cooked seafood, salads with fashionable ingredients such as farro and arugula, and freshly squeezed juices and smoothies). It is hard to think of a restaurant that could offer such a wide variety of foods with prices that would match those in the supermarket.

Markets are already feeding zones for those who prefer getting their meals from a cardboard container rather than going to their refrigerator and preparing their meals themselves.  This one happens to be a newer generation of markets, located in an area where a food court and food pushcarts had been the most accessible options. Unlike older, more conventional supermarkets, the most prominent feature is the prepared food area. When the shopper walks in, he or she is assaulted and beguiled by counter after counter of ready-to-eat foods. It takes some walking and a bit of scouting around to find the produce section, way in the back of the store, the fresh fish case scrunched up against a back corner and dairy products somewhere behind a maze of aisles.  The message sent to the shopper is, “Don’t even think of buying something that needs preparation. We have already made it for you.”

Given that many Americans eat at least one or more meals away from home every day (this includes school children as well as adults), buying meals at a supermarket may be a more practical and less expensive option than going to a restaurant, fast-food chain or coffee shop. And the prepared foods at a supermarket may offer a healthier option than those at a chain hamburger or burrito shop. This is because supermarkets offer a variety of cooked vegetables, a variety rarely duplicated in upscale restaurants, and missing entirely in less expensive restaurants.  How many fast-food chains offer curried carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts or cherry tomato, red pepper and spinach salad? .

And consider this: The shopper who may be vegetable adverse can buy a tiny portion of a vegetable dish for a taste. Unfortunately, the supermarkets don’t allow the shopper to try a vegetable dish for free the way ice cream stores allow the shopper to taste an unknown flavor.  But spending 75 cents on two tablespoons of curried carrot salad or broiled cauliflower might convince the reluctant and vegetable phobic eater that vegetables can taste good. 

Supermarkets offering a large selection of take-out foods are next best thing to having your mother cook your dinner (if she is a good cook), but they could go a little further in helping shoppers put together their meals, for instance suggesting that they choose foods that are moderate in calories and high in nutrients. Suggestions for side dishes to go with a main course of grilled chicken or sliced brisket or salmon stuffed with crabmeat would be useful so the shopper would be eating a nutritionally balanced meal.  For example, a display could suggest adding a high-calcium dairy product to the meal by featuring a dessert of fresh raspberries topped with low-fat yogurt. The shopper would be encouraged to buy the yogurt and the berries and combine them at home.  Nutrient information near vegetables that may be unfamiliar, like beets or lentils, might induce the shopper to consider trying them.  

The down side of this is that the foods are much more expensive than if prepared at home. There is a substantial cost differential between buying roasted Brussels sprouts in the take-out section or buying them fresh, sprinkling them with a little olive oil and salt and roasting them at home. The same is true for throwing a potato in the microwave or buying it already cooked. And the shopper should be aware of the high oil content in many prepared foods; this ingredient keeps the foods moist and looking attractive.  However, lack of time, lack of even rudimentary knowledge of how to prepare foods, and lack of motivation to come home and prepare foods from scratch makes the enormous array of the supermarket prepared foods so enticing.

 This trend to using the supermarket as a restaurant is growing, and in the near future it is possible that the prepared food section will overtake most of the space formerly occupied by the traditional food displays. Should this begin to happen, let’s hope the decision of what prepared foods to sell is based on health considerations, as much as profits.

Being A Newbie Dieter Is Hard

Is there anyone out there over the age of 25 who has never been on a diet? In my weight-loss practice, I rarely see anyone who had not followed the “Every Diet of the Month” plan, and can probably recite calorie charts more easily than the alphabet.

But a few days ago a young woman came to see me for weight-loss advice whom had never been on a diet, and probably would never have needed to be on one if she had not gained weight from a medication she had been taking.   Following the diet was not difficult; she had always eaten healthily and, unlike a typical dieter, she loved exercising.  What puzzled her, however, was how to behave as a dieter when she had to eat in public, namely at family gatherings, social events, business meetings and while traveling.

“How do I tell my mother-in-law that I can’t eat pizza for lunch? What do I eat at my college reunion dinner next week?  I am flying to the west coast for a meeting. Should I take my own food to eat on the plane ride? What happens if I can’t get the foods I should eat? ” I was asked. She was concerned that if she substituted spinach for kale, or salmon for chicken, her weight loss would halt.
These and similar questions made me realize that dieting, like any other new endeavor, has its own learning curve. The experienced dieter can eye ball the difference between a 6 or 10 ounce piece of chicken, and is aware of how many calories are in a tablespoon of blue cheese salad dressing or glass of orange juice. She also knows what to eat on a plane, what to bring for lunch and how to “drink” at a party without really drinking. She may attend weight loss support groups and/or have friends also on diets so that problems such as: the intrusive or insensitive family members; nasty comments from co-workers about how much or little weight the dieter may have lost; and the insistence by others that the dieter eat fattening foods, can be discussed and solutions offered.

But this young woman did not attend organized weight-loss meetings, nor did she have any friends who were on diets. She joined Weight Watchers but said she felt people were not terribly sympathetic toward her need to lose weight. This was understandable since at her heaviest weight she was a size 4, and members thought she was a group leader. Moreover, everyone she spoke to had been going to WW meetings for years and/or was a veteran of many previous diets. Her concerns and questions as a newbie dieter were answered, but she felt like an amateur.

Learning a new skill, whether it is playing the violin, watercolor painting, hitting a golf ball or writing a memoir, requires instruction if the endeavor is to succeed. Obviously a Mozart or Rembrandt needed less instruction than the average mortal musician or painter, and so-called natural athletes probably can figure out how to swing a golf club or hit a ball without more than a few suggestions.  Dieting is also a new skill and, like other enterprises, if the instruction is misguided, inadequate or wrong, failure to lose weight and keep it off may result. A new dieter scammed into buying into some quick weight-loss program, or put on a weight-loss drug without any dietary or exercise advice, has little chance of keeping off the weight if (and this is dubious) the weight-loss goal is even reached.  A new dieter talked into losing weight by eliminating entire categories of food or semi-starvation, has no idea how to reintroduce food back into his or her life without losing control and bingeing. Exercise programs designed for the already fit participant may leave a novice in pain and injured.

If you buy a new computer, smart phone, watch or electronically-programmed car, experts are available by phone, email, texts, and in person to help you figure out how to work the device. And I know from my own experience that these experts are patient and gentle even when being asked really dumb questions. Many of us have received help from a co-worker or young child who takes over our computer or smart phone and, in two milliseconds, shows us some technique to make using the device easier. That kind of instant help is rarely available for the beginning dieter facing her first buffet or dinner at her new in-law’s home.

Where are the experts to help, graciously and patiently, the new dieter unfamiliar with reading labels, calorie-cutting food preparation, portion sizes at restaurants, dealing with stress-induced overeating and alcohol intake at parties? To be sure, some of these questions can be answered on the many Internet sites concerned with weight loss, and also in meetings of national weight-loss organizations. But the answers are, in general, impersonal rather than targeted toward the individual’s personal needs and lifestyle.

And yet when such advice is available, and when the dieter is successful in losing weight, the results can be life changing.  She is able not only to lose weight, but also to gain an understanding of how to maintain the weight loss permanently. Like the golfer who does not develop bad habits while learning the game, the informed and aided dieter will avoid making mistakes that may lead to a lifetime of losing and gaining weight.

Sometimes it is hard to know how and when to offer advice. Dieting for many is a private matter, and one can no more go up to a dieter and say, “You are doing it all wrong!” than a golfer can say to another, “What a dreadful swing!” But if we know someone starting on a diet for the first time, we can look for opportunities to offer our help and advice assuming we are experienced ourselves in the art of weight loss.  And whenever possible, we can help to create an eating environment and exercise opportunities to make weight loss for the newbie dieter less of a struggle. It is a favor worth giving.