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Submitted by a TNL reader

Recent news reports that the outsourced factories for school lunches in southern Taiwan have added legal compound food additives in order to avoid the spoilage of rice. Along with the series of recent news related to food safety, I have decided to share my own thoughts of cooking for my children for the past few years.

During my time studying and working in the US, the biggest culture shock I had was my classmates and colleagues’ knowledge of cooking. It was far beyond my understanding.

In Taiwan, cooking has always been underestimated. (This has finally changed a little because of recent food safety issues.) Many people believe cooking in the kitchen is a mother’s job. Going a bit further, isn’t it the something a housewife should do? At least before I became a mother myself, I was uninterested in cooking, even when I was studying abroad. Most of my friends didn’t cook, regardless of male or female. Compared to traveling, partying, going to new restaurants, staying in luxury hotels and other fancy things, cooking sounded so boring and wasn’t something worth bragging about.

But once I went to the home of an American classmate. He is a dual degree Ivy League graduate and was making up to two hundred thousand US dollars annually at 25 years old. When I arrived, my friend proudly led me to the kitchen and showed me the spaghetti he had made for everyone, saying it was his signature dish.

Another American-born-Chinese classmate always amazes me with her kitchen gadgets. (For example, I have never seen a zester grater.) She even knows how to make desserts out of rum and bananas. This friend told me she once paid to take a professional cooking course.

There was another time where I had dinner at a colleagues’ place. It was a potluck where each person brings a dish to someone’s house. But that time we said we would cook together in the kitchen. In reality? Only my boss and another colleague did the cooking. Not only did they sharpen the knives with expertise, but also surprised me with their detailed knowledge of various ingredients and cooking skills.

All of my colleagues are elite students with high salaries (and all of them are under 30 and not mothers or middle-aged people trying to stay healthy), but each of them is proud of their cooking and have the right to be. With them, cooking is fun and tempting. This was my first cultural shock.

After becoming a mother, I started reading books on food nutrition for the sake of my children. I also started shopping at organic stores and joined the Homemakers Union Consumers Co-op. This is when I started to realize the “power" of eating out. I learned to look at the ingredients before purchasing artificial foods. (I was shocked and I stopped throwing my money around and going to convenience stores.)

I learned that food is not just about tasting good, but more importantly it has to do with health and nutritional balance. This was my second cultural shock.

Then I discovered that in our society that promotes tourism through food and claims it understands cuisine, many people never really pay attention to diet.

The environment we grew up in, whether at home or in school, often goes after the idea of “coarse fullness," which means having food to fill yourself is good enough and it’s even better if you can get large portions for low prices. After we start working, we become interested in “exotic cuisine" or “restaurants that make you wait in line." But what’s so special about artificial powder and MSG? A lot of people are probably chasing after taking photos and checking in new fancy restaurants after waiting one or two hours in line.

I have seen children drinking large bottles of artificially colored drinks and telling me, “This is a total bargain. This whole bottle only cost me fifty cents."

If you really understand food, what artificial coloring and flavoring are and how they damage your body and taste buds, you probably wouldn’t think the fifty cents were a good deal. But our schools and families haven’t taught us any of this. The whole society is about low costs. I’m not surprised a child would say something like that, but on the contrary feel a bit sad.

Honestly, I have been less scared of news related to food safety after I started cooking because I know what I am eating and I’m not just stuffing myself with delicious but unnatural food. I also know how to make up for my nutrition if one of my meals isn’t balanced.

I know how to choose my meals even when I’m eating out after understanding food. But how can you learn more about food? I believe the only way is to starting cooking yourself. It’s like playing the stock market. You need to invest in order to delve seriously into it. Food is the same. The motivation for getting to know food comes from cooking.

Many people will say that eating a little bit of junk food won’t hurt anyone. It’s true. The human body has a metabolism mechanism, but it’s like a bad habit. You say you will just eat a little every time, but you do it every day as time goes by.

It’s hard to explain to others sometimes; for example, I insist on keeping small children away from chocolate and candy. There are too many reasons I do so and can’t be spelt out in a single word. I can only slip candies given out by friendly employees at the checkout counter into my pocket. (They sometimes emphasize that the candies aren’t bad for children. But there are only unhealthy candies and very unhealthy candies. There’s no such thing as candies that aren’t bad for children. It’s only a marketing strategy.)

I quite admire the mothers and friends that keep their children completely away from sweets. There are quite a few mothers that do so. I still let my children occasionally devour cakes, cookies, ice cream and so on, and this is the difference between theory and practice. I will keep working on it.

Educating the next generation to bear the right diet concepts is something I believe cannot wait. I can tell my taste buds are flexible ever since I started cooking myself. After my mouth and stomach gets used to eating normally, my body sets off signals when I consume bad artificial flavoring or heavy foods. I prepare breakfast for my family almost every day and whenever I have breakfast somewhere else, an uncomfortable greasy taste fills my mouth. So I willingly make breakfast every morning. This is the body learning how to distinguish between good and bad food.

We are always cramming more knowledge into the brains of our children, but why don’t we want to teach their bodies the right things? We have already passed the period when filling ourselves was enough and have the ability to choose what we want to eat. So why are we still using old values?

Once at dinner with friends, I noticed all of her nephews didn’t order sodas. I was surprised and asked them why. They said they didn’t like soda because it was too sweet. Wow, elementary school students telling me they didn’t like the sweetness of sodas. It was only after asking them did I learn that their mother paid a lot of attention to their consumption of sugar. Once their taste buds were taught well, their bodies naturally knew how to make the distinction and they didn’t need to be forced to make the better choice of food. Compared with the child that thought the fifty-cent artificial drink was a bargain, we can see the impact of diet education.

Finally, cooperation of the environment is still very important, like the school lunch incident this time has brought about discussion between mothers. Some working mothers are remarkable and wake up early every day to prepare lunch for their children while others start missing how their own mothers would take care of all the meals in a day. Now things have changes, and it’s impossible to ask every parent to prepare lunches. Families with double incomes are not able to do so, and I believe the right diet concept is the way to solve this problem.

Only when parents, children and the society are aware of the right diet will it be possible to advocate for schools and governments to pay attention to food education and school lunches. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can push all the problems to the government. If the people don’t take their diet seriously, then how can they expect the government to do so?

The importance of diet education is no less than going to school. Only when parents have the correct concepts can children have the chance to learn. If the entire society cares about eating, the schools will have more space to promote dietary education. We can’t blame others for a lot of things and need to start with improving ourselves. When every one is willing to do something, then there’s a chance to change. Every time I see someone criticizing food safety in Taiwan, I think, “Aside from criticizing, have you really tried to understand your own diet?"

I won’t lie. Cooking is a tiring task; from coming up with dishes to shopping for ingredients and then on to cooking, washing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I have also thought it wasn’t worth that much time making something that could be finished in half an hour. But the influence food has on your body has a longer effect than thirty minutes. Thinking about it this way, the return on investment is actually pretty high.

People with less time on their hands can also make simple dishes like steamed fish, boiled shrimps and vegetables and so on. You don’t need to have complicated dishes every day when you’re eating at home. (Many fancy dishes have too much seasoning anyways.) As long as you know the main principles to nutrition and health, a few pieces of toast, a hard-boiled egg along with some nuts and an apple can easily make a healthy and delicious breakfast.

The memory of a child’s body comes from their every day diet. If you are usually busy with work, then start from preparing at least one meal at home on the weekends.

Translated by Olivia Yang