Jamie Oliver catches himself mid-curse before rephrasing what he wants to say in more family-friendly language.
“They say they cook, but they don’t cook,” Oliver says of the families he has met in parts of the United States where lives are cut short by heart disease and other diet-related illnesses. “They don’t cook. They reheat. And there’s a difference.”
It’s been more than 12 years since the British chef began advocating nutritious wholesome food with his TV program Jamie’s School Dinners. And from the sound of it, his fight against heavily processed, fatty, salty, sugary foods is far from over.
Lately, Oliver, who is studying for a master’s degree in nutrition, has been a vocal supporter of a British tax on sugary beverages, expected to take effect in April, 2018. And he is adamant about the need for government intervention to help families make healthier food choices, such as Health Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy. The Healthy Eating Strategy includes revising Canada’s Food Guide, proposals to restrict the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and measures to improve nutrition quality standards.
Meanwhile, Oliver is promoting his new cookbook, 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food, a collection of recipes that, as its title suggests, use only five ingredients. He emphasizes individuals also have a role to play in the fight against obesity. Their main weapon, he says, is to cook for themselves.
As Oliver explained during a phone interview with The Globe and Mail, eating well is not about eliminating indulgences, but about making sure foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are treated as such and not the mainstays of one’s diet.
What’s a dish your own children bug you to make?
The thing they always tend to ask me to do is either a really good mild curry or a big barbecue. I try to encourage them to look through the cookbooks and put a little piece of paper where they want me to cook and then the next weekend, I’ll try and cook it. It’s nice to get them involved not with just the cooking, but also, [to plan]: ‘What do you want?’
As a father of five, how do you manage everyone’s individual food preferences?
We try not to be too kind, really. I’ve worked in a lot of households in Britain and different countries around the world and there’s nothing worse than seeing a mother or a father cooking five different meals for five different kids because they’ve all got particular preferences. I’ve got two girls who were and are gluten intolerant, which we’re working through. Other than that, they just kind of just have to go with the flow.
For every supper, they always have salad. Always. They do eat it, but I don’t really watch them much. I just put it there and I always put it out first, so when they’re hungry and they come around, they’ve got something to pick on straight away. It’s always different. Sometimes it’s leaves, sometimes vegetables or this or that. That’s a really nice way to just get them used to seeing [a variety]. Because if they’ve never seen it, they’re scared of it.
Babies aren’t put on earth to eat chicken nuggets and burgers. The only reason they tend to eat chicken nuggets and burgers is because they’re advertised all the time and they’re available on every street corner all the time. I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of kids who have never eaten a salad in their life. Ever. And they’re 12, 13, 14 years old. Ultimately, it’s the parents’ duty to make it fun and accessible and also make it taste nice.
For the intro of this book, it mentions 70 per cent of the recipes in the book are healthy. What can you tell me about the other 30 per cent?
When I started this book, I literally just wrote the recipes and they pretty much landed at 70-per-cent healthy from a calorific and a balanced point of view. As far as the other 30 per cent is concerned, that is to be celebrated and loved. I think really, it’s impossible to have a dessert that’s “green,” [according to Britain’s colour-coded nutrition labels] other than an apple or a piece of fruit. A good dessert, like a proper cake, is gonna be red. But red is there to be loved as well. Life without chocolate would be bloody boring.
Cakes and dessert and chocolate bars, they’ve always been very honest. They’ve always been an indulgence. The problem is that in the past 40 years, the cereal aisles of supermarkets have become essentially cake aisles. Pasta sauces have more sugar per 100 grams than desserts.
The point is, when people are given good information, they normally make bloody good choices. So that’s why when it comes down to things like the Healthy Eating Strategy that [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau is doing, within Canada that’s important, but also outside of Canada, for me, that’s also important.
The more and more governments that do it right and make it environmental, that’s going to help parents get it right, kids get it right, make it easier to get better things and a little harder to get the [bad] things. Also if there’s enough legislation, that inspires or forces businesses to do the right thing. That’s why the sugary tax in the U.K. was genius. All the [tax] money is going into sport and food education in primary schools, but what’s interesting is across the food industry, they’re all reformulating [their recipes to reduce sugar].
In the meantime, when I’m standing in the grocery aisle, it can be daunting trying to figure out not only what’s most nutritious, but also what’s ethically produced and what’s most economical. What’s your advice on navigating these choices?
There’s many things you can do. The first, regardless of your income, is know how to cook and how to shop. And you don’t have to be a chef. You just have to know how to cook some basic stuff and make stuff delicious, know when to shop, where to shop and when you can get the bargains and how to budget.
While there’s more pressure on moms and dads to work than ever before, the importance of learning how to cook and the basics of growing and where food comes from and how it affects your body, of course that has to be embraced into the schools. Of course, elementary school kids of Canada need to be gifted this life skill that will actually make them live longer and more productive. You ain’t going to die young if you don’t do your geography homework. You will die young if you don’t learn to cook. It’s as simple as that, really.
In Canada, the variety of fresh local produce dwindles in the winter. What’s your advice for when things start looking dismal in the produce section?
Embrace your freezer. Sadly, probably for too many years, Britain, Canada and America have been famous for freezing a lot of processed foods. Freezing is genius. Freezing is your best friend, especially if you’re a busy, working parent. Often, you can get frozen vegetables that are more nutritious than the fresh stuff you can get at any market, let alone the supermarket. Three days out of the ground, it’s flash-frozen within hours.
Embrace your freezer. Look at things that kind of last well that are imported maybe. Like your squashes, potatoes and carrots. They do pretty well and they’re really affordable. You can make it work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.