Oh, Joy


Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeon over the years, along with our waistlines.

Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeoned over the years, along with our waistlines.

If you’re of a certain age–like, say, mine–you probably grew up in a household where The Joy of Cooking held an honored spot on the cookbook shelf. Well, maybe not honored in our house, since my mom didn’t really like cooking all that much, but it was a reference to which she turned with some regularity.

First published commercially in 1936, Joy has been updated every few years since. (Irma S. Rombauer had self-published the original edition in 1931.) Leave it Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, Ph.D., to examine how the cookbook has evolved over the years to reflect our changing food habits. Wansink is the author of Mindless Eating and heads up Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, where he and his colleagues do amazing research into our attitudes and behavior when it comes to food. He and former postdoc researcher Collin Payne culled through 18 recipes that have been published in every addition of Joy, including such beloved American faves as brownies, sugar cookies, mac ‘n’ cheese, and beef stroganoff.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that portions have gotten bigger over the decades, but I was shocked to discover they’ve ballooned 63 percent. Um, that’s a lot. In 1936, the average recipe was a trim 268 calories. Seventy years later, the average was  436 calories per serving. “What served four people in 1986 would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards,” says Wansink. He thinks analyzing other long-published cookbooks would yield similar results.

What served four people in the 1986 edition of The Joy of Cooking would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards. 

“People often blame eating out as being one of the big culprits for gaining weight, but this study suggests that what we do in our own homes may be equally bad or even worse,” he says. “Family size has gotten smaller, but calorie content and portion sizes have gotten bigger.” Several factors contribute to this, he explains, including:

  • Americans have grown larger.
  • Restaurant portions have gotten bigger, which has changed our expectations for portions at home.
  • Food has gotten cheaper, so we spend a smaller proportion of our income on it and buy more of it.

Now, the last point is really interesting, because when Joy’s 1986 edition was published in the heart of the go-go ’80s, and even when the 2006 version was published, food was indeed cheap. But as we all know, the cost of food has risen steadily in the past year, while salaries have dropped, people have lost their jobs, and the economy has slowed to a deep and tenacious recession (depression, some say). I can’t help wondering how this will influence Joy’s editors as they prepare the 80th anniversary edition for 2011. It will be interesting to see if portion sizes and calorie counts hark back to Irma Rombauer’s Depression-era incarnations.

Food prices have risen sharply over the past year, and we’re in the midst of a stubborn and deep recession. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming 80th anniversary edition of Joy harks back to the portion sizes and calorie counts of its Depression-era roots.

In the meantime, when cooking from the current version of Joy, Wansink has some advice: If you’re preparing a recipe that’s supposed to serve 4, set aside half the recipe to enjoy another night. “Families need to be aware that serving size and calorie composition of classic recipes “should be downsized to counteract growing waistlines.”

Resolutions that work, part 2: Pay attention to what you eat


An empty bowl is an invitation to focus on what you eat.

An empty bowl is an invitation to focus on what you eat.

Next up on our tour of food-related New Year’s resolutions is what some people call mindful eating, or what I consider simply paying attention to what you eat. Nichele Hoskins, a Birmingham, AL-based magazine editor, put it best when she sent me her 2009 resolutions: Avoid eating in transit, topped the list. Sounds simple, but if you’re an avid grazer (a k a snacker) like me, you first have to acknowledge how much mindless chowing you actually do. You know, those times when you find yourself nibbling on this or that because you’re kinda, sorta, well, not really hungry. Sound familiar? Hmm, I just ate a scone while folding laundry. In fact, when I think about it, most of my eating is done while doing something else.

Evenings have been a downfall for David Mark, a consultant who specializes in nutrition research and development.. “No calories of any sort after dinner,” Mark vows for the coming year, to avoid mindless eating and reduce the likelihood of bedtime acid reflux.

Nichele’s and David’s seemingly small goals are powerful. Essentially, they involve avoiding situations where you eat while engaged in another activity, such as driving, working, reading, watching TV, or noodling on the Internet. 

Nichele’s goal: Avoid eating in transit. That’s a simple, yet powerful goal that can help short-circuit mindless consumption. Eating while distracted makes it difficult to register when you’ve had enough.

Too many of us eat without taking notice too often. According to Brigham & Women’s Hospital, 66% of us regularly eat dinner in front of the TV (yep, guilty of that one). So what? Well, it turns out mindless munching could make the digestive process up to 40% less effective, not to mention create unwanted side effects like bloating, acid reflux, or just plain eating too much. Eating while distracted makes it difficult to register when you’ve had enough.

There are lots of ways to eat mindfully, some of them not really suited to everyday living (are you going to close your eyes and register every bite, or chew every bite 30 times? Not me). But there are some simple strategies to bring your attention back to the task.

  • Eat with your nondominant hand to slow you down. (I can do that.)
  • Don’t watch TV, read, drive, or troll the Internet while you eat. (This one will be tough; I love eating and reading or watching TV.)
  • Serve up a proper portion on a plate. (Easy.)
  • Sit down to eat. (Not so easy, if sitting down doesn’t also involve another activity.)
  • Try to make the meal last 20 minutes. (That isn’t so long, but if you’re in the habit of bolting down your food, it will probably feel like forever at first.)
  • Eat food you like. (I like this one–why waste time eating food you don’t enjoy?)

3d-book_tip_2There are many triggers to mindless eating, as Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, can attest. He’s made a career of studying the psychology of eating–everything from how different-size plates influence how much we eat to why people consume more calories at Subway than they do at McDonalds. His (often surprising) findings are collected in his book and Web site Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. I’ve signed up for his National Mindless Eating Challenge, which allows you to customize weekly and monthly goals to eat better and with more attention. Also check out Brian’s blog on the Prevention magazine Web site. Now, I am hungry, so I’m going to go eat something. Just eat, nothing else.

[Update: I had a carton of blueberry nonfat yogurt and managed to sit down while eating it (though I had to fight the urge to get up and at least walk around, maybe pet the dog). But it was tasty, and I did note my enjoyment of it. However, I caught myself reading the nutrition info on the carton, which was a bit of a cheat. At least I was reading about the food I was eating.]