My bedside stand is usually littered with stacks of cookbooks, chefs’ memoirs, and gastronomic nonfiction that constitute my I–swear–I’m–going–to–get–to–that–next piles.

I love to curl up with great food prose for an hour or so before I fall asleep, as a sort of vicarious midnight snack. As a man of short attention span, I find myself thumbing through one book or another, underlining things here, dog-earing pages there, and generally skimming the goodness from each book. It’s the only way to attack such a daunting—and growing and, increasingly, leaning—tower of reading material.

But this month, I let the others gather dust and became utterly engrossed in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. It’s an accessible set of food commandments, delivered with Pollan’s signature wry humor and a pithiness perfect for our Twitter generation, but the genius is in the simplicity. When you read these rules, there’s a second after the lightbulb ah-ha moment when you suffer a twinge of sheepishness because you realize these ideas are so obvious. They’ve just been hiding, right under your nose.

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Well, of course. Spam? Velveeta? GoGurt? McNuggets? Your great-grandmother likely knew her chicken dinner by name. She may have fried it, but it would have slowly turned a deep golden brown in a cast-iron skillet, not under a warmer after having been overfed, processed, battered, frozen, and dunked in oil. Pollan calls items like these “food products,” engineered to be craved, overconsumed, and most of all, cheap.

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”
A look at a popular grocery store ice cream label reveals all the things you’d expect—milk, cream, sugar—plus a few things you might not, including modified food starch, carrageenan, soya lecithin, and sodium alginate. Ask your average third-grader if he’d prefer broccoli or carrageenan with his dinner.

“Have a glass of wine with dinner.”
Well if I must, I must!

Granted, Pollan’s approach is one of moderation, but it’s also one that advises not taking eating so seriously. His book is a friendly food companion, not a preachy tome, that encourages thinking sensibly and, well, obviously about the foods we eat and feed our families. These are lifestyle adjustments that require just thinking a little more carefully about shopping only on the perimeter of the grocery store, avoiding the “food products” down the aisles, opting for organically harvested produce and humanely grown meats.

If possible, that means buying local foods, foods thoughtfully planted, nurtured, picked, and shipped just a few miles from your own home. Luckily, Birmingham is blessed with several local farmers’ markets and produce stands that can deliver quality products that qualify as real food. Or, as Michael Pollan would say, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
It really is that simple.•