July 07, 2011


Just Tell Me What to Eat! The Delicious 6-Week Weight Loss Plan for the Real World. By Timothy S. Harlan, M.D. Da Capo. $25.

Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet – All on $5 a Day or Less. By Linda Watson. Da Capo. $17.

     An exceptionally clever idea marred by imperfect execution, Timothy Harlan’s Just Tell Me What to Eat! starts from a premise that is the opposite of that in most diet books. Instead of telling people what to avoid eating, he explains what people should eat in order to lose weight. And he gives specific, day-by-day recipes. And he makes sure the foods can be cooked in 30 minutes or less, in most cases, since he knows how busy people are. And since he realizes that some readers may be too busy even for 30 minutes of cooking, he offers convenience-food and restaurant-meal alternatives to many home-cooked dishes. At last, it would seem, there is a diet book that resides firmly in the real world. And Harlan seems the perfect person to write it, being a medical director at Tulane University School of Medicine, a practicing internist, and a chef and TV personality. Unfortunately, although all this makes the book seem good enough to eat (so to speak), the execution of the concept does not quite live up to the idea itself. This is a cluttered book. The main narrative is fairly easy to follow, but first you have to find it. A short discussion of body-mass index, for example, is followed by a recipe for a dinner dish (blackened redfish) and then a page containing three boxes, the first from “Chef Tim” saying to use a cast-iron skillet, the second from “Dr. Tim” saying to eat brown rice more often, and the third from “Chef Tim” (again) saying to eat rice. Then come recipes for dirty rice and maple-sweetened collard greens, followed by two suggestions for convenience meals and two for restaurant meals – as alternatives to the home-prepared one. The layout itself is not pleasing to the eye, with multiple typefaces and type sizes that do not always go well together. And the “Chef Tim” and “Dr. Tim” hats that the author keeps using (and changing) come to seem gimmicky and wear out their welcome quickly, especially when – as in the “rice” example – the two “hats” are simply discussing different aspects of the same subject. This sounds like a book whose straightforward approach will take little work: just follow Harlan’s prescription and you will have healthful meals that will also help you lose weight. In practice, though, it is not always easy to follow, even if you use the “goals” set out each week as a guide to the narrative that will be presented for that week. Furthermore, some of the more tempting recipes are really nowhere near the 30-minute range: “pizza with Thai peanut sauce and scallops,” for example, takes 30 minutes to cook but also requires 60 minutes of preparation time, while “spring barley salad” requires 60 minutes of cooking time. Also, the sequence of the narrative is sometimes rather odd: Harlan calls measuring ingredients “one of the simplest tips for reducing calories and eating healthy [sic],” but he does not get into the subject until Day 19. And Harlan is rather self-promotional in much of the book – at one point, on a single page, he twice refers readers to his Web site (once for dessert recipes and once for product reviews). The idea of a book that lays out, simply and straightforwardly, what a person should eat at every meal for six weeks – resulting in better food habits plus weight loss – remains attractive. But Harlan’s book, as commendable as it is in some ways, isn’t it.

     For those whose tastes run to organic food but whose budgets do not, Linda Watson’s Wildly Affordable Organic is a guidebook of a different sort. About half the book is recipes, which are fine, if nothing special. The other half is more interesting, with the most intriguing section of all being a season-by-season set of recommendations for shopping and recipes – including cost estimates. These once-a-month shopping lists are really excellent, showing, for each item, its food category, how much to buy, what to expect to spend at a “green price” and “thrifty price”, and what percentage you will likely have left at the end of the month. As for the money-saving concept, it is mostly pretty straightforward (“watch the unit price, not the package price”), but there are some useful approaches that readers may not have thought of. For instance, Watson warns against believing that “bigger is better,” saying that “you’ll often pay less for several medium jars of peanut butter than one big jar with the same amount.” And she points out that buying foods in specialty portions of a market, such as the Hispanic aisle, can be a big money saver – real vanilla cost $5.95 for two ounces in one baking aisle vs. $3.59 for two ounces in the Hispanic aisle, a 40% saving…while sesame seeds, $3.43 for one ounce in the baking aisle, cost $0.59 for 1.5 ounces in the Hispanic aisle – 89% less. Watson also explains that some types of food buying may be counter-intuitive from both a cost and ecological standpoint: “Smaller packages of preshredded cheese let you buy close to the amount you need. [And] you’ll save water and time by not scrubbing a grater.” Where does the “organic” element come into all this? Many of Watson’s ideas can be used by anyone who buys any type of food. But she does have a strong interest in promoting the use of organic foods, although tempered with an understanding of the very high price at which they often come: “Buy certified organic ingredients when you can afford to and when doing so makes sense.” She suggests, for example, using store-brand organic olive oil to save money, then applying the savings “to get good vinegar.” Her “scrimp or splurge” table is helpful: scrimp on maple syrup but splurge on honey; scrimp on tea but splurge on coffee (a real judgment call, that one); scrimp on rice but splurge on eggs; and so on. Neither Watson’s specific recommendations nor her overall orientation will please readers who are not already predisposed to buying and preparing organic foods – even though a good deal of what Watson advises applies as well to traditionally grown and prepared food. Wildly Affordable Organic is most useful for its shopping information and its well-constructed once-a-month, seasonal shopping lists; these are what elevate it above standard advocacy books and above other cookbooks containing recipes similar to the ones here.

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