Monday, April 9, 2012

Real Food Realities: Celebrating Small Changes

Every once in a while, I start to feel a bit nostalgic … oh for the good old days, when I would go to the grocery store and purchase cheap meat and generic packaged goods, with nary a thought for any health or social concerns! I believed, as many people do, that if all this stuff is for sale at the grocery store, then surely it must be safe and wholesome. In fact, I thought I ate a very healthy, well-balanced diet.

Why the nostalgia? Well … because to be honest, the way I shopped and ate back then was easier. A lot easier. And even though I’ve learned the little tricks for saving time and money while still eating well, it can all be a little intimidating at first.

The way I thought about food began to change after I found myself spending most of my time at home with a new baby. I started browsing through blogs. A lot of them. And although I became convinced that the way we ate needed to change and I was inspired by the wealth of recipes and strategies and ideas and tips - I was completely overwhelmed. I was reading about sprouting grains, baking your own bread, making yogurt and cheese, cooking absolutely everything from scratch … I tried to envision doing all these things, as I alternated between newborn feedings and diaper changes all day long. It all felt pretty much impossible. I imagine that a lot of people who want to change their food habits feel the exact same way.

So how do we make real food a little less scary?

I think this is a really important question and I’ve been heavily influenced by both Michael Pollan (specifically by his book, In Defense of Food) and Mark Bittman on this point. I’ve been leafing through Bittman’s The Food Matters Cookbook as of late and I’m impressed with his creative solutions for wholesome, simple eating. His approach feels doable – something that a busy family could reasonably accomplish.

This is my variation on a recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook ... Pureéd White Beans with Tons of Fresh Herbs. Easy and delicious!

In my own journey towards more sustainable eating, I’ve come to terms with both my strengths and limitations. I’m really not good at being in my kitchen all day. I occasionally still feel a twinge of guilt when I think of all the things I’m not doing that I know are excellent and ambitious endeavors. I don’t make my own yogurt, although it's on my list of things to try – I buy Nancy’s Organic. I bake my own bread occasionally, but I usually buy a sprouted, whole wheat loaf from Trader Joe's. I have made chicken stock in the past, but it’s not a weekly (or monthly) project for me. I buy boxed, organic stock and I don’t let myself feel too guilty about it. I’m interested in the idea of making my own fermented foods, but I haven’t been brave enough to experiment with them yet.

These compromises are reflections of my circumstances, my temperament and my current stage of life. We live in a small apartment, with a very small kitchen. One of the first things I realized when we moved in was that our new fridge was several inches shorter than our old one! It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you need to maximize your food storage capacity, every inch counts. We have no real pantry area; just a few inches of space between the cupboards and the ceiling, where I stow non-perishables and an odd cupboard in our bedroom where I stash canned goods. This means that my bulk dry goods purchases have to be limited and carefully considered. We have no basement and no garage. This means no additional freezer space for bulk meat purchases.

The bottom line is that you have to make the best of what you have and not get discouraged by the imperfections. Baby steps still count! Instead of worrying about what I’m not able to accomplish at the moment, I try to focus on the things I can do right now to improve the health of my family and the greater community. This looks different for everyone, but here are some goals that my family and I have set over the last few years.

1. Higher quality meat and fewer meat-centric meals
For us, this was not simply a question of health, but also of budget. In order to afford better meat, we had to eat less of it. There was no way around it, especially with our lack of available storage for bulk meat purchasing. We currently eat 1-2 meatless dinners per week and our dinners that do include meat often utilize small portions of inexpensive cuts, like bone-in chicken thighs and beef stew meat or flavorful options, like bacon.

2. Prioritizing sustainably produced luxury foods
Primarily, this means coffee and chocolate. I do everything I can to hunt down organic, fair trade luxury foods and I don’t mind paying a little extra for them. They are definitely more expensive than the conventionally produced brands, so we don't have them all the time.

3. Shifting toward our local and seasonal food economy
Back in the day, I would think of something I wanted to eat and go buy the ingredients, without a second thought. These days, I rarely bother with any recipe calling for, say, fresh tomatoes, unless it’s summertime. I shop the farmers’ market in the spring, summer and fall and whatever I come home with is what we eat that week. In the winter, I make friends with root veggies and hearty greens, even though they aren’t as familiar and take some experimentation.

4. Gaining confidence with food preservation
I’m not going to lie … canning still freaks me out. But I push through my paranoia and do it every summer and fall, because it creates interest and variety in our diet, especially during the winter months. I also devote some of my precious freezer space to salsa, berries, beans, corn and pasta sauce.

These are not big things by themselves, but they represent an overall shift in my family’s attitude toward our food system.

Thoughts on baby steps toward more sustainable eating? Please share!

Rebekah Pike 
Rebekah is happiest with her nose in a book and enjoys making the most of her pint-sized, apartment kitchen. After leaving work in media production to become a full-time mommy, she began exploring the sustainable living movement, reconnecting with the back-to-the-earth ideals of her hippie parents. She met her husband, Darian, in 2005, working as a camp counselor in Oregon's rugged outdoors. Most of their time is spent chasing after their two year old daughter, Ashlynn, and doing serious “research” at Portland's restaurants, coffee shops and markets.

1 comment:

Holly said...

One of the first baby steps we took as a family was "no waste." No matter what, food does not get thrown away in our house. We eat a lot of leftovers and freeze large portions. We have a 3 year old son and he understands that milk leftover in the cereal bowl doesn't get poured down the sink. My healthy food awareness also came into focus when I had a newborn and learned about hormones in our meat and dairy.


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