Updates on Food

Nancy inquired, based on an earlier blog, about things that my wife and I are doing to try and eat healthier.  I referred her to my post from a year ago, but thought that something a little more extensive might be merited. 

First off, we’re amateurs.  We love to cook, and we love to eat.  But we’re by no means experts, nor do we currently live up to the high expectations that we hold out for ourselves.  Like most folks, we’re attempting to do some smart things, gradually changing the way we eat to hopefully provide better nutrition.  There are lots of good resources out there on this topic.  I’m not going to attempt to point you to them, but rather encourage you to a) write in with your recommendations on books, websites, video clips, whatever that have helped you make changes in your eating habits, and b) check into your local community.  The movement towards natural eating is gaining ground, and you don’t have to live in a rural community to have support groups and other like-minded people.

I like the term natural eating.    It doesn’t have the self-righteous smack of smarter eating or healthier eating, though it incorporates concepts those smarmy terms have associated with them.  I find that eating more naturally is a natural extension of my faith – though certainly not one that has salvific connotations.  We were created as stewards, and stewards have more to think about than what’s easiest/best for themselves.  Stewards take a big-picture approach to live and their role in it.  For most of mankind’s history, natural eating was, well, natural.  There weren’t other options. 

However for at least two (or perhaps four) generations, we’ve been led away from eating food in its natural state to eating food in a processed state.  There are lots of reasons for the processing.  To extend shelf-life, to make the food easier to prepare, to reduce cooking times, to change the flavors – the list probably goes on for a long ways.  I’m going to assert that overall, processed food is intended to save us time.  However, the cost for that saved prep time is that the nutritional content of the food is reduced, and there are a bevy of less-than-healthy things added into the food in the form of preservatives.  Natural eating acknowledges that it takes time to prepare food, and that this is time well spent.  Not everyone’s schedules will allow for this additional time.  But I also believe that we control much more about our schedules than we generally let on, and that if something is important, we make time for it.

Before you continue on, I think you have to do something very important as you set out on the broad road to eating more naturally.  You need to determine what your goals are.  For example, my sister-in-law is raising two young boys with cystic fibrosis.  Her blog details her quest to find healthy, gluten-free and high-calorie meals and snacks that she can prepare for them, since gaining and maintaining weight is a crucial matter for their well-being.  Our family isn’t looking to pack in the calories.  Other people have other health concerns – such as minimizing sugar or sodium intake, or avoiding foodstuffs that they have allergies to.  These different goals will result in different approaches and outcomes.  Know what your goals are.  Is it to eat more naturally?  To eliminate empty calories?  To eat less meat?  Be specific initially.  You can always add other goals down the road if you find satisfaction with attaining your initial goal.  But setting too broad a goal initially can overwhelm you and cause you to give up.

Our goals are to reduce the amount of processed food in our diet, and to eat a variety of healthy things.

So, what do we do in our house to try and eat more naturally?

1.  Read Labels. 
And I mean really look at them.  Not just the front, but the back.  Especially the back.  The front is designed to entice you to buy the product over and against other competing products.  The back is where they tell you the stuff they’re forced to tell you.  Look at serving size and determine how many servings you’re likely to consume to get the full impact  of the nutritional data.  Look not just at calories and fat content, but sugar and salt content.  Learn that sugar has a variety of names and forms, and companies legally use these different names and forms so that it might seem like the product is healthier than it really is.  Yes, ingredients are generally listed in descending order based on quantity in the product.  But a product that lists ingredients 4-7 as sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fruit juice is probably telling you that the number one ingredient in the product by volume is sugar in one form or another. 

Understand the difference between phrases such as ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘pesticide free’, etc.  Understand that just because a product says “50% less salt” doesn’t mean that it’s low-sodium.  Understand that sugar and salt are added to a dizzying array of products that you would never have guessed would contain salt and sugar.  Our taste buds have been conditioned to crave and expect these things.  They’re everywhere.

2.  Adjust Recipes
We find quite often that recipes that we used to use pre-processed items in (tomato sauce/paste, chicken/beef stock, etc.) could have certain ingredients reduced because they were also in the pre-processed things we were adding.  We could lower the salt we added to some ingredients, for example.  Remember you can always salt something more if it really needs it – but you can’t make something less salty.  Feel free to experiment with reducing salt (and sugar) in recipes to see how they taste.

3.  Don’t Buy Bad Stuff
We generally don’t have cookies, cake, pies, ice cream, candy, and other assorted other items in our house.  We have them on special occasions, but not as a daily part of life.  Because if we have them on hand, we eat them.  It’s much easier to rely on planning rather than willpower to change your eating habits!  You’ll get used to not having the stuff around after a while – and you’ll enjoy it immensely more when you do have it! 

My wife and I aren’t big snackers – but our kids are.  Keep healthy snacks around as alternatives to chips and other processed options.  Our kids love to munch on fresh fruit, baby carrots, and various types of nuts – particularly pistachios.  They also munch on tortilla chips and pretzels, as well as Cheerios.  Nobody’s perfect.

4.  Drink Water
I grew up with a deep love of Coca Cola.   While I wasn’t allowed to have much of it while I was younger, when I became a teenager, it became a dietary staple.  I’m not sure about where you live, but I grew up in the desert.  Which meant that we had access to beverages in container sizes that would boggle (and drown) many developing nations.  Circle-K and 7-11 sold (and probably still sell) fountain drinks in half-barrel sizes.  It was nothing for me to chug down 64-oz of Coca Cola a day.  It was 120  degrees outside.  It was a matter of survival.  Sort of. 

I never imagined that I could give up Coca Cola,
but it’s been almost three years since I did.  I’ve recently allowed myself to have one, and I find that while it’s still incredibly, mind-bogglingly good with pizza, it’s not the same as it used to taste.  I don’t need it.  I get my caffeine from tea and on some occasions, coffee.  Soda adds a ton of sugar and calories without giving you *anything* nutritional in return – and in fact giving you a fair number of things that *aren’t* good for you.  Remember that Coca-Cola is used to clean the corrosion off of your terminals on your car battery.  No matter how good it tastes on your tongue, it can’t be that good for your body!

Many folks have made the switch to diet sodas, or bottled ‘energy drinks’ or ‘enhanced water’ products.  These all contain sugar.  You can get the added minerals and vitamins from other sources without sucking down the extra calories and sugars. 

I tend to believe we were designed to primarily drink water.  It does good things for our bodies, and is relatively inexpensive.  We filter our water through a Britta filter to make it a little nicer tasting, and perhaps a little cleaner.  Don’t buy bottled water – the plastic leaches into the water and is not good for you.

5.  Eat at Home
We eat out from time to time, but not very often.  When we do eat out, it’s usually for ethnic food or things that we have not yet made at home.  We make pizzas from scratch (courtesy of the dough cycle on our bread machine, and a kick-butt blender that gives us instant tomato sauce from whole tomatoes).  I eat out more than the rest of my family due to my work schedule, but that’s something I hope to draw under control over time.  Eating out is more expensive than eating at home – even if you’re using organic ingredients.  As you get more comfortable in cooking, you’ll find that you like the taste of your food more than food you eat out (at least we do).  Save money, eat better (better meaning not just healthier but also fancier!), and wean yourself off of eating out except for those times when you’re really too pooped or busy to cook.

6.  Develop Some Good Core Meals
We like to invite people to our home for dinner, and we’ve developed over the  years a half-dozen different meals that our family loves and have a proven track record with guests.  We’re familiar enough with the recipes and the processes involved that we can usually prep much of it in advance so we aren’t running around with our heads cut off.

Cooking can be overwhelming because there are so many options out there.  By developing a few core meals that you know you’re good at, you develop confidence and have a go-to repertoire of meals that you can fall back on when you aren’t feeling particularly creative or adventurous.

7.  Involve the Family
If the family enjoys cooking, you’re more likely to do it more consistently than if it’s all on your shoulders.  Kids can help prep foods by grating cheese, or setting the table.  Kids like to help and are naturally fascinated by stuff like cooking.  Plus, they like to munch, which gives them additional incentive to be involved.  It might take more time, but it will pay dividends over time to involve your kids and spouse in meal preparation.

8.  Grow Things Yourself
Spices and herbs can be outrageously priced in the stores, whether you’re buying ‘fresh’ or dried.  Yet you can grow lots of common herbs in window boxes and have access to fresh herbs (without pesticides or herbicides) whenever you want.  If you have the space for it, consider planting a garden.  There are lots of online resources to help you create a garden whether you have nothing but a slab of concrete, or an extensive patch of actual dirt.  Learn what grows best in your area, and in what seasons.  Landscape with trees and shrubs that provide fruit or veggies.  Make your environment work for  you, by working with your environment.  

Although my wife swears I’m crazy, I really do want to try raising hens for eggs.  Many cities allow you to keep chickens (not roosters!), but have requirements about how you keep them and how many you can have.  Check with your local zoning regulations to determine if this is an option for you.  Sharing eggs with neighbors might be a way of winning over skeptical neighbors! 

9.  Adjust to Sticker Shock
Eating healthier can be pricey.  Buying fresh things instead of frozen or canned can be more costly – but the taste is far, far better.  Buying certain things organic is pricier.  Learn which things you should buy organic and what sorts of things aren’t as critical (general rule of thumb – if you eat the outer skin/peel/whatever, organic is the way to go).  Learn what grows in your area, and what the growing seasons are.  Things are less expensive when they’re local and in season.  You’re going to pay a premium for strawberries in January – unless you happen to live in Southern California!

10. Process Things Yourself
What I said earlier is true – oftentimes what we’re paying for in our food is a savings in time.  It’s possible to make all sorts of things for yourself at home rather than buying them in their finished form at the grocery store.  Invest in a bread machine and your cost per loaf will drop to under $1 in no time – and you control exactly what you put into it!  You can purchase yogurt makers to make your own yogurt.  Pizza dough can be made in a bread maker.  Juice tomatoes for fresh tomato sauce instead of buying it in a can where they’ve added preservatives and salt.  Make your own tomato soup instead of buying it premade.  Juice your own fruits (& veggies) to create healthy smoothies for the kids, or fresh soups.  Spend 30 minutes to prep a batch of homemade salsa instead of buying a jar of it.  Boil the carcass of a baked chicken to make your own chicken stock (seasoned to your taste, and with far less salt than the canned stuff you can buy at the grocery). 

Ok.  I’m tired of thinking about it.  These are some more extensive starter ideas.  Some are crazy.  Some might be doable.  To me, you need to be educated about what you’re putting into your body, and then you can start making decisions about whether or not you should *keep* putting that stuff into your body.  Time is just as valuable – if not more so – than actual money these days.  If you’re willing to invest some time each week, you can eat better, eat healthier, save money, and pass on valuable lessons to your kids. 

On a final note, don’t feel like you have to do these things alone!  Band together with neighbors or friends & family to create support groups where you can share ideas and keep one another motivated.  We know people that gather on a regular basis to can fruits & veggies together for an entire day, and then they’re done with it for the season!  Consider taking turns hosting dinner with local friends & family – you could end up cooking a lot less frequently, while learning more recipes.  Food is not simply a matter of me putting something into my body – it’s an inherently relational activity. 

I hope to hear other thoughts, suggestions, disagreements, etc. from y’all!

6 Responses to “Updates on Food”

  1. Melani Says:

    I think it is awesome to eat healthier. Recently, Ponch was given the news that he had high cholesterol, off the charts. So, he was given a medicine that made him numb on the left side of his face, arm and leg. He was admitted to the ER a few weeks ago and doesn’t take that medicine anymore. BUT, he has adjusted his eating habits tremendously, by becoming vegetarian we hope he has cut his cholesterol at least in half. It is scary when your health is on the line, not to mention heart stuff which is what high cholesterol can cause, heart attacks and strokes and stuff like that. So, I spend more on vegetarian chicky nuggs (as I call the vegetarian chicken nuggets) and the veg ribs but who cares, as long as my husband is eating healthy. He also eats more fruit and vegetables during the day and oatmeal and a granola type cereal to snack on.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    It’s a shame that so many of us wait until a serious problem or scare before changing out habits – and I include myself firmly in that camp!  Taking many slow steps over time is a lot easier than converting to vegetarianism overnight, I’ll bet!  I’m glad that Ponch is doing well and that your family is making good decisions about health! 

  3. Nancy C Says:

    Paul, this was so helpful. It was a pleasant surprise to see that we’re on the road to doing much of this already. We make our own bread and I think tomato sauce is next on the list. We also make our own cleaning supplies and we’re weaning ourselves off the toxic substances in our home. We are planning on joining a CSA this summer and we’re also looking into buying half an organic cow with a few other families. This is great stuff—very thoughtful.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    I didn’t even go into cleaning supplies – but that’s another  great area to talk about!  We’re in the process of transitioning over to primarily white vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda as major cleaning agents.  We already use bio-friendly laundry detergent and dishsoap as well.  The dishwasher is another matter – for now ;-(We don’t use pesticides, either.  We have an ant problem every now and then when it rains a lot or gets extra cold.  My solution is to squish them.  Sometimes by the hundreds, it  seems.  I’m not sure the ants appreciate the more humane touch, but I would rather do that than spray a bunch of toxic stuff around the house.  We looked into a CSA here last spring, but it was WAAAYYY pricey.  It’s something that we’ll likely try to do when we relocate, though.  And we’ve also talked about the organic cow sort of thing.  I’d probably prefer a pig to a cow, but either way would be fine.  Here’s another area to think about – clothing.  I read something a while back talking about the toxins in clothing, and advocating all-natural fiber clothing.  Any thoughts on that?  Or is that just over the top tree-hugging?

  5. Nancy C Says:

    Yeah, Paul and I are going to come to blows when it comes to the ants, but I think that the poison is the worst stuff of all. Naturally, it’s in the kitchen. Easy Off is another toxic nightmare. Again, in the oven, where food is prepared, we spew this stuff. We do vinegar and lemon juice as well and have found a lot of success with tea tree oil as an alternative to bleach. We also make our own laundry detergent. In our case, we have time because I don’t work outside the home, and we are both misers, so we love to save money (in addition to the other benefits). As for the clothing, I haven’t done much research on that. However, I am looking into making my own beauty products…soaps, shampoo, lotions etc. I must admit that I love my dishwasher. We also still use disable diapers, but may make the switch soon now that Joel is getting older and more on a schedule, so to speak.

  6. Paul Nelson Says:

    We’ve used tea tree oil as a anti-fungal/anti-bacterial treatment with the kids – and I’ve recently seen some articles touting it’s cleaning abilities as well.  Nice to know that somebody else is trying it with some success already.Not sure if we’ll go so far as making our own shampoos and stuff.  Not that I’m against it, just haven’t thought that far out yet.  We use our dishwasher nightly.  It’s a convenience, to be sure, but I wash all the stainless steel pots by hand anyways, so it wouldn’t be a massive stretch to do without the dishwasher.  Again, I think it comes down to doing things in manageable stages, and determining goals.  What are we most worried about, first?  We tried cloth diaper service with our oldest son (who turns 8 in a couple of months) when he was first born.  The idea was great, but he was so small that they didn’t fit.  We went to disposables and have stuck with them through all three kids.  Not proud of it, but it is what it is.  There are so many things that people *can* do differently to impact their health as well as our world.  I think that there is great value in banding together to be of support within a geographical area.  That way, somebody that wants to emphasize homemade soaps, etc. could barter them off for someone else’s fresh baked bread, or 20 minutes of ant-squishing.  The possibilities are endless.So many of these ideas can seem overwhelming when we think of them as just ourselves having to do it.  While there’s a huge blessing to having one spouse at home, it’s a lot to sit on their shoulders, no matter how capable and motivated they are.  But if neighbors can work together, the benefits seem to multiply.  At least in theory.  I won’t get into how I would love to build my own straw-bale construction house some day. 

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