Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring is springing!

I am so happy to be looking out my backdoor and seeing the signs of spring all over! I wish I could tell you some of the plants are vegetables, but alas the previous owner used up every last inch of dirt planting ornamentals. It seems that if I want to plant a garden, I first have to dig one up! Oh well, it truly is a beautiful sight.

I know it's been awhile since I last posted anything, but at the moment I don't have the time to write something thoughtful and thought-provoking, so I will simply ask you to veer from this blog to watch a speech by Jamie Oliver at the TED conference. He does an excellent and inspiring job of summing up what's so frustrating about the industrial food complex and why it's so important that we change NOW!

By the way, since February I have been enjoying the bounty of fresh, local, organic produce from Eat with the Seasons and have been loving it! Thanks to the Herbert family for working so hard to give us fresh food! My mother and I have been splitting an extra-small bag  (it costs us each just $8.50 per week) and it seems to be just the right amount for us both. Also, at the beginning of February I participated in a workshop at the YMCA. The focus of this particular workshop was eating healthy with quick and easy recipes. Click here to see footage of the workshop!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Review - In Defense of Food and Food Rules

Before I get to my review of Michael Pollan's books, you probably want to know how we're doing with our experiment. I think we are making excellent progress in terms of becoming more aware of what kinds of food we put in our bodies and where the food itself has come from. In January we ate dinner at home 24 times in 31 days (our goal was 5-6 times a week, so we were successful!). Lunch has been a little more difficult, but we have made some progress (going from eating out everyday to eating lunch at home 12 days in January). I will keep you posted on our monthly progress. 

As for saving money .... Unfortunately I have not learned the magic trick of frugal grocery shopping, so even with all the eating at home we spent about the same amount on food (a little over $1500 for January). My only consolation is that it was, on the whole, much better food and worth the expense.

Now to the reviews. I want to encourage you all to read at least one of these books. 

In Defense of Food is 201 pages and goes into some depth about our dependence on corn and how U.S. agricultural policy greatly affects how and what we eat, for better or worse. In this book Pollan gives scientific, sociological, and cultural evidence for how we are eating, how we should be eating and why. It's a diet book, but not like any you've read before. His basic advice is very simple (and yet not as simple as it sounds): Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.
Food Rules is a much condensed version (139 pages, only about half of which contain words) of the former and focuses exclusively on common sense guidelines for eating a healthy diet and having a healthy attitude towards food. There are 64 basic rules, which on the surface seem obvious. Rules like "Eat Food" sound simple and overly obvious until you realize that most of the "food" in the store and at restaurants is not really food at all, but actually what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances." Not to worry, Food Rules will help you determine what constitutes food and what does not. What I find especially appealing about this approach to eating is that there's no calorie/carb/fat counting, no nutrient obsessing, just plain common sense. But you will have to throw out every vestige of the "nutritionism" which has been insidiously taking over our food consciousness for the past 40 or 50 years.

If you enjoy reading I highly recommend In Defense of Food. It is beyond interesting  -- it will inform you and hopefully make you think about what you are really buying when you go to the grocery store. Let me just say, you're not buying what you think you are!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doctor's Orders

Just when you think you're doing so well, leave it to a doctor to tell you otherwise! I had my "annual" checkup yesterday (in quotes because it's been three years since my last checkup), and I was more than a little surprised to be told I'm consuming too much salt. Huh? I don't add salt to anything, how can that be? Well, after going through several questions about packaged foods, snacks, soups, drinks, etc. we came to the conclusion that I'm still eating too much fast food! 

I was so proud of the strides my family and I have made in that realm - cutting way back to maybe once a week. Not only was my doctor completely unimpressed by that number, he told me that, even at 1 time per week, we are what McDonald's corporation considers "heavy users." (Even if we mainly go to Jack in the Box?) Then he told me something even more shocking to my system -- he feels it's only acceptable to eat fast food once or twice a YEAR!! And even now I'm hyperventilating at the thought.

Don't get me wrong, I don't actually like fast food. I think it's evil, I know it's killing America slowly, it's the main reason for the obesity epidemic in this country, and it's the main reason for the expansion of the Industrial Food Complex. I don't want to support the industry. But, aside from the "cost effectiveness," it's a time issue for me. Sometimes fast food really is all we have time for. I admit, once a week is still too often to eat fast food. But once or twice a year? That just doesn't seem doable to me.

I also need to know what exactly he considers "fast food." For instance, does he consider Chili's/Applebee's/Chevy's to be fast food? Or just the places we traditionally think of like Burger King and McDonald's? What about Running Rooster? If he considers all restaurants to be "fast food" I'm in BIG trouble because I wasn't counting all restaurants when I said we have fast food once a week. 

I was just starting to consider going gluten and dairy-free (which will most likely put the nail in the coffin as far as eating out goes anyway), now I can't eat anything with sodium. It's not looking good. I know I was going to use this blog as a way to offer tips and strategies for going organic to others, but it looks like I need a little help myself! What, for instance, do I pack in my children's lunches that's gluten-free, dairy-free and fun? Just don't ask me to go meat-free, I can only handle so many freedoms at once!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Beautiful Food

Though I haven't been writing (it has been a little busy with the holidays and all), my family and I have been staying on track with our goals! Well, for the most part anyway.

We have been eating at home most nights - even through the busy holiday season - and I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my kitchen is already in pretty good shape as far as sustainable foods are concerned! I have been buying organic eggs, meats, and milk for almost 3 years now, so the sticker shock has warn off. I am also a real stickler about trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, so those nasty ingredients have all but disappeared from my kitchen over the past few years as well. In fact, my fridge and pantry appear as if I've been at this experiment for awhile. Which I have -- in my kitchen at least.

The biggest hurdle remains eating at restaurants. Much to the dismay of my children, we have cut back drastically on our consumption of fast food, and instead have limited our options to restaurants that are locally owned and are committed to using fresh, high-quality ingredients. This may explain why, despite the fact that we've been eating at home more, I haven't noticed a change in our food expenses. Some of our favorite local eateries include Cafe Ella, The Knife & Fork Cafe, and Running Rooster (all in Hollister). A new favorite treat of mine (but only when I'm already in Carmel) is Carmel Belle, which has the wonderful motto "slow down ... say No! to fast food."

But enough about restaurants! Here are some pictures (just to prove that I've been cooking) of a very simple, delicious roast chicken and braised greens (fresh from Karminder's garden!). I have to be honest and say that I messed up the recipe for the greens, so they were a bit too oily. But, they are truly beautiful so I posted the pictures anyway (and I will try cooking them again). The pictures don't do justice to the chicken, you really have to try it to appreciate its yum factor! Try the recipe for yourself (see below).

Recipe for Roast Chicken with Sage
(modified) from Clara's Delicious Italian Recipes with a Regional Taste
by Clara Facciani

Page 185
Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees
Rinse a 3-4 pound whole chicken fryer inside and out with cold water; pat dry 
Mix seasonings in a cup - 2 Tbls soft butter, 1 tsp minced garlic, 1 tsp minced fresh sage or 1/2 tsp dried, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/8 tsp black pepper
With finger, gently lift skin of chicken where thigh and leg meet; place 1 tsp of seasoning under this area; repeat on the other side
Do the same where the breast and thigh meet      
Rub cavity with remaining seasonings
(the recipe says to use a rack, but I just lay the fryer in a shallow, glass baking dish breast-side down with the wings tucked under and it still turns out juicy and delicious)
Rub the outside of the chicken with a mixture of 2 Tbls olive oil, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp black pepper
Roast the chicken 30-35 minutes per pound (I baste the chicken every so often while roasting) 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'Tis the Season!

December is really flying by and we have been busy enjoying the company of friends and family. One thing I have immediately learned is that I have NO desire to dictate or preach about food choices while I'm enjoying the hospitality of others. With that knowledge at hand, I feel I must establish some ground rules and clarify our goals before going any further with our experiment.

Ground Rules
  • Make the best possible food choices in any given situation while being flexible about what is available, knowing that our mission is to make personal improvements for our family, not to make others feel uncomfortable or "bad." When we are eating with friends, family, co-workers, or classmates, the point is to be with people and enjoy their company.
  • Buy local/organic whenever (and as much as) possible. The idea that we can meet all of our nutritional needs locally may have been over-reaching on my part. I am lucky to live in an area with extended growing seasons and a large agricultural community, so I personally have no excuse to buy organic apples from New Zealand at Whole Foods (which is 45 miles from my house) when I could easily buy organic apples from a local grower in my town. However, items like bread, pasta, flour, yogurt I cannot buy from local producers. I can buy those items at local stores, but I can't expect all the ingredients to have come from San Benito County. So, whenever I can and as often as I can, I will buy local and/or organic.
  • Make small, meaningful changes and go slow. I have given my family to the end of 2010 to complete our transformation for a reason. Our habits weren't established overnight, and they will not be changed overnight either. Baby steps is the key to lasting change.
Goals for Phase 1

  • To eat dinner at home 5-6 nights a week. Months 1 and 2 we will focus on dinners. The goal is to eat dinner at home at least 4 nights a week for the first month, and at least 5 nights a week for the second month to establish our new habit of eating at home. After the first two months we should be in the habit of eating at home 5-6 nights a week.
  • To eat lunch at home 5-6 days a week. Starting in month 2, we will begin to focus on lunches as well as dinners. The goal is to eat lunch at home at least 4 days a week for the second month, and at least 5 days for the third month. By the fourth month of our experiment we should be in the habit of eating lunch at home (or taking homemade lunches to school and work) 5-6 days a week .
  • To continue eating breakfast at home.
 Goals for Phase 2
  • Join a local CSA group (Consumer Supported Agriculture). To find a CSA near you, go to www.eatwell.org
  • Work in Karminder's garden to learn about planting and harvesting. Karminder is a friend of mine who has generously offered to trade fresh foods from her garden for my labor. She has a lot of experience in agriculture, so I hope to learn many things from her. By the way, her family garden is amazing -- 19 raised beds, fruit trees, grapes, tomatoes, squash, greens, lettuce, carrots, beets, broccoli, herbs, etc.
  • Plant an organic garden with seeds not made by Monsanto or ConAgra. To learn more about the unethical practices of these companies, read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser or see the documentary "Food, Inc." (there is also a book form of Food, Inc if you prefer to read). 
Next Post:
Progress Report and Recipes w/ pictures

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where We Are, Where We're Going (A Confession and a Promise)

It's a well-known fact (and running joke) in my family that I don't cook. It's not that I don't like to cook, I simply DO NOT cook. You may think I'm exaggerating here, but I can honestly tell you that I can count the number of times I cook in one year on my hands (maybe just one hand).

Let me illustrate (keep in mind that while I keep great records, they are not meant to be audited, so there is a little bit of guesstimation in these numbers). This should be fun. In 2007, my family spent roughly $16,845 on food. In 2008, we upped the ante to $18,284. And, so far, in 2009 we have spent $16,310 (Jan - Oct). When I average those dollars per month, we are spending a house payment (about $1630/mo.) on food*! Since, according to the USDA, the average family of four spends between $737 and $916 per month, I can safely say we have a long way to go to even be an average American family.

There's more, and it's worse. Again, this is not scientifically accurate, but it's a good estimation. When I added up the number of times we ate out over the past four years, I found that my family had eaten something** at a restaurant 2,405 times (there are only 1,461 days in four years)! Averaged out that's 802 times per year, 62 times per month, and 16 times per week that we eat out. Do you know what that means? It means some days we eat EVERY meal for the day at a restaurant! (Please tsk your tongues and shake your heads privately, no need to publicly chastise me as I'm already ashamed enough.)

So, why am I airing my dirty laundry to you all? Well, in order to track one's progress it's important to know where you're starting from. Telling you who we are and how we operate identifies our starting point. I also want to drive home the point that we are a typical American family (okay, we're worse than the typical American family). This second point is really important because I want to show that anyone can make changes - there are no excuses!

Someone I know thinks people won't change the way they eat because A) people don't care; B) even if they did care, people can't afford to change; and C) even if they did care and could afford to change, it's all just too overwhelming. I disagree and that's why I'm doing this experiment. Call me naive, but I believe most people will (and can afford to) make small but important changes if they are informed about what industrial food REALLY is, how it is REALLY made, and how EASY it is to find alternative food sources. 

Right now my family supports the Industrial Food Complex at a staggering rate. For us, eating organically will probably save money because it will force us to eat at home for most meals. It will not be easy for me to break the habit of eating out, but I commit to making the change - for myself, my family, my budget, and my community.

*Included in these totals are household items like toilet paper and soap. I have no way of separating these items out for the past, but going forward I will include only food items as part of our food budget.
**I counted trips to Starbucks and Jamba Juice. These snack trips surely don't count as meals per say, but still, I could have made a smoothie or tea at home.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Day After

Yesterday was Thanksgiving - a day that's as much about eating as it is about giving thanks. This year I have much to be thankful for and I'm looking forward to an exciting year ahead. But, I was less than excited about the food choices at yesterday's feast - or at any average family mealtime, really.
The table was laden with unhealthy food like Doritos and pie as well as healthy foods made unhealthy like organic yams drenched in butter, sugar, and some chemical concoction known as the "marshmallow." Even the turkey, which was oven-roasted with crushed garlic and some salt, gave me pause because it wasn't organic.
Perhaps I am a little more neurotic about food than some, but I have an increasingly troubled conscience about the food we eat. My ongoing ethical dilemma about where my food comes and how it is processed goes far beyond general health concerns. It is also, and more importantly, about food safety, freedom of choice, human rights, ethical business practices, and the environment.
The more I read and watch about the Industrial Food Complex, the more hopeless I feel. Big-business has forever altered the way we eat and it seems there's little we can do about it. I can't just stop eating, though sometimes I wish I could. Even if I could, rolling over and giving up without a fight is not something I've ever been good at. So how do I make conscious food choices that I can feel good about on every level?
What I've decided to do is an experiment to see if I can convert my family of fast-food junkies to a fully organic, sustainable lifestyle by the end of 2010. I hope to prove that the average family can afford to eat sustainably, that it is possible to shop locally for all of our nutritional needs, and to REALLY know where our food comes from.
I have some other goals too, like losing weight and eating at home for most meals (this would be completely opposite from how we eat presently). I hope that my family's journey might inspire our extended families and friends, and maybe even some complete strangers, to join us in our move from the Industrial Food Complex to the locally grown, organic, sustainable, whole food revolution.
I truly believe we can do this by taking one little step at a time. It won't be easy - we are a typical American family, after all. We eat out for lunch everyday and eat out for dinner 4-6 times a week! Maybe we are worse than a typical American family!! You can understand why I'm so concerned, but before you assume that eating at home is any better, I encourage you to read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (read the book, don't see the movie) or watch the movie "Food, Inc." Industrial food is virtually everywhere from McDonald's to the soybeans your tofu was made from!
I hope you will follow our journey. Hopefully you'll decide to make some positive changes yourself!

Next Post:
Where We've Been, Where We Are, Where We're Going!
(A Confession and a Promise)