There is hardly a necessity in life more intimate than your food. It's what you eat, it's what sustains you. It provides you with energy to do work and nutrients to stay healthy. But we have become estranged from the food that we so depend on. Working on a farm, I find that many people do not even know how to identify staple vegetables when they are still in the ground. People are even becoming unfamiliar with how to prepare specific vegetables or what parts of them are to be eaten. Many Americans will sadly take whatever is handed to them over the counter at a fast food joint and put it into their bodies without having knowledge of what it is that they are actually consuming. So what can we do to reverse this process?
People are becoming disconnected with the skill of cooking and are frequently not teaching their children enough about preparing food. This is largely due to increasingly busy lifestyles and the availability of quick, convenient foods such as microwavable, frozen and the notorious fast food. But we need to take a step back and reconsider what we are doing to ourselves and to our families. You will benefit greatly to cook at home as much as you can. It is healthier and much less expensive. I like to calculate the cost per meal for my husband and I just to see how cheap it is. Even eating mostly organic and all natural foods, our meals usually come out around $1-$2 a piece. On top of that, I'm a pretty decent cook. Stevie prefers my meals to most restaurants.
If you don't know how to cook, learn. The internet is an invaluable resource for recipes and instructions. Sometimes, trial and error is necessary. There are also ways to make cooking easier, such as preparing enough food for a leftover meal or two. My World Regional Geography instructor always said that "the best fast food is leftovers." And it's true. One emerging trend is freezer meals, which is where you get together for a cooking shindig with your friends and freeze up enough meals for the next couple weeks or so. This means you don't have to cook every night or even every other night, but just prepare a healthy pre-made meal from the freezer.
Don't know what to cook? Try using a free meal planner. You can find meal planners online for just about any dietary needs/preferences and any local chain store. You can also Find general planners that can be used at any grocery store. When we first got married and I wasn't too sure of what to make, we used once-upon-a-coupon.com, which has meal plans for Publix, Kroger and CVS. The Publix meal plans try to stay under $50 per week to provide dinners for a family of four and also use as much organic and all natural foods as possible. Another neat thing about it (at least for the Publix planner) is that it features mostly foods that are on sale or special that week, as well as links to printable coupons to save you even more. Meal planners make for fantastic savings, but if you don't use one, you should still plan meals ahead. It will help you to spend less on unnecessary food items at the store and use up ingredients you've already got on hand before they go to waste.
Another great resource for those of us who aren't quite sure of what to cook are online recipe finders. I suggest Super Cook or Recipe Matcher. With these sites, you create a free account and make a list of everything you have in your kitchen. Then, it finds recipes for you based on what you already have! You can narrow results according to what kind of cuisine you are in the mood for, ingredients you DON'T want to see used in recipe search results, and by choosing a "main" ingredient to be focused on in the search results. You can also save recipes in an online recipe book to view later. Try the sites and see which one's features suit you best, then get cooking!
Finally, eat your leftovers! And don't let food go bad. After all, you bought it to cook and eat! We plan ahead when each of our leftover meals will be eaten. Eating your leftovers before they go bad reduces waste, makes more use of your effort, and allows you to skip cooking for a meal.
Read more about the Slow Food Movement and why it is important to say no to convenient foods and yes to hearty, home cooked meals.
Know what's in the food you buy. The Environmental Working Group puts out a free yearly Shopper's Guide to Pesticides that lists fruit and vegetables that are highest in pesticide content and those that are lowest. This guide is useful for people who want to buy organic but find that it is too expensive to buy all organic produce. You can use the guide to know which produce is safer to eat non-organic and which ones you should try to buy organic.
Kashi used to have a shopper's guide to ingredients that decoded all those ingredients in food that you can't pronounce. It was easy to use and had a thumbs up or thumbs down rating system for each ingredient and folded neatly into a wallet. I couldn't find this decoder online but if anyone has any luck please post the link in a comment. For now I will post a scanned copy of mine at the end of the post.
If buying organic proves difficult for you due to costs, try overstock and outlet stores that also sell food, like Big Lots. We often find organic and all natural brands like Kashi, Envirokidz, Peace Cereal, Nature's Path, Cascadian Farms, Marie Callender's, Joseph's, Bear Naked, Rocky Mountain Naturals, many brands of whole wheat bread, all natural jams and jellies, organic pastas and pasta sauces, and lots more at about 1/2 the cost that other stores sell the same product for. We find that it is worth grocery shopping at two different places each time, which is necessary because stores like Big Lots do not sell refrigerated items.
Buying only in-season produce is also a great idea. It means your produce will contain less chemicals (which are usually added to make the produce last longer over the very long transportation route). It also means you will be supporting more local growers. The problem here is that we have become so estranged from our food that most of us might not have a clue as to what's in season. Just add an online season chart to your desktop or print one out. Cuesa.org provides good fruit and vegetable season charts as well as a lot of other useful information.
Don't buy bottled water! Do your research and you will find that it is not really better than tap in a lot of cases and often it is labeled "natural spring water" when it is really purified tap. Buying water is just dumb. Unless under extreme circumstances, drink what's free and put it in saved bottles for on the go. I recommend using glass bottles with metal lids. Reusing cheap plastic ones over a long period of time can pose health concerns and the glass cleans up really nicely in the dishwasher or by hand. We keep some in the fridge at all times so we've always got cold water ready to go. If you are concerned about drinking tap, invest in a water filter. Compared to buying bottled water for the rest of forever, it will pay in the long run.
It would also be wise to educate yourself about the toxic chemicals in most commercial cosmetic and personal care products. This not only includes make up, but shampoo, lotions, etc. Big Lots also carries some natural/organic brands of personal care products like Tom's of Maine, you can sometimes find all natural shampoos and conditioners, and I've even seen organic tampons. We also frequently find eco-friendly dish washing liquids and laundry detergents as well as sustainably sourced paper products.
Eventually, we hope that you will be ready to take a bigger step and try growing some of your own food. There is no joy like planting a seed or seedling, caring for it and harvesting the fruits of your labor. And you have the added comfort of a bit more food security. For now you may want to check out some sites that supply basic organic gardening information and familiarize yourself with the different methods and concepts of organic gardening. I suggest reading a little online about conventional organic gardening (in the ground), raised bed gardening, composting, vermicomposting, companion planting, natural pest control and anything else you may have questions about.
Gardening does take work, but that work can be distributed among family members and mitigated by the size of your garden and how often you work in it. Gardening also supplies you with regular exercise and bonding opportunities if you share the garden with family or friends. It is well worth the effort and learning. But I don't want to worry anyone, you don't have to become an expert to have a very successful organic garden.
Kashi's Ingredient Decoder (click to enlarge, feel free to save or print)