Thursday, January 17, 2013

Food for Thought, or Thoughts on Food

This is about two weeks late, but... Happy New Year! Two thousand twelve was an adventurous year in our house, and we had the opportunity to end it surrounded by new friends. My ambitious husband has a list of 101 things to do in 2013 that will contribute to our family adventures (although hopefully in less "major life change" ways and more in a "hiking really cool mountains" kind of way), but neither of us really made resolutions for the new year. I never do anymore. I learned a long time ago that if I have to make a grand decision to change/add/remove something, I won't follow through with it. I think this is true for most people. It's why gym memberships sell out in January, and by March there is no longer a line for the treadmills and bikes. Also, in general, the things I want to change in my life don't normally happen around the turn of the year; instead, I generally identify a problem and start immediately trying to remedy it (or stubbornly ignore it.)

This year, however, timing and circumstance have conspired to force me to admit that there is something I want to change in the new year. It's something that's been in the back of my mind for a few years now, but I've never truly had the motivation to deal with. This year, I am going to stop eating (and feeding my family) junk.

It's true, we eat a lot of junk. By "junk" I mean processed and imitation foods. Sometimes, we don't even realize that what we are eating isn't "real food," because it's cleverly disguised to look and - almost - taste like the real thing. Unfortunately, most of these foods are packed full of preservatives, chemicals, hormones, and nasty, unnatural fats and sugars, and I think they are slowly killing us (or, at least, our taste buds).

I've read a lot on "healthy" diets, many of which mean counting calories, measuring out vegetables, eliminating taste... I can't get on board with any of those. I am not good at counting, measuring, reading labels, etc. And I love for food to taste good. Then I read one of Michael Pollan's books, and I liked what it said. But... I still wasn't quite motivated to make any big change. Sure, I tried to eat more leafy greens, but it was a half-hearted effort.

Last month, it was time for Samantha to start trying solid foods. I panicked. I know my diet is not ideal, so how was I going to model a healthy diet for her?

Then I read Nina Planck's "Real Food for Mothers and Babies." It's fantastic. It talks all about what to eat when you are trying to conceive, when pregnant, when nursing, and what to feed your baby as first food. And while I don't agree with everything she writes, I did agree with one thing: real food is best.

It sound simple, and it is. I can't do justice to all the knowledge she packs into that little book, so I recommend that you just find it and read it (if you're not interested in "mothers and babies," her first book is just called "Real Food" and I've heard is also quite wonderful.) But basically, it speaks to my traditionalist sensibility.

So, I've started making an effort to eliminate most of the processed food from our pantry, and to buy food in its original form. This is a slow process, but I've found that it has actually really helped these last few weeks as our grocery budget has also gotten quite a bit smaller.

For example, instead of buying individually wrapped chicken breasts for $1.99/lb (if I get the Club Pack at Wegman's, which provides me with about a dozen individual serving breasts), we instead bought an entire chicken for $6.00. D seasoned it up and roasted it in the oven, then sliced it up. We got a lot of meat off of that chicken, for only $0.99/lb. (Yes, half the cost of our club pack chicken breasts, with a lot less plastic waste). 

Of course, we were paying for the bones, too, so you might say it wasn't worth it. But the bonus: we used the bones and extra skin to make homemade chicken broth, and had several soups the following week that were full of natural, no-preservative flavor. Homemade chicken broth (or chicken stock) is insanely easy. We only used some of the larger bones, but next time we will use the whole carcass. All you do is cover the bones/carcass with water, bring it to a boil, and then leave it to simmer for about 4 hours. Occasionally you need to add some hot water to make sure the bones stay covered. After about four hours, strain out the bones/skin/etc. I put a colander over a large bowl and poured the stock into it. Once I dumped all the large pieces, I put a dishtowel over the colander and re-poured. This strained out some the smaller pieces that were easy to miss.

I know this sounds silly, but it is really satisfying to use almost an entire animal instead of just bits and pieces. Just this one chicken and the stock we made from it provided over a week of diverse meals. For six dollars. Even if you aren't very good at math, it's easy to figure out that it's less than a dollar a day. That's the type of expense that my grocery budget can handle.

After the success with the chicken, we started thinking about what else we can make, both to cut back costs and to have "real" food in our house. Every morning, I love to eat wheat toast with peanut butter, and D takes a sandwich to work each day, so we tend to go through a lot of bread. And while we don't want carbs and refined flour to be a major part of our diet, the reality is that we like toast and sandwiches, and we spend a lot of money on bread. I like wheat bread, but D does not. Then I stumbled upon this amazing food blog (Mel's Kitchen Cafe) and her tutorial on yeast. Yeast breads have always made me nervous. One, I didn't understand the differences between the types of yeast, so that was a big problem. Two, I've always found that homemade breads might be good for toast, but are too crumbly and heavy to make sandwiches. Enter this amazing whole wheat bread recipe - I tried the third recipe (although left out the Vitamin C because I bought vital wheat gluten that already had it added - oh, and I got it at the surplus store for only 29 cents, too!) She even has a photo tutorial on how to make this bread step-by-step. I gave it a try, and it turned out amazing! How amazing? This bread was so wonderful that not only did it make great toast, it worked well on sandwiches, and D loved it so much that he routinely would cut slices just to eat on its own. My white bread loving husband has been converted to a whole wheat bread fan, and I am thankful. And there is seriously something very satisfying about eating something you made entirely from scratch. I have found that half of that recipe makes 2 9"x5" loaves and that lasts anywhere from three days to a week.

On a side note, since my success with the whole wheat bread, I have wanted to give homemade pita bread a try. Granted, this recipe is made with refined white flour instead of wheat flour, but sometimes you have to splurge. And while not all of my pitas puffed, some did and they all tasted great! The recipe is really simple and I managed to make them and get S ready for bed at the same time (yes, including bath time, story time, and nursing - all of which happened when the dough was resting), in addition to preparing this super delicious chakchouka recipe. I felt like superwoman.

Of course, there is another big part of our attempt to eat real food - fruits & vegetables. I am really bad at this, and until Samantha started eating solids I usually threw these onto the plate as a side note. Now, I plan my meals around them because I like to make sure that, at least a few nights a week, Samantha has something new to smash into her hair. While spring brings a fabulous (albeit small) grower's market to Williamsport, D and I are hoping to plant a small garden to help supplement the fresh veggies. We are still working out what form this will take, since we rent a 2nd floor apartment. I am hoping to talk to our landlord about gardening out in the yard, since there is a small plot right next to the house that appears like it was once a flower garden and now has some sad shrubbery in it. It would be awesome if I could make that a small vegetable garden. However, we aren't sure how much longer we will be living in this apartment, so we are also discussing doing an indoor herb garden on some bookshelves, and planting a few vegetables in containers so we can take them if/when we move. I am still in the "research" phase of all of this, but I am excited about the prospect. My dad had a wonderful vegetable garden in our yard when I was younger, and I remember the pride he had when he harvested fresh green beans and broccoli for our family (not that I liked to eat them as a picky youngster, but in hindsight I am thankful.)

So, it isn't happening overnight, but slowly our packaged and processed food supply is dwindling (and not being replenished). I have had to get more creative with meals now that we are trying to include more "real" food, but it has been an enjoyable challenge.