Thursday, July 28, 2011

The First Step Part II (aka Shopping for Produce)

At long last I will tell you everything (well, almost everything) I have learned about buying fresh produce.  I know. Super exciting.  There are a few ways to go about it, depending on where you're at in life and what your priorities are.  I'm going to be upfront with you and let you know that all three methods require a paradigm shift in menu planning (foreshadowing of future post) because you plan your cooking from what's in season or what's available.  And here's a little secret: the food tastes better in season.

Method One: Grocery Store Bargains

It's not a huge secret that grocery store prices vary from week to week on produce.  (If this is a new concept to you, grab the ad for your local grocery store and check the front and back page for their weekly specials.)  This method is kind of like the stock market, you buy what's on sale now to get the most bang for your buck.

I don't really like this option because it's not easy to find what I want in organic produce at the neighborhood grocery store, and our healthier grocery store is expensive.  If I do go buy fruits and veggies to the grocery store, I consider which foods it is more "important" to buy organic.  For information on why organic and which foods to avoid click here.

Method Two: Farmer's Markets

If you are looking for fresh, local, in season produce this is the place for you.  I like this option because I like knowing where my food came from and I like supporting small farmers.  Grocery store varieties of fruits and vegetables are chosen because of their ability to pack and transport well--not for taste.  Most of what you buy at the grocery store comes from a distant state or country and was picked before it was ripe.  It may cost a little more than the grocery store, but if you'll eat more of it because it tastes better, isn't it worth it?

The downsides to this method are that farmer's markets aren't open all year round and all hours of the day, and I don't know whether the food is organic or not.  I've been told that a lot of the time it is, however, I don't know whether that holds true in Texas because it is not the easiest state to grow in.  The good news is, you can easily find out how the farmer grows the food if you aren't a wuss like me and afraid to ask!

Method Three: Join a Coop

This is the method that we employ for the majority of our produce needs.  It's super easy.  Once every two weeks I go pick up an 18 gallon tote of organic produce from the host's home for less than what it costs to buy the same at the grocery store.  We added an extra fruit share because Ben and I weren't eating much fruit because we were giving it all to the kids.  It is enough produce to feed the six of us for two weeks. Sometimes we have leftovers for the freezer, too.

I like this method because it saves me time and money by keeping me out of the grocery store.  We can order certain dry goods as well through the coop.  Plus it ensures that we are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.  It is amazing how what is (and isn't) in the house affects what you eat! 

If you don't like the idea of needing to pick up your produce on a certain day, that could be a downside for you.  My only wish is that it were more local. As it is there is some local organic produce as it is available.  That being the case, I still pick up a handful local produce here and there if I see it available at farmer's markets, etc.  I mean, who can resist fresh from the garden tomatoes?

Bonus Method: Garden

I didn't mention this method above because admittedly, it takes someone who really wants to do it.  It's really more of a hobby (or obsession) that you hope actually gives you something in return.  I, for one, cannot help but dream of fresh from the garden produce when it's time to plant, and curse the squirrels, bugs, and weather that threaten to impede that dream.  When we are able to harvest the fruits of our labor, it is thrilling on so many levels: fresh organic food from our yard that we planted ourselves!

If you are as crazy as I am, and want to give it a whirl, try planting some herbs or plants in pots to start out with.  Fresh basil! Oregano! Cherry tomatoes!  Beyond that, there are so many books on gardening, try browsing the library for options. 

Maybe one of these days I'll be able to grow enough food to feed my family. In the meantime, I am so thankful for other people who can do it for me!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Detour Edition

Yes, I know I promised Part II of The First Step. And it's coming. Soon. 

However, this past week my family took a road trip to Colorado to visit family and so I decided to write about eating real food on the road.  I'm going to be up-front and let you know we relax our norms a little while we're traveling, but still try to eat a good portion of fruits and vegetables, overall make good choices, and drink plenty of water, etc, etc.

This one takes a little preplanning.  If you leave yourself to the mercy of Billy-Bob's Truck Stop and America's Favorite Drive Thru, your options are going to be very, very limited. And you will pay a fortune for those items.  Our solution for car trips has been to pack a cooler, along with reusable water bottles, and a bag of snacks. (If you're flying you can still pack a couple nonliquid snacks in your carry on.)

The way there is always easier, because you're at your own home to prep.  My husband and daughter made peanut butter balls.  (Oh. so. yummy. You can find the recipe here. We substituted the coconut and currants for chocolate chips and almonds.)  The kids made individual snack bags of trail mix from ingredients in our pantry.  We packed fruits and vegetables, homemade ranch, granola and yogurt, Bunny crackers, water jugs and walla!  With some fruits and vegetables, it is better to cut them up and pack them in a hard container first.  Can we say smushed kiwi?  The trip out was a success, the only hitch being that I forgot to pack the lettuce for salad on day 2, so we feasted on trail mix, cantaloupe, and baby carrots at the park.

If you plan to eat out, it is a good idea to do a search on the internet first of to turn up healthier options.  These may not be visible from the highway.  Confession: we planned to eat at Jason's Deli in Amarillo, but ended up at Texas Roadhouse instead.  In my book, not a big deal.  We had eaten sandwiches for lunch, and you know, if you're in Amarillo...  At least we didn't attempt to eat the 72 oz steak.

The day before heading back home, we stopped at a local grocery store to stock up for the way home, and bought the following:
Granola Bars

Lettuce (for salad)
Grape Tomatoes
Organic Ranch
Kashi Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
Izze Blackberry Sparkling Juice

Pita bread
Monterrey Jack Cheese

Organic Yogurt
Popcorn (didn't actually eat it, I'll explain later.)
Salt and Pepper Potato Chips
A couple of gallons of water to refill water bottles

Total cost: $65.  Add up the costs of eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks or bottled water on the road, and we estimated our savings to be $35 at a minimum. Although a few of the items we bought were more prepackaged than we like to eat, all of the food was either "natural" or organic, and it fit our no high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils goal.  Plus, still better than truck stop food. 

Speaking of which....

Somewhere around Amarillo our 115,000 mile state-of-the-art Chrysler minivan decided to give up the good fight.  The AC broke. For the third time this year. In over 100 degree weather.  With five hours left to go. In the interest of family harmony and cooling off the troops, the kids were allowed to pick out a cold treat at a gas station.  And I didn't even read the label.  Because it's not about doing it "perfectly," it's about doing it better.

(This is just how we did it.  Your version of "better" may look totally different than ours based on where your family is at.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The First Step (Part I)

There are a number of first steps you can take that can be taken on the road to eating real food. I'm going to share with you what I feel to be the easiest and where I got started. 

Add in fruits and vegetables.
These are the easiest real foods to start adding into your diet.  I'm not talking about those disgusting overcooked, over-salted or over-sweetened wannabes that come in a can. I'm talking about fresh, ripe, sweet, flavorful fruits and veggies that come straight from the plant and don't even have to be cooked (read quick and easy).  They're loaded with the good stuff your body needs. And they even come in their own God-made package.  How convenient is that?

I'm not even going to tell you to give up soda or stop eating candy bars or potato chips.  To be honest with you, that type of white-knuckle mentality may work for a little while, but it's short-lived.  Focus on the positive aspect of eating more of something good.  Here are some ideas of how to incorporate this into your diet:

Note: This post is divided into two parts because of length.  Next post will cover buying fruits and vegetables economically.

1. Eat a piece of fruit or cut up veggies as a snack. 
This one is so easy to do, yet I will confess to recently searching the Internet for unprocessed snacks for my family and coming across a blog that listed different fruits and vegetables as snacks.  Duh! 
I know, some of you are saying that isn't enough to fill me up.  Eat the fruit or veggies first, dip them in peanut butter or almond butter if you want or eat some nuts with it.  If you still want to eat chips, etc afterwards, go for it.  You've at least given your body what it really needs first and you're less likely to pig out on chips and still feel hungry later.

2. Make a salad to eat with dinner.
Start with romaine, green leaf, spring mix, spinach--you want to go for the dark greens, not iceberg.  Add cut up veggies, fruit, some almonds or sunflower seeds.  We commonly eat a variation of the following salad, changing it to fit what we have on hand:

A little Gouda or feta (sometimes)

Homemade Vinaigrette:
Two parts olive oil
One part vinegar (we like balsamic or red wine)
Italian seasoning (basil, oregano)
Minced garlic cloves (or garlic powder in a pinch)
Squirt of honey
A dash of Chipotle Tabasco Sauce

3. Cook a fresh vegetable to eat with dinner.
This honestly isn't rocket science, but you don't want to overcook your vegetables.  (They lose their flavor as well as their nutritional value.) Green veggies should still look bright green, not pale like the broccoli in school cafeterias.  They should still have a little firmness, not turn to a mushy, flavorless mess. (Again see aforementioned broccoli.)
An easy way to prepare vegetables like squash, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, green beans, etc, is to wash them, cut them up however you choose, heat a little olive oil or butter in the pan, sprinkle them with a little basil, oregano, pepper and salt if you wish, and lightly saute them over medium heat. 
Another option is steaming them in a steamer basket over boiling water.  When I steam broccoli, I test one and turn off the heat just before they're done as they continue to cook a little from the steam after you turn off the stove. Toss with seasonings after cooking, if desired.
If you need recipes, google the Internet, but go for recipes that call for light cooking and minimal ingredients to keep it simple and "real." 

Alright, it's rubber meets the road time.  Pick one of the babysteps above to put into practice this week or make up one of your own.  Everyone's journey is different so your step may range from "Eat a piece of fruit for a snack this week," to "Every night before bed, cut up veggies to take for snack to work the next day."  This isn't a competition.  Any step in the right direction makes a difference!