I love food.
Shoestring French fries with the perfect amount of salt, a slice of homemade white bread with thinly spread butter, a perfectly ripe peach, rich chocolate ice cream, a strawberry daiquiri garnished with sugar: I love it all!
But in today’s world of gluten-free, paleo, vegan, organic, non-GMO, weight loss, detox, and raw food diets, it can seem like selfish hedonism to admit to loving food, especially food that isn’t “clean,” “pure,” or “sustainable.”
I care about the environment, and I’m troubled by the rampart problems in America’s food industry. I agonize over the choices facing me in the grocery store: local vs. organic vs. cruelty-free meat, all natural eggs next to egg substitutes, “diet” fruit juice vs. zero calorie flavored water.
Then there are the issues that aren’t even in the news: cruelty to animals is well known, but what about cruelty to migrant workers who harvest our produce? GMO corn is seen as the enemy, but no one discusses the arsenic in the global rice supply.
So how can I eat with a clean conscience? Much less feed my family and teach my four year old daughter a healthy attitude about food? I’ve spent the last five years researching and investigating my relationship to food, and here are four action steps I offer to you on your journey.
I’m not going to prescribe or forbid a certain diet. I only ask that you take time to love your food. Figure out how to make food a joyous part of your life, and then do that!
1. Educate Yourself.
Most of us don’t have a very good idea of where our food comes from.
Aside from the occasional spring berry picking outing, we get our food from a store or a restaurant. Think about it: how exactly do grocery stores get asparagus to sell in October, when it’s a spring crop?
They import from the far south, hundreds of miles away.
Why do apples taste better in the fall than any other season?
Because apples are ripe for harvest in the fall.
Why are pine nuts so much more expensive than other nuts?
How is caffeine removed from tea leaves and coffee beans?
Fortunately, there are great resources out there to learn more.
Two of Michael Pollen’s books: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, are excellent starting points. And Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is not only a wonderfully written book about food but contains numerous extra resources for in depth research.
As you educate yourself, you’ll need to make some decisions about what is most important to you. For example, I decided to eat locally. I buy produce from a farmer’s market, and I’m proud to support my local farmers. That pride contributes to the joy I feel when I eat the perfect peach or crunchy apple.
2. Educate your palate.
Modern convenience food and restaurant food depend on salt, sugar, and occasionally capsaicin to taste good. As you try new foods (ethnic foods, home cooked meals, locally sourced restaurants), you’ll widen your palate’s taste experience.
There is a world of flavors out there beyond salt, sugar, and spicy. The more you learn about those flavors, the less you’ll crave the processed junk, and as you cut processed junk out of your diet, you’ll enjoy your food a lot more!
3. Learn how to read labels.
This is an extension of educating yourself.
I started reading labels over 15 years ago and it dramatically changed my eating habits before I ever gave a thought to losing weight, eating “clean,” or worrying about social justice issues related to food.
Don’t waste time on the nutrition information. Those percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, which is only appropriate for some people.
Instead, read the ingredient list.
This is where you find the truth about your food.
Learn the fancy words.
If you have a smart phone, there is no reason to be confused by ingredients like “inulin,” “annatto,” or “tocopherols.”
Worried about sugar? Learn all the names for sugar and remember that whether it’s from fruit (fructose), sugarcane (sucrose), rice (brown rice syrup), or bark from birch trees (xylitol), it’s all sugar in the end.
One day I was choosing between a “healthy” kids yogurt and a “mainstream” brand. The “healthy” option actually had more sugar per serving than the mainstream brand. So despite the garish cartoons, I bought the mainstream brand.
If a normally sweet product is described as “diet” or “sugar-free,” I check the ingredient list to see what is being used to produce the sweet taste. If a fruit product is advertised as “diet,” I don’t even pick it up, because you can’t remove fructose from fruit and still have something worth eating!
As you become a label reading expert, you’ll learn which brands you can trust and find decisions easier to navigate. Confidence in your purchasing decisions bring joy to eating.
4. Make Your Own Food.
By far, developing my cooking and baking skills have taught me more about food than anything else.
Making a loaf of simple white bread (not even whole wheat!) opened a new world to me: homemade white bread tastes amazing, and store bought tastes like cardboard. In addition, homemade bread only lasts three days. Store bought loaves last much longer—that’s pretty suspicious!
Preparing fresh vegetables taught me the true taste and texture of green beans, corn, and tomatoes.
You don’t have to spend a ton of time and money to make your own food.
One of my “company” recipes, which never fails to get rave reviews, is my simple chicken noodle soup. I throw freshly cut carrots and celery into a pot of pre-made chicken broth with some noodles and leftover shredded chicken and boil for 10 minutes. Why is this so beloved? Because the vegetables have only cooked for 10 minutes and the chicken is only twice cooked. As a result, despite using canned broth, the soup tastes far superior to any chicken noodle soup in a can!
As you make your own food, you’ll gain pride in your ability to feed yourself and others. You’ll be spending your money on quality raw ingredients rather than factory overhead and food preparer wages. You’ll get a richer sensory experience: watching the food change color and scent and listening to the sounds of frying and bubbling.
Reclaim the joy of food for your life. There’s a reason most of our holidays and celebrations are tied to feasts. You don’t have to give up your principles to enjoy the food you eat!
Author: Elaine Bayless
Editor: Travis May
Image: Flickr/Cameron Nordholm