Serendipitous Gardening

As it turns out, sometimes NOT weeding ends up being a good thing.

(Which is surely a metaphor for something … )

Our almost-entirely-untended vegetable garden yielded ten squash this fall.

(TEN! Nine butternut and one spaghetti.)

Question: When would squash plants be considered weeds?

Answer: When you don’t plant them.

When I planted our veggie garden threw down some seeds this spring, not a single squash seed was sown — which means all these squash are a gift from our compost bin.

So, what to do with ten all-at-once squash?

We ate two in the usual way (for supper: one was roasted, one was diced and steamed and added to a dish).

Last week, I roasted another three:

Two trays went into the oven at once. I baked them at 350F for about 40 minutes.

 

And after puréeing the squash, I baked three double batches of “pumpkin” muffins:

Did you know butternut squash can be substituted for pumpkin?

(I didn’t … thank you, internet!)

In other compost bin news, ours also produced this wonder:

We don’t know with absolute certainty, but we suspect it was an avocado plant.

Nature amazes me.

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Using the Freezer to Minimize Food Waste

I’ve never been much of a daytime television watcher —

(yes, this is a rather odd sentence to use to begin a discussion about food waste!)

— but this post is taking me down memory lane, making me recall some of my earliest parenting days and what was, in all likelihood, a rather obscure cooking show on CBC television.

We had moved provinces with our 8 day-old daughter in the fall of 1996. Nearly 800 km (around 500 miles) from friends and family, and with only one vehicle which my husband took to work most days, there were times when it seemed as though the walls were going to close in around me. And on some of those long afternoons, desperately needing to see and hear another adult, I would end up flicking on the television. I wasn’t much of a cook back then, but one of my favourite shows was the now-defunct The Urban Peasant. Its host, James Barber, is not only responsible for the salmon recipe that became — and remains to this day — our Christmas Eve tradition:

… but I also have him to thank for this very sage advice about parsley:

Wash it and chop it and freeze it, he said, and then you’ll always have a supply of fresh parsley on hand.

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To my I-barely-know-my-way-around-a-kitchen mind, that was a bit of culinary brilliance. It’s also a fantastic way to reduce food waste, because it seems to me that unless you’re using parsley every. single. day, there’s little chance of getting through a bunch before it turns to slime in your fridge.

Freezing that first batch of parsley all those years ago opened up a world of possibilities: what else could I freeze? I wondered, my pre-internet mind churning. Here’s what I came up with:

In addition to parsley, I also freeze that other item that frequently goes to waste: green onions. I wash them and chop them and then toss them into a plastic container, stirring them to ensure a good distribution of whites and greens, and then simply chop out a frozen section with a fork or a knife.

These ARE looking a bit frosty, but they’re still fine!

Also in my freezer? Jalapeño peppers. A while ago my grocery store decided they were no longer going to sell jalapeño peppers singly, but were going to make their customers buy five or six at a time, packaged on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic:

I complained to the produce manager, who sympathised, but said he didn’t make the decisions, and if I felt that strongly about it I should write a letter. Hmph! For a while, I refused to buy them, and made a second stop at another grocery store in order to purchase my single jalapeño, but then, one day, pressed for time, I succumbed and bought the damn package. Not wanting to waste the remaining five, and knowing that sweet peppers can simply be chopped and frozen, I figured there’d be no reason freezing wouldn’t work with jalapeños as well.

I de-seeded and minced them, and wanting to freeze them in one pepper-worth quantities, decided to use the silicone baking cups I use for making butter tarts at Christmastime. I squished the bits together, hoping it would freeze solid in a unit, and … it worked! Once they were frozen solid, I popped them out and transferred them to a plastic container.

My only concern is that now the baking cups seem to smell like jalapeño; I hope our butter tarts don’t take on a peppery flavour this Christmas! (There will be hell to pay if I wreck the butter tarts! 😉 ).

An ice cube tray might have worked just as well with the jalapeños. It’s my go-to tool for freezing tablespoon quantities of tomato paste:

So many recipes call for only one or two tablespoons of tomato paste. Why waste a nearly-full can?

I’ve also used the ice cube tray to freeze tablespoon amounts of the avocado-cilantro cream sauce from the Oh She Glows enchilada recipe. The sauce recipe makes far too much for one meal (IMO), and although we would occasionally use the leftovers to round out a snack of chips and salsa, more often than not a fair amount would still get tossed. Because this was really bothering me (avocados = California + drought = don’t waste them, Marian!) I figured freezing was worth a try. It worked like a charm and one tablespoonful was the perfect amount for one enchilada. Not only did this stretch one avocado to 15 enchiladas (three meals), it also made the two subsequent enchilada-cooking-sessions much less time-consuming.

One can also forgo the ice cube tray and simply drop tablespoon or teaspoon amounts directly onto a cookie sheet, and freeze things that way. This was what I did when I made this vegetable broth concentrate*:

Tomatoes are another great item to keep in the freezer, either fresh from the garden (washed and cored, but left whole, or diced to save time while cooking), or the leftovers from a can of whole or crushed tomatoes when you’ve only used a part can in a recipe. Also from the garden: kale, which I wrote about here.

Because we’re mostly-vegetarian, we eat a lot of legumes, and although I do use some canned legumes, I also like to cook my own from dried. Whenever I do this, I make a big batch and ladle them into lidded glass bowls and then store them in the freezer.

Another group of items I store in our freezer is grains, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains go rancid much more quickly than their processed counterparts because they contain the oily germ layer. Although not everything in the following list actually has a germ layer, I tend to follow the very unscientific, When in doubt, might as well stick it in the freezer! So in my freezer, you’ll find: brown rice, whole wheat flour, quinoa, oat bran, wheat germ, flax seed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and almonds. I also keep dried blueberries and both dried and fresh cranberries in the freezer.

And last, but not least, I keep almost all of our baked goods in the freezer. The sandwich bread I buy at the grocery store gets stored in the freezer and taken out slice by slice. I also freeze nearly all of my baking; the muffins and cookies I bake for the kids to take to school go directly into the freezer as soon as they’re cooled. This means I never have to figure out what to do with stale bread, and we never have to regretfully toss days-old baking.

How about you? What do you store in your freezer?


*There are many broth concentrate recipes online, and although I did use the recipe I linked to, I omitted the salt. The salt would have made the frozen concentrate “scoop-able” (because: science 😉 ) but because I like to have control of the salt in my cooking I needed to freeze it in quantifiable units.

If Meal-Planning Were a Subject, I Would Get a D-Minus

So …

On an internet which is positively overrun with advice on meal-planning, in which meal-planning is held up as one of the best ways to reduce food waste, this post feels somewhat confessional, almost as though I should be whispering the words.

Of course, since I can’t figure out how to change the font size on WordPress, my “regular voice” will have to do.

Here goes: I suck at meal-planning.

I wish this was an over-statement, but I’m afraid it’s not.

Now, my suckiness at this endeavour is not for lack of trying. There’ve been numerous occasions on which I’ve hauled out the cookbooks, searched for the tried-and-true as well as the new, slotted meals (or leftovers) in for every day of the week, shopped for the whole kit and caboodle, and enthusiastically hauled it all home. I even — completely uncharacteristically — bought into the thinking that a catchy magnetized notepad could somehow magically turn me from a non-list-making-planner into a list-making-planner:

Hmm…look at all those BLANK spaces where planned suppers are supposed to go. If I had bothered to write in the date, you’d be able to see that I wrote this in August. And why do I continue to fool myself into thinking stars and capital letters will propel me into doing things in a timely fashion? I managed to make the broth — about two weeks after jotting it down — but I still haven’t cooked the chick peas or the navy beans, or found the time to bake bread. And while I DID make muffins and cookies, I ALWAYS manage to make those, even without a list to remind me.

Despite the fact that I love the theory behind meal-planning — the über-organization which ensures you’ll never again aimlessly wander the aisles at the supermarket, the promise that you’ll never again look at the clock and see the hour hand creeping up to 5 and think Oh crap, what the hell am I cooking for supper? — the actual execution of the plan seems to be where I falter.

Now, perhaps this is a problem unique to me; perhaps I’m just one of those rare people who, upon seeing a list, feels not calm and organized, but rather, pressured. And perhaps this is also just me, but it seems that whenever I have managed to plan an entire week’s worth of meals the propensity was to bite off more than I could chew, to get carried away by enthusiasm and completely over-estimate how willing/able my future self was going to be to be cooking that specific meal four or five days hence. The end result in my kitchen? More food waste than ever before.

But …

Does my failure in the meal-planning department mean I’m floundering every night at 5 o’clock, dashing to the corner store, and then throwing hot pockets into the microwave? No, not at all. Ever since our year without processed food, I’ve been cooking — from scratch — nearly every supper my family consumes.

What seems to work best for me is to do my weekly-ish grocery shopping with one or two suppers in mind at the most. Then, the rest of the grocery shopping is for staples. Rather than having a firm plan set in place, in which I feel I have to cook a certain meal, I prefer instead to take a considered approach: what could I cook tonight?

Practically, this means knowing that I have the ingredients on hand for any of a number of different recipes, and ensuring my pantry, fridge, and freezer are stocked with things I know we use regularly, items such as lentils, beans, pasta, rice, and quinoa, and that I have all the basic vegetables available, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, tomatoes, and spinach, as well as all the basic spices.

In order to make this work, I tend to take a minimalistic KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach. I have about two dozen recipes that I regularly rotate through, and while they’re not the bland meat-and-potatoes I grew up with, they’re also not supremely exotic concoctions with rare spices or sauces I will buy once and never use again. More importantly, they’re also not recipes which call for ingredients which are only good for that specific recipe.

This gives me a lot of flexibility: it means that if I’m not using the cauliflower to make Indian Lentil Cauliflower Soup from the Oh She Glows cookbook, I can use it to make Winter Vegetable Soup with Butternut Squash and Cauliflower or creamy cauliflower sauce to serve with pasta, or I can simply cook it (steamed or microwaved) and it’s a nutritious, if plain-jane, vegetable. Similarly, if I’m not using the butternut squash in the aforementioned soup recipe, I can use it to make Vegetarian Stew with Quinoa, Butternut Squash and Coconut Milk. If the broccoli isn’t used in a stir-fry, I’ll simply steam it and serve it as our veggie. Potatoes can either be used to make Kale, Potato and Cannellini Bean Soup or Lentil Soup with Coriander and Cumin, or they can be cooked and mashed as the topping for a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, or cut up and roasted as home-made fries.

I think one of the most important keys in reducing food waste is to be realistic. If you’re a meal-planner extraordinaire and are successfully making use of all the food you’re buying at the grocery store, then that’s great! I take my hat off to you, and truthfully, I wish I could be more like you! (Because who doesn’t want to be both an organized person and a great cook?). But if you’re meal-planning and are struggling each and every time to execute the planned meals before the food goes bad, perhaps you too would benefit from taking a step back and trying a more minimalistic KISS approach to meals. While I have no doubt that formal meal-planning works wonders for many people, it does seem to me that it is a bit of a “one-size fits all” approach which may in fact be causing more stress and more food waste in those of us who keep trying — and despite our best intentions — keep failing.

(Of course, I do have to acknowledge the possibility that I may be entirely alone in this! Am I?)


Next up: how I use the freezer (sorry, Rita 😦 ) to reduce food waste and to keep staples on hand.

Growing All The Kale

So I know I said my next post would focus on ways I try to minimize food waste, but unfortunately, that topic is still percolating. I’ve been spending a lot of hours at the school library, covering for my fellow parent volunteer who went on holiday, plus, as per the title of this post, I’ve got a whole lotta black dino kale to blame.

I’m shamelessly borrowing a phrase from Sarah, who quipped this spring that she was going to grow all the tomatoes.

My immediate reaction upon reading her words?

YES! Me too! Let’s grow ALL the tomatoes!

While I did find out later that Sarah had thrown the words out there in a bit of a joking manner, I was still *totally* on board with the goal. Three years ago, despite being a newbie gardener, I very nearly did manage to grow all the tomatoes; I had enough, frozen in the freezer, to keep us flush with “cooking” tomatoes from the fall through to the following May. But although I’ve not yet been able to repeat that tomato success (and this year is turning out to be another tomatoey disappointment) the kale is another story.

I like using kale in soups, stir-fries, and lasagnas, and it’s a nice alternative to spinach. Although I can buy kale year-round at the grocery store it’s only the curly type which is available, not the milder black dino (lacinato) variety we prefer. It’s also, no doubt, shipped all the way from California, and well, we’re not anywhere near California. So last year I decided to try growing it myself. I somehow managed a bumper crop and ended up freezing 17 batches, which got us through the winter. It was really nice to be able to simply walk downstairs to the freezer and grab a batch of the most local kale ever. So, wanting a repeat of last year’s success, I put eight plants in the ground this spring, the same number I planted last year.

Although I’m convinced black dino kale is one of the easier leafy greens to grow, I did worry, early on this summer, that — due to my own neglect — we wouldn’t be getting any at all this year.

I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener, and I have to admit that immediately after planting the garden this spring, I pretty much forgot all about it.

Watering? Nah, I’m sure it’ll rain soon.

Weeding? Um, no thanks … it’s too hot out there; later maybe …

Thinning the seedlings? Yeah, things have been over-crowded before, and it’s been fine; besides, don’t we want a bajillion cucumbers?

And then came the day I finally did go out there, and what did I see? Tiny green caterpillars making lacework out of the kale leaves.

Kale seems to be one resilient plant though, because after steeling myself (yes, I’m also not a particularly brave gardener) and shooing those wee beasties off with a popsicle stick, the plants recovered nicely.

So most mornings over the past couple of weeks I’ve been out in the garden, picking a bouquet of kale from each of the eight plants while leaving the bulk of the plant to continue growing. I (hopefully) shake off all the spiders (see paragraph above, with regards to bravery), and then I bring them in to process them.

I start by washing the leaves:

Then I remove the thick stems and chop the leaves:

The chopped leaves are put into a large pot outfitted with a steamer basket:

After three minutes of steaming, the kale looks like this:

It then gets plunged into cold water and spun dry:

And finally, the kale gets packed into lidded glass bowls or mason jars, and stored in the freezer:

So far I have 18 batches, which should take us through the winter, but there’s still quite a bit left in the garden to process:

Does anyone else have a garden that looks like ours?

(Is it wrong for me to be wishing for an early and heavy snowfall so I don’t have to deal with this overgrown mess? Or at the very least, a good hard frost so all the insects can just go away, please? Yesterday I went out to the garden to gather a bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wasp came into the house with me. I managed to get it out using the container and cardboard trick, but half an hour later, I was STILL shaking*).


* I’m such a wimp 😦 .

A Heart of Eggs, Food Waste, and “Mom, My Friends Think It’s Funny…”

Just over a month ago, on August 11th, we woke up to find this in our front yard:

Now, it just so happens that it wasn’t just any old day this vignette appeared on our lawn; it was our wedding anniversary.

And, it wasn’t just any old wedding anniversary; it was our 25th.

My reaction was — predictably — OH. MY. GOSH! WHO DID THIS?!

My husband denied all knowledge, and our daughter was also completely mystified. I considered the possibility that friends or family may have been the culprit(s), but we had told none of our Ontarian friends that the 11th was our 25th wedding anniversary, and our family lives over 3000 km away. The only possibilities left were our sons.

When they got out of bed, I called them out to the yard to show them, and tellingly, our 16 year-old got a funny look on his face. He didn’t say anything, though; he simply went inside, and it wasn’t until about an hour later that an explanation came:

“Yeah, Mom, this is actually nothing to do with you,” he said. For a moment he looked as though he was trying to let me down gently. “My friends did this. They egged and forked our lawn because you made me come in early last night. And R—, who also had to go home early? Their lawn got cheesed.”

I won’t lie; I was slightly let down that the eggy heart had absolutely nothing to do with our wedding anniversary. However, there’s no point in wallowing in self-pity when there’s a job to be done. I had 29 eggs to pick up.

(At this point you might be wondering why I didn’t send our son out to take care of the situation. You might be thinking: his friends, his eggs … And yes, I thought it too, but I didn’t want him clearing it away because he’s actually allergic to eggs. (I admit to churlishly thinking, don’t his friends know that?)).

So there I was, mid-morning, staring at the heart of eggs, trying to decide how to proceed. What to do with 29 eggs that have been lying out on the lawn all night? Should I toss them, or should I make use of them? Because of our son’s egg allergy, I don’t routinely bring eggs into the house; but the fact is, I LOVE eggs.

Because his friends had “kindly” left the empty cartons by the garage, I could see that the eggs weren’t set to expire for several weeks. The night hadn’t been overly hot, but wanting to be safe, I googled something along the lines of how long can eggs stay unrefrigerated? Reassured there wouldn’t be a food safety issue, I gathered them into a bowl, stuck them in the fridge, and set upon the task of eating 29 eggs, feeling rather happy that I hadn’t let them go to waste.

Leaving the tale of these specific eggs for the moment —

(Imagine, if you will, me in my kitchen, surreptitiously savouring them, one or two a day while our allergic son was out of the house, and then washing the dishes afterwards with sterile room-worthy technique).

— I have to admit that I’ve always been hyper-aware of food. Perhaps it was my parents’ war stories that made me this way, but then again perhaps not: aside from one rather poignant (and frightening) incident when my father responded with primal outrage to the one-and-only food fight my brother and I ever held, the issue of near-starvation wasn’t a constant refrain in our house. Rather, I feel like it’s something internal with me. I’ve always been a scraper of plates and an “Oh, there’s still a bit left there, let me get that…” kind of person. If reincarnation were a thing (and just to be absolutely clear, I don’t believe it is) then I was, once-upon-a-time, a starving peasant. Other people get “put under” by psychics and end up claiming to have been Cleopatra, but not me: I was a serf, toiling away in a field somewhere.

But even though I’ve always been very aware of food, the larger issue of global food waste wasn’t something I was aware of until a couple of years ago when I happened across Tristram Stuart’s TED talk:

This is a short (14 minute) video, and is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it already. And if you’d like more food for thought (pun intended; haha?) there’s also this documentary about food waste: Just Eat It, which you might be able to watch for free, online, here. (Hopefully it’s not restricted to Canadian viewers).

While I’ve been doing a fairly good job of not wasting food once it’s in our house, there’s one area in which I could use some improvement, and it’s an issue which was addressed in both the TED Talk and the documentary: we’re a picky species, prone to seeking out perfection, and unfortunately, I’m just as guilty of this as the next person.

One of my earliest and most distinct memories illustrates just that:

I was either six or nine years old and I was visiting my grandparents in The Netherlands. One day, I was sent out — on my own — to get some apples from the greengrocer. I was given a leather satchel (picture a large doctor’s bag) and a wallet with a handwritten note tucked inside. I made my way down the cobbled sidewalk, entered the greengrocer’s shop — where all of the fruits and vegetables were set out, on display, BEHIND the counter — and passed my note to the man, a strawberry-blond Dutchman I can still picture to this day. He smiled and said, “Ah, Mevrouw van G—‘s kleindochter!” and then proceeded to fill the order. I watched as he placed apples in a paper bag, and — 40-some years on! — can still remember my thoughts: Hey! Wait a minute! I should be choosing those apples! Not him! What if he gives me one with a bruise?

This quest for perfection is — if you watch Tristram Stuart’s TED talk — at the heart of a mind-boggling amount of food waste. And now that I’m conscious of it, I’m making it my mission to try to reduce the part I play in all this. I can’t do much to alter the stringent standards fruits and vegetables have to pass through in order to make it into the store in the first place, and I can’t change human nature on a large scale, but I can learn to relax my own perfectionist leanings.

Practically, this means I’m trying to stop sifting through the produce for the perfect pear, but rather, to simply take what I first touch, minor warts and all. It means I’m trying to fight the urge to reject an entire bag of apples simply because one has a bruise. It means I’m making myself ignore a few brown spots on a head of cauliflower, because I know those can simply be cut away. In other words, without sounding sanctimonious, I’m trying to actively choose what others may reject, so that less will end up going to the bin behind the store. But I admit it’s a hard thing to do, because it goes directly against my nature.

I’d like to talk more about food waste, and some practical things I do to avoid and/or minimize it (beyond being less choosy), but this post is getting way too long. So for now, I’ll return to the story of the eggy heart:

It was just about a week ago that I polished off the last of the eggs. My 16 year-old had watched, a few days earlier, as I took the bowl, with its much-diminished quantity of eggs, out of the fridge to rearrange the space for leftovers, and he said, “You know, my friends think it’s funny that you saved those eggs and have been eating them.”

I looked at him in silence for a long moment, one of those classic stretched-out spaces of time in which one has the luxury of toying with various responses. Do I use language my son will understand immediately, and tell him about the time Uncle Chris and I had a food fight and Opa “flipped shit”? Do I enlighten him with passages from the WWII books I’m reading now? Do I treat him to the ubiquitous and tired think-of-all-the-starving-children-in-Africa lecture? Do I take a different tack and enumerate the fossil fuels that were spent in the creation and transportation of those 29 eggs?

Deciding against all that, I simply said, quietly, “That’s over two dozen eggs; that’s a lot of food to waste.”

And in the silence that followed, in the expression and the eyes of our 16 year-old son, a young man who’s at times preternaturally socially and politically aware, I could see that he might just have had a glimpse of all that I had left unspoken, that he already knew all of it anyway, and — what-my-friends-think be damned — that he agreed with what I had done.

So a Meat-loving Omnivore Comes to Dinner at a Vegetarian’s House …

That string of words reminds me of one of those bad bar jokes:  So a vegan and a vegetarian and an omnivore walk into a bar …

In what is my shortest blog post ever, I’d like to ask a question:

If a vegetarian is hosting a dinner party for a group of omnivores, and she knows that one of her guests is not simply an easygoing whatever-you-care-to-serve-me kind of omnivore, but rather, is a fairly militant where’s the beef? kind of omnivore, should she, as a gracious host, feel obligated to provide some sort of meat-containing dish? Or should she use the opportunity to show the where’s the beef man how delicious vegan and/or vegetarian fare can really be?

Processed Food is a Slippery Slope

The challenge was posed just over two years ago, by my then 16 year-old daughter:

Go for an entire year without making oven food.

Hmmm … Oven Food … as in anything cooked in the oven?!

Well, no. You see, at some point, over the years of child-rearing, oven food became our family’s term for any food item that got slid from a box onto a cookie sheet and heated in the oven. In our house, oven food means processed food, specifically processed food of the suppertime entrée variety.

The challenge came following a week in which I apparently — according to my daughter, although my youngest son would strenuously disagree — out-did myself in the kitchen. Although cooking isn’t my favourite thing-to-do, I had just had an unprecedented spate of success: an entire week of made-from-scratch meals — some new recipes, some tried-and-true favourites, and a couple days of some really tasty leftovers.

The fact that I accepted her challenge with an enthusiastic, Sure, I’ll try! illustrates just how far we’ve come …

Here’s a rather sad fact: when I got married, nearly 25 years ago, I didn’t know how to peel and chop an onion. I had never sliced and diced a sweet pepper. And I didn’t know the difference between a bulb of garlic and a clove, let alone how to operate a garlic press.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, with a mother who was an absolute wizard with a needle and thread, but who, unfortunately, hated cooking with an almost equal passion. Although part of the problem lay with the fact that she didn’t really know how to cook, it was also fairly obvious that there was a fair measure of simmering resentment about having to cook. We were, after all, living in the height of the me generation, a time in which women all around her were embarking on careers outside the home. And while women were being liberated from mundane drudgery, food corporations were standing at the ready, poised to take full advantage of a social movement. What better way to free women from the ignoble chore of cooking than by selling them processed foods?

The result of these combined circumstances? A nearly perfect storm of unhealthy eating when I was growing up.

Suppers at our house were a rotating variation of either white rice or boiled potatoes paired with some sort of meat:  chicken, which was shake-and-baked; pork chops, also shake-and-baked; or fish, breaded and frozen and slid from the box into the frying pan. Mix into the rotation a few frozen pizzas, some fish sticks and frozen french fries, some canned soup, and the occasional chili cobbled together with hamburger, powdered onion, a can of baked beans and a can of tomato soup. Add in some canned corn or frozen peas, the occasional head of broccoli or a once-a-week salad made from nutritionally-devoid iceberg lettuce (dressed with pickle juice), and you have a pretty good idea of what I ate for the first 23 years of my life.

Although my husband was used to better fare (his parents enjoyed cooking and were quite good at it), we embarked on married life fuelling our bodies with me as the head of the kitchen. While I surreptitiously observed my mother-in-law in her kitchen, and thus began to figure out the basics of onion and pepper chopping, my husband and I were both busy with school and work, and neither of us thought it important to spare much of an effort to escape the ease of processed food. Most meals were slid from a box onto a cookie sheet and thrown into the oven. Sometimes there was spaghetti and a jar of prepared sauce. There were an awful lot of breaded mystery-meat patties that we fried up, and to this day I have no idea what they contained, although I do remember there was a long list of fine print on the packaging, words I never bothered to read.

We were all set to raise the next generation of non-cooks (otherwise known as heaters) when a serendipitous mailing arrived at our house: a free copy of the Nutrition Action Health Letter, a publication put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  The CSPI’s mandate is two-fold:  educating the public on nutrition and health, as well as lobbying government and corporations on issues such as food additives, labeling laws and health claims.

For the first time in my life, I took a hard look at what we were eating, and what I was feeding our young children. And I didn’t like what I saw.

Subscribing to the Nutrition Action Health Letter was the first step in what’s been a 20+ year journey.  That initial subscription marked the beginning of my label reading, my recipe cutting (this was pre-internet), my days of checking cookbooks out of the library, and my voracious reading of anything that had to do with nutrition.

But although I started finding recipes, and began to do more cooking, I often still found myself in ruts. It was an effort to try new things, and I found it disheartening when a promising dish turned out to be a dud. Although I was having some success, my kids were still putting up a fair amount of resistance. They were — amazingly! — willing to eat soup containing chick peas, a thing I never once encountered in childhood (and shamefully, I know I would have run the other way if ever offered some), yet they greeted lentils with disgust. I often found myself making the same dishes over and over, and I still clung to the whole heating business, interspersing scratch meals with a liberal selection of convenience slid from a box. I told myself I was choosing healthier options, because, based on the advice of the Nutrition Action Health Letter, I was diligently reading labels, avoiding preservatives such as TBHQ and BHT/BHA, and eschewing anything that contained partially-hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup.

But I noticed something: on days I decided to heat, I felt guilty (I wasn’t doing much better at feeding my family than my mother had!), and on days I had to cook, I resented the time taken from something else I’d rather have been doing. Truth be told, I didn’t really enjoy cooking any more than my mother had. Processed foods were still my crutch. And it wasn’t until I embarked on my daughter’s challenge and threw away the crutch that several things became clear:

  • Convenience is a slippery slope

Tell me one person who, after getting an automatic clothes washer, would go back to a washboard. And why on earth would they? An automatic washer cleans clothes just as well, if not better.

But while we of a certain age grew up with the prevailing notion that food is food is food, the trial is now over and the jury’s come back. And unfortunately, the unanimous verdict from all proponents across the full spectrum of diets (vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, paleo), is that a diet high in processed food is a recipe for unhealthiness.

So what about moderation? Surely processed food every now and again isn’t going to kill us?

No, it isn’t. But while I’m usually an everything-in-moderation kind of person, here’s what I’ve discovered about me and moderation, with regards to processed food: every incident of heating that occurs in my kitchen is a teetering on a slippery slope. Because I don’t enjoy day-in and day-out cooking, heating chips away at the hard-fought habit of cooking in exactly the way a day off exercising chips away at the habit of going down to the basement to run on the treadmill. But processed foods aren’t just a slippery slope for me. The bigger problem is that they’re also a slippery slope for my children, most notably my nine year-old.

Here’s a fact about my youngest child: he LOVES processed food!

But maybe it’s not just him; maybe ALL young children do, and perhaps there’s a scientific reason for it.

During my year of no oven food, I read Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked UsTruthfully, it wasn’t an absolutely riveting read; however, it was an eye-opening insight into the processed food industry. Here’s what we’re up against when our child balks at our home-cooked meal and pleads for chicken nuggets: oodles of dollars in research and years of careful tweaking of salt, sugar, fat and numerous other additives, all with the goal of making food sublime and tantalizing and even addictive.

The best way I’ve found to compete against all that? I now know to let it in the door as seldom as possible.

Here’s the second truth I’ve come to:

  • Cooking is work

I know. This is a really obvious statement. Of course, cooking is work!

The thing is, a lot of people (that is to say, people who aren’t doing the actual cooking) often don’t really *get* the fact that cooking is work.

There’s finding recipes, meal planning, and grocery shopping. Then comes the chopping and dicing and measuring of ingredients, the time spent standing over the hot stove. There’s setting the table, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that for the vast majority of us, day-in and day-out cooking is not fun; it’s work, deserving of respect.

One way to teach children (or husbands/wives/partners!) to respect the work of cooking is to have them take part in the process. But the other part of the equation comes with setting some simple rules. These rules are what I would refer to as company manners, the etiquette one should be taught to follow when visiting someone’s house and partaking in a meal. But the thing is, if expressions of Yuck! or Ew! are disrespectful and unacceptable at Grandma’s house, then why are they allowed at home? And a thank-you for supper at the end of the meal, some acknowledgement and expression of gratitude that work was performed in getting food onto the table — no matter if the meal was greatly enjoyed or not — should be a basic requirement.

And this leads to my third observation:

  • Children will — eventually — learn to eat what is set before them

Suppertime at our house used to be filled with all sorts of unpleasantries: there’s been whining, obstinate refusals to eat, instances of head-on-the-table shedding of tears. It’s a tough thing to go through as a parent. We worry that our kids will starve, that asking them to eat something they don’t like will somehow damage them. We despair that we’ll never be able to take them anywhere.

Parenting is often about picking your battles, making decisions as to which points of contention are worth fighting over, and which ones you’re going to raise the white flag on. Here are some thoughts on making the supper table a place where you stand your ground:

  1. Children will eventually learn to eat what’s put before them. (Reassurance and tips for this can be found in the book French Kids Eat Everything). While the best time to shape a child’s eating habits is when they’re very young, it is entirely possible to change course when they’re teenagers, and to embark on healthy eating mid-stream, as a family.
  2. Picky eating can be both nutritionally and socially detrimental. The best way to combat this is by refusing to make secondary meals, and by taking the position that supper is what’s served. In my experience, nonchalance is the best defence to counter-arguments.
  3. The incidence of many diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are on the rise. They’re also beginning at earlier ages than they did in previous generations. Poor diets and processed foods are largely being held to blame for much of this. The documentary Fed Up provides a stark analysis of this situation and describes a state of affairs that’s both maddening and heartbreaking (although the current desire to point the finger of blame at sugar and processed foods, and to exonerate saturated fat, isn’t correct either. Videos showing why you shouldn’t buy into that new way of thinking can be found here: part one and part two). The brutally hard truth of the matter is that while it’s easy to come up with excuses (I’m too busy to cook, my life is too stressful, I don’t know how…) it’s becoming harder and harder to plead ignorance of the consequences of a poor diet. We as parents — as the adults in the house, as the grocery shoppers and cooks — are responsible for what food items come into the house, and although saying no isn’t the easiest thing to do, the evidence is telling us it’s the right thing to do.
  4. The ability to cook is, I would argue, an essential piece of adulthood. If it’s our job as parents to raise responsible and competent adults, then continuing along whatever detrimental path we’re currently on is ultimately doing our children a great disservice. According to Jamie Oliver, the British chef who worked wonders in getting real food into school cafeterias in England, many families in Europe and North America are now into their third generation of non-cooks, their health at the mercy of food corporations whose main concern is turning a profit.
  5. If I can do it — remember where I started? — anyone can do it. And because of the internet, it’s easier than ever before. Google makes the need to embarrass yourself in front of your new mother-in-law entirely unnecessary, and also provides answers to every possible cooking question you could ever think to ask.

Once again, I’ve written a novel of a post; my apologies for my long-windedness.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite finished yet, because I do have to come back to the challenge my daughter set …

Did I make it the whole year?

Here’s what happened:  I set out on the year not stressing about it overly much, a fact which is curiously surprising given the fact I stress over a lot of things! Perhaps, because I’m not a buyer-in-bulk and didn’t have a vast store of frozen goods in the freezer waiting to tempt me with convenience, I subconsciously felt I had no choice: the cooking habit simply HAD to take hold right from Day One. I vaguely knew I had to have meal plans in place, and to make sure I had staples on hand. I knew that on busy days I’d better be thinking about supper at breakfast time and planning accordingly, either by pre-chopping vegetables, or choosing easy recipes, or by plugging in the slow cooker, a hitherto little-used appliance which became my best friend. I tried a lot of new recipes over the course of the year. I learned to LOVE days of leftovers and to plan meals of leftovers for the very busiest of days. My nine year-old eventually gave up complaining about the “weird food” we were always eating (I’ll explain more about this in another post), and he stopped asking for hot dogs and Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese to the Americans out there).  (I do admit that when he asked for that specific meal for his birthday, I couldn’t say no. And while technically hot dogs do fall under the processed food umbrella, they’re not really oven food, are they?)

So here it is … with the exception of one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (to quote Judith Viorst) in which I headed (in a perfectly foul mood) to the local Foodland at 5pm in order to buy a box of Highliner breaded salmon … I did it!

And when I announced it to my family, somewhere around New Year’s, in a somewhat bemused and unbelieving voice, all the while searching my brain and trying to recall if there actually had been any other very bad day like the aforementioned one, my daughter said, “What?! I don’t remember that! I didn’t really challenge you to do that, did I?!”

(At which point I closed my eyes, speechless … )