Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Cooking Food

There is something I find primally satisfying about cooking my own food with as few commercial interventions as possible.  When I have not been able to cook in my own kitchen for an extended amount of time because of travel or an overly hectic schedule, I start to feel like I am missing an important part of me - like a nutrient deficiency.

Yesterday I was craving some spicy lentils and decided to make dal.  We were expecting company for a late dinner - a friend was driving through from Nashville to Pittsburgh, but not exactly sure when he would arrive - so I thought this would be a great stand-by meal that I could make in advance and then reheat.  I loved that I could walk the few blocks to my market and get the local vegetables I needed to make this dinner and only have to spend about $4 (I already had the lentils and brown rice on hand).  I enjoyed the meditative mood that cooking put me in after lunch as I assembled this dish, filling my house with great spicy aromas.  Having the dinner decision already made before dinner time made it so easy to simply pull out the pan of dal, put it on the stove top and reheat it while rice simmered just before our meal after coming home from a nice leisurely walk.  I like dinners like that.

Too often, dinner time arrives and we find ourselves trying to figure out something at the last minute, and this is usually in reaction to our hunger and cravings, rather than in anticipation of nourishing ourselves.  These "reactionary" meals are usually the least healthy ones we can opt for because we reach for what will satisfy us quickly, and these are more often than not the simple carbs and sugary, high-sodium foods found in those prepackaged, convenient sections of the grocery stores.

When my kids were little, I had a monthly calendar page I would print from my computer every month and fill in meal assignments for myself, usually rotating the same 6-8 meals each month.  I would leave a square blank each week to allow myself a "free" night from time to time, but I found that this was helpful in preventing me from having that deer-in-the-headlights stare into the pantry come 4:45 every afternoon as my three kids (born within 3 1/2 years) and I began the end-of-the-day descent into the "I'm hungries"...

While my kids are not even living at home now, there is still much to be said for that advance meal planning - even for just my husband and me.

When choosing food for meals, consider local food as much as possible.  There are more nutrients in produce when consumed soon after it's harvested, than when it has been harvested while still unripe and shipped long distances as it ripens on a train, truck, or grocery store's refrigerated storage shelves.  Plus, there's no comparison between the tangy, juicy taste and texture of a freshly picked tomato and the styrofoam-y bland "tomato" from the supermarket.  Choosing local food also helps in other ways.  Consider this from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (this principal applies to some degree, everywhere), called The Ten Dollar Solution:
     "A typical carrot travels 1,838 miles to reach your plate.  How much money, time and energy does it    consume from the beginning to the end of its journey from seed to table, and through how many hands does it pass?  It’s almost impossible to calculate the REAL COSTS of industrial food production and processing, excessive product packaging, and long-distance shipping and storage, but there is another number tha DOES make sense.
If every household in Western Pennsylvania spent $10 a week on regionally-produced food, $15 million dollars would stay in the local economy each week.  That’s $60 million every month, and over $700 million per year.  Spending money on local food not only sustains our economy, it provides us with greater nutrition, preserves family farms, generates job opportunities, and beautifies the rural and urban landscape.  And don’t forget that locally grown foods are likely to be fresher, tastier and safer for you and your family."

I had a conversation with someone recently who worried that this new "move" toward more people cooking at home, and encouraging people to shun fast-food restaurants might ultimately hurt our economy by reducing the jobs generated by the fast-food industry.  If you're concerned about your local economy, make more local purchases.

I encourage you to look around for local produce and purchase it every chance you get.  In Pennsylvania, you can find local markets through  In Central Ohio, check out Local Matters not only for local markets, but for restaurants that serve local foods as well.  No matter what your location, for great simple REAL food meal ideas, check out Eating Well Magazine and Clean Eating Magazine, or visit Elemental Fit's recipe blog.

Slow down your pace, even if it is just for one or two days each week so you can cook an extra meal or two at home and eat more REAL food.   

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