I grew up in a time when it was normal and even expected for meals to come from a box, can, bag, or package.
Margarine, Crisco, and canola oil were the go-to fats in our pantry. We didn’t read labels. We ate soft white Sunbeam bread and liberally sprinkled table salt on our food. We didn’t have a garden. We bought the cheapest meats we could and stretched everything as far as it could go.
Breakfasts were colorful, sugary cereals swimming in 2% milk or Pop-Tarts with a glass of frozen concentrated orange juice, thawed and mixed with water. Weekends were for quick-mix Bisquick biscuits or pancakes or muffins from the pouch with on-sale Oscar Meyer bacon or Tennessee Pride sausage patties.
Lunches eaten at public school: congealed soggy pizza rectangles, unidentifiable soy-based meat patties and gray gravy, corn, white rolls, hot dogs, hamburgers, overcooked peas or green beans, occasional iceberg lettuce and carrot strips, and little cartons of Mayfield chocolate milk.
Lunches eaten at home: fish sticks, frozen pizzas, Oscar Meyer Bologna and American cheese slices or Jif peanut butter on white Sunbeam bread with Doritos. I drank Coke and red tropical punch Kool-Aid all the time.
Dinners were often canned Green Giant Frenched green beans or LeSeur peas, scalloped potatoes from a box, and Spam or Oscar Meyer hot dogs or fried cube steak with a jar of gravy.
Special occasions called for Duncan Hines yellow cake mix and canned double chocolate frosting.
No one I knew lived much differently.
We didn’t know any better.
I learned how to cook some basic meals and treats from early PBS cooking shows, my grandmother, my aunt, and friends’ moms. I enjoyed learning new styles and recipes from cookbooks from the bargain bin at the bookstore or library.
I practiced cooking meals and baking at home from the time I was 12 or so, but my dad would seldom enjoy the meals I prepared. It was very discouraging. He doesn’t like new foods, textures, styles, or flavors. When I learned a way to improve upon meals we’d always eaten, it was too often met with disdain.
My parents take pills by the handful every day now. My dad has suffered from obesity all my life, now complicated with high blood pressure and pre-diabetes. My mother has very high cholesterol. They both have arthritis and live with pain every day. I feel many of these aging disorders can be prevented or slowed with a better diet and lifestyle.
In the early years of my marriage, it was frustrating, expensive, and exhausting for me to plan, prepare, and cook all the time after working all day teaching school, then later, homeschooling one, two, then three young children. I often got lazy, relying on easier, quicker, cheaper, and processed “foods.”
When I got sick in 2008, we knew we needed a big lifestyle change. I was tired all the time. I just couldn’t do all the things I was used to doing. I was drained. The doctor put me on a Paleo diet and prescribed a lot of vitamin and mineral supplements. In a few months, I was feeling more like myself. We decided to continue that regimen with our whole family.
Thankfully, we have no food allergies. We noticed some sensitivities that don’t show up in lab tests, but we’ve done elimination diets that reveal sensitivity to modern wheat products and low-quality dairy in a couple of our family members.
We started to research eating better, more natural whole foods for our whole family.
For the past few years, we seldom eat out, almost never get fast food, and prepare almost all our foods from scratch at home.
My goals for cooking real food are simplicity, ease, and quality.
Simple means that I want foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Fruits and vegetables have no “ingredients” or labels. They’re simple.
Preparation can be as simple as consuming them raw in a salad or blended into a smoothie.
We often steam or roast or grill veggies. We eat a lot of fun colorful salads with interesting flavor combos.
I like simple, fewer-ingredient recipes with lots of flavor, but nothing too complicated or time-consuming.
We occasionally try new recipes that require some advanced preparation or complicated steps, but they are special and rare. Even our holiday meals have simplified.
Ease requires a bit of preparation ahead of time.
When I do my big grocery shopping trips (twice a month), we prep the food to make it easier to consume during the week.
We clean and chop fruits and veggies into manageable portions so snacktime and meal prep aren’t so stressful.
We marinate and grill a bag of chicken strips for salads and snacks.
We thaw a bag of mini shrimp and place in a glass storage container to be ready.
We freeze bone broth for soups and sauces. I miss my deep freezer (it’s in storage) – we don’t have the quantity of ready-made homemade items we used to have around.
Quality doesn’t have to be super expensive.
I buy the best we can afford.
We buy fresh food in season and we shop at local stores, farmers markets, and the military commissary as needed.
While it is ideal to consume organic food and grass-fed meats and dairy, it’s just not readily available in our area.
The local military commissary has a small frozen section of organic, free-range, grass-fed meats, but they’re 3-4 times as expensive as the regular local meats – and they’re often freezer-burned from sitting in the freezer for so long.
That’s not quality to me.
I have four kids and a very carnivorous husband. We don’t often eat a plant-based diet, although I totally could most days. We like meat and we like animal protein at every meal. We’re trying to eat more fish, but it’s so expensive here.
We do consume dairy and wheat. My girls and I like yogurt and kefir and kombucha, but my son and husband just do not. We’re learning to make sourdough and we often make our own yeast breads. I’m experimenting with spelt, buckwheat, and sprouted grains. I buy German honey O’s cereal for my son (they’re more natural than the American Honey Nut Cheerios).
I don’t sneak in fruits or vegetables without my family knowing.
I don’t make my kids or husband eat foie gras or pâté, but I sometimes sprinkle liver powder into ground beef dishes to boost nutrition.
We love to try new foods when we travel and come home to recreate it.
I respect that everyone has preferences. I try to make meals with variety so everyone has choices they love.
I prepare many different foods with fun flavor combos and textures. I encourage everyone to try new foods frequently. Often, my family is pleasantly surprised. My girls and I love Brussels sprouts. Everyone loves broccoli and asparagus. My son loves steamed cauliflower. The middle girls and I love cabbage.
We buy German Oreos and frozen potatoes and 100% juice Capri Suns. I hear many Canadian and UK products are better too! We’re not terrified of sugar, but we do like to limit the chemicals we ingest when we can.
We have a Soda Stream and buy the natural syrups for ginger ale, lemon-lime, and root beer. We also make homemade fizzy juices. These products have fewer harmful ingredients than the most soda, even natural ones.
I never tell my kids what they can or cannot eat. I encourage them to make better food choices and eat meals before treats – like most parents, I assume.
The kids love to be in the kitchen, learning and helping and creating. They’re getting more and more independent with baking and preparing meals and I couldn’t be more proud.
I know we’re on the right track when my kids make good choices on their own at events, parties, or church pot lucks without my supervision – when peer pressure is at its finest from even the other adults.
I want our family to be healthy and live long prosperous lives and we feel that a healthy balanced real food diet can help us achieve that.