Thursday, December 12, 2013

Chef Camp #1: Priorities

Chef Camp #1: Priorities

Budget? Health? Low-sodium? Organic? Vegetarian? Vegan? Allergies or sensitivities? Time?

All reasons are important.  What works for you may not work for anyone else.  The best priorities are the most important ones to you and your family.

Taking some time and seriously considering the aspects of food and eating that are important to you and your family can help you define your cooking style and your kitchen.
 The pantry of someone who hates cooking but must in order to feed their family three squares a day is going to look vastly different than someone who loves to cook, even if their budget and family size is otherwise the same.  The same can be said for the cookbook library.  A speedy cook is going to have different references available than one who spends more time in the kitchen.

What styles of food do you like to eat?  Do you enjoy cooking?  Could you enjoy it more?  Are there any food sensitivities or health concerns in your most common table mates?  How familiar are you with cooking?  Do you even have a kitchen?  Are there other more philosophical concerns you might have with your food like wanting your food Certified Organic?  Do you prefer to buy your food straight from the farmer whenever possible?  Do you have physical or philosophical concerns with consuming animals or their products?  Why?

These are just a few of the many varied questions you might ask yourself.  Your answers may surprise you.  One priority I feel everyone should keep on their list is what I’ll call Flexibility.  Flexibility with scheduling and cooking and ingredients are all important, but so is flexibility with oneself.  Perhaps a better word for that facet of Flexibility might be Forgiveness.  Sticking to a diet is difficult, especially in the beginning transition period when you move from one type of eating to another.  It's hard to change habits and it's hard on your digestive system, especially with a significant change.  Relax.  Don't beat yourself up for "Straying."  Everything has a place within the world.  There are typically a few store-bought frozen dinners in my freezer and occasionally I really, really crave a Big Mac.  Everything has a place.

My main priorities typically are Minimum processing, what my children will eat, healthy, local, organic principles, cost and time.  These are rarely ever in the same order from day to day or even from meal to meal but my first priority is usually local/fresh/minimally processed foods.  This concept I usually lump together in varying ways depending on the season and what is available.

Processed foods typically have the highest salt contents, trans-fats, aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, fillers, ingredients I can't pronounce, etc.  They also don't actually fill you up and usually translates to consuming more calories as a whole.  By putting meals together myself rather than from a can or a box I know that I have significantly reduced my intake of all those items, many of which contribute to diseases like diabetes, heart problems, cholesterol problems, etc.  You will also be able to eat fewer calories and feel fuller longer and know you are consuming a higher nutrient content which is especially important if you don’t take supplemental vitamins of any sort.  It’s also incredibly important to use whole foods when you have a food allergy or sensitivity to be concerned about.  It’s about the only way to remove ingredients like gluten or wheat or nuts or milk if those are items you cannot eat or you’re cooking for folks who cannot eat something.  

Local and fresh foods are also going to have the highest nutrient contents in most cases.  There are cases where the fresh or whole option isn’t as good for you as the processed version.  One good example is typically pineapple.  Unless you live in Hawaii of course.  The Fresh pineapple that is in grocery stores has been travelling for a fair amount of time before they arrive in the store and the canned pineapple may actually have more nutrients present than the whole pineapple.  Although they store really well which is why they can make it to grocery stores across the country.  In the case of things like greens, the more you can buy fresh greens at your farmer’s market or grow them yourself, the better.  They lose nutrients quickly and it takes a lot of packaging and gases to keep them fresh through the commodity system and they are more prone to picking up bacteria because there are far more potential contact points than with a farmer growing for local folks at the farmer’s market.  Not to even mention that the taste difference between spinach or lettuce from a grocery store and the exact same variety of spinach or lettuce from a grower at the farmer’s market is incredible.

Taste and cost go hand in hand with flexibility in the kitchen.  When you buy foods from the farmers at a market in your area, you are getting food at it’s peak of freshness and at a reasonable price.  (We usually keep an eye on grocery store prices and keep most of our items comparable if it’s not undercutting our costs).  It also is a great way to learn about what can substitute for various ingredients in different recipes.  Many recipes call for varying ingredients that aren’t always in-season at the same time in your area but talking with a farmer can yield some wonderful suggestions for substitutions and recipes to try with their different foods.  Flexibility requires changing your recipe paradigm from absolute end of story ingredients to thinking of a recipe as more of a guideline.  Purchasing a CSA share is also a great way to exercise your flexibility muscles because what comes in your CSA is often not so flexible.

The other main concern that I look at is if my children will eat the food I make but perhaps part of that is parenting and part of that is children’s constantly changing feelings on food.  We took the philosophy from the start not to feed baby foods but rather to present them to little munchkins when they asked for them in as whole of a manner as possible, starting with vegetables.  I often prepared pureed food for HannaMae and Alli both when they were little but only because other children in daycare were also eating pureed foods.  As they became a little more dexterous I would send non-chokable pieces of foods for them to play with at mealtimes.  Honestly, how much of that food are they really getting in their stomachs?  As they got older, we never gave them “kid food” in lieu of meals.  Food is always the same as adult food.  It has helped them to be a little more adventurous on most days and learn to appreciate the wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the world.

When it comes down to it, appreciating the wide variety of foods in the world is something that we all can perhaps strive to do just a little better.

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