Simplifying Food Life

I love food. All the tastes, scents and rituals of cooking for others or just myself bring me joy. Just the thought of starting the day with a perfectly fried, runny-yolk egg on crispy, buttery sourdough toast makes me giddy. The promise of a fruit and yogurt parfait with fresh, juicy strawberries and ripe peach slices with a home-made granola topper could get me out of bed even on my worst days. I gather new and old recipes in an old wood hat case from my grandma. In that box are ripped out magazine pages, scraps of paper scribbled with recipes from my family, friends and library books/food blogs/websites–whenever I find new inspiration, I write it down. The other day I read an excerpt from a Jamie Oliver book on making ‘proper porridge’ that left me pumped about perfectly made oatmeal with cinnamon, brown sugar and a touch of milk. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about food.

I love to read from others who share my love for a straightforward, natural approach to food. I have found myself supremely inspired by people like Michael Pollan or Alice Waters and the way she lays the foundation for her book “The Art of Simple Food”:

food rulesMy tastes are pretty simple, probably because I’m too cheap to be a foodie. Right now my love of food converges with the fact that I am a new home owner on a new budget plus a mom who does primarily all the cooking for the family and I’m growing a new little human inside me. So if you’re keeping track that means: I love food and love to buy it, I want to feed multiple mouths as healthily and tastily as possible but I want to do it all with the best ingredients for as cheaply as possible. I mean, we all want that, right? The question is: how does it all best fit together? I’m not quite sure yet but I have been trying to figure it all out.

IMG_2476
Fruit market in Cochabamba, Bolivia

It probably all started after living in Bolivia. Bolivians eat simply and cook with whole foods not because it’s cool or trendy but because it’s what’s available. In a place where everyday life can be complicated and rough, nourishing your family well becomes important. People take pride in their local dishes. Food is organic and local because pesticides and trucking food across the country are expensive and impractical in Bolivia. Makes sense to me.

Even before that, I grew up in a family where mom cooked dinner and we ate as a family every night together. Those dinner memories are still some of my favorites when thinking back on those formative years. Thanks Mom! Then when living with my sister last year, we had tons of fun in the kitchen together. After being used to mostly solitary food prep it was fun to do ‘food life’ with someone else. Sharing the tasks of meal planning, making dinner and feeding our families left us both time to dream about our food ideals. How do we feed our family the best tasting, most nutritious food? Are there ways we can cut out unnecessary processed food? Could we get the kids to swap homemade granola for the mounds of store bought cereal they were consuming? Is it realistic to make our own bread instead of buying it?  Combining our families meant we needed to stick to a more strict grocery budget, something that I have never been good at. We would plan around food we already had, get creative and use fresh vegetables from the garden as much as possible. I was beginning to become more food conscious in all ways. And it seems there is just no turning back.

Just before moving to our current house, I set some goals and ideals for our food life to streamline and simplify my swirling thoughts. Some have more to do with the quality of our food, other goals relate more to budget, some include both:

  • Set a food budget and stick to it! (I’m still working on the 2nd part)
  • Keep track of grocery totals but also individual meal totals to reference while meal planning.
  • Plan 4 meals per week for the first 3 weeks of the month then use of what’s left during the forth week.
  • Keep track of staples and their prices.
  • Buy the least processed version of foods.
  • Make food from scratch whenever possible. Things like bread, sauces, dressings/vinaigrettes/marinades, bread sticks/croutons/biscuits, cookies, granola, granola bars, other snacks, etc.
  • Buy less meat, keeping costs down but protein up through other foods.
  • Use more coupons
  • Use produce stores to stock up on fruits and veggies.
  • Snack on fruits/veggies and homemade goods instead of chips/crackers/cookies.
  • Get veggies growing in the yard by next year.
  • Waste as little food and packaging as possible.

Then I set out to actually live these goals out. Some are loftier than others. I have done a pretty good job of sticking to them but I’m still learning what works best for us. I plan meals and go grocery shopping once a week (extra trips kill our budget), keep track of totals and make about 4-5 dinners a week and eat leftovers the other nights. I make a lot more from scratch, I usually include meat in one sometimes two dinners a week and at least one of our weekly dinners is really easy/cheap like spaghetti, good quality sauce and a steamed veggie on the side. I should say that my three year old does not always eat what I make for dinner but I choose not to cater to that. If I give her something in addition to what I made, it’ll be an extra veggie that I know she’ll eat. She eats what she eats and knows that if she’s hungry later then she should’ve eaten more at dinner. Some day she’ll be on board but for now she eats more at breakfast and lunch and I don’t stress too much about her not eating much at dinner.

Figuring out how to stick to our budget has a lot to do with effective meal planning plus prioritizing what items to save on and what to splurge on. For me, it’s all about the quality of an item and whether it’s worth buying a more natural version of it (items like: dairy, cheese, eggs, baking goods like flour/sugar, produce, meat, etc.). I am continually trying to figure out which products to cut out that I buy because they are cost effective yet sacrifice our health by way of harmful chemicals or methods. It has been super helpful for meal planning to keep track of individual meal costs and see how much they really add up to. I use websites like www.5dollardinners.com to get ideas for cheap family meals that include nutritious and wholesome ingredients. Living in Portland makes some of this stuff easier. The food culture here encourages the way I want us to eat and it’s easy to find quality items and produce shops that sell yummy, semi-local, cheaper produce. I usually stock up on all of our fruit and produce first then get the rest at a bigger store. I can buy a ton of veggies and fruit for the week for around $20. The city picks up our compost/food waste and recycling once a week and garbage every other week which encourages us to recycle more, waste less and think about what’s going into our smaller garbage bin.

I’ve pleasantly surprised myself by making more stuff and actually sticking to it for some time. After making bread a few times, I realized how easy and yummy it is to eat homemade bread over buying it from the store. It takes about half an hour of hands-on time to make two loaves every other week or so. We start at one loaf right away and I freeze the other for the next week or two. I use a recipe from the side of the flour bag and we love it but I’m always up for new awesome recipes so let me know if you have one. I follow it exactly accept that I don’t use a machine, just utensils and my hands. Here’s what I’ve been using: (from Bob’s Red Mill)

DSCN9811Bob’s Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Pour water into a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle yeast over top. Let sit until yeast dissolves, about five minutes. Stir in milk, honey and oil. Add all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour and stir by hand or with a dough hook until a dough forms, about 1 minute on low.
  2. Add the salt and knead dough until it is smooth and springy, about 10 minutes on medium speed.
  3. Form dough into a ball and place in a large bowl lightly coated with oil. Turn dough to coat with oil. Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  4. Transfer dough to floured surface. Divide dough in half and form into two balls. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Grease two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans. Gently press and shape each ball into a 9 x 9-inch square. Fold into thirds, like folding a letter. Pinch the seam closed and place loaf seam-side down in prepared pan. Cover and let rise for 40 – 60 minutes.
  5. Make three angled slashes on top of each loaf with a knife and place in oven. Immediately reduce heat to 375°F and bake until loaves are golden-brown and sound hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool completely on wire rack.

DSCN9783Lucia loves to help! And I love her to help until she gets to that point that she always does when helping me cook/bake where she just wants to taste and eat everything.

DSCN9786 DSCN9794Pre first rise. You’ll notice from the background that this is from our last place around Christmas-time.

DSCN9800Busting out after the first rise.DSCN9802Sometimes I use whole wheat flour and sometimes this white whole wheat flour. I think it turns out a bit softer when I use the white whole wheat flour.DSCN9809Best when right out of the oven. I am not much of a baker in general and I’m a bread making rookie, learning as I go. I am pretty satisfied with my short term results and excited about my future of trying out new recipes and perfecting my old stand-byes. I have also been regularly making other things from scratch. Lucia gobbles up my granola bars like she’s cookie monster and my favorite is biscuits, so yummy (and easy). I’ll post my go-to recipes for other items another time. I want to get all of my most used to recipes up on this blog because its the easiest way for me to streamline and find them when I need them.

My hope is that as I write out these goals that I will stick to them. I will continue to simplify the way we shop for and eat food. I will keep reading good books about good food and the way food affects our bodies, giving me a larger vision of why it’s all so important to care about this stuff. And if you feel the same way, let me know if you have some great resources out there for me to check out! But at the same time, there are some foods that I know are bad for me that I’ll probably never give up (Stouffer’s mac and cheese, the fake kind of fruit roll ups, deep dish pizza, deserts of all kinds). All in moderation, right?alice waters quote

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