By Nancy Ross
Many years ago, when I was a new mom, I joyfully filled ice cube trays with each week’s garden harvest – mashed spinach, carrots, beets, squash, apples – never doubting my babies would adore the warmed versions come winter. My nineteen-year-old still waxes nostalgic for those cubes. He would eat veggies at college, he says, if I would just mail him the frozen cubes along with the special little yellow beaker in which we used to warm them. Now I know why in elementary school he traded the health-filled lunches I packed him for Twinkies. If I’d just held on to that magic little beaker – .
You ask yourself how to feed your family to keep them healthy. What should they eat? How can you get them to eat it? Without a magic beaker, I do the best I can. I try to make the food at our house whole, real, responsive and various.
Variety Makes for Good Eating
“Eat a variety of foods” appears at the top of all the standard nutrition recommendations, including the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. There’s no perfect food that has all the vitamins and minerals and other components, such as flavonoids and carotenoids that we need to stay healthy. If we eat a whole lot of one thing, we’ll miss out on some necessary nutrients we know about – and on other important ingredients we don’t know about yet. Research last spring, for example, found that strawberries and tomatoes contain natural chemicals that seem to protect against prostate cancer. This fall, studies linked the plant-based estrogens in soy products with protection against prostate and breast cancer as well as against premenstrual syndrome and menopausal discomforts – something for everyone.
I went out and bought a bunch of soy – both tofu and tempeh. Although I’d previously regarded tempeh as a notch above roadkill in the palatability department, I prepared with high hopes a Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home recipe for barbecued tempeh and red peppers. When my family took seconds, I didn’t bother to hide my smiles. My sixteen-year-old smiled back. “Okay, Mom, we’ll eat this,” she said. “Just don’t make it more than once a month.” She pinpointed another good reason for the variety guideline: if you keep serving the same thing the same way – no matter how it tastes – they won’t eat it.
Potatoes contain a great many nutrients known to humans. My Eastern European ancestors ate a lot of them, I practically lived on them last year when I was a lonely student in Boston, and they’re a staple in my home today – but we rarely eat them the same way twice. Potato/leek soup, colcannon (mashed potatoes with cheese and cabbage), potatoes grilled in olive oil, roasted with garlic and rosemary and other veggies, served as a hot salad with balsamic vinaigrette, baked with smoked fish, tortilla-ed (Spanish potato, onion, and pepper omelet), stewed with beans, scalloped with onions, grated in pancakes and kugel – these are a few of the ways we’ve eaten potatoes this month.
Give ’Em (Almost) What They Want
Potatoes bring up another problem. Colcannon recipes, for example – even in Jane Brody’s Good Food Book – feature more butter and cheese than the ten-per-cent-of daily-calories limit on saturated fat that Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends. Fat makes food taste good, but fats in general, and saturated fat in particular, bring risks for heart disease, certain cancers and obesity (which is associated with a dozen more diseases and conditions you don’t want).
But, if you cut back too much on the fat (or on sugars or salt to lower obesity and high blood pressure risks respectively), the dish is destined for the compost heap. I use an incremental approach, cutting back little by little each time I make a formerly rich dish. My family grows accustomed to the healthier alternative, and if they’re young enough when they try it, may even prefer it. My children always drank nonfat milk – even in days when I skimmed cream off the milk from the cow down the road. Today they won’t drink any fat at all in milk. Watch out, though, if the older members get a taste of a richer version. A friend brought buttery colcannon to a recent pot luck supper. I’ll have to start all over on that one.
I also work hard to find dishes that don’t have a high fat version, and are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other plant chemicals that will turn out to be life-enhancing. Eat grains, the Guidelines say, eat legumes, fruits, vegetables.
“Tastes good,” friends said about the squash dish I brought to a recent dinner party. “What’s in it?”
“Salt, pepper, a little cardamom,” I said. How could it taste so sweet and rich, they wanted to know. Wasn’t there butter, oil, sugar, honey? “The variety’s called Sweet Meat,” I said. They thought I was keeping an ingredient secret.
“Sun,” I said. “Rain. Compost. Weeding.”
Bite Into Reality
I grow real food in my garden, and I try to buy real food from local growers and processors. When I prepare it, I try to find ways to keep the taste and goodness of that real food alive. I cook vegetables as short a time as possible, and in little or no water, to keep vitamins and taste from leaching out. Broccoli, for example, loses 55% of its vitamin C in boiling, but only 30% in steaming, 20% in pressure cooking, and 15% in microwaving.
Without any added water, the microwave cooks great tasting asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots – and that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. Perhaps microwave cooking was the mystery ingredient in my squash dish. I also use the microwave for blanching vegetables I’m going to freeze, for reducing sauces without prolonged boiling, and for making dried beans into a meal relatively quickly.
One favorite that does not microwave well, however, is potatoes. I save potato cooking water for soup, reduce it and add it back to mashed spuds if that’s what I’m making, or I bake, roast or grill potatoes. Those three processes are really the same thing (at different temperatures) – dry heat and browning with or without fat and flavorings. Most root vegetables and the squash taste great baked, too, as do late corn and sweet peppers.
I also dry sweet and hot peppers as well as herbs, because store-bought, even if unsprayed and nonirradiated, taste stale and dead. My family eats our dried tomatoes and spinach like candy – right out of the bag or jar. Those particular dried vegetables also make a good, quick pizza topping or pasta dish – as do frozen herbed and broiled eggplant slices, frozen red pepper puree, assorted grilled root cellar veggies, or a bunch of sautéed herbs, garlic and onions.
I used to make the pasta, too. It tasted great – and I could sneak in dried greens or whole wheat flour. White flour is Western civilization’s original dead food; all the nutrition is milled out and, in modern times, a few vitamins stuck in. My family, however, along with most of humanity, wouldn’t touch whole wheat pasta, even if it were made by an all-organic sheltered workshop next door that donated 100% of its profits for world peace. I compromise by cooking half brown and half white pasta (or mixing a lot of whole wheat flour into the pizza dough), and they eat it.
Another place we compromise is in eating animal products. For a few years we ate vegetarian. Then we noticed the preschoolers ordering burgers or pepperoni pizza whenever we went out and begging to eat with friends whose folks served meat. I worried about effects of the hormones and antibiotics fed to factory-farmed animals, not to mention massive pollution, and the destruction of small farms and rural communities, caused by mega-feedlots.
We grow chickens now, and buy a small amount of locally grown red meat. Pasture fed meat has a better balance of the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. We also try to eat once a week or so fish caught or farmed nearby and never frozen – particularly fatty fish for the omega-3 fatty acids rarely found in other foods.
My family eats less and less meat each year, but I think we’ll always eat some. The chickens are part of our gardening system – just as various livestock are key on many sustainable farms.
Many healthy cultures – Mediterranean, Asian – use meat as flavoring rather than main course. Protein overload can hurt your kidneys – and recent studies in China found that very low animal fat intake correlated with the absence of many cancers and “Western” diseases.
People always ask about dairy foods. Someday I’ll do a literature search and let you know what I find. Meanwhile, my family drinks non-fat milk for calcium and a lot of other good things. We try not to overdo it with cheese – it has a lot of fat, and at least one of us might have an allergy to aged cheese – although we love it.
Keep It Whole
I don’t buy modified low fat and nonfat cheese because it doesn’t taste good. The same goes for fake eggs, butter and cream. These can also contain ingredients that may be even worse for you than the animal fat they replace.
Hydrogenated and “partially hydrogenated” oils have been implicated in heart disease. They’re usually put in food to make it keep longer – a deadening agent. I used to tell my children in the supermarket, “You can have anything you want as long as it has no additives, coloring, or hydrogenated oils.” After a while, they gave up searching.
I asked my daughter today, “If you were going to follow just one rule for good nutrition, what would it be?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Don’t eat processed foods.” How do you tell those? I asked. “They have a nutrition label on them,” she replied.
About the author: Nancy is the former executive director of MOFGA. She is currently working on her Ph.D. dissertation at Tufts University and is teaching at the University of Maine at Augusta.