We consumers have plenty to juggle when we navigate the food-scape of the twenty first century, and with limited time, stretched paychecks, and other areas of life to manage, it’s invaluable to know how to source good food quick on our feet. ‘Should I get my produce from farmers’ markets? Is all organic food healthier for you? How can I afford to eat good? How do I make time to eat good?’. These are just some of the many questions from consumers’ mouths. And where do we source our food and nutrition information from? It appears that we rely on the internet. The sheer volume of information on the net is not necessarily a good thing. Not all sites are reliable, and often information is conflicting, leaving consumers befuddled or mislead.
Being a registered dietitian, its important for me to communicate sound and evidence-based information on the health benefits of food to all consumers. But it in addition to this, it my responsibility to encourage consumers to consider important philosophies regarding the growing, raising and processing of food. Food is much deeper than just nourishment, so to make good food easier to understand and access, here are Five Food Fundamentals all consumers should know.
1. Know food terminologies and labels: See all those colorful labels on food? Spend some time examining these. What are they telling you? What does cage free really mean? You’ll be surprised to learn the hard facts. For example, ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ sounds lovely, but it boils down to very little. It doesn’t concern how found is grown or raised, it mainly refers to how the final product comes to be. Buying natural beef? All this implies is that no colorants have been injected into the meat to make the red that much brighter. In contrast to this, ‘Certified Naturally Grown’ refers to produce grown following organic standards, but the growers have refrained from the often tedious and costly organic certification process. It can take hours to research all the labels and terminologies, but thanks to a smart phone app called Eco Label, some of these are demystified at the press of a button.
2. Plan: Armed with a plan takes the admin out of food. What are some of your favorite recipes? Get your week of meals planned, and schedule cooking days to cook a few meals in advance. This translates to not needing to cook daily. Once you have your week menu planned, take a look at the ingredients you need. Is everything is season? If not can you make substitutions? This is a where a good measure of creativity is employed. The beauty of cooking is that it’s not baking. You can experiment without the risk of a flopped cake. Thinking Italian? How about Bruschetta? No tomatoes, no problem! Radishes, turnips, beets and tender beet greens make a gorgeous bruschetta. Now for some pesto… no basil? Look around at the farmers’ market and what do you see? Kale, Swiss Chard, and Collard greens, longing to be substitutes! ( collard and pecan pesto is delish y’all!). Of course, we don’t expect you to do everything seasonal but give it a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. So you have your menu, and a shopping list. Time to find some coupons for some of the products you need. One great resource is the Best Organic Coupons site. Every penny counts, especially when feeding a family. You never know… you may become the first ‘extreme organic couponer’…
3. Shop: We all depend on grocery stores and supermarkets for the essentials. When shopping in the naturals foods section, there are a few money-saving strategies to keep your wallet afloat. Check use-by dates on products. Unlike sell-by dates, use-by refers to food quality and not food spoilage and safety. If you notice products close to their use-by date and you’re willing and able to scoop these up, you may be able to get these at a discounted rate. Store managers prefer the idea of selling, not chucking, food. And does all your food have to be organic? Not necessarily. Many consumers believe that organic food is healthier. A box of mac ‘n cheese, organic or not, is highly processed and tends to run high in sodium. Best not to spend to spend your money on something like this (go home and make mac ‘n cheese from scratch folks!). Now produce is a different ball game. If you want to eat meat from happily raised livestock, or you want to avoid pesticides, organic is the way to go. In the same breath, you can be selective in fruits and vegetables if you’re on a tighter budget. The Environmental Working Group has a great resource, the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to help consumers determine what items can be organic or conventional, with the overall goal to minimize pesticide exposure.
There is life beyond the grocery store. Shop around a little. And shop local. How about joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share? This is a great time to sign up, just as the farmers start sowing the spring crops. If you’re on your own, or if you know your family is not enthused by idea of having green leafy vegetables three nights a week, split a CSA with friends or family. You can save (again) and avoid waste, awesome for your bottom line, health, and local economy. If you’re an online shopper, you can select products from multiple farmers and artisans and collect these from a designated market using a great online resource, Locally Grown. Then again, grab a shopping bag or basket, and step out the door. Farmers’ markets await! With spring just around the corner, the market season will be in full swing in a matter of weeks. Being outdoors and seeing the gorgeous produce and friendly farmers’ faces is a world apart from the supermarket aisles. Local is lovely indeed.
4. Cook: Delicious food is an easy feat! If you have fabulous ingredients, these will speak for themselves. Simplicity is a cherished friend to food integrity. Five fundamental ingredients to have on hand at all times: olive oil, garlic, fresh lemons, sea salt, and freshly crushed pepper… you’ll work wonders with these. Cook in bulk and freeze some leftovers for a rainy day. If you’re a meat-eater, determine a couple of simple vegetable sides to complete your meat choice. Want a happy, meaty meal minus the drive through and acid reflux? Lemon basted chicken pairs beautifully with braised swiss chard and roasted root vegetables (it’s breakfast time right now but seriously, I could scoff this now!). If blueberries are in season, buy and freeze, repeat, and repeat some more, and in the winter you’ll be making blueberry compote full of the peak summer flavor. If you’re part of a family unit, recruit family members to gather and cook. And stressed out about planning a dinner party? Pot lucks aren’t tacky. Host a pot luck show casing local ingredients. This will be a great way for your guests to chime into the season. And if you have plenty of wine, they’ll come!
5. Advocate: I know what you’re thinking. ‘Wait a minute, here she was talking about all this good food stuff now she’s thrown in a spanner, politics!”. Well, sorry to say folks but if you truly care about what you eat, you need to speak up. Food is a BIG picture. It starts with soil health, and ends with our health. The journey in between is long and complex. Concerned about farmers’ rights, animal treatment, the environment, food access, small-scale farmers, food corporatization… concerned about anything concerning food? Advocate. And this is the year to break ground on advocacy, if you haven’t already. Heard about the Farm Bill? Bet you have. This bill is a blueprint for our food system, and it’s far from perfect. Join advocacy groups. If you’re in the Georgia region, Georgia Organics is a super start. Nationally, the Food and Water Watch organization is also a great resource. It’s always a good idea to examine candidates before voting, but it’s equally important to examine the issues they are going to work on during their terms. You’ll never know everything, but knowing something is empowering, enabling you to truly ‘vote with your fork’.
These Five Food Fundamentals are what I try to apply, and what I believe we as consumers can all try and apply. Treat food as an investment to long-term health for us and for our planet. And treat the current emerging reforms (more farmers’ markets, more small-scale farmers, more local food, better food transparency etc.) not as ‘trends’ but rather as reforms that our generations to come will continue to support and thrive on.
Jess Avasthi MS, RD, LD
Minding my Peas & Food