Date: April 1, 2012
Before my second son, Alex, was born, my idea of a healthy home-cooked meal was pasta-in-a-box and a can of green peas. We all seemed fine with that kind of diet, except for Alex who, as we quickly found out, is allergic and highly sensitive to a number of foods.
Cooking from a box was not an option for him, so I had to learn to cook from scratch. This process made me realize eating ingredients I couldn't pronounce, let alone define, probably wasn't healthy for the rest of us, either. That's why my family started eating more fresh, local foods.
It wasn't easy, but I slowly figured out what is realistic and sustainable for us, which is the key for any family trying to make the switch from a diet heavy in processed foods to one that relies on eating foods closer to the source.
Why fresh and local?
Answering this question is the first step toward making this significant lifestyle change. It will also help keep you on track. Many families make the choice for health reasons.
"Fresh foods have more vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals than processed foods," says Kim Barrier, a Durham nutritionist and mother of three. "And fresh food grown and sold locally may have improved nutritional content over their supermarket counterparts."
Why is that? Barrier notes that many varieties of fruits and vegetables reach their peak nutrient content when ripe. A local farmer can let the produce ripen on the plant longer since the trip to the market is relatively short.
Another common reason for eating fresh, local foods is that many people believe it simply make tastes better. "If you get things in prime form, it's easy to be a good cook," says Sheri Castle, a Chapel Hill mom and author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best From Homegrown Gardens, Farmers Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes.
Eating more local foods also lets families become more invested in their community and local economy. Suzanne Daly of Durham decided nine months ago to use her family's food dollars to contribute more to North Carolina's farmers, as well as to a healthier diet. With two young children, going to the farmers market every Saturday is not an option, so Daly had to find another solution.
Set realistic goals
Eating locally and might mean different things to different families. Recognize your family's limitations, then set realistic goals.
"Our goal is to use as much fresh food when we can and to minimize processed food," Daly says.
Those who've done it recommend taking small steps and not trying to do it all at once. Daly's advice is to start out by picking a certain number of meals per week when you will eat primarily home-cooked fresh foods. "It makes you feel that if you need to buy processed foods, you're not a failure," she says.
Eat with the seasons
Learning to eat with the seasons is the best way to start eating closer to the source of your food. Castle says if you buy foods in season, they "taste best, are most abundant, and cost less." This holds true whether you are buying from a farmers market or your local grocery store.
Find a farmers market
When it comes to finding your food, farmers markets offer a variety of produce and meats. There are plenty of farms that are certified organic, those that are pesticide-free and those that use conventional methods to grow their produce. Ask the farmers questions about their growing methods. That's the advantage. You know where your food is coming from and how it's produced, while still having plenty of choices.
Taking kids to the farmers market is also a good way to get them excited about eating fresh food. Linda Watson, Cook for Good founder and Raleigh-based author of Wildly Affordable Organic, recommends giving each child $5 and letting him or her pick out what to buy and make.
Kid choices aside, if browsing for ingredients and creating your menu as you go doesn't fit your normal Saturday schedule, shop with a list in hand — just like you would for the grocery store. Most farmers markets email a newsletter ahead of time, letting you know what specific farms will be bringing and even offering a recipe or two. A list makes your trip more focused and able to be completed in a reasonable amount of time — an important factor if you need to head to gymnastics, a soccer game or baseball later in the morning. See our listing of Farmers Markets in the Triangle here.
Consider CSAs: Community Supported Agriculture
A CSA is another option for buying fresh, local food. It allows you to pay for a box of food for a set period of time before the growing season begins. The farmer knows how much to plant and can afford to plant it, and you know you will get fresh produce every week.
"CSAs eliminate the question of what do I buy?" Watson says.
Since a number of CSA options have become available in the Triangle over the past few years, you can pick the plan that works best for you. In some cases, the farmer chooses what to send in your box. For many families, like the Barriers, this type of CSA does not work well.
"The variety of the produce sent in my box was hard to fit into my family meal plan," Barrier says. "I try to introduce my family to new foods and new recipes, but I needed some of our favorite vegetables more often."
The good news is that an increasing number of CSAs let customers choose what goes in their box every week. If you decide to use this option, have your kids help pick out a few of the items, allowing them to "buy in" to the foods they will be eating. If your CSA doesn't let you choose, and the produce is new to your family, explain each item to your child and let her help find ways to prepare it.
Daly has been successful changing the way her family eats by subscribing to an online farmers market that lets her order local produce, meats, dairy items, bread and even seafood every week. She chooses the items she wants, and the business delivers them directly to her door.
The cost of the service is comparable to buying fresh vegetables in the grocery store, with some items costing more and some less. Daly lets her son unpack the box, which increases his interest in the foods he'll be eating.
Watson says mainstream grocery stores are also making more local foods available on a regular basis. She suggests voting with your dollars by letting store managers know you're happy with the increasing number of choices. Also let store managers know if you aren't finding enough local items.
Beverly Dunn of Raleigh says she buys her family's fresh produce from grocery stores and the farmers market. That way she can purchase produce about every three days.
How to make it work
It's one thing to have plenty of fresh, local food in your refrigerator. It's another to make sure it's used. Watson, Daly and Barrier all recommend planning as the cornerstone to success.
"There are many quick, family-friendly menus that use fresh and/or unprocessed foods, but you have to plan ahead," Barrier advises.
Daly plans her family's menu based on the schedule for the week. She knows which days she'll have time to cook from scratch and when she may need to combine convenience food with her fresh produce.
Another strategy is to prepare food in batches. Watson says it saves time in the long run. You can eat some at first, have some for a busy day later in the week, and then freeze the rest. "It creates your own fast food that is less expensive than eating out," she says.
Of course, if your kids refuse to eat what you've cooked, it makes changing your family's habits much more difficult. Susan Caldwell of Lil' Chef in Raleigh suggests letting children participate in the food preparation so they may be more likely to eat and enjoy it. "Let them chop veggies and fruits with safety knives, and then let them sample the fruits of their labor," she says.
Dunn recommends starting with fresh foods your family really likes and making that the staple. Then build new items around that so no one leaves the table hungry.
There's no doubt eating closer to the source of your food is a challenge in a world full of packaged and processed foods. But Caldwell says it can be achieved in moderation. "Going cold turkey may turn your children off initially," she says. "It's better to gradually make lifelong, healthy changes." n
Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and mother of two boys. She has spent much of the last six years learning firsthand about the local, fresh food scene and how to cook from scratch.
FRESH FOOD RESOURCES
What's in season? www.ncagr.gov/markets
Pick-your-own farms, roadside markets and CSAs: www.ncfarmfresh.com
Papa Spud's online farmers market: www.papaspuds.com
Cook for Good: www.cookforgood.com
Carolina Grown: http://carolinagrown.org/whoweare.php
See Healthy Recipes Your Kids Will Eat for a main course and cookie that are delicious and good for your family.