A Reformed Prepackaged Cook
I have not always been the cook I am now. If it came in a box, I was a whiz at cooking it. I knew all of the little tricks to make that prepackaged food really zing. For example, I knew that if you add the butter to the boiling water and then add the potato flakes, the butter flavor would permeate the entire bowl of potatoes. But, if you added the flakes and then the butter, as the box suggested, then the butter flavor would only be on a small portion of the “potatoes, no matter how well you stirred. Useful, right?
But I wanted to be able to present an entire meal to my wonderful groom and any friends who came by. So I worked diligently at learning to cook. When I first started out I was 1200 miles from home, and I would call my mom nightly and say, “tonight we are having (insert meal here). What do I do?” And she would walk me through it, step by step. I would write down the steps and call back with any questions. Slowly I built up the repertoire of meals I could cook all by myself. And it really felt fantastic to have people come over and praise my cooking.
Learning New Cooking Skills
As the years rolled by, my cooking skills continued to improve. We moved closer to family and had a baby. Living closer to family meant that I sometimes had the pleasure of cooking for my wonderful mother-in-law, who happened to have Celiac Sprue, and I learned how to cook things that would suit her gluten free diet. This taught me how to cook without some of the prepackaged crutches I had been leaning on, and it showed me how little time and money they truly saved.
Then Walter came screaming into my life. Screaming because of the belly ache he endured from the first day of his life until I figured out all of the things that caused that belly ache – dairy, soy, corn and gluten. Talk about an adjustment period! It was three years before I really felt confident cooking again. But now, while I am no world class gourmet, I am a good cook. And I’m not even shy about saying it! Well, ok, maybe a little shy.
I have learned the difference between “cooking at home” and “home cooked.” I have learned the difference between cooking from boxes and cooking from scratch. I have learned the joy of cooking with fresh, simple ingredients and turning out amazing meals that don’t cost a fortune. If I could use the real food for some of our substitute items, like dairy milk instead of almond milk, or egg instead of egg replacer, I would be able to save quite a bit more money.
Basic Ingredients for Cooking from Scratch
Cooking from scratch means I cook with the following:
- Chicken, Beef, Pork – the type that can be bought in the meat section of the grocery, not the frozen cases of prepared meats that just need to be heated.
- Canned or frozen fish – I prefer canned tuna and salmon or frozen shrimp, because I’m not a big seafood fan. However, any type of fresh fish also counts. Frozen, breaded fish products do not qualify as cooking from scratch.
- Beans – Canned are acceptable, but read the cans carefully to be sure that they are not adding ingredients like additives and preservatives. I prefer dried because they cost much less and store more easily. Flavored cans of beans, like pork and beans or baked beans do not qualify as cooking from scratch. However, this recipe for baked beans rocks my socks! It’s even better if you add in some bacon, carrots and green peppers.
- Vegetables and Fruits – Fresh or frozen are the best options. Fresh, local and in season has the highest nutrient content. Past that, frozen may have more nutrients than fresh if the fresh was picked somewhere else and shipped in. Dried fruits and vegetables also pack the same nutrition as their fresh counterparts. Canned is an acceptable alternative if the choice is canned fruits and veggies or no fruits and veggies. But canning takes out much of the nutrition of the produce, sadly. The only canned produce I typically buy is organic canned fruits in the winter when selection of fresh organic fruits is slim. When buying canned, it is important to look for produce that is canned in juice or water, not syrup. And it is important to check for additives. Fruit in heavy syrup with a bunch of preservatives has just left the realm of “healthy” and “from scratch.”
- Eggs – Eggs qualify for cooking from scratch. Sadly, we recently had to stop using eggs because Elliott and I formed an allergy to them. We now have to use egg replacer. We’ve been using the EnerG brand, but I think that we will be trying out some other, more whole food, methods.
- Grains – Whole grains qualify as cooking from scratch. Brown rice, oats, quinoa (which is technically a seed, but is used like a grain), and whole wheat berries are all grains that can be cooked with. These and several others can be ground into flours and used for cooking and baking. Whole grain flours are the most desirable for cooking from scratch. Also, grain products can be part of a healthy diet, but unless they are made at home, they usually do not qualify as cooking from scratch. The key here is the number and type of ingredients in the products. A white bread made with high fructose corn syrup and many chemical additives and preservatives has no place in a “cooked from scratch” dish. But a tortilla made with whole wheat flour, salt, water and oil does qualify in my book, because the ingredients are all things that can be found in a home kitchen, and they all qualify as healthful.
- Dairy or dairy replacements – Milk, butter, and real cheese (not cheese food) all qualify as cooking from scratch ingredients. Yogurt also qualifies if it is made with few ingredients and no chemical ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup. Dairy replacements toe the line, in my world. I would prefer to live without them, for the most part. My kids like almond milk, and we go through PLENTY of it. I know it is possible to make our own, but I’m yet to do it. It seems my priorities lie elsewhere. But I don’t drink it, and Elliott is allergic to it, so we also don’t cook with it. But, I would consider it to be an ingredient in cooking from scratch recipes. Our cheese replacement, on the other hand, is pure fat, and has no nutritional value. Do we add it to plenty of recipes? Yes indeed! Do we pretend it is good for us? Not at all. We are aware that it is processed, and that it is a special treat, and it is treated as such. Grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch are not something we typically do, because we know that there is no nutritional value in that meal for us at all. Here again, it is about the type of ingredients in the food we use as ingredients.
- Vinegars – Vinegars are definitely part of a from scratch diet. They are a great way to add flavor and depth to meals that would otherwise become monotonous. I have several different flavors of vinegar in my pantry and use them for many different marinades and sauces.
- Herbs and spices – Dried herbs and spices are a must in a cooked from scratch household! They add the flavor and depth to your dishes. This is what takes two identical chicken breasts and makes one Italian and one Spanish! Just be wary of “seasoning packets” and spice blends. Read carefully for artificial ingredients, or cleverly worded descriptions that typically mean MSG or some other sinister additive.
These are the ingredients that make up “from scratch” cooking. Other foods can be part of a healthful diet, and I even combine them with my made from scratch lifestyle.
We avoid chemical ingredients like artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup. We avoid natural flavors. We avoid sodium nitrites and nitrates that are added to foods.
But we do eat processed foods that use whole food ingredients. For us, this mainly means condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, peanut butter and jelly. I do make some mean salad dressing, but I’ve never ventured into my own mayo, ketchup or mustard. Perhaps someday when I don’t have a nursling on my hip or quite so many irons in the fire. But for now, I’m happy to buy these things already made up. We also stock almond milk, rice milk, dairy and soy free cheese, pasta, tortillas, chocolate chips, juices, applesauce and the occasional treat – like Almond Milk Ice Cream, Happy Baby Puffs for Elliott and Kettle Brand Potato Chips for Walter.
I think that for our family, the biggest part of being healthy is that we are continuously striving to learn new ways to do things, and to learn more about being healthy. Being open to the fact that we don’t know everything, and being willing to try new things is the only way that we have managed to adapt to the lifestyle that works best for us.
Kellie Barr blogs at Our Mindful Life which is about paying attention to what it is that we do on a day to day basis and how we impact each other and the planet.