If you’re paying any attention to food at all lately, you’ve noticed that it’s not enough anymore to simply buy the food your parents bought while you were growing up and trust that it’s just as chock-full of nutrients as it always has been. In addition to the familiar Organic vs. Traditional debate, there are GMOs to consider, labor conditions, corporate donations, food miles, and the welfare of the animals that will wind up on your plate. Add to that your family’s need to stick to a budget as well as your desire to serve only food that tastes amazing…and you’ve got quite a conundrum on your hands. Which takes priority? Your conscience? Your bank account? Your taste buds? Hopefully, there are ways to satisfy all three.
This is an ongoing series in which we’ll address each challenge in depth, but I thought I would start by talking about how we do it in our house. It’s really simple. Are you ready?
Do the best you can with what you have.
That’s it. If you want something fancier, or if you need parameters to help you navigate the meal-plan, instigate the 3/4ths Rule. Pick the issue that is speaking the loudest to you in regard to a particular meal/shopping trip. One of my goals this year is to Picnic More, so I’ll use an afternoon picnic with friends as an example.
Basic Menu: Cold fried chicken, cheese and crackers, fruit/slaw/salad, and dessert.
In a perfect world, you are either creating this entire meal yourself — seed to table — or you’ve got the funds and connections to procure it all from friends or trusted farmer’s market vendors. I’m not sure who lives in this perfect world, but I would like an invitation.
The obvious solution to this particular meal is to make it a potluck, with each person bringing a course — budgeting is much easier if you are responsible only for the chicken — but for the purposes of navigating this minefield, let’s assume you’re hosting.
Let’s start at the top: Free-range chicken tastes better. Trust me. And where the fried chicken is concerned, you want to go one better and do an heirloom/pasture-centered breed. You want chickens that have been able to use their legs the way nature intended — the other side of this is chickens who have been bred to have larger breasts, which leaves the legs underdeveloped and bland. If you don’t have a local farmer from whom you can procure one, check out your local Whole Foods or co-op or other natural grocery store. The chicken is the focus of the meal, and it should shine. The cheater route: pre-fried picnic bucket. (Whole Foods doesn’t pay me to tell you that I love theirs. Sometimes, I see they’re having a special on their chicken buckets and picnic salads, and I plan a picnic just so we can eat it.)
Next up: cheese and crackers. Cheese, being something you’re unable to wash, should always be organic. Barring that, “all natural” or “from happy cows” is a close second. Organic certification is an expensive process that takes the better part of a decade to achieve. The softer cheeses should be from manufacturers closer to home, while hard cheeses travel better and can be from farther afield. Also pick cheese with as few ingredients as possible. If you’re feeling adventurous, do not count identifiable herbs in the ingredient list. See if your local shop has a “try me” bowl of hunks of cheese that are odd sizes or shapes or the tail end of a wheel that they’re trying to clear out. I’ve done entire cheese courses for under twelve dollars this way, as well as discovered some of my favorite cheeses. Crackers can be just any ol’ cracker, barring dietary restriction — they are purely a cheese-delivery vehicle at this stage.
Third Course: fruit, slaw, salad. Buy in season and as local as possible, and you’ll get the best bang for your buck. Sure, a pomegranate sounds nice in June, but those are a late fall/early winter fruit and if you’re getting one in June, it’s coming from a different hemisphere…which they’ll charge you for. Reference the Clean 15/Dirty Dozen when making your shopping list, and you’ll be good to go. Of course, you can also grow your own — seeds are relatively inexpensive when you consider the cost of a single tomato, as is dirt and a pot. But growing your own is going to be addressed later. I promise.
Finally: dessert. Or, as I like to call it: The Freebie. You have the majority of your spread from responsible sources so it’s ok to buy a package (or box mix) of your favorite easy dessert. You could, conversely, choose the conventional option of any of the prior courses and hit up your local bakery for this one. The key is not to be too hard on yourself. Life is too short for that.
But what about drinks, you ask? That’s up to you, really. You could play it safe with big glass or aluminum bottles of water or lemonade. You could swing by a local winery or consult your local wine guru. You grab a couple of Mexican Cokes from your stash. You bought a local, organic, free-range chicken, and then you splurged on that creamy wedge of brie…
Obviously, this is the tip of the iceberg and leaves even more questions than it answers. I felt it was important, starting out on this journey, to leave room for Real Life. If you’ve got a topic you’d like us to cover, please don’t hesitate to let us know.
Some links to get you started:
Photo Credit: Author