I’ve needed to take one of those occasional breaks that I think almost every writer really must have in order to stay passionate, or at least productive. I’d post at least once a day if this blog were the only thing I had to do in life, but since this is really just a sideline of mine that amuses, engages, challenges, and sometimes (often) enlightens me, I can’t give it all the love and attention I’d like to give. So sometimes, as much as it pains me, I’ve got to step back for a week or so and let things settle up here in this spinny little brain of mine.
During this particular bloggy break, I asked the folks over at the RRG Facebook page to tell me what it was they wanted to see here when I returned. One response in particular seemed to resonate, not just with me, but with several other readers: “How do you stay sane while trying to responsibly feed your family, when every day there’s a new report of something ‘good for you’ being ‘bad’ or ‘toxic?'”
A chorus of voices chimed in. Among the topics that came up in the thread were arsenic in brown rice syrup, BPA in canned goods, whether or not soaking and sprouting are the only proper ways to prepare grains and legumes… It’s clear to me, as it was even before this conversation happened, that the more you know about what’s in the food you eat, the more you may sort of wish you didn’t know QUITE so much.
So how DO I stay sane? Well, first of all, I should probably qualify “sane.” Guess what — it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure many people, sometimes friends and family members of mine included, may get the inkling that my commitment to feed J. and the boys well has finally jumped the proverbial shark. But in general, I think of myself as being fairly moderate in my pursuit of “healthy” eating, and I do think I manage to balance all the information overload pretty well, all things considered. I didn’t even read the arsenic news the other day, partly because we don’t often consume things containing brown rice syrup and I therefore didn’t feel the need to worry about it too strongly — and partly because I paused, my finger on the mouse to click over to the link, and thought: is this information I NEED, or information that’s going to vex me?
I don’t have an easy answer for anyone who’s looking to find the Great Secret to nonchalant feeding of a family. I’m a thinker and a planner and I’ve been accused more than once of being an overachiever in both the best and worst senses of the word, so I may be somewhat CALM, but I’m almost never nonchalant about anything in life. But I do have a single word for you that may help: Salt.
Yup. Take it all with a grain of salt.
Before you roll your eyes and think I’m copping out on you, please understand that this is one of those adages that will always help when you’re feeling overwhelmed by information; it may be trite, but it can at least force you to stop and consider whether or not you can feasibly digest and put to good use any of the plethora of nutritional alarm bells that are probably going off in your face. Consider, for example, that conventional wisdom would once have told us that margarine was a far better choice than butter; that white flour was nutritious; even, reaching far back into the annals of history, that tomatoes were deadly poisonous and not fit for human consumption. A world without tomatoes isn’t a world I want to live in, and aren’t we all glad that SOMEBODY took all of those pieces of “wisdom” with a dash of fine-grained Maldon and produced a better way of thinking?
There is no one right way to eat, to feed a family, or even to be healthy. (If there were, the USDA would likely be a whole lot better at setting guidelines for school lunches, and lunch monitors might not get confused about the relative nutritional value of a turkey sandwich and banana vs. a chicken-nugget hot lunch. But I digress.) The only thing you and I can do is to decide where our PRIORITIES lie at any given point in time, and plan, shop, cook, and eat to those specifications.
If it’s hard for you to make that decision — because, let’s be honest, this whole business of feeding people is far more complex than simply choosing, preparing, and serving food — then it might be useful for you to spend a few minutes thinking about the following areas of cooking and eating, and using those to determine what’s really important and CONSTRUCTIVE for you. Because information’s great, and I’m an information junkie; but if I can’t do anything constructive with it, then it’s just more noise.
Variety. How often do you think it’s okay to eat the same foods, or same types of foods? Are you a person who’s cool with the old June Cleaver Meatloaf-Monday, Tuna Casserole-Tuesday, sort of rotation? (Which, by the way, is totally valid as a method of meal planning and preparation, particularly for the novice cook — there’s a reason June and her counterparts did it this way.) For me, eh, not so much; I like to cook and serve something different every night of the month. But I DON’T mind a bit of repetition where fruits and vegetables in the kids’ lunches are concerned. If L.’s on a bell pepper kick, bell peppers he shall have; if P.’s into yogurt and berries, I’ll pack them without complaint. Decide where you stand on variety, plan your shopping and cooking around that, and don’t allow yourself to feel guilty or pressured to do things any other way.
Convenience. This could mean any number of things, but mainly, I think of it as encompassing the topic of How Easy It Is For Me To Provide The Food I Choose. One reason J. and I have thus far resisted the lures of a CSA box, despite temptation, is that there is simply no CSA among the many available in our area that has a convenient pick-up time and location for our schedules. I’m not driving into downtown Providence on a Thursday evening after work to get vegetables, when I could just as easily wake up on Saturday morning, take a leisurely cup of coffee to the farmer’s market, and get the same stuff. However, I DO make it a priority to shop at Whole Foods rather than the conventional grocery, despite the fact that there are two conventional stores less than half a mile from my house and the Whole Foods market is across town. I also choose to cook meals for my family from scratch pretty much every day and do whatever is necessary on my part to be sure there’s healthful, appropriate food for all of us to eat three meals a day, despite the fact that it’s not always easy to find the time. And I make those choices because I think convenience must be balanced against…
Fortification. What a lousy word for what I mean. I’m not talking about “fortified” food products with extra vitamins and minerals. I’m talking about making decisions and choosing the way we shop and cook based on how the foods we favor will FEED us…both physically and emotionally. I’ve known many people who don’t ever eat dinner with their children, do minimal cooking from scratch, and instead lay in a wide variety of foods they deem “healthy” — often even boutique, gourmet, delicious items like fresh pastas and exotic preservative-free frozen dinners. But in my household, that way of feeding a family won’t do, because I don’t believe that it has much to do with nourishing people emotionally. For me, for J., and for our boys, “fortification” includes daily family dinners, extra thought put into the packing of lunches, and making the best decisions about the foods that will make up those meals that we know how to make at the moment.
Personal Truths. This is the most important category, probably, for readers of this blog. If you’ve conquered all the others, you may still be getting hung up on the personal truth aspect of feeding a family (or yourself); and I’ll be quite honest in saying that ALL of us will continue to occasionally be tripped up by this one, from time to time. Because the personal truths of feeding a family mean that you have to sift through all the knowledge you have, all the research that’s coming, and all the priorities and truths of OTHERS before you can arrive at the ones that work for you.
These are different for all of us. Arriving at your personal truths means that you must make a determination about refined grains vs. whole grains vs. sprouted whole grains vs. no grains at all. About conventionally farmed feedlot meat vs. pastured meat vs. organic pastured meat vs. no meat; any old produce vs. organic produce vs. only local, seasonal, and organic produce; low-fat conventional dairy vs. full-fat dairy vs. full-fat organic dairy vs. non-homogenized dairy vs. raw dairy vs. no dairy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course — there are so many more things we conscious eaters and feeders have to think about before a single bite crosses our lips. And each of these decisions, taken individually, can feel monumental. Heaped together, with a constantly shifting flow of information tempting us to change our minds at every moment, they’re nearly impossible.
But here’s a little secret: You can only do what is possible for you to do fully, confidently, and joyfully. If it’s stressing you out to contemplate whether or not you need to sprout and soak your grains, if it’s creating an uncomfortable financial strain to stop using canned goods, if you’re becoming an uncertain, ever-questioning, and unhappy feeder… Then stop thinking.
Take it all with a grain of salt. My grandfather is 88 years old and has lasted this long on a miraculous diet of bacon, butter, cheese, and the occasional canned pea. (The majority of which items, at least for the last 30 years or so, were certainly not organic or anything of the sort.) My grandmother on the other side has passed the age of 80 while following most of the now-debunked health trends of each age — she was an early adopter of margarine, of canola oil, of low-fat cookies, and has also eaten copious amounts of Swedish hardtack in her day, which is not only made with what many would consider to be “toxic” grains, but in fact, UNSPROUTED “toxic” grains. And there’s not a darned thing wrong with her.
Before you ask — yes, of course, there are other factors at play besides diet in my family members’ longevity. But my point is that clearly, if any food choice you made — or indeed, any constellation of food choices, to a point — were in and of itself going to be lethal, we’d probably have a pretty good indication of that by now. It’s the larger picture that matters, and what’s probably most true is that if you think carefully about what you eat and try to do right by yourself and your family most of the time, you’ll come out all right in the end.
So what do you do? You do what’s possible and joyful for you, and what helps your family feel good. If you want to sprout your grains and you feel like that makes a huge difference, great. I support you fully. If you assiduously avoid meat and dairy and think that’s made a difference in your family’s health and well-being, I’m thrilled for you. In our world, the answers are usually simpler than that. On our short list is avoiding preservatives as much as we can, and now — thanks to an interesting experience with P. after a recent party — avoiding most food dyes. We also try to limit refined sugar and white flour, but you’d better believe that I’m not above making a traditional white-flour birthday cake. We prioritize pastured meats when we can, aim for organic dairy, and make almost everything we eat from scratch because that’s simply the easiest way to know what’s going into our mouths (and to make things in ways that are tastiest to us). Our next frontier has been eliminating BPA — no easy task — and we’re gradually reducing our daily consumption of meats and wheat products, though by no means do we intend to eliminate them.
All these I’ve done not in one fell swoop, but gradually, and as they’ve felt comfortable and correct for ME. Not for other people. Not for the newest research. For ME. For my husband and my kids. And that, friends, is the real lesson here. You ought never to try, in shopping, cooking, feeding, and eating, to do things only because you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses of the nutrition research world. You ought to do things because you want to, because you think they truly matter, and because you feel like your life as an eater and cook will be greatly IMPROVED by doing so.
In short, it’s a gut-check thing. And I guarantee you that if you listen to your gut — both literally and metaphorically — you’ll happily find the balance you seek in every one of the above categories. You’ll change your mind, sometimes, and you’ll learn and grow; but life is all about the process of becoming, not just about standing still and being one thing and one thing only. So the next time you feel you just can’t sort through the mixed messages about what’s “good” and “bad,” “toxic” or “inflammatory,” check your pantry. Find the salt. (Iodized? Sea salt? Kosher? Gray, pink, black, boutique, truffled?) And give yourself a good big pinch. It’s amazing how much you can tell from a few grains of salt.