Tuesday, September 21, 2010

5 Easy Steps To A Healthier More Sustainable Diet For Your Family

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We all want to give our families the best, and making changes to our lives now to positively effect the future of the planet is in ours and our children’s best interest. But at the frantic pace that family life seams to move in this day and age it’s not always easy to do so.

There has been a lot of hype recently about eating locally, and cutting down on the processed goods in our diets. Both of these trends can have major positive effects on your family’s health, and the carbon footprint you generate.

This came as a jarring realization to me personally. The journey my food took to my plate never registered with me past my involvement from grocery shelf to refrigerator. But from the resources needed to ship ingredients, to the chemicals and practices used to process and package convenience foods, the decisions we make about our diets have huge impact on the world around us.

I have since found that eating a local whole food diet can be really rewarding, and experiencing what your local economy has to offer from season to season is exciting. But it can also be rather daunting.

In many parts of North America, my own included, there are long seasons where nothing grows, followed by short bursts of productivity and only one big harvest per year, so having fresh local ingredients through the winter means a lot of planning, preserves and a large freezer.

In many places the way agricultural systems are set up makes it less profitable for farmers to sell their produce locally. For me in Canada, this often means that the ‘fresh’ produce, like corn for example, at my local super market was grown in the United States even when the local corn crops are in harvest, which results in having to make several trips to different locations to obtain all of the local goods I need.

The same systems that effect who farmers sell their produce to can also drastically affect the variety of produce in a hundred mile radius; If your local farmers rely heavily on profits made from say, soy beans it stands to reason that diversity will be set aside for the sake of profits, so locally grown ingredients other than soy beans may be more elusive.

Many people who wish to eat a more sustainable local diet have great success growing their own ingredients in their gardens. This is an awesome resource if you have it, but with more and more people living in urban environments and policy trends towards privatization resulting in the loss of public land including community gardens, this is not always an option for people interested in eating their way to a smaller carbon footprint.

So how can you and your family eat a more local and whole food diet despite the obstacles? I have 5 suggestions:

1. Talk about it!

In my case this step was a series of discussions, mostly in the super market, with my husband. Oliver isn’t yet old enough to give us his impute past ‘mmmm’ or ‘ick’, but if your children are older it is important to involve them in the decision to change your family’s diet.

Talk to them, in an age appropriate way, about the importance of choosing foods that are good for their own health and the health of the planet. It will be much easier to make changes when the whole family is on board, and many children will be more open to change when they are prepared and involved.

Even if a switch to locally grown goods wouldn’t mean a big change in the kinds of foods your family eats (you’d be surprised what you can find locally with a little bit of detective work), it is still really important that we talk to our children about the effects that our choices have on the environment.

2. Set a standing dinner date

Schedule a little adventure and pick one night every week to try new things. In our house we aim for Wednesdays. Every Wednesday we explore our local farmer’s market and find something fresh and local to eat for dinner. On those days we aim to have everything on our table come from the province that we live in, though occasionally small additions from within Canada are made. (As Oliver grows we plan to involve him by allowing him to choose new ingredient from the market.)

Committing to just one day a week is a really easy way to get the ball rolling, as you start to explore new ingredients and recipes the feedback you get from your family, and your own taste buds will guide you. When you find a dish that the whole family likes, add it to your regular menu and all of the sudden you’re eating a local whole food diet twice a week!

Just one meal a week WILL make a difference! According to World Watch the ingredients in the average American meal typically travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers to your plate. According to the American Census, in 2003 the average American commute to work was about 25 kilometers one way. Eating local whole foods for just one meal would save as much fuel as walking or biking to and from work every day for about 50-80 days!

3. Make it fun

When I was talking about our local food nights with a friend of mine the other day she seemed amused. “That may work now, but good luck getting Oliver to eat any of it in a year or two” I understand where she’s coming from, I’ve personally tried feeding her child, he’s a pretty particular little guy, and when I cooked for my family as a teenager I remember the upturned nose of my baby sister and the frustration that resulted very clearly. (She’s now 16 and still turns up her nose at my cooking, some kids are just stubborn)

But one way I plan to capture Oliver’s interest in whole and local foods is to involve him in the process. By letting him choose or grow his own ingredients and help with the preparation, I hope that he will have a sense of pride and ownership over his meals.

I also think it’s very important not to make food a battle ground. Food is for nutrients yes, but it is also pleasurable. Food should be fun, and part of keeping meal time fun and light is remembering that some people just don’t like certain foods. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is important to understand and respect this fact. Eventually, in their own time, they may even come around about foods they claim to hate. (For example: I only started eating asparagus a year ago, I was convinced it was gross and now it’s one of my favorites)

Have a particularly picky food critic? Let him be a critic! Give him a crayon or pencil and have him write or draw what he did and didn’t like about the meal, get him to score it like a food network judge, and make suggestions about what could have made the meal better.

What if he thinks that your roasted chicken would have been better with rainbow sprinkles? Then serve it up with a small shaker of rainbow sprinkles on the side next time. (If you can find locally made sprinkles that’s great, but I am sure you could make an exception for a pinch of rainbow sugar) He’ll quickly realize that those two flavours don’t really go together, or maybe he’ll think it’s delicious, there’s nothing wrong with letting kids explore with taste and texture. Food is FUN!

4. Make it easy

Let’s face it, there’s a reason many of us keep reaching for the convenience foods even when we know the harm they cause to ourselves, our family, and the planet. It’s because they’re convenient! (Crazy I know, how could I have guessed?)

At the same time that I try to make health and planet conscious decisions when putting food on my table, I am not ashamed to admit that there’s a box of Itchy Ban Noodles sitting in my pantry waiting for a busy day when neither my husband nor I feel like cooking.

One way that I’ve found to resist the appeal of those types of convenience foods is to make my local ingredients into more convenient options. If every dish you make on local whole food night takes 5 hours of slicing, dicing, cooking and seasoning then there’s no way that healthy choices will compete with processed convenience food after a long day. I have two ways in which I try to make local whole foods more convenient.

First, I find that making double batches of our favorite local/whole food recipes and freezing individual portions is like having the best ever TV dinner at your finger tips. Thawing out a container of hardy chili or soup is just as easy, if not more so, than boiling up a pot of starchy noodle goodness.

Second, I avoid recipes with more than 3-4 steps unless it’s a special occasion. Most foods are tastiest and healthiest in their natural state. The more saucing, steaming, or combining you do the more nutrients you loose in the process and the natural flavours of your ingredients start to fade away. While my family never shies away from the spice cupboard, I try to remember as often as I can that the flavours nature intended are often just as delicious and satisfying as the most balanced curry or elaborate sauce.

5. Eat out!

As eating locally becomes more and more popular, I am finding that more and more restaurants in my area are featuring locally farmed and produced options on their menus. You may have to do some searching, but you might be able to find one or more of these establishments in your area too. If you do, support your local economy by making it your go to date night spot, or your family’s special occasion eatery for birthdays and achievements. There’s nothing better than eating great healthy locally grown food that you didn’t have to prepare yourself!

Even if you haven’t found a way to eat locally grown whole foods at home on a regular basis, treating yourself to local fair while you’re out is a great option when you think about the impact that just one local meal can make.

Do you know where your food comes from? Would you like to learn more about whole foods? Join me on The Connected Mom Community! I have started a thread under ‘Nutrition for the family’ called ‘Sustainable Nutrition’. Come talk about making healthy and sustainable food choices for your family!


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