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Organic For Beginners: Figuring Out the Why/How/What/Where

Lemme really quickly address a couple great questions you guys left in the comments recently:

Jen asked: Could you share where you started doing your research and the types of things you read? We are in the “before” part that you talked about eating out, lots of packaged things, etc. I feel guilty about it and I hate having to feed the kids b/c I feel like every meal is just me failing but I don’t know where to start to understand *why* I am feeling guilty and why all the stuff you mentioned (red dyes and HFCS and parabens(???)) are bad. Is there like, a beginners guide to this?

There’s certainly no shortage of information out there. And a lot of it (on both sides) is biased, inflammatory, misleading or just plain wrong. It’s definitely hard to suss out your sources sometimes. Random food blogger on the Internet with a ton of self-diagnosed food-related illness? Some quack on TV who claims you can cure cancer with beet juice and supplements? The FAQ section on a website for the Corn Refiners Association or some soy industry lobbying firm? I’ll take all of those places with some grains of salt, please.

But here’s where *I* started, and how *our family* got to where we are now. Two books and a movie! Obviously I’ve done a lot more reading and research and stuff since, but if you’re interested in the whys and hows and where-to-starts, I think these are quite good:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan: The whole push for local, humane and sustainable food goes beyond trendy marketing by Whole Foods — or it should, anyway. This book is a wonderful, balanced look at WHY where our food comes from is important, for our own health but also for our species and the planet. Why sustainable farming practices matter in a big-picture way, why we should care about the lives of the animals we eat, all from the perspective of of someone who really loves food and loves to eat. You’ll feel educated and empowered, not shamed. (I actually recommend any of Pollan’s books, but this is the first one I read. There’s a kids’ version too, for older readers.)

The Unhealthy Truth, by Robyn O’Brien: Now this one gets into the nitty-gritty about the crap we feed our children, often without realizing it. Allergens, misleading ingredient labels, genetically modified foods, HFCS, artificial dyes, all that. This book will light a fire under your butt to take control of what you feed your family back from Big Food and all the horrible processed crap they slap some Red 40 into and call “Froot Flavored.” And if you’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights feeling of not knowing where to start or what to change, the book includes a great buying/shopping guide, complete with specific brands and products to consider swapping. This is the book that turned me from a well-meaning, vague-ishly educated food shopper into someone who is incredibly passionate about what I put into my kids’ bodies. And we’re all happier and healthier for it, though I admit I may not be as much fun at dinner parties if you set me loose on this topic.

Food Inc. (available on Netflix Instant, Amazon OnDemand, etc.) Watching this documentary just made me MAD. In a good way! Everybody should watch this one, especially if you don’t get the outrage over factory farming and GMOs and all this talk about “Big Food.” I really enjoyed that it didn’t veer into crazy PETA-level propaganda or rely heavily on disgusting shock footage, but remained extremely educational and fascinating. Plus, my beloved Chipotle burrito chain gets a shout-out as a Big National Chain that’s managing to do things the right and responsible way. Mmmm, humanely-raised barbacoa.

Speaking of meat, Jo asked: We also try to buy organic, but my difficult issue is with meat. I try to buy organic meat, but it is sooo expensive. As a result, I’ve turned to my dirty hippy Moosewood Cookbook and have been cooking more vegetarian meals (slightly to the dismay of my carnivore husband, but they have all mostly been a hit). It just seems that a lot of meat is horribly produced in awful conditions and contains all kinds of bad additives. I’ve thought about going to a local butcher, but I am not an expert and am not sure this would be any better. I would like meat that is ethically raised and slaughtered, sustainable and not full of antibiotics and other weirdness. Do you have thoughts on this? Would love to know where you buy your meat?

It depends. Depends on the meat, depends on where we’re shopping. Usually the farmer’s market is our first choice. We have a couple “big” ones around here on the weekend that a whole bunch of small farms sell at. Some have gone through the (extensive, expensive) hoops to become certified organic, while others haven’t. But the non-certified farmers are usually more than happy to talk to you about their practices. (Most bring binders with photos and have websites and Open House days for visits.) So we can still get a sense that the animals are treated well, never given hormones, humanely slaughtered and that the meat isn’t full of fillers and pink slime or whatever the hell. I won’t buy Perdue at the Giant, but I will buy from a small farm upstate that might not be certified yet…but I know is still doing the right thing by their flock.

And those are basically the questions you can ask of any local butcher — who are his suppliers? Where is the meat coming from? How was it raised/fed/killed? Hormones? Antibiotics? Fresh ground with no fillers? Not all butchers are equal, of course, but the benefit from buying just one step closer to the source is that you’ll usually get better, more honest answers about what you’re buying than some random supermarket employee who might not even know what truck the ground beef came from.

And there’s something just…great about having a relationship with a butcher shop, fish market or farmer. An ownership of knowing more about where your food comes from, beyond the packages of styrofoam and plastic. I’m no longer squicked out at handling raw meat or confronting the fact that it was once a living, breathing thing. If I’m going to make the choice to be a carnivore (OM NOM NOM NOM BACON), I feel like I owe it to the animals to be respectful, caring and honest about the realities of their lives.

If we do need to spring for organic meat at a supermarket, we try to balance out the price difference by embracing cheaper cuts of meat. We do a TON of slow-cooker meals in our house, with stuff like brisket and stew meats and flank steaks and chili. We buy organic ground turkey or local bison over non-organic ground beef, packs of chicken thighs (or whole chickens) instead of just the skinless boneless breasts, etc. (I can de-bone a whole chicken now myself, thanks to Julia Child! It’s…definitely a skill I never thought I’d have.) (And yes, I’m always looking for great vegetarian meals — we eat meat-free several times a week as well, both for health and budget reasons.)

And since several commenters requested MOAR RECIPES, here’s one for the absolute best turkey meatballs EVER, for all your spaghetti-and-meatball fans out there. (And this is another “make a big batch and freeze” recipe — just drop frozen, uncooked meatballs in some sauce and simmer for 30 minutes or so.)

Spaghetti with Turkey Pesto Meatballs

(adapted from Bon Appetit via Epicurious)

One jar of your favorite tomato sauce (we love Mario Batali’s Marinara)
One pound ground turkey
1-1/4 cup whole wheat bread crumbs (more or less)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
5-1/2 tablespoons of prepared jarred pesto (Trader Joe’s is EXCELLENT)
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt

One box of whole wheat spaghetti (we use De Boles whole wheat angel hair with jerusalem artichoke flour — it’s delicious)

Spread about an inch of pasta sauce in a large skillet. Mix turkey, cheese, pesto, egg whites and salt. Add the breadcrumbs about a half cup at a time — the amount you need really depends on the kind of pesto you use and how liquid/dry it is. Shape meatballs (we go about golf-ball sized, loosely formed) and arrange a single layer skillet. Spread remaining sauce over meatballs and bring to a gentle boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook pasta, top everything off with a little more parmesan. Done!

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Read more original flavor Amalah
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Check out her writing at MamapopAlphamom

More from Amalah’s West:

Journey to the Center Of the Mall Santa Universe
I Don’t Know How I Do It
An Open Letter To Certain Random Strangers at the Grocery Store

 

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