Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest post: Food for thought

An amazing friend of mine recently had a baby boy, who is one year old now (and incredibly adorable). She also recently started a blog called Real House Mom where she writes about the challenges and joys of being a parent. I asked for her permission to republish her latest post, which discusses how and why to make baby food from scratch. So here it is!

I remember getting stressed about how I would transition Bentley to solid foods.  There are so many things to consider: What foods do I start with?  How much should I give him?  Which brand do I trust?

It’s amazing how these things just worked themselves out without me needing to calculate much of anything.  Bentley, like most babies (I’m assuming), was eager to eat solids and easily slipped into a routine of when and how much he ate.  A factor that I firmly believed made things easier was that I pureed his food myself.

It sounds like a laborious task, and yes, chopping sweet potatoes or squash can be extremely tedious, but the benefits are worth it.  First of all, there are no additives to preserve the food.  Also, the food you make on your own is not cooked in mass quantities like store bought food, so there is a significantly stronger taste.

You might be thinking, “But I work full-time, there is no way I’d have time for this.”  Well, with that kind of attitude, you most certainly won’t have time.  But think about the benefits for your child and maybe sacrificing a night or two a week won’t seem so bad.  In fact, I know working moms who have done just that and still manage to stay sane.  So, you can do it.  If you want to.

You might also be thinking, “Ugh…I hate cooking.”  I had that exact feeling.  I still don’t like to cook.  But making food for Bentley was more like a project than a chore.  I also felt a great sense of pride and accomplished when I was done…and it was an even better feeling if he liked the food!

I normally made two batches of food over the course of two nights per week.  Different foods require different amounts of time, but usually the entire process was 90 minutes (this includes peeling & chopping, which can take a long time for a novice like me). Here is a breakdown of the cooking process:
  • Wash, peel (if needed), & chop food
  • Steam/boil food (a steamer is best, but I boiled my food)
  • Transfer food to a blender & puree (some people use a heavy duty machine…I have a blender)
  • Pour pureed mix into ice cube tray, freeze overnight
  • Dump cubes in a freezer safe ziplock bag, keep frozen until use
See???  It’s not that bad.  As your child gets older and becomes a pro eater, the recipes can get more complicated, but they also get more fun (and tasty).  Making your child’s food is truly a labor of love.

As a result of this process, I am very passionate about skipping the “Graduate” foods altogether. Nick and I have not made a single baby food purchase (besides rice cereal), and we don’t think Bentley is missing out.  The baby food industry would probably hate me for saying this, but your child does not need that stuff…he/she can eat whatever you’re eating as long as it’s not a choking or allergy hazard.

If making food isn’t for you (and I understand not everyone wants to do this), please make sure you read the nutrition labels.  I was disgusted when I compared “Banana Yogurt Bites” (made for babies) to dried banana chips (made for kids/adults).  The yogurt bites listed “sugar” before “banana puree” whereas the chips had one ingredient: bananas.

And remember, you are what you eat.  Your child is depending on YOU to make him the best he can be.

Image via mush: homemade baby food, which seems like a pretty cool blog as well

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why does a salad cost more than a Big Mac?

This image was published a while ago, but I recently saw it recirculating around Facebook so I thought I would post it. Why a salad (and fresh fruits and vegetables in general) costs more than a Big Mac is because the federal farm bill arranges it that way. Federal subsidies give money to farmers who produce certain crops. As of right now, "specialty crops," which include fruits and vegetables, receive less than 1% of the subsidies. The rest, as you can see, goes to meat, dairy, corn, and soy, which end up in our school lunches, grocery stores, and fast food restaurants, for cheap:

Now, there are lots of issues going on with the farm bill. A large percentage of the corn it subsidizes goes to producing biofuels, which means less food for hungry people. The richest 5% of farmers receive the majority of subsidy payments, and 3 in 5 farmers receive nothing. Very little money goes to subsidizing organic farmers. And on and on. But the issue I most find upsetting is the lack of support for farmers that produce fruits and vegetables. This is what we need more of in our diet, and the farm bill doesn't make it easier for farmers to produce these crops.

For more information on the farm bill, see here, here, and here. And if you're so inclined, contact your representative to tell them to support more funding for the growing of fruits and vegetables. We need these healthy foods to be more ubiquitous and more affordable.

p.s. Most of the information I wrote here I learned last weekend at a conference called Everybody Eats: Cultivating Food Democracy. I went to a talk hosted by Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow's assistant. Senator Stabenow is the chairperson of the Senate agriculture committee and seems to be doing some good things to fight for funding for specialty crops. Who knows what Congress will end up doing though...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Local highlight: food and garden education at the Allen Neighborhood Center

one of the greenhouse's customers
Lately I have been volunteering at an awesome place called the Allen Neighborhood Center on the east side of Lansing. They do a lot of amazing things to bring food access to this part of the city, including holding one of Lansing's few farmers markets, offering cooking and gardening workshops, and helping neighborhood residents get health care and food assistance. They also have a beautiful greenhouse in a nearby park, where staff and volunteers work to grow vegetables for a CSA.

CSAs are a great idea in general, because they offer fresh fruits and vegetables all spring and summer. But it's often hard for families to purchase one, since they require paying several hundred dollars at the beginning of the growing season. Allen Neighborhood Center's CSA attempts to eliminate that financial barrier, by offering several payment options, including monthly payments throughout the growing season, a reduction in price by volunteering in the greenhouse, and use of your Bridge card (aka food stamps).

And! My favorite part is the youth education that goes along with the growing of vegetables. The  center offers a free program twice a week after school, right in the greenhouse, called KidsTime. Neighborhood kids in grades K-5 can come, free of charge, to learn about healthy eating, exercise, and the food system. I've been going on Tuesdays to help out, and it's usually the highlight of my day. Last week their fabulous lead educator led the kids in a great activity - they split into groups to create their own smoothie recipe, then opened a "business" making and selling their unique smoothies to each other (using Monopoly money as currency). Afterwards, they reflected on why smoothies are a healthy snack, as well as the challenges of running a food business.

In past weeks kids have played vegetable Twister, made worm compost bins, and learned how to read nutrition labels. These activities are very similar to the ones I used to teach with Seven Generations Ahead, as well as in a class I taught in New York called "You Are What You Eat." As I've said before, food education is a vital part of getting kids to eat (and love) healthy food. These are the kinds of programs that need to be a regular part of classrooms across the country, not just in optional after-school classes. But until that's a reality, we need to continue to support wonderful initiatives like Allen Neighborhood Center's KidsTime. For more information on how to support them, see their website.

Photo source: Allen Neighborhood Center

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Recipe of the week: Vegetable pad thai

We just got a subscription to Everyday Food, the tiny little magazine full of recipes that we always looked through while waiting to check out groceries. We've only gotten one issue so far, but it's packed with recipes and all of them look good. Here's one we tried that I really loved.

Vegetable Pad Thai
  • 8 oz. dried, wide, and flat rice noodles
  • 2 T dark-brown sugar
  • 2 T fresh lime juice
  • 3 T soy sauce
  • 2 t vegetable oil
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 large eggs (optional), lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
  • 1/4 chopped roasted, salted peanuts
Soak noodles according to package instructions. Drain. In a small bowl, whisk together brown sugar, lime juice, and soy sauce.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium high. Add scallion whites and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, for 30 seconds. Add eggs (if using) and cook, scraping skillet with a rubber spatula, until eggs are almost set, about 30 seconds. Transfer egg mixture to a plate. Add noodles and soy sauce mixture to skillet. Cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are soft and coated with sauce, about one minute. Add egg mixture and toss to coat, breaking up eggs gently.

Serve noodles topped with scallion greens, cilantro, and peanuts.

Recipe source: Martha Stewart
Image source

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A simple way for people to know what's healthy

With a dizzying array of food products available at the grocery store, it can be hard to know what's healthy and what isn't. Some foods are labeled "natural," but may not be any healthier than an "unnatural" food. Some foods that are labeled "low-fat" may actually be really high in sugar. There are good fats and bad fats, different daily values for different people... It's confusing, and even though packaged foods have nutrition labels, people aren't motivated to turn the package around and examine the label. How many of us have the time to interpret nutrition labels on every product they're buying? I don't. They're long and confusing.

The food industry doesn't want things any simpler though. If labels were simpler, it would be pretty obvious that frequently buying a huge bag of "all natural" sour cream and onion chips is a bad idea. Or that a giant bottle of "throw-back" soda "made with real sugar" isn't actually good for you. If labels were easier to understand, the food companies would lose money on unhealthy products, which is their worst nightmare. Last year, the Institute of Medicine was really pushing food companies to put simple labels on the front of packages. Here's what the food industry decided to go with:

While that label looks pretty, it's really just as confusing as the nutrition label on the side of the box. All those numbers and categories don't tell you whether or not the food is good for you. I really don't think they are going to discourage busy adults from buying things that are bad for them. And kids? Even with nutrition education, there is no way these labels will help them learn what to eat.

But there is an alternative! Check out this really interesting study posted on Feedback Solutions for Obesity. Researchers labeled foods in a hospital cafeteria with one of three labels. A big green dot for healthy foods, a yellow dot for somewhat healthy foods, and a red dot for foods that are bad for you. Like this:

And it turned out to be so simple that it worked! Sales of the red dot foods went down, especially with unhealthy beverages. Sales of green dot foods (the healthiest ones) went up. They also did another study where they made the green dot foods more prominent on the shelf. That helped more, decreasing sales of red dot foods even further.

I am a huge fan of this labeling method. The simple dots mean that people will immediately know which foods are healthiest for them. The red dots catch your attention and make you think twice about buying that product. No, there is nothing wrong with buying a red dot food sometimes. You won't get penalized, no alarms will go off, if you buy a red dot food. But theoretically it could make you think twice about how often you buy those red dot foods.

Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to using this dot system will be getting people to agree on what qualifies as a green dot food and what has to be labeled a red dot food. I can definitely picture Pepsi throwing a fit when their soda is labeled with a red dot. But at some point they'll have to come to terms with the fact that they put a lot of money into foods that are bad for us.
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