Four years ago, when my daughter was born, our family swore off all artificial food coloring, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners (except for the Diet Pepsi I kept hidden). I wanted my daughter to grow up fit and healthy with good nutritional habits, so I began shopping in the organic section at Kroger.
Now, four years later, I wonder what type of nutritional habits she has developed when most of the food we’ve eaten (although organic) has come from a box.
While preparing lunch for my 4-year-old one recent afternoon, the idea for a new family experiment came to me. As I popped the Morning Star nuggets into the microwave, cooked the box of mac-n-cheese, and poured the applesauce from a jar, I started to question my efforts. Unfortunately, this meal was typical.
As with any of my family experiments, the first step was telling my husband, then convincing him to get on-board. I wanted to go an entire week without eating any prepackaged food, along with getting the majority of our food at the local farmers’ market. His first question, of course, was “What about the beer?” I told him he could walk down to Cumberland Brews and get some of their fresh brew in a couple of growlers for the week. With a smile on his face, he agreed to the experiment.
So, on a Saturday in September, I went down to the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market without a plan. I had no idea how I was going to pull this off or how my 4-year-old would react.
At the market, each vendor was thrilled to hear of my new undertaking and was eager to help me succeed. First, I started with the meat and was incredibly surprised at the selection! I bought a whole chicken, lamb cubes, bison patties, ground bison, pork sausage and hot dogs (score one for the 4-year-old). Each farmer gave me tips on how to cook the meat as well as how to make it last.
Next, I bought fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheese and bread. I was delighted to find some freshly baked bread that only listed five ingredients. Shouldn’t all food labels read that way? I also bought some dried herbs and garlic from a vendor who lives in the Highlands. At one booth, I found homemade cereal that was very similar to the popular Grape Nuts brand. I almost hugged that farmer when I realized I would not have to give up my daily dose of cereal every morning.
After my trip to the farmers’ market, I stopped by Kroger to get two packaged items that we needed: milk and butter.
The total amount spent that day was $175. That may seem like a lot to many families, but since we already eat all-organic food, we are used to spending a large amount of our budget at the grocery store, and $175 is the norm. I found the prices at the farmers’ market equivalent to those in the organic sections of most national grocery chains.
When I got home, I began cooking. My first mission was to make baby food for our six-month-old. I made squash, apples, and a plethora of fruit and veggie concoctions. She would be set for the next month or two.
Next, I put the whole frozen chicken in the crock pot, as the farmer had instructed. (That chicken provided dinner, sandwiches for the week and chicken soup.) With the chicken dinner that evening, I made baked apples, mashed potatoes and green beans.
The hardest part about my experiment at this point was the EFFORT. I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Another difficult part was not using ANY of the condiments, spices and sauces that were in my house. In other words, when I baked the apples, I only used butter – no sugar, salt or cinnamon. The astonishing part was that the apples were delicious and my daughter asked for them every night that week.
Each night my husband and I ate in bliss! It had been years since I’d had a grilled cheese made with real cheese and homemade bread. The bison burger with potatoes was outstanding and the marinara sauce that I made to go with the grilled chicken was extremely tasty. Coupled with the beer from Cumberland Brews, each meal was almost gourmet.
My daughter, however, struggled through the experiment. She definitely missed her noodles, her mac-n-cheese, her Morning Star Corn Dogs and her ketchup. She also struggled with the taste of many of the items that I cooked for her. I laughed in the mornings as my Wisconsinite husband wolfed down the sausage and eggs, no doubt silently thanking the farmers for “real” meat, while my daughter complained that the sausage just “wasn’t the same” as her packaged veggie alternative. Throughout the week, I learned various tricks, like putting the homemade applesauce in a store-bought jar and toasting the bread so it would look the same.
By the end of the week, I was exhausted. I spent more time preparing our meals that week than I did sleeping, and asked myself what in the world my mother and grandmother were thinking when they cooked like this every day for years. I did, however, feel great pride in the meals every time I sat down with my family.
There were other advantages, too. We created much less waste that week. There were no boxes or wrappers to throw away after every meal. I also felt like I knew and understood what was going into my body at every moment, and wasn’t eating or feeding my family ingredients I couldn’t pronounce.
Finally, my strongest take-away from all this was my respect for the local farmers’ market. Like many Highlanders, I would stop by the market most Saturdays to buy a bundle of flowers or a tomato, but did 99 percent of my shopping at Kroger. I had no knowledge of all the fantastic meats, cheeses, fruit and vegetables available to me for a reasonable price. And as a family, we were much less likely to waste food that we knew someone had worked hard to make. In addition, I felt a sense of community and pride as I handed each dollar over to the various farmers. Wasn’t this a much better way to spend my money?
I can’t make any promises as to what the future holds for my family regarding food. I doubt I will continue to make large breakfasts every morning, and I don’t plan on banning noodles from the house again. I will, however, make at least one meal completely from the farmer’s market every week. And while continuing to buy meat and produce from the market, I’m hoping to spend more time talking with and getting advice from the farmers. Finally, I will continue to put time and love into each dinner that I prepare for my family!