Less Meat-i-tarian

 

My family enjoys the full range of God’s gifts of food. This means that we are an omnivore (omnivoric?) household, but try to be responsible about it (the title of this entry is how Mark Bittman describes his eating choices; we follow suit). We don’t eat a lot of meat. This is largely for financial reasons: we try not to purchase meat that isn’t organic, free-range, sustainably raised, and from humanely-treated animals.

This necessitates our eating meat much less often than the average American, who can pick up chicken thighs for 99 cents a pound (one of my favorite quotes is from Jamie Oliver: “A chicken, which was once a living being, shouldn’t cost less than a pint of beer”). Because we eat meat less often, and not from industrial production, we contribute to the reduction of all the nastiness that factory meat production brings to our world: environmental devastation (especially greenhouse gases), animal suffering/commodification, worker accidents/forced labor, and all the health problems that come from over-consumption of animal products.

Obviously one can contribute even more meaningfully to this reduction by becoming vegetarian. I salute my friends who have done so. I don’t for two reasons: one, I don’t believe it is wrong, in and of itself, to eat meat (see first sentence of this post); and two, I am voting with my dollars towards the changes I want to see. Boycotts don’t always work: the producers can just write off the people who don’t buy at all. But those of us still spending money on animal products have a real say – producers have a vested interest in pleasing us, as we are still customers.

It’s not easy, though, to find producers who treat their animals well, run a clean and open operation, don’t harm their workers, and work with nature, not against it. You can’t always trust a big corporation, even one like Whole Foods that seems to be really trying to change things. Just a quick overview of the “big organic” chapters in The Omnivore’s Dilemma will reveal just how confused and misleading the whole system has become.

For us, the solution was to join a ranch CSA. We eat meat usually twice a week, sometimes thrice. A box of their meat ($220 including a $20 drought supplement) lasts us at least 3 months, and includes premium items such as pork belly, whole brisket, incredible bacon, steaks, and the best hot dogs you will ever eat. Seriously. I actually started drooling thinking about them.

Talk to the farmers at your local market. If they don’t do a CSA you might be able to get one started; or if they do, joining it will be one of the best decisions you can make. To have almost all of your meat locally-sourced from a place where you personally know the farmers, who run an open operation and treat their animals well, is not only healthier and better for everyone involved, but it teaches your kids valuable lessons about honoring life and living in harmony with creation.

(I do still, btw, shop at Whole Foods for the 10% or so of meats I cannot get from the CSA, such as fish. It’s about taking steps, not being perfect.)

And if, by this teaching, one day my child announces that she cannot in good conscience eat meat any longer, I will honor her decision. Fortunately since I’ve tried (and failed) being both vegan and vegetarian, I have a great shelf of cookbooks to pass along.

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Raising a Foodie, Part 1

I’m a relatively new mom – I have two children, ages 1 and 3 (3 1/2, she would correct me) – and one of my primary goals for their physical and spiritual well-being is to raise good eaters – by “good”, I mean responsible omnivores who love all kinds of food. Unfortunately, at their current ages, I am failing at the non-picky part. But I try.

I actually started feeding my kids a varied diet before they were even born, and during their exclusively-breastfed months. I ate a wide variety of foods, particularly focusing on spicy foods and vegetables. I’ve read that babies whose mothers ate lots of broccoli while they were in utero come out liking it, so I loaded up on broccoli and spinach and whatever else seemed especially nutritious.

I read a lovely story in Nigella‘s fabulous How to Eat about when she was pregnant and had the chance to chat up an OB at a party. He told her that breastmilk changes not only in nutritional content as the baby grows and her needs change, but also it varies in flavor depending on what Mom’s been eating. So, Nigella concluded, breastfeeding is really the best way to begin introducing variety in eating to a child!

Isn’t that the coolest thing? As a species, our most natural way of beginning life has been designed to include variety, to begin priming the palate for future adventure. What a wonderful concept. But we probably shouldn’t make too big a deal of it, or we’ll wind up with flavored formula from scientists trying to replicate the goodies.

Most of the world’s babies aren’t treated with the kid gloves we use when it comes to  spices (though they are exclusively breastfed longer), and so I have held back on super hot but certainly not flavorful ingredients. The kids get lots of curry, garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, and so forth. I try not to give them bland foods – while maintaining the natural taste, of course. Can’t mask the flavor, or they’ll never truly love the food itself.

Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes: children’s menus at restaurants. Ugh! The same crappy, flavorless six or so items on rotation: chicken nuggets, hamburger, mac and cheese, hot dog. All designed to appeal to the least common denominator while teaching our kids nothing about food and offering them nothing in the way of nutrition. Yuck!

I once went off on a poor waiter who brought my kid neon orange macaroni and cheese. The adult menu listed a four cheese mac and so we assumed the kid version would be a smaller portion of the good stuff. So when it came out Kraft, I said, “What is this?” And he said it was the “kid’s” mac and cheese. I said, “What do you mean? Do you think my kid doesn’t like good food? That she wants something that tastes like plastic and cardboard instead of having flavor?” And on and on about the sorry state of children’s palates today, and how of course they only want that stuff because that’s all we offer to them – we never challenge their palates so they have no idea what food tastes like!

Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He did replace the orange stuff.

Before my eldest was even a year old, some of her favorite dinners included beets with goat cheese, coconut curry, sweet potato gnocchi with rustic pine nut sauce, and potato-green garlic soup. She loves broccoli (only raw) and tofu. Recently we had a seafood paella and she was not that interested in the rice, but begging for, “More squid! More octopus!!”

Her brother will eat anything as long as it’s in mac and cheese. So I throw kale in there, bacon ends, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. He also loves pasta with tomato sauce, which is easy to puree greens into, or he’ll shovel in mushrooms, onions and sausage as long as there’s pasta with it.

Both my kids love plain yogurt to death, and of course fruits. They think a frozen puree of watermelon or cantaloupe (in a cute shape, of course, thanks to IKEA ice cube trays) is a treat. And for each, their first solid food was guacamole – not avocado, which they can kind of take or leave, but GUAC!

Of course, now the three year old in particular now often turns up her nose at most of the strongly flavored things we offer. When this happens, the “Party in my Tummy” song from Yo Gabba Gabba helps a lot. I once told her that her tummy was sad and waiting for its party, because only vegetables get the party started – and it worked! Now often when she eats a fruit or veg, she’ll say, “Mommy, the strawberry/broccoli/apple/etc. got the party started in my tummy!”

And yes, I do bribe with dessert. Often. But if it’s good dessert – and one me and Daddy are planning to eat anyway – I don’t see much harm in it.

The fact is, introducing a child to the wonders of food in all its variety, color, flavor, and creative potential is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever done. And I really look forward to the days when the kids will be big enough to help in the vegetable garden and the kitchen (they do try the latter, but it’s kind of more trouble than help right now). They love going to the farmer’s market, and spend many hours watching my husband and I cook.

Most importantly, they know that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. They’ve been to farms, they’ve met cows, they’ve picked strawberries and gathered eggs.

Because really that is the most basic lesson that we all must keep in mind: that food comes from hard work and a generous God. And for this we must be grateful.