When I was growing up in the 80s, school lunches consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, fruit roll-ups, and boxes of Hi-C. The thought that they were filling our bellies with processed carbohydrates or that perhaps a carrot stick here or there might do us some good never occurred to most parents. I knew the importance of fruits and vegetables but, of course, was only too happy to dig into the bag of Cheetos my mother had tucked into my lunchbox.
I figured my syrupy fruit cup cocktail sufficiently ticked off my daily fresh fruit needs. It never dawned on me, or my parents for that matter, that our local grocery store could be stocking its shelves with harmful foods—after all, if a product was inexpensive, legal and FDA (Food and Drug Administration)-approved, why not throw it into the shopping cart?
These days we’re all on high alert when it comes to the foods that enter our homes. Every week, it seems, there are new and often conflicting reports on the side effects of this additive or that preservative. Despite the overwhelming amount of information, I decided it was time to overhaul my family’s diet, but where to begin?
Phase One: Out with the old
While my task seemed daunting, I knew that every journey begins with a step. Our first step: a wholesale pantry clean out. Now that our family volunteered at the local Food Bank, I no longer desired a meticulously stocked pantry full to the brim. We would live week to week, for the most part. Anything beyond that felt wasteful. As I sorted through the cans, bottles and jars lining the overflowing shelves, my suspicions were confirmed—I had purchased multiples of many items, unaware that I already had that particular product hidden away behind a pile of other goods. In other words, with each weekly grocery store trip, we had been accumulating and hoarding food as if the zombie apocalypse was around the corner.
I spent the next several weeks using up as many sauces, pastas and canned vegetables from our pantry as I could.
I also cleaned out our refrigerator, tossing expired items and either chucking or donating to friends and relatives the half-used ones I knew, despite our best intentions, we would not finish–like the half dozen bottles of low-fat salad dressing I enthusiastically bought while going through the short-lived ‘I’m going to have a salad every day!’ phase.
Phase Two: In with the new
With our shelves bare, I set about replenishing our kitchen with some ‘good stuff,’ but did our family’s food makeover mean I needed to buy everything organic? I spoke to a friend who did, in fact, switch over to purchasing exclusively organic meats, fruits, vegetables and grains. When I asked her how she managed to afford the pricy all-natural diet, she told me, quite simply, “It was a deliberate choice I made. I committed to doing something good for my family. I decided that buying organic was more important than being an amazing chef. If my family eats the same simple meals every day, but they’re made with the best ingredients, that’s good enough for me.”
I decided this approach was good enough for me too.
So simplifying our menu was the key to making our grocery list both organic and economical. Instead of preparing elaborate meals with multiple ingredients, I began to research pared down recipes that I could execute for a fraction of the price. For example, Instead of stocking the pantry and spice rack with an array of herbs and mixes, I limited it to only a couple. Instead of buying ingredients for the 10-15 meals we had in our dinner rotation, I began to buy enough for 3 or 4 meals. We would repeat these dishes until the ingredients ran out, and then we’d switch things up. By having less items on our shelves, and for a shorter period of time, I found myself keeping track of what was in my kitchen more effectively and minimizing waste. We bought less each week, but we bought better and smarter.
Phase Three: Build new habits
My newly adopted motto of quality over quantity or variety naturally gave way to interesting phenomena. Because I was no longer in a position where I could afford to indulge in prepared or packaged food items, I frequently found myself cooking from scratch. A box of organic pancake mix cost $7 or 8 dollars, but for pennies I could whip up a batch from scratch. Once I began to purchase less processed and packaged foods—organic cookies, curries and pasta salads—I saw my grocery bill drop. All this, despite the fact that we now bought exclusively organic or locally produced food! Along with fresh, simple meals prepared from scratch and a shrinking grocery bill, I was happy to note another bonus; because we now prepared rather than preheated most of our food, when we were looking for a quick and easy bite, we increasing turned to fruits, our new ‘fast food.’
An overhaul of my family’s diet took several weeks, and I feel a tremendous sense of gratification when I see my children excitedly pull up a stool at the counter, eager to help create our next meal. As studies continue to bemoan new food products are detrimental to our health, it feels good to know I’ve done what I could to provide safe, nutritious food for my family. As for what’s for lunch today? Homemade chicken nuggets, broccoli and carrots, and, their favorite, fresh blueberries for dessert. Oh, and a cool glass of water for everyone please!
Saira Siddiqui is a former elementary school teacher, with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, who now spends her time homeschooling her children and managing her blog “Confessions of a Muslim Mommaholic.”