Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Getting It All Done: Cooking Real Food Basics

Many people seem to think that cooking real food takes too long.  That they'd be slaves to the kitchen if they tried to feed their family unprocessed food.  I'm here to tell you that it isn't true.  I love preparing real food for my family.  And I don't have enough time to spend it all in the kitchen.

Here's my take on real food.  How we get it all done...in the kitchen.

What Real Food Is To Me

Real food has many definitions.  Instead of hashing them all out, I'll simply share mine.  Food that will nourish my family and does not contain unpronounceable ingredients.  If I can't make it in my kitchen--it's probably science and not food. That means it belongs in a lab and not my house or stomach.

And while many people will argue about all the ins and outs of each ingredient, I don't sweat it too much at this time.  I use unbleached white flour and white whole wheat in almost all of my baked goods--a 50/50 combination.  Yes.  Whole wheat would probably be better for us.  But...if my family doesn't like the texture/taste of what I make--it doesn't matter how healthy it is. 

I use unrefined sugar.  I would love to use only honey or maple syrup, but they cost a whole lot more.  I simply don't have it in the budget. 

I DO NOT make it a habit to buy organic.  Organic is pretty expensive.  In looking at the licensing process for trying to get Grouse Creek chickens licensed as organic, we realized it was completely pathetic.  Organic doesn't mean what most people assume it means.  Organic chickens can be raised in a factory setting and never see the light of day--they just need to eat organic food.  You are paying for all the stupid paperwork that companies have to do to be classified organic.  Not necessarily for a superior product...( a different post for a different day...)

I figure even if I'm still using unbleached flour and unrefined sugar, anything I make from scratch is still WAY better than anything you can buy in the store.  Someday, as our tastes develop more away from the Standard American Diet, and we have more finances to devout to food, I'll probably add more changes.  For now...this works!

Homemade When Possible--And Double Up!

If it comes in a can, I generally try not to buy it.  Except for tomatoes.  And tomato products (diced, sauce, paste, etc.)  I used to rely on Cream of Something soups for the majority of my meals.  But as I started learning more about the benefits of real food, I started looking for a way to replace those cans.

I now rely on this recipe.  I have it memorized.  It's super simple!  On Saturday, I made a quadruple batch (which with the size of our family would be doubling for most people...)  I threw what I needed on top of leftover chicken, peas and some other veggies from the fridge.  A loaf of bread, mushrooms, carrots, celery and butter became the basis of a homemade stuffing.  Stuffing went on top of the casserole.  Then dinner was ready to bake when it was time.  And I put the rest of the soup mix into a container in the fridge.  It's ready for a quick meal early next week.

When I'm making one batch of something, I almost always try to make two.  I like to cook with the future in mind.  Peeling carrots?  Peel a few extra and stick in the fridge.  I'll use them! I try to always do extra celery, carrots and onions, as it seems I use that base a lot. 

Bread--though I still haven't found a loaf bread recipe that is easy to make, slices well and holds up for sandwiches, I haven't bought a loaf of bread in three years.  I've experimented with different recipes, and mainly use a French bread recipe from this website.  We slice it, toast it, slather it with butter, and use it in the place of sandwich bread.

Sometimes I'll make oatmeal bread.  We really like that, though I haven't figured out why it crumbles so bad when sliced.  If anyone has any solutions for that, I'd appreciate it!

Bagels, English muffins, biscuits, soft pretzels--they are all favorites in this house.  I try to make a large enough batch that I can put enough away in the freezer for the next time. That helps me to save time.  It doesn't take a whole lot longer to do two batches when I'm already working on one.  But, it allows me to not get all the ingredients out and have to wash dishes the next time around.

When I'm making bread, I always make at least two loaves.  We don't go through it very quickly, so I'll freeze one.  Then on Saturday night when I'm making a French Toast casserole for Sunday breakfast, I can just grab a loaf out and slice.  Having food in the freezer helps so much!

If I'm not sure how to make something, I turn to Google.  I almost always come up with a recipe.  That's how I discovered our Homemade Nesquick. Sometimes it takes some trial and error.  Mac and Cheese was a hard one for us.  We all loved the store bought.  I kept trying different recipes until I came up with a winner.  Don't be afraid to fail!

I started slowly.  We used the most cream soups, so I found that recipe first.  After a while, it became second nature, and I started seeing what else I could make.  I love buying real ingredients at the store instead of prepared food.  It feeds us better, and is cheaper per pound/ounce that way.  I'd encourage you to pick one item to try your hand at making.  If you can't find a recipe for it--perhaps you shouldn't be eating it.  Remember the rules of the high school science lab--don't eat the chemicals!

However, it isn't always possible to always make everything from scratch.  That's why I am sure to check the labels at the store.  I could make my own pasta, but I don't have the equipment needed.  I buy 100% whole grain variety.  

Give yourself grace as you make changes.  Some days, you might need to buy tortillas.  Other weeks, you can make them. 

Multi-Tasking

When I'm in the kitchen, I try to make the most of my time.  I might have a batch of bone broth going in the crockpot while I have yogurt incubating.  Then I'll mix up a batch of bread and set it to rise--taking some of the residual heat from the yogurt process.  Since the oven has to be on for the bread, I'll have the kids help mix up some cookie dough.  We'll bake some of those while the bread rises, and freeze the rest as balls in a container.

Most of the time, the food I make is slow food.  That means that once I start it, I can walk away.  It doesn't take that much active time to turn raw milk into buttermilk for instance. Or to get yogurt started.  Bone broth is super simple--add bones to the crock pot.  Add water.  Add any veggie scraps and salt.  Start crock pot.  Walk away.    

If I'm turning the oven on to cook dinner, I try to think of another way to use it.  Perhaps I'll throw some potatoes in to bake to have on hand for hash browns.   Or I'll batch cook a couple pounds of hamburger to keep in the freezer.

My Meal Plan

Shh...don't tell anyone, but I really don't meal plan anymore.  I used to work so hard on elaborate meal plans.  I had our meals and snacks planned out.  And I spent a whole lot more money.  Because I'd want to try all of these amazing new recipes that needed special ingredients.  And those ingredien added up.  And then life would get busy and I wouldn't make my super cool new meal after buying those ingredients....ugh--it was frustrating!

So now I keep it simple.  We (almost always) eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch each day of the week.  Thus I have seven breakfasts and seven lunches.  We have the same snacks each day (two small snacks a day).  I have a theme for each night's dinner.

While I still have to make some decisions--what kind of pasta should I cook on Monday?  What kind of fruit should go in the oatmeal this morning?  But, I don't have nearly as much work to do on a daily basis.  It keeps shopping simple to.  I can tell you exactly how many pounds of pasta we'll need for the month.  I buy a variety so I can whip up some different meals.  But I know what to buy.  (Then I try to buy an extra to stock the pantry with.)

If shrimp is on sale, I can do a great seafood feast on Thursday.  If it's not, I don't stress and I do something with canned tuna instead.  My meals are flexible, and I'm able to change directions while shopping to take advantage of sales.  Since we try to only shop once a month, this is important.  I don't have the luxury of hitting all of the sales, so I have to make do.  

For more information on my current meal plan, see this post.  We plan on redoing the menu in August.

I'd encourage you to try this.  If the same breakfast every Monday would be too much, try a two-week rotating plan.  

Utilize Your Workforce

I love having the kids in the kitchen with me!  It sure beats having them off making a mess by themselves somewhere, or watching yet another movie.  If you have kids, put them to work.

My three year old can cut vegetables that have been peeled.  She can accurately measure dry ingredients for me.  My two year old is a great stirrer and gopher (go getter...).  My five year old can peel vegetables, cook pancakes on the griddle, and use sharp knives appropriately.  My oldest can cook complete meals from scratch from start to finish.  Even my seven year old with special needs is put to work--he loves trying to wash dishes! 

Start the lessons when they are young and interested.  You might just be amazed at what they can do!  Yes, you will have to provide active supervision. You will have to instruct.  But it'll pay off really quickly!

Do What You Can

I have cows.  And raw milk access.  It makes sense that much of my real food experience has revolved around milk.  I make cottage cheese.  I make cream cheese.  I make yogurt.  Etc. etc.  I probably wouldn't have done that much experimenting if I didn't have extra milk.

I don't grow a garden (yet).  So I have to buy my veggies.  Fresh ones add up quickly, so I don't buy as many of those as I probably should.  I rely heavily on frozen ones.  Someday, I hope this changes.  I'd love to produce more of what we eat.  We definitely have the land for it. 

If you garden, focus on adding a variety of fresh veggies to your diet.  Grind your own wheat?  Create awesome pancake mixes or homemade bisquick to keep on hand.  Everyone can do something to make more real food!

Where I'm Going From Here

My real food journey is not completed.  I still need to learn to produce more food.  I want to grow a garden and try my hand at canning tomatoes.  I want to use more of the wheat we grew in my baking. And that means I'll have to plant more wheat...

 There is always something to do and learn.  I'm going to take it one step at a time, and keep it from getting overwhelming.  I don't dwell on what I don't do.  I stay focused on what I'm doing.  And that's how we do real food around here. 

I know we still have a ways to go.  But I'm so happy to be on this journey!  How about you?  How does real food look in your kitchen? Any good recipes for me to try?





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