Nutrition Labels: Helpful or Confusing? Practical Ways to Feed Your Family Simply

I saw this link posted yesterday on Redesigning the Nutrition Label, and it got me thinking about how much we’ve been reading labels lately.  In an effort to eat more simply, we’ve been putting a lot of work into learning what exactly we’re putting into our bodies.  I guess a lot of things are like that–making the initial change from something you’ve been doing automatically for a while can certainly be more complex to start out with, even when your ultimate goal is to “simplify”.

I think eating simple foods is absolutely worth it.  It’s so much better for our bodies to eat ingredients that came from a biological plant rather than an industrial plant.  Does that mean that all processed foods are banned from our house forever?  Well, no.  I told you I have no intention of becoming a food tyrant.  But I do know how much better I’ve been feeling since we’ve removed all of the artificial, unpronounceable garbage, and I’ve definitely come to the point where I just don’t want it badly enough to give up feeling better.

I do find the labels to be frustrating sometimes, since the “required” elements are in roughly the same spot on every package, but the optional stuff could end up anywhere, or nowhere at all.  The one thing we’re trying to be pretty strict about (Katie and I, anyway) is avoiding wheat.  Many labels DO list wheat under an allergen heading now, but not all of them, so you have to dredge through the entire list of ingredients, which is harder the longer the list is (ie, the more processed the food is, the more ingredients there are.) And some ingredients (like maltodextrin) can come from a variety of sources, one of which may or may not be wheat.

The really aggravating part in our area, is that even the few stores that have a “gluten-free” area tend to lump them all together with every other non-standard dietary requirement.  Our primary grocery store, for instance, has gluten-free, fat free, organic, vegetarian, and vegan foods all mixed in together.  So you still have to individually sift through the items to find the ones that are safe.  I suppose I should be glad that this stuff is available at all.  I would have hated to be a celiac fifteen or twenty years ago, or even five.

So really, the easiest way to know that you’re eating good foods is to make everything yourself.  But let’s face it: sometimes that’s just not practical.  Since I’m home all day, I have a little more of an opportunity to start making things from scratch, but I also have Katie here to help out if Rose wakes up early from her nap and I’m up to my elbows in raw chicken.  For those who work outside the home, or have small children with no older ones to help out, what do you do?

Here are some of my solutions, and I’d like you guys to put forth your suggestions as well.

First, prep multiple meals at the same time.  It takes you one larger block of time, but then they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice when you’ve had a busy day.  If you have to brown ground meat, for instance, brown enough for two or three recipes, and put the pre-browned meat in the freezer for another day.  If you have to cut up chicken, prep enough for multiple meals so that you don’t have to deal with that mess and the problem of cross-contamination later on.

I’m a HUGE fan of freezer meals that call for prepping the meat (cubing, filleting, etc) and then freezing it with the seasonings or sauce that you’ll cook it with.  As the meat thaws, it’s absorbing all those flavors from the spices or marinade.  Most of the meals I like to make have only a handful of ingredients (maybe a little more, if you include individual spices), and require only 20-30 min or so of bake time, or go directly into the crock pot.  I’ve gotten a lot of my fave freezer recipes from savingdinner.com. But many of your favorite recipes can be adapted for the freezer–just throw your fave BBQ sauce in the bag with the chicken, and voila-it’s ready to go when you’re ready to grill!

If you’re willing to do a little advance prep, nearly every one of those convenient freezer meals in bags can be replicated with far more nutritious ingredients, and with WAY less cost.  Look into finding ways of making your own versions of those “fall-back” meals that your family likes, so they’re there when you’re overwhelmed and just don’t want to cook.  And having one of those meals on occasion isn’t going to kill your family, or severely compromise your health (unless a true allergy or sensitivity is involved).  It’s when they’re a major part of your daily intake that it becomes a problem.  Our goal is to minimize the processed stuff.

Second, chop lots of veggies at the same time.  Now, I know, the veggies don’t keep as long that way.  I don’t know how it works in your house, but if the veggies aren’t already prepped, they often get pushed aside until they’re past their prime anyway.  Yes, a carrot will dry out faster if it’s already scrubbed or peeled, but it’s also a lot more likely to get grabbed when someone has the munchies, instead of those ultra-convenient potato chips. (If chips are in your pantry, that is.  :D)

Third, make leftover night a regular occurrence.  Not only will you keep your fridge from being overfilled, you’ll avoid wasting a lot of food.  However, keep in mind these two important notes:

1. Only make extras of food that you will actually eat as leftovers.  Let’s face it, some things just aren’t that good unless they’re fresh (sauteed yellow squash comes to mind).  Whereas some things are actually even better the next day, after the flavors have really had a chance to meld (many soups, chili, etc).  Make note of the things that your family WILL eat as leftovers, and the ones that they WON’T.  There’s no point in making extra if it’s just going to get thrown out a week later.  Here’s an interesting article about keeping a log of your wasted food.

2.  Determine right away if the leftovers will be eaten within a few days.  If you’re not sure they will, put them directly into the freezer.  True, they might not be quite as good if they’ve been frozen, but then they won’t spoil, and you won’t end up wasting food.

Finally, don’t go overboard on trying new recipes all at once.  There are SOOOO many new things we want to try, we can get to the point where we’re working on a new, unfamiliar recipe every night.  That can get overwhelming, besides that it might cause a revolt from the little ones (or even hubbies).  So try choosing two or three recipes a week, fitting in some old reliables, making sure that most of them veer towards the simple (smaller numbers of easily obtained ingredients).  And don’t forget that you have “clean out the fridge night” to get rid of those leftovers and give yourself a break.

How do you feed your family simply without being overwhelmed by the busyness of life?  Any words of wisdom for the rest of us?  What do you think about the idea of redesigning food labels?  What kinds of things would you like to see, or to be easier to find on the label?

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