I’m always curious about how real people eat. It’s nice to hear expert advice and inspiration from dietitians and chefs, but their enthusiasm can only motivate me so much — being, as I am, a non-cook who grew up eating frozen taquitos for lunch and can’t afford organic everything. I’ll just be honest: my budget, interests, and priorities don’t match professionals’.
Still, once I had a hungry child, I started caring more about what we ate. Neither my husband nor I cared about that before. We regularly skipped meals. We ate lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, the only variety being the random spices my husband tried out. Taco seasoned spaghetti was one such experiment. Fresh fruits and veggies? Eh. Occasionally we bought clementines and apples.
But when e.e. showed up with a pure, unspoiled gut, it felt like sin to feed him the same sugary, processed, meat-heavy, vegetation-barren diet we ate.
What to feed him? That was a mine field. The last time I’d done any real learning on diet was back in the dinosaur days of the food pyramid. Everyone swore by these specialized diets that cut out my favorite foods. (Give me my carbs and cheese!) Every diet seemed zeroed in on losing weight or reducing inflammation or detoxing or other stuff that was only tangential to my main question: What do I feed a human in general?
I read a couple books over the past year to figure out the new lay of the food land. The Whole Foods Diet, by John Mackey convinced me that immortality was within my grasp as long as I had the discipline to stay away from all my favorite snacks. What to Eat, by Marion Nestle stuck my spinning head back on straight. The website Real Mom Nutrition gave me the permission and confidence to do my best — even if that included more processed snacks.
Our new food philosophy is pretty simple: inexpensive, plant-based, reduced sugar, minimally processed but easily accessible. Am I really going to bake my own granola bars on the days I’m too tired to get dressed before noon? Absolutely not.
To borrow a line from another controversial area of baby nutrition, fed is best.
Having said that, the research is clear and consistent that a minimally-processed, plant-based diet is healthiest. That gives me both freedom and challenge in my meal planning. My rule of thumb with everything is, Would I be okay with my child eating as much of this food as he wants? If the answer is no, I don’t or rarely buy it (she says, as she eats mint chocolate chunk ice cream at her keyboard).
Because this is my other big thing with food: eating should be pleasant. It should make us feel good about our bodies. It should bring people together. It shouldn’t be a source of paranoia, or a headache, or a trigger for tantrums, adult or toddler. I want to create good associations with food for my son — both in the sense that he reaches for healthy food naturally, and that he doesn’t feel guilty about certain foods. I don’t want him drinking Kool-Aid and eating Twinkies after school everyday, but I also don’t want him to decline a treat at his friend’s birthday party out of an irrational fear of sugar. This means, to me, stocking our pantry and fridge with healthy, yummy foods instead of trying to keep certain things off-limits, and letting him regulate his own appetite within that boundary.
That’s the theoretical stuff. Practically, since I hate meal planning, I follow simple meal formulas and just plug in recipes that meet those requirements.
Breakfast is a dairy/egg, grain, and fruit, and it stays the same every week:
Monday: Siggi’s yogurt, frozen berries, and cereal sprinkled on top
Tuesday: whole wheat English muffin, cream cheese, whatever fruit we have on hand
Wednesday: oatmeal with a splash of milk and frozen berries
Thursday: goat cheese crumbles or yogurt, fruit, and cereal
Friday: oatmeal again
Weekend: probably more oatmeal or cereal if I’m exhausted, or French toast with cooked apple topping if I’m feeling like that kind of mom
Lunch is a meat alternate, grain, veggie, and supposedly a fruit (but sometimes we run out of fresh options, or my guys decide they’re not interested in that particular fruit that day — which happens more than I like, but, c’est la vie). Our favorites are beans and greens on quesadillas, with noodles, or with rice or quinoa; pasta salads; spinach and mushroom French bread pizzas; and stir fries, preferably with peanut noodles. We’re branching out into egg dishes now, such as huevos rancheros, with the occasional grilled cheese or PB&J when I’m running late on lunch.
Dinner is a meat/meat alternate, grain, and veggie — soups and noodle dishes, mostly.
If I’m planning dinner, we mostly eat vegetarian. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with eating meat, to be honest — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m uncomfortable with all the mental gymnastics I perform to get around the inconsistencies in my thinking. The long and short of it is, I can’t stomach the idea of animals being poorly treated, I don’t think I can stomach the killing of even well-treated animals, but we can’t afford locally sourced meat, and my family still enjoys meat to the point where it’d create hassle and headache to accommodate everyone’s strong feelings on the subject.
So we still eat lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, pending my courage to address my concerns. We just add frozen veggies now.
Try Thai Green Curry with Spring Vegetables or add frozen spinach, a 1/4 cup of whole milk, and a new kind of noodle to shake up regular ol’ spaghetti.
Frozen produce is our secret to getting in enough fruit and veg every day. We buy steamable bags to throw in the microwave for a side, or add them into cooked dishes. We sprinkle frozen berries onto our breakfast foods. They’re quick, cost effective, and don’t spoil. And we live off canned beans — another quick, cheap, shelf-stable addition to meals.
Apart from a couple Pinterest finds, our favorite meals come from Cookie + Kate, a vegetarian website. We’ve also been enjoying new recipes from 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget, by Lisa Leake. Everything else originates from my husband’s brain or personal recipe stash passed down from the women in his family.
Okay: snacks. We splurge and fudge a bit to make sure e.e. gets fed without too much mom guilt. I wish I could say that we only eat homemade energy balls and fresh produce, but I only shop twice a month — snacks have got to last; we’re on the go during morning snack — they’ve got to pack well; and there are few veggies that a baby with a singular molar can eat.
Shamelessly, I buy shelf-stable snacks (i.e., more processed), but I’m willing to pay more to make sure they’ve got realer food and less sugar. Our go-tos are cheese sticks, cherry tomatoes, real peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts) on unsalted rice cakes, microwave popcorn, Craisins, raisins, and other dried fruits (DO NOT get freeze-dried strawberries — nasty), Squeez pouches, chips and salsa, Power Up Mega Omega trail mix, The Good Bean (chickpeas or favas and peas), Harvest Snaps green pea snap crisps, RW Garcia sweet potato crackers, and Triscuit original 100% whole wheat crackers. I’m not above purchasing Cheerios, Kix, and other processed cereals, either. (Some great practical guidance here.)
And on the occasions when there are cookies and candy and ultra-processed foods in the house? We eat them without guilt as special treats — Oreos, chocolate, Girl Scout Samoas, my in laws’ delicious molasses cookies. And I, personally, indulge every morning in a cup of coffee with a generous splash of Natural Bliss coffee creamer. I refuse to live in fear of individual foods when the overall pattern of our diets is healthy. Besides, when you’ve developed a hankering for quinoa and chickpeas, of all things, processed sugar doesn’t sit too well anymore.
I know we can eat better. I hope to continue to make more positive changes throughout the rest of our lives. But like I said: right now, I don’t have the time, interest, and budget to eat like a registered dietitian. I have other priorities that lead me to zap a can of refried beans in the microwave instead of make a lunch from scratch. I feed our family to the best of my priorities. We feel good about our food physically and emotionally, our son eats a wide variety of flavorful, healthy foods, and we all get fed.
What do you eat?