Feeding the Family: Turns Out There’s a Better Way



Before I started eating primal, I used to sit down with my cookbooks on the weekend and plan out each meal for the upcoming week. I would make a detailed grocery list that included every ingredient I didnt already have. Then I set out on a mission to buy everything I needed as cheaply as possible. In retrospect the meals seem disjointed. They were not only disconnected from each other but totally irrelevant to the season: chicken enchiladas on Monday, stir-fry on Tuesday, spaghetti on Wednesday, etc Furthermore, it was exhausting! I mean, some Sundays I just didnt feel like spending hours planning meals and buying food. Then, despite all my preparations, at some point in the week the inevitable happened: take out. Chicken ceasar salad night would be pushed to some indefinite future date so we could collapse on the couch with a pizza after the kids were in bed. Come Saturday Id throw out a crisper full of rotting vegetables and start the whole crazy cycle all over again.

Im doing a lot of things differently these days. Obviously, vegetables are the foundation of my diet and I dont include grains and starchy vegetables in my usual fare. But aside from (although perhaps as a result of these dietary changes, my entire approach to daily cooking and meal planning has changed.

First of all, I make it a point to buy and enjoy quality foods. Americans spend proportionally less of their income on food than any other industrialized nation. Since the money we spend on groceries is one of the most flexible portions of our monthly expenses, we naturally appreciate the idea of getting a bargain on food. Unfortunately, coupons and store discounts are oriented towards the sale of processed food products. And, as you might have heard lately, the meat from your average supermarket is of questionable quality. I know most people just arent used to thinking about it this way, but it does seem a little strange that we would care so little about the substances we are literally putting inside of our bodies throughout the day. I think this comes from a lack of understanding about the impact eating real food has on your health. Id rather live in a smaller house, drive a cheaper car, and forego a lot of comforts before Id resort to feeding myself whatever is on sale that week at Kroger. Oddly, I dont spend that much more on food now than I used to. This is mainly because I buy less and dont waste as much. I also stock up on good quality protein when I see an opportunity.

Second, when you pay $6 or more for a pound of beef, or get the red peppers yourself from an organic farm just outside of town, dumping a jar of Ragu Light Parmesan Alfredo Cheese Creations Sauce all over it just doesnt seem right, even if you do have a coupon. So, I end up making my meals from scratch, and an alfredo cheese sauce creation, under normal circumstances, is more trouble than its worth. Instead of fussing with lots of different recipes, our meals tend to be simple, and focused on a few great-tasting components. Steak, fish, shrimp with whatever vegetables we received that week from our CSA, some butter, some salt and pepper, a spice or herb, a simple sauce or pesto. Its good, its simple, and it never gets old because it is limitless in possibilities. Eff you, Ragu.

Finally, I dont do big weekend grocery shopping trips every week because if I want to do something else on Sunday afternoon, Im not setting our family up for a week of drive-throughs and pizza delivery. Luckily for us, our freezer currently contains 20lbs of ground moose and even more halibut that Daves parents killed and butchered themselves and sent us from Alaska. But even in the absence of such a windfall, theres usually some meat in the freezer. For 5 months of the year, I get a lot of produce from our CSA farm share. If weve got a pound of moose, a head of cabbage, and a few staples on hand, we can have a pretty good dinner.

In summary, here’s a rundown of how my old routine compares to my new approach:

Then: I wasted a lot of weekend time that could have been spent on more interesting activities.
Now: I go to the supermarket irregularly and less frequently and make quick trips to the little market in town when I run out of something. I get to take my kids to a farm on Wednesdays to get our produce.

Then: Instead of having fun and being creative with my cooking, I was boring myself to death by executing recipes.
Now: We seldom eat the exact same meal twice. Perhaps contrary to what one might think, making use of whatever we have on hand and keeping our meals focused on a few key ingredients allows me to be more creative and innovative in my cooking.

Then: In order to spare myself more boring time in the kitchen, I would buy processed convenience foods which werent healthy for me or my family.
Now: I can spend as little or as much time in the kitchen as I feel like because I am not beholden to a weekly plan that requires I make enchiladas on Tuesday no matter what.

Then: I was buying cheap food of questionable quality in order to compensate for having to buy such a huge diversity of ingredients.
Now: I buy higher quality food and I buy less of it.

Then: I was wasting food because I didnt stick to my plan or the recipe didnt call for all of what I had bought (green onions, anyone.
Now: I waste less food because I dont rely on recipes to use the food we have.

Now that Ive said all this, let me be sure I am not giving the wrong impression of myself. I probably sound more organized than I really am. Sometimes I dont feel like cooking and I give my kids cottage cheese and deli turkey for dinner. Sometimes a bunch of green onions still rots in the crisper. Sometimes I bust open a packet of McCormick Bearnaise Sauce Mix just because I cant resist the yummy MSG. My point here is that overall Ive found a way to not only eat healthier foods but also increase the enjoyment I receive from preparing and eating while greatly simplifying related processes.

I believe that a lot of people will find familiar elements in my old routine because it is a common approach to mealtime management. To be fair, my heart was in the right place. I wanted to make delicious and interesting meals for my family every night. I was making reasonably nutritious food and was trying hard not to rely on fast food or take out meals. Turns out, theres a better way.

That said, I am not interested in living up to an impossible ideal of healthy kitchen efficiency and I hope youre not either. What works for me might not be the same thing that works for you. For that matter, I’ll likely be doing things somewhat differently five years out. If Ive given you an idea or two, then Im happy. Likewise, if you have tips or an approach to weekly meal planning (or un-planning as the case may be, leave a comment, Id love to hear from you.

10 Responses to “Feeding the Family: Turns Out There’s a Better Way”

  1. Jess says:

    Amen! That sounds exactly like me – when I met the beau and was inspired to learn how to cook (nsting instincts much?) I relied on the recipes book, and would not deviate. Before the weekly shopping trip I would go through my books and pick new meals. Admittedly, this was probably a great way to learn how to cook, but I hated being dependent in the end, cutting my fancy meals back to the staple ingredients, prepared simply, as was my preference anyway. Thank goodness I didn’t have to change my cooking style when going primal, but I do cook more often now that take-out is not an option (except for the occasional roast chook!). And somewhere along the way I did start getting fancy and learning a lot more about the craft of cuisine, and now I create my own recipes that follow my own preferences in both ingredients and flavour balance. Veggies still end up wasted on occasion, sure, but that’s what the guinea pigs are for! 🙂 In terms of meal planning, I don’t think about it beyond what meat I need to thaw, except in the case of a dinner party. But I’m very lucky – I have organic butchers and grocers right up the road. Now if only I could find an excellent fish market…

  2. Grok says:

    Well I didn’t let anything go to waste before (part of my problem), but I buy a whole lot less now since becoming primal. Shop trips only occur every few weeks at the most and I never eat out. It’s no exaggeration to say food expenses have been cut $600-800 a month.

    I’m constantly blown away looking at the food stocks and waste in other peoples homes now. Especially when they complain that “there’s no food.” Well, I guess they’re technically correct… No food, only food products.

    I recently went 3½ weeks without emptying my own kitchen garbage (the only can in the house) because there’s so little waste these days. It had to taken it out… it stunk. Haha

  3. Joyful Abode says:

    This post is nearly parallel with my experience since going primal too. We spend about the same amount on groceries (though we haven’t yet upgraded to organic meat so I anticipate it will go up soon) but waste far far less. When looking back at earlier recipes on my blog, I am a bit embarrassed and kind of disgusted. Everything looks so bland (starchy) and processed/chemical (like those alfredo jars you mentioned).

    I’m SO glad things are simpler, tastier, and far healthier now. We basically try to keep our freezer stocked with meat, and for my weekly meal planning, I just choose a meat for each day of the week, and decide on a veggie to go with it. I don’t usually choose a recipe until I’m about to start cooking, but having a plan helps me decide what produce to pick up at the grocery store without having waste, and reminds me what to start thawing each evening for the next night’s dinner.

    Thanks for posting your experience with this – maybe a few more people will see it, think “Sounds good to me!” and switch to eating real food!

  4. Tracee says:

    I certainly enjoy and relate to your post. While I wasn’t giving myself and child alot of junk before, I certainly hadn’t put enough thought into it either. I loved to cook and like you would go through my piles of cookbooks as well. But casseroles meant a can of this added to some nice healthy spinach, add in some white flour…does that make sense? Like many moms, I read lot about the benifits of breast feeding and decided it was far superior to formula. Why does wanting to give your child the best end there? Why not always strive to do the best for your child and yourself? When starting the SCD diet for my child I had sticker shock on the food prices. I would use the organic pasture butter just for him and then just butter for the rest of us. After a while it was like, geeez, I would like to get the benifits from this as well, and I certainly wanted the same for my husband. Much of my thinking has changed. Now I understand why food is worthy of grace. My next goal is to get better at cooking (and liking) lots of different veggies so I can join a CSA and know what to do with the items in the box.

  5. Tara says:

    First, I gotta’ say that I really enjoy your website!

    We have three kids, er, make that three major-amounts-of-food-eating machines. When I tell people how much I spend on groceries a month, they think we’re batty. We don’t drive a great car, but it’s good enough. We’re currently renting while my hubby finishes his schooling. Our pad is pretty small for 5 people. Still, it has always been our main objective to give our kids the best foundation possible and good food is integral to that.

    In order to get that good food, we rely on our relationships with our farmers and our good hunting skills 🙂 We get our vegetables from a local, organic CSA. Our eggs come from one farmer, our raw goat milk (to make yoghurt and kefir) from another. We buy grass fed bison from friends and ‘beyond organic’ chicken from another farmer. When our deep freezers are full, I feel like all is well.

    I keep it pretty simple at meat time, but I still get rave reviews every time we sit down. I’m sure it’s just the quality of the food. Good good needs little in way of extra flavorings and spices. For supper yesterday we ate braised, grass-fed beef ribs cooked with two heads of cabbage I just quartered and threw in the pot and a whack of onions that went in too. I cooked it all for about 7 hours in some bone broth I had made. We topped it with ghee and slurped up every last morsel. Who needs carbs?! That’s comfort food at its best!!

    Oh, one last thing (sorry for going on): kids raised on good food will always appreciate it. My oldest teenager is a competitive athlete (a very good one, if I may say so). That girl is lean and powerful. I see her at competitions with her friends surrounding her, asking what they should eat. She’s become the ‘go-to’ girl for nutrition advice from her teammates. It’s quite funny to see their expressions when she tells them to “ditch the dried cereal” (a staple in these pre-competition circles, sad, I know) and “eat grass-fed meat and lots of good fat”!! Ahhhh… a girl after my own heart 🙂

  6. Karen says:

    Beautifully written and a post I will come back to often for inspiration. My family does not eat paleo (yet!) but just changing my diet has greatly simplified all our meals and shopping. Thanks again

  7. shalon says:

    Great post! I went through exactly the same transition that you did while going primal. It used to be that I couldn’t see very far into my fridge because it was jam packed with all kinds of ingredients for dishes that I planned to make. And then some of those ingredients would end up as waste because I couldn’t see them and forgot about them.

    I have marveled at the transition that I have made. I can actually see light shining through my metal shelves in my refigerator. And I am eating fantastic meals, even better than before.

    I also started some herbs in my garden, actually quite a few different kinds, that I use for my cooking. It used to be that I’d use only a small bit of a clamshell of herbs and then they’d go rotten. Now, I don’t spend the money and have ready access to fresh herbs, better than storebought. It’s great!

  8. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the validation that you don’t have to meal plan to eat well! All I typically hear is “menu planning!” “menu planning!” and more “menu planning!” when it comes to enjoying food with your family. Just the two words together make me cringe. I’ve always preferred simply stocking up on what’s good and available and figuring out a way to throw it all together. I do browse recipes for ideas now and then, esp when working with a new ingredient (kale, anyone?), and I do now and then like to pull out one of my fav recipes for things my mom or grandmother made when I’m in need of some serious comfort food. However, following a recipe every night? The thought makes me shudder!

  9. Your journey sounds very much like mine, though I wish I’d discovered it when I was your age instead of a decade later when health problems started to show up…

    Currently, my meal “planning” revolves around the seasonal local produce from our weekly CSA box (we live it San Diego so the CSA operates all year!) and the freezer full of co-op buy bison, beef, pork, and my hunter-sister’s venison (even some bear!).

    My husband and I love good food and crave variety, so I use a lot of herbs and spices from many ethnic cuisines to keep the CSA harvest from getting boring (beets again?). I can easily make a basic cabbage and pork shoulder into something Mexican, German, Polish, Asian with a switch of the supporting seasonings – you get the idea.

    It’s also so great to get kids started on this way of eating and living while they are ripe for learning and forming their food preferences (which are much harder to change once they are, um, engrained ;-). So many people rationalize the unhealthy foods they feed their kids, thinking they are “stealing childhood” if their kids’ diets don’t conform to the “machine cuisine culture”. Too often parents fail to appreciate they might actually be stealing their kids’ future health as adults when they give in to the popular notions of kiddy cuisine.

  10. Rebecca says:

    I’m making this transition too-now my meal planning involves looking up what is coming in my CSA box and what’s on sale at the local natural foods market and scanning through recipes online for ideas. Then it’s just deciding what meats to pull out of the freezer (we bought a quarter of a steer and several pounds of wild Alaskan salmon).It’s simpler, and I feel like I am becoming a better cook-sharpening my intuitiion and ability to determine what flavors work together.

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