It all started in Italy. When my husband and I moved to Rome four and a half years ago, I didn't speak a word of Italian (yet) and found the grocery stores mystifying. There was a bit more produce, infinitely more cheese and much less in the way of processed foods -- almost none that I recognized, anyway. Wandering up and down those aisles, I started to wonder what the heck we were going to eat. Because I was linguistically and culturally challenged, I needed to keep it simple. My foray into eating "whole foods" was more about necessity than taking up a cause. I could find the pasta, understand ground beef and certainly get my hands on a bunch of juicy tomatoes. Done.
They don't really do takeout in Italy, either. Yes, you can have pizza delivered, but that's about it. No Chinese, no Vietnamese, no Thai. At least, none coming to your door, and even if you go out, there's no eating anything until 8 p.m., when most restaurants start serving. Your choices are basically eating Italian food at a restaurant (which is usually wonderful but does get old, and expensive) or cook at home. I was a newlywed in a new country, and with a "honeymoon baby" on the way, I wanted to embrace the Italian culture of food and family.
Living La Dolce Vita was going to require some cooking. Now I just needed to learn how, and that's the first tricky part.
1. Trial and error cooking can be frustrating. I've made a million recipes by now (I write about most of them on Foodlets.com), some as written, some embellished by my own ambition to pack more healthy items in. Wheat germ, oat bran, pureed spinach, flax seed, chia seeds... these are all regular players in my pantry and I'll throw applesauce into any cake I can. But it doesn't always turn out. Even following recipes to the T can lead to lack-luster results. Usually I find them bland, with too little seasoning. These days, I never trust a recipe that doesn't include salt and pepper. If it's not in there, I'll add it and usually double the amount of herbs just to ensure the flavor punch we like.
2. It's time-consuming. I work part-time now, and that honeymoon baby has two siblings now. That's right, I'm cooking for three kids and the oldest one just turned 4. So I'm busy and tired. I choose to spend the majority of my "free" time cooking, prepping, researching recipes and coming up with my own tweaks because I like it. But I also want to instill an idea in these young kids: Cooking can be a beautiful part of life. The smells, the action, the eventual flavors and the experience of eating, talking and laughing at a table together; that's good stuff. But I'm wiped out at the end of the day. Would our family life be better, happier, easier if I just bought some boxed rice mixes, threw in some ground beef and called it a night? Sometimes, I think the answer is, maybe.
3. Who knows if the kids will like it? You can spend the morning browsing organic produce at a farmers' market, come home and simmer homemade marinara sauce on the stove for four hours and STILL have a dinner fail ahead of you. Maybe the kids are tired. Perhaps too many snacks earlier in the day spoiled their appetites. Maybe one of them needs a band-aid. Despite my fairly extensive efforts, there are many nights when my husband and I enjoy our food while our kids do not. Meh.
4. The jury is out on whether it's less expensive. Like almost any family budget item, grocery costs are variable. You can get by with spending a very small amount, or blow through hundreds of bucks every time you check out. Buying organic ain't cheap, but more supermarket chains are coming out with their own organic brands all the time. Farmers' Markets and CSAs can also be great sources for buying in-season produce at good prices. There are even online farmers' markets popping up for those who just want the good stuff delivered without the scene (strollers, hippies, plus the requisite live music and taco truck). But one thing is for sure: The quinoa is never on sale. You won't be clipping coupons for almonds. Buying in bulk can cut down on costs, but a box of mac-n-cheese is always going to be cheaper than buying high-quality cheddar, whole wheat noodles and organic milk.
So, it's not perfect. This week, KJ Dell'Antonia, who runs the Motherlode blog on The New York Times, declared a week-long challenge to cook all her family's meals at home. No takeout, no boxes. Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked, covers basically the same topic. Cook food with real ingredients because it's better for you, your pocketbook and often times, the earth. I'm a total believer in all of this but there are times -- usually following a night like last night, when two of the kids woke me up, one at 2 a.m., one at 5 a.m. -- when I wonder if the payoffs are going to be worth it.
But like any other part of parenting, the hard stuff is often the important stuff. We also insist that they say "please" and "thank you," take a bath every night and actually go to bed at a reasonable hour. Eating fresh food as a family is just one of our family values, and there's a special part of me that's grateful that we started our family in Italy, where that concept came to us sink or swim style. Now we're just trying to keep afloat.
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