Who's still eating mac and cheese?

I am often asked how and what we eat, so I thought I would do a series of articles on my approach to feeding a family.  As a starting point, let me say that my philosophy is not all or nothing, and for me eating, like everything else in life, is a continual evolution.  My Italian background and my summers spent at my grandmother’s house in the Veneto region of Italy also have a huge influence on my views on food and eating in general.

Before I get into it, I’d like to “manage expectations”.  I am not a clinical nutritionist or a registered dietician.  As such, if you require specific menu plans to accommodate certain health issues or diagnoses and/or if you need to measure the consumption of specific nutrients or calories, I am not the resource you need – that does not fall within my scope of practice, and to be honest it’s not something that interests me.  I do have certifications in nutritional consulting and herbalism, and can work with you in adjusting your menu and routines to be more aligned for good health, as well as providing a broader spectrum of wellness through coaching and energy work.

Back to our family meals, I'm still experimenting and tweaking here and there – this is a part of that continual evolution that I spoke of.  Make no mistake: Whenever changes are afoot, you will get various reactions from your family  – my opinion is that gradual changes are easier for everyone to deal with, and more manageable for the cook as well!  That last piece is important given that my tribe is largely moms regaining their energy. Preparing healthy meals can’t be draining and time-consuming, it’s just not doable for many (yet!), and I remember being in that place myself.  Thankfully I do have my energy back, but certainly there are days when I need to get a meal together quickly between work and kids’ activities.
My first real step in making a change came in starting to adapt what we were already eating.  The same familiar foods that my family enjoys (like baked mac and cheese!), but experimenting with little changes to make it better.  It has become somewhat of a source of entertainment for me to see how hubby and my boys react.
Prepare your own food whenever you can.  That way you have control over your ingredients.  Start with what you can – every little bit counts.  If this is brand new to you, here are just a few suggestions to get you started.  If you’ve been working on changes for awhile or you’re already doing this, sit tight, I will add more layers in future articles.

Avoid anything with food colouring - there is simply no need for it.  Is your family eating orange cheddar cheese or some variety of processed cheese?  Do you know that the dyes that make it orange are banned in most European countries?  There are enough studies out there linking food colouring with increased incidence of hyperactivity in children, asthma, and other allergic reactions to make it a cause for concern.  Switch to aged white cheddar, Monterey jack, or other similar types of cheeses.

Ditch the margarine - any kind of margarine, and go back to good quality, unsalted (and uncoloured) butter  Margarine is essentially a hardened vegetable oil, where the processes of extracting and then hardening the oils are questionable at best.  Coconut oil can be a great option but the quality varies dramatically, much of it highly refined with the same extraction methods as margarine.  More on vegetable oils in a future article.

Go organic.  Pesticides have been in use for long enough that the damage to human health, animal health, and the environment is indisputable.  It will take us as consumers to keep the momentum going to ensuring a healthier food supply for everyone.  Having said that, I know organic food is still expensive, so if you need to make a choice (and most of us still do) aim for replacing the items that have the highest pesticide residues and/or are genetically modified. This varies by country, but in general buy organic for:  apples, grapes, berries, peaches & nectarines, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, and corn.  If you are in the U.S. organic dairy would be preferable.

A typical family favourite:  baked mac & cheese

Note:  we do still eat wheat (gluten) and dairy, although less than we used to.  There are a lot of alternate types of pasta you could experiment with - made from quinoa or rice, for example - if you want or need to avoid gluten.

Years ago, I did buy the occasional box of Kraft – but the Italian side of me was disgusted at the very thought!! 

So I started to make my own.

  • I buy the best quality pasta available (De Cecco is my preferred brand right now, yes it is wheat and semolina)
  • I chop fresh greens, usually kale from the garden (spinach or swiss chard would also work well), and mix it with the cooked pasta – start with a small amount and keep adding more greens – I’m up to about 3 cups
  • Then comes a sauteed chopped onion with a basic béchamel sauce (a small amount of good quality, unsalted butter, powdered mustard, flour, and milk), add grated white cheddar, oregano, and freshly ground pepper, and pour over the macaroni & greens
  • If you still want a little extra on top, sprinkle a little bit of parmesan (the real stuff- parmigiano reggiano or instead use grana padano or pecorino romano – please don’t use the fake stuff!)
  • Bake for about 20 minutes

I made it recently when a new friend of my younger son was visiting.  I know my kids’ friends eat a LOT of junk food, so I was expecting a polite, if not somewhat restrained, “thanks for dinner”.  Instead, what I got was an exuberant “that was AWESOME!” 

One step at a time.