Friday, 2 September 2011

Food for thought

home-grown beetroot, carrots, tomatoes and rosemary
I don't know when I first became aware of food as something more than fuel. My mother has always been relatively uninterested in food, and despite some pretty impressive culinary talents (like the ability to make absolutely fantastic shortcrust pastry) most of the food I remember growing up came from a tin or from the depths of the freezer (apologies, Mum, if this is mainly apocryphal). It wasn't until my second year of University, living out in a scummy student house with a basement kitchen that smelled of damp, that I actually had to cook for myself and began to discover a world without tins. However, I think the cooking bug really took hold when I left home (for an equally scummy rented house in Oxford, but with a kitchen that actually had natural light) and started to really 'cook', by which I mean using fresh ingredients to create meals from scratch, rather than resorting to those slightly spurious 'cook' ranges offered by the high-end supermarkets where they prepare all the elements of a meal for you and then you simply assemble them on a tray to put in the oven and pat yourself on the back for 'cooking from scratch'.

I quickly discovered the Oxford Covered Market and over weeks and months gradually began to buy more and more of my fresh produce there, starting with fruit and veg but gradually moving up to meat and fish. For someone who had never set foot in a butcher's shop until they were in their twenties, and didn't know their shin from their topside, it was a daunting self-education. But with advice from the various experts on the stalls, and a couple of good books, I gradually came to acquire a basic understanding of fresh produce. Then, when we started our grow-your-own adventure, I became even more aware of seasonality along with the related excitement of eating meals with practically zero food miles, getting to stretch my creativity in the kitchen (hmm, another courgette) and being introduced to the joys of preserving.

Although this blog is mainly about how we try to live in a greener, more environmentally-aware fashion, food is one area where I didn't really need any encouragement to be more sustainable - food does just taste better if you cook it yourself. And once you get used to cooking from scratch, you find that food that is fresh (i.e. has been produced locally) tastes much, much, better than food that has been harvested unripe, packed, frozen, defrosted, sprayed, manipulated, refridgerated and shipped up and down the country at the mercy of the supermarket supply chains. Now, if I can't get it from my own garden, I get it from an organic box scheme (most of whom make every effort to give you local, seasonal produce wherever possible - we use Abel and Cole). If I can't get it from them, I go to the supermarket, where I try to buy locally-produced first, followed by British, followed by organic, wherever possible.

Of course, the downside to all this new-found culinary expertise is that I also came to acquire a bit of extra padding, which came as a shock to someone who'd always considered themselves 'thin' (I'm not talking 'thin' by the current standards of the emaciated size zero, just what we used to call 'slim', in that there weren't really any wobbly bits where there shouldn't be or extra rolls when I sat down, ahem).

This, of course, led to a bit of a quandary. My new-found love of cooking and food, and a concern for living sustainably, versus my vanity. I went on my very first 'diet' (nothing fancy, just basic calorie-counting) in order to lose weight for my wedding, and now, post-baby, I'm trying to shift the pounds again (although at least I've got a slightly better excuse this time!) In some ways I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to get all the way to my twenties without ever really having to think about what or how much I was eating, but as my daughter begins her food journey, I realise how important it is to make sure that she grows up with a balanced approach to food and to eating.

I think this is why I was drawn to the idea of baby-led weaning, as it introduces babies to 'real' food much earlier on and does away with the usual conventions about having to give young children bland tastes and textures. I've never felt more proud than those times when I get to sit and eat with my baby, particularly when the food we're enjoying has been grown, harvested and cooked by me. Yes, it requires more effort, yes it requires planning (all 21 meals for the week are planned in advance) and yes, my goodness, it means I think about food ALL THE TIME (what are we eating next, what do I need to prepare now, argh, there's food all over the floor!!) but the fun of family mealtimes, of watching her skills grow every day (look, she can pick up that half a cherry tomato!) and of being totally confident that what we're all eating as a family is nutritious as well as delicious, far outweighs any negatives for me.

And plus, when every meal you eat has some removed for the baby, you get free portion control too!

Of course, every month is a baby-led weaning month in our house, but this month I'll be relating our daily menus on this very blog. I'll probably post every couple of days rather than daily, with a basic menu plan for each day, along with some of the recipes I'm following. At the end of the month, I'll also post the full 4-week menu planner.

I know September officially started on Thursday, but our shopping week from Saturday to Saturday, so I'm starting tomorrow.

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