Every few years, some of my girlfriends from high school escape for a girls’ only weekend at Lake Monroe. It’s funny to think back on how our conversations have changed. Back in high school when we used to head to the lake for the weekend (by ourselves…our parents were either brave or crazy), we talked about boys, dared each other to drink Apple Puckers, and made up silly skits and dances. In college, we still talked about boys, drank cheap beer, and contemplated what we were “going to do with our lives.” After college, we complained about the drudgery of our 9-5s, started drinking wine, and talked about who would get married first. Then the babies started coming, so we talked pregnancy and marriage and birth stories. This year, things felt different, more grown up somehow. We got to the lake Friday night and talked for hours about our children, our parents, our marriages, our childhoods. Somehow, we also spent a significant chunk of time talking about food.
It surprised me, to be honest, how big and emotional of an issue it was for everyone. I mean, it’s a big and emotional issue for me, but I thought that was just me. We all want to put real, healthy foods into our and our family’s bodies, but several of my friends expressed to me how difficult it is (with everything else that we all have going on or are dealing with) to know what to choose. You try to do the right thing and then find out two weeks later that it’s the wrong thing. It made me sad, to be honest. Food should be a comfort, a fuel, a community builder; it shouldn’t be something that divides or guilts us. Of course, food doesn’t do those things. It can’t make us feel guilty. It’s all of the external forces – corporations, personalities, greed – that have created this paradigm in which food can be so confusing.
I don’t want to ever be guilt-inducing here (or in real life). Life is hard enough as it is, and we’re all doing the best we can. I talk here about eating real, seasonal foods because I think it is the better way: not just for our bodies, but for our planet, for our children, for our spiritual and emotional well-being. I want to share here why I think it’s the better way and what I’ve learned through it, but I don’t want to judge your way, only share mine. With that gigantic caveat, friends often ask me what I buy and how I know what to buy. I offer these ideas here as a means of sharing my thoughts and research and hope that you’ll share your ideas too. We’re all in this together, after all. Here are my food eating/buying priorities – in order from the most favorable to the least:
- Grow our own: This includes growing our own here at home and whatever we’ve preserved for the off-season.
- Buy local from a farmer I know and trust: We buy our pork from Jonathon Gingerich of Homestead Heritage. I’ve been to his farm, seen his practices, and our kids have played together. It doesn’t hurt that his pigs produce the best bacon you’ve ever tasted. We’re shareholders in the Harvestland CSA, so, in addition to the stuff we’re growing, we receive seasonal, local vegetables every week during the growing season (this helps too when our crops at home don’t do so well, like our spinach crop that produced barely anything this year). We also frequent the farmer’s markets to shop for other extras that we might need/want.
- Buy organic. I would prefer to buy local from a farmer I know than to buy organic from some agri-corporation in California. But if I’ve exhausted the top two avenues, I’ll buy organic from a local co-op that we participate in that gets organic produce for wholesale prices. I try to buy in bulk to keep the price and packaging down.
Obviously, we don’t always stick to those rules, but we do our best. Outside of CSA season, we typically don’t go to the grocery store much – we buy from our organic co-op, and we go to Costco. There is much for me to like about Costco – how they treat their employees, their sustainability practices, and their lifetime warranty on many products. I like buying things in bulk for the cost and packaging savings. I thought I would start a little series here about what we buy at Costco in hopes of helping someone else to de-complicate their food buying. I’ll start with the top ten real food buys at Costco for our family – stay tuned for lots more!
1. Tomatoes. I can a ton of tomatoes during the season, but it always seems like we still run out by the end of December or so. Here’s what I get in the way of tomatoes at Costco:
- I am obsessed with the roasted diced tomatoes from Muir Glen for soups and sauces.
- I am equally obsessed with the Kirkland brand organic tomato paste, which I use year around in tons of recipes. Side note: don’t buy tomato sauce. Buy tomato paste, thin it with some water (or stock or wine) and voila – tomato sauce. It’s way cheaper and more versatile to buy and use tomato paste. I’ve made tomato paste myself before and, while it is soo delicious and bursting with flavor, it took for-eh-ver to cook down and left me with a measly six small jars of tomato paste, so I typically buy the Kirkland variety.
- If Costco is out of the roasted tomatoes from Muir Glen (which seems to happen from time-to-time), I’ll get the Kirkland brand diced tomatoes instead. According to my research and phone calls, both Muir Glen and Kirkland do not use BPA in their can liners. They won’t put that on the labels, supposedly, because these products have such a long shelf life, and there may still be cans out there with BPA liners (which no one would want to buy if they were sitting next to a can that had a “BPA-free” label). I’m nervy about BPA; I’m also nervy about whatever they’re using to replace BPA. I try to can (in glass jars) as many tomatoes as I can, but I haven’t found a reasonably-priced and commercially available brand of tomatoes in glass jars, so I continue to use the Kirkland and Muir Glen varieties – and hope for the best.
- I bought the Kirkland brand sundried tomatoes in a glass jar a few weeks ago – sundried tomatoes are a great way to spice up salads and easy grain dishes (quinoa + sundried tomatoes = a meal).
- I also love the Nina brand San Marzano style tomatoes (they’re not real San Marzanos from what I can tell, but they taste very similar to me and far better than most American varieties). They aren’t organic, but the San Marzano style tomatoes are so delicious. I tend to buy these when I’m cooking for a big group.
2. Kerrygold butter. I would prefer to buy my butter from Jonathon of the aforementioned Homestead Heritage farm, but it is quite expensive. I often substitute with Kerrygold because their cows are primarily grass-fed. Once you have grass-fed butter, you can’t go back to the bland, white-ish variety sold at most stores.
3. Organic oils. I buy the Kirkland organic extra virgin olive oil. I would buy the organic coconut oil, as well, but I typically buy from Tropical Traditions in the big gallon jugs when they go on sale, which makes them less expensive than the Kirkland varieties. Kirkland’s brand, however, seems to be of good quality.
4. Cereal/granola add-ins. We make our own soaked cereal (mainly for Grant for breakfast). I like to add in chia, flax seeds, and hemp seeds – all of which are available at Costco organically and in bulk for a very reasonable price.
5. Smoothie fixins: I try to freeze lots of berries when they’re in season here in Indiana, but I do supplement with the organic frozen fruits, depending on what is available organic (it seems to rotate). I do usually buy the wild blueberries from Wyman’s because the wild varieties (speaks to the type of blueberry, not necessarily to its “wildness”) tend to not have as many chemicals. I also like to add chia or flax seed into my smoothies for some extra fiber and protein because I have had some colon issues in the past.
6. Organic flours. I would prefer to buy this locally, but we no longer have a source for local flour (side note: I want to start an heirloom grain farm/business. Who can help me with this?). This is the best price I have found for organic flour. I’ve also bought their gluten free mix that seems like a great deal, although I don’t price out tons of GF stuff.
7. Plain yogurt. Now this could be better – namely, it would be organic and made with whole milk, not low fat milk. But it has the bare minimum real ingredients, it’s an amazing price, and uses milk that doesn’t have rbST (although most dairy doesn’t these days). We go through at least one, often two, tubs of this a week. I make my own yogurt for Grant and me, but the kids prefer the Mountain High stuff.
8. Whole organic carrots. For whatever reason, we go through a lot of carrots. When Grant used to drive much of the day for work, he would go through at least a pound a day, which is just strange if you ask me. They’re easy snacks, and they help spice up our veggie juicing. They’re nothing compared to the ones straight out of the garden obviously, but we do buy the big ten pound bags of carrots, especially in the winter months. Costco has the best price I’ve seen for whole organic carrots.
9. Dried fruits and nuts. We eat mostly nuts for snacks. Most of these aren’t organic, but organic nuts are really expensive. We do buy them from Azure occasionally, but mostly buy our nuts from Costco (well, jeesh, that sounds terrible). I really like the Made in Nature brand of organic dried fruits. We typically switch off between the figs and apricots, but our store typically only carries the figs. We’ve bought the organic mangoes and apricots from Costco.com (free shipping) for special treats.
10. Fair trade organic coffee. I had to add this one because, while we prefer to buy coffee from local places, we do supplement our “everyday coffee” with this stuff from Costco.com (it is free trade even though the website doesn’t advertise it – I called the company to make sure). Grant is a total coffee snob and has unwittingly turned me into one too, so we try to save the good, locally roasted stuff for weekends and other special occasions. Stay tuned for more real foodie buys and research at Costco!