The lovely Jean writes:
Since you are so pretty and smart, I thought you would be able to help me with this question. I am currently in the process of changing my son’s diet. I am trying to remove all HFCS, all dyes etc from his diet. Also, I’m getting him to eat more fruits, veggies etc, as much of it organic as possible. I can and do cook from scratch, but I also work full time. Baking tons of goodies and crackers that he can eat doesn’t fit to well with my commute and work schedule. He will also be heading off to day camp this summer (we send his lunch and snacks with him). My question to you is, where can I get some great snacks that fit into these restrictions without taking a second mortgage on my house? Any websites out there that might be useful, or stores? Additionally, any brands that you love and I should try?
Jean is singing my song, because this is something about which I happen to be pretty passionate. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for the “occasional treat” and all of the unnatural dyes and HFCS they may contain, but in general, I strive to feed my family real food, hold the chemicals. And as Jean is discovering, that can be harder than it sounds.
So let’s talk about this.
The first thing I tell anyone wanting to go “greener” with their diet is that it’s not necessary to go pure organic; that’s expensive, and in some cases it’s no better than “conventional.” For example, bananas have such thick skins, the extra money for organic is often said to be a waste because the conventionally-grown fruit is protected from pesticides from the peel. Learn about which produce you should be buying organic and which doesn’t matter and then keep that in mind when you shop. Also bear in mind that those are general rules, and if you’re lucky enough to have a local farmer’s market and other small growers, you can ask about how they grow their food. Becoming USDA certified organic is an expensive process which smaller farms can’t afford, although they often follow organic practices without the label.
The next thing to remember is that any food product which does bear the “organic” label is free of HFCS and artificial colors, because there’s no such thing as organic corn syrup or chemical dye. (Organic dyes are food-derived, like beet juice.) Most supermarkets have a “house” organic brand—at my local Publix it’s called Greenwise—and those products tend to be slightly cheaper than name-brand organics, while still being free of the things you’re trying to avoid. Now, of course remember that this isn’t a free pass to “healthy,” because cane sugar and the like are still sugars and sugar isn’t healthy, period, but it’s a start. Also start really reading labels—many non-organic brands are adopting healthier recipes, and just because it’s not organic doesn’t mean it’s “bad.”
Let me slip in a quick plug here, too: I totally understand the time thing. I do. When I worked full-time out of the house and was a single mom with two kids, the last thing I wanted to do was spend my free time playing Betty Crocker. One of the things I did was one cooking project each weekend—and I enlisted the kids’ help, too, so it was family time. We’d make a monster batch of cookies or muffins or granola bars or something, and then freeze them. I could pull them out for lunches for weeks (sometimes months!) without fear of food going bad before we could eat it. If you can’t or don’t want to cook, I feel you, but maybe a family project will change how you feel about it.
I would also designate one hour a week to miscellaneous food prep, and here I have to tell you that this Rubbermaid produce saver set has changed my life. What are the chances that I feel like cutting up vegetables at 6:00 a.m. when I’m packing lunches? Zero! But if I can cut up peppers and carrots and celery and cucumbers just once for the whole week? Easy-peasy. Just grab what I need (they really do stay fresher longer). I started selling my kids on cut veggies with the ubiquitous ranch dressing, early on, and now I have one kiddo who prefers veggies naked and one who likes hummus or an easy dip made with Greek yogurt. Totally easy, totally healthy.
Okay. Now, the reality is that sometimes we need things quick and easy; shelf-stable, in a box, ready to go. Crackers, cookies, snacky things. I get it. Brands I love, many of which can often be found on special at Amazon: Annie’s, Cascadian Farms, Barbara’s, the “Booty” snacks (Pirate’s Booty, Veggie Booty), Clif Kids, Pop Chips, Newman’s Own, Bob’s Red Mill. Also I am a fool for Trader Joe’s because most of their stuff is natural/organic and cheap. (If you don’t have a TJ’s, I’m sorry.) The key to keeping the bill manageable is to stock up on sale, and pass it by when it’s not. I am never joking when I highlight a ridiculous sale on some reasonably healthy snack at Amazon and tell you that I bought three cases. My kids can eat, and they take their lunches to school every day.
Readers, what am I forgetting? Any tips for Jean on great junk-free brands and healthy snacks in general?