What does it mean to eat well? I teach cooking classes at the Marquette Food Co-op, and I've learned that what constitutes "healthy" is a very broad spectrum of diets and lifestyles.
Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, raw, locavore-devotees of all manner of diets find their way to our store. Others have only vague notions about healthy eating; they come to the store looking for help, hoping we can point them to one magical lifestyle or cookbook that will bring them optimal health.
If only it were so easy.
Our bodies are not machines that work on a simple input-output system. We are a complex, mysterious, amazing ecosystem unto ourselves. Cooking at home with fresh, unprocessed, whole foods is perhaps the biggest step you can take toward healthy eating.
When it comes to cooking at home, the issue is usually personal preferences and time constraints. That amazing sprouted-seed-and-milled-at-home-grain-casserole your neighbor made might be tasty and good for you, but if you don't have time to make it, there's no use in beating yourself up about it. Cooking something, however, is pretty important to your health. Convenience "foods" simply make it easy to eat high calorie, nutritionally empty foods.
There are plenty of delicious and healthy meals even a busy family has time to make. Finding a style of cooking you really like and refining your skills in that style can help you get better at quickly producing food with ingredients you have at home, and have fun doing it because you're making food you enjoy. Cooking at home is better for your budget, lets you control the quality of what goes in the meal, and can be a memorable activity for the family to do together.
We can make so many styles of foods thanks to wide range of ingredients our global food system brings us. Combining this with ingredients we can source from close to home is a great way to create interesting and healthy food. Studies consistently show that locally grown foods tend to be more nutritious; eating a wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables is a one failsafe way to contribute to your health.
Eating foods grown locally brings us closer to our traditional food ways, and eating good food in season means that we get optimum nutrition from our food. Eating those unusual veggies that do well in our cold climate like kale, beets, and kohlrabi doesn't just diversify the flavors we experience; it brings a diversity of nutrients to our table as well.
So what to do? When people grew up in one place, and ate all the same foods that their neighbors, family, and community were also eating, the dilemma of what to eat centered on growing and having enough to go around, not choosing from a bewildering array of choices, some of them with dubious health claims attached. People's diets, being so tied to the land they lived on, reflected what was healthy for that climate and lifestyle.
The absence of one set food tradition and the advent of the industrial food system have left many confused when it comes to food, unsure what constitutes healthy. Really, healthy can include all manner of cooking styles. What it comes down to is that whether you are vegetarian, omnivorous, or following any other particular food lifestyle is that having a healthy diet means you actually cook. Use lots of vegetables, especially those locally grown, and you're off to a good start.
Editor's note: Sarah Monte is employed by the Marquette Food Co-Op.