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Back to the basics

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The “real” food movement has been building momentum for a while, still it wasn’t until after we returned from our recent Christmas trip in America that I began to take stock of what our family was eating. Eating fast, often-processed food while traveling got me thinking about how I could improve our intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and healthy homemade treats back at home. The fact that eating processed foods is not healthy, even possibly downright detrimental, seems quite obvious. But then figuring out how to reduce our intake of processed foods and to reshape our meals to focus on fresh, natural foods was a different story all together.

We don’t typically buy pre-packaged “junk” foods for home, but we often turn to baking mixes for quick desserts or pre-made bottled sauces for easy pasta or chicken and rice dinners. I usually buy the sauces at the supermarket, or for a treat, at Marks & Spencer. For years, my mother has sent us Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines cake mixes for family birthdays. She’s also regularly sent colorful sprinkles, food coloring and other assorted seasonal food decorations, so that our pantry is always well-stocked with the necessities for making holiday treats. It’s been nice to have something different (aka American) to decorate with or to serve at parties, plus it’s a fun reminder of the kind of sweets I grew up with.

We recently brought back a few Betty Crocker brownie mixes from the US for special occasions only to discover upon baking a batch that the brownies had a strange, artificial aftertaste. They also had a slick, almost rubbery texture that even the children noted. Although the mixes looked like the kind we’d used before, they were packaged in a plastic sleeve instead of a box. In addition to the packaging change, there was also an artificial additive (or several) in the mix that weren’t tasty. I could only guess it wasn’t good for our health either. I’m not a food expert, so I couldn’t tell from reading the label which of the ingredients was the offender, although I did see “artificial flavor” printed at the end of the list. After making one batch, I opted to throw the other two packages out.

As more news is aired about potentially toxic, carcinogens and additives that regularly appear in American foods, but are conspicuously absent from their international counterparts, I have begun to read labels and cross-check food items that we buy both here and back in America. Reading labels isn’t an easy task, as many of the potential hazardous ingredients are aptly hidden from the average consumer. I have a few Czech friends who are well-versed in analyzing the range of E-additives (good, okay, sort-of-bad, very bad and horrible), but I’ve yet to become that adept. Still, once I began to look, differences, especially those related to coloring, were blatant.

Even Anna Lee has noted differences in the way foods she likes look. While skiing in Austria, we shopped at the Billa supermarket for drinks and snacks. Anna saw a box of Kellogg’s “Froot Loops” cereal and begged for it. Initially, I said, “no way,” reminding her that even if she’d eaten the cereal in America, it didn’t mean we needed to buy it here. But it’s not the same, she pointed out, showing me that there were only the orange, green and purple loops. As I looked at the box’s packaging I realized the coloring agents were from natural sources, such as pepper, spinach and grapes (at least that’s what I translated from German). The loops themselves weren’t nearly as brightly colored as the red, orange, yellow, blue, green and purple ones were in the US. I knew that processed, sugared cereal wasn’t the best for her, but her persuasiveness won me over. The cereal wasn’t as sweet as its American counterpart; still it was made from processed grains, so it probably wasn’t significantly better for her.

After our experience in the cereal aisle, I determined that the best way to fortify our family is to make a concerted effort to eat “real.” Without getting too bogged down in the details of how to accomplish this, I figured the best way to start was to buy whole foods, fresh and unpackaged. One of Anna’s major complaints of late is that she’s bored with her snacks. All the children in Czech grade school bring a snack from home (some schools also offer children the option of buying bread rolls from the school’s cafeteria) to eat during the class breaks before lunch. One way I could shake up Anna’s diet, I reasoned, was by putting healthy, but new-to-her foods into her morning snack.

As I began to introduce more “whole” foods into the children’s diets, they were pleasantly surprised, if not by the improved taste, at least by the variety. The day Anna got a hard-boiled egg, pistachios and sugar peas in her school snack; she was pleased, even if she declared the pea skins were too tough and only ate the peas inside. At her friend Kačanka’s she tried the exotic fruit citrus pomalo and liked it, and she remarked what an interesting change it was to eat the chicken broth soup her friend’s mother served them for breakfast. She’s still longing to get a pre-packaged croissant or Oreos like her friends, but at least she’s not complaining that she’s getting the same food every day.

While trying to diversify the children’s palate, I ran into a site about “real” food posted by a mom-blogger with two children who’s made a commitment to feeding her family no processed foods. On her blog called 100daysofrealfood, I found a link to an article about ingredients banned across the world that are still legal in the American food supply. The list included items I had already known were banned in European food supply such as synthetic hormones (rBGH and rBST) or coloring agents (blue 1, blue 2, yellow 5, and yellow 6). It also included ingredients such as azodicarbonamide (an internationally banned chemical used to whiten American flour supplies), BHA and BHT (made from petroleum) and even arsenic in chicken feed. What upset me the most was the widespread use of the bad substances in the most basic of foods: breads, cereals, milk and chicken.

While I can easily buy organic milk or chicken here, finding “fresh” bread has become an increasingly frustrating chore. Czech supermarkets and bakeries can identify products as baked “fresh”, even if the products are only baked on premise from prepared, frozen dough. As I scan the supermarket bread containers, it initially appears that there are more varied bread choices than any consumer could desire. There are rolls of all shapes and sizes made from all types of flour (white, whole-grain, mixed, rye, buckwheat) with assorted nut and seed (sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin) toppings. There are pre-packaged “toast” breads and the traditional loafs of Czech rye bread. There is even a slicing machine is free to use in the isle, so you can slice your own.

Although many of the multi-grain products look appealing, I always have trouble finding one that tastes good and feels fresh. A few years back Radek suggested that we buy a bread machine to make our own bread. He wasn’t so much thinking about the health benefits as the appeal of having a loaf of fresh bread ready at a moment’s notice. I resisted the idea at the time, not wanting another gadget to feel guilty about not using. (There’s a brand-new Crock Pot that I’ve used twice in four years in our pantry). Now, I’m warming to the idea.

I’m making no claims to overthrow our family’s diet completely, but I am beginning to recognize that with a little effort, eating a healthier variety of fresh, whole foods can become a lasting habit for our children. I’m thankful that the Czech tradition of baking and making things from scratch has begun to rub off on our family. Now that we are learning to eat “real” and to give credence to the importance of food presentation, we just have our table manners to perfect.

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