In search of healthy and fun meals to feed my family, with an eye toward sustainable living.

Here you'll find recipes & ramblings about keeping my family fed with what's available in Alaska between local produce, a little bit of wild harvest, and the modern grocery store.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eating less meat

When I was young, I was a vegetarian for many years. Like many young people, I used to think in "black and white" terms: meat was bad, vegetables were good. I had read Frances Moore Lappe's book "Diet for a Small Planet" my first year in college (having just moved to the US after living in a developing country, I was aghast at the waste and conspicuous consumption) -- I became convinced that meat production was a waste of our planet's scarce agricultural resources. By the time I had children I started eating meat again -- in fact I craved it when I was pregnant!

I didn't give all that much thought to how food was raised as I was busy raising and feeding my growing family -- I was thinking less about the environment and more about cooking well-balanced meals and avoiding junk food! But it does turn out that meat production can be very wasteful indeed, and is perhaps becoming more so than when Lappe's book was first written! I'm now coming back around to thinking about those issue again. A big turning point for me was reading Michael Pollen's In Defense of Food and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

As I've been learning more about where our food comes from, I find I don't care to eat industrially-produced meat, and the alternative (organic, local, wild) is much more difficult and expensive to come by. I have friends here in Alaska who will only eat meat they hunted or caught themselves -- but alas, hubby is not "into" hunting, and our freezer is already out of salmon fillets. ASIDE: in many parts of Alaska, churches and other non-profit organization have volunteers who will process road-killed moose, and the meat is donated to food banks (plus the volunteers get a cut -maybe I need to sign up in order to get some "church moose"?) -- since it is illegal for the driver of the vehicle to simply take home the moose they ran over! EOD, End of Digression.
I'm realizing more and more that not all meat (or eggs and dairy for that matter) is bad -- rather, it can vary greatly. For example, cows are naturally grass-eaters, but in an effort to grow beef faster and faster, they are now fed a diet of mostly corn (which is difficult for them to digest) and thus cattle are given lots of hormones and antibiotics. These are showing up in our drinking water! DNA analysis shows that between corn-fed hamburgers and HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) that's used heavily in processed foods and sodas, Americans are starting to have a food signature that's mostly corn (an interesting movie to see is King Corn)!
The implications of how food is raised have huge impacts not only on the nutritional food value of our food, but on the health of our planet as well. So I'm finding myself eating less and less meat. I'm not a vegetarian, and I do think it's natural for humans to eat meat -- evolutionarily we're omnivores after all -- but yet, I feel less and less like eating industrially-produced meat.

This past year our family has been eating more vegetables, legumes and whole grains, due in part to getting a weekly CSA box full of fresh organic produce! And I must say that I feel healthier and even have lost some of that 40+something weight gain (without even trying -- I certainly am not the "dieting" type (more on that topic on my post Diet is a 4-letter word).

But really, how much meat do we really need to eat? Humans certainly can and do thrive on a mostly vegetarian diet. I admit that while I enjoy a good cut of meat, I find myself less willing to buy what's for sale at the grocery store. Right now I'm reading an interesting book by Nicolette Hahn Niman called Rightous Porkchop (Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms). The more I learn about the food industry, the more I want to get away from industrially-produced meat. I stand there in the grocery store and wonder: did this meat come from a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) where animals are kept in horrible conditions, standing knee-deep in their own excriments while being fattened on corn products and kept from getting sick only by heavy administration of antibiotics? Were these eggs laid by chickens crammed into barns by the thousands, unable to walk even a few steps? Did the bacon come from pigs produced in a giant warehouse operation that produces more wastewater pollution than a small city?

I do recommend the movie Food, Inc (Santa brought me that for Christmas), which does a good job of reporting on food issues without being overly sensational. It makes a really good point about how we vote on food issues every time we're at the checkout stand of the the grocery store -- as our food purchases get scanned, we VOTE with our dollars: for example, as organic products are making more and more gains in the US/World market, industry is starting to pay attention! Within the last few years, our family has switched first to organic milk, then many of our vegetables, chicken and now also beef. And of course we do love eating our Alaskan Wild salmon!

I'm still working on figuring out eggs -- there are a few with the label "organic" and many more with the less meaningful label "natural". Some brands advertise they're antibiotic and additive-free, vegetarian-fed (= no animal by-products), and even cage-free. But does "cage-free" mean they really get to roam the farmyard, or did they get an itty-bitty "yard" attached to a giant facility that very few of the chickens can even get to? Vegetarian feed is better than ground up recycled dead chicks, but then again, eating bugs is actually an important and normal part of a chicken's diet...
Ideally I'd like to raise our own chickens, but I'm worried about the wildlife factor here: would raising backyard poultry act as an attractant to the many bears (black and brown) that occasionally roam our neighborhood? I wish I could find a good local source of eggs that don't cost an arm and a (chicken)-leg! These last few years I've been buying Wilcoxfarms Omega-3 eggs available at Costco (chickens that are fed grass-based diets do lay eggs that are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids) -- but it's still part of a huge factory-style operation (I think?!) -- but then again, one step at a time: at least they're not as bad as some of the other industrial producers out there...

So here I am, puzzled. I go grocery-shopping (and vote!) every week, and I want to do what's best for my family and for my planet. My boys/men certainly do like their spicy food and meat, while my daughters and I would be happy eating mostly vegetarian. So the compromise I'm making is that I try to cook more and more with organic/local produce, and while I do cook with meat several times a week, I use smaller quantities than I used to. For example, I might use sausage more as a spice than a main ingredient, or make stir-fry or curry with more vegetables than meat. I've learned a couple of things over the last few years:
  • change seems easier when it's gradual.
  • if I cook too "healthy" and lean, then they eat more snacks/junkfood inbetween meals.
  • I am the queen of the kitchen:)
  • they will eat what I cook --an awesome power, I know -- and I'll try not to let that get to my head!

Photo credits:
Meat from
Eggs from


  1. Ralf got me a lovely book for Xmas from an Irish cook by Darina Allen called 'Lost Cooking Skills' or something like that that focuses on stretching a little bit of meat into maximum family meals. If you're interested I can go look out the exact title, I always forget stuff like that and now I'm too comfortable to actually GET UP and walk into the pantry.

  2. Sounds interesting -I'll check it out. By searching for Darina Allen plus cookbook, I found it: Irish Traditional Cooking.

  3. You wanted to know what I thought of this post: I like it. I'm too tired to go into why :-)

    I love meat, it is tasty. Too much does make me feel like the livestock I just ate though- so a quarter piece of bacon flavoring a whole bunch of veggies is heaven to me. I can't cook it worth a damn though because I taught myself to cook when vegetarian- and continuing to cook as one is much cheaper.