By Angie Howard
If you ask me, cooking is truly an art form, and some people are just better off sticking to a different medium. Until pretty recently, I have been that person whose canvas should not be a dinner plate.
When building our home, we opted (by my husband's fervent insistence) to include a convection oven as one of our appliances. For the longest time, I simply did not understand convection cooking nor did I feel comfortable using the oven past heating up a frozen pizza, make-a-meal casserole, or a sheet of slice-and-bake cookies. I would punch buttons on the oven and squint my eyes as it beeped, flashed, and sent the fan whirling all the while I wondered whether I had set it to heat up dinner or blast off like a jet plane from the kitchen wall.
Since I've had two hungry and growing children with our third little one on the way, I have become inspired out of necessity to make friends with my kitchen appliances (oven included), purchase a "Cooking for Dummies" book, and load my pantry with staple ingredients for those nights when restaurants around town are not offering that true blessing to all families, the "kids eat free" night.
Another point of inspiration for me to embark upon a culinary adventure in my kitchen is the desire I have to use fresh and organically grown ingredients when cooking for my family. I'm not talking about making "fancy" recipes that use exotic organic fare; I have simply been substituting organic choices for any of the basic ingredients called for in our favorite (and very easy) family recipes. Nowadays organic choices are abundant for the cooking necessities like milk, eggs, chicken, veggies, fruits, and beef.
About 70 percent of Americans buy organic food occasionally, according to the market research firm the Hartman Group. Why do so many of us opt for organic (at least on occasion)? For the answer, let's take a look at what organically grown really means.
Organic Foods are upheld to stringent standards regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These standards call for organic crops to be free of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and biotechnology during the growing process. Animals raised on organic farms are required to eat organic feed, be raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, and are not confined 100 percent of the time. Most experts agree that naturally grown organic food is better for nutritional and environmental health.
Perhaps the one negative fact of buying organic is the typical increased cost of organic food compared to conventional food items. On average, purchasing organic food will result in a 10 percent to 40 percent increase in price compared to buying their non-organic counterparts. In a tough economy like ours, spending 10 to 40 percent more at the grocery store just isn't an option for most families, healthier choice or not.
Thankfully, there are some tried and true tips for spending less for organic foods at the grocery store. Many of these I have employed in my own home to manage our monthly grocery bill while still being able to purchase organic items.
â€¢ If you are a coupon-clipper like me, you must visit Sustain Lane's "Green Savers" section at http://www.sustainlane.com/green-saver-discount-coupons/_food-drink to search coupons for organic and natural food and food-related items. Other online and printed coupons are available; try Googling "organic food coupons" or look in the local paper. Health, culinary, or nutrition-themed magazines many times offer organic food coupons as well.
â€¢ Shop at a farmer's market rather than the supermarket. When in season, take a bright sunny morning and drive to the Faulkner Famer's Market in Conway and stock up on local organic produce. Nine times out of ten, the food will be cheaper and fresher than its supermarket equivalent, plus you are supporting community farmers.
â€¢ What's in a name-brand? I nearly always opt for store-brand organics rather than the pricier name-brand choices. Any food with the distinction of "organic" on its label must go through the same USDA rules and regulations to earn that earmark, name-brand or not!
â€¢ Buy it and Freeze it! When you take that trip to the local farmers market, or if you luck into an organic produce sale at the neighborhood grocery store, stock up and freeze the goods! Once popped into the deep freeze, you have about six months to use the fruits or veggies; that can get you through the winter when organic produce isn't in season and costs much more.
So maybe I'm still not (and most likely will never be) a kitchen Picasso, but I have mastered my trepidation of the convection oven, and those nights when we aren't shuttling our precious little bottomless pits around to the "kids eat free" nights, I do try to cook healthy and edible meals for my family using many organic ingredients.
The best part of it (besides of course boosting my family's nutritional intake and bettering the environment through supporting organic farming practices) is that I've learned how to purchase organic without sacrificing anyone's college savings account, a true art form all its own!