"Home food systems" are the ways that food is acquired and processed at the household level. True home economics, food systems include the acquisition, preparation and cultural aspects of consumption, and how those fit into the larger society and culture. By considering our own home food systems, we can consciously change our world and economics, one dollar and meal at a time.
Elements of a Home Food System
A home food system will inevitably involve many elements. What one eats is part of it, as is where it comes from. How is it prepared and why is it prepared that way? Who is it for and what values does it embody? Is its main goal nutritional, cultural or economic? Is it an emergency plan for new times or part of a fortunate celebration? Does it connect you to more people or just strengthen the home? The answers to these questions will largely determine your personal, home food system.
Simple Steps to Promote Home Food Culture
- Develop a basic food plan for the year or season
- Eat from the pantry, not a store counter
- Grow or produce some of your own food
- Prepare food at home and carry food with you
- Consider how eating connects or isolates you
- Collect and share recipes for value and meaning
- Build and work toward your ideal food system
Develop a Basic Food Plan for the Year Or Season
It is not that most people think poorly about how they eat but that they don't think about it much at all. We inherit basic food beliefs and habits from our families or the advertising that dominates our culture. This "convenience" has helped create a system where many of us are not well-nourished, with obesity a major health issue for rich and poor alike. Assuming that one eats the standard three meals each day over 365 days, this is almost a thousand chances each year for a better life. The trick is to start small and to take baby steps.
Do you plan to eat every day this week? What will you eat and where will it come from? If you have the good fortune of stability for long-range planning, you'll have more options. The basic food plan for a homeless person may involve identifying a few hot meals they can count on once a week. For the single or elderly apartment-dweller, this might involve looking at the weekly food ads to stock up on favorites when they're on sale. For a young family or a farmer, there might be appreciably longer-range plans that involve preserving produce or a freezer. The important thing is to have a basic plan to improve.
The dominant, commercial food system depends on people to trade money for convenience, in a way that is not necessarily healthy. A sugary soda or a careful selection from the "value menu" at a fast food restaurant or convenience store is usually not what we would have planned, but budgeting our time and money can help us "fail toward success" with increasingly better plans. If I love strawberries, I will plan to love them deeply and thoroughly in May and June, with parsnips in December and sweet corn in August. Each year brings a predictable cycle of fresh fruits and vegetables, which can be well-used if it is planned for, just as a large pot of soup on Sunday can bring delicious comfort throughout the week.
Eat from the Pantry Shelf, Not a Store Counter
One major change in the American diet since the end of World War Two is the dramatic increase in use of prepared and "convenience" foods. Entire categories of foods that did not exist a few decades ago now dominate supermarket aisles: Consider microwave popcorn. These foods are a good strategy for the manufacturer, because these "value-added" products keep longer and have much better profit margins than whole foods. The bowl of soup one buys in a restaurant, though, costs more than a can from the shelf, while the canned stuff is appreciably more expensive than home-made, in terms of both dollars and nutrition. If you find yourself paying for food one piece or meal at a time, you might consider if that is best.
Although convenient, "just in time" or "convenience" foods are expensive and not known for their nutrition. Cheap calories from fat and sugar may "fill you up" immediately but do not provide the nutrients that a body craves, encouraging you to eat more. One key way to feed yourself more wisely, body and soul, is to try and prepare more of your own foods. Rather than grabbing what seems best in the moment, consider how one can plan and purchase in advance so that there is a certain amount of good food always available. In addition to being good emergency preparedness, a well-stocked pantry is also economical over time, and helps you develop a personal or family food culture. Foods that one prepares oneself or shares with others are nourishing in ways beyond basic calories.
Grow or Produce Some of Your Own Food
"Eating is an agricultural act," as Wendell Berry notes in "The Pleasures of Eating" from his 1990 book What are People For?
All human cultures have customs around eating and all civilization is based on agriculture. By growing and producing some of our own food, then, we are and become more fully human. It is silly for everyone to plan on becoming Jeffersonian farmers, but all of us can produce at least some of our food.
Even if it is something as simple as growing a few herbs in an apartment window or preparing your own sandwich, just the way you like it, the act of preparing food for oneself and one's loved ones enriches us and brings us closer to the divine. Most people in Clark County can put out a few containers for herbs, fresh tomatoes or lettuce. Growing a few radishes (if one enjoys them) is simple, or one can plant a fruit tree (even in someone else's yard) or consider the larger commitment of a small and modest garden, or a few backyard chickens. In terms of volume or calories, it does not matter so much how much food you produce, as the fact that produce some, and enjoy it yourself. Be part of your food system rather than a slave to it.
Prepare Food at Home and Carry Food with You
One of the main reasons that people do not eat well is because of social pressures and "convenience." The accepted standard in our culture is to either eat out or not eat at all, meaning that lots of folks will eat something at work or from a drive-through somewhere. If it is possible to plan ahead and place snacks in the car or at work, consider doing so. Huge numbers of people skip meals altogether from a lack of money or time, and both of these are easily solved.
Even if it is something as simple as a boiled egg, microwaved potato or piece of fruit, it is a good idea to plan made-at-home foods that can be more nutritious and economical than the consumer-standard junk or convenience foods that starve and isolate us.
Consider How Eating Connects or Isolates You
Basic, biological necessity is only one of the reasons that people eat, and not necessarily the most important for all. Food can also be deeply psychological and cultural. Does the preparation and sharing of food enrich you at all the levels it can? Can you use food to strengthen social bonds as well as physical needs. Many years ago, there was a study among National Merit Scholars that found one of the most common shared characteristic was that their families ate dinner together. Family time spent bonding around meals can create positive or negative experience that lasts for life. Consider what rituals of connection or isolation, healthy or unhealthy, your food beliefs and behaviors enforce.
Collect and Share Recipes for Value and Meaning
Almost every person or family has foods they particularly value or enjoy, and being able to reproduce those foods is crucial to any home food system. Whether it is a traditional "comfort food" such as macaroni and cheese or an unusual pickle or ethnic dish, having a repertoire of foods to prepare and share is terrific. If nothing else, it guarantees you can host a respectable potluck. What are the foods you enjoy most in the world? Learn to make those and share them with others. Develop a repertoire of recipes, one at a time, that you can draw on, in good times and bad.
In an age of celebrity chefs and cable-channel television, food and recipes often become a form of display. Establish traditions and competence that better serve you and your loved ones, in your own home food system.
Build and Work Toward Your Ideal Food System
No one person can build the ideal food system, but each of us can make our own better. Cooking one meal a month may be how one person begins, while another reaches out by attending a potluck. A third person may decide to grow a few herbs while a forth may visit the farmer's market or an elderly aunt to help her with some home canning. Each of these steps is progress, and important toward healthier, more sustainable food systems. Small things matter, even at the personal and household level. Better food systems for us all are the result of many small decisions, repeated well.