Guest Blogger: Dianasaur Dishes

Mrs Q here: today is report card pickup day/ teacher-parent conferences. It’s a non-attendance day for students, the doors open midday and stay open until early evening. Since I wasn’t going to be able to eat school lunch today, I asked a friend to write a guest blog post. Meet: Diana from Dianasaur Dishes and read her incredible story. We were on the same panel at BlogHer Food and I was so inspired by her experience and what she is doing now.

Hello new friends!  I’m so excited Mrs. Q asked me to guest post because I’m thrilled about her passion to make a difference in a world of unhealthy eating.  I have a similar passion and not a day goes by without me dreaming up some way to try and help people learn how to eat healthy on a tight budget.  Part of why I’m so passionate is that I personally know what it feels like to not have enough money for food.
My journey toward healthy eating involved a lot of baby steps.  I’m originally from Hawaii and when September 11, 2001 came I, along with most of the people in the tourism industry, lost my job.  That was when my eating habits changed dramatically in the wrong direction.  I discovered that in order to pay my basic bills, I only had $1-2 a day to live on for food.  I concluded that my limited budget meant that the only way I could survive was to live off of the fast food dollar menu (at that time only Jack in the Box had one).
After a year of unhealthy eating which affected my physical and emotional health as well as energy levels, a friend gave me a bag of groceries because she had “bought too much”.  She was truly a good friend who knew that my foolish pride at the time would keep me from accepting her gift unless I could pretend I was doing her a favor.  With that one bag of groceries I was able to cook for myself, without recipes, for an entire week.  At that point a light bulb went off and I realized that I could take my $10-14 a week to the grocery store and start buying real food to play with at home.  That was the start of my healthy food journey, but I still had a lot to learn.
The first place I would head in the grocery store would be the boxed food aisle, you know where they have the Hamburger Helper type meals, except that those were out of my budget.  I usually went for the $1 boxes of alfredo, they had these little one inch long flat noodles and package of some white powdery substance that once you add milk and butter turns into a cheese like sauce.  Of course I realized there wasn’t much nutritional value in that box, so I’d buy the chicken breast that was about to pass its “use by” date, and whatever vegetables were on sale to add to my pasta. 
(acorn squash pasta)
But eventually I realized that I was actually limiting myself with these pre-packaged foods.  I thought it was my budget limiting me, but when I started doing the math I discovered that it was really more affordable in the long run to buy real noodles and real cheese to make my alfredo than going the boxed route.  It also tasted better and was better for my body.
Eight years down the road, whether or not to buy or eat processed food is rarely a question for me.  I get a CSA (http://dianasaurdishes.com/06/our-first-csa-and-why-we-consider-ourselves-neo-hippies/) every spring through fall from a local farm, I forage (http://dianasaurdishes.com/10/foraging-rose-hip-recipe-for-tea/) for what’s available in my area, I buy meat in bulk (http://dianasaurdishes.com/05/rosemary-garlic-steak-marinade-with-oregano-garlic-butter/) from local ranchers, and I stay on the outer edges of grocery stores to avoid the processed food aisles.
(butternut squash soup)
I hope to help people understand that changing your eating habits is not like the flipping of a switch.  It can take time!  Some foodies feel that if everyone isn’t making their own sauces, condiments, and canned goods from scratch, something is terribly wrong.  But not everyone is ready for that yet.  Each time you choose a healthier whole ingredient option over a pre-packaged one, that’s a step in the right direction. 
Now, If you’re hoping to make your journey a little speedier than my own, I have a couple quick tips.
(purslane tomato corn salad)
Find a farm in your area or grow your own food – I’m not against grocery stores, but if you can get local produce by either buying a share at a farm (also known as a CSA) or growing it yourself, DO IT!  The food will taste better, be better for you, and almost always be more affordable.  It’s also a lot of fun because you often get to play with different ingredients that might not normally buy in the store.  The salad above is a mix of fresh corn from our CSA, ripe and unripe tomatoes from my backyard (I’ve never played with green tomatoes before), bacon from a local farm, and purslane from our driveway…which brings me to my next point…
(purslane edible weed)
Learn about foraging – If you just do a little research online, you can usually find out what edible plants grow wild in your area.  The plant above is called purslane, and it contains more omega 3 fatty acids per serving than most fish!  It’s a weed that grows in sidewalk cracks and often takes over gardens.  I spot it all over the place in my city, so if you’re ever in Auburn and see women outside the grocery store collecting it for food, they’re probably members of my cooking classes!  We also have lots of berries, mushrooms and other tasty tidbits that grow all over the place.
Cooking and eating from whole ingredients starts out as a conscious choice; you read the ingredient list to make sure you recognize everything listed, you put down the preservative laden jar of jam in favor of making your own, you decide to make snacks from scratch rather than buying them in a box.  Eventually it becomes a habit and a way of life.  You no longer have to decide between the “dried fruit snacks” or dried fruit. 
The cool thing is, not only will this be better for your body and the environment, it’s also better for your pocketbook!  Don’t believe the lie that I did, being poor doesn’t have to mean eating poorly.  If you need more ideas to help you out, be sure to check out my Top Ten Tips for Eating Healthy on a Tight Budget (http://dianasaurdishes.com/03/ten-tipshow-to-save-money-on-groceries-and-still-eat-healthy/).  I’d also love for you to add your own tips in the comments because we can all learn so much from each other.
Although I started DianasaurDishes.com as a place to keep track of what I was cooking (if you don’t follow recipes it’s hard to make the same thing twice unless you write down what you do), but I soon realized that it was really a resource for people trying to cook on very little money.  That’s when I started really focusing my posts with readers in mind.  Now I also teach free cooking classes to low income families in my city who are trying to make healthier choices for their families.  If you’re struggling to eat healthy on a tight budget, know that you’re not alone.  By sharing our stories and supporting each other, we can each continue moving in a positive direction, making a difference in the health of our family, and changing the way our culture looks at food!
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12 Responses to Guest Blogger: Dianasaur Dishes

  1. Mommy Lisa November 17, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    That is excellent!

  2. Glitterati November 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    "Some foodies feel that if everyone isn't making their own sauces, condiments, and canned goods from scratch, something is terribly wrong. But not everyone is ready for that yet. Each time you choose a healthier whole ingredient option over a pre-packaged one, that's a step in the right direction."

    I really love this thought! Too often forgotten, I think.

  3. JoAnn November 17, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Wow…people, please, do NOT go outside and try to pick your own mushrooms and berries!!! The vast majority are poisonous, if not lethal. Anything other than maybe blackberries would be too risky. Crazy!

  4. Anonymous November 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Great post!

    The foraging part scares me, I'd never trust wild mushrooms especially, but I'm all for baby steps in the right direction.

    Way to go to teach cooking classes! I think we are so out of touch with cooking, and forget that a lot of meals can be made in the same amount of time and for the same amount of money as those over priced packages of chemicals labelled as food.

    My own personal baby steps: drinking more water led to cutting down and then cutting out soda led to cutting out fake sugar and now led to switching to whole grain pasta

  5. Viki November 17, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    Wonderful guest post! Foraging is interesting…but yes a little scary UNLESS you do research and Learn from a reliable person.

    Planting a garden in the ground or in pots is Wonderful and really fun for the kids. What they grow they will be likely to eat, or at least try.

    A lot of CSA's will let you work in exchange for part of your payment for the food as well. Look into it.

  6. Kim November 18, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    Diana, your story is inspirational. You have so many great ideas but like other readers have commented here, I have several concerns about the safety of foraging. Besides the risk of poisoning from foraged mushrooms and berries, I wouldn't condone doing it from parking lots and neighbors' yards and driveways because you don't what chemicals have entered the soil where those plants grow. I can guarantee you that any weed growing in a parking lot or driveway has been exposed to runoff that contains plenty of gasoline, oil, and antifreeze from the cars that have driven on it.

    If there's a dry cleaner operating nearby, your foraged purslane may well be contaminated with lethal dry cleaning chemicals. Chemicals used by nearby hair salons, car repair shops, and auto dealerships would also be a concern. With all the chemicals sprayed on lawns and agricultural runoff, weeds from any urban or suburban place are most likely contaminated. Even people who forage in wooded areas need to make sure that the area in which they're foraging isn't affected by agricultural runoff.

    It especially makes me shudder when I think of the possibility that the foraged purslane from the grocery store parking lot mentioned in your post is being fed to children.

  7. Renee November 18, 2010 at 1:11 am #

    Foraging is not scary with some education. We have morel mushrooms that grow on our property, and considering they are $30/lb, we harvest every one we can. You just have to take the time to do a little research, which is what the guest blog suggested.

    Educating yourself about the food you're foraging for is important, but education is important in all aspects of our lives.

  8. Anonymous November 18, 2010 at 4:49 am #

    My yard is on the top of a hill in a wooded area, and there are a few things I feel comfortable foraging: Wild (black) raspberries, morel mushrooms, and currants (because I can actually tell them apart from the poisonous red berries). Theoretically the self fungus in our yard is edible but none of us are willing to try. I've grown up with the woods all my life and I'm quite good at identifying plants, but if you're new at it I would definitely think several times before foraging on my own off things learned from the internet. I also agree with Kim about the dangers of chemical runoff. You never know what has ended up in the ground if you're downhill.

  9. Nilpferd November 18, 2010 at 7:11 am #

    Why is everybody so concerned with the foraging part? She said "Learn about foraging" Not go out and eat berries and mushrooms you randomly find.

  10. Anonymous November 18, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    Every summer I score packages of seeds from dollar stores and nursery supply stores (like home depot) that are on end-of-season clearance. I've been experimenting with peas, chard, fresh herbs, lettuce and tomatoes. And believe me, if I and my un-green thumb can get peas to creep from a pot along my 6×3' north-facing balcony, anyone can.

    I'm really curious to take some mycology classes and read up on local wild food, however for me, I'd rather use it as emergency knowledge (you know, in the event of a disaster or whatever). For me, "foraging" means taking the fruit off over-bearing trees in my neighborhood. Most neighbors are only too happy to hand you a bag full of apples, figs, citrus, etc. when their trees are clearly buckling. Half the time it just rots and goes to waste, and I know from personal experience that it's a blessing when people from your neighborhood knock on your door and ask you to share the bounty. Just think of it as healthy trick-or-treating. 😉 Also, in my opinion, if it's growing over the fence, it's fair game. :p

  11. Zhana Sandeva November 18, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    Growing your own food is definitely the way to go if you're on a tight budget. And then – if Diana says "learn about foraging", I guess she doesn't say that just to help you enrich your general knowledge, but with an idea in mind that once you learn about it, you could go ahead and do it. I agree, however, that parking lot weeds are probably not very safe, since they are polluted with exhaust fumes.

    I was wondering about one thing in the post – what were the basic bills you had to pay, Diana? Was it even possible to cut down on those, so your food habits won't have to suffer? Just curious, because I have noticed that the concept of "basic bills" varies from person to person. Thanks!

  12. Kim November 18, 2010 at 11:59 pm #

    @Anonymous NOVEMBER 17, 2010 10:49 PM-

    Land doesn't necessarily have to be downhill to be affected by runoff, though being downhill certainly increases the risk of contamination. In the example of the grocery store parking lot, the purslane that's being foraged may well be growing in a planted area surrounded by a berm. Contaminants from cars build up on the surface of the pavement until it rains. Then as cars drive by the planter, their tires make surface water (mixed with contaminants) splash above the berm and it lands in the soil. The same is true of a residential (or commercial) driveway. Sewers can also overflow and contaminate soil with chemicals that originated many miles away.

    Prior land uses pose contamination threats as well. For example, if your home (or shopping center or public library or whatever) was built on former farmland, there's a possibility that the soil was contaminated by fertilizers, oil, gasoline, and antifreeze used in farming. Remember that the land was there long before there were environmental protection laws and long before people even knew that dumping things like the dirty oil they drained from their tractor or the refrigerants leaking from their cooling equipment would harm the soil or groundwater or people decades after the dumping or leak occurred.

    I learned about environmental contamination during my 22 yrs. working at commercial real estate investment firms. I've read literally hundreds of environmental site assessments for properties located across the U.S. and Canada. I know all too well what is often in soil and groundwater without a property owner even realizing it, much less someone unconnected to that land but coming on it to forage for food.

    One of my grandmothers was born with no fingers on her left hand. There have been no other incidents of birth defects in my family before or since. We've always assumed that happened because my great grandmother unknowingly ingested something harmful while she was pregnant with my grandmother. It just sickens me that something like this could happen to another family because a well-meaning nutrition advocate recommended that they forage for salad ingredients on their driveway or their local grocery store's parking lot.

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