Part I: From frozen dinner queen to healthy weeknight cook

As I promised yesterday, here is the story of the first part of my journey from someone who relied heavily on packaged goods, frozen dinners, and take out to someone who cooked healthy dinners from scratch at least 6 nights a week.

Phase I: Fits & Starts

Of course I started strong out of the gates.

On January 1st, I think I pored over the 10 cookbooks in my stash for about two hours while I made a detailed menu and shopping list. I carefully printed or copied recipes for the week and organized them in a plastic sleeve that I boldly labeled “Recipes” and kept on the countertop. I dragged the family shopping at Whole Foods, embracing my new Mother Earth image with aplomb. Dinner the first night took me a full 3 hours to get on the table, half of it hands-on prep. I made an absolutely delicious vegetarian lasagna from the delightful cookbook The Healthy Kitchen by Andrew Weil & Rosie Daley.

My husband, a meat lover, thought it was delicious. My oldest shouted, “THANKS FOR MAKING SUCH A BAWICIOUS BRAZAGNA MOMMAY!” My youngest slurped it up too, occasionally grinning at me from across the table between fistfuls of spinach and noodles.

Lights twinkled and the angels sang. My chest swelled with pride.

I can DO this!

And then the weekday hit. I got something resembling the dinner from scratch I had planned on the table the second night. But by the third, my usual chaos was back. Conference calls, immovable deadlines, and revisions, revisions, revisions kept me in a frenzy until 5:55pm. Oops. Thank heavens I still had some frozen Bertolli dinners in the freezer. Three more days like that and my pride-filled chest was nothing more than a deflated sac.

Who am I kidding?!

The image of my mom was a powerful motivator though. The next Sunday morning I got right back in the saddle, poring over the cookbooks, making my menu and shopping lists, although this time I shopped at my local Stop & Shop. The second week went much like the first: three real meals, four quazi-ones.

And around and around I went in fits and starts through most of January and February. I can DO this! Who am I kidding?! I can DO this! Who am I kidding?!

Fortunately, I had done two things right when I framed my resolution. 1) I had given myself plenty of runway to figure this out – 12 whole months. Even though I was technically “failing” in this stage, December still felt far enough in the future that I believed I could crack it if I stuck with it. And (2) I had tied one hell of an emotional motivator to my resolution. How could I not want to carry my mom’s legacy forward for my boys?

I cannot understate the importance of having a massively important emotional reason to keep you going when you want to give up.

Suggested Reading

As my interest in healthy foods/cooking grew, so did my appetite for books on the topic. There were two books I read during this period that made a lasting impression – and strengthened my resolve to make this resolution stick.

The first, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, the acclaimed novelist and author of Everything Is Illuminated.

The author was motivated to explore the topic by the arrival of his own son. As an on-again, off-again vegetarian his whole life, he felt he needed to come to terms with the issue as he would be making dietary choices on behalf of his child – a responsibility he took very seriously. Just that notion alone reminded me that I hadn’t been making the best dietary choices for my boys (because I was “too busy”). It made me want to redouble my efforts.

Mr. Foer is a wonderful storyteller, so even though this is very much a non-fiction book, it reads more like a fast-paced novel. For me, by far the most compelling portions of his book involved his dive into the horrifying world of factory farming. I honestly had never really thought much about how the animals that I ate and fed my family were raised, slaughtered, and brought to market. But his chilling accounts of the mass cruelty as well as the biological and ecological ramifications stopped me in my tracks. His findings have been reinforced by other books and articles I have read since, so I don’t think anything is fabricated or exaggerated. The book provided a wake up call that has profoundly affected how we think about and consume meat and dairy products. We’re still omnivores, but we only consume meat and dairy products that have been pasture-raised and we made the shift right away. Yes, it’s more expensive, but you offset that by eating less of it, which is healthier anyway.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who is in the process of making a transition to eating healthier.

The second book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michal Pollan brought me even deeper into the world of agriculture.

This book posed exactly the same questions that I was seeking, which is what compelled me to pick it up in the first place, namely: what exactly am I eating? Where does it come from? Why should I care?

Much has been written about this book, so I won’t bore you with another book report. Yet, I feel compelled to say, his analysis of the various elements that create our modern food chain has profoundly and permanently changed how I purchase the ingredients that go into our meals. For example, I no longer equate organic with sustainability and I buy almost exclusively from the Farmer’s Market when it is in season.

Literally, not a day goes by where I don’t think about something I learned in this book.

Have you read any compelling books about food? If so, please share them! Have you read either of the books I mentioned here? If so, what did you think about them?

Continue on to read Part 2 here.

PS – I just love this poster. Even though I no longer AM that woman, it still makes me crack a smile. You can buy one on

  • Jordana Megonigal

    In July, my household (with 3 kids—then 5, 3, and 1) went through the same thing—and we shifted to “mostly” Organic/whole/clean foods.  My biggest problems were 1) learning how to cook things from “scratch” and 2)juggling that with a full-time job/commute/kids stuff

    At 6 months, I’m still a work in progress. Love this series.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @facebook-1231072034:disqus – glad you are liking this series; it has been fun to write and “relive” the journey (although technically, I’m still on it!).

    Thanks for sharing your biggest problems. I’d agree, both of those were big ones for me too. Just out of curiosity, what kinds of books or blogs did you turn to in order to come up the curve on cooking from “scratch?” Have you found that you’ve gotten better/more efficient? Have you looked back to see and appreciate how far you’ve come?

    And on the juggling front, how is that going? What are the key roadblocks that you still struggle with?

  • Michelle

    This series is timely for me as I am just getting my feet wet as a sahm after feeling like I was neglecting these very basic necessities in my children with 12 years of a demanding job.  Now I am trying to also change from processed foods to home made healthy dinners and am looking at clean eating and paleo methodologies for health reasons.  I have plenty of books in my to-read list, but have not read yet.  Looking forward to some books others post here.  

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been in my to-read list for quite sometime, I know this sounds shallow, but I think I just don’t really want to know… my children are SO SO picky and I’ve changed our chicken in the past after learning some things and they wont eat it.  So I’m fearing I’ll learn the only food I can get them to put down the hatch is horrible for animals and the earth!!  Ashamed.. but maybe now I’ll have the courage.

    Thanks Sarah!

  • Dusti Sage Mosher

    I’ve been fighting with myself to start cooking healthy and wholesome meals too. My Mom, bless her soul, was never much of a domestic goddess, and passed that right on to me. Now I stay at home with my two boys, 12 months and 22 months, feeling overwhelmed and piled under things that need to be done. On top of that, we are in the process of moving, so once we get settled in I am going to do a complete overhaul and try new things! I’m looking forward to reading your series and learning how to get out of convenience cooking and into cooking real meals!

  • Sarah

    I am trying to make shift to making more foods from scratch. For some reason my blog is helping with that. AS the Holidays ended, I ran out of food topics for my food Friday. So I decided to try a new recipe each week and blog about it. It’s opened the doors to more choices in things to cook. My crock pot is my best friend. haha ;)  

    I grew up with my healthy conscious mother, so we tend to eat more organic and healthy choices because of that. Like learning that non-fat milk still is homogenized was interesting. So we buy a real milk from a local market here in town. I wanted my son to drink better milk. And meat has always been something we’ve thought about. I am thankful for growing up with my mom and gleaning from her knowledge. :)

    I just was more of an “easy” frozen dinner cook when I went out on my own. But slowly moving out of that now. It’s actually too expensive and just not as tasty, and I am learning cooking actually is fun. :)

  • Joy

    My advice is to keep meals simple–lots of fruit and vegetables with a little meat. When my two children, now both in college, were younger, they didn’t like vegetables. So, we started eating fruit at every meal. Now that there are just two of us at home, my husband and I still eat fruit almost every night after we eat our meat and vegetables.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @2c8288d7954e1022e682084cb6c846f7:disqus – I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of. :) Trust me, I get the sentiment. In honesty, the Omnivores Dilemma was less “scary” to me than Eating Animals — it’s not about shock and awe but rather is a very thoughtful almost memoir of food, if that makes any sense.

    Picky eaters do pose a challenge. But what I’ve found generally is that in the end picky eaters will eat what’s put in front of them in one of two scenarios:
    1) if they are hungry enough
    2) the fourth of fifth time they are served a particular dish for dinner
    It is SO hard – but I try, really, really try not to let the food thing become a control battle. The rule in our house is: you have to try it. If you try it and don’t like it, fine. But what’s for dinner is what’s for dinner and there’s no snacking allowed if you don’t like something. You can wait until breakfast…

    Harsh, I know. But it works pretty well for my oldest so far. I say so far because the one thing I’ve learned as a mom is that nothing is certain. :)

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @facebook-1248312499:disqus – please, be kind to yourself. It’s okay for this NOT to be a top priority this very second. Lord knows – you have your hands full. Do whatever you can, even if that’s just trying to make one “healthy” meal a week from scratch.

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @b17122caa541b1617d5bbf41a5eb6a30:disqus – I know, right? There are some nights I wish it wasn’t yet another thing on my to-do list, but I’ve found that once I just START prepping, it’s sort of meditative. Except when the boys are fighting and screaming. That’s why there’s wine. ;)

    You are lucky to have had such a great role model in your mom. Nutty about the milk thing, isn’t it? We buy real milk too. Although sometimes I wish a milkman would deliver it to my doorstep. Wouldn’t that throwback to the olden days be nice?

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @d7ed3eed86d9fb37bc054d2bdc68d720:disqus – that’s great advice. I am going to give that a try. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jordana Megonigal

    I’ve found that the more I cook the better I get at it (timing things to finish together, understanding how things work together) the more comfortable I get with it all.  And the more comfortable I get, the more I’ve found that I actually LIKE to cook! I spent 1 1/2 hours on Swedish meatballs the other night (TOO LONG for a weeknight!) but they were so good that I didn’t mind!

    My biggest recipe finders — the Pioneer Woman and Pinterest. I like things with pictures. :)

    On juggling…I’ve found that meal planning (on Saturday), grocery shopping on Sunday (three stores, but a specific list for each), and a PLAN every night changes everything.  Then I can prep/defrost the night before and just COOK when i get home. And we don’t spend an hour bickering about “What to eat” because it’s already set.  BUt my biggest roadblock is actually sitting down and doing that menu plan and shopping list.  UGH. 

  • eileen marie

    Got a little too ambitious w/ my menu planning challenge -and spent 3 hours making veggie shepherd’s pie that was just ‘meh’.  But it’s a start!  I went from microwave to that, so it was a big leap.  At least your lasagna would have done Garfield proud. :)  I like the emotional connection -my mother was also a culinary whiz -she kept it simple for her picky brood, but cooked 6-7 nights a week!  So did/does my M-I-L.  My motivator is the fact that we hope to have kids soon, & I didn’t want to raise them on the junk hubs & I had resorted to.  I can’t wait to read Eating Animals -I have been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years.  It makes cooking a challenge, but I refuse to cook meat, even for my carnivorous husband.

  • MommyGoose

    I love this!  Thank you for sharing!  I received nutrition counseling from someone who was trained at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition.  It was very helpful that I had someone to which I was accountable.  It was the best decision I ever made and continues to make positive contributions to my life.  You’re so right – this is a process and wont’ happen overnight.  I went through many of the ups and downs as you did!

  • SarahButtonedUp

     @596786f815607f058096ef1bce587061:disqus – 3 hours for ‘meh’ is definitely a bummer. I’ve definitely been there before. :) The good news is those ‘meh’s’ become fewer and further between once you get a hang for the ingredients you know your family likes AND a hang for prepping veggies. Seriously, you should consider taking a knife skills. I did (in phase 3) and wish I would have taken one in phase 1 it helped THAT much.

    Keep up the great work. :)

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  • SarahButtonedUp

     Interesting! Thanks for sharing your roadblocks. We share the same ones in common. Problem is, if I don’t plan, dinner goes to hell in a handbasket. And fast!

  • Jodi Clardy

    “Just that notion alone reminded me that I hadn’t been making the best dietary choices for my boys (because I was “too busy”).”…YIKES…you stepped on my toes!  I have good intentions with my girls but not always the best follow thru…okay..I am officially inspired!  Thank you for this series of posts!

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  • Denise

    Hi Sarah,
    I happened on your site through the recipe exchange that my niece Irina B. sent me with your name at the top (but the address went to this website, not an email address)…I started reading and it’s funny because I’ve just entered this same new stage of food preparation FINALLY, but my kids are now college students.  The book that got me started was “Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food” by Christine Avanti.  Very educational and interesting.  She recommends several blogs, one of which I have been enjoying,  Also Mark Bittman’s site/recipes.  She also recommended the books you said that you’ve read.  Good luck to you!

  • SarahButtonedUp

     Thanks for the lovely note Denise! Love that niece of yours, she’s one of my all time favorite people. :) I will definitely check out the blog you mention and the book. You should also read the other two posts related to this one (you can see the link to part 2 at the end of the post above) as there are great blogs I reference in those too. GOOD LUCK and keep it up. If you ever want to swap a recipe – you know where to find me. :)

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