How does a person go from corporate attorney to Healthy Kitchen Companion? It was probably inevitable given that my dad had given me a taste of living close to the land. When I was just 12 he decided to move our family to a farm on Colorado’s western slope. So we packed our belongings into a bright yellow, re-purposed Public Service pickup and left the city behind.
I dove head first into farm life, taking on a small herd of sheep and then a couple hogs while Dad tended a few cows and chickens. Side by side with my dad and sister, we irrigated fields, built fences, chased wayward sheep, cleared the crop-fuls of rocks unearthed each spring, and rose at daybreak (even on weekends) to feed our crew of animal companions. Dad left my sister and I on our own, however, to deal with George the rooster, who always nailed us when we collected eggs from his brood.
Our fruit trees produced pears and apricots that were indescribably delicious to our city taste buds, and my first paying job was climbing 10-foot ladders to pick cherries–and I always got sick from eating too many.
And then there was the “garden.” No, not neat rows of lettuce, spinach, beans and tomatoes as you might imagine. My dad was too creative for that. Ours was a jungle, and before each meal we would adventure forth to find some treasures for dinner. So long before organic foods were hip, and before “local” was married to “sustainable,” we were eating our own animals, our own fruit and our own vegetables–all organic, local and sustainably grown.
Without even knowing it, farm life planted in me a deep appreciation for the amazing taste of real, whole food–and meanwhile formed a connection to food and land that never disappeared, even though it weakened a bit at times.
And it weakened the most during my years as a corporate attorney.
What can I say? Big firm, corporate stuff, great money, lots of dressing for success. It was the 80s and we were done with all that hippie and post-hippie stuff. We Boomers had grown up and gotten serious. And we were blasting our way into big-time material success.
But eventually I became disillusioned, despite the great pay. This is when I started my return back full circle. Instead of just helping people get the best of other people, I wanted to help people be their best–and over time I realized that my avenue for serving would be through the small miracle of food.
Having children was the merciful kick I needed to actually exit the law. Career-wise, I didn’t wander far, choosing to work toward an MBA for the first couple years after my children were born. Motherhood, however, was about to propel me further yet, toward my true north.
As I entered the second half of my MBA program, my kids got very sick–and conventional medicine was not making them better. Under the direction of a naturopath, I was finally able to cure them through diet, specifically a diet free of all wheat and dairy.
Lights went on as I got a firsthand look at the very real connection between what food we put in our bodies and how our bodies feel. That’s the impetus I need to return fully to my roots in food and land.
Of course it took a while to act on that urge. First I had to figure out how to feed my family without all the pizzas, muffins, ice cream, bagels, quesadillas and mac ‘n cheese mixes that everyone else was conveniently feeding their kids. It was the early 90s, before gluten and lactose intolerance were a common household words, so there was precious little to guide me.
Fortunately, another love from my earlier years came to the rescue: my cooking ability and comfort. I had been tinkering in the kitchen since I was 10 as my mother hated to cook and gave me free reign in the kitchen. So I had the basic tools and confidence to jump in and start cooking a new way. But the challenge was enormous.
What saved me from failure were my organizational skills. Piecing together an integrated combination of organizational tools, I developed a gluten- and dairy-free meal making routine that I could sustain for life.
This organizational approach worked so well that I decided it should be the focus for the work I would do around food and land. There were already many experts who would help us figure out what to eat. The harder part was figuring out how to make those kinds of meals show up on the table day in and day out. That’s the practical, nuts and bolts part I had figured out.
I called my new-found formula the “KitchenSmart Solution®” and I became excited to help others learn this integrated set of organizational skills, tools and systems so they could manageably and quickly make meals both health-giving and delicious, day in and day out, for life.
This all happened in the early 90s when the PC era was just dawning. Like many other entrepreneurs, I was anxious to mine this new technology’s potential. So my first formulation of the KitchenSmart Solution® was a meal management software program called, simply, Dinner!
I soon realized, however, that software alone wasn’t enough to help large numbers of people make and eat healthier food. Software programs assume that a user has the underlying skill to perform a task and only needs technology for greater ease and efficiency. Talking with hundreds of potential users, I realized that most had lost the fundamental, underlying kitchen skills that make everyday cooking manageable. Sadly, just a few decades of convenience eating had been enough to undermine our ability to make our own, health-giving meals.
So I stepped back and wrote Take Control of Your Kitchen, which shared those fundamental, underlying kitchen skills along with step by step guidance for putting them into place. I also began coaching home cooks one-on-one to develop those skills.
Teaching and coaching around time-saving organizational skills was a good strategy. Home cooks repeatedly cited lack of time as their biggest barrier, and saving time is what organization does best, by making us more efficient. Yet I sensed there was more to our meal making problems than just lack of time.
Working with one of my first clients helped me realize this. Elise was a specially-abled woman who lived on her own with the help of six rotating caregivers. Her wise mother Jan sensed that mealtimes were falling short in Elise’s household, both health-wise and comfort-wise.
I facilitated the caregivers’ exploration of their attitudes and values, beliefs and memories around meals, food, the kitchen and cooking. We discovered that indeed, making meals was about a lot more than just making the bare minimum to address Elise’s hunger–and doing that as quickly as possible. The group realized that food held the potential to offer deep nurturing, comfort and refreshment. With that insight unearthed, a new energy took root in Elise’s kitchen and meals became a valued and treasured part of her caretaking community–and everyone benefited from healthier, more inviting meals.
This experience helped me realize that my contribution to the food world had to be bigger than organizational “mechanics.” Certainly, we need to know how to set up a friendly and supportive kitchen, get pans and knives that really work, create an organized collection of healthier recipes, plan more vegetables into our meals, and so on.
But more important than all that was our thinking. What thoughts, assumptions and beliefs were we bringing to the table and kitchen? Were they supportive or sabotaging? What I began to see is that by and large, meal making was not a valued part of our lives. This lack of worthiness was our true enemy when it came to making healthier meals, far more than lack of time, inspiration or cooking skill
Unless we believe in the worthiness and value of making health-serving meals, we’ll face an uphill battle finding the time, doing the shopping, learning the skills, planning for and getting motivated to make those meals happen.
So I expanded the KitchenSmart Solution® to include conversation and discussion around the mindsets that would value and support the time, effort, mental fortitude and inspiration required to transform the way we make meals.
Finally, all the pieces of the KitchenSmart Solution® were in place. Together they created a holistic, comprehensive and integrated approach for easily making the meals we need for good health.
Yet something even bigger beckoned–a potential beyond individual health. Becoming capable of making our own meals empowers us to make more choices around food. First and foremost, we can choose to make meals with foods that support individual health. At the same time, however, we can improve the health of the planet by choosing sustainably-grown foods. We can eliminate the exploitation of third world farmers by buying fair trade products. We can boost local farm and food economies by buying more locally. By just having a tasty meal on the table, we create a force that brings together families and friends. By talking about good food and encouraging each other we can create community around healthier living.
Together, I realized that the humble kitchen was capable of spawning an entirely new, hopeful culture around food. And not a minute too soon!
By this time, around 2010, there was no longer any denying that our food world had gone terribly awry. Fast food meals eaten on the run from here to there were now a substitute for a meals of real vegetables, fruits, meats and grains, grown compassionately and sustainably from the land, without processing and refinement. Not surprisingly, our health and that of the environment had sunk to new and horrifying lows. Local farm economies were withering and the entire food chain–from seeds and soil to fresh produce and frozen meals–was dominated by a few behemoth corporations whose agenda did not prioritize health at all, whether for people or planet.
Something was needed to help us turn the food world around, beyond organizational mechanics, cooking skills and even beyond more supportive thinking. Clearly, we needed a complete paradigm shift. We needed a new culture around food, meal making and the kitchen.
I could now see that home cooks could instigate a new paradigm shift if empowered to make their own meals and choose life-saving foods over life-destroying foods. Finally, the bigger purpose of my work became clear: Helping busy people become capable and confident meal makers was the critical first step that would help us become capable and empowered to create a much-needed new kitchen culture.
For so long as we are dis-empowered around meal making, we are stuck with whatever the food industry chooses to sell us–and for the most part it isn’t pretty. But confident and capable home cooks could make conscious choices to support life at every level, from our individual cells to the atmosphere above us. And with those choices, conscious cooks could shift our culture to one where food is once more the honored and respected foundation of life.
And that’s how a corporate attorney ended up as Healthy Kitchen Companion, encouraging and supporting a new kitchen culture and heading up a non-profit called, aptly enough, The New Kitchen.
Thank you for joining me to create a new kitchen culture. Read more about it here.