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Feeding the world starts with feeding families

My Whole Dish blog on the Mail Tribune website has evolved over the past dozen years from a commentary on food stories and trends into the seasonal chronicles of my cooking.

The blog, in its early days, added another layer of storytelling to the Mail Tribune’s weekly section. But The Whole Dish as a concept accurately describes my cooking in three specific but interdependent ways.

Whole foods are at the foundation of my meal planning and preparation. Widely circulated in the past couple of decades, the term “whole foods” may still defy definition for some of us. Whole foods essentially are the comparison of apples to applesauce and oranges to orange juice.

Using a food in its entirety — the whole thing — is another intentional maneuver that’s becoming second nature. Transforming leftovers into another meal and repurposing unwanted bits of food is nothing new. But good, old, kitchen economy is even more relevant in the modern kitchen, amid the global concern over food waste and striving toward sustainability.

Feeding the planet, of course, starts with feeding our families, the whole family. As a part-time writer and full-time mom, cook and dishwasher, I view cooking as necessity. So I pursue every savvy shortcut and thrifty technique that maximizes my efforts and eliminates excess trips to the grocery store. Less shopping makes time for more cooking and better cooking. And reduced mealtime stress is the payoff for simplifying.

I pride myself on cooking meals for everyone, from the youngest children to anyone with chronic conditions or food sensitivities. Accommodating special diets takes little additional effort when you know what’s in your pantry and on your plate — no fats or sugars you didn’t add yourself, no sneaky synthetic ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Although my pantry, refrigerator and freezer contain processed and packaged foods, there’s a difference between dispensing meals from boxes, bags and cans and purchasing high-quality, minimally processed convenience items that can augment a predominantly from-scratch approach to cooking.

The best convenience items, after all, are the ones you make yourself. Making stock from bones and vegetable trimmings that otherwise would be discarded is my favorite way to stretch the grocery budget and build flavor in any number of dishes. Croutons and crumbs come from heels of bread, pesto from wilted herbs, tired greens, even vegetable tops.

And it gets better. The mentality of reducing waste and grocery expense also starts to reduce one’s reliance on recipes. When the goal is using what you have on hand, improvising becomes a lot less intimidating. While recipes can teach valuable techniques, they inhibit intuition, which is what every aspiring cook needs in order to feel truly at home, truly whole, in the kitchen.

I believe we all essentially desire the same thing — to be well-nourished body and soul. That fulfillment looks a little different to everyone. But there’s gratitude to be found in wholesome foods that are well-prepared and served in satisfying but appropriate quantities. Thanks expressed by family, friends and mealtime guests can’t compare with a cook’s inner gratitude that justifies the time spent and effort involved.

In that respect, The Whole Dish column, which will run in this space every other week, won’t be another collection of recipes. It’s my meal-preparation manual and grocery-shopping guide seeded with seasonal strategies and suggestions. It’s a testament to building confidence while building a reliable repertoire. It’s an invitation to bring everyone to the table.

Read more on Sarah Lemon’s blog at www.mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish and tune into her podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish