Growing up I ate your average commercial meat. I gave up red meat and pork for a season while I was in college, but otherwise I have been a true American carnivore. However, for most of my life, I never considered the issue of meat quality. I figured people either ate meat or they didn't, and maybe there were some healthier cuts of meat for meat eaters to choose. But the thought that there were vast differences between the quality of meat from one animal to another based on their conditions...it just never entered my mind. Here is how our thinking about and consumption of meat has changed through the last several years...
How we started eating better meat qualityYears ago, when I first started making major changes to our diet, I began introducing free range chicken into our meals. I had read about the value of eating free range, organic meats, and also eating grass fed beef. It felt overwhelming to think of making all of those changes, and at the time it felt like a huge leap financially. We had been eating conventional chicken breasts from Costco and the price just couldn't be beat. Changing to free range chicken not only was a price change, but to make it more economical I was making entire chickens instead of just breasts. I had never before handled a whole chicken so it was a completely new experience for this newbie chef! I continued purchasing conventional beef for the time being as to not completely overwhelm myself or my sweet hubby who was a little perplexed by all of the changes I was suddenly making to our diet.
Anyway, after a couple of years we started dabbling in a little bit of organic chicken and organic beef, as well as grass-fed beef on rare occasions. Then I found a great supplier for grass-fed ground beef that had great quality but also beat out the other prices I could find. So that finally became a staple in our home. And then I landed on buying free range chickens from Whole Foods. Though I didn't always buy the organic chicken, the quality of the chickens' lives were pretty good there and it meant more to me to have high quality of life than to have an organic chicken being raised in poor conditions.
How Food Inc. solidified things for usIt was around this same time that my husband Nik and I sat down to watch the movie Food Inc. At this point in our journey the information we learned was not completely new to us, yet it was still shocking! This movie introduces you to the reality of what we are eating as a nation, the life conditions of most of the animals our country consumes, and some of the sad politics behind it all. While it covered much more than just the topic of meat, that was one of two topics that left the greatest impact on me. If I wasn't completely floored to feed my family well before (and I was), I sure was now!
For me the movie Food Inc. completely solidified my convictions to eat quality meat. While I "knew" that free range was better, it was not really until I saw the conditions of most animals that people in our country consume that I understood how vastly different the quality of life can be from one animal to another. And I came to realize that the title "natural" says absolutely nothing about the quality of life of the animals. Before this movie I just did not think enough about the realities of where my food came from. My new understanding was painful for me on two points. One, it was hard to see that these poor animals are living such horrible lives. It was just wrong! Second, even though we didn't eat that kind of meat anymore, I had to swallow the truth that for most of my life I did eat that kind of meat.
A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal...Proverbs 12:10a
Now that I have resolved to only eat quality meat, what does that mean? For me that means we only eat meat that comes from animals raised on healthy farms with space to roam and where they are treated with care and respect. The animals are also not given hormones or antibiotics. And how do I know what the living conditions of the meat we eat are? Well, I find out. I either look up the farms online to get information and talk to the farmer's directly, or I buy from Whole Foods which gives an animal wellness rating to all meat they sell. For the most part we eat organic now, but as I mentioned above, especially after seeing the movie, I would personally place the animal's quality of life above organic if I had to choose. My convictions have become so deep that if for some reason we weren't able to afford the kind of meat I am talking about, I would rather do without. And to make eating the kind of meat we do eat more affordable, we do a few vegan dinners a week because it cuts down on how much meat we need to buy. We are still not able eat my absolute ideal chicken (pastured chicken from our local Farmer's Market is $6-7/lb for a whole chicken), but the chicken at Whole Foods is really an amazing second best option.
I highly recommend that you watch this video if you have not already seen it. It is available on Netflix along with Food Matters - another movie that has the potential to forever change the way you see food. If you are eating conventional meats right now (which is pretty much all that is sold at your typical grocery store like Safeway or Albertsons), I warn you that it would be hard to watch this video and then continue eating the same way. So be prepared for change, or at least some change in the way you think about food!
What to do if you feel compelled to change but can't foot the billIf you haven't noticed, I am a very budget conscious person. I think this is because I am constantly living in the tension between the convictions I carry regarding what we eat and the realities of what I can actually spend. I think that with some sacrifice most folks could afford to make some productive changes regarding their food quality. And in general I don't think most people put nearly a high enough value on eating quality foods. I do believe that we are what we eat. However, most of my friends have budget limits. So if you do find yourself wanting to increase your meat quality but just don't know how to make it work with your wallet here is what I would suggest...
- Start slowly. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby they have great Free Range chickens for a slightly more affordable price. I have researched their Ranger Chickens and the main review I read on the farm that raises them had a lot of positive things to say about the conditions there.
- If you don't have a Trader Joe's you can search local butchers and local food co-ops. Price things out and see if there is a step up you can make that won't overwhelm your budget too much. Remember, you might be able to find quality chicken that is not organic. This is at least a step in the right direction.
- Consider eating less meat so you can afford better quality. Just be conscious that your family gets in enough protein if you do this.
- If you decide you just cannot increase your meat quality, I would suggest the same thing as #3 - at least reduce the amount of meat you eat. Conventional meat, aside from being from animals raised in horrible conditions who are therefore not very healthy, can also be loaded with antibiotics. The less of this in your system the better.