Edible Q&A: Stefanie Sacks' Action Plan for Your Plate

By Dina El Nabli | January 15, 2015
Photo by Geir Magnusson

Clean eating can be a challenge even for the savviest home cook. Misleading food labels abound and none are effectively regulated. Stefanie Sacks, a culinary nutritionist and author of What the Fork Are You Eating? An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate, is passionate about making better food choices to nourish our bodies and enhance our well-being. In the book, she takes an in-depth look at how the government regulates our food and offers tips on how to make healthier choices. We caught up with Sacks to ask her what to look for, and avoid, when reading labels, what she likes to cook in the winter and how she gets her kids involved in the kitchen. 

Edible Feast: What information do you feel we’re missing when it comes to the regulation of our food? What do you consider the most misleading terms or phrases on our food labels?

Stefanie Sacks: To presume that our government is truly regulating and overseeing our food supply with human, animal and environmental health taking center stage is preposterous. The relationship among government, Big Food and Big Ag is quite complex and utterly insidious thus consumers must start to hold themselves more accountable for getting educated and making better choices. 

The most misleading terms are “Natural” and anything typically seen on animal foods such as “Cage-Free”, “Free-Range”, “Antibiotic-Free”, “Hormone-Free”, “Humanely Raised”, etc. The FDA or the USDA defines most of these terms but they are not regulated.  
EF: In addition to staying away from anything with too many ingredients or ingredients we can’t pronounce, what are a few key rules we should adhere to when reading food labels?

SS: The ingredients tell the true story of your food (with some support from the Nutrition Facts label). So don’t buy into any of the health claims (i.e. the marketing lingo on the front of your packaged foods) without understanding what is in your food as claims are often a bunch of empty promises. 

Understand that sugar can be listed in the ingredients over 50 ways in an “undercover” kind of way from cane juice and fruit juice to dextrose and maltodextrin.

If your animal food boasts “cage-free” or any of the aforementioned terms, be sure that it is verified by a third party such as Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane, even USDA Organic to know that you aren’t being duped.

EF: Besides educating ourselves, what can we as consumers do to advocate for more responsible and honest food labeling? 

SS: The easiest way is to learn about and align with non-governmental organizations that are seeking food truth and actually doing something about it. They need your help. Sign up for newsletters, action alerts and take part. (Here are several worth following.)

Courtesy Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA)

EF: What’s your best piece of advice for stocking a healthy pantry that makes it easier to cook with fresh ingredients in a pinch? What about the fridge and freezer?

SS: Planning is key to preparing a nourishing meal in a pinch. Aim to shop once per week month for staples like grains, beans, spices and even meats (for the freezer) so your pantry and cooler are never too bare. And then plan to go grocery shopping one day each week to stock a mixture of fresh and frozen vegetables (yes, frozen!), dairy and to replenish whatever else you need. 

If you are stocked, meal preparation is easier. Each week, plan for a few hours one day (Sundays are my pick) to cook some hearty one-pot protein-centric wonders (that can be stored in the fridge for 3 days then frozen) like soups and stews, even a chili. This will give you some mealtime highlights and then daily you can add a simple salad or cooked vegetable and a starch like quinoa or sweet potato. 
EF: Those of us who belong to a CSA and support small, local food merchants likely also shop at supermarkets. What are your top takeaways when it comes to buying nourishing foods in the supermarket? 

SS: Even in a supermarket, you can get a handle on where your food comes from (you can often find the notation on the label or on or near the display). Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t buy organic. While seemingly ideal, many people can’t travel the organic all-the-time highway. So use Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen Plus ™ to guide you on choosing fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residues (available as a smartphone app). 

For animal foods, don’t believe any of the label lingo as noted above unless verified by a third party like Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) or Certified Humane. USDA Organics is OK too. AWA Food Labels Exposed (available as a smartphone app) can help de-code lingo when in the aisles. 

Young Stefanie in the kitchen

EF: What's a go-to healthy dish that's easy to make on a weeknight that your sons enjoy? 

SS: One of our favorites is my Cowgirl Chili (but light on the spice). Both of my boys, ages 6 and 9, enjoy it with some rice, taco shells and fixins'. I typically make it with Skillet Broccoli

EF: How have you gotten your sons involved in the kitchen? What’s your best advice when it comes to raising healthy eaters?

SS: Both of my kids have been in the kitchen with me since their high chair days. As I cooked, I gave them food to touch and taste if they could get it into their mouths. I also opened up both of my boys’ palettes by making their food and including healthy fat, herbs and spices (rather than the typical steaming and pureeing) in every mixture. My oldest son has wonderful eating habits as a result. My younger son, due to feeding challenges that he was born with, has given and continues to give me a run for my money! 

I always tell parents to create an “arts and crafts kitchen” where your children do everything from help shop, to put groceries away and assist with meal and snack preparation. They learn by doing. While it may be more stressful for you (kids can create quite a culinary mess), take a deep breath and realize that you are giving them the gift of nourishment. And before you know it, they will be cooking you dinner. 

EF: What do you enjoy cooking in the winter? Do you have a favorite recipe that's made with in-season vegetables?

SS: My favorite winter recipes are soups. As well as nourishing root vegetable dishes such as one of my most adored—Butternut Squash Risotto. Unlike its traditional counterpart, this dish is light and made without dairy (unless you want to sprinkle some Parmesan on top).