Make Every Meal a Joyful Party

The timer on the kitchen stove has just gone off, with its loud, repetitive beep, and in perfect Pavlovian fashion Maisie begins her dance. She is barking and jumping in circles, and I swear, sometimes all four paws are off the ground at once. Her whole being is spilling over with excitement and it is hard not to want to join her little party. She looks at me, then looks up at the counter, looks back at me, all as if to say, “it’s right there, don’t you see it? Come on, you have to get it for me. I CAN’T REACH IT!” She lifts her front paws repeatedly and she bounces up and down like there are miniature springs under the pads. Boing, boing, boing she goes.

“Is that your food? Is it ready? Where is it?” we say, our voices rising to match her excitement. She stops barking when we talk to her and then does another quick circle. The way we tease her is a little on the cruel side, but it is so short-lived and she is so cute in her urgency that we can’t seem to help ourselves. No matter what is going on in our day, it is impossible not to smile heartily at how over the moon she is about an event that happens with the predictability of the sun rising and setting.

Maisie letting us know in no uncertain terms where her food is.
Maisie letting us know in no uncertain terms where her food is. (Either that or she is yelling at me to wash the damn floor.)

I am, of course, referring to meal time. Maisie eats like a little queen, and why shouldn’t she? For goodness’ sake, this dog has an entire blog devoted to her. It shouldn’t be any surprise that no ordinary kibble will do for her.

When I first entered the world of pet ownership with my cat Bella, nearly two decades ago, I was incredibly diligent. I made her food from scratch: raw ground turkey and rice and carrots, with all of the supplements (nutritional yeast, kelp powder, lecithin granules, bone meal, vitamins, etc, etc) to make it a fully balanced meal. I made little meatballs of this food in bulk and stored them in the freezer. I felt good about myself for being such a good cat mother, and yes, I’m sure I was also a self-righteous cat mother.

And then Henry came along. Henry, who was smaller than Bella when I got him, but who would grow into a 65 pound, active — and hungry — canine. I loved him just as much and so of course investigated homemade food for him. I was, after all, that kind of pet mama. Until I had a little bit of sticker shock at just how much ground beef or turkey I was going to have to feed him every day. At how big a hit my own grocery bill would have to take to feed him the way I fed Bella. I felt a little guilty (okay, a lot guilty) about feeding her such special food and feeding him kibble (the absolute best, most “natural” kibble I could find, yes, but kibble nonetheless), but I couldn’t fathom how I would pay for his food should I choose to make it from scratch. But he couldn’t read ingredient lists and so he didn’t seem to care.

Bella’s homemade food went by the wayside when I met my husband, who had his own two cats, and we formed a Brady Bunch style pet family. Managing three cats’ diets — my husband came from the school of they’re-cats-what’s-wrong-with-a-can-of-Friskies thinking when it came time to his girls — frankly overwhelmed me. Yes, it was a bit of a cop-out, but it is what it is.

But Maisie is an only child, and a tiny one at that, so my interest in feeding her a more natural diet didn’t seem so insurmountable. I don’t want to even know how many lost hours were spent weighing the pros and cons of homemade versus purchased, raw versus cooked, kibble versus canned. In the end, the food we chose for her, the food that makes her dance in circles and have a little party every single day, comes from a company called The Honest Kitchen. They use FDA certified, human-grade ingredients, with all of the good stuff at the top of the ingredients list.

Reading ingredients is a scary undertaking these days. I remember the first time I looked at the label of a tub of margarine, back in the late ’70s. Even at that young age, I made a commitment to myself to not eat anything with a list of ingredients longer than my high school essays, especially with so many ingredients I couldn’t pronounce, never mind define. I’ve held fast to that commitment my entire adult life.

Carrots fresh from the garden don't come with an ingredient list.
Carrots fresh from the garden don’t come with an ingredient list.

Reading the list of ingredients in the kibble we started Maisie on when she first came home with us put the focus of the commitment I made to myself on her food. I know it’s often said that knowledge is power, but if you are me and plagued with always trying to do the right thing, sometimes knowledge is just a giant anxiety-producing machine. Because when you start learning the meanings of “by-products” and “meal”, whose definitions are so vague and broad and, honestly, scary, it gets harder and harder to justify giving your beloved animal that food. And harder and harder to find an acceptable balance between health and economics, time and energy.

I do think Maisie’s health would probably be best served by making her food from scratch, but that is a task that is just too daunting for me these days, another way for me to drive myself crazy trying to be perfect — and I’m trying to get over that. The food from The Honest Kitchen seems like a really nice compromise. I know what the ingredients are and I can actually pronounce them. She loves it. It travels easily (important for the dog/road manager of musicians) and is ridiculously easy to prepare.

In thinking about all of the ways I fretted and fussed over the food I was serving Maisie, pouring over ingredient lists online, hashing out the economics of every option, I started to wonder about my own sanity. I started to wonder about how many dogs manage to live happy lives eating food with all of those questionable ingredients, how many lovely and responsible dog owners don’t really give their dog’s food a second thought. How my perfectionist tendencies really do spill over into every, single arena of my life.

Recently, on a particularly windy day, I found several pieces of trash in my yard, boxes from my neighbor’s recycling bin whose lid had blown open. I picked the boxes up and threw them in my own recycling bin. I’m not particularly fond of any trash in my yard, but I’m particularly offended when it is food I would never buy myself. When I was writing this post, though, and thinking about my ingredient list hang-up/obsession, out of curiosity I pulled the two offending boxes — a Lean Cuisine “Culinary Collection” Baked Chicken and a Totino’s Pizza Party — out of the bin.

Honestly, the ingredients in some of that kibble are starting to look a lot better. Chicken breast was the third ingredient (behind potatoes and water) in the Lean Cuisine, but here is the clarification, in parentheses: “cooked chicken breast with rib meat, water, isolated soy protein, citrus flour (huh?), seasoning [dehydrated chicken broth, chicken powder, flavor, disodium phosphate], potassium chloride, sugar, potassium and sodium phosphates, salt. Glazed with water, caramel color, modified corn starch.”

And that is just the “chicken”. Good lord. Where the hell did the “chef” who created this meal get his or her training? Dow Chemical School of Culinary Arts?

But Lean Cuisine has nothing on the pizza party people. Their third ingredient (behind enriched flour and water) is imitation mozzarella cheese. This is pizza we’re talking about. Pizza’s raison d’être is the cheese. Here is what the cheese on a “pizza party” actually is: “water, palm oil, rennet casein, soybean oil, cellulose powder, potato starch, vital wheat gluten, sodium aluminum phosphate, salt, potassium chloride, citric acid, potassium sorbate [preservative], sodium phosphate, sodium citrate, titanium oxide [artificial color], maltodextrin, magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, riboflavin, Vitamin A palmitate, Vitamin B12.”

Jesus H. Christmas. Isn’t cheese supposed to be made from milk?

If you have not read the blog, this is not food I eat. This is a box that blew into my yard. I'm studying it like it is some kind of archaeological find.
If you have not read the blog, this is not food I eat. This is a box that blew into my yard. I’m studying it like it is some kind of archaeological find.

And that was just the “cheese”.  The above list is ONE QUARTER of the total ingredients list. I actually found it fascinating that in the chemical bath they are calling cheese, they chose to explain that potassium sorbate is a preservative. As if we would know what all of that other crap is. (And on a side note, my auto correct would not recognize the word sorbate, changing it repeatedly to sorbet, which, quite frankly, would have been a significant improvement.)

I’m guessing if you are still reading, you skimmed over those two ingredient lists, or more likely, skipped them altogether. If so, please go back and read them. Go back and read each ingredient and look at what our advanced civilization is calling food — and consuming in horrifyingly alarming quantities. If you are like me, and you steer clear of chicken in cardboard boxes, I still think it’s important to know what is in the food system. And if you are someone who actually eats food like Lean Cuisine, I have one request of you: Please. Stop.

There are seven ingredients in Maisie’s treats from The Honest Kitchen: barley flour, buffalo, cane molasses, water, eggs, organic coconut oil and blueberries. How is that my dog’s treats (appropriately named “pecks”) have far healthier — and more recognizable — ingredients than Lean Cuisine, which promotes its food as part of a healthy lifestyle?

The back of the box of Maisie's treats. Honestly, I'd rather eat the dog treats.
The back of the box of Maisie’s treats. Honestly, I’d rather eat the dog treats.

I get that life is busy and sometimes it’s hard and sometimes you don’t want to cook. Or maybe you just plain and simply hate to cook. When I was making Bella’s food, I spent more time preparing her food than I did my own. I was grateful for a tub of cottage cheese that required only removing the lid and dipping in a fork; if I was feeling really fancy, I’d throw in sliced cherry tomatoes. So, yeah, I understand not being a fan of spending time in the kitchen.

But what I don’t get is eating food that is concocted up in a laboratory somewhere, that is such a far cry from real food that its ingredients would never be found on their own in the grocery store. Somewhere along the line, when health challenges narrowed the scope of what I could eat, I had to learn to cook. But what surprised me was that I actually learned to like cooking, because I learned what a fantastic celebration of life happens when you prepare and eat real food. Food whose ingredients you know because you put them together, lovingly and consciously, maybe even grew some of them yourself, instead of relying on someone else’s definition of “culinary”, instead of eating pizza from a box with imitation mozzarella cheese and a 100-count ingredient list.

The gorgeous plum blossoms on our tree that will eventually be a delightful summer treat.
The gorgeous plum blossoms on our tree that will eventually be a delightful summer treat.
What we can look forward to in a few months.
…and what we can look forward to in a few months.

There are a million food blogs out there (nepotistic plug: my sister-in-law’s Galley Pirates is one of them) and there is no shortage of inspiration and recipes and advice, for every kind of eater, and every kind of dietary restriction, and every kind of special event. There is no reason we all can’t celebrate the incredibly delicious, life-affirming blessing and gift that real food is.

Just ask Maisie. She loves her dog food, but she also loves mustard greens (yes, really) and carrots and apples (whenever she hears the cutting board come out, she comes tearing into the kitchen). She loves chicken gizzards and her little buffalo-blueberry treats. And she knows just what a celebration can be had when you eat honest to goodness, damn fine food.

The beginnings of the blueberries I grow for the birds. Sometimes if I'm lucky they share one or two with me.
The beginnings of the blueberries I grow, apparently, for the birds. Sometimes if I’m lucky they share one or two with me. But only if I beat them to it.

* * * * *

So, dear readers, do you obsess over the food you feed your animal companions? How about the food you feed yourself? Do you love making meals or would you far rather pop the frozen meal in the oven? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Lauryn Shapter Written by:

Writer, musician, novice photographer, wife, dog mama, sometime gardener, half-assed knitter, and late-blooming jock who is happily tucked away in small town Iowa.

2 Comments

  1. Beautiful entry, Lauryn! Make me look forward to spring! And thanks for the plug!

    • Lauryn Shapter
      April 13
      Reply

      Thanks, Caroline. Happy to put your fabulous recipes out there to more of the world. Especially when I know first hand how ridiculously good everything you make is!

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