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How to Eat Clean When You Live in a Rural Area

If you live in a rural area, you probably get pissed when you see gourmet food blogs posting recipes with pea tendrils, watermelon radishes, exotic citrus, and heirloom arugula.

How in the world can you eat clean when you don’t have access to that stuff?

Maybe the nearest Whole Foods is a 2 hour drive (or a 2 hour flight).
Maybe farmers’ markets aren’t yet a “thing” in your town.
Maybe all you have is a basic big box grocery store.

I get it… ‘cause I faced the same dilemma when I moved to Alaska.

It’s been a while since I shared Alaskan adventures with you all. Many of you new to my site probably aren’t aware that currently I’m outside of the “lower 48.” (Thank you internet Gods for allowing me to have a location-independent business!)

I am up in The Last Frontier and I’m able to eat really good food!

In some ways, I eat better up here than I did in LA (certainly lack of restaurants forcibly eliminates that source of less-than-top-quality food from my diet).

So in today’s post I’ll share some intel about eating well in the far North that you can probably apply to wherever you live.

I really, truly believe it’s a choice to eat well or not. And with a little know-how, research, and ingenuity, you might actually eat better in your teeny tiny town than those fresh-pressed-juice-addicted hipsters in Loz Feliz could ever dream of.

Without further ado, let me present:

How to Eat Clean When You Live in a Rural Area

Hunt, Fish, Gather

Although I specifically avoid the use of this loaded word most of the time, living off the land is about as “paleo” as you can get. I try to get as much of my food from the wild as possible. If you live outside of a city, perhaps you’re already into this.

Hunting is definitely not something I grew up with in LA, but up in Alaska, subsistence living is a way of life and therefore hunting is a mainstay. I’ve not hunted “big game” yet, but friends have shared some meat with us (and I’ve made it well-known among my hunter friends to give me the bones for making stock – deer soup anyone?). Ptarmigan, however, has been on the menu a few times. They’re about the size of a small chicken with very gamey, dark meat that makes a great stew.

Fishing is basically what you do in the summer up here. Many types of salmon return to the rivers to spawn throughout the summer and into the fall (and some are way better eating than others, but that’s for another post. I’ll just say, I will never refer to salmon as simply “wild Alaskan salmon” again. That’s way too broad a description.) There’s also halibut, cod, rockfish, and many, many more fish (I’m certainly no expert in this area).

Perhaps my favorite thing of all is the massive quantity of wild berries that blanket mountain tops and hide in the forest from midsummer to early fall (which I shared about in this post). You can leave me on a mountain top for hours gathering berries (though I have to be careful not to get too lost in “berry-picking world”, as we call it, so I don’t get a surprise visitor [read: 1200 lb bear] saying hello).

I highly suggest checking out some wild edibles books from your local library (and even taking classes on plant ID if you’re new to this) before nibbling on random, potentially poisonous plants. I’m a plant nerd wherever I live and studied wild Alaskan plant books before arriving, so I was well-prepared for what I could eat (this book is my fave).

Buy Local (when possible)

The growing season in Alaska is about as short as it gets. That means we have a farmers’ market maybe from late June through the beginning of September. In my area there are no big farms, just local residents with a garden plot in their backyard who sell whatever they can’t eat at the market (and you’d better arrive early before it sells out). It’s nothing like what the big farmers’ markets in cities or farm country. Luckily, what is available is fantastic quality – way better than whatever has been shipped 4,000 miles from California – because not only is it freshly picked, but most growers amend their soil with compost, seaweed, and fish meal (from the local fish processing plant). I can count on a steady supply of kale and lettuce all summer and the occasional cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini, rutabaga, fennel and carrots (and I really mean occasional).

In addition to good veggies, I sought out a source of pasture-raised meat. I can get some at the local grocery store, but when I read of a family-managed cattle herd – on a remote island, no less – I decided to purchase a cow this year. Of course, we have a deep freeze to accommodate said cow, which arrived nicely packaged into individual 1-3# packages ready to braise in the slow cooker. These cows literally spend their entire lives on this pristine island grazing on lush greens. No need to worry about “grain-finishing” up here because for these folks, shipping grains is an added expense! The cows are even slaughtered on the island, so they don’t have the usual stress of being shipped to a processing plant. This beef is hands down the best beef I have ever had in my life. And since animal foods concentrate nutrients (and toxins) from what they eat, I’m pretty sure this is the most nutrient-dense, toxin-free beef available in the US. (Read: 7 reasons grass-fed beef is worth the money.)

Many rural areas are home to awesome small farms. I’m lucky enough to have connected with some passionate folks who raise chicken, ducks, and geese. They go out of their way to provide spacious coops, comfy nesting spots, and plenty of time to free-range, peck and take dirt baths. They also supplement with only certified organic, GMO-free feed. And the eggs are some of the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. (Read: why pastured eggs are so nutritious.)

In addition to eggs, search for local dairies in your area. It may take time to find these producers, but you might be surprised to find a delicious source of clean, raw dairy right down the road. I’m now part of a “goat share” program where I pay a fee to be partial owner in a herd of goats and in return get a regular supply of goat milk. These happy, spoiled goats are fed GMO-free alfalfa and sprouted organic grains and legumes. Their milk is de-licious, easy on my tummy, and I feel good supporting the farm.

See, you’re already jealous! (Not so fast – be sure to read all the way through this.)

Grow Your Own

If quality produce is hard to come by, grown your own! Growing kale and chard takes virtually no garden skills and survives in almost any climate.

If you have warm summer weather, grow tomatoes or bell peppers (and if the summers are cool, you can grow these indoors like I did).

[Factoid: Those heirloom cherry tomatoes on the cover of Real Food for Gestational Diabetes were grown in my Alaskan living room, believe it or not.]

Zucchini, sugar snap peas, radishes, green beans, beets, and cucumbers are all relatively easy to grow. At the very least, grow some fresh herbs in tiny pots on a window sill.

For fresh greens when you have no green thumb, try my trick for growing beet greens at home. It works surprisingly well! You can have never-ending green onions via a similar method. Simply place the root end in a cup of water and you’ll have fresh green onions all the time!

Buy in Bulk/Join a Co-op

Another option for rural dwellers is to purchase food in bulk and “stock up” for the winter. Many towns have a local co-op or ordering club where you can split the cost of big orders (case of raw apple cider vinegar anyone?).

Azure Standard is a great resource that I use for additive-free coconut milk, grass-fed butter, and other items unavailable to me locally.

Amazon Prime surprisingly ships to parts of Alaska for free, so the yearly fee is well worth it. Search for items like quality cocoa powder, nuts and seeds, organic teas, and other dry goods.

Preserve the Summer Harvest

Before the advent of refrigeration, preserving food was common in all climates. When the harvest season is short, food preservation becomes even more crucial.

Meat and fish can be frozen, smoked, or made into jerky.

Berries can be made into jam and canned or be frozen/dried for later use.

Fresh greens and herbs can be dehydrated for use in recipes, like soup, or turned into pesto and frozen (pesto ice cubes anyone?).

And don’t forget to ferment! Homemade sauerkraut is the perfect use for giant Alaskan cabbages. My recipe for Fermented Carrots with Ginger and Jalapeno make a crunchy side dish to winter meals when grocery store vegetables are just not. worth. eating.

Suck it Up

Listen. I’m the biggest proponent of organic, biodynamic, and locally-grown produce. But sometimes it’s just not possible to eat that way all the time. When you live in an area that has the freshest heirloom produce, please take full advantage.

And if you don’t, make the best of it.

I simply cannot buy most vegetables organic in Alaska. Hell, my priorities are often to find the least bruised, least wilted, and least rotten produce.

It’s simply a fact of life.

 Non-organic produce is better than no produce.

And sometimes, frozen produce is the only decent option.

So do I sit around and sulk all day worrying about the pesticide residues on my food or how uninspiring the taste is of my non-organic, non-lacinato kale? (Okay, maybe that’s happened a few times.)

But, at the end of the day we all have to eat.

Do I just give up and make blue box Mac & Cheese? No. I still cook. I buy the non-organic kale when it’s not wilted. I buy frozen spinach when the kale is inedible or when the shipment didn’t make it in that week.

Do the best with what you have available and stop stressing. We don’t all live in utopia. That’s life. There are likely some really awesome local foodstuffs in your area. Appreciate those. (King Crab, how I love you…)

Here in Alaska, I buy more “rugged” produce than usual, making things like onions, carrots, and root vegetables a bigger part of my diet. I buy whatever looks freshest. When local produce is available, I buy more and preserve it. Simply make do with what you’ve got.

The winter produce might suck, but my dinner of “red” salmon, roasted purple cabbage, and berry reduction will beat any 5-star restaurant. It’s all about perspective.

Get Creative

When ingredients aren’t available, simply substitute the next best thing. Make some adjustments and embrace experimenting in the kitchen a bit.

If fresh citrus is not available (or of horrific quality), use vinegar. (Yes, I’ve done this with many of my recipes and they’re still super yummy).

If you have an overabundance of halibut (just me, huh?), use halibut in place of chicken.

If good quality dairy is nowhere to be found, make your own coconut milk or nut milk (or buy a clean canned coconut milk). Or just go dairy-free!

If kale chips aren’t available at your local supermarket, make your own. They’re way better and cheaper. (Lemon & Garlic Kale Chips rock. So do Spinach Chips.)

If fresh greens are half-rotten, let go of your salad fixation. Forage for local greens or grow your own in the summer. Use frozen greens to make homemade spinach dip or add to lasagne. And if all of that fails, buy an organic greens powder and make green drinks and green soups.

Beg Friends to Send You Trader Joe’s Care Packages

Last, but most certainly not least, guilt your friends and family to send you care packages (preferably filled with Trader Joe’s goodies). There’s simply no comparison to the amazingness that is Trader Joe’s. Sadly, the nearest location is thousands of miles away. So when I’m tired of salmon and cabbage, I get my family to send a box of goodies.

Life is just better with the occasional Dark Chocolate Honey Mint and Roasted Coconut Chips. And if I’m really lucky, they pack some home-grown citrus into the box.

Obviously, I’m still eating pretty damn well despite living hundreds of miles from a big city.

And I’d bet that with a few of the strategies above, you can also eat clean even if you live in a rural area. I’ve made it work wherever I’ve lived and I’m positive you can do the same.

Below, I’d love to hear how you do it!

Whether you live year-round off the beaten road, or just escape into the back country for part of the year, share your tips for eating healthy in the comments below.

What new foods have you embraced?

What old favorites do you miss?

Until next week,
Lily

PS – Obsessed with all-things Alaska? Want to here more about what I eat up here? Listen to this podcast interview with Heather from Fresh Eats Radio where we talk about my book, Real Food for Gestational Diabetes, for the first half + all-things Alaska for the second half (published Feb 17, 2015 if you search on iTunes).

Fresh-Eats-Radio-Alaska-Gestational-Diabetes

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

17 Comments

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  1. I’ve tried deer broth and found it to be very “tallowy”. Have you discovered a way around this?

    • Yeah, I’ve found the same, Joan. I roast the bones ahead of time to improve the flavor, then make stock via this method. Once cooled, I skim the deer fat and use for cooking. If the deer is not cleaned and prepped right away, the fat can go rancid. So if it tastes off, just skim and discard the fat.

      If you still don’t like the taste, you can try hiding the flavor in more heavily seasoned dishes, like chili or curry.

  2. Love this article, Lily! When we moved from Melbourne (and previously Toronto) to a small town in CT, I thought I’d never find the fresh produce and meat I’d been accustomed to. However, you make a great point- when you have limited options, the markets usually have nothing but the seasonal veggies I should be eating anyway. I love your tips on making the best of it. Those lemon garlic kale chips are calling my name… PS I’m jealous of mountains full of berries and all the fresh fish!

    • Yeah, it’s great to embrace whatever you have available locally. You can be jealous of berries + fish. I’ll be jealous of fall apple season in New England! Deal?

      PS – Enjoy the kale chips, Anne!

  3. Lily,

    I LOVE this post for many reasons! I love hearing about regional food and how it shapes our lives. I also love hearing how you’ve adapted and made it work for you even when it’s not ideal. It’s sounds like you’re able to laugh at it as well as appreciate and enjoy a lot of it.

    Also, once our company goes live, I’ll send you the information, as we ship organic and non GMO foods to Alaskal, it just takes longer to arrive than in the lower 48.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective.

    Best,

    Kara

    • Yeah, we have a good sense of humor about it all, Kara. There’s so much to appreciate about Alaska and the amazing local food we have access to.

      There’s a HUGE need for your company. Many will not ship up here (OR charge insane shipping prices).

  4. Lily! Such a great post! Super jealous about all the berries – cloudberries are my favorite, and no where to be found in the South. Your writing made me miss living in a very rural town – there are so many wonderful food-things to experiment with when a TJ’s isn’t just down the road (however, one did just open in Jacksonville, and if you guys would like a care package, just say the word!). Have you tried harvesting the sea beans and sea lettuces (ulva) yet? The lettuce is also great dried, ground, and mixed with grapeseed oil and a little brown sugar for a nice skin salve.
    Glad to hear you are doing well and enjoying Alaska’s bounty!

    • Jill, I’m so glad you mentioned seaweed. I haven’t yet eaten local seaweed or sea lettuce, but I have used it as fertilizer for the garden. I’ve been eyeing a recipe for “seaweed jerky” – just need to plan the seaweed gathering around the tides so I can ensure it’s super fresh.

      Have you eaten sea beans + sea lettuce? What’s the most delicious way to prepare it?

      (And thank you for the TJs offer 🙂

      • As far as eating the sea lettuce goes, honestly, Rob and I would just eat it straight from the ocean when we’d be hiking on the rocks in the Pacific Northwest. We knew the areas/beaches/tides well, so we were comfortable with the source.
        Foraged sea beans I found to be too salty prepared straight from the sea (like roasted or sautéed), so I boiled them first to remove some of the brackish flavor. There, they were great in soups, noodle broths (like pho), or as a side to any cold-water fish (Chinook salmon was always a favorite). Especially as a side, the saltiness of the beans balances well with a tangy vinaigrette, or even pickled with rice wine vinegar. Food52 has a good article about them: http://food52.com/blog/6985-sea-beans-the-salty-succulent (sorry, I tried to imbed the hyperlink, but couldn’t seem to do it!)

        • Love that. Thanks for sharing, Jill! I’m gonna get up the courage to try some sea vegetables!

  5. Great tips – we get so used to eating everything at any time of the year. I lived in Namibia for a while and I remember getting so excited when the supermarket had fresh basil in stock. Made me appreciate it so much more.

    • You’re right, Caroline. We’re normally spoiled with the global food trade, even if it’s unnatural. Feels strange to be without all the variety, but the locally-sourced foods are such high quality that it makes up for it.

  6. Love this post! I traveled to Alaska back when I was a teenager – it was gorgeous! I’d love to go back some day.

    My husband and I are in the process of fixing up our house in town so we can sell it this spring/summer – our plan is to move to the middle of nowhere and start our own little farm (complete with chickens, goats, and definitely a kick-ass garden). We already have a small flock of chickens in town… and you’re right, the eggs are AMAZING (unfortunately all my hens are in broody mode right now, so haven’t had any new eggs in a couple weeks… ugh). Even being a dietitian, it’s easy to get tempted with all the stuff in the stores that’s less-than-ideal – moving to the country will eliminate much of that. But mainly, what we want is a slower paced life and to be more self-sufficient. I, too, am incredibly thankful to have a location independent business, which allows us to make this move.

    Congrats on your new book! I just started writing my first book and I know how much goes into it. 🙂

    • That sounds amazing, Amanda! I’d love to have a farm. It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding work. Nothing like fresh eggs, tomatoes right off the vine, and clean country air. Best of luck on your move & your book! 🙂

  7. Thank you so much for this post….I’m moving to Fairbanks from Texas next month and literally typed in “Eating clean in Alaska” into my search bar. I’ve been worried about how my diet will fare when I make the transition, but this made me feel a lot better!

    • You’ll have no problem. When I visited Fairbanks, I was impressed by the number of good restaurants (it’s a college town, remember) and the quality of produce at the stores. It was a far cry from what I had available living on an island in Alaska. 😉 Good luck on the move. You’ll love Alaska.

  8. Good article! I do find that most diets etc, share food recipes that sometimes we here in Southwest Va don’t have, never heard of, and probably would NEVER eat! We grew up on beans, potatoes, wild berries and everything natural out there free for the picking. Its so confusing anymore, articles say oh, don’t eat beans, to many carbs or don’t eat bread, some say don’t eat meat and on and on. sometimes my poor mind is swirling with so much useless information. Here lately I have decided to eat everything and anything I want but my mind is always saying,,,,,NO you can’t do that either. Keep up the good work and I shall continue on my quest to find the truth,,,,its,,,out there somewhere. Ella

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