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‘Natural’ snack foods — still not better than homemade

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I grew up wanting nothing more than potato chips and a Barbie doll. Instead, I was offered Holly Hobbie -- the most wholesome, most child-appropriate doll imaginable -- and carrot sticks.

The worst part is that I now deny my own child the same junk food I once sought out. He gets chips and candy as treats on vacations, and when he decides to spend his allowance on them instead of saving up for remote-control helium sharks, but his daily life is filled with suggestions that he have an apple if he’s hungry and offers of roasted almonds when what he really wants is Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

So, like plenty of parents around the nation, I’m tempted by the notion of magical snacks that I’ll be OK buying and he’ll be happy eating. Unlike most parents, however, I work as a food writer, and sometimes companies send me their latest "all-natural" creations.

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so the entire category of treats made with unrefined cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup flies under, over, and around my snack-dar. But anything crispy, crunchy, savory, or salty gets opened and given a shot to impress.

They’re not all good, I’ll say that much. It’s hard to improve upon the humble potato chip. And most things marketed in the “natural snacks” category aren't necessarily any more natural or less processed than a salted potato chip, which is cause for pause.

The marketing of natural snacks hints at “not processed.” Of course, a fistful of pork fat is completely “natural” by any definition, and even unprocessed (at least before you render it), but there aren't many who would claim it was “healthful” (and we won’t even touch on the issue of deliciousness in this case). The pushers of “natural” snacks try to focus attention on their all-natural ingredients, but as I examined one of the styrofoam-like “potato” chips covered in bright orange powder that I was admittedly happily snarfing down one day, I decided to write an article about the venn diagram of “natural” and “processed” and “healthful” in the snack world.

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Melon madness: How my food waste obsession took over my weekend

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“They were piled up outside, on sale,” my dad said, “so I knew they were good.”

I make my living advocating the use of fresh, local produce, and I’m the one who cooks when my family gathers at our cabin in Northern Minnesota. So there were several things about my dad hauling a dozen giant melons -- honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelons -- into the already chock-full galley kitchen out of which I was planning on feeding seven people, plus dinner guests, for the weekend that irked me.

First and most obvious: It was early July. Where we were, above the 45th parallel, melons were simply not in season.

Second, the melons did not, in fact, fit in the kitchen. At all. The cupboards were full, the fridge was jam-packed, and the counters in the kitchen -- or, rather, those areas of the counter that the dog couldn’t reach, because my parents' dog has a singular talent for nabbing food off any surface she can access -- were themselves already piled high. The kitchen is small and my mom is known for what can most nicely be called buying amply when we gather. Coffee cakes and rolls and eggs and bacon and yogurt for breakfast, loaves of bread and sliced meats for sandwiches, avocados and salsa and chips and limes and lemons for margaritas and guacamole, various nuts and crackers and cheeses and fruit in case of peckishness, and then, of course, all the food for dinners, each episode of which would most certainly result in leftovers a-plenty.

The melons were, therefore, relegated to a sideboard in the living room.

Read more: Food