Welcome to this week's edition of the Expert Series! I am thrilled to share with you one of the coolest small businesses in NYC - and one of the neatest ladies I've had the privilege to get to know. Marisa Smith is the genius behind Sweet Roots NYC, a healthy meal delivery service that pairs personalized menu planning with organic, prepped ingredients. Can you say time-saving, health-promoting, and delicious? How about with your mouth full? :)
Read on for Marisa's insight on sustainable eating, the magic of home cooked meals, and how food should 'earn its place on your plate'.
Where in the world did you get the idea for Sweet Roots?
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I had chronic health issues that demanded a radical change in diet. I wanted to eat well and I was motivated because I felt terrible, but getting all of the pieces to come together on a daily basis was pretty overwhelming. I was totally game to outsource - but with the parameters of following a particular diet, wanting organic ingredients, and having a peculiar prejudice against frozen meals, there wasn't a solution to be found.
I created Sweet Roots in 2012 to change that. Sweet Roots makes it easy for people with specific dietary needs to cook consistently, delicious meals by planning customized menus, shopping for the fresh, organic ingredients and delivering it all, pre-measured and prepped, right to your door. Our meals come together in less than 30 minutes, so it's like having a nutritionist, farmer, gourmet chef and prep cook on speed dial.
It's freeing to not have to stress about what to eat or the logistics of getting it on the plate. I love that Sweet Roots makes that possible.
Who does Sweet Roots serve?
We help people who want to eat healthfully, but find the challenge in implementation. Some of our clients are stressed by navigating the particulars of their diet or are bored by the limited recipes they have in their repertoire. Others are strapped for time, so going to the grocery store and farmer's market and managing to get dinner together on a weeknight seems like a Herculean feat. The customization component of our service allows us to work with lots of clients who on the surface may not have that much in common - people with food allergies, endurance runners, moms of toddlers, overextended lawyers - but they are united in their desire for comprehensive support at meal time.
What are the biggest connections between food and health and vibrant living?
Whenever people talk about those who eat to live and those who live to eat, I find myself squarely in the latter category. That said - food is fuel. A diet comprised of high quality, real food gives the body what it needs to function at its highest potential. With more consistent energy levels, clearer thinking, and greater physical comfort, the world is your oyster, so to speak. I also think there's a really powerful connection between food and community. The famous literary epics describe great feasts as much for the fodder on the table as for the connection happening around it. There is something magical about breaking bread together - a tradition that I hope we maintain even as we trend more and more towards speed and convenience.
Big picture thinking: what's the ideal food culture you'd envision for this country?
I think it is easy for me from my position as a vegetarian, business owner in the midst of a farm-to-table movement to say that what we need is more organic, more local, and more home cooking. Based on my experience, I do think those are key components to achieving a healthier food system, but I appreciate that it's just one opinion from a particular perspective.
The vision for a food culture that I'd put forward instead is one of mindfulness and transparency. A culture where we pause before we eat, where we are thoughtful about what we eat because we have been educated about the facts about where our food comes from, how it is produced and what kind of value it adds to our health. Different people would undoubtedly make different choices about what and how to eat, but I think the end result would be more empowered consumers who would be in a position to demand valuable changes.
What are easy ways to incorporate more sustainable choices into every day?
Small changes that you can stick with are definitely the way to go. For our clients who eat meat and fish, we recommend shaving the portion size down from the restaurant standard of 8 or 9 oz to 6. It's a subtle change, but over the course of a month or a year, it adds up. It also means that if you're buying less meat and fish, you might feel comfortable spending a bit more on higher quality. In the winter, we recommend local, wild caught fish. For meat, we go with organically fed, humanely raised animals. It tastes better and is more nutrient dense, so it earns its place on the plate.
I also think that reducing food waste is another good entry point to sustainable eating. Try using every part of the vegetable. I add beet greens to stir fries and save up vegetable scraps in a plastic bag in my freezer until I have enough to make my own stock. Most NYC Greenmarkets also have drop off spots for compost, so if you're not sure what to do with that remaining half of squash you bought and don't have time to eat, you can donate it for some lucky person's garden. (Amy's note: check out the GrowNYC website for Greenmarket locations near you.)
How do you cultivate relationships with farmers?
We are very fortunate to have alums from the staff of NYC's Greenmarket program on the Sweet Roots team. They've brought some incredible personal relationships to our procurement process. One of my favorite emails to read each week is from a farmer in Ithaca who sends out an update about the weather, his harvest, and his family. It's a clear reminder that we don't operate in a silo - that what we eat is a culmination of a multi-faceted, very human process.
Tell me a bit about the value of creating meals at home.
I cook a lot, but I still feel this small measure of pride when I sit down to enjoy a meal that I made. It's like the child presenting their prized piece of artwork. There's something primal and soul-satisfying about creating. It's also esteem building to dedicate valuable time to nourishing yourself and your loved ones. On a practical level, creating meals at home gives you ultimate control over what you consume. You get to decide where your meat/fish/dairy/produce comes from, how much oil to use in the pan, pasta vs quinoa, etc.
How do you eat at home? What's in your fridge right now?
These days - girl on-the-go that I am - I eat a lot of Sweet Roots meals. It makes my life much easier to know that I can walk in the door after a long day and sit down to eat something really healthy (for me) a few minutes later. I feel best when I follow a vegan diet, so my fridge is stocked with lots of fruit and vegetables. I was inspired when I read Tamar Adler's book - An Everlasting Meal - so I wash and cut everything right when I get home from the farmer's market. I think this is a cultural thing, but I am hardwired to opt for convenience. Doing the prep work in advance means I don't have to resist my impulses because healthy is actually easier.
How has your relationship with food changed?
I went through a phase where I felt pretty neurotic about food. Because of my health issues, my diet was extremely limited. Hours of my day were consumed by the 'planning, shopping, and chopping' that we take care of at Sweet Roots. I was doing something that was undeniably improving my health and ought to be life affirming, but the reality was that I felt isolated and emotionally drained. The shift for me happened as I began to build Sweet Roots. Emails started pouring in and I realized that there was an abundance of people all over New York and across the country who felt exactly the same way. Today, everything that goes into managing my diet just sort of hums along in the background. I feel lighter about food. I no longer worry about having hungry-angry fights with my boyfriend because it's 10pm and we still haven't figured out what to eat. I have been set free to focus on the things I love, which, ironically, is now thinking about other people's food needs.
For more information on Sweet Roots and the incredible work Marisa is doing, please check out www.sweetrootsnyc.com.