Eating organic or just eating healthier can be done - at home or out - if you know what to look for. In fact, it's easier than ever thanks to eateries such as Renee's Organic Oven, which doubles as a pickup point for locally grown produce.
Four simple words are painted in black on the dark orange walls of Renee's Organic Oven:
Eat well. Feel good.
They're printed on the menu, too.
Those magic words are Renee Kreager's mantra. She lives it, breathes it, bases her business on it.
For Kreager and her husband, Steve, who both own the northeast side Renee's, having an eatery committed to organic and local, sustainably grown ingredients can be tricky - and definitely not always cost effective.
"Oh, why can't we just be a nonprofit pizzeria?" she jokes.
But the Kreagers are that serious about offering organic, locally sourced foods and supporting small businesses. Those have been the goals from the beginning, back in 2005 when the restaurant originally opened as Eclectic Pizza at 7065 E. Tanque Verde, a few doors down from Eclectic Cafe.
Kreager, who worked at Eclectic, thought a restaurant featuring organic would fill a gap in the local dining scene.
She became "completely chemical-free" when she was pregnant with her son, now 9.
"I never felt better," she says.
She ate organic produce, even bought organic cotton swabs, and set out to create a restaurant that followed the same philosophy. But seven years ago, terms like "trans fat," "organic" and "healthy dining" weren't the buzzwords they are today. Kreager recalls telling a supplier she didn't want anything with trans fats, and the company had to research if that was even possible.
Customers didn't quite get it either, asking Kreager if the pepperoni was made of tofu or if the food would taste bland.
Kreager admits she didn't help matters by not advertising their commitment.
"I was the antimarketer," she says. "I didn't want to put it out there. I wanted people to genuinely come about this experience."
In June, the Kreagers changed Eclectic Pizza to Renee's Organic Oven to better reflect their mission. This time, people got it.
Diners these days are more conscious about what they put in their bodies and feed their families. Since the name switch, the Kreagers have seen a 40 percent increase in sales, though Renee Kreager is quick to point out, with a smile, that doesn't mean profitability.
"I buy free-range chicken," says Kreager. "It costs me so much money to get that chicken, but I feel so good about making dishes with it. There are people in the business who think I'm crazy."
Regular customers like Gina Murphy-Darling appreciate the effort.
Murphy-Darling, an environmental advocate whose weekly online show "Mrs. Green's World" is in its fourth year, holds staff meetings at Renee's and makes a point of eating there every few weeks.
"She's the whole green enchilada," says Murphy-Darling, who ticks off a list of favorites: spinach salad, lasagna, spinach dip and, of course, the pizza.
Renee's menu - which looks like a rebus puzzle with a mess of symbols for gluten free, vegan, grass fed, vegetarian and spicy - runs the gamut, so vegetarians and meat eaters alike can find options. That's another positive, Murphy-Darling says - something for everyone.
"You can tell the minute you bite into a tomato where it came from," she adds. "If it tastes like a tomato, it came from an organic farm. … The tomatoes at Renee's are always delicious."
Kreager says it's all about balance and doing what you can. She buys whatever locally grown produce and meat is available. She supports fellow small businesses here (Arbuckles' coffee) and elsewhere (Colorado-based New Belgium beer). The kitchen features a gluten-free station that requires hospital-like attention to detail so there's no cross-contamination.
The restaurant's biggest hangup right now, Kreager says, is the inability to use all organic dairy. It's just too expensive. But, she encourages diners to bring in their own cheese to go onto a pizza. She offers a free topping in trade.
The restaurant tries to keep its carbon footprint to a minimum, too. Cans and glass get a second chance. Takeout containers are environmentally friendly sugarcane or bamboo while the used oil for the menu's two fried items is recycled. Water left on the tables goes to hydrate thirsty plants out front.
The teeny eatery - about a dozen tables - also doubles as a pickup point for local customers who buy Willcox-based Sunizona Family Farms' produce boxes. It's a big undertaking for such a small place. On Tuesdays and Fridays, pickup days, boxes are stacked teeteringly high. Employees brace themselves for heavy-lifting.
"It's like Tetris," she says. "They have to move those boxes around."
But, Kreager says the effort is worth it to hook people up with organic food. Sunizona uses "veganic" growing practices, meaning that no animal products are used.
"It's all clean," Kreager says. "You get a carrot or a Pink Lady apple, and it's less than 24 hours from its source. It's a blessing in the desert."
Tips for healthy restaurant dining
In February, the Pima County Health Department launched a new program designed to make it easier for diners to quickly identify healthy, low-cal menu options.
With nearly 30 restaurants signed on to offer dishes meeting strict specifications (zero artificial trans fats and less than 700 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 1,000 milligrams of sodium and 30 percent of calories from fat), it seems like dining out for the calorie-conscious would be a snap.
Meh. Sort of.
We called and visited several local restaurants on the hunt for Smart Choices for Healthy Dining menu options. Quite often, employees hadn't even heard of the program. Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria, 2707 E. Broadway, was the exception - offering a special laminated menu that highlighted its three entrees along with nutritional info.
Some restaurants, like El Charro, do note entrees that are healthier alternatives. For those that don't? Well, just use your mouth - and not only for chewing.
"Don't be afraid to ask how the food is prepared," says Nancy Rogers, a registered dietitian and coordinator for employee wellness and health promotion at the University of Arizona.
Sometimes menu descriptions are vague, so ask if heavy cream and butter are in the dish. Ask the server if a dish can be prepared without extra salt, Rogers suggests.
• Pull a Sally. In the 1989 movie "When Harry Met Sally..." Meg Ryan's character Sally frequently asks for things on the side when she dines out. The oil and vinegar goes on the side instead of on the salad. A scoop of ice cream goes on the side rather than plopped on top of apple pie. Rogers says you should definitely opt for dressings and sauces on the side. "Any of the condiments are going to be high in salt," she says.
• Skip fried foods. That one's obvious.
• Know your oils. If you really want some french fries - and it's OK to splurge once in a while - ask what kind of oil the restaurant uses, Rogers says. Oils like olive, canola and peanut that aren't high in trans fats are what you want.
• Get to the meat of the matter. Opt for leaner, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, Rogers suggests.
• Order a to-go box - stat! Ask for a box as soon as you order your entree. Then when the food arrives, you can immediately parcel it into a reasonable portion size, Rogers says. Then, take it off the table and set it on a seat, out of sight. This way, you're not tempted to overeat.
Say "organic" and many people automatically think "expensive."
Not so, say local experts.
"We shop at the farmer's market every Sunday and we buy whatever's in season," says environmental advocate Gina Murphy-Darling. "It's so affordable. It's local. We know the growers, we know it's not pesticide laden."
Buying organic doesn't mean you have to shop at pricey stores, either.
"Learn how to find bargains," suggests Renee Kreager of Renee's Organic Oven, who's spotted organic pasta on the shelves of dollar stores.
Also, she suggests buying what you like and then finding as many different ways as you can to prepare those foods. If you're concerned about organic produce going to waste, consider investing in a juicer, she says.
Bottom line, says Murphy-Darling, "Isn't it worth an extra dollar or two for your health?"
The Environmental Working Group - a nonprofit group of researchers, scientists and policy makers that informs the public and pushes for national policy change - has lists titled the "Clean 15" and "Dirty Dozen" that suggest which fruits and vegetables should be purchased organically and which ones are fine without that label:
The Dirty Dozen
• Nectarines, imported
• Grapes, imported
• Sweet bell peppers
• Blueberries, domestic
• Kale and collard greens
The Clean 15
(lowest in pesticides)
• Sweet corn
• Sweet peas
• Cantaloupe, domestic
• Sweet potatoes