In our modern lives, we offer choices that make our lives easier and more convenient. So why would we choose to do anything that requires more energy and effort?! DIY projects around the house, cooking meals from scratch, and even growing produce or raising livestock all require a lot of elbow grease. Jill Winger, podcaster, author, and host of the Old Fashioned on Purpose podcast, helps us explore a more conscious approach to living simply. She discusses the benefits of rolling up our sleeves and working with our hands: slowing down, a deeper connection with our food, improved health, and mindfulness! She also covers what happens to our brains and bodies when life is “too easy.”
Visit Jill’s website: theprairiehomestead.com
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
In our modern lives, we are offered choices that make our lives easier and more convenient. From DoorDash to Amazon Prime, why would we ever make meals from scratch, make home improvements, grow food, or raise animals when there are others that can do all of this for us? Sustaining ourselves by ourselves requires a good deal of energy and effort, and it’s pretty inconvenient, to say the least. Why would anyone choose to live that way, living a sort of more old-fashioned way in a modern world?
This is Episode 422, and our guest is Jill Winger. Jill is a homesteader, author, and host of the Old Fashioned On Purpose Podcast. She reminds us of the advantages and benefits of choosing this, cooking from scratch, DIY projects, and more over that, fast food, outsourcing to experts, etc. She enumerates the benefits that include slowing down, a more intimate connection with our food, improved health, and mindfulness. She discusses the joy that comes from doing things with our hands beyond tapping on a screen. In the end, she discusses what it looks like to choose this and that, to make conscious choices about what conveniences to keep and which old ways to reincorporate into our lives.
Before we dive into the conversation, have you checked out our mini-episodes yet? These are just 5 to 10 minutes long, an extended conversation with some of our guests. They’re free for all Weston A. Price Foundation members. If you’d like a guest and a particular interview, go to the Members Only space on the website and see if we’ve got a minisode with them. In this minisode with Jill, for example, she talks about balance and how she thinks it’s a false paradigm for living a healthy life. You’ll hear what she aims for instead.
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Welcome to Wise Traditions, Jill.
Thank you so much for having me, Hilda. I am so excited to chat.
Me too. I wanted to start off by asking you about that moment when you found your grandmother’s recipe box and you were so excited. What did you discover in those moments?
I was a young home cook at that point, and I had started broaching from scratch meals and homemade biscuits and all of these things I hadn’t tried before. I had these memories of my grandmother. She died when I was nine, but prior to that, she made the most amazing meals like her angel food cake, roast dinners, and mashed potatoes. I still can taste them. I’d never thought about how she made them, but as this new young home cook, I was so excited I would finally discover her secrets and get all of her from-scratch wisdom.
One summer, we went home and my mom pulled out her recipes for me. I ripped into the folders in the boxes and discovered what I was looking for wasn’t there. I was pretty disappointed to realize that a lot of the recipes she had written down in her own handwriting was a thing called margarine, Betty Crocker cake mix, Jell-O, Oleo, and Cool Whip, all of those darlings of her era.
It was an awakening in a sense. It didn’t downplay her cooking for me because I knew she had those skills. I just don’t think they were appearing in her recipe box. It was a good reminder of how far-reaching this industrial food has come and how seductive it was for people of her generation. They had the from-scratch, but then they didn’t know how to resist the call of the marketers and the corporations. It was a pretty interesting revelation, but I was able to redeem it down the road and figure out my own from-scratch versions of a lot of those things. It was interesting.
She was cooking from scratch. She had these, as Dr. Price calls it, the displacing foods of modern commerce that she was starting to fold into maybe her grandmother’s or her mother’s recipes.
Yes. She had an amazing foundation because she had been cooking since she was a little girl, probably Great Depression era or before. She had the foundation, but she was so enamored by those pieces that did displace those more wholesome ingredients. The margarine was displacing the butter. I know she could make a cake from scratch, but she was enamored with Betty Crocker. You could totally see those swaps starting to happen.
Do you feel like nowadays, we’re even further away from those original roots of cooking with simple single-source ingredients?
Absolutely. In fact, we’ve come so far, at least in some of my observations. Let’s take cakes for example. People consider a Betty Crocker cake mix to be from scratch, whereas most of them would prefer to go buy it at the bakery at Walmart or have someone else make it for them. We’ve come many layers out of this understanding of what food is.
During our conversation, I want to contrast this versus that. This cooking with more natural, whole food, real, single ingredient foods, and cooking from scratch, why is that different than cooking from a box or using some of the more convenient foods off the grocery store shelf?
There are so many pieces to that. The primary motivation, for me at least, to choose the harder route is this. Let’s face it. It takes more effort. I wouldn’t say it’s harder, but it takes more thought to cook from scratch. The primary motivation for me, and I’m guessing many of your audience members, is the health benefits and the nutrition benefits. In order to get the convenience foods, we have to add a lot of stuff to them because the food wasn’t meant to sit on a shelf for months or years. It wasn’t meant to be packaged the way we package it. We have to do a lot of things to it turn it into this Frankenstein situation to make that work. In the process, we take out a lot of the good stuff and put in a lot of junk.
That’s the biggest motivation. That’s why I initially got into this. The health benefits for myself and my family. What I’ve discovered in the process of cooking from scratch over the last decade or so is there are lots of other benefits. For me, a big piece of that is mental health in addition to physical health. It is this idea of cooking, giving us an opportunity to slow down, to be more mindful, and to bring ourselves back into our bodies because we live in so much chaos and busyness as modern people. Especially as moms, we’re running our kids all over and we have all these obligations. Even if you’re not working outside the home, even if you’re a stay-at-home mom, you have all these things pulling on you.
We have that choice where, “Cooking can be one more thing I have to do. It’s drudgery” or we can reframe that and use it as a chance to re-center ourselves, to use our hands, to connect to the natural world, and to create something useful and amazing for ourselves and our families. That’s one of the side effects of cooking with these single ingredients or basic ingredients that people often overlook.
One of the this versus that is drudgery versus joy and creativity.
Let’s say I want to lean into that, but I am so busy and I don’t know where to start, Jill. How could I start to reframe not only my perspective but carve out the time to invest in making food from scratch?
That’s a big issue for so many of us. Even myself, there are seasons where I’m like, “I don’t have as much time in the calendar as I do other times of the year.” The biggest thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be a giant production. Honestly, we’ve been sold a perception by very brilliant marketers that cooking from scratch is complicated and extremely time-consuming. It’s always the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Day meal prep where it takes four days just to get one meal on the table. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When we shed all of those stories that we’ve been told, cooking from scratch can be extremely simple. It can be as easy as figuring out what your protein is.
You can put that in a crock pot or an instant pot. We have those magical tools as modern people that our great-grandmas didn’t have. It’s roasting a chicken. It’s throwing a beef roast in the crockpot. It’s making a simple meatloaf. There are so many ways we can let the appliances or the oven do the work for us. For me, I find my protein and then I add a vegetable, maybe a potato, or something simple to the side for a little bit of carbohydrates or whatever you want to call it. For us, that’s the extent of most of my meals. It’s not a huge ordeal. It doesn’t take multiple days for one dinner. It can be as simple as you’d like it to be.
A good friend of mine always says, “Simplicity is gourmet.” That takes a lot of pressure off.
Yes, it does. One of my favorite two cookbooks is Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food and then Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Those women are incredible professional chefs. What I love about those books is they are as simple as it comes. They’re using everyday ingredients that are whole and single form that comes from the earth. They teach you these little things to help you put them together. It’s delicious and the flavors shine through. It’s not an ordeal, whatsoever.
The next level is growing our own food. Not just buying it, but growing it. That feels like this versus that where buying it at the farmer’s market or even from a farmer seems so much simpler than growing it. Talk to us about that contrast.
You’re right. It is simpler. Why would someone want to choose to grow their own food? It’s a legitimate question, especially in our day and age with supermarkets and all of the convenience. This is even more of a conscious choice that we get to make, more so than the cooking itself. The reason that I choose to grow food, even though I have a lot on my plate and there are easier ways to procure it, is those side effects of gardening and keeping animals.
Choose to grow food.
Number one, I get to know exactly what’s in it and I don’t have to worry about chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, or those things creeping in because sometimes even the best labeling practices don’t cover all of those things. I know where it’s coming from. I know it didn’t have to be trucked. Some of our foods and our produce especially travel up to 1,500 miles to get to us. I know I don’t have to worry about that and the impact on our environment from all of that moving around.
More than that, growing food for me, whether I’m growing my own meat or dairy or vegetables, is a connection. It’s a connection to the earth and the cycles of nature. That grounds me and brings me back to what matters in this world where it’s so easy to get off kilter and to get out of balance with the technology and the fast-paced. For me, it’s this meditation. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy and it doesn’t mean there are not days where I’m out there sweating or freezing, or I’m like, “This could be easier if I go to the grocery store.” Those times exist, but making those harder choices sometimes pay off in ways that matter for us and our families.
What was the first thing that you grew?
They happened in tandem. I started my garden first, and then the chickens came very soon after. I impulse-bought my first flock of chickens. It was a Friday night. I found them on Craig’s List and drove to get them in my car, put them in the backseat, and there I was. Vegetables came a little bit before the chickens, but it was all a big learning curve that whole timeframe.
Tell us about some of the mistakes or the early challenges you faced.
I have messed up all the things. Most notably, I struggle the most in the garden. I’ve always had an easier time with the animals. We live in Wyoming on the prairie, so this was bison country. Our land is designed for grazing animals, so that makes raising beef for us pretty easy. I’ve always been able to do that without a whole lot of issue, but those vegetables was a struggle.
I’ve done everything from using improperly composted manure and I put all the grass seed right back in the garden and planted a lawn. It was a beautiful lawn, but I didn’t want a lawn there. I love deep mulch. I love that technique. It’s brilliant. I accidentally used mulch that had been contaminated with an herbicide. That got into my soil, and it hurt my tomatoes and all of my plants. I’ve done that twice. We’ve had major hail-out disasters. We get a lot of hail here on the prairie. I’ve lost entire gardens in a matter of minutes to hailstorms and all. I’ve got all the bugs, worms, beetles, and grasshoppers.
If you can mess it up in the garden, I have absolutely done it. We are still growing a lot of food even amid all the missteps. There are times I’ve cried over the garden and times that I’ve yelled at the garden. Other times, we’ve had incredible successes, but we keep trucking just because of those benefits that come beyond the vegetables.
When you were talking earlier about connecting with the earth, connecting with the environment, and connecting with animals, we picture all the joyous moments. We’re still connecting when the hail falls and the tomatoes don’t grow or the bugs got them. That’s still connecting. It’s a painful connection, but it’s a connection nonetheless.
It’s a good reminder of how we fit into nature and a reminder that we don’t have the ultimate control, which is a humbling thought, but it’s a healthy thought to know that we’re a part of it and we can’t always control it. We sometimes have to learn to be flexible and how to adjust to the seasons or the weather patterns. Some years are great for one crop and they’re horrible for the other. Some years have a ton of grasshoppers and some years have none. It’s learning that flexibility and that nuance, which is often missed in so much of our modern world.
We can’t always control the environment and sometimes must learn to be flexible. We should learn how to adjust to the seasons or the weather patterns.
Speaking of things missed in the modern world, I’m thinking about another this versus that, which is do it yourself versus hire an expert. Talk to us a little bit about the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from tackling something new.
I call my husband and myself serial DIY-ers almost to a fault where we love figuring out how to do things ourselves. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. I want to preface all of these pieces in this conversation with this. We’re not purists about any of them. I grow a lot of food. I still buy some food. I cook a lot. There are seasons of my life when I buy certain items because I can’t cook all the things all the time. There are times we are amazing do-it-yourselfers and other times when we’ll hire a contractor to do a project. You have to know what is calling to you and what serves you, and then be willing to leave the rest. This is going to be a personal thing for everybody listening. You get to decide.
It goes back to the idea of working with our hands. There’s so much of our modern world that has stripped that away from us. We’ve strived for convenience above all costs over the last 150 years since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of that has been good. There are things I’m very thankful for within that. As a result, we’ve accidentally eliminated the opportunities where we can use our hands, use our brains, be creative, and create.
Humans are designed to create, we’re wired for that. We thrive within the act of creation. If you think about the average American’s everyday life, that’s been taken away from us by accident. Now, everything is pushing a button, tapping a screen, or letting someone else take care of it for us. We can choose to reclaim those pieces, bring them back into our life, and that’s going to look different for all of us.
For me, that looks like baking bread without a bread machine, planting my garden, and making and building things around the house. For someone else, that could be working on cars, making pottery, or painting with watercolors. There are lots of different ways to do that, but building that back into our routine, whether that’s a daily routine, a weekly routine, or a monthly routine goes a long way to helping us come back to the center, stay happier, and keep us human.
Coming up, Jill describes why she and her spouse are big into DIY, and how working with our hands is good for the brain.
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What came to mind as you were speaking was the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Paul did everything. He was the one who bridled the horses. He was the one that fixed the house when a shingle fell off. He was the one that went hunting. It is all of the things. There is a kind of creativity, satisfaction, and neuroplasticity. For the one reading who’s like, “I’m all about building new neural pathways and I’m going to biohack,” maybe if we went back to ancestral ways that required more of us, we would have that neuroplasticity, that cognitive function, and that overall sense of not only well-being but of satisfaction when we get a job done.
There is a lot of neat science around this. I had a neuroscientist named Kelly Lambert come on my show. She’s done some neat research on this. She discovered, or at least she talked about on my show, this system called the effort-driven rewards circuit. It’s a part of our body and it connects our hands to our brain. I won’t get into all the details because honestly, I can’t remember all the nitty-gritty of the science.
Basically, when we work with our hands, we do something outside of tapping a screen or pressing a button. It’s connected to our brain and it releases the happy chemicals that make us feel good, the dopamines and such. She was adamant that as modern humans, science shows us we have to keep creating, building, and doing things with our hands, even if it’s moving all the furniture and vacuuming the carpet or cutting up the lettuce for the salad. She’s like, “We have to keep that involved in our everyday lives. Otherwise, it messes up our brains.” That was enlightening for me because I had felt that, but to hear it backed up by the data was pretty cool.
It reminds me of language learning too. They always say use it or lose it. If we don’t use it, we’re going to lose that ability. Maybe this is one reason we have ChatGPT now and other AI because we want to outsource even the creative parts of our brain.
As someone who creates, I understand the tension. I am sure you understand this too. There is that tension there. There’s been many a time in a project where you have that, “I don’t know if I’m going to get it. I don’t know if the idea will come. I don’t know if the title will come. I don’t know if I can get this paragraph right.” That’s uncomfortable, but on the flip side, when you get the title, you figure out the paragraph, and it all starts flowing, to me, that’s one of the best feelings in the entire world where you’re like, “I got it. The picture or the title is just what I wanted.”
If we always outsource that and we remove that tension and discomfort, we never get to experience that joy and satisfaction from overcoming and figuring it out. It’s such a double-edged sword. As we see things like ChatGPT growing and becoming more a part of our culture, what side effects will that have in the long run?
Let’s dive a little deeper with the DIY thing because you said you and your husband are serial DIY-ers. Tell us about a project that went great, and then tell us about a project that is not so much.
I would say a fun project that we did is we’ve done a lot of homestead projects, a ton over the last decade, but we’ve shifted recently into trying to help grow and infuse life into a little community that’s near us. In 2021, we bought an old rundown soda fountain. It was one of the only operating restaurants in that town. It’s 175 people, so it’s tiny. It needed a lot of work. It was one of those big scary audacious projects where everyone’s like, “I don’t know if this was a good idea. How are you going to make this work?”
We worked on it for a solid year. We flipped it, renovated it, and gutted it. It turned out so good. It’s so fun to see it thriving and in full operation. We have people stopping all over the United States to come get milkshakes. That was a successful project. Not without its trials in the middle. There were plenty of days when it was frustrating and hard, but we kept at it. That was an example of a project with a happy ending.
There have been lots of things around the homestead that had happy endings ultimately, but we had to go through the bumps first. One infamous example is when we first started building out our homestead, we weren’t very good at planning or thinking ahead. We just took action. That can be a good thing. Taking action without overthinking is healthy. It can also be unhealthy. We were so excited. We just started building fence lines and we never planned out, “Where are the trees going to go? Will this pasture be where we always want it to be?”
We ended up moving several fence lines three different times. That’s a lot of work. You’re pounding posts and you’re removing posts. You’re stringing the wire and then unstringing the wire. Every single time we would be pulling out the fence line, we would be like, “This is so embarrassing,” but it was a good lesson. It was a failure at the time, but it ended up being okay. It is a good reminder to think big picture sometimes before you start pounding fence posts.
You said a lot of your projects have been homesteading one. This is my final this versus that, which is homesteading and self-reliance versus living off what’s available in your region from the market and with jobs and all this stuff, like a regular conventional life.
It’s experiencing a resurgence. I’m sure a lot of people are aware of that. I love that we get to mix the best of both worlds. I love that we get to mix some old and some new. A special privilege that we have as people living in this era is it’s easy to romanticize our ancestors. There are plenty of pieces of that that I wish we still had. I know that maybe my great-great grandpa who was hauling buckets of water or freezing in his uninsulated shack would have loved to have my insulated house, my wood stove, my running water, and my light bulbs. We have to be careful to not romanticize all of those pieces.
I would love to see people be able to be more conscious and intentional with how they’re living and how the modern world is affecting them. So often, we get caught in this mindset that this is how it is. This is what we do now in 2020. This is how people live and there’s no sense questioning it. We can question it, and it’s healthy to question it. When we do, we give ourselves more options and more freedom. For me, maybe it’s not this versus that on this one, as much as how can we take the pieces a little bit from each side and weave them together to make our lives richer, more connected, and more fulfilling.
That’s what we’ve been saying all along in this versus that. We’re not saying you have to cook every single meal at home by grinding your own flour or whatever. You can do a combination of things. When we do, like I do where I buy things from a farmer’s market or a farmer, we’re supporting his work and saying thank you to him. I might not ever have my own homestead or farm. Maybe one day I will, but if I don’t, there’s still a community. It’s a combination of life. Most likely, most audiences now are in that hybrid space, I would guess.
I believe so. I love what you said about having that opportunity to support other people doing the work. That’s powerful. I don’t want anyone reading to feel down on themselves if they’re never going to move to a homestead or they never can move to a homestead. I don’t think it’s necessarily about how much land you own or what perfect little set of farm animals you have. It’s more about, “Are you aware of what you’re eating? Are you aware of how it’s being grown? Are you engaged in your community? Are you mindful of your impacts on the environment around you?” To me, that’s the homesteading mindset more than, “She has 50 acres and she has a milk cow.” If we can get more people to adopt that mindset, that’s where the power is.
Speaking of supporting others, are there ways in which we can support homesteaders? My idea and my understanding of a homesteader is a person that is self-sufficient with their family on a plot of land with their own food, animals, produce, and such that they’re growing and it’s enough for them. Are there homesteaders who have other offerings that we can invest in?
We’re seeing a lot more homesteaders start to branch out these days. They’re not going to be necessarily making all of their income from their little farm or their homestead, but a lot of folks are selling eggs, beef shares, raw milk, or vegetables. If you can find those people in your area and support them, it’s not going to be as convenient for you as going to the grocery store. If you’re going to buy honey from the neighbor down the road, you’re going to have to coordinate that and text them to make sure they have enough and it’s in season. It will take more effort from you. If you’re willing to put forth that effort, that means a lot to the homesteader or the farmer. It goes a long way in creating that community, strengthening your local food resources, and building those relationships.
Also, being a cheerleader. Homesteading can be discouraging. There are a lot of people who still don’t understand it. Even I still get the raised eyebrows, the comments sometimes, and people poking fun at it, which I’m pretty used to that now. When you have somebody come over and they’re like, “This is so cool what you’re doing. Can I help you butcher chickens next fall? Can I help you plant your garden or process your tomatoes?” it’s really special, and I appreciate those people who are willing to come alongside. That means a lot.
I agree with you that there’s a resurgence of interest in homesteading and these practical things of working with our hands and so forth. I’m thinking this versus that, now versus before, what attitudes do you see shifting in the populace at large maybe even in your own heart now versus Jill Winger years ago?
For me, the biggest shift is when I started this lifestyle, I was in it very much for the tangible pieces. I wanted the eggs, I wanted the tomatoes, and I wanted to figure out how to make sourdough bread. That was a great motivator at the beginning. Now, all these years later, I’ve asked myself many times over the years, “Should I still do this?” Technically, if you want to be honest, I don’t have time to do this. I have multiple businesses. I’m doing lots of different things like homeschooling kids and running a restaurant. I have lots of things to do.
Outside looking in, people would go, “Jill, you don’t have time to make the bread and keep the garden. What are you doing?” I’ve had that conversation with myself. What I keep coming back to is I keep doing this and I will continue to do this because it’s more than the sum of its parts. I love the bread and the tomatoes, but it’s the connection with my family, the connection to the soil, the connection to my food. It’s the mental health benefits I get from being able to go out to the garden after a long day, take some deep breaths, and plunge my hands into the soil.
It’s just that greater understanding that this lifestyle has given me about my place in the world. To me, that is the harvest that I’m truly after. I like all the other pieces, but that’s the most important part. That’s been a big shift for me, and I love that. I love seeing other homesteaders as they sink into this lifestyle and mature into it also having that same revelation. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
If there’s a person who’s like, “I am so happy to have heard this show and so many others. I’m ready to dive in,” do you have any recommendations for how to get going with this kind of intangible-tangible way of living?
My favorite place to encourage people to start is the food, which this show is such a great place to get food information because we’re eating three times a day at least. It is those food-buying choices. Maybe you’re not growing food or maybe you are buying food. What you buy and how you buy it has a big impact on your communities and your health. Educate yourself.
What you buy and how you buy it has a big impact on your communities and your health.
You’re not going to be perfect overnight. I don’t expect you to go through your cabinets and it’s going to be like Laura Ingalls’ cupboard in 24 hours. This is a process, don’t feel overwhelmed. Educate yourself, “What’s in that thing that I’m eating? Why would this be better? What happens when these ingredients factory farm versus grown organically or regeneratively?” Start to learn, and you’ll start to see the path in front of you become clearer.
The Weston A. Price Foundation’s mission is education, research, and activism. Education is number one. Thank you for all the things that you’ve shared that are inspiring and honest. I want to ask you the question I’d like to pose at the end of the show. A lot of folks who are reading want to feel better, more energetic, maybe have more clarity cognitively, and so forth. If there’s one thing they could do to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do, Jill?
There are so many options. We talked about food, so food’s a big one, but there are lots of pieces to food. As simple as possible, I would say make sure you’re spending time outside every single day, even when it’s a little cold or a little hot. It doesn’t have to be hours. Go for a walk, sit on the porch, and let the natural light bathe you, whether that’s morning light or that evening light. Start to become more engaged in your natural world. You might be surprised by the domino effect that happens when you start doing that.
I love it so much, Jill. Thank you for this conversation. It’s been a pleasure.
It’s so fun. Thanks for having me, Hilda.
Our guest was Jill Winger. You can visit her website, The Prairie Homestead, for tips on homesteading and healthy living. You can find me at Holistic Hilda. For a review on Apple Podcast, Jennifer Potts has this to say, “This is the most important show I’ve ever tuned into. Our world needs to know this message.” Jennifer, thank you so much for your kind review and the five stars. You too can leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. Go to the app, click on ratings and reviews, give us as many stars as you like, and let the world know why the show is worth tuning in to. It does help attract new audiences. Thank you in advance. Thank you also for reading. Stay well, my friend, and remember to keep your feet on the ground and your face to the sun.
About Jill Winger
Jill is the founder of The Prairie Homestead, one of the foremost homesteading websites since 2010. She is dedicated to helping others learn how to grow their own food and live a more fulfilling, old-fashioned life. Her practical and authentic style of teaching and storytelling has won the hearts of hundreds of thousands of homesteaders across social media and through the top-ranked Old Fashioned on Purpose podcast and Prairie Homestead Cookbook.
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