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It's possible to wean off packaged foods

Cooking from scratch is an important way to improve our health. It's also one of the greatest dietary challenges.

Nobody knows that better than Jean Anderson.

Anderson, a Raleigh native living in Chapel Hill, is an award-winning food journalist and cookbook author. Her latest book, “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking,” won prestigious best cookbook awards from the James Beard Foundation and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

Anderson has been helping ordinary folks learn how to cook for more than 50 years.

Anderson has witnessed first-hand how trends in cooking have evolved:

The Julia factor. Julia Child surfaced in 1963 with her television cooking show, “The French Chef.”

“We all thought she was a joke,” said Anderson. “She was comic relief in the beginning, this big, hulking giant with her falsetto voice.

“But she was the first celebrity chef to champion cooking from scratch.”

The age of granola. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, Americans began to travel internationally.

“Suddenly people were writing colorful books on Italian and other ethnic cuisines,” said Anderson. This coincided with the youth movement. “The whole vegetarian thing surfaced then.”

The show-off chef. By the 1980s and into the early 1990s, cooking at home became a popular hobby. High-end kitchen appliances and other gourmet features became more common.

“We called it the era of the edifice complex. Chefs would pile food on a plate so high that you could hardly eat it.”

Enter the Food Network. When the cable TV station aired in 1993, chefs who understood food took their lessons to the masses. But that was short-lived.

By 1997, the network was sold and chefs were replaced with entertainers. “Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee and Paula Dean are all hustling packaged foods,” said Anderson. “It's depressing. We've done a 180.”

So where does that leave us?

“We're very conflicted,” Anderson said. “We have the localvores who seek out farmers markets. It's an enlightened group. These people are well-heeled and well-traveled.

“But the masses follow Rachael Ray.”

What does Jean advise for those who want to wean themselves off packaged foods?

A good cookbook written by a reputable author. Anderson's “The New Doubleday Cookbook,” for example, includes instructions for all skill levels.

Take a good, basic cooking class, too, Anderson advised.