With the holiday season in mind, Daily North Shore decided to share stories about local people who have used a personal or familial challenge as fuel with which to make a positive impact on others. What follows is one of those stories…
Like many great ideas, Meg Barnhart’s Zen of Slow Cooking began as a simple solution to an ongoing problem: how to—with work and several kids, their range of after-school activities, demands, and overlapping schedules—find time to put a home-cooked dinner on the table.
“I was out with a girlfriend one night,” Barnhart recalled. “I was feeling like such a failure. And she said to go buy yourself a crock pot.”
The next morning, without hesitation, she went out and purchased a slow-cooker.
“What I noticed was that it filled the house with this delicious aroma,” she said of her first experience with the crock pot. “And how calming and grounding it was for everyone—including me.”
Barnhart says it also provided some much-needed flexibility in terms of a set dinnertime; unlike a traditionally prepared meal, each one of her three kids could eat the same, fresh food on their own, individual schedule.
“It became this sort of healing element,” Barnhart noted. “It really brought me back to my childhood, when we were around the dinner table at 6:30-7. I tried to recreate that experience the best way I could for my own kids.”
At the same time, Barnhart had been doing advocacy for adults with disabilities, prompted by her son, Doug, who deals with a specific set of challenges related to speech and language.
“My intention was to help chip away at the workplace transition barriers that exist for people with any sort of ‘disability,’” Barnhart wrote in an e-mail, “Be it cognitive, mental, or emotional.”
In 2011, Barnhart decided to use her passion for slow-cooking and all its healing elements to advance these goals—grounded, of course, in her desire to create a more welcoming workplace environment for her son, and others like him.
Just a short while later, in the fall of 2012, Barnhart founded the Zen of Slow Cooking with her “foodie” partner, Jane McKay. What started as a blog—designed to help any home cook find success in the kitchen—has since become a full-fledged business, and a sort of lifestyle for likeminded parents. Available online and at select stores, the Zen of Slow Cooking sells proprietary organic spice blends and infusions, specifically tailored so others can recreate Zen’s favorite, slow cooking recipes.
“It’s a very underdeveloped business in the food industry,” Barnhart said. “This is the product I would’ve looked for on the shelves.”
Included in each spice tin is a signature recipe, a Zen moment—Barnhart thinks each home cook needs an inspiring thought for the day—as well as a shopping list, detailing the additional whole food ingredients required to make the blend’s corresponding dish.
This is what Barnhart likes to call the “soul” of the business—to make any mother or father’s home-cooked meal successful. The “heart,” though, lies in Waukegan’s Planet Access, where Zen packages their tins, and where Barnhart and McKay have provided meaningful employment opportunities for Doug and others like him.
“One of the things about our ‘zen team’ at Planet Access is the level of care, detail, and enthusiasm they put into packaging our blends,” Barnhart wrote in an e-mail. “We also feel that by demonstrating that our ‘for profit’ business can flourish with an atypical workforce, that we’ll encourage other businesses to think outside of the box.”
With her goals within reach and her business burgeoning, Barnhart is effusive about the support she’s gotten from the Lake Forest community.
“It was really just an idea with a dream to create employment for people with any sort of ‘disability,’” she said. “I don’t think we could’ve launched it anywhere but here.”
For recipes, spice tins, and more information on The Zen of Slow Cooking, please visit their website.