Savannah and I shared a Tofurkey as part of our Thanksgiving dinner this year. I get a kick out of the way they put together a meal that presumably resembles the traditional holiday fare. And any effort to make it easy for revelers to save the life of a bird gets my vote.

But novelty aside, I have to admit a processed meal just doesn’t satisfy like fresh food does. By the time I get through the cardboard box and plastic wrapper, I’m beginning to crave some crisp green broccoli and a sweet potato.

The same is true for our nonhuman family members. Nothing beats a meal of fresh ingredients prepared lovingly in your own kitchen. Of course, many of us were raised with the notion that the best diet for the dogs and cats in our lives comes from a package with “100% Nutritionally Complete!” stamped on the label. And any thought of offering “table scraps” or even a different brand of dog or cat food was snuffed with warnings of digestive retribution. But feeding packaged food day after day, year after year, is about the same as it would be for you or me to sit down to a bowl of breakfast cereal three times a day, seven days a week, for the rest of our lives. Geesh—a piece of spinach, please!

The best reasons to feed packaged foods are convenience for humans and profit for packaged food manufacturers; the well-being of our animal friends comes in pretty far down the list. For one thing, every individual—canine, feline, human, or otherwise—differs in terms of nutritional needs, so there is no such thing as a diet that’s “100% Nutritionally Complete!” for every dog or every cat. And even if a particular formula is right for one of us today, it probably won’t be tomorrow. Changes in stress levels, activity, and even season mean our nutritional needs change from one day to the next. And in any case, the single most important ingredient in any diet is variety. Have you ever had a run of eating pasta too many times in one week? Or had lunch from the burrito shop more often than you’d like to admit? After a while your body just wants a change.

The animals who share our lives are no different. They thrive on a varied diet of fresh, wholesome food for the same reasons we do. When foods are processed they lose many valuable nutrients, while fresh foods are vibrant with vitamins, enzymes, phytonutrients, and simple life energy. What’s more, while it’s virtually impossible to know for sure the correct balance of vitamins and minerals for a given animal on a given day, when we vary the diet our bodies and those of our companions can draw the nutrients they need from an array of different food sources from one day to the next.

There are a few a dirty little secrets, too, about the wonders of many processed, packaged animal foods. Have you tried reading the list of ingredients? It’s not easy, is it? That’s because many of them contain artificial colorings (because the manufacturers want you to think it looks tasty), flavorings (much of the flavor has been processed out, but if your best friend doesn’t gobble it up with gusto, you’ll switch to Brand Y), and preservatives (because you never know how long it will take to get from factory to food dish). And just what is “meat meal,” anyway? Like many of the vague terms on that label, it’s a way to avoid telling you what you probably don’t want to know. In this case it means pretty much anything that comes from any part of any animal body, whether or not it was healthy for the animal it came from or the one who’ll consume it. It gets worse. Unless you buy from a manufacturer who is genuinely committed to top quality ingredients and humane treatment of animals—and those companies are a rare breed; you need to read carefully and ask lots of questions to be sure—that “meat meal” may include diseased tissue from sick, terribly abused animals, and may even have been tested on dogs and cats just like the ones you snuggle with at night.

So what’s the alternative? It’s simple: Choose the food your animal friends eat just as you choose your own. Prepare their meals in your own kitchen, using a wide variety of fresh foods. Too busy to cook your own dinner, let alone a second meal for them? It’s much, much easier than you think. Chances are you can simply adapt the foods you buy and prepare for yourself to make excellent meals for them.

If you’re still not sure how to get started, check out the Nutrition section for simple guidelines on what to feed, and tips on how to make it really easy. In the meantime, you can simply start adding fresh foods to your friend’s commercially prepared meals—a bit of protein, some carbs, fresh vegetables, even fruit. If it’s been a while since he’s eaten this sort of thing, start with a few bites and increase the amounts gradually.

There’s no question that the small amount of time and effort it takes to make the switch to home-prepared food will reap enormous benefits in achieving and maintaining good health. Savannah is a great case in point. When we met, she was five years old; her coat was coarse and dull, her energy was poor, her teeth were covered in plaque, and her breath smelled like there was a dead animal living in her mouth. Within days of switching to a diet of fresh, organic, home-prepared meals, the terrible odor was gone. Within weeks her energy improved and her coat began to shine. By the end of the year her teeth were sparkling white. She’s not unique. I’ve seen animal clients find relief from an array of symptoms—from skin problems to digestive trouble, behavioral issues to lameness—simply from a change in the diet.

So tonight Savannah and I are back on our usual fare—no cardboard box or plastic wrapper in sight. A stir fry of root vegetables with lentils and brown rice was just right for a cold rainy night. And when Christmas rolls around in a few weeks, I think we’ll stick with our old favorite holiday dinner—kabocha squash filled with stuffing made from wild rice, dried fruits, and nuts,…a mound of crisp green broccoli,…and of course tofu pumpkin pie. Yum.