Monday, December 27, 2010

Making the transition to real food

Anyone making the new year's resolution to eat more real food in 2011? The other day Maman a Droit posted that she was reading the labels on oatmeal and decided to start making more things from scratch. Others get fed up with feeling bad, with eating chemicals they don't recognize, with trying to eat low-fat and finding it isn't working for them. Some people see Food, Inc., and want to change the way they eat.

Only real food isn't something you can just up and start doing, like working out. You don't go from TV dinners or canned food casseroles to sprouted tortillas and lacto-fermented sauerkraut overnight. It's too complicated to do, your taste buds would rebel, and your family might stage an intervention to get their junk food back!

Luckily, real food isn't an all-or-nothing deal. If you even make one change in your diet, you might begin to see improvement in your family's health. I've been slowly changing my diet to include more real food and less processed food over the past three years: first by cutting out sugar, then by making stock, then reducing white flour, until what I'm eating now is probably 75% real food. The other 25% will come in time, I hope! And as I nourish my body more than stressing it with toxic byproducts, my health does seem better. I've been sick much less often and feel less dragged down.

Thinking about it, I realized there's no one way to ease into eating real food. Instead, where you should start depends on what holds you back from real food. So I made a list of challenges to overcome, and gave a few steps you should take to master each challenge.

Challenge: Real food is complicated. I don't know how to cook it. I don't even know how to find it. Where do people get pastured meat? Or coconut oil? Or fermented cod liver oil?

Step one: Start small, with things you do know how to cook. If you're currently eating a lot of pre-prepared food, start cooking dinner every night. A menu plan is really helpful for that; many websites will show you how to make one. I do mine in my head, but a simple list on the fridge (Monday = chicken, broccoli, rice; Tuesday = spaghetti, green salad) will keep things more clear with very little trouble. Remember to plan for all courses of the meal, not just the entree. You can make it easier on yourself by making casseroles that include everything you need (these are as easy as mixing chicken, rice, and frozen vegetables, and putting cheese on top) or having very plain sides (frozen vegetables, bagged salads, brown rice or potatoes with butter). Whatever you do, stop buying boxed, frozen, or canned pre-prepared meals. The ingredients label of these products should be enough to convince you! If you're accustomed to eating dessert every night, but no one's really attached to it, cut it out. You can add it back in when you know how to make healthy desserts of your own.

Step two: Read about real food techniques and recipes, and add one to your repertoire every week or so. Nourishing Traditions is the book to start with, but another simple one is Real Food Basics from Modern Alternative Mama. My advice is to start with making stock, which is the easiest. After you've perfected your stock and learned to make many different soups with it, you might move on to lacto-fermentation. That's the stage where I am right now ... it's taken me about a year, but I think I'm about ready to move on to (maybe) soaking my grains. Baby steps!

Step three: Find sources for real food. This is a step I haven't taken yet, or I'd have more help for you! One good resource, though, is Not only will they tell you how to find real milk at your location, those same sources for milk often sell produce and pastured meat. For online purchases, browse real food blogs. They have giveaways all the time, and that's a good way to get a free try at things like sprouted flour, coconut oil, and cod liver oil. Or just buy what they recommend -- they always try before they recommend these, so you know you're getting good quality.

Challenge: Real food is so expensive! How can I afford it when the food I get coupons on and the food I get from the discount store is all pre-prepared?

Step one: Work out what you spend on food in a month. If possible, save receipts so you know where the money is going. That amount is your budget -- the goal is to improve what you're eating without changing that amount. Of course, adding a bit to that budget would be helpful, if you can. We've cut out eating out, which we used to do occasionally, and that $20 a month or so is useful in the grocery budget. After all, even at Wendy's you're probably going to spend $10 for one meal for two people. At home, I could make a better meal for $3!

Step two: Cut out everything unhealthy or unnecessary. Stop buying prepackaged meals; they are rarely economical, even at a discount. Sure, they seem cheap, but they don't go very far. A can of soup serves one or maybe two, whereas a pot of soup can cost the same and serve the whole family. See how you could make the same from scratch. Start making stock -- it is SO frugal, because it uses bones that would otherwise be thrown out. Buying whole chickens is a smart move, because you can stretch a chicken for several meals, and then make stock from the carcass. Other things to cut out include anything with soy, sugary desserts (like cookies or candy), and anything that has MSG on the label. In short, if the ingredients list has more than one or two things, don't buy it. It's neither "real" nor frugal.

Step three: Learn how to cook frugal real food. This blog has a few suggestions -- some of my favorite recipes are chicken soup, shepherds' pie, and chili. In order to stretch food the most, serve a small portion of meat, a medium portion of vegetables, and a large portion of starches (potatoes, rice, beans, etc.). Have people eat the meat and veggies first, and then have the starches available if people are still hungry. Nutritionally, they are not as healthy, but they are a good source of calories for hungry husbands and teenagers. On a budget, you're not likely to have room for pastured meat at first (though if you can buy it in large portions, you may be able to afford it), but buy the best quality meat you can afford. This generally involves buying cheaper cuts. Organ meats are both frugal and nutrient-dense. If you can't stomach liver (I can't) try chicken gizzards and hearts, diced up small in soup. Or beef heart added to stew or chili along with other meat.

Here is another good source. There's a lot on the same blog which is very helpful.

Challenge: My family is not used to the taste of real food.

Step one: Replace tasteless substitutes for the real thing. There won't be any rebellion from the masses when you switch out margarine for butter, vegetable oil for olive oil, Crisco for lard or coconut oil (for frying -- never fry with unsaturated, liquid oils), artificial sweeteners for real sugar (or better yet, rapadura, honey, or maple syrup), storebought cookies for real cookies. Switch conventional meat out for pastured meat, caged eggs for pastured eggs, UHT-pasturized milk for low-temp pasturized or raw milk, conventional veggies for organic veggies. Whatever changes you can afford to make, make them -- the nutrition in your food will be greatly increased and the taste unaltered or improved.

Step two: Check out your spice cabinet. Is it packed full of different flavors like onion, garlic, sage, rosemary, thyme, allspice, basil, and oregano? Or does it have two or three "spice mixes" and nothing else? Make sure it's well equipped, and then set about weaning your family off the flavor of processed food. Almost all processed foods contain MSG, which is that savory taste everyone misses when they eat homecooked food after getting used to processed food. You can't replace that taste, but you can make better tastes with skillful use of spices -- and fat. Fat carries flavor, so make sure you're using at least a little in your cooking. Older cookbooks will be more helpful than new ones. Once your tastebuds get used to real food, you'll find the taste of processed food is bland and predictable. Good chefs know to stay away from MSG and other processed ingredients, because real ingredients have much more depth of flavor.

Step three: Increase the nutrition in the food you make. Swap out a regular muffin recipe for a whole-wheat, soaked version. Slowly reduce the sugar in your desserts, a tiny bit at a time so everyone's tastebuds can adjust. Once you're used to real food, the old cookies and cakes will seem way too sweet. Real-food desserts that are sure to be a hit include homemade ice cream and custard.

There are many other possible challenges to real food. For instance, many say they don't have time. For sure, real food is easier for a stay-at-home mom to do, but it's possible for working people as well. When I was pregnant and working full time, I made a lot of crockpot meals and soups. Though lunches and breakfasts varied, dinners were almost always real food. There are some websites that can help with that.

Note: I do not do reviews or sponsored posts. I recommend many things in this post, but I am not compensated for my recommendation in any way. Most I have not personally tried, but have had recommendations from people I trust, so I think they're the best option. There are many other sources I did not mention as well.


Sarah Faith said...

Good post.

Sally Thomas said...

Nice post, and very timely as we start to emerge from our Christmas-feasting haze.

Things that have helped me:

1. The shop-the-perimeter rule at the grocery store: produce section, dairy, meats. I just don't go down the aisle with the breakfast cereal (hardest thing to wean my kids off, incidentally -- and we've never even done the hard-core sugar stuff), and I only shop the freezer section for bags of frozen vegetables, which are a good staple to have on hand when the produce runs out.

2. Make-ahead freezer meals. This has been my kick this fall. I'll buy whatever chicken is on sale in as large an amount as I can afford, then make up freezer-bag meals with homemade satay marinade, or curry sauce, or some kind of cornmeal "dredge" with herbs, using uncooked chicken. Then when I need a meal, I pull out a bag and cook it up. Or I'll make stock, then use the meat in enchiladas or chicken-and-rice, which I then freeze. Making my own "convenience" meals means that I can control what's in them. And it's fabulous not to have to start thinking about dinner every day at

3. Most farmer's markets are closed this time of year -- ours is -- but when they're open, that's a great place to find organic meat, eggs, etc. We haven't done this yet, because we don't have a deep-freeze, but friends of ours habitually go in together on a cow, purchased from and butchered by a local farmer. We get eggs and, occasionally, goat's milk from farming friends who don't want to sell what they produce, but are willing to share.

4. Meat is expensive, as you say, but you can do a lot with cheap things like stew beef, mixing it with vegetables in stew, stir-fry, rice dishes, and so on. I used to buy whole chickens more often than I do now; my family has grown to the extent that I can't feed them on one whole chicken, if chicken by itself is an entree. Still, I'll buy one now and then and throw it in the crockpot in a bed of rice to cook all day.

5. It really, really helps to have fed your children decent food from the beginning. Though we're not perfect, I've never been one for snacky food, or "kid food" like chicken nuggets -- from the time they could manage solid food, all my children have eaten more or less what was on offer at the dinner table, and nobody's turned out to be really a picky or limited eater. Regardless of what you're trying to sell them on, nutritionally, it's jut massively helpful, not to mention better for them, to have been always eating what the grownups were eating. (and whatever is in the house will serve as a snack -- lately my kids have been warming up halves of baked sweet potatoes in the microwave. Nom nom!)

Anyway, this has gone on long enough, but frugal, real nutrition has been a subject dear to my heart for a long time . . . Again, nice post!

Sheila said...

Great tips, Sally! I forgot to mention the "shop the perimeter" rule. I always do that because I know none of the things I buy are in the middle, except for dried beans. I have to stop my husband from cruising the aisles and buying things on sight! It's a great way to avoid impulse buys without having a strict list. (A strict list keeps me from following the sales -- I get whatever meat and produce is the best price.)

Paul Stilwell said...

Here's a couple good sites (among the plethora), for those interested:

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