Six years worth of steps

A few emails came in after my post about starting to drink raw milk in our house inquiring about my progression to a tree-hugging wacko food journey and how we manage to eat healthily with such a big family.

I think it's worth noting the obvious: there is no such thing as eating perfectly. There is also no end to the rabbit's hole of whole, natural foods eating. There are probably a hundred things I eat that some folks would think were disgusting abuses to my body. I am certainly not an expert and I do not think I am particularly radical. Case in point, after that post about our breakfast time conversion, a reader pointed out to me that agave nectar is being marketed as a natural sweetener, and we had been consuming it, when in fact, it is not great for you. I am now sticking with local honey or real maple syrup in our oats. I am continually tweaking and making little steps to improve the health of our family. And based on the prompts and questions from some of you, dear readers, I will give you a peek into this process.

Some of the ways we eat and philosophize about food will not work or be appealing to everyone. It took me the last six years to make all these changes, one or two at a time. Slowly adapting, slowly overhauling how I shop for food and what is important to me. And I will submit that with each one, the effects I felt in my well being, saw in my waistline or on the scale, and the peace of mind I experienced were in their turn, noticeable. I feel better when I do these things, period. It has been a bit rocky when on vacation or when visiting family. Food can be divisive, and everyone has to figure out how to feel good and not offend the heck out of everyone around them.

If you are a big brand shopper, especially because you depend on coupons to make a budget work, many of these suggestions could be difficult to pull off. Many big brand foods contain things that I believe are harmful to my health when consumed regularly. If you are on a tight budget, there is no two ways about it: quality, whole, natural (as in, not modified in a lab) foods cost more. And I am not even talking about purchasing all certified organic foods because that is even more expensive. It is hard. And I think everyone needs to do the best they can. I don't think anyone should apologize for doing their best to be healthy and feed their family and that is going to look different for all of us. This post is not a guilt trip.

Rather, it is look at some of the baby steps I, as a non-doctor, non-nutritionist recommend based on my own personal journey towards eating whole and natural foods. Have I tripped all over myself disclaiming enough? Yes? Have at it, take what you will, or throw it away. Twenty six small things I do, and maybe you can, too.

Step 1) Start reading labels of things you buy. Look at the ingredient list on these items in your fridge and pantry:
ice cream
condiments like BBQ sauce and ketchup
packaged foods like boxed macaroni or frozen dinners
cake mixes
canned soup
all store bakery desserts
flavored oatmeal packets
peanut butter
salad dressing

Does the food have more than five or six ingredients? Do you know what all of them are? Ask yourself, was this food grown, or was it created in a lab? (Hint: if an ingredient has more than five syllables, there is a good chance it is a substance not found in nature.)

2) End the soda habit. Or limit it. Or just end it. There are no positive physical effects of drinking soda and so so many bad ones.  Your liver and your brain with thank you.

3) Decide that High Fructose Corn Syrup is poison. When you see it on a food, teach your brain to recoil in horror. This helps motivate one to find a different brand. This pervasive, nasty sugar is pumped into everything. Even hotdog and hamburger buns and ketchup. Heinz has an alternate brand with no HFCS, Annie's is a brand without it, if you look, you can find it. If you live long enough without this sugar, and then accidentally eat it, you will actually be able to tell by how the food tastes if it has this as an ingredient. (And you may feel sick afterwards.)

4) HFCS's best friend is hydrogenated oil. Decide this too, is a poison. If you find this in any of the foods listed in Baby Step number one, find a new brand. For me, in order to decide to switch from 90% name brands meant deciding the ingredients in the food were too gross to consume. I knew how I felt when I ate it, and I didn't want that anymore. And if I didn't want to eat it, then I had to find alternatives.

5) Avoid aspartame, or Splenda (sucralose) like the plague. This is in all diet sodas and a lot of yogurts. Yoplait and Dannon cram their yogurt full of this stuff.

6) Change your grandma's pie crust recipe. You don't have to use the Crisco. It doesn't matter what she claims, cold cold butter will work just great, and the natural fats found in the butter and not as bad for you as the processed, hydrogenated, so stable it could-make-it-through-nuclear-war-unscathed shortening. If you are desperate for a shortening, Earth Balance is a brand that has a product that might work for you without the bad stuff.

7) Invest in a really good blender. If you can afford a Vitamix, a Ninja or BlendTec, do it. They are worth it. Research them, save for one, buy a refurbished one, hunt craigslist. But if you can't afford one of these, you can still reap the benefits. See, you want a good blender because you can use it to add way more raw fruits and I veggies to your daily meal plan. I have a smoothie full of vegetables and fruit every day, and my children too. See how I do it here. I contentiously fill up on vegetables so I don't have room for other things. I have friends who manage this with a hand held immersion blender, though it's a little more work and a little less "smooth." The infomercial that hooked me and sold Hubs on a good blender is here. Please watch this, it is fascinating.

8) Work hummus into the dip of choice for vegetables instead of Ranch dressing. Hummus tends to have a respectable amount of olive oil in it, but it has protein and is better for you than Ranch, which, incidentally has a lot of sugar and  unpronounceable ingredients. With every lunch and dinner, I serve my kids chopped up carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes and they love hummus, which has no sugar.

9) The cheap syrup, name brands and store brands for your pancakes and waffles are usually made up 100% HFCS and other modified-in-a lab dyes and flavors. Switching to real maple syrup is vastly more expensive, sadly. But it's a step.

10) Make your own bread. It scared me the first four or five times. Yeast is terrifying. But home made bread tastes good, and doesn't have the loads and loads of unnecessary sugar and stabilizers and preservatives that store breads do. Natural breads in the store are WAY too expensive. It's insane how much they cost, so making them makes sense for us. Though, if you are blessed enough to live near Trader Joe's, I recently found their sprouted bread is not ultra-expensive and tastes awesome. When I need to buy bread because of time constraints, this is my number one go-to bread. Why sprouted? Read here.

11) Peanut butter. Oh my land. If you have the fancy pants blender, you can make your own nut butters with almonds, sunflowers, peanuts, cashews, etc. If you don't, Jiffy finally came out with natural peanut butter that doesn't have hydrogenated oil. Costco's all natural peanut butter is fantastic as well. Check the label, and never get the regular stuff again. There should only be two ingredients in your peanut butter: peanuts, and a little salt. Period.

12) Whenever you serve anything that is a conduit for carbs and cheese, add as much greens as possible to it. Examples: never make a quesadilla or a grilled cheese or pasta without adding spinach. Make it a habit to always have spinach in the house no matter what. If I have made spaghetti for dinner, I put a large handful of raw, uncooked spinach or arugula in the bottom of my bowl, then add the pasta to it and stir it up. The steam from the pasta wilts it just a little and now half of what I am eating is actually good for me. For me, filling up on something green each meal is a worthy goal. I have never told my kids they have to do this too. Sometimes I insist on a few bites of salad, but most of the time, I worry about me and let them learn. They see me grab the greens and add it to everything I eat. The power of example is starting to work. Some of the kids are asking for it. I don't make a big deal, I just say "Sure!" And pass the bag of spinach.

13) Don't buy Cheetos. Don't buy Capri Sun. Don't buy Doritos. Don't buy Oreos. If the junk food isn't in the house, no body eats it. If it's at a birthday party, lucky kids or you. A few times a year never killed anyone.

14) Meat. Whew, this is a big one. When you can, when there is a good sale purchase organic, grass fed beef. And organic free range chickens, though even those labels can be misleading sometimes. This article is helpful. 

15) To better understand the disgusting mess that is the poultry industry and a lot about the problem with the food we eat, please watch Food, Inc. Here is the trailer.

16) Always have a bowl of apples and pears out. I buy apples and pears 8 lbs at a time and my children have at least one a day, each. (Yes, we go through 5-12 apples a day.) Hungry kids are whiny kids. If they are hungry enough, they will eat the proffered fruit and he happier.

17) Make your own crud-free popcorn. All natural kind is very expensive in the microwave bag. I do my own version with straight up organic popcorn kernels, a little salt and olive oil in a brown paper sack, microwaved for 3 minutes. It helps to soak the kernels for 1 minute in a little water, as more of the kernels pop when they have a little moisture. The bag overflows with popcorn, and there is no nasty fake butter or too much salt.

18) Instead of pretzels or chips, pistachios and cashews or peanuts. My kids love high protein snacks and I buy boatloads of raw or lightly roasted salt free nuts. It is the perfect pre-dinner or on the run snack.

19) Water at every meal. The kids do not need that much milk. They don't need juice. Both, especially the good kind, are expensive. We have water for every meal except for holidays, with so far, no exceptions.

20) Meal style: we get away with this because 1/3 of the food we eat is Ethiopian in origin, but we do a lot of "ethnic eating style in our house." That is a fancy way of saying, we eat with our hands a lot. I know this would drive a lot of people nuts, but I have found my kids are engaged and excited and more relaxed eating when they can eat with their hands. Ethiopian food is not meant to be eaten with utensils. If kids are picky, trying a new food with hands could improve the experience. I know mine like to feel it out, literally, with a pinch here, a sniff there. I have a huge problem with chewing with mouth open, but hands on eating, I try not to mind because I see it improves their willingness to eat new things.

21) Fast food. You you can live without it. Like the trans fat, like the HFCS, if you can convince yourself it is akin eating toilet bowl cleaner (or something) the temptation goes away.  It can become a fun record to see how many weeks, then months than years one can go without eating fast food. I am closing in on nine or ten years (I have lost count, sadly) and I have never been tempted.  Also, this is the best stand up bit about MacDonalds ever. Watch it and weep with laughter. (It largely makes fun of me.)

22) Before going out to dinner or to a work party or some place where there will be excellent food, likely prefaced by a huge bowl of bread, eat half an apple, or some carrot sticks. Take the edge off of hunger, so you don't face plant into the bread when it comes out. Going in there starving can mean if you're humanoid it will mean overeating the on the nutritionless bread. A word about bread. * I actually don't eat it much. When I was 12 I read an article about Cindy Crawford. She claimed one of her secrets to keeping trim for her job was eschewing bread. I had never heard of not eating a specific food, but now as an adult, I completely agree.  That bread I make is mostly for the kiddos. I make wraps with tortillas, or skip it all together and turn whatever I was going to eat into a salad. Bread really hurts the female butt region after age 30 I realizing, so learning to skip bread and pasta and use them as a treat once or twice a week is a good habit.

22.5) I TOTALLY have a huge problem over eating injera and the not-healthy Ethiopian food. I do still keep with my habit of adding raw greens and tomatoes to almost every bite of Ethiopian food, so I am filling up on healthful things too. I make a compromise because this food is important to our family culture, and darngit, I am getting good at cooking it, so I eat it enjoy it, and make sure I am still offering the raw veggies with those meals.

23) Cream of Nothing. If a recipe calls for "cream of chicken" or "cream of mushroom" do not buy it. Do not use it. It's better to buy a pint of cream from the dairy aisle and add a little chicken broth or a few minced mushrooms than that stuff. The amount of sodium in that stuff is disgusting, not to mention the use of the bad soy. The kind that is not meant to be consumed.

24) Rice, beans, lentils. These three things bought in bulk (cheaply) can be tweaked a hundred ways to make filling meals. I haven't bought canned beans in a few months. I buy black beans and kidney beans in bulk and soak/boil them in water to get them to the soft "canned" consistency. It is astronomically cheaper, there is way less salt and frankly, we have so many people in this house one can of beans is only enough for one or two people. Not helpful over here. And contrary to popular belief, those beans don't have to soak five hours or overnight. In a pinch, you can boil those suckers for 1.5 hours and have perfectly lovely beans. Yeah, that's a long time, but I used think it was an all-day process to use dried beans and it's not.

25) Organic.  If you are lucky enough to live in a place where things grow, joining a CSA or co-op can dramatically reduce prices on local, organic produce. We don't eat all organic produce for the same reason you might not: holy expensive batman. For those of us on a budget and who need to prioritize any organic purchases, here are the types of produce that have the highest pesticide residues—and which do not.
 12 Most Contaminated
  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Grapes (Imported)
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes
12 Least Contaminated
  • Onions
  • Avocado
  • Sweet Corn (Frozen)
  • Pineapples
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  • Kiwi Fruit
  • Bananas
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Papaya
26) Before we stopped buying cereal, I discovered this brand. Mom's Best. These cereals are devoid of HFCS and hydrogenated oil and imitate the fun, yummy cereals kids and adults love. They taste even better than the real thing. When we do buy cereal, Mom's Best, Three Sisters, Cascadian Farms granola,  and Kashi are the best tasting all natural brands in my opinion.

I hope these steps and ideas and philosophies are helpful.  What do you do in your house to improve overall nutrition? What is your favorite "health tip" or philosophy around food? What should be Step 27?  Do you have an questions? Now it's your turn.

And if you need to come back and remember


Lisa-Marie said...

Thanks for a look at some nice realistic changes to consider! I LOVE my CSA (so glad I am blessed to have a good one)... and am slowly working at making changes in what I eat. I love the documentary you mentioned.. it's one I have shared with many people when they pick on me about trying to eat locally grown foods.

LisaF said...

I love this. I used to think Lean Cuisine or weight watchers shakes were healthy, and I am starting to read more that suggests all that stuff is not real food and actually really bad for me. I really like these ideas and the links are helpful. Thanks for sharing

Pauline said...

I had no idea about some of this stuff. I don't know if I can stomach it. Ignorance is bliss, give me my oreos!

Stacy and Rick said...

I like that word that one of the FB commenters said "clean eating." This is some serious food for thought. Sorry for bad pun.

findingmagnolia said...

Love this. Especially love it that you posted it right after I went to Trader Joe's and was all "Woohoo! It's Christmas! I'm buying the cheese puffs!" Your timing is impeccable.

I love how you broke it down into steps and noted that it took six years; I would encourage any family wanting to change eating habits to take it one step at a time. If you try to do it all at once, it is so, so, so hard, but doing one thing at a time makes it manageable. It's so doable, and I'm glad you posted about it. We started by eliminating HFCS and hydrogenated oils; I feel like we did the toughest thing first, since one or both of those were in almost everything we were used to eating, and the rest has been much easier.

Now I just need to get my hands on a Vitamix.

Barb Aloot said...

Amen! I love this. I grew up eating brightly colored cereal and super processed everything, but randomly, my parents held the line on carbonated drinks. None for children. I am so grateful. I too take the approach that we do what we can. I haven't eaten fast food in about 20 years with one exception. After years without it, it was horrible and disgusting. My son has yet to see fast food.

Doing it at home is one thing, the hard part is trying to hold the line with other people who think you're being awkward or snobbish as they attempt to shove some chemical laden cr*p at your kid. I am often thankful that my son is gluten intolerant and that most people don't really understand this. It forces them to check everything with me because they are afraid of making him sick. Seriously, folks, if you are struggling with others feeding your kid rubbish, make up some food allergies. Tell them HFCS or whatever makes your kid sick. That's actually true, but if you frame it as a medical issue, people back off with the junk food. Tell them your doctor said to avoid whatever ingredient, because your doctor should say that anyway.

YGR said...

I think refined sugar is a big one you didn't touch on. It is also bad, not just HFCS, which is worse but not by much. The more we can avoid white granulated sugar and stick to stevia plant or maple syrup the better. Sugar is a huge addiction and it is so so bad for us. Treats are fun but like cookie monster says, should really be a sometimes food, not nightly, like I sometimes do. Step 29, cut out 50% of the treats we eat. It really is poison to our bodies. - thanks for this post!

Dr. Mulder said...

This is a great overview. I love to see how many people are starting to recognize the flaws in our lifestyles. I read a statistic the other day that over 85% of Americans consider themselves average or above average health, and every preventable disease is on the rise. So it nice to see that more and more are recognizing the mistakes we are making. When you really think about it, it is quit simple; our cells are constantly replacing and the don't just appear from nothing, they are created from the ingredients we put in our mouth. So good ingredients equal healthy cells, and healthy cells are prepared to take on lives everyday challenges like flus, viruses, cancer, etc.

I love the Jim Gafgan (sp) skit he has another one on hot pockets that is hilarious.

We are creating an initiative called the Thrive Health Initiative. That is working to unite like minded individuals, businesses and practitioners to drive natural living and health care to be America's primary source of health.
You can check out our kick off event at www.thrivehealthfair.com we are in the very initial stages but just keep an eye on it over the next few months.

And lastly just to add one more thing to your research you can look into pioneer yeast for your home made bread.
Love the article,
Dr. Jason

Elijah G. said...

"Food can be divisive, and everyone has to figure out how to feel good and not offend the heck out of everyone around them."

Wow. This is a revelatory statement! I think this is true in a lot of people's lives. I am making every effort to make sure it's not true in mine. I have never considered food to be anything close to divisive.

scooping it up said...

Elijah - I have learned the hard way: when on vacation or staying with family and friends, they bust out food and snacks that I'd mentally committed to never eating. In my experience, it can feel judgmental and rude to others if you abstain, say no thank you, make a Whole Foods run. By taking care of yourself in the best way you know how, it can really upset others. I remember the first time I was with in-laws and they got take out KFC for dinner and I treaded the murky waters of "there is no way I am touching that" in my head and going hungry for dinner without anyone finding out I would not eat it because calling attention to the abstinence is trouble with a capital T. To me, it has been a learned balancing act. I still won't touch KFC, but at least they know it now, will tell me ahead of time if fast food is in the cards, and I can bring other things for me and my family. Food really can divide when one is making changes and others don't know about it. "What since when will you not eat this?" Peer pressure is rampant with adults, too!

S said...

This is awesome! Tx.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the assault on HFCS (as opposed to other sweeteners) is frustrating because it's not really targeting the main issue. The notion that it's poison but other sweeteners aren't just isn't based in fact. We should avoid sweeteners, period.


Elijah G. said...

Scoop - Having been blessed to be pretty close to both extremities of this issue, I would say this: peer pressure comes from both sides. In fact, I felt more peer pressure from the "pure eaters" than from the fast food people.

I mean, whatever. Everyone's got their opinions and need to make the choices they feel are important. I recoil at the notion that this is truly becoming a new morality.

scooping it up said...

Anonymous, yes all refined sugar is trouble for our bodies, and I certainly could stand to eat less of it. To me there is a really important distinction between regular sugar I bake with and HFCS: HFCS is sneaked into foods that require no sugar. It can be eaten all day by folks who don't even know how much sugar they are eating. When I consume sugar, it is on purpose and in my power and knowledge how much: because we made cookies, not five or six times a day sprinkled into bread, crackers, cereal, granola bars, yogurt, soda, juice, salad dressing etc. I do think it's worse, because of the way it's used.I feel the same way about sucralose in every "diet" product out there. That is why I think it is important for those who want to change their eating habits to start by looking for those ingredients specifically, because if you take out those, you will reduce a ton of sugar intake in your day, week. I eat treats, I enjoy them way too much, but 99% of the time it is what I make so I know what it is in it and how much. - Thanks for chiming in!

Kate and Jeff said...

I love that skit about McDonald's...we don't eat McDonald's or any other type of fast food, but I do watch Glee and read Us Weekly :)

Food is tough, no matter what way you look at it. We don't buy Oreos, excess junk but even stuff you think isn't that bad, once you actually read the label can be pretty scary!

Good job on keeping it all together for your family :)

Melissa said...

I applaud you for all that you do to feed your family healthy foods. We'll get there. .. someday.

Anonymous said...

I'm growing sprouts on the kitchen counter year round. Delicious as a side or on a burger. My kids love them.

Sara said...

While visiting my brother and his family last summer I had a really hard time keeping B on a semi-healthy diet. She wanted to copy her 10-year old cousin who basically ate sugary snacks all day. It was really hard for me to keep my mother shut about how unhealthy they eat(and I didn't which caused friction. I also hate when I tell people I don't eat at McDonalds and they say - oh you will not that you have a kid. It's like they can't conceive that there are actually families that don't eat a fast food places.

Sara said...

I had some typos in my last post. 'Mother' should have been 'mouth' and 'not', 'now' regarding Mcdonalds....

Better Than Eden said...

what a GREAT post. I was just thinking of doing something similar but it wouldn't have been nearly as in depth as this. One thing I would add is that buying a quarter or half a cow or pig from a local farmer is an awesome way to get cleaner beef or pork. You do need to spot the upfront costs and have a good sized freezer but man, you make up for it in the long run! We now get our beef at about $3 a lb and that includes steaks, roasts, ground, everything. That's even cheaper than the dirtier meat! It's completely organic and grass fed and I love having it stocked up and don't have to worry about buying meat for a year! Thanks for the post. I certainly have work to do in getting more fresh veggies in and less sugar but we think very similarly.

Anonymous said...

Saved as a favorite, I really like your site!
Also see my page - OnlyCruiser.com

Jamey... said...

We only do a little bit of this in our house. I think the adults in our house will be going soda-free in 2013.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear more about how you work bread-making into your busy life. I give it a try, and then just can't figure out a good schedule or the right recipe. Would love your thoughts.