Shopping Clean: On Buying Real Food

In one of my previous posts, I shared with you my horror of learning about what I was actually putting onto my family’s plates: processed human hair. Gross!

Now that I have removed the offending “not-food” from my pantry, I have to ensure that when I shop, I shop clean and buy real food.

Now, I don’t know what your shopping routine is like, but mine is highly unpredictable, which can make it stressful at times. No, I’m not talking about impulse buys of ice-cream  at the grocery store (although I am definitely guilty of those!); I am talking about corralling preschoolers in a grocery store during the late afternoon when everyone’s energy levels are all over the place (Read: All I want is a nap) while I attempt to get through a grocery list quick enough to be able to have enough ingredients on hand to make something healthy and yummy for my family to eat. Some days this experience is amazing – my kids act like little angels, help me find items off my shopping list, take turns pushing the cart, and ask me to buy broccoli (for reals). And some days … well, let’s just say some very nice strangers come over to me to give me very kind words of encouragement (Thank you grocery store angels!).

In any case, I need some kind of quick and dirty way of figuring out whether an item is real food or just a poser, and I need to be able to figure it out while keeping preschoolers entertained and somewhere near my cart. This means I need to be able to evaluate a food in less than 15 seconds. To do that, I have developed a mental cheat sheet to help cut down on time. I’ve been working on this over the past few weeks and have found that over time, it has become easier and more automatic to choose foods that don’t have artificial preservatives, colors, additives, and flavors in them. Here are my tips in no particular order:

  1. Shop at places where it is easy to find clean food. I have found that I can drastically cut the amount of time I spend selecting food if I shop at places where clean, minimally processed food is abundant. For example, I have found that independent bakeries, natural foods stores, and farmer’s markets often (but not always!) have pre-made food that is fresh, made from real ingredients, and tastes really good.
  2. Restructure your grocery list so that the bulk of your food is unprocessed. For example, instead of buying a frozen chicken teriyaki dinner entree, buy chicken, fresh veggies (pre-cut if you want to spend extra to save on prep time), and a sauce (or make your own!). You’ll still have to read the ingredient label on the sauce, but at least you will know the chicken and veggies are fresh and unprocessed (plus you have more freedom over deciding which veggies and cuts of meat go into your food). Unprocessed foods that require little or no label reading include all the following:
    • Fresh fruits and veggies
    • Fresh cuts of meat
    • Dairy (milk and eggs).
    • Dried or milled foods (whole grains, dried fruits, beans, legumes)
  3. Read no more than 5-10 food labels during each grocery store trip. Yes, you will need to read labels to find out which foods are the real deal and which are posers. However, there is no reason to force yourself to read all of them in one trip. Decide which dishes you will “clean” ahead of time (Your favorite casserole? Stir fry? Pasta?) and then read labels for that type of food during that particular grocery store trip. The good news is that once you have found a clean substitute, you won’t need to read the labels again. The new brand will become your “go-to” brand (and who knows, it might taste better too!).
  4. Spend less than 15 seconds looking at a label. I don’t read food labels, I scan them looking for problematic ingredients. Here are some tricks I have to speed up reading labels:
    • Are there any ingredients I cannot visualize? …coconut milk…carrageenan… (“WTF does carrageenan look like?). Stop. Food goes back on the shelf.
    • Are there any ingredients my toddler cannot pronounce? …milk…calcium propionate…(“Pro-PIE-on-ate? PRO-pee-on-ate?”) All I know is I am not eating it.
    • Are there any acronyms in the food list? …chicken … PDMS… (“Is that like PMS???”) Doesn’t sound like a food. Out it goes!
    • Are there too many ingredients in this label for what it is? I know from cooking that pasta sauce has a handful of ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic/onions, and spices. If the label of the basic pasta sauce I am looking at has 2-3 times as many ingredients, it goes back on the shelf.
    • Is sugar one of the top 3 ingredients? I love sugar, but sugar should not be the star when it comes to my plate. For much of human history, refined sugar was not used in food plus it’s consumption been linked to health problems. Do yourself a favor and avoid foods that have sugar towards the top of the ingredient list (which means it makes up the bulk of what you are eating). My one exception: Treats or condiments that are supposed to be sugary (like cookies or jams).
    • If 15 seconds have passed and I am still reading the ingredients label, the food goes back on the shelf.
  5. Avoid Poser Foods. Want to drink milk that isn’t from a cow or goat? Want to eat cheese that is low (or no) fat or meat that isn’t from animals? Poser foods like these often have additives in them to make them have the consistency, aroma, or appearance of whatever real food they are imitating but with a lot less nutritional substance. If you really want the taste and texture of milk without buying the real thing, be prepared to spend a good chunk of time reading the labels of competing brands. Or spend that time googling a DIY recipe for it. Your homemade version might taste better than the store-bought one (or it might not), but at least you will know what went in it (and possibly have a funny story to tell about your epic cooking failure if your version doesn’t turn out so well).
  6. Buy items that don’t have packaging. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, meats, beans, etc. are exactly what they are and don’t come in packages. In addition to knowing you are buying a real whole food, you will also save time not having to read labels or un-package food. Plus, you can feel good knowing that you are reducing your waste by purchasing food that doesn’t have any packaging that needs to be recycled or left in a landfill to rot over the next several decades.

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