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.

Cleaning Pantry

Hello again! It’s been a while since I last posted. Due to the California deluge, many people have been indoors most of the time, which has resulted in everyone in my family taking turns getting sick multiple times (including yours truly). I guess we are just really good at sharing. Maybe I should cut back on the “sharing is good” lecture I give my kids whenever there is a quarrel or just add in a caveat…hmm…

In any case, I am still scarred from eating hairy bagels and have been working on cleaning my pantry. This task has been surprisingly easy and difficult simultaneously. It’s been easy in that now I read the list of ingredients on everything that comes in a box, bag, jar, or can. If there is an ingredient on the list that I can’t picture in my mind (WTF is ‘palm stearin‘???), then out it goes.

Reading ingredient labels is simple and surprisingly quick since once you rule out an item, you never have to re-read the label again. However, I have found that once I determine a food is on the no-go list, I am faced with an ethical dilemma:

Is it better to eat this bag of not-food-posing-as-food (shudder) or to throw it out (shudder)?

While standing in my kitchen deciding the fate of the box of faux-food that is in my hands, I am instantly transported back to family dinners decades ago. There I am sitting at the table staring at the overcooked, slimy spinach on my plate, and hearing my father lecture me about world hunger: “There are children starving right now who would love to have the privilege of eating this.” Silent and blinking, I am staring down at the shiny, smelly green mess on my plate wondering why anyone would want to eat it, while also wondering if there were a way to somehow invite this figurative person over for dinner so they could finish the food on my plate…

And we are back. It’s 2017, and here I am holding the not-food instant soup mix in my hand. It’s an open container, which means I cannot send it to my local food bank. And, I am hearing my father’s voice in my head “There are children starving right now who would love to have the privilege of eating this.“… I decide to punt and put the box back into the pantry for now.

I tell my husband, who is a full-on pragmatist, about my dilemma and he suggests we eat through whatever we already have and then stop buying it. We’ve eaten it before so why not just finish it out? Makes complete sense. However, once you know something, it is very hard to un-know it. So now when I see the marked boxes, cans, and jars of not-food, I can’t actually bring myself to eat them. So I try to punt again – I’ll just let (make?) my preschoolers eat the “berry” cereal they love that has additives in it to make the berries look nice and red. However, guilt sets in as I watch them eating it. Little kids can get really sick from things that minimally affect adults (think viruses, contaminants, and so on), so why am letting them shove additives and not-really-healthy (or fruity) food into their faces when I can just find a substitute?

After a few guilt-inducing meals, I decide to chuck all opened not-food “food” packages with one important caveat: If my pragmatic husband will willingly prepare and eat the food himself until it’s completely gone, then it gets to stay.

I go through my pantry and put all the not-food into the compost and all of its packaging into the recycling. Guilt assuaged; pantry cleaned. Done and done.

 

How to Institute a Veggie Loving Household: Step One – Examine Yourself

Neither my husband nor I started out loving veggies. Years ago, words like “kale” or “brussels sprouts” would send shivers down our spines. That has changed. Now we love roasted brussels sprouts and frequently add kale to our soups and smoothies. And our young kids love eating them too (cue birdsong and waterfall sound effects). So, how did we get here?

The first thing we did was have an honest look into our veggie eating (or not eating as it were) habits. Those discussions really got us started down the path of eating well, and I think the questions we asked ourselves can be of use to you as well. So, Step One is to examine your and your partner’s (if you have one) attitudes towards vegetables. Here are a few questions to get your discussion started:

  1. To maintain a balanced diet, what percentage of your breakfast/lunch/dinner plate should be filled with fruits and veggies? (Answer is below)
  2. How much of your plate is usually filled with fruits and veggies (10%? 33%?)? Be honest here.
  3. Why do you want to eat more veggies?
  4. Forget your kids. What is stopping you from eating more of your veggies?

Before we delve into our tips and tricks, let’s examine how much of a plant-based diet we should have. According to the latest recommended dietary guidelines for Americans, half – yes, half! – of your plate should be occupied by fruits and vegetables. No, this is not some kind of state-mandated punishment. This is the amount of vegetables needed to maintain a healthy (read not dying from heart disease, cancer, etc.) lifestyle and a hot bod (most veggies and fruits are low in calories and high in nutrients). And let’s be honest here, who doesn’t want to be the hottest and healthiest version of themselves?

Alright, now that we know why eating our veggies is crucial for our well-being and how much we should be eating, look at your answer to Question #2. Did you answer 50%? If you didn’t, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, get ready to start eating more veggies more consistently and look for opportunities to add them (more on this in a future post).

Now that we have come to terms with what we are eating verses what we should be eating, let’s focusing on what can motivate you to eat more veggiesDo you want to fit into your pre-baby jeans? Do you want to age gracefully (and look good while you’re doing it)? Do you want to get off the sugar-and-caffeine rollercoaster (veggies can help stabilize your blood sugar)? Find your reason and write it on a sticky note somewhere where you can see it when you need a reminder (maybe inside the cupboard or the fridge)? Then, focus on your goal and remember that every piece of spinach, asparagus, and okra will help get you closer to your goal. Slip ups happen. That’s okay. What matters is that you keep on focusing on your goal.

Now, let’s take a look at your answer to Question #4 above: What is preventing you from eating more of your veggies? Is it time? Money? Distaste for all things kale? Really sit down and figure out what is stopping you from eating your fruits and veggies on a daily basis. Then, come up with a way to overcome it (Buy pre-washed veggies? Buy on-sale veggies? Find a new way to cook kale?). By doing so, you’ll get yourself to eat more veggies. And believe it or not, your family will follow eventually.

Once you get yourself on the fruit and veggie wagon, you will feel better about yourself and you’ll be a more convincing salesperson to your anyone nearby (“Mmmm…fennel! I love this!). And you might just end up loving veggies in the process too.

 

How to Have Fun Doing Repetitive Tasks

Have you ever felt like Sisyphus, doing the same task over. and over. and over again with no end in sight? Dishes get cleaned. Then they get dirty. Then they get cleaned again. Then they get dirty. Same goes for the floor, the countertops, the clothes. You get it.I get it. We all get it.

Well, the good news is that there *is* a way to make repetitive tasks seem not quite so boring, soul-sucking, or repetitive. I’ve spent the past few years finding ways to make tasks feel less repetitive and more (dare I say it?) *fun*. Yes, yes, I really did just say fun.

Before I get into my tried and true ways to enjoy yourself while doing chores, there are two very important ground rules that you must enforce when it comes to making chores fun:

  1. The person who is doing the chore gets to determine the most enjoyable way to do it.
  2. If anyone dares to make fun of someone else’s enjoyable way of doing the chore, the person doing the chore gets to stop doing the chore and pass the baton (or mop, dishrag, or sponge) to the critic. This will ensure a peaceful, clean, and fun chore-doing household.

Now, without further ado, here is how to make repetitive tasks fun:

Get jammin – Crank up the volume to your favorite tunes and really let loose. This is the time when you shelve your inner critic and sing and dance and most importantly, feel, like you are the most talented candidate on the next American Idol. Pick some energizing songs , and if the mood strikes you, change the lyrics to lighten your mood (“Nasty! Nasty grime. Don’t mean a thing….”).

Get guilty – Indulge your guilty side and give yourself permission to watch something fun on TV while you do the laundry or chop veggies. Maybe you really want to watch an HGTV show or Monday Night Football but feel somewhat guilty doing so. Well, allow yourself to watch that show only while you are folding the laundry. No laundry no show. This might just make laundry day one of your favorite days of the week.

Get competitive – Are you ever so slightly Type A? Turn your drudgery into a competition. Time yourself – Can you beat your own record? Compete with friends, spouses, or kids – winner gets something cool (First pick of chores the next week? Favorite dessert? Control over the weekend family activity?)

Get philosophical – Stream a podcast, Ted Talk, or audio book or just contemplate life. Either way you’ll feel smarter at the end of the chore. Not bad for time spent scrubbing the shower.

Get sporty – Did you know there are people who have found ways to turn vacuuming into an aerobic workout? Seriously. Put on your gym shoes and your headband and start doing some squats or lunges while you pick up toys and move furniture. Turn vacuuming into a cardio activity. When you’re done, you’ll get to check two items off your list: Chores and Exercise.

Get real – Enjoy the present and use your senses to turn a tedious experience into something sensational. Can you feel the warm sun on your skin while you weed? Can you hear a bird singing? Is the water you sip every few minutes a nice, cool relief? Focus on the details and you may be surprised by how much there is to experience.

Get problem-solving – Doing something “boring” interestingly often leads to an “Aha!” moment. So, next time you have a complicated problem to mull over, save it for when you are doing a chore. You’ll have time to think about many, many different ways to solve it. And, if you don’t solve it then, maybe by the time you take a shower the answer will come to you. Did I mention vacuuming is a great chore for this?

Get talking – Have someone to talk to? Maybe a relative who you haven’t been in touch with for a while or a “Chatty Kathy” who always seems to call you at the wrong time? Take the initiative, put on your ear buds, and call them when you have brain power and time to spare. Kathy will never know you are cleaning the toilets while you chat with her (just don’t drop your phone in or flush!).

Get repetitive -If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Make a punch card for yourself. Every X times you vacuum the house, you earn something “free.” For example, maybe every 4th time you vacuum, you treat yourself to a $4 latte.  You could even “level up” by making the reward better for the harder/less pleasant chores (scrub showers 4 times, get a manicure).

Get flexible – Manage your chores so that you do them on a time and day where you can be the most efficient and have the most fun. For example, some people like to have a MEGA LAUNDRY DAY where they wash, dry, and fold all their laundry. Other people like to do a load every other day. Figure out which one you like (and which method will actually result in getting the dried clothes back into the dresser), then stick with that plan. If the plan gets boring, switch it up!

Get thankful – Sure, this sounds like something your mother would say, but really, how lucky are you that you have all these conveniences? Dishes to eat off of (no sand in your dinner – hooray!). Clean clothes to wear (now you won’t smell like B.O)! A dog or cat that you get to cuddle. Take the time to look at your mess-creating things and really relearn to appreciate everything you have. And if you cannot bring yourself to appreciate your stuff, give other people the chance to. Bring your unloved items to Goodwill or the Salvation Army or have a yard sale and turn them into cash.  Then, you’ll never have to clean them up again. Now, that is something to be thankful for!