Friday, October 7, 2011

A month without processed foods?


This article got me thinking… Could we go without processed foods for a month? And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how close we are already to not eating processed foods. The October Unprocessed challenge calls for people to eliminate processed food from their diet for the month of October. AND, it does allow for one "free" meal a week, acknowledging moderation, which is something I frequently tout.

Since figuring out that I’m gluten-intolerant, our eating habits have changed. In the “Gluten Days”, we still ate pretty healthy, cooked at home fairly regularly, and certainly didn’t see McDonalds as our home-away-from-home. But, we definitely always had eating out in our back pocket when we were feeling lazy and didn’t want to cook. We generally avoided traditional “fast-food”, but found ourselves at places like Applebee’s or other chains more often than I’d like to admit. (For the record, I’m not convinced Applebee’s is any better than McDonald’s… nutrition fact comparisons would likely support my suspicion.) Then, 2 years ago, suddenly most restaurants were not an option. It was nearly impossible to eat out and eat gluten-free. It’s mind boggling to think about how much has changed in the past few years – even 2 years ago, most restaurants were unable to tell you what menu items contained gluten!

We found ourselves cooking at home ALL THE TIME. Sure, we could walk over to the local restaurant down the street, where I can talk to the owner & chef about ingredients and preparation techniques, but the same 5 menu items get boring. Fast. So, we improvised. The slow-cooker became my best friend. I started reading gluten-free blogs and trying out new recipes. And because SO MANY processed foods contain some kind of gluten as a filler, we found ourselves eating mostly whole foods and made-from-scratch meals.

The other trend over the past few years, in addition to gluten-free restaurant options, has been the influx of gluten-free products hitting the market. Want pretzels? Try Enger-G Gluten-Free pretzels! Want sandwich bread? Try Udi’s Gluten-Free breads in your grocer’s freezer section! Want mac-and-cheese? Try Annie’s Gluten-Free Macaroni and Cheese, prepared in no time at all, right out of the box! Now don’t get me wrong, I love all three of these products, and many more gluten-free processed foods. When people ask me what I miss most about the Gluten Days, I say without hesitation that I miss convenience more than any one food. (I can make just about anything that approximates its gluten-y counterpart these days… it just takes longer than buying it in the store/restaurant.) I greatly appreciate that I now have many, many choices of gluten-free convenience foods for the days when I’m feeling lazy. I also appreciate that many restaurants are either identifying menu items that happen to be gluten-free, or even taking the next step to intentionally prepare gluten-free foods. BUT (you knew that was coming, right??), here’s what I know about myself: my body doesn’t feel nearly as good eating gluten-free processed/convenience foods as it does when I stick to whole, unprocessed food.

It takes a little more effort, or advanced planning, to eat unprocessed foods, but I have to say, it’s a whole lot easier than most people think. For example, take dining out at Applebee’s: it takes us 15 minutes to drive to the restaurant, another 10 minutes to wait for a table, 15 minutes to figure out what to order (that includes the time it takes the staff to dig out the Menu Items Allergen List that’s buried in the office under a stack of paper), and 20 minutes for our food to arrive. That’s an hour before we have any food in front of us! Think of all the things we could make in an hour at home: pasta with sauce made from canned tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, olives with a side of veggies from the freezer; rice made in the rice cooker topped with veggie and tofu stir-fry (or if The Architect catches me before I sneak in the tofu, veggie and chicken stir-fry); pork chops in the cast iron skillet with baked sweet potatoes and salad. Granted, my pasta above probably qualifies as a processed food, and I know I should use more dried beans than canned to limit sodium content, but I’m certain that our food is far more nutrient-rich, lower in fat and calories, and likely a heck of a lot tastier than the cheap cut of steak and cheese-filled mashed potatoes we might have eaten at the other place.

People in my life have heard this rant many times before (and hopefully those people stopped reading paragraphs ago when you realized I am, yet again, repeating my tirade!), but it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming to eat whole, healthy food. Trust me, any dish that involves more than 6 ingredients doesn’t usually find it’s way into our kitchen. I like simple. I like easy. And I demand tasty. Out of necessity, in our house, we find ourselves eating very few processed foods, spending more time at the farmers market and local grass-fed meat supplier, less time at the grocery store, and a little more time in the kitchen. But I can assure you, preparing food hasn’t taken over our lives – we both work more than 40 hours a week, and usually have meetings or rehearsals 3-4 nights a week. We still watch prime-time tv. And yes, we still eat out. But we do it in moderation, and with the full appreciation of what we’re sacrificing by eating processed food.

So maybe I will sign on to the October Unprocessed challenge. I’m willing to bet we could do it, and we might not even notice the difference. What about you? Think you’re ready to give it a whirl? Maybe you can start with one meal a week that doesn’t involve processed foods. Maybe one day a week. I bet you can do it, and I bet it will be even easier than you think.

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