Real Food: The Ups & the Downs

It’s been four months since we started our real food journey and two months since I began this blog. It’s been quite the adventure – from shopping and cooking differently to just plain thinking differently – eating real food has been a huge change in our lives; one I know is for the better.

But It’s a funny thing. Eating real food seems like it should be so simple. After all, how hard could it be to find and cook food with simple, whole ingredients that are unprocessed and chemical-free? Amazingly – it’s quite challenging.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our real food lifestyle. I love when my husband is thrilled about a new dish I’ve prepared, or I overhear him talking enthusiastically about the food we eat (or don’t eat). I love knowing I’m eating real foods, and I love how many more fruits and vegetables I eat now, and how many new foods I’ve tried. And I love knowing that my food is not filled with pesticides or refined, processed sugars.

I also love what this lifestyle – and this blog in particular – have inspired in me over the last few months. I’ve always had a passion for cooking (I even contemplated culinary school in my early twenties), but nothing like what I’ve experienced in my kitchen since January. Jeff has commented repeatedly (and positively) about my noticeable excitement about cooking real food, and how I’m sharing that passion with my friends and family, as well as all of you out there whom I’ve never even met.

But I don’t want you to think it’s all sunshine and rainbows. There is a small list of things that I find frustrating regularly, or shall we say challenging, when it comes to maintaining this new lifestyle. I thought I’d share some of them with you, so that perhaps you don’t feel all alone in this new real foodie world.

1. Condiments

finished mayo

A batch of homemade mayo will last up to a week in the fridge. Careful not to make too much!

Yes, I know – this seems an odd place to start. But I find condiments to be one of the biggest challenges. There are only two of us in this household, and there is only so much homemade mayonnaise, ketchup and buffalo wing sauce we can consume before these freshly-prepared accompaniments spoil in the refrigerator. Sure, some of these can be frozen for when you want them, but how practical is that really? The thing about condiments is you tend to want to use them impulsively, so the whole thawing process is a wee inconvenient. And I know they make organic versions of many condiments, but I’m trying to focus on unprocessed foods, and I still find that many organic packaged items have a longer-than-desired list of ingredients, mostly to ensure that they last longer in the refrigerator than the homemade variety. And they can be expensive, too. Sometimes I just want a squirt of ketchup with my eggs or a dollop of mayo for a recipe, and it can simply exhaust me to think about making an entire recipe for just a tablespoon. I find I’ve become the queen of substitutions, swapping ketchup with homemade spaghetti sauce in meatloaf, for example, as I can make a large batch of sauce and it freezes very well. One afternoon of cooking provides me sauce for weeks if not months. Or I’ll use Greek yogurt or sour cream in lieu of mayo. Sometimes it just requires taking a deep breath and using a little creativity.

2. Bread Products and Crackers

I try to make most of our baked goods from scratch, from bagels and crackers to pita bread and muffins. You name it; I’ve tried making it. But sometimes I wish I could find a package of whole wheat flour tortillas with fewer than 18 ingredients. I can’t find a single one. Not at Trader Joe’s or my local organic food market. Nowhere. Now I love Food for Life’s sprouted corn tortillas as much as the next person, but sometimes flour tortillas are what I want, and I have yet to find an acceptable brand with a short list of simple organic ingredients (if you know one, please leave me a comment and tell me where to find them!). Baking these goods from scratch also means that when I run out of, say, Seedy Crispy Crackers, I know I have to get back into the kitchen to whip up a new batch, as opposed to the convenience of grabbing a box from the shelf.

3. Convenience/Prepared Foods

This is kind of a lump category, but I want to know – how hard can it be to make trail mix without canola oil and added sugar? Or prepared foods at an organic market that don’t have enormous lists of ingredients? I know they’re often completely organic, but I just don’t think they all need to be in there. We don’t buy much in the way of convenience foods, mostly for this reason. For example, I’ll buy bulk raw organic nuts and unsweetened dried fruit and mix up my own trail mix. But sometimes I just wish I could grab some hummus off the shelf without seeing so many unnecessary ingredients, especially at stores that purport to sell “healthy” foods.

4. Potato Chips

potato chips

I know what you’re thinking: those potato chips don’t look so bad! But they were. Chewy, soggy, yuck.

I’m going to be honest, we still buy Cape Cod potato chips. I’m sorry, but there is nothing that substitutes for store-bought potato chips. Sure, kale chips are tasty, and I’ve even had modest success with sweet potato chips, but making real potato chips at home was a total failure. We tried baking them and ended up with a soggy mess. I’m sure we could try frying our own, but I’m not much of a fryer, and frankly, I don’t have time to spend making chips. Cape Cod chips are Jeff’s absolute favorite (and I think they’re pretty darn delicious, too). While they’re made with canola oil, which is processed and a no-no anywhere else in my kitchen, at least the only other two ingredients are potatoes and salt. Could be worse. And we eat far fewer of them than we used to, so you could consider them a treat now.

5. Dining Out

I’m very fortunate to live in a rural community with a focus on farm-to-table, but sometimes you just want a slice of pizza or a quick sandwich and that farm-to-table restaurant you love probably doesn’t serve those items, not to mention they’re not always affordable, nearby, or – as the case seems to be in my neck of the woods – not open when you want to go. And even at restaurants with many organic and/or local ingredients, you don’t always know what you’re getting in your food.

So what can you do to make real food life a little easier?

Plan ahead. I can’t emphasize the power of planning enough. Planning is important for any way of eating. For example, if I know I want mayo for a recipe, I think about how else I can use it in recipes that week and plan my grocery list accordingly. Or I’ll reduce the size of the batch to try to make only what I need, if possible. The same goes for baked goods. If I’m going to make a half dozen pita breads, I know that in addition to gyros, we might be having pita pizzas that week, too.

Buy in bulk and know your pantry. Don’t want to run out of trail mix? When you see your stores of nuts and dried fruits running low, head to those bulk bins for great deals. Almost out of hummus? Stock up on cans of organic garbanzo beans and tahini. If you know what’s in your pantry, you can make sure you don’t run out of your favorite items. And watch for sales. I just bought 10 cans of organic beans at Vitacost.com because they were marked down substantially. I know I’m going to use them, so it’s worth it to me to stock up now for later. Same goes for the meat department at my store. If I buy 5 pounds or more at a time, the price goes down. The other day I needed 2 pounds of ground turkey, so I bought 5 and divided the remaining three into plastic bags and froze them for later.

Buy it if you can. Sure, you can make your own nut milks and butters or applesauce or you can dry your own fruit at home, but if your store grinds organic peanuts into fresh peanut butter, go ahead and save yourself some time and buy it there. I’m not saying don’t try to make it at home – by all means – knock yourself out. But don’t lose your sanity trying to do it all. This should be fun, not a huge burden.

Remember 80/20. So you want that slice of pizza and the only organic pizza place in the whole city is closed. Here’s where that 80/20 rule comes into play. We try to eat real, whole foods at least 80% of the time (hopefully more). The remaining 20% is try-if-you-can-but-it’s-ok-if-you-don’t. The world won’t end.

These are just a few of my experiences so far and tips for navigating the world of real food. Please feel free to share your best tips in the comments below!

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