Lessons from the First Week: What am I Eating?!?!

I have been sticking with the real food challenge for twelve days! As you know, this month’s challenge is to eat “real” food that is minimally processed, local and organic as much as possible, and containing absolutely nothing artificial. A good way to think about the challenge, I’ve learned, is to ask myself “did they have this in the 1700s?” If the answer is yes, I can probably eat it. This question is pretty easy when I think about processed food – “Did they have Cheese-Its in the 1700s – NO.” That’s pretty easy. But it isn’t always easy; the answer gets infinitely more complicated when I think about the conditions under which my food was grown/raised. For example, say I’d like to have some corn. They definitely had that in the 1700s, so it gets the green light, right? But wait, they didn’t have genetically-modified corn in the 1700s. So therein lies the complication. As I mentioned in my previous post, the spirit of the challenge is not just thinking about what I’m eating, but also where my food comes from and the kind of food/nutrients my food eats. But I’m learning that being aware of not just what you’re eating, where it comes from, AND the process of how it got to you is incredibly complicated. We have engineered a food system that is more opaque than transparent. As you can imagine, my food choices can get very complicated, very quickly. But I’ve managed the best I can over the last twelve days, and I’m quite proud of myself for sticking with it.


Pretty accurate…

When starting the challenge, I first needed to take stock of what I already had in the way of food and decide what was and wasn’t going to work. Most of the produce in my fridge wasn’t organic, so I gave it to my roommate. About half of my non-refrigerated food was okay, and everything else I had to set aside so that I won’t eat it this month. Take a look:

Before Food

Top right are the okay foods…

After clearing out my food, I took a trip to the farmers market then to Sprouts to get what I thought would be a week’s worth of food….


This is not a week’s worth of food…

I know my haul looks pretty impressive, but it is not a week’s worth of food. What it is missing is any coherent plan for MEALS; there are beautiful fruits and veggies here, but it lacks any plan for what I’ll be eating, day in and day out, for a week. I found myself needing to go back to the market a few days later. This brings me to Lesson #1 of October’s challenge: 

Always, always, ALWAYS have a meal plan.

Having a meal plan is not only necessary for avoiding repetitive trips to the market, it’s also very practical. When you’re unable to eat out because you cannot verify the ingredients in your meals, it makes grabbing a quick bite on the fly extremely difficult. Everything I eat needs to be made at home, including all my snacks. In addition, the need for a meal plan makes economic sense. Let’s face it, this food is expensive – and I don’t want any of it going to waste. In order to squeeze every last penny out of my food, I need to make a plan to be sure I eat all of it and not buy more (or less) than I need. So, what has my meal plan looked like? Let me give you a breakdown:

Breakfast: Fruit and Yogurt (often blended into a smoothie). This is such a staple. It’s easy, convenient, and if I blend it up, portable! I’ll usually add some flax meal to my smoothies for some added fiber and protein. Last week, I felt a bit more adventurous, so I boiled some farm fresh eggs, chopped them up, and placed them atop some local, all natural bread – both ingredients I bought at the farmers market. Yum!



Lunch: As fresh as possible, with minimal cooking, has been my motto. Over the last twelve days, I’ve usually opted for a salad or another mostly cold veggie lunch. For a few days, I made some “Zesty Zucchini” which is basically just zucchini slices tossed with lime juice, cilantro, chili powder, and cumin. I paired the zucchini with organic pinto beans, tomatoes, and avocados. Quite delicious! I’ve also delighted in making new and interesting salads. For one salad I took leftover tofu and added it to some baby spinach, tomatoes, and avocado. I also got a bit creative and made a kale salad with carrots, red cabbage, home-roasted almonds, barley, and tomatoes. For the salad dressing, I use a sauce that I buy at the farmers market that is so phenomenal it is LITERALLY called “Bitchin’ Sauce.”


Zesty Zucchini with Pinto Beans, Avocado, and Tomatoes


Salad #1


Salad #2

Dinner: This has been my least-developed meal because I usually only make dinner on Mondays and eat leftovers for the rest of the week. Also, there were a couple of nights that I made my own organic popcorn and ate that for dinner (don’t judge me!). Also, I went to visit my family in Arizona for a few days and my dad was in charge of the cooking; I picked all the ingredients and my dad cooked them to perfection. Last week, I made dinner on Monday (10/6) that lasted me throughout the week. I added free pastured-chicken to southwest style veggies and cilantro and topped the whole thing with THE BEST smoked cheddar I have ever tasted in my life. YUM!

Dinner cheese

I might make this again, super easy and tasty!

I also made a birthday dinner for my friend tonight but forgot to take a picture. I bought handmade linguini at the farmers market and added it to a bunch of veggies that I also got at the farmers market today. I made pasta primavera with a very tasty white wine butter sauce made from organic butter. I didn’t take a picture, but I have leftovers! I’ll take a picture of my leftovers along with my other dinners this week – I plan on getting a bit more creative!

Snacks: Almost always a piece of fruit just for the convenience of it. But I also made some awesome snacks of my own: home-roasted almonds and roasted chickpeas. For the almonds, I tossed a bunch of raw almonds with olive oil and some seasoning and baked in the oven for about 25 minutes. For the chickpeas, I rinsed a can of organic beans and let them dry completely. I baked those at 400 degrees for over an hour to make sure they were nice and crunchy. I then tossed the roasted chickpeas in some olive oil and spices. Two delicious snacks made with not too much effort (the oven does most of the work!).


As I mentioned previously, last weekend I visited my family in Arizona, which is lucky for my food challenge because my dad could probably barbecue an old shoe and make it taste good. While I was there, I had my dad take me fishing so that I could follow my dinner up the food chain and try one of Pollan’s suggestions in In Defense of Food, which is to eat wild food as much as you can. After spending the day fishing with my dad, I learned Lesson #2 of the October challenge: 

Honor thy food.

This is serious business. When I was living in China, it was very clear to me that most people there are much more in touch with their food. When you order fish in a restaurant, the waiter brings out a bucket of live fish and you choose the one you want. You can order a whole chicken from a market and the chicken you get will still have some feathers attached. Especially when it comes to meat, the message that I got in China was clear: this food was once alive. But in the United States, most of us buy our food in neatly packaged plastic containers, freed of most reminders that this thing was once alive. We can let meat spoil without realizing that something had to die just to be thrown away. We can let produce go bad without realizing that that plant had to die just to be thrown out. Now, to be clear, I’m not making an argument for vegetarianism necessarily (been there, done that). What I’m saying is that it is possible to neglect that our food, even our plant-based food, exists. Our food, whether plant- or animal-based, was alive, from organisms as alive as you or me. When you bite into a plum or cut into a piece of meat, you are eating an organism that was in the process of surviving on this earth, and now that organism has become part of your survival. To eat mindlessly, without a consciousness and a gratitude for your food, is just arrogant.

I learned this lesson very acutely after spending the day fishing with my dad. The day started out nicely – I was convinced we were going to catch a ton of fish.

On a boat

“I’m on a boat!”

We had just dropped anchor and set up the fishing poles when, just like that, we caught a fish! Well, actually, my dad was the one that set up the poles and reeled in the fish, but I was there for moral support!

2014-10-04 12.33.22

Go Dad!

I thought that was a great sign – we caught a fish and we were barely even trying! Surely we would catch more and we would all have a delicious fish dinner! But four hours later, we had still only caught one fish.

2014-10-04 15.42.53

You win some, you lose some….

After a long and rather uneventful day on the river, we packed up and headed home. I was grateful that we caught something, and that we weren’t dependent on fishing for survival. By the lottery of birth, we managed to be members of a society where we didn’t have to be dependence fishermen, so I knew that, even though we only caught one fish, we wouldn’t go hungry. But that is certainly not true for everyone in this world.

Fish (1)

Our little fish…

We took our fish home and my dad taught me how to fillet it properly. As it turns out, filleting a fish well is not something you know how to do automatically. But I managed, and while I was cutting the flesh I thanked the fish for being my dinner. My dad noticed that the fish didn’t have anything in its stomach, and that it must have been hungry when it caught the bait and got reeled in. That small fact made me feel so badly – this poor little guy was just looking for some food when all of a sudden he was caught and pulled to the surface. I thanked the fish again and silently apologized for tricking it into thinking it had found a meal when, really, I had found a meal. Then I handed my fish over to my dad to cook. I paid attention to how he cooked it, knowing full well that I could never make it taste as good as he could. And that night, I ate my little fish and thanked it once more.

Fish dinner

My fish along with some wild dove my dad had hunted previously and some veggies

All of your food, from the meat to the plants, was once alive. It had to die so that you could eat it. When you eat food, you’re eating something that once lived so that you can go on living. I have learned that all my food deserves for me to honor it by making sure it doesn’t get wasted (cue lesson #1 about a meal plan) and being aware of the life that it gives me.

I have other lessons that I’d like to share with you, but this post is already getting rather long. This weekend, I had a lot of really intense cravings and felt a bit impatient about needing to constantly prepare food, and I’d like to share some of my strategies and struggles with getting over those. I have also realized over the past twelve days that this lifestyle is fraught with political problems and questions of privilege and access, and I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t let you know how I’m thinking about and dealing with those issues. In addition, I want to clear up some of the misconceptions a lot of people have about these kinds of food choices. Believe it or not, “real” food does not equal “healthy” food. I’ve also noticed that everyone I talk to seems to have an opinion about this challenge that is good, bad, and everywhere in between. I’d like to unpack that a little.

All those lessons, and more, are soon to come in my next post. Until then, bon appetit!


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