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.

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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….

 Haul

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!

Fruit

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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.”

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Zesty Zucchini with Pinto Beans, Avocado, and Tomatoes

Tofu

Salad #1

Lunch

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!).

 Snacks

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!

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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.

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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.

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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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October’s Challenge: Real Food

This month’s challenge comes from my dashing and daring older sister, Jessica.

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Jessica is a bit of a stickler when it comes to feeding herself and her family. She insists on buying organic as much as possible, avoiding food additives (such as artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives), and she categorically rejects foods made with GMOs, hormones, steroids, and excessive antibiotics. She’s really passionate about her food habits – I’ve seen her school people about food on more than one occasion – but she’s not necessarily dogmatic about them – I’ve also seen her eat Cheetos from time to time – but as a general rule of thumb, she tries to keep her food as clean and natural as possible.

So, when I asked my sister to think of a challenge for me, it came as little surprise that her challenge would be about food. But even more specifically, her challenge is about REAL food – meaning food that is (at some point) alive, close to the earth, minimally processed, non-artificial, and…well…real. Basically, if people were able to eat it in the 1700s, it’s probably a real food. So for the month of October, I can ONLY eat REAL FOODS.

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The Rules

(translation: what can’t you eat?)

Before I get into what I can’t eat, let’s talk about what I can eat. Throughout the challenge I’ll be using a cool blog for inspiration and clarification: 100 Days of Real Food. They have a really handy infographic on what real food is, which I’ve reproduced here.

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essica wants me to follow these guidelines, but she also wants me to step it up a notch. She wants me to make all my food organic as much as possible and keep in mind where my food is coming from so that I can try to eat as locally as possible. She said to me, “The challenge is not just about you learning more about your food and what kinds of food you’re eating, it’s also about seeing how your food affects the environment and trying to be as green as possible with your eating.” The local part is going to be difficult – especially when it comes to meet and dairy. But luckily, I live in San Diego, which is a veritable mecca of farmers’ markets! So for the challenge, I’ll be shopping at Farmers’ Markets as much as possible, noting where my food comes from as much as possible, and stopping by a local butcher. Yikes!

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Here’s what’s off-limits: refined grains (such as white/enriched flour), refined sugars (white sugar/corn syrup), artificial sweeteners (duh!), nothing out of a package that has more than 5 ingredients, no fast food, no fried food. In addition, Jessica wants me to be sure that I don’t consume GMO products, which means avoiding foods containing corn and soy (and their various derivatives) unless they are certified organic.

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In addition to these general rules, I’ll be using Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as my guiding compass throughout the challenge. His motto for healthy eating is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Throughout the book, Pollan stresses that our food system is intricately connected to the Earth as well as all of our social customs surrounding what eating is and how it should occur. The farther our food gets from it’s natural connection to the Earth, the less nutritious and more hazardous it becomes. And, of course, we cannot change our food habits unless we also interrogate the social contexts surrounding our food habits. Pollan sets out some useful guidelines that he argues can equip a person to change their food habits while in the midst of a social food system that is incompatible with eating healthfully and naturally. Here are his suggestions that can apply to me during this month:

  • Don’t eat food that your great grandmother (or great great grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products (this means anything that isn’t a whole, natural food) that have ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Difficult to Pronounce
    • More than 5 in number
    • That include high fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket, stay out of the middle
  • Shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
    • Meaning, it’s not just enough to avoid corn and soybeans if I want to avoid GMOs, I also need to look at the food that my food eats. Were the cows and chickens that supply my meat, eggs, and dairy fed corn (which they can’t digest and thus makes them more likely to get sick, thus the need for preventative antibiotics)? Are the plants I’m eating raised in synthetic fertilizers full of nitrates or sprayed with pesticides? Since all food is part of a system, I need to see my food as connected in a chain. I need to not only pay attention to the food, but also the earlier links in the chain!
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Eat as if you come from a traditional food culture (like French, Italians, Japanese, rural Chinese, etc)
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner (woo-hoo!!)
  • Be willing to pay more for quality food
  • Eat meals
  • Eat all your meals at a table
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (i.e. no gas station food!)
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook and prepare your own food

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I know, it’s a lot.

This is all a bit overwhelming. But, I have confidence that I’ll be able to do it. I’ve been eating real food for 5 days now, and I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, like:

  • Shopping for groceries takes forever when you are reading every single label.
  • This lifestyle is NOT cheap (more on this later).
  • This lifestyle takes a lot of time and patience.
  • This is HARD – there are so many things in the grocery store that are NOT food!
  • Eating out is basically impossible.
  • When eating only real food, I’m eating less sugar overall.

I’ll get into these lessons, as well as my meal and snack strategies, in the next few days. I’m only 5 days into this challenge, and already it is quite difficult. But, I know it will be worth it at the end of the month. Stay tuned!