The Process of Eating Less Processed

Weaning My Family Off of Processed Foods – While Sneaking in Some Hidden Fruits and Veggies


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“Doesn’t that do bad things to the food?” He’s Seven and Gets it.

For family movie night this past weekend, we watched Planes, the story of a crop duster who competes in a race around the world. As we are watching the plucky crop duster go about his work of spraying crops, my seven year old son does that seven year old thing of asking questions and wants to know what the plane is spraying on the plants. I explained that they’re chemicals to kill weeds and bugs. Without even missing a beat, he says, “But doesn’t that do bad things to the food?”Crop Duster

Turns out that the idea of chemicals on our food being bad is so obvious that even a seven year old gets it without any prodding. I know that scientists will tell you that you can actually ingest a certain amount of these chemicals without causing damage. But on a common sense level, it seems best to avoid eating chemicals that are in fact made to disrupt cellular function of other living things. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to feed my family all organic in order to avoid these chemicals. I do my best, buying organic when I can. And our best is all any of us can really do. In the meantime, I’ll explain to my boys that yes, these chemicals aren’t very good for us, which is why we have to wash their fruits and veggies.

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Queso Worthy of the Super Bowl – Without Velveeta

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For better or worse, snacks are an integral part of football watching at my house. And usually, those snacks have involved “football cheese”, or Velveeta mixed with salsa. So this year, after I started feeding my family less processed foods, one of my husband’s first questions for football season was what he was going to be able to snack on during games.

Obviously, Velveeta does not make the less processed cut. I mean, a “cheese” that can last years without being refrigerated… you don’t even need to look at the ingredients to know there’s very little natural about that. (And don’t even get me started on the so-called “Velveeta shortage:…)

I tried a few different recipes over the course of the season looking for a reasonable substitute. Some used a cream sauce base, others were just melted cheese. And this is what I decided is the best less processed queso or “football cheese”. It uses cream cheese (which still isn’t perfect – but is far better than velveeta – and if you can afford it, there are organic versions that only contain milk and cream).

Less Processed Football Cheese
8 oz cream cheese
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup hot salsa (Look for a brand that contains only ingredients you could actually use in your own kitchen without added chemicals or sugar. Or you could make your own by pulsing together 2 small tomatoes, 1 jalepeno pepper, one clove garlic and one small onion with a teaspoon of salt in your food processor)

Mix all ingredients together and microwave 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each 30 seconds until bubbly and hot. Serve with your favorite tortilla chips or carrots and celery sticks. YUM!


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Linda’s Sugar Cookies – In Memory of My Mother in Law

DSCF0591Linda, my mother-in-law, always made homemade sugar cookies. Super yummy sugar cookies. Cookies so yummy that her ex husband, my father-in-law actually still asked her to make some for him. Those cookies were kinda her thing. My husband has memories of her burning out hand mixers making these cookies. He also remembers the ball of dough in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper, and how he and his sister would sneak bites of dough and then his sister would smooth out the evidence. Linda passed away this summer. And among the many sad losses was that she wouldn’t be making those cookies this year. The cookies she made every year with her kids and then with the grandkids.

I’ve always made holiday sugar cookies with my boys, but in the past these have always come from a mix and then the only thing we really did to them was shape and decorate. And let’s face it, that mix is full of chemicals and scary ingredients.

So this year I made Linda’s sugar cookies. And you should too! They’re yummy and good and it’s Christmas and they’re a treat, so skip the whole wheat flour and embrace the real sugar. And bake these cookies. And tell everyone who asks that they’re Linda’s sugar cookies.

Linda’s Sugar Cookies

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 Tb milk
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cream together butter, sugar, vanilla, egg and milk. In a separate bowl mix dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well. Wrap dough in wax paper and place in refrigerator for at least an hour (Linda always did it overnight). Roll cookies out on a flat surface dusted lightly with flour. You can also dust the rolling pin to help keep it from sticking. Cut with cookie cutters and place on cookie sheets at least an inch apart. Bake at 375 for 7-9 minutes. Let cool for a couple minutes on the pan before transferring to cooling rack. Frost and decorate as desired, or even just eat them as is.


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Tastes They Are A’changin. Why I can’t eat a bag of Doritos

A little more than a month into starting the less processed lifestyle, my family traveled to visit relatives and my sister brought Doritos to a family picnic. I was surprised at how quickly my husband and I resorted to wolfing these down. That was 5 months ago. Now, I don’t think we’d be eating those Doritos so enthusiastically. In fact, a few days ago I found myself with a small bag of Doritos (impulse buy when standing in line for an hour and a half at a grocery store clearance sale) and couldn’t eat more than a couple of them. They were just overly salty and chemically tasting. In the last week I also found myself barely able to eat a Milano cookie thinking it just tasted a bit like plastic (These cookies used to be among my favorites).

Turns out that as we’ve been eating fewer processed foods, our tastes are changing, and we are finding that we actually prefer simpler, less processed foods. We’ve gotten used to the yummy more rustic tortilla chips with an ingredients list of corn, oil and salt. Same for the potato chips that contain only potatoes, oil and salt. Turns out once you get used to the taste of the actual food rather than all of the crazy additives and chemicals that are supposed to make it taste better, you can actually prefer the real food. Now I just need to get myself used to fruit instead of chocolate 🙂


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Super Easy Homemade Chocolate Syrup – For yummy hot cocoa and chocolate milk

As the weather has turned to downright brutally cold, my kids have been asking for a lot of hot cocoa. Last winter I would make them small cups of hot cocoa using the oh so convenient tub of instant hot cocoa mix, complete with the unaturally crunchy (but still tasty) little marshmallows. But since we’ve been eating less processed foods, instant hot cocoa with it’s huge list of scary sounding ingredients just isn’t an option anymore. In the past if we were out of instant hot cocoa mix, I would heat up some milk and add hersey’s syrup – which was a really yummy hot cocoa, and considerably better than the instant stuff. But the list of ingredients for the chocolate syrup wasn’t particularly good either (HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP; CORN SYRUP; WATER; COCOA; SUGAR; CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: POTASSIUM SORBATE (PRESERVATIVE); SALT; MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES; XANTHAN GUM; POLYSORBATE 60; VANILLIN, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR).

The solution to this one is actually ridiculously easy, and very tasty to boot. Homemade chocolate syrup.bigstock-Hot-Chocolate-In-A-Cup-Isolate-2817353

This is what I made. You can adjust the sugar, salt and vanilla for your taste.

Chocolate Syrup
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 TB vanilla

Place all ingredients but vanilla into a small saucepan. Heat and stir until the sugar and cocoa is dissolved. Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Let cool and store in fridge for up to a month.

That’s it! You can then add it to warm or cold milk just as you would the processed stuff for super tasty chocolate milk or hot cocoa.


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The Processed Foods I Compromise On

I would love to completely give up all processed foods, but time, money and sometimes even laziness kick in and make this not realistic for me. So there are some things I compromise on. I do try to find the lesser evil of these processed foods when possible though.

Here are some of my compromises:

Bread – I have a breadmaker. It works great. But honestly, even with the breadmaker, it’s not always reasonable to make homemade bread what with the storing and slicing. So I try to find the least evil of commercial breads. While we probably still end up with some not quite so savory ingredients, I do stick to whole wheat, avoid high fructose corn syrup and try to find the ones with the least ingredients that I can still afford and don’t have to drive for an hour round trip to find. That said, if you have a Great Harvest Bread Company nearby, they’ve got great less processed bread – just not convenient enough for me.

Tortillas – I spent a lot of time looking for better tortillas. I even made my own tortillas – which honestly are super yummy and better than store bought ones. But they’re time consuming, and one of the places where laziness kicks in. I have found that Trader Joes has their own homemade tortillas (both white and whole wheat) and these are yummy. While they cost more than what we used to eat, they aren’t too expensive. We also use hard shells a lot and the Trader Joes brand of organic shells isn’t too bad ingredient or price wise.

Canned Tomatoes – Yes, I know that there is BPA in the lining of cans of tomatoes. But honestly, I don’t have the time to buy, blanch and freeze my own tomatoes. I also can’t afford the fancy organic tomatoes in the non-bpa containers. So I compromise on this one. I figure even with the BPA in the cans, by using the tomatoes to make my own sauces and chili, I’m avoiding some of the chemical ingredients that are placed directly into processed food rather than the chemical that might possibly leach into my tomatoes.

Flour – I try to use a lot of whole wheat flour in everything I bake, but there are some places where I do use at least partly plain old processed unbleached all purpose flour. One of these places is with pancakes. My oldest son really really doesn’t care for all whole wheat pancakes, so I use half and half whole wheat and white flour. I figure this is still healthier than what we used to eat with the boxed pancake mixes.

Cereal – I do still feed my kids cereal. Most days they eat toast, or bananas with peanut butter and honey. But they still do like cereal, so I compromise here. I do try to make it the lesser evil cereals. Aldi recently started selling organic cheerios, so we mainly eat these. I also still buy plain old shredded wheat (not the frosted kind). The boys only get sugary processed cereals at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and it’s infrequent enough to not be a deal breaker. Which brings me to my biggest compromise place…

Family and friends – I do not expect everyone I and my family visit and eat with to prescribe to a less processed lifestyle. I do the best I can at home, and figure that is still far better.

The bottom line is that everyone should do what they can, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but any less processed food you and your family eat is a step in the right direction.


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Being Thankful for the Privilege of Eating Healthier

I subscribe to a number of blogs on healthy eating (real food, less processed food, anti-GMO, etc). Lately I’ve noticed that some of the blogs (either the authors or those commenting on them) are increasingly becoming antagonistic in their insistence that everyone adopt a healthier, less processed lifestyle – with little understanding of how this doesn’t actually work for everyone. One aspect of this that specifically bothers me is that so many people who are fortunate enough to be able to eat healthy foods, don’t recognize what a privilege it is – and how thankful they should be for that privilege. The attitude is very much one of “If you make it a priority, you can do it. And if you don’t prioritize it, clearly you don’t love you family enough…” or at least that’s how it can come off.

There are a number of elements that have to fall into place in order to live a less processed lifestyle, and a large number of reasons this doesn’t work for everyone. These can be broken down into money, time and availability.

Money… It has been widely written about that the least healthy, most highly processed foods are also generally the cheapest, which is a large part of why obesity levels are highest among those with the lowest incomes. At the Aldi I shop at, a generic box of macaroni and cheese costs 33 cents or so, a bag of mystery meat hotdogs costs 80 cents, a loaf of highly processed bread also costs under a dollar. In contrast, conventional meat costs several dollars a pound. Fruits and vegetables as well are more expensive than the processed foods. Quality whole grain bread is more than twice the price of the cheap stuff. And this is only getting into the conventionally grown meat, produce and grains. You try to substitute organic and you’re talking many times more than what a large chunk of people can afford.

When this is pointed out to some food bloggers and those who comment on their sites, the response is that it can be less expensive to make more food from scratch at home. This is true. However… for many people time is just as much of a commodity as money. I am lucky enough that we can afford to mostly live on one income and I can stay home with our kids. While I am still busy, I can make the time to bake my own bread, cook up a batch of dried beans, make and freeze homemade pasta sauce and fish sticks, etc. For many families, mom, dad or both are working multiple jobs just to pay basic living expenses. Many families deal with the time required to care for a special needs child or an aging relative. Many working families have to drive large distances to and from work in order to make a decent living, and just don’t have the time to make all food from scratch. Their busy lives aren’t a result of not prioritizing. They are a reality of economic survival.

Then there is the reality of availability. I live in an affluent suburb of Chicago. Nearby is a Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Marianos Fresh Market and soon to be another healthy food focused grocery store. In addition, there are a half-dozen Aldis as well as numerous traditional grocery stores both large and small… all within about 3 miles of my house. I also am fortunate to have a reliable car and money to buy gas to make it to any of these stores. In addition, I can have organic produce and meat delivered from a number of sources with varying prices. For many people who live in other areas, there is not this type of availability to healthy food options. In addition to actual food deserts where people in urban areas don’t have access to much more than a convenience store, there are other areas where there may only be one small grocery store – that doesn’t sell organic much of anything. And if they do it’s unreasonably expensive.

There is a need for a very real conversation about how to make healthy food more economically and logistically available for everyone. And it shouldn’t be the case that only those with the resources are privileged enough to choose to live a less processed, healthier lifestyle. The norm shouldn’t be GMO laden, overly processed foods that have lost much of their nutritional value in favor of profits for the monolithic companies who produce our food. But for now that is the reality. And I think those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to choose otherwise should be sure to be grateful for that opportunity – to recognize it as the privilege that it is, and stop being so judgemental of those who for varying reasons cannot make that same choice. I know that I am extremely lucky! And I need to be sure that I remember that.