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Get Real: Where to Begin with Real Food

**This post is part of the Get Real series. Please remember that this is meant as a learning community. We know that many of you are passionate about what you do and we want you to express that, just please do so in a way that will be an encouragement and aid to others making a transition. We want this to be a “safe space” for participants to learn. For that reason, we reserve the right to delete any comments that are not handled in this manner.

The following is a guest post by Lisa Leake, 100daysofrealfood.com

I am super excited to help kick off the Once a Month Mom’s “Get Real” Series! This is the perfect time of year to start fresh, and whether you want to dive in headfirst or very slowly cut out processed food one step at a time, then this introductory post is for you.

After reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, watching the documentary Food, Inc., spending hundreds of hours on research, and actually practicing what I preach (including my family’s “100 Days of Real Food” pledge) this is how I define “real food”…

Real food is:

  • Whole foods that typically only have 1-ingredient like “brown rice” or that have
    no ingredients…like fruits and vegetables!
  • Packaged food that’s made with 5 or less unrefined ingredients
  • Dairy products like whole milk, unsweetened yogurt, eggs, and cheese
  • Breads and crackers that are 100% whole-grain
  • Wild caught seafood
  • Locally and humanely raised meat like chicken, pork, beef, and lamb
  • Dried fruits, nuts, and seeds
  • Naturally made sweeteners, which include honey and maple syrup
  • More a product of nature than a product of industry

Real food is NOT:

  • Labeled as “low fat” or “low carb” or “low calorie” (in most cases)
  • Made with refined or artificial sweeteners (like sugar or Splenda)
  • Deep fried in refined oils
  • 100-calorie packs or any foods made from refined grains like white flour (which is
    often labeled as “wheat flour”)
  • In packages with loads of ingredients, some of which you cannot even pronounce
  • Highly processed foods that are labeled as organic (like organic cheddar crackers, organic cookies, or organic candy – sorry!)
  • From a drive through window or gas station

Where to Begin

When making the transition to “real food” the best place to begin is in your own pantry, fridge, and freezer. And the best advice I could ever give anyone is to start by reading the ingredient labels on everything you own. Before our switch to “real food” I used to pay attention to product health claims on the front of food packages (like “low-fat” or “lower your cholesterol”), and I occasionally looked at the back to check things like fat grams, calories, and carbs. I have no idea why, but until I read Michael Pollan’s book it never occurred to me to read the ingredients to find out what they actually used to make our food. And once I started investigating, what I found were very long lists including ingredients I couldn’t even pronounce (nor would I cook with in my own home). It was definitely a very big wake up call.

The best way to find out if packaged food is
highly processed is to read the ingredients.

The Good List:

  • Products with no more than 5 ingredients
  • Whole grains including brown rice, whole-wheat, quinoa, and oats
  • Ingredients you can pronounce and that you would cook with on your own
  • Whole milk dairy products including milk, cheese, and yogurt

What to Avoid:

  • “Wheat” because that is a refined grain (a.k.a. white flour) unless it says the word “whole” along with the word “wheat”
  • “Rice” because unless it says “brown rice” once again it’s a refined grain
  • Sweeteners (including sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn syrup, maple syrup, and honey) listed in the top 3 ingredients
  • Any artificial ingredients including food coloring and sweeteners

Before I cleaned out my kitchen I used to buy things like graham crackers, boxed macaroni and cheese, white sandwich bread, conventional skim milk, boxed cereal, canned condensed soup, and the occasional frozen pizza. I honestly lost sleep over what I would feed my husband and children (ages 3 and 5 at the time) if I could no longer rely on these processed foods. But after a lot of trial and error, I eventually found our “new normal.” The initial transition was not easy, but I knew it was the right thing to do if I no longer wanted to compromise the health of my family.

My Pantry

Today, some foods you’ll find in my kitchen:

  • Plain oats (for making oatmeal) and homemade granola cereal
  • A wide variety of nuts
  • Whole milk and lots of cheese
  • Organic fruits & veggies
  • Whole-grain crackers including Ak-Mak, Mutliseed & Triscuits
  • Brown rice and whole-grain flours (for making homemade breads, muffins & tortillas)
  • Dried and canned beans
  • Store-bought whole-wheat pasta
  • Dried fruit like raisins
  • Popcorn
  • Unrefined cooking oils like olive oil, coconut oil and ghee
  • Frozen locally raised meats

For a more complete look be sure to check out my list of “21 Real Food Essentials for Freezer, Pantry & Fridge.” I also created a “Supermarket Real Food Cheat Sheet,” which details every single item in my local grocery store that follows our real food rules. And since some people just like it when you tell them exactly what to do be sure to download our “Real Food Meal Plans,” which are 7-day family meal plans (including breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner) with accompanying grocery lists and pricing.

Transitioning from highly processed food to “real food” can be a big transformation and is not to be tackled overnight. No matter how quickly or slowly you decide to start making changes for your family, I think it’s important to remember that this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing commitment. Even the smallest changes, like simply switching to a “real” 5-ingredient whole-wheat bread for example, could make a big impact. And any changes you start to make will only get easier and become your “new normal” over time.

Key Takeaway: Read AND scrutinize ingredient labels!

Other Essential Resources


Lisa Leake is a wife, mother, foodie, and blogger who chronicles her family’s journey on 100daysofrealfood.com as they seek out the real food in our processed food world. Projects include a 100-day pledge to avoid all processed foods and refined ingredients as well as another 100-day pledge on a food stamp budget. Leake’s award-winning blog is receiving national attention from big names like Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver, and Yahoo! and has also been turned into a nationally syndicated newspaper column.

Guest Author – Lisa Leake of 100 Days of Real Food
Sponsor: ZipListOne pledged Get Real participant will be winning a $200 Visa Gift Card to help them restock their pantry!

15 Responses to “Get Real: Where to Begin with Real Food”

  1. Susan says:

    I am enjoying the ideas here! I will be reading up on the benefits of real foods and pushing the idea to my family (though I will continue to secretly slowly switch over!) My husband, 4 kids (ages 4, 3, 21mos, and 1mos), live with my in laws. We do the shopping and most of the cooking. As a family we have 2 with adverse reactions to milk, 4 of us react to cinnamon, 1 with hypoglycemia, and 1 with diabetes. So meal planning for everyone’s needs is a challenge! If switching to whole foods would make us healthier…I’d be THRILLED!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Love this! I shared on my blog and facebook!
    Thanks so much!

  3. Alissabeth says:

    Thanks for the picture! I love seeing other pantries! I wish mine was a bit bigger so it could be organized like yours.

    I’m secretly working the bad things out of our house. Shhhhh!

  4. Julia says:

    Thanks for all the great info!!! I do have one question though. I don’t use it very often, but what is a good sub to crisco?
    Keep all the great info coming!!!

    • Kate says:

      Julia,

      I’d suggest leaf lard. Be sure to read the ingredients list of what you find in the grocery, as commercial brands is often hydrogenated and can contain undesirable preservatives. You may be able to find clean leaf lard at your local whole foods co-op or a family farmer/processor. If you can only find unrendered fat from a local source, there is a great tutorial on rendering your own lard at home over at A Little bit of Spain in Iowa. Hope that helps!

  5. Katie says:

    This is great! We’ve been working on switching to real foods for a few weeks. I can’t stand wasting food, though, so for the past few weeks I’ve only been buying things that fall under the “real foods” guidelines, while meal-planning things that combine these foods with the leftover “bad” food we had in the house. I would rather have a healthy meal that happens to include pasta that is not “real food” rather than get rid of all of those foods- and it’s helping my roommate and I transition a little more easily :)

  6. I have to say this is the first time I have seen a “definition” of real food and I am as confused as ever. My family eats mostly fruits, vegetables, rice, meat, fairly non-processed foods. But what is wrong with say low fat milk? Why is only whole milk seem to be considered a “real” food? So you take a cracker that is a “real” food as it is whole grain, then put it in a 100 calorie pack, which is just a set serving size, and then it isn’t a “real” food? I am confused on what this is all about. Had to look at what the heck a refined oil was and isn’t too, as I wouldn’t have a clue. I mean, we primarily use olive oil, but not because we are afraid of some non-refined oil. Why is sugar not a real food, but honey or maple syrup is? What the heck is this stuff really all about?

    • guest says:

      Skirnir – Those are all great questions! And I have to say I was also very confused about all of this at first so you’re not alone. I highly recommend reading Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, for a very in-depth explanation (including lots of research to back it up) of all these topics, but in the meantime here’s some answers…
      - For low-fat vs. whole milk…in short removing the fat results in a more “processed” product: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/04/15/mini-pledge-week-6-no-low-fat-lite-or-nonfat-food-products/
      - Regarding whole-grain crackers in a 100-calorie pack…that certainly would be “real” if it also had less than 5 ingredients and no sugar, but to my knowledge such a product does not exist. Everything I’ve seen in those packs are made with refined grains.
      - Similar to white flour, sugar is very highly processed and while honey and maple syrup are still by all means “sweeteners” they do contain a trace amount of nutrients, and they’re also mostly “processed” in nature. The bottom line though is that a sweetener is a sweetener and no matter what you choose you want to use it in moderation (due to the way our body processes it)…and for our family using two of the least processed sweeteners available helped us also eat less of it b/c most prepackaged foods are sweetened with sugar (and lots of it) so we usually make our own “treats.” Here’s more info on this one as well:http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/05/06/mini-pledge-week-9-no-refined-sweeteners/
      - Also, in case you didn’t see the link above here’s the post all about refined oils: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/05/14/mini-pledge-week-10-no-refined-oils/

      I hope that helps…please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any more questions. It’s a lot of info to absorb especially when it goes against some things we’ve been told for years (like that low fat is “good”)!

      - Lisa

  7. Kelly says:

    @ Julia… I’ve been using butter instead of crisco.

  8. Great post Lisa! I will be using your lists!! I LOVE lists, thanks for taking the time to create them. I love your food rules too. Now it’s time to implement them. :)

  9. [...] you dump the better, but small changes do make a small difference too. Here’s a link to a GREAT post I read today in another challenge I am participating in.  The post is titled Get Real: Where to begin with Real [...]

  10. Tracey Goss says:

    Thanks for this post. I love your blog. I’m participating in the fitmomsfitkidsclub.org Better Me Challenge. We are cleaning our pantry’s today and Annett directed us her for more information. Thanks for your information on low fat, non fat products.

  11. [...] blog I enjoy reading, called Once a Month Mom, is doing a series on eating real food called the Get Real Series. Love [...]

  12. [...] Well, I came across this great post today. [...]

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