Processed foods, or convenience foods, are foods that have been changed in some way, shape, or form to make them easier and cheaper to eat. In order to make these changes, most of these convenience foods have been highly processed in some manner. They’ve been boiled, cut, ground, frozen or liquefied. And, most likely in the process, they have numerous preservatives, colors, dyes and chemicals added in, and real food or nutrients taken out. These methods keep the “food” (I use that term lightly) from rotting or decaying on store shelves, for weeks, if not months or years! Processed foods are mere shells of the real food we should be eating, and need to be minimized if not completely eliminated from our diets.
For years, many nutritionists and health care professionals have sounded the alarm about the harmful side effects of consuming too much processed food. We’ve been continually warned about the excess salt, sugars, fats and preservatives these convenience foods contain. But most of us have not listened. It’s not that we want to be unhealthy, or that we like being sick. Rather, it seems to come down to addiction.
Yes, addiction. We have become addicted to our convenience foods. We like our food to look good. Colorful and without a blemish. We have become accustomed to the range of (fake) flavors the extra salts, sugars and preservatives give to our food. And, let’s be honest … processed food is often much cheaper than healthy food. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s easy to reach for those cheap, processed foods at the grocery store.
I want to do better, but…
If you’re like me, you probably want to get your family eating healthier, but you just don’t know where to start. Most of us want to live a long and healthy life. But we’re overwhelmed by years of bad eating habits and the task seems too daunting even to try. Many of us are legitimately worried about the added expense to our grocery budgets.
I’ve got good news. There are some easy ways to slowly wean your family off a diet of processed foods. (Notice I said “slow.”) It takes a little time, but if you work at it long enough, you will be successful. You just have to get started. You probably won’t be able to take all of these steps at once, and that’s okay. It’s all about baby steps, and starting somewhere … anywhere!
Pick one or two items from this list to focus on each week or month until you’ve worked your way through the entire list. At the end of the experiment, no matter how long it takes you, your family will be healthier for it, even if you haven’t completely cut out processed food.
Ready to get started? Here are 9 ways to help your family wean themselves off processed food:
- Cook at home. Don’t eat out. This is pretty much the “golden rule” of not eating processed food. In our family, we allow ourselves one eating-out splurge per week. This is as much for financial reasons as it is for health reasons. If you really want to change your family’s diet, you are going to have to cook at home. End of story. There is just too much processed food in most fast-food … and the majority of us can’t afford to eat out every day at restaurants that use real, healthy food over processed food. This means you will have to plan ahead for lunches at work or at school, and so on. You don’t know how to cook? Start learning. Check out a few healthy cookbooks from the library. Experiment. Just give it a try. You’ll be fine in time.
- Strive for at least two fruits and/or vegetables per meal. That’s right. Eat a minimum of two different fruits or vegetables with each meal of the day. If that task seems too daunting, start with one meal of the day and then increase over time to include all meals.
- Snack smart. Instead of reaching for a box of crackers or a bag of chips, learn to snack on real food. Fresh grapes. Cheese. A few almonds. Re-program your mind to think that the best snacks don’t come in packages, bags or wrappers. The best snacks are fresh and come from something that was once living. Learn to love fruits and veggies for snacks! The best way to avoid snacking on processed food is not to even bring it into your house in the first place. Practice extreme restraint at the grocery store. If your family is really addicted, start by cutting back and only buying one or two processed “snacks,” with the eventual goal of cutting them out completely.
- Quit soda, juice and other potentially unhealthy beverages. Limit yourself to coffee, tea, water and milk as much as possible on a daily basis. (And don’t go overboard on anything besides water!) You can allow yourself to have juice a few times per week, but make sure it isn’t loaded with excess added sugar or other additives.
- Cut back on the meat. And buy locally raised meat if at all possible. Here’s a newsflash: You don’t have to eat meat at every meal. And when you do, it doesn’t have to be the highlight of the meal, contrary to popular belief. Try a few meat-free meals this week, and then gradually increase the frequency of the no-meat meals. Learn to enjoy the other food offerings just as much as you enjoyed the meat.
- Don’t buy foods with the labels “low-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “light.” These foods, while made to appear healthy, are usually heavily processed. Some fats are actually good for you and should be consumed regularly and enjoyed.
- Learn to eat local. Try to eat at least one thing at each meal that is sourced locally – or better yet, grown or raised by your own hands. We do this by growing a garden each season and by raising our own chickens for eggs. We also support our local farmers at the farmers market as much as we can.
- Avoid all things artificial. Don’t buy products that have any non-food ingredients added in. No added sweeteners. No added fake flavorings. No colors and dyes! You’ll become an ace at reading labels and will find that some of the best foods don’t even have a label! I’ve never had to read labels on my homegrown tomatoes or strawberries.
- Follow the 5-ingredient rule. Avoid anything pre-packaged, boxed, canned, or frozen that has more than 5 ingredients total. And if you can’t pronounce or spell any of the ingredients on the label, put it down and walk away.
It is a difficult task to wean your family off processed foods, especially if it has been an accepted way of eating for many years. But no matter how long you’ve been eating processed food, you can stop. You just have to try. You will have failures along the way, but that’s OK. Any move towards healthier eating means you are one step closer to being “off-the-grid” and less dependent on the commercialized food system as a whole.