As I’ve started on the Real Food Challenge, people keep asking me this question: What can you eat?
The answer is both simple and complex. I can eat anything you can, just not necessarily how you make it. You see, I’m not in this for the reason the typical person goes on a “diet.” I already generally eat well, so I’m not in this to lose weight. I already like to and engage in cooking, so it’s not for cost savings or self reliance. To my knowledge, I’m not allergic to any of the chemicals found in packaged foods, so I likely won’t experience immediate problems if I happen to ingest them.
The reason I waited until after the holidays to start the Real Food Challenge is I thought it would be easier. I wouldn’t be greeted with quizzical looks or blank stares when I told well-meaning hosts that I couldn’t partake in their holiday feast because it was loaded with preservatives or contained factory-farmed meat—not that I was trying to lose weight or would have an allergic reaction, more PC responses to not accepting a food gift. It’s a challenge try to explain to people that I’m not destined to a month of salads, but I can’t eat their homemade casserole, and when I get on my soapbox about food systems and access to fresh produce, my rants fall on deaf ears.
I thought I’d make my Real Food Challenge easier by starting it after the holiday bustle. Oh boy, was I wrong! Once I stocked my pantry with preservative-free staples, cooking at home has been easy—but put me in someone else’s kitchen and that’s when the challenge gets tough.
Challenge No. 1
A group of my girlfriends got together for a food and movie night after the holidays. Our plan: to cuddle up on the couch, watch Little Women and snack on homemade appetizers. My friend Betsy is an amazing cook and it broke my heart a little (and may have hurt my taste buds’ pride) when I had to so “No, thank you” to her delicious-smelling empanadas, which were unfortunately made with packaged puffed pastry containing some preservatives and pre-shredded cheese. Fortunately I planned for the occasion and came prepared with homemade soup, salad and whole-wheat brownies. Still, it was hard to say no to the cookies and jalapeno-popper dip others brought to share.
Challenge No. 2
My college roommate Emily and her new husband invited my boyfriend and I to their housewarming. I’m a grazer, so I knew I would be tempted with a spread of goodies I could munch on all evening. To help myself enjoy the party, I packed some dip made using preservative-free ingredients, homemade crackers, a salad of goat cheese and kale and quinoa, and more whole-wheat brownies to share. Most people were polite and tried part of my spread, though Emily’s array of cheese, sausage, pulled-pork sandwiches and non-whole-wheat brownies obviously had more appeal. (I took most of those whole-wheat brownies home with me—go, figure!)
I also realized I left out a key ingredient in my own spread: protein. Note taken for future get togethers: I don’t feel full without it. As a result, I allowed myself to have some of the meat (but no bun), which may or may not have contained some ingredients I shouldn’t have eaten. This might have been my first instance of cheating the challenge—though not having looked at the ingredient label, we’ll never know for sure.
Challenge No. 3
A couple Fridays ago, my friend Lindsie and I decided to have a girl date: a Rock Your Vinyasa yoga workshop, dinner at Saul Good, and opening night of Gangster Squad. (Awesome Friday-night line-up, no?) Although I was excited to spend the evening with my friend, the dinner part of the evening made me a little nervous. When the waitress explained the night’s special (grilled fish on a bed of roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes), I went all Portlandia on her:
Me: How do you season the fish? Do you use a marinade?
Waitress: No, only a little sea salt and crushed pepper.
Me: What’s in the mashed potatoes? Anything with preservatives?
Waitress: I’m pretty sure only milk and potatoes, but I can ask.
Me: OK. [Wait for waitress to return.]
Waitress: Yes, there are no ingredients with preservatives in the potatoes.
Me: Super. Now, how about the vegetables? How are those prepared?
Waitress: They are sautéed in a little bit of oil and salt.
Ding ding ding. We have dinner.
Challenge No. 4
Last weekend, my mom threw my brother, who is leaving for California (yay new adventure!), a going-away party. Her plan: Invite friends and extended family to the local pizza joint for pizza, beer and goodbyes.
My plan: Make my own pizza to take to the event.
Reality: I fell off the wagon.
I was already stressing out my mother by checking every ingredient she put in to each meal she prepared to make sure it was Real Food edible, and I could tell my her weary sighs that I was complicating her life just a little by attempting to make and stow into the restaurant my own food. Thus, I caved. I ate preservative-filled pepperoni pizza, and I enjoyed it. Guilty. As. Charged.
Why Am I Doing This?
When people ask me what I can eat during the Real Food Challenge, what they’re basically trying to get at is why the heck I would spend more money, cause myself more anxiety, and take the time to prepare the food when I don’t actually HAVE to do it. Here’s the reason:
While it is POSSIBLE to avoid eating non-real foods for a whole month, why is it so difficult to take on the challenge? Why do the majority of our food options contain ingredients we can’t pronounce? Why does eating well in January mean I have to get into my car, drive to an up-scale healthy food store instead of the neighborhood market? Why are our neighbors so far removed from eating real tomatoes and brown rice and sustainably raised chicken that eating this “real food” is a foreign concept? Our food system is broken, and while you reading this blog probably realize that, the majority of people we come in contact with on a daily basis do not.
So I guess you can call me a Real Food evangelist. (Though a poor one at that.)
Anyway, I’m back on the wagon with a week to go. More updates to come.
I broke in my new Dutch oven I received as a Christmas present, and made this recipe for “No Time” Bread. The easiest and tastiest bread recipe I’ve tried yet, the loaf was ready, from start to finish, in an hour. And the house afterwards smelled heavenly.