Okay, okay. Stand still. Right here in front of me. Close your eyes. Extend your arms out. You feel that? That light crackle across your fingertips? Change is in the air.
American agriculture is not sustainable. Our food is overloaded with pesticides, growth agents and all the trappings of modern chemical warfare. As a result, the produce we put on our plates … is lacking. We don’t taste the robust flavors in the juices bursting from our salad tomatoes. We cannot grasp the complex fullness of authentic, fresh herbs over rich potatoes for a multilayered flavor the way we would experience in less agriculturally destroyed countries.
We’re running to the bookstore so we can figure out why French women don’t get fat, but don’t understand the connection between a busy life, an exhausted food system and a desire to get everything cheap, quick and easy and the toll it takes on our bodies. (Clue: It exhausts us, it stresses us out and fails to nourish us. We’re left eating more than we need because our food is as inflated with emptiness as the American dollar.)
Yes, I am indeed stating that the same T-bone steak and potatoes you would pay a premium price for here in America still has nothing on the quality you’d experience if it were curated and prepared in Italy, Argentina or Morocco.
It’s Really Not Your Fault …
It has nothing to do with the fact that American chefs aren’t world class, indeed many are. It’s just that the way we grow, cultivate and experience our food … the way we ingest it into our systems – that’s on us as a society. We no longer understand or respect the practice of mindful eating. And it’s not because we don’t care! It’s because we’re rushed through the most important moments of the day in an effort to keep up with everything.
Authentic, real food is now a distraction to prepare. Eating is just as bothersome and if you’re a savvy budgeter. You’ll see it’s expensive and challenging to eat what’s robust and real without having to limit or lower your meals. Honestly, we’ve pushed the quest for authentic eating to the side as a luxury afforded to quaint moments on the sidelines of gettin’ it [paid] on a daily basis. To sit down and truly consider food as nourishing, soul feeding and medicinal – that’s something only rich people do. So we say.
Our meals are no longer an experience over which to connect, but something to rush through over American Idol. We rush through so much of our food that, quite honestly, it rushes through us. We’re buying garbage, not realizing that we are and wondering why we’re so hungry afterward and why we’re craving, salt and sugar and fat – because the nutrients we need aren’t present in our food.
…But You Have the Power to Change Everything
I’ve spoken so much on the concept of real food, but I’ve failed truly to define it within the context of this editorial. Real food is nutrient-rich food. It’s food that doesn’t look or sound good yet leaves you embarrassed because you’re hungrier than before despite filling your stomach with a full plate of food. In clearer terminology, the Real Food Guide states:
“Real food refers to any nutrient-dense substance that has been grown or raised using the earth’s resources – to this we include fruits, vegetables and animals raised naturally, eating a diet that is optimum for their health, thus assuring that the meat and animal foods we eat are healthy and nutrient-dense.”
Real food is not a daily luxury. It’s a nourishing force that fuels our cells so we can be more of who we are as we move through life. However, real food is missing from our tables. It’s not part of our daily bread. All this talk about being green and sustainable, but there’s nothing sustainable about eating empty food that leaves you hungry and clamoring for more. Empty food is cheap and plentiful, but doesn’t consuming so much lead to excess waste and extra money spent on large, waist-widening portions? These foods infest our health with heart disease, diabetes and other ailments. Anything that fattens the gut and shortens your lifespan – and let’s not even talk about the environment – that’s not sustainable. That’s anti-sustainable and damaging.
Vote for Real Food – With Your Fork
As you become more conscious and aware of food and how what you eat affects your performance, you’ll become more inclined to improve your habits by shopping better. You’ll naturally have questions about what to eat, how to eat it and where to get it. Things can be, well, quite confusing and overwhelming if you tend to overanalyze (as I sometimes do).
“… We navigate an increasingly complex, politicized and ethically challenging food landscape. The organic strawberry or the conventional? The grass-fed or the organic beef? And, the grass-fed Whole Foods steak from New Zealand or the Hudson Valley steak across the street? The organic tomato or the New Jersey beefsteak?” Culture and food influencer Michael Pollan writes about the complexity of sustainable real food choices for Americans in the New York Times. He jests, “The omega-3 fortified eggs or the cage-free eggs?” (That last phrase is one of my favorite snatches of recent supermarket prose: I mean, does an egg really care whether it’s caged or not?)
While these questions are serious – and seriously valid – it doesn’t have to be this complicated either. Eating real begins with understanding what real food is – which is something you already know after reading this far. After which, your change is simply a matter of adjusting your habits and behaviors to improve the quality of your dining.
Transition your palate by bringing things back to the basics. Coffee, the second most powerful and valuable commodity after oil, can be purchased through local cultivators. You can also buy coffee and chocolate from Fair Trade certified companies to ensure your products are ethically sourced.
The first time I visited a local farmer’s market and sampled a tomato, I was floored. The flavor was much more rich and complex than any basic tomato I’d ever tasted from the supermarket. And it cost much less too. Explore your local farmer’s market for fresh, bountiful produce in season. Not only will these locally sourced fruits, veggies and herbs save you money, but there’s less distance between the farm and your plate, amounting to fewer pesticides and preservatives in your groceries. And have I already mentioned you’ll gain lots of robust and complex flavor you just do not get from supermarket produce?
Organic This and That
One of the biggest misconceptions is that to eat real food means to eat organic. Eating organic is nice, but it’s not always necessary. At the end of the day, the less processed your food is, the better, but not every product you purchase must be organic for you to feel the benefits. Focus on making sure you’re limiting the level of processed material in your food stuff by purchasing around the perimeter of the grocery aisles when you shop, reading labels and simply avoiding things that are coated in preservatives, overly-cooked and floating in jars and cans when you buy them.
Last but not least, transform eating into an artistic experience. Bring back the focus, the patience and the deliciousness of the experience that savoring your food used to be. We don’t simply overeat because we’re lacking nutrients in our food and just have huge appetites. We’re not paying attention to our food. We’re not paying attention to the mindfulness attached to eating food. When you stop and pay attention to what you’re eating, you’ll be surprised at how processed and unsavory things taste and you’ll naturally feel inclined to seek out foods that are prepared more authentically – and taste as if they were cooked with care as well. (If you’re a romantic and passionate sort of person, “Like Water for Chocolate” drives this concept home in soooo many ways.)
You have the power. Seriously, you do. Don’t discredit the fact that you’re the “average” American just trying to make it living paycheck to paycheck. You truly have the power to transform what’s happening in our food system. You can change the world with every meal. Just make a dedication to vote with your fork.
Ready to Get Real?
I opened this article discussing the concept of our busy lives and the role convenience plays in our eating habits. I’d like to add some tips on how to make adjustments to eat real food, even when you’re living a very busy life. So, I’ve taken the time to pull some cool tips from 100 Days of Real Food, which is a site that guides you on how to transition from highly processed and factory-packaged foods.
- Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy. White flour and sugar are produced from natural ingredients, but they’re not healthy for you.
- Multi-grain labels are misleading. Unless a product is whole grain, you’re still eating a product that may not be as healthy as you’re led to think.
- Only trust the ingredients on food labels – not the health claims on the packages.
- Ignore food trends. Real food doesn’t need approval from Dr. Oz.
- You’re always better purchasing the real thing than an imitation – cheese, butter, sugar – anything!
I sincerely hope these tips help you choose real food that’s wholesome and delicious, that nourishes the soul and enriches family time. Food is an important part of our culture, and mealtimes are essential for family bonding. Learn more about real food by visiting the Real Food Challenge.