This is a guest post by Parents Food Editor, Jenna Helwig.
Four years ago North Carolina mom Lisa Leake and her family embarked on what seemed like an impossible challenge: eating only "real" food for 100 days. Many meals and a hugely successful blog later Lisa has published her first cookbook, the instant bestseller 100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love. Recently we asked Lisa about the challenge and how the rest of us can get started eating more real food.
What inspired you to start your 100 Days of Real Food challenge?In 2010, I got the wakeup call of my life when I watched Michael Pollan talk about "where our food comes from" on Oprah. It made me realize that a lot of the foods I thought were healthy were actually highly processed. I then went on to completely overhaul my family's diet, and decided to create a pledge (and blog about it) to draw attention to how dependent so many Americans have become on processed food. I thought if we proved this could be done then others might follow suit.
What exactly is "real food"?We came up with a set of rules, which we feel helps us define real food:
And your challenge was successful! Not only did you change your family's eating habits, you also launched what has become a mission of sorts. Were you always interested in food and nutrition?
I've always been a lover of food and cooking, but NEVER nutrition! Before our real food pledge I'd never bought anything that was organic (at least not on purpose), never read an ingredient label, never shopped at a farmers' market, and never eaten a full piece of whole wheat bread (because I didn't like the taste). Part of the reason why I wanted to get our story out there is because I felt if I could do this then anyone could do it!
What are three simple things other families can do to start eating more real food?My first suggestion is to start reading ingredient labels. That is the only way to know what's truly in your food and how highly processed it is. Second, I would recommend switching to 100% whole grain products. Like it or not, grains make up the majority of the Standard American Diet so this is an opportunity to make one change and have it go a long way. Third, I would start offering your kids more real food. As a parent you have the biggest influence on your child's diet, and most of the time they are going to just accept what is served. So start offering lots of fresh (and preferably organic) fruits and vegetables, and your kids might just surprise you.
Does real food have to be organic? Organic meat for example can be very pricey.Organic is definitely a better choice because you know it's free of unwanted chemicals. But here are some tips to make it more affordable. Reduce your overall meat consumption (and even "stretch" ground meat by mixing in a can of beans) to make it more affordable. Make inexpensive cuts of meat (like the whole chicken, pork shoulder, and beef brisket) taste great in your slow cooker. Utilize the dirty dozen list when deciding what fresh produce to buy organic, remember that frozen organic vegetables are often cheaper and just as nutritious as fresh, and don't forget that eating conventional produce is far better than eating none at all.
What do you mean by "organic junk food"?The food industry is, of course, out to make a buck and that means capitalizing on lots of "healthy" buzzwords like organic, natural, gluten-free, etc. But just because the packaged cookies or ice cream sandwiches are "organic" doesn't mean they are good for your health and not highly processed.
What do you say to busy moms who feel like packaged foods are their only option for quick meals?I would say it's up to you to prioritize what's important in your life. It's a fact that you will find and make time for any activity that is important enough to you. And even though making food from scratch might take more time, you can get your kids involved and feel good about what you are feeding them as a result. The food we eat has such a big impact on our health, and making positive changes is more than worth the effort in the long run.
Can you take us through a sample day of what your kids eat?This is what my 9-year-old daughter says is a "day in the life" of her meals: 1-ingredient wheat cereal with fresh berries and whole milk for breakfast; homemade tomato soup with whole-wheat noodles, a whole-grain lemon raspberry muffin, and an apple sandwich for lunch; teriyaki salmon with brown rice noodles and a green veggie for dinner; and a little square of dark chocolate for dessert. We also eat lots of typical family meals that we make from scratch using high quality ingredients like tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and even ice cream. In fact, real food versions of all those recipes are in my cookbook!
Tell me about your book.100 Days of Real Food is an extremely realistic approach to this lifestyle and includes all the resources any busy family needs to get started including how to get your reluctant family members on board, a school lunch packing chart and pictures, and a list of real food substitutions so you can convert your own recipes at home. The book also contains 100 easy recipes (that are mostly new and not on my blog) that call for simple ingredients you probably already have on hand. I think it's exactly what families need to get started. It's important to remember that making any small changes in the right direction is better than none and there's no better time to start than now!
The book is selling very well. Why do you think the idea of real food has struck such a chord with people? I do think I was in the right place at the right time with my book. More and more people are waking up and realizing that their pantries are lined with highly processed packaged food and there is a better way.
Recipe from 100 Days of Real Food Cookbook
Cinnamon-Raisin Quick Bread
Photo by Carrie Vitt
Slice the bread and layer with cream cheese to make a school lunch "sandwich." You'll have happy kids on your hands.