10 tips for real food newbies

If you’re just starting out, just learning and baby-stepping away from packaged and boxed foods into a diet based on wholesome, natural traditional foods, those first few weeks (months? years?) can feel daunting at best, and completely impossible at worst.  It’s hard, especially if you were raised on Lean Cuisine, Pop Tarts and Crystal Light.  Never mind the conflicting information in the media: the government tells you to stick to low fat, but recently published studies illustrate the importance of high quality fats – including butter.  WhileNourished Kitchen focuses exclusively on real foods, traditionally prepared to maximize nutrition, the site really centers around the pleasure of cooking – and for those just starting out, just giving up the frozen suppers and drive-thrus, it’s not enough to share recipes or techniques; rather, you need more practical and hands-on advice.

So here it is.  Print it out and pin it to your fridge, because it’s a good one – and I promise not to wax poetic about the luxury of raw cream or a freshly picked peach still warm from the sun – that is, until the next post.  And if you want even more comprehensive guidance, check out Real Food for Rookies, a new online class from Kelly the Kitchen Kop covering everything from reading labels, to cooking healthy meals even the pickiest of spouses and kids will love. She even features exclusive interviews with leaders in the traditional foods movement like Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A Price Foundation and Dr. Kaayla Daniel, author of the Whole Soy Story – something even long-time real food enthusiasts can appreciate.

1. learn to read labels, really read them.

My first bit advice to anyone learning how to ditch processed foods and cook from scratch is simple: learn to read labels. When you take the time to actually read labels thoroughly, you’ll find crazy words like disodium guanylate, TBHQ (a form of butane – that’s lighter fluid!), MSG (a neurotoxin), artificial colors, nitrates and nitrites, BHA and BHT, and others.  Taking the time to read labels, and then follow up on the ingredients you don’t immediately recognize is often enough to prevent you from tossing those foods into your shopping basket.  After all, who wants to serve up a plate of food laced with lighter fluid, neurotoxins and known human carcinogens to their children?

2. ditch the boxes and packages and learn to stick to single-ingredient foods.

So once you’ve read the labels on those boxes, backs, tins and packages of processed foods, it’s time to ditch them.  Make the move to single ingredient foods; that is, only purchase foods from the store that contain one ingredient: a bag of brown rice, a bottle of olive oil, a package of butter, a pint of honey.

3. give up that low-fat mentality, and dive into some butter and olive oil and maybe even tallow.

Do yourself a favor, and give up that low-fat mentality.  The low-fat, low-cholesterol dietary dogma of the 70s, 80s and 90s has largely been discredited; moreover, it’s probably worse for our collective health as it ignores our evolutionary heritage and the very foods that nourished the good health of our ancestors who were largely free of chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.  Learn to love real fats: butter, coconut oil, olive oil and even grass-fed tallow and pastured lard.  They’re rich in fat soluble nutrients – vitamins that are critical to reproductive and cognitive health.  Kelly covers this topic extensively in Real Food for Rookies – she even includes interviews with Sally Fallon Morrell and Tom Naughton outlining why transfats are so harmful, and why natural fats are so good.

4. ditch refined sweeteners, and choose unrefined sweeteners in strict moderation.

Ditch the sugar, the high fructose corn syrup and, yes, even the agave nectar.  Sugar, natural and traditional or otherwise, is not good for anyone’s health; however, if you need a little something sweet to help you make that transition and reset your tastebuds, add raw honey, molasses, date sugar, unrefined cane sugar, sorghum syrup and brown rice syrup to your basket.  Moreover, use these sweeteners in smaller and smaller quantities each time you prepare a dish, whip up a batch of cookies or sweeten your tea.

5. shop for fresh, local and sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.

Vegetables  number among my many not-so-secret loves, but if you’re going to start cooking real food for your family, you need to start to love them too.  Don’t be fooled by the seemingly low prices of frozen and tinned vegetables; on a ounce-by-ounce basis, they’re not less expensive than fresh vegetables, purchased on sale and in season.  Besides, fresh vegetables – particularly picked recently from local farms practicing sustainable methods – often offer richer and more complex flavors.  Good flavor helps you to feed your family foods they’ll actually like – without dousing them in processed food additives or boiling them to death over the range.

6. shop for fresh milk, or, at the very least, always choose grass-fed.

I’ve shared my love of fresh milk and why I drink raw milk before, but if you can tolerate dairy foods, choosing the right milks, butters, cheeses and creams makes all the difference – not only in flavor, but also in nutritive value.  Fresh milk from grass-fed cows is rich in micronutrients; what’s more, it’s also rich in immune-building beneficial bacteria and food enzymes.  If fresh milk just isn’t your style, at the very least choose vat-pasteurized milk from grass-fed cows as it is richer in nutrients and wholesome fats than conventionally produced milk and a far sight better than even most organic milk you find in the dairy case at your grocery store.

7. learn to love (the right) meats.

Much like choosing milk, the effort you place into choosing the right meats makes all the difference.  The conditions of concentrated animal feed operations are deplorable, but there’s an alternative beyond meatless Mondays and out-and-out vegetarianism.  Choosing meats from pasture- and grass-based operations ensures that you consume high quality meats from animals that were raised with respect for their natural diets and humane treatment.  These meats are richer in micronutrients, less apt to contamination by pathogens like e. coli and salmonella, and are better sources of wholesome fats than their conventionally raised counterparts.

8. develop a repertoire of fast, easy, simple foods your family actually likes (so you don’t end up in the drive-thru).

Once you’ve figured out what not to buy, and also what it’s best to buy, it’s best to develop a plan that’ll prevent you from relapsing into your old ways and the unhealthy comfort of a standard american diet.  We all get stressed.  We all become overworked.  We all become tired, so it’s important to have a back-up plan – a repertoire of fast, easy and simple foods that your family can appreciate and that keep you from heading to the drive-thru.  Things like chicken fingers (made with almond flour, and without TBHQ), or homemade sun tea instead of soda, or, better yet, learn to use your slowcooker to make healthy “no-fuss” meals.  In Real Food for Rookies, Kelly delves deeper into real-world and practical techniques families can use to prepare better school lunches, snacks and family meals, so be sure to check it out.

9. try some super foods.  who knows? you may end up loving them.

Don’t be afraid to try something new.  Traditional peoples thrived on foods native to their region and these invariably included some form of a highly nutrient-dense food: liver, roe, shellfish, oily fish, fresh butter, cod liver oil.  Sure, liver may not sound appealing initially, but it’s extraordinarily rich in vitamins and you might not even notice it, if you prepare it properly.

10. give back to the real food community.

Lastly, give back to the real food community.  Share with friends – not only articles covering real food, or real food recipes, but also by preparing wholesome meals for your family or for get-togethers.  Use social media like twitter and facebook to share articles, your favorite blogs, ideas and activism alerts (did you know you can follow Nourished Kitchen on Facebook?).  Volunteer at your local farmers market.  Plant a community garden.  Give some real food to your food bank.  Teach schoolchildren how to cook.  Just give back, because the movement depends on each one of us.

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What people are saying

  1. Chef Shawn says

    Great tips, I’ll be sharing on Facebook!

    My only suggestion would be not to discourage people from frozen fruits and veggies. While local, sustainable, and better-than-organic is best, it’s almost impossible to do this in many areas because the access simply isn’t there, especially if you stick to just fresh and not frozen. My area is a good example: if you can’t drive to different farms that are generally about an hour away, organic local produce can be very difficult to come by (our local market is awful). Our stores have extremely limited fresh selections of organics, but often have a reasonable selection of frozen. It’s also worth noting that, overall, store purchased (not local) frozen fruits and veggies are often more nutritious than fresh because frozen is generally picked when ripe and flash frozen, while fresh produce is often picked green for better shipping. It’s become my general philosophy to do local and organic fresh when at all possible, but if someone is in an area or situation that precludes that, frozen organics is a better option than fresh non-organic much of the time.

    • Ree says

      You should grow some of your own fruits and veggies. I think that more people should be in control of their food source to some extent. At this point, we’re so reliant on COMPANIES and CORPORATIONS to feed us that if they refused to sell us food we would starve before we realize that we DO have control of your food. Grow a lot of your own favorite fruits and veggies and freeze some for when they’re out of season. Let’s not have ALL of our food controlled by some company. God and mother nature gave ALL OF US food freely. FREELY. And now people starve because they haven’t paid a company for food that God gave to ALL of us but a few corporations CONTROL for profit. Be kind to yourself and your fellow human being. Grow a few fruits and veggies.

  2. Debbie Taylor says

    I get so tired of people talking about the “conditions of concentrated animal feed operations” who have never even seen one in person. Why do you assume that everyone who raises meat on a large scale does so with no “respect for their natural diets and humane treatment?” I’ve seen my dh spend more money trying to cure a hog from an injury or illness than we ever see back out of the animal and he does so because he is humane and doesn’t want to see the animal suffer. I know this wasn’t the point of your article but I’m tired of being made out to be the bad guys because we raise meat on a large scale and people like you just add to it.

    • jenny says

      I HAVE been to and toured several concentrated animal feed operations. I have likewise been to and toured several small operations. There is a world of difference between the large operations and the small operations – the condition of the soil, the condition of the animals, the odors. Frankly, I find the former to be abhorrent. Further, the quality of the meat and milk of animals raised in large scale, conventional operations instead of those which are holistically managed is considerably poorer, and that is something backed by several studies.

    • Dave Joyce says

      Debbie, I’m sure you and your dh are nice people who try to do the best you can by your animals. I don’t think anyone is attacking large farmer’s motives. But we have to be realistic and objective about the environment the animals are raised in too. Good motives and good intentions don’t negate the reality of bad practices. And the reason your hog is sick or injured could be in part because of the conditions in which he lives.

  3. Rebecca White says

    I won’t really go into the meat and dairy thing, but neither actually seems to produce health. I will go into the encouragement here of using oils. You know, our ancient ancestors ate the olives – they didn’t press out the oil and throw the rest away. They ate the coconuts, but they didn’t press the coconut oil out and throw the rest away. They probably ate very little fat, and what they did eat was incorporated into the rest of the food, which kept it proportional. The low-fat thing isn’t, in fact, gone. The healthiest populations now on the planet eat very low levels of fat (as well as animal products).

    • Jenny says

      That is simply, and palpably untrue. The olive is relatively unusable after pressing it for oil. The longest lived populations thrive on a diet that hovers around 30-40% fat, and that includes meat, fish, beans, grains, herbs, leafy greens, fruit, some dairy, some alcohol or other phytonutrient-rich drink. They also lead lifestyles rich in value, movement and community.

      • says

        Best comment on this page Jenny, it more than just food involved in greater quality of life and longevity. More varied diets are the key and taking a walk now and then is good also.

  4. says

    I believe this is a pretty unbalanced argument aimed at a particular segment of society. Firstly one should try provisionally to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables from local farm shops and markets period. The only way to increase the chances of smallholdings becoming organic is to increase their sales, thus bringing down costs so supermarkets dont have such a monopoly Secondly our ancestors lived completely different lifestyles than we do today, any argument that follows that train of thought is nonsensical. Many points in your article are valid however at present I am trying to set up a free cookery project teaching anyone, but especially low income households how to use fresh ingredients to produce meals at or close to the price of T.V. dinners etc. in Glasgow Scotland.

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