It’s been a while… a long while. I won’t bore you with excuses for why I’ve been gone so long but let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been up to. Then I’ll answer the question I get more than any other: “where do you buy food?” Most importantly, I’ll tell you about some differences between real food and fake food, where to find real food, and a little bit about why it matters.
I entered culinary school almost a decade ago already intrigued by food. After graduating, I became increasingly intrigued by food science. Not so much by the weird things scientists do to food in labs to make not real food. More so on the nutrition side of real food. I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and like just about everyone who read it in the mid 2000s, it rocked my world. It started a domino effect of educating myself about food the relationship between real food & health and then making sweeping changes to my diet. That led me to helping others make better choices and eventually, to taking on clients. I have helped people reduce or completely ditch a myriad of medications diagnosed to mitigate the symptoms of food-related illnesses.
Because I expect everyone I encounter to be as fascinated by real food and health as I am, I end up talking about it with anyone who will indulge me. I’ve learned that just about everyone has questions because just about everyone is questioning their food choices. A lot of people want to eat better but few know what to do about it. I get so many questions that I decided it’s time to talk about it in a bigger forum. That’s why I’m here. Over the next few months I’m going to share what I’ve learned about food over the last decade. I’ll tell you how I transitioned away from processed food, how I meal plan, what ingredients to avoid on food packages, I’ll even go into what cleaning and bath & body products I use (those all matter to your health, too). I’ll also share my reading list because I know some of you are as big of nerds as I am.
Let me pause a moment to tell you my diet is not perfect. I still drink an occasional Dr. Pepper (gasp!) although I feel like I’m close to kicking the habit for good. I had (and have recently overcome) a semi-serious addiction to Raising Cane’s. I indulged in many not-so-good-for-you treats while teaching pastry classes in culinary school over the last four years. But by and large I make decent choices. I have felt and seen the difference between eating real food and eating like a typical American (in other words, not well). I’ve been working a lot of hours for a lot of months now and I don’t have the time to eat like I want. Fortunately my pantry and freezer are well-stocked with good quality choices and that makes all the difference.
Making Healthy Changes
I chose to eliminate processed corn and soy from my diet after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and that left me with few already prepared options. You know by now that most food in a package at the grocery store has some form of corn or soy in it, although you may not know it because they hide behind so many names. That’s not real food. That’s something that used to resemble real food but has been so manipulated in a science lab that your body doesn’t know what to do with it. Consequently, it wreaks havoc.
Eliminating corn and soy meant I had to make everything myself. I went as far as making my own ketchup and mayonnaise because like most food on grocery store shelves, they contain corn or soy (or both). As the years went on and more people became interested in making healthier choices, food manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and make “healthier” options of their popular foods. It’s mostly still garbage. Better garbage but still garbage. Nothing compares to real food.
What is “real food”?
By “real food” I mean things that resemble stuff that comes off plants. To take it a step further, food that was raised responsibly and not treated with chemicals leftover from WWII bomb makers. I also mean meat from animals that live in natural conditions and eat what their digestive systems can handle. Your taste buds can tell a difference and so can every organ in your body. I’ll talk in great detail about different types of food later but today, I’m giving you a brief overview of what I eat and where to find it.
If you think you have to compromise taste to eat well, I’m happy to tell you that’s not the case. It’s a subjective topic, of course, but I eat better tasting food than anyone I know. And most of my clients agree! You think you’ll miss the foods you used to love but your palate changes and you won’t be able to stand most things anymore. I loved chicken flavored Ramen noodles well into my twenties. When I tried them about 8 years ago, I had to throw them out. I haven’t had a (packaged) ramen noodle since. Same with Doritos. I used to looooove Cool Ranch Doritos. I tried one several years ago and it was disgusting. This is the case with most of the food I grew up eating, even stuff I loved in my twenties.
So what do I eat? I only buy meat, dairy, and eggs from animals that are 100% pasture-raised. Not “free range”, that term was hijacked and no longer means what you think it should. I buy as local as possible and then my focus is on chemical-free foods. Not necessarily “organic” because that no longer means what you think it should, either. I also try to eat with the seasons which I’ll talk about in more detail in a later post.
How to Find Real Food
It’s February in Oklahoma which means most plants are dead. It was just shy of 70ºF yesterday, the wind chill is currently 6ºF, and it’ll be back in the high 60s next week. Plants and humans alike don’t appreciate our swift weather changes. That means it’s harder to find fresh food now than it will be when the farmers markets open in about six weeks. There are still options for good quality nourishment, though. Here are some good choices:
Where to Shop
If you’re lucky enough to live near a farmers market that’s open year-round, that’s where I’d start. Farmers markets can be intimidating for newbies because we’re used to shopping in grocery stores and farmers markets are nothing like that. I’ve walked quite a few clients and students through farmers markets for the first time and showed them what to look for. Here are some tips:
Don’t just assume that everything at the farmers market is good for you.
In my early farmers market days, I once bought peaches and when I got them home I noticed they had produce stickers on them! Some joker in Texas drove conventional, grocery store peaches up in a trailer and sold them at our farmers market. We get good peaches in Oklahoma so that absolutely wasn’t necessary. He was just making money flipping cheap produce! Lesson: talk to the farmers and read any information they put out on their tables. Some markets will only allow growers and producers from the local area (OSU OKC market), some require sellers to label which products are local and which are re-sell items (Norman market) and some leave it up to you to figure out. If you don’t know, ask at the market’s info table.
Don’t expect the produce to look perfect.
One of the first clients I took to a farmers market made an interesting observation: the tomatoes look better at Walmart so why are they so much more expensive here? I bought a tomato (usually farmers will give you one to taste but I bought one anyway) and made her try it right there in the aisle. She immediately got it… imperfect locally grown tomatoes taste nothing like the perfect-looking but bland specimens at the grocery store.
Definitely pick up flyers or brochures from the info table because there could be helpful tips. (For example, the Norman farmers market is open Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings.) Ask the farmers questions, too. Where’s your farm? (Usually their sign will give some clues.) Do you use chemicals? What do your animals eat? I’ll go into more detail when we get closer to market season but for the time being, ask about what’s important to you.
Your first few trips to the farmers market may take a while but you’ll get your routine. You’ll soon be in and out like a champion. If you’re still intimidated, let me know and you can meet me at the market one Saturday. I’ll show you around.
Food Co-op or CSA
In Oklahoma, try www.oklahomafood.coop (they have pickup locations all across the state). In other areas, search online for your local coop. I hoped to link to a national coop directory but I tried the top 3 and none of them listed the Oklahoma Food Coop so I know they’re not comprehensive lists. Just do a search in your area. Or even ask for recommendations on social media. I’m sure at least 15 of your friends will tell you about the closest one.
The best thing about buying from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or coop is that you’re buying almost directly from the farmer with minimal middle men. You’re supporting your community and getting the highest quality foods available in your area. The biggest drawback is not everything is available exactly when you want it. For example, there aren’t fresh tomatoes in Oklahoma in February. (However if you eat seasonally, you should be using canned tomatoes during winter.) Also, you can only pick up once per month. You place your order by a certain date and pickup on a specified date. It’s not what most people are used to, most people want to do all their grocery shopping in one store once a week. That just doesn’t happen if you want good quality food. You have to plan a little more.
Health Food Stores
Here they are in my preferred order:
- Dodson’s (local, in Norman, OK only)
- Native Roots (local, OKC)
- Natural Grocers
- Trader Joe’s
- Target (they actually have some good lines there)
- Whole Foods (too expensive and too many fake health foods)
- Crest (OK only, and for only a few things)
- Sprouts (only if I’m desperate, I’ll tell you why I don’t like Sprouts later)
Also, I hear a lot of people love Aldi but I’ve never really shopped there so I don’t have an opinion yet. I’d love to hear yours, though!
What to Buy
Meat & Animal Products
I already told you I only buy pasture-raised meats and animal products. To me, that’s the most important first step toward a healthy diet. Conventionally-raised animals are pretty disgusting and grow bacteria that doesn’t exist in responsibly raised animals. And the food they produce is not the same molecularly as meat from properly raised animals. Look for the term “100% pasture raised” or “100% grass fed”. If they don’t put that “100%” on there it usually means the producer met the minimum threshold set by the USDA, which is a low bar.
If you shop the Oklahoma Food Coop, I like Real Ranch for beef and Wagon Creek for beef & dairy products. (More on why later but you can read about them by clicking their links.) Wagon Creek is where it’s at for cheese: I saw test results from OSU in Stillwater that show how high quality their cheeses are.
Locally, I like Stewart Dairy Farm. If you want raw milk (more on raw milk soon), you have to drive to the farm to get it and Blanchard is way closer to me than Jet, OK (where Wagon Creek is located). I can also hook you up with a milk group (women who take turns driving to the farm) if you want raw milk but can’t make it out to Blanchard.
Double R Farms is great for beef, pork, and eggs. They’re also available through the coop but you can also get on their mailing list if you want their products more often. They send out a list of what’s available, you tell them what you want, then meet them at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds on Tuesday evenings to pick up your product.
I only buy chickens from the farmers market, Dodson’s, and Native Roots. Period. From the stores, I’ll either buy Grandma Nellie’s (chickens are raised outside Tahlequah, OK) or Frans Fryers (north Texas).
I’m not into backyard chickens. There, I said it. I know it’s a thing right now. People are proud that they get eggs right in their own backyards but I just can’t do it. I need to know more about what your’e feeding those hens and how they’re raised. If you keep them cooped up in a 5×10 pin and feed them the same commercial feed those grocery store hens are eating, no thanks. That’s only marginally better than what I can get at the grocery store. Chickens are birds and they need room to move. They need access to bugs and grubs and seeds, all the things that birds eat. If I knew someone who raised chickens with room to move, I’d be all about it.
That said, I like the Farm on Fishmarket for eggs. They’re at the Norman farmers market (among others) during market season. I know they come into the Norman area every couple of weeks so if you really want their delicious eggs now, you should contact them. Also, I’m DYING to try their microgreens (microgreens are delicious and packed with nutrients). That will be my first purchase when the market opens in April!
You can get good quality eggs at Natural Grocers, too. They even label them according to quality (bronze, silver, and gold). Outside of market season, I stick with Jeremiah Cunningham’s World’s Best Eggs (gold, of course). Even the bronze eggs at Natural Grocers are significantly better than anything you’ll get at the grocery store so you can’t go wrong.
Again, the farmers market or coop is your best option for produce. Food loses nutrients the minute it’s plucked from the tree, plant, or dirt. The longer it’s been separated from its source, the more nutrients it loses. That means that food picked 1 or 2 days ago has more nutrients than food that was picked while still green and flown halfway around the world. (I’m not exaggerating, check the country of origin on your produce. Especially if you shop at Sprouts and you think that’s better than Walmart!)
My second option is always Dodson’s or Natural Grocers, although you might not find everything you want year-round. All produce at Natural Grocers is certified organic and their produce is high quality. (It’s important to differentiate because “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “high quality”.) If they can’t get good quality, they don’t buy it so you may not find cucumbers there in December. (That’s okay because you shouldn’t be eating cucumbers in December anyway!) Most of their produce comes from California and you’ll see some items from Mexico. Rarely, if ever, will you find produce from South America or farther.
It’s mostly Dodson’s and Natural Grocers when it comes to pantry items for me. They don’t stock as many options as you’ll find at Walmart or your local giant grocery store but truth be told, you don’t need that many options. These stores do the work for you. They both work hard to narrow their selections down to the best options and they don’t fill their shelves full of garbage.
For example, I tried this Baì tea last year because I read the label and approved of all of the ingredients. I looked for it on my next trip to Natural Grocers but couldn’t find it. A woman was stocking a shelf nearby so I asked if they carried it. She told me that they don’t and it’s probably because it has an ingredient they don’t approve. I asked if she knew what was bad because I checked the label and liked its ingredients. She left me to find the guy who does the ordering to get more details. She returned and told me they actually had just placed their first order of Baì teas and would get them in the following week. I love shopping at a store that sticks to their guns!
Why is real food so much more expensive?
I think a more appropriate question is: why is grocery store food so cheap? The farmers I know aren’t making a killing off their good quality food. They’re charging what they need to in order to sustain their farms. However, food corporations are making a killing. They’re doing it by adding cheap fillers (mostly federally subsidized corn and soy) to their already cheap foods. They’re cutting every corner possible and we may be fooled but our bodies aren’t. That’s why so many people are struggling with inflammatory diseases (arthritis, leaky gut, IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, food sensitivities,… I could go on and on and on). Most food isn’t what it used to be but what I’ve listed above is.
How to save money on real food
Ever notice that you only find coupons for stuff in packages? The crazy coupon ladies aren’t stocking their carts with apples and bananas, amiright? Real food costs more than fake food and that will always be the case. I will talk about this a lot here but for now, here are some ways to save:
Buy in bulk
I don’t mean shelling out an annual membership fee to your local food warehouse. I mean buying animal products in bulk. Of course, you’ll need a freezer big enough to hold it all but the more you buy at a time, the more you save. When Stewart Dairy Farm has ground beef, they sell it for $6/lb but it’s $5.50/lb for 20lbs or more. A single pound of ground beef at Walmart will run you $4.88 and you actually end up with less edible product than you get from local beef. More on that in a later post.
My ultimate goal is to start buying half an animal at a time. You can buy half a pig or half a cow, get all the cuts from the half, and save tons of money. I haven’t done that yet but my parents did when I was a kid and I want to get back to it. Anyone else tried it?
Watch for specials
Join the Natural Grocers free membership program. It’s the BEST. They often have really great deals for members only. For example, they’re running an insane special on their eggs through March 31st ($1.99-3.99/dz). I know that’s still more than what you pay at the grocery store but the eggs aren’t comparable.
They often run killer specials on bacon, also. (The Niman Ranch bacon is the best I’ve tasted from a national producer. Hands down.)
Stop buying convenience foods
Pre-cut fruits and vegetables cost more than their whole counterparts. Buy them whole and chop them yourself (check out my posts on how to use a knife here, here, and here). You don’t need to waste money on an Italian blend of herbs if you already have rosemary, oregano, and parsley in your spice cabinet. I’ll help you figure this kind of stuff out as we move along. I can help you get better in the kitchen, too. You know I have free lessons all over this website, right?
Local eggs are waaaay cheaper than good eggs at Natural Grocers. Local ground beef is waaaaay cheaper ($6/lb) than the 100% grass fed options at Natural Grocers or Target ($9/lb). And honestly, the stuff raised here is better quality here. I’ve tried it all.
I know it seems to contradict my last point but let me explain. There are certain items I can’t find much of locally and what I find is outside my price range. Take lard, for example. I’ll tell you why I like lard and tallow better than vegetable oils later but for now, I’ll just tell you it’s hard to find good lard and tallow. I used to buy it from Natural Grocers but they can’t source it like they used to. I drove all over Norman once and checked every possible spot that I thought might carry it. No luck. I finally drove up to Whole Foods out of sheer desperation and they carry one option but it’s $20 for a pint! What?! I bought it once because I told you, I was desperate, but I can’t spend that much on the regular. I can, however, find it online for a decent price. Like these. And this one.
I’ve discovered that more and more people are questioning their food. I started a long time ago and I’ve been researching ever since. I get a lot of questions that I can’t answer quickly so I’m going to share all I’ve learned here. This is just an overview, I’ll share details and sources in every post because I don’t know everything, I just know where to find answers. (Which sometimes just leads to more questions!)
If this topic interests you, be sure to subscribe to the mailing list (over there somewhere –>) so you don’t miss a thing! And if you have questions, please please ask them! I’m doing this because people ask me so many questions, this is all about answering them.by