Recently a reader contacted me about how to transition to a diet of “all real food.” Expense and time were real concerns for him, as they are for most of us. Well, there’s no question that if you’ve been eating a lot of convenience and supermarket food, real food is likely to be more expensive. You will be making more things from scratch, so it will take more time, too. So my first piece of advice is: don’t make a New Year’s resolution to change your whole diet. I am very mistrustful of New Year’s resolutions; in fact I am mistrustful of any statement that anyone is going to make sudden sweeping changes in their way of being in the world and maintain those changes over time. Personally, my transition in food and lifestyle took place over years, with one step building on the previous ones, and no one change so huge that I couldn’t maintain it until it became a habit.
So here’s how I would approach this change: eat more vegetables. Fill your plate with them. Twice a week or so, make two or three simple vegetable dishes for dinner, and don’t have any meat available. On the other nights, offer a small amount of meat and lots of vegetables. A loaf of good bread is a great way to center the table for all-vegetable dinners, and at first you can buy the bread and transition to home-baked later on if you want to. Heat the bread up and have butter or olive oil available to make it festive. Let your vegetable meal be a celebration. Learn a few simple whole-grain dishes and use them as “grounding and centering” dishes to offer some variety from bread. Don’t forget vegetable pasta dishes, which are delicious and appeal to kids. Buy your vegetables wherever you usually shop, and learn to cook them in ways that taste really good. Notice that at this first stage you do not torment yourself by trying to grow all your own food, eat local only, or eat organic only. You just cook the veggies that are readily available to you in ways that work for you. Pay special attention to learning to cook leafy greens in ways that you really like. They are abundantly good for your health, and if you take up gardening later on, they are among the easiest things to grow, but they are also the most likely to sit in the garden unused if you don’t have your kitchen techniques down pat. When you and your family are used to eating lots of vegetables, you can add more whole-grain dishes, or go organic, or shop at the farmers’ market when possible.
If you make this your first step toward a whole-foods diet, you won’t save much money initially because CAFO meat at the supermarket is cheap, but you won’t spend more than usual. Invest a very little bit of money in a really good vegetable cookbook; a wonderful and inexpensive one is Fast, Fresh, and Green by Susie Middleton. Check out my “vegetable dinners” category, too.
When you and your family are really loving your veggies and you can turn out vegetable dishes smoothly and without kitchen trauma, and plates heavy with vegetables look just right to you, take the next step. Enlist your family in deciding what the next step will be. If you use a lot of dairy products, organic dairy might be a good step. Or consider a backyard garden, or a farmers’ market excursion once a week in season, or more whole grains, or whatever. Bear in mind that truly ethical meats are going to be expensive, and if you just substitute them for the supermarket kind in the amounts you are used to eating, you are in for a nasty surprise when you add up the bills. I don’t suggest changing to them until you have formed the habit of eating small amounts of meat and making veggies the biggest part of your meal.
Don’t forget breakfast. Cook a pot of wild rice or red quinoa ahead of time and heat up enough for breakfast, topping it with some butter and maple syrup or honey. This is a treat even for people who don’t like “health” foods.
I don’t believe that negative energy is ever very helpful. Don’t berate yourself for the things you aren’t doing, just be appreciative of the positive changes that you’re making. If you need to pick up a quart of milk at the convenience store some night, don’t go crazy over it. If unexpected events change your life for a while, respond to them as needed, and then go back to your new way. Somewhere along the way, read or reread The Omnivore’s Dilemma, still head and shoulders above other books about factory-farming systems and, in my view, much better than Pollan’s subsequent books at helping you remember why you are making these changes. Love your food, and enjoy your mealtimes, and step will follow naturally on step. Have fun, and happy New Year!