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Food & Drink

Eight things my family learned by giving up processed foods

| Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A few years ago, I had the wake-up call of my life when I realized many of the foods I thought were healthy (by food industry standards) were highly processed. So, in an effort to completely overhaul my family's diet, and to also draw attention to how dependent Americans have become on processed food, the four of us embarked upon a pledge we called “100 Days of Real Food” (Harper Collins, $29.99).

For more than three months, we didn't eat a single bite of white flour, white sugar or anything out of a package with more than five ingredients. When I first told my friends about this plan, they thought we might starve.

But here we are, more than four years later without looking back. And, while we're more relaxed now that we're no longer following a set of strict rules, our real-food lifestyle has been adopted as our new normal.

I've compiled our biggest lessons, including meal plans and tips for getting your family on board along with lots of delicious, simple, real-food recipes in my new No. 1 New York Times best-selling cookbook, “100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love.”

Here are eight things we discovered:

1. It's easier than it looks. Just as with any big change, it can take some getting used to. But before long, avoiding processed food will became your “new normal.” . Simply getting started is key.

2. We're much healthier. Since we kicked processed food, I feel like I have more energy, and my husband lost 10 pounds without trying. We saw amazing improvements in my youngest daughter's asthma and constipation.

3. Always read the ingredient label. Reading the ingredient list (as opposed to the Nutrition Facts) is the only way to know what's in your food and how highly processed it is. When it comes to packaged food, look for products that contain 5 or fewer whole ingredients.

4. Don't let cost keep you away. With a little creativity, a real-food lifestyle can be done without breaking the bank. Be sure to create and stick to a meal plan, minimize food waste, maximize cheap foods (like bananas, beans and pasta) and reduce the consumption of “nice to haves” like flavored beverages and dessert.

5. Real food just tastes better. People may think we avoid processed stuff because we have to, but, honestly, it doesn't even taste that good to us anymore. We've basically retrained our taste buds and feel spoiled with fresh, wholesome and homemade meals now.

6. It's OK to break the rules (sometimes). We followed strict rules for 100 days, but now that our pledge is over, we don't mind indulging in junk food every now and then. But what I prefer is the made-from-scratch sweet-treat kind of junk food as opposed to the artificial, factory-made stuff.

7. Planning ahead is key. If you're caught out of the house starving with nothing to eat, the drive-through might start to look attractive. So it's important to always think through your next meal and have a plan — whether that's a variety of real-food snacks in the car or your slow cooker cranking away at home with a yummy dinner.

8. Out of sight, out of mind. Avoid the temptation to scarf down a bag of deep-fried snacks or a bag of candy by keeping it out of the house. Same with convenience foods — I just don't buy those things anymore. It's hard to eat a bag of mini powdered doughnuts when they're not there.

The past four years have been quite the journey for our family, but reaping the benefits of a healthier lifestyle has made every step along the way worth it. While making this transition might seem overwhelming at first, it's important to remember that any small changes in the right direction are better than none.

Lisa Leake is a contributing writer for TNS Information Services.

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