What we eat, part one

23 April 2014

I haven’t written about food a lot here because in general, it’s not something I think about too much. In general, it’s not something I’m preoccupied by – it never has been, and I hope it never will be.

But recently, thoughts about what we eat have been driving me nearly to distraction – so much so that a few weeks ago I had to sit down and type out my thoughts simply to quiet my mind. (It helped.) Since that point, John and I have come to some conclusions and made some changes. I know our actions and thoughts will continue to evolve over time, so I wanted to take a moment to record where we are now.

The thing that kicked off this food frenzy was a family viewing of Forks over Knives, a documentary that argues that most, if not all, degenerative diseases can be controlled or reversed by rejecting the dominant American diet of animal based and processed foods. While we had some issues with some of the studies they cite, the basic premise seems sound — and most importantly, makes logical sense to me.

John was immediately on board to cut dairy, meat, and sugar from our diet completely. To be honest, that scared me. The diet described in Forks over Knives sounded like complete and total drudgery, and I didn’t want every meal to become something I forced into my mouth. I didn’t want to live by rigid rules, inconveniencing every host and never being able to eat at a restaurant.

I do think our diet at the beginning of this year was better than average. Since graduating from college we’ve been on a slow and steady progression toward fewer processed foods, less meat, and more plants. You may remember that one of my daily goals for 2013 was to eat at least one “super food” a day, which has proven to be a great way to regularly get really good foods on my plate.

But back to the present: as my mind raced with all of the information from Forks over Knives and our subsequent conversations, I searched for more information to help us make informed decisions. Michael Pollan popped up over and over again, so I checked The Omnivore’s Dilemma out of the library.

Let me tell you, I really appreciate Michael Pollan.


He’s so calm and reasonable, which I feel are two qualities greatly lacking from a national conversation that celebrates something one week and then denounces it the next. In case you’re not familiar with him, Pollan’s advice has been famously boiled down to this: eat food — not too much, mostly plants.

Yes! We want this to be a long term life change, and in the long term, moderation works for us. Quitting things cold turkey or labeling certain things off limits does not. That being said, we don’t intend to use moderation as an excuse. Like the Forks over Knives peeps, we do believe that the diet we eat has a direct and strong effect on our bodies’ ability to stay healthy. We also believe that our body is equipped to process things that aren’t necessarily beneficial (like sugar), but that in order for it to be able to do that, we need to keep it in tip top shape and reduce the amount of “bad” things we take in overall.

So what does that mean for us? As I was searching for recipes to fit our new diet, I came across the A Couple Cooks blog. Their description of what they eat fits so perfectly with how we feel that I have to quote from it liberally here:


Our diet? We call it flexitarian. It’s mostly vegetarian, but with the freedom to enjoy all food. In general, we avoid purchasing “processed” foods — frozen meals, fast food, unhealthy snacks, items with mystery ingredients or added sugars. But overall, we like to focus on what we do eat instead of what we don’t.

— We try to eat the foods that have the most benefits to us and to our community.
— We find the approach of a “Mediterranean” style diet to make good sense: lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, but without trying too hard to fit within a certain marketable mold.
— There are a lot of diets out there. As a common core, we see homemade whole foods as the key that ties any healthy diet together.
— We eat mostly vegetarian because of the relatively lower resources (environmental and financial) required to put veggies on our table, but we also support the meat-raising farmers in our community on occasion.
— We buy organically-grown items when we can handle the price, to support the farmers who put in the extra effort of taking care of our farmland.
— We’ve found that an all-in-moderation approach works well for us. When we make pizza, we use white flour, because we like it that way. While we generally cook meatless, I recently enjoyed a big juicy steak to initiate the grilling season. In general, we choose to enjoy healthy and colorful salads, nourishing soups, and fresh veggies as our daily meals.

This diet works for us. It is freeing, and we find a lot of joy in it.

Yes, yes, yes!! Remember how my initial thought was that I didn’t want every meal to be drudgery? Sonja and Alex are correct – eating like this can be joyful, and we have found it to be so. Even in the last two months (February to March, not exactly the height of the growing season), we have found so many delicious and nutritious answers to the question of what’s for dinner.

I feel like this post is a little long on philosophy and short on details, but it’s already so lengthy that I’ve decided to split it up: the second part will go into more detail about specific recipes we’ve loved, resources we’ve found helpful, foods we’re eating more of, foods we’re eating less of, and some specific swaps we’ve made in our normal routine.

In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear: does your diet fit in a “marketable mold”? How would you describe it?

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April 23, 2014 8:44 am

Thanks Em for this post! I have been reading Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” book and I follow A Couple Cooks…it really is such a freeing way to eat and enjoy food. A couple other blogs that I follow and love are, Naturally Ella, Love and Lemons and Eat, Live, Run. Can’t wait for the next post…I always love new recipe ideas. Cheers!

April 23, 2014 8:56 am

This resonates so strongly with me. I have also been thinking a lot about our diet recently and since the beginning of the year have radically changed things up. I too stumbled on a Couple of Cooks and I love it. I also found Jen Hatmaker’s thoughts on food in 7 thought provoking.

I call what we are doing clean eating – the basic principle is we try to eat food that has not been through any process – that means whole grains, masses of fruit and veg. Snacks are fruit or homemade vegetable dips. We eat vegetarian (and often vegan food) most days but once or twice a week we eat lean meat (usually turkey or chicken) and fish. It is a fairly low fat diet but full of filling good food.

Like you I don’t the idea of making eating out unenjoyable or being a horrible guest! I think our choice of restaurants have changed a little but I still operate on a 80/20 principle – as long as we stick to clean eating 80% of the time a cake my mother-in-law has made, or a meal prepared by friends is worth enjoying.

I have combined the diet with exercise at least four times a week and I have noticed such a change. I have far more energy and am just generally better able to deal with stressful situations. My husband was sceptical about our change of diet at first but now he loves it!

I realise this is somewhat of a rant, but this is a subject I’m pretty passionate about. So good to hear your thoughts.

April 23, 2014 9:56 am

I feel like my life revolves around food! haha Cooking and eating was a big thing in my family growing up and it’s a big thing in my house now. Although my husband seems like he could go almost a whole day without eating or thinking about food. So we’re complete opposites in that way!

In our house we stick to a low-sodium diet during the weekdays. [note- too much salt = high blood pressure = so many diseases.] Therefore, 90 percent of the food we buy is not processed, but we’ll buy things like cheese and hot sauce, and bag of pretzels and potato chips. So I’m that crazy person that buys popcorn kernels…you know…in the bulk section (not the bag), because there’s no salt. This is the kind you have to cook on the stove in a pot. I don’t keep any “fast foods” like Hot Pockets, or Poptarts, spaghetti sauce or even store-bought cookies in our kitchen. There is plenty of food! Our pantry is (too) full most of the time! You just have to cook most of the food, or eat it raw I suppose. I find that making most things from scratch is the best/only way to control how much salt is in your food.

Also, I’m with you. I don’t believe in cutting anything out of your diet completely. Including sugar. I say, life is too short to not eat ice cream (or a well-cooked steak) every once in a while :)

April 23, 2014 1:30 pm

Ah this is a wonderful description of how I eat (or aim to). It is so hard in a time where everyone has a different diet or “food lifestyle.” I’ve been a vegetarian for almost six years, but I eat a steak once a year so I’m not depriving myself of one of my favorite foods :)

It’s so funny how hard it can be to boil down one’s eating habits (and why), but this post really does a well rounded job of it.

Sending this to my boyfriend now :)

April 24, 2014 10:04 am

I’m so intrigued by your post, Emily. I feel our family eats pretty clean for the most part but we do eat some processed foods as well. I’d like to eliminate a lot of that. My husband does 98% of the cooking so I pretty much eat what he prepares. He does use a lot of fresh produce though so that is good. Thanks for linking up to those helpful sites. I can’t wait to read more!

April 24, 2014 10:05 am

I love this Emily! I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional eating and experimenting with what works best for me over the last five years since we’ve been out of college. Though there are many opinions out there, it seems there are two major schools of thought. We can pretty much all agree that we should eliminate processed foods and eat a lot of vegetables. But one school of thought believes in eliminating grains and eating lean meats with vegetables while the other believes in eliminating animal protein and eating whole grains with vegetables.

I have found a “primal” diet of meat, good fats and vegetables to be ideal. I have the most energy and feel the best when I stick to this diet. When I eat grains, even whole grains, I feel sluggish. Though I feel the best when I eat this way, I feel conflicted by the environmental consequences of high meat consumption. The ideal for me would be to eat only local, grass-fed, organic meat.

Though I swear by “primal” living, I realize that everyone is different and needs to find what works best. I exercise rigorously 5-6 times per week which definitely affects my diet. Also, some people are more sensitive to the inflammatory properties of grain. Though you should base your diet on research, I think how you feel and look and your general health are good indicators of the quality of your diet.

My favorite resource is Mark’s Daily Apple: http://www.marksdailyapple.com

Like A Couple Cooks, Mark is very balanced, sensible, and calm. While he recommends a primal diet, he also believes in enjoying food and is a big fan of dark chocolate and red wine!

Finally, though I try to stick to a primal diet, I believe food can be fellowship and try to enjoy special foods in the company of friends and family.

Whitley Gaffney
April 24, 2014 10:35 am

I think one of the things that scares me most about “clean” eating is the perception that it’s more expensive. Have you found this to be true?

April 25, 2014 11:49 am

[…] This post by Emily spoke straight to my heart (or my stomach…). Everyone has a different interpretation of what the right way to eat is and I swear there is medical research backing any and every diet. The bottom line (for me) is eat what makes you feel good. […]

November 18, 2014 12:17 pm

[…] family of two has recently undergone some lifestyle modifications, including eating more cleanly and being more intentional about exercise. Setting up a schedule has worked well for us over the […]