100 Days of Real Food: What is “Unprocessed” Anyway?

As I circle around the grocery store I find myself, and my children, looking at food with new eyes. Scrutinizing, choosing, selecting, and redefining.

Is ice cream unprocessed? Is cheese unprocessed? Are canned beans unprocessed? What about dried beans? Rice? Dried fruit? Canned olives? A jar of pickles? Sugar? Flour? Salt? Okay, okay, some of these seem pretty obvious but others can be debated. If we are making bread, for example, then there is some processing that has to happen in order to go from wheatberries to flour.

Produce (fruits and vegetables) is easy to define as an “unprocessed” or “real” food. But there is more food in a variety of genres that we are used to consuming and we have never given a second thought about whether or not it is processed. During our journey toward completely unprocessed eating we had to take the time to define and redefine exactly what we meant by “real” and “unprocessed”.

So how far do we go with this? My children, while enjoying the freshness and variety of these choices, are confused by what “counts” as real food. My critical tween asks if we make homemade french fries at home is that more “unprocessed” or “real” than McDonald’s french fries? The potatoes are still processed. The only difference is who is processing them. Right? Of course not, I tell her, because we get to control all of the ingredients and how it is cooked, we can decide to bake them rather than fry them, and put less salt on them therefore making them more nutritious. “That’s not a french fry,” she retorts, “that’s a baked potato!” Maybe she’s right, but I still needed to stop and reconsider our goals:

• To think critically about what we are purchasing and consuming
• To eat healthy on a consistent basis
• To eat foods that are high in nutritional value
• To eat for nourishment, not sport
• To be “real” about what we eat as well as what we can commit to as a family

So in searching for our own definition of “unprocessed” or “real” food we decided that we would change the things that we could manage to change and the others we would eat less of. So in addition to cutting out all store-bought cereal, chips, bars, fruit snacks, crackers and the like, we eat less cheese, meats, yogurt, and canned and jarred foods (I don’t can, have a grain mill, or make yogurt and cheese). So what do we eat these days? Check out the next post in this series to find out about the storm we’ve been cooking up in our kitchen. Everyone is getting in on the act (and enjoying it). I’ll also be posting some of our favorite “real” go-to recipes as well.