October Unprocessed Made Easy: It’s the Little Things

How’s your October Unprocessed challenge going? This is my second year going clean for the month of October, and I see why this is really a lifestyle change instead of a simple diet or weight loss challenge. The more you employ small changes into your daily routines and everyday meals, the more an Unprocessed challenge won’t feel like such a challenge.

Obviously, living unprocessed is harder than it looks. It’s a great month-long challenge simply because it’s kind of hard to stick with. But making really small changes every day can help you eat clean the other 11 months of the year.

Here are a few small things that have worked for me, year-round:

Homemade condiments

Often, condiments and sauces are some of the first things people ask me about when I tell them about the Unprocessed challenge, but those sauces are some of the easiest things to make from scratch — and to leave out all of the mono-whatdjacallit sodium-hydrox-o-OMG. Seriously, read the label of the bottles in your fridge sometime. Most of them start with simple ingredients (salt, vinegar, tomatoes, etc.), and them all of a sudden, it goes off the rails with additives and stuff you can’t pronounce.

The solution is simple: Give up the labels and make your own. It’s very simple to make fresher, tastier, healthier versions of most of the condiments in your refrigerator right now. For the cost of a bottle of BBQ sauce laden with corn syrup, or mass-produced sriracha, or preservative- and dye-packed ketchup, or fake mustard, you can make a far better, healthier, tastier, cleaner version at home.

Here are my favorite condiments to make at home:

mustard

– salad dressings (usually I use a few tablespoons of homemade mustard or homemade jam, and put it in a mason jar with a bit of vinegar, some fresh herbs and olive oil, then shake it up)

sriracha (also kraut and kimchi)

curry ketchup and roasted corn relish

– roasted habanero salsa (and also a really awesome tomatillo salsa, but it’s not my recipe)

This week, I finished up a batch of homemade sriracha by draining the liquid from my fermented peppers …

fermented red peppers for hot sauce

then as I pureed the peppers for the sriracha,

homemade sriracha

… I used the liquid to soak a bunch of mustard seeds for a spicy homemade mustard.

spicy mustard

Awesome.

And have you ever tried store-bought sauerkraut? If you have, you probably hate kraut now, just on principle. Grab a jar or a nice chemical-free crock, and try making your own probiotics for a great project and a delicious and healthy nosh.

sauerkraut

Replace pasta with vegetables.

Lots of paleo recipe sites like this one have great ideas for replacing pasta with “zoodles,” or zucchini noodles. They’re easy to make and lots of fun, particularly if you have kids and need help getting them to eat properly.

Personally, I am a huge fan of spaghetti squash. It’s very simple to prepare; you can steam it my stabbing it with a few holes and either microwaving it (for about 2-3 minutes per pound) or slow-cooking it (4-6 hours on low setting, covered halfway with water), then using a fork to pull off all of the stringy bits, then mix it with your favorite sauce or pasta topping.

spaghetti squash

You can also cut it in half when it’s raw (you’ll need a wicked sharp knife) and roast it for the same effect. No matter how you prepare it, a medium-sized squash will give up enough stringy strands for at least 3-4 servings.

Replace meat with vegetables, or with better (aka cleaner) meat

Do you Portobello?

I love to replace hamburger patties with the big, hearty mushrooms, or just grill them with a little oil-and-vinegar salad dressing and serve as a side dish or vegetarian entrée option. No one will miss the meat when you grill up these babies. Eating Rules also has a great Portobello recipe this month.

cookout 019
Homemade bacon is beyond compare.

It’s stupid easy to make, and the homemade version is far better than any store-bought, nitrate-packed, pink slime. I take a nicely trimmed pork belly (my local Korean grocer does it perfectly and doesn’t look at you curiously when you request pork bellies), put it in a freezer bag with 2:1 ratio of kosher salt and brown sugar, then let it sit refrigerated for 3-4 days. When the meat is tough to the touch, it’s ready.

Rinse the meat, leave it in the fridge overnight without a cover, and smoke it for 3-6 hours, or until the internal temp is 160. That’s it. It’s unprocessed. It’s nitrate-free, it’s super-easy to make, and it’s f***ing delicious.

homemade bacon
Make your own cleaner version of everyday foods

Speaking of things that are easy to make, and the homemade versions far surpass the store-bought … my yogurt make is one of the best purchases I’ve made this year. You only need a bit of yogurt starter and some good milk, and the machine does the rest. I just make plain yogurt, then add organic honey or homemade jam. Bonus if you add some of this chow-chow from Friend in Cheeses Jam Company … it’s amazing! It’s all delicious and organic, and still unprocessed.

homemade yogurtAnd don’t forget, the idea is to control the ingredients. Think about other every day meals you can make from scratch instead of purchasing processed.

Fresh is best 

I have a subscription to a local farm network, so I get a weekly delivery of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. (I use Farm Fresh to You and I love it, but there are literally thousands of services out there, depEnding on your location.)

Cooking seasonally and locally usually means you’re eating the best, and no matter what you get in your weekly delivery, a recipe for it is only a Google search away. And when in doubt … CURRY. This is my favorite recipe for pumpkin curry, but you can literally replace the vegetables with anything. I did the same recipe with cauliflower. Yum.
curry

Lastly, don’t forget to use all of your gadgets! If you’re concerned about added fats, oils, and greases, you can’t go wrong with the clean taste of outdoor cooking and smoking. I used my outdoor smoker to pretty quickly (less than an hour) smoke a couple of pieces of salmon, plus some yams, fingerling potatoes and sliced delicata squash. A little olive oil, a few herbs, and you have a delicious unprocessed dinner in no time.

0salmon

 

Gearing up for the October Unprocessed challenge

october-unprocessed-2014

 

It starts tomorrow. Are you ready?

If you’ve never heard of October Unprocessed, it’s a fun project started by Andrew Wilder at Eating Rules, and the basic idea is to commit to clean, healthy eating for a month. Check out Andrew’s website to learn all about the specifics.

If you haven’t done so yet, I hope you’ll take the challenge with me.

For me, the benefits were numerous … I started reading labels more, and started paying more attention to all of the ingredients in my food. Once October was over, I kept reading those labels and avoiding processed foods entirely when possible. I realized that I was a pretty healthy eater already, because often I took it upon myself to make something from scratch rather than buy it in a package with a cartoon character on it. To me, it was never a contest, in terms of taste or of health — think about a homemade cheese sauce with pasta versus a box of flourescent yellow mac and cheese. The homemade sauce with no processed chemicals and who-knows-what is infinitely better, albeit more expensive. It also takes time. For some hardworking families, homemade is hard to do. Poor families can score dozens of processed meals for the price of one unprocessed … eating clean isn’t just more expensive; it’s hard.

With that in mind, here are some great ways to make it easier.

Phone applications

If you have a smart phone, there are dozens of apps out there that will help you count calories, track your fitness progress, and help you shop intelligently. One of my favorites for shopping is Fooducate, which I discussed in my October Unprocessed post last year. They have a great website about learning more about your food, but their smartphone app is really handy. You can scan the bar code of any product, straight from your phone, right in the store, for complete nutritional information, as well as tips for how to use that product (or a recommendation to not use it) depending on your specific nutritional needs.

This year, the Foodie app has a collection of really good October Unprocessed recipes. recommend the Foodie app anyway, but I love having these recipes handy when shopping and whatnot.

Also check out the hashtag #Unprocessed on other applications you use every day, like Twitter or Pinterest. I have an ever-growing October Unprocessed Pinterest board, so subscribe to it or check back often for more.

Online Support Groups

Last year there was an October Unprocessed 2013 Facebook group, which I found really helpful. This year it’s been transferred to “October Unprocessed” (no year) and I look forward to the same great community of people taking the challenge.

Some of the stories there are really, really, inspiring.

Buddies

In addition to great social media ventures and smartphone apps, you can just go old-school: get a buddy. Having a friend participate in the challenge with you makes you keep each other honest and helps you keep your head in the game and stick to your plan.

Speaking of plans ….

Have a (doable) plan

Last year when I took this challenge for the first time, I had a plan. A great one. A super-duper insanely-detailed one. My plan contained daily menus.  My plan contained shopping lists and recipes. My plan also lasted less than a week. I had forgotten that although I am a foodie to the bone, I skip meals like crazy sometimes. I had forgotten that on weekdays, I am not spending the time to cook my oatmeal and quinoa from scratch in the mornings before I leave for work. And I had forgotten that … well, I am lazy sometimes.

This year I am not doing a month-long meal plan. At least not before I get started. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make a plan; some people perform better when they have everything planned out in every detail, and if you’re one of those people, by all means, do so. But make a plan that is as tailored to your schedule and your family’s needs as it is to the #Unprocessed plan.

Good luck, everyone! Have a great October #Unprocessed!

October Unprocessed Challenge: Prelude: 2 weeks out

Ok, so starting two weeks from tonight, I will embark on the October Unprocessed Challenge. I decided about a week ago that I would take the challenge, and I am glad I gave myself some time to prepare, because the more I think about it, the harder I think it will be. Mostly, I have been analyzing the meals and snacks I eat regularly and trying to figure out how the heck I am going to make them unprocessed. More than likely I will just have to give them up for a month.

011

Pizza Rolls, I think I’ll miss you most of all.

Even though the concept of a diet consisting entirely of unprocessed foods is a pretty ancient one — in fact, the idea of it being a challenge is what is fairly new — I am using modern technology to assist me for the month of October.

First, I am joining a local CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture project. The packages and prices vary depending on the farms in your area, but essentially, you purchase a subscription and get a periodic delivery of fresh, organic produce. Mine will be a weekly delivery that I can pick up at a farmer’s market just a few blocks from my apartment. I understand that not everyone is as lucky as I am to have such a sweet CSA setup, but if you are taking the challenge, too, check out CSAs in your area. You might be surprised what you find.

Second, Pinterest is really becoming a great internet resource for easily locating specific kinds of recipes. I have pinned and repinned a number of appropriate recipes for October Unprocessed, and I plan to pin more as the month progresses. Please check back with my October Unprocessed recipes board for all the good stuff.

Third, and this doesn’t have to be a technological advance (although virtual buddies work well for this, too), get yourself a buddy who is also taking the challenge! I managed to convince my pal Sarah, author of the fabulous cook.can.read food blog, to join me in the challenge. I think it will make it easier to have someone to cheer you on and give you inspiration.

Lastly, if you are a smartphone user, there are a number of applications that help you plan a diet or research something. I have been using the Fooducate app, a free application for iPhones that lets you do a variety of tasks. For the purposes of this project, it lets you scan items in the grocery store for GMO labeling and processed food alerts, and it helps you plan meals, recipes, shopping lists and food diaries.

007I set mine to alert me when I scan an item with processed foods (we’ll see how well that works when I get to the store this weekend) — but you can target almost anything using this application or about a dozen similar ones.

008

I know it might seem a little silly, to scan a grocery store item to see if it’s processed, when in general, you assume that you would know if it was processed or not. If something like this app will help you to stick to the plan (I think it will for me), then try a free app and see how it works.

Also, if you’ve been reading the news lately, there is a lot of noise about misleading labeling, particularly when it comes to GMO foods. The main goal of this sort of project is to make us more aware of what we eat, what we cook, where it comes from and what happens to it before it gets to us. I like having apps like this and doing projects like October Unprocessed, just because it makes me more aware of what I eat on a daily basis.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress as I prepare for October (I think a cleanout of my refrigerator and freezer is in order, post-haste) and get started on the challenge.

Wish me luck!