This Month’s Featured Article

Keep it Real

By Published On: July 1st, 2016

By Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D. | | Photos by Lazlo Gyorsok | Featured in the July 2016 Issue

realFood is integral to our survival. Yet, some evidence suggests that the food we consume is increasingly devoid of the nutrients, vitamins, and ingredients that promote our health, and full of ingredients that don’t. Obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease are only some of the maladies we cope with at an ever-decreasing age with an ever-increasing frequency. Often, with our busy schedules, convenience and pre-prepared meals find their way onto our tables and into our mouths without too much reflection on how they impact our health.

For answers, we look to nutrition science and the medical community. But studies and advice conflict on a routine basis. And food manufacturers barrage us with marketing ploys and claims about their products. With our busy lives, we’d love to offload the research to arrive at an answer to how to eat, eat well, and eat for the health of our children, us, and our planet. Fortunately, there is a simple concept that puts food, eating, and health in perspective. It’s more recently been called “real food” but it’s been around for a long, long time. Most of us have strayed from it amidst a forest of nutritional claims, counterclaims, food pyramids, a growth economy that provides us with infinite and often unnecessary choice, and clever marketing campaigns that evoke emotions surrounding food and eating.

Real food defined

In 2006, Nina Planck, founder of London Farmers’ Market, cookbook author and farmers’ daughter, wrote the book on real food called Real Food: What to Eat and Why. This year it’s been updated and reissued for its 10th anniversary. For Planck, real food is both old – “foods we’ve been eating for a long time” and traditional – “the way we used to eat them.” Real food is “fundamentally conservative,” meaning that it doesn’t need to change over time and it’s more limited to what’s in season and available locally. More recently, author Michael Pollan has championed real food through his numerous books, which delve into the science behind nutrition, food science, and agriculture. His Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual illustrated by Maira Kalman is a testament to good things coming in small accessible packages. For me, it has become a touchstone book. When I become untethered from real food, I come back to his food rules to return me to my own food truth. He provides simple ways to reintroduce real food that worked for our ancestors. Pollan’s guidance on what to eat can be reduced to seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

His food rules encapsulate a collective cultural wisdom about food and eating solicited from the likes of folklorists, nutritionists, and grandmas. Pollan calls these 83 rules “personal policies,” which he classifies as “… useful tools. Instead of prescribing highly specific behaviors, they supply us with broad guidelines that should make everyday decision making easier and swifter. Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.” His policies run from the general “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as real food” to the specific “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.” Good-bye Fruit Loops!

Six Degrees of Bacon

My own definition of real food resembles a riff on the game that plays homage to actor Kevin Bacon. I call it Six Degrees of Bacon. If the food can’t be traced back from my plate to its origins in the most natural soil or farm setting in six or less steps, then it isn’t real food. However you define it, returning to real food and incorporating it into your diet takes intention and some effort, but it’s worth it, not just from a nutritional standpoint but from an emotional and spiritual one. I feel connected to the people and earth that’s feeding me, my family, and my community.

Get real

Real food advocates can be perceived, and sometimes with just cause, as clubby and elitist, and a source of judgment on those who haven’t yet seen the light. On its present scale, real food production can’t feed everyone, can’t reach everyone, and can’t be afforded by everyone, illustrating pressing issues of food justice in our own country that need to be acknowledged and addressed. (In our local area, North East Community Center in Millerton, NY is doing substantive work in making real food more widely available to all members of the community through its weekly Farmers Market and its teen Farm and Food Education program).

To be sure, Planck and Pollan’s prescription for eating real food can seem like a daunting and pie-in-the-sky ideal that requires time, knowledge, access, and money. In addition, to heed their advice, change our ingrained habits, and potentially go against the popular wisdom about nutrition can feel like a true act of will. On a practical level, even overhauling our fridge and pantry seems overwhelming.

Yet, as a philosopher I can appreciate ideals. They give us something to work toward, and in this case are a way to measure progress along a continuum from less real to more real food in our lives. The trick with ideals is to not use them as a tool for self-flagellation, but rather as a tool for motivation. Once we set the ideal as a hard and fast goal without reference to how we get there, the ideal seems empty and detached from our lives. We need the journey and the map to make the ideal meaningful. So how can we get real about this journey to real food? Here’s what’s working for me and might help you too.

Take stock

The first step is to educate yourself on what real food means and why it’s important, then assess what it means for you in your life right now. For this I use a variation of what’s called “appreciative inquiry.” I look at what I’m specifically doing right, and not so much on what I’m not doing. This approach allows me to proceed from a place of strength and capacity, which is motivating, rather than from a place of mistakes that need to be corrected, which is paralyzing. Right now, with three children and both my husband and I working, I came up with the following list. Your list will likely look very different from mine and might contain more or less strengths. The goal is to use real food wisdom as a guide, not an ultimatum. So, here’s what I already do:

• Educate myself about the local farm economy and real food.
• Cook meals with as many real ingredients as possible.
• Eat as a family as often as possible – at a table – with no TV or smartphones.
• Limit my use of prepackaged foods.
• Employ an all-out soda ban.
• Shop locally where time and budget allow.
• Pack lunches for school, work, and trips as often as I can.
• Read food labels – when I remember my reading glasses.
• Limit my visits to fast food restaurants as an option of last resort.
• Maintain a small vegetable garden. (Shout-out to Salisbury Family Services Community Garden for help making this a reality for me and my family).

After you compile your detailed inventory, sit back and appreciate what you are already doing – even if it’s only one thing. Our present food habits were built over a long period of time and enculturation. Undoing those habits will also take time, so be patient.

Look for the increment

Next, set your own priorities and look for small specific changes you can make right now – not five years from now if you won the lottery and can afford to employ a chef in your home. Changing a habit and sustaining that change requires small, incremental steps that you can keep up over time. When we try to cold turkey a change there’s often backsliding and self-recrimination. Looking at my own life and using Pollan’s food rules I came up with the following habits I want to change and how I propose to do that within my budget and priorities:

• Stop buying flavored yogurt and smoothies. Instead I’ll buy whole milk plain yogurt, frozen or fresh fruit, and local honey to make my own.
• Make my own hummus and pesto – two popular items in my house.
• Buy more local and organic grass- fed and pasture-raised meat. With two voraciously carnivorous sons I can’t afford prime cuts of local beef and pork, but I can work less expensive cuts into my meals.
• Buy local eggs. I’ve established several local sources of pasture- raised eggs.
• Find cereal options that have less ingredients and less sugar – and don’t turn the milk blue.
• Spend more time on the periphery of the grocery store where real food is more often located.
• Have my children prepare one meal a week, at least for summer months (this one has been on my list a very, very long time but I’m not ready to give up on it yet).

These are habits I believe I can sustain, but when I can’t I won’t berate myself. I’ll just get back on track.

Deal breakers and compromises

Now I look at habits and practices that I’m unwilling to change because they require more time and effort than I can give right now. For me the list looks like this:

• Bake from scratch. This is not going to happen for me any time soon – or maybe ever. I don’t consider myself a baker and don’t enjoy it all that much, but I will look for pre-packaged options that limit difficult-to-pronounce ingredients.
• Make pancakes from scratch. Again, not happening any time soon. It’s just a bridge too far on a weekend morning, but when I use a mix I’ll be adding my local eggs and organic milk. I can also stir in flax or chia seeds and use real maple syrup.
• Preserve and jar fruits and veggies – or make jam. Definitely not hap- pening. But I can make easy and quick pickles!
• Give up pre-packaged Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. My 13-year-old son will not allow this.
• Make my own cheese. Yikes! What would that be like? I can’t even imagine it.
• Ban all fast food. Sometimes it can’t be helped, and in those moments I try to be discerning about which restaurants we visit and what we order from them.
• Buy all organic and local food. Time and money don’t permit this for me right now. But I do what I can and support local when I can. I believe in local food and those who provide it, but it’s challenging enough getting to the supermarket each week before it closes, let alone scheduled farmers’ markets on a weekly basis.

Get creative

Be your own trouble shooter when it comes to real food. You don’t need to mortgage the house to increase the amount of real food in your life, and remember it’s not an all or nothing affair – it’s a continuum along which we move. For example, I don’t live near Whole Foods. I can’t afford, nor do I want to afford its products on a regular basis anyway. Luckily, I don’t have to. Supermarkets and food companies are increasingly heeding the call for transparency in food labelling and a move to less additives and processing. Warehouse clubs also carry a wide range of healthful and organic products. Even Ikea sells high-quality organic food – along with its flat-pack furniture. They even make a wonderful breakfast muesli – another food I can’t quite justify putting time into.


While it’s unlikely that Planck and Pollan will dedicate a future book to me for my heroic real food efforts, they can’t vilify me either. To the best of my culinary ability, within my current time and fiscal constraints, I’m making a hand-on-heart effort to educate myself about real food and its connection to nutrition and health. I’m taking responsibility to create awareness of how to eat well, and moving myself and my family along the trajectory to a more healthful existence. Like many others, when I can I’m voting with my plate regarding the food I buy and where I buy it. These intentional daily decisions and acts are noticed by my children. I hope that the significance of these choices is falling on fertile ground, so that in their futures they will expect better and do better in their own food lives. In addition, since every purchase I make, Internet search I perform, email list I join, and post I “like” on Facebook is entered into some Big Data pool somewhere, food companies are taking notice of my buying and clicking patterns, which may influence the products they offer.

Getting real about real food is a process and it’s personal. In an ideal world, perhaps we’d all return to our real food roots and money, time, and access would be no issue in that journey. But in the real world there are constraints that may hamper our efforts and progress. I feel good about the direction I’m headed, and so should you. Just begin. Educate yourself. Appreciate what you may already be doing. Don’t judge yourself about what you aren’t. Reflect on what’s possible. Pick some sustainable behaviors and practices to incorporate into your life, embrace them, and keep progressing. Eating is fraught with enough judgment, second guessing, and emotion. Consuming real or more real food should taste and feel good. Rather than being a torturous ascetic goal, it should be a worthwhile journey, which is its own just dessert.