The Daniel Plan
Recently, my church offered an evening class based on The Daniel Plan, written by Pastor Rick Warren, Daniel Amen, M.D., and Mark Hyman, M.D. As someone who is a proponent of integrating all parts of life so we can live more holistically, I was thrilled to see a class about the connection between health and faith being offered… and I was not the only one! At the first meeting, there were over 60 people in attendance, eager to learn more about the 5 Essentials of the Daniel Plan: Faith, Food, Fitness, Focus, and Friends.
The first meeting talked about the Faith component. Everybody was on board.
The next meeting was focused on the Food component. We watched the video about healthy eating and all around me were heads nodding in agreement – yes, we really should be eating better. People shared their struggles with junk food and eating healthy. Our pastor and his wife announced that they would be following the 40 Day eating plan outlined in the book and invited everyone to join them. The mood was optimistic and energized.
I, on the other hand, was nervous. Many of these people were eagerly jumping into this plan full force, with little idea of how difficult it is to completely change your diet. This approach might work for some personality types, but most folks fair better with a “baby steps” approach. Our family has been gradually transitioning from a SAD (Standard American Diet, a.k.a. “junk food/processed food diet”) way of eating to a real foods diet over the course of 6-7 years and even at that slow pace, it’s been tricky. I feared most people were in for a huge reality check.
The following week, I noticed there were only about 20 people at the meeting. Our pastor asked for people to share how their week had gone. The sense of despair, frustration and defeat in the air was palpable.
“This is just isn’t realistic!” an exasperated woman said. “If I ate according to the book, I would be cooking all day!”
“I had to cook three times in one day. I don’t have time for that!” complained another woman.
“It took me three hours to shop for the foods on the menu list. And I spent over twice what I normally spend on groceries! We can’t afford to eat this way.”
“Ridiculous! They expect normal people to make all these foods from scratch? No one can do this. NO ONE. Stop stressing out and just buy it all pre-made from the store.”
“My family refused to eat everything I made.”
My heart sank. My fears were confirmed.
In just one week, people had been turned off by “real food” and declared it to be impossible, unrealistic and unattainable.
And I begin to think… what if they are right? Is “real food” unrealistic?
Our Transformation to Real Food
Before we began our food transformation years ago, I didn’t think much about food. It was simply something to shove in my mouth to make my stomach stop growling.
I was in charge of all the grocery shopping and “cooking.” Thinking back, I don’t know if I EVER bought any fresh produce. Everything I bought came in a box, bag, or package (if you need to make the break from processed foods, too, check out Katie’s e-Book Better Than a Box). “Cooking from scratch” meant a pound of beef and a box of Hamburger Helper.
My husband and I were both working full-time jobs and neither one of us had to the energy nor desire to cook. Cooking was a low priority in our life. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t even ON the priority list!
One day, someone suggested my husband and I watch the documentary Food, Inc. Our minds were completely blown, as we realized how woefully disconnected we were from our food. I began to take an interest in food, how it was grown and where it came from.
Shortly after that, a friend recommended the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Right on the cover, it said, “This book will change your life…” and truer words have never been spoken.
Reading that book was the turning point in my life.
I began to see that FOOD IS LIFE. Everything revolves around it. Food and cooking affects every single part of our life… and I had been missing out of the joy, beauty and wonder that food and cooking could offer.
I began to garden. I began learning to cook. I began viewing grocery shopping as an adventure. I started devouring every book I could find about food, cooking and gardening. I fell head over heels in love with real food. Life began to revolve around food – growing it with thankfulness, cooking it with joy, eating it with pleasure.
The Importance of Food and Culture
In my readings and research, I also came to see that historically speaking, life has always revolved around food. From the dawn of time to the Industrial Revolution, the average person spent most of their waking hours focused on food – hunting it, growing it, tending it, preserving it, cooking it, processing it, selling it.
As my hero, farmer Joel Salatin, says in his fantastic book Folks, This Ain’t Normal:
“…remember that the first occupation of humanity was to be a gardener.”
Humans were created to live in communion and close proximity to their food, to have an intimate relationship with it.
After the Industrial Revolution, we were “freed” from a constant focus on food production and found time and energy to focus on other aspects of life… but we paid a terrible price by “outsourcing” food production and cooking to large corporations that have profits, not our best interests, in mind. Since we stopped being in control of our own food, obesity, disease and cultural disintegration have wreaked havoc on the American lifestyle. We have lost our precious culture, which is heavily based on traditional foods and customs.
As Barbara Kingsolver says in Chapter 9 of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
“When my generation of women walked away from the kitchen we were escorted down that path by a profiteering industry that knew a tired, vulnerable marketing target when they say it. “Hey, ladies,” it said to us, “go ahead and get liberated. We’ll take care of dinner. ” They threw open the door and we walked into a nutritional crisis and genuinely toxic food supply. If you think toxic is an exaggeration, read the package directions for handling raw chicken from a CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation or “Factory Farm”]. We came a long way, baby, into bad eating habits and collaterally impaired family dynamics. No matter what else we do or believe, food remains the center of every culture. Ours now runs on empty calories.
When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hog dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the greatest hoodwink of my generation…
Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy and health….
If grabbing fast food is the only way to get the kids to their healthy fresh-air soccer practice on time, that’s an interesting call. Arterial-plaque specials that save minutes now can cost years, later on…”
Baby Steps to Avoid Burnout
When my family began to eat real food, Kitchen Stewardship was the place I turned for guidance. I loved the idea of “baby steps” – that I could just choose one area of our eating habits and focus on making changes there. It kept me from being overwhelmed and filled me with confidence as I met each new goal.
I’m convinced it was this “baby steps” approach that kept our family on track and always moving in a better direction. Slow and steady was the right approach for us. To this day, we still stick to the “80/20 Principle” – that is, we strive for real food 80% of the time, and don’t sweat the other 20%. It’s a good balance for us.
Eventually, the change to real food completely transformed every part of our life. We even felt called to leave our neighborhood and buy a small farm so we could regain some control over our food supply.
Food production, cooking and eating now dominate our life… and it is a joyful, life-giving existence. There is something about it that just feels right, like we’re tapping into these ancient instincts, embracing that first occupation of humankind.
I have the privilege of being a homemaker and homesteader, which means I spend the majority of my time and energy trying to create a more sustainable home and food supply for our family. My husband and I felt it was very important to have one of us at home, and we made some huge lifestyle changes to make sure that could happen.
I know this is simply not possible for many families and I’m grateful we have found a way to make it work. It required us to turn our back on the American Dream of “bigger, better and more”, and trade it for our dream of “smaller, good-enough and less”.
We made some hard choices, saying “no” to lots of seemingly good things so that we could say “yes” to a real food lifestyle that embraces food, cooking, health and eating together. We carefully and consciously weigh the pros and cons of each new activity/opportunity before embracing or rejecting it.
Real Food Requires Real Commitment
I don’t know your particular circumstances and challenges, and I certainly cannot promote one way of eating or living to be “right”… but I do believe that embracing real food requires certain types of lifestyle changes and commitments. It requires a shift in priorities, a change of values.
It means that we recognize food as the center of life (as it always has been!), around which all other activities rotate.
When I say that food dominates our life, some people are horrified. I don’t take it personally – I certainly don’t expect everyone to dedicate their lives to food! However, I DO feel that cooking and food deserve a little more of our attention and respect.
I realize that not everyone enjoys food or cooking, but our very lives depend on it and it’s simply not something we can ignore!
Overcoming Obstacles to a Real Food Lifestyle
That said, there are many legitimate obstacles keeping people from embracing real food. Here are a few suggestions to help you overcome them:
- We only have so many hours in the day and the struggle is real for overworked, harried families. Yet, I keep reading studies that the average American watches 5 hours of TV a day. If we have 5 hours to veg out in front of a screen, then surely we can manage to find 20 minutes to prepare a meal that will nourish our body, mind and soul. Maybe you could multitask and watch your shows while you cook!
- Use a crock pot or Instant Pot. These handy devices can practically cook dinner themselves! There are loads of great recipes on the Kitchen Stewardship website. Check out a few of Katie’s Instant Pot recipes.
- Cook double batches. Any time you make a meal, cook twice as much as you need. Freeze the extra batch or eat off it later in the week. For example, whenever I cook beans or rice, I always make double and store the leftover in the fridge. Then I can easily whip up a quick lunch or dinner of “Burrito Bowls” – beans, rice, salsa, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, avocado, etc. Ta-da! It’s a great back-up plan.
- Lower your standards. You don’t need a 3 course meal. Grilled cheese made with real cheese, real whole wheat bread and real butter is REAL food! Dinner does not have to be extravagant. Add some pickles and cut up veggies, and you have the makings of a legit real food dinner.
- Meal planning can make the difference between a home cooked meal and a desperate 6:00pm call for take-out. It saves you time and worry. Having a plan is power. It can be as complex as using a Meal Planning app/program or just some chicken scratch in pencil on a piece of scrap paper. Your Meal Plan does not have to be exciting. It’s totally fine to repeat meals over and over, of that is what you are capable of right now. We have the same meal every Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Boring? Maybe. But I know they are meals everyone will eat without complaining and they are meals I can handle even when I’m running low on time and energy.
- Beans are your best friend. They are inexpensive (dried or canned), easy to cook and can be used in almost every meal or dish – even appetizers and desserts! Check out Katie’s e-book The Everything Beans Book.
- Buy fruits and veggies in season and preserve them.
- It’s helpful for me to remember that food is medicine. Since we have switched to a real food diet, our medical bills are nearly non-existent. My husband’s asthma and seasonal allergies flare up occasionally, but he rarely has to take medications anymore. I would much rather spend our hard earned money on healthy food that will strengthen and build up our bodies, instead of shelling out money for medications needed as a result of poor diet. We think of food as preventative medicine. We get to choose where we spend the money – preventing sickness or trying to manage sickness. We choose prevention.
- Reduce meat consumption. I believe that meat can be part of a healthy real food diet, but most Americans are eating excessive amounts of meat. To save money, we completely changed our idea of what a meal should look like. Instead of a large piece of meat on each plate with vegetable and grain side dishes, we now use meat almost exclusively as a garnish or condiment – something to add a little flavor and kick to a main dish. For example, I often cook a whole chicken, pick the meat off the bones (and make a few gallons of stock with the bones!) and divide up the meat. That one chicken can be featured in 4-5 meals for the week for our family of four – Chicken Tacos (black beans are the main filling ingredient), Chicken Salad, Chicken Soup, Chicken Pasta with Veggies, Chicken Stir Fry, etc.
- Buy in bulk whenever possible. Staples like dry beans, grains and nuts can be stored in the freezer, so you always have some on hand.
- Even if cooking is something you hate, could you still make it a priority for the sake of your loved ones? What a privilege it is to give your family the gift of health and good eating habits!
- Cook with your kids. Families are under enormous pressure these days and many people complain that lack of quality time together is a real issue. Why not invite your children into the kitchen so you can spend time together, teach them valuable skills AND get a healthy meal on the table?!? And as an added bonus – kids are more likely to eat meals that they helped prepare. Lucky for you, Katie even has created a Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, to help you out along the way!
- Real food and cooking act as preventative medicine, as I said before. You WILL be healthier on so many levels (physically and mentally), if you fill your body with nourishing food. That old saying “You are what you eat” is so true – junk food makes us feel, look and act junky! Staying healthy so I can play with my kids is a huge motivator for me.
- Behavioral issues in children (and adults!) can be caused by processed/junk foods. If you or someone you love is exhibiting behaviors that don’t seem normal, it’s certainly worth examining exactly what is going into the body. We found out the hard way that artificial colors turned my son into a monster. That was motivation enough to start weaning ourselves from processed foods.
- Real food promotes health and healthy brain function. Junk food decreases health and inhibits brain function. Enough said.
“Cooked” for Inspiration
If you need more convincing that cooking and real food are worth your time and effort, read the book Cooked by Michael Pollan or watch the series on Netflix. Both the book and the documentary series are lovely and thought provoking. As this review for the series, written by Michelle Stark, says:
“We don’t allow enough time for cooking, particularly Americans, who spend less time cooking than anyone anywhere else in the world. The journey into how and why this happened over the last century — TV dinners, “hyper-processed foods,” the addictive nature of food created by corporations — is fascinating and upsetting. The show asks: How can we possibly maintain a diet that nourishes and enriches our lives when we’re not the ones cooking our food?
Cooked somewhat chillingly warns that processed foods and the corporations that cook for us are eroding the food traditions humans have built up over centuries. In its telling, these corporations are insidious, working hard to make their food as appealing as possible to a rushed, overworked world that has convinced itself it has no time for dicing, baking, simmering.
“For the food industry, people cooking traditional foods at home is an obstacle,” Pollan says. “They have a vested interest in destroying food culture and food traditions.”
The questions Cooked tackles are startling, things we all should be thinking about but rarely want to.”
Can I get an “Amen”?!?
Real Food IS Realistic
So, to get back to the question – “Is real food realistic?”
In my opinion, YES.
We MUST make it realistic. Is it always easy? No, but then again, there are lots of thing in this world that are necessary but not easy.
I will always remember my dad telling me as a kid, “If something is important to you, you WILL make it happen.” I’m sure I rolled my eyes and grumbled at him… but he was absolutely right.
Surely, pursuing a real food lifestyle is worthwhile, since our very lives depend on it. Real food is important, and we have to make it happen as often as we can.