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Understanding Processed Foods and Weaning Away From It

Trying to make changes to a more wholesome lifestyle, take little steps to eliminate processed foods.

We all know what it means to feed our kids well –  Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, eat whole foods, and cut out the sugar and junk food. In short, avoid the processed stuff.  However, for many well-meaning moms the avoidance of all processed foods can be a great challenge. Convenience, cost, marketing, and societal pressures are all hurdles in our quest for healthier eating. In addition, our children can often be our greatest obstacle – they want the stuff that tastes “good” which translates as “processed.”  Additionally, we don’t want them feel like the oddball if we bring in bottles of water and gluten-free, organic muffins filled with raisins for a school celebration when the other moms are showing up with juice pouches and frosted cupcakes!

We know what the best food choices are, yet sometimes we need encouragement and a little  reminder as to WHY a daily diet consisting of too much processed foods affects the health of our growing children.

What is Processed Food?

The definition of what constitutes processed food can be a bit varied, but it is essentially any food that is canned, frozen, dehydrated, boxed, bagged, or jarred.  Basically, if there is a list of ingredients on the label, it is considered processed. If the food is not in it’s “natural state” (as found in the “wild”) it is processed. Of course, there are different degrees of processing. For instance, the stricter definitions include any food that has been peeled, chopped, cooked or husked. By doing your own research and determining your personal comfort level, you can determine where you want to draw the line for your family.

What Makes It Bad?

When food is highly processed to increase shelf-life, preserve appearance, color and texture and re-introduce flavor lost during the processing, it ends up stripped of any pre-existing nutrients and filled with many chemicals. Some of these additives and preservatives such as nitrites, trans- fats, food colorings, and sodium, have been linked to health issues such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity and cancer.

Why Is Processed Food So Hard To Quit?

Most families try to educate themselves on healthy eating and the perils of processed foods as best they can. With so much information out there, it is not uncommon for parents to become quite overwhelmed, feeling like all they can safely feed their family is raw, organic fruits and vegetables bought at a specialty store for high prices. In addition, parents may feel that if they can’t go full throttle, then why bother at all? If it feels too hard, too labor intensive, and too restrictive, parents may lean back toward the “everything in moderation” approach.  However, the insidiousness of processed food is that it is difficult to keep it in  “moderation” – we actually eat much more processed food a daily basis than we might think, often because we are lead to believe it’s healthy by savvy marketing and packaging! 

Small Changes Make A Big Difference

If a complete pantry overhaul and a Paleo diet feels too extreme for you, don't beat yourself up.  Never underestimate the positive effect of making any changes that decrease the amount of processed food your family consumes. You may not want to give up your family’s favorite breakfast cereal or the convenience of canned beans, but there are so many ways to start chipping away at the processed food in your home.  Below are a few simple substitutions that will actually save you money instead of breaking the bank.  Try making one small change a month from this list.

Easy Homemade Substitutions To Many Common Processed Foods

Taco Seasoning– Making your own seasoning eliminates massive amounts of sodium and MSG.  It can be whipped up quickly with about five common pantry ingredients and made in large batches to be stored in an airtight container for months of use. 

Salad Dressing– Bottled dressings have a laundry list of unhealthy additives. Instead, search the web for a few simple, healthy recipes. Balsamic and olive oil with some salt and pepper is always a hit. A few examples are at

Hummus– Store-bought hummus is yummy and feels healthy, but is unfortunately loaded with unwanted additives and rather expensive.  Chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and a few spices whirled up in a food processor makes this delicious, healthy snack much cleaner and healthier.

Yogurt and Real Fruit Ice Pops– Though parents feel they are choosing a healthy snack for their kids, one glance at the ingredients reveals several unnatural ingredients. Invest in a few BPA-free ice pop molds and puree up any super-ripe fresh fruit (alone or with plain greek yogurt) then freeze. 

Granola Bars– Granola and cereal bars fool us into believing they are far healthier than they really are. High fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, and loads of sugar put these snacks low on the healthy list. Search granola bar recipes on the web and test out a few to see which one your family enjoys.

Fruit Roll Ups– The recipe for homemade fruit leather is super easy and fun to make with the kids.

Veggie Dips– Kids are more likely to eat veggies if accompanied by a yummy dip.  Use a base of non-fat plain greek yogurt and add your own seasoning rather than using a bottle, jar or flavor packets filled with MSG.

Don’t Give Up

Just like anything in life, you need to develop a routine.  Routines forms habits and habits create life changes.  By making small changes and understanding how foods are processed, you can bring more whole, unprocessed foods into your household.

By: Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D.

Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. is a freelance writer with a doctorate in psychology. Her personal essays and parenting articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four girls, one of whom has extensive special needs. She can be found writing about her adventures in parenting at her blog, Lost In Holland.

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