My Real World Approach to a “Real Food” Diet

With the arrival of the new year, many of us are looking to shed that extra holiday weight, detox from the sugar and wine overload or even just turn over a new leaf and begin a healthier lifestyle. As you attempt to do so, maybe you’ve been hearing talk about “clean eating” and “real food” and you want to learn more. Well, I am no expert, but I’ve done my share of reading about this way of life over the past couple of years. My real world approach to a “real food” diet helped me lose about 50 pounds after the birth of our third child. Sweating my ass off, literally, by working out consistently and taking up running were also a big part of my success. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned. But first I’d like to add that while “eating clean” is indeed a great way to lose weight, even more importantly, I feel strongly that it is something that everyone in this country NEEDS to begin doing in order to create change in the US food supply (whether or not you need or want to lose weight). Before I delve into that point, let me give you a brief overview of the traditional “clean eating” AKA “real food” approach and then I’ll share my version for people like me who live in the real world.


I’d need to write an entire book to explain everything about clean eating and a “real food” diet. Thankfully, fellow blogger Lisa Leake at 100 Days of Real Food already has, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. Here is how Lisa defines it (with a few of my own additional notes.)


  • Consuming whole food that usually has only one ingredient like rolled oats or no ingredient label at all like fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Packaged foods made with no more than five unrefined ingredients
  • Dairy products like whole milk, unsweetened/plain yogurt, eggs and minimally processed cheese
  • Breads that are made with 100 percent whole grain
  • Wild seafood
  • Locally and humanely raised pastured meat products
  • Dried fruits, nuts and seeds
  • Naturally made sweeteners including honey and maple syrup
  • More a product of nature than a “product of industry”
  • Eating organic as much as possible


  • Labeled as “low fat” or “low carb” or “low calorie” (in most cases)
  • Made with refined sugars like white sugar, brown sugar, organic sugar, cane juice, corn syrup or artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose with brand names like Equal or Splenda.
  • Deep fried in refined oils like canola oil
  • 100 calorie packs or any foods made from refined grains like white rice or white flour, which is often labeled as “wheat flour” without the word “whole”
  • In packages with loads of ingredients some of which you cannot pronounce, and therefore, are most likely unwanted, refined additives and you would not cook with them in your own kitchen.
  • Highly processed foods that are labeled as organic (like organic Cheddar crackers, organic cookies, or organic candy)
  • Meat from factory-farmed animals
  • Most anything from a drive-through window or gas station.

AsparagusThere are many variations on this approach to eating. Some strict “clean” eaters avoid all dairy and grains in an attempt to eliminate all potential allergens or toxins and slowly reintroduce foods systematically. The “Paleo” Diet is also similar in it’s focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, seafood, nuts and seeds, but it’s followers avoid grains, dairy, starches and legumes. Others eat a raw food diet which is the only one that truly eliminates all processed foods because cooking is, in a sense, processing.

A Real Food diet to me is no new phenomenon or fad. It’s really how I’ve been eating most of my life. It’s a common sense approach to healthy eating that takes us back to the way our grandmother’s cooked for their families, before increasingly busy people needed a faster way to get meals on the table and before food was taken over by industry.


So why are so many people jumping on this bandwagon? Why make this improvement yourself? Well, it’s no secret that obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer is on the rise in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in children has more than tripled in the past thirty years. And according to Michael Pollan, author and food industry investigator, four of the top ten chronic diseases that kill Americans, “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.” Food savvy people are quickly discovering that much of the food consumed in the US is actually full of what I call “fake ingredients” AKA “food-like substances” or food that has been engineered in a factory that is potentially harmful to our health. And people who care about their health and the health of their family are saying NO, taking charge and eliminating all the artificial junk from their plates.

What’s most alarming is that, in some cases, we are ingesting genetically engineered material and we don’t even know about it because of deceptive behavior by the USDA. It needs to stop and it starts with us buying clean, organic, non-GMO products. Here’s an excerpt from a speech made by Robyn O’Brien, a food industry analyst. When her child was diagnosed with a food allergy, here’s the alarming information she discovered.

“In 1994, US scientists created a new genetically engineered protein and synthetic growth hormone and injected it into cows to make more milk. But it made the animals sick which increased antibiotic use in the cows. Governments around the world, said, “No. We are going to exercise precaution. We are not going to allow this into our milk and dairy supply because it hasn’t yet been proven safe.” The US took a different approach. We said it hasn’t been proven dangerous, so we’ll allow it. Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all 27 countries in Europe didn’t allow it when it was introduced in the US in 1994 with no human trials. Since then, milk allergies have skyrocketed.


So what are the conditions now in the US? One of the concerns at the time was that this growth hormone also elevated hormone levels linked to breast, prostate and colon cancer in humans who drank the milk. Livestrong and the American Cancer Society tell us that the US now has the highest rates of cancer of any country on the planet. According to the ACS, for a person who were to move from Japan to the US, the likelihood of developing cancer would increase 4 fold. One out of 2 american men and one out of 3 american women are expected to get cancer at some point in their life. One out of 8 women have breast cancer. Only 1 in 10 of those cases are genetic. Which means 9 out of 10 of them are environmentally triggered.”

Similar stories exist with the genetic modifications to the US soy and corn crops. The potential link between these GMOs and cancer rates is hard to ignore. Watch her speech in it’s entirety here, Robyn O’Brien Speech. It will change the way you look at what you are eating and what you are feeding your children. It confirms for me the importance of “eating clean” and eliminating “fake” food from our diets.


Here’s my take on all of this. My health and the health of my family is of the utmost importance to me. What I learned from Robyn gives me even more motivation to police what we put in our grocery cart. My husband and I have virtually always been healthy eaters. Well, except for maybe the four years we were in college together when I recall eating lots of breadsticks and burritos at 3:00 in the morning. Today, we are both healthier and more active than ever before. We have taught our children to eat healthy by setting a good example. I strive to follow the guidelines I mentioned earlier for eating a “Real Food” diet for the health and longevity of myself and my family… BUT with a bit of a twist to make it feasible for our chaotic life.

Real Life

MischiefHere’s the thing. With three young children, life is busy here. I know it is for you too. I love to cook and bake and I prepare healthy home cooked dinners for my family virtually every night. But, it’s not always in the cards for me to have time to bake my own sandwich bread, pitas and crackers from scratch (the way Lisa Leake suggests), especially not with a two-year-old tugging at my pants, standing on the counter or destroying my room with the make-up he finds. Even though I’m a stay-home-mom, the day is usually just not long enough to do all the things the way I want to do them. Many nights there’s not much time in between school pick up and swim lessons and homework and bedtime to have a plan in place for a perfectly “clean” meal. For me, making my own chicken stock and ketchup is not likely to happen. Cooking is a big part of my life. I consider it a hobby. If it’s difficult for me to make time to make these items from scratch, I know it is for many of you too. Especially those of you who work out of the home and arrive home at dinner hour. Sometimes I need some shortcuts, some compromises. I’ll share them with you in my shopping list below. Stay with me.

Real Kids (Picky Ones)

ElizabethMy children will eat any fruit or vegetable you put in front of them. I joke that it is in their blood since their dad is the fourth generation of his family to run their wholesale produce business. If you ask them their favorite meal they will probably say salmon and brown rice. But they are picky about little things like bread that’s not soft and the flavor of certain yogurts. They like chips and of course, dessert. When I decided to eliminate the former from their lunches this week, I was greeted with tears that day after school. When you factor in this choosiness and their bottomless hunger, the fact of the matter is that I need to ensure I have food here that they will eat. Food that I won’t have to listen to them complain about and some special treats that are appealing to them, yet don’t completely throw health out the window. Again, I need some good compromises.

Real Hungry

My First Half Marathon 2013As a long distance runner, I am always HUNGRY. Especially when I’m training for a big race and burning mad calories. Ok, I’m hungry even when I’m not training. But, as I prepare to run the Big Sur Marathon this April, I need to properly fuel for my training runs and I need to have snacks I can grab quickly as I then race back to my responsibilities as Mommy. Actually, I need to fuel up just as much for those challenges of daily life as a mom. If I’m hungry, look out! Not a nice person. I need to have a well-stocked fridge and pantry full of real, yet filling and quick food. For me that needs to include the carbs from whole grains and the protein from dairy. The Paleo mentality of restricting yourself from eating all grains and dairy for me would simply result in a very hungry and unhappy mommy and thus, very unhappy children.

Veggie Chili(Edited 5/2/16) In 2015 I went back to my vegetarian diet. I gave it up when I was pregnant with John mostly because I was craving meat (especially salty bacon and sausage) and I figured my body was telling me I needed more protein, so I went with it. After he was born I discovered that adding lean protein like chicken and turkey back into my diet helped me lose weight. Now I’ve gone back to eating no meat. My husband has too, but my children will still eat poultry. I have to accommodate various needs with the meals I make for my family.

Oh and one other thing, I like sugar. Sometimes I’m going to eat it. And that’s ok. Baking brings me joy, so does eating ice cream. The point of a healthy diet is so you can enjoy life to the fullest. Eat healthy almost all of the time and, on occasion, just throw the rules out the window and enjoy the moment. Otherwise, being skinny is no fun.

Real Cooking 

Turkey MeatballsI love cooking and baking. My favorite thing to do is to take family recipes and make them healthier. And sometimes I also like to make sweet treats for special occasions. I share my healthy, yet simple recipes for real life on this blog. I’m no Ina or Giada, but I like to challenge myself to create new recipes that taste delicious and look pretty and I don’t want to have to sacrifice my love of cooking nice, well-made meals just because I want to eat healthy. Eating “real food” doesn’t mean it has to be boring food.

Real Careful 

Call me neurotic, but I am a calorie counter. Tracking what I eat in the My Fitness Pal app is one of the ways I lost all my baby weight. It helps me keep it off today. Some say that on a real food diet you don’t need to track calories and fat and carbs to manage your weight, but I know myself well. When I don’t keep a diary of what I eat, I sneak stuff (unhealthy stuff) and I end up gaining weight that I worked hard to lose. My Real World Approach to Real Food is calorie conscious and the recipes I share on this blog almost always include nutritional information and should easily fit within your calorie goals for the day, if you like to track calories as well. Remember, while all “real food” is healthy, if you aren’t smart about how often and how much you eat, that could certainly keep you from meeting your weight loss goals.

Real Cheap

Farm MarketMost of us can’t afford to buy all organic products. When you combine that with trying to buy cage free, pastured and local products too, your grocery bill will certainly rise. Believe me, I get it. With a husband who SELLS produce for a living, I am sometimes quizzed on the price I paid and I am reminded how much more organic costs. (Love you honey). You will have to weigh out the benefits for your family and prioritize accordingly. Here are a couple of ideas to help lighten the load.

While many people are tempted to clean out their pantry and fridge and get rid of all the “non-clean” foods right away and start over. Many of us chose to use up what we have first and make the change gradually replacing new cleaner products as the old run out. And if you can’t afford to buy everything organic, try starting by at least swapping organic produce in for items on the Dirty Dozen list.

The Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Bell Peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Snap Peas
  • Tomatoes

PeachesPersonally I am in a little bit of a unique situation with my desire for organic produce. As I mentioned, my husband sells fruits and vegetables for a living. He and his father run a wholesale produce market in Cleveland, Ohio. Ironically, very little of his business is organic. That has nothing to do with his personal perspective on organic versus non-organic. It is driven completely by demand. Many of his customers service stores with little or no demand for organic produce. Some of the produce we eat comes from his shop. So we eat quite a lot of non-organic produce for that reason. We are lucky to have every single mango, melon and sweet potato he brings home. The fact of the matter is that eating fresh fruits and vegetables, organic or non-organic, (even frozen or canned) is SO much better than eating artificial, highly processed junk from a box.


FINALLY!! For all of the compromises I am looking to fulfill, over time I have developed a trusty list of my safe “REAL FOOD”/CLEAN packaged products that I use to supplement the fresh fruits and vegetables and whole foods. I know from experience that walking through the grocery store with children in tow while stopping to analyze every single list of ingredients is simply not going to go very well and will likely result in yelling then guilt. I have in fact had to walk out of a grocery store leaving a full cart behind. I have done the homework for you. And I’m here to share it with you.



I am far from perfect! We are all very busy. All we can do is our best. We are only human and we have other things on our to do list that prevent us from eating everything pure and healthy all day, every day. If you want to begin to follow this way of life, go out there and do your best. But let’s face it. We also need to enjoy life. It is short, it is busy and it is full of responsibilities and distractions. There will be cake at birthday parties. Have a piece. There will be busy nights running around trying to feed your family in between school and soccer practice. It’s ok if you don’t have time to make a perfectly perfect meal every night. There will be over-indulgent dinners out with friends. Enjoy them. There will be days when your kids behavior has you hiding in the pantry eating chocolate. It happens.

So go give it your all. But don’t beat yourself up, throw in the towel and go back to your old ways if you make mistakes along the way. Remind yourself that a healthy life needs BALANCE. Eating healthy most days is better than eating poorly every day. Good luck! 

Please comment here if you would like me to write more about this subject. If so I will share some “Real World, Real Food” meal plans and more of my clean recipes.






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