5 simple tricks to avoid eating processed food

Boxes of General Mills cereals sit on the shelf at Santa Venetia Market.

As part of a conversation with author Melanie Warner, we asked how to avoid processed food in your daily diet, especially if 70 percent of the caloric intake in the U.S. is processed food. Here are Warner's tips:

  1. Shop the perimeter.Most of the fresh and minimally processed foods at the supermarket reside along the edges. This means the produce section, the fresh meat counter or cooler, and the dairy area. If you venture into the middle aisles, only do so sparingly and mostly in search of healthy, minimally processed choices (canned beans, natural peanut butter, frozen vegetables, etc.). If you're following that advice, then you’re probably already avoiding a lot of processed food.
  2. Read ingredient labels.Calorie counts and sugar totals can only tell you so much. But if a product is made with an ingredient list that runs for three paragraphs or reads like a chemistry textbook, then it’s a highly engineered product of modern food science likely to have minimal levels of naturally occurring nutrition. Added vitamins and minerals are also a marker for products with paltry nutrition. After all, if it’s a healthy product, why does it need synthetic nutrients?
  3. Demand that restaurants provide information about what’s in their food.
    Unlike packages at the grocery store, restaurants are under no obligation to reveal what they put in their food. The largest chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway print that info on their web sites, but places like Applebee’s and Chili’s have decided to keep their customers in the dark. Andit’s something you may want to know, since much of the food at these chain restaurants isn’t being freshly prepared in the kitchen, but centrally produced and then delivered to the restaurants pre- or partially made.
  4. Cook for an army on the weekends (or whatever day of the week might contain a little free time).
    Weekdays are hectic, but homemade meals don’t have to be an impossibility. Food made ahead of time and either stored in the fridge or freezer can be your own version of fast food, and often at a lower cost than what it would take to hit the drive thru or order Domino’s.
  5. Think simple.Cooking doesn’t have to mean gourmet. It doesn’t even need to mean cooking. Lots of chefs, from Rachel Ray to Jamie Oliver, have web sites and cookbooks featuring recipes truly anyone could make, and quickly. Sites like 100 days of real food offer loads of great, practical advice for kicking the processed food habit.

About the author

Melanie Warner is the author of "Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal."

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