We all know it’s healthier to “eat clean”—but convenient packaged foods, and weird ingredients seem to lurk everywhere. Just ask Megan Kimble. The Tucson-based food writer spent an entire year avoiding all processed foods, a daunting challenge she chronicles in her new book, Unprocessed ($16, amazon.com).
As a busy grad student living on an annual salary of $16,780, Kimble discovered creative and affordable ways to trade packaged staples for a real-food diet. It wasn’t easy, she told Health: “But I found that once I got going and formed new habits and figured out favorite meals, it became automatic.” That said, she doesn’t recommend going cold turkey. “Start small,” she said. “Try unprocessing one kind of food, see how it feels, and take it from there.”
Below, Kimble shares her eight best tips for eating cleaner.
Read the label on everything you buy
“If the ingredient list contains a word you don’t really know, the food is probably processed,” Kimble advises. Think additives like modified food starch, soy lecithin, and xanthan gum, and added sugars and artificial sweeteners such as dextrose and high fructose corn syrup. Mustard, marinara sauce, and salad dressing are often surprising sources, she notes, adding, “Luckily these foods are easy—and cheaper!—to make at home.”
Pick up single-ingredient foods
Buying products with only one ingredient (like milk, oats, honey, and fruit) is the simplest way to avoid emulsifiers, preservatives, and other additives. Says Kimble: “These whole foods are 100 percent real.”
Create versions of your favorite unprocessed treats
Rather than trying to conquer your cravings, satisfy them with healthier options. “I personally have a raging sweet tooth,” Kimble notes. “But instead of chocolate chip cookies, my former snack of choice, I’ll reach for a banana with almond butter, or some yogurt with honey and fruit.” Do you crave salty foods? Try homemade kale chips or roasted sweet potato fries.
Seek out brands you trust
“I carry Cherry Pie Larabars in my handbag in case of hunger emergencies: They’ve got nothing but dates, cherries, and almonds,” Kimble says. “You’ll start to recognize—and appreciate—food companies that don’t add wonky ingredients to their products. Another one of my favorite brands: Food for Life, which sells bread, tortillas, pasta, and cereal made with only whole, sprouted grains.”
Join a CSA
“I found that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs offer the best organic and local bang for your buck,” Kimble notes. “My produce conveniently comes with a newsletter featuring recipes that incorporate vegetables from that week’s box.”
Prepare food in bulk
It saves money and time, and ensures you have unprocessed options at the ready, Kimble says. Roast veggies at the beginning of the week, make a big batch of grains, cook dried beans in your crockpot, or keep cornmeal on hand for quick polenta.
When traveling, plan ahead
“I’ll map a route to the local natural food store when I’m away from home,” Kimble says. “Their prepared foods tend to be simpler, healthier, and cheaper than restaurant meals.”
Make deliberate exceptions
“During my year-long experiment, I learned how to make my own chocolate since I didn’t think I could survive a year without it,” Kimble admits. “But today, chocolate bars are a wonderfully convenient exception to my nearly unprocessed diet.”