Getting to Know Your Kitchen Again

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As more and more Americans eat away from home and live on diets that mostly consist of processed food, the health of our nation is suffering. Learn what it means to eat and cook real food and how you can befriend your kitchen to make it happen.

Food-Like Meals

Americans are cooking less. Between 2007–2010, only 8% of those surveyed lived in households that cooked 0–1 time per week. But 44% of respondents did cook 2–5 times per week, and 48% 6–7 times per week. Nonetheless, the majority of Americans are eating away from home (1). What’s concerning is that frequency of eating away from home has been found to be associated with increased risk of death (2). Convenience, over-scheduled calendars, hurry sickness, and screen time continue to change habits surrounding food. A habit focused on the convenience of eating ultra-processed food may come with a 62% higher risk of all-cause mortality and each additional serving of ultra-processed food increases all-cause mortality risk by 18% (3). Ultra-processed foods account for 58% of the calories American adults consume (4). Worse yet, ultra-processed foods make up 2/3 of the average American kid’s diet (5). What’s more, food can represent so much more than a physical need. The act of eating has social and cultural associations with constructs like relationships, financial status, power, or emotional satisfaction.

Ultra-processed foods are convenient, ready-to-eat/heat meals that are often high in sugar, trans fat, sodium and refined starch while low in nutrients. Examples include sweetened breakfast cereals, flavored potato chips, ready-made pizza, energy drinks, flavored granola bars—basically, staples of the modern American diet. Eating sugar releases chemicals in the brain, such as opioids and dopamine, that may have addictive potential (6). In addition to high sugar content or convenience, tastes and preferences can be influenced by culture, education level, and members of the household (7). Sadly, I delayed changing my diet because of my love for ultra-processed, high-sugar, coffee creamer.

Where Does Our Food Come From?

In 2017, I read Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food. The book seeks to answer seemingly simple questions like “where does our food come from?” or “what should we eat?” It’s rare that I read a book that completely transforms my worldview, but this one did. The practice of eating, which should be simple, is growing increasingly complex in the United States. Health claims associated with foods—like “multigrain,” “no sugar added,” “all natural,” or “made with real fruit”—are often misleading. I was astounded to realize that most of what I ate wasn’t food at all; rather, they were food-like substances: highly processed, infiltrated with chemicals, lacking in diversity, and fortified with wheat, corn, and soy. Flabbergasted, I learned that the nutrition facts I had been taught over the course of my lifetime, such as the food guide pyramid, were just plain wrong. Pollan makes a case defending the essence of real food and mindfully eating it. The conclusion? “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” As it turned out, my eating habits, which were based on the conventional “modern American diet” (MAD), truly were mad.

Shockingly, knowing all this wasn’t enough for me to give up my coffee creamer habit and make the change to cook real food. Like most pharmacists, I am an excellent baker. But, I didn’t really know how to cook real food. I also knew very little about, or how to, prepare vegetables. Are we simply a generation lacking cooking skills? After all, the availability of “home economics” or “family and consumer sciences” courses in schools has decreased 38% over the last decade (8). Sadly, I’m not alone in my inability to cook real food. In any case, it felt overwhelming to me to spend time in my kitchen cooking after a long day at work. However, a few years later, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. (see cliff notes). Once again, I felt the deep, soul-crushing weight of a realization that something is tragically wrong with our food industry and my diet.

Inhumanity Towards Animals

Not only are our supermarkets full of food-like substances, but meat may come from animals that were treated inhumanely. Ninety percent of processed food contains either a corn or soybean ingredient, which reduces food diversity. Because it is cheap, corn is now being fed to cows—who naturally eat grass—and even some farmed fish. Factory-bred animals can be given hormones or antibiotics, genetically modified in unnatural ways, and kept in unclean conditions. They may be inhumanely slaughtered, resulting in a stress response that includes the release of hormones that stay in the meat of the animal, only to be ingested later. Unhygienic living conditions (such as overcrowding and spending hours standing ankle-deep in piles of manure) and slaughter practices contribute to food contaminations that could sicken humans and cause disease. In addition, meat packing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States and it is a job often filled by illegal immigrants who lack safety and work protections. Disgusted by what I’d learned, I was finally ready to make a change and cook real food.

Ready To Change!

I relied on two major sources of practical information to transition to and cook real food: 1) 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake, and 2) Run Fast. Eat slow. by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Eating real whole food is not about a prescriptive diet. It’s about eating foods that are as close to nature as possible. Astonishingly, this is complicated and challenging to do in modern times.

Real food is whole food that typically has only one ingredient, like broccoli. There may be no ingredient label at all. Keeping in mind that real food involves food that is less processed but is safe to eat, it’s smart to apply some benchmarks for things like meat, whole grains, and dairy. When possible, dairy products should be “whole,” (for example whole milk) and come from grass-fed animals. Whole grains are best when they are not refined or made into a flour. But if refined is unavoidable, refined grains should be whole-grain based. Meat products need to come from a verifiably humane source. It’s best to choose poultry that is free range with animals fed a diverse diet—not corn based. Red meat should come from animals that were grass-fed, and pork from pigs that are not gestationally crated. Fish should be wild-caught. These kinds of food are available at most farmers markets and there are some online sources that ship. Processed meat (e.g., salami, beef jerky, bacon, etc.) should be avoided.

Packaged food takes more time to sort through since ingredient-label reading is foundational. It’s best to choose packaged foods that have as few ingredients as possible. You can set an arbitrary number like 5 or fewer ingredients as the Leake family did. Personally, I avoid packaged foods that have ingredients I cannot pronounce, in addition to setting a limit on the number of ingredients. Lastly, it’s important to avoid foods that contain the ingredients “high fructose corn syrup” or “partially hydrogenated” oils. High fructose corn syrup is nutritionally lacking and calorie dense, whereas partially hydrogenated oils indicate a source of trans fat, which was designated by the FDA as unsafe to eat in 2015.

Step By Step

For my transition to cook real food, I decided to move ahead in a stepwise fashion rather than all at once. Taking it one step at a time was more achievable for me. I also didn’t want to set the bar so high that I entered into this new way of life with rigidity. So, I settled on a benchmark of eating real food 80% of the time. I visited my first farmers market and began to purchase produce, meat, and dairy from local growers. Here is what I learned this first year eating real food.

1. Avoid online grocery shopping until you can identify packaged food brands that fit your real food rules (ingredient labels are not available for most vendors).

2. Take special care in identifying humanely sourced meat and dairy products and prioritize purchasing from local growers when possible. Farmers need our support!

3. Batch your food preparation to save time doubling recipes, freezing extras, etc.

4. Inventory control is a process because real food spoils more quickly. Over time, expect to purchase smaller quantities of higher quality food. I’ve found this to be budget neutral overall.

5. Focus on changing your real food habits and don’t force your experience on others (especially your kids!).

Your biggest predictor of success will be your planning efforts; when you invest in menu planning and meal prep, you more often than not eat and cook real food.

Since transitioning to cook real food, I do notice improvements in how I feel. I’ve always had what’s called non-allergic rhinitis. This means basically that my nose is always stuffy and/or runny. Since transitioning to real food, I do not have this issue. I sleep and breathe better with fewer stomach aches, which I frequently suffered from before transitioning to real food.

Moreover, the benefits of my transition to real food extend beyond better physical health. I have since learned to cook and I find it meditative. I work with my mind and cooking allows me to work with my hands. As a woman and a mother, I find comfort in the ritual of putting together a healthy dinner and knowing that I am nourishing my family. Our family lingers over the food, socializing about all sorts of things. It brings to mind the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus often taught His disciples over a meal—thereby nourishing both body and soul. Real food has introduced new habits for our family—habits that my kids will inherit and hopefully pass on for generations to come.

Next steps for me? Research supports a plant-based diet, and my goal for this year is to reduce meat consumption. I am also learning how to pack and cook real food lunches for the kids, and I am experimenting with freezing sandwiches for their lunch. Ultimately, I know all my efforts are investments in my family’s physical and mental health. Real food is fresh and simply tastes better. I find it’s worth it to invest in eating food that is more like nature than industry: dusting off the placemats at the kitchen table and mindfully enjoying food as our grandparents did—as it is meant to be eaten—once again.


1. Wolfson JA, Bleich SN. Public Health Nutrition. 2014;18:1397-1406.

2. Du Y, Rong S, Sun Y, et al. Association between frequency of eating away from home meals and risk of all cause and cause specific mortality. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2021;121:1741-9.

3. Bes-Rastrollo M, et al. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ 2019;365:l1949.

4. Food and Health Facts. [accessed 3/13/22].

5. MedPage Today. [accessed 3/13/22].

6. Avena NM, et al. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32:20-39.

7. Michelle J. Saksena, Abigail M. Okrent, Tobenna D. Anekwe, Clare Cho, Christopher Dicken, Anne Effland, Howard Elitzak, Joanne Guthrie, Karen S. Hamrick, Jeffrey Hyman, Young Jo, Biing-Hwan Lin, Lisa Mancino, Patrick W. McLaughlin, Ilya Rahkovsky, Katherine Ralston, Travis A. Smith, Hayden Stewart, Jessica Todd, and Charlotte Tuttle. America’s eating habits: food away from home. EIB-196, Michelle Saksena, Abigail M. Okrent, and Karen S. Hamrick, eds. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2018.

8. Huffington Post. [accessed 2/22/22].

Helpful Resources:

Nutrition Free evidence based nutrition information.

Harvard’s healthy eating plate.

100 Days of Real Food. Practical tips for how to cut out processed foods.

Kid tested firefighter approved. Plant based recipes.

Simply Organic recipes.

Don’t waste the crumbs. Recipes.

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