Ingredients: Whole foods

DH suggested we write a post about how when we look at the ingredients lists of the processed foods in our pantry, we can pronounce every word.

That wasn’t always true.  When we were just starting out, we bought an awful lot of sale Lipton packets of unpronounceable things.  DH lived on Doritos and Twizzlers.

Of course, we were also pretty poor so Doritos and Twizzlers became an occasional treat and we spent a lot of time cooking from completely unprocessed (non-organic) veggies and fruits, purchased at a big open air market in the city we lived in.  We tended to go near the end of the day to scoop up deals on wilting produce that we would process right away.  That was very time consuming.

One of the things I had to do when we started trying to have a baby was completely switch my diet around.  I was diagnosed with Insulin Resistance and if I wanted to ever ovulate, I needed to completely cut out refined grains.  I started with high fructose corn syrup, then weaned my way down.  When I cut the HFCS, there was an awful lot of other crap that got cut with it, since processed food with unpronounceable ingredients tends to list HFCS as one of the more pronounceable ones (this was more true before HFCS became a bad word).  We started eating healthier and weight just kind of melted off while we felt generally healthier.  Because we couldn’t afford fancy organic substitutes for Campbell’s tomato soup and so on, we started making those from scratch or went without.

Now we’re more affluent.  Even including our fancy cheese consumption, our grocery bill, while several orders of magnitude bigger than our unintentionally nigh-vegetarian graduate school days, is still about the same as or smaller than what families of three on various mothers forums.  Even though we buy on-sale Kashi dinners and the occasional box of Doctor Krackers… not to mention the fancy organic tortilla chips (which have THREE ingredients:  corn, oil, and salt).  The difference?  Even though the processed stuff we buy is high quality, we buy a lot less of it than other families with similarly high bills.  We buy a lot of organic basic ingredients, and don’t spend the money on pre-prepared foods or heavily packaged snacks.


1.  Buy high quality stuff that fills you up without making you feel gross.  If you can recognize the ingredients on the label without an advanced chemistry degree, that’s a good sign.

2.  Prepare large batches of food and freeze leftovers for later meals.  One meal may cost about the same whether you prepare it or buy it from Stouffer’s.  The big savings comes from using that $5.99 on ingredients that make multiple dinners rather than one not-so-good-for-you package that is gone that night or too gross to eat the next day.  (And don’t just freeze stuff and forget about it– occasionally defrost it to eat!)

3.  Don’t let food go to waste.  Prepare food that stores well or that you’re willing to eat multiple meals in a row.  You don’t need to buy as much stuff if you eat what you have rather than tossing it out each week.

4.  If you don’t know how to cook, learn!  Practice, take a class, get someone to show you tricks, read cookbooks– just try it out.  It will get easier!  My DH didn’t know how to make ANYTHING when I married him and he makes amazing stuff now.  There were some pretty spectacular… learning experiences…while he was practicing, but now he knows what not to do and what to do.  Don’t give up.

5.  Sometimes simple dinners are the best.  A slice of bread, a fried egg, and some salsa or avocado slices.  Fresh tomato slices with basil, balsamic vinegar, and mozzarella.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Cheese and crackers with carrot sticks.  Nachos with bean dip and salsa.  Hummus and pita bread.  Quesadillas.  Chili.  Spaghetti.  Mixed greens with meat or beans.

Have your eating and cooking habits changed over the years?

58 Responses to “Ingredients: Whole foods”

  1. eemusings Says:

    Oh, for sure. We eat more veggies and less processed food…but we still have a long way to go!

    I gotta admit I am a fairly picky eater, though, and have the appetite of someone twice my size.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I remember our chemistry teacher in high school made us take an ingredients list of some junk food and look up the chemical formula of all the ingredients. I was great at chemistry but ended up getting a C in that assignment because I could only find about what half of the stuff was. That was back in the days before the internet and was at the library all day doing it.

  3. Niki Says:

    I was a horrible cook, but cook wouldn’t even be a good word to describe me. We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper and already prepared foods. Now when I think about it, I can’t believe we ate that crap.
    Much happier and healthier eating foods prepared from scratch. We avoid HFCS and Trans Fats. The trans fat labeling bothers me. If something that has trans fat less than .5 grams than they can label it as 0. Even in “negligible” amounts, it is still basically poison. If you know to look for partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients, you can tell, but not a lot of people seem concerned by it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One nice thing is that if you stick to foods without one sort of junk, they often don’t have other kinds of junk either. Obviously that’s not always true– if you want “no fat” or “no sugar” you’re going to get a ton of artificial crud that they’re using to replace whatever the old evil was. But if you’re sticking to mostly whole foods without specific processed ingredients you avoid a lot of it.

      • Niki Says:

        We don’t use the “no fat” “low Fat” stuff either, like you said it’s full of artificial crap. I would rather have 1 or 2 tablespoons of real sour cream than 1/2 cup of low fat/no fat. It is all about proportions, not just for weight, but for health too.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I know people who still get excited when they see no-sugar versions of things like lemonade and fancy coffee and I have to remind them that they are still full of sweeteners.

  4. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I do still love cheetos though. I don’t buy them but I totally steal them from students in my classes.

  5. Linda Says:

    Yes and no. I could write a lot about this! Let’s just say that I grew up in a household where we did a lot of home cooking, but not necessarily from whole foods. So I learned to prepare meals at home, too, and have continued to do so most of my life. Although I was often called a “picky eater” as a child, I actually had learned to be pretty adventurous in trying new foods.

    I’ve been through phases in my life where I scaled back on home meal production, but now I cook/prepare most of meals at home from whole foods. I don’t grind my own wheat and I use convenience appliances like a bread machine so I can bake bread while I work, but I still consider this home baked bread.

    I read ingredients lists on everything I buy because I don’t like buying foods with ingredients I can’t easily identify. My male, 20-something roomate/renters, on the other hand, are voracious consumers of highly processed foods. It’s very easy to tell our foods apart in the refrigerator and pantry. Spongey white bread, “sandwich spread,” Doritos, diet Arizona iced tea, and Gatorade belong to them; canned beans, brown rice, fancy goat cheese, and fresh veggies/fruits all belong to me.

    It’s interesting how economic status has a big impact on foods consumed. “Food deserts” (areas where fresh and whole foods are hard to purchase) are well documented phenomenon in big cities. Not having access to fresh, whole foods can have long term impacts on people because they don’t learn how to use and appreciate these foods if they don’t have frequent exposure to them. Your example of learning to like dark chocolate better than milk chocolate is a good one; people’s palates get trained over time, so eating high quantities of foods with artificially high levels of sweeteners or salt can make a fresh piece of fruit seem bland in comparison.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I can’t stand the taste of HFCS anymore– it used to not bother me at all. Now that we’ve been eating healthier for long periods of time I can’t imagine why we ate junk food before.

      Food deserts are definitely a big social problem. I’m glad Michelle Obama’s issue is healthy food. It’s so important and everybody should have access to it.

  6. everyday tips Says:

    My cooking skills definitely evolved over the years. In college, I thought baking a chicken breast and making boxed mashed potatoes was an amazing feat.

    When we were first married, my husband spent a lot of time working and studying for the cpa. That meant going out to dinner a lot with friends and minimal cooking.

    Once I got pregnant, nutrition really took front and center. No pop, lots of fruit and vegetables. I was very diligent for years as I was either pregnant or nursing for 5 years.

    Next came some regression for myself. I was exhausted from having 3 kids in a row. Pop was the first thing that came back. Next thing you know, Doritos moved in because they tasted so good with pop. However, I did make sure the kids ate very healthy. (They even loved eating peas from a bowl like you would popcorn. Meanwhile, I was sneaking cookies.) I learned a lot about cooking at this time, and realized dinner did not have to be a four course meal. The kids enjoyed rotini pasta mixed with chicken, carrots, hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes. (no sauce). I just tried to find ways to get as much fruit and vegs into them as I could, and I was lucky because they were not picky eaters.

    I am now extra vigilant about the food. No meat shall enter my table that has a trace of antibiotics. Dairy is all organic. Smoothies are made with Kefir. If I could change anything, it would be eating out less. That goes in waves depending on how busy schedules are.

    I do enjoy cooking a lot, and I cringe at some of my former habits!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Baking a chicken breast is still an amazing feat! And definitely one pot meals are the best. We like frozen peas in a bowl at our house. DC won’t eat cooked peas, but frozen peas ze will snarf down.

  7. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I’m a mixed bag but am trying to cook from scratch more often. Although, I don’t have an all-out block on processed foods (Coca-Cola is a HUGE treat for me). I’m really bad at food going to waste. I need to figure out how to remedy that. I am figuring out I use fruits and veggies more if they’re already cut up and easy to get. So I’m now trying to make it a habit to buy things and prep them as if my house were a restaurant. But even this is a process and I’m finding problems like a lack of decent containers for instance. I am baking a lot though so all the junk food we’re consuming is 100% made from scratch :) Except some of the ice cream. ;)

  8. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    If you can’t pronounce the ingredients in Twizzlers, you’ve got a serious problem. Anyway, Red Vines are much better. They are chewier and more elastic, while Twizzlers are too mealy.

  9. becca Says:

    If I have an advanced degree in chemistry, I get to eat Doritos though, right?

    “Even in “negligible” amounts, it is still basically poison.”
    Uhm, No. In ‘negligible’ amounts, it is exactly the same as you find in most products that have saturated fat. Including sour cream. (check out
    One argument in favor of the 0.5g cutoff was that people packaging food with an ingredient list of ‘milk’ didn’t want to have to start putting trans fats.
    Trans fats *and* saturated fats add calories without giving you much of value.

    Anyway, in answer to the question- growing up, I got exposed to a lot more variety than most kids, but everyday food was dominated by what was cheap. Cereal (never sugared cereal though), apples, peanut butter, spaghetti, hot dogs, that kind of thing. Not junk food, but not very healthy.
    In undergrad, I started an eco-friendly vegetarian co-op. So we spent $100/person/month on raw ingredient type foods. There were a few exceptions, like soymilk. We had debates over things like whether we should buy granola or make it ourselves. The farmer’s market helped a lot.
    Now I’m kind of inconsistent about food- I’m not trying to imitate the co-op anymore, but I am increasing the fruits and veggies pretty well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You can eat whatever you want!

      That’s impressive about the co-op. I probably would not have been able to feed myself without the cafeteria. (I’m really bad at cooking for one.)

    • Niki Says:

      Yes while some trans fats do naturally occur in dairy and meat products what I was referring to are partially hydrogenated oil that you find in processed and prepackaged foods.

      This from your wiki link:
      “Trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are more harmful than naturally occurring oils.”

      Your link goes on to talk about how harmful trans fats are and how it is widely accepted that they increase coronary heart disease and how our they stay in our blood stream for longer amounts of time to cause damage. Some studies suggest a whole host of other problems are associated with unsaturated fats.

      Thats sounds a whole lot like a poison to me. I still wouldn’t want to eat poison, even in negligible amounts.

      • becca Says:

        It is also widely accepted that saturated fat is linked to coronary heart disease.
        Now, from what I know of the biochem, if you had a choice between a food with the same amount of saturated fat (plus a tiny bit of naturally occurring trans fat) or trans fat resulting from hydrogenation, pick the saturated fat every time. I’m not disputed that trans fat is bad, or even that it is worse than saturated fat.
        (technically, it probably depends on how the hydrogenation was performed, what you are consuming it with, and a host of other factors. Still, for rule-of-thumb in the grocery store, I avoid hydrogenated products pretty strictly myself)
        I think we can agree on that much at least.

        What I am questioning, is whether a packaging rule where <0.5g/serving has to be noted would be valuable, and the use of the term 'poison'.
        As far as the first point- would people be less likely to buy sour cream if they knew it had trans fats (maybe very health conscious consumers who were leaning toward veganism to start with)? Or would less educated consumers see that even *milk* has trans fats and conclude therefore trans fats can't be harmful (I have a bad feeling I know a bunch of people this would apply to)?

        As far a the later point, it's a semantic argument, so you are of course entitled to use whatever definition of 'poison' you like. However, to me, "cyanide" sounds like a poison (substituting for oxygen in hemoglobin? strangulation from the inside). I could even grant you *ethanol* as a poison (ask an alcoholic's liver about that one).
        But trans fats, in the doses consumed even in the most pillsbury-rich diets? Sound like a bad food choice. Not the same thing as poison.

  10. Squirrelers Says:

    Good tips, and a good reminder to me, frankly. I need to improve my nutritional habits. I’ve done this somewhat (no caffeine this year), but have been sporadic in truly embracing nutrition. I know just what to do, and am quite interested in improving, but have found it challenging to actually follow through consistently. If my discipline with money could be channeled toward nutrition, it would be great. It’s up to each of us to make that happen for ourselves, of course.

    Anyway, I digress. Your comment on recognizing what’s on nutrition labels is important. Why ingest derived substances that are a mystery? Also, your comment on batch cooking is so true. Food compromises are made by many of us because of time constraints, and this approach can help in that regard. And yes, keeping it simple helps make all this easy to do as well.

  11. Dr. O Says:

    Twizzlers over Red Vines any day. Although I’m now a much bigger fan of Haribo gummy bears. :)

    My eating habits were awful when I lived in the dorm as an undergrad – fast food and junk from candy machines – but they improved greatly when I moved out on my own and started cooking. They remained quite good until I got pregnant, and then it was back to processed food (no energy to cook), and whatever I could get down past the nausea (surprisingly, this often included junk food and candy – who knew).

  12. Perpetua Says:

    Dr. O – I had the same experience when pregnant. I had friends who craved fruit, grains, lentils, etc. (All things I eat in large quantities when not pregnant.) When pregnant, all I could tolerate was soda, french fries, donuts, etc. It grossed me out, but I needed to eat. When I was young, I ate a LOT of processed food, even though (or because?) I was raised in a house of home-cooked, not-processed food. We never had junk, and I craved it. Then I got over it, and started to cook for myself (in my 20s). But it wasn’t until I realized that every meal was some boring combo of meat, starch, sad veg that I started to get more creative. And when I more or less abandoned cooking meat at home, my meals were so much tastier and healthier (and cheaper!). We definitely still use convenience foods (“healthy” processed foods – ie ones where you can pronounce the ingredients) but I’m trying to make more homemade treats/ snacks.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One of the extreme morning sickness books I read said that potato chips are often tolerated by women with extreme morning sickness. Obviously not me though. Not that I didn’t try.

  13. Frugal Forties Says:

    Well I lost a lot of weight a while back (100+ lbs) after years and years and years of struggling with my weight. When people asked what did it for me or what “diet” I followed, I tell them that I stopped eating fake food. It’s really true. I spent so many years following diets that had me eating artificial this and “diet shake” that and meal substitutions and so forth. Plus, you know, I was college kid of the ’80s where everything was dyed neon and flavored to the ‘nth degree. :)

    When I quit eating things with 25 ingredients and started eating the ingredients themselves, weight came off w/out my even trying. To this day one of my food heroes is Michael Pollan who simplified it down to this: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I mean really .. how much easier than that does it get?

    OTOH, food waste? Ack. I am bad about buying things and finding them in the crisper drawer 2 weeks later with their own life colonies. Entire science fairs take place in my fridge w/out my knowing it, I’m sure. I’m really trying hard to be better about that. It’s just tough going.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YES. When I stopped eating processed food the weight just kind of melted off, then even more when I stopped eating refined carbs.

      Good luck on eating stuff before it goes bad! We do weekly menu planning to make sure we use up veggies and eat a lot of lunch leftovers.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I also lose weight when I eat only my own cooking, but I always assumed it was only half because the food was of better quality (with fewer calories per serving) but also half because laziness was my friend. Ten pm. I’m hungry. But I don’t feel like making anything. I guess I’ll just go to bed.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Laziness for the win!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 says: I always remove the drawers from my refrigerator. Otherwise I just put things in there, never to be seen again. Putting the vegetables elsewhere in the frig or even on the bottom with no drawers lets me see (and remember to use) them better.

  14. Debbie M Says:

    Okay, first of all I would like your recipe for tomato soup. I used to eat Campbell’s mixed with milk (for “cream of tomato soup”), but now that’s too sugary. I noticed that mixing half tomato products and half cream is quite delicious (trying to copy La Madeleine), but I rarely have cream in the house.

    Of your tips, I mostly do #3, 4, and 5. Putting things in the freezer is not good. I’d rather eat the same dinner all week, which means I can only make things I really like.

    My favorite things about cooking my own stuff are:
    1) Less crap (I use only the crap that I actually want, like sugar in cookies, but no sugar in spaghetti sauce) and more fiber
    2) Cheaper
    3) Once you get a good recipe, you are no longer dependent on some company to keep making that thing you like.

    To answer your question, mostly I still have the tastes of an eight-year-old (although I do like both milk and dark chocolate). I learned to like milk more at summer camp when I had a choice between lukewarm water, lukewarm kool-aid and ice-cold milk (during 100-degree weather). I learned to like yogurt more at my college cafeteria whenever certain dishes were repeated. I learned that raw leaf lettuce and spinach are almost as good in salads as iceberg lettuce so long as you have enough dressing, cheese, etc. And in general, raw veggies are a lot less disgusting than cooked veggies because they have less flavor (though cooked veggies in soup don’t have much flavor either and thus are also good).

    Mostly I’ve just learned to add produce to my cooking. Grated carrots and zucchini can get lost in lots of things. I can put up to half as much spinach as is called for in spinach lasagne and it’s still good. Fruit in “smoothies” is okay so long as there is enough ice cream, too, and extra sugar. I’ve also learned that I like the taste of whole wheat pastry flour just as much as white flour, so now I use only the former in my cooking.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      WW Pastry flour is awesome. I’ll have to dig out our tomato soup recipe. We actually have a few of them. I like the one in the Old fashioned cookbook best, but the one in the Victory Garden cookbook is good too.

  15. Rumpus Says:

    I definitely see the changing tastes over time happening to me. I like to eat bread, and I like to bake bread that I then get to eat (most recently it was irish soda bread with raisins). I grew up on store-bought white bread, which is flavorless and has an odd consistency. If you take a slice and squish it in your hands it will form a ball…that’s just odd. So then I started eating whole wheat bread occasionally and didn’t really like it, but I kept trying some now and again and eventually my tastes changed. Now I’d rather bake with whole wheat flour. Laurel’s bread book is good for that. A similar thing occurred with spaghetti sauce…I used to prefer sweet(er) sauces. And heat…I’ve gotten to where jalapeños are an average heat and habeneros are what I look to for something spicy….mmmm, chipotle in adobo sauce.

    Anyway, I know people that grew up one way (no soda, for example) and rebelled (like a freshman with a fake id), but I still wonder if healthy eating is explainable solely through history, economics, and availability. Instead of subsidizing corn, what if we subsidized bread like you can get in Germany? Would kids grow up liking healthy foods? Would they not be obese and get diabetes and burden the healthcare system, etc? Anyway, government efforts on eating healthy (is it LA where the restaurants have to put the calories on the menu?) (and that tv show where the guy tried and failed to make a school system have healthy lunches) are probably another post altogether. But food in America is psychological or flavorful more than it is nutritional.

    I like freezing foods. I make foods I like, and I make enough for several meals. I freeze half right away (the Best Make-Ahead Recipe cookbook is great). The rest I have for a few meals in a row. Then I get to look forward to having that yummy food in the future. Oh, and I like the slow cooker…it makes good stuff.

    I like raw fruits and veggies…most kinds. Though I like them best out of my garden (which is mostly just herbs currently), or via a CSA. The CSA surprise is fun, it’s like that chef game where you take a few random ingredients and make a meal….unless you get all greens and then I’m done playing.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I like those cookbooks too!

      German bread is awesome.

      The calories on the menu thing has been found to have mixed results– folks eat more of some things that are bad for you because they’re not as bad as they thought they were and less of others.

      Jamie Oliver is the chef with the show– I just saw him on the daily show, apparently he’s moved to LA. LAUSD doesn’t want to play with him.

      I’d argue that a lot of US junk food is less flavorful than their healthy counterparts. I LOVE eating in Europe. Just the fact that they put butter in things instead of shortening. Puff pastry without butter is so sad. Cultured butter is so good.

      We haven’t used the crockpot in a long time… I hate cleaning it. I also broke my parent’s crockpot back when I was a kid which was sad.

      Bleh, greens.

  16. oilandgarlic Says:

    Thanks for mentioning #4 (learn to cook) which I think is the gist of the problem among most Americans, at least among my American friends who grow up with little idea that real cooking with fresh ingredients is do-able. Also appreciate that you actually say a husband can cook. When most blogs or magazines come up with time-saving tips related to household chores and cooking, they rarely ever suggest the husband can or should pitch in!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Not only can he cook, but he can learn how to cook first if he needs to. It’s shocking how some people don’t have this important life skill.

      One year DH took a cooking class– there were a lot of guys there who had gotten the cooking class as a gift from their sig others.

  17. julier Says:

    I had preeclampsia (pregnancy induced hypertension + other nastiness) when I was pregnant and had to go on a low sodium diet. Man was that hard. Even most “organic” prepared foods have way to much sodium in them. And you wouldn’t believe how much sodium is in things like ketchup and mustard. I’m sure I survived it only because my husband cooked meals for me.

    Even now I try to stick to a lower sodium diet. That means reading every label to check the sodium content (ideally, the milligrams of sodium should be less than the number of calories) and doing lots of cooking at home. I also rely heavily on Penzey’s spices for their no-salt spice blends. It mostly works out all right, except on nights when I really don’t want to cook.

  18. Notorious Ph.D. Says:

    When I was in grad school, a major part of “fun outings” for my best friend and I would be our weekly late-night trip to Big Cheap Grocery Store. We couldn’t afford many other kinds of outings, and… well, our trips to the store included songs, pranks, and (during the olympics one year) gymnastics. We made our own fun.

    But I digress. The point of the story is this: my friend was a self-described junk-food junkie; I was a vegetarian who loved to cook. My shopping cart was full of veggies and yogurt and grains; hers featured almost exclusively processed foods (I talked her out of the frozen chicken once when I pointed out that the ingredient label included “chicken flavoring”).

    And at the checkout, my bill was routinely 40% higher than hers. What’s up with that?

  19. Ask the grumpies: Healthy natural environmentally friendly food for lazy people | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] a little food prep, but mostly of the slicing and (optional) toasting/microwaving variety.  Here we discuss looking at ingredients on processed foods, and we also describe some really minimal prep options […]

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