Oh! The Trials and Tribulations of living unprocessed.

The roller coaster of living unprocessed!!!! I have written about not going into this guns blazing and there is a reason, you can get worn down.  I mean for a middle class family and a working mom, life happens and you slip. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to bring you back on track.  Your body misses it when you slack.  Your body will rebel and will get mad and will tell you very loudly that I am not happy with this crap you are feeding me.  When you have 75% of your food and products that you use are unprocessed, and you start slacking your body will notice and you won’t feel good.  It is like withdrawal!  But I am back with a vengeance. I have bought my poultry and beef for the year.  My freezer is stocked with  what I need.  I have my yearly supply of grain and nothing can hold me back.  I can’t tell you how much money we have saved this past year.  It is unreal.  Just changing our consumption habits, we have saved on average 500$ a year. Now that I have my system down on a lot of things, I have set my sites on bigger and better things. You might fall off the wagon of living unprocessed, but you quickly come back!

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Is there anything out there that is not on the net?

I have learned through this journey that the internet is not just a great place for information, but it is a great place to shop and source your food.  With  today’s technology, you can pretty much ship anything.  I have been able to expand my market place to the entire country.  So far, I have been able to source wheat, herbs and spices and many of my kitchen gadgets for a fraction of the price of what I would have normally spend if I went to a retail store.

For grain, I use an emergency preparedness site to buy my grain.  It is still 20 cents cheaper per pound than a wholefoods.  I buy my 6 month supply and I pretty much guaranteed low or free shipping.  The same is true for spices and herbs which can be quite pricey at the spice isle in the grocery store.  I know! why would you need that much?  well, if you go for the organic high-end herbs, those little bottles add up.  If you buy several herbs in a quarter pound weights, then your cost is pennies on the dollar and you can essentially create any spice or herb blend you need.  I keep all my spices and herbs in the freezer. I also buy my spices whole and grind what I need.  This will allow you to use less more potent spices and they will last for a year or more while keeping their  freshness.

So don’t be afraid of the internet.  It is a great resource for finding great deals and for products that may not be available in your regular stores.  It makes living unprocessed a little bit easier.

Do you really save money?

As I look back on the past two years and think about the changes that we made and has it really saved us that much money? As I look at the food we eat and the money we spend on food, I see a monthly savings of about 15% on average.  Now over a year, that can be substantial.  What is even more amazing is that I am buying top quality ingredients that cost more but I am saving 15% a month doing so.  So how is that possible?  You have to change the way you shop.  Set a budget for each weekly visit and stick to it.  And really, if you source your own food and know exactly where you are getting your poultry, beef, dairy, and produce, you will find that you are more disciplined and you will not be buying all those extras that catch your eye when you go to a one stop shop like a grocery store.  Trust me, it works.

But if you are looking for specific comparisons, I can give you the comparison of making your own butter.  Now when you make your own butter you end up with butter and buttermilk.  So essentially you start with cream and you end up with two products.  When you compare what you pay for really good milk or cream, it is going to be pricey, but trust me; it is not more than buying organic milk from the store.  Wholefoods for example carries creamline lightly pasteurized milk from local farms that pasture their cows and it also carries lightly pasteurized cream from local farms. The price is equivalent to the price of regular Ultra Pasteurized Homogenized organic milk.  I paid about $4.50 per ½ gallon of milk and about the same for a pint of cream.  A quart of cream makes a pound of butter.  You are probably saying good grief that is expensive butter compared to what I buy at the store, but let’s do the math and let us make the right comparisons.  You can’t compare your homemade butter you make with good quality cream to a land-o-lakes tub of butter.  You have to remember why they are so cheap.  They do not use the quality of ingredients you are going to source.  Remember this is corporate processing and the bottom line is more important than your health.

So how do I compare?  When I started this journey, my goal was to break even or even spend a bit more for better and healthier food and I was more than ok with that.  I remember my husband and I sat down one day and did the math as a gauge to see if we were really saving any money.  We compared my butter and buttermilk and crème fraiche to the products you buy at the high-end gourmet food stores. And were both very pleased with the outcome.

Regular Butter Organic Butter Cultured Butter Homemade Cultured or Sweet Butter
$3.70 / Pound $6 / Pound $10 / Pound $10 / Pound of either cultured or sweet + a free Quart of cultured buttermilk (average price at the store is $2.30)

So in reality you are getting homemade cultured butter and cultured buttermilk for the price of regular organic butter.  That is great savings in my book.  Now the enormous savings comes if you make Crème Fraiche which is what you use to make cultured butter.  Crème fraiche is very pricey and was not something I bought on a regular basis and I only used for special occasion.  Let us just say that I now use it for all my cream based recipes. Yes the savings are that huge.  Let’s do the comparison.

Regular Crème Fraiche Homemade Crème Fraiche
$30 / Quart $10 / Quart

And culturing cream is nothing but adding a couple of table spoons of cultured buttermilk to a quart of sweet cream.  As you get adept at this, you will find it is just easier and much cheaper to just buy the freeze dried culture from a cheese making supply online store and it will literally last you several years if stored in the freezer.

Now you can bring the cost down even further if you are able to use fresh raw milk which is normally much cheaper. If you are weary of consuming raw milk, you can pasteurize it your self easily and it will still be far superior to anything you buy at the store whether cream-line or not.

The savings also come from the fact that you don’t go to the store as often and therefore you have less opportunity to spend on other items that you didn’t intend to buy.  Trust me, you will save at least 15% per month.  And even if you don’t save any money just the fact I know what is exactly in my food and what I put in my and family’s body is priceless to me considering the fact that all of my husband’s ailments such as acid re-flux, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the beginnings of type II diabetes are now a thing of the distant past.

Do you really need 6 heads of lettuce or 20 limes?

As we have gone through this journey, we developed a groove and what would seem as a daunting task to many is truly living for us.  When I started this journey, it started with butter and then I started to think about what I spend my money on. Like many Americans, I loved the Costcos, Sams and BJs out there.  As a matter of fact, I was a member of at least two of the three at one point and had a charge card with one.  I loved the convenience of going into that one store and buying EVERYTHING and in bulk.  That’s what America is all about, supersize everything, even lettuce.  I noticed that I spent on average $300 per visit.  I bought produce, canned foods, ready made meals, paper goods, detergent, etc. in bulk.  I would go once every 6 weeks.  I also noticed that I was throwing out about 20% of the produce that I was buying, because a family of 3 is not going to finish the 6 heads of lettuce, the 10 cucumbers, or the large tub of strawberries in a week or two before the produce go bad.  I was throwing out a lot of food.  Isn’t that money down the drain?  So I started by buying my produce weekly from the local grocery store.  I realized that I cut about 99% of food waste and I was saving at least $50 to $60 per month on just the produce.  What a revelation!

I also started researching produce in the super markets.  Produce are not picked when they are ripe because you have to ship them, so some are quite tasteless.  So I started searching out our local farms, I mean for crying out loud, my house is surrounded by farms.  In the winter, I started going to the local organic market once I realized that they carry local produce when possible.  I also frequented farmers markets in the summer as well as joining a coop in a near by small farm. The difference in taste was astounding.  A peach tasted like a peach, the bananas were sweet and incredible.  These were not Dole bananas on steroids, but they were small organic bananas from Peru where the banana tasted like a banana.  The North Carolina honey crisp apples were to die for.  I started buying my needs for the week.  I knew that my family will consume 5 apples this week, so I only bought 5.  This allowed me to buy the best apples even if the price per pound was much higher than their Costco bulk counterpart.  The key was, I wasn’t throwing out 20% of those bulk apples.  So if you figure that you are going to waste 20% for the apples in bulk, the price per pound is no longer much cheaper.

I started saving more and more as I started buying our weekly needs and being conscious to only spend about $60-$70 per week on produce and milk.  So now that I am saving money on my produce, where else can I save money?  Canned goods, poultry and beef?  I used to buy broth, tomatoes sauce and all of my condiments in bulk.  But did I really need 4 large bottles of mustard?  I also bought huge packs of boneless chicken thighs and breasts all under the guise that buying bulk was cheaper.  So how do I save money there?  Breasts are much more expensive than thighs, so I bought only thighs.  I thought to myself, there is no way I was going to be able to make broth and tomato sauce myself because I don’t have time, so there was no money saving in this area at all. I should just be happy with what I was able to accomplish with the produce.  Boy was I wrong! I hope my next revelation will inspire you to go on your own journey into self sufficiency and truly living unprocessed.

If you buy really good vegetables and greens, you will find that you don’t need all those salad dressings that are meant to cover and coat the veggies to give them some taste, but you will get the taste of each vegetable working in harmony together and all you need to enhance the flavor of the veggies is a little salt and some good finishing oil. Try this recipe and let me know what you think.

Serves 4

1 head of lettuce

a handful of Arugula

One small cucumber

a handful of cherry or grape tomatoes

half a small onion

a handful of spinach

sea salt to taste

black pepper to taste

2 tbl toasted sesame oil

zest of one small lime

juice of one small lime (optional)

Cut the vegetables to your preferred size.  I like smaller pieces.  Make sure that you mince the arugula and the onions; this will ensure that it is fully incorporated and you get the perfect bite each time.

Add the salt, pepper, zest, oil and juice if you are going to use the juice and toss the salad and serve immediately.

You won’t miss the dressing!

Don’t go into this guns blazing!

As I dissect everything we eat and how can I make sure that I remove as much processing as I possibly can, I do find some things are beyond my reach as a working mom.  And I am ok with that.  There is so much you can do and if you go into this with guns blazing, you are going to lose that battle.  You can’t start this lifestyle change at a 100%.  You need to work your way up.  Trust me it will be a lot less painful and you will get into a groove much faster.  Like I said, I started with one thing, butter and I worked my way up.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to achieve the elusive 100%, but you have to be realistic.  You will quickly find that almost everything around you is processed.  Even things you didn’t think could possibly be processed are.  Everything has some type of preservative, emulsifier, natural flavor or …. So this is no small task and it is even worse if you are working full time and have a family.  The key is to set for yourself attainable goals.  As you reach your goal, you set the next one.  Start with the things you consume often.

An easy way in which I was able to cut out about 50% of our processing right off the bat without too much trouble or extra work was to limit takeout to one meal a week.  We chose Friday night, because who wants to cook or prepare anything on Friday night.  We also decided no more ready made meals, period.  So what is an easy alternative for those easy to heat up lasagnas and eggplant parmesans?  Slow cooked or casserole meals.  On the weekend spend a couple of hours making a hearty stew, or braised chicken that you can use in different ways.  Roast veggies and keep them in a bag in the freezer to use with Pasta and make fresh pesto and freeze in small portioned containers so that you can easily bring out and thaw and use with pasta.  Make a huge batch of brown rice and freeze in quart bags.  Soups are excellent way to make meals.  This is the case for creamy soups which are most likely pureed.  Some of the soups that I have made in large quantities and have frozen in portioned containers have been cream of mushroom (hold the cream for the freezing, add it when you reheat and ready to serve), root vegetable soup, potato soup and the list goes on and on.  A quick soup and salad dinner with a couple of pieces of homemade toast is a gourmet meal that will rival any high end restaurant.  So essentially, I started making our own ready made meals and that got us half of the way there, with just a little effort.  Oh, and stop buying those bags of salad.  Trust me, you do have 10 minutes to cut up some fresh veggies and greens.

Once you get this down, you can then start concentrating on sourcing your food as this will take quite a bit of research.  If you are very busy, make it into a family project.  After all you are making this change for your family so get them involved.  I know you will have resistance.  My husband was very supportive, but he also brought me down to earth once in a while and at times, he was skeptical or thought I might be going overboard, but as you and your family start seeing the fruits of your labor, you will build enthusiasm and it will become second nature.

If you have small children, this research would be a fun school project for them.  Use every resource you have at home to make life easier for you, and this includes your family.  Look at them as your own labor force and assistants.  If you have teenagers, maybe the incentive would be if you can save us money on finding the perfect meat source, you get a percentage of those savings for a period of time.  If all else fails, bribes work.

If I had to choose one thing that I found to be difficult, but very highly rewarding, it would be sourcing our food.  And when that milestone was achieved, it felt as if you have reached the peak of a mountain and now looking down at the breathtaking view in awe.  It is quite a feeling. Again, it took me over two years to reach the point I am at now, and I still have many things I need to try and have yet to explore.  You also have to understand your saturation point and know when to say it is ok if I don’t bake bread this week and we have to buy bread.  It is not the end of the world.  Trust me you won’t revert back. What you make will be so far superior, you will crave it and can’t be away from it for too long.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not always rosy and easy.  I have come to terms with the fact that it will be very difficult to make my own pasta on a regular basis.  But the alternative is to source the best type of pasta with the least processing I could find.  Being originally from the Middle East, pita is an integral part of my food.  But with limitations on how many pitas fit on the rack in the oven and the labor involved in rolling each pita, it was just not feasible to make pita on a regular basis at home. And I am ok with that.

So what do I do with the failures?  I don’t consider them failures, as I build on my experience and try to see if there is an easier way to accomplish this task and even if I don’t find that way, I try to find the next best thing.  Don’t go into this thinking that everything store bought is evil.  You have to read the labels and try to find the product with the least number of ingredients and definitely one that does not contain preservatives, artificial flavors or additives, and make certain you steer clear of the so called “natural flavor”; There is nothing natural about “natural flavor”.  You also need to understand that your family will not want to entirely give up their Soda, Cheetos, candy, cereal, candy bars, and etc.  So don’t get wrapped up in trying to force this lifestyle down your family’s throat. But what you can control is how much of this stuff is consumed inside the house.  My daughter loves Cheetos and I will buy her Cheetos every once in a while.  She also loves McDonalds fries and yes, I will swing her by for a happy meal every once in a blue moon.

My ultimate goal has always been to be 50-50 and I would consider this success.  The fact that our family has supassed that and we are in the 85% territory, has been a dream come true.  If you don’t go over board and take it one step at a time, you will find it easier to live unprocessed.

My journey began 4 years ago.

When I first embarked on this journey, my husband said, there is no way you will be able to make everything from scratch.  He said we have to be realistic and do what we can but we can’t go over board.  I remember saying to myself, we will see about that.  But he was right. Where would I find the time?  I work full time and at the time my daughter was 4.  I thought, the weekends would be a great time for that, but again, I have a 4 year old and I can’t keep her in the house on the weekends so I can prepare everything.  I said to myself, start with one thing and make a lot of it and freeze it so that you only make that one thing once a quarter.  So what is that thing?  I decided to look at the things that I use to prepare food like stock, tomatoes sauce and butter.  I searched butter and found out that it is nothing but over whipped cream and as a bonus I will also get buttermilk when I am done! That was it!  Butter!  We use butter for many things and the fact that at the end of this simple process I will end up with two products, it was a no brainer!  At the time, I was getting lightly pasteurized cream from Mom’s organic market that comes from a local dairy.  It was pricey, but again, I was getting two products out of this with all the nutrition.

I got a gallon of cream and I made my first 2 pounds of butter and two quarts of buttermilk.  It was lovely, and easy! I mean how easy is it to put cream in my mixer and run it for fifteen or twenty minutes.  Let us just say, I have not bought butter in 4 years and loving it.  During my initial research with butter, I discovered that I can make cultured butter and come up with yet another product out of my cream.  Cultured cream is crème fraiche.  So I can take a third of the cultured cream and keep it in the freezer as crème fraiche and make the rest butter which will also yield cultured buttermilk.  How ingenious.  So the pricey cream was no longer an issue since I produce three products.  I did this once every month and a half and I made sure that I did it on a regular week day as I am preparing dinner.  We were in heaven.  It got even better when I found a farm that will sell me fresh raw milk and cream.  I felt like we were tasting dairy products such as yogurt, butter, cheese, etc. for the first time. I honestly don’t know what they are selling in the stores, but this is what dairy should taste like.

I also realized that now that I am making my own butter, I was not overwhelmed and it didn’t feel like I was adding to my chores.  As I said, I made butter in conjunction with other things I was making.  So what’s next?  Again, I want something easy and I can freeze so that I would only make it once a quarter or at least once a month.  I used to buy broth in a box and tomatoes sauce in a can.  Why can’t I make those?  I thought I get my chickens fresh from the farm up the road, which means I also get the necks and gizzards.  So why not butterfly the chickens and keep the backs for stock.  One tip, don’t store your broth in glass jars, make sure that they are plastic jars.  I buy these quart screw top jars that are fantastic for freezing.  Again I made the broth in conjunction with another chore I was doing.  Since I prepare our meals weekly so that all I have to do is reheat throughout the week, I thought this would be a prefect time to make broth.  A couple of backs and a few necks, some aromatics and some spices and a large stock pot produced about two gallons of stock, which would last me about 4 months. And since they are portioned in quarts, it was very easy to go in to the freezer and take one out and pop it in the microwave for about 5 or 10 minutes.  Love it!  And I have never bought a box of broth ever since.

So my next thing I use a lot to prepare food is tomatoes sauce.  This one was a bit tricky since tomatoes have peels and I am not going to sit there and peel and do all that.  When I first started I just took tomatoes and put them in the blender and made tomato puree and froze it.  That was good, but it didn’t have that rich flavor.  I was watching a cooking show one day where the cook was roasting tomatoes in the oven and one of the tips she had was you can take these roasted tomatoes and blend them in a blender and make tomatoes sauce.  I thought I heard the angels sing!  So that’s what I did.  I went and bought 30 Roma tomatoes.  I removed the little stem area and stuck them in a 350 degree oven whole on a cookie sheet for an hour.  I also thought since I am going to roast the tomatoes, why not roast a couple large onions and a head of garlic as well.  Again, I did this in conjunction with another chore.  The peel has a lot of nutrition, so I was not going to peel anything. Ok, that’s my excuse for not peeling and I am sticking to it.  So why did I choose Roma tomatoes?  Well, they are meatier and don’t have much liquid, so you will achieve a much thicker and richer sauce.  I combined the tomatoes, garlic and onions and added some fresh basil and I blended it into a beautiful rich deep flavored sauce.  I was hooked.  30 tomatoes made about a 3.5 to about 4 quarts of sauce and that lasted me about a couple of months.  No more canned stuff for me!

So I was making butter, tomatoes sauce and broth 4-6 times a year and not really feeling the burden of making them.  I can do this!  Why is it that everywhere I turn I am told, I am too busy to do this?  Mind you, there are certain things that I have tried and loved, but they were labor intensive and I truly did not have the time to do on a regular basis, so I stayed with the store bought version, but I am ok with that because when it is all said an done, I am still living mostly unprocessed and I still have time.  You just need to organize and work it in slowly.  It is not that hard to live unprocessed.

When did I come to my senses?

So why now? some have asked.  Did I just wake up one day and said I have had enough!  No, I think it was a gradual thing for our family that ended with this incredible urgency of having to get our life on track right now.

When my husband and I met and got married, we settled into the comfort of a stable relationship and ate with abandon.  Needless to say, with that comfort we packed on the pounds.  I worked full time, so takeout was what we ate most often and if it wasn’t takeout, then it was the ready made lasagnas, chicken Alfredo, etc.  As we gained weight, the health problems started to appear.  My husband was in his late 30’s and suffering from sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure, gout and high cholesterol.  That was our first wake up call. We are now obese and he has developed some serious illnesses.  He started his medications and his breathing machine and we changed the way we ate.  I started cooking more and started looking at sugar free alternatives for desert.  Desert is my husband’s biggest weakness.  Klondike made these great sugar free bars that he really liked and since I am not much of a baker, I was relieved.  He started losing weight by just regulating his sugar and sleep, but I wasn’t.

I joined Curves and still no significant weight loss. I couldn’t understand.  We were eating mostly salads now and started to grill every other week and we cut our takeout by 90% as well as cut out soda completely.  We do feel better, but I am still obese and he has plateaued.  So what was going on?

I started looking into health supplements and what ingredients increased your metabolism.  Money down the drain, most of the time.  And gradually I started thinking about the foods that we put in our body.  Yes, we eat mostly salad, but what else do we eat.  I buy granola bars, I use butter, I buy my daughter Nutella.  I make life easier for me by buying all of my condiments, dressings, broth, canned tomatoes and tomato sauce.  I realized that I buy a lot of processed items.  I started by looking at the labels to see what was in the butter, in the half and half, etc. And there came the shock.  Butter was just not churned cream, but it had natural flavors.  Why would you add natural flavors to something that is already natural?  and if it is a natural flavor, what is it? Nutella was just not chocolate, milk and hazelnuts, it had all these additives and emulsifiers.  half/half had starch and sugar and other ingredients than half cream half milk. And the list goes on!

That’s when the true awakening happened, when I realized that what you think is wholesome is altered even if it is organic.  And there my journey began…