When she was 26, Megan Kimble went an entire year without eating processed foods. She didn't just survive, she had a social life, and she's documented her experiment in a new book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food. If she could do it, anyone with any kind of diet can.
My first question when I picked up the book was: What exactly does "processed" mean?
And she gets right to it: the word "processed" refers foods that have been contaminated with refined sugars, refined grains, and/or chemical additions. While technically all food is somewhat processed, there's a clear difference between packaged white bread and hand-milled, home-baked bread. It's a matter of figuring out what's too processed.
Still, it took her the entire year (and she's still learning) to understand how to be the judge of that. It wasn't a matter of just cutting out pre-packaged snacks, no, it meant milling wheat, extracting salt from the sea, milking and slaughtering all sorts of animals, and learning about the globalization of agriculture, to fully grasp the processes behind the food we eat.
Needless to say, it was a process. And even though, at restaurants, where "food is richer, portions bigger, and ingredients harder to trace," she still found a way to not just endure the meal but actually enjoy it. What this meant, in practice, was that it was a lot easier than she expected to find (and afford!) places with high-integrity, locally sourced ingredients.
So, no matter your diet, Kimble has some helpful tips on how to keep control over what you eat when you're eating out — whether that's on a date, at a cocktail party, or the dreaded group birthday dinner.
1. Look up the menu online before you go.
A little research never hurt anybody. If you've never been to the place before, scope out the menu online and see what dishes work best for you. And now that consumers are more concerned with ingredient sourcing and sustainability, the website might also include information on where they get their ingredients from.
This way, you can Identify some options before you even leave the house. But ultimately, if you feel like this place has nothing to offer you, why not suggest somewhere else?
2. Be honest about your food choices from the get-go.
Kimble goes on a date with a guy named Dustin, and he orders for the both of them before she has time to protest: vegetable tempura and an eel-avocado roll. She wonders what to do. Fake vegetarianism? Feign pre-meal fullness? She decides to grab a piece of each and let it sit, collapsing into a soggy mass, on her plate.
No, that's ridiculous. Be honest! If the food doesn't appeal to you, say that. (Because, in all seriousness, no one should be ordering for you unless you ask them to.) Dustin clearly had some weird power complex going on, hinting, as she put it, at "future incompatibility."
3. Stay informed, but don't drive yourself crazy.
Have a sense of humor about it, though. Your server is there to answer any and all of your most burning questions, but let's not take up all his or her time. You're simply interested in the kitchen's processes. "Where do they buy their steak, fish, chicken?" Do they cook their greens with bacon? Do they make their bread in-house? Get to the point, and move on. Ultimately, the meal isn't about the food; it's about spending time with the person across the table from you.
And, please, don't try to alter the dishes to suit each and every one of your needs. Yes, maybe, if you're vegetarian, you can ask that the chicken be left out of the salad, but don't go inventing a dish of your own. That's the chef's job.
4. Identify your local food purveyors.
If you're curious where restaurants get their food, you should probably know a thing or two about those sources. Again, do some research. If the restaurant outsources its bread, how is the bread made at that bakery?
Kimble is from Tucson, where it's impossible not to eat tacos. So, she asked around and found restaurants that make corn tortillas from scratch, using fresh ingredients. Those became her go-to places for eating out. She advises doing the same: find out what goes into your regional speciality and who does it best.
5. If and when possible, avoid chains and support local restaurants.
As of late, national food chains have been much better about ridding their kitchens of artificial ingredients, so this tip may expire (let's hope!), but in general, a menu item at a chain restaurant has to taste the same from city to city, and they do that "by adding chemicals and stabilizers to their recipes." No matter what diet you're on, you're not going to want any of that.
You'll typically find higher quality ingredients at local restaurants. The local food movement is gaining momentum, so chefs are now paying closer attention to where their ingredients come from. So, if your budget allows for it, try to keep the trend going so that "those restaurants that are themselves supporting local growers" can thrive and multiply.
6. Try to drink local, small-batch wine, beer, and spirits.
Similarly, in the alcohol business, there is a nationwide trend toward using local ingredients, minimal additives, and extreme care with the quality of the finished product, due to relaxed distillery regulations. So, local distilleries have better products, because, in general, they're well-made by people who really care.
But, again, local wine, beer, and liquor is more expensive, so obviously do with this advice as much as your budget allows.
Oh, and yes, you can live a healthy lifestyle and still drink, if that's what you want. Everything in moderation!
7. Above all else, enjoy the company.
Do your best. Ask questions if you have them — or don't. When eating, there should never be hard and fast rules. If you made them for yourself, you decide if and when to break them. Kimble did an extreme thing by cutting out all processed foods out of her diet, but her goal isn't to make others do the same. She just wants people to be more curious about where their food comes from. They can decide from there what they do with that information.
A meal shared with a friend or a date or a family member should not be anxiety-provoking (at least not because of the food choices). What's most important is that you "enjoy the company of whoever you happen to be eating that food with," as she puts it.