October Unprocessed 2015 Wrap-up

I know this is ridiculously, horrendously overdue. I am going to post it anyway, because writing my experiences down always helps me “process” them (ha ha).

Let’s start with the bombshell: I did not make it to the end of October, Unprocessed.

Indian curry with brown rice and whole wheat roti

Indian curry (dal mahkni and vegetable korma) with brown rice and whole grain roti

Despite some major life changes beginning at the same time (primarily me returning to work after maternity leave, and Mike starting parental leave), the first two weeks (week 1, week 2) of the month-long challenge went swimmingly. Mike was eager to show off his stay-at-home-dad skills: homemade bread, vacuumed floors, clean kitchen…he did it all. I was energized by my return to work and feeling buoyant by 5 p.m. every day when I walked home to see my family.

Pasta machine in action

Feeding dough through the pasta maker

Then life happened. I’m trying to remember what, but my 11-month toddler took my calendar out of my work bag and I haven’t seen it since. There was a major extended family medical stress. A good friend was laid off, leading to a going-away party that devolved into a fast-food burrito dinner. Visits with new babies, parents leaving for vacation, and other parents moving just around the corner (howdy neighbours!). Thanksgiving, and of course, Hallowe’en.

On October 30, I full-on gave up. My now-toddling Popcorn hadn’t been sleeping and the layoffs at work meant my stress level was up. I simply didn’t have the energy to go against the flow of the rest of the world. I threw up my hands…and accepted cookies from colleagues. And white bread at our chili lunch. And dessert. The worst part was it wasn’t even good.

So it’s with a sigh that I can’t call October Unprocessed a full success. We ate very, very well. I’m talking homemade whole wheat pasta with roasted butternut squash filling. Curry and roti. Homemade roasted red pepper made into quiche. But it took a LOT of time – we didn’t eat until 8 or 9 p.m. most nights, because the bread maker wasn’t done or we had to make sauce from scratch.

Whole wheat butternut squash ravioli

Butternut squash ravioli: filling, pasta, sauce from scratch

Over the past few weeks I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on our October Unprocessed experience, even though I haven’t yet had time to sit down and write about it. What did I learn from the third year of trying to avoid processed food for a a whole month? It’s still hard. Way harder than it should be. And, I learned a few other things too:

1. It pays to set goals.

One of my goals for this year’s challenge was to tell more people I was doing it, so they wouldn’t offer me treats and foods that didn’t fit my rules. I stuck to this goal and told a lot more people than in the past; it was like a disclaimer. Sure, I’ll go out to lunch, but I’m on a whole foods diet. It was liberating because I didn’t have to make excuses. It also let me hone my elevator speech about what it means (to me) to eat “unprocessed”.

By the end of the month, I was telling people “We’re avoiding anything you couldn’t make in your kitchen at home, plus no white sugar and no processed grains like white bread or white rice.” Bam!

At a going-away party one lunch-hour at work, I used the elevator speech above to explain to a colleague why I only had some cheese, vegetables, and hummus on my plate when there were so many goodies around. She was nodding approvingly during the “kitchen test” part of my speech, cocking her head slightly at the sugar part, and by the white flour part, staring at me with slack jaw and eyes wide open. “Oh…OH!”’. Her reaction is typical – the idea of eating “whole” foods has become pretty mainstream, but people definitely do not think of white bread or rice as artificial.

White flour is junk food. End of story! Save it for special occasions.

Bowl of navy bean soup

Navy bean soup

2. If I’m going to eat processed food, it better be good.

By the end of the challenge I was getting pretty amped up to try Halloween candy. The only time I ever eat chocolate bars is on Halloween, and I love getting the small sized ones so I can sample them all. But over the past couple of years, I’ve been increasingly disappointed in the taste. Either my taste buds have changed or their recipes have. Or both. No matter. In the future, I’m going to make my treats count…I’m thinking homemade cinnamon buns or farmers’ market cupcakes.

3. Family has to be on board.

Throughout October, Mike repeatedly insisted that October Unprocessed is “a mental exercise” more than anything else – so for him, a slip-up here or there was no big deal. I thought this was insightful. We both were surprised at just how many places processed ingredients hide (sugar in my bottle labelled “pure vanilla extract”, for example).

But even before November hit, he was filling a Costco cart full of the forbidden fruits – pop, chips, rice pudding, fruit-bottom yogurt…and counting down the minutes until he could dig in.When he came home from that shopping trip, my face fell as he emptied the bags. I was hoping for commitment to a lifestyle change; he just wanted to show me eating unprocessed “isn’t that hard.”

That’s not to say our household hasn’t made some more permanent changes. We’re a whole wheat bread family now, except for the occasional cheese loaf from the grocery store. Despite what he might say, I think succceses with whole wheat pizza crust, pasta, and pie dough (for quiche) were enough to convince Mike to get on board with whole grain. And we found a brand of all-natural tortilla chips we will continue to love as the months turn by.

So I take these lessons with me into the hardest unprocessed season of all – Christmastime. I’m not going to forego Christmas cookies, but I won’t eat them unless they’re homemade. I will continue to meal-plan and try to keep Mike on board. And I’m going to keep with the goal of eating unprocessed except for “conscientous exceptions”.

Now, how to make an unprocessed ketchup to eat with my scrambled eggs? Strangely, that’s what I missed most of all.


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