Megan Kimble, author of Unprocessed (HarperCollins, 2015), was the last person you would expect to eat a completely unprocessed diet. She lived not on a plentiful organic farm, but in a miniscule apartment in Tucson, Arizona, that had a teensy kitchen to match. She slugged Diet Coke to fuel her stressful graduate school studies and part-time job. She had a penchant for chocolate chip cookies. And to top things off, she was nearly broke.
But armed with a trusty CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership and a curiosity about the food system, she embarked on a yearlong mission to eat zero processed foods. Here, Megan describes the challenges of eating clean for a year and provides tips on eating as unprocessed as possible.
Delicious Living: What inspired you to eat only unprocessed foods for a year?
Megan Kimble: For years I tried to figure out what foods to eat to be healthy, full, and energized. Then I came across a blog called “Eating Rules” that challenged readers to eat unprocessed for one month. I decided to try it, but I spent most of my time in the grocery store, reading labels and fretting about every decision. This one-month challenge brought up a lot of questions that I hadn’t quite figured out.
I decided to eat this way for a year partly because it seemed like a long enough time to investigate how food is processed and what that term even means.
DL: How did you differentiate processed foods from unprocessed ones?
MK: Every food is processed to some degree—for instance, chopping a tomato or making almonds into nut butter. But there’s a big difference between an apple and Chex Mix. In the first month of this project I read a lot of ingredient labels, trying to decide where to draw that line for myself. Take citric acid, for example. Was that unprocessed? When in doubt, I erred on the side of no and didn’t eat it.
DL: Eating is very much a communal activity. How did you still eat unprocessed when dining out or at events?
MK: The social element was the hardest part. I was lucky to have a wonderful group of friends who supported my eating plan, but there were certainly awkward times when I would ask waiters a ton of questions about the menu. Sometimes I would eat dinner at home while my friends went out for pizza, and then I’d meet up with them after for a craft beer. When traveling, I researched which natural groceries I could visit during my trip to maintain unprocessed eating.
MK: I wanted to prove that eating responsibly while also living in a city and making almost no money was possible. There are a lot of perks about living in a city, but you simply cannot produce your own food. I spent a lot of time thinking about where I bought my food and where I wanted my few but significant food dollars to go.
At the beginning of the year I shopped at Trader Joe’s. But I soon joined a natural food co-op in town and signed up for a CSA program that supplied fruits, vegetables, cheese, and bread. It was easier to shop at natural groceries because they tend to sell foods without a bunch of crazy ingredients.
DL: What are your three top tips for eating unprocessed?
MK: First, read the ingredients label on everything you’re eating. This action will create a lot of awareness and allow you to buy foods with just one or two ingredients, such as oats, raw honey, and plain yogurt. I’d also recommend signing up for a CSA—it’s a big bang for your buck and provides a lot of relatively inexpensive produce. Supplement what’s in your CSA with rice, beans, nuts, eggs, and meat from a natural food store. And cook! To me, cooking is a loose thing: You can buy two corn tortillas, add cheese and herbs, and make a quesadilla. The more you make at home, the more you’re empowered to control what you eat.
DL: Do you still eat unprocessed even though your project is complete?
MK: Now, I eat about 90 percent unprocessed. That extra 10 percent is due to dining out … that, and the occasional chocolate chip cookie!