Make a Happy Plate: Eat Real Food

Who usually chooses a side of fruit instead of the cookie? This cute little guy.
Who usually chooses a side of fruit instead of the cookie? This cute little guy.

At the beginning of this year, I decided I was going to shake things up in the kitchen. My family, through my meal planning, had come victim to the everyday casserole–the same seven recipes, usually quick fixes, rotating throughout the week. Being a longtime foodie, I became aware of the fact I wasn’t enjoying eating. Here I was with a child that loved food just as much as I did, and I was giving in to a fourth request for a fruit pouch or cinnamon toast instead of offering up a tasty, and more nutritious, homemade alternative.

The goal? Make meal time a better, diverse, more nutritious, real-food experience.

First came the research. I was already in the habit of reading food labels. You know, fat content, sugars, and even sodium (that little chemical element is hidden in everything). But that’s where it stopped. I soon learned that an important part of reading labels is to scroll through the ingredient list. While I felt I avoided or limited most processed foods, I was surprised by simple things like spaghetti sauce and breadcrumbs that contained ingredients I couldn’t pronounce–lots of them. Yes, breadcrumbs. How can something that should just be dried out crumbled bread have a list of 40-plus ingredients, more than half of which I couldn’t pronounce or even identify as a food?

This was going to be more of a challenge that I thought. I began reading blogs like the, a lady who has devoted herself and her family to preparing recipes made from real ingredients and sharing what she’s learned along the way. Short of signing up for the website’s 100-day challenge, I poured through the recipes seeing what I could incorporate into our meal planning. I also liked Her site is full of flavorful meals. She also breaks her recipes down by cost per ingredient because I was convinced that “eating real” was going to cost me more. Guess what? Not true.

I then stocked up, made a goal of preparing only real food for 30 days, and took notes of what I was learning.

Luckily Fort Worth is teaming with stores to help the cause, so prep was easy. I bought fresh bread from Black Rooster Bakery, seasonal produce and meat from Central Market, Sprouts, and Cowtown Farmers Market, and “shopped the perimeter of the store” at my regular grocery store. We’ve all heard this. But really, any time I ventured into the center aisles, I was immediately disappointed with what I found on the food labels (Really, breadcrumbs?).

There were some grocery store middle-aisle exceptions that I relied on: certain potato and tortilla chips, applesauce, canned vegetables, and some trail mixes. Just had to be sure to read the labels.

I also began using real everything: butter, cheese, peanut butter. (Central Market has a machine that will grind peanuts into butter for you.) I met the rule halfway with milk. The more fat that they take away from milk, the more sugar they add, but whole milk was too much for me. So I went from skim to 2 percent.

I baked muffins, biscuits, and brownies from scratch (it really is easier than you’re thinking right now), even adding in veggies when I had them on hand.

And get this, food started tasting good again. Really good. I don’t know if it was because I was putting effort back into cooking or the ingredients were fresher. Probably a combination of the two. I found that cooking with real ingredients also kept me fuller longer. Whole grains, real cheese, even real butter adds flavor and fill.

They say it takes about 21 days to form a habit. And I picked up several good habits from this experience, letting go of the things that didn’t work for my family. But here are the standards I try to live by:

  1. Consciously eat. This means more to me than simply enjoying the food I prepare, although I am adamant that I’m not wasting calories on a subpar anything anymore. It also means prepare the food you know is in season and you know isn’t pumped full of . . . anything. There is a difference from a steak that you buy from Burgundy Pasture Beef and the ribs you pick up at your local grocery store.
  2. Eat real food. I’ve continued to use real everything. I’ve found particular brands of processed foods that I can live with. These are made using real ingredients and limited additives. (Sargento and Tillamook seem to be the least processed cheese; Stoneyfield the least processed yogurt. Simply Ruffles use only potato, oil and salt. Applegate lunchmeat is all-natural. And Cheerios are good.) I didn’t say it had to be low-fat. If you eat real, you’ll eat less and still be satisfied.
  3. I try not to go through drive-thrus. Sorry, guys. Chick-fil-A is probably a good call only in comparison to the alternative burger joint. But these things are loading with preservatives and sodium. I can get on board with Chipotle and Pie Five (whole-wheat crust, guys). It’s not that I don’t like a quick burger stop, but I don’t really enjoy it when I know how good it should taste (Hi, Rodeo Goat and Fred’s).
  4. Rely on resources. I’ve booked marked and and visit them often. Plus this year, both ladies put out their first cookbooks, which I have on the iPad. When I’m in a rut, it’s where I start. Some of my favorite go-tos:  budget byte100 days

So I know the rules, but please know that I don’t always follow them. There have been times where I didn’t pack sandwiches and snacks before a road trip or times I have found myself at the mall with a hungry preschooler. You do what you can do. In fact, I like to follow the 80 percent rule. I do what I’m suppose to about 80 percent of the time. Plus I love Taco Casa, and sometimes you just have to let yourself enjoy Taco Tuesdays.

What processed foods are you leaving on the grocery shelf? And what real food options are your kiddos loving?

Jennifer and her hubby, Michael agree that Fort Worth is the best place to have a family. For the past two decades Jennifer has been writing about her loves — music, food and Fort Worth — for local newspapers, magazines, websites and weeklies. This is her first opportunity to write about a new love, her son Will, and the influence his arrival has made on her view of the world … especially Fort Worth. Keeping him in mind, she has unlocked little treasures and adventures she didn’t know existed in this town and continues to discover great gems to share with her little one. She lives in the Cultural District with Michael, Will and her favorite girl — her lab, Tatum.


  1. Hi Jennifer! I LOVE your post and couldn’t agree more. Even my 6-year-old has become a label reader, all by himself! I am a “foodie” who grew up in Louisiana; I make it my mission to help people understand that “clean” eating does not have to be bland or boring. I even have a private support group on FB with photos of meals I’ve prepared. We certainly aren’t perfect, but we strive to live a healthy life with indulgences in moderation. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. Great read! Thanks for the links. I am a label reader myself and have been cooking for my family a lot more these days. I am always looking for new sources for delicious, healthy meals, made from REAL food!


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