The October challenge was – and is – remarkable in that it required us not only to limit our menu in a certain way but also to pay attention to what we eat when we are by ourselves and to think on our general approach to food. Regardless of what exactly each of us sees as “processed food”, it has one thing in common – it is something that makes eating (and cooking) easier, be it a frozen pizza, a restaurant meal or an instant soup. And this is where the challenge lies: to avoid these shortcuts and to see how much we rely on them in our everyday life.
The words “processed food” immediately made me think of the “emergency supply” shelf in my fridge where I keep canned and preserved food – from peeled tomatoes to vegetable ragout and cream cheese spreads. Practically everything there can be turned into a pasta sauce or put on a sandwich – very handy in case of unexpected guests or being lazy to cook. I figured I used something from there every day, if not every time I was cooking, so I put an imaginary “Do not cross” tape over this shelf for a week.
Another decision related with the challenge was to stay off restaurants. In retrospect, it was one of the hardest features – just as I decided to stick with home food for a week, suddenly the whole city started tempting me with colourful ads from bars and fast food places and exciting news of restaurants in every neighborhood I visit :)) I eat out by myself once in a while, and it never feels like a big deal: I may drop by a good cafe when passing by, or decide to dine in my local pub instead of cooking – all in all, not too different from ordering a delivery pizza (which, incidentally, was also out of question for the week of the challenge).
So, to sum it up, I approached the challenge as settling for simpler food, cooked at home from simpler ingredients – “something I can easily tell where it comes from”, or maybe, “something that was available to our grandmothers”, so, for example, I would use cheese but not cheese spreads, and prosciutto but not sausages. I also tried to do without bread and mostly succeeded (though I had to give up my favourite way of snacking at home, which is making small sandwiches).
Out of what may be labeled as processed food I used: pasta, frozen vegetables (uncooked – so no potatoes, since those are always cooked before freezing), unflavoured milk products (yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, cream...) and some simpler meat products (like bacon which is a cured piece of meat, as opposed to frankfurters which use ground meat with spices and casing and who knows what else).
I absolutely couldn't give up chocolate, and I also drank beer and wine on occasions.
Didn't use: any ready-made sauces (from mayonnaise to store-bought pesto), frozen meals (like pizza or breaded chicken), or canned food (like tuna or peeled tomatoes).
So here is my day-to-day account of the challenge.
Saturday, October 17th
I start on a weekend instead of Monday, because next Saturday I have friends coming over for a party (so I wouldn't be loneeating and will likely use some processed foods to cook party treats), so I get an early start and still have a whole week to experience the challenge.
Most of the day I'm planning to dedicate to work (I'm editing a big book), so I take a big lunch (I know it's healthier to eat in small portions six times a day – but when it means getting distracted six times a day, I'd rather risk one heavy meal).
I have pasta with cream sauce of onions and prosciutto (very easy to make: dice the ingredients, sautee them and then pour some cream over them and let it thicken), some tea and a bowl of grapes.
In the evening I switch to coffee and chocolates – not very good for sleeping, but very good for productivity.
Sunday, October 18th
Most of the day I'm going to be out and about, so I make myself a varied and colourful breakfast which looks more or less balanced: steamed vegetables and a cheese omelette. So far so good!
In the afternoon I am struck by inspiration. I remember the first dish I had learned to cook myself – a vegetable soup, from the recipe in some old cook book, and I decide to prepare it.
The soup is very easy to make (and also educational – it has a number of ingredients that should be added to the soup at different points since they have different cooking times).
Monday, October 19th
My parents are coming for dinner in the evening, so my loneeating is limited to a lunch today. Good thing I have some soup prepared beforehand – I eat it with a cheese toast (just like I did as a kid, though now it appears a little too heavy).
Then I set to cook the dinner – for which I don't use any processed food either. It's not hard since I make baked salmon (salmon steaks; oven; lemon juice) and pasta salad dressed with oil instead of mayonnaise. I absolutely adore pasta salads – it's a very versatile dish that can be made light or serious, easy to prepare for one person as well as for a party, for vegetarians and meat or fish lovers – and it is also a great way to bring a lonely tomato or a leftover piece of chicken to a tasty happy ending.
The only rule I have for a pasta salad – it has to be bright, so just olives and chicken wouldn't do – slice some tomato and a yellow bell pepper in there, and it truly shines.
Tuesday, October 20th
Lunching with a book of ancient Roman epigrams by Martialis. I finish the soup and the food left over from the dinner. Surprisingly, a small piece of baked salmon makes a splendid addition to the pasta salad.
Wednesday, October 21st
I have a lot planned for today – preparing for classes, editing, cleaning my apartment and planning for the weekend – so it's pasta again!
Now that doesn't look like a healthy habit... but at least I make it with a vegetable sauce of leeks, tomatoes and bell peppers (to differentiate it from the pasta salad that had the same ingredients fresh, not to mention a different kind of pasta). I'd rather prefer to mix it with some canned vegetable ragout or mushroom cream soup – but those are on the forbidden shelf :))
During the lunch I'm reading an old magazine with recipes, looking for ideas for the weekend to figure out what I need to buy.
The afternoon I dedicate to shopping, and one piece of Angus steak looks so tempting that I decide to cook it right away. Honestly, I don't remember the last time I prepared myself a simple steak
Nothing sinister, just meat, salt and pepper; garnished with lettuce and tomato salad and accompanied with a beer.
Thursday, October 22nd
Among my recipes I find a scrap of paper with ingredients for “Arabian omelette”. It looks interesting, so this is what I'm having for breakfast. Eggs, spinach (I use frozen whole leaves), salt and spices (cumin is a must, red chili pepper and caraway are optional). It all blends together into a greenish batter which I then fry like small pancakes.
I make some yogurt sauce (fresh yogurt, olive oil and dried herbs) to serve them with. I think these omelette pancakes will be great with some salted salmon (but this time I'm not using it because I only have a packed slice of store-bought salted fish; though it's not difficult to make at home).
In the afternoon I conduct an experiment: I mix some fresh cottage cheese with olive oil and dry herbs. The result has similar texture to store-bought soft cheese spreads and tastes just great on a toast. I suppose it can be made smoother if I blend them, but mixing the components by hand results in less washing to do. Looks like I have discovered a simpler and healthier alternative to my staple sandwich ingredient!
Friday, October 23rd
The last day of the challenge!
With my friends coming tomorrow in the afternoon, most of the day is cleaning, last-minute shopping and, of course, cooking everything that can be prepared beforehand – like boiling a chicken fillet for a salad, for example. I haven't had a proper meal all day – between my chores I snack on an apple or a toast.
Finally, while meat pies are baking and red onions caramelising on low heat, I look at the broth in the saucepan where I boiled the chicken, at the glass of white wine I poured myself as a reward for all the hard work, at half an onion and two frozen blocks of spinach leaves that are already thawed because I forgot to put them back in the fridge – and I decide to cook a risotto. It fits the challenge and it's easy to prepare – sure, it takes some time, but I'm staying in the kitchen anyway to watch the pies. Cooking risotto is an interesting process, but not exactly a photogenic one, so I only present the result here.
The week went by quickly, and by the end of it I barely remembered I had a “forbidden shelf” in my fridge. In general, fewer ingredients means more creativity; and some processed products have easy-to-make alternatives. Making good mayonnaise is quite a challenging task, but pesto takes mere minutes to prepare in a blender.
Turned out, it's not that hard to do without canned foods, frozen pizza or eating out. Though I think the real challenge for me would be to stay off pasta, because it almost felt like cheating since it was so easy to make – and also because I seem to eat a little too much of it.
The really important outcome of the challenge for me was developing a more conscious approach to what I am eating. Something I've had in mind for a while but never got around to is keeping a food diary – and I think the notes I was making during the challenge are a good start. It's a great way to watch over one's eating, whether for dieting purposes (it's surprising how many little snacks go unaccounted) or to be able to plan grocery shopping better. Processed food will always have a place in my fridge and on my menu, though I'm going to reconsider its share and stay aware of healthier options. It's an everyday choice, however small.