What does “processed food” mean to you?

My friend Andrew Wilder from Eating Rules is doing something really cool. He and about 3,000 people have pledged not to eat processed food for the month of October. Hence the name: “October Unprocessed.”

To be successful in avoiding processed food, it’s necessary to define what that really means. Andrew uses what he calls a “kitchen test.” My understanding is that if you can make it in your home kitchen, then it is not a processed food.

I took the pledge, but I decided I needed to define “processed food” on my own terms. I like how Andrew defines the term “processing” implies some kind of factory, while unprocessed is straight from your kitchen. But to me there’s more to the story.

Recently I stupidly forgot a snack before a long drive. I stopped for something to eat and after looking at the offerings in a convenience store, I went with the “Lays Classic” potato chips. There are only three ingredients: Potatoes, oil (of some kind), and salt. I told Andrew how I ate potato chips (he probably shivered), but he said that strictly speaking those store-bought chips met the kitchen test. That didn’t sit well with me.

While yes I can thinly slice potato chips, fry them in oil, and then douse the “chips” in salt, I don’t think that the chips I bought are “unprocessed.” The product from my home kitchen would be far better for me than chips from a store. Normally I chose organic/farmer’s market potatoes and a higher quality oil so my home chips would not be genetically modified (corn oil used for the chips is most likely genetically modified). They wouldn’t look like chips from a bag — they would be pretty unique since I would hand chop them — and the texture would be different.

So there is no part of me that could eat store-bought chips and still plan on eating unprocessed in the month of October. But it got me thinking about processed food. Processed food in my world meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Must be made in a factory by a machine or in a lab by a food scientist
  2. Is shelf-stable for months, maybe years, because of additives and preservatives
  3. Contains natural or artificial flavors
  4. Is genetically modified
  5. Possible BPA leaching

Examples include corn syrup, natural flavors (when you look into it, you find out that they are all created in a lab and are hardly “natural”), artificial dyes (Yellow #5, Red #40, Blue #1 are all petroleum-based dyes), additives, and preservatives. Further examples, that may be more controversial, include chicken nuggets (can be made at home, but are nothing like store-bought), canned soup, many boxed cookies, many microwave meals, most cereals… Hmm, stuff in my cupboards…

When I pushed Andrew to tell me what he thinks are true processed foods, Andrew told me that he would never “tell anyone what to eat.” He’s so diplomatic. But he does define #unprocessed (so check it out).

How do you define “processed food?” Could you go a month without it?

How I Stopped Packing Lunches and Started Enjoying the Morning

Homemade pizza; raspberries; banana chips and crunchy green beans; hard-boiled egg; gf bunny crackers

I really hate packing my son’s lunches. I know you guys enjoyed those posts, and some of you still want to see photos of lunches, but I always felt funny sharing them. Here’s why:

  1. I advocate for school lunch reform — not people packing. Putting up those lunch photos felt like I was “selling out”; the whole reason I created this blog in 2010 was to raise awareness about school lunch. The blog has evolved beyond straight school lunch posts now, but I still didn’t think it fit.
  2. I felt like I was bragging. Even though my son has food allergies going on, it did feel a bit showy to put photos of my son’s lunches out there. Where some sought and found inspiration for lunch packing, I saw exactly what one reviewer pointed out on her review of my book on Amazon. Yep, she called me “elitist.” You know, you open yourself and share something personal (my son’s lunches are personal — food is personal). You know what? I didn’t sign on to deal with that.
  3. I despised the experience of lunch packing. I don’t think you understand the depth of my hatred of lunch packing. It took over my morning every single day. I spent more than 30 minutes running around like crazy trying to get everything “just so.” I was losing my mind. Yeah, I could have packed, or at least prepped, the night before — and sometimes I did — but normally at night after my son went down the last thing I wanted to do was think about lunch packing. So I procrastinated until the very last minute. I often paid by not having time to pack my own lunch. Sometimes the price was my own sanity.

So there’s that.

Gf pita bread; pear slices; salmon; blueberry goat yogurt; package of gf crackers

And then last spring my son started struggling at school. My heart broke when I got a bad report virtually every single day. I knew he needed a new setting and our move made it a natural transition to something else…but what?

When half-day camp was such a big hit this summer, I decided to look for half-day preschool and a half-day nanny. When you are three and having trouble “listening,” I think it’s a sign that eight hours at child care is just too long. I had to find something that better suited his needs. I found a perfect three hour preschool program (they don’t offer food at lunch), but locating a nanny who was willing to do just half days was harder.

I started really worrying about finding someone in August, but luckily we found someone who has turned out to be just what Charlie needs. Our child care costs doubled, but Charlie’s behavior has improved dramatically, both at school and at home. He’s still having occasional “trouble listening” at school, but it’s less frequent. Most noticeably, his afternoons at home have been great (my schedule is flexible so I’m in and out and get to see him). Charlie’s overall behavior at home has been pretty much as good as it gets for someone who is turning four. He’s not perfect (hello, he’s little), but he’s a happier kid at home. It’s worth every dime.

Gf turkey bagel sandwiches; apple slices; avocado and baby carrots; homemade gf brownie; snack bar

The biggest side benefit with the change in Charlie’s schedule is that I DON’T PACK LUNCH FOR HIM ANYMORE. He comes home from preschool and the nanny makes him a lunch (or me if I’m around). Mornings are far less stressful and the extra time we have together means that I can do things with him that I wasn’t able to do before (sometimes we get to play or read a book before school — virtually unheard of in the past).

With Charlie’s fall birthday, he won’t be starting kindergarten for another two years and when he does, it will be half-day in our new district. While that means three years of some kind of nanny or home-based support allocated space in our budget, it does mean that I WON’T HAVE TO PACK FOR ANOTHER THREE YEARS! Of course this is more about supporting Charlie than my selfish need to stop lunch packing, but for me it has been so nice. Maybe I can advocate for awesome school lunch and this can go on INDEFINITELY!

Considering how things are going this fall, I’m feeling confident and optimistic about Charlie this year. He started going to full-time, out-of-our-home child care at nine weeks of age and then continued with day care. With four years of day care under his belt, I consider him a veteran. There have been a lot of pluses (he’s independent, out-going, and self-reliant), but it feels right to scale back at the moment, especially with a new baby on the way. Fingers crossed.

Mrs Q’s News: School food reformers; BPA and Obesity


The pregnancy fatigue has really put me over the edge. At night when I normally carve out time to blog, now I just want to sleep. I know that urge is going to ramp up in the next two months. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

1) Cool two-page handout via Spoonfed (Christina) — Handout: Why school and junk food don’t mix. And what educators can do about it.

2) Bettina is featured in the paper: School food battles move from pink slime to cupcakes.

3) One thought-provoking study is reporting a connection between the chemical BPA and childhood obesity.

Guest Blog: Do Something Reel — Lunch Line Documentary Available for Download

For the month of September, Whole Foods Market’s Do Something Reel Film Festival is featuring Lunch Line, a documentary about the national school lunch program. The film follows six school age children from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago as they set out to fix school lunch and end up at the White House.

 The National School Lunch Program began in 1946, and now, more than 60 years later, the program feeds more than 31 million children every day. In the film, leaders from all sides of the school food debate weigh in on the program and discuss ways to continue nourishing America’s children for another 60 years.

Improving childhood nutrition is also the focus of the Whole Kids Foundation, a Whole Foods Market foundation. To date, the Foundation has funded nearly 900 school garden grants in partnership with FoodCorps and over 1,500 salad bars through Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, giving more than 1 million kids access to healthy food choices.

If you’d like kids to spend more time with a lunchbox than in the lunch line, here are our tips to pack a lunchbox that your kids won’t want to swap:

1.      Substitute avocado or hummus for mayo – avocado serves as a healthy fat source plus provides a creamy spread for sandwiches.

2.      Pep up your plain old PP&J with almond butter and fresh fruit slices –fresh fruit means natural sugars.

3.      Always use whole grain breads or tortillas – wraps are a fun change of pace especially when they are packed with veggies.

4.      Savor seasonal flavors – pack a piece of fruit or cut vegetables for a crunchy snack.

5.      Swap processed chips and snacks for healthier homemade options– trail mix with dried fruits and nuts or whole grain chips and hummus make the grade.

Lunch Line is available on iTunes and other platforms for $3.99—you can visit dosomethingreel.com for more information.

Whole Kids Foundation and Better Bites are also filled with healthy eating information for families and kids!

Mrs Q’s News: School lunch, veggies, and unprocessed food

 Berries from a farmer’s market in California last year

1) Twenty school lunches from around the world. Amazing to see so much real food!

2) Calling vegetables fun names makes kids eat them. How does “Power Punch Broccoli” strike you? I know my son responds to this kind of thing. Charlie will eat quinoa when I tell him Aaron Rodgers eats it to get strong. Works like a charm!

3) Great infographic about school lunch worldwide.

AND a bonus link to

BONUS: October Unprocessed on Eating Rules! Pledge to eat a month free of unprocessed food. Could you do it?

Taking questions: What to eat when pregnant

Crab apple tree I saw in Wisconsin this summer. 

Q: Just curious how you are managing your diet during your pregnancy?

A: I’m actually working on a bigger post with some rather offbeat tips (stay tuned), but I wanted to share that there is no comparison between my pregnancy with my son in 2008 and this pregnancy. First of all, I gained more than 55 lbs with my son. This time I’m about 30 weeks along and I’ve gained about 25 lbs. I know that weight gain towards the end of pregnancy is rapid so I’m going to gain more, but I think it won’t be 55 lbs. Also I started out this current pregnancy 10 lbs lighter than four years ago. I lost that last 10 lbs by going gluten free in 2011.

I eat so much real food now. Although I really considered myself to be a healthy eater when I was pregnant before, I ate things I wouldn’t touch now. Are you wondering what? How about Pop*Tarts. I went through a phase where I ate one every day. And my consumption continued at that rate when I was nursing. I was constantly hungry and thirsty and Pop*Tarts are about 200 calories each.

I know it’s not about weight and calories so if you are wondering how I feel, I can say I feel pretty good. Aside from some mind-numbing exhaustion (that I don’t remember being as intense last time), I pretty much don’t feel pregnant a lot of the time. Last time I dwelled on the pregnancy and worried constantly about money. I ate too much all the time because I was nervous and actually a little depressed. It’s a big, scary transition when you become a mom. Now I know what to expect. I’m not depressed, but I still do worry about money. Child care is so expensive, but I’m telling myself that we made it work for one kid so we can make it work for two.

Stay tuned for a longer post about diet in pregnancy in the coming weeks.

Teachers Strike in Chicago

They just don’t build ’em like they used to

“You would make a bad union delegate,” a coworker once told me with a friendly laugh. I was a member of the Chicago Teachers Union for six years, but I was not heavily involved. My coworker on the other hand was a delegate, had a lot of opinions, and was not afraid of conflict. I have opinions, but I’ve always been hesitate to pick a fight (remember how I was anonymous for almost two years?).

Even though Chicago Public Schools (CPS) politics did not play a role in my decision to leave, I have to say that last year I was been repeatedly dismayed by the contract negotiations between CPS and the teacher’s union. I can hardly call it “discourse” as both the union and the district volleyed insults continuously. Their behavior was reminiscent of how our Congress communicated with our president: veiled threats and bullying. Thanks for the pitiful example, Congress. I know the strike will resolve itself, but I hope that going forward there will be an improvement in the way the district and the union communicate with each other. It’s insulting to the teachers and clinicians who work so hard every day for the kids. Maybe a little more civility and a little less posturing next time?

I’m proud of my good friends and former coworkers who have walked picket lines across the city yesterday and today. There is no question that they are on the front lines of education. From experience I know that the job isn’t an easy one. It’s hard to see so much need and hear so many tough stories all the time. Poverty is to blame with even typically developing kids come to school with deficient skill sets (Hart and Risley, 1995). Teachers don’t go around blaming poverty for students’ achievement problems, but instead lamenting the loss of potential. They take it home with them, too. That’s part of why I had to leave — I couldn’t deal with it anymore.

I have always believed that working class people need more union protection. Low wage workers, like Wal-Mart employees, need to get unionized because they are often exploited (see: all the class actions lawsuits that employees have won). Union protection of teachers has gotten them to where they are right now: living wage with benefits like health insurance. Teaching jobs helped build a robust middle class. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans say that “a secure job is at the top of their list of requirements to qualify for the middle class.” Number two on the list is health insurance. The Pew Research Center noted that just 20 years ago number one on the list was home ownership followed by having a car or two. The bar has fallen and people are hurting. But I’d like to remind anyone attacking teachers that they are just regular folks and aren’t people coming from families with tremendous resources. Often they come from the neighborhoods in which they teach.

On the whole, the new contract looks good and it’s really too bad that negotiations broke down. From what I understand, the real sticking point is teacher evaluations — not pay. Teachers don’t want any part of their pay based on student performance. Who can blame them when how a child perfroms at school is dependent on many factors including family, school, and community. Teaching to the test is already happening all the time — I can’t imagine it getting any worse. On the other hand, I do support evaluations based upon some kind of firm data. That makes sense.

Nothing is black and white in life. I’ve found that even “good” schools have “bad” teachers and a “bad” school still has some “good” teachers. There are great performers everywhere. I think that it all comes down to leadership. Principals determine school culture: invest in great leadership and schools will shine. For schools to be even better, principals need to be able to fire below average teachers and as such I think that the tenure process does need to be rehabbed. I would like to see the union change their stance on the current tenure procedure — I think it would give them bonus points all around. On the other hand, a lot of hiring and firing inside a school is political and tenure can protect good teachers from “bad” administrators. I’ve seen great new (and old) teachers get fired just because someone in power did not like them.

To wrap it up, I’m thinking of everyone striking and hoping for the best outcome for all involved, including students!

Mrs Q’s News: Strike, Discipline, and Denial

1) Teachers are striking in Chicago today — I’m working on a longer blog post about it for later this week…

2) At some US schools kids are being restrained or are left in isolation as punishment — I found that article to be incredibly disturbing. However, I am relieved to say that I never saw that kind of thing happen in Chicago Public Schools.

3) Parents recognize that childhood obesity is a problem, but are in denial about their own family’s weight issues. Duh.