Here is a passionate essay from Kevin, a community planner in Madison, WI. He writes about the challenges of eating healthy in our fast-food culture, and gives some excellent principles to live by when working towards a healthier diet.

The challenge of eating healthy is significant and undeniable.  Life is consumed with pressures and triggers that push us towards eating convenient, fast, processed, mass produced food.  Advertisements on television and other media show us ground meat glistening with grease and topped with gooey melted cheese, wrapped in a flour tortilla.  We all have seen the commercials for the new double burger from Burger King topped with two slices of melted cheese, bacon, and hot peppers, and a side of steamy golden French Fries.  Or the endless ways large pizza chains are trying to inject cheese into every square inch of our pizzas – now we have pizza where the crust breaks off into little stuffed cheese balls.  Sounds delicious, huh?  This is all pretty powerful stuff.  I am often sucked in, and it is hard to resist.  

There are teams of expert marketers and advertisers behind those commercials and advertisements.  The stuff is just delicious, and it is fast and available by just traveling to my local corner or making a quick phone call for delivery.  Mass produced food is perfectly designed and engineered to key in on all of our desires when we eat – salty, fatty, sweet, etc.  Food scientists and food companies know what people crave and respond to, and they design and manufacture their food with consistent and repetitive formulas and mechanisms that match all of our cravings and taste sensors.  There is a reason why a cheeseburger at a McDonalds in New York tastes the same as the McDonalds in Alaska.  Combine this with endless flavored sodas and juices packed with calories, and aisles of boxed snack and other food at the grocery store, and these foods are at our fingertips.  We all lead busy lives and these foods are perfect for our lifestyles.  They are quick, tasty, cheap, and convenient, and it is not hard to see what eating these foods has become the default option for many Americans.

That all sounds like a daunting set of pressures to overcome, but I assure you it is not.  Eating healthy is a challenging, yet rewarding endeavor, and it can be done with some simple steps and behavior changes.  Here are some principles that I try to live by when it comes to food, some of which I have read or heard about elsewhere, in no particular order:  
Eat foods with as few ingredients as possible

Avoid processed food with a long list of strange ingredients like disodium phosphate.  These are the wonders of chemistry, manufactured food additives that are meant to add flavor, texture, and create the “ideal” food.  Try eating foods that are as minimally processed as possible.  This obviously includes fruits and vegetables, but also includes beans, oils, nuts, cheese, milk, butter, meats, and the like.  Also, try to avoid processed foods that still require cooking like rice and flavorings from a box, instant potatoes, etc.  These types of foods are more nutritious, more filling, and are more versatile for cooking various dishes.    

Learn to cook

Learning to cook is the most enjoyable, rewarding, and easiest way to healthier eating.  Learning to cook is a tremendous life skill, one that gives you an appreciation for ingredients, an understanding of what ingredients and foods go well together, and a powerful source of camaraderie among those you share your cooking and meals with.  It doesn’t have to be complicated food, or a difficult process.  The most important thing is to have the inspiration, the right equipment, basic skills, and you should be all set.  The most important equipment is a good quality and good size sauté pan, a good knife for slicing meats and cutting vegetables, and a working oven and stovetop.  

With this basic equipment, and basic knowledge of cutting vegetables, sautéing, and baking, you can cook a wide range of tasty and simple meals.  Cooking at home is all about preparing what you like, but it is helpful to have a sense of ingredients that go well together.  We all know about peanut butter and jelly, but how about pork and fennel, cucumber and mint, tomato and basil, and mustard and white wine in sauces?  These are the kinds of ingredient pairings that make food interesting, fun to prepare, and delish.  The joy and feeling of accomplishment of creating a filling, interesting, and nutritious dish that you can eat yourself or share with others is tremendous. 

It’s all about simple foods with simple ingredients

Start slowly and begin with some simple dishes.  One of my go-to dishes that is simple is stir frying vegetables such as garlic, onion, red peppers, broccoli and others in a pan and adding cooked whole wheat spaghetti.  Try adding peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, or other Asian-inspired flavors for more taste, and adding chicken, beef, tofu, or maybe cooking an egg in with the stir fry to make it more substantial.  Once you learn to cook basic meals such as this, become more comfortable with using various herbs and spices, and properly prepare things such as baked potatoes, chicken breast, or pork, you will be able to add to and build your repertoire to add more complex pairings, sauces, techniques, and flavor combinations.  Don’t be afraid to use REAL ingredients such as butter, eggs, and the like.  These are the foods that our grandparents ate and there is nothing wrong with any of them as long as they are used properly.  Just experiment and have fun! 

p.s. For more information on learning to cook from scratch, see my post on Basic Recipes for Health.