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We often get the question, "If you avoid eating processed foods, how are you still eating cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt or (insert other dairy foods here)?

The thing is, unless you're eating a raw food diet, you're eating foods that have been somewhat processed. Even foods that have been washed, cooked or frozen are considered to be "processed" in some way. Because most of us aren't looking to make a switch to 100% raw foods, it's important to look for MINIMALLY PROCESSED foods, with short ingredient lists.

Here's what we look for in general when buying these products.

Look for foods with few, recognizable ingredients.

For the most part, when you're looking for FfL-friendly, whole foods, the ingredient list should be short, easy to read and contain recognizable and appropriate ingredients. This gets a tad tricky with dairy because products like yogurt and sour cream contain enzymes and bacteria that you may have never heard of. To simplify things, when choosing milk, milk should be the only ingredient. When you look for quality yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese, the ingredients shouldn't expand beyond milk, cream, enzymes, active cultures and bacteria (such as lacotococci, lactobacilli or streptococci).

Plain dairy and dairy substitutes

Steer clear of anything that's been sweetened (think milk, yogurt, dairy substitutes like almond milk). If you peruse the aisles of the grocery store and start checking ingredients, you'll find that even most of the seemingly healthy brands add as much sugar as ice cream into their sweetened dairy products. We don't know about you but we'd rather indulge in a decadent dessert than a sugar-laden yogurt!

Instead, opt for unsweetened milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and dairy substitutes (like almond milk). If you or your family aren't fans of the tangier taste of some of these foods, such as plain yogurt, add a little honey, maple syrup, vanilla or fresh fruit at home. You can save drastically on sugar intake by flavoring your own. Refer to the 100% Natural Sugars and Sweeteners section for an approved list.

Full-fat dairy versus low-fat and fat-free

Lately, there's been a lot of hype about full-fat versus low-fat dairy products. As a general rule, the less fat, the more processed the product is and the greater the likelihood that junk has been added to make up for the missing fat. That being said, not all low-fat dairy is bad.

I, Pam, live in an area where local dairy farmers offer skim AND whole milk. How do they produce an FfL-friendly, real food version of skim? By simply removing the natural cream line from the top of the milk. Because I enjoy including healthy fats such as avocados and almonds in my daily diet, I typically stick to eating and drinking low-fat and fat-free dairy (from the local dairy farm) to create balance in my diet. On the other hand, Kalie doesn't have the same access to local milk, so she chooses to purchase (organic, grass-fed) full-fat milk from the store and balances her meals a little differently.

Contrary to popular belief and many trending diets, there's nothing wrong with fat when the right portions are embraced. In fact, fat helps you feel satisfied and full, which is why it's an important aspect of your daily diet (in moderation, of course).

Organic

Unlike fruits and veggies, you can't wash or peel dairy products, which is why it's best to choose organic dairy whenever feasible.

Block cheese

Shredded cheese often has more ingredients, additives or preservatives than block cheese, such as ingredients to prevent caking (which is made of wood pulp and isn't easily digested). Basically, shredded cheese is typically more processed than block cheese. For this reason, we encourage you to buy block cheese and grate it, rather than purchasing shredded cheese, whenever possible. Remember, the less processed the better. Yes, shredding your own cheese is an extra step, but to be honest it tastes better and the texture is so much fluffier. Plus, purchasing cheese in block form is typically much cheaper.

While we're on the topic of cheese, let's briefly chat about cheese products, foods, spreads, canned cheeses and cheese dips. Typically, cheese labels that state this are highly processed, which is why it's so important to read the label and ingredients when choosing any sort of cheese product.

Butter

Just like cheese, always opt for the real thing when it comes to butter (never margarine or the spreadable kinds). More on that here.

Non-dairy milk (almond, hemp, pea, cashew, rice, hazelnut, walnut, oat and coconut milk)

While non-dairy milk sounds like a healthy alternative, many are highly processed and contain an array of added ingredients. Look for dairy substitutes with basic ingredients such as water, nuts (such as almonds) and sea salt. Disappointingly, almost none of the manufacturers we found at the supermarket listed the percentage of nuts used. Elmhurst Milked is one of the few brands we found that has all the criteria to be considered 100% FfL-friendly.

Eggs

After reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and watching the disturbing scene depicting how many large-scale factories house their chickens on the documentary "Food Inc.," we began to understand that not all eggs are created equal.  Generally speakingwe encourage shopping local whenever possible. Local often means smaller scale, which typically leads to better quality eggs and potentially lower cost. Also, local allows you to have the opportunity to go straight to the source. You can ask questions regarding the foods you’re choosing or even visit the farm or business where the food was grown, raised or made.

We aim to purchase local eggs from pasture-raised, hormone-free chickens. When local isn't available, we look for pasture-raised eggs (preferably organic) from hens that don't live in a  large-scale factory.

Where to find your eggs and dairy

  • Locally produced pasture-raised eggs and dairy are recommended when possible. You can often find them at local farms and farmers' markets.
  • Food co-op's typically have a wide selection of local and organic foods for you to choose from.
  • When you can’t buy local, check the labels and look into organic products.
  • Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are great resources for organic products.
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Substitutions

  • Use milk in your coffee rather than half-and-half or highly processed creamers.
  • Rather than using mayonnaise or sour cream in recipes, use plain Greek yogurt. We do this when cooking and in all of our homemade dips!
    • We substitute mayo and sour cream with Greek yogurt in various recipes. For months we did this without anyone in our family noticing a difference in taste. One evening when we served quesadillas, rather than scooping the yogurt into a fancy bowl, we put out a cup of plain yogurt. We initially received resistance from our family until we told them we’d been including Greek yogurt as a topping and in recipes for months without them noticing any difference in taste. Now, even they grab it instead!
  • If you’re looking for a vegan alternative to eggs when baking, make a paste by mixing chia seeds and water.

Some of the dishes where you'll find dairy and eggs

  • Breakfast Parfait
  • Huevos Rancheros Breakfast Tacos
  • In a quiche with sweet potato crust
  • Poaching is a delicious and healthy way to cook your eggs. You can check online for numerous ways to poach your eggs.
    • We typically simmer a pot of water, add a teaspoon of vinegar to the water and swiftly but carefully crack an egg into the water. If you prefer, you can crack the egg in a small cup and slip it into the water that way. Cook the egg until the white is firmly set, which takes approximately 3 minutes. Scoop the egg out with a large spoon and drain the excess water. We often rinse the poached egg before we eat it to remove any traces of vinegar flavor. This is one of our favorite ways to eat eggs… YUM!)

What are your favorite brands and how do you like to eat them? Post a comment below.