How to Eat Clean Food: Q&A With Terry Walters

April Peveteaux

terry walters clean foodTerry Walters' cookbook, Clean Food, will inspire even the most die-hard KFC lover (ahem) to fill the fridge with foods that are non-processed and close to the source, aka clean foods. With simple recipes for everything from homemade refried beans to spicy coconut pumpkin soup, Walters creates a seasonal guide to eating local and mostly vegan.

I spoke with Terry, who also offers workshops on nutrition, about the importance of eating clean foods. More importantly, she filled me in on how to get our kids to go along with this healthy ride that decreases the amounts of unpronounceable foods in our diet. Yes, that means the stuff in Twinkies.

What is your goal with Clean Food?

I was actually teaching classes to people about the foods we all need more of -- the nutritional heavy hitters. I never set out to write Clean Food but after years of teaching these classes and telling people to bring in more greens and grains, they would say, "I'm happy to do that but you have to teach me how." After three or so years I had quite a following and people started asking me to bind my recipes.

It was my way of giving back to all those people who had nourished me with their energy and their values. But all of my work has been about making people aware of what they're putting in their body, how they can live a better life, and be healthy. Nourish themselves, their communities, their land, and their house. All it takes is awareness and making conscious choices.

That's always been my goal to give people the knowledge because that's power. That's the power to heal, the power to be healthy. It's all based in knowledge.

Because we don't know what to do with kale. We really don't.

Well, I have a list for that!

My family loves taco night (and I love your recipe for homemade refried beans). How are some other ways we can do it healthier and be less beholden to buying food from a package?

It's interesting because taco night is usually my solution to using up leftovers. When it comes to teaching children to eat clean and understand what decisions they're making, taco night is a great option. Sometimes we use spring roll wrappers, or a burrito -- I just put everything out and let them pick it themselves. There could be pesto, there could be salsa, and it could be a peanut sauce or noodles. There are always the colors of the rainbow on the table but getting children involved like that and saying, "What are we going to put in these?" makes them adventurous and empowered and they're likely to come back for more.

What are some time-saving tips we can use but still eat cleanly?

People say to me, "What can I just throw in my microwave?" I have two kids and a busy life like everybody else, but I don't own a microwave. It doesn't take any extra time to throw those beans in a pot with some seasonings like molasses and cumin, or take some brown rice you made two days ago and put it in a pan with a little bit of water and reconstitute it.

I call it upcycling our food. Make a pot of grains one night so the next night you can add some white beans and toss with pasta and chopped tomatoes. Or take your roasted vegetables and put it in a pot with some stock or with some apple cider and make it into a stock or a soup. If you can make the extra effort and take a few minutes to cook it back to life the next day, that's the best we can do as parents. And that's good! It's easy, delicious, and you're eating clean food throughout the week.

Or if you set aside time each day, or every other day, to make something so that each day there's something fresh. Maybe you're sautéing some tofu but you have some salad greens you can chop up so you don't have to go to a book like Clean Food and make three or four recipes for it to be dinner. You can make one recipe and bring in a lot of other things that are quick and easy.

It can be overwhelming for the average shopper to make everything from scratch. At the same time we don't want to buy packaged foods. What are the things that we absolutely need to remove from our shopping list?

I don't think there's anything that you have to remove from your shopping list. I think of food as being picked from the earth on one end of the spectrum, then it goes process, process, process, all the way to the point where it doesn't resemble food anymore.

You might have something that you really love and it's a treat and it's highly processed. You don't necessarily have to get rid of it, but you can identify another food so you can move closer to the source. That one step closer to clean food is going to have a positive impact on your health. This is all assuming that we're healthy and we have all the time in the world to make a slow, easy transition. If you have health issues, you want to look at what's causing that imbalance and eliminate things. 

If you're using the oatmeal where you pour the water in and poof! -- there are walnuts and apples -- making your own oatmeal and putting in your own toasted walnuts and grating an apple is a huge difference as far as moving it closer to the source. It's much cleaner and there are many more health benefits.

In the long run, pick one new produce item or move one food in your diet closer to the source each week. Think about that over the course of a year. Your taste buds are going to change more gradually, your lifestyle is going to change more gradually. If I tell you to take something out of your diet, you're going to want it more than anything. But if you change more slowly those tastes are going to be stronger. Those foods that don't serve you as well slowly fall by the wayside. Or they stay in a place where they are not a primary part of your diet, and just a treat.

So it's about balance.

Balance and nourishment. Nourishment is more than just the food; it's nourishing all of your senses. Focus on bringing in and enjoying your food.

Do you feel there is a strong food revolution taking place right now?

I think there is a strong food movement. I think if it were a revolution we'd be seeing much more widespread change. The difference is between awareness and action. I think we're at the awareness stage. There are a lot of people who are acting on it, but I think we have a long way to go too.

But it's so encouraging; 10 years ago you'd be hard-pressed to find a really good farmers' market in major cities and now there are multiple ones. Farms are more accessible to their local community. There is more communication and collaboration between local grocery stores and the local producers.

Our food system is becoming much more sustainable slowly, but we have a long way to go. The reality is we've got these mega grocery stores with package after package of food that is highly lacking in nutritional value and we still think of it as food. You can't even read the ingredients and find something that resembles food.

Is there anything we can do about school lunches other than micromanaging and packing a lunch for our kids?

I am definitely encouraged by what's happening with the Chef to School Program by Michelle Obama. I'm actually waiting for my packet now.

It's one thing to have a program and another to enact it and have it make a difference on a community level. I've done a lot of work with private schools that have the funding. They're cutting down on lunch trays, which cuts down on people taking more than they need, which also cuts down on energy costs associated with cleanup. They've done quite a bit to educate the students.

I've noticed many schools provide clean food but it's not what the kids are eating. There might be some broccoli or a grain but the kids take the bagels and the sweets and the French fries. Education has to happen across the spectrum -- to the parents and the teachers and the students themselves.

We could take our kids to the grocery store with us and say, "We need to have a healthy lunch and a healthy lunch has all the colors of the rainbow. What do you want?" And let them choose. It takes a little work and sometimes they eat almond butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a week. But the more we involve them, the more they're making those choices.

Sometimes we strike out and sometimes we're pleasantly surprised. But more than anything it's our own judgment as parents that we pass on to our children. We can suspend those judgments and create a kind of food-friendly environment where anything is game for any meal or snack and focus on the nutrition and the balance and the color. Where brown rice and quinoa and kale and roasted vegetables can be dinner or breakfast! We open the door to a lot more options for ourselves, for our families, and for our nutritional values.


Image via Terry's Kitchen

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