Leanne Palmerston's commitment to a healthy, wholesome diet was tested as she rummaged through her cupboards.
For nearly a year, the Hamilton resident had been weaning her family off boxed pizzas and other processed foods in favour of fresh meats and vegetables and whole grains.
Still, Ms. Palmerston hesitated before throwing away the remainder of the industrially produced food in her kitchen as part of a so-called "real food" challenge last month.
"I was like, I don't know if I want to [get rid of it]" she says. "I was like, 'Okay, I know … maybe I should chuck it, but maybe I should just use it up.' "
In the end, she purged her pantry of all refined sugars, vegetable oils and condiments, plus a leftover tin of Campbell's soup. She replaced them with honey and maple syrup, coconut oil and lard, and homemade broth.
She's glad she did. Even the notion of industrially processed food now makes her squeamish, Ms. Palmerston says. "The idea of that freaks me out. It's like mutant food."
Ms. Palmerston is one of hundreds of converts whose devotion to the real food movement has been solidified thanks to the 28-Day Real Food Challenge, an online project started in February by food blogger Jennifer McGruther of Crested Butte, Colo.
The concept of Ms. McGruther's challenge is simple: to get people to ditch packaged ingredients and eat nothing for a full month but real, or traditional, food, which she defines as food that is farmed and prepared using methods prior to the advent of industrial agriculture.
But as Ms. McGruther discovered from the reaction of participants, eating real food doesn't always come naturally to people. It requires a complete overhaul of one's attitude toward food, as well as kitchen skills that she says have been lost in recent generations.
"What was surprising to me is how many people simply didn't know the basics of cooking," says Ms. McGruther, who has been advocating eating real food for years and writes the blog NourishedKitchen.com.
Many participants were at a complete loss when she challenged them on the first day to rid their kitchens of all processed, packaged and refined foods, including boxed cereals, dried pastas, iodized salt, white flour and products made with low-fat and skimmed milk.
"I got a large response from people who said 'Well, what on Earth do I eat?' " Ms. McGruther says. "I … had assumed that people would be able to come up with something like a big salad, grilled fish or baked potato - all of which are real, traditional food. But most people had been cooking from packages and that was shocking to me."
Each day, Ms. McGruther upped the ante, instructing participants to sprout grains to maximize nutrients, to mill their own flour, make their own cheese, create a sourdough starter and render their own lard.
She also taught followers to make yogurt and ferment vegetables into pickles and sauerkraut.
While certain real food principles, such as eating organic produce and grass-fed meats, are more expensive than conventionally farmed food, some of those expenses are offset by avoiding convenience foods like packaged cookies and cereals, Ms. McGruther says. She spends about $600 (U.S.) a month on food for her family of three.
Of the more than 900 participants who signed up for the challenge, Ms. McGruther estimates roughly 600 to 700 successfully made it through to the end.
Most who did vowed to continue following the principles of traditional food, she says, and many new participants have since signed up to recreate the challenge.
"It forced us to go the whole way …. That's our lifestyle now," Ms. Palmerston says, noting that the challenge prompted her to start baking her own sourdough bread twice a week and pushed her to try different cuts of meat, such as pork liver, from her local butcher shop.
She says she has now become so accustomed to shopping for unprocessed food, a recent visit to the supermarket to buy items unavailable at her local farmers' market was disorienting.
"I was wandering through the aisles in the same way I used to go shopping and I had no idea what I was doing," she says. "I felt so lost, looking at all the food going, 'We don't eat things that come in packages any more.' "
Ms. Palmerston says her family's food budget is now moderately higher, but she still finds ways to make their real food diet economical. While most convenience foods, such as boxed pizza, tend to come in single meal allotments at about $5 (Canadian) to $15 for a meal, she says, she'll now spend $25 on a large, high-quality cut of beef that will stretch out for three or four meals.
She adds that she also spends more time cooking, as she has the luxury of working from home. But even if she didn't, "I'd still spend the weekend baking bread and things," she says. "Yes, it does take a little bit of time, but I find greater satisfaction and I know, nutritionally, it's far better."
Registered Vancouver dietitian Gloria Tsang applauds the challenge for upholding an ideal for people to strive for, but she notes it may be too difficult and time-consuming for some.
Ms. Tsang adds that while she's a proponent of natural, unprocessed food, she is uncertain whether people's diets were actually more nutritious before the mass industrialization of agriculture.
"Certainly they were eating more natural foods than now, but I don't know whether it's healthier," she says. "I think 50 years ago, people may not have [had]the same knowledge about food and nutrition and health."
Participant Christine Kennedy of Cambridge, Ont., acknowledges the 28-day challenge may be overwhelming for newbies. Her own conversion in becoming a real food adherent was a gradual process that she began three years ago.
But the working mother of three says it's not difficult to prepare real food with a little advanced planning.
Ms. Kennedy had already been doing many of the challenge's tasks, like sprouting grains and making yogurt, on a daily or weekly basis.
As a real food convert, she says, she can never go back to feeding her family industrially processed food.
"Any other way is unacceptable to me."
Real lessons about real food
Start with a clean slate: Blogger Jennifer McGruther, creator of NourishedKitchen.com, recommends tossing out all processed and refined foods in the kitchen. "You may well have paid good money for the food at one time, but remember real health comes from real food and real food never comes from a box," she writes.
Plan ahead: "Definitely this kind of cooking takes planning and in this day and age, people aren't used to looking at their food like that. They want the food ready when they're hungry and it's difficult to reverse that kind of thinking," real food advocate Christine Kennedy says.
Real food takes time, but it needn't be overwhelming: "Remember that traditionally the peasant classes didn't have hours and hours and hours a day to spend creating elaborate meals," says Ms. McGruther, noting one of her favourite quick meals is a steaming bowl of broth and a fresh salad. "It's about sitting back and recognizing that while you may not have packages to cook from, there are plenty of easy quick and nourishing options."
Don't let real food get in the way of your social life: Challenge participant Leanne Palmerston says even though she's a real food convert, she and her family won't turn down processed food if a friend or relative has prepared the meal. "We're not going to turn our noses up because that's bad manners," she says. Besides, she adds: "I know have enough nutrition at home that we can have these minor moments."