From Clueless Consumer to Real Food Dude

Two frames of Robin Greenfield, displaying his transformation.
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Many people around the United States could hardly fathom eating the way I do. Almost nothing I buy comes in a package. Almost everything is a simple whole food, rather than processed foods. While I’m preparing my food and after I’m done eating there is usually no need for a garbage can whatsoever. I can pronounce everything I eat and every single thing on the ingredients list if I do buy something that even has an ingredients list. My diet is made of a majority plants and my food doesn’t have pesticides, or preservatives on it or in it. This is a diet that is far unrecognizable to tens or maybe even hundreds of millions of US Americans and to me it is just a matter of eating in a manner that’s good for me, good for the earth, and highly cost effective.

It has taken years of education and change to get to the healthy diet and lifestyle that I have today though. I always considered myself to eat a little bit healthier than most of the people around me but let’s face it I wasn’t that much better. I ate at fast food burger joints, never resisted an ice cream cone or milk shake, bought most of my food at Walmart or a chain grocery store and nearly everything I cooked had instructions on the package of how to do it.

I didn’t get to where I am today over night. There was no jumping from A to Z. Instead all of my changes were very transitional with continuous improvements, becoming a little more healthy and earth friendly with each little change. This transition was being fueled by documentaries, books, and the positive influence of others and as I learned more and became more naturally healthy it got easier and easier. Some habits (such as McDonald’s ice cream cones) took a few years to break even after I knew better though.

I’m here to serve as inspiration and education to be conscious with the food you eat and to take back your body from the food corporations. I truly strive for a world where everyone is healthy and happy. This blog intends to serve as an example of how I got away from my rather unhealthy diet and now take pride in what I put into my body.

In college my shopping list was largely comprised of ramen noodles, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, frozen pizzas, lunchmeat, US American cheese, milk, canned soups, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, eggs in a pack of 50, cereal (Frosted Mini Wheats and Honey-bunches of oats were staples), frozen vegetables, canned fruits such as mandarin oranges, pears, and peaches, vegetable oil, bacon, sausage, ice cream, toaster strudels, butter, frozen waffles, canned tuna, olives, Pillsbury buns, mashed potatoes, gum, and lots of cheap beer and vodka. I don’t have any records of my shopping list so I can’t say this with complete accuracy but that’s what I recall.

I felt like I was eating healthy because I didn’t buy soda, Doritos, cakes, candy, really sugary cereals like Lucky Charms or Fruity Pebbles, jello or pudding. I would rarely have donuts for breakfast and instead had cereal, frozen waffles, or a 6-egg omelet. Yes I made 6-egg omelets quite often. Typically I wouldn’t buy really sugary stuff but I did eat plenty of it. I remember basing what I was buying off of the contests they were running from time to time but that might have been more of a high school thing. A lot of my food came from eating on campus as well and most of my choices were far from the healthiest. Drunk nights resulted in a lot of gas station food, pizza, Taco Bell, and open late diners. And morning hangovers often meant greasy eggs, hash browns, and sausage. Freshman year I gained about 20 pounds and held onto a lot of that weight through out college.

Towards the end of college I started to care and think a bit more about food and started to change my food purchases. My girlfriend at the time, who I had dated on and off in 2008 to 2010, was my main influence. This was my shopping list created on January 13th, 2010 when I lived in Wisconsin just after graduating. I have copied it over exactly as it was from a note titled “grocery list”.

Fruit- apples, bananas
Veggies- tomatoes, spinach, pepper, mushrooms, eggplant
Cottage cheese
String cheese
Lunch meat
Peanut butter
Spaghetti sauce
Frozen dinners
Frozen pizza
Refried beans
Mashed potatoes

Even with improvements it’s near the opposite of the way I eat today. Just about everything was processed food that came in a package, not a single item was organic (I thought organic was expensive and completely unnecessary. I’d never taken the time to learn about organic vs. conventional) and none was locally produced. Even my healthy food like fruits and veggies was mostly canned or frozen. Almost nothing was fresh. I typically did all of my grocery shopping at Walmart or a big chain grocery store. I also drank a lot of very cheap beer and hard alcohol and many of my nights out at the bar cost as much as what is now an entire week worth of healthy food.

A year later in January 2011 I moved out to San Diego, California and drastically improved my diet. I fell into a crowd of people that paid much more attention to what they were eating and it had a very positive influence on me.

I started shopping at Trader Joe’s and I considered this to be really healthy eating. I was choosing foods that were far healthier such as more whole grain bread with much fewer ingredients and chicken breasts or tuna steaks over lunchmeat. However mostly everything was still packaged, most of it processed, almost nothing was organic. I wasn’t shopping at farmers markets yet and I still had the idea that organic was completely unnecessary and that there was nothing wrong with the industrial agriculture system. I was eating a lot of meat and animal products and it was mostly all factory farmed. I may have stepped into the co-op where I shop today but most likely not yet.

Here a few of my meals from early 2011:
Trader Joes tuna steak, quinoa, vegetables, sriracha and mustard. This was a meal I ate multiple times per week.
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Chicken breast, quinoa, vegetables, and a quality beer. By this point I was typically drinking a quality beer rather than really cheap crap.
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A burger or sandwich of sorts on semi-whole wheat bread, baked beans from a can, potatoes, and asparagus.
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I considered the veggie or the tuna foot long at Subway to be a healthy lunch. This was my go to for eating outside of the house.
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And here is a trunk full of groceries in the fall of 2011. I was excited about the food I was eating so I often took pictures of it.
San Diego (Aug- Dec) - 003

The following photo is a load of groceries from about February of 2012, one year after moving to San Diego. You’ll notice that most of it is still packaged, very little is organic, and it’s all from the big chain grocery stores. But it is substantially healthier than what I was eating just a few years earlier in Wisconsin. Probably the greatest change here is that there was much less meat and tofu instead.
It’s at this time that my mind was opening up to the fact that I knew very little about food. I had no clue about where my food was coming from, the companies that made it, that there were hidden ingredients, the damage that all the packaging causes to the environment, and how my body used the food I ate. One of the big changers for me was a book called Healthful Foods by Jethro Kloss. I was out with my aunt Louise in Chicago and we stopped into a used bookstore where I was inspired to get some books about food. This moment completely changed my life. I was so inspired and blown away by this simple book which taught me the basics of good nutrition and the most healthful foods to eat. Grub: ideas for an urban organic kitchen was also a game changer for me. Plus documentaries like Food, Inc. and Food Matters started a revolution in my mind (see 23 films that changed my life for more documentaries).

Here I am in March 2012 with two of the books that inspired me and the food I purchased at a grocery store while I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was my attempt at eating healthy while staying in a hotel room, which is a whole different story than being at home.
That’s peanut butter, wheat bread, tuna, olive oil, oatmeal, black beans, garbanzo beans, green tea, avocados, kiwis, apples, carrots, grapefruit, and cucumbers. I was certainly doing much better but looking back through my notes from that trip I see “Hung out with a person who lives on the streets today and ended up eating a Wendy’s Frosty and a Little Debby oatmeal cream pie.” I also saw from my notes the next day “Went back to the room and had a hearty lunch of chickpeas/ black beans with olive oil, a peanut butter banana sandwich on sprouted whole grain bread, carrots, and sunflower seeds.” So it was all a work in progress and I had come a long way through those books and documentaries.

This is one of my first trips to the farmers market. I was catching onto the concept of eating local, unpackaged food in the summer of 2012.
Here is what I got at the grocery store in the summer of 2012. Much more of a plant-based diet, much less packaging, and much less processed foods.
Here is a soup I made in the summer of 2012. I started to make a lot of these soups because each meal would come out to around 50 cents to $1 and it would last for a few days. Some very healthy food indeed but the eggs were likely from a factory farm, and very little of the food was organic or local I’m sure.
On October 16th 2012 I was feeling especially healthy so I went through my old receipts to compare what I was currently purchasing to what I was purchasing in 2011.

I found that I was no longer purchasing as much of frozen chicken breasts, frozen veggies, frozen tuna, wine, cereals such as honey bunches of oats and grape nuts, bread, milk, single serve yoghurt, hummus, and citrus fruits. I was basically buying a lot less packaged items and instead was preparing foods myself. For example I was making hummus using dried chickpeas, which saved me a lot of money, and resulted in the best hummus I’d ever tasted. I also noted that I had started to eat more grains as the year progressed. I noted that I did eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies in 2011, and it was close to as large of a percentage as it was in October 2012.

In the fall of 2012 I printed out some personal guidelines and hung them up in my kitchen. These were my basics to ethical and healthy eating:

Eat organic when possible.
Eat whole foods.
Buy unpackaged foods.
Eat a primarily plant-based diet. *(see my update on this below)
Eat primarily vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Shop locally.

At that time I had created those guidelines as something to strive for but I was by no means accomplishing it completely. It was a further transition to fully catch my actions up to my beliefs. By this I mean my knowledge had developed faster than I was willing to fully make the changes that I knew I needed to. I continued to make the transition from there though and those are the same basic guidelines that I stick to today.

Today I shop at People’s Organic Food Market when I am at home in San Diego as well as local farmers markets. When traveling I always seek out a co-op or a health food oriented grocery store and find the local markets for fresh produce as well as dried goods.

Here is my shopping list of today:

Bulk Dry Goods
Brown rice
Pinto beans or black beans
Flax seed
Sesame seeds
Nutritional yeast
Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or peanuts. I choose one of these 3 because they are the cheapest of all the nuts and seeds.
Popping corn
Shredded coconut
Cacao powder
Sugar (to brew Kombucha)

Bulk Liquid Goods
Olive oil
Coconut oil*
Apple cider vinegar *
Liquid Aminos
Peanut butter


Fresh Produce
Greens such as kale, chard, spinach, arugula, and dandelion greens, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, beets, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, zucchini, squashes, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, fresh herbs such as basil and thyme, apples, oranges, tangerines, lemons, grapefruit, berries, pears, nectarines, peaches, and plums.

I am happy to eat just about any fruit or vegetable on earth. I typically eat what is local and in season. Rather than just look at what I want, I pick the produce that is the least expensive and has the greatest amount of nutrients. This list of fruits and veggies above is my staple produce list but it varies depending on season and where in the country or world that I am in.

I also brew my own Kombucha and sometimes make my own Sauerkraut. In the past I’ve made my own very simple whole-wheat bread with just whole-wheat flour, bakers yeast, and whatever nuts, seeds and fruits I wanted to add in. I also do some foraging, which is where I get greens such as dandelion greens, nasturtium, lamb’s quarter, and broad leaf plantain. Most would consider these plants to be weeds but they are highly nutritious and free. At this point in my life this makes up a very small portion of my diet though. I have grown some of my own food but since I travel a lot I have not dived very deep into growing my own. You’ll notice there is no alcohol on the shopping list and that is because I rarely drink and if I do it’s usually a not-so-well thought out decision rather than an intentional trip to the store (See: Why I Quit Drinking).

This is the bulk section at People’s where I get my dry foods:
food 2016 People's bulk section
This is where I fill up my jars with olive oil, honey, and peanut butter:
food 2016 People's bulk liquid
This is part of the produce section at People’s where I get my fruits and veggies:
food 2016 People's produce 2
food 2016 People's produce
This is one of the farmers markets that I shop at:food 2016 farmers market
People’s Co-op also has a deli where I eat a handful of times per week. This photo shows is a typical meal that I get. It’s brown rice, beans, and two green salads. As you can see the price was just $4.32. This is basically the best priced food I’ve ever found in the USA.
food 2016 People's meal
Here I am in summer of 2015 enjoying food with friends at People’s:
food 2016 people's deli

These are the basic guidelines that go along with what I eat today.

Near zero waste grocery shopping
Almost everything that I buy is 100% package free. The items with a * in the shopping list come in a package though. Raisins are in a plastic package, coconut oil is in a glass jar, and apple cider vinegar is sometimes in a glass jar or sometimes in bulk. My one vice to this is dark chocolate bars, which come in packaging however I’ve recently realized that cacao powder is less expensive and is zero waste so I’ve been doing more of that. Also all of the produce is package free but some produce has stickers, twist ties, or rubber bands on them.

I bring my reusable bags or jars to the grocery store and fill them in the bulk dried good section. My store (and many others out there) even has bulk oils, honey, peanut butter, and condiments that I bring my own jar and fill up. Instead of using the plastic produce bags to put my fruits and veggies in I just put the produce straight into my reusable grocery bags or bike panniers.
This photo shows my reusable bags for bulk items and produce as well as a few jars:
food fall 2013 neatos
This is my pantry at home with all of my food stored in jars:
From Clueless Consumer to Real Food Dude pantry

Whole foods
Nearly every single item that I buy is a single ingredient. Apples instead of applesauce, whole grains like rice instead of pasta, and no packaged meals like frozen pizza. I get my food as simple as it comes and in a state close to what it looks like when it came from the earth. Nothing I buy requires refrigeration. And I purchase fruits and veggies in small quantities often to decrease the amount I waste.

This was probably the step that took the longest to transition to. I think it’s because it’s easy to ignore or feel removed from the pesticides and chemicals used in the industrial agriculture system because they are invisible. A long list of ingredients and packaging are all things I can visually see but I can’t see pesticides. It’s easy to ignore the negative impact of farming with pesticides and herbicides but these impacts are huge. Today I only buy organic food when I can. I’m far from perfect though, so I end up eating non-organic food at gatherings and such, but I keep it to a minimum. Eating organic also means GMO-free of course.

Plant-based food
I eat about a majority plant-based diet. On an occasion I’ll eat some meat, eggs or dairy when someone offers them to me. I’ve found eating a mostly plant-based diet to be one of the healthiest changes that I’ve made to my life. I don’t have to upkeep my weight via exercise anymore because I don’t have excess fat to burn off. I strongly support plant-based diets and I think many people would benefit from reducing animal intake, but going completely plant-based isn’t necessary to see drastic health improvements. Getting meat and animal product intake down to just one meal a day would be huge for many people. For me it was a few years of transitioning, remember I was still eating the McDonald’s ice cream cones for a while.

*UPDATE: After a couple years I became deficient eating a majority plant-based diet. I incorporated meat, eggs and dairy back into my diet in 2017, both for personal health but more importantly because I had continued educating myself and found that I was basing my information on the industrialized farming systems. The reality is that is just one system, the dominant system, but that sustainable, ethical alternatives exist including regenerative, small scale farming, hunting and fishing. Here is more information on that. I am absolutely a proponent for ending factory farming and unethical treatment of animals but I strongly believe that meat can and is often a sustainable, healthy and ethical part of a food system. 

Shop local
I support local farmers markets, health food stores, and restaurants rather than having my money taken out of my community and sent to the big corporate offices. Not only do I shop local but I aim for the food that I purchase to be grown locally as well. If not from within the state that I’m in then at least the country.

In the past I would have thought it to be expensive to eat the way I do. I thought eating organic was expensive and I thought in general fresh fruits and vegetables were expensive. But through my transition I learned that I was totally off base. First of all I was spending a fair amount of money on alcohol. A night at the bars would often ring up $50 on my credit card without realizing it. That’s an entire week of organic healthy groceries for me today. It really came down to that I was prioritizing other things over eating healthy. My friends often tell me that they can’t afford to eat healthy but it’s never true in their case. It’s simply a matter of choosing what’s important. Other people are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a month on medical problems that come down 100% to food and exercise. They have to make the conscious choice to spend their money on food that will prevent these Western Diseases rather than spending their money on treatments that work on the branches of the problem rather than the roots.

Some others would say that eating healthy is for the elite. I totally understand where they are coming from. If I walked into a health food store not knowing what I know and just looked at all the prices I might be shocked. And I’ve even walked away from farmers markets thinking that if I was living on food stamps and wanted to eat healthier I’d have walked away from their feeling like it just isn’t possible. Eating organic and healthy can be really expensive just as eating poorly can be really expensive. But eating healthy by nature is typically no more expensive than eating a diet of poor nutritional quality. It’s largely about knowledge, overcoming societal constructs, and dedication to doing what is right for you and the earth. The food I buy is not expensive. I eat oatmeal for breakfast and that usually comes out to about $.75 to $2 for a highly nutritious and satisfying meal. Typically my oatmeal includes raisin or fruit, coconut oil, ground flax seed, honey, and maybe nuts or coconut flakes. Lunch will often consist of a soup that costs $.50 to $1.50 meal. Most of the foods in my shopping list are far less expensive than going to McDonald’s for a couple burgers and fries. I can eat a highly nutritious and delicious diet comfortably on $200 a month. In future blogs I will go into more details on how this can be done. Food deserts, where healthy food is not available make it very hard to do this but I will also be exploring that in depth in the near future and sharing how it can be overcome in many instances.

There’s also an illusion of cost in food. The food that I eat has actual nutrients that do far more than fill me up; they make my body function at a healthy level. Many of the “cheap” foods just aren’t giving you what you think your money is paying for. Comparing healthy food to junk food on a per dollar basis isn’t a comparison that makes sense because they aren’t the same thing.

My transition from burger slamming college kid to a real food eating dude was not overnight and was not without hurdles. It took years of dedication to education and to putting what I learned into action. The good news is that it became easier with time as I became healthier and more informed. I’m certain that no matter who you are or where you live there is something you could do today to improve your life and the world around you. I encourage you to start your transition today!

For a bit of a deeper look into how to eat in a manner that causes less destruction to the earth as well as some great documentaries and books on this subject check out The Planet Friendly Diet.

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