The Leake family are on a real food crusade. (photo credit: Shannan Casper Photography)
How long could you go without junk food? Last year, the Leake family attempted to abstain for 100 days. A year later, they’re still going strong. “Halfway through the first challenge I took the basket of Halloween candy I was hiding in the guest room for when we'd completed the challenge, and just threw it out,” says Lisa Leake, a stay-at-home mom of two daughters, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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Inspired by an Oprah interview with food activist Michael Pollan, Lisa and her husband, Jason, embarked on the challenge as a way to rethink their unhealthy eating habits. Lisa was raised on Doritos and powdered macaroni and cheese. She tried to prepare healthy meals for her daughters, Sienna, then 3 and Sydney, then 5, but like most busy moms, she relied heavily on processed frozen meals and boxed groceries that had mile-long ingredients lists and the potential to cause long-term health problems, like heart disease and diabetes. Even the foods she thought were healthy weren't as natural as she had once believed. "I was so surprised by how much food is processed," says Lisa, "like for example, bread that lists wheat as an ingredient isn't good for you unless it's made from whole wheat. You really have to study the ingredients."
In an effort to force themselves to consume more cautiously, the Leake family set some temporary guidelines: no refined grains or sweeteners, nothing deep fried, only local hormone-free meats and organic fruits and veggies and absolutely nothing out of a box, can, bag, bottle or package with more than five ingredients listed on the label.
Lisa gave up her morning white chocolate mocha coffee drink ritual. Her husband, who works in technical sales and travels part of the month, gave up fast food pit stops on the road. But the hardest habits to break came into play when feeding the girls. An after-dinner treat meant getting creative with applesauce, fruit juice and yogurt. On grocery shopping expeditions with the kids, Lisa anticipated resistance as they skated past the colourful boxes of cereal and aisles of cookies.
Lisa's blog, 100daysofrealfood.com, chronicles her family's journey adapting to all-natural unprocessed food. There were hardships, like Sydney's meltdown after being offered a doughnut from a friend, and the various birthday cakes they had to pass up. Lisa practically lived in the kitchen pre-planning meals and freezing homemade soups she could access in a pinch.
But after 100 days, their palates had evolved. “Artificial food actually tastes bad after eating fresh food for so long,” she explains. But investing in all those organic groceries and specialty ingredients, also impacted their bank account. So the family took up another challenge: 100 days of real food on a budget. With a weekly budget of $125 for a family of four (around the same amount or less than required for a food stamps budget), Lisa was forced to get creative. She spent $30 on plants and seeds for growing her own veggie garden. She invested in a economy size bags of brown rice and occasionally employed martini glasses to make plain old yogurt or juice smoothies look like more indulgent parfaits.
Chronicling her daily inventiveness, from recipes to money-saving tips and candid I-can’t-take-this-much-more rants, garnered her blog a growing following and another idea. The 10-day pledge is a modified challenge that Lisa's developed for readers who want to try the Leake model. So far, 1,500 families have accepted the challenge and in the past six months, Lisa’s Facebook fans have skyrocketed to 14,000.
Now the original 100-day challenge has become more or less a way of life for the Leake family. “Our new normal is that the kids can have one treat a week, whether it’s at school or at birthday parties or something we make from scratch at home like ice cream,” says Lisa.
But being a mom of growing girls presents new challenges. This week, Sydney starts first grade, and a whole new world of school-sanctioned food education. “Beyond cafeteria lunches, there’s so many activities based around junk food for kids,” says Lisa. “There’s an upcoming fundraiser at a pizza place, and something else where the kids all go to Krispy Kreme. These things all might happen on the same day that kids get Skittles as a reward for something they do at school, so I want to come up with new ways kids can be rewarded without using food.”
So far, she’s managed to re-issue a healthier snack-approved list for parents in Sydney's school, encouraging parents to pack fresh fruits like grapes and cherries over Rice Krispie Treats.
But the danger of banning junk food, or anything for that matter, from kids, is the seduction factor. “I do worry that by banning junk, they’ll end up wanting it more, so I’m trying to let the girls start making their own informed choices,” she says.
“Yesterday I was sitting outside with my daughters and some other kids were eating those 'freezey pops' that are pretty much just artificial syrups," says Lisa. "Of course they wanted one. So I said, you can either have one of those pops or some homemade ice cream. They chose the pops. But later my older daughter said she didn’t like how they tasted, so I figure she’s learning on her own why those foods aren’t good."
And why is that?
"They taste gross after eating fresh food.”