welcome & what is "real food" anyway?

Welcome to foodCOURT. If you haven’t already, check out the about section to read about me, Courtney and my real food journey.

What better way to start things off than with my definition of real food? I’ll be covering and sharing lots of topics on my blog, but I want you all to know not just what brought me here, but also my approach to the real food way of life.

Google “real food” and you will find a variety of definitions from sources ranging from the personal to the professional. Some think real food should only include locally sourced organic food, others believe it must be non-GMO (and thus you must avoid the grocery store at all costs), and some suggest that it is vegan (avoiding meat and animal by-products). Basically, there is no official definition to what truly encompasses “real food.”

Personally, I don’t get too technical with my “real food” definition. Eating sustainably and “supermarket-free” all the time is nearly impossible. Some might argue this point, but for those of us, like me, who have a busy life, a budget, lots of responsibilities and priorities, and live in an area with limited local options readily available, setting too many rules doesn’t make sense.

To me, real food is food that is not processed. This means it does not come in a box/ package. BUT, reality is, sometimes a food you want or need to buy will come in a package. If it does, it should have the simplest ingredients.

real foods: zucchini, butter

real foods: zucchini, butter

Some examples of real foods: fruits, vegetable, meat/ poultry/ fish, nuts and seeds, full-fat dairy (it has not gone through extra processing to remove the fat), rice, fermented foods such as sauerkraut.

Here are some tips for how to go about acquiring real food:

  • Find out where and when there are farmers markets by you
  • Family or living with an S/O? consider a CSA
  • Produce from these sources will be in season, local, likely organic, and you can’t beat the price
  • Make a shopping list before you enter the supermarket! Look at sales and coupons.
  • Go to supermarket of choice (yes, I count Super Target)
  • Stay on the perimeter of the store (no aisles) as much as possible. Processed and packaged foods are usually shelf stable and found in an aisle of the grocery store. The items on the perimeter are usually produce, meat, and dairy, all good real food items.
  • Read labels, know what you are putting into you and your loved ones. Make ingredients important. Do your best to avoid ingredients you wouldn’t find in your kitchen
I prefer to buy my ground beef and bulk sausage from a local meat market or butcher. Ask at your local supermarket about how they prepare their ground products.

I prefer to buy my ground beef and bulk sausage from a local meat market or butcher. Ask at your local supermarket about how they prepare their ground products.

  • Meat: check out sales- ideally buy organic or grass fed. This can be pricey for some, including me, so again, do your best (will discuss this more in a later post) but a quick tip is pick a meat item that you eat most often and decide that you will buy that more sustainably (local butcher, organic, grass fed).

I'm all about case studies. They're a great way to learn. A case study is "a situation in real life that can be looked at or studied to learn about something." For some posts I will be presenting my own case studies, however they will be about foods ;)  The goal is to exemplify how you might utilize some of my tips and suggestions in real life.

Case study 1: Marinara Sauce

Ideal scenario: you make your own sauce (with little to no sugar), hopefully in a big batch so half can be frozen for the next time you need it.

my fav way to enjoy marinara sauce: spaghetti squash & ground local beef. keep it simple

Next best: You purchase a jarred sauce from the grocery store that is free of junk ingredients. A “junk ingredient” is something that you would not use in your own kitchen (such as high fructose corn syrup or guar gum). It should contain normal food items (e.g. tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), salt) that you would expect to use if you made marinara sauce yourself. Sometimes (okay most of the time) these awesome brands also have a ridiculous price tag, which really makes it more worth your money and time to make your own.

Out of time and money: You purchase a sauce with a cheaper (note: not the cheapest) price tag, AND the simplest ingredients. Do not just reach for the big name-brands with a ridiculous sale: read the labels. You might be shocked to find that some of these big brands use ingredients such as: soybean oil, canola oil, “natural” flavors (if they’re natural, tell us what they are), citric acid (a preservative), high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sugar. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t keep citric acid in my cabinet. So take a minute to compare. (More to come in the future about these and other junk ingredients).

At my favorite grocery store, I found that their store-brand marinara sauces are a better (and cheaper) “real food” option than any big name-brand. Sure, some of their sauce varieties contain sugar or canola oil. So I will take a few minutes and read the labels, and when I am buying the cheaper store-brand, I buy the flavor sauce with the best list (typically this is not a cheese variety of marinara sauce). It is always a far cry better than the name-brand counterpart.

Case study 2: Peanut butter

Ideal scenario: You grind your own peanut butter either in your home or at a supermarket that offers this option, such as Whole Foods.

Next best (and in this case study, equally as good): You buy peanut butter off the shelf. Peanut butter should not have more than two ingredients! Peanuts (dry roasted or raw) and salt (if you prefer the salted variety). That is it!!! No exceptions on this one. Enough quality peanut butters exist at a great price. Note: do not assume a "natural" peanut butter will fit this criteria! You need to check out that ingredient list. Sugar is a big no-no on this one.

Out of time and money: There is no 'out of time and money' option here. If you must buy a peanut butter that contains things such as: fully hydrogenated oils, soybean oil, SUGAR (gasp), diglycerides, or anything besides peanuts and salt please do not buy it. Put it down. Move on. Perhaps purchase some dry roasted peanuts for munching, at least they have not been ruined with sugar or other junk ingredients.

So, real food is eating foods that don’t have an ingredient list. If a packaged food is your only option, find the simplest ingredient list from the numerous brands available and go for that. And if that is way too expensive, get the next best one, or consider how much it would cost to make your own. 

Sometimes, I wish my stance on what is a real food could be stricter (e.g. grass fed meat only and organic local produce and $9 jars of marinara sauce). But, the real food lifestyle should be (and is!) available to anyone, from the broke college student to a picky family on a budget, not just those who can afford premium-priced foods.  

So if you’re thinking “woah, that’s a lot!” then try to pick one thing to try differently this week. Maybe you are going to compile a list of farmers markets and make it a goal to get there. Maybe you’re going to call one of the local farms and find out how you might buy from them. Maybe, you are going to start looking at ingredient lists. Habit change doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen all at once. Pick one thing, be aware, and action will come more smoothly.


Final thoughts for today: real food can take on its own, personal definition based on your food belief and food availability. Living a real food life doesn’t need to mean you suddenly spend all of your money tracking down the best meat and produce (it can, but it doesn’t need to). If you’re like me, it’s best to choose small compromises when it comes to your grocery budget.

real food = not processed/ packaged; simplest ingredients


Do you have your own real food approach? A certain food you want to start buying at better quality? I'd love to hear about it!