“Living Abroad: My Personal Revelation about Real Foods”

In the guest post below, Mariana Ashley shares with us her story of how it took living in another country for her to truly understand what it meant to eat a natural diet composed of REAL foods – – truly real foods; not the pseudo-“natural” processed stuff promoted by much of the American food industry.

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“If you live in America, you know how difficult it can be to maintain a diet completely composed of whole, unadulterated foods. Of course, the slow food, green movement that’s blossomed in America over the past decade or so has made it easier in some ways, but there’s just as much marketing of supposedly “healthy, natural” foods that has served only to confuse consumers who want to live a genuinely natural lifestyle.

After years of subsisting on American staples, eating fast food several times a week, going out for dinner, etc., my mother tried to switch things up by committing to natural, organic foods. Unfortunately, most of these foods were processed and packaged, and they paid only lip service to natural foods. If it was labeled natural, organic, or diet, my mother–God bless her–just assumed it was healthy and wholesome.

It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Russia my junior year of college that I realized what it means to actually consume “real food.” Of course, don’t get me wrong—there are plenty of McDonald’s and other American fast food chains in Russia, and there were lots of food items at the grocery store that were far from being healthy or unprocessed. But in Russia, especially outside very urban areas, eating whole foods is far from being an expression of trendiness as it is in many parts of the developed, Westernized world. It’s just a fact of life.

Grocery stores in Russia are very unassuming places. Most of them are the size of convenient stores in America and carry only the essentials, like milk, eggs, cheese, a few selections of meat and produce. If the vegetables and fruits are not in season, they don’t carry them. For most items, there are only two or three brands available at the most. Some items, like milk, had only one choice. The simple, red-and-white label read “Milk.” No skim, no two percent, no brand label with pictures and marketing. Just milk.

For someone like me, who is completely overwhelmed by the overabundance of brand choice in your typical American grocery store, going to a Russian grocery store became an actually enjoyable experience precisely because of this simplicity. Look at your typical grocery store item in Russia, and you could bet your bottom dollar that the number of listed ingredients could be counted on one hand.

Most Russian families make quick trips to these grocery stores. When it came to purchasing items for making full-fledged meals, it was off to one of the many outdoor markets, which is an experience in and of itself. The Russian family I lived with loved food and loved the bonding experience endemic to meal times in your typical Russian home. I’d never experienced anything like it.

In America, it almost seems that families eat together out of a certain sense of anxiety about the breakdown of family values. Children and teens in America cannot wait to leave the table and get on with their lives on their cell phones or televisions. In Russia, at least in my experience, the whole family, both young and old, genuinely enjoyed meal times. There were always several courses, dessert, beer, wine, or vodka for the adults, free-flowing conversation, banter, joking—in a word, joy.

And it was through this experience of living abroad in a culture that doesn’t fetishize real food but actually and truly enjoys it—partly because they don’t really have much of a choice–that I learned to embrace whole foods. I’ve carried with me this Russian gusto for real food and meaningful conversation, and it’s truly changed my life.”

About the Author

Mariana Ashley is a blogger and freelance writer, whose posts offer a college guide and news for prospective students and parents. She also enjoys writing about sustainable living, parenting, personal finance, and more. She welcomes comments via email at mariana.ashley031@gmail.com.

Great store-bought (gluten-free) snack… flavored flax crackers!

I was craving a crunchy snack the other day and was SO excited to discover these flax crackers at a local health store in my town. Click pics to enlarge.

They are made by the Foods Alive company, and they come in quite a few different flavors. Many of the flavors contain very simple ingredients, so I can actually eat them! Yay!! The Mexican Harvest flavor is really good; and I really enjoyed the Onion/Garlic variety as well (I tasted a sample, but they were out of stock so I don’t have them featured here…hopefully next time!)

Be sure you check the ingredients list because I’m not sure that every flavor is as “additive-free” as the samples I’ve pictured below; and enjoy!!! If you belong to the Azure Standard Food Co-op, they also carry these crackers; or you can always order them online, too!

Flax crackers are really simple to make in a dehydrator, so I think I’m going to give it a try with some homemade taco seasoning – I’ll post the recipe if they turn out good! But for now, it’s really nice to have the option to just walk into a store and pop them in my mouth! Here are the ingredients from the varieties I purchased…


Guess who went OUT for dinner?! (Thanks, Dolce Cafe!)

Yep! It’s true! I went out to dinner this weekend, and I have the pictures to prove it (click any pics to enlarge)! 😉

To many, I am surely known as the girl who never goes out to eat. And, for the most part, that has been true for the past 4 1/2 years since learning about all of the additives that are hidden in so many foods…and how incredibly sensitive I am to them!

Until now, it just hasn’t been worth the risk for me to dine out…and certainly not worth the hassle of interrogating the wait staff with a million questions only to determine that it’s impossible for me to eat there, anyway. And, most importantly, it’s generally not worth the anxiety that rushes over me as I wonder if what they’re serving me really is as additive-free as they think it is. And, of course, nothing is worth the inevitable disappointment that sets in later as I realize that I am having a physical reaction to something that must’ve slipped past the radar. Ugh! Perhaps some of you can relate? Really, it’s quickly become more “fun” to stay home and do all of the work myself. LOL!

That is…until I realized that Omaha cake decorator, Gina Sterns, was opening her own restaurant, Dolce Cafe, in Omaha (at 124th & Maple) and that she was determined for folks with food sensitivities and allergies to be able to dine at her cafe along with everyone else. And, yes, even people like….me!

How can this be achieved?

Well, it’s simple – by providing total transparency of the ingredients!

Gina and her staff are incredibly gracious about answering as many questions as one may have about what ingredients are used in their dishes.

As stated as part of the the Dolce Cafe Concept (which greets diners at the door), at Dolce “We believe customers have the right to ‘know their food’ when dining out. We are happy and willing to answer any questions about ingredients and preparation of every item on our menu.” 

As a diner who must ask TONS of these types of questions, I can assure you that not every restaurant is so “happy and willing” to answer them. But my experience at Dolce was very pleasant, and not once did I feel that I was “burdening” the staff – heck, they even brought a few packages to my table from the kitchen so I could verify the ingredients for myself! And they were pleasant and helpful with each question I posed and with each of their corresponding trips to the kitchen to inquire with the chef or to check a product label.

I decided to keep it pretty simple on my first visit by ordering a dish called “Naked Grilled Salmon.” In the end, there were only 5 ingredients used to prepare my entire plate: wild salmon, salt, pepper, scallions, and broccoli. And it was delicious!! I also enjoyed a side salad featuring lots of yummy veggies and a dressing prepared in-house from olive oil, white wine vinegar and fresh herbs…a true “Grocery Geek’s” delight! Oh, and apparently in culinary school they must teach some magic tricks for grilling salmon because mine never turns out this moist and delicous when I prepare it at home!!! (I guess it really does pay to leave some things to the professionals. LOL!)

At Dolce Cafe, they also source organically raised ingredients when possible and they work with many local farmers — I LOVE THIS! I can’t wait until my next visit because I’m definitely going to try one of Dolce’s local, grass-fed beef dishes featuring cuts from Range West Beef of Marquette, NE!

Have you eaten at Dolce? If so, please leave a comment below to let us know what you liked? If you haven’t been there yet, what are you waiting for?!

Also, if you’ve discovered any other Omaha eateries that cater well to food allergies/sensitivies, please share your experiences by commenting below!