pumpkin pie ingredientsIt takes a little more planning, but cooking from scratch can be deliciously rewarding.Photo: Susy MorrisLooking to purify before we move into the season of discount Halloween candy, food-focused family gatherings, and holiday parties? Andrew Wilder’s Eating Rules blog invites you to take part in October Unprocessed, an experiment in ridding your diet of all processed foods for an entire month.

Wilder uses the “kitchen test” to explain what he means by unprocessed: “any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.” In other words, if a food’s label lists long, scary-sounding, unpronounceable words that bring back bad memories of high school chemistry, it probably doesn’t count.

But that’s just one way to classify the term; Wilder invites other definitions and interpretations of the challenge — whatever helps people feel comfortable participating. (He also encourages people to take the pledge now, even though it’s a week into October.) “This is about awareness,” he said. “Just thinking about what you’re eating and where you’re getting your food is a place to start.”

Wilder stresses that he wasn’t always a “health nut.” Rather, after tumult in his personal and professional lives, he had a series of “aha” moments in 2009 (like reading Michael Pollan’s books) that led him to make changes in his eating and exercise habits. He started the blog as an outlet after his friends got sick of hearing him yammer on about the joys of a healthier lifestyle.

The idea of going a month without processed foods was a personal challenge at first, a way to take his new healthy diet one step further. He posted about it on Facebook two years ago, inviting friends to join. Two did — and to their surprise, the month of cooking and eating together brought the three friends closer. In 2010, Wilder happened to be at a blogging conference when he floated the idea for a second October Unprocessed on Twitter and got enthusiastic responses from fellow attendees. He lined up a series of guest bloggers for the month, and by the end of the challenge 450 people had taken the pledge. So far this year, almost 2,500 have signed up.

“Clearly this resonates,” says Wilder. “I didn’t want to be a stunt blogger … It’s really about working together to have a conversation about food.”

october _unprocessedWilder acknowledges the difficulty of the task, which is why his series of guests posts will start with recipes and time- and money-saving tips, before tackling the deeper issues surrounding our food system and politics. And his philosophy toward both October Unprocessed and eating in general is refreshingly lenient — his healthy eating plan allows for one “cheat meal” a week. “There is no such thing as … perfect food,” he says. “If you think in black and white, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. I slip, too. It takes work. Thinking about your meals before it’s time to cook is really helpful.”

And, of course, October Unprocessed, like Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge last month, serves the meta-function of calling attention to the fallacy of its own existence: Cooking and eating unprocessed food should not be a special occasion.

Because eating well doesn’t just make us healthier, it makes us happier. “It feels really good,” Wilder said. “Physically, yes, but emotionally, too. I can’t think of a better way to have good relationships with people than around the dinner table.”