Photo by Dominic Gan.

Make no mistake: Processed food is out to get you. “No!” you can say. “I only want to eat whole foods! Just leave me alone!” But does processed food listen? No. It just kicks back and laughs. “Just try to get away from me,” processed food says. “I’m everywhere you look. I’m at the convenience store. I’m in your favorite restaurant order. I’m lurking in your pantry right now. That ‘natural’ box of cereal you bought? Full of high-fructose corn syrup! Bwahahahaha!”

It’s true. Processed food is a mighty foe. But, as I’m finding out, there are strategies we all can use to cut back. In my last post, I laid out a five-point challenge for rooting processed food out of my diet under the toughest of circumstances. Today, I tackle my first — and live to eat another day.

The challenge: dinner party

I love going over to my friends’ houses for dinner. I savor the laughter and the precious moments, sure, and also the fact that I didn’t have to buy, cook, or serve a single item on the table for once. (The key here is to always jump in with an “I’ll bring wine!” before your friend asks you to julienne anything.) But the hidden downside of the dinner party is that you’re at the mercy of your host when it comes to what’s on your plate. Is it healthy? Is it organic? Most importantly for this challenge, is it unprocessed? (Before you call me lazy, remember that I also do my share of entertaining.)

I stepped into these turbulent waters a few nights ago at my friend Evelyn’s potluck barbecue. The situation was fraught with tension — this was a summer barbecue, after all, dominion of the Oscar Mayer wiener (corn syrup and a slew of other additives, I’m afraid), packaged potato salad (is that xanthan gum I’m tasting?), and yes, the dreaded Dorito. At past barbecues, temptation and lack of other options have led me to gorge on potato chips, dry Chips Ahoy! cookies, and those so-called fruit salads that serve mainly as a vehicle for stuffing lots of mini marshmallows down your gullet. Hey, processed foods wouldn’t be such a megahit with the American populace if they didn’t go right for the caveman part of the brain with their salt-fat-sugar triple play.

To hedge my bets, I borrowed a classic move from the restricted-diet playbook and made a big batch of something I knew I could eat all by itself if worst came to worst. My offering: summer edamame salad, a yummy montage of soybeans, veggies, and oil-and-vinegar dressing. (I’ve included the recipe below.)

As I cleared a place for my bowl on the picnic table, I checked out the other guests’ handiwork. There were a few packaged side dishes in deli containers — steer clear, just to be safe, I told myself — but fresh fruit, grilled chicken breasts, gourmet cheese, and all manner of homemade dips, slaws, and salads dominated the buffet. Sure, it all looked good … but what kinds of additives and preservatives might be lurking here? Was the barbecue sauce really that color, or was I looking at the dastardly work of Red No. 40? I’d better figure it out soon, ‘cause I was hungry.

Ooh, a fresh-looking white dip with pita wedges! It looked innocent, but I had to be sure. “What is this? It looks delicious!” I diplomatically asked the man who brought it. “It’s tzatziki,” he told me. “I grilled a cucumber from my garden for it.” While I groped for a non-weird way to ask him to list the ingredients for me, he’d already moved on to asking me polite, get-to-know-you questions. I grabbed a pita wedge (whole wheat, natch) and dug in. It was indeed delicious (and likely contained approved items like Greek yogurt, lemon juice, fresh dill, and garlic, I discovered to my relief when I Googled recipes later).

The rest of the party went much the same way. Grilled whole carrots? Safe. Crackers with cheese? Totally cool. (I surreptitiously checked the label on the cracker box under the guise of refilling the plate.) Watermelon salad, sans dressing? Obvi. Then Evelyn’s boyfriend, Will, set down a bowl brimming with purple-red cabbage slaw. “I pulled this out of the ground this morning,” he told us with pride. A question about whether his dressing contained mayonnaise or any other bottled condiment died in my throat. This guy made the slaw himself, I thought. He grew the cabbage in his backyard! Six miles from here! Are you seriously contemplating not eating it on a technicality? What kind of jackass are you? I shut up and served myself a giant scoop.

The moral of this story is: Hang out with crunchy people. They make it a lot easier to eat right.

No, seriously, I got lucky. There weren’t many taboo items on the table, except those packaged salads, and maybe the tortilla chips (I didn’t get close enough to inspect them for fake lime powder). I’ve certainly been to much more challenging cookouts. On those occasions, the old BYO strategy would have been much more important.

Failing that, I have another idea: Give yourself a pass. Do as one reader suggested on my post last week and employ a “permanent guest exemption when it comes to processed food in other people’s bags.” Hey, if you strive for whole foods in your own home and eat most of your meals in your own kitchen, even a Dorito now and then won’t kill you. Because no matter how nicely you say, “Sorry, I don’t eat processed foods,” your host is likely to hear, “Let a crumb of that swill you people call food cross my lips? Never!” And then they’ll make fun of you when to excuse yourself for the bathroom.

Summer edamame salad

16-18 oz. fresh soybeans
1.5 cups mini heirloom tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1.5 cups celery slices
Sliced fresh basil to taste
Pink Himalayan salt (or regular old salt)
Pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Throw all the veggies into a bowl. Top with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar. Serves 4-6.

Next up: The knotty challenges of unprocessed desserts, road-trip snacking, restaurant meals, and backpacking food.