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This woman ate just 7 foods for 1 month. It was a lesson in food waste and gratitude

Experimenting against excess opened Jen Hatmaker’s eyes to waste, gratitude and the power of her food dollars.
What one woman learned by eating just 7 foods for a month
“We were wasting too much food, but I couldn’t really get my head around it,” Hatmaker said.TODAY illustration / Micah Kandros

For one month, Jen Hatmaker ate nothing but chicken, eggs, whole-wheat bread, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados and apples. No olive oil. No coffee. No grab-and-go packaged snacks.

This experiment was part of her personal challenge to scale back in seven areas of her life: food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending and stress. She shared her results in her book, “Simple & Free: 7 Experiments Against Excess.”

“We were wasting too much food, but I couldn’t really get my head around it,” she said. With a quick inventory of the food she had on hand, she counted around 300 items in her refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. And she didn’t think it made sense for one family to have that much food stockpiled.

So, she challenged herself to scale back. Here’s what she told TODAY Food.

She saved a lot of money

Hatmaker didn’t recruit her children for this experiment — she said they would have lived on apples for the month. Still, scaling back what she ate meant she spent less. But while eating just seven foods might be a worthwhile experiment for a month, it’s not sustainable long term.

After the challenge, Hatmaker added local, organic foods back into her diet. And those foods cost more than their grocery-store counterparts. But she stopped buying processed foods, and that change more than offset the cost of her natural foods. “I actually put more money back in my budget,” she said.

She looked and felt better

“I noticed a pretty dramatic change in how I felt, how I looked, how my skin responded, how I slept, my digestion, and my energy level. There is something about whole-food eating, about clean eating, about largely eliminating processed food from our diets,” she said. “My canker sores cleared up and I slept through the night without waking up. It was really amazing to have such dramatic results. That was one of the most shocking pieces of the food experiment.”

She admits, though, that some of those foods have crept back into her diet. “Easy food is a seductive siren,” she said.

She prioritized gratitude with her family

Hatmaker recalled a day when she was eating some of her same seven foods for dinner, while her children had fried fish. She stepped away from the table for a minute and when she came back their plates were cleared. She discovered that since they didn’t have any ketchup, they threw their dinners away.

“My healthy, well-fed kids, who have never gone a day without a meal, would literally throw good food away because they didn’t have ketchup. And so that began a new conversation in the house around gratitude,” she said.

Now her family practices gratitude surrounding their food. “We thank the farmers who grew it. We thank the families who helped harvest it. We’re grateful for the earth for somehow managing to feed us millennia after millennia,” she said. “It really helps you care about your food consumption.”

She recognized the influence she could wield with her food budget

“Our food dollars matter — they’re powerful,” she said. “We have major consumer power when it comes to what sort of food we tell the industry we require, what we’re interested in, and what we will pay for.”

She and her family started gardening after her experiment, and later they bought a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share at a local farm. They also now shop at their local farmer’s market, and at the grocery store they buy more organic products. “It costs more, and it takes more time, but I know what we’re eating, and I feel good about it,” she said.

The dollars she spends on the CSA share, the farmers’ market and the grocery store mostly stay in her community, supporting local business owners and their families.

She cut out a lot of waste and committed to sustainability

Shopping locally cut out a lot of food packaging. “When you go to a farmer's market, you bring your reusable bag and they shove that filthy lettuce right in your bag. There’s not a package to be found,” she said. “It’s slightly less convenient, but it feels sustainable.” She also buys in bulk, which cuts down on packaging.

And she now eats at least one vegan meal per day. “If a large group of Western eaters made that choice, it would make a monumental impact on climate change,” she said.

The experiment lasted a month, but the lessons last a lifetime

“None of this is ever meant to be permanent — it’s too extreme. But it does create some permanent results, and some permanent changes,” she said. “There’s a hidden advantage to making choices that have a communal impact for the good. And there’s a dignity to making those choices, even if it means that our personal choices are a little bit more limited. That was a key takeaway from ‘Simple & Free’ that stuck with me forever.”

This story was originally published in March 2020.