Real Food: Ways to Improve Your Diet

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Like many of you, I am always on the lookout for ways for my family to eat healthier and ways to teach a healthier approach to food to my children.

Female hand with slicing knife cutting up red bell pepper on cutting board

For the past couple of years, I have been hearing a lot about “real food” and have started doing a lot of research into what exactly constitutes real food, why it’s so important for our bodies to consume it, and what is so bad about processed foods that we should cut them out of our diet.

Hopefully, some of what I have learned may be beneficial to some of you, so I thought I would share it with you here.

First things first: what is real food?

At the most basic level, real food is eating whole foods, or foods in their most natural state. This means eating tons of fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and whole grains, and using only natural sweeteners (like honey, maple syrup, and sugar in its most natural state- no white sugar!) in moderation.

Dairy products should be organic, whole (no skim milk or reduced fat cheese), and ideally from pasture-raised and grass-fed animals. Milk is even better if it’s raw, or unpasteurized. This is not available everywhere, however, so then just buy organic.

Yogurt should be unsweetened.

Meats should come from grass-fed cows, and poultry from pasture-raised chicken. Ideally, you should buy these locally, as well as your milk and eggs.

Snacks should be dried fruit, seeds, nuts, popcorn (made yourself, not that stuff in the box that you stick in the microwave), and any homemade treats using whole foods.

Finally, drink mostly water. Whole milk, 100% juice with no sugar added, tea, coffee, beer, and wine can be had in moderation.

Wondering what specifically to avoid if you want to switch to a real food diet? There are five main things to watch out for.

For me, the biggest thing is to stop buying any packaged product that has more than five ingredients on the label or ingredients that you either can’t pronounce or wouldn’t cook with at home (maltodextrin anyone?).

Next, you’ll want to cut out refined grains such as white flour or white rice. You’ll also need to stop buying anything with refined sweeteners like white or brown sugar, corn syrup, cane juice and anything with artificial sweeteners (no Splenda!).

Another one that will be tough for most of us Southerners is not having deep-fried foods (oh, fried chicken, how I’ll miss you!), though you can make healthier deep-fried-imitation side dishes with veggies, such as this fried kohlrabi for example.

Lastly, and this might be the hardest of all in today’s fast-paced, go-go-go society: no more “fast food” – you may need to cook some of your meals at home rather than eating out except on the rare occasion.

There are a few things to consider that will make it a little easier to make the switch. The easiest thing to do is to simply up your intake of fruits and vegetables. You’ll naturally be eating a more real food diet without even thinking about it.

Your produce should ideally be all organic, and locally sourced at that, but that can get a little pricey. In that case, stick to the “dirty dozen” for your organic shopping.

These are thinner-skinned fruits and veggies that any pesticides used on or near them can easily get into the “meat” of the food itself. These are apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, cucumbers, grapes, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries.

Attractive Couple with Baby examine different vegetables on Kitchen Counter

Another tip is to buy your bread from a local bakery, if you don’t want to or don’t have the time to bake it at home. You’re much more likely to get a real food product that way. For pasta, cereals, and crackers, just remember to go whole grain.

Whole grain products are far less likely to have added sugars or chemicals.

One final suggestion is to always avoid any store-bought products that list sugar or high-fructose corn syrup as one of the first ingredients on the label.

So what’s so bad about processed food? For an in-depth analysis, I refer you to Michael Pollan’s eye-opening book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s truly game-changing, in my opinion. For the purpose of this article, however, let me just point out that 4 of the top 10 chronic diseases- coronary artery disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer- “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food” (see above referenced-book).

Further, processed foods are normally loaded with added sugar. Just check out the ingredients on a jar of marinara versus a homemade batch, or a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette. It will blow you away what things manufacturers will add sugar to (see the mention of diabetes above).

Not only that, but all of the chemically-processed foods we are eating actually are engineered to make you want to eat more of them. No wonder countries with a more “Western” diet are the most obese in the world. Food addiction is real, folks, and it makes processed food even more damaging than all the artificial stuff used to create it.

I really could write several pages just on the topic of the evils of processed food, but, other than Mr. Pollan’s awesome book, I’ll just say that there are a ton of articles online dealing with this topic, and I highly recommend you doing some research on it.

Enough about that, though. What are some practical ways that you can simply and easily get started on the path to a real food diet and a healthier lifestyle? The first steps really could not be easier:

  1. Replace margarine with butter (preferably organic).
  2. Replace vegetable and canola oils with olive and coconut oils.
  3. Replace white flour with whole wheat (white wheat flour IS wheat flour, just a different variety and is milder-tasting, so for picky eaters, this is a great real food choice) and white rice with brown rice.
  4. Increase your veggie intake. You should ideally have at least one with each meal.
  5. Cut out soda. Completely.  No exceptions.
  6. Replace store-bought, sugar-laden treats with homemade, real food goodies.
  7. Buy local and organic whenever possible.
  8. Try healthy techniques for grilling on your barbecue.

Follow these 8 steps and you will be eating a much more wholesome diet in no time.

Some of these steps can be a bit pricey, especially trying to go all organic and buying locally. (Look for another article coming soon on how to eat real on a budget. I’ll have some great tips for you!) Remember, though, that they are more expensive for a reason. It costs more money to farm this way, and local farmers have to make a living off of their profits.

Can’t really afford to do that step right now? That’s okay. Make the changes you can make today, or next week, and you’ll get there in time. You’ll feel better just knowing that you are making the strides to fuel your body with better food to make a better YOU.

Eating a real food diet can lead to higher energy levels, weight loss, improved regularity (that’s what naturally happens when you eat more fruits and vegetables), and an overall sense of improved physical well-being. If you need more help figuring out what diet plan may be the best for you, read our helpful article that analyzes the pros and cons of seven popular diet plans.

There are so many reasons to make this lifestyle change, and many more reasons why it’s harmful not to do so. I hope this article points some of you in the right direction.

About Ashley Martell

Ashley has enjoyed creative writing since she was six years old, when she wrote her first short story. She majored in English literature at the University of Montevallo. After years of professional work, she is now a stay-at-home mom of three, who uses her craft to write about her life and adventures in and out of the kitchen.

40 thoughts on “Real Food: Ways to Improve Your Diet”

  1. I only started eating “real” food over the past two years and it has made a huge difference. Initially it was a little difficult for me to give up some of my favorite processed foods, and the sticker shock was also somewhat overwhelming. I once paid $10 for a small container of raspberries! I found that by eating healthier I am eating less and have a more satisfied feeling after a meal, I also like being able to support local businesses. I hit up the farmer’s market for everything with the exception of bread. I buy the bread from a bakery and my one tip would be to eat it quickly or freeze it because with no preservatives the bread will only last a day or two. I started eating real food because it just sounded better for us, but I have seen a real difference. My boyfriend used to have high blood pressure and doesn’t anymore.

  2. ….so yoghurt ought to be unsweetened?..poor me and my ‘sweet tooth’, giving up some of the things listed above might just make me go down depression mode and am scared :(….i remember a friend of mine telling me how she cut out sugary stuff from her diet and went all natural and took on a healthy diet…the first two weeks were trying, she was cranky and moody, sluggish and tired and really craved for the sugary stuff, lucky for her, she was brave, strong and stuck to her guns and made it through safely, i may want to tread that path to real food and improve my diet but the withdrawal symptoms seem to spook me out…maybe ‘baby’ steps will do.

    • You can always sweeten yogurt with fresh fruit. If you mix the fruit and yogurt together in a blender it taste so fruity you don’t even realize its unsweetened. And for many people , I think “baby steps” work best for most people. Pick a few changes to work on at a time, and add more as you feel comfortable doing so.

  3. I was all about hungry-man type foods and quick and microwaveable…until I got pregnant. It was my first baby but not my first pregnancy so as soon as I got through the “danger zone” I started eating better for me and baby. After baby was born, I kept up the habit. I didn’t eat completely clean (and I still don’t) but I have made small changes that I know are better for the whole family. I love this: “Make the changes you can make today, or next week, and you’ll get there in time.” Little by little my partner has followed in my eating habits. I LOOOOOVE food, and I LOOOOOOOOOOVE a certain kind of fried chicken…so once in a blue moon I like to indulge. This happens like once every two months but I’m okay with it. I like to see it as the 20 in 80/20 eating. What I AM having problems with is fruits. I don’t eat sweets. Ever since I was a baby they would just not sit well with me. I try taking a bite of an apple or a piece of kiwi or strawberry, but I mean a tiny bite. Too big and I get stomach aches. Not getting those vitamins sometimes worries me. :/

  4. I have been wanting to increase my family’s “real food” intake. My kids are definitely the best at it, though they still don’t love vegetables. I really liked the tip about buying bread from a local bakery, I need to have a look around and see what is close by. I would like to add that during farmer’s market season there is such a variety of food, in addition to fruit and vegetables, that would fall into the “real food” category. I would advise caution with the raw/unpasteurized milk. While this can be a good choice for adults, it can be VERY dangerous for young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system. Organic is a great alternative. An acquaintance of mine gave their young child raw milk, which caused serious and long term health problems. E. coli is the biggest risk I have heard of with the raw milk. I’m definitely interesting in figuring out how to budget better when buying more real food.

  5. I find that the reason I end up eating processed and unhealthy foods is that I feel pressed for time. Often after a long day at work I have difficulty wanting to make complicated meals and end up eating something convenient (unhealthy). What are some tips for eating “real” while also saving time? My ideal recipe is one that can be prepared ahead of time and doesn’t have a tremendously long cooking time.

    • Look into a crock pot, andrew!

      There are a bazillion recipes on the internet to get you started. Basically, all you do is load up the pot before you leave for work, and when you get home you have a hot meal ready to eat! Crock pots are wonderful. Stay away from recipes that have a lot of canned cream soups as ingredients, though. Those are terribly unhealthy. Look for things like rice and beans, or “pulled” chicken for tacos. Things like that.

  6. A very good article to those who want to have a healthy lifestyle! I am currently pregnant and its only now that I realized that I should stay healthy for my baby. And yes, I agree that there is no better way to it than to increase fruits and veggies intake. As of now, I’m into whole grain bread in substitute to white rice. Before, I was into sodas but now, I restrain myself from it and to other processed foods.

  7. I *really* need to cut out soda. we actually eat fairly healthy and have managed to cut out almost all processed foods. I just can’t seem to ditch my diet Pepsi addiction. I try so hard and I know it’s terrible for me. I think it truly is an addiction for me! It’s terrible!

    Here’s a tip for people who may not know: loo into CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area! You pay a subscription fee for a growing season, and are given a box of locally grown, fresh-picked produce every week. Stay healthy and support a local farmer 🙂 Win-win!

  8. I really did not consider eating healthy and “real” food before, since I am still young and although not fit, I am in a Normal body weight and also as you have mentioned, they are quite expensive.But it was only since last month that I got a food poisoning problem from eating fried chicken in a fast food chain that made me realize that I have to stop poisoning myself with this kind of foods. I have now recovered from that food poisoning event and is starting to eat healthier.

    Thank you for the seven steps that you listed, they are simple enough to get me started in making better food choices. I have already turned my back from soda long ago, but still take the “occasional” drinks whenever I eat out with friends.

    I also have my own Two step in eating healthier foods. One, cook your own food and Two, Cut down the “eating out”. Cooking your meals will give you a lot more freedom to choose what you eat and what you put in your food and less eating out means less tempatation on sodas and fried foods.

  9. These are great, easy tips. I think anyone can make these little changes and feel/eat healthier. Most of them are very easy to switch to, too! Buying local and organic at farmers markets can also often shave some dollars off of your budget.

  10. Great article! I actually started my real food journey 5 years ago. And I’m still a work in progress. The biggest hurdle for me has been the prices. I would love to eat more organically, but I keep getting sticker shock as prices go up. So, I just do the best I can do.

    When I was starting out and asking questions about what real-food is and what does eating natural mean, one person responded,” just think about how people used to eat 200 years ago”. I will remember that moment forever, because when I thought about it and started discussing it, it hit me how much food has changed.

  11. I’m so glad that you emphasized taking small steps. Too often people want to sell their “revolutionary” way of eating healthy. If they told you the truth, they wouldn’t sell many books. The truth is, small changes have big impact. The old adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has some truth to it. You don’t have to go on any special diet. Just make some small changes. Over time, those small changes add up. My grandma always said “it takes pennies to make a dollar”. I think that applies here as well.

  12. We have done much better about eating “real food” over the last couple of years. It can be hard, especially with a young active family. One way we have been able to mitigate this is by preparing “real food” meals ahead of time and freezing them. That way even on a busy night, or if you don’t feel well you can still pull off a healthy meal. 🙂

  13. Eating real food is one of my biggest goals and while I am not all the way there yet, I do follow a lot of the tips mentioned above! While my house is just a young couple and money is not plentiful around here, I do agree that it is worth the extra money to have this lifestyle. For me, this is a priority in my life, so I am willing to pay more for real food and tend to not spend as much on entertainment and other expenses. Thanks for the real life tips to follow a real food lifestyle!

  14. I absolutely love the tip of buying your bread from a local bakery! I used to do that every day when I lived in France and there was nothing like the freshness! If you have the time you can also bake your own bread. It’s actually not that hard and is so fresh and cheap.

    I also love the tip about just cutting out soda. It’s cost-saving and also so much healthier. I always think there’s nothing better to drink than water, and some occasional milk. I’ve cut out all fruit juice too, since I think it has way too much sugar and too many empty calories.

    Thanks for the list and tips! This was just the reinforcement I needed going into the new year!

  15. I do most of the suggested things already and try to substitute whenever I can. I do still use vegetable oil as it is cheaper and olive oil can’t be used for everything as sometimes I use oil instead of butter for baking.

    The main issue is when you are eating out, what do they use? I know some places when I order a garden burger it will be a ready made one and not one made fresh on the premises so sometimes you have to compromise. The same with convenience foods, at times they are useful for a snack, but as long as it is occasional I can’t see any long term issues.

    • Yeah it is a bit more tricky with going out. Even a lot of salads they have added high sugar sauces increasing the calories. You can ask and look to get a relationships with your local restaurants. Talk with your friends and gather as much information as possible about places you like to go to, then I would chose 1-3 that have good healthy options and stick to those. I would avoid any cheap takeout roast or noodle place, everything is friend in oil from frozen. The easiest way to have healthy convenience foods is to prepare them yourself and have on hand e.g. nuts/dried fruit in a plastic container.

  16. As a family we have really been focusing over the last 8 months on healthy eating. Instead of buying all the canned foods, and eating a lot of take out we have been preparing our own meals and buying a lot more healthy/fresh produce. We also read labels a lot more often and it helps keep track of what we are putting in our bodies. My husband has lost an amazing 60 lbs just strictly changing our diet.

  17. This is a great, balanced article about real food. I have recently started learning more about this and have made some of the changes the article lists, but it is hard to do them all at once! The hardest part for me is the meats. The price per pound for grass fed beef or organic chicken is just so much higher than what I’ve been buying. We live in a rural area, and my husband was able to get a deer during hunting season this fall, so we have been eating that recently in place of grass fed beef. Cutting out the cream soups is also a little hard because so many crockpot recipes call for them, and I love using my crockpot, but little by little I am trying to switch our recipes over to healthier real food options. I think the key is making small changes that you can actually stick with, instead of trying to do it all at once and getting burned out!

  18. Oh yes. Over processed meats and dairies might be one of the worse things to have in one diets — I think that compared to that, choosing between vegetable oil and olive oil is really a minor issue. I could not push myself to eat brown rice even if I was sick and needed to change my diet, though. So I think it’s good to have a comprehensive list of different ways to impact one’s health so that we know what is absolutely to put out (and yes, soda is such a useless thing to have in one’s diet, and it’s so harmful!) and then, an understanding of what might make differences. As long as one is informed and knows how to make tasty meals without the taste of added sugars/oils/chemicals, it is much more easier!

  19. This made me harken back to a theory I’ve had since I really understood what was more important: Convenience or value? There was a time period where we were convinced margarine was the BETTER option to butter. I distinctly recall my grandmother embracing butter but my mother brandishing her for it. Let’s be more realistic than scientific (because it seems so hard to be both) the more natural the better for us it will be. Science does not always improve food. That’s something I feel it may be hurting more than helping.

  20. Honestly, while these tips are great, I definitely think you can still eat healthy on a budget. If you use healthy recipes instead of deep fried everything, you’ll be okay. The reason I say this is that the cuisine where I’m from (Vietnam) doesn’t require organic/100% this or that, and is still delicious AND healthy.

  21. I once tried eating real food. I only lasted for 6 months! But believe me, I was far healthier when I chose to junk processed food, fast food, and soda. I lost a lot of weight. I felt much healthier and my symptoms were fewer and appearing far in between.
    The problem with me was when I started to feel healthy, I got lazy and undisciplined. I resorted to my old ways, and guess what? I’m having my symptoms back! Yay!
    This is a great reminder to go back, but it’s again going to be difficult.

  22. My partner & I started eating/buying organic on a regular basis this past year. Let me tell you, the effects are astronomical! Eating fresh eggs not only tastes better, but improves recipes. For instance I love making German Pancakes in the morning using fresh eggs because the pancake is very puffy and thick. When I use eggs from the store to make the pancake it just doesn’t come out the same; it’s not as puffy and flavorful. Another thing to note about eating organic is that my partner has been losing weight with really no effort and we both feel a thousand times better everyday. We started by cooking with only unrefined coconut oil & olive oil, then buying organic fruits & vegetables, and switching to organic grass fed free range meats. Just recently we have switched to organic sugar & the difference in taste is paramount, especially in our coffee. Even if we are tight on money we will not skimp on our sugar because we can now taste the chemically taste in regular white sugar and it just ruins whatever you’re eating or drinking. We’re slowly but surely improving our diet & I can definitely say that we don’t ever want to go back!

  23. This is a great guide. I really needed the reminder, as I like to keep my diet clean and eat as many real foods as possible, but I’ve been eating out more often these days. I do try to keep my choices on the somewhat healthy side, though – no sodas, nothing greasy, whole grains if possible, and the more fresh veggies used the better. I’ll be using these tips to get back on track. They provide excellent starting points for anyone in general, even if one can’t afford to implement them all at once. Baby steps still count, in my opinion.

  24. I’m a big fan of the baby steps approach to most things. Change is much more palatable one step at a time. I’ve begun incorporating more real foods into my diet, although I still consume some junk, and I can tell from how I feel the next day, when I consume junk. My goal is to slowly increase the good real foods, and decrease the ready made items, so ultimately, I will be in better health. I wasn’t aware of the dirty dozen, thanks for pointing that out.

    • This is spot on (at least for me). Even in a short amount of time, having incorporated more healthy stuff into my eating plan, I’m noticing a difference.

      I’m one of those people that would rather not eat than eat something that I don’t think tastes good. This often holds me back from eating better. Now, I’m starting to prefer the taste of the healthier options. I’m happy about that.

      I’ve noticed that a lot of processed junk tastes way too salty to me now that I don’t eat as much salt, and I don’t like it. That’s a good thing!

  25. I’ve always binged on fast food during my college days because it is cheap and readily available. As I age, I am starting to be more conscious of my diet. I agree that real food should be a normal part of our daily diet. While it does need more time and effort to prepare, I guess the health benefits are worth every time spent in preparing it. Thanks a lot for sharing the 8 steps! I definitely learned a lot from your post. Looking forward to more of your articles in the future.

  26. This is a great article! I also recently started eating clean and not only has it helped me drop a few pounds but I feel so much more energized during the day.

    I rarely eat prepackaged foods. I found an easy way to change your diet is to nof buy the bad foods. If my fridge is filled with whole foods and fruits and veggies I am more likely to eat them. I stastes making products that I used to buy prepackaged such as hummus and salsa. Not only does it taste better and save me money but I know exactley what I am putting in my body.

  27. When you have lived a life eating processed food it will be hard to let it go at first. You are used to food having a certain texture so when you eat food in its natural state it just isn’t the same. It also doesn’t help that lots of these processed foods have boat loads of sugar and chemicals. Buying organic maybe more expensive but so is having a chronic disease that requires lots of medication.

  28. I’ve always heard of the five ingredient rule, but that doesn’t necessarily make sense. Vegetable soups could have dozens of healthy ingredients, and just because it has less than five, doesn’t make those five healthy! For example take a candy bar! It might have just one or two ingredients: chocolate and sugar!I definitely like the idea of trying to find foods in their natural state. That’s a concept that actually makes sense! Thankfully, after getting food poisoning at a local fast food joint I’ve lost all desire to eat fast food, so I’m easily able to curb that from my diet!

  29. There’s definitely a little extra effort involved, but eating clean like this makes such a difference in how you feel and once you get used to it, it’s really not that much more work. The easiest things for my household so far have been cutting out pop and sugary drinks, switching white rice for brown rice or quinoa, and upping our vegetable intake. I’ve also started buying more produce at local farmer’s markets, which is great for local economy and agriculture as well. Great article!

  30. I agree that eating whole foods as opposed to processed junk is important. For some of us, it is a matter of adjustment,, since we’ve grown accustomed (or addicted) to the taste of heavily sugared and salted “foods.” Obviously, whole foods are healthier, but they aren’t always convenient or tasty. Eating healthier is an acquired taste.

    I also frequently hear people saying that eating healthy is expensive, yet I find a lot of the processed stuff to be quite pricey. It’s costly for our health as well.

  31. According to your list, I am doing pretty well! My only sticking point is swapping white pasta for wholemeal and the same for rice. I just don’t like the texture of it – the pasta never seems to cook properly and the rice is always a bit ‘nutty’ which isn’t really a texture I want for rice. I don’t eat a great deal of organic produce, mainly because I don’t think the inflated prices justify the ‘organic’ title, but I get plenty of fruit and vegetables and that’s good enough for me.

  32. Great article. Any tips on how to make my kids make the switch? They will not eat almost any vegetables at all. I always want to start eating clean but my kids are just so stubborn and will not try anything new 🙁

  33. You know what, this subject is something that I’m absolutely passionate about, and I have been ever since I went on an incredibly personal weight loss journey a few years ago. I got to the stage where I had to lose a huge portion of my bodyweight to be healthy, and as a result of this I had to learn all about food, what was good for me, what was bad for me, and what needed to change. I think fast food has a lot to answer for. Most foods that are quick and readily available are incredibly unhealthy, and as a fast paced nation this is more often than not what we’re reaching for. In our 50s we really need to think about our long term health, and the better we treat our body with regards to the food we put into it, the more likely it is that our health will not fail us in the long term.

  34. According to this article I’m doing pretty good! I would add that grass fed butter is most preferable. The Kerrygold brand is becoming more readily available. It tastes great and has great nutrients. i can’t stand going to someones house and eating margarine anymore! But I feel like it would be rude to tell them that their fake butter grosses me out.

    I am always telling people how popping your own popcorn is so much better for you than those microwave bags. I think its just as fast with my electric popper as well. Before I knew better we would use the microwave bags and my kids liked to lick the cheese stuff off the inside of the bag. Now that memory makes me cringe! So disgusting!

    The hardest item for me to find that is on the dirty dozen is the celery. I have to go to a special store like Whole foods to find it.

    I agree that our modern lifestyle is causing us to be unhealthy. So many things are addictive. I have had to cut out all processed foods this past year. Now when I try a bite of a processed food that looks good to my mind, it actually tastes gross! I tried a hot dog yesterday, which I used to love. I spit it out. I don’t care for cake or packaged cookies anymore either. Even my beloved potato chips have been replaced with sweet potato chips.

    Our budget has had to go up in order to accommodate our new needs. But at the same time I have realized that we consume less. We just get full and stay full longer.

  35. I always get a good laugh at all the new age tricks and techniques for losing weight and staying health, and sure enough it comes down to diet and exercise, who would have thunk it. Just like foods, all the tricks and techniques and fancy things, and sure enough, drink lots of water and cook at home. Who would have thunk it. I just love how it is always the simplest answers that ring true. Occam’s razor anyone? Thanks for sharing.

  36. Up until fairly recently, I was cooking tons of unhealthy meals, cheap and easy throw-in-the-oven, and done meals. I have realized that those meals are okay on occasion, but not nearly as often as we were consuming them. Since then, we eat “whole” food meals at least 6 days a week and we usually take one day a week and “splurge” on an unhealthier meal, like pizza, taquitos, or my kids favorites; which include chicken nuggets or corn dogs. Yes I know, its terrible. However, since we have been eating healthier, we feel so much better. I do not wake up so groggy in the mornings, and my kids seem truly happier!


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