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Every year at this time, thousands of people share with me an intention to “go raw.” Many tell me months later that their lives were changed forever by the experience. Many more sample a few raw meals and love them, but lose steam as the weeks go by. In the over four years I’ve been writing about, coaching, and teaching easy raw and vegan lifestyle techniques, I’ve noticed that one factor influences peoples’ capacity to stick with raw food more than any other: realism.

Yes, realism. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that extreme diets and “all-or-nothing” approaches to food tend to backfire. Somehow, these facts haven’t quite penetrated the realm of raw foods, where people are too busy debating whether or not their almonds are 100% raw to consider the big picture, which is how raw foodism can be turned into an accessible and lasting lifestyle choice.

Raw, vegan foods are healthy, eco-friendly, and compassionate. They are also extraordinarily delicious. It is in all of our best interests to become more familiar with their unique tastes, textures, and pleasures. But we can’t do that if we’re so overwhelmed with the idea of raw foodism that we don’t even give ourselves a chance to settle into its daily rhythms: the casual midday meals, the beloved snacks, the quick weeknight dinners. Believe it or not, it’s possible to make raw foods fit into your lifestyle, rather than overhauling your lifestyle in order to meet the purist’s ideal of raw foodism.

This year, as in years past, it will be my goal to help more people go more raw. Not 100% raw, or even mostly raw, if they’re not ready for it. I simply hope to inspire each and every one of you to approach raw foods with enthusiasm, passion, and common sense. Here, in this sensible spirit, are my top five tips to go raw-er in 2012:

1. Gourmet Cookbooks are for gazing, not grazing.

It happened to all of us at one point. Eager to explore this thing called raw foodism, we picked up a raw cookbook, picked out four of its most difficult recipes, and decided to make them all, possibly on the same night. We ended up spending fourteen hours chopping, processing, mixing, blending, and dehyrating. By the time dinner rolled around, we were too tired to eat.

The raw cookbook market is bursting with inspiring gourmet Cookbooks. I suggest you invest in as many of them as possible. But I do not suggest that you begin to cook from them every single night. Set a rule for yourself: if a recipe calls for more than 12 ingredients, or more than 12 hours in a dehydrator, or more than 12 steps, save it for a time when you’ve gotten more comfortable with raw foods. If it calls for more than 10, save it for a special night, not a weeknight dinner. And if anything about the recipe feels overly daunting to you, see if there isn’t anything that might be more appealing instead.

Gourmet Cookbooks give us the visual inspiration and lust we need to explore raw foodism in the first place. But they also make it seem as though every meal must be a fine dining experience. If you’re going to sustain your raw foods infatuation over time, you’re going to have to grow accustomed to much simpler foods.

After you’ve purchased your glossy and oversized coffee table Cookbooks, Invest in a few raw lifestyle guides that are accessible and basic. They may seem less sexy than the really fancy books, but believe me when I say that they will give you a sense of what real, longtime raw foodists eat day in and day out. And you can always consult your fancier recipe books for special occasions.

2. Learn Techniques, Not Recipes.

Raw foods preparation is like any form of cooking in that you can’t get very far without mastering a few basic and time honored techniques. Memorizing individual recipes without sharpening your technical skills is like memorizing words in a language without learning how to formulate a sentence: you may end up with some great meals, but they’ll never evolve into a lifestyle.

Make a list of essential raw foods techniques: cashew cheese. Nut pate. Raw zucchini hummus. Almond milk. Try them once, and then try them again. Get comfortable with them. Soon enough, you’ll find that you’ve built the skill set you need to master any raw dish.

3. Don’t Focus on Dehydration.

I won’t pretend that it’s not great fun to replicate breads, wraps, crackers, and the like in a dehydrator. But the truth is that the time you’ll spend on these dehydrated goodies won’t do much to teach you what the daily rhythms of a raw foods diet are. In fact, I find that it’s much more useful for new raw foodists to keep eating cooked versions of the things they’re tempted to dehydrate (like bread, or crackers), and spend their valuable time learning how to master the essential techniques mentioned above.

As you “go raw,” you’ll be tempted to invest in a good many specialty appliances. Don’t make the dehydrator first. Focus instead on raw soups, dips, spreads, salads, and snacks. These foods will get you into the daily habit of raw foodism; the rest will follow!

4. Don’t Become a Raw Dessertist.

I know. You hate me for this one. If there’s anything the raw world is proud of, it’s dessert–the vast sea of ice creams, pies, cakes, cookies, crusts, and crumbles that can rival any conventional pastry, and then surpass it. Raw desserts are stunningly easy, and they are certainly the most crowd-friendly type of raw dish.

The problem with these desserts is twofold. Problem 1: in spite of being much healthier than conventional sweets, they are still…well, sweets! And they’re  often quite high in fat, too. Eating too many of them may, contrary to what many gurus claim, enable weight gain. So, before you dip into that fourth-serving-of-raw-cheesecake-that-won’t-make-you-gain-weight-because-raw-foods-are-magical, think twice, and savor what you’ve already enjoyed.

Problem 2: Becoming a raw dessertist will be limiting. It won’t show you the vast and beautiful array of other raw foods: the meal-sized salads, the simple and silky blended soups, the green smoothies, or the innovative entrees. Raw foods are delicious. You don’t need to drench them in dates and cashews to make them palatable, I assure you. Give your taste buds some credit, and stretch them beyond sweets.

5. Raw Foodism is a Lifestyle, Not a Religion.

If there is any danger that you, the budding raw foodist, faces, it’s the orthodoxies, wackadoo scientific theories, and rigid thinking that (unfortunately) abound in the raw food world. Within weeks of exploring raw, you’ll be told that all cooked food is poison. You’ll be told that every sniffle or rumble of indigestion is detox. You’ll be pressured to do a juice fast. You may even be told that the point of eating raw is to ultimately dissociate from food altogether, eat one meal per day if you’re feeling particularly indulgent, and move toward becoming a “breatharian.”

Do whatever it takes to tune this kind of thinking out. Raw foodism is just that: a lifestyle that is wedded to food. Real food. Not endless fasts or days of abstinence. Nor is raw foodism a religion: it’s a series of everyday choices that add up to a wonderful lifestyle. You can modify these choices according to what works for you: if cooked foods are important to your satiety, comfort, family life, or balance, then eat them, and take comfort in the fact that there are and always will be a great many nourishing dishes that are heated above 115 degrees. Raw foods are, by and large, wonderfully healthy, but it doesn’t follow that all cooked foods are therefore unhealthy.

If you can manage to keep these tips in mind, I suspect you’ll actually enjoy your raw foods exploration, and that you’ll successfully become a lot raw-er than you were before. I hope you do, anyway. Raw foods changed my life in the best of ways, and I know that they have the power to change yours, too–so long as you can remember that they don’t have to change everything.