Why This Blog Focuses on Food

I started this blog over three years ago and in that time, I don’t think I’ve done exactly a stellar job explaining why I focus on food.

The short answer

This quote comes from the introduction to a section on food in the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken:

Livestock emissions, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, are responsible for an estimated 18 to 20 percent of greenhouse gases annually, a source second only to fossil fuels. If you add to livestock all other food-related emissions—from farming to deforestation to food waste—what we eat turns out to be the number one cause of global warming.

(Read more about this fabulous, solutions-filled book here.)

The long answer

1. I eat

I have always tended toward minimalism (not everyone does). Clutter makes me anxious likely because, to me, it signifies upkeep. The more stuff I own, the more I have to work at maintaining it: “Time to dust the knick knacks again” or “Oh no, the microwave has busted and I’ll have to take it in” or “Better drop off this giant pile of ‘dry-clean only’ clothes at the cleaners.” I have enough to do in a day and I’d rather spend my free time on activities I enjoy rather than on chores.

I can do without a lot of stuff and prefer to. I own few knick knacks. I have no microwave. I wear non-dry-clean-only clothes, thanks in part to a job that enables me to choose a simple, small and comfortable wardrobe. But even if I wanted to (I don’t) and did (I can’t) whittle down my possessions to a Gandhian number—he owned fewer than 10 upon his death—and I move to a nudist colony (no clothes to wash does sound appealing), I still must eat.

Speaking of Gandhi…

You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them. — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

2. Everyone eats

We need a World War II type of citizen response to climate change if we hope to mitigate its worst effects. That means, among other solutions, bringing back kitchen efficiency, planting victory gardens and cultivating basic skills that we’ve nearly lost in a only a few generations. If the bottomless pit of bad news about the environment has left you feeling helpless, you can take a positive step right now—choose the next meal you’ll eat today with sustainability in mind. Eat lower on the food chain. Choose local ingredients that traveled fewer miles to get to you. Don’t waste food.

Latest farmer’s market haul of local fruit and vegetables (and some bagels)

3. Food waste must end

By now, you’ve likely heard the stats on food waste from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Producing food in the US:
  • Accounts for 10 percent of the total energy budget
  • Uses 50 percent of land
  • Accounts for 80 percent of all freshwater consumed
Amount of food wasted:
  • 40 percent of food produced in the US goes uneaten
  • That translates to 20 pounds per person, per month
  • We toss $165 billion worth of food per year
  • This food waste squanders 25 percent of all freshwater, in addition to chemicals, energy and land
  • Once it rots in landfill, that wasted food accounts for nearly 25 percent of the methane emitted in the US, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide
Meanwhile:
  • 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure
  • A mere 15 percent of this wasted food could feed 25 million Americans every year

This is madness.

Here are some steps to reduce food waste at home. And here are some more.

Vegetable broth simmering, made from vegetable scraps I store in the freezer until I have amassed a large pile

4. Food packaging creates obscene amounts of waste

Much single-use packaging comes from food and food-like substances—plastic liners in cereal boxes, plastic drink pouches, Starbucks coffee cups and plastic lids, plastic soda and water bottles, plastic chip bags, take-out containers. I can’t find exact figures on food packaging waste, only figures on municipal solid waste. Food companies, knowing they would ignite outrage and much-deserved vilification, do not disclose how much packaging garbage they produce and leave for us, the consumer, to clean up and pay for. So you have to use your imagination bit. I will help you…

Just picture an all-too-common diet filled with processed food: frozen, ready-to-toast waffles for breakfast topped with dark brown GMO corn syrup and washed down with a cup of coffee brewed through the Keurig; for lunch, some take-out fettuccine served up in a plastic to-go container and, for your convenience, with plastic cutlery tossed in to boot; and for dinner, how about a frozen entree you boil in its convenient, possibly BPA-free-but-not-free-of-something-just-as-nasty plastic pouch? Don’t forget snacks. Just top the menu off with a chemical-laden bag of microwave popcorn. Don’t even try at this point. And have a shot or two of whiskey to cheer yourself up over the fact that you’ve eaten this way today. Go for those little plastic mini bar type bottles.

To eliminate packaging waste, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables—whole foods—and meals that you prepare yourself (unless you have a personal chef to prepare them for you). Real food doesn’t come in shiny plastic packages emblazoned with marketing lingo. And you—or that personal chef of yours—don’t have to cook anything elaborate in order to enjoy delicious, healthy dishes.

Most recent bulk haul in my homemade cloth bags and glass jars

5. We can’t feed ourselves

When I read this headline earlier this week, my head almost exploded: “Blue Apron Bulls See Meal Kits Sweeping The Nation, Put Amazon Out Of Mind.” Please God no.

Are we this useless? Have our basic life skills deteriorated to the point where we now need pre-portioned sizes of every little ingredient necessary to assemble—not exactly cook—every meal delivered directly to our door? Did the meal kit company founders not see the movie WALL-E and recognize the future depicted in it as a dystopian one? 

When I argue for cooking more, I hear counter-arguments such as, “But some people work two jobs and don’t have time to cook dinner and can’t afford to eat anything but the cheap processed stuff available in the food desert where they live.” While I agree with that, Blue Apron and other meal kit companies like it do not target that market. Americans spend about $4 on average for a meal they cook at home. Blue Apron costs double that.

Hungry? How about some pesto salmon for dinner? Go online, make your selection and wait not-too-patiently for your cardboard box filled with little plastic packets of pre-measured basil, cheese, nuts, garlic and oil, tucked in with pre-portioned salmon kept chilled with a wasteful cooler pack that can’t be recycled—all shipped to your home like an edible LEGO kit. Blue Apron alone, just one of many meal kit companies, sells 8 million kits per month. That both generates piles of trash and burns excessive amounts fossil fuels in order to transport all of those individual boxes of individually portioned ingredients to their individual end users. Our addiction to convenience might be our undoing.

And now Amazon has begun its limited entry into the meal kit market. Maybe I will grab a shot of that whiskey…

mead
…or a glass of home brewed mead

18 Comment

  1. Mary Couillard says: Reply

    Right On!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Mary 🙂

  2. I knew we were in trouble when they started selling prepeeled frozen potatoes because “who has time to peel potatoes?”!! We have been sold a bill of goods by big business that it’s just too hard to do basic tasks. I love the point made by Joel Salatin that only 50 years ago, most of what is in the grocery store today did not exist. We have seriously lost touch with the most basic need we have. To eat! And to prepare what we eat. Thank you for this blog and this post in particular.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      OMG. I’ve seen frozen bags of rice you microwave and thought that was pretty ridiculous. But prepeeled frozen potatoes deserves a prize. I love Joel Salatin. He tells it like it is and with wit too. Thanks for reading my blog and for the comment 🙂

  3. I have not yet taken the time to say “thank you” for your blog. Adapting to more sustainable methods in all aspects of life is certainly helpful, and yet, what could be more relevant than food?

    Would you kindly remind me of recommendations for meat-eating families? My spouse eats meat and I want to respect his wishes while being less wasteful. I continue to seek a butcher who will sell to me using my own containers, and am unsure of how to manage meat/dairy food scraps. Thoughts?

    Your posts ease my struggles and offer my new ideas to face my food-waste challenges. Thank you 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much for reading my blog 🙂 My younger daughter likes meat too. I figure if I cut her off of it, she’ll completely rebel and after she moves out, become 100 percent carnivorous. Do your meat scraps include bones? You can store bones in the freezer and when you have accumulated a large pile of them, make broth. I use bits of meat for dishes like stir fry, fried rice, soup, pot pies, pizza. You can freeze these bits of meat too if you don’t have enough leftovers after one meal to make a dish. I also freeze vegetable scraps and then later make broth. For dairy, if you have heavy cream that you need to use up (this often happens when I buy heavy cream for a special dish), you can turn it into creme fraiche and extend its life. Half and half becomes sour cream. You do need cultured buttermilk to make these but once you have that, you can just keep replenishing it every few weeks (even just a very small amount to keep it going–I did this this morning, started maybe 4 ounces of buttermilk, if that, to keep it alive). Here’s a post about these dairy staples: https://zerowastechef.com/2014/12/10/5-two-ingredient-recipes-for-dairy-staples/

      1. Thank you so much!

  4. Wonderful post! If there’s one skill that everyone needs to learn it’s how to cook. Not necessarily not to cook fancy things but just to build up enough basic know-how so that you can look at what’s in your fridge/cupboards (or what’s in season at the market) and be able to make something out of it. It’s as much a mindset as a skill set. Anyway, what you’re doing is very important – the educational aspect but also your own personal journey; living a conscious life, walking the walk.
    One of the great deceptions going on in the background at the moment (and a lot of smart people have bought into it) is that in order to feed the future population (the 9 billion or whatever) that we need agriculture to be as industrial as possible. That it’s the only way we’ll survive. Reducing food waste, eating the more sustainable plant-based foods (eating lower on the food chain, as you say), limiting intake of processed food, and limiting our caloric intake (WALL-E serves as a good cautionary tale there too!)
    Thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! I agree, we all need to be able to look at in our fridge and cupboards and know how to use it up, and also how to cook seasonally. We’ve practically lost these skills.

      I hear this must-grow-monocrops-on-a-massive-scale argument all the time too. The book I’m reading now (Drawdown) lists 100 of the best solutions to reverse climate change and the many regarding agriculture are just common sense–like working with nature instead of trying to control it (no-till, agroforestry, crop rotation, better irrigation…and so many others). Our attempt to control Mother Nature has ticked her off. Just this morning I heard on NPR that an area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey is a dead zone, caused by the nitrogen runoff from farms upstream–the Mississippi dumps this into the Gulf. The chemicals aren’t working! And so many farms have been abandoned because industrial farming destroys the soil. People just walk away from their infertile land. But the book talks about how that can be reversed also. So much of mitigating climate change starts with food.

      1. In the last few weeks I have read Poisoned Planet, The Third Plate and The End of Plenty. Sobering for anyone who loves food, or just needs it to live… Oh and of course we’re running out of phosphorus too…Thank goodness for Paul Hawken’s gentle ways with terrifying topics, eh?

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        I haven’t read the other two you mentioned but I loved The Third Plate. I will look up the other two. The titles give me a good idea of what they’re all about… Yes, I love Hawken’s approach on the subject. His book makes me want to actually DO something, rather than curl up into a ball and cry.

  5. I’m so with you on the pre-packaged food craze, ugh! They are always trying to sign people up for them on our walk downtown and my response is always, “no thank you, I know how to cook my own dinner!” It’s such a shame, my goal for my daughter is to teach her how to cook early and often so that she is self sufficient when she needs to start making her own food. Maybe 2.5 is too young to make much of anything but her interest in what mommy is making is already piqued.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      The packaging has really gotten out of hand in the past decade or so, I would say. Luckily, I haven’t run into any meal kit pushers on the street here (at least not yet…). Small children love to help mommy in the kitchen. I can still picture my kids when they were really small like yours, standing on a chair at the counter in front of the stand mixer. Today my older daughter is away at school and eats really healthy food, especially for a student. Lots of vegetables.

  6. We have lost the art of cooking in greater society. I can’t tell you the number of kids I’ve taught in my cooking classes who don’t eat home cooked meals on a regular basis. I get it, when you’re juggling multiple jobs, it’s easier and cheaper to just run through the drive through of the nearest fast food place, it is. But the long term effect is not so cheap.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I get it too. It’s hard to juggle everything we have to do in a day. But you’re right, in the end we pay.

  7. There are times that I “get” the box meals or pre-packaged stuff as a not particularly great cook. It’s taken me years of being in a Vegan Cookbook Club to force myself to try out new recipes (really any recipes) and the acquisition of two Instant Pots to become more comfortable with buying in beans and rice in bulk and making food I’ll eat at home. I lean heavily on rice + beans + veggies for lunch, which is routine and fine because I can switch it up a bit. (Different beans, different veggies/seasoning, different sauces.)

    But it took a while. I now understand I can mix up scones in under 15 minutes and shove them in the oven. That a hearty salad isn’t so hard. It took a lot of making myself cook, though. And I’m still just average at it. I still have a hard time understanding flavor pairing and herbs, etc. What’s helped is having some easy recipes for either full dishes or vegetable sides that I know I can lean on.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Scones in under 15 minutes! That’s awesome 🙂 I understand why people buy the kits too. The food looks delicious on the websites, they aren’t thinking about the garbage aspect (producing the four pounds of trash per person that we do here in the US just seems normal to most of us today), and the kits sure are convenient. I have read about people getting them and then realizing that, yes, they can cook and so they start shopping for food and cooking. I agree, easy recipes help. I think people could really use adaptable, sort of non-recipe recipes. Like, here’s a recipe for stir fry, you can use this, this or this in it. Here’s how you chop the vegetables, here’s how to make a sauce to add to them. Soup, fried rice, frittata…so many recipes could follow this formula. Enjoy your kitchen adventures (and your Instant Pot…I know people swear by them).

    2. There are great cookbooks out there for both of your challenges. For adaptable, non-recipe recipes, I recommend Mark Bittman’s “Food Matters.” And for flavor combinations, cruising food blogs and distilling their recipes into the basic elements is a start, but the “Vegetarian Flavor Bible” by Karen Page is my new crush. When my weekly CSA comes, I try to map some flavor combos onto the ingredients first. Often some combos will be familiar (tomatoes, corn, basil!) but I’ll be stymied by an ingredient or two, look it up in the flavor bible, and plan something interesting (fennel, orange, mint, anyone?). After I have the flavor combos locked down (which plan to use specific veggies), I add a grain or starch component and a vegetarian protein, and suddenly it’s a meal! I think of it as a “meal wheel” approach – it’s almost like you could make a slot machine to return a grain, a protein, a group of veggies, and a sauce/spice profile and win every time! I keep a list of the veg I get each week, other stuff that needs to be used up in my fridge or pantry, and my list of flavor combo ideas and meal plans posted on my fridge. It’s a great conversation starter, and I don’t have to stand staring in the fridge wondering what’s for dinner anymore!

Leave a Reply