Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Green Kitchen: Five Ways to Eat Healthier, Cheaper, Tastier, and Better for the Planet in 2011

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Is it too late to still be wishing happy new years? Well, it’s my first column of 2011, so I hope no one will mind if, two weeks into January, I’m still talking about it.

From Flickr's apocs
Two weeks into January, you say? And how many broken resolutions?

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Resolutions. I think January 1 is an arbitrary start date that might not match up with actual good timing. Take the chestnut of a resolution to eat better and work out more – why not time this with the time of year that’s actually conducive to activity and healthy eating? In the depths of winter our bodies want to store fat, it's cold and snowy outside and, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, vegetables are wan and flavorless. You want to lose weight? Talk to me in June.

Waah, but I need to be bikini-ready already by then! Who exactly is telling you you’re not bikini-ready now? That’s another problem with New Year’s Resolutions – the outside pressure. We’re told it’s the time to make commitments, and so we leap in, and then berate ourselves for falling short. But what else should we expect when the drive to change hasn’t come from within ourselves?

Also it’s an easy way for gyms to sell more memberships.

On the other hand, though, sometimes we need an arbitrary impetus for change. Something that says, Hey, evaluate! And change what needs changing! One of my good friends made a resolution two years ago to set aside at least one night every week as a free night – no plans, no commitments. (This friend works in the music industry, where nighttime commitments are rampant, and is a generally popular guy.) Not only did he keep this resolution but it so improved his life that now, years later, the free night is a solid institution.

Don’t make resolutions for resolutions’ sake. But if the swooping tide of reevaluation and reinvention that comes with the new year inspires you, go for it! Just make sure you’re excited and inspired about your plans, and that your goals are not unattainable. Impossible or awful goals – to drop 20 pounds in a month, switching from a McDonalds diet to strict raw foodism – are just a set-up for disappointment and self-flagellation down the line.

In the spirit of positive, attainable change – and the spirit of this column! – I’ve put together what I hope will be a helpful and inspiring list. These aren’t commandments or edicts, just steps you can choose to take. You can choose a couple of items on the list as goals for yourself, or just keep them in mind next time you hit the supermarket (or farmers market). Figure out what’s important to you, what you might want to change, and how you can reasonably reach those goals.

1. Rethink Your Meat.
One of the strongest environmental impacts you can make with your food choices is what meat you eat, and how much. Conventional industrial meat production is, in a word, not-so-good. It’s not-so-good for the environment, it’s not-so-good for workers, and it’s not-so-good for animals. (I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with killing animals for meat; I do think it’s horrible to make animals live miserable lives of suffering leading up to the slaughter.) And yes, human beings evolved to eat meat. But not miserable chickens that live immobile in cages, pecking out their own feathers, eating nothing but cornmeal and animal byproducts.

From Flickr's stickeresq
Industrial meat also has a markedly different nutritional profile than wild or pastured meat – the balance between Omega-3s and -6s swings way towards the 6s, which is not what your body wants – and animals who eat real food, rather than food-like sludge, taste better, too! Pastured, humanely-raised meat is, yes, more expensive. As it should be! Don’t skimp here. Buy less meat, and choose to spend your money on higher-quality, tastier, more ethical stuff. Dairy and eggs (also from happy-animal farms!) and plant proteins are cheap, good for you, and delicious.

2. Process Food Yourself.
Think about what goes into processing a processed food. All of the ingredients must be collected; any additives, preservatives, flavorings, or nutritional enrichments must be either derived or created themselves. The food is processed – mixed, cooked, prepared – in a factory. The food is packaged – plastic is made, trees are turned into cardboard, paints are applied to the label. The food has to be tested – the recipe was devised in a lab, and nutritional information has to be determined for the label. Odds are the food is marketed – someone designed its package and a marketing campaign; time is bought for television commercials, ad space is purchased in magazines, coupons are sent to you in the mail. Then the food is packed and driven – possibly in a refrigerated truck – to a warehouse, and then to your supermarket. Now think about how much of the dollars you spend on that processed food is going toward quality ingredients, and how much of your money is going to… everything else.

There is no question that for a little more time in the kitchen, you get so much more bang for your buck with unprocessed foods. And I mean your literal buck, but also your nutritional buck and whatever metaphorical bucks this is all costing Earth. Unprocessed foods are closer to what our bodies evolved to eat. They are more nutritious, and their nutrients – naturally-occurring rather than added later on – are in better forms for our bodies to absorb. Also, who knows what undiscovered chemicals and compounds are in kale that haven’t been discovered yet and distilled into vitamins?

Eat real food and your body will thank you. You’ll notice a difference in your wallet, too. Even something as simple as shredding your own cheese rather than buying a bag already done – it’s cheaper per ounce and you skip the weird powdery coating that stops shredded cheese from sticking – makes a difference on every count.

3. Cook
So what do you do without processed food, just a pile of raw ingredients in your kitchen? Cook! There’s no better way to control what you eat than to cook your food yourself. Don’t trust the folks at Lean Cuisine to do it for you. Not only will you save money by starting with raw ingredients, but you’ll have way more control over exactly what you put in your body. Do you feel best eating a high-fat, grain-free diet? (Lots of people do!) Then pour on the coconut oil and enjoy! Would you rather focus on fresh fruits and vegetables? Bust out the blender and skip the Jamba Juice smoothies. You can decide if your home is powered with wind energy – no promises for the restaurant down the street. And how much salt did they put in your soup? When restaurants serve us giant portions, we’re inclined to finish them. Take responsibility here by taking control. And then have the satisfaction of knowing that you can make your own food.

From Flickr's Nataliemaynor
4. Eat with the Seasons.
I love shopping at the farmers market, but it’s not for everyone – it takes time, can be crowded, and seasonal eating can be limiting. (I’ll sing the greenmarket’s praises in August, but let’s talk about the onions, apples, and potatoes we’ll be seeing all winter.) Luckily, this is not an all-or-nothing deal. You can eat seasonally with supermarket produce and still do good for your bank account, body, and tastebuds. Compare a January tomato with one in July – even at ShopRite there’s a huge difference. And that taste (and color!) is indicative of more nutrients, too. If there’s no local food this time of year for you, consider just eating food from within your country, or your own hemisphere. Food’s cheaper and tastier in its proper season, and when it comes from closer by as well.

5. Enjoy!
It's frightfully easy to get so caught up in worrying if our food is healthy, cheap, and good for the planet that we forget what else food is supposed to be: delicious! A meal is more than calories and nutrients, more than a grocery store receipt. A meal is a sensory pleasure, and a social one as well. If your approach to cooking is pure drudgery, it'll never last, and you'll find yourself at the drive-through before you know it.

Figure out how to incorporate what makes you happy into your healthy eating plan. Once in a while, round out your healthy protein and veggies with some Doritos. Give yourself permission to enjoy that occasional Chinese food delivery, or splurge on a delicious meal out. Buy an avocado even if it's come from halfway around the world.

Don't beat yourself up for failing to meet some lofty goal. Recognize and celebrate the ways you're good to yourself – do you nourish yourself with healthy food, are you conscious of spending, do you take responsibility for how your choices impact the environment? Awesome. Now make sure you're enjoying yourself – and your food – as you go.


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