Just one thing

The other day, someone on a discussion group that I’m a member of asked what one thing they should do to start leading a more sustainable life. I have to confess that I didn’t respond, but it is a question that I’ve been pondering ever since. Of course there’s lots of things you could do, from saying no to plastic bags to catching the bus rather than driving the car, but on reflection, I think my advice would be to consider your eating habits.


In control of your own potatoes!

If you start thinking more about the food you eat, you will begin to wonder what’s actually in it and where it came from. The more your food has been prepared or processed before it gets to you, the more difficult it is to unpick its history, so you become less and less sure of what you are actually swallowing. Let’s consider two extremes, in the form of mashed potato:

  •  If you eat a potato that you have grown yourself, then you can be sure how far it has travelled, what chemicals have been applied to it, exactly what variety it is and when it was harvested. In addition, it’s pretty certain that it won’t have had any packaging, except when it’s parent seed potato arrived for planting. You can boil it and eat it without any additional ingredients, but any that you do add – salt, butter, milk, oil – will be under your control in terms of source and amount.
  • If you buy pre-prepared mashed potato, you’ll have to look at the ingredients to know what’s in it (for example, Tesco Fresh Mashed Potato contains: Potato, Skimmed Milk, Whole Milk (9%), Butter (Milk) (3%), Salt, White Pepper). You won’t know how the potatoes were grown, and you may only have the vaguest indication of where they were grown and/or processed (the Tesco version states “Produced in the UK” and nothing else). There’s bound to be packaging (plastic and cardboard in this example) and there’s going to have been lots of food miles, because of transporting the potato to the processing plant, transporting the product to a central distribution centre and from there to the shop, before you can finally transport it home to eat.

Buying in bulk can mean less packaging

Of course, we can’t all grow our own food, and many people can’t grow any of their own food, but if you can (even a little bit), you can be completely in control of that part of your diet. The next best option is to buy direct from the producer – if you buy from the person who grows or makes your food, you can ask them questions about it. In addition, in my experience, small producers of non-luxury foods generally minimise their packaging as it costs them money: many small-scale sellers will aim simply for freshness and protection. Buying direct also reduces food miles because the supply chain is so short. The popularity of farmers’ and producers’ markets has given many more people the opportunity to buy direct, plus more and more small producers are selling online. This is encouraging, but still you’d be very lucky to be able to source all your food direct – almost all of us have to rely, at least to some extent, on third party suppliers, and then there is an element of trust in the relationship.

Over the years I’ve read so many labels on packets containing food. Sometimes, I just can’t face the disappointment of discovering that my favourite biscuits contain palm oil, so I don’t read the ingredients, but sooner or later I get round to it and often it results in me making changes to my diet. There are some products that I’ve given up not because of the ingredients, but because of the packaging (teabags, for example). As a result there are now only a few things that we eat that I haven’t made myself, and increasingly I find that I no longer enjoy the flavour of pre-prepared/processed things that I used to eat or drink often . This, however, has been a very gradual process. Twenty years ago we did almost all our food shopping in a supermarket and I didn’t think twice about buying a pizza or a bag of frozen chips. And this is one of the joys of focusing on food – small changes accumulate over time and because we eat every day, a little change can have a big impact over a whole year.


Some home-made food is fancier than others

I wish I’d kept better track of the way our food has changed – it would be interesting. I’m sure that stopping going out to work made a big difference. Since I now do all my paid work from home, it’s much easier to fit in cooking from scratch. My commitment to cooking has also meant that I have bought kitchen equipment that I would otherwise not have bothered with – for example, my Kenwood Chef sure does get a lot of use, and we like it especially because a single motor can run the coffee grinder, blender, ice cream maker and mincer as well as the basic mixer; it’s also possible to buy spares if there’s a problem. Having the right equipment makes a huge impact on the speed I can make things, although very few items are essential.


So, if you want to make a start on saving the planet, think about your food and make a few changes that fit your lifestyle. You may be surprised how your shopping and diet are gradually transformed without a huge traumatic shift in your habits.

Leave a comment


  1. Definitely food for thought, I would love the time, energy and space to be able to grow more of our own food, we had some good success with growing veg and some fruit lol mostly apples for wine

    • If everyone grew just a bit of their own food it would make such a difference. Every year I wish I could have done more food growing and made better use of our fairly small garden, but as you say time and energy are limiting factors too. We do now get more of our food direct from producers and I particularly like buying our milk straight from the farm a few miles away.

      • We where talking about this last night in the pub, with some of our friends and neighbours, we live on a small housing estate and if everyone grew each year something different and shared with each other, lol sounded like a good idea after a couple of drinks and some dancing, I got some milk from the dairy farm next door to where we keep our horse, it was a bit to thick and creamy for the wife and kids, to used to pasteurised semi skimed milk 🙂

  2. Great suggestions here. Of course, if I were to try and live only on what can be grown or obtained locally, my diet would be supremely luxurious: lots of seafood, beautiful vegies, mangoes, avocados, beef, etc. Not a lot of potatoes here in the tropics, but we can grown sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Not a lot of dairy, but plenty of coconuts. Tragically, not a lot of pork, so bye bye bacon. And of course, there’s all the sugar I could ever want, if I was still eating it, and locally produced ethanol to run a car. Coffee, tea, cacao: tick. Wheat, oats, barley, rye: nope (nasty stuff anyway!); cassava, tapioca, taro: tick. Don’t all rush at once….

  3. Great post. We try to use local produce where possible (fairly easy living in Lincolnshire, it really is sprout country!) I too think homemade tastes better.

    • Location has a huge impact on accessibility to produce, but I think things are getting a bit better. When Mr Snail was working in Reading he was able to buy produce from the farmers’ market once a month and there were a few farm shops within driving distance. Here in west Wales we have loads of small food producers so we are spoilt!

      • Our neighbour has 2 large allotments and often gives us things, the ‘packaging’ is usually a plant pot! I like it that way. 😊

  4. There are loads of wonderful farmers’ markets in Cape Town – the fresh stuff definitely tastes better! We buy our cheese from a cheesemaker in Darling who trades at Kirstenbosch; also homemade marmalade, liver pate, breads, etc. And, as you know, I have A Tomato growing in the garden. This may inspire me to step it up a bit next year!

  5. Great post Jan. I would like to add that plant based diets are the most sustainable for the planet. I was surprised to learn that if everyone were on a plant based diet the planet could support up to 15 billion people! Meat & dairy production is extremely inefficient when compared to the same amount of calories from plants. It can also be a very healthy diet if you put a little effort into developing good habits, same as any diet! im not Vegan but ‘flexitarian’ to me this means I’m mostly vegan but lean towards plant based. I would like to recommend a couple of excellent documentaries that have opened my eyes. Both Available on Netflix if you have it ‘Food’. Also ‘Cowspiracy’, cowspiracy http://www.cowspiracy.com/ helps to explain how distractive the meat & dairy industry is to the planet and why some of the big environmental groups such as green peace are not informing us properly.
    Local food is important, but from what I have learnt recently, if you want to do 1 thing for the planet (& for your health) try to reduce your meat & dairy consumption.

    • When I wrote the post originally it included reference to a vegan diet, but in the end I decided to take it out because my aim of is simply to encourage everybody to think about their food. Where this leads is very personal and I don’t want to exclude anyone, whatever their chosen diet. Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” is an interesting read for anyone thinking about the implications of their food choices

  6. These are great points, Jan. While we don’t grow our own food, we do cook from scratch almost exclusively–and it makes us so much more aware of our relationship with food and what we’re putting in our bodies!

  7. Gardening is really fun! It’s amazing to see food that you have grown yourself develop into adult plants, ready to eat. What great a reason to get your hands dirty than that you know where your food came from and how it was grown so that you can be more sustainable!

    • I love eating things I have grown myself – even after doing it for years it still gives me a buzz!

      • Yes. Do you have any tips? (I’m not very good!)

        • If you only grow one thing I suggest salad leaves – choose cut and come again varieties and grow them in a container. They are so much nicer than those sad leaves that come in plastic bags. The other thing I suggest is courgettes – in the soil or in a good big pot with lots of compost – most years we have huge numbers and I end up making and freezing loads of soup to use them up and make them last into the winter.

  8. I attempt to grow my own food, concentrating on one thing every year. I’ve got squash, courgettes and cucumbers down.. next year I’m focusing on onions and garlic. The fruit trees should come to bear in the next few years too, so we’re slowly getting there.

  9. I agree with you. The question of where to start for people is difficult, as there is so much we could do better, to be more sustainable.
    I started with clothing, as sewing and textiles are my interest. This has lead on to other changes and food is one I am working on. My ideal is no processed food, we do have the advantage of being able to grow quite a lot of ourselves.

    • It’s great to start where you have an interest or feel comfortable and it’s amazing how changes ripple out from a small starting point. This weekend I am planning to get to grips with my new overlocker so that my clothes-making can diversify!


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